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First Thoughts Blog

OO

American Privilege

Super Shuttle had forgotten me at the Orlando Airport. Only Uber Black (that’s the really nice cars!) was available. My driver was gregarious. Born in Haiti, he had come to America in his teens to play soccer. Now he was a proud U.S. citizen. “I love this country,” he said. “The electricity works all the time. I came here with nothing but soccer skills. Then my knee blew out, but I got great medical care. I worked hard, and now I have my own driving business. My wife became an accountant. We have such a great life here. I love America.”
 
In troubled times, when we’re straining to do better as a nation, it helps to remember just why so many people from around the world want to be here. To me, any discussion about our nation needs to begin with grateful acknowledgement of American Privilege. It flows across the tapestry of ethnicities that make up our nation of immigrants. As my driver said, the electricity works all day long. So does the in-flow of clean water, and, importantly, the out-flow of sewage. I’m thankful every Tuesday for the infrastructure of sanitation. They actually take my garbage away! (If I make the effort to put it in the bin.)  
 
All anyone has to do in a crisis is dial 911. Within minutes, fire, ambulance or police come no matter who you are. Emergency rooms treat any and every one who comes with astounding medical care, whether you can pay or not. Education from pre-K to high school is available to every citizen, including free transportation. Our schools provide ten meals a week to those who need them. Public assistance offers vouchers for food; housing for the disabled and disadvantaged; a host of services to the elderly, those fighting cancer, the demented, the physically handicapped; or those with other special needs. 
 
We have 2.7 million miles of paved roads. Pollution controls have cleaned up the air we breathe. Public libraries are heated and cooled for comfort as they offer both print and electronic resources for free to all. There is land to spread out to. There is natural beauty of such variety and magnitude that it takes your breath away. At the city, state and national level we have beautiful parks. Our nation’s resources have created an overflowing abundance of goods in which everyone can participate. (A Ralph Lauren polo shirt for $2 at the Purple Cow: amazing!) Opportunity for social and economic mobility continues to be the envy of the world. The mightiest military in history protects us. 
 
We freely elect our government officials. We govern by rule of law, with powers divided between three branches, the model of liberty for the world. We still have remarkable freedom to express our opinions and exercise our religion. Moreover, we have the ability to critique ourselves, to have the conversations that lead to change.  
 
Are we perfect? Of course not! But this July 4, I want to begin with gratitude for all we have. And respect for those who sacrificed and labored and fought to make it so. Would I prefer the level of religious freedom that’s in Saudi Arabia? Or machine guns on every street corner like in Cairo? Would I prefer the surveillance culture of China? The heritage of ethnic genocides in Bosnia or Rwanda? The dictatorship of Russia? The poverty of the socialist experiment in Venezuela? No, thank you to all of the above.
 
Even the least among us have great privilege. Even the poor among us have, in the world context, great wealth. American privilege is a precious, priceless privilege that undergirds all our national conversations. We must begin, continue and conclude in gratitude for this nation in which God has seen fit to place us. 
 
Happy Independence Day!
 

First Presbyterian and Kids Hope USA

Why does the wealthiest nation in the world have the highest rate of teen suicides, incarcerations and pregnancies? These are the questions Virgil Gulker asked himself 25 years ago. After conducting research, Gulker determined that one hour, one-on-one sessions between an elementary-age child and a loving adult could change the trajectory of that student’s future. Thus, Kids Hope USA was founded; a faith-based mentoring program offering effective training, prayer and support for the volunteer mentors. 
 
In September 2019, First Presbyterian Church officially partnered with Kids Hope USA by committing to be a positive influence at Gardere Community Christian School. We currently have eight volunteers but the goal is to mentor 50 students and make a positive, hope-filled difference. 
 
Here is a testimony about a successful Kids Hope USA mentor/mentee relationship. When Mr. Layne cautiously became a Kids Hope USA mentor, he had no idea the impact it would have. He was matched with Terrance, a 2nd grade boy who was recommended to KHUSA as his father had sadly been killed in a shooting. Soon after, Layne’s brother died and the two helped console each other. They met once a week, did some school work, played games and talked about making good choices. Mrs. Ginger, another Kids Hope USA volunteer, prayed for them.  
 
