A message from March 13, 2020.
A message from March 13, 2020.
I couldn’t get out of bed this morning. It wasn’t because I was just so comfortable that I wanted to remain put a bit longer. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to disturb my two cats who found their way upstairs and decided to purr contently in the mess of blankets that I burrowed into more deeply on this chilly spring morning. It wasn’t because I really needed the extra rest. It wasn’t any of this.
I couldn’t get out of bed this morning because I was scared of the news this day would bring. I was feeling helpless that I couldn’t do anything for others in this time of pandemic, except isolate myself from them. And, I was feeling a deep mourning that I never expected to feel. I was mourning the loss of my creativity.
Since the virus known as COVID-19 entered our lives, I have not been able to concentrate on reading, praying and worst of all, writing. And I feel lost. Words have always been my closet friends — there for me when I grieved, when I rejoiced, when I needed to vent, when I needed to speak up for justice, to get a point across or to comfort others. But now my “friends” have decided to social distance themselves from me.
This should be my moment to shine, shouldn’t it? To be a voice of hope and faith — of certainty in God’s goodness — in this time of uncertainty. It has been said that during times of crisis in history — even plagues— that great literary works have been written and songs composed. Artists were changed by the crisis — moved, touched and ultimately inspired.
Take for example, William Shakespeare.
At the end of the 16th century, a plague forced the closing of all theaters in London, similar to the lights currently going black on New York’s Broadway. Not being able to produce plays, Shakespeare turned to poetry. When theaters reopened, Shakespeare was back to writing his plays. But in the summer of 1606, at the very height of a successful theatrical season that included productions of King Lear and Macbeth, the flag was lowered at the Globe theater. The doors were locked. London was locking down as the plague had returned. It was a devastating time of uncertainty — and of death. Yet, Shakespeare biographers purport that this time shaped the future writings of this great literary genius in amazing ways. The death, the devastation, the darkness deepened his views of the world around him, added richness to his words.
I wonder, is this our time to be changed — to go deeper than we have ever gone before in how we understand the world, humanity, life, love and death? Is this time of social uprooting due to a virus named COVID-19 not just a temporary inconvenience, but a time to plant new roots in richer soil? To not be afraid to change direction and to go from plays to poetry; from traditional Sunday worship to video devotionals; to go from what we thought we should do to what we always dreamt of doing?
Could it be that our change in our daily routines — not being able to go to the office, or the gym or church as we once did — is pointing us to a new life that is less busy and less stressed?
Is this the much needed, and long overdue, moment to have our priorities called into question? Did we get fooled into a sense of security because our financial portfolios were doing well? Did we really understand the problems in our society what were kept in the shadows of our own contentment, our own needs, our own wants?
Perhaps this is our Shakespeare moment in which we have been invited to finally see the world for what it is — broken, hurting and unjust for many. Perhaps this is our Shakespeare moment not necessarily to have our creativity soar to new heights so that our words and ideas take centerstage for worldly accolades, but to step back and allow death, devastation and darkness the opportunity to deepen our worldview, our faith, our lives — no matter how painful or uncomfortable that will be.
Perhaps this is our Shakespeare moment in which when this crisis passes — and it will — a new richness will bless our lives. Richness beyond material things. Richness of resiliency. Richness of rest. Richness of rejoicing. Richness that comes when we lean fearlessly into the words spoken at the start of the Lenten season that from dust we come and to dust we return.
I couldn’t get out of bed this morning. I was feeling overwhelmed. My inner Shakespeare just didn’t want to pick up the quill to write. And that’s okay. This is not a time to shine. This is a time to ponder, a time to pray, a time to prepare for the great works that are to come from a crisis that is changing my heart — and yours.
Donna Frischknecht is editor of Presbyterians Today magazine. She is also a part-time rural pastor serving a congregation in upstate New York on the border of Vermont.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley … you are with me. — Psalm 23
It is Lent and I have found myself walking in one of the darkest valleys one can walk — the valley of death.
My journey started three days before Ash Wednesday, that day on the calendar in which ashes made from last year’s palms, burnt and crushed, are smudged into the shape of a cross on the foreheads of the faithful as the words “from dust we come, to dust we return” are spoken.
