A Poignant Start to Lent

IMG_9915The sanctuary was mostly quiet. Every now and then a hum, rattle and swoosh from the ancient heating system would interrupt the stillness. It was a welcomed noise as I was trying hard to keep the cavernous room at a toasty 60 degrees. After all, I didn’t want to sit all day with my coat and mittens on.

The “little white church” as locals fondly call us, was doing something different for Ash Wednesday. Rather than hold a worship service in the evening that hardly anyone would come to — in my time there as pastor, the Ash Wednesday service has boasted anywhere from a whopping six people to an unprecedented 28, and those numbers were with a combined service with sister churches — we were inviting people to drop in throughout the day.

We created an art gallery in the sanctuary and encouraged people to pray with the art before making their way to the front of the sanctuary where I waited with a blackened thumb ready once again to dip into the ash and proclaim the sobering reminder, “From dust we come, to dust we shall return.”

The people came — more than 28 — and I did my part, making the sign of the cross on foreheads that ranged from smooth and worry free to wrinkled and creased with burdens.

From dust we come, to dust we shall return.

There was a lull mid-afternoon and out of the corner of my eye I noticed the big yellow school buses rambling down the road. School was out. I would only have to sit in the sanctuary for a few more hours. It would be nice to get home to a hot bowl of soup and cuddle on the couch with my big old Bernese Mountain dog.

Just then I heard the creaking of the old floors. I didn’t to turn to look when people entered the holy silence, for I didn’t want to break the prayerfulness they were trying to embrace. And so, I would listen to the footsteps to see how close they were to me, so that I could stand up and take my place with the ashes.

The footsteps didn’t linger at any of the pictures. Rather they came quickly to where I sat. I was surprised when a teenaged girl dropped down next to me. She looked upset and there were tears beginning flow. I guess the blank look on my face gave it away that I had no idea what was happening beyond the peacefulness of the sanctuary walls.

“What kind of world do I have to live in?” she asked angrily.

In a way, I wish I didn’t ask what she was talking about for the words that came next filled me with anger and grief as well.

“There was another school shooting. This time in Florida. It is horrible. I am afraid,” she sobbed.

Sadly, I wasn’t shocked by the news she told me.

“There’s been a school shooting” has become an all-too familiar phrase, leaving many numb and worse yet, just accepting this as the new reality in which we live in.

I also knew what would next in my rural community. The heated debate on social media with those yelling that guns don’t kill —people do — and those yelling back that we need more gun control.

I also knew as a pastor of a rural community that I had to find a way to bridge these debates. I had to find a way to speak in a community that cherishes their right to have guns.

I looked at the sobbing teenager knowing, like many of her friends, she had a gun. For rural teens, hunting is rite of passage. Pictures of deer and bear they snag always appear on Facebook. And with the spring thaw, turkey season will bring a bunch of new social media posts.

Where will the two divides of anti-gun and pro-gun meet? For the debates are not stopping the killings.

I searched my heart for something pastoral to say to the sobbing teenager sitting next to me. I searched for words of hope to overcome fear. I searched to find a magical way to take away this girl’s brokenness. I searched, but came up empty.

I looked down at my sooty fingers that have been making crosses on foreheads all day and realized there was nothing I could say. I am not God. But God did send us a Savior, to be with us in times like these. To hold us when we are fainting and to comfort us when we are grieving.

God sent us a Savior who reminded us as he went to the cross, that this life is painful and not fair at times. But just when all seems lost, we are given hope. God defeated death. It doesn’t have the last word.

I looked down at my sooty fingers. With my tears joining her tears, I took her hand and with the ash made a sign of the cross on her palm.

From dust we are, to dust we shall return.

I then added, “And God is with us always.”

She closed her hand tightly, holding dearly to the promise of the cross now in her possession.

We did something different for Ash Wednesday. We opened the church for people to drop in when they wanted to throughout the day. Who knew that one broken teenager would seek the solace of the “little white church” in her time of grief?

God knew. And God knows how broken we all are. The question is, what will we do with that brokenness? And when will we go beyond just “thoughts and prayers?”

When will we understand that this life of faith calls for us to live out the faith, to find our voices to speak up and seek change.

To dust we shall return.

But before we do, God has work for us to do. Work in creating a better world for our children to live in. May our prayers be ones in which we ask God to lead us into action, to find ways to listen, understand and move forward in stopping the senseless violence.



