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 Hallowed Halls of ‘Back Then’

It’s a humid and gloomy afternoon. The kind of afternoon in which you just want to sleep away, but I don’t dare pull the covers over my head. I have a sermon to write, to which I’m failing miserably at.

It seems my mind has a mind of its own. It doesn’t want to help me out in coming up with any eloquent prose on the significance of Jesus casting out many demons plaguing a man.I keep wondering why Jesus just didn’t vanquish the demons? Instead, he relocated them to live in a bunch of unsuspecting pigs who were, up to that point, enjoying life—as much as a pig can enjoy life before becoming a slab of bacon.

Can I really write a sermon sympathizing with the pigs? Probably not. I do love bacon. So I say to my mind, “Take me where you want to go.” It does so happily, taking me away from the here and now and into the hallowed halls of “back then,” where memories have the power to either sadden or gladden. I anticipate both happening. For the back then I go to is a country wedding taking place in a little white church five years ago this week.

I can see the sun shining brightly behind the soaring white steeple. Its rays have chased away all of the drizzle-filled clouds that had me, the bride-to-be, biting my manicured nails.

I can see the sanctuary graced with flowers from the gardens of all the dear women who insisted that flowers were needed in each of the windowsills of the old church. Right before the organ begins the first notes to the bridal procession, I smile with approval at one of the white-haired ladies smiling back at me.

This was one occasion I was glad she didn’t listen to me when I said we didn’t need flowers in the sanctuary. We did need them. I needed them. For they weren’t flowers bought from a florist, arranged in a stiff, artificial way. They were flowers collected with love from local fields and hills and gardens, gathered in bunches and placed in vases that have been hanging around the church for countless years. I bet those vases were happy to be out of the cupboards and once again part of a memory-making day.

I can see the many flower girls. They are a picture of perfection with their floral wreaths in their hair and their cream colored dresses tied with champagne-colored sashes. Perfection is fleeting though. Soon shoes come off, sashes untie and floral wreaths wilt as the girls play outside on the church lawn. In these hallowed halls of “back then” I spot a picture and stop and stare. Some of the girls are sitting on the wooden rail, with dirty bare feet telling of one fun afternoon. There’s that gladness mixed with sadness, as time has turned these girls into young ladies. That means, I too, have grown older.

I can see the tables in fellowship hall filled with homemade treats that would put to shame feasts typical at an Amish barn raising. I can see my mom and dad beaming with joy. I can see my husband’s parents smiling, with a tear or two. I can see the family of faith gathered who that day became more of a family than I had ever realized. I can see my sister and my new teenage daughter standing together as bridesmaids, bonding over all the stress I put them through in finding the right shade of antique pink for their dresses. And I can see the man God had waiting for me through all those years of heartache and loneliness. There he is standing at the front of the church, my friend, my partner, my love, waiting to begin life together.

I can see it all. And if I allow myself to enter more deeply into the hallowed halls of “back then,” I don’t only see. I can smell those flowers collected with lots of love. I can hear the flower girls laughing on the lawn of the church. I can feel my father’s hand as I grabbed it tightly to walk down the aisle with him. I can taste the rich vanilla in the wedding cake baked by a friend from a neighboring church. I can feel the hugs of all those who have journeyed with me. I can hear God whispering a promise I had often been deaf to.

I am with you…always.

I drift back to the gloomy here and now. I am gladdened and saddened. Where have the five years gone? I wonder about decisions made. Things I could have done differently and should have done differently. Words that should have been said and should have never been said. Dreams still being dreamed and hopes still being hoped. Home still waiting to wrap its arms around me and my husband.

My mind is not quite ready to focus on Jesus, demons or pigs, so I linger a bit more in the hallowed halls of back then, realizing I do so not to live in the past. I do so in order to gain strength for the future, to remember God who has done so much for me is not yet done with me. It’s to help me hear God’s whispered promise of being with me that I need to hear especially on these gloomy here and now kind of days.

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A picture from the hallowed halls of “back then”…a country wedding in a little white church, where flower girls played all afternoon on the church lawn.

