Father Knows Best? Maybe Not!

November 2016Proverbs 1:8-9  My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother: For they shall be an ornament of grace unto thy head, and chains about thy neck.

As mentioned in the study notes of the Hebrew Greek Study Bible, these instructions are “addressed to the young to warn them of dangers that they, by reason of their inexperience, know nothing about.  [T]he emphasis is upon training in the home as a means of moral protection.  It will prepare the young person against temptations from immoral people and the end which results.”

But the question is, what kind of instruction does any given father give?  And what kind of law does any given mother lay down in her household?  Are they gold chains around the necks of their children or are they millstones?

King Solomon, the writer of Proverbs, consistently uses the words “wisdom”, “knowledge”, and “understanding”, insisting that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of such wisdom.  He was, undoubtedly, not only lecturing his son (and, by implication, future generations) how to live, but was providing an example for him and for us all to follow.

Children who hear godly instruction from their fathers and godly law from their mothers are being taught how to seek knowledge and wisdom.  They fear the Lord and they trust him to direct their paths.  Godly parents teach honesty, kindness, generosity, compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, modesty, and how to develop a gentle and quiet spirit.

Such is not often the case among residents of the Bluff.  We have found that parents have, themselves, been raised in loud, messy, chaotic homes in which a spirit of anger pervades, voices are constantly raised, children are yelled at, and there is no useful discipline.  Occasionally there is also serious abuse, even rape by a family member, which happened to one lady we know when she was ten years old.  In many ways these women are victims of the circumstances in which they were raised and they do not know any better.  So their children tend to be incorrigible, loud, inconsiderate; they often dress immodestly, steal, show no gratitude and almost never do as they are told.

Besides drug and alcohol abuse the most prominent and obvious problem in the Bluff is sexual sin.  The concept of staying celibate before marriage is essentially unknown.  When one of the ladies in the fellowship resolved to break out of her immoral lifestyle, she began to be taunted by neighbours who accused her of being a lesbian.

When I have mentioned that we know a number of young people who kept themselves pure before marriage and take seriously their vows to remain faithful to each other until death, I am greeted with wide, uncomprehending eyes, and utterances of disbelief.  Immorality in the Bluff is simply the normal way of life.  When one of the members of our Board of Advisors was taking two local men home, he happened to mention that he had been married for 43 years, and the two men, in concert, said “to the same woman?”  When the reply was in the affirmative, the men were genuinely shocked.

This situation impacts the notion of fatherhood in our ministry area.   To be sure, there are fathers of a sort―the kind for which having a child is merely the unintended consequence of lust and conquest.  Very rarely does the arrival of a baby result in any kind of concern for the future of the mother or the child.  Or, heaven forbid, giving up one’s current lifestyle, finding a job and raising a family.

Here are a few examples of fatherhood in the Bluff:

  • One of the ladies to whom we minister suffers from serious health issues. She had a man living with her who was the father of one of her two children and who, for a while, brought a mistress into the home, even though the two children were also living there.  He also stole her Social Security Disability income.
  • While we were still meeting on the steps of the old church building, a prayer request was received for an eighteen year old young man who was very thin and sickly and was now in hospital with two gunshot wounds he had received the previous week. He had already fathered two children.
  • One day when a young teenage boy who attended regularly was missing from the Bible study that Pastor Frank was conducting, the mother told us that his step-father had taken him into the city to teach him how to hustle (i.e., how to get stuff without having to pay for it though not necessarily stealing). Thankfully the man is now out of the area and the young man is nineteen, doing very well, training for a job, and recently told his mother that he wants to provide for a real family one day and stay pure for marriage.

Here are a couple of examples of motherhood in the Bluff:

  • From May until just recently, the other half of the duplex which serves as our church building housed five adults and eleven children. Some of these children responded to several months of Sunday School and church attendance with improved behavior.  Most, however, did not.  Several weeks ago our RPM&M blue piggy bank (the contents of which support the Reformed Presbyterian Missions & Ministry fund) was stolen, and because of the circumstances under which it disappeared we know that it had to be one of the neighbour children, though we don’t know which one.  A month ago one of these children stole gum out of the purse of one of our Sunday School teachers and ran with it towards her home.  The teacher ran after her and told the mother what had happened.  The mother rebuked the child―not by telling her that it was wrong to steal, but that she hadn’t been sneaky enough.
  • The step-mother of one thirteen year old boy who lived with his father and step-mother in a rooming house near our meeting place would sell herself on the streets on a regular basis. The boy had come to Vacation Bible School in the summer and since then had seemed to enjoy coming regularly to Sunday School and the service, sometimes taking good sermon notes.  But it was obvious, although not surprising, that he had a total disrespect for women.

Over the years I have heard some excellent sermons in which young people are admonished to learn from their parents.  But these sermons are being preached in contexts in which parents take seriously the admonitions of King Solomon.   For obvious reasons, preaching such a sermon in the Bluff and telling young people to learn from their parents would be inappropriate when these parents are teaching contrary to the will of God.

However, the children who attend our fellowship regularly are hearing and, in some cases, memorizing the catechism and Scripture verses.  They also see the modeling of faithfulness by our helpers and other Christian families who attend occasionally.  They hear sermons which have application to their lives, and we can only pray that, by God’s grace, the messages will take root in their young hearts even if we are not privileged to see the fruit ourselves.

In addition, our Sunday School teachers are doing a wonderful job teaching basic Christian doctrines and how to apply them in ways that, in a Christian home, would be reinforced by the parents.  Sadly, for many of the children to whom we minister, not only is the Biblical message not upheld in the home, but in many ways it is undermined.

And so it continues.  One generation after another, unless and until the Lord intervenes.  May He use Atlanta Presbyterian Fellowship to bring wisdom, knowledge, and understanding to the children and the parents, that they may be able to enjoy a life of dignity and decency in Christ.

