Alfred Place Baptist Church

USA 2008

We had to get to Birmingham airport by 4.30 a.m. Thursday morning 10th July to catch the 6 a.m. KLM flight to Amsterdam for the Atlanta connection so we left Aberystwyth on Wednesday night at 5.30 p.m. Paul Wrangles was a student here a decade ago and we stayed with his gracious parents Keith and Sheila. A power cut had occurred five minutes before we arrived in their home at 9 p.m. Wednesday night and so it was dusk in the parlour and we lit candles and had crackers and cheese. It is grand when the attractive is not pretentious but natural. Then the power came back on and we were able to go to the bedroom and bathroom without candles in a strange house. We did not sleep very well, but got an hour or two I think. At 3 a.m. I got up and dressed and went downstairs and read. I was too nervous that I would sleep through the alarm – if it went off. Keith joined us downstairs at 4.15. There was a giant spider on the ceiling and he stood on the side of the fireplace, stretched up, cupped it in his hands and released it outside. Neither of us could have done that. “The greatest act of bravery I’ve ever seen . . .” He drove us the ten minutes to the airport; I do hope he could get back to sleep before his day’s work in Coventy. At 4.30 the airport was busy. There was a line of passengers waiting at the check-in counter. We also automatically checked in by machine and by 5 a.m. we were through and then went through security and got some fruit and croissants for breakfast. (“Oh no! It is going to be one of those foody letters. Help.”) We flew the 90 minutes to the splendid Amsterdam airport where we had two hours to walk, shop, go to the museum (not the casino) and admire the lounging chairs that are set out in clusters on the first floor – but each one was taken. The plane to Atlanta was packed and we unfortunately had middle of the plane seats, people on each side of us. Neither of us could get the in-house entertainment TV and music system to work. A stewardess showed us how it operated and it was so simple, but as soon as she went I wrought an immediate and total system collapse, and was too embarrassed to ask her, “Show me again.” But I finished the new biography of Cornelius Van Til finding it fresh and helpful. How like Dr. Lloyd-Jones’ attitudes were many of his. I could understand him as I had not before. The book brought back many memories to me and the customary regrets of the privilege of having studied at Westminster and not grabbed it as it could have been. But one legacy is that I am a Van Tilian.

Otherwise, the most memorable event on the journey was knocking over half a glass of a red drink which went everywhere dying chinos, training shoe-laces, and a colourful skirt of Iola’s. Then half an hour from Atlanta we were told there was a prolonged thunderstorm and we were having to fly to Charlotte, South Caroline. We stayed there in our seats on the plane for over an hour and then flew back to Altanta arriving four hours late. We had been sitting for over twelve hours in the second plane in its controlled atmosphere of coughs and sneezes. I called Steve Martin and he came and picked us up and we also picked up where we left off last time, families, Steve’s Log College training programme for pastors, books and churches. By ten Iola was asleep on the soft king-sized bed and we were in the fast lane to readjusting to living the life of God on another continent.

The Friday was empty of any pressure. One appointment was with David Hall the pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church in Powder Springs, Georgia. It is on the other side of Atlanta, and so Steve drove me to meet him at a half way point and the three of us had lunch together while Cindy, Steve’s wife, took Iola to a fabric chop and they also ate. David Hall is the organiser of the Calvin Quincentenary Celebration in Geneva in July 2009. John Calvin was born 500 years ago in early July 1509 and the American Christians have got in early and planned a ten day celebration. Their tour starts on June 30 in Paris for three days and then they go on to Reims and Strasbourg where Calvin lived for a time with Bucer and Sturm some of the other reformers. Then July 4 the tour party enters Switzerland and on the Sunday the Conference begins in the St Pierre Cathedral which is Calvin’s former church. There the conference will be held until Thursday with lots of preaching and tours of the city and of that part of Switzerland. I am preaching alongside such men as Joel Beeke, Iain D. Campbell, Ted Donnelly, Sinclair Ferguson, Bob Godfrey, Michael Haykin, Hywel Jones, Douglas Kelly, Derek Thomas and Carl Trueman. There are thirty three speakers so far, academic, historic and sociological papers are being given in the mornings and then there is preaching in the evenings. The Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria is going to speak. Iain Murray has been invited and we urged David also to invite Conrad Mbewe and Stuart Olyott. Gary and Eleri and the boys are thinking of coming, and I am taking the week-end conference over the 3 and 4 July for the Lausanne Evangelical Church further along Lake Geneva. Iola and I are looking forward to this event as we know so many of the speakers and their wives. Four hundred Americans have booked so far, and in March there will be a general announcement that people from Europe are welcome to make their own arrangements and come to the meetings.

