UPDATE: This idea was updated in 2018 to be included in the Worship In The Wilderness Church Service Pack.

What do you normally do with your old BBQ ashes? Bin them? Put them in the compost? If this BBQ summer decides to get back on form, this idea might give you a different use for them.

We were running a series of services themed around the Psalms, and one of them was on Lament. It's a very deep topic to get into, and we felt that we needed some way to express lament and sadness during the service. We decided to use ashes as a symbol of confession and brokenness, symbolically pouring them out as part of the prayers, and then useing them again later to symbolise hope and forgiveness.

Before the service, cover a table with clean, white paper. If you can get a large roll, that would work well to save sticking sheets together. Lining paper might be good, but the whiter the better for the effect. Place a glass bowl on the table filled with the ashes.

While using the corporate prayer of confession below (PowerPoint version available in the downloads box), have someone carefully pour out the ashes to cover as much of the white paper as possible.

Father God, your knowledge of us is perfect - the situations we face, the decisions we make, our motives, our passions, our desires.
We long to act justly, but so often sin stains our deeds, just as dust and ashes smear and discolour that which was clean.
So we pour out these ashes, watching them cover the bright clean surface beneath, and we remember the ways in which we have failed to live by your standards.

Your plan, obscured by our selfish motives.
Your light, smothered by things we wish to hide.
Your love, made fruitless by our inaction.
Your world, tainted by our sin.

We acknowledge, and cry out in shame for our part in the wider issues that affect our world. With these ashes of lament, we remember:

The world's poor, kept poor by our wasteful lifestyles.
Creation's beauty, marred by our selfish carelessness.
The innocent, caught in the middle of unjust conflicts.

In all these things, our personal, national and global failings, we call out to you to act, to renew, to forgive. To restore the brightness of your love, and the radiance of your glory. We receive your forgiveness that pours from the cross. We receive your empowering to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with you.

[All:] Amen.

In our service, as we wanted to focus on lament, we didn't immediately offer the absolution, to leave the poignancy hanging for a while - Later in the service, as part of the prayers of intercession, we invited people to come forward and draw a cross, or fish, (or any symbol that was appropriate to them) in the ashes, to let the whiteness of the paper shine through the darkness of the ashes, as a symbol of asking God to bring his light and hope into the situations we were praying for.

If you wanted to use this purely for confession and forgiveness, you could do the same - either inviting people to draw in the ashes as a mark of commitment, and acceptance of forgiveness, or maybe even have the service leader draw a single large cross in the ashes on behalf of the congregation.