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.
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.