I love old doors. There’s just something about the warped wood, rusty hinges and black iron latches — that often fail to work — that captures my imagination. Maybe I love old doors because they remind me of the primitive houses I loved to explore as a child while on family vacations to historic 18th-century stomping grounds.
If I close my eyes, I can easily be transported to one such trip where, as a little girl so enthralled with the farmhouse that is known as the Wick Farm in Morristown, New Jersey — where General Washington and his troops encamped one harsh winter — I can hear the creaking as the door swings open. I can see the dust swirling in the streak of sun that breaks into a low-ceiling, windowless, timbered wall room, with a huge cooking hearth that perfumes every nook and cranny with a dense smoke from the dying embers that big black kettles hang over. I stand in the threshold of two worlds. The modern one I know and the ancient one I want to know better.
Today at the farm, we will take a look at one old door. A locked one that kept Jesus’ friends trapped in a world they knew — a world of fear, doubt and uncertainty. Yet beyond that door was light and love and new God possibilities. What can we learn from that first Resurrection evening? How many doors have we shut and locked all because fear overtook faith? What is the threshold you are standing in today? And where is God inviting you to step?
Let us begin our time of worship together. The video is ready for you to press play. Make sure to watch to the end as I have an announcement about next week and a challenge for you to participate in.
Blessings! Pastor Donna
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
He is Risen! He is risen indeed! Welcome to Easter worship here at Old Stone Well Farm!
I invite you to join and watch the sunrise with me at Merck Farmland, just overlooking Frederick Buechner’s home. I then go to an 18th century cemetery nestled in the rolling hills of the Green Mountains to ponder the angel’s announcement to Mary, “He is not here.”
And, as promised, you will discover why this year I dyed some of my Easter eggs red.
It is a joy to worship with you. Share this special worship with others on this Resurrection Day — or any other day in Eastertide, those awe-inspiring 50 days leading us Pentecost, where God’s Spirit descends upon us!
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.[a]
Today is Ash Wednesday. Our Lenten journey begins. I invite you to find some quiet time today to join me from my 18th century farm in Vermont and reflect on this day.
Reflect on our need for forgiveness. Reflect on just how fleeting this life is and how much time we spend wasting the precious time we have been given.
Reflect on God’s great love for you. There is a time to impose the ashes as well. If you don’t have ashes, find some dirt (that is, if you aren’t in an area covered with snow or ice!). Or even get a little bowl of water or oil to make the sign of the cross on your hand. If you don’t have anything, simply tracing the sign of the cross on your hand is powerful in itself.
Share with others as it is my hope that many will truly enter into this Lenten season, searching more deeply for God and drawing every closer to Him. Blessings!
Scripture Reading: Psalm 51
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness, let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right[b] spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing[c] spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
This is the day the Lord has made! I am so happy that you have joined me for today’s worship here in Vermont. I have to admit, I really enjoyed exploring what it means to be the light in the world. And I really enjoyed carving an inspirational message in the pumpkins that glow now on Sofie’s Hill here on the farm. Sofie was my bumbling Bernese Mountain dog who I lost two years ago. We used to run up the hill and sit staring at the Green Mountains. But I digress. Our Scripture reading for today is Matthew 5:14-16. May you be blessed by today’s worship. Blessings, Donna
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Welcome to worship! Today we take a trip to one of the four covered bridges that are in Washington County, Upstate New York, which is on the border of my little 18th century home in Vermont. These bridges were sometimes called “kissing” bridges and sometimes called “wishing” bridges. It got me wondering, what is God’s wish for us? I thought a lot about that as I read our Scripture reading from Matthew. And so, let us prepare our hearts and worship God.
Blessings, Pastor Donna
Matthew 22:15-22 (New International Version)
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax[a] to Caesar or not?”
But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
It was rainy week here at Old Stone Well Farm, and this country pastor got caught in a downpour while out running in the woods. But a beaver who scurried into its lodge got me thinking…when in a storm, where do I find save haven? That’s when I thought back to a childhood memento that used to remind me where my safety and hope were…in the Lord.
