Taking Down the Christmas Tree

I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but I’m actually thinking about taking my Christmas tree down. It’s only December 31.

Now I know many folks take their tree down before New Year’s Eve, while still others do the dreaded packing up of the ornaments on New Year’s Day. I understand the thinking behind it. It’s a new year, a fresh start, and a clean slate—out with the old and in with the new, and that means out with the Christmas tree that has become a fire hazard and in with the newly reclaimed living room space. But for me to be thinking about taking down my tree…well, I have to ask, “What has happened to me?”

I’ve always been the poster child for celebrating the 12 days of Christmas, advocating keeping trees up and the holiday cheer going till the wise men come the first week in January to present Jesus with the gifts in which we should observe on that often unobserved day on the liturgical calendar known as Epiphany.

I say “often unobserved” day, for the circles I travel in do not do as good a job as my Catholic or Latino or more liturgically literate friends do in celebrating Epiphany.

I’m trying to bring Epiphany back, but those darn wise men bearing gifts of frankincense, myrrh and gold keep crashing church nativity pageants at Christmastime, reinforcing the belief there was one big party going on in the stable the night Jesus was born.

The thing is the wise men probably didn’t show up until about three years after Jesus’ birth. First, scripture tells us the wise men asked King Herod where they could find the “child” not the “baby” whose star they saw in the sky. Second, King Herod, fearing his power would be usurped by a child, issued the horrible edict to slaughter all male children three years of age and under. And lastly, when the wise men did find Mary and Joseph we are told they entered into the “house” and not a “stable.” And so we have the celebration of Epiphany that comes after Christmas.

But I digress.

It’s only December 31 and I—the self-proclaimed advocate for not cutting short the Christmas season—want to do just that. Cut short Christmas by taking down my tree.

What has happened to me?

I’ve been asking that question all week as I struggled through these days to find some holiday cheer or Christmas magic that those sappy TV Christmas shows tell me I should be experiencing. I searched and searched, but nothing. I even tried to recreate some Christmases past by pouring a glass of eggnog to enjoy with some of my mother-in-law’s cookies that I couldn’t wait to get this year. The eggnog and cookies were delicious, but the holiday cheer I had wanted to fill my heart did not happen.

If anything, the ultra sweet and fattening combo made me more nostalgic for Christmases gone by—and more guilty that I haven’t gone to the gym yet.

I then called my mom and dad to see what they were up to. Perhaps we could plan an impromptu visit. But they were feeling like me—no real energy to do much of anything.

Was it the unseasonably warm weather making everyone blue? I know for my bumbling Bernese mountain dog it was, for her wish for snow—and lots of it—did not come true this Christmas. She did, however, get to enjoy some of the mother-in-law’s cookies. (I pray my vet is reading this for she did have more than one Christmas cookie.)

Or was this bah-humbug epidemic hitting all those I loved really the side effect of yet another infectious bug going around for the hundredth time, creating not so silent nights of nose blowing and coughing?

Could be a combination of both. Or so I tried to convince myself when really I knew the desire to pack away Christmas sooner than I would usually do was something beyond unseasonably warm weather, sad dogs and sinus infections.

Sometimes in life the heart struggles. It is as simple as that. For whatever reason there are some seasons where you have to just feel what the heart is feeling and stop trying to figure “it” out whatever the “it” might be. And definitely make no apologies for where your heart is.

There are times to rejoice that a newborn has come into the world to be our Savior. There are times for the angels to sing with joy and for shepherds to fall on their knees in awe and adoration for what God has done.

Then there are times when there is no star to guide you, no angels’ song to cheer you and no joy in the world to keep you going. There are times when the cross looms in front of you and its burden seems too much for you to carry and you fear it will crush you. But it won’t.

Then there are those times when you just need to pack away Christmas and take down the tree earlier than you usually do.

And that’s okay.

For however your heart might be feeling, this I know for sure. God is right by your side, hearing you ask, “What has happened to me?” and in return whispering His comforting answer, “You’re okay. I’ve got you. Always.”

I heard that whisper on Christmas morning. As I sat high on top of the hill behind our little red house, I saw one of the most beautiful sunrises ever and I could hear God’s whisper mingle with the remnants of the angel’s song of praise “Glory to God in the highest.” It was then I realized even if my heart wasn’t “right”—whatever that means—my soul definitely was in the right place.

There on the hill surrounded by nature’s holiday decorations of dazzling sun rays, glistening frost, heavenly clouds hanging low in the valley and evergreen branches swaying as birds danced on each one, I embraced once again God’s gift of grace and hope and light. The heart will have its ups and downs, its questions and doubts, but God’s heart isn’t fickle. It remains consistent—always loving us through all our days.

It’s December 31 and I will be taking down my Christmas tree earlier than I usually do. What has happened to me? I’m still not completely sure, but I do know this.

I’m more than okay. For while the Christmas lights are coming off the tree the light that matters the most in my life still burns brightly. That is, the light of Christ.

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Christmas morning 2015 on top of “Sofie’s Hill” in Vermont. The gift of God’s reassuring presence that I carry with me into a New Year. 

Day 24/25—Let the Christ Light Shine

A Little White Church Christmas

As we approach Christmas Eve, hear the stories of God incarnate working in and among the people of the little white church nestled in a village in Upstate New York. These stories of “Emmanuel”—God with us—were gathered during Donna Frischknecht’s time serving as minister of a historic white clapboard church right on the border of Vermont, from 2007-2013.

December 24/25

We had just finished singing “Silent Night.” The Christmas Eve service was soon to be over and I felt like a child who had just opened the last of her Christmas presents. I was still overjoyed and excited, but I didn’t want the magic of the night to end.

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I wanted more of this holy night. I wanted more of the beautiful circle of light embracing the sanctuary of the little white church. (For more on the circle of light, read Day 21 of a “Little White Church Advent”.) I wanted more of the beaming faces I saw illuminated by the candles they held.

We were done singing and the echo of the last note slowly vanished into heaven. I was not ready to put this gift away and give the benediction. And so I stood there.

We stood there. Together. Light shining brightly not from candles quickly burning down and dripping wax onto the carpeted floor, but the light of Christ shining brightly from our hearts.

There we stood. Finally I spoke.

