Those in Exile

An Accidental Country Pastor’s Advent Journey 

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 and unexpected ways. 

Advent Day 1:

O come, o come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.

Advent is a season that begins in a puzzling way for our culture. It begins not with the festive “ho, ho, ho’s” and bright twinkling lights. Advent begins with the dark still hovering over the land, with people yearning to see light.

It’s a season that begins with the invitation for us to listen to the voices of those in exile. To really listen to the mournful voices who cry out to God to be delivered from suffering. The voices who beg to be heard. The voices who simply want to be “home.”

We’re in a season where that ache to be home is very real for so many. The ache could be the desire to be physically home. My sister knows that ache. She and her husband moved to Florida a few weeks ago and are having to live in an extended-stay motel as the completion date of their house has been delayed. Her hope to have been in their new home for Christmas will probably not happen this year.

The joy of beginning a new chapter is not quite what she had envisioned. She had envisioned a glistening Christmas tree standing in her very own living room. But here she is. Right now. Not home. Yet.

Then there is the ache that I think is the more common this time of year. One we know all too well, especially as we get older. The ache to return to the home of one’s childhood. There you can once again smell the warm sugar cookies mom is taking out of the oven. You can see dad teetering on the ladder positioning the faded plastic reindeer just right. You can see the faces of all you love gathered at the dinner table. Their faces are glowing in the light of the candles on the Advent wreath.

We’re in the season of Advent and it’s a time to take note of those who long to be home. It’s time to hear their voices and offer them a listening ear, an understanding heart, the patience of a saint to perhaps listen to a story of Christmas past you have heard many times before. It’s time to offer a tissue to catch the tear from the eye of a friend who longs for a loved one who has gone home.

Advent is about the promise that is coming. The promise that no matter what exile you find yourself in there will be rejoicing again. The light of Christ will break through the darkness.

I know a little a bit about being in exile.

This time last year I was longing to be home again in Vermont. I knew God had a plan for me. I knew God had ministry for me to do back home. I knew it. But God knew I also had some things to learn while away from home. I needed once again to trust in the darkness. I needed to wait for the rejoicing to come. I needed to continue loving God, worshipping God, seeking God, even when it seemed God had checked me off the “nice” list and was making sure I wouldn’t get my Christmas wish list fulfilled.

I was tempted to give up, give in. There were days in which I had to face the reality that perhaps I couldn’t go back home. Then, as it was to the children of Israel so long ago, their time of waiting ended. It was time to go home. God heard in the most unexpected ways and God led me back.

And here I now sit back at my farm table writing, in my role as “an accidental country pastor,” traveling country roads dotted with cows and back to the way of life that those in the little white church I once pastored invited me to be part of—a life filled with an unwavering hope in the future, no matter how dark the days get, because they have seen how God has never let the down.

As we begin our Advent journey, may you remember that God never lets you down either. God always hears the cries of those in exile and leads us back to the place in which we will once again find ourselves rejoicing.

Scripture to Reflect On

Jeremiah 33:14-16

The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called:  The Lord Our Righteous Savior.

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A candle of hope burns on the sill of my kitchen window. 

After 2 A.M.

Nothing good ever happens after 2 a.m.

The song’s lyrics on the radio leaped out at me. “That singer is right,” I said to my husband, whose eyes were fixated on the road leading us back home to the slumbering bucolic hills and valleys of Vermont. “Nothing good ever happens after 2 a.m.”

My husband looked at me strangely, wondering where I’ve been that I had never heard what turned out to be a popular old saying that he knew quite well.

Less than 48 hours later, the saying I had just become acquainted with had sadly been verified. The news broke a peaceful Sunday morning into a million shattering sharp pieces.

2:09 a.m.—A man armed with an assault rifle entered an Orlando night club. Shots fired. 50 reported dead. 50 more injured.

Nope, nothing good ever happens after 2 a.m. Or for that matter, nothing good happens at 9:30 a.m. as we saw in an elementary school in Connecticut; or 9:25 p.m. when news of shooting in Parisian restaurant came our way; or 8 p.m. when we learned of the carnage happening at a Bible study in a Charleston, S.C. church.

I don’t need to go on any further because I’ve made my point. And, anyway, I have to stop for my stomach is getting queasy and my eyes are filling with familiar tears that I have cried one too many times in one too many cases for one too many senseless killings. Nothing good ever happens…at any given time these days, so it seems.

Shortly after news of Orlando seeped into our quiet Sundays, I read a posting on social media blasting the lack of outcry over the lives lost in the dreadful after 2 a.m. hours of the morning. The person cried that the lack of attention given was because those gathered were gathered in a gay nightclub. I’m not discounting that there is some truth to that. But I did disagree with this person because perhaps the lack of outcry was not due to sexual orientation.

Perhaps many were not being vocal because such news has become all too common. Dare I say that we are slowly becoming desensitized to it all. Yes, there is a feeling of anger, of outrage, of fear, of sadness, of confusion. In the midst of all these emotions, though, no one has really addressed or unpacked the most dangerous of all emotions: helplessness, which leads to the No. 1 killer of hope in the world—complacency. And so, silence begins to happen as we sit and wonder, “What can I really do?” and “Does my voice even matter?”

As I skimmed the reactions on social media, I found myself getting perturbed at the postings calling for “prayer for the victims.” And I, a pastor, cringed at the news of prayer vigils popping up all over the place. It’s not that I’m against prayer nor has all of this violence in the world turned me into an atheist.

Prayer can and will change all circumstances. Prayer is not something we turn to only AFTER a tragedy strikes.

Where are the prayers that need to be said for a broken world before the brokenness decides to rear its ugly head in some catastrophic way?

Where are the weekly gatherings in which God’s children listen to the whispers of holy instructions that speak of loving one another and forgiving completely?

Where is our commitment to pray to God for help, wisdom and the strength to be the blessed peacemakers in this world?

Where are the prayer circles that gather before tragedy strikes, thus, making prayer vigils obsolete?

Every Sunday night a dedicated few would gather for prayer in the chapel of the little white church I served. There we would sit. In the heat of summer, the door would be open allowing a breeze to blow through along with the black flies. In the cold of winter, we would keep our coats on for we wanted to be good stewards of the building and keep the church’s heating costs down.

Sometimes we just sat awkwardly in silence. Sometimes we named a concern. Sometimes we prayed for others. Sometimes we even prayed for ourselves. But all the time, no matter what was said or not said, we left renewed with hope. We left in awe with gift of feeling the presence of God.

Did these prayer circles change our church? Yes, they did.

Did they change the community? I think so.

Did they change the world? Some people would say no, they didn’t. But they changed each one who attended. And that change, no matter how insignificant it might seem, is the change that will ultimately change the world. One person, one heart, one prayer at a time, that’s how a seemingly invisible God becomes visible to others.

And that’s where we have to start. Because nothing good ever happens after 2 a.m.—or 9:30 a.m. or 9:25 p.m. or 8 p.m. There’s a world growing darker with hate. Tragedies will occur anytime, anywhere. We, though, don’t have to let helplessness turn into complacency. We have a choice.

We can continue to gather in prayer vigils after the darkness has covered us, or we can turn to God before our times of trouble. We can pray, encircled together, for love to win and for peace to shine brighter than any darkness.

It’s time for more prayer circles and fewer prayer vigils.

Blessed be those who mourn this day, for they will be comforted. Matthew 5:4

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The “little white church” where Sunday prayer circles did have the power to change the world—opening one heart to God’s Spirit at a time. 

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.

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