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
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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.

In a challenging post entitled Why Many Welcoming Churches are Dying Churches, Joseph Yoo explains why churches cannot sit back and wait for people to come to us.  We can’t assume any more that people even in the near neighborhood know where we are, who we are, and what we are about.

He describes a tendency in congregations to think that sprucing up the building and grounds will entice people to stop in.  He writes, “Not only do we assume that a majority of our neighbors know about church, we also look at outreach through the lens of the question ‘How do we get people into our pews’ rather than actually being missional.”

He adds, “We can’t just wait and assume people are going to show up — because they won’t. We’re also going to encounter more and more folks who don’t know the things about our faith that we take for granted. And that’s okay.

“What’s not okay is for us to mistake the words of Jesus to ‘Go’ for ‘Stay and wait for people to come’ — no matter how welcoming we may be.”

We’re trying to figure out how to “go” at Jesus’ direction.  Click on the title to read the whole post.

Don’t Be Afraid

A Meditation on Luke 2: 8-16 for All God’s Children

December 24, 2015


Years and years ago when Jesus was born, people were scared of a lot of things. For one thing, their country was ruled by the Roman empire. There were Roman soldiers everywhere. The Roman rulers did fearful things to people who tried to challenge them.


And then there was a local ruler, King Herod, who was known far and wide for being so mean. You didn’t want King Herod to get mad at you.


It was a scary time for Jesus’ mother, Mary, to be traveling to Bethlehem. It was almost time for him to be born. What if it happened before she and Joseph could get to shelter? She was worried.


And there were also some people who were afraid of God. These were people who could not do all the things the Bible experts said they had to do in order to please God. Other people looked down on them, so they figured God looked down on them, too.


Now shepherds were in this category. People thought shepherds were low and dirty. Second class at best. Sinners by definition. Shepherd equals sinner.


That night, when Jesus was born, shepherds were out in the fields outside of Bethlehem, keeping watch over their sheep to make sure the sheep were safe. Suddenly, there was a blast of light, and an angel, a messenger from God stood there, and the shepherds were terrified. Of course they were startled! I’ll bet they thought they were seeing a ghost at first. Or maybe they realized right away that this messenger came from God, and they thought, “Oh Oh! We must be in for it! We’ve done something wrong for sure!”


But what did the angel say? The first thing the angel said was, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid, shepherds, for see? I’m bringing you good news of great joy for everyone—everyone! To you and everyone is born this day in the city of David a Savior, the Messiah, Christ the Lord.


“This will be a sign for you: you will find the baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”


I’m sure the shepherds’ mouths were still hanging open with surprise, when suddenly there was a whole crowd of angels with the first angel, and together they sang praises: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth, peace, goodwill among people.” The word from God to the world is peace and good will.


In other words, “Shepherds, this baby is born for you, a gift from God to you. And the word from God to you is peace and good will. God loves YOU.”


“Wow! Let’s go see!” the shepherds said, and off they went.


It was clear. Whatever anybody else thought, God loved those shepherds, and Jesus was born for them. Jesus was born for everyone.


Most, if not all of us, know what it is like to feel afraid. Sometimes scary things happen to us or to people we love. Sometimes we hear of fearful things on the news. Sometimes we are scared of other people. Sometimes we might wonder whether God could really love us, just as we are.


But what God said to those shepherds through the angels is what God says to us now. God says the exact same thing to us now. “Don’t be afraid. I’ve got good news for you. Jesus is born for you. God’s peace and goodwill is for you…yes YOU! All of you, each and every one!”


When we are afraid, God wants us to remember that God is with us. We are not alone. We don’t have to face it all by ourselves. God will help us. Jesus is born for us, and he loves us forever and ever. He will never leave us.


And one thing we definitely do not need to be afraid of is God himself. God looks at us with eyes that are full of good will, good will and love for all. That’s what God told us when God sent Jesus to the whole human family.


We can be courageous each day, even when we do still feel scared, because we know God is with us, and we know Jesus loves us. He is born for us!


“Wow!” the shepherds said. “Let’s go see the baby!” Wow! What a wonderful gift of love from a wonderful God!

In those days…

In those dark days when Caesar Augustus was hailed as lord and savior, the One who really is Lord and Savior was born in tiny Bethlehem.  In these dark days, it does seem that the likes of Caesar Augustus are still in control.  Do we dare hail a different king?

