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. 

The Sheep and the Shepherd

 

The other morning, I went to visit my sheep. Well, they’re not exactly mine. They belong to the farm and nature center just up the road from me.

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Pastor Donna’s “foster” sheep that she often visits and talks to. Notice the stream of light shining down on one of them.

I’ve always wanted sheep. And goats. And chickens. And…

Well, the other morning I went to visit the sheep. They live in a place where my heart always finds peace after being torn and tattered by the world. It’s a place where I can take a deep breath in and allow my lungs to savor the clean air. It’s a place where the rolling hills and mountains make me want to do my best Julie Andrew’s impersonation where I run in an open field, spinning around with arms outstretched, singing, “The hills are alive…”

Being of Swiss heritage, this is something my family always does whenever we find ourselves in an open field surrounded by mountains. And now that I have put that song in your head, my apologies. Let me get back to the story at hand.

The other morning, I didn’t just go to visit them. I went to have a talk with them. I needed to know something. I needed to know how it was they could easily follow their master? How did they know that the one in charge of them was indeed caring for them? How did they not worry or fret or wander off to what might look like greener pastures?

How?

I needed to know, for lately I have been wondering how best to follow my Lord and Savior, my Shepherd. I wonder why I have been lured at times by seemingly greener pastures that have proven to be nothing but stale tasting artificial turf filled with empty calories? I hate empty calories.

How do I get back to the real stuff, the green pastures that are life giving and life renewing? How do I stop doubting my Shepherd’s great care of me? And how do I get back home to the fold, where my heart can always find peace in the midst of the storms?

How?

The sheep were very kind to me, entertaining my rambling questions as they tried to chew their breakfast. Every so often, one would look at me as if to say, “Continue on. I’m listening.” Other times, they would look at each other as if to say, “Are you going to answer her or do I have to?”

When I was done with my questions, I sat down in the grass and waited for one of them to answer. Nothing came. The sheep just kept chewing away at their breakfast. I had my breakfast with me too. A warm buttery, crumbly maple scone purchased at the quintessential Vermont country store that my husband and I loved to go. It was a place where the wooden floors gave their age away with each creak of the boards and where the sun streaming through the windows made the dust dance and sparkle in the streams of its rays.

A place where a warm hello always greeted you, followed by small talk about the weather and what kind of winter the Farmer’s Almanac was already predicting.

But I wasn’t hungry anymore for my maple scone. I was hungry for answers. I picked at the scone and as I did the frustration of the silence all around me brought tears to my eyes.

Perhaps yet another day without answers was going to join in an already growing long line of days without answers.

I got up to leave. As I did, though, the littlest lamb came running over to me. Its bleating was urgent. It had something to say. It bleated some more and kept jerking its head toward the blue sky above. I heeded the little lamb’s instructions and looked up in the direction it was pointing. There overhead was a cloud whose formation had taken the shape of blobby looking heart.

Well, I’ll be…the little lamb gave me my answer.

How did they trust the One caring for them? How did they know to follow the One whose leading is always heading towards green pastures?

By not keeping their head hung down low with defeat and despair and doubt, but by always looking up. By knowing they are loved beyond love and that love is the only thing that keeps them, protects them, guides them, sustains them…it’s a love that promises to always bring you safely home.

I had a talk with my sheep the other day.

Turns out, our Shepherd was there as well.

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My Someday Farm

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Sofie, Pastor Donna’s bumbling Bernese Mountain dog, sits on top of the hill, taking in the view of the accidental country pastor’s someday farm. 

Morning had broken. I threw on my Mucks and barn coat and, with a steaming mug of coffee in hand, went out into the crisp air to start the day with my version of a breakfast for champions—a hearty prayer walk.

Who needs Wheaties when God can nourish you?

The sun was breaking through the fog hanging low in the valley and the wind was shooing away the last remaining clouds trying their best to conceal the Green Mountains of Vermont.

I let out a sigh of contentment. This scene always brought joy to my heart, taking me back to a long-ago visit to my father’s homeland of Switzerland.

It was there a young girl with golden pigtails held her dad’s hand as they walked the hills blanketed with so many wildflowers that not a patch of green grass could be seen.

It was there a young girl would sense already in her life the awe of God’s hand at work in nature, watching as the billowy clouds wrapped around the mountains that seemed to embrace the quintessential Swiss homestead with mystery and grandeur.

