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First Thoughts Blog

A Season of Change

For so many reasons, I’m thankful it’s autumn. The summer of 2016 pressed and flushed over our city. Tragic shootings. Historic flooding. Relentless heat. We long for a change. Maybe, just maybe, as you read this a breath of cooler air has revived your spirits. But more, people of all races, classes and accents have joined hands across the ruined homes to work together in rebuilding our city. We have declined the definition of our city that outside groups want to give us. We are determined to be more. And it’s very clear that God is at work among us.
 
Some fifty members of Abounding Love Ministries joined us for worship for five weeks. The energy and the love were palpable. For the first time in 190 years a black woman preached the Word strongly from our pulpit. For the first time I know of, an African American pastor broke the bread and poured the wine before we partook together in communion. The tears we shed as this season came to an end were heartfelt. I believe these relationships are a Spirit “foothold” for the churches of Baton Rouge to cling together when racial tensions threaten the shalom of our city.  We have so much yet to do, but there is a real basis now for moving forward.
 
The connectional nature of being Presbyterian has also been stunning. Dozens of fellow EPC churches and members have sent relief funds, teams and supplies to us. The trust built up through our connections in shared worship, meeting, prayer and mission have meant that we are not alone in this work. The national leadership of the EPC remembered us abundantly.
 
Meanwhile, the work of the church has continued to surge forward. Mission teams have visited Romania, Lebanon and Russia this summer. More than 30 small groups have begun meeting this fall. A significant parenting conference was held.  The children’s Sunday school overflows. The fellowship and joy of our worship has never been sweeter. 
 
Yet a reality in a vibrant ministry is that we not only attract great members and staff: we send them off to new ventures with our love. In the history of our church, we have nurtured two kinds of associate pastors: 1) those who stay with us for many years and become foundational to our mission, such as Whitney Alexander and Dick Gates, and 2) those who launch out to lead elsewhere, such as Case, Alec and now Derek. We will miss our dashing, musical, Longhorn-loving colleague, but we know his church planting work will be fruitful for the kingdom.
 
The seasons change and ministry is always dynamic, but a what a joy that we get to do this together!
 
Caring to Love Banquet
 
Kristan Hawkins will be this year’s featured speaker November 10 at the CTL banquet and November 11 at a leadership breakfast at our church. Kristan is founder and president of Students for Life, now on over 1,000 campuses. The millennial generation is pressing the sacredness of life and the stark reality of the abortion industry with a boldness not seen before. These students are willing to tell the truth frankly and winsomely to their peers. Kristan is a loving, daring pioneer in leading the next generation to change our culture. Watch the bulletin for more info.
 

A Season of Change

For so many reasons, I’m thankful it’s autumn. The summer of 2016 pressed and flushed over our city. Tragic shootings. Historic flooding. Relentless heat. We long for a change. Maybe, just maybe, as you read this a breath of cooler air has revived your spirits. But more, people of all races, classes and accents have joined hands across the ruined homes to work together in rebuilding our city. We have declined the definition of our city that outside groups want to give us. We are determined to be more. And it’s very clear that God is at work among us.
 
Some fifty members of Abounding Love Ministries joined us for worship for five weeks. The energy and the love were palpable. For the first time in 190 years a black woman preached the Word strongly from our pulpit. For the first time I know of, an African American pastor broke the bread and poured the wine before we partook together in communion. The tears we shed as this season came to an end were heartfelt. I believe these relationships are a Spirit “foothold” for the churches of Baton Rouge to cling together when racial tensions threaten the shalom of our city.  We have so much yet to do, but there is a real basis now for moving forward.
 
The connectional nature of being Presbyterian has also been stunning. Dozens of fellow EPC churches and members have sent relief funds, teams and supplies to us. The trust built up through our connections in shared worship, meeting, prayer and mission have meant that we are not alone in this work. The national leadership of the EPC remembered us abundantly.
 
Meanwhile, the work of the church has continued to surge forward. Mission teams have visited Romania, Lebanon and Russia this summer. More than 30 small groups have begun meeting this fall. A significant parenting conference was held.  The children’s Sunday school overflows. The fellowship and joy of our worship has never been sweeter. 
 
Yet a reality in a vibrant ministry is that we not only attract great members and staff: we send them off to new ventures with our love. In the history of our church, we have nurtured two kinds of associate pastors: 1) those who stay with us for many years and become foundational to our mission, such as Whitney Alexander and Dick Gates, and 2) those who launch out to lead elsewhere, such as Case, Alec and now Derek. We will miss our dashing, musical, Longhorn-loving colleague, but we know his church planting work will be fruitful for the kingdom.
 
The seasons change and ministry is always dynamic, but a what a joy that we get to do this together!
 
Caring to Love Banquet
 
Kristan Hawkins will be this year’s featured speaker November 10 at the CTL banquet and November 11 at a leadership breakfast at our church. Kristan is founder and president of Students for Life, now on over 1,000 campuses. The millennial generation is pressing the sacredness of life and the stark reality of the abortion industry with a boldness not seen before. These students are willing to tell the truth frankly and winsomely to their peers. Kristan is a loving, daring pioneer in leading the next generation to change our culture. Watch the bulletin for more info.
 

Medical Mission Trip to Lebanon

Don Elliot (FPC Corinth, MS) and I have been to Lebanon three times in the past 18 months. Each trip builds on the previous with the 2016 medical mission trip being no exception. It was most encouraging to see the Lord working through the efforts and prayers of this year's team of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, organizers and prayer warriors. The Lord is doing amazing things in the Middle East right now and we were privileged to be a small part of it. 
 
Engage 2025 is a small part of what God is doing in the Middle East right now. Engage 2025 is a committment of the EPC -  the Gulf South Presbytery and Central South Presbytery  in particular - to reach the Muslim refugees in Lebanon and beyond: maybe into Syria one day as well. Reflecting on how the Lord worked before, during and after the trip fills me with thanksgiving.
 
Before the Trip
 
The commitment of Rebecca and Nour (FPC mission partners living in Lebanon) is remarkable (last name purposely omitted). Humanly speaking, the trip could not have happened without their preparation, faithfulness and oversight. They are gracefully responding to their call as leaders of the first ever Engage 2025 Field Team. 
 
Putting together the team was a major prayer focus. We saw the Lord do new things as many team members were called from beyond the Central South and Gulf South Presbyteries.
 
The fundraising again was remarkable. Approximately $22,000 was donated by churches and individuals in CSP and GSP. God provided for us through his people.
 
During the Trip
 
The evening team meetings were great times of worship, sharing, prayer and preparation for the next day of clinicals. It was obvious the team members made the effort to come together. 
 
It was obvious that God was at work. The doctors were all remarkable and humble in their practice.
 
The Resurrection Church outreach on Thursday became the Lord's surprise of the week for the team. The Egyptian translators, the staff and the neighborhood were all encouraging gifts to us. We learned that the Resurrection Church is a vibrant church that the Lord is using to reach many refugees with the gospel.
 
The Philemon Project was the most distinctive clinic of the week. The project is a Christian day care ministry to children of refugees, migrants and poor Lebanese. Its 75 preschool students gave the team a change of pace, sitting on the floor and loving on the children. 
 
After the Trip
 
Amanda and Nick (last name purposely omitted) with their children, will be joining Rebecca and Nour to be the initial field team in the Engage 2025 vision. Their mission will be working with Syrian refugees in discipleship and church planting. 
 
Will there be another trip in 2017? Pray about this. We are committed to work closely with these families. 

Why I Love (And Will Miss) First Presbyterian Church

A few weeks ago, Joy and I announced that we will be moving. The Lord has called me to plant a church in New Braunfels, TX, and we are excited to follow his lead. If you’d like to hear more about it, I’d love to talk with you. 
 
But here’s what I really want to talk about—you! Over the last 3 and a half years, you have encouraged my family and me with your love, hospitality and faith. There are so many things we are going to miss about you, but I’d like to name just a few:
 
• You hunger for God’s Word. Psalm 119: 33-35 says, “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.” I have found this to be true of the FPC community. You are a congregation that truly loves God’s Word and desires to be led in the path of his commandments. 
 
• You love one another well. Not only do the folks at First Presbyterian love the Bible, but you love each other too. You want to get together, eat together, visit together and serve one another. What a wonderful quality this is! Jesus says in John 15, “love one another as I have loved you.” It is evident that the people of FPC have taken this command to heart. 
 
• You are joyful. This is a church full of smiles. The greetings are warm and the interactions heartfelt. And it is a joy that is contagious! The Apostle Paul begins his list of the Spirit’s fruit with… “Joy!” What a joyful, fruitful congregation this is!
 
• You are generous. I have been both witness to and recipient of your great generosity. Hands are open with time, money and resources. And it is a generosity that comes from the heart rather than out of compulsion. The Bible says that God loves a cheerful giver—I love this about you too!
 
• Jesus is the foundation of all you do. More than anything, I love the fact that your study, love, joy and generosity all flow from a response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ—it is his love for you that is the foundation for your actions in return. 
 
We will miss you when we are gone. But I hope we will take some of what we love with us. I know we’ll leave here better than we came, and for that I am very thankful. 
 
With love,
Derek

That I May Know Him

“I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” 3 John 1: 14
 
May this be the goal of our hearts, that we may know him. It is good to know about our Triune God, but what I am addressing here is that we may know him personally. Our prayer for my own children and yours is that they run to Jesus before all things. We pray that each and every child will have a personal relationship with their Lord Jesus Christ so that they may seek to know him and to trust him. We are made in the image of God and created for a deep relationship with him. God wants us to be in two-way communication with him and to seek him daily and we want that for our children. We must understand though that we cannot change the hearts of our children or others for that matter. Only God can change hearts. He alone can save. 
 
We must also ask God to work in our own hearts and strive to put God first, before all things. Let your children see that you are making every effort to make your relationship with God your top priority and the center of your life. Show children you actually can stop in the midst of busyness to pray. Let them hear you say, “Please give me a few minutes. I need to spend time with God.” Model the behavior we are asking of our children and share the desire you have to seek God first, alongside of them. 
 
So how do we actually do this and where do we start? Begin with prayer. Pray fervently and remember these four words…God is in control. He is sovereign and nothing frustrates his divine plan. Our Father in heaven loves you and forgives you when you end up feeling frustrated or defeated. Extend this grace to yourself given to you by the blood on the cross. 
 
Second, in order for children to know God, children must also learn about the fear of the Lord. This can seem like a hard truth to teach children but there are encouraging ways to handle it. In order to teach children that they are both a friend of God and are to have a healthy fear of the Lord, we are to teach them a correct and balanced view of God. Let’s start by looking at the immanence and transcendence of God. God is both a personal God that dwells within us (Immanence of God) and a sovereign God who is distinct above all things (Transcendence of God). God lives within us through our Lord and Savior Christ Jesus and he is the Great I Am. Peter says in Ephesians 4: 6 “One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Ed Welch handles this topic beautifully as he writes, “The fact that God sees every aspect of our lives may, at first, leave us afraid and eager to hide from God rather than in awe, wanting to embrace Him. But the fear of the Lord makes us aware both of God’s holy purity and hatred of sin and His holy patience and forgiveness.  When we remember both, we have no reason to run in fear, especially since there is no place to run beyond the gaze of God. Instead as we look at the Lord we see that He invites, cleanses and empowers us to grow in holiness.”
 
Third, read the Bible with your children. There are plenty of ways to read God’s word with our children. Expose your toddlers and preschoolers to the Bible by giving them a children’s storybook Bible so they can play with it and look at its beautiful pictures. Allow your elementary students, tweens and teens to read to you and with you. Read the Bible in carpool, before or after dinner, before bed, in the morning or at breakfast. There is no master formula. Just open the Bible and spend 10-15 minutes in God’s Word with your children. Though remember, we are not perfect. We will fail but this is not about being perfect and doing everything right. This is about knowing God and putting him first. Only Jesus is perfect. We are not and neither are our children. That is hard truth but truth indeed.  
 
Lastly, obey him. Let us make ourselves known to God by being obedient and transparent. Teach your kids to not only obey you but to obey God. Tell your children that when we obey him we become more like him. This is a free gift that we receive through our Lord Jesus Christ. Confess not only to God but also to your children that you are a sinner, saved by grace and by no means perfect. 
 
We have a very important mission on our hands. God has entrusted his children to us so that we may ‘train them in the way they should go’ (Proverbs 22: 6). We must equip our children with the truth of the Gospel and use every opportunity to point them to our Savior so that we may prepare them for their own personal walk with the Lord. 
 
There are three ways we can deepen our relationship with the Lord: 
 
1) Spend time in God’s word
2) Devote yourselves to prayer
3) Mediate on his truths daily
 
We all know the world is broken, but take heart God has overcome the world. We have many questions about how to raise our kids in today’s world but we can have hope and courage because Jesus is the answer. Through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ we can allow ourselves to listen for him when he is knocking on the door of our hearts. May we incline our hearts to the truth and together, stand firm in God’s grace to us in Christ, even in a world of suffering. Remember the rainbow. The glory of the Lord will be revealed through his covenant promises.
 
 
 
 
 

Re-Naming Baton Rouge

In the summer of 2016, dramatic events threatened to define us. Looking at the pictures, people wanted to call us names. The grainy video showed a struggling Alton Sterling suddenly shot after someone called out, “Gun.” Many wanted to name our city Racist. The image of a face-off between armed protesters and armor-suited police on Airline Highway on a hot July night made some want to name us Fascists. The brutal gunning down of police officers on a quiet Sunday morning made others want to call us City of Anarchy! The videos of flooded streets and water devoured homes evoked a name like Disaster Zone. If you just look at the pictures, you could simply conclude that Baton Rouge is a first rate Mess.
 
Those names, of course, miss the reality.  Those assessments fail to see what is rising in our city even as flood waters are subsiding. There is a fierce determination to help one another. A resiliency that rests on hope that we will not let each other go. The clasping of hands that are black, white, brown and every shade in between as we lift each other up. We express open gratitude to God and an unashamed calling upon him to help us. We are not a community of atheists or isolationists or racists. The deep Christian roots of our city still send forth sheltering branches full of green leaves: these are people who give their lives to help other people even as they know the joy of acknowledging a Creator who made them and a God to whom they are going.
 
But even more, the citizens who actively know they belong to Jesus have found a near boundless energy to give their lives in service to people in need. The Church loves the city where God has placed us.  Do you not feel it? As you drive through our streets, you realize you love this town more, not less, in its distress. You feel more pride to be here than ever before.  You want to restore streets and recreate dwellings. You want to get along. You have zero tolerance for looters, outside agitators and poachers. But you feel the arms of your heart stretch wide to all the rest of the crazy, quirky, zesty, good-humored people you find here. You want everyone to share in what an old word describes as the commonwealth. 
 