So that was the centre of the Friday meeting of us three men, and talking of our ministries over lunch, myself, David Hall and Steve Martin. The rest of the day was more relaxed. I began my morning sermon on Luke for the first Sunday on which I am back in Aber. and got much of it done in the next 24 hours. I was able to pick up my E-mails with one letter from Terry about the fire-alarm system in Tanygraig. It was good to be earthed in Aber like that. In the evening we watched a DVD that Steve’s son had compiled for Steve’s 60th birthday earlier this year. I had written a teasing tribute to him which one of the elders had read very well. Outstanding moments from the past years were recollected and twisted – one episode when he had to rescue a woman from a snake that had entered her home. It was ‘jolly good fun.’

On Saturday the officers and their wives came around for a ham bake eaten out of doors, sixteen of us on two tables, such a happy time sitting in the shade recollecting events of long ago – “You remember that? My, you have a good memory.” One memory of ours was of a dog who had given birth to a litter in a den she had dug out in the sprawling garden in one of the elders’ gardens. The ending of that story was then told, which we had not heard, a flood, and the litter almost drowned, Holly getting into the den in the mud and rescuing the puppies, another dog having an enormous litter a few weeks later but unable to feed them and the first dog then took on that litter too and raised them all . . . super story of a country way of life of which a townie like me knows nothing.

They left around nine and by ten we were in bed, and then my coughing started, all night I coughed and coughed. I was without any appetite but ate an orange that Sunday morning. I mentioned to them the possibility of having a vasa vagal attack and fainting. I felt that disorientated. “Don’t call 911 and get the ambulance. I shall be OK in a few minutes.” So I took some lozenges and went off to church, preaching at the 9 a.m. Sunday school hour on loving your enemies. I didn’t feel robust after that and sat and talked to the children who came on to me so sweetly and introduced themselves and told me how much they were looking forward to family camp. Five minutes before the 11 a.m. morning service I was with the officers for a time of prayer and then I began to feel faint and nauseous. I didn’t want to be sick in that room so hurried outside and coughed and spat. I sat on an empty bench and the
next thing I know was seeing a strange world of wooden struts and trees. Was this a dream? Where was I? I had fainted and collapsed over on the bench, utterly pole-axed, cutting the crown of my head on the metal arm rest. Three of the elders came out and lifted me up, one under each arm and walked me gently back to the officers’ room. Every pore in my body opened up and I was wet with sweat and my pallor was white. They got towels and dried me. Iola had arrived. A cardiac nurse was there and took my blood pressure. Absolutely normal. So I sat down and the service started. I waited there for twenty minutes, felt better and preached. They said I was more animated the second time on the theme of not judging. I was glad to get it over; I plodded though the sermon, reading too much. I got home at 1 p.m. and didn’t stop in the parlour, climbing the stairs to bed where I lay down and slept until 4 p.m. when they warmed up the lasagna for me. I had a bit more energy at the 6 p.m. service but didn’t hang around afterwards and before 9 we were in bed. Both of us were now coughing. It is such a shame that Iola also has it. She had a cold and cough for weeks, and had just got over it two weeks before we left for the USA, and now she has picked up another cough.

