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Dear First Pres,
   I think this past Sunday was one of the most important Sundays of my nearly five years as your senior pastor. It was paramount to name some of the evil we've experienced in our world and in our church. It was paramount to remember that Jesus weeps with us in those things; His weeping comforts us, leads us, and shapes us. It was paramount to hold the First Pres Forum so that we could talk about walking through difficult times together by leaning in full of grace and truth (see John 1:14). And, it was paramount for us to pray together in the Forum for God's glory to be made known. Finally, for any of that to be effective in helping us be healthy together, it was paramount for the Holy Spirit to show up and lead us. I praise God in saying that I sensed His presence all over our gatherings. Did you? I believe, with God's help, we have started well this long path to wholeness.
 
   One of the most difficult parts of walking through this season together, I think, is protecting the anonymity of those in our midst who have been hurt. Unless we are one of those families most impacted, it is not our story to tell. Yet, our desire is for them to know our care and support and love. So, how do we minister to someone who is anonymous in our congregation? We lean in full of grace and truth without preference. In other words, not every family is hurting in the same way or at the same level, but you can bet every family is hurting in some way at some level. Every family could use someone who is praying for them; every family could use someone who brings an encouraging word; every family could use some ministry directed in their way. But we need to do so with wisdom.
 
   In a conversation with one of our members this week I learned that three different folks asked this member directly on Sunday, "Do you know who the victims are?"  Now, if you asked that question to someone on Sunday, please don't take offense. It's a natural question. But I believe it is a question we need to release from our hearts. We need to let it go. We need to ask the Lord to help us release that curiosity, which I know can be fierce. Asking that question, I believe, is more likely to divide us than unite us. We need to replace that question with "How are you?" Or, "Is there anything I can do to help?" Or, "How can I be praying for you this week?" These are the types of questions that will help us lean in full of grace and truth.
 
   Beloved, the road of healing together is not an easy one, but it is a blessed one. It will require all of us to surrender our own attitudes, thoughts, desires, and issues to the Lord. It will require us to move toward the problem rather than try to forget about it. It will require us to remember that it is by grace we have been saved ... not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9); none of us are going to walk this road perfectly. It will require us to pursue truth, even if the truth is hard, because it is the truth that sets us free (John 8:32). It will require us all, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to lean in full of grace and truth. When that happens among us, surely, God will be glorified and we will walk in His healing together.

Blessings, 
Jeremy

Jeremy Vaccaro
Senior Pastor

   A group of 34 toured Germany this summer in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  We sang in many churches, participated in a festival, and sang in a church service.  Below three of our signers share some reflections. Note, we are remaining in touch with the pastor of the Jünesdorf/Blankenfeld Parish and hope to develop a partnership with them. 

Julie Carter

Sharon L. Robert

   I enjoyed my trip to Germany very much and loved singing in such beautiful places with other Christians that shared my enjoyment of the place.  However, what I didn’t expect is that God would meet me in a small Lutheran church in Blankenfeld, Germany and deeply touch me with the kindness shown by the parishioners and pastor while I was there for such a short time. Our Reformation Choir sang several pieces in the long service on that Sunday morning, joined in on the hymn-singing in German, and took communion along with the congregation. After the service was over, each singer was presented with a hand-knitted shawl made by a church member to say thank-you for visiting them and singing in their service. It was such a touching gift to present to each of us – something I will never forget.  It made the luncheon set out for us after the service even more special that we could enjoy sitting with the church members for a few minutes before we had to rush off to the next tour stop. I will always regret not being able to spend more time with this congregation who really had the Holy Spirit moving among them and showed the gift of hospitality toward our group. I am so thankful for the little Lutheran church in Blankenfeld, Germany, which is alive with the Holy Spirit, and the people and pastor there that made me feel so very welcome. 

Deborah Hughes

   Traveling has always been a dream of mine, but I was never able to live out that dream to the extent I wanted to because of raising a family, taking care of my husband & home, and, of course, the money. So when my life recently changed so very much with the death of my dear husband, I decided to use some of his insurance money (bless him!) to begin to travel. Little did I know what a delight one of the first trips I would take would be to me.