As the Saying Goes . . .

. . . it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.  August the twenty-first, 2016, that is.  Even though, as Christians, we understand that God is sovereign over all things, and that even terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days are foreordained and intended for our good and to drive us closer to Christ, we insist on kicking at the pricks and allowing ourselves to become depressed when we find ourselves having to deal with such days.

Such was the situation a few Lord’s Days ago.  It was a grey and dismal day, but dry with no particular signs of rain as we left the house.  On the way to the building Frank indicated that he was not feeling all that well―a little bit shaky, a little too hot, definitely under the weather but willing to carry on.

We arrived at the duplex only to discover that we had left our “Atlanta Box” behind at the house, and there was no time to go back and get it.  The Atlanta Box contains such not-so-minor things as the sermon outline and the bulletins, and sundry other things such as printouts for little children to use during the worship service and large-print Scripture printouts for those who need them.

There was a spark of hope, however, because I always carry a spare copy of the sermon outline in my Bible.  “Where is your Bible?” says Frank.  “In the Atlanta Box,” say I.

I immediately took the blame for this state of affairs―in fact I suffered a full-blown guilt-trip because I had been the one lining up the things we need to take, near the car, ready for Frank to load them.  I felt crushed at my incompetence and immediately felt physically sick and, shortly thereafter, somewhat shaky as well.

Frank, however, found some notes on Genesis that he had prepared for a Bible Study and said he could preach from those.  So, again, we decided to carry on, and he left in the van to go and pick up the family that lives furthest from the church building.  When he was about five minutes into the drive he called to say that he was feeling so unwell that he needed to come back and pick me up to travel with him to help him concentrate on driving.  As I waited for him I realised that maybe we should think about calling off the service and getting to our family’s house (where we were going to be spending the night) so that he could lay down.

As we discussed this, Frank received an extraordinarily distressing text message from someone who used some horrible, disrespectful language followed quite quickly by something else which was distressing in another way.

We laid a sleeping bag and pillow on the floor in the worship area and Frank laid down.  Struggling in his own mind about what to do, he decided to call a trusted friend for counsel.  He got to his feet as they talked, and I, now close to tears and weak with guilt, laid down in his place.  There was an air of spiritual darkness in addition to the darkness of an approaching storm.   A nearby clap of thunder added to the drama and the heavy rain started.

The handle on the back door turned, and as the door opened I leapt to my feet, very grateful to see Miss Amy arrive.  Not surprisingly she was a little bit stunned at what she saw and I think her words were, “This is ridiculous!  This is a bad idea.  You cannot carry on.  Everyone will understand. ”  Those words were similar to those that Frank was hearing from his trusted counsellor, who reminded him that though it would be a hard thing for him to call off the service, it would be an act of faith in affirming that the Lord is the one in charge of the ministry.

Shortly after that our two other Sunday school teachers arrived and concurred with the decision, and we set about calling people who would be driving to the service, including our own family.  Several of them were already on their way and had to turn around.  Frank was then able to call those who would be relying on him to pick them up.

It was a happy Providence that we were going to be spending the night with our son and his family because they were able to welcome us warmly and shower us with tons of TLC―just what we needed.  Frank, it turned out, just needed to rest.  I just needed to calm down.

I am not proud of my “melt-down”.  But I learned a lesson.  I may be full of confidence in the Lord’s promises in an academic way, but I showed that evening that, to all practical intents and purposes, I was unable to act upon them.  I know that this ministry will continue to put us in trying situations and I trust that I will be better able to deal with the pressure in the future.

The following Lord’s Day we felt physically and spiritually refreshed, and we arrived at the duplex in good shape.  We were warmed by the love and concern that our congregation showed us and we had thirty souls in attendance.   That evening was not without drama of its own, but, by God’s grace, I remained spiritually strong and able to fulfill my duties with a cheerful demeanor.

But God really is sovereign, and we need to understand this not just academically but absolutely, as we reflect on each trial and see how it does indeed bring us closer to Christ, upon whom we can absolutely cast all our cares for he absolutely does care for us.  Even on terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days.

A Tale of Two Neal Streets

July 2016―The temperature in Portland, Maine, on July 1st was a balmy 79°.  Balmy, that is, compared with the 90°+ temperatures we had been experiencing off and on since late May in Georgia.  Pastor Frank and I were visiting the city on a short vacation following Synod in order to add three more states (Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont) to the forty-two that Pastor Frank had already travelled by train, leaving only one remaining (Oklahoma) of the forty-six states which are served by Amtrak.

The view from Amtrak’s train No. 19, the Crescent

When we are away from home Pastor Frank and I also enjoy visiting local church buildings that have some special significance, and in Portland, this was the Orthodox Presbyterian building on Neal Street, located in an historic area of the city.  Not having a car, we travelled into the city by train and bus and thence by foot the half a mile or so along Neal Street to Second Parish OPC.

Second Parish Orthodox Presbyterian Church on Neal Street, Portland

We had not spoken to anyone at the church to tell them that we were hoping to stop by, so we were quite delighted to find the pastor there. He was glad to see us and very willing to show us around and share some of the church’s history. The original church building with its beautiful white spire which had towered over Portland, had been too costly to maintain and, without a thought for its historic value, was demolished in the 1950’s. Their current building is a more modest red brick edifice but still a very attractive building which meets the needs of the congregation well.

Neal Street, Portland, is located in an old section of the city as evidenced by the charming row houses with their elegant facades, bow windows and stately front doors. It is a delightful and very photogenic avenue lined with mature shade trees on one side of the narrow sidewalk, and adorned with small bushes and flowering shrubs thriving in the little patches of soil and sunlight on the other.