And so, enjoy a crisp fall autumn at the homestead as I light some candles to chase away the darkness and share with you how my Shepherd has always guided me.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley,I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
Frank, I really don’t think it’s a good idea to gather at the church. Yes, I know this is the holiest of weeks. You are correct. Easter is coming. Yes, I know you miss your church. Yes, I know you will take precautions. Oh, you have a mask. That’s good. And hand sanitizer? That’s great, but we need to keep our distance. Yes, I know you understand that. Yes, I heard you. I know it’s Holy Week. But to come to the church to ring the bell …
I was about to launch into my public service announcement about the need to stay home, especially as the COVID-19 virus began making itself known to our rural community, but I was interrupted.
“Pastor, I don’t think you understand,” Frank sighed. He sounded as exacerbated as I was with our phone conversation. “I need to hear our church bell ring.”
He was right. I didn’t understand about the bell. What I did understand was the seriousness of the virus coming to our rural community. While the cases being reported were still low in comparison to much more populated areas, they were inching upward. I knew behind the reports of cases would be the reports of deaths.
COVID-19 in rural communities
COVID-19 is just as challenging and deadly in rural America as it is in our cities — something city dwellers escaping to their country homes fail to recognize. Those who live in rural areas contend with the lack of medical care. Many rural hospitals have closed down over the years, leaving the closest medical facility an hour or so away. On top of that, America’s rural population falls in the COVID-19 vulnerable category — 65 and older and many with health concerns. Frank is one of the vulnerable who is the sole caretaker for someone at home who is even more vulnerable. Yet he needed to ring the bell. What I lacked in understanding, I made up for in hearing, as I heeded the urgency in his voice. No matter how much I was against it, I felt compelled to concede to his wishes.
I made the hour’s drive to unlock the doors of the little church I serve nestled in New York’s Adirondacks on the border of Vermont. When I pulled into the parking lot, I saw not just Frank’s car. There were others as well. Word got out that Frank was going to ring the bells and people came to hear. I feared what would happen next. They would get out of their cars intending to keep a safe distance from one another, and we all know how well that goes. Six feet quickly becomes a foot when the joy of seeing another takes hold.
As Frank made his way into the church, I jumped out of my car to control the “crowd.” It’s funny how four people constitutes a crowd these days. I remained as loving and as pastoral as I could as I reminded them to stay by their own cars.
Social gatherings part of rural fabric
For those who think rural America has it easier when it comes to social distancing, think again. Sure, we have wide open fields and mountain trails to roam. Our houses aren’t on top of one another and we can run to the farm up the road that has a fridge filled with goat cheese, fresh eggs and milk for sale.
The problem, though, with social distancing in rural America is not that we lack the physical space to spread out. The problem is that social distancing is not in our vocabulary. Rural America is a place where coming together isn’t an optional activity. It is a necessity. Coming together, being there in person for one another, holding a benefit dinner at the church, a bake sale at the school, a card game at the Grange or a good old-fashioned talent show at the old jailhouse that’s now a community center, is what rural living is all about. We don’t pull down the shade and turn off the lights when someone drops by unexpectedly. We just assume they will give quick tap on the door as they open it and walk in before being officially invited.
We don’t make excuses to get out of a dinner engagement. We find excuses for reasons to gather at the table to eat together.
Change is hard
And church? Church is where most of my tiny, older congregation go to find respite and connect. They are not into Zoom meetings. Some are trying. They are not too keen on Facebook live streaming for worship. I have wanted to try it, but with so few on Facebook, I hesitate. It’s not a great ego booster having two people viewing you when your clergy friends have 150 or more tuning in. I know. God doesn’t like ego and having two people watching me lead worship shouldn’t matter, even if one of them is your mom. Thanks, Mom.
I have to admit a bit of envy when I hear my colleagues having success with digital church, but I still deal with lagging internet here in the sticks. I have to admit I feel a bit of peer pressure to get the cameras rolling to worship — lagging internet or not — not wanting to be left out of this new wave of evangelism that has been long overdue.