So, yes, I think the summer of 2016 is a time for re-naming Baton Rouge. We will never be the same. But the first name I’d like to propose to define comes from a promise of God to his people in Isaiah 62:  You shall be called A City Not Forsaken.  The thousands of people pouring into our city to help us confirm what we citizens have discovered in the summer of 2016:  we are not forsaken. The Lord is with us. Great things are ahead.
 
With such pride in your dedication to the work of Christ in the city, more than ever, I love to be your pastor.
 
Gardere School Banquet
 
The Gardere Community Christian School is one of our highest priority city ministries. So we are pleased to let you know of their fundraising banquet Tuesday, September 27 at 6.30 pm at the Renaissance Baton Rouge Hotel. This will be an inspiring evening of testimony and vision. Gerrit is hosting a table for FPC members. You can join him or host your own table of guests. Contact jaci@fpcbr.org.

Can You Unleash the Power of 55?

What can happen by making 55 our goal?  What will God do through people whose passion is 55?
 
And what in the world am I talking about?
 
I’m talking about 8.55 and 10.55. I’m talking about church members who commit to arriving inside the sanctuary at least five minutes before the scheduled start. I believe it will transform our worship experience!
 
55 makes a much bigger difference than most of us ever realize.  
 
Why does 55 matter? I’ll give you three reasons:
 
1) Critical mass. If you’ve hosted a party, you know how grateful you are for the people who come early and get the festive atmosphere started. By contrast, have you ever gone to a party on time and found almost no one there? You wonder if you are in the right place. You worry that this event will be a dud. But if you arrive to laughter and conversation, you know it’s going to be great. If you’re a church member, you’re no longer a guest: you’re a host!  And good hosts love to get the party started!
 
2) Engaging Worship. All this past June, we talked about the journey of worship. We noted how the worship hour is an interconnected, carefully planned structure.  Our engagement with God magnifies when we engage worship as people prepared, present and focused. If we arrive at 55, our very experience of worship will change: I guarantee it! 
 
3) Visitors. Visitors to our church usually arrive early. They don’t want to miss the start of things. A critical part of a welcoming atmosphere is having people greet them upon arrival. Not just at the door but in the sanctuary.  Just by living out 55, and keeping an eye open for new folks, each one of us can grow our church.
 
There’s power in 55. You and I can change our church for the better by committing to 55.  In a few short weeks, readjusting our habits to arrive at 55 will become normal. And we will be contributing to the health and vitality of worship significantly. 
 
I’m looking forward to a wonderful autumn of worship with you. We will be taking up the golden chapters of John 13-17, the story of Jesus’ final night, uniquely told by the apostle John. My passion is to be with you in worship as we press deeper into Christ. And as ever, I love to be your pastor!
 
The Next Generation of Leadership
 
At a recent meeting, the session granted nearly $60,000 in scholarships for six students to pursue seminary degrees. These six represent future ministers, counselors and missionaries. They all have close ties to our church. A vibrant church ignites hearts for full time ministry, and it’s wonderful to see so many rising leaders.
 
Our church supports our denomination’s vision to grow the Kingdom of God through planting churches. We know that to plant churches, we have to specifically train pastors for this unique work. So, with great joy, the session awarded the first-ever Russ Stevenson Scholarship for EPC Church Planting Residency. The Rev. Will Johnson will be moving with his wife to Atlanta to begin training to plant a multi-ethnic EPC church. Supervised by two seasoned EPC pastors, our $10,000 grant will help Will get started. Will is part of a growing trend of church planters who also work “regular” jobs to support their ministry. He will be working in web development as he also works in a church. 
 
We believe in supporting new leaders whom God raises up. It’s exciting to see the vibrancy of those who will lead in the future.
 
 

Our Warrior Wants Strong Arrows

We had a fun-filled summer at MDO. This was our first year to offer summer camps to our MDO families. Children enjoyed week long camp sessions exploring Commotion in the Ocean, Bugs and Insects and then some Fairy Tale Fun. What a blast we had! 
 
We are now “gearing up” for another MDO school year. We will welcome 20 new families to our program with a total of 76 families that our MDO program will minister to this year. As we seek to educate the little hearts and minds of our children, I often think on this verse: 
 
“As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth.” Psalm 127: 4.
 
What seeds will we at MDO help to plant in the lives of our children? What impact will we have not only in our childrens’ lives but their family’s too?  
 
Children are like arrows and as a mighty warrior wants strong arrows, we too want to help develop strong, well-rounded children. Children that know God’s great love for them and know our Lord and Savior. Children who are learning God’s truth and word. Children who while exploring the world around them and interacting with friends and teachers at MDO are learning Godly values. Our children are at such a young, impressionable time in their lives. As we are preparing to “shoot and send” them on their next journey in life and into our world outside of church and MDO, we want to make sure to point them in the right direction.
 
We truly consider it a privilege to partner with parents to train-up our little ones. What a blessing it is to have parents share:
 
“MDO has become a second home and family for our little girl, and we couldn’t be more pleased. We have watched her grow and change in such beautiful ways while in your care.”  
 
“MDO has been such a rock and a constant for our family. You have overwhelmed me and blessed our family. Thank you for loving my kids and my family.”
 
 

Taking Care of Business

Our campus and facilities were provided through God’s benevolence and by the generosity and sacrificial giving of our members. They provide a place from which we do mission and ministry far beyond downtown Baton Rouge. Inevitably, they require not only tender love and care, but also renovation and restoration. God has provided for this as well. So that you know:
 
• After careful professional analysis, a much needed campus wide waterproofing project has begun. It includes the replacement of the windows in the Education Building. And it will repair damage that has occurred over many years, prevent future deterioration and stop invasive moisture from seeping in to begin new damage. 
 
• Our Bell Tower will benefit from a new control and sound system, giving us a purer sound and greater flexibility with songs and tunes. 
 
• Our Dunham Chapel will be up-fitted with new lights for the chancel and primary space, improvements to the sound and lighting control system and tailored pew cushions.
 
• You may have noticed the stained glass windows on the east and west sides of the Sanctuary are ‘missing.’ They’ve been taken out for refurbishment and cleaning but will return by the end of July.
 
• The screens and projectors in our Sanctuary will be replaced over the next few months. Existing equipment is aging and failing. Look for a ‘new look’ up front when this project is complete.
 
• The grassy area between the Sanctuary and the Chapel will become more usable as it is upgraded to match our terrace garden north of the Chapel. The turf affords an outdoor platform for creative programming throughout the year (even when it rains).
 
Finally, we’ve begun exploring a campus wide wireless communication system that will enable our greeting and ministry teams, staff and pastors and all security personnel to communicate in real time. Coupled with additions to our security and emergency response plans, this will provide our members and guests with greater protections and security for emergencies of all kinds.
 
All of this we hope to complete this year; and all of this because God has already provided the resources in the form of special funds, pledges and bequests. May we never take these many blessings for granted. May we be faithful in all things. May God be glorified in all that we have and all that we do.

Taking Care of Business

Our campus and facilities were provided through God’s benevolence and by the generosity and sacrificial giving of our members. They provide a place from which we do mission and ministry far beyond downtown Baton Rouge. Inevitably, they require not only tender love and care, but also renovation and restoration. God has provided for this as well. So that you know:
 
• After careful professional analysis, a much needed campus wide waterproofing project has begun. It includes the replacement of the windows in the Education Building. And it will repair damage that has occurred over many years, prevent future deterioration and stop invasive moisture from seeping in to begin new damage. 
 
• Our Bell Tower will benefit from a new control and sound system, giving us a purer sound and greater flexibility with songs and tunes. 
 
• Our Dunham Chapel will be up-fitted with new lights for the chancel and primary space, improvements to the sound and lighting control system and tailored pew cushions.
 
• You may have noticed the stained glass windows on the east and west sides of the Sanctuary are ‘missing.’ They’ve been taken out for refurbishment and cleaning but will return by the end of July.
 
• The screens and projectors in our Sanctuary will be replaced over the next few months. Existing equipment is aging and failing. Look for a ‘new look’ up front when this project is complete.
 
• The grassy area between the Sanctuary and the Chapel will become more usable as it is upgraded to match our terrace garden north of the Chapel. The turf affords an outdoor platform for creative programming throughout the year (even when it rains).
 
Finally, we’ve begun exploring a campus wide wireless communication system that will enable our greeting and ministry teams, staff and pastors and all security personnel to communicate in real time. Coupled with additions to our security and emergency response plans, this will provide our members and guests with greater protections and security for emergencies of all kinds.
 
All of this we hope to complete this year; and all of this because God has already provided the resources in the form of special funds, pledges and bequests. May we never take these many blessings for granted. May we be faithful in all things. May God be glorified in all that we have and all that we do.

What's the Big Deal About Small Groups?

Let’s face it—these days it's easy to put together a really wonderful worship experience in the comfort of your own home or car. You can download the best music, find the best preaching and tailor everything to your most particular desire. But guess what? Finding the best of everything on your own is the worst way to go about the Christian life. Why? Because we need each other in order to grow as Christians. As one author puts it, “your walk with God is a community project.”
 
It’s because the Lord has built into us a need for community that First Presbyterian is making a strong push this fall for greater involvement in small groups. In particular, we are re-launching our home fellowship groups (remember the groups from Lent?). These groups are a great opportunity to get together with others and experience the truth of the gospel together. 
 
Let me give you a quick glimpse of how things are going to roll out in the early fall (we’re planning for these groups to begin right after Labor Day). 
 
• Groups are already starting to organize. In fact, this is a great time for you to start discussing the idea of a small group with your friends and neighbors. Been in a group before? Talk to those group members. New to the small-group-thing? Start talking to those you know about getting together. It’s really that easy. 
 
• Then, as August ramps up, we’ll host two major small group events—we’re calling them Meet and Match events (m&ms!)—and they will take place in the reception room during the Sunday mornings of August 21 and 28. These events will simply let you find a group based on the criteria that matters most to you. All of our groups will be represented, allowing those unattached to mingle, meet and match up with those that represent the best fit. It’s like speed dating for small groups!
 
• The majority of our groups will then get together weekly (between Labor Day and Thanksgiving) and study the Bible passage that was preached on the previous week. With the content already delivered and discussion questions provided, we think getting together will be both easy and flexible.
 
Our goal is to have 500 people connected in a small group. That’s an ambitious goal, but I think it’s doable. Will you consider being one of those people? I hope so. 
 
July Combined Worship and Sunday School
 
During the five Sundays of July, First Presbyterian will come together for one single 10.30 am worship in the Sanctuary. We’ll have three adult Sunday School options. Each begins at 9.30 am with combined worship following at 10.30 in the Sanctuary (No SS on July 3):
 
1. Christianity Explored. A good class if you…a. Aren’t sure what you believe or are new to church and/or to Christianity. b. Have a friend who fits into that first category. This is a great class to bring a friend. c. Have been a Christian for quite some time. It’s easy to forget what it is like to hear the Gospel for the first time. Come and hear it afresh and be reminded of the core message of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
 
2. “Side by Side.” This class will explore deeper the book, “Side By Side,” that was given out a few weeks ago. Come and discuss what it means to be needy and to be needed—the roots of true community. Call the church office (387.0617) if you need a copy of the book.
 
3. Global Outreach. Let MacGregor Magruder and Whitney Alexander walk you through the materials Mac uses on the mission field and learn more about God’s mission in the world. We encourage you to invite a friend for these blended services.
 

What's the Big Deal About Small Groups?

Let’s face it—these days it's easy to put together a really wonderful worship experience in the comfort of your own home or car. You can download the best music, find the best preaching and tailor everything to your most particular desire. But guess what? Finding the best of everything on your own is the worst way to go about the Christian life. Why? Because we need each other in order to grow as Christians. As one author puts it, “your walk with God is a community project.”
 
It’s because the Lord has built into us a need for community that First Presbyterian is making a strong push this fall for greater involvement in small groups. In particular, we are re-launching our home fellowship groups (remember the groups from Lent?). These groups are a great opportunity to get together with others and experience the truth of the gospel together. 
 
Let me give you a quick glimpse of how things are going to roll out in the early fall (we’re planning for these groups to begin right after Labor Day). 
 
• Groups are already starting to organize. In fact, this is a great time for you to start discussing the idea of a small group with your friends and neighbors. Been in a group before? Talk to those group members. New to the small-group-thing? Start talking to those you know about getting together. It’s really that easy. 
 
• Then, as August ramps up, we’ll host two major small group events—we’re calling them Meet and Match events (m&ms!)—and they will take place in the reception room during the Sunday mornings of August 21 and 28. These events will simply let you find a group based on the criteria that matters most to you. All of our groups will be represented, allowing those unattached to mingle, meet and match up with those that represent the best fit. It’s like speed dating for small groups!
 
• The majority of our groups will then get together weekly (between Labor Day and Thanksgiving) and study the Bible passage that was preached on the previous week. With the content already delivered and discussion questions provided, we think getting together will be both easy and flexible.
 
Our goal is to have 500 people connected in a small group. That’s an ambitious goal, but I think it’s doable. Will you consider being one of those people? I hope so. 
 
July Combined Worship and Sunday School
 
During the five Sundays of July, First Presbyterian will come together for one single 10.30 am worship in the Sanctuary. We’ll have three adult Sunday School options. Each begins at 9.30 am with combined worship following at 10.30 in the Sanctuary (No SS on July 3):
 
1. Christianity Explored. A good class if you…a. Aren’t sure what you believe or are new to church and/or to Christianity. b. Have a friend who fits into that first category. This is a great class to bring a friend. c. Have been a Christian for quite some time. It’s easy to forget what it is like to hear the Gospel for the first time. Come and hear it afresh and be reminded of the core message of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
 
2. “Side by Side.” This class will explore deeper the book, “Side By Side,” that was given out a few weeks ago. Come and discuss what it means to be needy and to be needed—the roots of true community. Call the church office (387.0617) if you need a copy of the book.
 
3. Global Outreach. Let MacGregor Magruder and Whitney Alexander walk you through the materials Mac uses on the mission field and learn more about God’s mission in the world. We encourage you to invite a friend for these blended services.
 

The Deepest Realities of Worship

Our elders have just finished a major review of worship at our beloved church. A special taskforce made of six elders and six deacons worked from the ground up to bring the session a report that, among other things, identified 11 primary worship values in our church. I’d like to share the first five with you this month. As you read, consider just how extraordinary an hour of gathered worship actually is. There’s so much going on that it actually dazzles the mind to think of how important Sundays are.
 
1) Exalt through the reading and preaching of Scripture Jesus Christ as Lord of the universe and Savior of the world.
 
2) Extol through prayer, song and message the glories of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and his mighty redemptive acts in history. 
 
3) Enact Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as evangelical sacraments meant to seal and nourish union with Christ. Celebrate the Supper at least monthly, with clear explanation and in continuity with the major components of historic liturgies of the Western church. These include a) welcoming to the table, b) present remembering of Jesus’ person and work, c) thanking the Triune God for his great deeds of salvation, d) asking for the Spirit to make the sacrament effective, e) instituting the Supper properly in word and act and f) offering Christ to the people through their partaking of the supper.
 
