A Little White Church Good Friday Reflection

It was a powerful night for those gathered at the little white church to do something different for Maundy Thursday. They gathered in the fellowship hall, better known as Mackenzie Chapel, named so after the man whose grim looking picture, hanging on its walls, had caused many a child to ask, “Pastor Donna, are his eyes following us?”

Of course, they were teasing me claiming that the famous friendly ghost that haunted the school came down the street for an occasional visit to the church. There was plenty of hallowed ground in the little village with a Revolutionary War cemetery greeting visitors upon their arrival as well as stories of which old house was indeed an underground railroad stop.

But on this holy night an intimate group gathered in the chapel for something different: a quiet candlelight supper to recall the Passover meal Jesus celebrated with his disciples on the night of his betrayal and arrest.

It was powerful as we gathered and got to better understand the symbolism in the items on the traditional Seder plate and how Jesus was about to add a layer of new meaning to what was with what was about to be.

The bitter herbs of tears shed long ago in Egypt foreshadowing the bitter tears that would be shed at the foot of the cross. The lamb sacrificed for the meal foreshadowing THE lamb to be slaughtered. The last cup of Passover wine now the cup of the new covenant poured out in Jesus’ blood—there was a strong sense of the Spirit moving among those at the table who came seeking deeper meaning and deeper understanding. We were not just on hallowed ground. We were standing on holy ground. Together. And there were angles all around.

As was recorded in scripture, we then, too, sang a hymn after supper and made our way outdoors. The sweet smell of a spring night was strong. The daffodils and hyacinths from Easters past, planted by the white picket fence of the church’s parking lot, were in full bloom. A bird fluttered by and in the silence of the circle we made a little girl couldn’t contain her excitement any longer.

“Mommy, listen to the peepers!”

The beauty of God’s creation was all around us and yet we were outside to remember the agony of Jesus who, in night air similar to ours, prayed to his Father to take this cup of suffering away.

With the chorus of peepers in the background, I read the words I knew those in the circle have whispered or pleaded or cried out many times before. I read the words that were at times in my life all too familiar.

“Father, please let this cup of suffering pass. But not according to my will, but your will be done.”

The words wafted into the air. We closed in prayer. The stars appeared.

I will always remember that night for those gathered at the little white church because it was a night in which they dared to do something different in terms of worshipping God. To do something different not to attract more people, but do something different that was born out of the desire to have a deeper and quieter prayer experience on such a holy night.

It was a powerful night.

But how many powerful nights like that have we missed all because we went along with the crowd and didn’t listen to how our Spirits needed to be fed?

I have come realize more and more the worse thing we can do individually or collectively is squash the Spirit of God by not listening to what the Spirit is calling us to do—even if it means doing something different, even for just this one time.

And so as I stare at today’s wooden cross in a time of prayer on this Good Friday, I remember one powerful night at the little white church. I remember a little girl’s excitement at the peepers. I remember the incredible sense that we were together standing in the presence of the Holy One. I remember our prayers. But most of all I remember the divine silence.

I look at the cross of Good Friday and I remember my need to be true to God and be who God is asking me to be. I realize, too, for God to truly work through me, I need to do something very important.images-1.jpg

I need to nail to the cross my fears and doubts and insecurities. I need to leave behind that little voice that says, “You can’t do…” this or that.

For isn’t the cross our reminder of ALL God CAN do?

On this Good Friday I remember one powerful night at the little white church that changed me, shaped me and inspired me.

It is now time for me to once again be changed, shaped and inspired. It’s time to let go of the darkness that led to goodness being nailed to a cross. It’s time to be led by God’s Spirit into a new day filled with light and love.

Good Friday Reminder:  Until the joy of Easter morning comes, be still and know that God, even in darkness, is still God. 

Day 21—A Circle of Light

A Little White Church Christmas

As we approach Christmas Eve, hear the stories of God incarnate working in and among the people of the little white church nestled in a village in Upstate New York. These stories of “Emmanuel”—God with us—were gathered during Donna Frischknecht’s time serving as minister of a historic white clapboard church right on the border of Vermont, from 2007-2013.

