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First Thoughts Blog

Category Archives: From the Pastors' Desk

The Joy of Rhythms

“Summer’s here, I’m for that, got my rubber sandals, got my straw hat.” Remember that old song by James Taylor? Even as the heat moves in, we feel the excitement of a change in rhythm. School’s out. Traffic’s better (“better” being a relative word!), vacations await. We had a wonderfully intense Lent, followed by a season of celebrating confirmations, baptisms, graduations, memorials and weddings. Now most of the church slows down. But children’s ministry ramps up with Vacation Bible School. Youth ministry accelerates with camp opportunities. Members take off on mission trips as well as holidays.
 
Meanwhile, we still meet Sunday after Sunday. That’s a crucial part of rhythm too. Continuity in worshiping our triune God, studying his Word and encouraging each other. We’re here, every week, as anchor for your life. Stay tethered through our livestream while you travel. Come create the party of worship as often as you can. And know that your leaders are thinking deeply and creatively about our future.
 
The elders, especially the strategic planning team, are busy building off the great data we got through the congregational survey. We hope to unveil our five year strategic plan for you this fall. Keep us in prayer!
 
Meanwhile, we are moving forward with a north Baton Rouge church plant. You can hear pastor Ron Hicks preach on July 14! We also celebrate the mission outreach we can underwrite through the gifts from our endowments. The session recently funded a young EPC church planter in the Atlanta area, and contributed to the church plant training our denomination has undertaken. We funded three seminary students, and contributed to a major evangelism program with our sister church in Cairo. Life rhythms have changed, but the ministry and mission of your church pulses forward this summer. As ever, please know how much I love being your pastor.
 
 

Church Planting, Staff Changes and Celebrations

May is the time we joyfully witness about 25 6th graders make their public profession of faith. We also send off our high school seniors with blessing prayers. And we get ready to say goodbye to several long-time, faithful staff members.
 
One of the hallmarks of a healthy church is the tenure of the professionals who work there. Longevity signals loyalty, effectiveness, spiritual vitality and harmonious personality. In the coming year three key retirements are scheduled.
 
Carol Pruitt will retire as bookkeeper at the end of July. Carol has grown with our church finances. She handles all the financial gifts and expenditures, keeps up with staff medical and retirement benefits, and works cheerfully and confidentially. 
 
Barry Phillips has been my right hand man in his capacity as ministry executive for 18 years. “Papa Barry” develops the budgeting process, oversees employee relations and supervises care of building and grounds. His anchoring work has freed me to focus on preaching, teaching and vision. Though he will serve in a consulting capacity through year’s end, Barry’s retirement as a full-time staffer occurs August 15.
 
Our longest tenured pastor, Whitney Alexander will retire January 31 after 26 years on our team. Whitney led our youth ministry for years, then seamlessly transitioned to overseeing city and global ministry. He has connected us to Christ’s work throughout Baton Rouge and around the world. Somehow, he always shows up just where we need him most. 
 
That’s a lot of change! But your leaders have been planning strategically. Church member Courtney Hilton takes over as bookkeeper this summer after a brief period of overlap with Carol. Courtney brings years of corporate accounting experience along with her deep faith, consistent commitment to church and winsome personality. We will be in good hands.
 
Meanwhile, we’ve realized that the scope of ministry executive has grown beyond what one person will do. Kelly Wood will step into the role of ministry executive. Her experience as an Exxon project manager has given her the skills to turn vision into action. (We saw that during the Stewarding God’s Grace campaign which she oversaw last fall). Her focus will be on executing the plan of the session through the work of the staff and committees. She’ll be sure everything we do aligns with the overall vision and strategic plan. Long-time elder and trustee DJ Davis will take a part-time role as administrative executive. His purview will be personnel, finances and facilities. Thanks be to God, we will be in good hands.
 
That leaves us some time to consider how we will continue pressing forward in mission and best utilize that associate pastor position. Stay tuned, and please stay prayerful!
 
The Sanctuary
 
We’ve been hinting at it for months, but our session made it official: God is calling us to plant a church in North Baton Rouge. The pastors of the church will be Ron Hicks, Daryl Waters and George Gillam. Former Angola inmates, these men have a passion for reaching at-risk youth, difficult communities and others formerly incarcerated. We’ve heard George preach twice from our pulpit. We’ll get to hear Ron this summer. The new church will be called The Sanctuary and it will be overseen by a team of six elders, and underwritten by the church planting fund we established some years ago. For the rest of this year, they will be building a core leadership team, scoping out a physical site and gathering potential members. We envision an official launch next winter. More details to come. And once again, please offer your prayers for this endeavor. It’s an exciting time to be your pastor, and to be in ministry with you.
 

Ready for a Third Century?

This time three years from now, we will celebrate our 200th anniversary as a church! We’re already thinking about it! Most importantly, your leadership seeks to discern the leading of the Triune God as we round into our bicentennial. 
 
Part of that discernment is undertaking a new long term vision process. This will lead to preparing a strategic plan to guide the next five years. We’ve partnered with Mesh, a local creative marketing firm who has delivered great results with other local Christian organizations, such as Gardere Community Christian School and the Dunham School. They specialize in helping groups clarify vision, then turn vision into strategy.
 
This is the fun part: we all get to play a role! More than 80 of us will be engaged in focus groups, including the staff, the elders and a representative at-large group. All of us will be invited to participate in a congregational survey. You’ll receive an invitation by email. The link will take you to the brief but important survey about our priorities. You can expect this email from the church by the end of the month. We really want to hear from you! My hope is that everyone will take the survey within a week of receiving the link.
 
The session and Mesh will collate and review the responses from the focus groups and the survey. These provide the voice of the congregation as we prayerfully craft a strategic plan. A stellar planning committee will lead the writing effort. David Kozan, Cheryl Broadnax, Barry Phillips, Kelly Wood and Will Adams will be working with me to bring the session a document to consider for the vision and strategy that will begin our third century. The elders will then present to you the final document that the whole congregation has helped to shape.
 
We’re working specifically in the areas of mission fidelity, preparing for next generation members and leaders, pastoral and staff support, facilities upgrades, fiscal sustainability and ministry/mission expansion. 
 
It’s a great delight and a great responsibility to stand on the shoulders of two centuries of faithfulness. As you join me in participating in the survey, please know that I love being your pastor and I rejoice to look toward our future,
 
Gerrit

Why Do We Keep Time?

I had a wonderful time visiting with Caroline Breard’s third grade class at Dunham. She asked me to come talk about what Lent means. So I asked the children how long before their birthdays they actually started thinking about their birthdays. Some said a month, some said all year! I asked the same about Christmas. We agreed that anticipating a celebration makes it all the better.  
 
Every spring, Christ’s people celebrate his resurrection. But for centuries and centuries, we’ve been making plans to think more about Jesus before Easter. We get ready to celebrate by taking more time to think about his life and death.  
 
We also talked about football games (how can you not in Baton Rouge???). They agreed that a great game is not a 72-0 blow out against a junior college. A great game is a close struggle. The greatest games include come backs, when it looked like all was lost. That’s why we think about Jesus’ death before we celebrate his resurrection. It was the greatest struggle of all time. And it looked like the game was over when Jesus died. But then in the most wonderful surprise, the Father raised Jesus. The more we think about his ministry and his dying, the more joy we have at Easter.
 
These are sharp kids. They got it. We get it too. We keep time with Jesus during Lent so that we can join our story to his story. So his victory over death can be our victory.
 
I’m so proud of you when I think how you are pressing in close to Jesus this Lent. Connecting psalms with events in Jesus’ life, and praying alongside him takes energy, imagination and discipline. But you’re doing it! As an early Easter arrives at the end of this month, keep preparing, dear church. We’re going to have quite a celebration.
 
You’ll want to plan now for the fun of Palm Sunday, March 24, the deep passion of the Service of Shadows on March 28, and the release of Easter joy on March 31. I love being your pastor, especially at this time of year.
 
 

Praying Alongside Jesus

What if we could pray with Jesus? Not just to him, about our concerns. What would happen if we stood next to Jesus, offering up the same prayers he made to his Father? What if we joined Jesus in the events of his life, then pressed close to him by sharing in his emotions? What if we spent our prayer time being engaged about what mattered in  Christ’s life?  
 
I can tell you what happened to me. I grew to love Jesus more. And I felt his heart getting formed more inside my heart. I got energized by the urgency of his mission. I came to admire Jesus more than ever. Adoring him creates a profound effect in me. Peace. Passion. Hope. Wonder. 
 
Could that happen to you? I mean, what if the best way to change us is actually focusing on Jesus? As it turns out, getting inside Jesus’ prayer life lights up our prayers. Tucking up close to his heartbeat in the events of his life transforms our hearts. The closer we draw to him, the more Jesus gives life to us.
 
But how? Is there not an impossible gap between Jesus and me? Aren’t the events of his life lost in the past? We don’t know what he prayed so how can we join him? I know. It sounds presumptuous and not a little crazy.
 
But there is a bridge. A reliable, compelling, available bridge. It’s built of two interconnected parts, the Psalms and the Gospels. Jesus knew and prayed the psalms. We can pray those same psalms as we participate spiritually in the events of his life recorded in the Gospels. It could be like nothing you’ve ever done!
 
That’s the adventure we’ll be on together this Lent. I pray you will be transformed by learning to pray alongside Jesus. 
 
Five Ways to Participate
 
1) Lyrics for His Life: Praying the Psalms with Jesus. On February 18, we’ll distribute copies of this beautiful, full color, 238 page book. You’ll find reading and prayers for the 42 days leading to Easter. Yes, you can grab copies for friends, and yes some advance copies will be available February 11.
 
2) Daily Podcasts. Prefer to listen while you go about your day? Sign up for the daily podcast link. Lauren Honea and Scott Graham join me in bringing you each day’s readings. Subscribe to podcasts.
 
3) Daily Emails: Prefer to read on your device? Find each day’s reading in your inbox!  It takes 22 seconds to sign up via our website! 
 
4) Community Groups: Reading, discussing and praying with others always takes us deeper. Join the more than 300 who participated last year meeting in homes, praying together and sharing life going deeper in Christ. Email Kelly Wood for more on joining or leading a Community Group.
 
5) Weekly Worship: Each week through April, we’ll focus on a particular psalm Jesus prayed and consider what it might have meant to him. We’ll learn to pray alongside our Lord as we press in to the events of his life, death and resurrection. 
 
6) Wednesday Noon Services. Beginning with Ash Wednesday on February 14, we’ll meet each week for worship and communion, focusing on a psalm Jesus prayed. There will even be opportunities for more experiential prayer times. Further details on Wednesday worship.
 

Reflecting and Visioning

At the turn of the year, I like to remember and give thanks, then look forward. First of all for you, beloved church. I brag about you to my colleagues all the time. Your sincere faith in Christ Jesus, your passion for his Word, your love for one another, your engagement with our community, your realization that being in Christ empowers and influences every aspect of life. It really is a joy to be your pastor!
 
In particular, I want to express thanks for our staff team. Nearly all of them are dedicated church members. They are us! And how they love Jesus and his people. We strive to make every experience at church feel seamless and appear effortless, organized and comfortable. When I think of what it takes to host Sundays that invite and elevate, with the literally hundreds of moving pieces, I feel so grateful for a team that serves with such energy and excellence. They strive to include, knit, integrate and bless the whole congregation into one. And they feel your love.
 
Looking forward, our 200th anniversary is just three years away! I’m excited that the foremost way we will prepare is to start a process of long-range visioning that will lead to a five-year strategic plan. During the first half of this year, you’ll hear about opportunities to provide input into our priorities. Congregational engagement will be essential to the direction our elders give to begin our 3rd century.
 
More near term, this winter we’ll finish out our series on Ephesians. There are some powerful passages yet to come. Lent comes early, so in mid-February we’ll take up Lyrics for His Life: Praying the Psalms with Jesus. This is a book I’ve wanted to write for a long time. It was quite moving to imagine which psalms Jesus might have prayed during events of his life, and then to join him in prayer. I believe you’ll get closer to Christ as you pray psalms alongside him. In addition to reading the printed book and daily emails, this year you can also listen to the daily content on our Lyrics for His Life podcast! Being part of a community group deepens the whole experience, so I hope we’ll have a record number of participants.
 
Meanwhile, the wonderful programs and missions of our church kick back into high gear, and there are lots of ways to get involved. It’s good to be on the quest with you, the quest to press deeper into Christ and share his love further into the world.  
 

Catch Fire!

I have a friend who got to carry the Olympic torch for a few minutes along its journey from Greece to Salt Lake City. Thousands of people, specially selected, take part in this massive relay. The torch catches fire in Olympia, site of the first ancient games, and then passes through thousands of persons to the location of the next Olympics. Sometimes the flame gets passed to an underwater torch; sometimes it flies in four lanterns on a plane. But so far, it has never failed to make it. 
 