As a pastor, I have noticed Ash Wednesday worship attendance tends to be low. Perhaps it’s because of the somber message that life isn’t infinite that keeps people from packing the pews. I mean, really, who wants to hear such news?
I believe, though, that we need to be reminded that there is an expiration date so that we can live our days, hopefully, in a better way. Live our days filled with more grace, more love and more patience. But especially filled with what I call “one mores.”
One more hug. One more kiss. One more “I love you.” One more of all the good things that bring joy into the world.
In the case of my 10-year-old bumbling Bernese Mountain dog, Sofie, those “one mores” were one more scoop of vanilla ice cream, one more tummy rub on her chubby, jiggly belly, and one more snuggle on the wonky quilt I made years ago that would become her favorite blanket.
One more …
“God give me the strength to get through tonight.”
That was my fervent prayer to God as I tried to remain compose as I smudged blob-like ash crosses and talked about returning to dust to those who came for Ash Wednesday worship at the little country church I serve. But each time my thumb dipped into the ashes, I thought of the insidious lump that appeared suddenly on Sofie’s hind leg. I could hear the vet’s grim diagnosis. Cancer. Aggressive.
“How much time will I have with her?” I asked. The vet couldn’t say.
And so, it began. The walk through the darkest of valleys, with me by Sofie’s side filling her limited days with “one mores.”
Her days were filled with vanilla ice cream. Lots of it. My husband worried it was too much, which sounded foreign to me. Is there such a thing as too much ice cream?
There were plenty of tummy rubs as well, and snuggles on the quilt. There was, however, one more “one more” I wanted for Sofie.
“Please God, one more snowfall.” She was a mountain dog, after all, tracing her lineage back to the Swiss Alps. (And no, I did not do a DNA test on her, even though, there are now ancestry kits for pets.)
Three weeks into her diagnosis, on the first day of spring, I looked into Sofie’s gentle brown eyes. I had to break the news to her that it looked like she wasn’t going to get another snowfall.
“Sof,” as I often called her, “we’ll have to deal with mud season. Sorry, pup.”
She stared back at me. Her gentle brown eyes were sorrowful. I held her tightly and cried. She wasn’t bothered by the lack of snow. She was telling me it was time for her to go.
One more scoop of ice cream. One more rub of the tummy. One more snuggle on the quilt before packing it — and Sofie — into to the car and on to the vet.
“I am not surprised to see Sofie,” the vet said as she came into the exam room. Her eyes welled up with tears. “I had a dream about her last night.”
Any doubt or hesitation that I was doing the right thing for Sofie evaporated and was replaced with a sense of peace. The vet’s dream was to me a God moment, that holy split second when you suddenly become so aware of God’s presence that you crumple on your knees in awe and humble praise. And with that, I crumpled onto the floor by Sofie who was already curled up on her quilt.
One more stretch of road to walk on in this dark valley with my dear friend. Only this time, I would have to part with her. I would have to trust God, let go of her paw and allow her to journey on to her forever home.
One more hug. One more kiss. One last “I love you.”
What would life be like if we lived each day showering those we love with “one mores”? What would happen if we stopped worrying about one more deadline, one project, one more bill to pay? How brighter would our days be if we made “one mores” a priority? One more meal with friends. One more phone call to aging parents.
It’s snowing today — in spring. Not unusual for Vermont. But still. It’s snowing on what is the first day I face without my bumbling Bernese Mountain dog by my side.
I prayed for snow, and here it is. A day late.
Or is it?
It is one more snowfall coming from the heavens. It is Sofie’s “one more” gift to me, letting me know she’s happy. She’s whole. She’s dancing with the angels in the snow I had wanted for her. And each wet flake falling on my face is her lick of love, wiping away my tears.
May these days in Lent — and beyond — be filled with many “one mores” and then some.
Have you ever failed at something? Made a mistake? Messed up a project?
Of course you have. You’re only human. That’s why I loved yesterday’s scripture from Mark where Jesus returns to his hometown to preach only to find that he isn’t warmly welcomed. On the surface you can say that he was a big flop.