4) Express this worship through musical styles that are consistent with our Reformed heritage yet fresh in expression, are Scripturally-saturated and lyrically rich in Christ-content, arise from our unique personality as a congregation and evoke robust participation from worshipers.
 
5) Enfold the congregation into the communion of saints, that is the awareness that we are connected to the people of God in all times and places who have professed Jesus and are his one body.
 
In short, every time we gather for worship, we seek to become aware of the deepest realities. To know that the center of all things is the Triune God who has come to us in Jesus Christ. And we are connected to him by his Spirit, along with all those believers who have gone before us.  We have been gifted with specific ways to encounter our God: Word, Song and Sacrament in a fellowship of faith. This week, stop and think just how different Sunday worship is from anything else you do, ever. When I think of what we get to do together each week, it’s no wonder I love to be your pastor!
 

One Church, One Worship This July

 
The Sundays of July we will gather at 10.30 for worship. Each week we will take the journey of worship together, but every service will have a slightly different accent musically. These services will be a blend of each of our services, wrapping us all with the joy of partaking of the Lord’s Table as one body with one faith. We have some special preaching treats, too. On July 3, our dear pastor emeritus Russ Stevenson will be preaching. And on July 17, our dynamic young church planter Ben Cunningham will be back. Oh, and Derek and I will be leading and preaching in July as well. 
 
Sunday school for all ages will begin at 9.30 am in July, with three special tracks for adult education, including Christianity Explored, a global outreach course with MacGregor, and a course about community, following our Summer reading, “Side by Side.”
 

Further into the World, Further into the Future

 
Our church is blessed to have an endowment of funds set aside to enable us to do ministry and mission over and above our yearly work. The church Foundation manages these funds and then makes available to the elders a yearly distribution of income.    
 
 
Recently, the session approved some amazing grants to help create the leadership of the next generation, to further the planting of new churches and revitalization of an existing church. More than $62,000 was granted to new and continuing seminary students who all have an intimate connection with our church: Rebecca Botros, Jeremy Brokaw, Cheryl Brodnax, Mary-Emeline Dawson, Darin Travis and Josh Woltmann. (Speaking of Josh, he returns June 1 as our summer pastoral intern!). We made a grant to EPC pastor Will Johnson who will mentor in church planting as he works in Atlanta in a multi-ethnic community, and we made a grant to our granddaughter church River South for renovations of their worship space. And we approved Women in Ministry college grants. I love that we do not use our endowment income to “feather our own nest.” Rather, we reach outward to take Christ and his gospel far into the world and the future.

The Chancel Choir and Psalm 42

Almost every Wednesday night a group of faithful individuals gather around 7 pm in the choir room on the second floor of the Sanctuary building. They range in age from 16 to 80. They come with a singular purpose in mind and that is to pray with words, music, body, heart and soul. 
 
The evening evolves in fellowship; sharing stories of the week’s events, some humming from a random alto, one of the men hammering out his notes on the piano. It is a symphony of souls. They do not come because they have to or necessarily want to. They come because, since the last time they met, they have grown thirsty. 
 

As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God...By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.

 
Yes, it is a selfish act to show up at choir rehearsal. Individually thirsty for revival of the soul’s pneumatic needs, they gather to conspire also. Not unlike instructions on a plane flight, “In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.” In the end, their act is selfless as they know that giving is better than receiving.  
 
What they give to each other during Wednesday night rehearsals is a breathing together with a singular purpose. The sound of unified inhalation is followed by phrase after phrase of God’s unique gifts of scripture, poetry, prose and music. What they share is nothing short of a miracle; the healing power of music is the healing power of God.
 
By the end of rehearsal all are refreshed and their thirst is quenched. But reminded of their purpose, they recall the previous Sunday.  
 

These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.

 
The rehearsal always ends with a prayer, thanking God for the privilege to be recipients of such unique and fulfilling blessings.
 
It is the following Sunday morning when they gather again; this time to pour out their souls, leading worship with songs of praise. Spiritually refreshed from the Wednesday night journey of filling their souls with spiritual oxygen, they assist in worship by energizing the throng, giving multitudes the inspiration to praise him who taught us all to pray and sing.  
 

What Does It Look Like to Walk Side by Side?

As a preacher, I really wish God worked with a different formula. Here’s the one I would like: preaching=immediate change. But God’s way of changing us includes another key ingredient—each other. Because God has made us as relational creatures, and because he has called us to the community of the Church, the formula for discipleship looks more like this: God’s Truth, processed and experienced in community, creates change. That community piece of side-by-sideness can’t be left out of the equation. It’s why at First Presbyterian, we really care about community. We want people to walk side by side with each other as they process and experience together the truth of the Gospel. 
 
Ed Welch’s book Side by Side is a fabulous introduction to this idea. If you want to know some simple, practical ways that our community can process and experience the Truth of the Gospel together, start here. Here’s the way Welch describes the book in the introduction…
 

The basic idea (of this book) is that those who help best are the ones who both need help and give help. A healthy community is dependent on all of us being both. So the book is divided into two parts. The first part guides you in sharing your burdens; the second part guides you in bearing the burdens of others… (God’s formula) is the perfect system. If God only used experts and people of renown, some could boast in their own wisdom, but God’s way on doing things is not the same as our way. We ordinary people have been given power and wisdom through the Holy Spirit and are called to love others (John 13: 24). From this beginning, we are compelled to move toward others rather than stay away…

 
We think the message of this book is so good that we’re going to give these books away. Free. After our combined worship service on May 29, we will have free copies of Side by Side at the Connection Center. Just come get one. Furthermore, we’re going to devote one of our Sunday school classes this July to discussing the book and its major points. 
 
Going to the beach this Summer? Need something short but powerful that you can keep by your bedside? Why not read Side by Side? And why not read it together? 
 
I hope you’ll pick up a copy on May 29. And I hope you’ll commit to read it. Talk to a friend, your spouse, your neighbor about reading it together. I think you’ll be happy you did. 
 

Deeper Magic

Can you figure out this puzzle? Can you decipher what C.S. Lewis is talking about in the excerpt below?
 

"Yes!” said a great voice behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane stood Aslan [the great Lion] himself.

 

“Aren’t you dead then, dear Aslan?” asked Lucy.

 

“Not now,” said Aslan.

 

“But what does it all mean?” asked Susan.

 

“It means,” said Aslan, “That though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But if she could have looked a little further back….she would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”

 
So, did the solution come to you as you read? I knew it would. Lewis wrote an allegory in which Aslan the great Lion represents Christ. He gave his life to save a traitorous young boy, but in doing so, he broke the power of the White Witch and shattered death. Just so, Jesus the sinless man, gave his life for a traitorous humanity on the cross.  Then he rose from the dead, breaking the power of sin, death and the devil. 
 
The gospel is a familiar story to most Christians, so well known that sometimes we aren’t dazzled by its brilliance like we used to be. That’s where stories like Narnia become so important. They bring the power of the gospel to people who may have had bad experiences with the church, or those who may have grown bored with the old story, or those who may never have heard it before.  
 
In two weeks, your church will present Narnia in our Sanctuary. The production values of this musical will reach standards set by Fiddler on the Roof and Roots and Promises. But here’s the twist: the truth of the gospel will never have been more clearly presented in one of our plays intended for outreach to the community. 
 
You won’t want to miss it. That goes without saying if you love and support our church. But will you, and I, take the next step, and invite others to join us? It’s the story we love presented with quality of which we can be proud. Pack the house dear ones!
 
Church of the Resurrection
 
I’m excited to tell you that one of our biggest initiatives over the last year is coming to fruition. Our church leads a network of Presbyterian churches in the Gulf South region who have joined to plant an EPC church in New Orleans. This past month we called the Rev. Ben Cunningham to be the church planter. Ben has been the assistant pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in uptown New Orleans.  Now Ben, and his wife Jenny (finishing her medical residency in N.O.), will begin the long journey of meeting people and gathering worshipers to become the Church of the Resurrection in an area of New Orleans intersecting the lower garden district and the central business district.  
 
Church planting succeeds best when it digs deep and starts slowly. We do not expect a full out worship service for at least a year.  New Orleans is a notoriously tough place to sink church roots. But all year Ben and Jenny will be gathering folks to become the launch team of the new church.  Do you know someone in New Orleans who might be looking to be part of this exciting venture? Contact Ben: cunninghambenj@gmail.com.  You can also hear him preach in our pulpit on May 29. Please pray for God to establish the Church of the Resurrection in a powerful way.

Words

I don’t know about you, but the older I  get, the more I seem to cry. I feel things deeper than I used to. You would think I would be getting my “act” together at my age! As a singer and a musician, I have always been moved to tears by moving melodies and beautiful harmonies. That is why I still love what I am doing at FPC. It’s part of my job to listen to beautiful music that lifts up the name of Jesus, and to find songs that can help us do that. We want to articulate our love back to him. 
 
I know you've noticed that Gerrit is a “word” guy. He has us thinking about God’s Word all the time, and he stretches us to think so hard my brain aches. I think it has caused me to think more of the lyrics we sing, as well as the words that come out of my mouth when I speak. So, now I cry every Sunday during worship. It’s true! When I stop singing, it is not because I am too emotional, it is because I am thinking too much! I see very deeply how much God loves us and cares for us and I just can’t help it. But I am not alone. There are plenty of grown men out there doing the same thing. And you always want to let me know for some reason. I love that! The Holy Spirit is moving us to tears!  
 
And another thing, the same thing happens to me when I hear a testimony of what God is doing in people’s lives, whether through your joy or pain. It is amazing to me. So let’s not ever stop singing and speaking “words” of what God has done, words of what he is doing in our lives presently through the Holy Spirit, and words of the glorious future we will have in heaven because of the resurrection of Jesus!
 
“Be very careful, then, how you live-not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in  your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5: 15-16, 19) 

Early Easter: March 27

Why is Easter so early this year? For that matter, why does the date of Easter change every year? It’s all about the moon! Centuries ago, the western church determined to celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the first day of spring. This year, there’s a full moon on March 23, right after the first day of spring (March 20), so we get Easter on March 27. Really early. If the moon had peaked just before the first day of spring, we would have had to wait all the way through another moon cycle before we could have Easter in late April.  Interestingly, the Archbishop of Canterbury is hoping to have a chat with the Pope and the Orthodox patriarch about decreeing Easter to be the second Sunday in April every year. That would sure make planning easier. But truthfully, I sort of like having to reorient my life and calendar around Easter every year. It makes me plan for Easter, as if it’s the most important day of the year (which, by the way, it truly is!).
 

Palm Sunday Celebration

Our annual Palm Sunday festival is March 20, beginning at 10 am with our procession around North Boulevard. A jam-packed combined worship service occurs after the procession. This year, we will introduce our new members at that service, so you’ll have about 25 new faces to greet. Egg hunts, a picnic and street party follow worship.
 

Service of Shadows

We observe the Thursday before Easter as a sacred day, remembering that Jesus initiated the sacrament of communion on that night, and washed his disciples’ feet, giving them the commandment to treat each other the same way. (That’s why it’s called Maundy Thursday from the Latin word for mandate, or command). Our service on March 24 at 7 pm includes a very quiet communion, the dramatic retelling of the passion narrative and a visit in silence to the garden where the entombment of the body of Jesus will be reenacted. As the stone is rolled across the tomb, we sing “Were You There?” It’s a very moving moment. That also sets up the particular joy of meeting in the same place at sunrise on Easter.
 

Easter Services:  6.30, 9 and 11

We gather around the stone rolled away in the garden at 6.30 am for a brief service followed by breakfast. Then we have two festival worship services in the Sanctuary at 9 and 11. Acoustic Communion worshipers will join in with these services.
I look forward eagerly to the sweet joy of keeping Holy Week and Easter with you, beloved congregation!
 

The Power of Narnia!

Millions have read C.S. Lewis’ book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Millions more have seen the movie. Christians know that Lewis’ classic fantasy story conveys the depth of the cross more powerfully than a zillion theology books. When the great Lion Aslan gives his life to save the traitorous child Edmund, we see Jesus in a fresh, deep way.  
 
Your church will present a stirring musical version of Narnia on April 15-17. You know the quality of productions we’ve done from Fiddler on the Roof to Roots and Promises to the Sound of Music. This is a great opportunity to bring people to see excellent theater and hear the gospel. 
 
So here’s the word of encouragement from the old pastor: let’s not make our church spend all her energy wooing our own members to come. Let’s plan now to be there as a matter of course so we can spend our energy getting people from outside the church to see the gospel in this attractive format.

 

Lift Up Your Hearts

Lift up your hearts! I love to hear those words in communion! They call us to look up from our lives to see the Jesus who is giving himself to us by the power of his Holy Spirit.

“Lift Up Your Hearts: Questing for Christ” is our theme for Lent this year, which begins February 10. We’re going to answer the “upward call” of God in our lives.

On Sunday, February 14, every person will be given a 42-day guide for reading and prayer. (You can also sign up to receive the daily readings by email.) We’ll start our seven week sermon series and all will be invited to be part of a small group studying the daily readings together.

As usual, each day will contain three sets of readings. The first will be a story or teaching from Scripture about how God calls us upward to meet him. The first week we look at the mountains of God in the Old Testament. The second week we look at the mountains of Jesus (you’ll be amazed by how important mountains were in the story of Jesus!).  Then we’ll consider how Jesus ascended to heaven and the way he enables us to be spiritually united to him now.

The second reading every day will be a psalm that connects us in prayer to the day’s theme. Not surprisingly, we’ll read all 15 of the psalms of ascent, those prayers the pilgrims made while journeying up the hill to Jerusalem.

The third reading will be a quote from some great writings, prayers or hymns from throughout church history, taking us deeper into the theme.

Every week, pieces of great art will enable us to consider our themes through the eyes of Christ’s artists through the centuries.

The day’s work can be done in 20 minutes and I’m encouraging everyone to commit now to take a journey upward toward Jesus this Lent. For 42 days, let’s seek him by lifting up our hearts together!

I’m looking forward to taking my place with our other great small group leaders in meeting with you each week for discussion and prayer. You can sign up for both the readings and the groups today.

I love that we get to go on a quest for Christ every year in preparation for Easter, because as ever, I love being your pastor.

Financial Notes

This past Christmas, you gave more than $48,000 in our special offering! That’s astounding. Brian Sleeth of the Christian Outreach Center and Nancy Zito from Gardere Community Christian School both report how overwhelmed with gratitude they feel toward our church.

Meanwhile, the session has approved a balanced budget for 2016 of approximately $3.5 million, built upon your regular, sacrificial tithes and offerings. The finances undergirding our ministry will be presented at the annual meeting of the congregation on Sunday, February 28 at 10.15 am in the Sanctuary.

Lift Up Your Hearts

Lift up your hearts! I love to hear those words in communion! They call us to look up from our lives to see the Jesus who is giving himself to us by the power of his Holy Spirit.