December 21

I spoke the last word of my Christmas Eve sermon and as I did I secretly breathed a sigh of relief. No matter how long one has been at his or her craft—Christmas Eve worship always brings a bit of anxiety.There’s the anxiety of trying to tell the old familiar story in a fresh, new way. images

(Reminder to self: just let God’s Word speak, don’t get cute or fancy. Just be real.)

Then there is the anxiety of what if this would the night in which for the first time ever I blank out up there and forget everything. That’s an anxiety leftover from seminary days.

(Reminder to self: it has yet to happen and so it probably will never happen.)

Then there’s the anxiety of new faces staring back at you from the pews, many of whom probably have no interest in what the church offers beyond Christmas Eve. I have come to realize those who find themselves gathered in a church on that holy night are often gathered out of a sense of tradition, which is not bad at all.

(Reminder to self: the Holy Spirit can work—and does reach hearts—with those simply seeking tradition.)

My task is not to convert people on Christmas Eve. My task is to be as faithful as I can in the telling God’s story of salvation and let my own knowledge of that salvation and grace, speak through me.

Still I have a healthy awareness as to where the Christmas Eve sermon ranks in importance for those gathered to worship.

(Note to self: keep Christmas Eve sermon on the shorter side.)

I would say the sermon is probably at No. 3, right behind wanting to hear the old familiar songs of Christmases past sung once again.

What’s the No. 1 reason many come to church on Christmas Eve?

They come for that incredibly moving moment when the lights go out in the sanctuary. Then, with only the radiant beams shining from hundreds of individual candles, “Silent Night” is softly sung by young and old, believer and doubter, broken and whole, joyful and sorrowful, sinner and saint.

And nowhere more was this beloved tradition so beautifully executed than at the little white church.

It was there that I, a new pastor, was introduced to a new tradition I had never experienced before.

As I was planning my first Christmas Eve, I was told by the faithful and hardworking Worship Committee that while I basically had free reign to do whatever new thing I wanted to do that night, I was not to change how they did the candles during “Silent Night.”

“First we have communion,” said one woman in a way that told me she was used to being in charge. “We have two chalices, one for grape juice and one for wine.”

“We have to remember to put a red bow on the wine chalice so that people know which cup has the alcohol and which one doesn’t,” another committee member chimed in.

(Note to self: remember to announce that on Christmas Eve as well as print the red-bow chalice information in the worship bulletin.)

“Okay,” I said, agreeing with everything so far.

“And then we light our candles from the Christ candle and we begin making a circle all around the sanctuary,” the woman with the drill sergeant voice continued.

(Note to you the reader: This woman with the gruff voice turned out to be one of the most blessed angels in my ministry while at the little white church. I always smile whenever I think of her.)

“You don’t go back to your pews?” I asked, trying to envision the circle being made as folks come up for communion, while others took their lighted candles up the aisles of a church made out of timber some 200-plus years old. I was fond of that church and really didn’t want to see any fires on Christmas Eve.

“Yes,” she said in a way that told me I shouldn’t have questioned it.

“We’ve always done it this way, pastor,” yet another committee member added.

“But what about safety issues?” I asked ever so gently.

“You just have be careful with your candle,” was the reply.

“What about those who have trouble walking and have to remain seated in the pew? We can’t leave them out of the candle lighting?” I asked, thinking of my handicapped brother who would visiting that Christmas Eve and who definitely would be that person forgotten in this beautiful, beloved tradition.

“No problem. Whoever has to remain seated, will stay seated. An elder will light their candle and stay with them as sort of an extension of the circle,” was the reply back.

“Oh, okay. That’s a wonderful solution,” I said, still not certain as to how this was all going to play out on Christmas Eve.

And so I spoke the last word of my Christmas Eve sermon and as I did I secretly breathed a sigh of relief. That part was done. Now, though, there was the angst of the singing of “Silent Night” and the circle of light that would be made in the sanctuary.

Now more than ever I had to trust God.

(Note to self: I am just an instrument. Let God work on this holy night.)

And work He did.

Young and old, believer and doubter, broken and whole, joyful and sorrowful, sinner and saint, all came up to break the bread, then dip in either of the two chalices (the one with the red bow was quite popular), and then light their candle.

