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.

img_2911

A candle of hope burns on the sill of my kitchen window. 

Standing Together

 

It was a timed honored tradition in the little rural village. Every Memorial Day the clergy would gather in front of the old courthouse that was now transformed into a community center. Stories from old timers spoke of how every once in awhile someone locked up imgres.jpgbehind the bars in the courthouse would break out and hide in the cornfields surrounding the building, as well as the cornfields surrounding the school. Perhaps that is why the courthouse was eventually moved out of the village and into a more populated area where cornfields didn’t exist.

Every Memorial Day clergy, including myself—an accidental country pastor—would gather in front of that courthouse. We would gather with the high school band. We would gather with the Boy Scouts. We would gather with families, young and old, who came out for this timed honored tradition. We would gather with the veterans still able to gather, to remember those who died in service to our country. We would gather, then march throughout the village to each war monument, where we would stop, say a prayer, lay a wreath in front of it and listen to the gun salute.

Our march would then continue to the Revolutionary War cemetery and then into cars we would go, heading up the road out of the village to the cemetery where many a Civil War soldier rested. Back into cars and off to our last stop—the cemetery just up the other road out of the village that belonged to the Catholic church. Father Condon, a staple in the village almost as time honored as the Memorial Day march itself, would be waiting there ready to deliver the last prayer of thanks and remembrance in his thick Irish brogue.

There on the outskirts of the village, with the first signs of corn breaking through the ground beyond the cemetery, with the views of rolling green hills and mountains, with the warm breeze blowing the scent of freshly mowed fields, I observed something that would forever change my view of Memorial Day.

I observed community at its best, taking time not to use Memorial Day as a kick-off to the unofficial start of summer, but staying true to the observance of those who gave their lives so that they could have life as they know it in their little rural village.

You see it didn’t matter what differences we had or who was having a spat with whom or who held a 30-plus year grudge against so-and-so. What mattered was for at least one morning in late May we were remembering not only the costly gift of freedom. We were once again renewing an unspoken vow to stand together in community.

As a pastor I just wasn’t there to pray. I was given the privilege to stand with the community by standing by the sides of those veterans who were tasked with the responsibility of laying the wreaths.

I will forever remember the startling feeling of honor that came over me the first time I took the gnarled hand of one veteran. I actually didn’t take his hand. It was more he had to reach out and grab mine to regain a step that wasn’t as steady as he thought it would be. I caught his hand and we continued to walk. With each step we took, I could feel his hand needing to hold on tighter to mine. Each faltering and hesitant step was caught and made more secure as I gripped tighter and leaned in closer and whispered, “I’m standing by you.” And with that reassurance, I noticed his back hunched over with age straightened just a bit and a smile of many thanks graced a face etched with golden and not so golden memories.

It was then I began my own time honored tradition of making sure each time I walked with a veteran to lay a wreath at a memorial, I would take their hand, lovingly squeeze it and remind them of something we would all love to be reminded of no matter what our age.

“I’m standing by you.”

That little rural village showed me the beauty of Memorial Day that I had never seen before nor ever since.  I saw a community putting aside all the things they had the freedom to do on a Monday off, so that they could stand together with those who stood up to the evils of war so many years before. I also saw future generations learning that even in times of peace, standing together should never end.

Who have you stood by today? Have you held the hand of someone who needs support to make their steps steady? Do you realize no matter where community might be—in a church, a civic group, a village, a town, a family, a school—it can only happen when we make the commitment to be there for one another and to stand together.

 

 

My Someday Farm

IMG_2244

Sofie, Pastor Donna’s bumbling Bernese Mountain dog, sits on top of the hill, taking in the view of the accidental country pastor’s someday farm. 

Morning had broken. I threw on my Mucks and barn coat and, with a steaming mug of coffee in hand, went out into the crisp air to start the day with my version of a breakfast for champions—a hearty prayer walk.

Who needs Wheaties when God can nourish you?

The sun was breaking through the fog hanging low in the valley and the wind was shooing away the last remaining clouds trying their best to conceal the Green Mountains of Vermont.

I let out a sigh of contentment. This scene always brought joy to my heart, taking me back to a long-ago visit to my father’s homeland of Switzerland.

It was there a young girl with golden pigtails held her dad’s hand as they walked the hills blanketed with so many wildflowers that not a patch of green grass could be seen.

It was there a young girl would sense already in her life the awe of God’s hand at work in nature, watching as the billowy clouds wrapped around the mountains that seemed to embrace the quintessential Swiss homestead with mystery and grandeur.

It was there a young girl, full of big dreams for the tomorrows yet come, said to her father, “Someday I’m going to have a farm just like this.”

My breakfast of champions—my prayer walk—came to a stop as I noticed I was not alone. The shadow of that young girl with the golden pigtails was walking with me. I stopped and stared and heard my father’s voice as clear as if he was now standing right beside me.

“Someday you will. I’m sure of it.”

That’s what he said so long ago to that young girl with big dreams, big hopes, big prayers.

Some how. Some way. Someday….

Was now.

For some where along the way, without even realizing it, God had been answering me. I was now standing smack in the middle of my someday farm. Sure, to others all they would see were acres of nothing. But my eyes, finally opened to what was possible in the midst of impossibilities, saw it.

I could see the barns that yet stood. The coop yet built. The pond yet to be dug out of the forever wet and marshy piece of land that was such an eyesore to me. I could see the fruit trees not yet planted. The garden not yet tilled. They were all there. I finally saw a young girl’s dreams, hopes, prayers, being answered.