“Lift Up Your Hearts: Questing for Christ” is our theme for Lent this year, which begins February 10. We’re going to answer the “upward call” of God in our lives.

On Sunday, February 14, every person will be given a 42-day guide for reading and prayer. (You can also sign up to receive the daily readings by email.) We’ll start our seven week sermon series and all will be invited to be part of a small group studying the daily readings together.

As usual, each day will contain three sets of readings. The first will be a story or teaching from Scripture about how God calls us upward to meet him. The first week we look at the mountains of God in the Old Testament. The second week we look at the mountains of Jesus (you’ll be amazed by how important mountains were in the story of Jesus!).  Then we’ll consider how Jesus ascended to heaven and the way he enables us to be spiritually united to him now.

The second reading every day will be a psalm that connects us in prayer to the day’s theme. Not surprisingly, we’ll read all 15 of the psalms of ascent, those prayers the pilgrims made while journeying up the hill to Jerusalem.

The third reading will be a quote from some great writings, prayers or hymns from throughout church history, taking us deeper into the theme.

Every week, pieces of great art will enable us to consider our themes through the eyes of Christ’s artists through the centuries.

The day’s work can be done in 20 minutes and I’m encouraging everyone to commit now to take a journey upward toward Jesus this Lent. For 42 days, let’s seek him by lifting up our hearts together!

I’m looking forward to taking my place with our other great small group leaders in meeting with you each week for discussion and prayer. You can sign up for both the readings and the groups today.

I love that we get to go on a quest for Christ every year in preparation for Easter, because as ever, I love being your pastor.

Financial Notes

This past Christmas, you gave more than $48,000 in our special offering! That’s astounding. Brian Sleeth of the Christian Outreach Center and Nancy Zito from Gardere Community Christian School both report how overwhelmed with gratitude they feel toward our church.

Meanwhile, the session has approved a balanced budget for 2016 of approximately $3.5 million, built upon your regular, sacrificial tithes and offerings. The finances undergirding our ministry will be presented at the annual meeting of the congregation on Sunday, February 28 at 10.15 am in the Sanctuary.

Closing Thoughts: A Farewell Letter from Judie and Dick Gates

This is a final opportunity to share a few things with you as I will retire January 31, 2016. Judie and I are moving to New River, AZ, to be near our two sons and granddaughter’s families. We will move sometime after the middle of February. We have had a house built and have our house here on the market.

 
When we moved here in May of 2005, we knew the reputation of FPC but not the depth of love and fellowship that has made this church the most wonderful ministry opportunity of all the six churches I have pastored the last 41 years through seminary and beyond! Judie and I have experienced much love and joy serving you all. It has truly been a labor of love for us both. We are very excited about being with our family but the sadness of leaving a large part of our hearts here is painful. You have been gracious to us and I believe Gerrit Dawson is the best Senior Pastor in the EPC! I won’t even miss his awesome sermons because I can watch him on streaming video in AZ!!! Our staff also is and the best days for Global Missions are just ahead with Dr. Whitney Alexander and the Global Missions Committee.

Coming Up In the New Year

Please plan to attend the Decision America Prayer Rally 2016 with Franklin Graham on January 13 at noon on the corner of North Blvd. and 3rd Street (Town Square) to pray for America please. We continue to meet every Sunday in the Sanctuary from 5 to 6 pm to pray for our country and the Church.

My final Global Missions responsibility will be our Mission Conference January 30-31, with Rev. Dr. Sameh Hanna Sr., Associate Pastor of Kasr El Dobra Evangelical Church in Cairo, Egypt. This event promises to be very insightful on what is happening in the Middle East and how the Gospel is at work by the Holy Spirit there. Please invite your friends because what Sameh will share you will not hear on the evening news! Thank you for praying for these opportunities to go Deeper in Christ and Further into the World with the Gospel.

I am in your debt for the privilege of serving you as one of your pastors these last short ten and a half years. I/we love you deeply.

- Dick and Judie Gates

Godspeed Dick and Judie!

An era ends. I can’t believe it’s been a decade. Dick Gates is retiring January 31 and he and Judie are moving to Arizona to be near their family.

Now the rest of us pastors are going to have to work for a living!

Dick has been a visiting, praying, mission promoting machine. His absence will be felt. His shoes are impossible to fill.

In fact, it’s nearly impossible to overstate the impact he has had on our church.

A decade ago, tensions between our services were real. They’re pretty much nonexistent now. Loving care of each and every member who is ill, grieving or in crisis goes a long way in creating unity.

A decade ago, we made some hard decisions about day care, denominations, service time changes, and a commitment to renovate our buildings. In a time when questions got asked, attendance dipped and my leadership could have been questioned, it wasn’t. A committed session joined a loyal pastoral staff. And none more loyal than Dick Gates.  He has always, always, always had my back. He never hesitated to tell me directly if he saw me making an errant turn. He never hesitated to follow decisions I made, even dumb ones, and no one could get him to utter a negative word. We got through that season and entered a time of great advancement. Dick’s passionate loyalty was key in that.

Under Dick’s leadership, global mission got re-energized even as it got more personalized.  It takes a globe-trotting pastor to keep the ties tight between a church and its missions around the world. Dick had the vision to invite Sameh Maurice here, and that ignited our partnership with Kasr El Dobara Church in Cairo, allowing us to see a dynamic influence for Christ through these partners. And that inspired new full time missionaries from our church to hit the field. Our mission conferences still grow in both excitement and attendance. Dick’s leadership has raised our profile in the world community of evangelical churches.

And he has taught us to love prayer.  Every week, between the 9 and 11 services, Dick and a team pray for people with particular needs. Every week, he leads prayer for our nation and community. Every week, he visits dozens of people, with his faithful beloved beside him, to pray for those facing surgeries, funerals or crises.

Talk to him ten minutes, and he will get you promising to pray for suffering Christians in the Middle East. Ten more minutes and you will be on a plane to do a mission trip!

Dick works with the joy of the Lord. His whistling and his laugh are heartiest in the early morning, and he refuses to let us be grumpy in the office.  We could never get him to give up the Buckeyes as his favorite football team, but we did teach him how to shoot pistols!

Soon, a search committee will seek an Associate Pastor for Pastoral Care, Prayer and Spiritual Growth. Whitney, who shares Dick’s vibrant passion for global as well as local mission, will add world mission to his full pastoral plate. Whitney will also help coordinate pastoral care until the new associate arrives. The church will go on, far better for this decade of wonderful, consecrated service. But oh, how we will miss Dick and Judie!

Dinner to Honor the Gates

The church will host a ticketed, catered dinner Sunday, January 17 at 5PM to honor (and maybe roast a wee bit) Dick and Judie. Tickets are $15 and limited to 300 people. Child care and children’s choir will be provided concurrently. Email Gerrit if you would like one of a limited number of complementary seats.

Global Mission Conference

Dick’s final weekend includes his favorite event: the annual missions conference.  Pastor Sameh Hannah from Cairo will be our speaker during Saturday morning sessions, Sunday services and a special Sunday evening prayer event. I can’t think of a better way to encourage Dick than to swell the house for this conference, especially for the prayer focus Sunday night. It means so much to him: we can bless him on his way by supporting this great event

It Happens All Over Again!

For centuries, the body of Christ has told and retold the story of Jesus’ life and work among us. Early on in our history, we developed a rhythm of highlighting the remembering of particularly significant Jesus-events throughout each year. Advent is a word that means “coming” and it marks the beginning of the church year. For four weeks we enter the story of the yearning of the world for rescue, the yearning of the people of God for a savior and the hope in the human heart that God has not left us alone. We anticipate being surprised anew that God showed his face in the baby in Bethlehem.

Christian remembering, of course, is not mere nostalgia. We remember what happened uniquely in history in such a way that the meaning of what happened becomes a fresh experience. We relive anticipation for a savior’s birth in such a way that we touch our longing right now for God to be at work in our world. We celebrate Jesus’ birth in such a way that we feel hope in the present moment. Year by year, the Holy Spirit makes historical events come alive in our hearts as we gather for worship. That’s what makes it such a joy to keep Christmas together!

So you won’t want to miss our special advent service, “The Silence and the Sound” on December 6. We’ll have just two services that morning, at 9 and 11. They will be identical as the worship team, choir and an orchestra combine for this rich, inspiring musical. I’ll have a short message preceding.

The Scriptures Behind the Carols

This Advent, we’ll look at four famous Christmas carols and the Bible passages that inspired them. Two of these carols are exceedingly well known: "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Joy to the World." One is 16 centuries old: "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence." And the other is merely five hundred years old and only recently surging in popularity: "Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming" (listen to soprano Rene Fleming sing it on YouTube!).

At our 4 and 6 pm Christmas Eve services, the message is entitled “Ready to Eat!” Can you figure out what Christmas has to do with the British food chain called Pret a Manger?

Surging Forward: Session Grants

Last year when Dr. Robert Lewis led a men’s day with a focus on mission, he noted a particular role for a church like ours. We can provide the “jet fuel” for members launching out into ministry. Our worship and teaching inspire our members to open their lives to what God wants to do in and through them. Usually that means being available to our Lord right where we are in daily life. Sometimes it also means stepping out in new areas of service.

Our session (our board of elders) made grants totaling $55,000 to members and ministries connected to our church. We’re helping one of our young adults, Micah Webber, with seminary education. We’re providing computers for Buchanan Elementary School and the Abounding Love STARS after school program. We’re enabling new programs at Gaitway Therapeutic which member Shelly Rose leads. And after being inspired by the reports of Claire Wilson’s visit, we’re enabling Bethany Centre in Uganda to complete a vital multi-function building. We also approved beginning a scholarship for ministers in our denomination seeking to do residency training in how to plant new churches. The scholarship will be named in honor of our former pastor Russ Stevenson who has such a passion for starting new congregations. Your church is supplying jet fuel to ministries flying grace into our city and world!

Christmas Offering

Every year, we take up only one special offering. This is our Christmas offering for local ministry. Last year, we raised over $45,000 which was shared between the Christian Outreach Center and Gardere Community Christian School. This year, let’s bless even more this two fabulous ministries that are effecting long term transformation in our city.

If You Could, Would You…?

Go back in time that is.  Would you go back to some great day in your life to live it all over again?  To savor the time with someone now gone? To see the beauty all around you that you missed? To say what you really meant to say in that moment? Would you go back if you could?

In the movie About Time, the characters of both Tim and his father have that ability. They can go back to relive days in their past. By the end of the movie, though, Tim has all but given up this gift because he has trained himself to live each day as if it were a day he had chosen to relive. He begins to savor in the moment the extraordinariness in every ordinary day. What if we imagined, throughout the hours, “This is a moment to which I have returned in order to see the beauty, the poignancy, the wonder, the struggle, the life it offers?” 

That would be grateful living. Mindful living. That would be what Paul, long before people were making movies, meant when he said, “Give thanks in all things.” There is incredible power in giving thanks in the moment. In noting what is happening, whom you are seeing, what is being said, colors, sights, sounds, temperature.  We live in a world of wonders overflowing with the grace of God all the time. 

You can’t go back. But you can savor now. You can see every moment, even the hard ones, in a spirit of gratitude. You can realize the presence of God every hour.  It all begins with thanks.  Before another second passes. Thanks. Thank you God.

Please know that as we sit down to feast on Thanksgiving, Rhonda and I will give thanks for you, beloved congregation, and for all the joy of seeking to know and serve Christ Jesus together.

When a House Becomes a Home

I felt a holy awe during the dedication of the Habitat home; the church built with and for Marah Bowie and her family.  In less than a month, a concrete slab became a real home. Through the laying on of hands, that structure became a residence. Hands were laid upon that house with every swing of a hammer or swish of a brush. And hands were laid upon it in prayer, that this home will be a light which shines like a beacon showing the love of Jesus. That this home will be a place of peace and protection and nurture from which love can be launched into the world. More than 140 volunteers worked on the First Presbyterian Habitat house. Kudos to Whitney Alexander and Charles Courtney, who coordinated our efforts, and to Joe Willis and Hans Othmer, along with many others who led and served to make this a reality.  I’m so proud of you!

See a Real, Live Methodist!

Right in our church! Yes, we have a treat in store. The community Thanksgiving service will be held at our church this year. 6 pm, Sunday night, November 22. The guest preacher is Brady Whitton, pastor of First Methodist. He’s a dynamic speaker and a fine leader, and I look forward to welcoming him, and you, to worship that night. A grateful community will give thanks together. 

Mission Grants

The session continues to put the gifts of our people into play through carefully researched partnerships in our city and around the world. In September, the session made the final grants from the mission funds accumulated through our previous capital campaign. More than $100,000 was distributed to vital, gospel-driven ministries at Angola prison, Buchanan Elementary, Young Life, Campus Crusade, Smiles Foundation in Romania, the Magruders in Kenya, Kasr El Dobara Church in Cairo, the Veritas Forum at LSU, Manners of the Heart, Open Air Ministries to the homeless and more. We have a heart for our city and so we share the heart of Christ in every way we can!

Doctrine Into Life

How Theology Can Shape Ministry
In the Local Congregation

Doctrine Into Life is a course for pastors enrolled in a Doctor of Ministry program at Reformed Seminary. The notes on this website, though, might be helpful for anyone interested in why theology matters to the life of the church. My sermon series on the Apostle’s Creed was foundational preparation for teaching the course.  Those sermons are all available under the Resources section of the FPC website.  The power points for those sermons are here. The material in this “web section” is rather eclectic.  It explores the sources of the Creed, the teachings of John Calvin on union with Christ, the theological vision of George Herbert, and a number of the Biblical images that run throughout the pages of Scripture by which the whole story of our redemption may be told. 

-Gerrit Scott Dawson
Senior Pastor
First Presbyterian Church

 

Daily Schedule

Exercises

Presentations

Posted in: Doctrine Into Life

Why Not Me?

I want what you have. It’s supposed to belong to me. You don’t deserve it anyway. You won’t even appreciate it. You’ve got what’s mine and I hate you for it. I’ll scratch your eyes out for it. Ever feel that way?

You see the girl you adore kiss another guy by the lockers. You want to go at him, right there. You watch the rich kid show off the spoils from another shopping spree and everything you own suddenly seems ready for the thrift shop. You burn inside. Your parents look at your brother’s report card and praise him for being so smart. They turn to you and smile sympathetically. Not every one can have all the gifts he has. If looks could kill, your brother wouldn’t make it out of the room.

Jealousy is a powerful, overwhelming emotion. We’ve been plagued with it from the beginning. Cain and Abel were brothers with different jobs. Cain tilled the ground and grew crops. Abel kept the flocks of sheep and cattle. One day, they both brought gifts to the Lord. Cain brought some of his harvest from the fields. Abel brought an offering of the firstborn of his flock. At first sight, this seems normal enough, each one bringing something from his work. But the story from Genesis 4 tells us that God was pleased with Abel’s offering while having no regard for Cain’s. We are never really told why one was better than another.We do read that Cain was furious with jealousy, and his face fell into gloom.