“This is a beautiful sight. Christ’s light shining from you all. Take a moment to notice this gift before you,” I said, “For this moment is a gift.”

And it was.

The gifts of silence and candlelight were being given to us, allowing the depth of meaning of this night to enter into our hearts.

I just didn’t want to rush Christmas Eve for I knew after the candles were blown out and the sanctuary lights went back on, the flurry of holiday excitement would kick back into high speed.

I knew for some gathered in the sanctuary there were more relatives to visit after the church service. For others there were late suppers to feast on. For still others there were overly excited children to wrangle into their pajamas, get the plate of cookies and glass of cold milk ready for Santa, before finally getting them to bed. For me there was a glass of eggnog and pickled herring waiting at home, a combination that my husband still does not understand or partakes of.

Yes, soon the candles would be blown out and for me my treasured Christmas Eve tradition at the white church would begin.

The last person would say good night and “Merry Christmas” to me. I would then walk back into an empty sanctuary to my office to get take off my clergy robe and get my boots and coat on.

As I walked down the aisle I would notice how the sanctuary looked like a Christmas hangover—bulletins strewn onto the floor, candy cane wrappers left on the cushions and the stray glove or mitten homeless till next Sunday when its owners would claim them.

With my coat and boots finally on, I would take one last look around the sanctuary and kitchen and bathrooms and fellowship hall to make sure all lights were off, all candles extinguished and all doors locked.

Once outside, I would notice the last light flickering from the candles in the luminaries on the steps of the old church. I would then stand there in the silence of the night and look up at the stars and wonder.

Who on this holy night left this little white church with the gift of Christ born again in his or her heart?

For all too quickly after a silent night the frenzy of the world kicks into high speed and we forget each moment is a gift from God. It is a gift not to waste by worrying or rushing, but a gift to slow down and notice God’s light is always shining in the darkness.

I would stand on the old church steps in the silence of the night, breathe in the night air and allow the light from the stars to lead me in the true celebration of Christmas.

The candles burned brightly in the sanctuary, but the light of Christ shone even brighter. The Christmas Eve service was just about over.

It was time to give the benediction I came upon the first year I was a pastor. It was one I have always loved. I lifted my candle and I said to all gathered:

May the joy of the angels,

The eagerness of the shepherds,

The perseverance of the wise men,

The obedience of Joseph and Mary,

And the peace of the Christ Child be yours this Christmas;

And the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with your always.

Amen.

The candles went out in the sanctuary, but the light of Christ went back out into the village, out to the farms, and all throughout the fields and rolling hills and mountain views in which the little white church has stood for many a Christmas as a beacon of hope and a witness of a faith—and which will stand for many more Christmases to come.

Merry Christmas!

 

From the Accidental Country Pastor:

 Thank you for joining me on this “A Little White Church Advent and Christmas” journey. May you have a blessed Christmas and may your remember you are the light of Christ our world needs. Let the light shine where you are now and forevermore.

Accidental Country Pastor will return with more stories of faith and more beautiful God moments January 1, 2016.

 Blessings, Pastor Donna

 

 

 

Day 23—Be Near Me Lord Jesus

A Little White Church Christmas

As we approach Christmas Eve, hear the stories of God incarnate working in and among the people of the little white church nestled in a village in Upstate New York. These stories of “Emmanuel”—God with us—were gathered during Donna Frischknecht’s time serving as minister of a historic white clapboard church right on the border of Vermont, from 2007-2013.

December 23

It was my worst nightmare come true as a pastor. I woke up the Sunday morning before Christmas Eve with a queasy stomach and a pounding headache. I tried convincing myself it was probably the Chinese food I had the night before—darn my love of greasy egg rolls and fried wontons—but I knew I was only fooling myself. The 24-hour bug that was making its way through all the kids at the little white church had finally reached me.

“You don’t look so hot,” was my husband’s loving observation when I came down the stairs for breakfast.

“I don’t feel so hot,” was my meager reply.

I just had to get through the morning worship. So had a piece of toast and took a swig of some Pepto Bismal and off to church we drove.

“Please, Lord, let me just get through this morning,” was my prayer as my husband drove and I sat in the passenger seat trying my best to not let each curve he took upset my stomach more.

Luckily, the service for the morning was a new tradition for the little church. It was a variation on the traditional Lessons and Carols. I called it our “Lessons and Carols and Witnessing to the Light” as children would read the scripture lessons and several adults from the congregation would share their stories of God at work in their lives based on the scripture just read. And so I was off the hook for preaching.

“I can do this,” I kept telling myself. “Just greet people, say the opening prayer and wrap it up with a benediction.”

In addition to the lessons and the stories of faith, there was the reenactment of the nativity complete with children dressed as shepherds, sheep and angels. Oh, and the special treat that year would be a real baby Jesus! I had never been in a church where, come the month of December, there was an actual baby to play the starring role.

Holden was born that August and his sister, Ida, would be playing Mary and so chances were the baby “Jesus” wouldn’t cry with familiar arms holding him. Twenty-four hour bug or not, I wasn’t going to miss this. And so it began.

I said my opening prayer and took a seat in the pew so I could watch the nativity unfold. Unfortunately, the bug started to act up and I couldn’t really pay attention to anything that was going in that hour worship. All I knew is that I wanted to get home as quickly as I could.

The congregation knew their pastor looked a little green and they were all so understanding as I said a quick good-bye right after the benediction. But before leaving the sanctuary, my parents, who had driven up from New Jersey, said their quick good byes and put into my hands a bag with a gift that pushed my queasy stomach to its limits. In the bag was huge jar of pickled herring.

“Get me home now,” was all I could say to my husband after I graciously thanked my parents, and put the pickled herring in the back of the car.

We finally got home and I was down for the count. The bug had defeated me.

It was a grueling afternoon and early evening, but by the time the stars came out in the night sky, I was feeling a bit better physically; but not emotionally.

I was bummed out as I thought that morning’s worship service was a total flop. Yes, I was being hard on myself, but I continued to ask my husband the same questions over and over again.

“Did everything go well during worship?”

“Are you sure?”

“You’re not lying to me, are you?”

“Why are you asking me this? Everything went perfectly,” he said.

The fact was I really didn’t know how anything went because I was so out of it. I still doubted his reassurances and continued to feel glum.