Back up the side aisles they began to go. I really couldn’t pay much attention to the formation of the circle, as I was busy administering the sacrament. By the time all were served the bread and the cup, it was time for me to light my candle and say a prayer before the singing of “Silent Night” began.

I looked up and out at the sanctuary for the first time. I couldn’t speak. My throat choked up with emotion and I had to fight the tears.

Before my eyes was an unbroken circle of pure light, with faces all beaming, especially the faces from those on the Worship Committee, who looked at me as if to say, “Isn’t this beautiful? See, you had nothing to worry about, pastor.”

All come for this Christmas Eve moment in which something more powerful than tradition happens—the light of Christ, if only throughout the four or five stanzas of “Silent Night”, is seen by eyes often blind to it.

The smile from a teen as God whispers blessed assurances that life will get better.

The tear coming from the elderly woman as God’s arms wrap around her when her husband’s arms can no longer hug her.

The child, who is fighting his mom to hold his own candle, is finally given the light. He quiets down and holds the light with reverence and awe, as God’s Spirit lights up the world before him.

My brother, seated in the pew, but not alone. The light of Christ shining forth on him in the way of the candle of a church member who chose to stand by him.

Each person, even if it is just for the four or five stanzas in which “Silent Night” is sung, can see the Christ light in their lives.

The little white church’s beloved tradition had become mine. And every year I couldn’t wait to see the circle of light in that historic sanctuary, a reminder of God’s never-ending love upon Christ’s church and its people.

 

 

Day 20—An Advent Prayer

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 20

On this the fourth Sunday in Advent, I invite you to light the candle of love on the Advent wreath (or simply light one lone candle) and join with me in saying this prayer written by one of my favorite authors, Henri Nouwen.

 Lord Jesus,

Master of both the light and the darkness, 
send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.


We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day.

We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us.

We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom.


We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence.

We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.


To you we say, “Come Lord Jesus!”

 Our advent journey has now become a holy walk to the stable. And so join in tomorrow for the countdown to Christmas Day with “A Little White Church Christmas.”

For now, many thanks for joining me this advent. It has been a blessing for me to share with you the heartfelt God moments that took place—and continue taking place—at the little white church.

And now  I have a candle to light and an Advent prayer to lift up. I hope you take time to do the same.

Till tomorrow.

Blessings and peace,

Pastor Donna (one very grateful “accidental country pastor”)IMG_1828

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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Prayer Pumpkins

I wonder how old the little boy is now? Let’s see. It’s been seven years since we started Pumpkinfest for God, which would mean…(counting the years on my fingers)…which would mean, yikes, it can’t be. He must be in high school now.

The years have gone by but much to my surprise and joy there in the yard of a once little boy was a huge selection of pumpkins, organized neatly by size, sitting in various corners of the yard. I have come to look forward to seeing this festive fall display on the winding country road that led one out of New York state and into Vermont and vice versa. The sight of all these homegrown pumpkins by one little boy was for me the official kick off to fall. I felt the same childlike excitement as I felt with Santa’s arrival at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, which when I was a child ushered in the official start of Christmas. We all know nowadays Christmas comes way before the fall pumpkins. Don’t even get me going with whatever happened to Thanksgiving.

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Pumpkins shine forth an inspirational message on All Hallows Eve as a little rural church’s witnesses to the hundreds of trick or treaters.

Should I stop? I really don’t need any pumpkins for I was no longer the pastor of the little white church in which hosted Pumpkinfest for God.

Ah…Pumpkinfest for God. That was one of the many ideas that came to me on my habitual morning run on the treadmill at the gym. It was early on my ministry and the little rural village had the tradition of welcoming hundreds of trick-or-treaters. From the ghoulish to the cutest, children of all ages from surrounding villages came to Salem (not Massachusetts, but New York was the village I served in) for there was the guarantee of plenty of candy to be collected. The first year I was there we did what every other house or business did. We set up a table and made sure we had plenty of candy. The following year, though, I wanted to do more. I wanted our church to have more of a presence. I wanted us in some way to reach all these children—there were indeed hundreds—with some word of hope, some message of the good news, some non-threatening and definitely not in your face message that God is good all the time and Christ’s love is there for all.