It was there a young girl, full of big dreams for the tomorrows yet come, said to her father, “Someday I’m going to have a farm just like this.”

My breakfast of champions—my prayer walk—came to a stop as I noticed I was not alone. The shadow of that young girl with the golden pigtails was walking with me. I stopped and stared and heard my father’s voice as clear as if he was now standing right beside me.

“Someday you will. I’m sure of it.”

That’s what he said so long ago to that young girl with big dreams, big hopes, big prayers.

Some how. Some way. Someday….

Was now.

For some where along the way, without even realizing it, God had been answering me. I was now standing smack in the middle of my someday farm. Sure, to others all they would see were acres of nothing. But my eyes, finally opened to what was possible in the midst of impossibilities, saw it.

I could see the barns that yet stood. The coop yet built. The pond yet to be dug out of the forever wet and marshy piece of land that was such an eyesore to me. I could see the fruit trees not yet planted. The garden not yet tilled. They were all there. I finally saw a young girl’s dreams, hopes, prayers, being answered.

How many times, though, had I walked this walk and never once realized my some days were always right there waiting for me to act on?

I reached my hand towards my shadowy companion, hoping in some miraculous way I could touch not only the hand of that young girl I once knew, but reconnect with her awe in God who embraces us always with his mystery and grandeur. Perhaps if I could hold that young girl’s hand, the one with the golden pig tails, grown up fear and skepticism would give way to childlike trust and faith.

I reached but couldn’t grab. The past is elusive. So instead I reached my hand towards heaven to grab hold of the beautiful here and now God was revealing.

What are the someday prayers and the someday dreams you’ve prayed and dreamt? Could they perhaps be right in front you waiting for you to finally see?

Some how. Some way. Someday…

Is now.

For our Father’s voice whispers to the heart that dreams big, hopes big, prays big, “Someday you will. I’m sure of it.”

This Way of Life: A Little White Church Lenten Journey

Join Pastor Donna as she reflects on the transforming power of Lent and takes you on a 40-day journey of discovering God’s message of hope and renewal that she discovered in a little white church and in the hearts of the people who called that church “home.”

 Day 11: More Pictures To Come

 “I think I better backup my files,” I yelled from the dining room table to my husband who was busy feeding the dog in the kitchen. I could hear him whispering to Sofie, our Bernese Mountain dog, “I told your mommy she needed a new computer. Did she listen to me? Noooo.”

Yes, I should have listened to him because now my computer was really acting up, doing some kind of light show that I probably could have charged admission to see. It was that amazing in an artistic way, but not so good in a computer kind of way.

I took my external backup hard drive and connected it to the computer, praying it wasn’t too late to secure my documents. As I began the task of transferring them something caught my eye. A folder on the external hard drive named, “Church.”

I was curious to see what was in it. I opened the file and there before me were hundreds of pictures of many moments at the little white church. I had forgotten about these pictures and so I began scrolling through each and everyone. As I went from picture to picture the story of God working powerfully through God’s children flashed before me on the computer screen.

The story of hope realized as seen in the way of a very crowded chancel where many kids stood to sing for worship, a sight the little white church thought it would never see again. But there they were, not just singing. There were more pictures of them greeting people, reading scripture, playing the piano and, yes, even preaching.

Chris was entering the fifth grade when I jokingly asked him one Sunday if he wanted to preach for me. He diffused my joke with an eager and serious, “Yes. I would love to.”

And so one Sunday morning a few months later, Chris delivered a mature, beyond his years sermon of God working in his life. His picture brought me back to that day in which the ancient Hebrew texts came to life for us in the little white church. We had heard the stories of God calling little Samuel in the night and we had heard the opening of the prophet Jeremiah’s story in which Jeremiah tells God he can’t speak because he is only a boy. God disagrees and reminds Jeremiah that he can and will speak of God’s greatness and might.

There was Chris smiling in the picture. The picture, though, I wish I had of that day was the one of all the smiles and tears of those in the pews as they realized they were also capable of speaking of God’s greatness and might.

I clicked more pictures and more stories came.

There was the story of the warm fellowship emerging among the family of faith with old folks, young folks and children, crowding around a table filled with goodies during coffee hour. There they stood with arms hugging one another and kids smiling. What made this picture beautiful was it wasn’t taken at some special coffee hour. This picture was just your typical Sunday at the little white church for every week was a time lively fellowship.

