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.
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.
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.
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.