Penny’s Pen: Vacation Bible School

In the proverbial shadow of the Georgia Dome and in spite of the fact that there were few literal shadows, Atlanta Presbyterian Fellowship’s Vacation Bible School attracted a total of eighteen students from the Bluff and surrounding neighbourhoods. The theme was “The Ten Commandments” and it was a joy to watch the children, ranging in age from about 5 years to 16 years old, enjoying the lessons, the skits, crafts and games, and learning about God’s Law.

The event was held in a very pretty park in the Vine City area of Atlanta which, although still in a low-income neighbourhood, is not as derelict, and does not have the crime rate of the Bluff even though it is only a few blocks from it. It ran from 10 to 12 on Friday and Saturday mornings, the 13th and 14th of June.

The event did highlight one of our prayer requests, namely that of the need for a people-mover because even with three people and their cars ferrying children back and forth to the Vine City Park, some participants were having to arrive well in advance of the activities. However, amazingly, we were able to start on time both mornings.

There was no need to reserve any part of the park but we hadn’t checked on “park maintenance day”. So on Friday morning we arrived to find that city workers had just started mowing the long, wet grass in the area in which we had intended to set up the activities. They were apologetic and directed us to an attractive patio which overlooks the park and was a perfect place to set up our tables and prepare for the children to arrive. The noise of the mower, blower and trimmer did not completely cease until we were about half an hour into the activities, but it did not prove to be a particular obstacle.

Pastor Frank opened the session with prayer and then led the children in some songs to help break the ice.

This was followed by a skit which, on the first day, illustrated the events leading up to the giving of the Commandments. It had our two Short-Term Missions Team members (Josh Giesler and Calvin Biedeman) dressed up as Moses and an Israelite, with Pastor Frank as Mount Sinai.

Amy then kept the younger children on the patio with her to do the lesson on the first table of the law, and Josh and Calvin took the older ones to a grassy area under some trees.

The boys led the games for both age groups out in the freshly-mown grass and Amy led the crafts, making Ten Commandments magnets and Mt. Sinai models complete with cloud. Everyone regrouped for snacks but, having been invited to lunch by a group of folk from a nearby church, we headed there for cheese sandwiches and fruit cups. We had a total of twelve children and eight adults in attendance.

The second day opened in the same way and the skit this time had Amy’s character expressing to Calvin’s character her serious misunderstandings of the purpose and relevance of the Ten Commandments and their applications in real life, even arguing some points that Calvin was making. Eventually, however, her character comes to understand the biblical principles and how to put into them into practice.

The lessons covered the second table of the law; games were played and crafts fashioned including file folders shaped like the tablets of stone which opened to show each of the commandments.

This time we provided double cheeseburgers and cold sodas for lunch at the end and received pledges from many of the children that they would come to church the following afternoon and give presentations of their crafts and what they had learned. On the Saturday we had fourteen children in attendance and eleven adults. Four children from Friday did not return (three of them because they went home, which is out of the area, and one because of a sore throat). But six additional children came giving us seven each in the older and younger groups.

Ten of the children did come on the Lord’s Day including three, along with their mother, who had not attended a service with us before. The same skits were performed with Pastor H. P. McCracken from the Southern Church Extension Committee playing Mt. Sinai. Pastor Frank provided the sound effects of thunder, lightning and trumpets much to the amusement of all.

With only two weeks to put it all together, Miss Amy did an outstanding job leading the planning for the VBS, including the overall production, both skits, the lessons for the younger children, and all the crafts. Josh and Calvin planned the lessons for the older children and the games. Advertising was done door-to-door and one-on-one in the streets, with Pastor Frank and the Missions Team using a downtown apartment (bereft of stove and shower), as their headquarters.

We are so grateful to the Lord for bringing so many children to our mini Vacation Bible School and for bringing them back for worship the following day. We hope and pray that these young people will not soon forget the lessons they learned. The concept of following a moral law and understanding that these laws are still relevant today appears to be practically unknown in areas of crime and violence such as the Bluff. In fact, it was on Thursday morning, the day before VBS started, that we heard of the stabbing death of a man to whom we had ministered many times while still located on the steps of the abandoned church building in the heart of the Bluff. We had entertained him at our house overnight a couple of times so that he could attend Northminster with us on the Lord’s Day. He had come to visit us in our current church building one time, in February, and we had hoped he would return. This man was the second person to whom we had ministered who had been murdered, the other, less than a year ago being a woman who desired to leave her life of drugs when her life was taken by someone who raped and strangled her.

Life in the Bluff is brutal. Children suffer. As I have mentioned before, the Lord has led us to minister to many children in the area. Please join us in praying that the lessons they learned on Friday and Saturday, and the sermon on Sunday, will help to inspire them to love the Lord their God with all their hearts, minds and strength and their neighbours as themselves.