   The 2017 500th Anniversary Reformation Choir Trip was fun and challenging from the beginning when we first started practicing in January. I was challenged not only because was I learning to sing in German, but also I was learning to sing as an alto, which I have never attempted in my whole singing life. There were some extremely talented altos in the Reformation Choir who really helped me, many of whom came to my house regularly to practice over and above our weekly 21⁄2 hour Sunday afternoon practices. I came to recognize, as the practices continued week after week and then the actual trip unfolded, how dear these ladies had become to me. I look back and realize that I loved singing, chatting, eating, exploring, and just spending time with ALL the trip participates.

   Many highlights of the trip itself stand out, such as the practices for the Luther Festival with the talented conductor held in that beautiful red stone church, and, of course, the actual festival itself when the 280-voice choir performed Mendelssohn Barthody, Bach, and Luther, in German, in the Berliner Dom. However, without a doubt, the best memory I have is performing and participating in Pastor Stephen’s small, rural Evangelical church service. The Holy Spirit was strongly present in this young pastor throughout that service; God’s presence was also felt as our choir sang, during the confirmation of new members, communion, the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, and, afterwards, at the meal the congregants provided for us. At this meal, many of us were able to lay hands on Pastor Steffen and pray for him, and the Holy Spirit gave me a word for Steffen that the Lord wanted to do “something” in that rural area of Germany through him.

   As a choir, we learned that God’s timetable is definitely not ours since we were supposed to leave Pastor Steffen’s church much earlier than we actually did. But we stayed longer than our written schedule dictated because that church really blessed all of us and, I believe, we connected to and blessed them. We followed the Holy Spirit’s lead and this young pastor’s bright blue eyes, glowing with God’s love, found its way into many of our hearts. He and his congregation will be in our minds and prayers for years to come. That precious experience, of so deeply connecting with other believers who loved Jesus like we did, was the best ever trip highlight for me.

Stuart Conrad

   The music, the history, and the beautiful sights were wonderful, but I probably saw God working the most through a negative experience.  I lost my passport.

   Marilyn and I went over to Europe a few days prior to the rest of the group so that we could see Munich and Salzburg areas. We joined Mike and Janet Murphy for a tour out of Salzburg. Upon returning to Salzburg in the tour bus, I noticed that my passport was gone. We panicked, and Marilyn immediately hopped back on the bus to look for it while I notified the tour guide. One good result was that we found the Murphy’s camera on the floor of the bus. They had not realized that it was missing and it may have been gone for good if Marilyn had not discovered it. We then stopped to pray about this situation.

   The tour company was helpful. They had another tour going back to the same place in the afternoon, and the tour guide said he would check at our restaurant to see if it had been found. I thought it might have fallen out when we stopped for lunch in a small town.

   Meanwhile, I started learning how much trouble I was in. I called the US Embassy to find out how to replace my passport. I would have to travel to Berlin and it would cost a lot of money. We were scheduled to fly to Berlin the next day, but that requires a passport. I planned out a long train trip, as I knew I could travel between Austria and Germany by train without having my passport checked.

   We went back to or hotel room and were praying and planning what to do when there was a knock on our door.  It was the hotel receptionist. She said “I have some good news for you.”  We had shared our situation with her when we returned. On her own, she called the police station in the town where we had been and discovered that someone had turned in the passport. We were thrilled! We walked several blocks back to the tour company to let them know and to see if they knew how we could pick it up. Before we were done explaining, they asked us to wait for a minute. They made a phone call, and then one minute later a driver and a van showed up. They had to send a van back to that same small town to pick up some extra tourists, and they offered to have the driver take us there at no charge. It was about a 45 minute drive. The driver not only took us back to the town, but he happened to know where the police station was located, and he drove us there even though it was at the opposite end of town from the place he was headed. 

   When we walked inside the police station, we were the only people there besides the officers. I started to explain my story and told them that I had lost my passport. One of them said “Ah, Mr. Conrad.” After that, it took only a few minutes to sign a paper and get my passport back. And I was more than happy to not only see the passport, but also the nearly $200 in Euros that I had tucked inside it.

   We were unable to ride back with the same van driver, as he had a full van. But the driver did give us directions to the bus station. After a short walk, we arrived at the station at the same time as our bus arrived. We were happy to get such an easy ride back to Salzburg, but did not realize that the bus stopped right across the street from the tour company, just a few blocks from our hotel. 