That’s a lot like the story we tell at Christmas. The early believers came to learn what they probably did not know during Jesus’ ministry. How he was born far from home and cradled in a feeding trough. How angels sang before shepherds. How wise men followed a unique star. These accounts caught fire. They became precious to those who have given their lives to Jesus. So the reports have passed across oceans, over mountains, through deserts and hundreds of languages. The true story of a Savior’s birth.
 
This Advent, as we prepare for Christmas, our theme is light. We hope to catch fire from the birth of the Savior. The twist is that our flame does not begin on earth, not even from a place as cool as Mt. Olympus. This is a heavenly fire. Not from down here. A spiritual flame of life jumped the gap and caught fire in the virgin’s womb. The Spirit enabled Mary to conceive Jesus, the truly human, truly divine redeemer. 
 
When our hearts catch fire with that miracle, our whole lives light up. I love keeping this season with you and I hope you’ll make it here every 
week as we catch fire from Scriptures full of light and songs that light up the heavens with Christ’s glory. You especially don’t want to miss the Cantata on December 10, featuring our combined choirs, an orchestra and music written and arranged by our own Chris Phillips. We’ll have three services on December 24 and I’ll preach “All Along the Watchtower” at each.
 
 
Christmas Offering
 
Every year, in a very understated way, we make available a special offering to undergird two ministries beloved to our church. Every year, quietly, you shatter giving records and send the ministry leaders soaring into the new year with hope. 
 
The Christian Outreach Center, led by Brian Sleeth, helps thousands of people through the year with basic needs for food, clothing, shelter and electricity. But more, the COC offers effective programs in job readiness, financial literacy and even re-entry from prison to a contributing life. 
 
The Gardere Community Christian School, led by Lauren Darden, educates 150 students from preschool to fifth grade. This multi-ethnic Christian school consistently sees dramatic improvement in students’ test scores, outpacing both public and charter schools in its area. Most importantly, Gardere effectively forms these little ones in the love and story of Jesus. Both ministries light many flames of hope, and it’s a joy to support them.
 

All the Things to Love

"All the Things to Love" is the title of a book we used to read our children. It had beautiful pictures of many ordinary sights in which we can find beauty and joy. Serving God through his church is just like that. There’s so much we can do. Much of it seems obvious and ordinary. Until we think about it. Then realize, “Oh! This is a way I give glory back to God for the grace he has given me!” From arriving ten minutes early to speak to people to singing to teaching little ones to looking over the church finances to joining a mission team to visiting a homebound member to setting up communion . . . there is a cascade of ways we offer ourselves to God by participating in the life of the church. And when we ponder it for just a minute, we realize we love these activities. 
 
This autumn, we’ve been enjoying the weekly videos in which our members joyfully share the ways they steward God’s grace in our church. We’ve also distributed a catalog on the hundreds of ways we serve—the hundreds of opportunities there are for all of us.  
 
This has all been preparation for a special day of dedication, Sunday, November 12. By now you will have received a dedication card to fill out. We want everyone (yes, you!) to use these cards to make note of how you’re stewarding God’s grace. That is, to write what you are doing and what you’d like to do. Then we’ll offer that card to God as part of worship. It will be a way of recommitting ourselves to Christ, together, as people united at First Presbyterian.
 
That card will also include a way to offer our estimates of giving for the coming year. That’s a crucial part of your leadership’s planning process. I love to share that your elders are prudent: we don’t plan to spend more than we can expect. But your elders are also visionary: we put into play all the resources we can expect. That way every gift, all year long, truly counts. 
 
We know how much God has blessed us in Christ Jesus and through our church. I believe that November 12 will release joy as we intentionally dedicate ourselves, together, in worship at each service. Please make every effort to be there! I eagerly look forward to this day because, as ever, I love being your pastor!
 
 

Give Glory! Stewarding God's Grace

Suppose you were down on Bayou Black and saw the sun setting all washed with pinks and reds. What would you do? Maybe speak. “That’s gorgeous!” Maybe take a picture. “I have to show this to everybody!” Or maybe you want a picture so you can paint it. You just want to soak in and give back some of that beauty. Maybe you just take it all in quietly, praying in your heart, “Thank you God.” We encounter beauty and we want to respond.
 
Here’s news. God himself wants us to reply to the beauty he reveals! He wants us to make a return. To thank him with full hearts in worship. And to share with others the treasure he has revealed to us.
 
There is nothing more beautiful in all the universe than Jesus. He is the face of God shining on us. He is the heart of God opened to us. When we catch sight of the risen Savior holding out his nail-pierced hands in welcome, our breath catches. This is how you love me? “Come to me,” he beckons. And our hearts leap toward his open arms in full devotion. When we perceive Christ’s beauty, we want to tell him, “You’re beautiful!” We want to declare that beauty. Sing it. Draw it. Guard it. Share it. Serve it. Drink it in and give it out joyfully.
 
Our triune God eagerly desires us to reply to the beauty of the love he shares. There are a myriad of ways to do that. Peter wrote, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace.” God shares his beautiful grace through his people. His glory gets made known through all the ways we offer back from what we have received. This can be service or teaching. Hospitality or administering. Preaching or cleaning. Changing babies or singing. Giving money or spending time. Studying or painting. We give glory to our glorious God as we adorn him through the ways we offer back ourselves.
 
That’s our focus this fall. We want to celebrate the ways we are stewarding God’s grace through our church. You’ll be amazed to realize all the ways you are already doing this! On November 12, we want to rededicate ourselves as a reply to Christ’s beautiful grace. We’ll make our financial commitments, of course. They’re crucial! We’ll also offer back the places where we are serving and where we might like to serve more in the future.
 
 
 

Who Dat?

If you’re part of “Saints Nation,” you know the chant. “Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?” For years, it’s been a rallying cry for games. The essence is straight from the playground: “Our guys are better than your guys! If you think your guys will win, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.”
 
I’ve recently been reading about a “Who dat?” moment in Psalm 24. The psalm was written for a worship parade. The people remembered the glorious day when young King David had recovered the sacred Ark of the Covenant from the dreaded Philistines. The Ark contained the Ten Commandments. It’s top was the mercy seat, where atoning blood was offered. In short, the Ark meant the saving presence of the LORD. Through a great victory, the Ark was going back to its holy place in the sanctuary. Symbolically, God was coming home.
 
This historical moment was so sacred that it got re-enacted year after year. Psalm 24 describes a dialogue between the throng of people and the gatekeepers of the temple. The crowd cries out, “Open up, you gates, that the King of glory may come in!” The gatekeepers reply, “Who is the King of glory?” In other words, “Who dat?” What God is mightier than all gods? Who do you worship? Why should we let that God be in the heart of our sanctuary? Who dat God you got?
 
The people reply “The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle. He is the King of glory. So let us in to worship the one true God who redeems and saves. 
Open up!”
 
I can imagine this exchange going back and forth for a while until the people’s voice thunders. The trumpets blow and cymbals clash who dat? “The LORD, the LORD, the LORD, dat’s who!” So the gates open and the people dance to the house of the LORD and enthrone him as King all over again.
 
I hope you feel that when you come to worship. We proclaim the King of glory clearly and joyfully. I hope people all over will ask, “Who dat? Who dat God dey worship at First?” For we have a glad answer. The Lord Jesus Christ, the King of love, the suffering savior, the reigning Lord, the Lamb who was slain, the Messiah who is coming again to set all things right, the man who is God, he is the King of glory!
 
One 11 am Service September 3
 
Members of Abounding Love Ministries will join us for a special combined worship service Sunday, September 3 at 11 am. Pastor Adraine White will deliver the message, their worship team will join ours and we’ll have communion together. Don’t miss it! There will be no Sunday school.
 

Which Way Is Your Face?

That’s a great question for a church! We head where our faces, well, face! So which direction should a church point its nose? I tend to think the answer is that we are called to be four-faced. The “direction” of a church can never be just one way. A vibrant church faces upwards, outwards, sideways, and, with caution and on occasion, inwards. 
 
First and always we look upwards to the Triune God. “Seek him who made the Pleiades and Orion,” says Amos. “Look upon him and be radiant,” says the Psalmist. “Set your hearts on things above where Christ is,” wrote Paul. We use upwards in relation to God to acknowledge that God is the reality, and he is always more than we are. God is not just an internal spiritual part of us. He is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by whom all things were made. You can tell how a church faces upward by how that congregation admires Jesus, the face of God turned toward us.
 
We look sideways because Jesus connected loving him to loving one another. “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” That’s the truth! We want to be a church full of people who look at each other. In such a way that we see how it is with one another. We regard, listen, respond. Our sideways face radiates love.
 
The inward look is tricky. Because we can, like Narcissus, get enamored with our own reflection. Or mired in our own needs. Or stuck in our old shames. The proper inward look takes time to a) confess our sins and repent of them, and b) notice all the blessings of God and give thanks for them. We always need to grow in awareness as individuals and a church body. But never to stay stuck looking inward! Our inward look drives us to look up to Jesus, sideways to each other, and . . . 
 
Outward to the world. A hurting world wants to know, “Do you see me? Do you drive around me or come to visit me? Do you bask in the warmth you have with each other without opening the circle or extending the reach?” I’m always proud of our church, but I especially admire the relentless outward facing. As individuals, you are aware that every day you enter the mission field of your life. You know that your work is part of caring for the world. You look for opportunities to love and serve in every situation. And as a body, we push outwards in mission.
 
We’ve been blessed with abundance. We have an endowment. But your leaders make sure endowment income from our Foundation faces outwards. Last week the session released $79,000. We’re supporting five seminary students training for either church ministry or Christian counseling. We granted a Russ Stevenson Church Planting scholarship to a pastor beginning an EPC church in Smyrna, GA. We also reached across continents, making a grant to our partner church in Cairo for youth training. And we began what we hope will be a long partnership with EduNations, an evangelistic ministry in Sierra Leone of which Scott Graham is current board president. We’re showing our face in Baton Rouge, across the country and around 
the world. 
 
You have a beautiful face, dear church, as it points all four directions!
 

How Can I Find Easter Joy?

That’s a real question. We get excited for the celebration on Palm Sunday and the joyful services and family gatherings on Easter. We get really busy preparing. But sometimes we may wonder why this holiday does not touch us more deeply.  Jesus is risen. Where’s the gladness?
 
I’d like to suggest a counter-intuitive path to Easter joy.  Push more deeply into the passion! The key to Easter is the cross. The ugly, loud, defeating, disgusting crucifixion of Jesus unlocks the vault of resurrection hope. Too often we have skipped from Palm Sunday to Easter without a stop at Golgotha. That cheapens our celebration. But who really wants to press into the most horrible method of punishment yet devised? Besides, the rest of the world barely acknowledges Easter, so games and matches and deadlines steal our attention from Holy Week. That’s not a judgment, just a diagnosis of why Easter joy eludes us so often. Here are 5 ways to follow Christ more closely this 
Holy Week.
 
1) Ponder the Passion. Read the accounts of Jesus’ agony in the Garden, his arrest, scourging, trial, crucifixion and burial. Spend ten minutes a day with one of the gospels open to these accounts. Visualize. Feel. Pray with Jesus in his suffering. You might even want to check out my article “Break the Hardness in Me” going live April 4 at desiringgod.org
 
2) Spend Time in Week Six of “Come and See.” Days 36 to 42 will take you to the drama of Jesus’ final day and the release of his rising. Whatever you might have missed along the way, this Holy Week engage week six with your full attention.
 
3) Attend the Service of Shadows. On Holy Thursday, April 6 at 7 pm, we will move through the passion story with a feast of visual, musical and spoken offerings. We’ll stop along the way to the cross to ponder six magnificent paintings, vividly displayed on our high definition screens. We’ll have communion, extinguish candles and conclude quietly at the garden tomb. Together, we can viscerally experience the passion at a new level. 
 
4) Curate Your Own Set of Images, Essays, Poems and Reflections on the Meaning of Jesus’ Passion. Google or Bing are amazing tools for mining the treasure of Christian art, literature and theology. The more you try searches such as “the thief on the cross” or “why they gave Jesus vinegar on the cross,” the better you will get at excavating jewels of our faith. 
 
5) Change Your Rhythm. Skip something during Holy Week. Reduce your schedule. Get up a half hour early. Take a walk with one phrase of Scripture to ponder. Read passages with your family. Watch The Chosen. Fast for a meal. Invite someone to talk about the cross with you.
 
We have an immense storehouse of grace. But accessing it doesn’t just happen. We press into the passion, with all the emotional, spiritual and intellectual effort it takes. Then, only then, does the release of joy on Easter become ours.
 
