After Sunday Thought…

As a pastor, I find myself pondering yesterday’s sermon on what is supposed to be my sabbath — Monday. The sabbath rest never seems to come as there’s always something needing to be done, among them, planning for next Sunday’s worship.

But before I can even be opened to what God is preparing me to say, I need to stop replaying yesterday’s sermon in my head. Yes, I do that.

I have a pastor friend who once told me after said she preaches, it is completely out of her mind. She doesn’t fixate on the perfect quote she wanted to share that she left out. She doesn’t harp on the words she tripped over or the moment she lost her train of thought. She doesn’t even replay the rare and glorious moment when the most heavenly prose comes from her mouth. She prepares. She prays. She proclaims. And when it’s over, she proceeds to her much-need Sunday afternoon nap. By Monday, she is ready to move on.

Ah, to be like her. But I am not. So I invite you to join me for today’s “after Sunday” thought that has been on my mind. Here it is:

While preaching on the woman who pushed through the crowds to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe in order to be made whole, I got to thinking.

We are all that woman in the crowd, aren’t we? We all want to be healed of something, be it physical or emotional. We want to have hope for tomorrow. We want to stop feeling defeated, left out or unloved.

 

Yes, I’m in the crowd trying to hold on to a faith that urges me on with a beautiful realization that even if I am able to touch just a thread of Jesus’ hem, that would sufficient. I don’t need the whole hem.

I’m in the crowd. You’re in the crowd. So are your friends. And the one you love to hate. She’s next to the one who betrayed you.

The immigrant is there, too, holding the hand of a child who is crying. Both are scared. It’s an uncertain future, who wouldn’t be crying? Yet, there is a thread of a holy hem to touch. It’s so close. Reach. Stretch. Do whatever you can to get to it, but please don’t give up.

The person who doesn’t look like you, yep, he is standing right next to you in the crowd. Don’t sigh and get annoyed. He has every right to be there. The one who doesn’t speak English is pressing in as well. The gay, the lesbian, the transgender — they are all there with that woman Scripture tells us about. The woman society deems not worthy of being called by name. The woman Jesus sees as worthy and, as such, claims her name. “Daughter.”

So since we are all in that crowd reaching for the holy hem, let us not trip one another up. Let us not shove one another aside because we think them not worthy. Let us not elbow the other out of the way, because we want Jesus all to ourselves.

Rather, let us lock arms with one another and push toward a better life — a beloved community — together. For there is enough grace, love, help, support, healing — there’s enough Jesus — for all.

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I come to the garden…just one of the many places on Old Stone Well Farm where I can be still and ponder my many ‘after Sunday’ thoughts. 

 

It’s All How You Look at Things

 

The front door squeaked opened and then slammed shut. I, still slumbering at 5 a.m., didn’t think much of it as this was our morning routine. Husband gets up, showers, makes his coffee and then takes Sofie, our bumbling Bernese mountain dog, out for her morning business. I would then go back to slumbering for another hour.

And so the front door squeaked opened and then slammed shut, but that’s where our morning routine went awry. Before I could snuggle deeper into the blankets, something large and furry began nudging at me. I heard whimpering and then it came. A big wet and warm lick. It was Sofie.

“Shouldn’t you be outside with daddy,” I asked, as I petted the top of her head, while making my way out of the bed and fumbling for my glasses and trying to put on my slippers. I’ve always took pride in my ability to multi-task.

My sleep haze began dissipating with each step I took from the bedroom to the kitchen to see what was going on. I tried to ignore the growing concern rumbling along with the hunger in my stomach. Where was my husband? The kitchen light was on. The coffee mug, filled with hot coffee, sat on the counter right next to the now cold toast waiting to be taken out of the toaster. Sofie nudged me again, leading me to the front door. What could have happened? And where the heck was my husband?

The front door squeaked opened and then slammed shut behind me. My glasses, never quite fitting well, slid down my nose making it hard for me to focus in the dark of dawn. I pushed the glasses back up my nose and when I did my husband came into focus. There he stood looking up at the sky. He motioned to come join him and then pointed to the very thing that had him mesmerized. There in sky was the moon with a perfect halo of light surrounding it. It was eerie and beautiful at the same time.  images

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” I whispered. I didn’t know what to make of it, but as I kept staring I felt a comforting hug. No, not from my husband. Rather a divine hug of sorts, reassuring me that God’s love and protection was like that perfect illumined circle, forever surrounding me with light.

