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.
Perhaps the lighting of the Advent wreath is a sensitive subject for me or maybe, just maybe, life’s circumstances have made me ultra aware of the “others” in our midst who we often overlook for one reason or another, especially in the season in which we prepare for Christ’s birth.
As a child sitting in the pew of the Congregational church my mom and dad took us kids to, I had to watch my church school nemesis be the star of the candle lighting liturgy every year, all the time wondering why I wasn’t up there doing it with my family? I never really did get an acceptable answer from my mom as to why and so I continued to wonder? Was it me? Was I not to be trusted with fire? Was it because my older brother had a disability and didn’t fit the picture of a family who should light the Advent wreath? Why weren’t we up there?
So when the time came for me as a pastor to help line up families to light the candles on the wreath I made sure I wasn’t going to fall into the trap many of our churches fall into. I wasn’t going to go for the ooh and ah factor of having the family with the cute little tots up there around the wreath. I wasn’t going to reinforce what the church thinks is hope in the future—young families with adorable token children in tow.
Christmas is a wonderful season for children. And, of course, it is a blessing to see families bringing up their children in the faith. But the message of Christmas is one that should remind us why God had to send His Son Jesus to us—because we are far from perfect.
We are broken. Families are fractured. Divisions are the norm and heartache seems to come more so than joy at times. Jesus had his own Christmas list of what to bless us with. That was to bring hope to the hopeless; to feed the hungry; clothe the naked; visit the lonely; comfort the grieving; welcome the stranger; etc.
So what better way to tell the beautiful story of Christmas than by inviting those who Jesus came to save and comfort to light the candles around the wreath?
And so as Advent approached I decided to present to the congregation what God’s picture perfect family of faith really looked like.
One year I asked those who are often forgotten at Christmastime to light the candles—men and women who were single and trying their best to smile even though the holidays accentuated the ache in their lonely hearts all the more.
I made sure the woman who was in her 40s and aching for a child of her own lit the candle of hope. I knew her struggle and so when the light of one flame shone on her face, I could swear it was God’s light kissing her tears away.
I made sure the one who was recently divorced had the chance to light the candle of peace, letting that promise of Advent enter into her heart and ease the discourse that had been in her life.
For the matriarch of the church whose feeble body made her feel as if she was no longer of use to anyone, she was the one who slowly walked up to light the candle of joy, a reminder to her and to all who watched that God was not yet done with any of us. And so the Advent line up of less than picture perfect families made their way to the Advent wreath each week to light the candles.
But perhaps the most powerful of all Advents was the year those who had recently lost loved ones were invited to the Advent wreath. Candle after candle was lit and the light of Christ’s Advent promises mingled with another promise—we are never alone. We have God and we have one another, a mish mosh of folks called together to be “family” to one another and who, in the sharing of our weaknesses, our struggles, our doubts and our insecurities, we find strength.
Who’s lighting the Advent wreath? The children of God who are telling the story beautifully as to why God sent his Son to us, that’s who.
It was one of those Sundays where I stood in the narthex in what I’ve come to describe as my “post-preaching daze”—a state of mind in which the adrenaline of the preaching high wears off and I stand there shaking hands while all the time thinking about the following: how the end of the sermon could have ended differently, was the point I was trying to make made, did I really put the Holy Spirit before Jesus once again in my trinitarian benediction and, more importantly, where’s the nearest cup of coffee because, boy, I can use some right now.
On this particular Sunday, though, in my post-preaching daze, I wondered about something else. I wondered where the Spirit was moving among us, because sometimes, just sometimes, God seems to remain silent when you really want to know if what you are doing makes a difference.
So there I stood in my post-preaching daze not expecting much in terms of getting a divine pat on the back or even a holy high five, when two boys came running in from where church school had just been let out. As they made their way over to me I could see they were very excited about something.
Jack, and his younger brother, Tyler, had something in their hands. As they got closer I could see they were holding the white plastic tops to one of those dollar store boxes. Before I could even venture a guess as to what this was all about, they showed me. On the inside of the white lid, in blue marker, was a tracing of their hand with the message, “Place your hand here and we can pray together. God bless you!”
The brothers told me how they put together several shoeboxes for our church’s Operation Christmas Child mission project, going to the store and filling the boxes with gifts for underprivileged children who might not ever feel the generous love of God. The brothers, though, took the shoebox project a step further by inviting the recipient of their box to join them in prayer.
I stood there amazed, dumbfounded and deeply moved. I’ve been talking a lot about the power of prayer and our need to pray more. I’ve said it once, twice, thrice, prayer is the foundation on which anything we do for God needs to be built upon. And now, the youngest among us not only heard, they took action, inviting another child’s hand to “touch” theirs in prayer.
Rendered speechless by the thoughtful act of two boys, I stared at the inside of the lid and slowly placed my hand on top of the one drawn in blue marker.
My wondering as to where the Spirit of God was moving among us was right there in front of me. I had received my holy high five.