There was a church down the block from us serving up hot dogs. That was their tradition. It was a good one for God does indeed feed not just the body but the soul as well. Then there was this trying-to-start-up-non-denominational church up the road who was against Halloween, but used this night in which hundreds of children descended upon the village to hand out religious tracts asking if they knew they were saved. With free hot dogs on one side of our church and religious tracts on the other, how could we be a light of Christ on All Hallows Eve?

Light. Pumpkins. Ever since I was a little girl I have adored jack o’lanterns. I looked forward to the day my parents took us kids pumpkin picking. And when Halloween drew near, we would line the kitchen table with newspaper and have a family pumpkin-carving party, which would end with a mess in the kitchen and all of us standing in the crisp night air admiring our lit creations.

What if we, the church, carved an inspirational message in the pumpkins, lined them up in front of our old historic building, right by the table in which we offered candy, and lit them up for all to see?

Pumpkinfest for God was born! The first year we posted the inspirational message on the bulletin board, one letter on one piece of construction paper, and asked folks to take one letter and carve it into a medium to large pumpkin and bring it back with a candle in it before dusk on the night of the festivities. Strong winds, however, blew that night and candles were being snuffed out. Fretting over this failure only lasted a second as a farmer quickly came to the rescue and showed up with a drill in one hand and white Christmas lights in the other.

Soon the Christmas lights were fed through the pumpkins and, thanks to a very long extension cord, the message illumined the darkening night.

The response was amazing as little children were drawn to the pumpkins. Those who couldn’t read would ask, “Mommy, what does that say?” Moms, who were surprised as to what they were seeing, leaned down to their child and told the good news, “Jesus lights the way.”

Soon Pumpkinfest for God became our church’s beloved tradition with every year a different message being lit up. One year, volunteers bought the pumpkins. Another year a local farm allowed us to glean the pumpkins from their fields. And yet another year, I stopped at this little boy’s home where the festive fall display had always caught my eye.

It was the year I challenged the church to stop thinking in terms of what can we get free from the community. Instead, to start thinking how the church can help local business owners who daily faced the heroic struggle of doing business in an area in which it seemed almost impossible.

So there I was ready to load up my car with 20 pumpkins and then some. Pumpkin by pumpkin I hoisted into the back of my Subaru, and as each was hoisted I lifted a prayer. I prayed for this little boy who grew these pumpkins year after year. I prayed for his family. I prayed for the youth group who was in charge of coming up with the inspirational message and the carving of the pumpkins that year. I prayed for the children who would be coming into our village. I prayed that in some way this message would indeed be the light for someone walking in darkness. I prayed for the little village I served asking God to bless it. Pumpkin by pumpkin a prayer was lifted.

I was ready to go. There was a problem though. No one was home and pumpkin purchases were made on the honor system. A little boy’s chicken scratched note read, “Leave the money in the metal box. Thank you.” The metal box had no lock on it, no slit in which to place the money securely into it. Nothing. I stood there with a crisp $100 bill, way more than what the total came to for the prices of these pumpkins were the best around. I hesitated leaving the money, but I couldn’t wait around. I looked at my watch and knew that soon the little boy would be home from school. So I took the chance. In went the $100 bill among the ones and fives and quarters that were already there. I smiled as I wondered what this little boy’s reaction would be when he saw that much money in his metal box.

It was then I prayed one more pumpkin prayer. It was a prayer of thanks that God had opened the hearts of our congregation to bless this little boy with such a generous gift of gratitude for the work he had done growing pumpkins. I thanked God for providing our church, which faced the same daily struggles as the businesses in the village faced, with means in which to do this wonderful act of generosity. I prayed a pumpkin prayer that day simply thanking God for the beauty of being connected to one another and the joy there is when we realize that connection and we help one another out.

One, two, three…yep, seven years have gone by since Pumpkinfest for God started. The little boy isn’t little anymore, but he is still growing the best pumpkins around. I looked at my watch. He is still in school. I slowed the car down. Should I stop?

I did. Pumpkin prayers were lifted once again. And a little boy who is not so little anymore had yet another surprise waiting for him in his now rusted metal box.