The Golden Calf and Letting Go

They gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come on! Make us gods who can lead us. As for this man Moses who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don’t have a clue what has happened to him.” (Exodus 32.1)

I’ve preached and led a few workshops that loosely encompass the theme of letting go of those things in church, worship, or the denominational system that keeps us from moving forward or making necessary changes to be innovative and creative. Using the story of the golden calf in Exodus 32, we read about a community, the Israelites, who journey to the Promised Land. As they journey, God is teaching them and they are having to learn how to be a community. After years of slavery and every move and moment dictated, they are discovering what it is to be a community of God’s people.

When Moses goes up the mountain and leaves them, they panic. They panic so much that they beg Aaron to build them something that is familiar to them, even if it symbolizes a painful time in their history – of slavery, pain, and loss. As our communities of faith or denomination enter into a time of change and transformation, often we cling to rituals, icons, church building, or the golden years – even when we know they can be obstacles to moving the church to a healthier place.

Using sand, here is a ritual that allows people to name and claim what is meaningful for them in worship or in church and then let it go. Below are three different ways, I invited people to participate in the ritual.

Ritual 1:

Supplies: craft sticks, different colored sand, cloth, rubber cement, foam board

Using glue, I scribed the words “Let us worship God” on a piece of foam board. I then poured different colored sand over the gluey words. I covered the multi-colored sand with black sand.

Alternated a rainbow of colored sand covered with black sand on top.

Worshippers were invited to scratch in the black sand with a craft stick words or images that symbolize what is meaningful for them in worship.


I then dumped the sand onto a piece of cloth on the floor, revealing the words “Let us worship God.” It is interesting observing the different reactions of people as they unexpectedly watch their meaningful symbols discarded onto the ground. This ritual allows us to let go of what we hold so fast to – not to eliminate or discard – but to let go of the hold it has on us to move forward. Are there are other things in worship that we can find the same meaning if the thing we hold so dear changes?

IMG_2871Ritual 2:

Supplies: craft sticks, different colored sand, cloth

On cloth, I poured black sand and then covered it with tan sand.

IMG_2921I gave the same instructions as in ritual 1 above.

IMG_2922Using cloth, when the sand is dumped, there is still a faint remnant of the symbols and words where the sand clings to cloth. As we let go of what is meaningful for us yet obstacles for others, they don’t go away. They still exist but the power over us isn’t as strong. We are able to open ourselves to find meaning in other ways in worship or the church.

Ritual 3:

Supplies: craft sticks, different colored sand, cloth, vials, container

When I keynoted at a denominational staff retreat, I made the Presbyterian Church USA symbol on the sand.

IMG_3244I then had them etch in the sand what they value about being Presbyterian.

IMG_3245Someone noticed that when the sand was dumped, it formed some abstract creature on the cloth.


I had a break between both keynotes so I had time to fill vials with the dumped sand.


In my keynote, I spoke about how important it is for church leaders to create space so that people have the freedom to create new ministries, experiment, and explore possibilities. Creating space may mean having flexible policies, providing financial resources, or getting people together to network and dream.

Participants were invited to come forward and grab a vial filled with the sand that holds all that we value as Presbyterians. In an empty container, they were instructed to dump as much sand from their vial to represent how much space God is calling them to create in order for necessary change to happen. Some dumped none. Some dumped all or half. They were allowed to keep the vial as a reminder of God’s call for them to continue to live into a new community much like the Israelites did.


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