In Neal Street, Atlanta, other than a few exceptions, the buildings are in bad shape.  Many, such as the one pictured here, have been abandoned and boarded up.  Others are falling down or have burned down.  Several children from Neal Street used to attend APF, and they were among the worst behaved group we have had to deal with.  They were very destructive, causing hundreds of dollars worth of damage to the front porch of the small Baptist church from which we were renting at the time.  We referred to them, for understandable reasons, as the Neal Street Gang.  On one occasion an eight year old in the group struck out at me as I was taking his cell phone away from him following several attempts to stop him playing with it during Sunday school.  These children were warned repeatedly about their behavior and their parents were informed.  Every so often they were told that they could not attend for one week.  Even then on one occasion, they showed up after the service, adopted a very menacing attitude and demanded snacks. Eventually they decided they didn’t want to come back and we never saw them again. Neal Street, Portland vis-à-vis Neal Street, Atlanta:

In Neal Street, Portland, children can be assured of a decent education.  In Neal Street, Atlanta, children attend schools which, from our experience, can leave a young person able to read only at a fourth grade level when he or she graduates from high school.  In Neal Street, Portland,  children do not have to fear the possibility of a sibling being murdered.  In Neal Street, Atlanta , there is always that possibility.  We have had children attend our ministry who have had siblings injured by knife attacks and killed by gun violence.  In Neal Street, Portland, children are, generally speaking, part of a family that includes both a father and a mother who are neither criminals nor drug addicts.  In Neal Street, Atlanta, most children are born to unmarried parents, many of whom have committed serious crimes.  And they have so many half brothers and sisters, half aunts, uncles and cousins that the construction of a family tree would be well nigh impossible.

However:

In light of eternity, the residents of Portland’s attractive, affluent Neal Street and their children who reject the Gospel of Jesus Christ are in no better a situation than are the residents of Atlanta’s impoverished Neal Street who do the same.

We know that others have been called by God to reach out to the prosperous Neal Streets of this world.  However, having received our own calling, we continue to strive to reach the children and adults of “our” Neal Street and the surrounding ‘hood known as the Bluff.  And as we do so, we want to express our gratitude for your financial support, your notes of encouragement and your prayers as we sow with tears even as we look to our Saviour who is the Lord of the harvest.

The Atlanta Seven

June 2016―Earlier this year an elder and his wife from our Columbus, Indiana, congregation, Gary and Cynthia McNamee, visited the ministry in order to experience it for themselves and to make plans to return in the summer with a small team of workers in order to conduct some door-to-door work and run a Vacation Bible Study program.

As a result, on Saturday, June 11th, Gary, Cynthia, their son McCheyne, Bryan Planalp and his son Thomas, Joy Decker and Sam Goble, otherwise known as the Atlanta Seven, left Indiana in Gary’s 12-passenger van towing a trailer carrying all their supplies and headed south.

However, the team ran into a challenge, as the air conditioning in the van soon became intermittent, most likely due to pulling the trailer in hilly country in temperatures that spiked into the 90’s.  But the situation wasn’t dire and our stalwart crew carried on undaunted.  About three hours out from our house, however, they broke down completely and found themselves stuck on the side of the road―still in very hot temperatures. It was about 2:30 pm, and there was much concern that they wouldn’t make it to Atlanta that evening. But the Lord provided the right people with the right skills at the right time to get them back on the road and they arrived at our house at about 8:30, tired but looking forward to their adventure.

But air-conditioning woes would continue to plague the endeavor. The next day when we arrived at the duplex for Sabbath School and the worship service, we found that the temperature in the building was 99˚!

We had been dealing with air-conditioning issues for several weeks and someone had come by during the week to fix the problem.  However, he reattached wires incorrectly resulting in the furnace coming on instead of the air conditioning unit resulting in it being hotter inside than out.  Thankfully there are a number of shade trees around the property so we were quickly able to set up two children’s Sunday School classes and the adult class outside.

Mercifully, the worship service went well in terms of comfort and blessing.   In spite of an outside air temperature of 97° and the edge of a small squall passing near us accompanied by the sound of thunder, forty-four souls remained dry and comfortable under the shade of the trees singing Psalms, praying, and hearing the Word preached by Gary McNamee.

On Wednesday afternoon one of the Atlanta Seven, Thomas Planalp, conducted a basketball clinic at the Boys and Girls Club as an outreach to the community.  He was assisted by his father Bryan, and Gary.  It was a huge success, with eighteen local boys participating.  The club leaders were also very grateful for the effort put in by the group as well as the balls and other equipment they donated.  At the end of the workout Thomas did a really fine job presenting the gospel to the boys, even though two of them were unwilling to listen because they were Muslim.  Those who remained were given wrist bands and head bands with scripture verses written on them.  Each boy was also given a Bible containing Atlanta Presbyterian Fellowship’s name and contact details inside.

Following initial preparations and set-up at the beginning of the week the Atlanta Seven were raring to go with VBS starting at 5pm on Wednesday afternoon, following the basketball clinic, and going for three hours.  The air conditioning situation had been improved upon but not completely fixed.  We started off cool but warmed up rather quickly.  A total of 38 people were in attendance including fifteen local children and four local adults.  The theme was “God Always Wins”, and began with a lively song, “Don’t Be Afraid”.  The skits aimed to illustrate how God does indeed always win.

The skit on this day told the story of how God led Moses to victory against Pharaoh.  It was exceptionally well done with magnificent acting featuring Sam as Moses persistently confronting Pharaoh played by McCheyne, and a tall, menacing soldier portrayed by Thomas.  The costumes and props were very cleverly done, especially the portrayal of the plagues, including the river turning to blood. Finally Moses leads God’s people to the Red Sea and the pursuing soldiers are swallowed up.

The players held their audience captive―everyone loved it.

Chick Fil-A had kindly agreed to provide meals for the group.  Before the appointed dinner hour boxes of chicken sandwiches, bags of chips and cookies were delivered and much enjoyed.

