Wednesday, June 03, 2009

cleansing rituals

A few details changed, to preserve anonymity

She phoned the church, a stranger, a local, asking for a house blessing. So I popped around, with my Bible and my usual house blessing service. “What’s been happening?” I ask.

“We’ve moved recently. The ashes (of my dead relatives) aren’t happy. My partner and I are fighting heaps and we’ve been burgaled. Twice. Still got the footprints. Come and see.”

We head into the house. Sprawled on the couch are two teenagers. Seeing us, they straighten and pull the hoodie down low.

Suddenly the words of my usual house blessing service seem inappropriate. Time to jettison the words and use the symbols.

I light a candle: “This is a source of light. In the Bible, God is the light of the world. Light drives out darkness. So we are going to ask God’s light to be present and drive out darkness.”

I ask for a bowl of water: “This is a symbol of cleansing. It’s where we wash and get clean. Lets start by getting clean. One, by one, lets wash our hands. Silently, lets say sorry for how we’ve acted in this place, the fights we’ve caused.”

And so, one by one, we stoop to the Bible, using the water as a vessel by which sins might be confess. In the flicker of candle and the splashing of water, it’s starting to feel like holy ground.

Which room shall we start with, I ask? And with bowl in hand, we move from room to room. “What needs to happen here,” we ask each other. At each room, hands are dipped in the bowl and water is sprinkled. And the words and the water, together become prayers for this house, of hope and of confession.

It’s starting to feel like our holy ground, not just my holy ground. The teenagers follow. Watching.

We head outside. The ashes are causing problems. “They’re not happy with how much we’re fighting.”

Fascinating. At this point, the ashes are actually pointing to what might be called “sin”. I have no way to process this theologically. Can ashes talk? How do they talk? But I don’t think that a theological discussion is what’s needed.

We talk to God about what the ashes are saying: “But we’re glad God, that these ashes are reminding us of how to behave. And we want to listen, to start doing right. That’s why we washed our hands.” Again, I’m not sure of the theology, but I’m trusting the Spirit for the words.

And finally the teenagers speak. The cars, they nod. Outside on the street.

There’s lots of talk in my city about boy racers and how bad they are. Its easy to create a category called “boy racers” and place all of fears about the future of our children. Yet here I am, being asked to “do” something to the car of a boy racer.

And so we walk into the street. We ask for safety and wise decisions. The teenagers grin. And nod. It’s still feeling like our holy ground. I’m not sure whether they’ll remember on Friday night. Does it matter? Surely prayer is to God, not to these racers?

The boys stay with their car and I return inside. I’m alone with the woman and together we look at the candle.

I tell her that I’m about to blow out the candle. When I do, the candle light will go out. But God’s light need not go out in this house. God’s light can live in our hearts. Yes sure, we can blow that light in our hearts out. But simply say sorry, and invite the light back, and it always will.

She nods. And grins. Now this really is holy ground. We’ve named God in this house. The gospel has been enacted – the water of confession as the grace of cleansing. We’ve confessed sin and together we’ve talked to God – with words and actions.

I’m looking forward to returning in a few weeks, grabbing a cup of tea, talking more with this family, about what it means to walk in the light and wash in forgiveness. Such is the power of symbols, that connect human participation with the Biblical story.

Posted by steve at 03:15 PM


  1. Steve, what a holy and amazing story. Thanks for blogging about this.

    Comment by Lisa — June 3, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

  2. Hi Steve

    Amazing, challenging Story. Made me think. Sometimes we (should replace we with I) assume the gospel and jesus message isn’t for our neighbours in that way.
    Can’t see me walking up to my neighbour with a candel and a bucket of water. But that says more about me than anyone else.

    Comment by Ozy Mandias — June 3, 2009 @ 10:30 pm

  3. Thanks Ozy. Can I stress this all sort of emerged on the fly. I had no idea what was going to happen, just this phone message asking for a dedication. So it was all sort of trusting the Spirit, asking questions, etc.

    There’s also a really funny side to all this. The bucket initially taken by us was found, when we arrived (and before we poured water in) to have a hole in it! So we had to borrow one of their’s!

    In terms of the candle, we have 3 special candles at church. We light them at a church service, when someone dies, as a way of thanking God for life and praying for those who mourn. So it was one of those that was taken and lit.


    Comment by steve — June 3, 2009 @ 10:51 pm

  4. fantastic read! ritual is so incredibly important both in and outside the body of believers. i love being involved with house blessings in our community, it’s just so powerful for me to see and to experience.

    Comment by Ian — June 4, 2009 @ 6:35 am

  5. Wow what a moving experience. I think as Christians we need to rediscover and reclaim more use of symbol, ritual and sacrament for our own faith expression and also as a way of connecting with the spirituality of the non-christians around us

    Comment by Christina — June 5, 2009 @ 9:41 am

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