A pebble in my hand

So, I realise that this is late – if you were looking for a liturgy for Ash Wednesday. But if you’re looking for a guided reflection in the season of Lent around the themes of repentance, rebuilding and renewal, well then it’s probably still in good time.

I used this as part of a day of prayer within the congregations with whom I journey to “the promised end.” It worked particularly well in less formal settings, seated in a circle, or around a table.

You’ll need two small bowls filled with dark and light pebbles (enough for each member of your group) and a candle.

Opening up

Welcome friends,
we meet here today though we are busy
and life is full of pressures and demands.

We meet to pray –
to pray for ourselves,
to pray for our church
to pray for the community in which we gather.

We have chosen to be here
instead of somewhere else.

For our time together,
I invite you to choose a small pebble 
to accompany you as we pray.

And, as you choose,
I invite you to share – in a single word or sentence –
why you have chosen to come
to this time and this place.

<the bowl is passed around and a dark pebble is taken by each person present as they share their choosings>

Prayer of Invocation

<a candle is placed in the centre of the group>

As we have chosen to be present,
let us open ourselves up to God’s presence … with and within us ….

God.
God, You are.
God, You are everywhere.

God of sand,
God of stream,
God of everywhere
in between…

God of the dry places
where the sun beats down
and the rivers dry up
and the grasses brown …

God of the streams
where creatures meet
to quench their thirst
and escape the heat …

God of hearts
as hard as stone,
struggling through life
as though alone…

God of children
called by grace,
to meet You
in this sacred space …

bless us
in this time of Lent;
change our lives
as we repent;

give us eyes to see
and ears to hear:
the time has come,
our God draws near.

<the candle is lit>

Preparing to listen

I invite you to take a moment to look carefully at the stone that rests in the palm of your hand.

Turn it over. Trace its outline. Study its texture.

See if there is any fault or blemish on it. Does its flaws make it less perfect for you? Or more beautiful?

Feel its weight. Is it light or heavy? How does it compare to the circumstances of your own life right now?

Consider its temperature – is it warm or cold?

Squeeze it tight. Now let go. Look again. Have you changed its shape or has it left an impression on you as you’ve held it tight?

Now I know it’s just a pebble, a small stone … but in our hands and along life’s journey what else might it represent or be?

<people are given time to respond to the question>

Like a pebble thrown into a pond, it could be a catalyst for change.

Like a stone in my shoe, it could be a painful grudge that I’ve held onto which has crippled my heart and my posture.

It could be a stumbling block – that I throw into the path of another or trip over myself.

Or it could be a journey marker which shows me the way to go.

It might be the means of slaying a giant.

Or a weapon of judgement with which I wound another.

The pebble seems less important 
than the heart of the one who holds it,
as we hear in our Gospel story today.

Gospel reading: John 8:1-11 (NRSV)

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 

They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. 

Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 

When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 

And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.

When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 

Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 

She said, “No one, sir.”

And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Prayer of confession:

As the woman’s encounter with Christ freed her from condemnation and from her sin, so too do we seek God’s liberating love as we pray (based on Psalm 51):

Have mercy on us O God,
according to Your faithful love!
Wipe away our wrongdoings according to Your great compassion!

Wash us completely clean of our guilt.
Purify us from our sin!

Because we know our wrongdoings,
our guilt weighs heavily within our hands.

We’ve sinned against You – You alone,
committed evil in Your sight.

Purify us with hyssop
and we will be clean.
Wash us and we will be
whiter than snow.

Create a clean heart for us, O God;
and put a new and faithful spirit
deep inside us!

As a symbol that God has heard and answered our prayers, I invite you to exchange your dark people for a light one.

<in a time of silence people make the exchange> 

Words of assurance
from Isaiah 58:9-12 (the Message)

Then when you pray, God will answer.
You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’

“If you get rid of unfair practices, 
quit blaming victims,
quit gossiping about other people’s sins,

If you are generous with the hungry
and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, 
your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.

I will always show you where to go.
I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—
firm muscles, strong bones.

You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
a gurgling spring that never runs dry.

