Day 6—The Gift of a Silent Night

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.

4_silentnight_jackdornothingDecember 6

Bible study had wrapped up for the night and as I walked out the church parking lot with the others I couldn’t help but to notice how beautiful the night was. The stars were bright and hung so low it seemed you could actually reach out and grab one. The wintery air, while brutally cold, was still refreshing and I made sure to take a few extra breaths before getting into the car.

Winter was always my favorite season and this, my first winter up north, was indeed one amazing blessing to me. Everything from the bright stars to the crisp air to the crunch of the snow beneath my feet just seemed to be special presents from above.

Once in the car, I turned on the heat and then the radio before pulling out of the church driveway to head home.

As I drove the desolate country roads home, the magic of the night continued when I noticed the sight of some stray cows making their way across the field to join the rest of their bovine family who were already in the barn settling in for the night.

Suddenly “silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright” which was now playing on the radio, took on a new and deeper meaning for me.

As a little girl the words to this Christmas hymn were just that: words. Words that told of some elusive night that one could really only sing about, but very rarely would be able to fully experience.

Silent night, holy night was a fantasy. I grew up in a less than silent suburb where the New York City skyline was in our backyard. Streetlights dimmed the starlight and traffic whizzing by made nights far from holy. And so this dear-to-my-heart Christmas hymn that my father used to sing in his native Swiss German while we lit our family Advent wreath, was right up there with my favorite fairytale—nice to hear, but don’t expect it to come true.

That is, until now. For on my drive home from Bible study I was the recipient of a silent and holy night. The realization was too great for me to comprehend, and an overwhelming sense of God’s grace filled me with awe.

When I finally pulled up to my 18th century Saltbox with only candles flickering in the windows to greet me, all I could do was turn off the car engine, the lights, the heat and the radio and sit in the driver’s seat. I couldn’t get out of the car. I didn’t want to. I wanted to hold on ever so tightly to the silence and holiness that had engulfed me. For all was a beautiful calm and all was brilliantly bright. God’s confirmation that I was right where I was supposed to be was filling my heart.

Earlier that night at Bible study we talked about the gifts God wants to give to us in this holy season. Gifts that are not store bought but rather gifts that come from a heavenly storehouse. The gifts from God to us, God’s beloved, that are meant to bless us and to fill our hearts with joy. Gifts of grace to the one who stands in need of a second chance. Gifts of forgiveness to the one who has crossed a line and who has hurt someone they love. Gifts of healing to the body riddled with disease. Gifts of hugs to the one who is lonely. Gifts of smiles to the one who can’t seem to find anything to smile about. Gifts of a silent and holy night to the one who needed to know God was indeed with her.

I knew I had to eventually get out of the car. But before doing so, I whispered my “thank you” to God and then I made a promise. I promised to always keep my heart opened to receiving the real gifts of Christmas.

And so may this Advent you promise to do the same. Be alert to the real gifts being given to you that are not from a store, but rather come from God’s divine storehouse. And may you find yourself discovering the beauty of a silent and holy night. For it does exist. It is not some fairytale. God is always with us.

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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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 an accidental country pastor in a historic white clapboard church in upstate New York, right on the border of Vermont, from 2007-2013.

December 1: Gathering the Evergreen

It is I who answer and look after you.
I am like an evergreen cypress;
your faithfulness comes from me. 
Hosea 14:8

The first Sunday in Advent was approaching and apprehension and excitement filled my heart. This wasn’t just any first Sunday in Advent. It was for me my first Sunday in Advent of my first church as a newly ordained pastor who would be lighting the first candle on the Advent wreath with my first ever congregation.

