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"Clink!"Ash Wednesday

I wrote the following the day after Ash Wednesday many years ago and first shared it with some colleagues in school administration.

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. Lenten blessings to everyone.

Like most of you reading this, I'm the principal at my school, and I fear nothing!

Well, that's not exactly true. Actually, I fear several things:

Several days ago, one of the women who cleans the church reminded me that the coming Wednesday was Ash Wednesday and.... Now principals know the rest of this, but for non-principals that sentence ends. “…so please be sure the kids don't ‘trash the sanctuary’ during chapel that morning because we’ve got church services at 4:30 and 7:00 p.m. later that day, and I can't be coming back to clean up again.”

“To trash,” in church custodial language means “Placing a worship supplement where a hymnal goes instead of on the worship supplement stack or vice versa.” Sometimes it can also mean moving the Friendship Pad at the end of the pew ever so slightly or, heaven forbid, to the other end of the pew.

The words, “Don’t trash the sanctuary,” played through my head.Vicar led Ash Wednesday Chapel for us yesterday. He began by passing out individual worship sheets to each student, even the kindergarteners and first graders who can’t read them. We have regular chapel worship booklets we use every week, so why he passed out all these sheets of purple paper still puzzles me.

Next, he told every student to tear a piece of paper from their worship sheet! What are they teaching at the seminary these days? “Now, thinking of a sin you’ve committed,” Vicar said, “take a pencil and write that sin down on this piece of torn paper.”

We actually removed those tiny pencils from the pew racks years ago because our church has a cement floor and a theater-style design sloping toward the chancel. So when those little pencils were dropped years ago, following the initial clink, there was a whirring sound as it rolled to the front. Everyone would sit there wondering the whole time whether it would make it all the way to the chancel steps, everyone listening for that second clink. Truthfully, I miss that Sunday morning ritual...but that, too, is another story. Fortunately, we still have little kids bringing their Hot Wheels® cars to church.

Vicar had us sing a hymn while he ran for a trusty box of AAL pencils to distribute. The pencils were handed every student. Immediately—Clink...whirrrrr. And occasionally, another clink! if it made it all the way to the chancel steps. Couldn’t we have shared? How big a sin did he think they were all going to write down?

In a short time, the floor was littered with wayward pencils and looking like we had a light dusting of purple snow. And, my fifth and sixth grade teachers were looking down the pew at me and snickering. The words, “Don’t trash the sanctuary,” played through my head. But not for long.

After explaining how God's forgiveness completely forgives sins, totally obliterates them, Vicar decided to demonstrate this visually. Taking out a candle, Vicar invited all 180 students plus faculty and visitors to come forward and “completely destroy those sins.” Yep, he had them place the purple paper slips into a metal bowl (probably from the Ladies Aid Kitchen) and started a fire in the front of the church, and now the sanctuary smelled of smoke. I did mention this to him later, and he just smiled and said, “Chuck, haven't you ever heard talk from the seminaries about ‘Smells and Bells?’” Again, another story, but the guy does have a good sense of humor.

Now I've been married for nearly 31 years and a principal for almost 30 years, and I've got to tell you: “I can get into plenty of trouble all on my own.” I usually don’t need any assistance.

We did clean up, and I think things were left in pretty good shape, except for the smell of smoke. And I'm still here to tell about this today. Just one more thing—our seventh grade teacher, a rookie and recent Ann Arbor grad, came up to me at our Lenten supper last night and said,“Chuck, I just couldn’t bear to tell you this earlier, but this afternoon I did take my eighth grade science class into the sanctuary to practice their Egg Drop Science Project from the church balcony....”

It's like they conspire to paint a great big bullseye on me, you know....

Chuck Strohacker retired at the end of the 2014–2015 school year after serving 40 years in the Michigan District, 37 of those years as a principal. He and his wife, Diane, live in retirement in St. Joseph, Mich.

Photo by Kathryn Brewer.