A great relationship was blooming, when Terrance’s mother felt it best to move back to Alabama.  Layne and Terrance kept in touch through emails and phone calls. Mrs. Ginger continued to pray.
 
Fast forward to June 2018. Layne received an invitation for he and his family to attend Terrance’s high school graduation; with a football scholarship!  
 
Kids Hope USA believes that some are called to be a mentor or prayer partner. If you believe you are being called, please contact Annette Lamond, Kids Hope USA Director and member of First Presbyterian Church (annette@fpcbr.org or 225.773.8745). 
 
 

Global Mission Conference 2020

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses . . . to the end of the earth (Acts 1: 8).
 
First Presbyterian Church has a long tradition of support to evangelizing the globe. On August 29 and 30, Macgregor Magruder will graciously host FPC’s mission conference. This conference is a unique opportunity to see God’s faithfulness across the globe from the perspective of our partner field missionaries.  
 
The entire globe is struggling with how coronavirus is impacting traditional lifestyles. Psalm 131 has significant meaning for both our field missionaries and our local coronavirus challenges. Historically sung as the pilgrims’ song of ascent along the path to Jerusalem, Psalm 131: 1-2 lulls the pilgrim into rest with humility and trust. The coronavirus is isolating this worship dynamic to rest in God, as we are all wrestling the same level of fear and anxieties globally. Lastly, Psalm 131: 3 encourages us to actively rest and confidently expect God to work on our behalf. Globally, Christians can call on this universal truth: GOD is in control and we are to rest with expectation of his loving care. 
 
Our field missionaries live with this universal truth daily. Having been planted in foreign communities, they lean completely into God with confidence and expectation. Please join us in August to hear how God continuously builds their faith inside each of their mission communities. “O Israel, put your hope in the LORD both now and forevermore” (131: 3).
Posted in: Missions

Masquerading Worship

Feeling a bit like Darth Vader in my mask, I walked through the Sanctuary greeting a number of families who had come to the confirmation service. I found comfort that we were all doing the same. From a safe distance, I said, “It’s like a masquerade ball. Or a Halloween party. You feel ridiculous getting ready. But once you see that everyone else has on a costume, it’s ok.”  Indeed, it was ok. No, I’m not a big fan of breathing back my own breath. But I get it. We’re helping each other. We’re making the best of the situation given to us. And I’m awfully proud that you are making the effort to regather our congregation in the Sanctuary while following the safest recommendations in a spirit of adventure. Of course you are!
 
Now I don’t mind telling you, leadership in an unchartered crisis is exhausting! Every week, sometimes every other day, we have to pivot. We have to adapt. To plot a new course knowing it might change overnight. I’ve been so impressed with the flexibility and innovation and sheer hard work of our on-the-ground staff. Our team bowls me over with the way they’ve communicated and created worship and ministry for all of us in these strange days.
 
Lately, I’ve found a place to be peaceful. I think our elders have found that same place. We’re sheltering in the leadership that is above us. We’re thankful for and praying for our freely elected government. As long as what the state asks doesn’t compel us to compromise the gospel or doesn’t egregiously and specifically target people of faith, we are glad to follow. To be part of Team Louisiana.   
 
This gives us two strong directions. On the one hand, we want to do everything that is permitted to us to do. Our business is gathered worship. We exist to proclaim the gospel in community for the community. So when we can open at 25%, we do. We energetically embrace what we may do, offering the best we can give to the most who can come. On the other hand, we accept what is prescribed for our safety. If sanitizing, distancing and masking is what is asked, we’re happy to do it. It’s not fun. But it’s what is called for. And that makes me peaceful. 
 
I don’t want to try to think I know better. Nor do I want to live in fear. I want to live boldly within the guidance of what is both permitted and safe. Down this road, lies peace, restoration and love for our community. Just think, no one has ever done this before! We’ll always remember this time. I will always remember your overwhelming love for your church and commitment to our ministry in the heart of Baton Rouge. These days, it’s easy as pie to say I love being your pastor!
 
