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.

It’s nothing but smoke

* contemplating in community Ecclesiastes 1:2-11 and James 1:2-11*

You will need:

  • a central altar or table,
  • a black table cloth,
  • a large candle (with three wicks is helpful to invoke visually the image of a Triune God),
  • smaller tea lights (sufficient for the group),
  • a lighter or matches,
  • copies of the service, one per participant.

Ritual actions indicated in red and congregational/group responses in purple. 

Part 1: Nearing the light
1.1 Welcome and an invitation to silence

1.2 A suitable piece of music is played or sung e.g. Be still for the presence of the Lord, the Holy One is here

1.3. Praying the Psalms (based on Ps. 119:145-152) 

<the black tablecloth is placed on altar and unfolded >

Like those watching and waiting for the sunrise,
we cry out to You, O God, – our Help and our Salvation –
for our eyes have seen the darkness of night
and the gloom that grows 
as the world wanders
farther and farther from Your truth.

<the large candle is placed in the centre of the altar and lit>
Our deepest desire is to come closer to You,
to live in Your Light,
to learn from the Word that will last forever.

In Your love, hear our voice;

in Your justice, keep us alive;

in Your mercy, draw us near.

1.4 A suitable piece of music is played or sung e.g. So you would come

during which <people are invited to bring their candles forward, light them from the central candle and place them upon the altar>

Part 2: Seeing the smoke
2.1 Old Testament reading – Ecclesiastes 1:3-11 (The Message)
Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That’s what the Quester says.]
There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.

<the candles that each participant has lit are blown out and a moment of silent kept as they smoke>

What’s there to show for a lifetime of work,
a lifetime of working your fingers to the bone?
One generation goes its way, the next one arrives,
but nothing changes—it’s business as usual for old planet earth.

The sun comes up and the sun goes down,
then does it again, and again—the same old round.
The wind blows south, the wind blows north.
Around and around and around it blows, blowing this way, then that
—the whirling, erratic wind.
All the rivers flow into the sea, but the sea never fills up.
The rivers keep flowing to the same old place, and then start all over and do it again.

Everything’s boring, utterly boring—no one can find any meaning in it.
Boring to the eye, boring to the ear.
What was will be again, what happened will happen again.
There’s nothing new on this earth. Year after year it’s the same old thing.
Does someone call out, “Hey, this is new”?
Don’t get excited—it’s the same old story.

Nobody remembers what happened yesterday.
And the things that will happen tomorrow?
Nobody’ll remember them either. Don’t count on being remembered.

2.2. Prayer of confession
Lord of Love, of Light, of Life 
how grateful we are for the gentle whisper to draw near;
to leave at the door, the busyness and the burdens of the week gone by;
to bring to the cross, the brokenness and the bitterness both inflicted upon us and by us,
in thought and word and deed;
to see through the darkness, the bold blaze of Your Spirit at work – with and within us.

<silence>

Yet even as we unwind in Your presence,
even as our lives are renewed by Your love,
we know too well how quickly this hour passes
and how easily our delightful dance with Your Spirit
 is replaced
by the relentless pursuit of smoke
that is such an accepted part of daily life.

Forgive us this day/night for the shortness of our attention 

and the shallowness of our commitment to walk in Your light;

show us how insubstantial the power, the popularity,
the possessions we pursue really are

against Your eternal promises;

guard us against the disease of dissatisfaction that demands we give in
to our greed, our laziness, our pride, our lust;
And help us to persevere in the way of humility, justice and love.
Amen.

2.3 A suitable piece of music is played or sung e.g. Create in me a clean heart ...

Part 3: Reigniting the flame

3.1 New Testament reading: James 1:2-11 (The Message)

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.

If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You’ll get his help, and won’t be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought. People who “worry their prayers” are like wind-whipped waves. Don’t think you’re going to get anything from the Master that way, adrift at sea, keeping all your options open.

When down-and-outers get a break, cheer! And when the arrogant rich are brought down to size, cheer! Prosperity is as short-lived as a wildflower, so don’t ever count on it. You know that as soon as the sun rises, pouring down its scorching heat, the flower withers. Its petals wilt and, before you know it, that beautiful face is a barren stem. Well, that’s a picture of the “prosperous life.” At the very moment everyone is looking on in admiration, it fades away to nothing.

3.2 A brief meditation is offered or participants are invited to share the grace that they have received through the passages.

<silence>

3.3. Prayers for one another and/or the world
The apostle James challenges us to consider the tests and challenges that life brings our way as a gift for they force our faith-life into the open. But he also reminds us that we do not face them alone but with the help of the Father who loves us and listens to what we ask. So we pray this day – boldly, believingly – for those who are wilting and withering under life’s pressure and problems.

<as prayers are offered by the members, the candles are solemnly lifted up one by one and relit from the central flame as an invitation for Christ’s love to shine in the places of darkness and pain;>

The leader concludes:

Great God who set the sun in place and flung the night’s stars into space,
shine Your light upon our world with such power and compassion 
that the shadows of sin and shame, of worry and uncertainty may fade away;
touch the deep places of pain, of disappointment, of broken relationship 
with such healing warmth that hope and wholeness and health may bloom;
and colour our lives like sunset skies with perfect peace and joy everlasting.

Part 4: Bearing the light

4.1 Sharing the peace

<the peace of the Lord is shared with each person collecting a candle and offering it to another>

4.2. Benediction

<when all the candles have been given, the group blesses one another with the words:>  

The light of God surrounds us.
The love of God enfolds us.
The power of God protects us.
The presence of God watches over us.
Wherever we are, God is.
May we bear God’s light well.

4.3 A suitable piece of music is played or sung e.g. We’ll walk this land …