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.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Luke 2:13,14
The angel ornament had to be somewhere in one of the many boxes still needing to be unpacked, but which one? I looked at my watch. It was already 9:30 a.m. and my first cup of coffee was still sitting on my dining room table growing cold. Next to it was my lofty list of things to get done scribbled out on a piece of scrap paper I thankfully found in the bottom of my bag, for my note paper was also sitting in one of the many boxes needing to be unpacked.
I had only just moved to my new rural home. One week to be exact, and already I was in full pastor mode, trying to assimilate and adjust in what was perhaps the craziest time of year to assimilate and adjust—Christmas. On top of getting to know where the grocery store was—hint, more than a 15 minute drive—when choir met for rehearsal, where any of my congregants lived (because all their addresses in the church directory were post office boxes!), I was now called upon to walk with a family through the toughest walk we can ever make—the one through the valley of death.
“Pastor, you need to visit Judy. She is not good at all. She’s been fighting cancer. She’s now home. Hospice is there attending to her and her family. Pastor, you need to meet Judy. You need to see the family,” I was told after my first Sunday worship.
I was also told to expect a huge gathering for her funeral, which would be held at the church I was pastor of, for Judy, I learned was much loved in this rural village, an angel who shared her love for music with all. There didn’t seem to be one person in the village whom Judy did not touch.
So that Monday I went to Judy’s home, which was right across the street from the old white church. I am not going to lie. I was anxious. I was a new pastor and this was my first pastoral visit to a home in which I would be called upon to offer the peace and comfort of God’s promises: “even though I walk through the darkest valleys, you are with me, your rod and staff, they comfort me.”
I awkwardly introduced myself as “the new pastor” and tried to keep out of the way of the family scurrying about to make lunch, to administer meds, and to greet the stream of visitors coming to the home. I walked into the room where Judy was and gently sat down on the bed next to her.
“Hi, I’m the new pastor,” didn’t seem to be the appropriate thing to say and so when her eyes opened and she quizzically looked at me, I took her hand and said, “Judy, I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be meeting you. I have heard from many how you have touched their lives. You are an angel and I am so honored to be here with you.”
Her feeble hand gripped mine and she smiled and whispered, “It’s good to meet you, Pastor.”
One week into the job of pastor became two, and I had a lot going on. But “darn, I wish I could find that angel ornament” was all I could think about as I put on my coat to head into the village to visit Judy again and check on my messages in the church office. Perhaps, I could simply buy another ornament later that night when I made my run into the next town over for some much-needed groceries.
The ornament I was fixated on was going to be for the special Christmas tree Judy’s family was asking for the community to decorate as a gift for the much-loved music teacher. As soon as I heard this call out to the community for ornaments to decorate the tree, I thought of my angel ornament a dear friend gave to me years ago. It was special to me for it was an angel that sparkled on a sad-looking tree the year in which I was walking through one of those dark valleys myself.
It just seemed this had to be the ornament to place on Judy’s tree, to pass along the blessing it was to me, to make her know she had an angel watching over her. No, no other ornament would do. It had to be the angel. Now which box to look through first?
As life goes, I didn’t have time to find the angel that laid hidden in one of the many still to be unpacked boxes. Judy passed away in the early morning hours and soon I was immersed in planning my first funeral.
The day of the funeral came and, as informed, the white country church was standing room only. The 18th century balconies that had not felt the weight of so many people in many, many years, creaked and moaned, making those sitting under the balcony wonder if perhaps that was not a good pew to sit in.
More people crammed the narthex and even more huddled outside the church doors in hopes to at least hear part of the service.
I put on my clergy robe in my office and took a deep breath before walking in front of a sanctuary filled with grieving hearts. As sometimes it happens, a random thought entered my mind as I made my way into the sanctuary and it was of all things about the angel I couldn’t find that I had wanted so badly to be hanging on what was Judy’s last Christmas tree.
“Darn, I wish I had found that angel for Judy,” was my last thought before making my way to the lectern to greet the crowd gathered.
As I looked out at what was a sea of strangers who would soon become friends, I realized Judy didn’t need my ornament. She had something better. She had hundreds of angels gathered together who were there for her in life and who were now there for her—and for one another—in death.
There in the historic sanctuary, only week 2 in my new role as pastor, in a little rural village, just three days before Christmas, I saw something more dazzling than a heavenly host of angels. I saw a beautiful crowd of earthly angels—men, women and children—who knew something special that only I would come to know in my time serving this rural community. Angels are indeed all around. We just have to look into the hearts of one another to realize that.
I never did find my special angel ornament. Not sure what happened to it or how it got lost in my move to rural Upstate New York. But I would like to think that perhaps my little angel made its way onto the Christmas tree of someone who needed to know what I have come know. There is always someone watching over you. Always.