I climbed back into bed now praying for strength to get through the two Christmas Eve services that were, yikes, in less than 24 hours.

Just as I fluffed my pillows to settle in for some more rest with a glass of flat ginger ale—I wasn’t ready for the pickled herring yet—the message alert on my phone went off. I leaned over to discover it was from one of the mothers at the little white church who was really enjoying her newfound passion for photography.

She had hoped I was feeling better and wanted to share all the pictures she took of that morning’s worship service.

I opened the file of pictures and began seeing my husband was not lying to me. Picture after picture told the story of a beautiful service that actually took place even though I was too sick to notice.

There were smiles from adults at the lectern sharing their stories of faith and smiles from those listening in the pews. There were the girls dressed as angels standing in the front of the church and there was the parade of shepherds with their sheep—and a cow thrown in there as well. There was even a bright gold star dancing around trying to show the shepherds the way to stable.

All of a sudden I began to realize God was at work that morning even though I was out of commission. It was then I understood what pastors told me when I became ordained.

“It’s never about you. It’s always about God working through you and the congregation. God always shows up and is fully present even during those times in life when you struggle to show up and be fully present to God.”

My finger kept sliding through the pictures of a Sunday before Christmas Eve worship service where God was fully present and working through all the faithful gathered that morning—fully present to Him.

Worship continued to God even though there was a picture of the pastor sitting in the pew looking a bit green.

My mood went from glum to happy and then happy to feeling completely blessed for the last picture I opened was the one that captured the Spirit at work the best.

There before my eyes was baby Jesus reaching up with his little hand to lovingly grab hold of Mary’s hair.

I didn’t notice that was happening at all that morning. But the smiles of the other children gathered around Mary and Jesus told me they noticed something special taking place.

And Mary’s face, played by big sister, Ida, said so much without saying a word. With her eyes closed behind the glasses she got that year (yes, Mary had glasses!) she bowed her head in prayer and smiled sweetly as the rest of the shepherds and angels and sheep and one cow and a dancing gold star began to sing, “Away in the Manger.”

All the while as the children sang baby Jesus held onto Mary who continued to be deep in prayer.

I stared at that picture. And stared some more.

How many times, I wondered, was Jesus reaching out his hand to me, gently tugging at either my heart or grabbing at my soul, to let me know in my time of prayer that he was indeed with me?

How many times has Jesus lovingly tugged at my hair to reassure me, “I got you and I will never let you go.”

That Sunday before Christmas Eve a pesky 24-hour bug taught me a beautiful lesson.

I learned God always shows up and is fully present to us, even when we ourselves are not fully present to God—no matter what the reason might be.

May this day before Christmas Eve you find your head bowed in prayer. And may you feel a gentle tug of God incarnate reaching out and holding on to you.

Be near me, Lord Jesus,

I ask Thee to stay,

close by me forever,

and love me,I pray. 

Ida

 

 

 

Day 22—Truly He Taught Us

A Little White Church Christmas

As we approach Christmas Eve, hear the stories of God incarnate working in and among the people of the little white church nestled in a village in Upstate New York. These stories of “Emmanuel”—God with us—were gathered during Donna Frischknecht’s time serving as minister of a historic white clapboard church right on the border of Vermont, from 2007-2013.

December 22

We love because God first loved us.  1 John 4:19

 The lights had just been dimmed a bit more in the sanctuary of the little white church. With my sermon now over, we were making our way through the order of worship, getting ever so closer to the candlelight singing of “Silent Night.” Before that moment, though, there was the soloist who would sing “O Holy Night.”images

I had asked our pianist’s son to be present with us on Christmas Eve to sing this beloved song. I was so happy when he agreed for while he was just out of high school he had a voice that I would place in the same category of Pavarotti. Yes, his voice was that good.

In a way his singing would be a gift to me as it provided what I would call more breathing room in the order of worship for the Holy Spirit to move among us. It was a space for grace in which I as a pastor could sit back and reflect on the words I had just preached. And, hopefully, it would be a space for grace for those in the pews to also reflect on God’s word proclaimed.

And so the last word of my sermon was spoken and I sat back down in the official looking “pastor’s chair” with its ornately carved wooden legs and armrests complete with a regal velvet seat.

The anticipation of the night heightened. Our pianist struck the first ivory key and her son hit the first perfect note.

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining.

Within seconds I felt as if I was being transported to that actual night when something so indescribable and so life changing happened. I could imagine the awe, the beauty, the joy…

Indescribable. Life changing. Wait. I didn’t have to imagine. That was happening right here, right now, I realized.

In the past year of ministry together I had many indescribable moments of lives being changed not by the latest church fads or prepackage programs on how to grow your church or lead a successful stewardship campaign. I could tell of many indescribable moments of lives being changed through times of more praying, times of more trusting and times of keeping our eyes on Jesus rather than the stormy waves all around us. No, I didn’t have to imagine something indescribable as God awakening His children. I could see it.

The young Pavarotti from rural America continued hitting perfect note after perfect note.

In all our trials, born to be our friend.

Ah, those pesky trials. There were those as well. Every church has them but just recently I had begun to see the blessings born out of trials. God does do His best work in dark times, I mused, as I thought about how God protected this little white church through showers, squalls and storms. And the storms were weathered due to the fact that deeper friendships were being forged with Jesus through coming together for more prayer, study and times of serving.

The singing continued to gift us all…

Truly He taught us to love one another.

Love. Just the other day a woman from the congregation gave me a Christmas card. It was an adorable bear dressed as an angel smiling and bringing good tidings of joy with the scripture message written beneath, “We love because God first loved us.”

I took notice of that card more than I usually would take notice because I found it interesting the scripture was from 1 John. I had never seen that before on a Christmas card. Usually Isaiah’s words of a “son has been given unto us…and his name shall be…” or the angels’ song of “glory to God in the highest” find their way onto a greeting card. Not this card. This was reminding us of why we love—because God first loved us.

Truly He taught us to love one another.

Love. That’s what it comes down to, I said to myself silently. Jesus had taught us how to love one another and while it seems hard at times or perhaps many times, love really is the glue that holds all things together.

I remember as I was moving up to serve this little village I was given words of advice. First, everyone was related in some way or another, so be careful about what you say about anyone.

