“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.”

–Isaiah 35:1-2

The term “food desert” describes areas where healthy, affordable food is hard to come by.  One of our adult Sunday School classes talked about this recently, and we looked at some of the down in the dirt ways people are trying to address the situation.  Food deserts exist in urban areas as well as rural areas.  Not far from us the Conetoe Family Life Center is working to grow healthy young people and a healthy community as it grows and distributes healthy food.

It occurred to us that there are many other kinds of deserts as well.  Within walking distance of the building our congregation calls home, we have identified a “music desert” and a “reading desert,” and there are certainly others.  In a music desert people don’t hear much enriching music, and they seldom attempt to make music. It is all left to professionals.  In a reading desert there is little storytelling or reading, and few books around to stimulate minds through words and good art.2016-02-09-21-20-33

Isaiah 35 reminds us that God can make the driest desert blossom, and God can make a way through where there seems to be no way.  God has the greatest green thumb of all. Our little flock is participating in what God is doing to help our community flower. Every week one of our oldest members leads a group that makes music flower at a local nursing home.  We also enjoy making music with some of God’s youngest children through gatherings called Music for Little Friends, to help their minds, hearts, and souls develop.  We will soon place a third Little Library somewhere in the churchyard.  The first two are in nearby neighborhoods, and there is a weekly story time at Little Library 2.  We are looking for creative ways to encourage children and families to use the libraries and read together. In these and other ways we are trying to garden with God.

Sometimes the small things we do seem so very small and inconsequential, and we worry about how our ministry can be sustained long term.  We need our divine Gardener to creatively cultivate us.  Yet even the smallest flowers are exquisitely beautiful, like a crocus.  In God’s eyes they are, at any rate.

file-dec-06-6-17-36-pmReaders, our prayers are with you for flourishing where you are in God’s gardening scheme.  And we appreciate yours for us as we plant our seeds with hope and longing for something beautiful from God in the future.

Don’t give up…

Here is a live version of one of my favorite Josh Groban songs.  “You are loved” is a message we need to hear again and again.

little-golden-bookBooks have always been my friends, and the one you see pictured here is a special friend.  I can still hear my mother’s voice reading My Little Golden Book About God.  This little book shaped my understanding of God.  I still believe that “beyond the farthest star, God knows the way,” and that God planned “[this] tiny world your two hands could span.”  I still believe that “God whispers to us in our hearts: ‘Do not fear, I am here, and I love you, my dear.'”

I am always on the lookout for children’s books to share in my ministry with children, and I have found that good children’s books speak to the faith of all God’s children, including those of us that are grownup.

I am dreaming of a book fair to help put some of the best books in the hands of children, youth, and their families.  It would resemble a school book fair, but it would pull together a collection of the very best Bible story books, board books, picture books, and books for young adults on topics such as prayer, worship, service, justice, and life in the church. It would include the best fiction as well as non-fiction.

I have started a list of titles, and I am seeking recommendations.  What titles do you dream of putting in the hands of your children and youth to support their faith formation?  I am especially in need of helpful titles for older elementary children and teens, but welcome all your recommendations.   You can put them in a comment below, or go to the contact page and email me.  Thanks very much for your help!

Meanwhile, here are two web sites for people who love using children’s literature in ministry:

Storypath is a ministry of Union Presbyterian Seminary.  You can find hundreds of book reviews there, plus bibliographies and lesson plans.  Each week they post reviews of books that relate to the Revised Common Lectionary readings for the week.  There is also a scripture index and a theme index.

Picture Book Theology is similar.  The reviews are written and posted by Hanna Schock, an avid reader who finds the presence and wisdom God in picture books especially.  She offers suggestions on how to use picture books in educational ministry.

Here are some of my own reviews from elsewhere on this site:

A Child’s First Book of Prayers, by Lois Rock.

Psalms for Young Children, by Marie Helene Delval.

The People Could Fly:American Black Folktales, by Virginia Hamilton.

Grandad’s Prayers of the Earth, by Douglas Wood.



Photograph by Harris Walker


The prophet Jeremiah called God’s people in exile in Babylon to seek the wellbeing of their Babylonian captors.  That sounds an awful lot like Jesus’ call to love our enemies.  Where does the will and the power to do that come from?

In search of an answer, here is a sermon I preached for an ecumenical worship service gathering people from all around the city of Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  It was part of a summer series on the theme of being the peace of the city.

The Power to Seek Peace
A Sermon on Jeremiah 29:4-7 and Ephesians 2:13-18
With allusions to Psalm 137 and Luke 6:27-36
Rocky Mount Summer Community Worship Service
Sunday, July 31, 2016
St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church

Somewhere in Babylon around the year 593, a congregation of homesick exiles from Jerusalem was listening to the reading of a letter from the prophet Jeremiah back home. They could not believe their ears! Say what, Jeremiah? Put down roots in Babylon? Seek the shalom—the welfare, the wellbeing, the peace—of Babylon? Pray for the Babylonians?

Imagine the murmuring! Jeremiah, they brought us here against our will! They worship gods with names like Marduk. Everything is foreign to us here. These people have hurt us as deeply as ever we could be hurt! Pray blessing and peace on Babylon?

