Easter letter

To my fellow pilgrims with whom I travel to the cross of Christ 

A few years ago I was preaching at an early morning service on the practice of prayer. I talked for a bit about the formal prayers which we learn in our childhood and the handy prayer acronyms that well-meaning Sunday School teachers and youth leaders have passed down through the generations to “beginner” Christians.

Then, I stepped out from behind the pulpit, walked right up to the front row and offered the unsophisticated thought that prayer is simply coming before God as we are – and being open to God doing the same. 

That was the first moment that I took my shoes off in front of a congregation. I’m still not sure how it happened exactly. I hadn’t planned to do so. I didn’t even register that I had done it until I spotted a colleague doubled over in laughter, trying to take photos of my feet. But that is my most natural state of being: barefoot, in the garden, like a child who is unafraid and unashamed to walk with her holy and loving and life-giving God.

Over the past seven weeks we have been walking the long and dusty road to Jerusalem. Like Jesus who had travelled that way many times before in both his childhood and his ministry, we revisit the familiar ground of our faith:
~ the palm-strewn streets of Jerusalem,
~ the pounded earthen floor of the upper room upon which Jesus knelt to wash his disciples’ feet, 
~ the green of the olive grove in which he prayed in such agony of spirit and received the kiss of betrayal,
~ the cold stone of Pilate’s court which resounded with the hateful cries of “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
~ the torturous hill upon which he stumbled under the weight of the cross,
~ the dark and dreary road of grief and despair that the women walked as his lifeless body was taken from Calvary and laid in a borrowed tomb,
~ and, then, the rough path that flies by beneath our feet as we run breathlessly to see for ourselves the truth – that he’s not where he’s supposed to be! He is risen!!

I hope that as we have travelled together, we have not found ourselves just going through the motions, listening to the same old story in the same old way, revisiting ground so familiar after 10- 20- 50 years that it fails to move us …

… but, that as we are given, again, this remarkable glimpse into who God is and how much God loves us, we are able to
     kick off the shoes that confine us, 
wash away the grime that has gathered,
             receive the assurance that we are forgiven,
escape from our own narrow expectations,
and walk, and dance, and run, and laugh, and dare, and dream
with the God who defeats death that we might come to life.

Over the next 50 days, as we move from Easter to Pentecost, may we come before God as we are and be open to God doing the same, knowing that such a holy encounter will not leave us unchanged.  

Yours, in Christ,
Yvonne 

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.

Sharing sacred space

A few years ago, I started one of my sermons with the words “prayer is simply coming before God as you are.” Then I kicked off my shoes … and savoured the feeling of new-found freedom:
~ in my preaching,
~ in my prayer life,
~ in my innermost being.

These days, most of my prayer time is spent in the sacred space of my study which is full of family photos, little love tokens that my children have crafted and collected for Mothers’ Days and birthdays, journals and art supplies, flowers from the garden and lights from precious people, and Bible stories which change with the seasons and ground me in my continuing journey into the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory.

This sacred space is truly a physical expression of my interior life – of all that I love and dream of and value – into which I can retreat for a little silence and solitude ….

Lately, however, there has been a constant stream of “intruders:”
~ from “Little cat” who plants his not-so-little bottom on my wheel of the year and stares out into the garden before coming to rub his nose against mine,
~ to big galumphing Mumford who “sneaks in” with his eyes averted and lies down peacefully at my feet, snoring contentedly,
~ to our rather hyperactive Rory who lies against me on the soft carpet, tongue out, feet up in the air, forepaws touching together as if imitating a posture of prayer,
~ to Big and Little who first peek in to see what I’m up to and, on being invited in, put their heads on my prayer cushion and talk with me in hushed voices about the deeper things that don’t often get discussed amidst the noise and nonsense of the dinner table and – if I’m very lucky – give me a decent cuddle before getting back to the “business” of the day ….

Yet, rather than interrupting my prayer life, this sacred time has become even more precious to me with the realisation that it’s not just mine. The light and the calm and the love in this little space has made others feel welcome. And when they enter in, they are different. And when they’re with me, they’re part of the prayer. And when we leave, we carry the love and the peace and the joy of the Lord with and within us.