So glad to be on this journey with you,
 
Gerrit
 

The Strange Way the Gospels Are Written

How brilliant is our God! The LORD inspired the 150 songs that are the psalms. But God didn’t give us any tunes! Great lyrics. But we get to make up the tunes. So the psalms continue to inspire music across cultures and centuries. 
 
The Holy Spirit inspired four views of the life of Jesus in the gospels. Each corroborates the other. Each is unique. But have you noticed a quality all the gospel stories share? They never tell us how to feel. They rarely tell us explicitly how Jesus felt. Or how the characters felt. The gospels give us the bare bones of the events. The essential words but not all the words. The borders of the story but not every detail of the occurrence. 
 
That’s a lot like giving the song lyrics without the tunes. The gospel stories invite. No, actually they demand, that we fill them in. That’s part of what makes them so compelling. They leave room for us. They pull us into the narrative. We get to consider how people felt and when we might feel the same. We get to identify the conflicts, the hopes, the change, the point. There’s nothing quite like the gospels as literature in all the world. 
 
But then, that’s not surprising, since the triune God himself inspired the many writers of Scripture to speak with unified but unique voices across centuries.
 
As you read in John this Lent, take some time to think about the literary wonder you’re encountering. Recall just how amazing it is that the Spirit continues to speak through the ancient word a unique and personal word to you—to you!
 
Volunteer to Bag Food for the Needy
 
The Christian Outreach Center (1427 Main St.) would love volunteers to help bag food for the needy each Wednesday between 8.30 am and noon. Sign up by using the volunteer form at christianoutreachbr.com. Please type "bagging" in the notes section before you submit. You will be contacted regarding scheduling and details.
 
Gardere School Art Gallery Walk 
 
Please join us Sunday, March 19 for our Gardere School Gallery Walk. Our beloved Gardere students will be sharing over 100 pieces of their finest work. The Gallery Walk will be held in the Reception Room and up for display throughout the day. Light snacks and beverages will be provided that morning. We look forward to having you! Don’t forget to welcome the children and their families in worship!
 
Spring Cleaning 
 
Now is a great time to donate furniture, clothing and housewares to the Purple Cow. These thrift stores provide significant funding for the Christian Outreach Center, one of our core ministry partners. The COC assists walk-in visitors, leads job training workshops and teaches financial literacy. The COC offers a hand up, not just a hand out!
 
It’s joy to be pursuing Jesus together during Lent, and as ever I love being your pastor!
 

The Power of Together

Do you remember our talk last summer? I know you don’t. Because it occurred inside my head and heart. I spent about three months in a near constant conversation with three partners: you, the people I met in the Gospel of John, and Jesus. I had one ear cocked to listen to what the characters in the stories were experiencing. I had another ear turned toward your lives. I lifted both up to Jesus. Then I considered deeply his replies to the people in the passages, as if they were for you as well. That’s how this year’s Lent book, Come and See, got forged.
 
Engaging Scripture is always better together. When the Son of God came to us as Jesus, he entered conversation with us. He didn’t just lecture. He asked questions and replied to questions. Christ’s teaching occurs in relationship. In the midst of ordinary daily life. And amidst the yearnings, needs, wounds and wanderings of the human heart that stay constant across the changes of centuries and cultures. 
 
The wonder of the Bible is that we can enter into these conversations Jesus had and discover how they include us! When we make the heart connection with the characters, the stories go from being weird, distant events, to urgently relevant for us. That’s what we’re after in our 100 days in John, and especially during Lent.
 
For as we pray and read these stories daily, it makes a huge difference to me to know that many hundreds of fellow believers are engaging at the same time. It motivates me not to skip. It encourages me to pray for my fellow questors for Christ. It gives me warm joy to know we’re all connecting to Jesus together.
 
That’s why we try to platform Come and See in multiple ways. We’ll be giving out the physical book (with wonderful full color art!) February 19 and the Sundays thereafter. We can also send daily emails (subscribe here). People can find the readings, prayers and art on our website and via our app. Wherever you are in the world, you can stay connected to each and all of us.
 
And, of course, joining a small group means your individual meditations can be enriched by interaction with others. When we verbalize our response to Scripture and listen to others verbalize their responses, we get threaded into the conversation more deeply.   All of that gives us a wonderful unity on Sundays when we are worshiping through the lens of what Jesus has revealed in these stories. 
 
I can’t wait for the conversations I had in my head and through my keyboard to become live interactions with you, beloved congregation! Plan now to grab a book (or call us if you’re homebound), sign up for the emails, and get connected to a small group. And do consider with whom you could share a copy of Come and See with an invitation to join us in this quest to know Christ more. 
 

100 Days in John!

New Year’s Opportunity: Let’s take a plunge into the beautiful, mystical, poignant, Gospel of Jesus Christ according to John. No book explores more fully the identity of Jesus as the God who became man. What fascinated me in preparing this study was how much insight into Christ is conveyed through the conversations he had. Jesus revealed his identity through his real interactions with ordinary people. In many cases, Jesus prompted our questions, enticing us to go deeper. The more we contemplate these conversations, the more intrigued with the Lord we become. 
 
I hope you’ll read through the Gospel of John as we start the messages January 8 with Christ’s first miracle recorded in John 2 as part of a conversation he had with his mom. When we get to Lent in mid-February, we’ll have a beautiful new guide called Come and See that will take us daily through the questions people asked Jesus.
 
Stay-Treat February 3-4: Five Mysteries in John
 
John’s Gospel gives us titles for Jesus found nowhere else. These simple words contain ocean depths of meaning. They are mysteries made known. Secrets that are open. Easily understood on one level, intriguing for a lifetime of exploration at deeper levels. There’s great stuff in John that we can’t get to in the Sunday messages.
So we’re hosting a stay-treat; time set apart for focused study, worship and fellowship where you still get to sleep in your own bed! Friday night includes delicious dinner, presentations and wonderful dessert. Saturday morning includes a light breakfast and three exciting presentations. There’s even a kids track!
 
The five mysteries include The Word, The Footwasher, The Vine, The Helper and the Triune Gift. Presenters to be revealed. But I can tell you this. They’ll be scintillating! Mark your calendar today!
 
Ministry Grants
 
Your elders distributed over $79,000 in grants to seminary students and ministry partners this past fall. Thanks to the generous distributions from our church Foundation, we are able twice a year to fuel mission over and above our usual programs. Seminary student Noah Pourciau received a grant. So did Abounding Love Church. Front Yard bikes teaches at-risk students how to repair bikes as a way to learn work skills and life skills, as the gospel comes wrapped in the work. We’re contributing to a program to support fathers in North Baton Rouge, a mission which brings The Jesus Film by motorcycle into remote parts of Africa, and an EPC church on the Mexican border that is creating a sanctuary. Rejoice in the bounty your church gets to spread around the world!
 
It’s my abiding pleasure to walk shoulder to shoulder with you through a life spent seeking to know, worship and serve our lovely Savior.
 

Seriously: Let's Be Jolly!

The Italians seemed so subdued. In previous years, I felt so Anglo, talking quietly across the table while all around me the Romans were inches from each other’s faces, gesturing with their hands, laughing and interacting exuberantly. But this year when I visited my brother, people seemed so glum. Why?
 
The Covid years were hard. There’s a war in Europe. Inflation. Western culture ruthlessly shredding itself. There’s a lot prompting us all to be somber. Lots of people are frustrated and angry most of the time.
 
But is that the way it should be for those united to Jesus as Christmas approaches? 
 
Have we, have I, forgotten the treasures in our storehouse of faith? Couldn’t we open the jewel box and pull out some of these lovely strands: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. Unto us a child is born. Unto us a Son is given. His name is Immanuel, God with us. For he shall save his people. You, child, shall be a light to enlighten all people. And of his kingdom, there shall be no end. What if we composed our thoughts with these shining verses every day this month?
 
The world is certainly no worse than it was the year Jesus was born. We have a Redeemer. We know the truth. We know how the story will end. Seriously, people, it’s time to get jolly and let the world see its hope.
 
A Festive Eve, A Quiet Day
 
As usual, we will have three services on Christmas Eve: 11 am, 4 and 6 pm. Though the music varies slightly, each will feature Silent Night, Joy to the World, candlelight and communion. My message is called “Home Calling.” Christmas Day is a Sunday and we decided to offer a 5 pm service in the Chapel. This will be “A Quiet Christmas,” with time to reflect and pray after all the festivities have wound down. 
Our congregation keeps Christmas with devoted faith, many signs of giving to others, good cheer and a true joy in belonging to Christ. I love to keep Christmas with you!
 

Can You Get Along without Giving?

I think I tried that one summer in my early 20’s. I lived like a tick, consuming goods and services and kindnesses but giving almost nothing back. Like some potentate of old, my attitude was, “I must be amused!” Worst weeks of my life. All take and no give is not a path to abundance but misery. 
 
Just a few seconds of thought would have led me better. You can’t keep taking in oxygen and not give back any carbon dioxide. You can’t keep eating if your gastro system is not processing. Of course we can’t have relationships that are only one-sided. Not with family, friends, coworkers or the Triune God. We are built for exchange. To receive and to give. In fact, the longer I live, the more I realize that satisfaction—happiness--actually depends on giving more of myself than I am naturally inclined. Holding back, hedging bets, staying safe leads to isolation, fear and loneliness. Sacrifice leads to joy. 
 
Now, I am a hedonist. I want pleasure. I want the best life. How wild it’s been to learn that such fullness comes from self-emptying. So, because I love you, I have no hesitancy in encouraging generosity in our members. Often, what’s missing in our relationship to Christ is not another Bible study, but another tangible step outwards.
 
Giving back a significant portion of our income to God is an inescapable part of a robust life in Christ. So I love to see your generosity every stewardship season. I think I could make a good case that your church is busy about Christ’s work in this world. And that means there are always opportunity to give service to Jesus and his little ones:
 
*VineBR. There’s a desperate need for foster families in our community. On Sunday, October 9, an orientation for people considering fostering will be held at Bethany church at 2 pm.
 
*Building Up. Already this year, Bethany Centre has begun a second new classroom in Uganda and the ministry in Medellin Columbia is renovating the home for mothers and young children which we purchased. You’re doing that!
 
*Gardere and Buchanan. Elementary children at Gardere long for mentors to spend an hour a week with them through our KidsHope program. Students who got behind during COVID need adults to read to them at Buchanan. Hearing books read is essential to learning to read!
 
*Nursery and Childhood. We always welcome loving volunteers to rock babies and chase toddlers during the worship hours.
 
*Marriages require the gift of attention, listening and processing. There’s no better marriage seminar than Created for Connection. FPC members even get a 50% discount for the October 21 & 22 session. 
 
*International Friendship Partners welcomes LSU students from around the world; rEcess give families with special needs children a Friday night out; Caring to Love gives hope to those experiencing a crisis pregnancy, and the Christian Outreach Center offers mentors to those learning job and life skills.
 
We can’t get along without giving and I love to see all the ways you give your hearts to Christ as you serve in your daily lives. No wonder I love being your pastor.
 

 

We Meet over This

When I was very new to pastoral ministry, I got to see Ian McKellan perform his one-man play, Acting Shakespeare. Before he was internationally known as Gandalf and Magneto in movies, McKellan performed all the great Shakespearean roles. This show included excerpts from Hamlet and Macbeth and King Lear, interspersed with comment. At one point, he picked up a script and walked toward the audience. “What happens in theatre is that you and I meet over this. My job is interpret these lines in a way that you can connect to them.” I realized, “That’s it! That’s what happens at church. We meet over the script that is Scripture. As teacher and participants interact over the passage, it comes alive to us.”
 
Of course this meeting happens (I hope!) during a sermon.  It’s not just my talking, but your participation with your thoughts and questions and feelings as we work through the text. My job is to anticipate your questions and name them, to realize my own resistance to these truths and consider how those struggles might be yours too. In that way, though you may not be speaking aloud, you are interacting with the Word along with me. If it works, you leave feeling that the Bible story is indeed your story. And the Spirit has moved your life along according to the sacred script. It’s the coolest!
 
But this meeting happens so many other ways at church as well. We interact with others around, over and through the Bible and the great narrative of our redemption in Christ. This meets our deep need to be introduced to God. 
 
And also our yearning to be connected to others. Such interaction is the heartbeat of our church. 
 
Think of that when you gather for a home-group meeting over I Peter. Or when you engage Mark’s gospel in this fall’s women’s studies. When you meet with a fellow church member and talk about the Word together. When you’re in Sunday school or Circle, early morning study or talking about the Bible with a Gardere student. These are the life-giving conversations where God himself is our discussion partner! 
 
