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.
… the word of God came to John, the son of Zachariah in the wilderness. And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John 3:2,3
It was Friday night and the little white church’s after school program, Faith Filled Fridays, was coming to a close. Kids coming down from their sugar highs found their backpacks in the mountainous pile of packs thrown on to the floor in the corner of the chapel. Stray mittens were matched to their rightful owners and one by one, little voice after little voice said, “Bye Pastor Donna. See ya next week!”
It was Friday night, but I could not go home yet. I was still hanging out with two teens as they waited for their moms to come to the church and pick them up. I tried not to appear eager to leave, but I was feeling anxious to lock up and hit the road for home. I had a very full weekend planned and a sermon still to write for Sunday.
So when one of the teens asked me what fun plans I had for later that night I surprised her when I said, “I have a sermon to write.”
“That doesn’t seem like fun at all,” the teen sneered.
“Well, sometimes it’s fun. And sometimes it’s not. It all depends if the words flow freely or not,” I said.
Knowing this teen was a good writer, I joked with her that perhaps she could write the sermon for me. For a second I thought I had piqued her interest as she straightened up her slumped-over-in-the-chair-body and asked, “What are you preaching on?”
“John,” I said.
“John who?” she asked.
“John the Baptist,” I said. “You know. John. Elizabeth’s son. Jesus’ cousin. He wore camel hair. Ate locusts.”
Crickets chirped and the teen stared blankly at me. It was then I realized how true it was that the word of God was not really known anymore. I went on to explain who John was. She looked at me and for a second I thought I was going to have a deep, engaging theological discussion with her when all of a sudden she jumped out of her chair and asked, “Can I play the piano?”
“Sure you can,” I said.
It was then I realized just how true it was that teens lacked focus. But a few minutes later, she sought me out in the kitchen where I was just straightening up a few odds and ends and she offered me some help with the sermon I had to write.
She said, “Just speak from the heart, Pastor Donna. If you do, I am sure it will be good.” As quickly as she came in, she left the kitchen and the sounds of the piano began again clanking out a tune that was no tune at all.
I stood there stunned. All my years at Princeton Theological learning (and slogging through) Greek and Hebrew to better understand the meaning of scripture to write a good sermon, all the focus on exegetical analysis in prepping for sermons…blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…and I get the best advice ever from a teen who didn’t even know who John the Baptist was.
Just speak from the heart.
She was right. The most effective sermons I have preached have been the ones that came from the heart. But the thing is speaking from the heart is not easy. It is frightening because when you speak from the heart you make your heart vulnerable. And so it is often easier to hide behind academic discourses or lofty words or findings and studies, for then, if someone disagrees or takes offense you can easily say, “Don’t shoot the messenger.”
“Just speak from your heart,” this teen said. I wondered at what point in her young life she would stop saying that? I wondered when she would begin to guard her heart from hurts of others and begin learning to choose her words more carefully? I wondered when her beautiful truth telling innocence would end? For speaking from the heart is a frightening thing, but for those who speak from the heart it is also beautiful and powerful and, ultimately, healing. For when words come from the heart they often shed light on hurts that have been hidden for far too long.
Just then I wondered what would have happened if John the Baptist guarded his heart and chose his words more carefully?
What about Mary? She spoke from the heart when she sang her beautiful response to God’s will for her life—to bear the Christ child. And what would it have been like if Jesus didn’t speak from his heart? We would have a gospel that was empty and ineffective. Wait…isn’t that happening now?
The clanking of the piano stopped. I heard the voices of the mothers who had arrived to get their daughters.
Faith Filled Fridays was finally over, but my Friday night of faith was just beginning. I had a sermon to write. No. Let me correct myself. I had some speaking from the heart to do.
In this season of Advent when we hear from John, from Mary, from the angels, from the shepherds, may we remember just as they spoke from their hearts, we need to do likewise. May we all find ourselves in that place of beautiful vulnerability where we speak freely from our hearts what God has done, what God can do and what God is doing among us.