I looked down at my engagement ring and wedding band and swirled the white gold and diamonds around my finger. I was now part of the being related to someone in the little village I served as pastor. It was just six months before on a beautiful June morning the “pastor from the city” married the “local boy.” It was a community-wide celebration of answered prayers—and 17 flower girls, all from the village, who were excited that Pastor Donna was finally getting married.

Secondly, I was told the good news about life in a little village was everyone knew you. The bad news was everyone knew you.

Good and bad, people knew what was going on in your life, which at times I had learned could get complicated, tricky or just plain contentious. And yet I had also learned that no matter what differences people had or what long-time grudges were held, when a person was in need, differences and grudges were put aside and love, no matter how difficult to show, was shown.

That was new to me. Growing up in a more congested area, people were quicker to forget you or less likely to help you. But in a little village, there was this overriding sense that no matter what, we were all in this life together.

Truly, the people of the little white church taught me what it meant to love one another. For it was these people I was brought to shepherd who instead shepherd me in the way of forgiveness and by doing so helped me to experience the healing grace it brings.

Churches, I realized, are like families. There will be squabbles and downright disagreements. Sides might be taken and the ties that bind might fray, but in a rural village and church, the frays very rarely snap completely apart.

That night, as the young Pavarotti sang, the lesson of love continued as the Spirit worked among all, opening hearts ever more wider to one another.

I looked out at the congregation and it seemed to me they, too, were being transported to their own indescribable life changing moments God has blessed them with.

It was indeed a holy night.

 

 

Day 21—A Circle of Light

A Little White Church Christmas

As we approach Christmas Eve, hear the stories of God incarnate working in and among the people of the little white church nestled in a village in Upstate New York. These stories of “Emmanuel”—God with us—were gathered during Donna Frischknecht’s time serving as minister of a historic white clapboard church right on the border of Vermont, from 2007-2013.

December 21

I spoke the last word of my Christmas Eve sermon and as I did I secretly breathed a sigh of relief. No matter how long one has been at his or her craft—Christmas Eve worship always brings a bit of anxiety.There’s the anxiety of trying to tell the old familiar story in a fresh, new way. images

(Reminder to self: just let God’s Word speak, don’t get cute or fancy. Just be real.)

Then there is the anxiety of what if this would the night in which for the first time ever I blank out up there and forget everything. That’s an anxiety leftover from seminary days.

(Reminder to self: it has yet to happen and so it probably will never happen.)

Then there’s the anxiety of new faces staring back at you from the pews, many of whom probably have no interest in what the church offers beyond Christmas Eve. I have come to realize those who find themselves gathered in a church on that holy night are often gathered out of a sense of tradition, which is not bad at all.

(Reminder to self: the Holy Spirit can work—and does reach hearts—with those simply seeking tradition.)

My task is not to convert people on Christmas Eve. My task is to be as faithful as I can in the telling God’s story of salvation and let my own knowledge of that salvation and grace, speak through me.

Still I have a healthy awareness as to where the Christmas Eve sermon ranks in importance for those gathered to worship.

(Note to self: keep Christmas Eve sermon on the shorter side.)

I would say the sermon is probably at No. 3, right behind wanting to hear the old familiar songs of Christmases past sung once again.

What’s the No. 1 reason many come to church on Christmas Eve?

They come for that incredibly moving moment when the lights go out in the sanctuary. Then, with only the radiant beams shining from hundreds of individual candles, “Silent Night” is softly sung by young and old, believer and doubter, broken and whole, joyful and sorrowful, sinner and saint.

And nowhere more was this beloved tradition so beautifully executed than at the little white church.

It was there that I, a new pastor, was introduced to a new tradition I had never experienced before.

As I was planning my first Christmas Eve, I was told by the faithful and hardworking Worship Committee that while I basically had free reign to do whatever new thing I wanted to do that night, I was not to change how they did the candles during “Silent Night.”

“First we have communion,” said one woman in a way that told me she was used to being in charge. “We have two chalices, one for grape juice and one for wine.”

“We have to remember to put a red bow on the wine chalice so that people know which cup has the alcohol and which one doesn’t,” another committee member chimed in.

(Note to self: remember to announce that on Christmas Eve as well as print the red-bow chalice information in the worship bulletin.)

“Okay,” I said, agreeing with everything so far.

“And then we light our candles from the Christ candle and we begin making a circle all around the sanctuary,” the woman with the drill sergeant voice continued.

(Note to you the reader: This woman with the gruff voice turned out to be one of the most blessed angels in my ministry while at the little white church. I always smile whenever I think of her.)

“You don’t go back to your pews?” I asked, trying to envision the circle being made as folks come up for communion, while others took their lighted candles up the aisles of a church made out of timber some 200-plus years old. I was fond of that church and really didn’t want to see any fires on Christmas Eve.

“Yes,” she said in a way that told me I shouldn’t have questioned it.

“We’ve always done it this way, pastor,” yet another committee member added.

“But what about safety issues?” I asked ever so gently.

“You just have be careful with your candle,” was the reply.

“What about those who have trouble walking and have to remain seated in the pew? We can’t leave them out of the candle lighting?” I asked, thinking of my handicapped brother who would visiting that Christmas Eve and who definitely would be that person forgotten in this beautiful, beloved tradition.

“No problem. Whoever has to remain seated, will stay seated. An elder will light their candle and stay with them as sort of an extension of the circle,” was the reply back.

“Oh, okay. That’s a wonderful solution,” I said, still not certain as to how this was all going to play out on Christmas Eve.

And so I spoke the last word of my Christmas Eve sermon and as I did I secretly breathed a sigh of relief. That part was done. Now, though, there was the angst of the singing of “Silent Night” and the circle of light that would be made in the sanctuary.

Now more than ever I had to trust God.

(Note to self: I am just an instrument. Let God work on this holy night.)

And work He did.

Young and old, believer and doubter, broken and whole, joyful and sorrowful, sinner and saint, all came up to break the bread, then dip in either of the two chalices (the one with the red bow was quite popular), and then light their candle.

Back up the side aisles they began to go. I really couldn’t pay much attention to the formation of the circle, as I was busy administering the sacrament. By the time all were served the bread and the cup, it was time for me to light my candle and say a prayer before the singing of “Silent Night” began.

I looked up and out at the sanctuary for the first time. I couldn’t speak. My throat choked up with emotion and I had to fight the tears.