Gratitude for Steve Rushing 
 
The director of our chancel choir ends his tenure with us this month. Dr. Steve Rushing has partnered with me in leading Classic Reformed Worship for the last fifteen years. His outstanding full-time vocal teaching at Southeastern University and then at Baton Rouge International School have meant that Steve’s service to us has always been on a quarter-time basis. With the arrival of our first full-time worship director who is fluent in both classic and contemporary styles, there is too much overlap to continue with two choir directors. So it is with both sadness and gratitude that we bid farewell to Steve in his official capacity. 
 
But first, we want to celebrate his work among us. Steve raised high the excellence of our choir program. He established the reputation of our music throughout the community and especially amidst the musicians in town. His gracious spirit and love for all kinds of music played a significant role in healing tensions that once existed between our worship styles. Steve has freely offered vocal lessons to many members, taking a personal interest in his choir and enhancing the careers of our student singers. And that voice! Could anyone else have sung the voice of God in Roots and Promises? The annual cantatas with orchestra have become a beloved tradition among us. Seeing and hearing Steve’s great pleasure in getting the most out of his singers and musicians communicates joy to all of us. We will miss his humor, his spiritual insights and his collegiality. 
 
Though social distancing limits our options, we can still heartily celebrate Steve on Sunday, June 21 at the 11 am service. We all want to express our appreciation for this fine Christian man, musician and vocalist. 
 

You Are My Tribe; My Ministry

I am fairly certain I had never uttered the phrase “social distancing” before all of this began. I was just starting to get to know you. Then we were literally forbidden to visit with one another. As we pivoted to livestream worship, I found myself peering into the camera each Sunday with such a desire to connect to you that it probably sometimes looked like fidgety energy. I know you are accustomed to seeing me less animated and more subdued. (Ha!) 
 
The realities of a global pandemic were not on my calendar as I anticipated my first Lent and Easter season with you here at First Presbyterian. Despite having been warned about the donkey, I was anticipating the grandeur and celebration of Palm Sunday. I wanted to experience Maundy Thursday with its darkness and striking visuals. I wanted to see who wore fancy hats for Easter Sunday. Gerrit would say, “He is risen!” and we would say, “He is risen indeed!” 
 
The realities of the Lenten and Easter seasons were a different and strange story. Yet even in all this strangeness and interruption, something wonderful has come into clear focus for me. 
 
I believe that our God, in his gracious sovereignty, has brought me here. I needed you. You are my tribe. My people. It is hard to fully explain. My time in ministry here has not been long. There is surely much we will learn and walk through with one another in the coming years. But my dear brothers and sisters, you have my heart. It is my deep honor to serve you. There is a satisfying ‘click’ in my spirit. It is the click of a good, solid fit. 
 
We have returned now to gathered worship in our beautiful Sanctuary. While it is not the grand and massive reunion I imagined, seeing your masked faces brings me joy. Thank you! Thank you for welcoming me into this wonderful faith family. Thank you for entrusting me to lead you in giving glory to our most worthy Lord. Thank you for joining your voices with mine to sing the deep truths of the faith.
 

Deeper in Christ, Further into God's Economy

When Gerrit joined us as Senior Pastor 16 years ago, he said that his goal was to take us “deeper in Christ and further into the world.” Since then the average pledge (or estimate of giving) has increased $4,052!!! How can that be? Martin Luther said that three conversions must take place if one is to truly have an intimate relationship with Christ: a conversion of the head, the heart and the purse.
 
Going deeper in Christ changes us. It makes us generous. It makes us generous with our time, our affections, our love and, yes, our money. 
 
From my vantage point as one of only two on our staff who handle receipts, I am privileged to see first-hand what has happened over the years. And it is remarkable. 
 
The first year I was on board one year after Gerrit arrived, Katrina paid us a visit. Our purses opened wide to assist those devastated by this calamity. Then came Gustav and we lived out the principal of “blessed to be a blessing.” The Floods of 2016 presented another opportunity. Gerrit and I were honored to distribute your “gifts” to 27 church families in the amount of $10,000 each! And now, COVID-19.
 
Your Session approved an initiative called Neighbors Helping Neighbors, during the month of May. The goal was to give the Baton Rouge Food Bank and the Downtown Outreach Center $10,000 each. Any gifts received over and above that would go into our Helping Hands Fund from which we would provide direct financial assistance to members needing help. We reached that milestone of $20,000 early in May. And as promised we have cut checks to the Food Bank and Outreach Center. As of this writing (May 26), gifts are over $57,000. The Helping Hands fund balance is over $37,000 and we’ve begun receiving requests.
 