On Monday I got a hired car, a Dodge, and also the cheapest cell phone so that by 12.30 we set off, I following Steve and Cindy on the 300 mile journey south-east to the Georgia coast and the now familiar St Simons Island where we arrived at 5.30 (we have been here twice before, two years ago with Gary and Eleri and their boys, as well as Catrin and Ian). We have a fine verandah room looking over a creek stretching out to a distant horizon. We line up for meals in a cafeteria system and it is all good food but the lines can be slow and long. There is a big party of Korean teenagers present sharing the conference centre with us. They all speak English. I gave the first of seven messages on Naaman the leper at 7 p.m. Monday night, but soon we were back in our room longing for bed. There had been a moment on the journey here when I had a prolonged burst of coughing, and then as I concluded Iola sneezed right on cue. We laughed at our ill health; we reckon the 12 hours in the atmosphere of that KLM plane might have caused the colds we both have picked up. We are taking the same medicine, but these minor ailments won’t prevent us doing anything we want to do and Iola has less responsibilities and will still enjoy the next two weeks.

Tuesday Iola was coughing and feeling weak, and so she said she would not come to the 8.50 Prayer Meeting. She was sitting on the verandah telling me this, and so I said, “That’s fine. Rest on the bed.” She did not come to the meetings that morning and at 11 a.m. I got back to the room to look for her. She was not in bed, nor in the bathroom. I found her still on the seat on the verandah. I opened the glass sliding door to talk to her and then learned that I had locked the sliding door as I said good-bye and so had kept her incarcerated on the second floor verandah for the past two hours. She was brilliant about it having her Bible and Derek Thomas’ commentary on Revelation with her and she’d enjoyed that time as from God and not from a clumsy husband. The sun was not shining directly on the verandah and the view of the marshes and islands through the mists of the morning is very attractive with occasional fishing boats moving up and down. She had enjoyed her hours of peace. We spent a low key day nursing ourselves along, but we are both without energy through what the folk here have decided is a virus that we’ve both got.

Wednesday we set off for Midway, the historic 200 year old Congregational ‘Puritan’ meeting place where Daniel Baker had preached to packed congregations, the slaves all sitting upstairs in a gallery as large as the downstairs and the whites downstairs. He did not have it in his power to end slavery but he did ensure that they came under the same gospel influences as their owners. The vast white building is preserved but not used. It has no electricity or running water. It has not had a worshipping congregation for decades. It is in the middle of nowhere standing in the midst of a cluster of gnarled trees with a graveside on the other side of the road. At its strongest period of about a century many men went out to become preachers. Now it is a museum. I always feel it an honour to preach there. I guess we might be the only group who use it for a service during the course of a year.

We came back and rested, and coughed. How we both cough! We have never had such a time of constant hacking. We went to the local town of Brunswick, but it had nothing of any fascination and we were soon back in our rooms. After the evening service I rehearsed with a sextet, “O Sacred Head Sore Wounded” which we are going to sing the following night. Then we went to Dairy Queen with a dozen others from the church and had ice-creams and good humoured conversations for an hour before getting back to our nice rooms and collapsing weakly on our beds. There is one thing that is certain, that this virus we have picked up has not prevented us doing anything but it has taken away a ton of energy.

Thursday we had no morning meeting and soon were on our way 65 miles to Savannah driven by our friends the Underwoods. Savannah is beautiful and built for strolling around, blocks of old houses with cast iron verandahs and railings around the houses and on the staircases. It is like Charleston and New Orleans in that respect, but Savannah has kept its attractiveness over a very large area. There is a network of squares containing huge old trees covered in the ubiquitous Spanish Moss and then a statue or a fountain in the heart of each square. We dodged the showers as we went along the old streets. The waterfront is fascinating because Savannah is a container port, one of the busiest in the south-east, and so huge ships apparently overloaded with stacks of containers standing high on the decks drift down the river which is lined with hotels and fine office buildings. Especially there are restaurants on the riverside in one of which we ate.

We got back for supper and the evening meeting, but this was a little later as it was preceded by an hour of singing. We learned some new hymns some of which tunes the children had written. There were different families and groups taking part, all shyly and with no affectation. It was here we sang “O Sacred Head . . .” After my meeting Steve Martin the pastor, Hank Rast and I met to talk about Nairobi. Hank was the one man who had to chair the committee of men who went out to Trinity Baptist Church and held meetings with Keith Underhill and members of the church. One cannot say that this issue has been wrapped up and put to bed, but I think there are ways in which a stronger resolution of the tensions might be achieved, for example, that Matthew of Media can visit Keith, that I will go there again. Also that we will try for a general meeting in London with Hank coming across, plus the new American secretary of the Reformed Baptist Mission Services attending, Matt from Media, Keith himself as he comes home to further the break up of his mother’s estate, and some of us from Alfred Place. That would be useful and may help towards closure, but there are attitudes of Keith and views of Sukesh and Martin which are pretty permanently fixed.