Before my eyes was an unbroken circle of pure light, with faces all beaming, especially the faces from those on the Worship Committee, who looked at me as if to say, “Isn’t this beautiful? See, you had nothing to worry about, pastor.”

All come for this Christmas Eve moment in which something more powerful than tradition happens—the light of Christ, if only throughout the four or five stanzas of “Silent Night”, is seen by eyes often blind to it.

The smile from a teen as God whispers blessed assurances that life will get better.

The tear coming from the elderly woman as God’s arms wrap around her when her husband’s arms can no longer hug her.

The child, who is fighting his mom to hold his own candle, is finally given the light. He quiets down and holds the light with reverence and awe, as God’s Spirit lights up the world before him.

My brother, seated in the pew, but not alone. The light of Christ shining forth on him in the way of the candle of a church member who chose to stand by him.

Each person, even if it is just for the four or five stanzas in which “Silent Night” is sung, can see the Christ light in their lives.

The little white church’s beloved tradition had become mine. And every year I couldn’t wait to see the circle of light in that historic sanctuary, a reminder of God’s never-ending love upon Christ’s church and its people.

 

 

Day 20—An Advent Prayer

A Little White Church Advent

Come on an Advent journey and walk the rural roads and snow covered paths with Donna Frischknecht as she shares stories of God’s promises being fulfilled in the most amazing ways. These stories of “Emmanuel”—God with us—were gathered during her time serving as minister in a historic white clapboard church in upstate New York, right on the border of Vermont, from 2007-2013.

December 20

On this the fourth Sunday in Advent, I invite you to light the candle of love on the Advent wreath (or simply light one lone candle) and join with me in saying this prayer written by one of my favorite authors, Henri Nouwen.

 Lord Jesus,

Master of both the light and the darkness, 
send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.


We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day.

We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us.

We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom.


We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence.

We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.


To you we say, “Come Lord Jesus!”

 Our advent journey has now become a holy walk to the stable. And so join in tomorrow for the countdown to Christmas Day with “A Little White Church Christmas.”

For now, many thanks for joining me this advent. It has been a blessing for me to share with you the heartfelt God moments that took place—and continue taking place—at the little white church.

And now  I have a candle to light and an Advent prayer to lift up. I hope you take time to do the same.

Till tomorrow.

Blessings and peace,

Pastor Donna (one very grateful “accidental country pastor”)IMG_1828

Day 19—Holy Silences

A Little White Church Advent

Come on an Advent journey and walk the rural roads and snow covered paths with Donna Frischknecht as she shares stories of God’s promises being fulfilled in the most amazing ways. These stories of “Emmanuel”—God with us—were gathered during her time serving as minister in a historic white clapboard church in upstate New York, right on the border of Vermont, from 2007-2013.

December 19

What did I love most about being an accidental country pastor?

Many things, but if I had to mention one it would be the holy silences I often found myself immersed in during the season of Advent and Christmas.

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Holy?

In the season of Christmas?

I know, I know. You’re probably wondering what in heaven’s name am I talking about, especially now in this the final mad dash to the BIG DAY, when there are very few moments of silence to be had.

Christmas music plays nonstop in the background of malls and grocery stores, reminding you to hurry and shop for time is a wasting. Then there are the churches with their cantatas and choral societies with their concerts tugging at your time. Let’s not forget schools as well have their schedules of winter concerts to attend. On top of all the noise of musical offerings filling up the Christmas airwaves, there is the chatter of all the Christmas parties, both work and family, edging out any opportunity for a moment of holy silence.

And yet my time at the little white church there was always the beauty of the holy silences of Christmas all around me that I treasured.

There was the holy silence in the early morning walk to the chicken coop to say good morning to Drumstick, BBQ, Red, Chick, Sam and Fido. Don’t ask. The kids at the church named my chickens for me.

There was something so healing to my soul to greet my feathered friends and give them fresh water and then peek inside the coop to see what gifts they had waiting for me.

In that quiet moment, all anxious thoughts as to what to preach Christmas Eve melted away into a peaceful assurance that the words would indeed come.

While the coop was a ways from the house and not equipped with any electric, thus, my daily routine of chipping out the ice in their water dish and replenishing it with fresh water, I never minded the walk even in many feet of snow to trudge through.

When I was done tending to them, I would turn back towards the house only to notice how beautifully the sun was coming up over the field. Many times I would find myself standing there in the snow besides the coop not believing God had actually given me this life.

There I stood in holy silence, interrupted only by an occasional cluck, cluck from Drumstick—or Fido—they both sounded the same. There I stood allowing the holy silence to fill my heart with a song of never-ending praise that began my day in the most perfect way.

There was also the holy silence of the season of just sitting on the back porch in the late afternoon before dinner was ready and then heading out to my nighttime commitments at the church.

I would sit on the porch swing and look up at the tree line on the hills of the property. As the sun was setting its beams would peek through the bare trees in such a way that it always formed the image of a cross.

I tried as often as I could to make sure I was sitting on the porch swing at just the right time so I could be blessed by the sun’s gift of an illumined cross appearing, reminding me once again, the best gifts are not from a store. The best gifts are the ones God gives to us that are all around us.

I would swing gently back and forth. No Christmas music, no chatter, not even the sound of car going by…just a sweet stillness and a cross to mediate on.

And then there was my most favorite holy silence. The one that came on Christmas Eve when I would enter into the sanctuary of the little white church yet to be filled with holiday worshippers. With only the light of the setting sun coming through the multi-paned clear windows, I would stop and stare at the beauty of a heavenly warmth washing over the sanctuary’s colonial décor of cheerful yellow walls and wooden pews painted white.

The strong smell of evergreen wafted in the room as there was always a big tree given to the church by a local farm. The holy silence of an empty sanctuary before the doors would open for Christmas Eve worship was for me my time of worship. My time to be still before God and to receive the gift of His blessed presence.

Holy silences are important in our lives. They are especially important at Christmastime for it is in the quiet moments when we finally stop “doing” Christmas that we actual begin to experience Christ with us. And that’s what Christmas is really all about.

And yet we feel there is still have so much to do to make Christmas what we think it should be. Here’s a gentle reality check if your Christmas list still has many items yet to be crossed off.