Faith Driven Entrepreneur Conference
 
We want to highlight the interaction between our faith in Christ and our work in the business world. And we have an exciting, energizing way to do that! The Faith Driven Entrepreneur Conference will stream live in our Sanctuary Wednesday, September 28 from 9.30 to 3.30. In addition to a stunning array of presenters, lunch will be served and there will be break out groups as we consider what it means to belong to Christ and be engaged in business.
 
The conference is free when you check out following the instructions:
In your Cart at Checkout, you'll see a grey panel on the right. Under “Promotions,” type in your promo code FPCBR and click the gray checkmark button. 
 
This will be an important day, well worth your time. Contact Hank Mills, Blake Fowler or Darin Travis for more information. 
 
As ever, please know how much I love being your pastor.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Savor Summer

Does the arrival of June ever remind you of summers past? Can you still feel the excitement of getting out of school? Or getting ready for a trip to the water? Or playing outside until late? The Irish bard, yes Van Morrison, evokes the season: “Take me way back . . . where you could feel the silence at half past eleven on long summer nights as . . . voices echoed across the river . . . sunny summer afternoons picking apples . . . stopping for ice cream . . . conversation and laughter and music and singing . . . as we carried on dreaming in God.” I hope this summer you get to re-collect your life from the busyness of the year and recollect many memories even as you make new ones.
 
Your church will be here, joyfully celebrating the Lord’s Day each week. I’ll be preaching the Sundays of June, then hand over the reigns for a few Sundays in July. All that month will be single 10.30 Sanctuary services. Barry will give the Independence Day message. And George Gillam will bring us the Word from his perspective ministering to youth in North Baton Rouge. Our own youth will be off at camps; the children will encounter a Jerusalem marketplace at VBS; and we’ll lead a summer soccer camp with Abounding Love Ministries. On the last Sunday of July, we’ll have a special recognition of those who have been members of our church for fifty years or more. Who will take the prize for longest membership? Don’t miss the crowning of a new longevity winner! After General Assembly in Detroit, I’ll be in North Carolina for a few weeks, and hope to get a lot of work done on the sequel to Asking Jesus for next Lent. But do know that every day I give thanks for the joy of being your pastor,
Further into the World
 
Your elders have approved $78,400 in grants for seminary students, city ministry and global ministry. This includes helping underwrite a fathering program in North Baton Rouge, a facility for the disabled in Romania and a guest house for missionaries in Malaysia. Through your gifts and our foundation, our reach extends through our city to the world!
 
July Worship: Single 10.30 am Services
 
First Presbyterian Church invites you to attend its combined 10.30 am services each Sunday in July. These single services replace our typical worship schedule blending the styles of Classic Reformed, Contemporary and Chapel Communion worship. We encourage you to invite a friend. There will be no Sunday school.
 
Call for Meeting of the Corporation
 
On behalf of the church trustees, the session calls for a meeting of the Corporation of the First Presbyterian Church of Baton Rouge during worship at 10.30 July 31, 2022. The purpose of the meeting is to act on the recommendation that Amanda Vincent be elected as a trustee of the Corporation, and to engage any other matters of the Corporation. (Active members of the congregation are active members of the Corporation. Only those physically present may vote).
 

Take the Walk

Our theme picture for Asking Jesus this Lent has been Liz Swindle’s beautiful painting of the walk to Emmaus. Each day as we take up a question or a request of Jesus, we’ve had this scene in the background.  Would you like to walk with Jesus for a couple of hours talking about the Scriptures? I would!
 
Every year during Holy Week, Christ’s people try to do just that. We walk closely with him. We retell the epic events asking the Holy Spirit to make them present experiences in our lives. We want to keep watch with Jesus, to let him know our gratitude for all he did to undertake so great a salvation.  
 
And at FPC, we literally take walks with Jesus! On Palm Sunday we process around North Blvd. with palm branches. The children lead us as we declare, “Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  We participate in that brief moment when the world recognized its savior. It’s been three years since we’ve been able to close North Blvd. for our procession and the big picnic that follows. To celebrate this return to a great tradition, we’re going to have a massive crawfish boil! Plus, of course, egg hunts, games and hot dogs for the kids and a glorious time as one church. 
 
On Holy Thursday, we take another walk. From the dramatic reading of the passion, we walk from the Sanctuary to the Terraced Garden where the body of Jesus is laid in the tomb.  We answer the question as we sing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” As last year, the music will be richly layered with instruments and voices. We’ll add visuals on our stunning new screens to accompany the readings. And by all means, bring your children. This is a significant opportunity for the drama of the passion to be imprinted on the next generation.
 
Holy Saturday we don’t walk. We sit. We enter silence. We ponder the meaning of this huge pause, creation’s deep breath, between cross and empty tomb. If Easter joy has become stale to you, the antidote is to push deeper into the darkness of this bleak Sabbath.
 
Easter Morning we make our way to the Terraced Garden at first light, rejoicing to see the stone rolled away and declaring the news at the heart of the gospel, an announcement that has been reverberating throughout the cosmos: The Lord is risen! Breakfast in the Garden follows sunrise service before two glorious festival services of worship light up our sanctuary. 
 
Come take the walks with us! Don’t let anything stop you or your family. Not sports, not entertainments, not tiredness, not taxes, not doubt, not fear. There is no more important news in all of human history than what the church proclaims in Holy Week. Compared to this, nothing else matters. Let’s walk with Jesus!
 
 
Energizing Marriage Seminar. FPC will host Pete and Dee Adams leading a Created for Connection seminar for married couples, Friday evening, April 29 through Saturday afternoon April 30. Past participants describe the weekend as “enlightening, encouraging, revealing, hopeful, powerful, safe, loving and renewing.” Rhonda and I still reap the benefits from attending two years ago. Sign up at createdforconnectionbr.org. And here’s a little more incentive: for FPC church members, we will cover 50% of the cost! Just email Jaci Gaspard (jaci@fpcbr.org) to let us know you’re attending.  
 
 
 

Say Whaaaaaat?!

Have you ever thought about what kinds of things people asked Jesus? They made all kinds of requests. They had all kinds of questions. Pharisees, demons, disciples, sick people, rich and poor, seekers and cynics, even Jesus’ own mother and the devil himself made asks. Some tried to deflect him from his mission; some just needed mercy. As a reader, I’ve thought with surprise, “I can’t believe you just asked that!” Many times, of course, there was a question within the question. There was another layer of meaning beneath the surface. Jesus always answered the deeper need. He always addressed the true motive. And his replies always opened a way for transformation.
 
I had not spent much time thinking about this gospel category of requests and replies. But once I did, I felt like I encountered Jesus in a fresh, compelling way. I’m very excited that you will soon receive Asking Jesus, our 2022 Lent book. You’ll be invited to join me in exploring 42 requests made of Jesus. I predict you will discover that many of these questions are your questions. You’ll realize, as I did, that we make all these same requests today. So Jesus’ replies relate directly to our lives. This Lent, we’ll be able to meet Jesus again, but as if for the first time. All in about 20 minutes a day during the season of Lent.
 
Once again, your elders and deacons will be hand delivering your books. (Those who live outside the metro area will have their book mailed. If we miss you, please let us know!). There will also be extra copies at the church. Day One is Sunday, March 6, and our sermons will be related to our readings. You can also get connected to a home group to take your explorations even further. And, of course, you can sign up to receive the daily readings sent to you (or 1000 of your friends) by email. Click here to subscribe. 
 
I love to keep Lent with you by intensifying our focus on our loving, saving Lord. Further up and further in dear flock!
 
Welcome Emily Viguerie!
 
On March 7, Emily Petty Viguerie will begin as our Director of Community Life. Emily has been a member of FPC since joining with her family in 2007. She graduated from Dunham and then LSU. Last year she married Russ Viguerie. She has been active in a women’s Bible study for 20-somethings, and brings a love for Christ, for people and for the ministry of our church. We’re thrilled to find someone who knows our church culture and brings fresh energy for welcoming new members and connecting long-time members. 
 
More about Emily

You Comin'?

Michael Jackson’s first hit was called “I Want You Back.” That’s my heart for 2022. I want to see our Sanctuary filled again on a regular basis. Re-building the church is a key priority.
 
Across the nation, a Barna survey reported in November that in-person church attendance is down 30% to 50% from pre-COVID numbers. Even with vaccinations and the easing of restrictions. That’s across the nation. Now we’re an exceptional church in many ways, so our attendance is on the good end of that statistic. But we’re still down. And I want you back!
 
Of course, surges in COVID from breakthrough variants have made all interaction risky; especially for people in groups at a higher risk for dire complications. We get that. Health conditions and age-factors are real concerns. And it never seems to stop: Omicron has swept through the world and it will be another several weeks until it begins to dissipate. 
 
But virus avoidance has not been the only factor! The most common reason is that we just got used to “watching” at home. Or staying home and not watching. Isolation became comfortable. Getting up, dressed and out became a chore. Discovering all the other things there are to do on a Sunday morning became enjoyable. And we seemed to get along just fine without attending.
For church leadership, two ways to address this loss are open to us. One is to try to win the church by enticing consumers to make a consumer choice. “Come to church. It’s great! It’s a better experience to be in a live audience. We’ve got new screens. We’ve got amazing music. The nursery is clean and safe. Among all your choices, choose us!” Yes, we could go that route. And I think I could make a pretty good pitch for the “product” we offer. 
 
But the other route seems deeper, more Biblical and ultimately more compelling. We need to work on our ecclesiology. That’s a big word that just means what we think about what the church is. In other words, why does God summon his people to praise him as living stones joined together rather than just as individuals? What makes a church as the body of Christ different than any other voluntary organization? How passionate is Jesus about the faithfulness of his bride, the church? And how interconnected is the gathered worship of the church to the effectiveness of the mission of the church?
 
We’ll be talking about that in 2022. Not guilt, but challenge. Not advertisement, but inspiration. Not fluff, but substance. I want you back. More importantly, Christ wants you back! You comin’?
 

O. . . O. . . O. . . Merry Christmas!

Of all the prayers made in all the world, not very many get recorded. And almost all of the prayers written down are buried or lost within a few years. The sift of history is both brutal and clarifying. Only a few prayers survive in use for centuries.
 
This Advent, we’re looking at seven of those survivors. The “O Prayers” will guide our preparation for Christmas. They’re so named because each starts with “O,” followed by a title for Christ found in the Old Testament. These seven names for Jesus tap into our deepest human longings. We all yearn for the key, wait for the dawn, ache to know the root and source of our life, and desperately hope that God is with us. We’ll be exploring the Scriptures underlying these prayers in preaching, music, visual art and daily readings. You’ll be amazed how relevant prayers from the 6th century are to daily life in the 21st!
 
So, be sure to pick up a copy of your Advent reading guide. This will lead you through the Scriptures that inspired the “O Prayers,” as well as give you the prayers themselves, poems based on these prayers by our friend Malcolm Guite, and the words to the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Also, mark your calendars for the Christmas cantata December 19. It’s a commissioned work based on—wait for it—the O Prayers! Also, several artists in our church have contributed artwork inspired by these prayers. This will take us to Christmas Eve where I’ll be preaching at 11 am, 4 pm and 6 pm on what it means that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. I love to do Christmas with you, dear congregation, and I’m so thankful we can be fully back in our beloved Sanctuary.
 
Astounded
 
Your response to both the Building Up campaign for mission and the 2022 stewardship has been astounding. You move me deeply with the faith that leads to such generosity. These ties between our church and key mission partners will nourish our faith for years to come. I can’t wait to share the numbers with you once all the pledges are in. Meanwhile, we will surge into the work of the church for 2022, riding on God’s leading and your dedication. Thank you for loving your Lord so well through your church!
 
 

Just Return It!

My mother was the queen of returning things. No receipt? No problem! No original packaging? Perfectly fine! My mother loved to shop. The merchants loved my mother. She enjoyed an ongoing relationship with them. Her loyalty and frequency gave her license to make returns as desired. Returning is part of trusted commerce.
 
We can apply this to our relationship to God! The psalmist asked “What shall I return to the LORD for all his goodness to me (Psalm 116: 12)?" He had been in an exchange with God. Life had turned dire. The psalmist had cried out to the God who made him. The Lord answered with deliverance from death and an abundance of mercy. So the writer wanted to make an offering of thanks. He wanted to return, to reply to God in grateful acknowledgement. So we can say it again, with a spiritual twist: Returning is part of trusted commerce.  
 
As Christ’s people, we live in the economy of his love. He continues to do miraculous business with us. He trades forgiveness for our sins. He swaps his peace for our anxiety. He exchanges everlasting life for our mortality. This commerce is so miraculous, we joyfully want to respond! To return thanks. To give back. To live as he directs so he will be pleased. 
 