Soon after the synagogue debacle, though, we don’t see Jesus rethinking his life’s call, giving up on the mission of radical love and welcome. Rather, we see him move forward. This time, sending out his friends, two by two, to go to the towns and stay in homes to share the good news. And knowing that sometimes life brings rejection, he tells his friends, don’t let it get you down. You have something to offer. You have been called to do a job. You are part of God’s bigger plan. Just shake off the dust from your sandals and move on. There’s no time to waste; there are others to reach.
There really isn’t time to waste wallowing in our failure or rejection, for when something doesn’t go the way we had hoped or we don’t the results of our labor, it isn’t the end of the world. In fact, it could be God’s way of redirecting us — for example, those in the synagogue won’t receive you, then go out to those in the streets.
I have a chicken coop I’ve been trying to build for a year now. My father began the project last summer, but it was put on hold in the fall because of my indecisiveness as to how to side the walls. I wanted weathered barn boards, but they are wicked expensive to buy and I haven’t come across any old barns that have fallen down lately.
During this time of searching for siding alternatives, two major windstorms blew the coop over. By the second storm, I felt crushed thinking I would probably have to give up on the dream of having chickens. I really thought about dismantling the structure, but something urged me on. Once again, I cajoled my husband into helping me hoist the sad looking coop upright. And there it sits.
Somedays I stare out the kitchen window at this “failure” and I get down about it. Other days, though, I see these delays in finishing the coop as blessings because the reality is I don’t have time to tend to chickens. The failed chicken coop is starting to look more like a rustic shed for my garden tools.
I have always joked in my life that if Plan A doesn’t work, I am okay because there was a Plan B, a Plan C, a Plan D. I vowed I would never fret until I got to Plan Z. Why? Because I have learned that God has a beautiful way of guiding us. All the times I thought I have failed, I actually found myself stepping onto a new and better path.
And here’s the other thing with “failure.” It really isn’t what it seems to be because God sees things differently. God, who is a redemptive God, can take a mess and bless it.
I overheard a conversation on a shuttle bus to the airport recently. A woman asked a man sitting next to her what he did for a living. He led Christian retreats at a conference center. The woman was excited because she had attended that center years ago. She then went on to tell how one speaker she heard changed her life forever. It led her to give her life to Christ, to go into Christian publishing to spread the good news and, subsequently, because of the path she was now on, her sister was so inspired that she became a missionary. The woman was quiet after sharing the story and then said, “Now that I think about it, that retreat saved me.”
I was startled when I saw the man getting teary-eyed and wondered what was going on? I soon found out as he replied, “I led that retreat and I thought it was the biggest failure of my life. I was so depressed afterwards and found myself rethinking everything.”
A failure isn’t a failure — with God. Just take a look at Jesus. It seemed to everyone — even his friends — that his ministry failed that day he was nailed to the cross. But it didn’t. It was just starting.
So the next time you think you really screwed up or feel you are a hopeless cause or start believing you have no worth at all in this world, think again. God sees things differently. God sees blessings in messes. God brings holy successes out of our human failures.
Now, shake off the dust. You have a beautiful life to live — and I have a chicken coop, um, I mean garden shed, to finish.
As a pastor, I find myself pondering yesterday’s sermon on what is supposed to be my sabbath — Monday. The sabbath rest never seems to come as there’s always something needing to be done, among them, planning for next Sunday’s worship.
But before I can even be opened to what God is preparing me to say, I need to stop replaying yesterday’s sermon in my head. Yes, I do that.
I have a pastor friend who once told me after said she preaches, it is completely out of her mind. She doesn’t fixate on the perfect quote she wanted to share that she left out. She doesn’t harp on the words she tripped over or the moment she lost her train of thought. She doesn’t even replay the rare and glorious moment when the most heavenly prose comes from her mouth. She prepares. She prays. She proclaims. And when it’s over, she proceeds to her much-need Sunday afternoon nap. By Monday, she is ready to move on.
Ah, to be like her. But I am not. So I invite you to join me for today’s “after Sunday” thought that has been on my mind. Here it is:
While preaching on the woman who pushed through the crowds to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe in order to be made whole, I got to thinking.