Jeremiah, you know not! What we really want is for somebody to come in here and make the Babylonians suffer, pay them back. See, we do have a prayer, and it goes like this: blessed be the one who takes your children and smashes them against the rock! (Psalm 137).

Meanwhile the letter reader’s voice was continuing: because… in Babylon’s wellbeing you will find your wellbeing.

Jeremiah’s call sounds an awful lot like the call Jesus gave his followers. Jesus said, “But I say to you that are listening, love your enemies, do good to those that hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you.”

There’s no question about it: God was asking a very hard thing of the exiles. Did they heed Jeremiah’s words? Continue Reading »

https://farm3.staticflickr.com/2557/3757326409_9a0f118e01_o.jpg“Seek the wellbeing of the city where I have sent you…for in its wellbeing you will find your wellbeing.”  –Jeremiah 29:7, speaking to God’s people in exile in Babylon.

Recently my family and I have been walking through the neighborhood around the church building and inviting people to a special event celebrating the centennial of Morton Church’s official charter.  There are several back roads and pathways off the main road that runs in front of the building.  We were taken aback when someone who lives on a path less than a thousand feet away from the church driveway asked, “Where is Morton Church?”  A similar encounter occurred at a home on the main road less than half a mile away.

My hunch is that these people knew that there was a church building nearby, but did not know or remember the congregation’s name, or anything about who we are and what we do as a community of faith.  Talk about feeling invisible!  But the truth is, these people have been invisible to us–to me, at any rate.

This experience highlights something I’m finding again and again as I study, reflect, and pray, seeking God’s way into the future: congregations must actively seek the wellbeing of the neighborhoods in which God has placed us.  We must be a life-giving presence literally right where we are.  This means forming new connections with our neighbors, which will inevitably bring us into contact with their joys and their pain.  God is already out there on the move nearby, aiming to reach and bless our neighbors, and calling us to join him there.

The most important book I have read that fleshes this out is The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship, and Community, by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight J. Friesen.  They point out what the automobile and other technologies have done to our sense of place.  It is now possible to live in one place, work in another place, shop, and pursue other activities in yet other places.  It is possible to drive many miles to worship in still another community.  This disconnects people from one another, and it disconnects us from the literal ground we live on.

One shift that needs to occur is to recognize that the church’s ministry is occuring wherever we are in our everyday lives.  We literally are the body of Jesus Christ every day.  What happens on Sunday mornings grounds us for living as his body everywhere, all the time.

Another shift is to learn to observe the community around us carefully, and listen with openness to the people there.  Jesus said that he came so that people might have abundant life.  Another way to think of abundant life is life that is flourishing.  As we observe and listen, we must listen to the Holy Spirit.  How can we join Jesus in seeking abundant, flourishing life in our neighborhood?  Moreover, how can we collaborate with our neighbors in the work of blessing the neighborhood?

Two things that keeps me coming back to this book are the ideas for discussion and exploration, and the beautiful prayers.  Here is a sample:

“God, grant us the wisdom to listen attentively to your presence all around us.  May we listen well to your dream for creation.  May we listen well to our own lives.  And may we listen well to the people and place we call home.  By your Spirit enable us to discern our calling and have the courage to act.  Amen.” (p. 132).

When God’s people were in exile in Babylon, they were unable to see how they could go on being God’s people.  But through the prophet Jeremiah, God instructed them to seek the wellbeing of their Babylonian neighbors all around.  God instructed them to be a blessing in this new, strange, and unchosen context in which they found themselves.  In that way, they would find their own wellbeing.  In that way they would find their future.

“Seek the wellbeing of the place where I have sent you”–still our call as God’s people.  Or to put it another way, “Love your neighborhood.”


Image: Author: Eva Luedin
Author URL: https://www.flickr.com/people/40819389@N04/
Title: Neighborhood Watch
Year: 2009
Source: Flickr
Source URL: https://www.flickr.com
License: Creative Commons Attribution License
License Url: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
License Shorthand: CC-BY

Another teacher…

Here is my tribute to John’s dad, and my second father, Charles C. Todd, Jr., who died on February 19.  Thanks be to God for a long, well-lived life!

Another Teacher
A Meditation on John 14:26, With Allusions to Romans 8:38-39 and 1 Corinthians 13
in Loving Memory of
Charles Cecil Todd, Jr.
Thursday, February 25, 2016

Mom and Dad 2013

Dad and Mom, Charlie and Alice, 2013

In one way or another, all of us know Charlie, Dad, and Granddaddy as a teacher. And being an insatiable learner was one thing that made Dad a good teacher. Dad was constantly reading, exploring, and expanding his horizons. Sometimes he literally went on adventures, traveling as far away as China. But even more, he went on wonderful adventures with his mind.