This Way of Life: A Little White Church Lenten Journey

Sabbath Rest—A Prayer for You

Lent is a 40-day journey that takes us to the cross of Good Friday. But did you know Sundays are not counted in the 40 days? That’s because Sunday represents a “mini-Easter,” reminding us that we worship on Sunday because it was the first day of the week in which the Risen Lord appeared to the women at the tomb. Thus, early in our worshipping history Sunday was often referred to as Resurrection Day.

And so on our Little White Church Lenten Journey, I want to use these Sundays in Lent as a time to break from the traditional reflections and share with you prayers that I have found meaningful. The one featured today is extra special to me for it is a prayer written by a dear saint I met at the little white church I served. images-1

This prayer came to me one especially trying day in ministry. At first when I saw the email, in which it was sent, I misread it. I read it as if this email was asking for prayer. That’s how my minister brain works—always assuming I’m being called on to pray for others. But as I read it more closely I realized that wasn’t the case. Rather, someone was offering a prayer for me. What made the prayer even more meaningful was this woman, who was new to our family of faith, took the time to write it herself.

And so on an especially trying day in ministry I was reminded I don’t carry the burdens alone—I had a family of faith who were there to carry the burden, lighten the load and share the glorious work of building God’s kingdom together.

Through my tears I read the prayer staring at me on the computer screen, which was lighting up the darkened living room in which I sat. But it was more than just the glow of the computer screen lighting up the room. It was the light of Christ shining from her words that were lighting the darkness on my path.

This prayer was—and still is to me—a powerful testimony to how God’s Spirit was awakening the men and woman of the little white church to new possibilities of being Christ to one another.

And so I share “A Prayer for You,” named after what was in the subject line of the email I opened one night in which I stood in the need of prayer. May this be your prayer as well.

Lenten Blessings,

Pastor Donna aka The Accidental Country Pastor

 Dear Lord, I thank You for this day. I thank You for my being able to wake once again, to see and to hear this morning. I’m blessed because You are a forgiving God and an understanding God. You have done so much for me

and You continue to bless me. Please forgive me every day for anything I have done, said or thought that was not pleasing to you, and I ask now for Your forgiveness.

Please keep me safe from all danger and harm. Help me to start this day with a new attitude and plenty of gratitude. Let me make the best of each and every day to clear my mind so that I can hear from You. Please broaden my mind that I can accept all things. Let me not whine and whimper over things I have no control over.

Let me continue to see sin through God’s eyes and acknowledge it as evil. And when I sin, let me repent, and confess with my mouth my wrongdoing, and receive Your forgiveness. And when this world closes in on me, let me remember Jesus’ example -to slip away and find a quiet place to pray. It’s the best response when I’m pushed beyond my limits. Continue to use me to do Your will. Continue to bless me that I may be a blessing to others.

Keep me strong that I may help the weak. Keep me uplifted that I may have words of encouragement for others. I pray for those that are lost and can’t find their way. I pray for those that are misjudged and misunderstood. I pray for those who don’t know You intimately. I pray for those that don’t believe. But I thank you are in my heart and that I do believe. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

This Way of Life: A Little White Church Lent

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 5—Retreating

It’s the first Sunday in Lent and I find myself just wanting to curl up on the sofa with a good book or some knitting or quilting. I want to curl up and try to chase away thoughts of Sunday morning worship—those unrelenting thoughts of what worked and what didn’t work that keep playing over and over in my head.

Did I really say that when I was really trying to say this? Or why didn’t I go out of my way to say hello to that person who I saw heading out the door because something tugged at my heart to reach out to them? And why did I forget to lift this person during our prayer time?

I try to get all that happened during the worship hour out of my head because what happened or didn’t happen doesn’t really matter. What matters is how present I was to God who called me and how faithful I was in my witness to His love. That is what matters.

But the world has programmed us from an early age to believe that our worth is found in how well we perform, how educated, how pretty, how talented, how…the list goes on and on with all the “how’s” that are imposed—or self imposed—on us. We buy into that “grading” system to the point where we often become our own worst enemies and critique ourselves so harshly we forget we were wonderfully and beautifully made in God’s image.

This just doesn’t happen to pastors. It happens to us all for we all have that never-ending tape playing in our heads about things we could have done better.

And so the sofa cries out to me on this first Sunday in Lent for it is offering me a place to retreat from the world and, more so, a place to retreat from the expectations I place on myself. I just want to withdraw and stop the tape from playing in my head. I look at the book sitting on the coffee table for months, but I have no interest in opening it up to read. I pick up the material for my quilt, but I have no desire to stitch the block at this time. I look at over at the knitting needles sitting in the basket of yarn on the old dry sink. I don’t even bother to pick them up for all I know how to do is knit inconsistent, cock-eyed rows.