On Friday morning we packed and loaded the car and drove up to Waffle House for breakfast. There was a huge black manager, chief chef who kept up a constant flow of conversation with the waitresses and cooks and customers as they came in – quite hilarious though a work in four we missed. I spoke for the last time and they sang Blessed be the tie that binds, and clapped. We left Epworth by Sea on St Simons Island at 12.30 and drove much of the length of Georgia state northwards, 320 miles, to Commerce a small town on a level with Atlanta. It
was a fine journey, the first half motorway and the second half from Dublin through small towns and countryside with little dairy, no sheep, 90 % forest and an occasional explosion of orchards, especially around Commerce where the most superb vast juicy peaches grow. We borrowed some CDs to hear of preaching and the hours went by fine. We arrived in Commerce around 7.15 phoning Murray Brett and he read us into his home, Iola describing where we were and he telling us to turn left or right until we saw him speaking to us on his driveway.

Murray and Paula have given us their own super bedroom and there we have settled, done our washing and drying and are ready for our week-end with them. Our virus seems to be on the retreat; we coughed less last night. We have virtually finished the bottle of medicine we have been taking. We have more energy and so our recovery is well under way. One embarrassment is that Iola saw the mobile clock radio by the bed in Epworth on Friday morning and thought it was ours and so she put it in my case. We have to retrieve our reputation and slip it in a jiffy bag and send it back to the Golden Isles today – if post offices are open on Saturdays in the USA. Never a dull moment.

The two days in Murray Brett’s home in Commerce, Georgia, were a delight. Saturday morning I sent off the first part of this letter to the family and congregation and the Bretts’ sons and daughter returned home and so did his father and mother. Mr. Brett had been a John Deere dealer and knew Tommy Peaster. He provided Aberdeen Angus beef, the centre of the ribs, for lunch on Sunday. That was the best meat we had had. It simply melted in your mouth. On the Saturday afternoon we went to a factory outlet park. It was a disaster for me. I had not taken a book to read and so the hours there were boring. I bought Osian something that took my fancy. Then I hung around for Iola not in a nice mood. There was no restaurant to sit in. We spent the evening with the family eating shrimp they had caught.

The church is new and has no building. There are scores of Baptist churches in the community and one little Roman Catholic building. So they are meeting in the civic or community centre and I spoke at the 9.30 hour on Bunyan, and then on the raising of Namaan’s daughter at 11. People had heard that message from the Internet. One of the elders knew it well as the lessons from the sermon he had learned when he had been with his dying father and passed them on to him. It is OK preaching messages that people have heard before. They say, “We hoped you were going to preach such and such a message. It is our favourite,” and sometimes I do preach that message. How the Doctor opposed cassettes of his sermons being made, because people would obtain them hearing them before he preached the word in the flesh. Now everyone may freely hear your sermons on line.

At the lunch table we sat around a new table that Murray had made of walnut wood. He had had the planks for a few years but our coming got a date fixed in his mind and so he planed and polished the wood until it glowed. Twenty yards at the top of the garden is a two story sized building and in half of it is his tool shop, and then another area is his study. It is a fascinating building set in the trees. What a dream den. So we ‘launched’ the table and ate the Aberdeen Angus rib, and Murray addressed the four families eating with us one by one asking what would be the book they’d take to a desert island with them. The majority went for Bunyan; he went for Owen on Communion with God while Iola and I went for Studies in the Sermon on the Mount by Dr. Lloyd-Jones.

