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.
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.”
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.