Day 5—Speak From the Heart

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.

December 5

… 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.

Unknown

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 4—The Index Card

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.

December 4

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit. Matthew 25:35-37

On my desk sits an index card with the initial “R” written on it in blue marker. I have thrown this index card into the garbage at least three times so far and, so far, I have reached three times into the waste paper basket to retrieve it. I am struggling with this index card with the initial “R” on it. I don’t want to see it for I don’t like how it makes me feel for it reminds of something that I don’t want reminding of. And yet I can’t seem to free myself of it and just throw it out. How can an innocent white index card with “R” written on it cause such turmoil in my heart?

It was at the youth group breakfast at the little white church, where every Wednesday morning teens would gather before school in what was known as Mackenzie Chapel—a chapel/fellowship hall built in faith during the depression years, reminding the congregation that with God all things are indeed possible—that they were invited to write an initial of someone they knew who needed a friend to stand up for them, a confidant to confide in, a brother or sister in Christ to rely on, a fellow human to let them know they are loved and not journey alone in this world.

They were invited to write the initial of someone in which they can show the love of Christ to this Christmas.

As the teens scribbled the initials of those they had in mind, I sat there staring off into space not wanting to write out the initial I had in my heart for I didn’t want it to materialize onto the index card for me to see. The war waged inside of me. I fought back the tears that began to sneak up behind my eyes, forcing them away with every stinging blink I took. “I am not going to cry,” I kept saying. No, I am not going to cry. Hesitantly my hand began to write “R.”

The youth leaders finished up their lesson, closing prayers were said and the kids were invited to hang on to their cards as a reminder of the task they have before them as they went about their day: be Christ to the one in need, be a friend to the one who is friendless, be a light of hope to the one walking in darkness.

I threw “R” into my bag and went on with my day. When I got home and emptied out the contents within, out came “R.” And that is when the waste paper basket game of throwing out and retrieving began.  Unknown

I have decided to stop the game. I have decided to keep the index card. I have decided to let it remind me of what I really rather not remember. That is, there is someone in my life who needs my love. There is someone in my life who walks in darkness and needs the light of Christ. There is someone very close to me who needs to know he is worthy; he is special; he is cared about greatly. There is someone who needs more of my time that I have claimed I do not have.

There is someone I can be Christ to this Christmas. “R” is my older brother with special needs. “R” is my brother who has given me the greatest gift ever without even knowing he gave it. He gave me eyes to see the least in this world. Now I just need to find the strength and guidance to give the gift of my time to him.

What initial do you need to write down on an index card this Christmas?

A Little White Church Advent—Day 2

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.

 

December 2—A Light in the Chapel 

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in a land of deep darkness a light has dawned. Isaiah 9:2

There I stood at the kitchen counter not feeling too hungry for breakfast but knowing I had to have something in my stomach. So I reached for the fortune cookie leftover from the other night’s Chinese takeout and opened it. There is nothing better in the morning with coffee than a stale fortune cookie. As always, I read the fortune inside: Before you see the light, you have to deal with the darkness.

I smiled as I looked at the fortune, for these words are my sermon in life. They say every pastor has only one sermon, the one truth, the one belief, the one revelation of Emmanuel—God with us—that is preached throughout his or her life in many incarnations. Mine is how brilliant the darkness can be for only then can you see how dazzling God’s light really is.

Now I never realized my “light in the darkness” message was my life’s sermon until early in my call when the pastor I was interning for during my seminary days put me on the preaching schedule. I was excited to get my chance to preach again and I already had in my mind my sermon when the pastor interrupted my thoughts.

“And, Donna, with this sermon, please don’t talk about darkness. I am going to challenge you to preach something different,” he said, then filling me in on the one sermon all pastors have and how we need to be aware of expanding our repoitre. I guess he could see I wasn’t buying what he was saying and so he leaned back in his office chair and asked me, “What was the title of your very first sermon?”

I was found guilty of being a one-sermon pastor. I feebly replied, “It was ‘In Dark Times, God Does His Best Work.’’ My pastor smiled. Point made.

But I was now in the season of Advent and I had every right to preach about hoping for the light in the darkness. I mean, really, you can’t experience God’s great light until you take the tough journey through the darkness, for it is in that journey that we come to know God at his fullest. (There, you just got a taste of my “life sermon.”)

This fortune cookie, though, wasn’t just an Advent appropriate cookie meant for me to open. This fortune cookie was yet another reassurance from God to my restless heart that all will indeed be well for just a few days before I had a powerful reminder of the light that is to come in the darkness.

It was Sunday morning and, as usual, I got to the white clapboard church that has stood as a beacon of hope to the rural village since the 1700’s, early to spend some time in prayer and review my sermon.

Snow was falling ever so gently, draping the bare ground in a blanket of serenity. The church with its Christmas wreath on the old wooden door was the spitting image of a little white country church that was pictured once in a Colonial village Advent calendar I had as child. Imagine my awe to realize I was no longer opening up a paper door, but a real door to a real Colonial church.

But snow or Colonial church doors couldn’t ease my troubled heart. I didn’t sleep well the night before with so many thoughts racing through my head: the weeks to Christmas that were coming too fast and all the gifts still not bought, the end-of-year church budget and upcoming budget that needed to be squared away, the many new ministry opportunities I saw for the community that needed the time, treasure and talents from others in order to become a reality, the…well, the long list kept awake.

I walked up the snowy steps to the chapel where we gathered in the winter for heating the large historic sanctuary was very costly. I opened the door expecting to enter a cold, dark chapel. Instead, as I pushed the door open I noticed a small light shining in the darkness. The light was coming from a beautiful poster hanging on the wall that wasn’t there the week before.

The poster had a cluster of small stars that shone brightly in the dark chapel thanks to the battery pack that was incorporated into the cardboard. Big bold red letters read: “Don’t Despair.” Smaller letters in an elegant cursive, proclaimed the gospel truth that through the darkness comes great light.

I stood in the darkened chapel soaking in the light that came from that poster. Don’t despair.

I had forgotten my own preacher’s words to others. And yet there in the chapel was my reminder. I wiped the tears from my eyes for I felt God’s presence that I haven’t been feeling all too much with all the angst this time of year brings. I pulled up a chair and sat gazing at that message and enjoying the sparkling little white lights that were the stars. What made this poster even more meaningful was a woman in the congregation made it for me as an Advent gift.

It was later that morning, after coffee hour was finally winding down, that I had a chance to thank her. And after the thanks, came hugs and then tears and then the holy moment when we stood holding hands soaking in the words of truth together.

She told me she had written the words down for the poster while listening to my sermon the first Sunday of Advent. So there before me was my own words I had failed to hear for myself paraphrased on the poster.

Before you can see the light, you have to deal with the darkness.

I held the fortune from the cookie I was eating for breakfast in my hand.  I have seen the light even amidst the seemingly growing darkness of stress, doubt, tiredness: the light of that poster, the light of a caring congregation, the light of a family of faith I have watched each and every week get stronger and bolder in their mission to reach out to others, and, I have seen the light of God’s promise to keep illuminating the way for me—always.

Where is your light shining through the darkness? May today you recognize the many ways God is trying to shine on your path.

images