Sunday night the meeting was held upstairs in the town auditorium which could also be used as a dancehall and big functions. Murray had invited little churches in the area to join with us. He gave me my third effusive welcome-introduction of the day; there was a good number in the congregation and a good listening. We had a meal afterwards and I moved from table to table sitting and talking to the groups of people. This church has real potential. In the evening we got Emails from Catrin and Fflur and the next morning from Eleri so we were right up to date with the family, and we also got a letter from Sandra Petherbridge so we knew a little of what was happening in the Principality.

At 9 a.m. on Monday morning we set off on the 450 miles journey to Mississippi. It was straightforward; motorway all the way, a break at a Cracker Barrel half way through and we were in Flora before 6 p.m. for a week with our old friends Tommy and Linda Peaster. I was soon swimming in their pool in their magnificent landscaped home. Deer are getting bolder in this drought and in the last few days have been climbing up the terraces around the French windows, which is OK, but not their eating the tomatoes. We tumbled into bed at ten.

On Tuesday I had a luxurious morning to myself beginning my next sermon on the Holy Spirit. It was delightful; Iola got her washing done in the empty house, and the humming birds were dive-bombing one another as they hung in the air drinking at the scarlet feeder. By the middle of the day Linda was back and soon Tommy came back from the bank. We got ready for our trip and at 3 p.m. Tommy drove us the 170 miles to New Orleans where we stayed two nights in the Marriott Hotel on the banks of the Mississippi which is half a mile wide. We were high up on the 17th floor with a great view of the river and its boats. We went out to a neat restaurant at 7 p.m. How close the tables were to one another – it was not a big room and somewhere in the suburbs. What a din everyone made talking at the tops of their voices. How delicious was the food as is the case in almost all the restaurants in New Orleans or they couldn’t survive. The journey there a couple of miles up one of the oldest thoroughfares in the city passed some of the finest homes and a couple of the universities like Loyola.

Wednesday morning we walked half a mile to the Café du Monde, a famous New Orleans restaurant which only sells chicory-based coffee and icing-sugar-loaded square donuts and nothing else. Philippines’ waitresses served us this breakfast and the icing sugar fell everywhere. As we were munching in the open a man with an acoustic guitar sat on the pavement and played Beatles favourites. Then we took a horse and carriage ride around the French Quarter. Our young guide had one of those sharp clear voices that comes from the back of his throat. Every word could be understood and he kept up an entertaining and educational commentary on the houses we passed and the whole history of that part of New Orleans, the best restaurants and museums and jazz clubs people could attend, where the murders had occurred and where Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK’s assassin) had gone to school. The horse knew when to stop to give a chance of seeing the sights. There was little traffic. There had been a rare collision at dawn between a bridge pillar and tanker full of diesel oil and the smell of the thousands of gallons of diesel filled the air along the banks of ‘Moon River’. All river traffic was banned and long floating boons were snaking across the Mississippi to contain the oil.

Then the sky grew darker and darker and – whoosh – how it rained. Iola from her deep experience of quality rain in those first twenty years of her life had scarcely seen a downpour like it. The gutters were turned into torrents as the drains couldn’t take that amount of water and the cast iron lined verandahs had their own overflows which poured cascades of water onto the deserted streets. We dashed under our inadequate collapsible umbrellas under a verandah and finally escaped from it going around a large museum for the remainder of the morning. The first time we set out to cross the street for the museum in the driving rain, that very moment as we left the pavement, there was an overhead clap of thunder and lightning, I mean,
right over our heads, “BOOM!!!” making us jump with shock.

That afternoon we walked from our hotel room to the New Orleans Aquarium and had a fabulous time there, so well laid out, a hundred huge tanks, high and deep, some of which you walked under and through via the curved glass walls. There were sharks, sting-rays, turtles, sea-otters, an albino alligator, serpents, even a boa-constrictor and piranhas in a South American Amazon river display. Then there were sea-horses and a host of the smaller luminous fish in abundance. It was a sheer delight at the beginning to stand transfixed and watch them swim around, contemptuously ignoring the human eyes looking and the little hands tapping on the glass. They studiously avoided touching one another but went as close to that as possible without rubbing one another’s sides. These fish created a happy atmosphere, encouraging strangers and spectators to talk with one another. When that finished we went to an Imax film of the Catrina hurricane disaster projected on a screen fifty feet high and very moving as this 200 mile wide storm came rolling in a few years ago and hit New Orleans. It was the biggest natural disaster to have struck the USA. We have not seen any evidences of it in the part of the city where we are staying, because we are just above sea-level, but once a levy was breached the sea poured in and inundated the homes below sea level and they are still in ruins today.