 

 

Rocking Chairs

Drive in circles. Round and round. Airport’s long-term parking lot finally found. Park the car. Write down the parking space number so that I will remember where my car is upon my trip back. Hop on the shuttle bus to the terminal. Hop off the shuttle bus. Weave my way through the long lines. Check in. Check bag. Check. It’s done.

Now take off shoes, take out laptop, turn on cell phone, place in bins. Go through airport security. Put shoes back on. Double check that all my belongings are out of the bins and are once again in my possession. Find some coffee. Rush off to gate.

Almost there…almost there.

Pick up pace. Time is ticking. Mind is racing. Nothing noteworthy to share. Just racing with mindless clutter. Pace picks up, time ticks on, mind continues racing…faster, faster.

Almost there…yes, almost there.

Slam on brakes. Screeching halt. What is this? images

Rocking chairs. The kind you would find on an old farmhouse porch; not in an airport terminal. But there they are. Rocking chairs lined up in a row begging for busy travelers to stop and rest. There they are. Lined up in a row—empty.

Rocking chairs. The kind that makes me remember a simpler way of life that a family of faith in a little white church invited me to be part of years ago.

The kind I remember sitting in while sipping a root beer float well-renowned in the village and beyond, lovingly made by the elderly hands of a farmer’s wife/potter/artist/one amazing woman.

The kind in which I ate melting ice cream over a just-out-of-the-oven berry cobbler.

The kind in which I heard stories of the years when crops were good and the years they were not so good.

The kind in which a long-retired farmer and I would simply sit and listen to the rustling of cornstalks in the hot summer wind.

The kind that invited confession as painful secrets were shared. The kind that granted assurance of pardon as old misunderstandings were rocked away.

The kind I would sit in every night on my very own country porch listening to peepers and watching fireflies light up the sky. The kind I would sit in crying my tears to God. The kind I would sit in singing my praises to God. The kind I would sit in wondering how it was that God led me to this way of life—to my heart’s desire.

Rocking chairs in an airport. Empty.

They’re preaching an important message, but the message is falling on the deaf ears of travelers only concerned with getting to their next “almost there.” But no one seems to stop long enough to look around and ask, “Where exactly is the ‘there’ I’m going to?”

I hear the message, though. I hear it loud and clearly.

Time IS ticking. Slow your pace and ease your mind.

The rocking chair beckons. I sit and I rock. The movement is soothing. My rushed breathing slows. I close my eyes.

Peace that has been missing like a suitcase stuck in some proverbial airport baggage purgatory, reclaims its owner. Peace reclaims me.

Back and forth I rock.

All of a sudden I am sipping that famous root beer float. I taste the berry cobbler once again. I know exactly where those berries were hand-picked. I was there. I have the berry stained shirt still. I hear now the rustling of the cornstalks drowning out the airport noise around me. I see the weathered face of that dear long-retired farmer. I notice his cataract-clouded eyes gazing longingly for glimpses of days gone by. I join him in that search.

I search. I rock.

I rock. I search.

The rocking chair’s sermon is being preached.

Time IS ticking. Slow your pace and ease your mind. Almost there. Yes, almost to the ‘there’ I want to be.

It’s the place where my shattered heart was lovingly pieced together by a precious gift called God’s grace. It’s the place where my steps began to move in sync with that of the Holy Spirit. It’s the place where divine fellowship was shared in the guise of a root beer float and berry cobbler. It’s the place where a rocking chair on a country porch waits for me to come home to. For me to sit and pray awhile.

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.

 

The Thanksgiving Quilt

 

A sense of accomplishment began welling up inside of me. There I was running the last lap and the finish line was in sight. In my case, there I was sewing the last lap of my second quilt, piecing and stitching by hand the dreaded binding, which for me—a self-taught, novice quilter—was tricky beyond tricky.  IMG_1565

Just as a runner’s legs grow mushy in a race, my fingers were mushing up from the repetitious sprinting they were doing. With a thimble protecting only one finger, the others had to put up with the constant pain of being pricked by a needle. It was especially painful when the needle inadvertently stuck under the nail of my thumb. “Ouch” wasn’t the only word being uttered under my breath, making my husband look up from his reading and lovingly chide me with what I already knew.