In this season of thanksgiving, we lift the festive cup in holy communion. We “cheers” the Lord who has given us nothing less than himself. We set aside a special day for gratitude. In days when we lived closer to the land, such a day was set between harvest time and the arrival of winter. Once “all was safely gathered in,” it was time to bless the Giver. 
 
That’s why I find spiritual significance in making the dedication of our gifts to God in this season. Grateful for his provision in the year that is finishing, we trust his bounty to come in the New Year. We make a thankful return, putting financial gifts to God’s work together with our prayers of gratitude. We mirror our God’s generous overflowing heart. 
Every November we do this as we make commitments to Christ’s work through our church for the following year.
 
This year, we can step further into that deep joy through the Building Up campaign. To give, over and above our usual pledges, out toward others, when there is no visible return to our church—that will launch us into the wonder of God’s wondrous commerce. The spiritual return we will receive will be full of love, connection, participation and hope. November 14 is Dedication Sunday. I hope we will swell the House for this joyful celebration. Your elders are passionate about making this return. I know that, having made my pledge already, I am only more thankful to be your pastor,  
 
Gerrit
 
 

Click the Link!

I know that I’ve rotted my brain through an overload of internet information. But it’s just so fun to follow one idea to the next! Don’t you love it when there’s a handy link to the next topic you want to know about? I marvel at how interconnected all knowledge is, if you just know how to make the links.
 
But I really shouldn’t be surprised. The Triune God made all there is. He made the universe with interconnections that hold at the deepest level. The more we know, the more we find there is to explore, and the more we explore, the more beautiful the cosmos is revealed to be. For creation reflects the beauty of the Mind of the Maker.
 
In Scripture, we see that the Holy Spirit is the great connector. He is the link. By the Holy Spirit, Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary. The Spirit linked up the Son of God with our humanity. The Triune God clicked the link at Christmas! By the Spirit, faith is conceived inside someone who hears the gospel. The Spirit links up the Son of God to particular believers. We click the link of faith and get joined to Jesus. By the Spirit, all believers are linked to each other. We share “one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4: 4-5). We click the link of awareness to this Biblical truth and suddenly we are no longer alone. We are in fellowship with believers across continents, cultures and even centuries!
 
How do we click the link that makes us aware of how linked in all Christians are? 1) We read, trust and contemplate the truth of our communion from Scripture. 2) We pray knowing we join our voices with “the great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12: 1) who praise Jesus. We also pray for these other believers, thanking God for them and asking him to sustain and grow Christian communities wherever they are. 3) We engage in mission with other Christians. That’s the great value in short term mission trips. We begin to see the beautiful reality of the world church. We realize we are part of one great Mission. 
 
And of course, that’s the spiritual beauty of our Building Up campaign. While none of the money goes directly to our church, the benefits to our community of Christ are manifold! Having made and started to pay our pledge, already Rhonda and I feel like we are closer to Brian Miller in Medellin. The prayer keychain made by the women at Esther’s House just breaks my heart with gratitude for that mission. I feel more connected to the work at Gardere. I feel more joyful over Peter’s school in Uganda. I believe Ben when he says Church of the Resurrection gives regular thanks for us
 
I know that Building Up: Taking Missions to the Next Level is not about us. But O do we get a great benefit! When we click the link to the pledge tab on our website, we click the link to joyful connection to what God is doing around the world. The one Spirit joins us to all believers engaged in Jesus’ one mission. It’s a powerful joy!   
 
Kirkin’ Time October 31
 
Wear your plaids, your kilts and your tweeds as we celebrate the Scottish roots of our Presbyterian faith on Reformation Sunday with one 10 am service October 31. We'll also have our fall congregational meeting to vote on the slate of new elders and deacons presented by the Nominating Committee. After worship, all are invited to enjoy brunch (love offering will be taken). Face painting, a balloon artist and games will be offered for the children. Registration not required. 
 
Clan Tartans for the Kirkin’
 
We want your clan’s tartan to be represented in the Sanctuary at the annual Kirkin’ O’ the Tartans. Contact Jaci Gaspard to see about including yours (jaci@fpcbr.org or 620.0221). 
 
I’m so grateful to be in mission with you, and even more so, I love being your pastor, 
 
Gerrit
 

Look Out!

As we go to press with the September newsletter, Ida has passed through. Donations can be made to FPC Hurricane Relief using the button below. Call the office to volunteer for clean-up teams. 
 
Where are we going as a church? That’s always a relevant question. The answer, if we are faithful, is always some form of “in and out.” We’re pressing into the person and events of Jesus. We’re pushing out with his gospel to the world. Same old mission. Always and forever! But every season, if a church has energy and passion, that answer expresses itself in fresh ways.
 
This fall, we’re pressing in through a worship focus on Paul’s first letter to the young church in the Greek town of Thessalonica. It’s a beautiful, heartfelt message of encouragement. In Sunday school, two of our adult classes are studying Gospels: Mark and John. Our children and parents will be receiving copies of The Gospel Story Bible and their classes will focus on learning the big story of the Triune God’s redeeming work. The women’s studies will take up Esther; youth will study Gospel Foundations in Sunday School and Hebrews in midweek studies. Confirmation students study the Greatest Bible Stories of all time. Do you see a pattern here? We’re questing to meet Christ through Scripture all over the place. Meanwhile we interweave all of that with prayer and care for one another. 
 
But I think you’ll notice most a ramping up of our looking out.  Every week as part of worship, we will hear from our ministry and mission partners. We’ll hear ways to participate, whether it’s mentoring students, encouraging teachers, hosting international students or working with us on our seventh (!) Habitat House. That’s right, once more our church will work side by side with a new homeowner to construct a dwelling. Terrence Carter is a stroke survivor, the father of two sons, and a man of faith eager to partner with us. That all begins at the end of the month.
 
We’ll also introduce our first capital campaign in over a decade. Only it’s not to raise funds for us. We will be seeking to raise $1.5 million for building projects for four key mission partners. Imagine a whole over and above campaign to advance the gospel beyond us: an expansion at Gardere Christian School, a cottage for young women rescued from sex trafficking in Medellin, a high school and dorms in Uganda, helping Church of the Resurrection purchase a permanent site in New Orleans. We’ll be hearing lots more about the Building Up campaign in the coming weeks. I’m thrilled we’re daring to dream of investing so significantly in mission beyond our walls.  I love to be on this journey with you, both “in” toward Christ and “out” to the world!
 
 
 

The Deeper Challenge in Cancel Culture

The strife is everywhere. Between friends. Between family members. Between generations. A great divide seems to have opened up. Everything seems political. Everything seems to be about race. Everyone is always offended. We hate the conflict but don’t really even understand it. What’s going on?
 
The church of Jesus faces particular challenges. We know we are sent to the most difficult and desperate people and places with the gospel of Christ. We know Jesus loved the outcast and challenged the powerful. We resonate with the yearning for equality. Yet we feel that something is amiss in the demands for justice that want to deconstruct the way we’ve always lived. It’s hard to sort out Christian compassion from “woke” compulsion. 
 
The mission of the church remains the same: to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth, to regard everyone in the loving light of Christ. Yet we face increasing hostility. In fact, we face competition. There is a worldview competing with us for adherents. A religion that wants to replace us. It’s a religion of harsh legalism and burning urgency that demands total allegiance. It’s a promise of an earthly utopia that has no blue print except dismantling structures deemed oppressive. It resists being identified and wants everyone to view the world through its lens as the “normal” way of seeing. 
 
Call it cancel culture, cultural Marxism, woke theology, or simply “justice, equity and diversity.” Whatever the label, it has a source. The technical name is Critical Theory. Christians of all ages need to understand the view of the world that underlies so much of today’s discussions. We need to be able to grasp what’s being said in order to evaluate if it’s really compatible with the gospel.
 
Our “Stay-Treat” on August 20-21 will feature three dynamic
 presentations by an expert in Critical Theory. Dr. Neil Shenvi brings the rigor of his background in theoretical chemistry along with his unique ability to present complex issues clearly. You can read more about Neil at shenviapologetics.com
 
Please plan to join us. And bring a car load! We can’t afford not to understand what’s going on in our current cultural conversations.
 
The Deeper Challenge in Cancel Culture
First Presbyterian Stay-Treat, August 20-21
 
Talk 1: "Critical Social Justice and Christianity: Are They Compatible?"
Talk 2: "Critical Race Theory: A Deep Dive"
Talk 3: "Christianity and Justice: Cautions and Suggestions"
 
 
 
 
 

The Blessing of New Leadership

At the end of last year, the session appointed a search committee to find an Assistant Pastor for Children, Youth and Family Ministry. We wanted to elevate and deepen our ministry to young people. Elder Will Adams led the team, along with Cheryl Broadnax, Ryan Castle, Boyd Greene and Kelly Wood: all of them parents of children and youth. It was a delight to work with them. And we believe the Spirit led us straight to one stellar young man! Colton Underwood is nearing completion of his Master of Divinity from Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson. The last two years he has been working with youth and families in his internship at First Presbyterian Church of Yazoo City. Colton is originally from Indiana. He fell in love with a pastor’s daughter and married Rachel five years ago. A graduate of Purdue University, Colton is an avid runner, adventurer, scholar and foodie. He is a delightful young man and together he and Rachel make a winsome pair. His vibrant faith, graciousness and personal discipline will energize our pastoral team and congregation. Colton and Rachel arrive in early August to begin working with our children and youth and lead those staff teams. We expect his ordination to the EPC to occur this time next year. Please pray for the Underwoods and get ready to give them a great Baton Rouge welcome.
 
 
Baton Rouge Christian Counseling Center
 
In 1991, we asked Dee Adams to be the founding director and first therapist at our new counseling center. Dee has led this ministry for more than thirty years! BRCCC has served thousands of clients and developed a sparkling reputation in our city. This July, Dee will step aside from directing BRCCC, though she will continue to counsel part-time. 
 
After a careful search, the board of the center was led to choose one of our current counselors to lead our center. You’ll know her! Sherry Kadair has been a counselor at BRCCC since 2011 and a member of our church since 2014. Sherry is currently a deacon and serves in both the media and music ministries. Sherry has been married to Howard since 2007. She holds an MA from Denver Theological Seminary and specializes in trauma care. Sherry also has significant experience in the business world and will bring great administrative skills, a cheery spirit, loving heart, warm comradery and a strong sense of the mission of the center and the church. Please pray for her as she steps into the huge role shaped by our founding director. 
 
July 4 falls on a Sunday this year and I’m already at work on a message called “American Privilege: Gospel Imperative.” I hope you’ll be there for this important topic as we begin a month of single services at 10.30. We’ll enjoy some great guests this summer as well with Ben Cunningham from our daughter church, Church of the Resurrection, and Albert White from Abounding Love Ministries. I hope you’ll get some refreshment and precious time with family this summer. We’re looking forward to a few weeks in the mountains, but know that you will always be on our minds and hearts. 
 
I remain delighted to be your pastor,
Gerrit
 
 

Do You???

“Do You. . . ?” That’s the question we ask five times to our confirmation students. Just like we do to any new members. They are some heavy questions. Here they are condensed. Do you acknowledge you’re a sinner? Do you believe in Jesus as the Savior of sinners and the Lord of your life? Do you promise to live as a follower of Christ? Do you promise to participate as a member of this church? Do you agree to the oversight of this session? Like I said, big questions about what matters most in life. This Sunday, 30 sixth grade students will answer those questions as the culmination of nine months of study, prayer, discipleship and interaction with elders, pastors and teachers.  We’ve approached these questions on multiple levels. Because this is what matters most. Do you want to be all in with Jesus?  Pray for them this Sunday afternoon as they answer a joyful Yes to all these questions!
 
And now a five pack of notes for this May.
  
• Last year, the church received a PPP loan from the government to cover us should COVID cause a drop in our revenues. That loan gave us confidence to keep all our Mother’s Day Out teachers on at full pay and to keep all our staff going. But ultimately, we didn’t need it. Because our dear members came through with stunning giving. So last week, we sent it back, with interest. After much deliberation, the session determined that returning these funds was God’s direction for us, an act of trust and freedom.
 
• The session approved $59,000 in grants, including support for five seminary students, a girls’ dormitory in Uganda and a vehicle for a professor at African Bible College. This is your Foundation at work reaching the world!
 
• On Mother’s Day, we give thanks for that most important and difficult of jobs: rearing children in love and wisdom. Through natural birth, adoption, fostering, aunting, teaching and mentoring, women have been giving the gifts of motherhood to our community. How grateful we are!
 
• This summer, opportunities abound for children and youth to go deeper in Christ and further into the world. Camps, mission trips, Vacation Bible School and fun youth activities. Stay tuned for details.
 