We are all that woman in the crowd, aren’t we? We all want to be healed of something, be it physical or emotional. We want to have hope for tomorrow. We want to stop feeling defeated, left out or unloved.
Yes, I’m in the crowd trying to hold on to a faith that urges me on with a beautiful realization that even if I am able to touch just a thread of Jesus’ hem, that would sufficient. I don’t need the whole hem.
I’m in the crowd. You’re in the crowd. So are your friends. And the one you love to hate. She’s next to the one who betrayed you.
The immigrant is there, too, holding the hand of a child who is crying. Both are scared. It’s an uncertain future, who wouldn’t be crying? Yet, there is a thread of a holy hem to touch. It’s so close. Reach. Stretch. Do whatever you can to get to it, but please don’t give up.
The person who doesn’t look like you, yep, he is standing right next to you in the crowd. Don’t sigh and get annoyed. He has every right to be there. The one who doesn’t speak English is pressing in as well. The gay, the lesbian, the transgender — they are all there with that woman Scripture tells us about. The woman society deems not worthy of being called by name. The woman Jesus sees as worthy and, as such, claims her name. “Daughter.”
So since we are all in that crowd reaching for the holy hem, let us not trip one another up. Let us not shove one another aside because we think them not worthy. Let us not elbow the other out of the way, because we want Jesus all to ourselves.
Rather, let us lock arms with one another and push toward a better life — a beloved community — together. For there is enough grace, love, help, support, healing — there’s enough Jesus — for all.
Life has been busy for this Accidental Country Pastor. Preaching and pastoring at the “little white church” in a rural upstate New York village — and now, in addition to that church, moderating and preaching once a month in a little country church in Poultney, Vermont.
But I have been missing you — and everyday I think of you and so badly want to reconnect and share with you the adventures of being surprised by those beautiful God moments that happen each and everyday. Beautiful God moments that I see in the setting sun over Sofie’s Hill here in my home in Vermont. Beautiful God moments in the song of praise that reaches my ear in the way of my neighbor’s cows mooing. Beautiful God moments I experience in the fears and tears — and joys and hope — in congregations that are small in number but great in Spirit. God moments I treasure as I work in the church at large as editor of my denomination’s magazine, realizing that while we tend to complain a lot about things not being what they once were, God is indeed leading us to the what can be. God moments like the one I just had at a writer’s conference I was speaking at in New Jersey at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, where I was reminded once again that the gifts God gives to us need to be used. And so, I’ve missed you and I’ve missed sharing God with you through my writings.
So for now, as I work on this Sunday’s sermon and edit stories for the magazine (not to mention the weeds that need pulling in my little 18th century-inspired herb and flower garden and the chicken coop that still needs to be finished!), I share with you my recent editorial that ran in Presbyterians Today magazine.
Simply click here:
Until the next God moment…remember to take a look around and see the beauty of God that is right before you. For God is always there with you. Always.
The sanctuary was mostly quiet. Every now and then a hum, rattle and swoosh from the ancient heating system would interrupt the stillness. It was a welcomed noise as I was trying hard to keep the cavernous room at a toasty 60 degrees. After all, I didn’t want to sit all day with my coat and mittens on.
The “little white church” as locals fondly call us, was doing something different for Ash Wednesday. Rather than hold a worship service in the evening that hardly anyone would come to — in my time there as pastor, the Ash Wednesday service has boasted anywhere from a whopping six people to an unprecedented 28, and those numbers were with a combined service with sister churches — we were inviting people to drop in throughout the day.
We created an art gallery in the sanctuary and encouraged people to pray with the art before making their way to the front of the sanctuary where I waited with a blackened thumb ready once again to dip into the ash and proclaim the sobering reminder, “From dust we come, to dust we shall return.”
The people came — more than 28 — and I did my part, making the sign of the cross on foreheads that ranged from smooth and worry free to wrinkled and creased with burdens.
From dust we come, to dust we shall return.
There was a lull mid-afternoon and out of the corner of my eye I noticed the big yellow school buses rambling down the road. School was out. I would only have to sit in the sanctuary for a few more hours. It would be nice to get home to a hot bowl of soup and cuddle on the couch with my big old Bernese Mountain dog.