Following dinner the children split into two groups, one to play games outside and one to do craft activities.

At the end of the evening everyone reassembled to practice the song and pick up their completed crafts. Here, too, a Bible was given to every child present.

The following day we had 47 in attendance with nineteen local children and ten local adults.  The same schedule was followed.  The skit this time, continuing the theme that  God always wins, illustrated the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal which, again, was extremely well done.

On their final full day in Georgia, the Atlanta Seven relaxed and enjoyed Amicalola State Park featuring Amicalola Falls, the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi.  The group is pictured here with Pastor Frank and one of our Sunday School teachers who joined us on the outing.

It was tough saying goodbye to our new friends whom we had grown to love, and with whom we had shared so many experiences during the week.  They were willing to find sleeping places where they could, line up to take a shower, squeeze around the dining table and spread themselves out as required across our house with never a word of complaint.  Cynthia and Joy did a wonderful job gathering and preparing all the meals in an unfamiliar kitchen.  Gary, Bryan and the younger men were willing to engage in anything that needed to be done, including replacing a broken vanity and mirror in one of the bathrooms at the duplex and brightening up all three bathrooms with fresh paint and cheerful shower curtains.  All the men engaged in door-to-door outreach, returning excited about the contacts they were making and never complaining about the blistering hot and humid conditions.

We are so grateful to God for the willingness of the Atlanta Seven to use vacation time to come here and work so diligently and tirelessly to reach out to the residents of this depressed area with the gospel and to bring encouragement to us and our fellow ministry workers.

When Little Things Make A Big Difference

[We are pleased once again to welcome to “Penny’s Pen” our guest blogger, Miss Amy Work, who serves as our Sunday School Superintendent.]

May 2016―Lately, I have been learning about big things and small things, and that my perception of their effect is usually way off.  What I perceive to be a big deal turns out to be much smaller than I thought; what seems small and insignificant to me ends up being a much bigger deal than I ever imagined. Let me explain.

I’ve been leading my Sunday School class, comprising middle school age kids, through a study of 1 Corinthians 13.  One week, we were focusing on “Love suffers long and is kind.”  It had been one of those disruptive and distracting days, and I was really struggling to maintain both my classroom management and my cool.  Before I knew it, it was time to end class.  In fact, we were already late, and I was feeling the time pressure to get downstairs and settled.  One class holding up the show has a ripple effect on the kids already downstairs on time.  They get bored, which leads to them getting rowdy, and that makes calming them down and focusing everybody for worship much more difficult and time consuming.

Knowing that I had new kids in the class who were unfamiliar with our procedures, I wanted quickly to explain how to take notes, and my expectations.  “Ok, guys, as you line up, let me just quickly go over why you’re taking your notebooks and pens downstairs.  What we do—”

Knock, knock, knock.

I stopped, opened the door, and found a pair of bright brown eyes and a small impish face grinning up at me.

“Hi, honey. You need to stay in your classroom.”

I shut the door, called for the class’s attention, which took a moment to regain, and then began again.  “So, during the worship service, we use the notebooks to—”

Knock, knock, knock.

I glanced at the clock as I opened the door again.  We were really late.  I just needed two minutes to give simple instructions.

“Hon,” I said gently, but firmly.  “I told  you once.  Stay with your teacher.”

The little girl giggled and ran back to the head of her class’s line.  What a fun game!  “Sorry, guys,” I said, taking a deep breath.  “I just need to tell you—”

Knock, knock, knock.

This time I wrenched the door open.  There stood Miss Penny.  I was sure she was there to fetch us down to worship since we were seriously late by now.

“We are on our way,” I snapped.

“Ok. Well, we just need to use your bathroom,” Miss Penny sweetly explained.  I stood aside and let a mother and young child come through to the bathroom.

My face was burning as my class looked at me.  I became intensely aware that I had just spent the last hour teaching them to love others with longsuffering love and patience, and we weren’t even out of the room before Miss Hypocrite showed them a shining example of what not to do.

And that’s about when I began to consider the effects of what I had done.  What a failure.  What kind of teacher was I when I didn’t practice what I preached?  What kind of witness was I being to these kids?  How could I be worthy to represent Christ to these kids?

Throughout the following week, my injured pride allowed the guilt of that failure to hang over me. But, by the next Sunday, I was determined to make it right.  While I had apologized in private to Miss Penny, I wanted to make my mistake into a learning opportunity for the whole class.  The kids needed to know how to handle things when they messed up, as I so clearly had.

So, the next Sunday, we reviewed the passage up to the fateful “Love suffers long and is kind” verse.  “So, guys,” I began.  “Remember last week when I lost my patience with Miss Penny when she knocked on the door at the end of class?”  I waited for the snickers and the shared knowing looks.  All I got were blank stares.  They had no idea what I was talking about.  This thing that I was sure was such a big failure turned out to be a very little thing in their eyes.  I did go ahead and use it as a learning opportunity, though, and reviewed how mess-ups like that should be handled.  But, my perception of the devastating impact that my personal failure would have to the progress of the ministry and to my relationship with the students was, in God’s gracious mercy, way off.

Then there are the small things that end up being much bigger than I imagined.  One day, one of our regular attenders brought a small stuffed toy to class.  Now, this is a very bright young man with a stubborn streak to match my own.  We have gotten into a number of battles over whether or not he will comply with instructions. Building a relationship with him has been challenging.

As a teacher, I am sometimes overcome by goofy moods so, one day, on my initiative, we all chose nicknames for ourselves, and I had to refer to the kids exclusively by their nicknames.

“Ok, Wonder Woman, what does verse 3 mean?”

“Yes, Batman, would you like to add to that?”

“Cool Cat, put that down and stop bothering Sonic.”

We can only go so long. . .

before bursting into laughter in Sunday school!

