The Christmas prayer tree
A rural church reaches out in an unexpected way
by Donna Frischknecht Jackson
Silence fell upon the room. A woman at my table waved to the waitress to order another glass of wine. A good diversion on her part, I thought. Others around me glanced down at the meeting agenda, feigning interest in old business items.
It was the first Wednesday of the month Chamber of Commerce meeting held in the village tavern, where one could get a 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” as a pastor, while satisfying my love for greasy pub food.
The room was still silent. I found it amusing how we all 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? Anyone?
More glasses of wine were ordered.
Before I knew it, my hand went up. I could hear my voice say something my head didn’t have time to think through carefully, “The white church (as locals called the church due its white New England clapboard façade, which was always in desperate need of painting) would love to decorate the gazebo.” Smiles from the Chamber president came and sighs of relief were let out from others.
Did I just volunteer our small church to decorate the village gazebo? Our small band of faithful servants was already busy with Advent Bible studies, after-school programs for kids, a Christmas cookie sale, a caroling dinner scheduled and, for the first time in the church’s history, two Christmas Eve services were being planned along with a new Christmas Day service. That was my harebrained idea.
Pastor, we don’t even get a full house for one Christmas Eve service, what are you thinking?
I was thinking of those with small children, the elderly who didn’t want to drive at night, families who had other family obligations that evening who really wanted a time to worship in their church…
Darn. The Christmas Eve luminaries. They need to be assembled, too. Who was getting the kitty litter for the bags? What in heaven’s name did I do? Waitress! Wine, please.
While having one more thing on the church calendar was not ideal for my little rural church, decorating the village gazebo was a blessing for both the church and the community. 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 and the beloved consignment shop. We were stringing more than just lights on a gazebo. We were shining our lights as we greeted those who passed by.
As I precariously balanced on a ladder to hang a red bow high on one of the lamp posts, I noticed the steeple of our church peeking over at me. I realized how much of a beacon of hope the church has been since the 1700s for 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: our church would decorate the tree with prayers and blessings for neighbors and friends who loved their village dearly.
Later that week, everyone gathered at the church to create prayer Christmas ornaments made from foam sheets and permanent markers. When we were done, we put on our coats and made our up the street to the gazebo where we finished decorating the tree with the promises of God to be with us always. Prayers of hope that God had not forgotten and will not forget the once thriving village that now struggled as so many rural communities do.
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 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 prayer tree. There standing in front of it was an elderly lady with a little child. She was leaning down speaking to the child who was asking what the ornaments said. As the child pointed to each ornament, the woman read the prayer out loud. I felt as if I was part of some holy liturgy happening not in a church, but right there on Main Street.
The woman looked up and caught my eye. “What a beautiful tree. I needed these prayers tonight,” the woman shared. I smiled, wished her and the little tot a “Blessed Christmas” and scurried off. I had a mushroom and Swiss cheese burger with the best onion rings I have ever tasted waiting for me at the tavern.
Rev. Donna Frischknecht Jackson, interim editor of Presbyterians Today, is a former NYC magazine editor who traded in her heels for a good pair of barn boots when she was called to serve First United Presbyterian Church in rural Salem, New York. The little village sits on the Vermont border. She hopes to get chickens and goats one of these days. Till then, she writes, edits, preaches, tries to garden, quilts and shares the funny and moving moments that comes with being a rural pastor on her blog accidentalcountrypastor.com. Drop her a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.