A Little White Church Maundy Thursday Reflection

I know you will make the right decision.

You have great faith.images-1.jpg

I looked at the text again. It was from an old friend whom I haven’t spoken to in a while. My first reaction was to scoff at her words. Me? Great faith? If only she knew of my struggles in that department lately, wondering where God was…wondering more as to what in heaven’s name was God up to.

My scoffing softened though. Tears soon came from my eyes dropping onto the screen of my iPhone blurring the message before me.

I’ve heard these words before.

Helen was her name. She was 92 years old when I came to the little white church. I remember her age well because on my first Sunday during announcements it was brought up that it was her birthday. I, being a brand new pastor, said with a smile, “Well, happy birthday, Helen!”

To which this petite, white haired woman replied, “What’s so good about it? I’m another year older!” Seminary never prepared me for this and so I stood there with a smile still on my face, praying for a quick quip or two to get us moving along in the service.

To say Helen had spunk would be an understatement, and I soon discovered she had more than just spunk. Helen had an amazing heart and a faith that was stronger than nails.

The family farm in which she was matriarch of for so many decades was on the winding country road to and from my first home, the primitive Colonial saltbox, to the little white church.

Late afternoons on my way home I would stop in to say hello. Walking through the mudroom where barn boots lined the wall, I would see her sitting at the kitchen table where in front of her was a large window giving her the most beautiful vistas of the farm. There we would sit and I would hear the most amazing stories of life back then. I would hear about how the farm dated back to the 1700s. I would hear about the frigid winter evening when her husband and her snuck off late into the night to go sledding as the children slept. And how one very icy hill turned out to be a mistake, as they crashed and got all mangled up.

“Not smart, but fun,” she would say.

I would hear all about the joys and challenges of farming, and I would hear all about her great love for the little white church and her hopes she had for it. Hopes for a bright future.

She cared deeply for her church family, as was evident in all the newsletters and bulletins from the little white church strewn on the kitchen table. She kept up to date with everything I was doing as pastor.

One spring day when the grass was just turning green and mud season was subsiding, we just sat at the kitchen table in silence. Both of us staring out of the window, watching the birds fluttering about for an afternoon snack in the many bird feeders Helen had hanging out in the yard.

“Helen,” I said quietly breaking the silence.

“Yes,” she replied just as quietly, with both of our eyes still staring at the birds before us.

“I can’t do this without you,” I said, referring to the high hopes she had for the little white church that I felt were weighing down on me as pastor. “I don’t have the strong faith you have, and so I am asking you to be my prayer warrior.”

Still looking out the window, her reply came. Short and sweet, with no further discussion or emotion or hugs of thanks.

“I can do that.”

Silence and then…

“But you don’t need me. God is with you.”

Truth was, I didn’t feel God was with me. I needed Helen’s strong faith to sustain me.

Spring turned to summer. Summer to fall. Fall to another winter. Time marched forward adding more life to the little white church and with it two more blessed years to Helen’s life. Until one morning in early summer when it became clear the song Helen would soon be hearing would not be from her beloved birds outside the big kitchen window, but rather from God’s heavenly chorus of angels.

I came to her bedside at the nursing home and sat there quietly. She opened her eyes and took my hand. In her labor state of passing from this world to the next, I leaned over to her and selfishly pleaded with her not to leave me. She was my prayer warrior. What would I do without her?

Helen, full of spunk even towards the end, grasped my hand tighter and said, “God is with you. You have strong faith.”

I gently leaned down and kissed her forehead and lifted a prayer of praise and thanks for God’s servant who had ran an incredible race. I didn’t want to say good bye and so I whispered to her, “See you later.”

I stood in the hall of the nursing home sobbing, trying hard to hold on to her words to me.

God is with you. You have strong faith.

Helen has been on my mind this week we call “Holy.” It’s a week in which we will walk with our Savior to the cross where death cannot be averted. Endings. Good byes. Failed hopes. Failed dreams. Everything and anything that tests our faith in a good and loving God will be taunting us from the cross. For there Jesus hangs and as he does we must believe God is still with us. We must have strong faith.

Strong faith in Jesus. The disciples’ prayer warrior.

Jesus. The one with spunk who challenged those in the world to think differently.

Jesus. Who broke bread with them before he died and asked for them to remember him. Remember the trust in God he lived by. Remember the power of prayer. Remember his promise to be with us always.

Helen, on her deathbed, was asking me to remember, too. To remember her faith came from her knowledge of a loving and gracious God. To remember that while my beloved prayer warrior was leaving me, I had something with me always. God.

If we can share in the bitter sting of betrayal guised in the breaking of bread with Jesus, go to the garden to plead for this cup to pass, walk to the cross and not flee as the clouds of despair and gloom set in, if we can do all this, if we can hold on and trust even when it seems we have no more trust to hold on to, then we too will know what Helen knew so well in life.

Your faith is strong.

For God is with you.

Now and forever.

Maundy Thursday Challenge: Take time today to be still before God. Listen to the birds. Feel the wind on your cheek. Gaze at the spring flowers. And know your faith is strong, even if it doesn’t feel that way. God has not abandoned you.

Day 16—God Knows the Plan

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 16

Her life seemed to be one struggle after another, with never a moment to catch her breath and process all that was going on. Nagging health issues and mounting bills added to the stress of this newly single mom.