Those adventures began in early childhood. They are what sustained Dad during his fourth grade year when he spent the whole year in bed in a body cast, healing from a painful hip condition. We can’t imagine Charlie being that still, but he was. His mother looked after him, and she taught him at home that year so he could keep up with his peers. His classmates sent him a book about insects. I am sure he devoured it. Lifelong interests were born in those early years, in rocks and stamp collecting, jokes and stories, facts and trivia about all the U.S. presidents, and so much more. Dad learned a lot through scouting, working his way through many badges on the way to the Eagle Scout award. Learning how to fix things started in those years, too. When he was working on things, Dad would remark, “I grew up in an old house.”


Dad and John in China, 2005

Dad loved to explore the magic of numbers and words. He tried to learn a new word every day. He knew Shakespeare well enough to catch lots of phrases that he applied to the game of basketball: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair!” (Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 1.) And he collected them all in a book: Shakespeare: The Bard and the Ball.

Dad liked to commit things to memory. One time he was memorizing the list of the seven deadly sins—those sins that give birth to all the rest. He used an acronym to remember them all, and he wrote it up on the board in the kitchen: SLAP EGG it read. That stands for sloth, lust, anger, pride, envy, gluttony, and greed. SLAP EGG. So we learned them, too, and now you know what they are.

Dad taught himself so many things. He taught himself to play the violin and ukulele. Every Christmas he brought out the violin and played carols.
Still hungry to learn something new, Dad was nearly always taking one class or another: from art classes to writing workshops.

Charlie was ready to try new things even if he wasn’t all that good at them. He tried to learn some French, Mom’s–Alice’s–other language and her professional interest, because he loved to learn, but especially because he loved her. He didn’t get very good at it. But that was okay.

We are proud of way Dad built his interest in learning and teaching into a public career in education, and of his tireless advocacy for other educators, and of the way he taught through writing and speaking. Educating the public about the perils of the state lottery was one of his big themes.

But most of us here knew Dad as a teacher in other ways. He taught his children to tie their shoes, as John said, and to read, and to play chess. He taught them to look at the sky and know the constellations. He taught son Chuck how to play poker. He taught them so much more. Dad even taught his own mother to play chess, and he taught his father how to drive a car.

Dad wanted so much for us all to believe in ourselves and succeed. One tribute we received online put it this way, “It was impossible to spend five minutes with Charlie without getting the feeling that you were smarter, nicer, and more worthwhile than you thought you were.”

But Dad taught some of his most powerful lessons by example. Here is one that made a deep impression: Dad and his sister Martha

Dad and Martha

Charlie and his sister, Martha

looked after their frail parents for many, many years. That meant patiently doing daily, humble tasks, and at the end, it meant going to the nursing home day after day after day. This went on for years. The lesson was, “Look after the people you love.” That means practicing patience, kindness, forbearance, and hopefulness. It means persisting and persevering because above all, love never ends. In love, Dad looked after us, his family. Charlie looked after his friends. He looked after his colleagues. And he looked after the schoolchildren of Virginia. We are so grateful.

It is so hard to believe he is gone. As Karen, Chuck’s wife, put it, Charlie seemed indestructible. We will miss his knowledgeable, faithful, funny presence. It really, really hurts not to be able to go ask Dad about things any more, and to know his voice is not there to remind us of things to remember and think about. It just hurts.

2015-12-27 13.47.10

The Todd family, December 27, 2015

In our scripture lesson from John, on the night before Jesus died, Jesus was trying to help his disciples, his students, get ready for the time when they couldn’t see him and hear him, and touch him directly any more. He knew how much his death would hurt them, and he knew they would struggle to find their way forward. They still needed someone to look after them.

Jesus promised, “I’m not leaving you alone to fend for yourself. I am sending you the Advocate, the Helper, the Counselor, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will be your teacher. The Holy Spirit will help you remember what I said.” Jesus kept that promise. He sent another teacher, a loving teacher that is here to stay. As the Apostle Paul pointed out, there is nothing in all creation that can take this loving One away from us.

The same Holy Spirit who came to sustain Jesus’ disciples is still here with us, looking after us, loving us and loving all people more than we can ever imagine. That Spirit is still here to help us, to comfort, guide, and teach us, and to remind us of what is most important: love. Life is about love. And in love, we faithfully look after one another.

Beloved, there are many more things to learn, and many more things we will learn. God is going to help us. God is going to teach us.

And most of all, God is going to love us and look after us, always.



Snow, Jan 17 2016I came across one of the loveliest words of encouragement for small churches that I have read in a while.  Rachel S. Gerber, a denominational minister for youth and young adults for Mennonite Church USA, and participant in a tiny Mennonite fellowship, titled her post this way:  To small congregations: You are enoughShe has important things to say about the deep faith formation that occurs when children feel deeply loved in a small church.  They know they belong, and they know they are needed.

Noting that congregations often fall prey to “if only” thinking (i.e. if only we had more children and bigger and better programs, we could attract more families), Gerber declares, “Let me tell you: Programs rarely make a difference.  But genuine encounters with people always do.  Authentic faith formation is always rooted in relationships, not in the flashiest curriculum or best-decorated children’s wing.”

I love the way she closes her post, too: “To my dear small congregation, you are not lacking.  You are such an asset.  You are enough.”

That’s exactly what I want to say to my own small congregation.

Click on the title, read the whole post, and be encouraged to keep on keeping on, in the name of Jesus.