20th Annual CALLIOPE Fiction Contest FINALIST
By Pat Laster
Last year at this time, the church
was full––especially when the choir came down and filled the front pews. After the imposition of the ashes, it was time for the passing of the peace. I announced that if there was anyone in the room who needed forgiveness from anyone else, this would be a good time to ask for it.
Apparently one person took my admonition to heart. She rushed back to an older woman, hugged her neck and whispered in her ear, “Thirty years ago, your husband and I had an affair. Please forgive me.” And then she dashed out the back door never to be seen or heard from again.
How do I know this?
Soon after—but before Easter––the affronted wife poisoned her husband and herself. She left a note for me saying, “See what you’ve done? Don’t ever ask people to atone for their sins in church.”
So this year, I decided to do it
differently. The pastoral team discussed it, and we decided to staple a slip of paper into each bulletin.
The friendship pads of attendance were passed (except to the choir and Praise Band), the scripture read, the sermon preached, followed by the ceremony of the imposition.
After all were “ashed,” I asked the congregation to tear off the paper slip from the bulletins and each one write down one sin they needed forgiveness for. No names, of course. But I would read each one after which the congregants would chant--from the screen--a verse adapted from Psalm 51, “May you be washed thoroughly from your iniquity and be cleansed from your sin.”
While the Praise Band played Chris
Tomlin’s “I Lift my Hands,” the ushers collected the papers of sins. The congregation stood and sang the song while I held the collected slips in a basket. Oh, Lord, if I am making a big mistake by doing this, please forgive me.
“You may be seated. After the readings and responses, I will pronounce the benediction. Please leave the service in silence.”
I began. “A boy who likes me gave me a gift and I haven’t thanked him. It’s been over five years. May he forgive me, wherever he is.”
I heard a slight titter, but led the response, “May you be washed thoroughly from your iniquity and be cleansed from your sin.”
Next. “Today in school, I told a girl she was fat. Please forgive me.” A snicker.
Miss Delley’s children’s sermons had hit home. “May you be washed thoroughly from your iniquity and be cleansed from your sin.”
“I shoplifted a wristwatch from Wal-Mart. Please forgive me.”
A slight hesitation. “May you be washed thoroughly from your iniquity and be cleansed from your sin.”
People were beginning to fidget
. Were they trying to imagine who that sinner was? Did anyone wish to leave, but knew if they did, the onus of guilt would be on them?
Next. “My wife and I tried to set a house on fire and then we fled to the safety of this state. Please forgive us.”
Murmurs. “May you be washed thoroughly from your iniquity and be cleansed from your sin.”
“Once I posed as a marriage counselor just to get names and addresses of lonely women. Please forgive me.”
One man had heard enough.
He stood. “Preacher, it’s getting late and it’s also hot in here. Why not read all of them and we’ll forgive everyone in a wad—like a lake baptism.” His wife pulled him by the coattail back to the pew.
“May you be washed thoroughly from your iniquity and be cleansed from your sin.”
“Only one more,” I said. “I am hiding a prostitution ring behind a jewelry business. Please forgive me.”
Before the response could begin,
the outside door opened and a booming voice from the back said, “Hold it right there, preacher. Don’t anyone move. Man the doors,” he said, and a uniformed policeman ran up each outer aisle to the side entrances. We didn’t know it at the time, but two more officers had secured the rest of the building and were standing in the back hallways.
“I’m the police chief around here, and preacher, you’ve just helped me solve a bunch of crimes. Pardon me, sins
. Boys, get all those sign-in pads. And preacher, hand me those papers. This is gonna be the easiest raid I’ve ever made. I’ll very likely get promoted.”
The hulking monster of a chief had been texted by a congregant and had gathered his minions
for a surprise visit. “Here’s fair warning—you who have committed crimes and helpfully released this information in the name of sins, stay where we can find you. Inside this sanctuary I won’t touch you, but you’ll be hearing from us very soon. And we don’t look kindly on absconders. Goodbye.”
After they left, I moved closer
to the congregation for the benediction. “There’s a Judas among us, Lord. Please forgive him. Or her. Children of God, go now in peace; if not in peace, in fear of your neighbors, your friends and the police. Let us recite our litany one more time.”
But I had to lead it myself. No one else moved or spoke. “May you be washed thoroughly from your iniquity and cleansed from your sin. Amen.”
And Bishop, this is why I ask you to reassign me to another pastorate. I am giving up Ash Wednesday for Lent.