• On Sunday, May 30, we will have one combined worship service at 10.30. In June we’ll continue with three Sunday services before single services return in July. 
 
Isn’t it great to be together again?
 
As ever, I love being your pastor.
 
 

What Are We Doing About Masks?

Updated May 14, 2021:
 
Beginning this Sunday, we are lifting our masking requirement at worship! We trust people to make their own decisions regarding their safety and health in this environment. How grateful we are that the grip of this pandemic is loosening and we can return to worshiping with “unveiled faces.”
 
April 29, 2021:
 
Our session has decided to ask worshipers to wear masks through May 23. Why? Well, as Nick Saban might say, it’s about respecting the process.
 
A significant number of our attendees are still completing the vaccination process. As much as we all want to rip away these annoying coverings and sing out freely, we know that waiting just a bit longer allows anyone who wants to be immunized against COVID to do so. After May 23, we can each make our own personal decisions about attendance and masking.
 
Hang in there beloved church. Soon, very soon, we’ll be singing with unfettered hearts—and faces! Believe me, I’m longing to see your dear faces when I preach!
 
 

Three Great Days . . . Forever!

One event across three days. That’s how Christ’s Church came to understand what happened from the Last Supper to Easter morning. This was the Triduum: the three great and holy days when Jesus made his passage through death into resurrection life. Every moment interlocked in meaning and significance.  
 
In Jesus’ time, days began at sunset the night before. So when we gather for the Service of Shadows on Thursday, we’re beginning our remembering of Good Friday.  We meditate on his agony in Gethsemane. We retell the story of Jesus’ passion. Then we walk into our terraced garden where the tomb is set up. We sing “Were You There?” as the tomb, along with our hope, is sealed. 
 
On Saturday morning, we listen quietly to psalms Jesus prayed. We enter the silence of the King’s sleep between death and resurrection, his remaining under the power of death all that lonely day. We take a breath between cross and resurrection.
 
Then on Sunday we begin to meet at first light to rejoice that the stone is rolled away, the Savior is up—risen--having defeated death and opened eternity to us. 
 
With the church across the world and through the ages, during the Triduum, we remember in a special way. The past becomes present. We remember so that what happened then can be part of our spiritual experience this moment. These real events are not lost in dusty history. They are the most potent facts in all of life, right now!  
 
I’ll be preaching Easter morning on “Three Easter Truths You Can’t Live Without!” It’s a great day to bring a neighbor or a friend. At 9 and 11, worship will be live in the Sanctuary and livestreamed to the terrace garden. We’ll have a huge wall of LED screens set up outside with a live worship leader and coming forward for communion. So you can choose, inside or outside! 6.30 sunrise will be just in the garden, with room for over 200, and a light breakfast to follow. I’m so eager to keep Easter in person with you, dear church!
 
Later this month, we take a pause between sermon series and I will give some topical messages, including “The Questions Graduating Seniors Ask” and “Cultivating Resistant, Resilient and Renovative Christian Community.”  
 
Beloved Pastor Emeritus 
 
Our beloved pastor emeritus, Russ Stevenson and his wife Sherill moved this January to a retirement community in Virginia. We will miss their worshiping in our Sanctuary, but his legacy will never be forgotten. If you’d like to get in touch, the church office has their new address. 
 
August Stay-Treat
 
I’m truly energized that Christian apologist, Dr. Neil Shenvi has agreed to conduct a stay-treat for us in August. A theoretical chemist by profession and theologian by avocation, Dr. Shenvi contends for our faith with remarkable clarity. He will give three presentations taking us through the current debate on what makes for Biblical justice, exposing the fallacies of critical theory while challenging us to do the work of gospel reconciliation. Take a Google at him and get excited!
 

Haven't You Missed It????

Palm Sunday. Easter Morning. Service of Shadows. It was so weird to lead those services looking into the lens of an iPhone. But this year we’re back! Palm Sunday is March 28. We plan to use the main parking lot for an outdoor service with palms and a procession of children. 10 am service, followed by egg hunts and a balloon artist for children in the garden areas and light snacks for the rest of us. 
 
On Easter morning, April 4, we plan to use the terraced garden to its full capacity. First for the Sunrise service at 6.30 am. This will be a complete worship service including communion and then biscuits and coffee to follow.  At 9 am, the festive service will be in the Sanctuary but also livestreamed to the terraced garden!  Same at 11. No tickets or reservations. Come to the Sanctuary for “live” worship, come to the garden for “livestreamed” and overflow.  
 
Holy Thursday will return April 1 at 7 pm with the Service of Shadows in the Sanctuary followed by a visit to the tomb in the garden. And we will keep the eerie reflection of Holy Saturday on April 3 at 11 am in the Sanctuary. How sweet it will be to be back!
 
Your elders recently spent a weekend retreat considering what it means to cultivate resistant, resilient and renovative Christian community. We all read Rod Dreher’s book Live Not by Lies in preparation. The book identifies our excessive focus on individualism and personal comfort as well as the rise of cultural Marxism as two key factors diminishing the church. Bouncing from that work, our task was to consider how reclaiming Christ-centered distinction not only protects the church but makes us better at reaching our community. We noted the importance of learning to recognize the worldviews which shape people and what makes the Christian worldview distinct and generative.  Twelve different small groups then met to consider specific ideas for our church in areas such as discipleship, worship, children’s ministry and reaching the business community. I’m looking forward to doing a vision sermon based on this retreat April 18. 
 
Meanwhile, what a joy it is to be reading these Scriptures about being “in Christ” with you. I’m finding them nourishing and challenging all over again. Best of all, we’re praying and reading together, wherever we are, one body of Christ. No wonder I love being your pastor,
 
Gerrit
 
 

You're Weird!

You're weird! Not like everybody else. Unique in the world. Different than most.
 
After all, what Muslim says “I live in Mohammed?” What practicing Buddhist says, “I spoke with Siddhartha this morning?” What existentialist says “I am in organic union with Camus?” What atheist says “I have a mystical link to Richard Dawkins?” But you say all those things about Jesus! We Christians are “in Christ.” We speak with the historical founder of our faith personally and presently. His Spirit links us to Jesus and to each other the way parts of a human body are linked to the whole. That’s weird—if you’re on the outside looking in. But such wonder is normal for those who have been joined to Jesus.
 
This Lent, we’re going to explore what it means that our truest home is Jesus himself. We’re going to pursue the mystery of what Paul meant by being “in Christ.” We’ll see how living in Christ and from Christ lights up everything in our lives. John Calvin called it a “mystical union” and declared it to be of highest importance to our faith. 
 
Honestly, engaging in this study will change your life. Like discovering priceless treasure you hadn’t known you possessed. Like tapping into an endless supply of energy. Like coming home. Like finally living in Reality. We’ll be drawing from more than 85 Scriptures as well as the writings of experienced spiritual masters such as James Stewart and Andrew Murray. We’re questing for the very heart of Christian experience. We’re going to claim our distinctive faith. Yep, we’re weird. Gloriously, joyfully so!
 
The week of February 14, your elders, deacons and pastors will be bringing your Lent books to your house! It’s a quick, safe drop off. But we wanted to be sure, in these COVID times, that every member gets a copy before February 21 when the daily readings begin. You can get extra copies at church and also sign up for daily emails. Smaller, well-distanced 6 week home groups will also begin. We hope participating with others will help to reknit our congregation after so long apart.
 
I’m so eager to join you on this journey deeper into Christ our true home!
 
 
Assistant Pastor Search
 
We have begun the search for a pastor for children, youth and families. Please pray for God to guide us and bring the right person to this crucial position. Also, feel free to refer suggestions to elder Will Adams. The search committee would like to hear from parents about what they think is important in this role and what qualities we should look for in candidates. To that end, we’ll be hosting two Zoom calls. Monday evening, February 8 at 7 pm and Tuesday morning, February 9 at 11 am. We’ll send parents an invitation by email soon.
 
 

Looking Upward, Reaching Outward: 2021

We made it! 2020 is no more. If only turning the calendar would automatically restore the world. Change is coming, we know that. We have high hopes that the Covid vaccine will dramatically limit the virus. But will we ever go back to “normal?” A new presidential administration will certainly be different. Will it be good for the people of Christ who hold to our historical values? The tension about race and equality will tighten. Will it resolve in more harmony? It’s a new year and I’m daunted by the challenges already!
 
Thankfully, the church of Jesus does not retreat when the future seems uncertain. Your leadership certainly hasn’t. We are deeply committed to proclaiming the ancient gospel in a way that addresses the concerns of these times. We believe our highest purpose is public worship of the Triune God in word, song and prayer. We have good tidings to make known, a Lord to glorify and love to share. On January 24, you will hear our new officers take their ordination vows, committing themselves to the Lord Jesus, to his Word and to the work of his church. I’ve read their testimonies and heard their faith: you will be so moved by this upward call!
 
The session recently made commitments to direct nearly a million dollars over the next three years to fund our mission priorities. We are blessed to have endowment income through the McLaurin Trust and the church Foundation. Our policy is to never use such funds for the general mission, ministry and operation of the church: that’s the joyful job of current members. Rather, we push endowment income outward. So, we intend to support Gardere Community Christian School with $100,000 a year. We purpose to give $100,000 yearly to church planting, including $75,000 annually to the Church of the Resurrection, our thriving daughter church in New Orleans. And we plan on designating $125,000 a year for the Session Income Allocation Committee which makes recommendations for funding future leaders going to seminary as well as supporting other missions in our community. We’re determined to reach outward.
 
Meanwhile, your faith, participation and funding energizes the daily work of the church. Our partnerships with 30 local ministries continue to flourish (We’ve got a Habitat House to build in 2021!). And our members increasingly enter the mission field of their lives (whatever they are doing) with an awareness that they are Christ’s ambassadors in word and deed. A stellar staff team leads ministry with and to every age as we press into Christ and his Word. In fact, we want to raise the level of our commitment to children, youth and their families. The session recently approved a search for an Associate Pastor to energize and oversee that work.
 
By God’s grace and in the Spirit’s power, we’re propelling forward, dear church. We know how important it is that we hold tight to one another, sharing life in all its joys and pains as only a community of Christ can. I’m so glad to be traveling with you!
 

A Christmas to Remember and a Year to Forget!

Ever since I was old enough to understand the concept, I’ve been sad when one year passes to another. But this year, well, I’m ready to be done with 2020! We’ve seen a ridiculous amount of upheavals followed by more upheavals. Fresh start, please!  
 
Thankfully, Christmas is coming. I’ll be pining for standing room only packed out live nativities and Christmas Eve services. But we can’t do any sardining now! Still, we’ve had our creative caps on trying to figure out how we can get all the people who want to keep Christmas with us attending in a safe way. Details are to follow, but we’re deep into exploring having outdoor services run concurrently with indoor services! Including one with animals! We’re considering implementing a ticket system so we don’t have to turn people away, but can offer folks a seat at that the service they choose in the venue they choose with good distancing. Yes, it’s going to be different. But when I think about being in the terraced garden, with a fire blazing in the fireplace, bundled up and raising our candles in the dark, it sounds pretty Christmassy to me! Pray for your elders ands staff as we make decisions, and watch our website and bulletins for more details.
 
Our December sermons will be built around Lost Verses of Famous Carols. We had a lot of fun several years ago uncovering seldom sung lyrics in beloved Christmas songs. Well, we’ve found some more little known words from O Little Town of Bethlehem, Silent Night, O Come All Ye Faithful and Hark! the Herald Angels Sing. So we not only get to sing these great carols, we get to dive deep into their content.
 
I’m very excited about the new advent calendar that’s been created for our daily readings during this sacred month. Beautifully designed by Katie Robinson, Katie Forsthoff and Mitzi Barber, the readings are coordinated with our sermons and include lovely breath prayers to take you deeper.
 
Meanwhile, we look forward to a special Sunday of music on December 13. The worship team and chancel choir will combine with an orchestra to present “Hail the Blessed Morn,” a program highlighting the rich musical tradition we have at our church through Christmas favorites.
 
 
Movies You’re Not Supposed to See
 
Tired of formulaic Christmas movies? Want to think more deeply about what’s going on in our society? I have three movies for you that challenge the status quo. Each is disturbing, provocative and rousing. I believe you can’t not view these films as part of the ongoing dialogue in our culture. Each one makes a well-produced, captivating watch. Unplanned. This is the story of Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who discovered the economics of the abortion industry, the dehumanization of women clients, and the horror of the procedures. Uncle Tom: A Narrative History of Black Conservatism. Prominent African Americans challenge the narrative of dependence.  The Social Dilemma. Former creators and executives from Google, Instagram and Facebook warn of the monster they created through the algorithms of manipulation on our favorite media sites. A chilling warning. I’d love to hear how you respond.
 