The front door squeaked opened and then slammed shut again. A breakfast of cold coffee and toast was eaten and the dark of dawn quickly gave way to light. The day had begun but still I couldn’t get that image of the moon encircled with light off of my mind. In between writing my sermon for Sunday, I decided to do some research and discovered what we saw was a lunar halo—a ring of light around the moon caused by ice crystals in the atmosphere.

Much to my surprise, lunar halos occur more often than I thought. Hmmm…perhaps I needed to listen to my husband and start getting up more at the crack of dawn to see these displays of nature? I then discovered that folk lore says such halos indicate rough weather on its way.

I thought about that some more. How interesting that my reaction to the halo was one of peace and comfort. I didn’t see the halo as a warning of tough times ahead, but rather of a reminder of God’s protection and love surrounding me.

That’s when I began wondering how many farmers of old took the message of the halo as a warning of tough times ahead and worried and batten down the hatches and tried their best to prepare for all the what if’s and the many unknowns? And how many farmers of old looked up at the sky and smiled, preferring to take the message of the halo as a beautiful reassuring hug from God that all would be well no matter what?

Rough weather, tough times—they always come. But God’s love is a never-ending circle surrounding us, getting us through it all.

There was a lunar halo this morning. It was beautiful. It was a like a divine hug reminding me that God is holding me tightly. That’s how I saw it. How would you see it?

 

 

 

 

 

Defeating the Loud Mouths

Lately, I’ve been slacking in reading my Bible daily. It was a commitment I renewed back in the spring while attending a clergy conference. It was there in the peaceful wooded surroundings of the retreat center, where black snakes would rustle leaves and birds would chirp in harmony, I joined my colleagues in shedding our often misguided busyness of pastoring and got back to what really mattered—listening to what it was God wanted of us. Part of that listening was opening up God’s word, not for Bible study or sermon prep, but for preparation of daily living. So open up I did and the words of life gave me life.

Never grow weary in doing good. Galatians 6:9

I know the plans I have for you. Jeremiah 29:11

Patiently I waited for the Lord…and he turned to me and heard my cry. Psalm 40:1

Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. Psalm 43:5

By the time I boarded the plane to return to “the real world,” I knew the name on the boarding pass was the same but the person holding it—me—was different. New vision, new ideas, new hopes, new sense of call were all jam packed into my already jam packed bag. I buckled myself in and my spirits soared along with the ascending plane as now had a new awareness of how over the years I had inadvertently allowed the “loud mouths” in my life to push aside the gifts God had given me for ministry.

I’m not talking about people. These “loud mouths” are the things we find ourselves doing and being consumed and misled by in thinking that they are what will actually save our struggling churches (and/or our struggling lives). When really God has already saved us. All we need to do is tap into the gifts and be true to those gifts given, for those are the very things that fill us with energy and passion and joy for life. The “who” we are in terms of the “what” we bring into life are the very things that not only build up the kingdom of God, but give us life abundant.IMG_6566 copy

I wonder how many God moments have been passed up all because our very limited human voices of reason (this can’t be done, this should be done, etc.) have been way too loud?

When will it be when God’s voice is THE voice thundering above all others, setting right what is wrong, opening hearts clouded by other viewpoints, drowning out selfish agendas for selfless missions?

Two months have gone since I left the snakes rustling the leaves and the birds chirping in harmony, and my troubled heart has told me something is not right. I have slipped. I have again allowed my own personal “loud mouths” to impose a to-do list on me that is not soul-quenching.

So this morning, I did it. I opened up God’s word, and God didn’t let me down. By the time I sipped the last of my coffee, I was “me” again. Only better. I was the me God had called me to be. New vision. New hopes. New awareness. New goals. New challenges to those goals. It’s all good, because God is good.

Have you opened up God’s word today? If not, I highly recommend it. It’s a great way to quiet the “loud mouths” in your life and to know God is still God and has not given up on the who you are meant to be.

You know me inside and out, you hold me together,

you never fail to stand me tall in your presence so that I can look you in the eye.

Blessed God…always, always…always.

Yes! Yes! Yes!

(Psalm 41:12-13, The Message)

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 Lenten Journey

A Little White Church Lenten Journey

When the cold of winter turns into the bleakness of mud season, hope is hard to find. Yet beneath the hard ground and in the midst of life’s muddiness, there is always new life waiting to bloom. 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 3: Go Now in Peace

There’s a song the little white church would sing every week at the very end of worship. It was called “Go Now in Peace.” I had never heard of this song before nor have I ever worshipped or worked in a church in which a choral benediction was sung. So the first time I experienced this choral benediction it was indeed quite memorable.