Jesus came that Christmas so long ago into a world that was not quite ready for him. Mary and Joseph were making a road trip to Bethlehem, thinking they probably would have time to get that darn census taking care of before Mary gave birth. But the baby came before Mary and Joseph were ready. There was no room at the inn. There weren’t any baby clothes or blankets or crib waiting. It’s safe to say there were items left undone on Mary’s list at that first Christmas.

And besides a heavenly host of angels and some shepherds swinging by to see baby Jesus, the world didn’t really do anything extraordinary for our Savior’s birth. Jesus came into a world that was simply going about its business.

We need to remember the lesson in that. So often we look for God in the extraordinary moments of life when in fact God is right there in all the mundane routines—and unfinished tasks—of life. And sometimes the best realization of Emmanuel, God with us, happens when we simply stop running around and allow the holy silences to speak to us.

As the Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” sings “how silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given” we are reminded the wondrous gift is still given in the silences we need to either seek or carve out in a busy, loud world.

So if you are looking to create a magical Christmas, start with the holy silences.

I am enjoying one right now as I sit here and type and listen to nothing but a soft snore coming from my bumbling Bernese Mountain dog, Sofie, who is sleeping in the glow of nothing but the Christmas tree lights on in my living room.

I know this holy silence will not last. I have things on my Christmas list still to check off, but I am not going to stress over it. For now I have been given the gift of God’s presence and in this, my holy silence, I whisper my thank you to God.

The countdown to Christmas has begun and with it comes a flurry of last minute items to attend to, but try to make it a priority to create or find some holy silences.

For while the wondrous gift is given in silence, it is also in the holy silences the wondrous gift is truly received.

 

 

Day 18—Wide Eyes and Wonderment

A Little White Church Advent

Come on an Advent journey and walk the rural roads and snow covered paths with Donna Frischknecht as she shares stories of God’s promises being fulfilled in the most amazing ways. These stories of “Emmanuel”—God with us—were gathered during her time serving as minister in a historic white clapboard church in upstate New York, right on the border of Vermont, from 2007-2013.

December 18

“How many children do you expect will be at the caroling dinner?” my mom asked, not once, not twice, but a number of times throughout our phone call.

“I’m not sure,” I answered, not once, not twice, but a number of times. I tried not to show my agitation, but I really wasn’t planning on the little white church’s caroling dinner to be a big production. I had envisioned just a low-key night together to share a favorite casserole or dessert and sing some Christmas songs. All I wanted was a simple night of holiday togetherness.

And so the conversation with my mom went as such:

Me:      Why do you want to know how many kids will be at the caroling dinner?

Mom:  Your father just bought a Santa suit.

Me:      What?!

Mom:  You heard me correctly. A Santa suit, and I have to say, he makes a convincing Santa.

Me:      Where does dad plan on wearing this Santa suit?

Mom:  At the caroling dinner.

Me:      What?! (My parents lived more than three hours away from the little white church and so to drive all that distance for some potluck cuisine and off-key singing was dismaying.)

Mom:  We want to surprise the children with a visit from Santa.

Me:      What?!

Mom:  And Santa has to have gifts in his big old sack.

Me:      (Stunned silence on the phone.)

Mom:  So…how many boys do you expect? How many girls? Oh, and can you give me an idea of the age range, so I can get gifts they will like.

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My dad getting ready in my office the year he played Santa for the children at the little white church.

The little white church’s caroling dinner was turning into a big production. Still, even though I had more on my plate to plan, I couldn’t begrudge my parents the delight they were getting from being part of the Christmas celebrations at a church, while quite a distance away from them, was fast-becoming their family of faith. There was no denying, too, my mom sounded really excited to be buying gifts for what would be a handful of children.

Perhaps it was because there were no grandchildren in our family that made my mom interested in showering the children at the church with gifts. I had always wrestled with God as to why I never had the opportunity to have children of my own. Now, though, as pastor of the little white church, I was blessed with many children to love and nurture in the faith. Slowly I processed the pain in my own life and realized the healing and wholeness of God’s plan for my life.

The night of the caroling dinner came and it was turning out to be a beautiful, low-key night, in spite of the extra Santa event that was to take place.

The casseroles came in and were set out. Folks gathered around the table. I said a blessing over the food. Bread was broken. Laughs were shared. And throughout the night, as my mom and dad sat at the table smiling with the secret they had for the children, I kept saying to the kids, “Do you hear that?”

They would all get quiet trying to hear what I was hearing.

“Do you hear it?” I asked again. They all began to squeal, “What, Pastor Donna?”

“Bells. I hear reindeer bells. I think Santa is in our village tonight,” I said.

The older kids gave me “are you kidding me?” looks, while the younger children’s eyes grew wide with excitement and awe. One little boy in particular seemed very intrigued with these mysterious reindeer bells only I was hearing.

All throughout the dinner I would interrupt the children’s chatter and laughter with an impromptu, “Do you hear it? I just heard the bells again!”

Older kids’ eyes rolled growing tired of the “joke.” But little eyes grew wider and wider.

It was time for me to gather the children and begin reading the nativity story. That was my father’s cue to sneak out the chapel door and go outside to the sanctuary door that I had unlocked for him. He would have to walk through the cold and dark sanctuary to get to my office, which sat off the side of chancel. My dad, once transformed as Santa, would then go back outside and jingle the bells he had with him. That would be my cue to say to the children once again, “Do you hear that? I hear reindeer bells. I think Santa’s here.”

The Santa plan went perfectly. At the end of our discussion about the holy night in which Jesus was born, the soft jingle of bells could be heard approaching the chapel door.

“Do you hear that?” I said.

The kids heard, but instead of jumping and running to the door, they looked stunned. I wasn’t expecting that look.

The door burst open and in came my father, um, I mean, in came Santa with his “ho-ho-ho” said in an accent revealing perhaps Santa was from Switzerland and not the North Pole after all.

As the kids clamored around Santa, I noticed once again that one little boy who throughout the night seemed particularly in awe by the prospect Santa might be close by. By now, he was in an extreme state of excitement that he couldn’t even talk. He kept staring at Santa and waving his hands excitedly. And his eyes? They were the widest I have ever seen and they shone with joy beyond joy.