Whew! There were definitely a lot of “firsts” taking place in my life and taking place all at once it seemed, as this was also the first time I was some distance from my mom and dad. A twinge of homesickness struck as I realized an impromptu cup of coffee with them was not going to happen as it once did. I looked around at the boxes still to be unpacked in my new “home sweet home”—an antique saltbox dating back to 1760-something—and as I did, I began humming the Christmas classic, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

My trusty roommate, Sullivan, an elderly eighteen pound cat who had come to me as a kitten when I was still an editor living in Manhattan and who had not-so-patiently endured the long drive to his new country abode, jumped on top of the table where I worked on the worship bulletin and nuzzled his head against my hand.

Please have snow and mistletoe…

The good news was my new home already had snow as the day after the moving van unloaded my belongings white flakes had fallen, covering the world in a peaceful beauty that only newly fallen snow can do. And mistletoe? Well, that was also in abundance. All I had to do was walk into the woods and fields and rolling hills surrounding me to get myself some festive boughs of any and all kind.

I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams…

The first Sunday in Advent was approaching. Apprehension, excitement and a wee bit of homesickness filled my heart.

“Sully,” I said to my trusty feline companion. “I know just what we need.” On went my coat and my mittens and off I went to explore the woods and fields and rolling hills to gather greenery of all kinds to make an Advent wreath for my new home. This would ease my apprehension. This would take away the twinge of homesickness.

As a child, making the Advent wreath was a much-awaited tradition that came after the last of the Thanksgiving turkey was eaten. But being we lived in a congested area in New Jersey, we often had to go to a nursery and buy an armful of evergreen for our wreath. Here, though, in what was known by locals as “God’s country” there was evergreen to be had right at your fingertips.

The walk in God’s country turned out to be the healing balm I needed for as I walked in the crisp air and heard nothing but the crunching of snow beneath me, I was reminded of why we deck our homes with evergreen in this barren time of year.

For just as God reminded his prophet Hosea, God reminds us all that He is like an evergreen cypress or a flourishing juniper or a tall fir (depending on which Bible translation you read). Our faithfulness and our hope come from God and God alone. With each evergreen bough I placed in my arms, I held on to the truth that God’s great faithfulness had never failed me. Nor would it ever. This was going to be one very special Advent wreath that would get me through the many firsts happening in my life.

That night as I opened a can of soup for my dinner for one, I decided to prematurely light the first candle on my newly created Advent wreath. Perhaps I did so because I needed the promise of hope to shine now rather than to shine later. And so I lit the candle. Sully jumped up on to my lap and together we watched the one flame dance a dance of joy made ever more joyful with the drafts that blew through the many cracks and gaps in the windows of the old saltbox. As it danced, I wondered…

What would my first Sunday in Advent at the first church I was pastoring with my first congregation be like? What would the music be like? What would the attendance be? I wondered about those I would meet and come to know in the days and months and years to come. And all of a sudden, I wondered what would their Advent wreath be like? Would fake evergreen be used? Would there be no evergreen in favor of just a wrought iron ring?

My Sunday morning of firsts finally arrived. As I entered into the quiet sanctuary an hour before worship began, I noticed something that took away my apprehension and replaced my twinge of homesickness with the most reassuring “welcome home.” There before me was the church’s Advent wreath that looked oh so familiar. The wreath featured the same evergreen of every kind that I had just picked out in the woods, the fields and the hills of my new home. I soon learned that each year the wreath was made by the loving hands of those who knew what I had come to know—there is a healing balm out in the woods and hills and fields that God has blessed us with. And it is there in the simplicity of life, like gathering evergreen from your own backyard, that one can see more clearly that with God there is always an abundance of beauty to gaze upon, of daily bread to eat, and of grace to receive.

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The Advent wreath of evergreen collected from the woods and hills and fields all around the little white church. 

The first candle in Advent was lit on the first Sunday as an installed ordained pastor in the first church I was pastoring with my first ever faith family. And the candle danced with hope and with joy around a wreath of evergreen that reminded us all—God is like an evergreen cypress, a flourishing juniper…God’s faithfulness never ends.

May today you gather evergreen for your home and may it not be just some holiday decoration. May it be the reminder we need reminding of always—God is forever faithful.