O God-who-bids-us-welcome,
You meet us at the door,
show us to the circle,
sit beside us on the floor.

The candles dim around us
in the glory of your smile
as You weave for us a story

and we wonder for a while

at how tenderly You love us
and hold our hope, our pain, our care,
as we gather in Your presence
in the sacred space of prayer.  




Attentive

At every moment God seeks entry into your heart. He gives you the opportunity to be part of his kingdom. You are offered the opportunity to live in the kingdom of light, the very kingdom of God, or to go your own way and walk on still in the darkness.

Why do you not choose? Why not leave the darkness and walk in hope? Leave your loneliness and learn to walk with God.

David Adam ~ The Path of Light

I have been guilty this year of neglecting attentive prayer.

I have prayed. Oh, have I prayed. Yet, as I look back over the year I realise that it has all been productive prayer i.e. prayer for a my purpose.

Wisdom.
Patience.
Healing.
Forgiveness.
Rest.
Guidance.

Prayers for my needs.
Prayers for the church.
Prayers for the world.
Prayers during pastoral visits.
Prayers from the lectionary.
Prayers for the pray-ers.

I have prayed. Oh have I prayed. And God has been faithful.

God has been there for me. In a big way. But in my busyness, I have often only been half present with my wandering thoughts and divided attention.

There have been, it seems, so many things more pressing than attentive prayer – with the result that I have dislocated myself from the divine presence; placed myself in hell by attending to all the pressing things (even the really good and noble things) before attending to the presence of God that is my hope and my redemption.

So, this morning, as I lay quite still upon my bed, I affirmed that “the Lord is here” and gave myself up to the silence. At which point, my stomach rumbled. Loudly. And the neighbours’ dogs began barking. And Little Cat hopped up to purr a happy hello.

“The Lord is here,” I muttered again and again, as if it were a wish – no, a command! – rather than a reality.

My stomach gurgled. The dogs a little further up the street took up the call. The garbage truck passed by. And Little Cat curled up against my side, a warm and welcome lump of love …

… which is when I felt it. Like soft light through wind-stirred leaves, God embraced me. And my soul smiled.T

The Lord is here.
The Lord is.
The Lord….

An acrostic prayer – Psalm 34

This week’s worship is inspired by Psalm 34 which is an acrostic poem following the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. 

Written at one of the lowest points of David’s life, it is full of encouragement to drink deeply and feast with plenty on the One who provides – even in the most difficult of circumstances. 

Combined with the other readings, the many words relating to taste, touch, sight and sound all invite us to experience the reality of God’s presence which moves us from desperation to deliverance, fear to joy, seeing to believing.

The opening prayer/call to worship below is based on the Psalm but written to represent the English alphabet.

A mighty shout shall fill this place
Because God is good.

Can you understand God’s purpose?
Do you doubt God’s saving power?
Evil does not go unpunished
for the Lord listens to his people.
God stoops down to hear our prayers.
He encircles us, empowers us, shows us how to escape.

I’m boasting of his miracle-deliverance;
Jumping for joy over what God’s done for me.
Know that my testimony is true:
Love wins.
My lips are full of perpetual praise!
Nothing can destroy me.

Oh, if only those with crushed spirits and broken hearts would cry out,
“Protect me, Lord.
Quiet my fears.
Rescue me from my many troubles.
Shelter me in your love.”
Then joy will come.

Unfettered, we’ll feast with plenty;
Victorious, we’ll walk with our heads held high.
We’ll glorify God together;
eXalt his glorious name;
yoke our lives with his.

Zestily – that’s how God moves us to live!

For the prayers of praise and thanksgiving that follow, the congregation can be divided into small groups – each receiving a piece of paper with a word relating to your meditation they are to use to form their own acrostic prayers. The invitation is for them to share what they are grateful for and then try to express this in an acrostic form. After a few minutes, a representative from each group reads their prayer aloud – perhaps interspersed with verses from a hymn/chorus of praise.   

 

Best and worst

*an opening prayer inspired by the story of David and his son, Absalom,
in 2 Samuel 13-18 and Ephesians 5:1-2*

Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that.

Ephesians 5:1-2, The Message

Praise to You O Suffering God.
You know the wounding of skin that was made to love,
the piercing of flesh with nail and thorn,
and the far greater rending of heart and of hope
through deception,
denial,
and desertion.