“You may want to rethink holding a quilting group at the church if that is what comes out of your mouth.” It was then I wondered about all those faded black and white pictures of women quilting I would gaze at as a child.

My mind romanticized the quilting circle, picturing a serene gathering in what would be the house of my dreams—12 over 12 Colonial windows (no post-1840’s sash windows for me, thank you!) with a bucolic view of rolling hills where from a distance the echoing of bells could be heard ringing from the necks of the grazing sheep; wide plank floors with a warm patina that comes with age and that gives off a sweet, pine scent when the room is warm; a stone fireplace complete with a loaf of bread rising in the bread oven; and, if the quilting group lingered to dusk, beeswax candles, hand dipped of course, would be lit to guide each little stitch. I never wondered till now, as the needle slid under my thumbnail once again, if those women in bustled and hooped dresses with high lace collars sitting serenely in a quilting circle were indeed as serene as they looked. I wondered how many hurting thumbs and calloused fingers were in those faded pictures.

With my own hurting thumb and another finger completely calloused, I continued towards the goal of getting this quilt done. I was sprinting because I had wanted to surprise my mom with this quilt at our Thanksgiving gathering. It was going to be a special gathering this year for it would be the first time in many years in which my brother-in-law, a newly retired police officer not having to work holidays anymore—would be at the table with us. We would all once again be seated at the table in the dining room of the house I grew up in. When was the last time that happened? I couldn’t remember.

Life has been so crazy for far too many years it seemed, with everyone running in so many different directions. But there comes a time in your life when you realize you have the power to stop all the busy craziness that keeps families scattered. There comes a time when you realize time is not in abundance. The time we have together is scarce and so the time to stop wasting the days, the hours, the minutes to be with those you love is right now.

For time together creates the memories we will need to draw upon later for strength when a grieving or broken heart feels it has no strength to go on. And like little scraps of fabric, time is sewn together into a beautiful quilt of memories that comforts you, heals you, hugs you when the arms you want to hug you are no longer there. But we throw away little scraps of everything—even time—don’t we?

I guess my new-found realization of the limited time we have is a sign of growing older, right up there with the reading glasses that have all of a sudden appeared on my bedside table. Or perhaps my awareness of time slipping by comes with being a minister for when I stand with family by the grave of a loved one, I am reminded that I need to get better at treasuring the time I have with those I love. I need to stop wasting my days with problems and petty nonsense that admittedly get too much power in my life, edging out what really matters. I need to hold on to the “scraps” so that I will have my own quilt of memories to wrap myself in when I need to.

Yes, I was sprinting to get this quilt done so that I could surprise my mom with it at this year’s Thanksgiving gathering. I guess in a way I wanted my mom to have a surrogate hug from me for all those times I could not be there to give her a real one. I wanted my mom to know that while I now don’t get to see her as much as I once did, I think about her always. I was stitching more than fabric. I was stitching love and hugs together. “Ouch!” followed by “!#&!!#!!$!”

You guessed it. The needle stuck under my thumb again. The last lap of this quilt had hit a snag as I tried to straighten out a very crooked binding. I stopped to take a breath and regain my focus. I had to get this Thanksgiving quilt done. As I went to pick up the fabric again, Sofie, my old bumbling Bernese Mountain dog, sauntered over and decided to plop herself down on top of the quilt spread out on the floor. Before I could scoot her off (try quilting with a 98-pound dog on top of the material), she nuzzled her head into the fabric and rolled around a couple of times and then she nuzzled some more before letting out a loud sigh of contentment. She rested her sweet head on top of her front paws and nuzzled her nose deeper into patches of calico. It almost looked as if she was praying. With head still resting on two front paws, she lifted only her eyes up towards me and gazed at me with a look of peace, of love, of joy born out of treasuring the simple things in life like scraps of material pieced together to make a surrogate hug for someone I loved.

It was then I realized I had reached the finish line. The crooked binding was fine just the way it was, and I know my mother would agree for how many times had she taken a cock-eyed, taped together, hanging by one thread gift from me with the words, “This is just beautiful, Donna.”

The sense of accomplishment welled up inside of me. The Thanksgiving quilt stitched out of love had now received the best finishing touch ever. This was a quilt blessed by Sofie. What better gift to give to my mom than that?