For me as a pastor this time after the official worship hour was a time when true worship took place. It was a time when we talked about the scripture, we talked about those in our community needing help and we talked about one another’s needs for prayer. We talked, shared, listened and, most importantly, connected with one another. And in the midst of fruit juice and coffee and home baked cookies and cakes was a very special guest working the room. God’s Spirit was moving among the chatter and laughter and hugs and even the occasional tear.

I kept on clicking to the next picture, and then the next, then the next. There were many stories emerging, but the one story that came across the strongest surprised me. It was my story of who I was as a minister. For in those pictures I looked happy, even radiant. Some where, though, along the way in my walk to serve God, I had forgotten the joy I once felt even in the midst of challenges. I had forgotten the smiles that always came to my face when after crying tears of what seemed like defeat, God carried me on to victory.

I needed to see these pictures because lately whenever I caught my reflection all I saw staring back at me was someone I did not recognize. Where was my smile? Where was the radiance? But most of all where was that feeling deep down in my soul of knowing I was doing exactly what God wanted me to do?

I could remember many days walking to my car through the parking lot of the little white church thinking, “Wow. I can’t believe you called me to be a minister, God. Thank you. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” And that prayer of thanks was being lifted on some of the most trying days in ministry. Now, deep in my Lenten journey, I couldn’t remember the last time I said, “thank you, God.”

I called to my husband to stop feeding the dog and come see what I was seeing. “Look,” I said pointing to the computer screen. “Do you see that picture? Now look at this picture? Are you looking? Do you see?”

He looked and his eyes watered up.

“I see,” he said quietly, then adding a soft, “I remember.”

I closed the forgotten file on my external hard drive named “Church” and shut down the computer. As it hummed in a way a computer shouldn’t hum when shutting down, I sat and stared at the screen. The glowing screen faded slowly till all that was left staring back at me was the reflection of someone I didn’t recognize.

“I remember too,” I sighed.

Sometimes in life we stray of course, not paying attention to the blessings already around us. Maybe it’s not that we don’t pay attention. Maybe it’s more we take for granted what we have and lose sight of the need to nurture the blessings. Maybe sometimes in life we just need to look back at pictures to remember the things that brought us joy, that made us smile, that made us feel whole.

But this I know. God is never done with us. More pictures will come and with them more stories.

This Way of Life Lenten Challenge: Be honest. When you catch your reflection do you recognize the person staring back at you? If not, what do you need to do to reconnect with who you used to be? And as you search, invite God into your heart to lead you back to joy.

 

This Way of Life: A Little White Church Lenten Journey

Day 6 and 7: Divine Dissatisfaction 

I was struggling, but those standing with me at coffee hour after church had no clue of my struggle. To them, I had it all. I had my dream job as a magazine editor in Manhattan, which often meant missed dinners with friends as I was called away on business trips to Italy or Switzerland or Thailand or Africa—places where the fine jewelry industry housed designer ateliers and dirt speckled with diamonds and precious gemstones.

I had my dream apartment—no studio here, but an actual one-bedroom apartment with no need for a roommate—complete with a doorman and a convenient midtown location so going uptown or downtown to try a new city hotspot was not a pricey cab ride.

I had a boyfriend. And I had a cat. I had it all…so it seemed to others. But I was struggling. All that I had was, for some reason, not filling my heart with this sense of peace and contentment. It got to the point where I had to speak to someone about this. And so I spoke to the associate pastor of the Fifth Avenue church I was attending.

I pulled her aside in the room coffee hour was being held and dangled out to her in guarded and cryptic words my struggle, trying not to get to deep over coffee and cookies. I didn’t think I was making sense and soon thought this was not a good idea to speak to the pastor at this time, but she seemed interested. She even seemed to understand my guarded and cryptic words. Perhaps she was once where I am now, I thought. Suddenly my interest in her backstory was piqued. After I was done speaking she nodded her head as if reminiscing back to some page in her scrapbook of life and with a twinkle of excitement in her eye that I couldn’t understand she told me what was going on with me.

“You are experiencing divine dissatisfaction,” she said.

“What?” I asked, finding her apparent glee for this not-so-fun place I was in a bit unsettling.