The Lord spoke to Cain, saying in effect “Why are you so mad? If you do what is right, you’ll be accepted. But if not, be careful, because sin is lurking right at your door. It desires to own you, but you must overcome it.”

God knew exactly how jealousy works. It threatens to possess us. If we aren’t careful, it will take over and lead us into doing the worst things possible.

Cain, of course, didn’t heed the warning. He lured Abel into a field, then savagely attacked him. Still in a rage, Cain at first tried denying that he had killed his brother. God asked him where Abel was and Cain replied, “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?”

“His blood cries out to me from the ground,” said the Lord.

When Cain came out of his jealous fit, he realized the curse he had brought down on himself. His whole life was ruined by his envious rage.

Jealousy can do that. In a moment, it can seize us and lead us to ruin relationships. We can’t stop the feeling of jealousy when it arises. But our story gives us some cluse about what to do with those feelings. First of all, we can name them. I am angry because I am so jealous I could kill. Yes, I recognize you, you sin of jealous rage lurking around my door! But you can’t have me.” Second, we deny jealousy its full expression by remembering “I am my brother’s keeper. We belong to each other. I can’t just obliterate you, much as I’d like. We’re connected. We each belong to God and so we matter to each other. You really aren’t the problem, but my jealousy is.” And third, we can hold hard to God’s words to Cain, “If you do right, you will be accepted.” I’m not going to give in and have a fit that will make everything worse. I’m going to entrust myself to God, do what is right, and hang on till the wave of jealousy passes. And then we pray like crazy that God will see us through.

Posted in: Devotionals

All Bottled Up

I grew up with a German Shepherd who had a conscience. She loved to get in the trash; we scolded her every time she did. When our family would go out, the dog was often left alone in the house. The temptation to rummage through the garbage would overwhelm her. We would arrive home to find a trail of cans and half-eaten wrappers leading straight to a dog who was trying very hard to melt into the floor. The guilt overwhelmed her and she crouched as low as she could go, awaiting our judgement. She was miserable! Her remorse made it hard to go through the required lecture: "You were bad! You went in the garbage!" But what joy for all of us when at last the release came: "But you’re still our dog. Good dog! Come here and see me!" Being restored to the family sent her into leaps and wags of happiness.

Guilt is that way. Keep it quiet, stuffed away, and it drags you down towards despair. Confess, ask forgiveness, make what changes you can, and life returns. The relief is like the feeling you get when someone you’ve been carrying on your shoulders for ten minutes jumps off. You feel like you can float.

In Psalm 32, King David deals with what happened when he tried to avoid dealing with his sin. "When I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer" (Ps. 32: 3-4, NRSV). He never tells us just what sin he was holding back. But we know David had once committed adultery and then murder to cover it up (see 2 Samuel 11), and the consequences of those foolish, cruel actions rippled down the remaining decades of his life. So he knew about sin, and about trying not to deal with it. The result even has physical consequences. Refusing to come before God with our sin can suck the very life out of us. Bottling up our guilt wastes us. We just get mashed down in soul and body.

Though he still had to face the real-life results of his actions, David learned how much better it is to do that with a clean conscience and a restored soul. He went on to pray, "Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin" (Ps 32: 5). He found the release of coming clean before a God who has a bountiful forgiveness just waiting for us (see Ps 130).

The apostle John tells us that "if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." Denying what’s going on in our lives cuts us off from God and a life of truth. But, "if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1: 8-9). Unconfessed sin weighs down many Christians. We may well stuff down the truth for so long that we no longer remember when or how we got disconnected from God. If you ever feel depressed in your spiritual life, take some time to do some honest soul searching before God. Invite the Holy Spirit to reveal any areas of your life in which confession is needed. This isn’t always easy, but remember that our loving God longs to pour the release and the relief of forgiveness into our lives.

Next Day Stretch

Psalm 139: 23-24 says, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." That’s a daring prayer! Consider taking some time today to come before God. You may well want to get on your knees. Pray, "Search me O God! Show me any sins I need to confess. Show me any secret sins I have long denied." Listen for what the Holy Spirit brings to mind. You might then go on to consider the primary relationships in your life to examine if there are things to confess—things we have both done and left undone. Bring all this before God, consider what actions you may need to take to make amends, and then claim the forgiveness God has secured for us in Jesus Christ. Hold hard to what John wrote, "If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but from the sins of the whole world" (I John 2: 1-2).

Posted in: Devotionals

Doing Faith

In high school, I was involved in a Christian group called Campus Life. Our director, Jim Green, used to tell the greatest stories. I remember one about the tight rope walker at Niagra Falls. This acrobat had somehow stretched a cable across the top of the raging waters. He climbed to the top of his rickety ladder, and stood on one end of the tight rope, holding his pole. “Who believes I can walk across this rope and return?” The crowd cheered. One slip would send him tumbling into the torrent, soon to crash hundreds of feet over the falls. But they believed in his skills.

So the lithe little man scampered easily across the thin cable over the falls, then returned to great applause. Quickly, he scurried down the ladder, grabbed a small bicylec with a basket on it, and climbed back up with the bike. “Who believes I can ride across the falls on this bicycle?” he asked.

Again, the audience roared their belief in the acrobat. He did not disappoint. In just a few minutes he had ridden from the U.S. side to the Canadian side of the falls on a rope on a bicycle! The people were in a frenzy of excitement.

“Now. Who believes I can ride across the falls on this bike with a person in the basket?”

Cheers of faith in this man’s talent filled the air. “You can do it! We believe you can do it!”

The acrobat didn’t say another word for a few moments. He let the crowd fall into silence. “Then which of you will climb into the basket?”

No one said a word. Not one hand went up.

He asked again, “If you believe in me, who will climb up and ride in the basket?”

Several awkward moments followed. The previously giddy crowd was dumbfounded. Belief in this man’s abilities was one thing when he was taking all the risk, but to actually ride in the basket?

Finally the acrobat spoke. “You believe nothing. Not one of you has faith. All your cheers were just empty praise.” He packed his equipment and left.

When he had finished telling us the story, our director asked us, “Now what kind of faith do you have? Is it just belief? Or is it belief that goes as far as doing something?”

Reading through the gospels, we see that Jesus expected this kind of faith as well. Of course he wanted people to believe in him, to trust him as the Messiah and come to know him as the Son of God. But real belief often has an action part.

For instance, Jesus noticed the faith of the men who brought a paralyzed friend to him (Mark 2: 1-12). But what does faith mean in this story? These men didn’t recite the Apostle’s Creed or say anything at all to Jesus about their beliefs. What they did was to bring a friend who couldn’t walk on his own to Jesus. When they arrived at the house, the crowd was so thick that they couldn’t get in. So they climbed up on the roof the house, and began to dig! They scrapped through the hard clay, pushed back the mat of branches, and created an opening between the beams. Then, they lowered their friend on his mat through the hole, right down in front of Jesus! Faith meant digging through somebody’s roof and interupting Jesus in his teaching in order to get their friend to the one who could heal him. Obviously they believed Jesus was someone special, sent from God with healing power—their beliefs were so strong that they went past words and into actions.

That always challenges me. I talk a lot about what I believe about Jesus. But do I show my faith by my actions? If this story were set today, maybe it would mean that you and some others decided to pick up a friend from school going through a hard time and take her to a youth group where you know she’ll be loved and cared for. It might mean calling her, and telling her you’re coming even if she doesn’t feel like it, and working ahead to make sure the group embraces her. Real faith that Christ Jesus still works through his body, the church, might mean working hard to make your friend who feels on the outside of God’s love and grace, feel brought in to a circle of people who will care. That’s the way she’ll come to believe in who Jesus is—by our actions as well as our words.

So, as the tight rope walker might ask, what kind of faith do you have?

Next Day Stretch

Write down a definition of faith. Does it include action? Write down some lines about faith that include what you are doing that shows you are truly “faithing.” Ponder where in your family, school or church life you might be called to show faith in Christ by what you do for someone else.

Posted in: Devotionals

Doubt Away!

The biggest doubters make the strongest believers. That was certainly the case with one of Jesus’ disciples. The Bible calls him Thomas, but history has given him a second name, forever pasted to him-- Doubting Thomas. As it turns out, the guy known for not believing actually made the boldest confession about who Jesus is in the entire Bible. As we explore his story, maybe you’ll see yourself, and be encouraged. Doubts can lead to great faith.

On Easter morning, the risen Jesus met Mary in the garden. She ran and told the other disciples. But they had trouble believing the report that a man they had seen beaten, crucified, wrapped up in heavy burial cloths, and then sealed away in a tomb was now up and walking around. That doesn’t happen. So most of them just stayed inside, with the doors locked, grieving for Jesus.

Then, that evening, Jesus appeared inside the room. He showed them his wounds.. He really was alive again! The disciples’ sadness turned to joy. But Thomas had not been in the room when Jesus appeared. The other disciples told him the story, but he wasn’t buying it. He wanted proof. “Unless I see the marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, I will not believe it.”

Does that seem reasonable to you? After all, if Jesus is so great, why doesn’t he just show himself to me? Why doesn’t he just write his love across the sky for everyone to see if he really wants all people to know him? And while we’re at it, if Jesus is so loving, why is there so much suffering he doesn’t stop and sickness he doesn’t heal? If he’s real, I want to put my hands on him.

A week later, Jesus again appeared inside a room with locked doors. “Peace be with you,” he said. Then he looked right at Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe!”

Thomas received just what he asked for—a personal appearance by the risen Christ. It’s interesting that we never know whether Thomas actually touched Jesus or not. John’s gospel doesn’t tell us. We just hear Thomas cry out, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus blew away his doubts with his presence.

What does this mean for our doubts? Should we hold out until Jesus shows up one night in our room? It could be a long wait. We get a clue, though, from Jesus. He told Thomas, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” It’s as if Jesus turned to a camera and spoke to all of us in the coming years who would have to believe without seeing. Our link to Jesus is through Doubting Thomas who became Believing Thomas.

Thomas is our man on the scene. He represents all of us who will never have a direct, physical encounter with Jesus in this lifetime. So when Jesus came to Thomas, it’s as if he said, “O.K. I’m going to show myself to this one guy who wasn’t there, so you can all know that what my witnesses say is the truth. I’m really who I say I am.”

It’s OK to doubt. In fact, getting to know God means lots of questions. We hold these up to God boldly. Then we make sure we’re like Thomas—we don’t get stuck in our doubts but are ready to cry out when Jesus makes himself real to us, “My Lord and my God!”

Posted in: Devotionals

Just Don’t Ask about Our Prayer Life!

Family prayer time. Eeew. Kinda creepy. Is it necessary? Does anybody do it? Well, we do. But, I embarrassed to say, not as much as we could. Still, prayer provides an important, invisible tie between us as a family.

No, we don’t heft a thirty pound Bible down from the shelf, chain the kids to their chairs, and blab for 45 minutes until everyone is in a spiritual stupor. In fact, we don’t do nearly as much praying together as we used to, nor nearly as much as I’d like. But I believe prayer is nevertheless a key part of our life as a family.

Why don’t we pray together more? First, everyone is increasingly scattered. When all the kids were under ten, their parents controlled their schedules. We could enforce a time together for reading the Bible and praying. Now in the days when all four are between 11 and 20, simply being together in one room is something of a miracle.

But that’s not the worst impediment to praying as a family. Praying is very intimate. In the years where our kids are becoming their own people, they often guard most of their emotions from their parents. The boys, in particular, don’t want to let out too much information about anything. Prayer, if it is not just superficial, requires a voicing of matters of the soul. Praising God requires expressing the ardor of the heart. That can be embarassing. Even my wife and I have had to work hard to be able to pray aloud together. It has taken years to be able to do it, and most of the time we pray independently of each other. For families, then, a prayer and worship time can be difficult.

So what does our family do? We always pray before meals. Even in restaurants. It’s a habit now to acknowledge God as the source of all good gifts. We try to take turns offering these prayers of blessing so that everyone has a chance to be the voice of the family. Each night, my youngest and I still say our prayers together. And it pleases me to see our 15 year old reading his Bible before bed. He’s making faith his own. Even if we’re not praying together, there is an acknowledgement between us that we’re both praying.

We pray aloud, too, whenever we’re going out of town, for travelling mercies and protection on the house. Everyone loves to remind me of the one trip we didn’t pray, because my wife and I were having a spat. Forty-five mintues into the trip, the van hissed, spewed, and ground to a halt! No, I don’t think God was punishing us, but I did learn a lesson about how we all feel more complete when those trips start with acknowledging God and our need for protection.

We pray with our children in particular times, too. When they are struggling with relationships, or teachers, one of us may put a hand on a shoulder and say a prayer. We remind our kids that we’ll be praying for them on days when we know they have a lot of stress. And there are still times when we do gather together and pray as a family—on Christmas Eve, or in a time of crisis. Prayer is there for us, underlying our whole lives.

Still, I miss the days when we prayed more. The daily readings and prayers during Advent. Family Bible study. Memorizing passages together. Hearing my son at age 7 recite all 66 books of the Bible in under two minutes! I miss hearing a little voice say, “Thank you for dis beautiful day. Thank you for Gegus.” [that would be “Jesus” in toddler speak] Of course, I miss all the ways we were so close before the teen years came and the drive for independence grew so strong. But I suspect that one day even some of that spiritual intimacy will return at a different stage of life.

Family prayer is not easy. If your family isn’t used to it, you might have a hard time getting it started. But there are little ways to get started. Offering to pray before a meal, asking your parents to pray for you during the time you have a test, or letting your Mom or Dad know that you’ll be praying for them during the day can help open your family to experience more the invisible ties of love that come from prayer.

Next Day Stretch

This week, volunteer for the blessing before dinner. Ask a sister, brother or parent if there is anything you can be praying about for them. Invite a family member to pray for something in your life. Family prayer is hard to get going, but try experimenting by taking a tiny risk this week.

Posted in: Devotionals

Hanging Out with Jesus

So do you think Hilary Duff or Leo Di Caprio have an easy time making friends? At first you think, “Sure, everybody wants to be with people like that.” But then you think a little more. Would all that “Oh wow it’s Lizzie McGuire!” get in the way of really being friends? Can anybody just pal around with Leo without thinking, “Hey, Catch Me if You Can, I’m with the King of the World who didn’t really die on Titanic and he looks great. Leo, let’s ditch The Man with the Iron Mask and hit The Beach together.” Yeah, it would be more than a little weird.

If it’s hard for a movie star to have friends without stardom getting in the way, I wonder how it was for Jesus. He had disciples and he had enemies, he had people who worshipped him and people who followed him and people who wanted him dead. But what about just plain friends? Did his being the Son of God get in the way of that?