I was mesmerized by his reaction to the point I almost began crying. I could relate to his excitement for I remember a time years ago early in my call to ministry that many times I was left speechless and in awe by how God was working in my life. Many times my eyes would grow wider and wider and shone with joy beyond joy with the God moments happening right in front of me. I looked at the little boy and I looked at the children surrounding Santa and prayed that someday they would have their own wide-eye, joy-beyond-joy God moments.

For now, though, it was clearly a Santa moment and I had to quickly jump in and play Santa’s helper as some of the children were picking up on Santa’s accent and beginning to question where in the North Pole Santa really came from?

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Santa and Pastor handing out the gifts at the caroling dinner.

“Santa, let me do some of the talking,” I said to my dad with big smile.

Together we helped hand out the gifts and as I did so I looked up to see my mom at the table, her eyes were wide as well, wide with love and joy and glistening a bit with perhaps a tear or two as she watched the excitement of the children getting their gifts.

Santa soon had to leave and the children said good-bye, not one of them noticing that my dad was not at the table all this time. It was time to sing carols and perhaps it was just my imagination, but the songs seemed to be sung with more meaning and emotion.

When the last dish was cleaned and the lights of the chapel went out, I walked my parents to their car for their long drive back to New Jersey. In the snow covered parking lot, I thanked them both for the gift they gave the children that night. I thanked them for the gift they gave me, the gift of being such supportive parents, willing to go out of their way to make this a memorable night for the children.

We talked a bit more not really wanting to say good-bye, but it was getting late and it was very cold. So with a hug and a kiss, we parted ways.

“This is Christmas,” I thought as I drove home. The magic in the air, the giving freely of our time to the children, the generous spirit to buy all those gifts, but most of all, the remembering we should always keep our ears attuned not to reindeer bells in the crisp winter air, but to a more beautiful sound that is always there.

We should be listening to God’s whisper of love to us—a love, if we are open to it, will make our eyes grow wider and wider with wonderment and fill us with joy beyond joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 17—Mason Jar Gifts

A Little White Church Advent

Come on an Advent journey and walk the rural roads and snow covered paths with Donna Frischknecht as she shares stories of God’s promises being fulfilled in the most amazing ways. These stories of “Emmanuel”—God with us—were gathered during her time serving as minister in a historic white clapboard church in upstate New York, right on the border of Vermont, from 2007-2013.

December 17

I had just settled into my old colonial Saltbox and, in a few days, I would be celebrating my first Christmas Eve service at the little white church. I couldn’t wait to see the luminaries leading up to its wreathed-covered doors, to deliver the message of hope entering in to the world and to see the 18th century sanctuary washed in candlelight as I sang “Silent Night” with all those gathered.

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In just a few days, Christmas would be here.

For now, though, I had a rare night to myself and so I decided to turn on my little TV. That wasn’t as easy as it sounded because to get good reception (I just didn’t want pay for a satellite dish or cable), I had to position the TV in a certain angle in front of the window in the living room facing the east cornfield, and so on and so on.

After playing with the rabbit ears on the TV, I managed to get my one and only station. It seemed my rare night to myself would be spent watching the 1964 Christmas classic of my childhood, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”

I settled into the pile of comforters on the wide plank floor that served as my only place to sit as I had yet to figure out what kind of couch to buy that would fit through the narrow front door of the old house. The sofa I moved with now called the garage home. I wrapped the comforters around me as if I was in a cocoon and began watching. I was half amused and half sentimental when the snowman a.k.a. Burl Ives, who was narrating the story of this special little reindeer, began singing “Silver and Gold.”

Silver and gold, silver and gold, everyone wishes for silver and gold…

All of a sudden I was transported back in time when I would have easily agreed with the singing snowman. Everyone wishes for silver and gold, don’t they? I know I did.

I was a young editor in Manhattan and for me there was no better place to be at Christmastime than in the city. The season was ushered in with grand style. There was the giant snowflake hanging above the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. There was the Christmas tree in Harry Winston strung with garland made of precious jewels. There was the big tree in Rockefeller Center, which I always thought looked smaller in person than it did on TV. There was the iconic red bow wrapped around Cartier’s façade, while just a few blocks up the avenue Tiffany’s famous window displays dazzled all those passing by.

I’ll admit it. Upon first seeing Tiffany’s windows, I had an Audrey Hepburn moment, finding myself gazing longingly at the windows just as her Holly Golightly character did in the opening of the movie, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Not only were there silver and gold displays on the avenues of the city. There were many a silver and gold trinket making their way across my desk. As an editor of a jewelry magazine this was a time of year when the public relations departments of top designers, jewelry associations and major retailers, made sure we editors were on their gift giving list.

The typically annoying squeak of the mail cart coming down the hall to my office became music to my ears as I wondered what would be dropped on desk today.

Silver and gold, silver and gold, everyone wishes for silver and gold.

Ooh, what beautiful little gold star earrings. They are going to be perfect to wear on Christmas Day.

Silver and gold, silver and gold…

This silver pendant is going to look so cute with that dress I just bought.

Silver and gold, silver and gold…

And so went my Christmas season as I rushed home with my packages and placed them underneath the pathetic little tree in my apartment that I had pay way too much for.

Burl Ives continued singing to me from the TV positioned in such a way by the window facing the east cornfield. I looked over at my not so pathetic Christmas tree that did not come with an outrageous Manhattan price. Trees were definitely more reasonably priced here in “the country.”

Underneath the tree I realized I had something better than the silver and gold trinkets once given to me in another lifetime. There under the tree placed on top of an old quilt I used as a tree skirt, were precious gifts, shining and sparkling with love, all homemade from the hearts of those who wanted to say they were glad I was with them as their pastor.

There were mason jar gifts of a wide variety of homemade jams and pickles and chutneys. There were homemade chocolates wrapped in simple paper decorated with a jingle bell tied onto a string. There was homemade goat’s milk soap wrapped in burlap.

And, there was a decorative wooden plate hand painted by a member of the little white church with a Christmas scene that would come to life for me in just a few days. It was of the little white church nestled in snow with warm glowing light coming from its windows and opened doors as people made their way inside to worship Christ the newborn king.

I unwrapped myself out of my comforter cocoon and turned off the TV. Sorry, Burl Ives, but not everyone wishes for silver and gold. I have come to realize the thing we all wish for, whether we say it out loud or long for it quietly in our hearts, is to have the gift of love in our lives—a gift that comes wrapped in the most unassuming way, like burlap, paper, string…and, yes, even mason jars.