   I’m not sure why problems like losing a passport occur. It was troubling, worrisome, and very inconvenient. But I wouldn’t have experienced God’s provision in restoring it to me and the great friendliness of many people if it would not have happened. The celebrating was topped off when we returned to our hotel later and ran into the Murphys again. After sharing our good news, they immediately brought out a torte cake that they had purchased to celebrate. They said that they just knew we would find it again and had purchased the cake to be ready for the celebration. 

Terry Jaurena
Mission/Outreach Director

Dear First Pres,

  My heart is full of much joy to share with you that our new Director of College Ministry, Geraud Brumfield, is now here in Fresno. He is eager to connect with and care for the students who attend Fresno Pacific, Fresno State, and Fresno City Colleges. Geraud has a heart for the message of the Gospel on these campuses. He also has a deep desire to extend to students the invitation and gift to be part of a local church body while attending higher education. It will be out of the relationships that Geraud has that he will invite students to be active participants in the body here at First Presbyterian Church.
   One of the words that you will hear again and again from me about Geraud is that the organization that he works for, the CCO, is now in partnership with us as a church. Uniquely, our partnership means we not only send Geraud out to minister at these college campuses, but we get to regularly minister with him as he brings college students through our church doors. We get to grow in relationship with these students.
   It is the hope of the CCO, Geraud, and FPC that the students who make this church their regular place of worship also become integrated into the active life of our church. We may see some of these students on the chancel leading worship; some may help out in our children's or youth ministry; some may get plugged in to serve in link crew or as ushers. Yet no matter where these students get plugged in, it is my hope they experience the necessity of becoming a part of a church body as they live out their faith in all parts of life during and after college.
   What a privilege it is that we are partnering with the CCO as Geraud partners with us in the transforming work of the Gospel for our city and our world. Will you join with me in welcoming Geraud to First Presbyterian Church through encouraging words, gift cards, or taking him out to lunch and hearing his vision for college students? Who knows? Some of these conversations may lead to your heart being stirred to minister and care for college students on these local campuses.

Blessings, 
Chris

P.S. Pastor Jeremy and the church Session have decided to hold a First Pres Forum during the Education Hour this Sunday. The purpose of the forum is to discuss how we can walk together through difficult times. I encourage all who are able to attend. Then, next week, our Testimony class will resume in the Fellowship Hall.

Chris Popadich

Dear First Pres,

   Maximize your influence! That's the rallying cry of the Global Leadership Summit, a webinar that brings leaders together from around the world to be equipped and inspired for continuing growth in their local contexts. First Pres will have almost 20 people attending this Thursday and Friday, some congregants, some elders, many of our staff and pastors. Our attendees include folks in every age group from college on up -- that's exciting! What's certain is that each of us is called to 'maximize our influence' wherever God has placed us. Influencing people doesn't always mean it's your job to tell them what to do; influence can come through many kinds of interactions with those around us. Who are the people in your sphere of influence right now, and how might you encourage them to follow in Jesus' footsteps? As you are asking yourselves that question, we'll be doing the same while we're at the GLS. Can I ask you please to pray for us as we go? Not only that we would learn, but that we will then put into practice some of the skills and information we'll gain. I have good hope that there will be some real "aha moments" among those who attend. We will do our best to share some of those testimonies with you all very soon. 
   We often think of a testimony as to the story of how someone came to know Jesus. But as believers, we also have the joy of giving testimony in another way -- by attesting to, or confirming, what we have seen God do. We get to tell how God has changed our lives, or restored broken relationships, or done a work of healing. The possibilities are endless because we serve the almighty eternal God who is always at work for the good of his people and the world! Testifying to God's work and goodness is powerful, encouraging and bringing joy to both those who share and those who hear. This Sunday as we resume our Education hour between services, come hear and be edified by the first of several testimonies from First Pres members who have experienced God's love, power, and provision first-hand. God is alive and active among his people today!
 

The Lord Bless And Keep You,

Pastor Lana

Lana Roberts
Associate Pastor

We think you'll be encouraged by these reflections from some of our students who attended CAMP recently. 