By humbling yourself in human form,
You have seen us at our best –
and at our worst.

You understand that love can lead to light and life
as easily as it can to death and destruction;
that a word spoken in anger can be an instrument of justice
or a wrecking ball of devastation;
that one day our family is a sanctuary, a source of strength and support,
the next, the people who we have given the most power
to drive us crazy or do us harm.

As we gather, this day, in Your holy presence
– our whole being hoping for Your faithful love
and great redemption –
we pray that You will gather together
both our beauty and our brokenness,
with Your infinite tenderness …

Graham Kendrick “O Lord, Your tenderness”

Divine DNA

*a prayer inspired by Psalm 139*

Lord, You know everything
there is to know about us.
You perceive every movement;
You are present in every moment:
Your Divine DNA woven into us
within our mother’s womb
as You shaped the delicate inside
and the intricate outside
and knit them all together in marvellous complexity.

When we awaken each morning,
You are with us –
and within us.
You know every step we will take
before our journey even begins.
You’ve gone into our future to prepare the way
and, in kindness, You follow behind us
to spare us the pain of the past.

May Your hand of love be upon our lives
as we meet You now,
in the light of this day.
Amen.

 

Imaged sourced at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/dna-tree-erzebet-s.html

A season for snuggling

*a winter prayer*

O extraordinary God
who reaches into the ordinary moments
of our days and nights,
with such tender, transforming touch:
smoothing and shaping,
healing and breaking,
soothing and stretching,
warming and pruning,
I give You thanks and praise
for this changing season
which invites me to snuggle and settle
into Your unchanging love.

Forgive me for failing to see the signs of Your presence
in the rot of leaf litter and the chilling breeze.
Forgive me for my resistance to solitude and silence
and slowing down.
Forgive me for my
hard heart,
harsh words,
and relationships damaged by coldness.

As the heartbeat of the land slows down
and the darkness lengthens
and the harsh cold reminds me of my need
for shelter, and warmth, and light

may Your Spirit offer assurance
that beneath the surface the seeds of life are being tended,
that what is needed for future growth will burst forth
in the rampant joy of spring,
and that each season’s turning and re-turning
is just an ordinary part
of an extraordinary life with You.

Glory

An opening prayer based on Psalm 29 (The Message)

Bravo, God, bravo!
All authorities and all angels shout, “Encore!”
In awe before Your glory,
in wonder before Your visible power.

Yahweh Melek*,
Yahweh Tsebaoth**
,
Your voice rolls over the waters
like thunder tympanic: 

smashing the cedars,
skipping the mountain ranges,
shaking the deserts,
setting the oak trees dancing …

as we fall to our knees
and cry “Glory!”
“Glory to God
who rules and reigns
over everyone and everything.”

“Glory!”
“Glory to God
who gives his people
strength and might.”

“Glory!”
“Glory to God
who blesses her people
with peace.”

 

* King of kings
** Lord of hosts, of all

In harmony

*an opening prayer, responding to the harmony in Psalm 133*

Psalm 133 – The Passion Translation

A song to bring you higher, by King David

How truly wonderful and delightful
to see brothers and sisters living together in sweet unity!
It’s as precious as the sacred scented oil
flowing from the head of the high priest Aaron,
dripping down upon his beard and running all the way down
to the hem of his priestly robes.

This heavenly harmony can be compared to the dew
dripping down from the skies upon Mount Hermon,
refreshing the mountain slopes of Israel.

For from this realm of sweet harmony,
God will release his eternal blessing,
the promise of life forever!

Gracious Gathering God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit:

from the beginning, connected
and through the connection, creative
and in all creation, communing

with Your children –

fashioned in Your divine image,
woven together with Your own hands,
named “beloved” and called according to Your good purpose and plan,

how wonderful,
how truly delightful it is
to enter this day into the sweet harmony
of Your salvation song:

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

As we meet together in this moment and this place
with all our sisters and brothers across time and space,
may our togetherness be a source of blessing
and a sigh of our deep yearning
for the day when You will gather up all things
in heaven and on earth
into Your perfect peace,
forever and ever.
Amen.