On top of all of that and in the face of economic and financial uncertainty, your tithes and offerings to your church exceed the budget through the first four months of the year.
 
Deeper in Christ? Yes, Deeper in Christ! You demonstrate everyday a generosity that could only come through life change; life change brought on by and through Christ in you. The Triune God of the universe bought you at an inestimable price. You’ve come to know what it is to participate in his economy. You’ve come to acknowledge that everything is his; that our role is to be good stewards of all that he has given us and to look on the needs of others with compassion and generosity.
 
From where I sit, I get to see glorious giving by the members of First Presbyterian Church of Baton Rouge. What a view it is! What a privilege to see. What an honor to be a part of it all. 
 
PS: If you’ll put Neighbor’s Fund in the memo line of your check, we will still accept your gifts to help out our members in need even though May is in the rear view mirror. 
 

The Proper Perspective In the Midst of Life’s Problems

Sometimes it’s difficult to realize that God is in control even when things seem to be out of control or at least beyond our control. Psalm 46 offers us the proper perspective in the midst of life’s problems that can lead to our peace. After reading Psalm 46, please consider these thoughts that I pray will keep you in his peace.
 
We can keep a proper perspective by looking for, reflecting upon and remembering four things about God that would lead to having peace in Christ.
 
First, God’s presence (vv. 1-3) is within, above and beyond the troubles we face. 
 
Second, God’s power (vv. 4-6) is doing what we alone cannot do. 
 
Third, God’s purpose (vv. 8-10) in tearing down any human kingdom to build up a holy kingdom, being known to his people that they may make him known to others. This cannot happen if we are not still, outwardly and inwardly.
 
Fourth, God’s promise (vv. 7 & 11) to never leave you nor forsake you because he loves you. 
 

Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you . . . Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid (John 14: 27).”

 

We’re Rolling! Gathered Worship: Safe and Soaring!

Last Sunday, we gathered for worship and worked through the newness of masks and social distancing. The joy was palpable from singing and praying in the same room. It was great to be back.

So join us! No need to sign up. Just come for 9 am Contemporary and 11 am Classic Reformed.

As of now, there is no gathered Sunday school or nursery, but we will let you know as soon as this is figured out. For the foreseeable future, we will continue to follow guidelines regarding wearing masks, using the North Blvd entrance, and sitting in designated distancing areas by household groups.

God's Unbreakable Covenants

What is a covenant and what does it represent? How do the covenants of the Old Testament apply to us today?
 
God’s covenants form the backbone of the Bible’s metanarrative.  They are the unifying thread of God’s saving action through Scripture, beginning with Creation and reaching fulfillment in the New Covenant confirmed through the blood of Jesus Christ. How remarkable that our great God desired so deeply to enter into relationship with his people that he stooped down to establish an everlasting, unbreakable covenant with us!
 
This summer we will journey through the five major covenants of the Old Testament: Creation, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and King David… and we will point each of these to the New Covenant in Christ, when our Lord Jesus perfectly fulfilled them, sealing our relationship with God eternally. 
 
Join us as we trace the significance of God’s covenants in our redemptive history, as we witness a covenant-making God create a people for Himself from which the Savior of the whole world would come. 
 
Our study meets each Wednesday in July from 6.30 to 8 pm. You can participate in our study one of two ways: in person or online. Our in-house gathering will be in Dunham Chapel which can accommodate a good number of us even with social distancing. No registration needed; just show up at 6.30 pm. For those who participate from home, join us on the livestream on either YouTube or Facebook. Handy links to each are below. 
 
While we are unable to offer a nursery at this time, Jaime Carnaggio is happy to help arrange childcare if required. 
 
 
Posted in: Women's Ministry

Two Wonderful and Weird Services

Wonderful because we can be together in our Sanctuary.

Weird because we have to wear masks and continue with those annoying social distancing practices.

Service times have changed to 9 am and 11 am.

For those worshiping in the Sanctuary, plan to arrive early and use the North Boulevard entrance. We're asking everyone to please wear a mask.

Both services will continue to be livestreamed.

There will be no Sunday school or nursery provided.