“Dissatisfaction that is divine,” she said as if switching the order of the words spoken would give me my “Ah-ha!” moment. It didn’t.

“What?” I said again.

She took my hand and led me to her office where she invited me to sit down. This was no longer a passing conversation to be had in the corner of the room where coffee hour was being held.

As I sat down in the chair my reporter senses kicked in and I quickly took inventory of her office. Some of the best stories of the subjects I have interviewed came not from what they told me, but of the story the décor and trinkets and pictures in the office told. Her story was emerging and, unknowingly to me, so was mine.

Kim was her name and she was just a few years older than me. She was from down south and came to the big city to become a professional dancer. And dance she did, performing with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. That explained to me why she had the lithe body of a dancer.

Dance and her African heritage blended beautifully and when she came to New York City she thought her heart would never stop dancing with joy for the answered prayers she had received.

One day, though, her heart stopped dancing with joy. The steps she took to the music were not feeling right. She struggled. Those around her had no idea. Her friends thought she had it all.

One morning as she walked to the dance theatre, she kept on walking. She found a bench in front of a bus stop and sat. Just then she took out the Bible that had been thrown into her backpack for quite some time and never taken out. Hesitantly she opened it and she began to seek God. As she sought God’s will she began to see God had another dream for her—to tell the world of God’s goodness as a pastor. To the surprise of her friends and family, she announced she was entering seminary. And here she was sitting before me in her black clerical robe with an African inspired stole that I now noticed had images of women dancing in the joy of the Spirit.

“You have a gift and a passion for communicating through the words you put down on paper,” she said. “Perhaps those words are not to be of jewelry anymore. Perhaps those words are to be of something more precious and more beautiful.”

“Divine dissatisfaction,” I whispered now understanding what she meant. She was speaking of a dissatisfaction that is often God’s way of getting our attention to the new things God has for us. For with God there are always new dreams to pursue.

I opened my bag and scrounged around deep to the bottom and pulled out my pocket Bible that I had always carried but never opened.

I opened it now, and the hands of a former dancer turned big city pastor and a soon to be former magazine editor turned accidental country pastor of a little white church clasped together tightly. Two women, two stories, two dreams realized and yet to realize…and we prayed.  We thanked God for those beautiful unsettling moments known as divine dissatisfaction in our lives, for they are the moments that lead us in becoming all we are meant to become.

This Way of Life Lenten Challenge: Lent is the perfect season to explore the areas of dissatisfaction in your life. For perhaps it is a case of divine dissatisfaction and God is trying to awaken you to a new dream waiting for you.

 

 

 

 

Taking Down the Christmas Tree

I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but I’m actually thinking about taking my Christmas tree down. It’s only December 31.

Now I know many folks take their tree down before New Year’s Eve, while still others do the dreaded packing up of the ornaments on New Year’s Day. I understand the thinking behind it. It’s a new year, a fresh start, and a clean slate—out with the old and in with the new, and that means out with the Christmas tree that has become a fire hazard and in with the newly reclaimed living room space. But for me to be thinking about taking down my tree…well, I have to ask, “What has happened to me?”

I’ve always been the poster child for celebrating the 12 days of Christmas, advocating keeping trees up and the holiday cheer going till the wise men come the first week in January to present Jesus with the gifts in which we should observe on that often unobserved day on the liturgical calendar known as Epiphany.

I say “often unobserved” day, for the circles I travel in do not do as good a job as my Catholic or Latino or more liturgically literate friends do in celebrating Epiphany.

I’m trying to bring Epiphany back, but those darn wise men bearing gifts of frankincense, myrrh and gold keep crashing church nativity pageants at Christmastime, reinforcing the belief there was one big party going on in the stable the night Jesus was born.

The thing is the wise men probably didn’t show up until about three years after Jesus’ birth. First, scripture tells us the wise men asked King Herod where they could find the “child” not the “baby” whose star they saw in the sky. Second, King Herod, fearing his power would be usurped by a child, issued the horrible edict to slaughter all male children three years of age and under. And lastly, when the wise men did find Mary and Joseph we are told they entered into the “house” and not a “stable.” And so we have the celebration of Epiphany that comes after Christmas.

But I digress.

It’s only December 31 and I—the self-proclaimed advocate for not cutting short the Christmas season—want to do just that. Cut short Christmas by taking down my tree.