It was the Sunday I preached for the congregation as their prospective new minister. Boy was I nervous. Would they like me? Would they be pleased with my sermon? I knew it really wasn’t about me but about God’s Spirit at work leading us both to the right partnership, but still, you can’t stop that tape playing in your head that they are looking at you and not beyond to what God is leading them to. Anyway, I gave the blessing and as the music began to play for the choral benediction, I walked to the back of the sanctuary. That’s when it happened. A divine moment. I stood there the soon-to-be next minister of the little white church and I looked out at people that God was bringing into my life to lead and to learn from. I stood and listened to their voices sing a song I was not familiar with.

Go now in peace. Never be afraid. God will be with you each hour of every day. Reach out to others…

I watched and listened to them sing this song that many knew by heart. And I wondered. How many really believed the words they were singing? Were they afraid? Did they know God was there each hour of every day? Were they reaching out to others?

I wondered about these people I had yet come to know, had yet to be there in their griefs, had yet to be their in their joys, had yet to journey with them in faith.

But as I listened I felt something there in the sanctuary. I felt a strange movement of the Spirit I had never felt before. It was as soft as breeze, but I realized then the Spirit was just beginning to move and among these people something powerful was going to emerge. Voices that were singing hesitantly were on the verge of singing boldly.

The vote to become the next pastor of the little white was unanimous and I walked back to the front of the sanctuary that God knew I—an avid lover of 18th architecture—would appreciate. I looked out at those gathered in the colonial era white wooden pews still with the doors attached and lifted my hands to give the blessing. As I did I felt that gentle breeze of the Spirit pick up a bit more.

“Go now in peace. Know He will guide you in all you do,” I said, borrowing from the choral benediction that was a little white church tradition.

Our ministry had began and as days turned into weeks that turned into months that turned into years, the Spirit’s breeze kept blowing and leading and waking hearts up. And then it happened.

One Sunday in Lent as the little white church sang their traditional choral benediction, I had yet another divine moment—a moment that almost brought tears to my eyes.

I heard their voices sing as I never heard before. This time I clearly heard voices that were stronger in aith and voices that were singing the words, “Reach out to others…” with conviction and passion. The words weren’t just words sung by rote. The words were being sung out of the experiences that we had together, experiences of growing in our faith together and experiences of really reaching out beyond our own doors and into the community. The words had come to life.

I stopped singing at one point and just stared at the cross on the communion table, listening to the strength and conviction that was coming out of the voices of the many men and women and children gathered for worship.

“God,” I said, “Can you hear them? Can you hear the belief in their voice? Can you hear the strength? Can you hear the love? Can you hear the determination to really reach out to others so all the world can see? God can you hear your children coming alive by your Spirit moving among them?”

I then lifted my eyes from the cross and looked over at all who were singing and noticed not only were their voices strong, but their faces were transformed. They were shining. Some people had their eyes closed, some had their eyes lifted up towards heaven and one man in my congregation did what he has done since the first day I came to the little white church. At the moment in the song when we sang, “God will be there, watching from above…” this man, in true devotion to God, always lifted his hands up towards heaven.

I carry this memory close to my heart because whenever I find myself wondering where God is or questioning the movement of the Spirit in my life because I haven’t felt any gentle breeze against my skin, I can close my eyes and go back to the little white church and hear the voices of God’s children sing.

I can remember how I was priviledged to see God’s Spirit breathing new life into tired bones and how words once sang by rote became words of transformation and new life.

God will be with you each hour of every day…

In this season of Lent, as we are invited to enter into the wilderness, let us not be afaid. Rather as we walk let us become aware of how closely God watches over us and how wonderfully God leads us. And may the song you sing along the way be sung with newfound strength, love and conviction.

Go now in peace. Never be afraid. 


God will go with you each hour of every day. 


Go now in faith, steadfast, strong and true. 


Know He will guide you in all you do. 


Go now in love, and show you believe. 


Reach out to others so all the world can see. 


God will be there watching from above.


Go now in peace, in faith, and in love.

 

This Way of Life Lenten Challenge: Is your walk with God drudgery? Are you tired? Are you wondering where is this power of the Spirit you hear about? Whatever you do, don’t stop walking. Don’t stop singing. Challenge yourself this day to take one more step in faith and take it without any fear, trusting God all the way. For God does go with you each hour of every day.