Yes, 2020 may be a year to forget, but it only makes me more eager to keep a joyful Christmas with you dear flock!
 

Would I Feel Richer If . . .

Would I feel richer if I gave away less money? I asked myself that recently. Several annual commitments to mission groups had come due. We set up some college funds for the grandchildren. We sent some other people support. And of course we always make our church gift. Wow, we just got paid and it’s almost gone! What happened to the going-out-to-dinner money? And the new fall clothes allowance? I mean, what if we just stopped giving so much away? Would we be happier? Would it feel like my bank account was bigger? 
 
I thought hard about that. I tried on the possibility that I’d feel fuller if I had more cash staying home. For a second, it thrilled me. Man we could have some big fun! In another second, it scared me. Would I ever risk going back to not tithing? I recalled the weight of being responsible for finances without God. I shuddered remembering when the balance of our spending was weighted toward doing what we wanted to do. Burdened on the outside, thin on the inside. That’s how I felt in those years.
 
Then I thought about what it means to be invested in our church. To know we’re running in our lane, shoulder to shoulder with the remarkably committed believers here. If we weren’t prioritizing our church, I’d feel like a pretender in front of you. Instead, I know this is our family of faith. I fill up inside thinking of all our church is and does. And suddenly I feel humbled, even thankful that we get to contribute. That’s the word: we get to. And if we didn’t, I’d feel diminished, shut out, longing to find a tangible way to declare, “We’re in! We’re in with you.”
 
I thought about other ministries we love. And that’s the word: love. Our family loves Gardere, Dunham, Caring to Love, the Magruders and others. If we didn’t give, we’d have more money. But less love. Which means less joy.
 
I also realized how much I value living in the flow of God’s blessing love. He pours in, and in reply we try to pour out, responsibly but proportionally. If we just kept it, like a dammed up pond, we’d stagnate spiritually, emotionally and even financially. We wouldn’t be as thankful, we wouldn’t feel God’s care as much, and I’m pretty sure, even if we had more dollars for a while, we’d feel not rich but poor. 
 
Lesson learned for your pastor! I peered over the edge and realized, in my gut, what a joy it is to get to give
 
 
Foto Sisters to Join Us for Service of Healing and Hope
 
As the holidays approach, the sadness of loss also rises. Many of us bear the pain of having lost very young children. Perhaps through miscarriage, through accidents or infant illnesses, through abortion or still birth. The sorrow remains. And our church would like to offer a tender touch. Sunday afternoon, November 8 at 4 pm in the Sanctuary, we will have a memorial service of healing and hope. The Foto Sisters will lead our music. God has used them to bring a unique healing touch to people all over the country. Please free to invite others from outside our church to join us for this quiet, prayerful hour.
 
Abby Johnson to Speak 
 
This year’s annual Caring to Love banquet features Abby Johnson, the former Planned Parenthood executive whose views transformed the day she assisted an abortion. Now a Christian and ardent defender of life, Abby’s story was told in the feature film Unplanned and the book by the same name. Tickets are available online at ctlm.org. First Presbyterian also has a limited number of deeply discounted tickets available for $20, please email jaci@fpcbr.org for info. Thursday, November 12, 6.30 pm at the Marriot. 
 
Perimeter Construction
 
Pay attention! Over the next two months our church campus will undergo the security and beautification upgrades that your Session approved last spring. As the project progresses, please pay attention to signage that will direct you to available entrances. Your patience is appreciated. You’re going to love the final result!
 

Stitching It Up!

Surely this is one of the strangest years ever! Everything can seem upside down. Just when we need each other, we can’t touch and can’t meet. It seems like we’ve lived in a fog for the last seven months. What happened to 2020?
 
A lot of things have fallen away. We’ve learned to live without watching sports all the time (OK, so some diehards did watch the bean bag tossing championships. We pray for their souls.). We’ve grown to like having a less frenetic pace. But we’ve missed parties and barbecues and hugs. And church. If you’ve been back in the Sanctuary since the pandemic began, you know how great it feels. To be in the house of the Lord with his people. The soaring ceilings. The beautiful wood. The ascension window. All the memories. To hear the music. To sing, even in a mask. To know that the church is still the church. How very precious our church is to us.
 
As the fall months come, we’re working hard to re-gather our congregation. On September 13 we will return to two Sanctuary worship services: Contemporary at 9 and Classic Reformed at 11. Sunday school will resume at 10.10 on Sundays. We’re learning to gather in ways that are as safe as we can. But I know it will take an effort. We’ve got to overcome the rhythm of just staying at home. We’ve got to push against the inertia of isolation. We’ve got to put up with the inconvenience of safety measures. We’re taking a gamble that we can fill in two worship services with enough people that it doesn’t feel like we’re in a cavern. I think it’s time! Come to church! Invite others to come. Let’s stitch up the fabric of our fellowship, one returning worshiper at a time.
 
As the weather cools later in October (Amen, may it be so!), we want to do more outside gatherings. Imagine a huge tent on the terraced garden. And a Kirkin’ celebration outside. What if we could have our Christmas cantata outside on North Blvd. one December Sunday? What if Christmas Eve could accommodate 1,500 people because we made it a Journey to Bethlehem, touring with candlelight in groups through the stages of the Nativity Story, ending in the Sanctuary with communion? There are so many possibilities that can open up with a change in temperature. We will be an adventurous congregation!
 
Meanwhile, let’s stay tethered through our individual praying of the Psalms. I love reading a psalm knowing that hundreds of you are praying it that morning too. It’s not too late to connect through a Shepherding through Psalms group. Just contact Darin Travis or Kelly Wood.
 
I’m also happy to report how your generosity reaches into our city and around the world. We received about $75,000 in our Neighbors Fund and have already disbursed half of it to individuals and ministry partners. We continue to keep a watch out for needs related to COVID-19, and thanks to you can act quickly to help. Also, the session approved sending $20,000 to the Philemon Project, an EPC ministry in Beirut that cares for orphaned children. The recent explosion that devastated the city has made the need desperate. We’re grateful to help.
 
On Sunday evening, September 20, I’d like to host you in the Sanctuary for a workshop entitled Countering Cancel Culture. We’ll take up the ideas we began considering in the message that contrasted the Christian and Marxist worldview.  
 
Finally, our music department will host a fun night called “A Night of Social Distanc-SING!” on September 17 in the Sanctuary. Our great singers will bring their talents for a delightful evening of celebrating the gift of music.
 
Onward, beloved congregation. Your faith inspires me. Your faithfulness astounds me. It’s so natural to love being your pastor.
 

Restoring Your Soul Through Psalms

This wretched distancing goes on! Yet so does the need to connect to others. And to God. Our hearts are still made to be in communion. So how do we stay connected in isolation? This month we begin a series of interlocking ways to encounter Christ through the Psalms. I’d like to tell you about it in advance of a mailing you’ll receive next week. 
 
For 3,000 years, the LORD’s people have climbed the stairways of words that are the Psalms. By making these prayers their own prayers, they have ascended through psalms straight into God’s presence. The Psalms were the very prayer book of Jesus himself. We find Christ’s heart for his Father when we pray psalms in communion with Jesus. We get drawn close to each other when we pray psalms together and for one another. We even find words to pray for our enemies when we pray psalms on behalf of those hostile to us! Psalms express our souls; they also transform our souls, taking us deeper than we could ever go on our own.
 
This fall, for 100 days, we’re going to hone in on the Psalms. Spiritual riches beyond price reside in these songs. So I’ll be inviting you to engage these psalms in a variety of practices. 
 
Next week, you’ll receive in the actual mail a beautiful bookmark with the schedule of psalms we are studying and five ways—one for each week day—we can pray the psalms with different people in mind. Beginning August 10, each Monday you’ll receive by email a three-minute video introducing the psalm of the week, and then, the following Sunday we’ll use that psalm in worship. And, very exciting to me, for three Sunday evenings at 5 pm, we’ll be launching by livestream special presentations introducing these psalms. Guest speakers include one of my spiritual heroes, Malcolm Guite from Cambridge, and one of Darin’s heroes, Mark Futato from Reformed Theological Seminary. We’re hoping those of you with big TVs and spacious seating areas will host watch parties. And consider joining a Shepherding Through the Psalms group to encourage one another. These groups will consist of 3-6 friends who will weekly connect with each other via a text, phone call, lunch or coffee—whatever works best for you. Spur one another on by discussing what you’re learning from the psalm of the week, how the prayer rhythms are going, and how to intentionally pray for each other. For more information visit fpcbr.org. To sign up as a group shepherd or member, email Kelly Wood.
 
 
 
Global Mission Conference
 
I’m so pleased that our speaker this year is Rev. Brian Miller. Brian and his wife Katherine work with sex trafficked girls in Medellin, Colombia. He is a passionate and eloquent speaker.
 
 
LSU Prayer Walk
 
Saturday morning, August 15 at 8.15 am we will meet at the LSU Student Union to spend an hour walking the campus and praying for our university. In particular we will pray for our international students. Prayer walking is safe, fun, discrete and powerful. Full instructions will be given. Come casual.
 
 
 

American Privilege

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

Masquerading Worship

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

How I Went from Worry to Hope

Anxiety. I had it. When our isolation first began, we had to pivot everything. I worried. Would the congregation hold together or fragment? Would people drift apart? Would people decide they don’t really need a church after all? Personally, I had to wrestle with the question, “What exactly is the point of a pastor anyway?” 
 
Staying-at-home offered more time. God led me deeper into his Word. I felt his presence more in prayer. When my sense of self and worry for the church started to wash out with the tide of worry, the Spirit of Christ Jesus flowed in through these times of reflective prayer and study. That, after all, is what our beliefs have told us all along: the Spirit is the glue who keeps us joined to Christ and to one another. He is the magnetic force of our communion. He is the skin and sinew of the body of Christ, keeping us whole. 
 
How wonderful it has been to see the Spirit cohering our church. You didn’t drift away or apart! If the stats are correct, more people, not fewer, are entering the worship we offer. Your beautiful video testimonies have linked us across all ages and stages. Hundreds of you have been checking on hundreds of you! Hundreds of boxes of food have been shared with the community. People continue to meet through Zoom or by phone. Giving continues. The staff pivoted to engage our members and produce our worship and communication, learning more and updating every week. In all, our church has proved herself dedicated, agile and energetic. I’m so thankful, and I’m so proud of you! I’m filled with hope.
 
Neighbors Helping Neighbors
 
The session has called for a special offering to be collected during May to offer relief to our members and neighbors during the pandemic. The first $10,000 will go to the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, as we’ve tragically seen how hunger is a real need in our city. The second $10,000 will assist the Christian Outreach Center in their work resettling the homeless population (the pandemic led to the clearing of several “tent villages” in the city). Further gifts will go to our church’s Helping Hands fund to assist church members, partner ministries and neighbors affected by this crisis. We know there will be personal needs when the ripple of government support runs out. We will be offering “grace grants” to church members, who can apply discretely through Barry Phillips. We’d love to help our members over a rough patch, trusting that in years to come, as they are able, they will give back to this same Helping Hands fund. You can give online or through checks marked “Neighbors Fund.” 
 
 
Emerging: May 17?!
 
In an unprecedented crisis, everything is always subject to change. But in hope, we plan using the best information we have. Our hope is that limited gathered worship will resume Sunday, May 17. That looks like two Sanctuary services, 9 am and 11 am, with capacity for 150 worshipers. We will have 50 to 60 sections marked off for family groups or singles to sit while maintaining distance. We will offer sign up online or by phone so we hopefully won’t have to turn anyone away. We will still offer “up close” livestreaming for those at home. Other precautions related to sanitizing will be taken. More details to come the week of May 10. This means we will plan now to go ahead with our Confirmation service at 4 pm on May 17. If demand warrants, we may be able to add an afternoon service in the future. We’ll all have to stay nimble and watch for updates.
 
 
Staff Changes 
 
Happy news: welcome Jaime Carnaggio as our new Director of Women’s Ministry. Jaime has served on our staff since 2015 as an assistant in Children’s Ministry and then with our women. She’s full of love for Christ, her family and our people. She’s a deep, energetic and engaging Bible teacher. She connects to women of all ages and has a passion for sharing Jesus through his Word. While Jaime served 6 months as our interim director, it became clear that she was growing with the job, getting more effective as her responsibilities grew. The session has delightedly endorsed her in this new position.
 
Sad news: the Cato family is moving to Texas in July. Kinch has taken a position as assistant head of a Christian school in Fort Worth. That means we will be losing Audra, who has worked so effectively for a decade. She began leading the renovation of our nursery ministry, turning it into one of our most successful programs. Then we asked her to lead Childhood Ministry, and we’ve seen wonderful growth in the depth of ministry and in numbers of children. We’re going to miss Kinch, Audra, Robert and Helen, but we pray a wonderful new life for them, knowing they will bless many wherever they are. Meanwhile, join us in prayer as we search for a new staff leader in Childhood. 
 