That evening we walked down the road towards Bourbon Street but none of us wanted to walk that street itself with its ugly dives. Instead we went down a quieter street to Preservation Hall attending its traditional nightly jazz band concert for 40 minutes. We arrived at the perfect time as the new audience was moving in and grabbing somewhere to sit – just a hundred or so people – but we also got seats – though the girls sat on benches (half the audience had to stand), and others sat on the floor. Tommy and I had seats with backs to them, mine was a superb royal throne (I claimed) in the front – just where the most honoured guest would sit. The Hall is battered, dusty with curved sheets of old peg-board attached to some walls, other walls just had cobwebs, and faded posters. There were no windows and it is half the size of downstairs in Alfred Place. We had talked to one distinguished looking man in the street inquiring directions as to the way there and he turned out to be the clarinet player. There was a tuba player, an electric guitarist, a trombonist and a drummer. No trumpeter alas. It became a life-affirming musical feast as the five musicians played old and new pieces concluding with the inevitable long finale of When the Saints Go Marching In . . . of course. We spoke to the clarinet player afterwards as Tommy had asked him to direct us to the Hall earlier. I thanked him. It was our 44th wedding anniversary and such a happy different way to spend it. I told him of the years of our marriage. “A long time,” he said, and it is.

On Thursday we were late rising and we had brunch in a nearby courtyard in the French Quarter while a trio played jazz in a corner – a woman played the banjo, a man played a double bass and another played a saxophone. Creepers grew overhead and sparrows and pigeons pecked around us. Most tables had the shelter of a large umbrella. We could go into the adjoining room and take as much food as we desired. There was an enormous and bewildering choice, from shrimp to a cooked breakfast, fresh fruit and cakes, salted herring – you name it. That was our morning treat and then we drove back the two hundred miles to Mississippi and to home arriving at 3.30.

Friday we set off for Reformed Theological Seminary. I wanted to visit its splendid bookstore having ordered three books before leaving Aberystwyth; they had not arrived, but maybe they would come this afternoon the young lady told me. I wanted to get a couple of other books for Tommy but neither of those was in stock. Derek was away for the morning, but we are getting together on Monday a couple of times, at 2 p.m. he is interviewing me for the church’s TV channel and then he is coming round for the evening. He is off to London a week on Monday for the celebration of his mother’s 80th birthday. She wants to go to a Promenade Concert “for the last time” and so all the family are going to be there for a Vaughn Williams’ English music concert which Derek thought she would appreciate. Then he is staying a week or so.

We went to a shopping mall in the afternoon and when we came out into the car park could not remember where we had parked the car. We walked up and down like country bumpkins; up and down the rows of cars. I hardly could remember what the car looked like. Yes it was definitely a silver Dodge with a Georgia number plate and I was pressing the key as I went up and down the rows so that the headlights would light up, but nothing happened. Then a security policeman spotted us and I explained what was wrong. “Hop in,” he said and so he drove around three different car parks slowly on each side of the mall, all of us looking for that illusive Georgia number plate. I pointed my key and pressed the button at every car. He was from the Gambia and had come to study law in the USA getting this job temporarily. After twenty long minutes we found the car. Its lights winked back at my key and we were released from our embarrassment. I was able to spend several hours continuing preparation of the sermon on the Holy Spirit, and then at 6 we left for Tommy’s brother’s home, Sonny Peaster, where we stayed until ten. They all hope to attend the Calvin500 celebrations in Geneva next year. We got back home to catch in the glare of the headlights two deer raiding the tomato patch..

Today is our last Saturday and this morning we are writing sermons and postcards and Emails. The temperature is promised to reach 100 degrees today and so we will not be out of doors much except to use the swimming pool. Just a few more days and we will be back home, looking forward to that as much as we are enjoying this.

GEOFF THOMAS