Of frogs and toads and fishes and loaves

Frogs and toads can be amazing.

Once or twice a month, I volunteer at Loaves and Fishes, a food and clothes bank run out of the basement of St. Paul’s and St. James’ Episcopal Church in New Haven, Connecticut. Usually, I work the registration desk there, greeting people, asking about their families, and handing out numbers for bags of groceries. But one Saturday in January, I was put in charge of the kids’ corner, where we hand out donated books to children.

Business was slow at first, so I rifled through the box of books and discovered, to my delight, Frog and Toad All Year. I was delighted because it was one of the first “I Can Read” books that I bought for my daughter when she was young–except we read it in Spanish first because my daughter was in a dual-immersion Spanish/English school and learned to read in Spanish first (Sapo y Sepo Todo el Año!).

I sat on a cold, hard floor and helped children pick out appropriate titles for their age. Two very young girls, preschool age, came by later in the morning, looking for coloring books, but I already had given out all the coloring books. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Would you like a book to look at?”

The girls did not seem to understand me. “Quieres leer un libro?” (Do you want to read a book?) I asked them.

They looked hesitantly at their mother.

“¿Puedo leer este libro con las niñas?” (Can I read this book to the girls?) I asked their mother. She nodded.

And so I read Frog and Todd in English to two Spanish-speaking preschool girls, acting out the part about Toad sledding out of control on an icy hill (boy, I know what that is like!). It was a funny reversal of the scene in my home 14 years ago, when I was reading Sapo y Sepo in Spanish to an English-speaking daughter.

I stopped reading after a few minutes because the mother seemed anxious to leave, and I think I was more disappointed about this than the two little girls or their mother were.  I waved goodbye and then surreptitiously continued reading Frog and Todd All Year on my own.

The funny thing about this kind of ministry, and probably any kind of ministry, is that it feeds those who minister as much as, or perhaps even more than, those who are the intended recipients. For me, it was wonderful to recapture a very pleasant memory of times with my daughter when she was young, and it was fun to read to young children again and to see kids excited about getting to take a free book home.

To them, the delight was in the abundance of choices. To me, the delight was in the simplicity of the situation. Frogs and toads raking leaves in autumn. Kids being happy with one book. Making do by creating a reading corner behind the registration desk. A simple acting out of a sled crash instead of a Disney-animated movie with accompanying video games, books, and T-shirts.

When I think of the traditional loaves and fishes stories in the Gospels, the stories in which Jesus takes a few loaves of bread and a few fish and miraculously transforms them into enough food to feed a few thousand people, I wonder. Who was more delighted? The apostles or the people getting fed? The people getting fed probably didn’t know what the original amount of food was. They just kept passing the basket, getting enough food.

But the apostles, who did nothing more than doubt and pass the basket to the first person, must have been astounded. How could it be that so little could turn into so much? Who IS this guy? Why is he multiplying fish carcasses for hungry peasants? Why doesn’t he rout the Romans?

I think even really faithful believers have a tendency to doubt that small things can be transformed into great things. Or at least I do. People around Yale talk about doing big things. We want to fix the systems that institutionalize poverty. We want to revolutionize agricultural practices to protect God’s creation around the world and make sure everyone is fed. We want to help bring about peace in the Middle East. We want to deliver the blockbuster sermon or write the incredible term paper that will revolutionize the field.

But Jesus worked small. He healed a few people here and there. He taught now and then, but often only to a small group of disciples.

I do not know what effect the reading of 1/3 of Frog and Toad All Year had on these two little girls, if any. But it helped me to remember, first of all, that Jesus worked small, and I should not doubt that great transformations can come from small things.

Even Sapo y Sepo.

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