What has happened to me?

I’ve been asking that question all week as I struggled through these days to find some holiday cheer or Christmas magic that those sappy TV Christmas shows tell me I should be experiencing. I searched and searched, but nothing. I even tried to recreate some Christmases past by pouring a glass of eggnog to enjoy with some of my mother-in-law’s cookies that I couldn’t wait to get this year. The eggnog and cookies were delicious, but the holiday cheer I had wanted to fill my heart did not happen.

If anything, the ultra sweet and fattening combo made me more nostalgic for Christmases gone by—and more guilty that I haven’t gone to the gym yet.

I then called my mom and dad to see what they were up to. Perhaps we could plan an impromptu visit. But they were feeling like me—no real energy to do much of anything.

Was it the unseasonably warm weather making everyone blue? I know for my bumbling Bernese mountain dog it was, for her wish for snow—and lots of it—did not come true this Christmas. She did, however, get to enjoy some of the mother-in-law’s cookies. (I pray my vet is reading this for she did have more than one Christmas cookie.)

Or was this bah-humbug epidemic hitting all those I loved really the side effect of yet another infectious bug going around for the hundredth time, creating not so silent nights of nose blowing and coughing?

Could be a combination of both. Or so I tried to convince myself when really I knew the desire to pack away Christmas sooner than I would usually do was something beyond unseasonably warm weather, sad dogs and sinus infections.

Sometimes in life the heart struggles. It is as simple as that. For whatever reason there are some seasons where you have to just feel what the heart is feeling and stop trying to figure “it” out whatever the “it” might be. And definitely make no apologies for where your heart is.

There are times to rejoice that a newborn has come into the world to be our Savior. There are times for the angels to sing with joy and for shepherds to fall on their knees in awe and adoration for what God has done.

Then there are times when there is no star to guide you, no angels’ song to cheer you and no joy in the world to keep you going. There are times when the cross looms in front of you and its burden seems too much for you to carry and you fear it will crush you. But it won’t.

Then there are those times when you just need to pack away Christmas and take down the tree earlier than you usually do.

And that’s okay.

For however your heart might be feeling, this I know for sure. God is right by your side, hearing you ask, “What has happened to me?” and in return whispering His comforting answer, “You’re okay. I’ve got you. Always.”

I heard that whisper on Christmas morning. As I sat high on top of the hill behind our little red house, I saw one of the most beautiful sunrises ever and I could hear God’s whisper mingle with the remnants of the angel’s song of praise “Glory to God in the highest.” It was then I realized even if my heart wasn’t “right”—whatever that means—my soul definitely was in the right place.

There on the hill surrounded by nature’s holiday decorations of dazzling sun rays, glistening frost, heavenly clouds hanging low in the valley and evergreen branches swaying as birds danced on each one, I embraced once again God’s gift of grace and hope and light. The heart will have its ups and downs, its questions and doubts, but God’s heart isn’t fickle. It remains consistent—always loving us through all our days.

It’s December 31 and I will be taking down my Christmas tree earlier than I usually do. What has happened to me? I’m still not completely sure, but I do know this.

I’m more than okay. For while the Christmas lights are coming off the tree the light that matters the most in my life still burns brightly. That is, the light of Christ.

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Christmas morning 2015 on top of “Sofie’s Hill” in Vermont. The gift of God’s reassuring presence that I carry with me into a New Year. 

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Columbus Day Nostalgia

I woke up feeling nostalgic about Columbus Day. Yes, of all days, Columbus Day, that peculiar holiday (I use the term “holiday” loosely) in which growing up sometimes we kids would have off from school and sometimes we wouldn’t. Sometimes my father would have off from work and sometimes he wouldn’t.

Time off for this day was never consistent and the lack of consistency only added to the ambiguity of what this day meant and how it was to be observed. The only sure thing was that banks and post offices were closed for a day that nowadays is also fraught with questions of political correctness. Columbus wasn’t the first to stumble upon America and what about the indigenous people stumbled upon?

I wonder. Do school children even make paper plate boats representing the three that were part of Columbus’ expedition? Let’s see, there was the Santa Maria and the Nina…what was the name of the third boat?

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A view from the porch of the new “old” house where I often drank in God’s beauty every morning.