The people who seem closest to being just plain old friends with Jesus are Mary, Martha and Lazarus. We know that Jesus went to their house for dinner more than once (see Luke 10: 38 and John 12: 2). When Lazarus fell ill, Martha came to Jesus and said, “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (John 11: 2). That word “love” in the original language of the New Testament, meant the kind of love between friends, or between parents and children—love that is for one’s own kind. Jesus loved Lazarus like a good friend. That means it wasn’t all Jesus giving to Lazarus like a master with a disciple. Lazarus contributed something in the friendship. Jesus got something out of it. They had things in common; it was a two-way relationship.

We don’t get many details about their friendship. But I imagine that the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha was a place where Jesus could relax. There wasn’t so much pressure. They didn’t just want to take from Jesus. They wanted to give. Maybe they laughed a lot together. Maybe they listened to his concerns and encouraged him. Maybe they just talked about the weather and village life. Their home was a break from angry Pharisees and the crowds. They were friends. The whole “star-power” quality of Jesus did not get in the way of just being normal together. That must have been precious to Jesus.

In Revelation, we hear Jesus say that he stands at the door, knocking. “If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (3: 20). Eating together was a big deal in Bible times. It still is now. When we’re with friends, we go get ice cream together, or stop for a burger, or go to each other’s homes for dinner. During lunch at school, you look for your friends. It’s a time of companionship. Jesus, I believe, wants to be so familiar and close with us that it’s as if we eat together with him. He wants us to hang out with him, just being who we are in his presence, and letting him speak to us of his love and will for us.

This makes me feel that Jesus wants to be our friend as well as our Lord and Savior. He wants to be so much a part of our lives, that his presence seems normal—so normal that we can just be ourselves in front of him.

At first, this thought may be a little scary. What if Jesus is mad at me about my sins and stuff? Do I really want to pal around with him? But when we realize how much he loves us, how patient he is as he works in our lives, and how totally forgiving he is, we can relax. Jesus is here now, right where you are. He is there reading with you. He is looking at you with eyes full of love. Take a minute, right now, just to talk to him as you would a close friend. Just tell him what’s going on. Be with your Lord who is also your friend.

Next Day Stretch

Here are two ways to work on your friendship with Jesus. 1) Get a picnic lunch, and go to a favorite, quiet place. Invite Jesus to come with you, to eat with you. As you munch, imagine him with you (he really is!). Talk with him about whatever is on your heart. Ask him to reply, and listen quietly for his presence. 2) At night, try on this old, old prayer: I am lying down this night with Christ, and he is lying down with me. Imagine Jesus there with you, like a friend spending the night. Take some time just to chat with him as you fall asleep.

Posted in: Devotionals

You Look Great!

I live with two high school students. As they got ready for the first day of school, what do you think mattered most to them? Memorizing the schedule? Discussing which figure from U.S. History would be the most interesting? Of course not! The big questions in our house were, “Who will I have lunch with?” and, most important, “What am I going to wear?”

Guys seem to dispense with the whole clothes issue pretty quick—the main thing is to not look like a goober. You want to fit in, but the concept of fashion is not really a driving force. Guys are mainly dresssing to be just part of the guys. For the girls, though, how you look is a bigger deal. Friends must be consulted. Choosing which outfit gets worn on the opening day is a huge decision. Then there’s the whole hair thing. Do I wear it down, or back, or up? Should I get it cut before school? Highlights? Which make-up, perfume, jewelry, and accessories? There aren’t many guys worth the effort my daughter and her friends put in to getting ready. It’s safe to say there are none who fully appreciate it.

But then, the disorienting swirl of these incredibly coiffed girls creates a whole new effect on the boys in their class: am I man enough to approach someone who looks as good as THAT? Except for the rare guy who develops so early he has a moustache in seventh grade, most boys in high school aren’t nearly as mature looking as the girls. And, believe me, they feel it. Beneath the gruff, “Whatever?” exterior are boys feeling very unsettled about how much they look like, well, boys--and not men. I suspect, too, that though these girls are entrancing the guys all around them (who never show it or admit it), they still feel not beautiful, not lovely, not pretty enough.

What’s the deal? Of course it’s hard when not only your body but your mind, your soul, and even your face is changing in adolescence. You’re becoming you but you’re not there yet. So you wonder if how you look now and how you’ll look then will be enough. Meanwhile, there are all those magazines with Ashton and Avril, Justin and J. Lo who look so great. There are all those ads with those kids who have no acne, no fat, no problems living the cool life while wearing whatever product paid for the ad. And there are all those videos and shows where great looking teenagers start their own companies, play music to huge crowds and succeed in dating, academics, surfing and dancing. Who can possibly compete with that?

I saw a magazine shoot once. It did me a world of good. I could see the model from the back. That perfectly fitting shirt? It was done with about a hundred pins. That fetching look of life and love? She wasn’t like that off camera. That perfect hair? Constantly sprayed by a team of assistants. The whole thing is an illusion. A big fake set up to make us ache for what can never be.

God’s Word has a different take on looks. Have you ever seen how someone who falls in love seems to change in appearance? A rather ordinary looking person who suddenly finds herself loved, begins to radiate beauty. People who never found her particularly attractive all notice how great she looks. Love confers beauty on people. God said that to his own people in Ezekiel, “…the splendor I had given you made your beauty perfect” (Ez. 16: 14). Jesus Christ confers on each of us the splendor of his love. We are his bride, and he adorns his beloved with gifts of grace, forgiveness, acceptance, peace and tender regard. He gave his life for his bride, and he still gives us his very life by pouring the Holy Spirit into our hearts. Jesus is the one who accepts us as we are, and then begins to cleanse away our faults, to change our flaws, and make us shine with his love. When we know that, in personal experience, we’ll look differently on the outside. We will have the look of those who know themselves beloved.

Another passage declares, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment…Instead it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (I Peter 3: 3-4, NIV). When we know ourselves to be accepted by Christ, beloved by him from all eternity, and chosen to be his forever, our looks will be affected from the inside out. No longer needing to look at those wretched fashion magazines to see what we are not, we will look at the Word to see all that we are. In Christ’s eyes, you look great!

Next Day Stretch

Don’t look in the mirror today. Instead, look at these passages from God’s Word. See yourself, not in a glass on the wall, but reflected in the loving eyes of God: Isaiah 43: 1-5; Colossians 3: 12; I Peter 2: 9-10; 1 John 3: 1-2. See how great you look to God!

Posted in: Devotionals

If You Never Get Out of the Boat…

Do you ever feel like your faith is a yo-yo, jerking up and down though you don’t know who’s pulling the string? One Sunday at church, you might feel like you have it all straight: Jesus is Lord. God became human in Jesus and dwelled among us. So when we look into the face of Jesus, we are seeing who God is. Then the next day at school, someone says, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere. God is a mystery, beyond our knowing, so anyone’s guess at faith is as good as another’s.” Everyone nods. You nod, too. But later, you wonder, “Did I just betray my Lord? Did I fail to stand up for the truth about Jesus?”

One night, saying your prayers, you have enough faith to trust God. There’s a situation with your friends. You feel really jealous about a new person in your group, as if they’re going to choose that new girl over you. You pray, and give the whole concern to God. The next morning, you wake up ready to trust that there’s room in your friends’ hearts for both you and the new person. Then when you get to school, you see your friends gushing about what a great outfit this girl has on, and how cool she’s done her hair. Before you know it, a cutting remark comes from your jealous lips. Everyone looks at you in shock. What happened to your faith? Some Christian you are, trusting God when it’s easy, and wilting the first time it gets hard.

You drive to volunteer at the nursing home, then turn off at the mall instead because you just can’t face those wrinkly, scary elders. You start to speak to someone about Jesus, then close your mouth, afraid you’ll sound like a fanatic. You see someone going down a bad path, and you want to tell them to stop, but then you don’t want to be pushy. You have a brochure about a mission trip on your dresser, but just can’t bring yourself to fill it out. What’s the matter with our faith? We think we believe, then we fail to live it out. Is that normal? Will we ever get stronger?

No disciple talked a bigger game than Peter. No disciple except Judas proved to be a bigger failure than Peter. “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you,” said Peter, just a few hours before he denied even knowing Jesus three times (Mt. 26: 35). Earlier, when Jesus had asked the disciples “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt. 16: 15), it was Peter who responded immediately, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16: 17). He got it right, like no one ever had. Then, the next thing we read, Peter is protesting that Jesus must not suffer and die on the cross, and Jesus has to rebuke him so strongly that he calls him “Satan.” Peter soared in faith, then crashed hard.

Once, when Jesus came walking across the water to the disciples, Peter called out, “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come to you on the water” (Mt. 14: 28). So Jesus answered, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat, and began walking on the water towards Jesus. He did what was humanly impossible. For a few seconds, he did it. Then he looked down at the waves, panicked, and began to sink. “Lord, save me!” he cried. Jesus, of course, stretched out his hand and saved the poor disciple. But he was disappointed, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Peter lived large. He confessed his faith bravely. He failed big, and a lot. But Jesus never gave up on Peter. Ultimately, Peter lived up to his potential. He became the leader of the early church. He preached magnificent sermons in which many people came to faith. He endured persecution without wavering, and testified boldly in front of hostile authorities. He wrote magnificent, encouraging words of Scripture.

Stumbling in faith is never the last word on our lives. In fact, failing God is part of truly trying to live for God. Sure Peter sank in the waves, but who else even tried to get out of the boat? Yes, he failed to see how Jesus had to die on the cross, but who else declared so boldly, “You are the Son of the Living God”? On that terrible night before his death, Jesus said to Peter, “I have prayed for you, that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Lk. 22: 32). Jesus prayed for Peter then, and he prays for you now. He sends us his Spirit to strengthen us. He prays at the right hand of his Father on our behalf. As Paul wrote, “The one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1: 6). Our faith may fail from time to time, but Jesus does not give up on us. He uses even failures to make us become more and more like him.

After all, if you never tried to get out of the boat, you’d never walk on water….

Next Day Stretch

Make a list of your three or four all time biggest failures in faith. Note what happened. Consider why you failed. Then make a note about what happened after that. Did God use your failure in some way? What did you learn? How have those fallings in faith made your stronger?

Posted in: Devotionals

Soul Friends

“Whatever it takes.” You hear that in sports, or in relationships, whenever people are determined to reach their goal. “I’ll do what I have to do” to keep you with me, to score a goal, to make the grades. These heroic words mean people are totally committed. They will abandon themselves for someone else.

David and Jonathan were friends like that. Jonathan was the son of Israel’s first king, Saul. David was the young man who had been selected by God to be the next king. Both, then, were princes. They could have been jealous of each other. Jonathan had the bloodlines; David had the prophecy of his future reign. Instead, they were best friends.

Now King Saul was given to fits of jealous madness. Saul knew that because of his own earlier disobedience, the Lord had chosen David to succeed him. So instead of rejoicing in David’s military victories for Israel, Saul only hated him more. Watching David win was like watching his kingship slip away. So Saul plotted to put David to death. But Jonathan warned David, and did all he could to persuade his father to give up his violent plans.

As the story unfolds in I Samuel 20, David met secretly with Jonathan to share his fears that Saul was still after him. He needed Jonathan to find out Saul’s intent. Though it meant being a spy in the king’s court, Jonathan said to his friend, “Whatever you say, I will do for you” (vs. 4). In other words, “Whatever it takes. Whatever I have to do to get you to safety, count on me to do it.” In fact, it took a lot. For we read later that when Saul cursed Jonathan and disgraced him publicly for defending David.

In turn, David swore to do “whatever it takes” for Jonathan. He promised his love and faithfulness to Jonathan. This was a much bigger deal that it might seem. The two friends were not likely to see each other again. When the dispute between David and Saul became an all out war between two sides, the ancient code dictated that the winner should slaughter the entire family of the loser. But David promised by his love that if he won, he would break the code and yet remain to Jonathan and his family all his life.

The story tells us that David loved Jonathan “as he loved his own life” (vs. 17). That’s a soul friendship, a deep-down, in-your-bones love between friends. Some people never have such a friend. The most blessed of us will still have only one or two friends like that their whole lives. Still, what we see in David and Jonathan, rare as it is, provides a great model for the kind of friend I want to be to all my friends.

David and Jonathan looked out for each other. They spoke up for each other, even if it cost them. I want to speak up for my friends even if it means that I lose social standing, or even if I lose other friends. Because real friends are loyal. They speak the truth to each other. They defend each other.

When we read Psalm 55, we learn that David knew all too well how painful it is when friends turn such loyalty into cruel betrayal: “It is not the enemies who taunt me—I could bear that…But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend, with whom I kept pleasant company” (vs 12-14). We expect enemies, and maybe even strangers, to be disloyal. The world (especially school!) is a hard place. We can take that scorn. But when our friends cut us, the pain is terrible. For we are not only mocked, but our trust is betrayed. I don’t want to be that kind of friend. I like to think that I’d rather take abuse from others than turn my back on a friend in time of need.

David and Jonathan dealt honestly with each other. They shared their fears with each other. They held each other accountable. They made promises and kept them. Each one put the other friend ahead of himself. Jonathan risked the wrath of the king to protect David in the short term. David promised to risk breaking the whole code of the nation to protect Jonathan and his family years later. Each thought more of the other than of himself. “He loved him as he loved his own life.”

We can’t be this kind of friends with everyone. And we’ve got to be careful not to be this loyal to those who don’t share a commitment with us to doing God’s will above all else. (Our first loyalty, after all, is to our Lord). But still, this story offers us an example of what friends can be. Even more, it tells me how to act toward my friends, looking out for them, defending them, and thinking of their interests first.

Next Day Stretch

Make a list of all your friends. Then place a star by the two or three whom you consider to be the most loyal, the closest to your heart. Thank God for them, naming their best qualities aloud. Finally, considering how you can be a better friend in the coming days.

Posted in: Devotionals

Surviving Snakebite

No problem. It’s easy to say when somebody bumps you in the hall and says, “Sorry.” No problem. I’m OK. Even if my books did spill all over the floor. But what about when it’s worse? Your friend may swear she won’t say a word and then an hour later everybody knows, and you burn with embarrassment. Even if she apologizes, you’re still hurting from what she did.

Sometimes in a break up hard words get said. The person you thought you loved yesterday now stabs at you like your worst enemy. You trusted him and welcomed him into your heart. He waltzed in and threw daggers of criticism right at your most tender places. How do you say “No problem” to that??

It can cut even deeper than that. Dad may have walked out on your Mom, even for another woman. And everything that seemed normal and stable in your world fell apart. Years later, you’re still hurt and still mad. No amount of rationalizing can ever excuse this.

Forgiveness for little stuff is relatively easy. If it doesn’t cost us too much, we can pay the price to let someone else go free. No problem. But what about when the hurt is too deep to let it go? What about when the person you have to forgive is yourself and you can’t do it? Somehow, all that hurt has to be sucked up and taken away.