From The Pastor’s Desk: Murder in the Bluff

His name was Clifford Johnson, but everyone knew him as “C.J.”  He was a star athlete at Jersey City State College who later ended up walking with a limp.  He spent more than one night in jail.  He was a church member who encouraged others to get on the straight and narrow.  He was kind and seemed to have a smile for everyone.  He loved to sing and play music.  He worked odd jobs, and didn’t have much money.  At the age of 58, he was staying in a house that had no running water or electricity.

On Tuesday, June 10, 2014, in broad daylight, a man jumped out of a car and stabbed C.J. in the neck.  This happened right in front of the corner grocery store where we used to meet for worship.  C.J. staggered down the block, bleeding profusely.  An eyewitness told me that C.J. finally collapsed and started gasping for breath, as well as thrashing around.  By the time the ambulance got there, C.J. had almost completely bled out.  He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

We had ministered to C.J., even to the point of hosting him overnight in our home a couple of Saturday nights, so he could get a warm bath and come to Northminster Reformed Presbyterian Church with us.  But that was three years ago.  Since then, we would occasionally see him, but hadn’t seen him much recently.  One of our two RP Missions team members did come across him three days before he was murdered.  C.J. wanted to be remembered to us.  When the team member asked him if he was going to come to church, he replied, “Probably not.”  At least he was honest.

This is the second person who has come to our ministry, who has been murdered within the past year.  Last summer, Linda Madison, a drug addict living in an abandoned house, was raped and strangled.

These incidents remind us of what it is like to live in “the Bluff.”  It is a place of violence as well as grinding poverty.  But such venues come as no surprise to those familiar with the Bible.  The Scriptures are filled with examples of horrific manifestations of total depravity.  To cite but one example, Psalm 10 vividly portrays the wicked person, who lurks and preys upon the poor and murders the innocent.

However, the psalmist does not despair but triumphantly affirms that “The Lord is King forever and ever” who has “heard the desire of the humble” in order to “do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, that the man of the earth may oppress no more.”  The Lord sees all of the morass of wickedness—the drug deals, the stabbings, the killings, the prostitution, the sexual immorality—that covers the Bluff.  The Lord will take account.

Often, He does so in this life with respect to temporal judgment, as He uses the state to execute violent criminals; accordingly, we pray that C.J.’s murderer (and Linda’s killer) will be brought to justice by the civil magistrate.

More significantly, there is a judgment day coming when the wicked will be sent to hell.

But what we all need to remember is that the Apostle Paul in Romans 3 quotes Psalm 10 (and other Scriptures) to demonstrate that total depravity is universal.  And the only way for any of us to escape eternal punishment, is if the righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed to us as we trust in Him by faith alone.

C.J. would sometimes tell us that our being there in the Bluff brought hope to the area.  We were heartened by that comment; we would like to think that we are a salt and light influence, promoting peace in the city streets and helping those who are deeply impoverished.  However, our ultimate goal is not the fostering of merely temporal blessings.  It is the gospel which we preach that brings genuine—and abiding—peace and hope.  And that’s the reason why we’re in the Bluff.

Penny’s Pen: Where Do We Go From Here?

Unlike most church plants in middle-class America, a downtown ministry attracts a lot of people who are needy in a material sense as well as a spiritual one. We have been stimulated by reading the biography of The Man who Moved a Mountain which relates the story of a Presbyterian minister who was born into the desperately poor and violent world of the Appalachian hollers at the turn of the twentieth century. Life was cheap, and children were born into a place and time in which the hungry did not have food stamps, the sick did not have “safety net” hospitals, infants were fed brandy, drunkenness was the norm, education was frowned upon, and killing was a sport. The story of how the Lord changed hearts using this man was inspiring and encouraging. It showed love, faith, and determination; a willingness to spend and be spent; a willingness even to be physically threatened and financially cheated; a willingness to forgive and to carry on, all to bring the message of the gospel and a change in the culture. In comparison, the poor of the downtown districts of urban centers in the United States in the twenty-first century do not have to suffer either the level of violence or the hunger that the destitute did a century ago.

Of assistance in stimulating our thinking, the book When Helping Hurts has been instrumental in helping Frank and me design a picture of the ministry that we would like to develop, with plans for this year and goals for the future. The authors of this book admit to having made their own mistakes in the past which they use as illustrations of what not to do, and they then go on to list effective strategies and resources that they or others have developed which have proven successful during many years in this kind of ministry.

Each of these books comes from a different perspective. The mindset of the preacher in the first book is that of a raw, bold and fearless crusader with rash and lofty ideals, demanding to be educated, and using gut instincts and spiritual nerves of steel to pull people out of the depths of depravity. The mindset of the authors of the second book is to provide a methodology which is scholarly, measured, and practical. Both books reveal the necessity for those of us in this kind of ministry to pray for the gifts of patience and long-suffering.