How many times, though, had I walked this walk and never once realized my some days were always right there waiting for me to act on?

I reached my hand towards my shadowy companion, hoping in some miraculous way I could touch not only the hand of that young girl I once knew, but reconnect with her awe in God who embraces us always with his mystery and grandeur. Perhaps if I could hold that young girl’s hand, the one with the golden pig tails, grown up fear and skepticism would give way to childlike trust and faith.

I reached but couldn’t grab. The past is elusive. So instead I reached my hand towards heaven to grab hold of the beautiful here and now God was revealing.

What are the someday prayers and the someday dreams you’ve prayed and dreamt? Could they perhaps be right in front you waiting for you to finally see?

Some how. Some way. Someday…

Is now.

For our Father’s voice whispers to the heart that dreams big, hopes big, prays big, “Someday you will. I’m sure of it.”

Day 11—The Prayer Tree

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 11

A silence fell upon the room. A request was made that no one really wanted to step up to and see through. A woman at my table waved to the waitress to order another glass of wine. A good diversion on her part, I thought, pondering whether I, as pastor, could order a glass of merlot with her. Hmm…better stick to my diet Coke. Others around me glanced down at the meeting agenda before them feigning interest in what was to be discussed next.

It was the first Wednesday of the month Chamber of Commerce meeting held in the village tavern, where one could get a really juicy mushroom and Swiss cheese burger with a side of some of the best onion rings I have ever tasted. Perhaps the promise of hamburgers and onion rings was the reason I became active in the Chamber of Commerce, as it was a great way of killing two birds with one stone. I was fulfilling the “being part of the community” part of being a pastor while satisfying my love for greasy pub food.

The room was still silent and for a second I found it amusing how the local business owners gathered for the meeting tried not to make eye contact with the Chamber president. The question he asked lingered like a low hanging cloud.

Who will take responsibility for decorating the gazebo on Main Street? Any takers? Any one?

More glasses of wine were ordered and eyes continued to divert eye contact with the one asking the question.

Before I knew it, my hand went up and I could hear my voice saying something my head really didn’t have time to think through carefully, “The little white church would love to decorate the gazebo.”

Smiles from the Chamber president came and sighs of relief were let out from others.

Did I really just volunteer the church to decorate the village gazebo?

We were already very busy with Advent Bible studies, after school programs for kids, a Christmas cookie sale, packing shoeboxes of toys for a mission project, a caroling dinner scheduled and, for the first time in the little white church’s history, two Christmas Eve services were being planned along with a new Christmas Day service. Of course, there were the Christmas Eve luminaries to also coordinate and put together. Now who was in charge of getting the kitty litter to fill the paper bags?

What in heaven’s name did I do?

God’s answer was to come.

For while having one more thing on the church calendar was not ideal, it turned out decorating the village gazebo was a blessing for both the church and the community it served, as it got us out of the confines of the sanctuary and into the heart of where people were—on Main Street, going about their day, making a trip to the bank, the hardware store, the wonderful little café with the best homemade chocolates and the consignment shop, etc.

In the midst of daily life in the village, the folks from the little white church were doing more than just stringing lights on a gazebo. They were shining their lights out to the community, showing they cared just as much as to what was happening on Main Street as what was happening within the four-walls of the church.

As we strung greenery and lights around the gazebo, villagers would stop to say hello and chat and, as I precariously balanced on a ladder to hang a red bow high up on one of the lampposts, I noticed something.

I noticed the beautiful steeple of the white church peeking over at me and realized how much of a beacon of hope the church has been for centuries to those who called this village home. It was then I knew we had to do more than just hang greenery and lights around the gazebo. And so with a fir tree stuck in a pot at the entrance of the gazebo in which the town dropped off earlier that morning, I came up with an idea. Or more like it, God’s Spirit spoke to my heart as to what to do.

The little white church would decorate the village tree with prayers, many prayers and blessings for neighbors and friends who loved their village dearly.  808_10151275465554650_1226466341_n

So one night we gathered the youth and the children of the church and with permanent markers in a variety of colors and weather resistant foam sheets, Christmas ornaments were created in the shapes of stars and crosses and hearts. Written upon them were our prayers for all in the village. When we were done, we put on our coats and made our way just up the street to the gazebo where we finished decorating.

Yes, the little white would love to decorate the gazebo, I volunteered, not knowing what I was getting our church into. But God knew exactly what we were to do.

We decorated the public tree with the promises of God for all to read and for all to remember that God had not forgotten the once thriving village that now struggled as so many little communities now struggle all throughout our country. God had not forgotten those who called the village home, sweet, home.

A few days before Christmas I was having the desire to have my mushroom and Swiss cheese burger complete with the best onion rings I have ever tasted. I just couldn’t wait till the January Chamber of Commerce meeting.

As I walked from the church to the tavern to pick up my order, I passed the gazebo and the prayer tree. There standing in front of the tree was an elderly lady with a little child. She was leaning down gently speaking to the child who I could hear, as I came closer, was asking about what the ornaments said. Each ornament the child pointed to, the woman read the prayer out loud.

It is an image I will forever hold in my heart for it was a moment when I experienced Christ’s church becoming once again a vibrant and vital witness out into the public, where our witness to God should be.

The woman noticed me staring at the beautiful scene she unknowingly gifted me with and she smiled and said, “This tree is such a blessing. God is indeed with us. God is good.”

I smiled in agreement and went on my way. I had a mushroom and Swiss cheese burger with the best onion rings I have ever tasted waiting for me at the tavern.

God is good. All the time.