Well, on the day in question, I was in another of my goofy moods.  When the aforementioned boy entered the classroom, he was walking on his knees as he carried that stuffed toy.  (As a side note, that boy never enters or exits the room normally!  Last week, he balled himself up and rolled in.)  Anyway, he propped the toy up on the table, and I immediately addressed the toy as though it was a new visitor.  I carried on the game through the whole lesson: I wrote down the toy’s name on my attendance chart, to the owner’s immense delight (“Look, guys!  She really wrote his name down!  Look at that!”).  I required the toy to read the verse along with the class—a bit of a sneaky trick since one of our battles is this boy refusing to read the verse with us when I know he is more than capable of doing so.  I asked questions of the toy and allowed the toy to give input to discussions.  I even had the toy write a prayer along with the rest of the class to close the lesson.  All through the lesson, this young man was more compliant, controlled, and engaged than I’d ever experienced.  It was like magic!  Before going down to worship, I told him that he could either leave his toy in the Sunday school room or put it in my bag where I carry all the confiscated items (phones, sunflower seeds, notes being passed, ipads, etc.).  He opted for my bag.  Under his careful supervision, I nestled the toy comfortably into my bag.

The next step in the day is ensuring all my students are seated appropriately: those who need note-taking assistance are seated next to me, those who are too chummy and distracting are separated, and those who are independent note-takers may choose where to sit on their own.  This boy is an independent note-taker and generally chooses to sit far from me, but directly under Pastor Smith’s nose, which I think is a good place for him.  I was noticing that several of my students were lingering in the kitchen getting drinks instead of finding their seats.  I went to chase them out.  “Ok, guys.  Take a last sip and then we need to find our seats.  It’s time to start.”  I addressed this young man directly: “You too. Let’s go.”

He didn’t move.  He didn’t say a word, and he certainly didn’t do as I asked.

Calling him by name, I said more firmly, “Go find your seat.”

He merely blinked up at me, still saying nothing, and inched closer to where I was standing. That drove me nuts.  He did this all the time.  I’d tell him to do something, and he’d just look at me with that insolent expression.  Why wouldn’t he obey?  Why was he still just standing there beside me? Then it clicked: he wanted to sit next to me!  He wasn’t choosing his seat because he was waiting for me to choose mine!  I gave him a hug and headed off to a strategically located seat, closely followed by a grinning boy.

We got settled and the sermon began.  It was like I was sitting next to a completely different kid. Gone was the boy who was either sulky and sullen or mischievously pushing every boundary. This version of the young man was fully engaged, making relevant comments and asking thoughtful questions throughout the sermon.  It was almost to the point of becoming a distraction, but I couldn’t bring myself to silence his enthusiasm.  It was amazing.

Since that Sunday, he has chosen a seat as close to me as he can get. Now, I suspect that a primary reason he wants to sit next to me is to monitor my note-taking progress to ensure that he takes more notes than I do. The deal is, anybody who takes more notes than I do can earn two stickers instead of one.  However, there is a change in him, and the small, seemingly insignificant act of being goofy with his toy opened a door for me to connect with this boy who sincerely seems pliable to the workings of the Spirit.

There are dozens of examples, I am sure, of small things that have had an unexpectedly large impact.

– The two-sentence note I quickly jotted to a teenager telling him I missed him since he had been gone for the last couple weeks brought him to church the following week.  He made sure to tell me it was because of the note.

– The games we play up in the Sunday school room before class starts build our sense of community without our even realizing it.  I watch the reaction of a teenager when he finally gets the hang of the game and wins a round, after long being intimidated by the complexities of the game and refusing to play with us.  It’s so important for a guy like that to have a win, however small, in some area of his life.

This ministry is a Goliath of a task. There are major, major issues among the people, and it is overwhelming to see all the work, effort, struggles, and cares in which Pastor Smith and Penny engage.  I suspect that what we know of the details of their work is just the tip of the iceberg. We deal with big sins, big problems, and big failures—lots of big things.  But, I’m learning firsthand that the God who brought down Goliath with one little stone—a small thing that had a very big impact— is our same God.

My prayer is that while we work to deal with the big things, which are truly small challenges compared to God’s power and plan, we will also be mindful of and prepared for the small opportunities that come along, which can end up being the tottering steps we take along the path of righteousness.  Enough small steps—enough small things—put together can add up to some pretty big, pretty wonderful things through the power of God.  May His kingdom come and His will be done in both the big things and the small!

The Nation of Islam is Here

January 2016―”Islam is a religion of peace and it has been demonized by the likes of Donald Trump and others who play on the xenophobic paranoia of our white brothers and sisters.  We welcome the Nation of Islam into the English Avenue community. The Nation of Islam has an excellent track record for taking Black males and ministering to them and giving them a sense of hope and discipline and dignity and introducing them to God through the Muslim faith, and we applaud that.”  That is a quote from a Baptist pastor located in our ministry area.

We should note here that the Nation of Islam is an American invention, begun in 1930 and led by men such as Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan.   It is not traditional Islam, being neither Sunni or Shiite, but is a militant, black superiority religion.

According to the report by an online news outlet, the Nation of Islam leader in Atlanta is planning to put down “an anchor,” stating that, “We are getting ready to build an army over here for real.  Ten thousand, think about that. ”  The location from which he is recruiting his “army” is only several blocks from where we meet.  In August, the Nation of Islam had a vocal presence at the anti-drug and pro-law enforcement National Night Out on a weekday evening in the English Avenue community (aka the Bluff; that being a pejorative name for our ministry area), which event was attended by representatives of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, police, and politicians.

When Pastor Frank mentioned, as an application in a recent sermon, the fact that a local Baptist preacher is supporting this attempted takeover of the neighbourhood, it was met with loud outcries of disbelief and anger by adult members of our congregation who either live now or have previously lived in the Bluff.  Frank had to calm the congregation down before being able to continue.