In Those Days

A Sermon on Isaiah 43:14-21 and Luke 2:1-20


Now in those days the emperor Augustus was the most powerful king of the most powerful kingdom the world had yet seen: the Roman empire. Looking at the empire as a whole, it was a time of great stability. Things were more stable than they had been in many years. Some viewed it as a golden age of peace and called it the Pax Romana—the peace of Rome, or the Pax Augustana—the peace of Augustus. It was a good time to be alive—for the wealthy and powerful at any rate. Around the empire Augustus was acclaimed as lord, divine son, bringer of peace, and savior of the world. Yes—those very words, including savior and lord. That’s what people were calling Caesar Augustus!


But what they called peace was enforced by the threat of violence. Keep the subjects afraid. Any hint of unrest was quickly squashed by the mightiest army the world had yet seen. The Romans had an especially feared execution technique, called crucifixion, and they used it regularly. Not everybody stayed in line, but most did, most of the time.


Maintaining the empire and the peace of Rome required lots and lots of revenue. That meant lots and lots of taxes—steep taxes, and the Romans didn’t want to miss any tax payers. Accurate tax rolls were a must.


That’s how Mary and Joseph found themselves caught up in forces they couldn’t control. They found themselves on the road to Bethlehem at the worst possible time: late in Mary’s pregnancy. Continue Reading »

Here I Am, Lord

Baptism Day

Baptism Day-January 1994, with the Rev. Erich Thompson

Here is the sermon I preached on the First Sunday of Advent for my daughter’s confirmation and commissioning service.

Here I Am, Lord

Luke 1:26-38

Confirmation and Commissioning of Laura Mary Todd

A legend says that God approached others with plans for the birth of Jesus, but Mary was the first one who said yes. There were plenty of sensible reasons to say no. Allowing God to work through her in this way would make Mary the subject of all kinds of gossip. And what about her fiancé, Joseph? If he couldn’t accept this plan, what then?

Then there was the question, “Why me?” Aren’t kings supposed to come from royal, well-to-do families? Mary, and Joseph, if he chose to stay with her—did not have great means and social position. Could they really provide a suitable upbringing for this child?

The responsibility of bringing a child into this world is always an awesome one. But the child Mary was being asked to bear and raise had a mission that was vital to every man, woman, and child on the planet. Was she up to this task? I can imagine her worrying, “What if I mess up?”

No wonder Mary had misgivings. No wonder she exclaimed, “How can this be?”

Though it doesn’t come to us in that same way, the call Mary heard does come to us. It’s the call to let Jesus be born in and through our lives. It’s the call to let God work in and through us in order to bring goodness and blessing to a world that desperately needs it.

This is about much more than adding the words “Christian” or “church member” to who we are. This is about much more than what our final destination is going to be. This means responsibility. No longer can the focus be on me, myself, and I alone—what I like and what I want to do with my life. It means putting everything we are and everything we have on the line for love of God and for love of the world God loves. If we find ourselves asking questions like whether or not we are really up to it, we are in good company.

Whenever a new person comes into being, God dreams of what God

Laura and her Grandma at worship.

Laura and her Grandma at worship.

can do in that person’s life. Before my husband, John, and I started hoping and dreaming, God was already dreaming of the blessings God could share through Laura’s life. When we learned that Laura was on the way, the Morton faith family started getting ready, too. I stood beside the baptismal font and told you all that we were going to need to use it in a few months.

Laura was born loved and called, and on her baptism day and in all the years since, the Morton Church has helped her hear God calling. With us you’ve helped Laura know Jesus and his love, and helped her hear Jesus calling. You saw how Laura could use her gifts to serve the Lord, and you welcomed them. We are so grateful.

Laura has heard that call, to share the outrageous love of Jesus Christ, and to be a blessing, and she is here today to say yes out loud. “Yes, here I am!” Many unknowns and decisions lie ahead as life unfolds. One that is coming up soon is what to do after college graduation. Laura is wondering whether God is calling her to be a Presbyterian Young Adult Volunteer in Mission next year. She is working on her application. If that’s where God wants her, how might God use that experience to clarify what comes next?

When Mary wondered how all these things could be, God’s messenger reassured her that God was with her. The presence and power of the Holy Spirit were with her. The Holy Spirit answers the “how” question. At that, Mary said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.”

God is still seeking people who will let God work in and through them to bring love and light to others; looking for people who don’t automatically answer “Not me!” but instead ask, “Why not me? Why not us?” People ready to say YES.

Here Laura is. And here we are, too. Lord, let it be to all of us according to your word.

Grownup Laura, second from left, helps other children know they are loved.

Grownup Laura, second from left, helps other children know they are loved.