And dare I whisper out loud what I think many rural pastors want to say — I feel overlooked by the larger church who yet again doesn’t understand that ministry in rural America is different. I want to hear someone say that it’s okay to snail mail the worship bulletin. I want to read stories about how powerful the antiquated phone tree can be to connect with the congregation.
I just don’t want everyone to assume that rural America is keeping up with how the pandemic is changing church as we know it. Because for my congregation, church at this moment still means finding peace and solace in a sanctuary that has been home for generations. It is familiar. It is comforting. And they deeply miss being able to congregate there. They are grieving in so many ways.
Social distancing in rural America isn’t easy. It’s like herding cats, I mused, as I waited for the bell to chime. I guess I was so absorbed by the thought of herding cats that I didn’t notice what was happening in the parking lot. The chatter among the folks gathered was joyous and when I looked up from my own grim thoughts, I noticed smiles on the faces of those still adhering to my stern “stay by your own car” warning.
And when the bell finally rang … and rang … and rang, the chatter stopped. All eyes looked up to the steeple. With each peal, smiles grew. I swear I saw eyes gaze beyond the weathered steeple, searching the heavens — for what I’m not sure of? An answer from God? A sign all will be well? A cry for help tucked inside a heart that has never been let out till now.
Bells are the voice of the church
For centuries, church bells have played a prominent role in communities serving as timekeepers, marking the hour for work, prayer or for coming together. Hearing church bells can make us stop what we are doing, cease the talking, and lead us into a much-needed space to reflect, to become prayerful.
As Frank rang the bell, a cloud of prayerfulness descended upon the parking lot and for a moment it felt as if we were in this divine group hug — all four of us still standing six feet away from one another.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote that “bells are the voice of the church.”
Could it be that our bell that rang was a voice telling not only us, but our surrounding community, that our church was alive and well? Could it be that the bell was a voice we needed to hear during Holy Week, pealing with hope and promise? Could it be that while our little church wasn’t Zooming or Facebooking or streaming online, we still had the ability to witness to God’s glory through our bell?
The ringing stopped. All that was left was a reverberating in my body. Folks got into their cars. Motors started up and one by one they went back home to shelter in place. I lingered, staring into the sky beyond the steeple. I never thought ringing the church bell could be so healing nor did I ever think that it would be a wonderful way to connect the congregation and the community.
Frank needed to hear the church bell ring. Those in the congregation needed to hear the “voice” of the church chime with its message of life and vitality. Frank was right. I didn’t understand. I do now.
Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today magazine. A former New York City editor, she now lives in Vermont where she is a part-time pastor of a church in Putnam, New York. When not trying to “herd cats” she shoots devotional videos at her home she calls “Old Stone Well Farm.” This article was featured on the Presbyterians Today’s blog.
Have you ever failed at something? Made a mistake? Messed up a project?
Of course you have. You’re only human. That’s why I loved yesterday’s scripture from Mark where Jesus returns to his hometown to preach only to find that he isn’t warmly welcomed. On the surface you can say that he was a big flop.
Soon after the synagogue debacle, though, we don’t see Jesus rethinking his life’s call, giving up on the mission of radical love and welcome. Rather, we see him move forward. This time, sending out his friends, two by two, to go to the towns and stay in homes to share the good news. And knowing that sometimes life brings rejection, he tells his friends, don’t let it get you down. You have something to offer. You have been called to do a job. You are part of God’s bigger plan. Just shake off the dust from your sandals and move on. There’s no time to waste; there are others to reach.
There really isn’t time to waste wallowing in our failure or rejection, for when something doesn’t go the way we had hoped or we don’t the results of our labor, it isn’t the end of the world. In fact, it could be God’s way of redirecting us — for example, those in the synagogue won’t receive you, then go out to those in the streets.