Come to think to of it, the greatest gift of love I have ever received came wrapped in swaddling clothes.

Didn’t it come to you that way, too?

 

 

 

 

 

Day 16—God Knows the Plan

A Little White Church Advent

Come on an Advent journey and walk the rural roads and snow covered paths with Donna Frischknecht as she shares stories of God’s promises being fulfilled in the most amazing ways. These stories of “Emmanuel”—God with us—were gathered during her time serving as minister in a historic white clapboard church in upstate New York, right on the border of Vermont, from 2007-2013.

December 16

Her life seemed to be one struggle after another, with never a moment to catch her breath and process all that was going on. Nagging health issues and mounting bills added to the stress of this newly single mom.

She had the faith of the most battle ready prayer warrior, but even such a warrior stands in the need of intercessions to God from time to time. She was now standing before me, in desperate need of prayer.

I had just come back from a pastoral visit that not only had me physically drained, but emotionally drained as well as I realized one of the saints of the little white church was soon to get his crown of gold. It’s hard being a pastor who falls in love with one’s church for love always comes with heartache.

With the recent visit on my mind I opened the door to the chapel that served as the main gathering hall for all our functions from chicken and biscuit dinners to vacation bible school to Bible studies to just simply hanging out sharing our stories of faith over one of my infamously high octane cups of coffee. Seriously, we’re talking strong coffee to the point I didn’t take offense when the dear souls who accepted a cup from me would go to the kitchen faucet and add a bit of tap water to temper it a bit.

While I was surprised to see her standing there, her eyes told me she was relieved and grateful to see me.

“Pastor Donna,” was all she could get out before sobbing. I had no idea what had happened, but managed to get bits and pieces from her in between the sobs. She had been very close to her breaking point but now the season of “be of good cheer” made her finally break.

“I can’t do it anymore. I just don’t understand why God is not showing me the way. Why, Pastor Donna, why isn’t God answering me?” she yelled with painful defeat in her voice.

Did I mention loving those in your church always breaks your heart? Well, my heart broke for this mother and I never felt so useless as in that moment when I stood there with her in the chapel not knowing how to answer her because from where I stood I had to agree with her. God just didn’t seem to be giving any answers.

I am not sure how it happened, but in an instant I took her hand and told her to come with me into the sanctuary for some time of prayer.

In retrospect, I like give credit to the Holy Spirit nudging me to do this because the Spirit just couldn’t stand watching me be useless any longer. So into the sanctuary we went.

The large room with its 18th century wooden pews that still had its period correct doors on each pew was frigid to the point you could see your breath crystalize in the air. The sanctuary was very expensive to heat in the winter and so the thermostat was kept on the lowest setting—basically “off.”

While it was extremely cold, we both went to the front of the church, by passing the pews, and opting for the simplicity of falling on our knees before God.

Once there, tears fell, sobs came and petitions were lifted to the highest of heaven. I prayed and cried for her heartache. She prayed and cried in return. Back and forth and back again, prayers were being said, when finally our two voices melded together into one prayer that was lifted to God.

I am not sure how long we stayed there on our knees praying but my toes were quite numb from the cold as were my fingers. Still, in spite of the cold, after we were done praying we continued to sit on the floor in a silence that made you realize there was something holy in the moment.

“God is answering you,” I finally whispered.

She simply nodded her head in agreement.

“You know, I have always held on to what God said to Jeremiah about knowing the plans He had for him. Plans for a future full of hope,” I said.

She simply nodded her head in agreement again.

“Did I ever tell you my Jeremiah moment?”

She shook her no.

“During seminary I hit rock bottom, just so frustrated with what seemed to be God giving me the cold shoulder.”

She turned to face me, clearly interested in what I had to say.

“Well, I had no idea how I was going to pay for seminary or keep on top of my mortgage payment. As if that wasn’t enough I was alone, no significant other, except my cat…” (I got her to laugh at that.)

“And,” I added, “I had no idea where I was going to wind up after I graduated seminary.”

I continued with my story telling her about how God wasn’t sharing one part of His plan for me. Or so it seemed. Then came the gift of a little white church. No, not the church she and I were sitting in the sanctuary of.

This white church was a Christmas present from my brother. It was my freshman year in seminary and my brother presented me a large box that had me a bit perplexed. I couldn’t even imagine what it was? Definitely not the standard gift card I had come to expect.

I ripped open the wrapping paper swirled with candy canes and snowmen and pushed aside the tissue paper to find inside a wooden New England style little white church. It was the most beautiful thing I had seen. My ooh’s and ah’s, though, didn’t relay what I was feeling in my heart. For as soon as I saw the little white church, I all of a sudden had this certainty that I was going to be okay. God was leading me even though I had no idea where I was going.

“That’s when I came across the Jeremiah passage about God knowing the plans He had for us, plans for a future full of hope,” I said, explaining how for the next three years of seminary I would mediate on that scripture daily while smiling and staring at the little white church that now sat on a drop leaf table in my living room.

Before I could continue on making the point that God had a plan of great hope for her future as well, she smiled and said, “And now you have your real little white church. Now you have us.”

For I know the plans I have for you.

Christmas is a time of year that can bring many of us to our breaking points. But it also a time of year to remember the silences of God are not what they seem for God is never silent.

God is always at work preparing for us a future full of hope. Sometimes that reminder comes in an impromptu prayer meeting on bended knees in a very frigid sanctuary. And sometimes that reminder comes in the way of a little wooden white church that filled me with unwarranted hope some three years before the actual little white church came into my life and filled me with hope realized.

Postscript

 A few months ago I received a letter from this woman telling me I was right about that Jeremiah passage. Her future, she is now seeing, is indeed God led and one full of hope. She also let me know that when she finally made the decision to join the little white church, when asked to share a scripture that reflected her faith journey, she shared with her faith family the one I shared with her years before:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a future filled with hope. Jeremiah 29:11

“I thought you would want to know that, Pastor Donna. Thank you,” she wrote.

I am glad to know.

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My little white church given to me by my brother as a Christmas present three years before receiving God’s Christmas present—a real little white church to serve in rural upstate New York.