Believing that the Great Commission must be the main thrust of our own ministry, we did not set out to be a social agency. But we do want to make ourselves available to help those people whom the Lord brings our way to work towards developing a godly lifestyle. We pray that being spirited and audacious as led by the Holy Spirit, tempered with caution and prudence, will enable us to be of greatest benefit in the modern world, bringing glory to our Saviour.

To walk with us in this effort the Lord has been gracious in bringing us a new family which recently moved into Georgia. Lieutenant Chris Meyers, his wife and four young children have been driving up approximately every two weeks from his new duty station, Ft. Benning, in the western part of the state. It takes about two hours to drive to Atlanta, so it is not something he is able to undertake with his family every week. Chris is a wonderful addition to our team as he brings an abundance of energy and a variety of skills. Please take a look at the website he has created for us at atlanta-rpc.org (no www). Having recently been licensed to preach by Alleghenies Presbytery he also filled the pulpit for Pastor Frank on one occasion. His wife Misty and the children have also been a blessing to the ministry.

Given the large numbers of children we have been attracting, Miss Amy and Miss Jerusha decided it would be helpful to split the Sunday school class into two, with Miss Amy teaching the older children and Miss Jerusha the younger. While the idea is a good one, the occasional exuberance of the younger children can disrupt the older class. Hence it is becoming more and more desirable to find a more capacious location.

In addition, Miss Michele is teaching a lady in the group to read and write, so we actually have three lessons going on simultaneously in the same room. When all three classes are quietly and studiously engaged, one can enjoy the heartwarming warble of a harmonious hubbub.

We are looking forward to hosting a short-term missions team for the fifth year running. Two young men will be joining us for 2½ weeks in June, with one of them staying for an additional four weeks. The plan is that, for a large part of the time, they will be living in an apartment in the area in which we minister in order to give them the opportunity to get to know some of the residents more intimately. They will, as in the past, run something akin to a Vacation Bible Study for the children and will also have a prayer table set up in the heart of the Bluff. Please pray for this intense outreach effort: that it will be effective in introducing our ministry to the residents of the area, and that the fruits from that effort will be of use in the future.

Other prayer requests comprise “The Five P’s”, namely:

1. for an increasing culture of Prayer among our team members,

2. for more Personnel to come alongside us to support us in this growing effort,

3. for a 15-seat People-mover,

4. for a more commodious Place in which to hold worship and Sabbath school,

5. for Property of our own (eventually) to use for both worship and ministry activities.

Thank you for your continued interest in Atlanta Presbyterian Fellowship. May the Lord be pleased to bless your own ministries as we all strive to advance his Kingdom in this broken world.

From the Pastor’s Desk: Our Political Duty

Our congregation is a member of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA), a branch of the church which is known for many things. Among other things, we are known by the name “Covenanters”, because of our identification with the Scottish Covenanters of the seventeenth century. Our spiritual forebears steadfastly proclaimed their allegiance to King Jesus in both church and state—a stance which resulted in thousands of martyrs in Scotland, as men, women, and children were tortured, many unto death, for their refusal to submit to government tyranny.

Many observers today would say that the Reformed Presbyterian position on Christ’s kingship is actually its distinguishing characteristic. Forged in the fires of persecution, this doctrine proclaims that as the mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ rules over all things. This mediatorial kingship means that there is not one aspect of reality that is outside of the reign of the One who died on the cross, rose again from the dead, and is ascended into heaven.

This truth obviously has political implications. One of them has to do with whether a Christian can participate in the American political process, since to do so entails supporting a constitution which declares that its source of authority is “We the people” rather than the King of kings and Lord of lords.

For much of its history, the RPCNA, because of the failure of the U.S. Constitution to recognize the Lordship of Jesus Christ, refused to allow its members to vote in elections or hold office. However, in the twentieth century, an accommodation was reached whereby someone taking an oath of allegiance to the Constitution could also append an Explanatory Declaration, as follows:

In taking this oath I make no mental reservation. I am a member of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, and I declare that I owe a supreme allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ, and in making that declaration I take the same God as my witness, invoking His assistance to help me to render due obedience to my country in all temporal matters. And I do further declare that I do not now know any matter in which I intend actual disobedience to any command of my country now known to me.

In allowing members to vote, however, the RPCNA specifies that “the Christian should support and vote only for such men as are publicly committed to scriptural principles of civil government. Should the Christian seek civil office by political election, he must openly inform those whose support he seeks of his adherence to Christian principles of civil government” (Reformed Presbyterian Testimony, Chapter 23, #29).

This statement is the practical outworking of a position that maintains that the Lord Jesus is the sovereign ruler in church and state, and that we dare not be ashamed of Him. In this election year where the leading candidates do not fit the qualifications of office as defined by the RP Testimony, Reformed Presbyterians are urged not to compromise, but to follow the principles mentioned above and to leave the results to God.