I have a chicken coop I’ve been trying to build for a year now. My father began the project last summer, but it was put on hold in the fall because of my indecisiveness as to how to side the walls. I wanted weathered barn boards, but they are wicked expensive to buy and I haven’t come across any old barns that have fallen down lately.
During this time of searching for siding alternatives, two major windstorms blew the coop over. By the second storm, I felt crushed thinking I would probably have to give up on the dream of having chickens. I really thought about dismantling the structure, but something urged me on. Once again, I cajoled my husband into helping me hoist the sad looking coop upright. And there it sits.
Somedays I stare out the kitchen window at this “failure” and I get down about it. Other days, though, I see these delays in finishing the coop as blessings because the reality is I don’t have time to tend to chickens. The failed chicken coop is starting to look more like a rustic shed for my garden tools.
I have always joked in my life that if Plan A doesn’t work, I am okay because there was a Plan B, a Plan C, a Plan D. I vowed I would never fret until I got to Plan Z. Why? Because I have learned that God has a beautiful way of guiding us. All the times I thought I have failed, I actually found myself stepping onto a new and better path.
And here’s the other thing with “failure.” It really isn’t what it seems to be because God sees things differently. God, who is a redemptive God, can take a mess and bless it.
I overheard a conversation on a shuttle bus to the airport recently. A woman asked a man sitting next to her what he did for a living. He led Christian retreats at a conference center. The woman was excited because she had attended that center years ago. She then went on to tell how one speaker she heard changed her life forever. It led her to give her life to Christ, to go into Christian publishing to spread the good news and, subsequently, because of the path she was now on, her sister was so inspired that she became a missionary. The woman was quiet after sharing the story and then said, “Now that I think about it, that retreat saved me.”
I was startled when I saw the man getting teary-eyed and wondered what was going on? I soon found out as he replied, “I led that retreat and I thought it was the biggest failure of my life. I was so depressed afterwards and found myself rethinking everything.”
A failure isn’t a failure — with God. Just take a look at Jesus. It seemed to everyone — even his friends — that his ministry failed that day he was nailed to the cross. But it didn’t. It was just starting.
So the next time you think you really screwed up or feel you are a hopeless cause or start believing you have no worth at all in this world, think again. God sees things differently. God sees blessings in messes. God brings holy successes out of our human failures.
Now, shake off the dust. You have a beautiful life to live — and I have a chicken coop, um, I mean garden shed, to finish.
Failures aren’t what they seem. Take for instance, my chicken coop. Blown over by high winds twice and still not finished, the delays have made me realize, I really don’t have time to raise chickens. I do, though, need a place to store my garden tools.
So many families are disappointed that the snow has prevented loved ones from spending Christmas together. I admit, I am feeling a bit down in the dumps that my husband and I won’t be heading out to see my parents and brother. The roads are pretty bad…
Disappointment. It’s something we don’t like to talk about on Christmas Day, but it is often there lurking in a room filled with smiles and laughter. Children get disappointed if Santa forgot a toy on their list. We pastors get disappointed weather impacts our carefully planned worship services. Adults get disappointed if…well, I think we adults can finish that sentence in many ways.
And now this Christmas Day, Santa has delivered a big dose of disappointment for many…snow falling steadily and piling up quickly, leaving many to make those calls to loved ones, “I’m sorry, but we won’t be seeing you today.”
It is disappointing, but I can’t help but to see the God moment in this Christmas Day storm. Perhaps the changed plans, the unexpected stillness and the forced “slow down” is God’s invitation for us to enjoy a different kind of celebration — a Christmas Day not based on what has always been or one that carries the heavy burden of expectations, but one that is as holy as that very first Christmas when Christ was born. That day was filled with the unexpected “disappointments” that really were beautiful blessings. I mean, really, Mary must have been a bit disappointed that she had to deliver her child in a stable.
The snow is still falling. Every so often I can hear it slide off the roof of our 18th century home. The snow pile against our front door is now 4 feet high. I can’t see Vermont’s lofty mountains from the kitchen window. They are hidden by a blanket of gray skies. I can’t even see my old stone well for which my little some-day farm is named after.
