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.
There I was in my office at the little white church just sitting at my desk, not being very productive. My mind was preoccupied with something silly really—something that happened earlier in my day that I just couldn’t let go of.
I was once again rushing out the door, something that never happened when I was an editor living in New York City. Back in my secular days, I was always organized and early for appointments, often leaving at least 30 minutes leeway in my schedule so I would not experience this frenzy of rushing about. With extra time to spare I would be able to enjoy some window-shopping or people watching on the busy sidewalks of Manhattan dressed in holiday cheer.
Now as an ordained minster of word and sacrament, it seemed as if I was always running late for something. I guess I was letting the old joke, “They can’t start without you pastor” go to my head.
“Someday they probably will start without me,” I mused.
Anyway, there I was rushing around to throw my laptop in my bag, an apple and a yogurt for lunch (I was trying to offset the abundance of Christmas sweets that were coming my way from all the wonderful cooks the little white church was blessed with), my large thermos of coffee and other papers to read and catch up on.
I had yet to put on my snow boots and so I ran about the house in my socks, which was not a good idea when your floors are 18th century pine boards with a downhill incline perfect if you wanted to do some indoor skiing. My foot slid on one particularly slick old plank that slanted in the direction the Christmas tree. Before I knew it I was sliding straight into it. Crash! On the floor it went, along with the ornaments.
I just didn’t have time for this catastrophe. I calmed my nerves and picked myself up off of the floor to assess the damage done. Not too bad, so I thought. Upon picking up the tree and setting it upright again, I noticed underneath it was a broken ornament that broke my heart.
It was the porcelain heart my boyfriend, John, gave to me the last Christmas we had together. Little did I know just two months into the New Year, he would be killed in a freak jeep accident in Africa.
“Nooooo,” my heart silently wailed. “Not this ornament.”
I didn’t have time to cry over a broken ornament so I just wrapped it up in a paper towel and threw it in my bag along with everything else, hoping to take a closer look at it later on to see if it was able to be repaired.
As I drove to church I kept saying to myself, “Don’t cry over an ornament. It’s just an ornament. It’s just a material thing. It’s not worth the tears. I don’t need an ornament to remember John.”
But now here I was at my desk feeling sad about the ornament I now held in my hand, which, upon closer look was broken beyond broken. The sharp shards of glass pricked my skin as I lovingly touch the pieces. I tried fighting back the tears but it was no use. They came.
“Why this ornament of all ornaments?” I wondered.
Just then a soft knock came at my door. I looked at the clock on my desk and noticed school was just let out and so I had an inkling who it was at my door.
The kids in the village I served often swung by on their way home from school to hang out with the pastor. They especially loved writing messages and drawing pictures on the dry erase board hanging on my wall. There was many a Sunday morning I would walk into my office to find the most beautiful message from the kids.
“Come in,” I said, quickly wiping away my tears.
Sure enough the “girls”—as I called them—came barreling in, talking a mile a minute and going straight for the markers to the dry erase board. Still holding on to the ornament, I joined in on the tween talk of the day about the latest song downloaded on their phones, what was served for lunch in the cafeteria and, can you believe who’s dating who? No way!
I noticed, though, one of the girls was uncharacteristically quiet. Typically bubbly, she sat in a chair not taking part in the dry erase board party going on. Before I could ask what was bothering her, she spoke.
“Pastor Donna, do you believe God can put together broken hearts?” she asked.
What a question to get as I literally held the pieces of a broken heart in my hand.
“Yes, I believe God can put together broke hearts,” I said, hoping to sound convincing in which, judging by the look she gave me, wasn’t convincing at all.
“The Bible tells us God binds up the brokenhearted,” I continued. “And Jesus himself said ‘blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’” I was drawing upon all the scripture I could think of right then and there.
Still this typically bubbly girl didn’t look convinced. I then asked why she asked such a question. All my years in seminary and my clinical pastoral education did not prepare me for what came next. A young cousin of hers was killed and she had recently gone to the funeral and she was struggling with that dreaded “why?” question adults can’t even make sense of, let alone a young girl.
With pieces of the ornament in my hand, I remembered something John once said about how it’s only when our hearts are broken can Christ enter in and do something beautiful in our lives. I had my answer for this girl with her own broken heart.
“Not only do I believe God can put together the pieces of our broken hearts, I know for a fact God WILL and, in the process, God will do amazing things. For the brokenness leaves room for Christ to enter in and make something beautiful,” I said.
I then opened my hand and showed her the ornament John gave me on what was our last Christmas together. I told her about John and my own loss. I told her about the ornament and how it broke that morning and how I knew it was silly of me to cry for our loved ones are always held safely in our hearts. I then reminded her that Christ, whose birth we celebrate, was born exactly for this—to give us hope in the midst of our sadness.
With her eyes still wet with tears for her cousin, she leaned forward to take a closer look at the ornament and its many broken pieces.
“Pastor Donna, that sure is a lot brokenness in your hand. Jesus is really going to enter into your life and do something amazing,” she said with what might have been the first smile she smiled that day.
She didn’t know how true her words were. Amazing things were to come. Amazing things will always come when there is room for Christ to work in our lives.
The girls soon left and as I went to leave as well I noticed the dry erase board message the other girls were working on. It read:
Jesus heals our broken hearts.
And now insert one huge smiley face, one very large heart and a few “xoxo’s” that went along with that message.