I woke up this Columbus Day with nostalgia almost on par with that of Christmas. But I wasn’t reminiscing about paper plate boats. My mind tripped five years down memory lane to the crisp autumn morning when much to my surprise I heard the rumbling of a pick up truck coming up the dirt road that led to the house I was living in at the time. It was a colonial reproduction that I wasn’t too happy about all because the floor boards weren’t slanting with age, there were no gaps in the door and the wind couldn’t whistle through the airtight new windows. I had made a mistake in buying this new “old” house for it just didn’t have the charm of old-house problems.

Anyway, that Columbus Day I was out on the porch watching the early morning frost melt off of the tall grass in the field that was just behind the stonewall which separated the properties. I often came outside to drink my coffee but on this particular morning I was taking in something way better than caffeine. I realized I was consuming God’s beauty and I couldn’t get enough of the morning frost, the tall grass, the maple tree in the yard that was on fire with color…and now a surprise day off with my not-yet-husband who jumped out of the pick up truck announcing a very special day in store for me. We were going to look at engagement rings!

I stood on the porch feeling like a little girl on Christmas for I had given up on such a day as this. Too much heartache and too many losses had finally led me to surrender my hopes and dreams to God. In fact, just weeks before this man now standing before me came into my life I had a heart-to-heart talk with God. I realized I was really happy with my life in this rural community and that there was nothing more I wanted than to serve God as a minister. I actually had the audacity to tell God it was okay if He didn’t send me that partner in life I had been lamenting for nine years, to be exact, since the loss of my boyfriend in a jeep accident that began my journey in faith I was now on. As if God needed to be told it was okay.

I was driving home from church when I was having this talk with God. The sun was setting over the fields, casting a warm glow over the cows that were munching away on the grass. In the background was a tree line displaying the most beautiful colors of fall that I have never seen before. The trees looked almost heavenly. That’s when I started crying for the joy I was seeking in my life never left me. Joy was still alive and well in my heart. I realized that night there was no better medicine for the brokenness in life than that of God’s handiwork as seen in nature. For how could my heart be downcast when always surrounded such beauty?

God, I discovered on that isolated country road to seemingly nowhere, is always taking us somewhere. We just need to look beyond ourselves and beyond whatever circumstances in life holds us down. We need to keep our eyes focused on the goodness of God that is always right in front of us just waiting for us to finally recognize it—waiting for us to finally say to all that we have, even when it doesn’t seem enough or not what we had planned out for ourselves, “Thank you, God.”

I was definitely saying, “Thank you, God,” that Columbus Day five years ago as I jumped off the porch of a house complete with stonewalls, fields sparkling with melting morning dew and trees singing the praises of God, and into the arms of a man who wanted to spend his life with me—an accidental country pastor who had had her heart broken one too many times. And in the brilliance of a picture perfect New England fall day I saw something even more brilliant. I saw God resurrecting a prayer long thought to be dead. In the crunching of the leaves, we walked hand-in-hand to the pick up truck and down the dirt road we went. It was the best Columbus Day ever.

Peeling Paint

Should I or shouldn’t I? I mean, really, what’s the worst thing that could happen if I climbed this rickety ladder? Maybe I shouldn’t have asked that question because my mind suddenly started to answer with many a scary scenario.

I could fall. I could seriously hurt myself in the fall. I wouldn’t be able to call for help, as there was no cell signal in this part of Vermont in which our little red house sat sweetly in a valley surrounded by fields and views of the Green Mountains. I would be alone and hurt with no help coming anytime soon as my husband had not yet joined me for our visit to our little homestead. I would be left there on the grass risking the chance of a garter snake slithering upon me.

Eeek. Garter snakes. I don’t like them. My mom and dad recently reported that on one of their visits to our little red house they saw a “huge” one slithering underneath the apple tree. Of course, the snake grew larger as their story continued. Still, I wouldn’t want to risk meeting said snake no matter how small or large it was.

Maybe I would be okay if I climbed this ladder. There was, after all, my bumbling Bernese Mountain dog, Sofie. But as I looked over at her hugging the side of the fence as a sudden wind had picked up and frightened her, I realized she was no Lassie. I was on my own. And so I asked myself again, “Should I or shouldn’t I?”

What’s the worst thing that could happen if I decided to climb this rickety ladder I had just wrangled out of the damp, stone cellar, and set before me on the uneven ground below me, all because I couldn’t live one more minute with what my husband could live with forever?