I can’t see much of anything. And that’s a good thing, I remind myself. For only God knows the plans God has for us. Faith in those God plans is trust game we must play. We need to see beyond the things we usually see or want to see, in order to truly see God.
That means this day, seeing beyond the disappointment of a Christmas Day snowstorm.
And so, I am loving the unexpected gift of peacefulness I unwrapped this morning as I stood outside feeling the gentle flakes fall on my face. I loved this gift so much I have yet to stop playing with it. In fact, the other gifts, the ones from a store, are still unopened under our Christmas tree. They can wait.
God’s gifts cannot.
The gift to see the world differently, the gift to let go of our expectations of what this day should be, the gift to let God’s healing love surround us in the guise of a snowstorm…these are the gifts to open.
The plane was relatively empty. I was relieved. The last thing I wanted was to be packed in tightly like a sardine. Or worst yet, have someone sitting next to me so that when I inadvertently brushed against the other’s arm while making sure my seatbelt was tight and secure, a conversation would begin—one that would last during take-off, cruising altitude and landing. I just wasn’t in the mood for small talk.
I was on a late flight and tired. My tiredness magnified by the fact that once I touched down I still had an hour-plus drive before I could finally crawl into bed.
I looked around the empty cabin. Yes, perhaps I could get some sleep.
I began to nuzzle against the window and closed my eyes. That’s when I heard the conversation. An older couple was arguing about where to sit. What alarmed me, though, was that their voices were too close to my row. I kept eyes closed and listened. They argued in the way that told me they have been married for many years. The exchange, more humorous than heated, finally ended with the wife plopping herself down in my once-spacious row. Her husband was the distance away that she wanted. He was across the aisle.
I tried hard not to make eye contact with her, but failed. With just one crack of my eye, she began talking.
Were you on a business trip? (My professional dress gave it away that I wasn’t on vacation.)
What do you do? (Ugh…that’s not an easy one to answer. Let’s see. I am a minister. A writer. I was serving a church in Maryland. I’m now back in Vermont where I am trying to be a farmer—well, in my dreams I am trying to be farmer. Truth is, I have one little garden that is struggling and a half-finished chicken coop.)
Yes, all of this came pouring out of my mouth and as I did I could hear my husband’s advice, “You don’t have to tell your life story to a stranger.”
The minister/writer vocation fascinated this woman and spurred on more conversation. She wanted to know everything. And so, I told her. I told her about my call into ministry that led me out of Manhattan where I was editor of a fine jewelry magazine. I told her about seminary and my first call to a little white church in rural upstate New York. I told her about meeting my husband in that rural community. I told her about my dreams to have a farm, to be back writing and to be serving once again in a country church.
And before I knew it, I told her my confession.
“I’m not sure about anything anymore, really. I find myself wondering what God is up to,” I said with a shrug and a smile, adding, “Is it crazy to like wearing heels and, also love wearing barn boots?”
The cabin had grown dark. Only the reading lights overhead from a few seats could be seen. The woman didn’t answer back to my confession. That disturbed me. Throughout the two-hour flight she was quick with the replies. In fact, much to the chagrin of the person in the seat in front of us, she never seemed to once come up for air. She was blessed with a gift for conversation.
She was quiet now and her gaze shifted from me to the window. I followed her eyes to see what she was mesmerizing her. All this time talking, we hadn’t noticed the full moon in the sky. This wasn’t just any full moon though. This moon was a deep, glowing orange. And from our vantage point in the sky, it looked as if we could reach out and touch it.
We stared and marveled at it, agreeing that we have never seen anything so beautiful.
Silence finally fell on Row 16.
Silence…till the woman, who I now see as one of those angels in disguise Hebrews mentions, gently took my hand and whispered, “You are right where God wants you to be.”
As the moonbeams illuminated the houses and little specks of cars below on the ground, I realized she was right. Life wasn’t as muddled as I thought it was. I just had to get above the confusion and focus my thoughts on things above—God.