Long before the Crocodile Hunter, Bill Haast was a man in Miami who used to handle cobras, rattlers, and coral snakes in front of people. Sometimes he got bit. In fact, three times he fell victim to the fangs of the king cobra. But each time, after getting really sick, he recovered. People noticed that he got better faster from the third bite than the first one. Haast’s blood was developing an anti-venom. It could survive, then neutralize, the poisoned bite. His blood cleansed itself so that he was quickly restored to health. Haast then began to donate blood. If someone received a potentially deadly bite, his blood would be flown to them for a transfusion. Haast’s blood would mingle with the victim’s blood, and the anti-venom would go to work. The poison was absorbed and health returned.

That’s a lot like what Jesus does for us when we need to forgive. We get hurt and we feel poisoned by the pain and anger that results. The venom threatens to ruin us. We need a transfusion. Jesus’ blood, his life, contains the anti-venom. Somehow, when sinful people touched Jesus, he was not contaminated. When wicked people spat in his face and rammed a crown of thorns on his head, he took it all silently. When they nailed him to the cross and his back, raw from the lash of the whip, met the rough, splintered wood, he prayed, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” He took the rage and sin of the world onto himself; he sucked the poison of the snake bite of sin in the whole human race right into his own being. It killed him. But only for three days. On Easter, he rose, a new man, restored and whole. Now his risen life is the anti-venom to all the hurt done to us in the world.

We need the blood of Jesus in us when we are wounded. We need his life that can suck up even the worst violence and turn it into forgiveness. How do we get this spiritual anti-venom?

Only in mystical union with Christ. We go to him in faith and ask for his life to be in ours. We ask him to take our hurts and put them on his cross. We ask him to take our sins and the guilt we feel as well. Then we pray that he would return to us his forgiveness, his healing, his powerful life. Somehow, some way, the Holy Spirit causes the transfusion to happen. Jesus takes our hurt and makes it his own so we do not have to bear it alone. He takes our guilt and gives us his forgiveness. The venom gets sucked into Jesus, and the strong, rich lifeblood of the risen Christ gets poured into us. That’s wild. It just happens to be true.

Of course it may take some time for the lifeblood of Jesus to begin replacing our poisoned blood. But he will do it. Bring your hurts, bring your bitterness, bring your guilt to him day by day and see what he does!

Next Day Stretch

Identify a place where you have been hurt by someone. Visualize how the poison of that hurt courses through you. Now imagine that hurtful action, those hateful words, being done to Jesus. See him take those blows on the cross. They are enough to kill him. But watch as he rises on the third day. His risen life is now anti-venom. Visualize him handing you the cup in communion. He says to you, “This is my blood poured out for you.” Drink from the cup and invite his cleansing, poision sapping life to come within.

Posted in: Devotionals

Finding Confidence

First day going to a new high school. I’m in the line for the bus. Got on my new clothes and my cool new shoes, so I look good. Wrong! “Stupid shoes,” says a voice behind me. The cute blonde freshmen sliced up my confidence. I get on the bus. Where is a seat? Nobody wants the new kid to sit with them. Get to school. New locker. Can’t figure out how it works. Kids come and go all around while I sit there helpless with my books. What a goober I am!

I remember needing to rely hard on the Lord those first days. In myself, I was nothing. I felt stupid, ugly, unable. The Spirit of Christ Jesus within me is what got me through. On the bus seat or at night on my bed, I had to go to that place in my heart where I sheltered under God’s wings. It was a small place, for I wasn’t very big. It was a quiet place, for my voice was pitiful. It was a safe place, for God met me there and gave me courage to face the frightening hours.

How do we gain confidence when everything in our lives only makes us feel weak and fearful? The story of Joshua tells of a mighty warrior who did great things for God. Joshua was the leader who led Israelfrom the wilderness into the Promised Land. The book in the Bible named after him tells how he defeated mighty armies, confronted evil among his own people, and even brought down the walls of the great city of Jericho. Surely, of all people, Joshua must have been full of confidence, right? Hardly.

Joshua must have been one insecure guy judging by how often God had to encourage him. Over and over in the first chapter we hear the Lord say things like, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1: 9). You don’t tell someone all the time not to be frightened unless they are scared! Joshua’s insides had turned to mush thinking of the task before him.

So God gave Joshua confidence. But not by telling Joshua how great he was. Courage would come as Joshua looked away from himself to God who promised, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.” (1: 5). God told Joshua he would succeed, but the source of his strength would not be his own power or intelligence. Joshua’s confidence came only from the Lord who promised to be with him every step of the way.

That’s the first key to gaining confidence. We don’t just try harder to believe in ourselves. We look away from ourselves, weak and pitiful as we are, to our God, the one who alone is strong, mighty and utterly reliable. In God alone is my courage.

We see the second key to gaining confidence as we look more closely at what God told Joshua: “Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go” (1: 7). Success and courage came to Joshua not because he followed his own dreams, but when he gave himself to do God’s will above all else. Confidence arises when we determine to do what God wants first.

But how do we know what God wants? God gives Joshua the secret, “This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it” (1: 8). God told Joshua to learn the Scriptures so that he would know who God is and how he was to act. This knowledge would shape his actions and keep him in God’s way as he led the people.

Confidence comes not from ourselves, but from God. Yet to receive God’s courage and comfort, we have to know who God is. We meet God in the Word, in the pages of Scripture. There we find that God is our refuge, our shelter, our strength and our hope. There we find how we may stay in God’s will throughout the day. I’d never have made it through those first awful days of high school without knowing the Lord who kept whispering to me, “Be strong. I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Next Day Stretch

Read Psalm 91 aloud. Then think of a situation or a relationship in which you lack confidence. Hold up that situation to God as you read Psalm 91 aloud again. Imagine yourself going into God’s shelter as you pray. Visualize being gathered under the warm, soft, yet mighty feathers of God’s wings. In that safe place, give him your lack of confidence and receive his words of strength.

Posted in: Devotionals

We Want Our Children to Live for Him!

The Scriptures testify to the supremacy of Christ Jesus, and this affects everything about Children’s Ministry. I recently read through the Old Testament and was delighted to discern the many ways that the Law and the Prophets anticipate the coming of Jesus. As I moved on to the New Testament, I also began reading a short book on redemption by Sandy Willson (yes, the father of our beloved Mary). This was no coincidence. I could not help but humbly ponder the redemptive work of our Savior at the center of all our blessed work we do here in Children’s Ministry at First Presbyterian Church.

The cry of our Children’s Ministry is, “that in everything Christ might be preeminent!” (Colossians 1: 18) Here at First Presbyterian we teach our children what it means to have a Christ-exalting life by equipping them with the tools they need to get there: prayer, gospel love and theologically sound lessons that point our kids to Jesus in every story. We want our kids of First Presbyterian Church not just to know about God but to know him in a deep way, such that they would rely upon him in all things. We want our kids to know that Jesus is our all and all so that they may turn to him, pray to him, believe him, trust him and live for him! This is our mission and our prayer.

We teach our children of First Presbyterian about our Triune God, so that they may learn how God the Father creates and watches over us, how God the Son saves and sustains us and how God the Holy Spirit plants faith in our hearts in order to grow it. Our children see the healing mercies of Jesus and how he provides for his people. We, as a church, model this to our little ones and model it well, by God’s grace. We show our kids what it means to engage in his mission and what it looks like to take up our cross in order to serve him wholeheartedly. Our church loves our children and they flourish in this place where they are "so loved" and nurtured! Just as our beloved Pastor Gerrit teaches our congregation to return the blessing to God by boldly reading Scripture aloud, the children are reciting and reading Scripture out loud. What music to the ears of our Father in heaven this must be!

So as you observe our Children’s Ministry program here at First Presbyterian Church, look for Christ. He is on the move! You can see him through our many volunteers pouring into the lives of our little ones. You can see him when you see prayer cards the children have written out on Sunday mornings. You can see him when our children are offering their only coins and dollars, or simply touching the offering plate giving himself or herself to God. You can see him in the attentiveness as they receive gospel-centered teaching in Sunday school. Their hearts are hungry and we want to all take part in equipping these little ones early so that they may know him and accept him as their personal Savior.

I am honored and truly blessed to take part in the life of each child—your child. My family and I reap the blessing of this God-given mission every day. I am grateful to walk alongside you as a sister, parent and friend. May Jesus Christ be praised!

Change Through God Via Community

How do people change? We talk often about going “deeper into Christ,” but it’s important to remember how it happens. How do people come to know Jesus, and how do those who know him get to know him better? How do we begin to see change in our lives, in our communities and in the society around us?

One of the most fundamental claims of the Christian Church for the last two millennia is that God’s revealed Word, the Bible, is the foundation for change in people, communities and societies. David writes these words in Psalm 19:

The Law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul.
The testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
The precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart.
The commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes.

He goes on to say that God’s Word is sweeter than honey and more desirable than gold. Why? Because God’s Word has the power to change us for the better. The New Testament echoes the same teaching. Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3: 16 that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness…” And in Romans chapter 1, we read these wonderful words: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” The Power of God is in the Gospel! God’s Word has power to change us!

But there’s another piece that we also need to remember. As a preacher, I wish the formula looked like this—preach the truth and everyone will change. Unfortunately that is not always the case. We know that for change to happen, the Holy Spirit must be at work enabling that change. And what we see throughout the Bible is that the Holy Spirit most commonly works that change in community. It’s in people learning, working, loving, crying, questioning together that God’s Word seems to take the firmest hold. In his loving wisdom, the Lord created us to need each other, even in the process of Spiritual growth. So we can revise the formula to look more like this: The Truth, when processed and experienced in community, leads to change.

If this is true, what should we do? That part is actually pretty easy: we connect. First, connect to the Truth; read his Word, be active in gathered worship and focus your attention on the person and work of Jesus Christ revealed through the whole Bible. And secondly, connect to others; get into a group to study the Bible, pray or just fellowship. Connect to your neighbors and to those who don’t share your faith (God works through them as well) and welcome them in to the hope that you have come to know. And thirdly, look for gradual change in your life and the opportunities for change around you. Serve. Create. Empower.

That’s how people grow. The Truth of the Gospel at work in, among and through the community of God’s people. Truth. Community. Change. Amen!

Hit the Road!

How’s this for a planning a move:

“Grab the wife, stuff a suitcase, get in the car and drive out of town.”

“Where are we going?

“Just drive. I’ll tell you when we get there. By the way, it make take a few years.”

As crazy as that sounds, it happens all too often to parents who work in the corporate world. The company decides they need someone in another town, so they transfer your mom, or your dad, with no notice and no questions asked. Next thing you know, your whole life is on the move. It happens, too, when all of a sudden your folks announce you have to move because granddad can’t care for himself anymore. Or worst of all, your parents are splitting up and they can’t afford your home anymore. So your family and your house are being left behind. We can get yanked out of our lives with very little warning.

In of the wildest Bible stories, a man named Abram and his wife Sarai got sent packing far away from everything they knew and loved—by God! It was supposed to be part of being incredibly blessed. One day, the Lord suddenly spoke to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” The couple had to pack up and leave immediately.

Years passed before Abram and Sarai were able to settle in the land they were promised, the land of Canaan, and even more time went by before the child promised to them, little Isaac, was born. But in the end, everything worked out and the people of God multiplied in order to be a blessing to the whole world. From Abram and Sarai came all the great heroes of faith: Moses, Miriam, David, Esther and even Jesus!

The keys to success in the long move were Abram’s faith and God’s faithfulness. The words we translate as “the land I will show you” can also be translated as “the land I will provide.” God provides. Abram believed God would provide even though it took years to get to a place called home and see all the promises come true.

He hung on through all the miles and all the changes. God was in control. God had sent him on this journey. God had promised to provide. So Abram journeyed on in faith that God would be as good as his word, even when it seemed that word had gone silent for a long time.

When you have to move, especially when it’s not your choice, Abram and Sarai can be your travelling companions. They tell us that no matter what strange lands we get sent to, God is still there while we journey, and God is there when we arrive. We cannot be lost from God’s care nor travel outside the circle of his love. It just can’t be done. And we cannot be separated from the promise of God to us in Jesus Christ. God has promised, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Hebrews 13: 5). The Lord really does provide—not always the way we’d expect, but always the way we need.

That means all our moves and all our quiet days at home, all our journeys and all our routines, are adventures. For God is going to show up, and provide what we need. The adventure is discovering how God does it.

Next Day Stretch

Many of us have known what it’s like to have to go to a “foreign” place, whether we’re moving permanently or just travelling. Take a moment to consider what difference it makes whether you’re going alone or with someone. Consider what difference it makes when you arrive in a strange place if you’re with someone who knows where you are like the back of your hand. Psalm 139: 9,10 says “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand will shall hold me fast.” In your prayers today, invite God into all the strange and difficult places you must go. Remind the Lord of the promise made to Abram, “The Lord will provide.”

Posted in: Devotionals

Belonging to God Is the Truest Thing About You

God has been working deep in my heart and soul over the past 100 days during a sabbatical, a Romania Mission Trip, Fuller graduation, General Assembly and the Transforming Community Retreat.

This quote from Wilderness Time by Emilie Griffin describes part of my journey: “Times come when we yearn for more of God than our schedules will allow. We are tired, we are crushed, we are crowded by friends and acquaintances, commitments and obligations. The life of grace is abounding but we are too busy for it. Even good obligations begin to hem us in.” The past few months have been healing for my soul as I reflected on Jesus’ words to Bartimaeus in Mark 10: 51: “What do you want me to do for you?” My desire is to be in God’s presence but this has been difficult over the past year. The German theologian Meister Eckhart puts it this way: “The reason we do not see God is the faintness of our desire.”

Normally shying from emotion, I have learned that it is important to let yourself feel how deep your desire goes. Desire is the fuel that drives the spiritual journey. Bartimaeus was able to cry out and throw off his cloak, get up and follow Jesus. Similarly, Jesus has invited me in during the sabbatical to help heal my heart and soul. When was the last time I felt a longing for God and a desire to awaken my soul?

God does heal us, and I have felt this process beginning. The safest thing is to be open with Jesus. I have asked myself several questions lately: Am I able to feel Christ’s compassion for the part of me that yearns for something I do not yet have? Am I able to be compassionate with myself? Who attempts to silence my desire?

Desire is the truest thing about you — desire to belong, to contribute to God’s kingdom, to live with the people you love and to live well with God. When I am in touch with desire, a myriad of opportunities begin to open up. Questions often come to my heart: What does Christ want to show me about myself if I am really honest about my desires? What parts of my desire seem to come from my ego-self or from my true self? Is there something Christ is inviting me to do in order to live out my heart’s desire? What aspects of my desires are something only Christ can accomplish? And am I really willing to keep owning my desire in Christ’s presence if I can trust in his timing?
 
These are questions I will continue to bring before God. Spiritual transformation is a process that only Christ can accomplish in us for the sake of others. God is the only one who can transform my heart and soul. I am learning what it truly means to be still and know who God is in my heart and soul (Psalm 46: 10). This spiritual transformation journey is for the rest of my life.