I sit on the sofa. It’s the first Sunday in Lent and I just want to curl up and retreat from the world and from myself. And so I decide to do nothing but sit and allow myself to feel God’s arms around me, hugging me back into a place of worthiness. I light a candle and I sit quietly watching the flame flicker.

It’s a Sunday afternoon in Lent and I know I need to retreat when I begin to think my success as a pastor, as a person, as a wife, as a friends, is all based on things I can do, learn and improve upon. I know I need to run into the arms of God for it is only God working through me will I find the sense of worth and accomplishment I seek.

This Way of Life Lenten Challenge: Spend Sunday afternoons in Lent on the sofa—or a favorite chair—or any place that you can find some rest—and allow yourself to retreat from the world and from yourself so that you can draw closer to God discover the beauty of true worth is found only in God.


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 4: Snowdrops

Why do I like the season of Lent so much? There are many reasons, among them are the lessons we can learn in this holy season in which we are asked to go counterculture and retreat from the blaring noise and fast pace of the world around us.

I especially like the lessons we learn when we are invited to walk the wilderness walk with Jesus at a time when going for an actual walk can be hard to do.

Depending on when Easter falls on the calendar (click here to read how that is figured out:http://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/determining-easter-date.html) Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter, can begin as early as February, just when winter is hitting its stride.

And so taking an actual walk out into the frigid cold of God’s country doesn’t sound fun, does it? But it was, especially when the slice of heaven I walked in was where the little white church I pastored called home—an idyllic setting in rural upstate New York on the border of Vermont.

It was there during many Lents that snow would pile up high and actually block a front door (as it did the first winter my husband and I settled into our Vermont home). The back porch exit wasn’t any better. When reconfiguring our picket fence that summer we inadvertently placed the gate door in the vicinity of where the tin roof hung over. You guessed it. Snow loves sliding off of tin roofs and so trying to access the gate that led to the driveway that led to our car was an adventure.

It was there in God’s country during the season of Lent that many times the ice proved to be champion over those ice gripper thingies (for lack of a better word). You know the things you slip over your shoes to prevent you from falling and sliding. Those ice gripper thingies were actually given to me as a “welcome to the neighborhood” gift. I think I tried them once, preferring to amaze those on the street with my graceful moves as I fell to the ground.

And I am sure I shocked the locals when on one particularly frigid Lenten day, when the temperature was a negative 10, I popped in and out of the businesses on Main Street wearing my favorite weekday go-to dress—a cute wool navy blue number from the Gap—stockings to match, riding boots and a fashionable (translation: not warm at all) coat.

I had never experienced double-digit, negative temperatures before and so I didn’t realize how cold, cold could really get. All I remember from that Lenten day when I took my walk on Main Street was the stunned look on the owner’s face when I stopped into the fuel company housed in an old timber building right behind the dilapidated, yet showing good bones, train depot. He glanced up and down and asked, “Are you warm enough, pastor?” To which I said, “Not really.”

I love how Lent comes at a time when actually walking a wilderness walk comes with these blessed challenges of cold, ice and snow. These are challenges that urge me not to give up my walk for the comfort of a warm house or office or church. The harsh elements I venture out into reconnect me with the fact that life is not always easy or comfortable. That often God calls us into harsh elements so that we can train our eyes to see beyond winter’s gray days and look forward to the promise of spring.

For even when it seems the brown patch of frozen ground will never bring forth life again, all of sudden, when you least expect it—and when you need it the most—it appears. Hope in the way of tiny snowdrop sitting on the side of a hill, peeking up to the heavens as if to say to a world sitting in cold for far too long, “Rejoice! Our salvation is near!” Unknown

I love the lessons of Lent that come early on when winter refuses to release its grip on us. I love the lessons of holding on to hope when others say there is no hope to hold on to. I love the lessons of trusting God’s warming love that will not only incubates the seeds beneath the ground, but also incubate the heart that longs to love again.

I love that Lent invites us to walk the wilderness walk with Jesus at a time when actually walking can be a challenge. For it is on such walks we can truly see God—and, if we train our eyes of faith, we may just see a snowdrop singing its song of praise to its Creator.

This Way of Life Lenten Challenge: Go for an actual walk today. Bundle up if it is cold, grab an umbrella if it is raining, but don’t let the elements deter you. Go out into God’s creation (be safe though!) and take note of the beauty all around.