(Enjoying God and all He has given to us can be difficult to understand and abstract at times. That’s why I’ve asked a few friends to share how they have enjoyed various aspects of the Christian life, seasons, and disciplines. I pray you are encouraged by this series of guest posts.)
By John Starke
I wake up and it’s still dark. It’s quiet now but that won’t last long. The kids will be up soon, hustling to pour their Cheerios, comb each other’s hair, and throw their backpacks on to shoot out the door before the 3 Train comes to take us away to our day. But not yet. It’s still quiet. Just me and my coffee.
I have lists and notes scattered around my desk, tempting me to start the day early. There’s a lot to do: people who need care, a sermon that needs some attention, and a few meetings that need some thought. But not yet. There’ll be time for that soon; not enough time, for sure, but time nonetheless. Since there’s never enough time I’m reminded that all I am, all I long for, all my hopes and plans can never be fulfilled and accomplished in time. Time always runs out and leaves me disappointed and my heart doesn’t accept the limitations that Time offers. It has eternity pumping all the way through to the bottom. I need something more than just enough time.
My notes, preparations, and lists will have to wait. I move from my desk to my chair in the corner. Psalm 141 helps me pray. “Let my prayers be counted as incense before you.” Yes, that’s a good way to begin, “incense before you.” Like an aroma that provokes pleasure and satisfaction, that’s what I want my prayers to be like.
But how can they? The Psalms are filled with what seems like the writers’ inner conflicts of knowing (or at least confessing) that God is their only refuge in their neediness and vulnerability, yet at the same time they’re always hauntingly aware of their lack of merit to expect God to listen and act on their behalf. In Psalm 141, the psalmist will get to praying against his enemy, whoever he may be. But surely the psalmist is slightly aware that there’s at least a bit of the enemy in him. “Let my prayers be counted as incense before you.” Counted, reckoned something they inherently are not: a pleasing aroma.
Break my prayers down to their essential elements and you will find contradictory longings and desires. You will see wants I am ashamed of. What are these doing here? If you poke around, you see repentance and hopes of reconciliation, but also cravings to be vindicated and to have an ease of conscience to just get along with my day without the nagging weight of sin hanging around. Let me be washed clean, but is there an express lane? Let my prayers be counted as incense. Let my half-hearted prayers be counted as full-hearted.
A few days ago, I read Psalm 138, which seemed to begin with a running start; “I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart.” “Whole heart”? I look down at my coffee. What did David have for breakfast that gave him this “whole heart” prayer? Who can deliver me from my enemies and who can deliver me from my prayers? Sitting in my old chair with fresh sins, can my prayers truly be counted as incense before you?
Jesus tells me not to think my many words can beautify my prayers enough to be heard. Babbling and going on as if I can impress or charm the Almighty is silly talk more than prayer. But my impulse to babble is, at its root, a sign that my heart knows its shortcomings. My babbling is just my darkness talking, acting like an angel of light again. That won’t work. It never works. It just turns my prayers into court arguments and me into a court jester. But Jesus knows this temptation. He is a sympathetic priest who is acquainted with my weaknesses. “We can go together,” he tells me. “That way you can enter with confidence to receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
My prayers will have to be reckoned as incense. Beauty will have to be a gift I receive by faith. My prayers will have to begin in the posture of reception, an active welcome. So here I am, in my old chair with fresh grace again. The blood of bulls and goats doesn’t count me as incense. Violence was enacted elsewhere, once and for all, and beauty has been given by grace.
Now there’s nothing left to do but enjoy this gift and tell him everything that’s on my heart. My whole heart. Faith is believing that he enjoys it too. I have about half my coffee left and 20 minutes until the kids start stretching. But not yet. Eternity has tabernacled with me and given me friendship and company.
More about John: John Starke is the Lead pastor of Apostles Church Uptown in New York City.
(Learn more about Trillia’s new book Enjoy: Finding the Freedom to Delight Daily in God’s Good Gifts)