The sermon was an exegesis of the parable that Jesus told, in which an evil spirit leaves a man but comes back later with seven other demons worse than he is, the result being that the man is far worse off than he had been before.  The application of this in terms of the Bluff is that even if the neighbourhood is cleaned up from drugs, that would not solve the more basic problem, which is that something is needed to fill the void when the demon leaves.  And that has to be Jesus Christ.

The Nation of Islam is not the only Muslim activity in our area.  The Atlanta Muslim Center meets at 2 o’clock Sunday afternoons at a house right in the heart of the Bluff, just half a block from where we used to gather on the steps of the derelict church building.  On an adjacent empty lot, that group sponsors a community garden.  There have been free food giveaways by Muslims very close by the intersection where we used to conduct Bible studies.  And just a block away from that old church building, down another street, is a commercial building flying an American and an Islamic flag where, on the last Lord’s Day in December, a couple of Muslims were “preaching” with the use of a loudspeaker system.  That location is just two blocks from where we presently meet for worship―so close that we were able to hear the amplified voice though not able to distinguish the words.  When Pastor Frank happened to drive by, he saw the two men―with no one gathering with them or apparently listening―and was able to hear the man with the microphone complaining about how the police kill blacks.

It goes without saying that we were surprised but grateful for the visceral reaction from our congregation.  The Muslim invasion, which, amazingly began only a few months ago, is rapidly expanding in range and influence.  That, and the lack of resistance to it by most of the Christian churches in the area, continued to be the main topic of conversation following the service.  We can only hope and pray that other area residents are similarly discerning.

Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.  No-one comes to the Father but by me”.   Not by Allah, not by Mohammed, not by Buddha, not by the pantheon of Hindu gods, not by my own good works.  But by Christ alone.

There is a spiritual battle raging in the English Avenue district.   Please pray with us that we can proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ so powerfully that the demons will flee and that the message of Christ, and Christ alone, will fill the void.

God’s Word is Precious

August 2015―Over the weekend of August 8th and 9th Atlanta Presbyterian Fellowship held a Back to School Family Fling, similar to a Vacation Bible School except that it also included adult participants. Designed by Miss Amy Work, the theme was, “God’s Word is Precious”, based on Psalm 19:7-11 and Psalm 119:72.   The event included singing, classes for adults, older children and younger children, crafts and games.  In the picture below we are learning the “The Law of the Lord is perfect, etc.,” chorus:

Following the opening exercises the children participated in a treasure hunt, solving the clues hidden around the inside of the building which eventually led them to a beautiful wooden jewelry box in the form of a treasure chest hidden in the stove containing ?????? and a Bible.  Then, during crafts time, the children made their own treasure chests from pre-cut cardboard and decorated them using a variety of “gemstones”, strings of pearls, glitter, etc. that Miss Amy had brought.  The treasures the children put in the chests included a gem-adorned note card with Psalm 19:9-10 on it, plastic gold coins and a miniature Bible on a key chain.

Below are pictures of the younger and older classes and one of the cardboard treasure chests:

Meanwhile the adult class, led by Tim Bloedow and Pastor Smith, taught adult applications of the preciousness of the Word of God specifically with regard to finances.

Miss Amy had written a skit in which teenage heartthrob, Justin Bieber, (played by Jerusha wearing a Justin Bieber mask) was being witnessed to by a girl on a park bench, played by Miss Amy.

Mr. Bieber rejected what he was hearing, claiming that he has tons of money, so much that he can swim in it.  He said he wanted more stuff, more cars, more fame, more girlfriends, gadgets, etc. He told her, “I’m the god of my world!  Everybody serves me!  The Bible more precious than gold?  That’s crazy, man.”  With that he left to go and get a tattoo.  His bodyguard, however, played by Pastor Smith, stayed, allowing the girl to witness to him.

We had 40 participants including 22 local children, 2 suburban children, 7 local adults and 9 suburban adults including helpers.  Lunch was included and, having learned that the Law of the Lord is sweeter than honey and more precious than silver or gold, the take-home snack comprised honeycomb cereal and chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil.

The closing exercises on the following day began with singing led by Lynette Bloedow including the chorus, “The Law of the Lord is perfect. . . . .” that the children had learned the day before.

This was followed by a hilarious skit in which Miss Amy’s two puppets, Fiona and Gronk, competed in a cooking contest, the host being played by Jerusha, and the two judges being played by Michele Haag and Pastor Smith.  The winning food was the Bible, i.e., spiritual food, beating out both chocolate and honey.

Following a shortened Sunday School the worship service began with fifty-four people in attendance.  That was the largest number since we had moved in.  We had fifty seats available so the stairs came in handy!  The following is an excerpt from a Facebook page posted by Tim Bloedow, visiting from Canada with his wife, Lynette:

Wow! 30 wild inner city children of all ages making over half the congregation at today’s Atlanta RP Fellowship service. Only 10 adult supervisors/overseers. They need more than that. Big job here. The teachers and other support helpers and Pastor Frank Smith did amazing work. There were also about eight other adults, some from the local community and some other visitors who attend Free Church of Scotland and other congregations.

So much of what’s required in such situations is crowd control and people management so it can become very exhausting for some people. About 3 children needed special one-on-one attention today. I was able to work with two and Chris Myers with the other boy. It’s great to see boys who are starved for good attention change before you when you know how to give them some loving attention without being provocatively confrontational despite their behaviour. In a context like this, you can’t fight every discipline battle. Making progress on 2% of them might be a more realistic expectation. It’s remarkable that Frank can keep his presence of mind to preach his sermons in this context.