My name is Rileigh Armstrong and I am an 8th grader who recently went to summer camp at Sugar Pine Christian Camp. (Rileigh is on the far right in this photo.) During my time at Junior High camp, I grew closer to God and learned more about him each and every day. It was difficult for me to be away from home for a week, but I trusted in the Lord to help me and I am so glad I went! Throughout the week I strengthened and built new relationships with people in and outside of our church. The speaker talked about trusting in God even if you don't know what is going to happen next on your life. This really stuck out to me, because it taught me to just trust in God even when I am anxious about something. One way I trusted the Lord is when I went zip-lining, and I was nervous about climbing the tree. I prayed about it and trusted that He would help me through it.

   Hello, my name is Sophia Steele, a recent graduate from Fresno High School. I got to go to two camps in row this month: Wildwood as a super senior student and then Sugar Pine as a Jr. High counselor! (Sophia is in the front row, far left in the photo below.) At Wildwood, the Lord helped me realize I’ve been bottling up some worries and stress, especially about the future. He surrounded me with a loving counselor to listen to me and talk with me and help me surrender things to Him. At Sugar Pine, I felt the blessings that came immediately after surrendering to Him. I felt His presence and peace and realized I forgot what a good, loving Father He is. He grew me in my trust in Him, and He equipped me to lead my girls in ways only He can. I got to see these girls that were so different from each other grow together as sisters in Christ, and I got to see them intentionally choose to seek after Jesus and recommit their lives to Him! I learned more from them and from being a counselor than being a student at camp a week earlier.

   Overall, Jesus reminded me that He truly is the living water, and I think camp is a special environment where we can really become overflowed with His love. How is God so good and perfect in His plan? I don’t think I’ll ever understand, but I love it and I’m beyond words when I get to experience it.

 

   I am Emily Hartsell, 15 years old and going into my sophomore year of high school. (Emily is the girl with the hat in the photo below.) This summer I was a part of the Albania team. The first week we helped set up for the summer camps and I was on the decorating team. I do not think of myself as artistic or talented with any sort of creative ability so I felt challenged with our assignment. But God worked through me and my team and we made some amazing posters and signs. It was incredible! I can now say that I do not feel incompetent when it comes to being artistic.

   Another thing I struggled with was communicating with people. I love to talk, and I just love meeting new people. It was really awesome that the staff spoke English but the second week we had the Erseke kids in camp and none of them spoke English. I was working with younger children so I was very frustrated when all I could do was say no and use facial expressions. I eventually learned how to use my actions to show people the love of Jesus Christ even when I can't verbally convey it. Despite the few things I struggled with it was a huge blessing to meet the people I did and I had some amazing conversations during our daily ice cream trips! Just being in the atmosphere was so heartwarming I didn't want to leave!

   But I did, and back in the US, I went straight to Wildwood camp at Hume Lake where the theme was to GO. I definitely felt God in that! Camp was a good time for me to reflect on Albania; still, there were many, many things I had a hard time doing. We were never allowed to know the time and we were told something was happening 5 minutes before it would happen. As a crazy organized scheduled person, I was going insane! There was a long period of time in the mornings where we were alone in the forest with just us and our Bibles and it was hard at first to stay focused the whole time. By the end of the week I loved my alone time with God. The first few days I didn’t like it, but after Wednesday & Thursday night I knew exactly why God had called me to camp.

   Wednesday for dinner we were given what people eat in different countries a day. I was “in” Guatemala and for dinner we had a spoonful of beans, a spoonful of rice and dirty water. Other tables were similar but the America table was overflowing with food. The staff then threw away how much food Americans waste and everyone sat in a shocked silence. Dave Hanson spoke that night which was amazing. Thursday the staff ran a simulation that put us out into the forest at night and showed us what it was like to be persecuted in countries where it is not legal to be Christians. It was a terrifying, eye opening and a life changing experience.

   Before going to Albania I was kind of wondering if missions was what God was calling me to, and then at camp, we read Matthew 28:19-20 and I was awestruck. It reads, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." I realized that I didn't need to wait for a call, God had given me one ages ago! As a person I have grown so much more confident and have an even stronger faith in God’s goodness, grace, and love. I just love all the new brothers and sisters in Christ I met and I can't wait to see how God will challenge and shape me throughout the rest of my life!

Terry Jaurena
Mission/Outreach Director

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