Day 9—Making Room for Christ

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 9

On one blustery afternoon as the sun began setting in the sky casting a dusky pink across the fields where the corn stalks had been cut down, I came home to grab a quick bite to eat before heading back to the little white church for our evening Advent Bible study.


Pastor Donna discovers the beauty of a tree with no decorations and, in the process, realizes what it means to make room for Christ during Christmas.

I decided to have a supper of crackers and peanut butter so that I could use my limited time at home to set up the Christmas tree that had been waiting for far too long outside, propped patiently against the old stone well of the antique Vermont house my husband and I were now making our home in as newlyweds.

On went my Mucks and out into the snow I trekked to bring in the tree. Once in, off came the Mucks and on went my sneakers as I gingerly made my way down the steep ladder that served as the “stairs” leading into the old root cellar. Down in the cellar, in the dark corners only illuminated by my flashlight, I searched for the tree stand, praying I would not find a critter—fuzzy or slithering—instead.

Once I had everything I needed, I went to work, carefully balancing the tree with one hand as I tightened the screws that would hold the trunk of the tree securely in its place in the tree stand. This would have been a lot easier if I had waited for my husband, but patience admittedly is not one of my virtues. And time was ticking by. I had a lot of other things to get done. In the darkening living room I worked quickly to put the white lights on the tree. Quickly is an understatement as really I threw the lights on with many tangles and knots still tangled and knotted. Then I plugged them in hoping the lights worked as I had forgotten to test them before stringing them on the tree. Never a good idea, but luckily, all the lights shone.

I stepped back and I looked at the tree. It was absolutely beautiful. The lights cast a warm glow against the rustic barn wood of the living room walls and the simplicity of evergreen and white lights, without any ornaments, was dazzling.

Next to the tree was an old wood storage box a woman from the congregation gave me that summer, along with a dry sink she had in her family that she thought would be perfect for our little Vermont home. She was right. It was perfect. The dry sink was now home in our kitchen while the wood storage box now served as a coffee table in our living room. On top of it I placed the wooden stable my father made for me years ago when I was still living in Manhattan.

The stable was a smaller replica of the one he made that I remembered from my childhood. Both the original and my replica were made from the wood of orange crates, which were then stained a deep rich brown. The stable was still empty, as the nativity figures were not placed in it yet. Next to the stable was an angel standing with arms stretched out. I couldn’t decide if the angel’s arms were stretched out to receive the Christ Child or to proclaim the great news of the Christ Child. Perhaps it was both, I mused.

The lights of the tree shone through the clapboards of the stable, casting much needed light into its darkened corners that awaited the gift of hope—the babe, God’s son. All of a sudden, as I stared into that empty manger aglow with light, the busyness of my day was calmed and my racing thoughts of what I had to do next faded away.

There I stood with the smell of evergreen, the white lights shining and a stable waiting to be filled with the joy of little baby. No tinsel. No ornaments. Not even a star on top of the tree. I stood in the midst of the simplicity of the season experiencing something I very rarely experience this busy time of year. I was experiencing peace.

It was then I realized the peace of Christmas is something we must not wait to come to us. It is something we have to actively seek out and create. It is something we have to choose to bring into our lives by slowing down, saying “no” to too many commitments, and even allowing ourselves the permission, if we want, to simply leave white lights on a tree without the decorations.

For when we embrace the beauty found in the simplicity of undecorated tree, when we pare down all the busyness that we think heralds in the holidays, we discover what “doing” Christmas is really all about: It’s about keeping things simple in our complicated lives so that finally there is room for Christ in our hearts.

Just then my thoughts were interrupted as I heard the dog barking at the back door, greeting my husband home from work. My husband peeked his head in from the kitchen and smiled.

“The tree looks wonderful,” he said, not even noticing there were no decorations on it.

“It does look wonderful. I don’t think we need to do anything else to it, do you?” I said.

“Nope,” he said, not even giving the tree a second look.

I looked at my watch. It was time for me to go. On went my snow boots and off I went to our Advent Bible study at the little white church. I couldn’t wait to get there because I just couldn’t wait to share with those gathered there that night the powerful gift I had received—the gift of peace that came wrapped in simplicity.

In our little Vermont home, Christmas was indeed happening. Room was being made in our lives for Christ.



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.