One of the boys I had to deal with was a walk-in off the street with 2 others. 7 years old. A female leader had to take him to the back of the sanctuary part way through the service. He continued to be disruptive so I took over and he kept whining that he wanted to go home. He was getting louder so I picked him up and took him outside. He continued getting louder as I told him to stop acting like a 2 year old and that he will go home but not now, etc., etc. During this time, I manhandled him a bit by pulling him to me and picking him up a couple of times.

He wouldn’t stop whining and crying then I changed approach and asked him what his name was. But he wouldn’t tell me so I started guessing. Almost immediately he stopped his fussing and said no every time I guessed. Then he eventually gave me the first letter. Then a few guesses later, I asked for the 2nd letter. Then he next gave me the rest of the letters. Then I asked about his other names. His last name was apparently Messiah but spelled Mesiy, or something like that, so I was able to tell him who the Messiah is.

The service ended by this time. We heard singing and went back to the sanctuary. He stayed close to me after that as we talked to a few people looking for a drink and a snack, and at one point standing in front of me with his back to me, he pressed into me and grabbed both my arms and pulled them around himself over his shoulders so that I was hugging him.

These are needy and unloved children who need a little bit of love from people who aren’t intimidated by their clumsy, often offensive and sinful attempts at trying to get attention. One often doesn’t have to put out much to be rewarded by affection or respect in return.

 Atlanta RP Fellowship needs more workers. Lynette Bloedow and I have been here over 2 Lord’s Days. We’re moving on Monday morning. Pray for the work here.

Tim wrote another account:

Ministry to another boy at the Atlanta RP Fellowship:

The first boy I had to deal with was threatening to hurt at least one other person, a girl who was apparently among some children who were “messin’ with” him.

‎My wife took over dealing with him from another person who wasn’t in a position to address the problem. He had been taken upstairs just prior to the service starting or soon after it had started. After my wife went up some minutes later, she heard the 12-year-old boy saying he was going to kill that girl. She brought him to the top of the stairs and called to me to come up to deal with him because he was threatening people. I was sitting at the bottom of the stairs holding a much younger boy who was sleeping, so I asked her to bring him down to me.

Once she got him close enough, I quickly reached out and grabbed the waist of his pants and pulled him down to me, and he was left with me. He was not fighting to get free but I could feel the pressure of him trying to exert a measure of resistance to me holding him, and as I questioned him, he did tell me several times to let him go ‎.

He was not responsive at first when I asked him what was going on, but after several minutes, he started to respond. Meanwhile, he kept staring in the direction of the people he wanted to hurt, who were sitting around the corner of the “L”-shaped sanctuary room from where I had him. He had also been sitting there.

‎Essentially, he told me that the other children were “messin’ with me.” I had intervened in a dispute with him the previous Sunday in which he was saying the same thing, but his teacher said he was the one messing with them, so this was a two-way conflict. That incident was helpful for perspective in dealing with this latest altercation.

After a couple of his responses, I started to make the point that people who are angry at each other can’t simply escalate conflict by reacting angrily and vengeful back and forth. I told him that somebody has to decide to turn the other cheek and respond with forgiveness, rather than revenge and resentment. I mentioned that this was the lesson from Christ and the kind of message he was in church to learn.

There was a bit of back and forth and initially a bit more of an aggressive attempt to pull away as I talked, but then all of a sudden, as I was “preaching” to him, he relaxed‎ and stopped trying to pull away. Then he said a few times, “I’m OK now.”

He then said he needed his journal and pen. He also wanted his Bible and a Psalter. ‎I went across the sanctuary to get these things from where he was sitting and we followed along the Scripture reading together. He also sang a few lines from the Psalter during the next Psalm. He then started writing in his journal as Pastor Frank preached. At one point, he got up and said he wanted to show his Sunday School teacher what he had written so I had to hold him back and suggested he wait until after the service. Soon after that, I had to leave to deal with the other boy whose account I wrote up earlier. Pastor Frank’s wife, Penny, said he continued to write, and that he was taking notes on the sermon.

I didn’t hear any reports of bad behaviour after the service during their free time so his change of heart seemed to continue then as well.

I don’t know what the Holy Spirit was doing or what was going on in his heart, but the way he responded seemed quite dramatic. He seems to be the oldest in a loosely knit family that the Fellowship has been ministering to for several years.

What a remarkable providence of the Holy Spirit to change this boy’s demeanor as He did with effective confrontation and engagement that helped to bring out some of his better side.

Here are some prayer requests:

  1. That the numerous children who are coming would learn to be reverent and respectful in church.
  2. That their parents would begin to attend, and other adults as well.
  3. That we would have more adult workers to help us; at times we feel absolutely overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, particularly dealing with all the children.  We need folks to sit with (or is it on?) the children, and we could use another driver or two with a van.
  4. That the finances would improve.  We are still in the black, but, expenses have increased with our move to the duplex, and the income has not kept up.

And as you continue to pray for us, be sure to contemplate coming to Atlanta for a visit, like the Bloedows.  Reservations are now being received at the Hidden Creek B&B (also known as our house) in order to facilitate a ministry-filled vacation.

Touch Up and Reach Out

August 2015―When Tim and Lynette Bloedow of the Russell (Ont.)  RPCNA offered to come to Atlanta to be of service to us for one week of their annual three week visit to the United States we were only too delighted to accept their kind offer and put them to work.  We did not realise, however, just how blessed we would be by their efforts.  To begin with we were unsure of what, specifically, we could ask them to do during the week but it dawned on us that they could be of great help with regard to the work we needed to do on the inside of our new building.  So we set about planning and purchasing supplies to paint as many rooms as possible in the time.  Being a handyman, Tim was also able to do some needed small repairs.

Tim (a student of RPTS), Lynette (from Trinidad and Tobago), Frank and Penny, along with Michele Haag and Rose Hillman got underway on the first day.  Over a period of three days we were able to paint the meeting room, the kitchen, the two Sunday School rooms, the upstairs hall and as much of the stairwell as we could reach.  Even the washing of the windows and the mini-blinds made a big difference.