You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
rebuild the foundations from out of your past.
You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
make the community livable again.

Meditation or group reflection on the passages

Prayer of response 

"Living stones" by Marianne Musgrove (with a few adaptations)

God, in this moment, remind us
that we are river stones
tumbled and polished,
burnished
by living water

We are unearthed fossils
revived 
by the warm breath of God 

We are 
stalagmite and stalactite
reaching out to one another –

We are skimming stones
skipping over translucent
water
fuelled by joy

We are
meteors blazing
trailing tails like wedding veils
eager to answer God’s call

We are 
rough cut stones
hewn to form a highway
the master builder placing us
just so

We are 
stones and dust and clay 
divine spark-animated – 
created and loved by God

And with Jesus as our
cornerstone
we’re built into a
spiritual house.

We are stones
we are living stones 

build our congregation, 
enliven our community,
reveal Your love to the whole world
as we lay down our lives
and offer our gifts
to Your glory.

<people place their pebble on the altar, offering their own prayers for the community in this place>

Benediction

Go into this community of <insert name> as builders rather than stone throwers. 

Point people to the God’s handmade beauty in all the creation. Stand firm with those weathered and worn by the harshness of life’s journey. And work together to build a temple of love for all who long for justice.

And may the peace and the power of our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer accompany you on your way – both now and forevermore. Amen.

Lent: Feast or fast?

A Service for Ash Wednesday based on Isaiah 58:1-9 (1-14) and John 6:30-41

images

Call to worship (based on Isaiah 58:1-9 – The Message)

Shout! A full-throated shout!
    Hold nothing back—a trumpet-blast shout!
Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives,
    face my family Jacob with their sins!

We’re busy, busy, busy at worship,
    and love studying all about You.
To all appearances we’re a nation of right-living people—
    law-abiding, God-honoring.

We ask You,
‘What’s the right thing to do?’

    and love having You on our side.
But we also complain,
‘Why do we fast and you don’t look our way?
Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?’

Well, here’s why:

The bottom line on our ‘fast days’ is profit.
    We drive our employees much too hard.
We fast, but at the same time we bicker and fight.
    We fast, but we swing a mean fist.

God says,
“The kind of fasting you do

    won’t get your prayers off the ground.
Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after:
    a day to show off humility?
To put on a pious long face
    and parade around solemnly in black?
Do you call that fasting,
    a fast day that I, God, would like?


This is the kind of fast day God’s after:

    to break the chains of injustice,
    get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
    free the oppressed,
    cancel debts.
What God’s interested in seeing us do is:
    sharing our food with the hungry,
    inviting the homeless poor into our homes,
    putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
    being available to our own families.

Do this and the lights will turn on,
    and our lives will turn around at once.
Our righteousness will pave our way.
    The God of glory will secure our passage.
Then when we pray, God will answer.
   We’ll call out for help and God will say, ‘Here I am.’

Prayer of Confession

O God who sees through our pretty words and religious rituals,
our fancy dress and false smiles,
our huge egos and hurried excuses …

to the poverty of our faith,
the hardness of our hearts,
the emptiness of our lives;

we humble ourselves before You
at the beginning of this season of Lent,
longing to journey closely with You
but not entirely sure how …

to enter the way of suffering
with hearts so full of pride and resentment and ambition,
with hands so clenched against mercy and compassion and generosity,
with minds so set on our worries and opinions and plans,
with voices so silent on peace and justice and hospitality.

Forgive us for the brokenness that separates us from You and from one another:
we have followed our pride,
given in to our pleasures,
ignored truth,
neglected love,
abandoned righteousness.

Seat us in the desert place
where we may be starved of self-conceit and sin,
deprived of extravagance and comfort,
and reminded once again that from dust we were made
and to dust we shall return.

The ashing commences with the words:
“Fast from sin and feast on Christ”

The Absolution

As Christ fasted for forty days and forty nights within the wilderness, attended only by wild animals and angels, yet triumphed over temptation, may we know that we do not live by bread alone but feast in the forgiving, redeeming, transforming power of his love.

