What's Tony Thinking

An Ash Wednesday Miracle Story


Shortly after coming to Plymouth Church in Seattle as a new, and young, senior minster, I suggested to the Worship Board that we have an Ash Wednesday service, including the traditional imposition of ashes.

“Isn’t that a Catholic thing?” said members of the Worship Board, guarded. “Well, no, it’s a Christian thing,” I said. I was new, they wanted to be supportive, so they agreed — a half-hour service — we didn’t want to go overboard with this.

Someone had the bright idea of getting a few people to actually come by asking a member of the choir, a recording artist who had just released a new CD of African-American spirituals, to follow the service with a concert (free). He agreed.

What we didn’t anticipate was full-page coverage in the morning paper’s “Arts and Entertainment” section — not of the service of course — but of the concert. So when I got up to lead the service there were about 300 people in the sanctuary, most of whom I had never laid eyes on before in my life.

I thought, “Oh crap, this is gonna go over like the proverbial lead balloon in secular Seattle. A long, tortured confession of sin, talk of turning away from sin, imposition of ashes, the sign of the cross. I feared they would feel we had done a bait-and-switch. “Concert?” “No, ASHES!” I was sure that not a person would move when we invited people to come forward to receive the imposition of ashes. They would sit and stare back at me.

So I was stunned when virtually all 300, it seemed, surged forward. As we said the words (alternate words), “Turn away from your sins and believe the good news of the gospel,” people had tears in their eyes. Something was happening. Something powerful.

Meanwhile, the church music committee had posted their people at the sanctuary doors, to hold those who had come only for the 8:00 concert. Another couple hundred were out in the lounge. At the closed sanctuary doors, someone shouted, “What’s going on in there?” Our man at the door stammered, “Something with ashes.” Someone else said, “What kind of church is this, anyway?” To which our man at the door said, “It’s our new minister. He’s into ‘religious effects.'” I might have said, “the sacraments and rituals of the church,” but whatever.

Two nights later, Friday night, Linda and I were out on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, walking on a crowded Broadway Avenue amid people with all sorts of colors of hair, leather and chains, and so on. Hip, edgy part of town. Suddenly a young woman stopped right in front of me and said, “You’re the minister at Plymouth, right?” I would have lied, but my wife was with me.

“Uh, yes, what’s up?” “Oh, I was at your church the other night. That thing you did with ashes — AWESOME. And the words — “turn away from your sins and believe the good news” — AMAZING. I’ll be back.” With that she disappeared into the surge of humanity. And I staggered down the street marveling at the strange ways of God.

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