On the evening of the first day of painting a National Night Out a was held on an empty plot of land on a corner across from Grace Store, in the back room of which the Muslin owner had allowed us to meet for several months during 2013.  To quote the National Night Out website, “it is a cohesive effort to promote involvement in crime prevention activities, police-community partnerships, neighborhood camaraderie and send a message to criminals letting them know that neighborhoods are organized and fighting back.”  It is held in many communities across the nation on the same night.  So after a few hours of painting we headed the four blocks over there and were able to meet and mingle with some of the residents and quite a few groups who are working to reduce crime in the area including city officials, the Federal Attorney’s Office, police officers and church personnel.  Tables were there not only for the hamburgers and hot dogs but also for board games.

City Councilman Ivory Lee Young addressing the crowd at the National Night Out

 

One of the speakers was Councilman Ivory Young with whom Frank, along with Pastors Camery and Anderson from Indiana had met in the Atlanta City Hall in November last year.  During that meeting Councilman Young outlined his vision for the city and prayed with the men.  He remembered Frank and was pleased to see him at the event.

 

Worship in the New Building

June 2015―We held our first worship service in our new building on Sunday, June 7th.  We were able to take possession a few days beforehand and had a number of people, including three of our teenagers help us clean up and get organized.  In preparation for the Lord’s Day we set up thirty two folding chairs which had been donated to us, with some of them in the worship space and some in each of the two Sunday school rooms, in the knowledge that they would have to be moved into the worship area between Sunday school and worship.

When we arrived for the service on Sunday, on one of the hottest days of the year so far, we discovered that the air conditioning was no longer working, and it appears as though about three feet of copper piping (valuable in the drug community) had been stolen from under the building causing the Freon to run out onto the ground.  The ceiling fan does not work well, being off-balance and having only a medium speed.  We were able to get a bit of a breeze by opening windows.  More donated chairs arrived giving us a total of 58.  In spite of the discomfort, and with Pastor Smith, very uncharacteristically, discarding his coat, we were still very excited to be in the new building.

Bursting at the Seams

April 2015―As we have reported in the past, our numbers have been growing and on one occasion, in late March, we had 62 people in attendance which resulted in having to put folding chairs up on the platform alongside the pulpit, and even then there was a small number that sat on the floor.

With the number of children attending now it is not surprising that every so often we will have young people who are disruptive, disobedient and disrespectful so we have begun a big push to get more parents to come with their children.  With an uneven ratio of children to adults it is also important to try to get more adults to come and sit under the preaching of the gospel.  Having the 12-seater van has been an enormous help to Pastor Frank who has to make several trips to pick up all the children and then more trips to pick up adults.  Amy, with her car, and a couple of our helpers, with their minivans, also help when and where they can, but another helper with another 12-seater van would be of great benefit.

We have been particularly excited that a 15 year old young man, Deon, has been showing a serious desire to grow in knowledge of the doctrines of the church. Every week Pastor Frank leads recitation of the first fourteen WCF Shorter Catechism questions by having one of the children pass out craft sticks with the numbers 1-14 on them.  Then whoever has the stick with number one on it will call out question #1 and everyone will recite the answer and so on.  Deon has memorized all fourteen answers perfectly and, because he is doing so well, we have continued him on, individually, with questions fifteen and sixteen.  Deon loves to stand at the edge of the platform as Pastor Frank is leading the singing, and on one occasion when I took a photo of him he specifically moved from where he was to stand behind the pulpit.  His current thinking with regards to a career is to be a police officer.  It had originally been to be an attorney until, as he told us, he discovered that attorneys are liars, so he doesn’t want to be one any more. We have tried to convince him that the world needs more Christian attorneys but he still doesn’t want to be associated with that profession.

We were particularly disappointed, however, with a comment made by one young lady in the young Sunday School class. On a day when Warren Jackson was teaching the young ones he read the story of the nativity and then asked the kids, who happened to be all girls (seven of them) that evening to tell him where Jesus was born and none of them could answer, so he told them.  Surprised that no-one could answer that he asked them the name of Jesus’ mother and, again, no-one could answer so he told them.  He then went out on a limb and asked them if anyone knew the name of Jesus’ earthly father and, of course, no-one did.  So for most of the rest of the lesson time he kept going over the story and asking them those three questions so that they would end up knowing at least that much.  Towards the end only one girl could remember Bethlehem.  A few remembered Mary and I don’t think that anyone remembered Joseph.   As we were taking one of those young ladies home in the car later she couldn’t remember any of the answers.  But, as striking as that was, Warren and I were floored at the answer one girl gave when Warren asked why Jesus had to come. Her answer was, “because if he hadn’t, white people would be shooting us right now”. That is a sad commentary on the mentality of many residents in the neighbourhood and one reason why we need to bring them to a fuller understanding of the Gospel.

We have had a number of health issues in the congregation over the last couple of months, not least the time that Miyani was hit by a car while playing near the apartment in which she lives.  Her leg was badly broken near the ankle and she required surgery to insert two rods into her leg.  More recently, in fact during Spring Break, she had her tonsils and adenoids removed while her brother, Jenario, had his wisdom teeth extracted and their mother, Miyoshi, was hospitalized for almost two weeks with an infection in a toe which became gangrenous and had to be amputated.  Sadly there appears to be no improvement in her eyesight following the surgery she had several months ago.

Pastor Frank has begun mid-week prayer meeting and Bible Study on Wednesday evenings in people’s homes.  Every other week he meets with adults and on alternating weeks he conducts a communicants class with the young people.  On one occasion, when he was unable to lead the adult study because of sickness, members of the group said they’d just carry on without him and they’d write down anything they didn’t understand to ask him next time.  He was very proud of them for taking this initiative.