Just then I heard the creaking of the old floors. I didn’t to turn to look when people entered the holy silence, for I didn’t want to break the prayerfulness they were trying to embrace. And so, I would listen to the footsteps to see how close they were to me, so that I could stand up and take my place with the ashes.
The footsteps didn’t linger at any of the pictures. Rather they came quickly to where I sat. I was surprised when a teenaged girl dropped down next to me. She looked upset and there were tears beginning flow. I guess the blank look on my face gave it away that I had no idea what was happening beyond the peacefulness of the sanctuary walls.
“What kind of world do I have to live in?” she asked angrily.
In a way, I wish I didn’t ask what she was talking about for the words that came next filled me with anger and grief as well.
“There was another school shooting. This time in Florida. It is horrible. I am afraid,” she sobbed.
Sadly, I wasn’t shocked by the news she told me.
“There’s been a school shooting” has become an all-too familiar phrase, leaving many numb and worse yet, just accepting this as the new reality in which we live in.
I also knew what would next in my rural community. The heated debate on social media with those yelling that guns don’t kill —people do — and those yelling back that we need more gun control.
I also knew as a pastor of a rural community that I had to find a way to bridge these debates. I had to find a way to speak in a community that cherishes their right to have guns.
I looked at the sobbing teenager knowing, like many of her friends, she had a gun. For rural teens, hunting is rite of passage. Pictures of deer and bear they snag always appear on Facebook. And with the spring thaw, turkey season will bring a bunch of new social media posts.
Where will the two divides of anti-gun and pro-gun meet? For the debates are not stopping the killings.
I searched my heart for something pastoral to say to the sobbing teenager sitting next to me. I searched for words of hope to overcome fear. I searched to find a magical way to take away this girl’s brokenness. I searched, but came up empty.
I looked down at my sooty fingers that have been making crosses on foreheads all day and realized there was nothing I could say. I am not God. But God did send us a Savior, to be with us in times like these. To hold us when we are fainting and to comfort us when we are grieving.
God sent us a Savior who reminded us as he went to the cross, that this life is painful and not fair at times. But just when all seems lost, we are given hope. God defeated death. It doesn’t have the last word.
I looked down at my sooty fingers. With my tears joining her tears, I took her hand and with the ash made a sign of the cross on her palm.
From dust we are, to dust we shall return.
I then added, “And God is with us always.”
She closed her hand tightly, holding dearly to the promise of the cross now in her possession.
We did something different for Ash Wednesday. We opened the church for people to drop in when they wanted to throughout the day. Who knew that one broken teenager would seek the solace of the “little white church” in her time of grief?
God knew. And God knows how broken we all are. The question is, what will we do with that brokenness? And when will we go beyond just “thoughts and prayers?”
When will we understand that this life of faith calls for us to live out the faith, to find our voices to speak up and seek change.
To dust we shall return.
But before we do, God has work for us to do. Work in creating a better world for our children to live in. May our prayers be ones in which we ask God to lead us into action, to find ways to listen, understand and move forward in stopping the senseless violence.
So many families are disappointed that the snow has prevented loved ones from spending Christmas together. I admit, I am feeling a bit down in the dumps that my husband and I won’t be heading out to see my parents and brother. The roads are pretty bad…
Disappointment. It’s something we don’t like to talk about on Christmas Day, but it is often there lurking in a room filled with smiles and laughter. Children get disappointed if Santa forgot a toy on their list. We pastors get disappointed weather impacts our carefully planned worship services. Adults get disappointed if…well, I think we adults can finish that sentence in many ways.
And now this Christmas Day, Santa has delivered a big dose of disappointment for many…snow falling steadily and piling up quickly, leaving many to make those calls to loved ones, “I’m sorry, but we won’t be seeing you today.”
It is disappointing, but I can’t help but to see the God moment in this Christmas Day storm. Perhaps the changed plans, the unexpected stillness and the forced “slow down” is God’s invitation for us to enjoy a different kind of celebration — a Christmas Day not based on what has always been or one that carries the heavy burden of expectations, but one that is as holy as that very first Christmas when Christ was born. That day was filled with the unexpected “disappointments” that really were beautiful blessings. I mean, really, Mary must have been a bit disappointed that she had to deliver her child in a stable.