Day 22—Truly He Taught Us

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 22

We love because God first loved us.  1 John 4:19

 The lights had just been dimmed a bit more in the sanctuary of the little white church. With my sermon now over, we were making our way through the order of worship, getting ever so closer to the candlelight singing of “Silent Night.” Before that moment, though, there was the soloist who would sing “O Holy Night.”images

I had asked our pianist’s son to be present with us on Christmas Eve to sing this beloved song. I was so happy when he agreed for while he was just out of high school he had a voice that I would place in the same category of Pavarotti. Yes, his voice was that good.

In a way his singing would be a gift to me as it provided what I would call more breathing room in the order of worship for the Holy Spirit to move among us. It was a space for grace in which I as a pastor could sit back and reflect on the words I had just preached. And, hopefully, it would be a space for grace for those in the pews to also reflect on God’s word proclaimed.

And so the last word of my sermon was spoken and I sat back down in the official looking “pastor’s chair” with its ornately carved wooden legs and armrests complete with a regal velvet seat.

The anticipation of the night heightened. Our pianist struck the first ivory key and her son hit the first perfect note.

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining.

Within seconds I felt as if I was being transported to that actual night when something so indescribable and so life changing happened. I could imagine the awe, the beauty, the joy…

Indescribable. Life changing. Wait. I didn’t have to imagine. That was happening right here, right now, I realized.

In the past year of ministry together I had many indescribable moments of lives being changed not by the latest church fads or prepackage programs on how to grow your church or lead a successful stewardship campaign. I could tell of many indescribable moments of lives being changed through times of more praying, times of more trusting and times of keeping our eyes on Jesus rather than the stormy waves all around us. No, I didn’t have to imagine something indescribable as God awakening His children. I could see it.

The young Pavarotti from rural America continued hitting perfect note after perfect note.

In all our trials, born to be our friend.

Ah, those pesky trials. There were those as well. Every church has them but just recently I had begun to see the blessings born out of trials. God does do His best work in dark times, I mused, as I thought about how God protected this little white church through showers, squalls and storms. And the storms were weathered due to the fact that deeper friendships were being forged with Jesus through coming together for more prayer, study and times of serving.

The singing continued to gift us all…

Truly He taught us to love one another.

Love. Just the other day a woman from the congregation gave me a Christmas card. It was an adorable bear dressed as an angel smiling and bringing good tidings of joy with the scripture message written beneath, “We love because God first loved us.”

I took notice of that card more than I usually would take notice because I found it interesting the scripture was from 1 John. I had never seen that before on a Christmas card. Usually Isaiah’s words of a “son has been given unto us…and his name shall be…” or the angels’ song of “glory to God in the highest” find their way onto a greeting card. Not this card. This was reminding us of why we love—because God first loved us.

Truly He taught us to love one another.

Love. That’s what it comes down to, I said to myself silently. Jesus had taught us how to love one another and while it seems hard at times or perhaps many times, love really is the glue that holds all things together.

I remember as I was moving up to serve this little village I was given words of advice. First, everyone was related in some way or another, so be careful about what you say about anyone.

I looked down at my engagement ring and wedding band and swirled the white gold and diamonds around my finger. I was now part of the being related to someone in the little village I served as pastor. It was just six months before on a beautiful June morning the “pastor from the city” married the “local boy.” It was a community-wide celebration of answered prayers—and 17 flower girls, all from the village, who were excited that Pastor Donna was finally getting married.

Secondly, I was told the good news about life in a little village was everyone knew you. The bad news was everyone knew you.

Good and bad, people knew what was going on in your life, which at times I had learned could get complicated, tricky or just plain contentious. And yet I had also learned that no matter what differences people had or what long-time grudges were held, when a person was in need, differences and grudges were put aside and love, no matter how difficult to show, was shown.

That was new to me. Growing up in a more congested area, people were quicker to forget you or less likely to help you. But in a little village, there was this overriding sense that no matter what, we were all in this life together.

Truly, the people of the little white church taught me what it meant to love one another. For it was these people I was brought to shepherd who instead shepherd me in the way of forgiveness and by doing so helped me to experience the healing grace it brings.

Churches, I realized, are like families. There will be squabbles and downright disagreements. Sides might be taken and the ties that bind might fray, but in a rural village and church, the frays very rarely snap completely apart.

That night, as the young Pavarotti sang, the lesson of love continued as the Spirit worked among all, opening hearts ever more wider to one another.

I looked out at the congregation and it seemed to me they, too, were being transported to their own indescribable life changing moments God has blessed them with.

It was indeed a holy night.

 

 

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.

 

 

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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