Amen.

unknown

Scripture reading: John 6:30-35, 41

So the people asked, “What miracle will you do? If we see a miracle, we will believe you. What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the desert. This is written in the Scriptures: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven; it is my Father who is giving you the true bread from heaven. God’s bread is the One who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

The people said, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Then Jesus said, “I am the bread that gives life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

***

Some people began to complain about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that comes down from heaven.”

Holy Communion

The peace of the Lord be with you.
And also with you.

the peace is shared ….

Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.

Everliving, ever-loving God, it is indeed right to give You thanks and praise
for the feast You have set before us –
the bread and the fruit of the vine which the earth has given
and human hands have made;
and for the eternal Feast which awaits us –
made possible through Your Son, Jesus Christ,
who came to heal and bring wholeness by the forgiveness of sins.

And so we remember how on the night that he was betrayed,
he took bread and broke it and gave it
to those who would follow, to those who would fail,
to those who felt empty that they might be full.
This is Your body – broken for me.
I feast in remembrance of You.

In the same way He took the cup, gave thanks and gave it
to those who would follow, to those who would fail,
to those who felt empty that they might be full.
This is Your blood – poured out for me, for the forgiveness of my sin.
I will feast in remembrance of You.

And so, in the memory of your great love, we call upon the Holy Spirit
to bless the holy bread of life and the cup of eternal blessing
that they may be for us the food of heaven
and the assurance of eternity.

the elements are shared with those serving communion …

Here, at the start of this season of Lent, we come to the Lord’s table,
to weep, to fast, to mourn, to pray.
Marked by the ashes of your grace,
nourished by the feast of Your love,
may we be broken like bread and poured out like wine
in a world longing for peace and for justice.
Amen.

Benediction

God does not want pious faces or solemn parades
but hearts full of justice and mercy.
In the name of the One who gives us our daily bread,
and forgives us our sins,
may we bear the fruit of holiness and love in this season of Lent.
Amen.

A Lenten Confession

Lenten Prayer
inspired by Isaiah 58:1-12 and the featured image which was sourced from : www.sourcanvas.blogspot.co.za

Holy God,
Lover of righteousness and truth,
We have come into this place and time
declaring that we are eager to know You;
almost excited to enter into this season of prayer and penitence
for what we might get out of it –
what we might gain –
from the Lord of lords and God of gods
as (s)he gazes down on us from highest heaven
and finds us as expected
~ in the proper place,
~ at the proper time,
~ singing proper songs,
~ raising proper hands,
~ using the proper symbols,
~ making the proper promises ….

Who do we deceive, O Sinless Saviour, besides ourselves?
For You dwell not only in the highest heavens
but also in the hidden depths of our hearts.

What greeting have we given Your Spirit within us?
What does Love see in our secret places
deep beneath the proper postures and props?

We are unapologetic liars,
shameless frauds:
a people who pray for Your Love to live with and within us
even while we point judgmental fingers
and gossip behind each others’ backs.

We put on the right clothes
and bow our heads in apparent submission and humility,
even as the weight of our boots press down heavily
on the necks of those less powerful, less important,
than ourselves.

We give up meat or bread or booze
and declare that truly we have shared in Your suffering,
made an acceptable sacrifice,
when we will not spend a cent
on food for the hungry
or shelter for the refugee.

We even turn away our own flesh and blood,
declaring them unworthy of our help and our compassion.

Violence and hatred smolder throughout our land;
racism and bigotry are birthed daily though our words –
yet we stand with pious faces
and prayerful hands
and accuse You of not intervening.

Forgive us, O God, for our selfishness and sin.
Let Your light break through – into our darkness.
Illuminate the truths from which we long to hide.
Strip away our pretty masks of self-deceit
to touch marred and scarred faces long unseen.
Show us the actual meaning of sacrifice and surrender.
Hold onto us when we cannot bear the discomfort
of this season of wrestling with who we really are.

Bear our shame and give us the courage
to meet You face to face –
in the fullness of Your glory –
that we may come away changed:
~ bone deep, soul deep;
~ not just skin-deep.

Amen.