I just couldn’t live with the strips of paint peeling from the beaten-up-by-too-many-harsh-winters clapboards that sided our home. Something had to be done.

I grabbed hold of the ladder with one hand and hesitantly put my foot onto the first rung. My heart started thumping harder. Up onto the next rung my foot went. Then the next and then the…wait, I had forgotten something. I had forgotten the can of paint and paintbrush. Back down I went and grabbed the necessary items needed for painting, wondering all the while how was I to hold on to dear life…and the ladder…and the paint can and the brush?

As one who loves to take on the challenge of a “can’t be done” project, I fought my fears and went back up the ladder, balancing each step I took with the can and brush in one hand while the other hand grabbed the next rung.

I finally came to the first patch of peeling paint and leaned over to scrape it off. As I leaned I made the mistake of looking down. Our little house didn’t look that tall but from where I was, “down” looked like a very long way to go. Sweat came dripping down my forehead as I whispered: “Hold it together.” “Breathe.” “Don’t think about it.” “I can do this.” I scraped quickly and then threw the paint over the bare spot. My sense of accomplishment was short lived for I realized while one piece of peeling paint was dealt with, there were many more taunting me further up the house.

It was then I had to ask myself the very question my husband asked while trying to persuade me to leave the ladder where he had put it—in the cellar.

Why does the peeling paint bother me so much?

Peeling paint exposes more than weathered clapboards; a lesson of the heart is revealed as well.

Peeling paint exposes more than weathered clapboards; a lesson of the heart is revealed as well.

The most obvious answer was simply because peeling paint was an eyesore and made the house look shabby. What would those passing by think? To which my husband would reply, “No one cares.”

But there was more going on than just what would the neighbors think. In some way the peeling paint was symbolic of everything I was taught you had to fix or cover up in life. Now my parents, who had more of my husband’s “no cares” attitude, didn’t teach me this.

This need to be perfect or have your act together or at least appear to have your act together was instilled in me during my days as an aspiring Manhattan magazine editor. It was there in the city in which Sinatra sang, “if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere,” I saw firsthand how life’s disappointments, hurts, flaws, and even painful scars, were all too easily—and expected to be—painted over with whatever paint you could find. Lonely? Paint over it by working longer and harder. Heartbroken? Paint over it by rushing into a new relationship quickly. Don’t give the brokenness anytime to heal. Dissatisfied with yourself? Paint on a new persona, workout more, buy new clothes, and get a makeover. Do whatever you can to cover up the peeling parts of your life because you don’t want the world to see the weather-beaten clapboards that are hidden underneath in your heart. For it is more than just an eyesore. It is a reminder of our own finitude and vulnerability. And no one wants to be reminded of that. So let there be no peeling paint in life—ever.

Yet here I was with peeling paint and a husband who just didn’t seem bothered by it at all.

His “no one cares” attitude was strengthened by his other observation. “Everyone around here lives with peeling paint,” he said. And they do.

I remember when I first came up north to “God’s Country” as the locals called it, I noticed many a house, many a barn—and even the picturesque white clapboard church I was to pastor—telling the story of how they had withstood yet another season of howling winds, pelting rain and falling snow. I was told with a shrug of the shoulders, “That’s just life around here. Paint will peel. Nothing much you can do about it except live with it.”

There wasn’t an urgent need to cover up what tough seasons had scarred, be it the tough seasons of Mother Nature herself or the tough seasons that barrel down on us in our life—illness, fractured relationships, financial worries, death.

If anything, the peeling paint on display all around me in so many ways provided the space to face finitude and vulnerability without dread or fear or the feeling of failure or hopelessness. The peeling paint was in fact a shared communal experience no one judged, but rather, was understood by all. It was simply a part of life not to be covered up. It was a part of life to accept, embrace and learn to live with. And the learning to live with? Well, that’s when an eyesore miraculously becomes something beautiful and amidst the newly discovered beauty before you is where healing begins.

As I stared at the marred side of my Vermont homestead, I saw the beauty before me and in that beauty I realized something. It was here in a place where paint peels freely, the weathered clapboards of my own heart were accepted and welcomed and loved by a community which knew the truth so many of us try to deny. In life, paint will indeed peel. There really is no need to rush and cover it up.