The snow is still falling. Every so often I can hear it slide off the roof of our 18th century home. The snow pile against our front door is now 4 feet high. I can’t see Vermont’s lofty mountains from the kitchen window. They are hidden by a blanket of gray skies. I can’t even see my old stone well for which my little some-day farm is named after.
I can’t see much of anything. And that’s a good thing, I remind myself. For only God knows the plans God has for us. Faith in those God plans is trust game we must play. We need to see beyond the things we usually see or want to see, in order to truly see God.
That means this day, seeing beyond the disappointment of a Christmas Day snowstorm.
And so, I am loving the unexpected gift of peacefulness I unwrapped this morning as I stood outside feeling the gentle flakes fall on my face. I loved this gift so much I have yet to stop playing with it. In fact, the other gifts, the ones from a store, are still unopened under our Christmas tree. They can wait.
God’s gifts cannot.
The gift to see the world differently, the gift to let go of our expectations of what this day should be, the gift to let God’s healing love surround us in the guise of a snowstorm…these are the gifts to open.
My husband and I had just finished a seasonal tradition we have tried to honor in our marriage of enjoying a quiet Sunday dinner with only the candles around the Advent wreath lit. The dinner was one I looked forward to, especially after a busy morning in the church with the excitement and energy growing as Christmas drew nearer.
On the night’s menu was locally raised lamb from a friend’s farm, roasted to perfection, and green beans from my summer garden that I had successfully blanched and frozen. They tasted as fresh as the day I picked them. I was quite pleased with myself.
After the last dish was rinsed and put into the dishwasher, we settled in the living room in front of the Christmas tree, still without ornaments thanks to my lack of energy and motivation to “do” Christmas this year.
“I am going to keep it simple,” I said to my husband early in the season as I strewn the fireplace mantles with fresh pine garland — and nothing else.
I had only been sitting for less than a minute when my peaceful bliss of a silent night was interrupted. Off went the candles around the Advent wreath, then our only source of light in our 18th century home. On went the electric lights. Off went the beautiful stillness of a December night. On went the television.
I sat for a moment feeling sad as the glow from the TV took away from the beauty of the one lone candle I did not want to put out just yet. Its flame was just so beautiful. So seemingly fragile against the harshness of light bulbs. So small and yet so capable of casting a mighty warmth in its path of light. There is such beauty in a little flicker of candlelight I mused.
Suddenly, the unexpected happened. Click, hum, buzz, whirl…lights went off, TV went dead, the dishwasher stopped. Then silence. Nothing but nothing to hear.
A whispered profanity came out of my husband’s mouth. I, however, rejoiced. For the one candle that I had refused to blow out, the one whose light was being overshadowed just a second ago by the television and lamps, the one that seemed like nothing much, had now taken center stage.
It’s funny how often our reaction to losing the artificial light in our lives is one of frustration. We fumble for flashlights and pray to God that our cell phones have enough power in them. And when we realize our gadgets don’t have enough power in them, fear seizes us.
Frustration and fear. Two words that can best describe how many are living today. And yet there were a people thousands of years ago living in frustration and fear as well. They, however, didn’t have alternative means of light to reach for. No artificial comfort or fleeting reassurances to flick on when the dark night of the soul came upon them. Rather they had to reach deep down into their very core to trust all the great unknowns in life were indeed known by a compassionate God. They had to keep walking in darkness, trusting the did not walk alone. They had to grope in the darkness with whatever faith was left, believing a light would shine upon them. And it did. The Christ light broke through and, as the prophet Isaiah tells us, “those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”
My lone candle burned brightly the other night. Its flame dancing for joy with a Christmas promise we in this “lights on, background noise blaring, rushing around” world need to embrace. When the darkness suddenly comes upon us, the true light in our lives shines on, never to be extinguished.
On November 5, 2017, I returned to my little white church as pastor. Here is the sermon preached…and here are the pictures of the God messages I mention in the sermon.
May God this day, and always, make a way in your life. For as I said, our God is in the business of parting waters.
Donna, the Accidental Country Pastor (once again)