Whitney Alexander
Associate Pastor of City Ministry

Refueling Through Fellowship

Let's see. An average day in the life of a mother of young children: Make coffee, make beds (if time), change diapers, brush teeth and hair (don't forget self), sign homework papers, wipe up spill, grab breakfast to go, spend 20 minutes loading up car, wipe up another spill, drop off 5-year-old at school, go to grocery, realize 2-year-old doesn't have shoes on... And it's only 8 am. So when Thursday morning rolls around, there is nothing I'd rather do than to refuel in fellowship with my Mothers of Little Ones group (MoLo), to be rescued from life's many distractions and focus on Scripture.

It has been such a blessing for me to lead such a strong group of women each week who are hungry for the gospel. I honestly don't know how I would survive this season of life without this beautiful community of women to lean on, study with, pray with, laugh with and even cry with. I'm in awe of their insight, the comments shared and questions raised, all of which push us deeper into our understanding of our Father. Madeline Ellis told me, "I always leave grounded in the Word, renewed in spirit and tethered more tightly to women I love and trust more every day." And Lindsey Cotton has said, "MoLo is an answered prayer in my life. This group has provided lifelong friendships and a deep study of God's Word. To be able to pray for your fellow sister in Christ and encourage one another is truly a gift." I echo both of these women's sentiments. I love being connected to each of these women through prayer and study, and I leave every week feeling so re-energized and inspired by each of them.

The majority of the women in MoLo are in their 20s and 30s with younger children. Our fall semester starts on Thursday, September 10 from 9.30-11 am, and we will be studying Ephesians. If you are interested in learning more, please contact me at jlcarnaggio@yahoo.com.

Doing God's Will Series: Introduction

Introduction

Sooner or later, everyone who seeks to know God asks questions like these, "So what does God want from me?  How do I know what God wants me to do?" 

We wonder, "Is there a specific plan I can discover?  Or is it all as simple as Martin Luther's famous prescription, Love God, and do what you please?" 

These days, we have so many choices that we get fatigued weighing all our options.  I wish God would just drop the instructions in my lap!  But it seldom works that way. 

Over the next month, through messages from the pulpit and the Scriptures in this guide, I will be inviting you to open yourself to God's will for your life.  When we get in sync with God, the world is full of wonders as we see our God show up in so many amazing places and ways. Life takes on a sense of adventure--even if we never leave our homes! 

We will discover that doing God's will is more about deepening a relationship than executing a specific plan.  Let's go together, then, deeper into Christ.

As you journey, feel free to contact me (gerrit@fpcbr.org) or any of our pastors if we can be a companion along the way.

With you in Christ,
Gerrit S. Dawson
 

Shortcuts to posts in this Series:

 

Doing God's Will Series: Week One

Day One

Read I Samuel 3.
Consider how each of these ideas from the story relates to God’s call in your life: 
a) Samuel slept in the house of the Lord.  He located himself in a place where God’s presence was known to be felt.  In other words, he positioned himself to be “in the way” when God’s words and call came. 
b) Samuel got up from sleep and made inquiries of an older, wiser person when he first heard God’s call. 
c) Samuel offered a prayer of availability to God, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
d) Samuel had the courage to obey even though it meant risking his mentor’s displeasure.

Use the phrase, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” throughout the day and night.

Day Two

Read Isaiah 6: 1-9. 
Consider Isaiah’s response to being in the presence of the LORD.  What feelings of inadequacy and guilt for “unclean lips” might be making you fear to be in God’s presence?  Consider what gift is given to Isaiah to heal his guilt.  What does God offer you?  Consider as well the question which the LORD asks, “Whom shall I send?”  and Isaiah’s prayer of radical availability, “Here I am; send me!”

Use that phrase throughout your prayers today and tonight.

Day Three

Read Luke 11: 38-41. 
Meditate on the difference between a vocation of busyness and a vocation of devotion.  Why is Mary’s the better part?  What tasks would you like to leave off so that you might pursue your first love, Jesus’ first call to you?

Meditate upon Jesus’ words, “You have need of only one thing.” throughout this day and night.

Day Four

Read Romans 1: 1-7.
Consider that if you know Jesus as Lord and Savior, God has called you to himself. Try to recall the times when you have felt God’s claim and call on your life most clearly. Perhaps write down the story of your first call to know him, and any times of renewal when the first call seemed to come afresh. Explore the circumstances of your responding to God’s call. Give thanks that you were able to say Yes, and affirm those moments with joy throughout the day.

Day Five

Read Revelation 2: 1-7. 
Reviewing yesterday’s work, consider ways in which you may have lost your first love for God.  What has come between you and an undivided devotion to God? Let the memories of your first call to follow Jesus work in you to get behind the later resistance and loss of luster.

Day Six

Read Mark 10: 17-22.
Hear Jesus’ words to the rich young man as words to you. He sees you and he loves you. But then he speaks the one thing you lack? What is it? What might he be asking you to give up so that you will be free to follow him more nearly? Do you feel that you will walk away grieving as this man did? What would help you move towards radical availability?

Day Seven

Read Acts 22: 1-21. 
What was the primary call given to Saul?  What response of availability did he make?  How does responding to Jesus Christ as his Lord precede being given a mission to the Gentiles?  As you prepare to enter a second week considering your vocation, what yet needs to be abandoned in order to be ready to hear God’s particular instructions?  What needs to be embraced?

Doing God's Will Series: Week Two

Day One

Read Isaiah 5:1-7 and John 15: 1-4.
Consider how the image of the vine and vinegrower has been altered from Isaiah 5 to John 15.   Who is the vinegrower?  Who now is the vine?  What expectation of us remains from the Old Testament?  What has changed?

Consider what ways God has pruned you back through the years to make you more fruitful.  Consider what areas of your life might require pruning, and ponder what instruments God might be using to do that.  In prayer, try to risk asking God to do what is necessary to make you a fruitful branch in the vine.

Day Two

Read John 15: 5-8. 
How do you feel about your inability to please God or bear fruit or be radically available on your own strength?

Can you recall a time or a season during which you tried to produce fruit apart from Christ, the Vine?  What were the results?

What causes the branch to wither when cut off from the Vine?  How do people wither when they are cut off from Christ?  When they try to produce different fruit than that which God has designed for them?  Today in prayer, concentrate on admitting your need to be connected to Christ, the vine, in a living way.

Consider the word abide, which means to remain in, or to dwell in.  How does a branch abide in the vine?  How can we remain so naturally, effortlessly in Christ?

Day Three

Read the story of Paul’s living reliance in 2 Corinthians 12: 2-10. 
Concentrate especially on the phrase, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  Are there times in your life when weakness led you to discover God’s strength?   What areas of defeat, inadequacy, illness or weakness may be urging you towards a greater reliance on God today?  Today in prayer, try to give thanks for the weaknesses you have been given, and invite God’s strength into them.

Day Four

Read Psalm 16, focusing especially on the phrase, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” 
Why do we tend to try to live apart from the Lord?  Why does such separation destroy the very “good” in our lives.  Concentrate on the phrase from vs. 11, “In your presence there is fullness of joy.”  Today in your prayers, give thanks for the joy of God’s presence, and invite God to keep you closely connected all through the day.  Tonight, consider if such dependence on God led you to fewer or more loving, useful activities.

Day Five

Read Psalm 32. 
What causes us to keep silent about our sins?  Why does such denial dry up our strength?  How does confession renew our strength?  Read Psalm 130, and note the three blessings connected with God:  vs. 4 “there is forgiveness with you;” vs. 7, “with the Lord there is steadfast love;” “with him there is great power to redeem.”  How does the character of God influence our ability to enter into a relationship of living reliance?  In prayer today, acknowledge both your sin and need for God, moving quickly from yourself to thanksgiving for the forgiveness, steadfast love and power of God.  Take note today of how a concentration on the character of God influences your character and actions.

Day Six

Read John 15: 9-17.
How can abiding in Christ be at once so effortless and so fruitful?  How, in other words, do we expend energy and strength for God in a way that is both peaceful and exerting?

In practical terms, according to verse 10, how is this abiding expressed?

Visualize in prayer the way a branch abides in the vine, and see yourself as held and holding to Jesus.

Day Seven

Consider this quotation from Andrew Murray’s book, Abide in Christ:
...the feeblest can, each single moment, say, as he consents to occupy his place as a branch in the vine, “Yes, I do abide in Christ.”  It is not a matter of feeling--it is not a question of growth or strength in the Christian life--it is the simple question whether the will at the present moment desires and consents to recognize the place you have in your Lord, and to accept it.  If you are a believer, you are in Christ.  If you are in Christ, and wish to stay there, it is your duty to say, though it be but for a moment, “Blessed Saviour, I abide in Thee now;  Thou keepest me now.”

Practice saying this prayer of living reliance throughout the day.

Doing God's Will Series: Week Three

Day One

Read this selection from Andrew Murray’s Abide in Christ.
Each time your attention is free to occupy itself with the thought of Jesus--whether it be with time to think and pray, or only for a few passing seconds--let your first thought be to say:  Now, at this moment, I do abide in Jesus.  Use such time, not in vain regrets that you have not been abiding fully, or still more harmful fears that you will not be able to abide, but just at once take the position the Father has given you: “I am in Christ;  this is the place God has given me.  I accept it; here I rest; I do now abide in Jesus.”

Practice such abiding each day this week, and reflect upon what difference it makes.

Day Two

Read Luke 1: 26-38, concentrating on Mary’s words in vs. 38, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” 
Consider what situations you may encounter today into which you especially want to pray those words.  In prayer, visualize yourself in each encounter maintaining this attitude of “active passivity.”

Day Three

Read Luke 6: 43-49. 
What causes a tree to produce good or bad fruit?  How can the kind of fruit our lives are producing be changed?  What is the connection between the words of Christ, faith, and our actions?  Today in prayer, make the connection between the concept of abiding and Jesus’ instructions on obedience and fruit.

Day Four

Read Galatians 5: 16-26.
What is the difference between a “work” and a “fruit”?  Take a moment to contrast the works of the sinful nature and the fruit of the Spirit.  In what form do you experience the conflict between the fruit God desires to grow in you and the works your old nature wants to manufacture?  In this passage, what are the instructions for winning the struggle?  On what previously accomplished facts do we rely?  What does it mean for you to consciously “live by the Spirit”?

Day Five

Read Romans 6: 5-11.
Note that Paul says both that “our old self was crucified with” Christ and that we yet “must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”  This consideration, or “reckoning” as some translations have it, is similar to abiding in the vine and living in the Spirit.  All three involve counting on certain facts to be true, and then living in agreement with those facts.  Prepare for today by briefly considering the sins, diminishments and defeats which typically belittle you.  Count them as dead, as crucified with Christ.  Then consider yourself, visualize yourself, as one who is alive with Christ in his resurrection, made new by the Spirit.

Day Six

Read Colossians 3: 1-4. 
Here is yet another Biblical way of describing the balance between Christ’s work and our consent.  Begin this day by taking time to set your mind on the things above.  Consider who Jesus is and all he has done for you, and is doing now.  Ponder how your ambitions and anxieties may be hidden with Christ in God, and consider that your true life is in Jesus the vine.

Day Seven

Read Colossians 3: 5-17. 
Contrast the two ways of life Paul describes.  How does he use the idea of “clothing ourselves”?  What actions and attitudes would you like to peel off today?  What kind of spiritual clothes do you feel led to dress in this day?  In vs. 15-17, some specific instructions are given to aid this process?  What are they, and how do they apply to your life?

Practice giving thanks, making music in your heart, and letting the words of Christ dwell in you today.

Doing God's Will Series: Week Four

Day One

Read Psalm 36: 9.
Consider the light which illumines this page, and the sunlight which illumines the earth and the moon.  Ponder how light comes works in silence.  Imagine the way the dawn gently brightens the world.  How has God the Holy Spirit worked in your life in gentle, quiet ways?  Are there some works of God which can only be discerned from the perspective of years rather than days?  Consider that the very impulse toward Christ which is in you is a gift of the Holy Spirit who dwells in your heart.  Give thanks today for God’s humble, warming, gently powerful Spirit.

Day Two

Read Romans 12:  3-8.
This excerpt from a novel by Orson Scott Card may provide some direction in how we discover our gifts.  Just translate Card’s use of knack into the spiritual    gifts we have been considering:

When Taleswapper says he’s got no knack, though, I’ll tell you, he’s wrong.  Like a lot of folks, he has a knack and doesn’t even know it because that’s the way knacks work--it just feels as natural as can be to the person who’s got it, as easy as breathing, so you don’t think that could possibly be your unusual power because heck, that’s easy.  You don’t know it’s a knack till other people around you get all astonished about it or upset or excited or whatever feelings your knack seems to provoke in folks.  Then you go, “Boy howdy, other folks can’t do this!  I got me a knack!” and from then on there’s no putting up with you till you finally settle down and get back to normal life and stop bragging about how you can do this fool thing that you used never to be excited about back when you still had some sense.

     Some folks never know they got them a knack, though,
     because nobody else ever notices it either...

Consider:  Why does a gift feel so natural to the one who has it while seeming so extraordinary to those who don’t?

Why do people not know they have a gift until someone else points it out to them? What help would you like from others in the process of discerning your spiritual gift?

Day Three

Read I Corinthians 1: 4-9.
As you consider the wonderful news that you have been given gifts by the Holy Spirit, what do you expect they will turn out to be?  Which gifts do you long to have?  Consider in prayer what draws you to these particular gifts and discuss with God how you would like to employ them in the church.  Make a mental note to check your expectations and hopes with what the inventory reveals.

Day Four

Read I Corinthians 12: 1-11. 
Why didn’t God give all the gifts to every person?  What are the advantages in our having differing gifts?  What is difficult in requiring the gifts of others in your church?  What is exciting about needing each other in that way? Consider the people in your group as you pray for them, and give thanks for how each plays a unique part.

Day Five

Read I Corinthians 12: 12-27. 
What might cause one part of the body to want to be as another part?  How does the absurd image of the whole body being an eye or an ear help us see the importance of a variety of gifts?  Following this anatomical image, where would you locate yourself and your gifts on the body Christ?  Are you more out there in the fray as a hand, or do you need more special covering in order to function best?  Can you identify the importance of your place to the good of the whole?

Day Six

Read 2 Timothy 1: 6-7. 
What risks do we take in offering our spiritual gifts in service to the church?  What practical ways can we encourage each other to use our spiritual gifts?  How does using gifts “fan the flame” of church life and spiritual expression?  Consider in prayer today those people whom you will encourage.

Day Seven

Read Ephesians 4: 7-13. 
Note that the various gifts of leadership are given “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ...”  How is this different from the idea that clergy are supposed to do the work of ministry?  How would the church change if the leaders saw their role as equipping all the people for doing the work of the church, each one sharing in that labor?  How would the clergy and church professionals change if they focussed more on equipping the church for its work?  Prayer for your leaders and pastors today.