She had the faith of the most battle ready prayer warrior, but even such a warrior stands in the need of intercessions to God from time to time. She was now standing before me, in desperate need of prayer.

I had just come back from a pastoral visit that not only had me physically drained, but emotionally drained as well as I realized one of the saints of the little white church was soon to get his crown of gold. It’s hard being a pastor who falls in love with one’s church for love always comes with heartache.

With the recent visit on my mind I opened the door to the chapel that served as the main gathering hall for all our functions from chicken and biscuit dinners to vacation bible school to Bible studies to just simply hanging out sharing our stories of faith over one of my infamously high octane cups of coffee. Seriously, we’re talking strong coffee to the point I didn’t take offense when the dear souls who accepted a cup from me would go to the kitchen faucet and add a bit of tap water to temper it a bit.

While I was surprised to see her standing there, her eyes told me she was relieved and grateful to see me.

“Pastor Donna,” was all she could get out before sobbing. I had no idea what had happened, but managed to get bits and pieces from her in between the sobs. She had been very close to her breaking point but now the season of “be of good cheer” made her finally break.

“I can’t do it anymore. I just don’t understand why God is not showing me the way. Why, Pastor Donna, why isn’t God answering me?” she yelled with painful defeat in her voice.

Did I mention loving those in your church always breaks your heart? Well, my heart broke for this mother and I never felt so useless as in that moment when I stood there with her in the chapel not knowing how to answer her because from where I stood I had to agree with her. God just didn’t seem to be giving any answers.

I am not sure how it happened, but in an instant I took her hand and told her to come with me into the sanctuary for some time of prayer.

In retrospect, I like give credit to the Holy Spirit nudging me to do this because the Spirit just couldn’t stand watching me be useless any longer. So into the sanctuary we went.

The large room with its 18th century wooden pews that still had its period correct doors on each pew was frigid to the point you could see your breath crystalize in the air. The sanctuary was very expensive to heat in the winter and so the thermostat was kept on the lowest setting—basically “off.”

While it was extremely cold, we both went to the front of the church, by passing the pews, and opting for the simplicity of falling on our knees before God.

Once there, tears fell, sobs came and petitions were lifted to the highest of heaven. I prayed and cried for her heartache. She prayed and cried in return. Back and forth and back again, prayers were being said, when finally our two voices melded together into one prayer that was lifted to God.

I am not sure how long we stayed there on our knees praying but my toes were quite numb from the cold as were my fingers. Still, in spite of the cold, after we were done praying we continued to sit on the floor in a silence that made you realize there was something holy in the moment.

“God is answering you,” I finally whispered.

She simply nodded her head in agreement.

“You know, I have always held on to what God said to Jeremiah about knowing the plans He had for him. Plans for a future full of hope,” I said.

She simply nodded her head in agreement again.

“Did I ever tell you my Jeremiah moment?”

She shook her no.

“During seminary I hit rock bottom, just so frustrated with what seemed to be God giving me the cold shoulder.”

She turned to face me, clearly interested in what I had to say.

“Well, I had no idea how I was going to pay for seminary or keep on top of my mortgage payment. As if that wasn’t enough I was alone, no significant other, except my cat…” (I got her to laugh at that.)

“And,” I added, “I had no idea where I was going to wind up after I graduated seminary.”

I continued with my story telling her about how God wasn’t sharing one part of His plan for me. Or so it seemed. Then came the gift of a little white church. No, not the church she and I were sitting in the sanctuary of.

This white church was a Christmas present from my brother. It was my freshman year in seminary and my brother presented me a large box that had me a bit perplexed. I couldn’t even imagine what it was? Definitely not the standard gift card I had come to expect.

I ripped open the wrapping paper swirled with candy canes and snowmen and pushed aside the tissue paper to find inside a wooden New England style little white church. It was the most beautiful thing I had seen. My ooh’s and ah’s, though, didn’t relay what I was feeling in my heart. For as soon as I saw the little white church, I all of a sudden had this certainty that I was going to be okay. God was leading me even though I had no idea where I was going.

“That’s when I came across the Jeremiah passage about God knowing the plans He had for us, plans for a future full of hope,” I said, explaining how for the next three years of seminary I would mediate on that scripture daily while smiling and staring at the little white church that now sat on a drop leaf table in my living room.

Before I could continue on making the point that God had a plan of great hope for her future as well, she smiled and said, “And now you have your real little white church. Now you have us.”

For I know the plans I have for you.

Christmas is a time of year that can bring many of us to our breaking points. But it also a time of year to remember the silences of God are not what they seem for God is never silent.

God is always at work preparing for us a future full of hope. Sometimes that reminder comes in an impromptu prayer meeting on bended knees in a very frigid sanctuary. And sometimes that reminder comes in the way of a little wooden white church that filled me with unwarranted hope some three years before the actual little white church came into my life and filled me with hope realized.

Postscript

 A few months ago I received a letter from this woman telling me I was right about that Jeremiah passage. Her future, she is now seeing, is indeed God led and one full of hope. She also let me know that when she finally made the decision to join the little white church, when asked to share a scripture that reflected her faith journey, she shared with her faith family the one I shared with her years before:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a future filled with hope. Jeremiah 29:11

“I thought you would want to know that, Pastor Donna. Thank you,” she wrote.

I am glad to know.

IMG_1740

My little white church given to me by my brother as a Christmas present three years before receiving God’s Christmas present—a real little white church to serve in rural upstate New York.