FPC Suspends Gathered Worship: A Message from Gerrit and Dr. Katie O'Neal

Beloved Members and Friends of First Presbyterian,
 
I despise media hysteria. I am skeptical of crowd-induced panic. I am determined that First will not behave out of fear or peer pressure.
 
And I now believe we should go to what is basically online worship for the next three weeks. It’s about serving our community, especially our health care services, by limiting large groups in social contact to “flatten out the curve” of a disease that will, inevitably, spread.
 
I’ve spoken to FPC member Dr. Katie O’Neal, who heads Disease Prevention at the Lake. I get it now in a way I didn’t. It’s not about what one individual handshake causes. It’s about the statistical reality of how epidemics spread. The facts, as best as we know them, are that “social distancing” slows down the spread and makes care of sick individuals more manageable. 
 
I then spoke to Dr. Keith Meador at Vanderbilt Medical Center and he confirmed all of the above.  
 
And following that, I have consulted with the session who agreed:
 
For March 15, 22 and 29, we will hold one 10.30 am service in the Sanctuary to which elders, deacons, staff and their families who are not in at-risk categories are invited. We will livestream this service, having communicated to our congregation that beginning Sunday we will eschew large gatherings. Nursery and Sunday school will be suspended for this time.
 
Let’s plan to participate together through our website, sending livestream viewership into the hundreds! Link is below.
 
However, home groups and small groups at church may continue, and people will be urged to follow the prescribed cautions, exercising personal discretion.
 
Chris Phillips and I will shape these services in various styles over the time period. 
 
The Youth Gala is already “out of the gate” and we will trust people to use discretion in their attendance, using good hygiene. 
 
We’re very thankful to Dr. O’Neal for conducting this video interview amidst a crushing schedule. 
 
Please pray especially for our medical providers, our elderly and the shalom of our city.
 
As ever, your pastors, elders and staff are available to serve you and uphold the faith we share.
 
With you in Christ
Gerrit
 
 
 
 
 

Never Would I Ever!

Did you ever play that game in your misspent youth? Someone names an outlandish behavior beginning with the phrase, “Never would I ever . . . ” But, if a participant has ever done that crazy thing (like swallowing a live goldfish), it must be admitted.
 
What if we played that game with the Passion story?
 
Never would I ever . . . get near a crucifixion. Yet, even as Simon of Cyrene raises his hand and describes carrying the cross for Jesus, I hope that I, too, would have had courage to help Jesus along his painful way.
 
Never would I ever . . . say I didn’t know Jesus. Yet, watching Peter ashamedly admit his denial, I recall all the times just this week that I did not take a stand for Christ.
 
Never would I ever . . . betray Jesus with a kiss. Yet even as Judas stands up to confess, I know that every time I “kiss” the cup as I drink during communion, my lips have also betrayed Jesus many times that week.
 
Never would I ever . . . give away a family heirloom on a lost cause. Yet, I see Mary anoint Jesus with a perfume worth tens of thousands of dollars. I see Joseph offer the executed Jesus his own burial plot. And I long to show extravagant love to Jesus.
 
We may well approach the stories of Passion Week thinking “Never would I ever . . . ” Surely those people then are nothing like me now. But just a bit of reflection and we realize, “I was there!” 
 
Studying the people Jesus encountered during Passion Week can rock your world, change your life and set your heart aflame with love for the Savior who undertook death and hell for your sake. 
 
So don’t miss a day! Get your beautiful Lenten book Were You There: Meeting the People of Passion Week, sign up for the daily emails, join a weekly home group and make it a priority to be at church every Sunday from now through Easter. You won’t be the same!
 
Youth Department News
 
We’re blessed to have a great youth staff team. Working to maximize the gifts of our staff, we’re reorganizing the ministry. 
 
Youth Ministry Administrator: Jessica Saffell 
 
Director of Youth: Middle School and Girls, Paula Walker
 
Assistant Director of Youth: High School and Boys, Noah Pourciau
 
The difference is that Jessica will become the “organizer” of our ministry, deploying our on-the-ground directors, Paula and Noah, in reaching middle school and high school students. Students will notice no change in how their programming works. Parents will notice that questions about trips, logistics, dates and details will go to Jessica first, rather than Paula, thus freeing Paula to spend more time with our students. 
 
 

Were YOU There?

It’s your story. And it has all the makings of great drama. Intrigue. Sudden reversals. Intimate interactions. Betrayals. Violence. Courtroom maneuvers. Help from unexpected places. Dire villains. A hero who passes through grave peril to glorious triumph.
 
It’s your story. Because it’s the story of Jesus. We are in Christ. So in all he said and did, Jesus included us. All of his life was on our behalf. So always, his story is our story.
 
But we also find ourselves in the people who interacted with him. We identify with his opponents and his followers, with the betrayers and the devoted, with the conflicted and the proud. From Mary to Pilate, from Judas who betrayed to Simon who carried his cross, from Peter who denied him to the centurion who confessed him, we were there.  
 
The story of Passion Week is a story that touches our souls with poignancy. It reaches our hearts with conviction and comfort, with sorrow and rejoicing. Passion Week is the story we can’t stop telling. The best became the worst and then became something even better. It catches up our whole lives, the whole world. Nothing is more important than this true story.
 
And I want to take you there. This Lent, we’ll be studying the people of Passion Week. Day by day we will read about the many characters and the lesser characters, seeing how each one fits as we follow the episodes of this great story. We’ll learn to see through their eyes, and even pray through their prayers as we identify our lives through these characters. And discover anew how Jesus relates to us in truth, grace and love.  
 
Beginning February 9, you will have an opportunity to sign up to be part of a home group study. On March 1, we’ll receive our beautiful all-new Lent guides: Were You There? Meeting the People of Passion Week. We’ll be able to sign up for daily email delivery. And each week at worship we will go in depth with one of the characters.  
 
 
 
 

 

Listening Through the Crack

What if you found the door to the divine throne room left slightly ajar? What if you could listen through that crack to overhear what the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were saying to each other? And what if you discovered they were talking about us?!
 
Hidden Conversations: Overhearing the Trinity is the theme for three special presentations January 31/February 1. We call it a “Stay-Treat” because it’s like a retreat: we eat together, hang out together and study the Word together. But we get to go home and sleep in our own beds! Friday evening and Saturday morning, Dr. Matthew Bates will lead our explorations of conversations recorded in Scripture between members of the Trinity. Often overlooked entirely, these amazing passages led the early church to realize that the one God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We actually get to overhear the Trinity talking about how to save us! 
 
Mark your calendars now! You will never read Scripture the same way again! All this, plus a great dinner Friday night, yummy desserts and a special track for kids. Also, I’ll be leading an intro session to the topic in the Crossroads Class January 5, the Kingdom Builders class January 12 and the Essentials class January 19 to help get us ready.
 
 
Hellos and Goodbyes
 
As the New Year begins, we say goodbye to some faces we love and hello to some faces we will grow quickly to love. Elizabeth Parker has concluded her five and a half years with us, and we give thanks for dedication among our women and in the ministry of the Word. Nancy Spiller is concluding her second tour as a worship director. 
 
We’re so grateful she postponed her retirement to step in last summer when we had a critical need. There’s only one Nancy! And we welcome Chris Phillips as our new Director of Worship.
 
Chris begins January 12. He is moving here from Jackson, MS along with his wife Virginia and son Benjamin. I know you’ll be delighted to meet the Phillips. 
 
And I’m delighted to begin another new year with you, beloved congregation!
 

Why I Love XMas!

Hey, keep Christ in Christmas!! I agree! Merry Xmas! (Has our pastor lost his mind? Probably, but that’s another column . . . ).
 
Did you know that the familiar abbreviation for Christmas does not have secular origins? An “X” has been used for Christ since the time of the ancient church, even in some manuscripts of the New Testament! The “X” represents Chi, the first letter in Greek for christos, or Christ. An X for Christ has also been found in English writing since the 15th century. 
 
So, I’m happy to reclaim the “X” in Xmas. And I enjoy the “X” all year long. I’ve even abbreviated my personal vision for ministry to these 3 characters: Q4X. Quest for Christ. As you study ancient Christian symbols and art, you’ll often find this symbol: two Greek letters combined, the Chi (X) and the Rho (an “r” that looks like a “p”). These are the first two letter in christos and they make a beautiful symbol for our Lord and Savior. So, joyous Xmas to you!
New Xmas Eve Morning Service
 
The session has authorized a third Christmas Eve service! This 11 am worship will be a multi-media journey of lessons and carols designed especially for families with young children. We will tell the ancient story and sing the favorite songs in a way that appeals to our youngest worshippers. Glow sticks will replace drippy candles, and we’ll use instruments, arts and stories to keep it creative and joyful. An infant nursery will be offered. There won’t be communion. And, of course, we will be offering our 4 pm and 6 pm festive services of candlelight and communion. 
 
It’s always a joy to keep Christmas with you.
 

Season of Thanks

Gratitude is the path to well-being.  Thanksgiving transforms toil into delight.Saying a blessing brings more pleasure to the meal.  A grateful heart is a merry heart.  Scripture urges us to rejoice always and to give thanks in all circumstances. So true. Yet, at this time of year we more intentionally appreciate all that God has given us. As we prepare to celebrate the birth of God’s Son, our hearts want to make a return for such a gift.
 
It’s easy for me to be thankful for our church. We stand in a crowded Sanctuary singing “A Mighty Fortress” with the organ and brass sounding forth. I rejoice to be in the company of the saints, both the ones in that hour and all the faithful ones who have raised their voices through two centuries. I can’t help but smile when I see the sweet faces of our Mother’s Day Out children gathering for chapel. Practicing for the Christmas play with elementary students, I delight in their enthusiasm. Hearing the questions of confirmation  students, laughing with a group of men about the foibles of our discipleship, or feeling the passion in our members doing city mission and international ministry, I’m just moved with thanks. All year long I am grateful for our life among the extraordinary believers in Baton Rouge.
 
Just a few highlights for particular praise. The session has called Chris Phillips to be our new worship director. At Belhaven University, Chris taught worship leadership for both traditional and contemporary styles. At Lakeside Presbyterian in Jackson, Chris has been designing and leading services in both accents. We look forward to welcoming Chris, his wife Virginia and his son Benjamin in January.  
 
The session has authorized our hosting a third Christmas Eve worship service. This 11 am Sanctuary program will be especially designed for families with younger children. We’re trying it out this year in hopes of offering a convenient option for little ones while also alleviating some of the overcrowding we’ve had at the four o’clock service. More details next month.
 
We dedicate our Estimates of Giving November 10. My challenge: fill out your card before the LSU/Alabama game! That way you will know what matters most. And if the unimaginable happens and our idols are shattered, you can remember you acknowledged God first! And if our football dreams come true, you’ll be delighted to celebrate with this act of faith. Just sayin’!
 
As ever, I hope you can tell how proud I am of you and how much I love being your pastor.
 
  

Beautiful Spaces

We enjoy an unrepeatable location in the heart of Baton Rouge. We worship in an irreplaceable Sanctuary and Chapel. Our forebears in faith looked well beyond themselves in giving us such beautiful spaces for our life together in Christ.
 
By God’s bounty, this season of the church’s life affords us opportunity to enhance and protect what has been left to us. We are able to offer current and future members unprecedented facilities and grounds. The session has approved spending up to $850,000 in renovations and improvements over the next two years.
 
Projects include installation of lovely brick and aluminum fencing like we have on our playgrounds. We will enclose both our inner and outer perimeters. We’ll be able to go between our buildings or play in our gardens without worry that children will get loose into the street or parking lot. The whole block will feel welcoming but secure, and we’ll be adding more lanes for drop off by our entrances. We plan to upgrade all doors and locks with a new security system, including better cameras at the entrances. Inside, we’ll be replacing the current Sanctuary screens with brighter, sleeker LED screens and we’ll be adding higher quality cameras for livestreaming. The project includes fire sprinkler replacement in the Education Building, electrical surge protection and general beautification in a number of rooms.
Best of all, this project will be funded by the carefully stewarded income from our endowments. We don’t plan to ask you for anything more! We never use endowment income for the ongoing operation of the church and its mission—that’s why your annual gifts are so very important. But because of these well-managed extra sources, we are able to do special projects like this. How bountifully our God has blessed us, and now we will pass along an even more beautiful campus to those who come after us.
 
KidsHope
 
The session recently endorsed augmenting our ministry to the Gardere Community Christian School through beginning a new initiative. KidsHope USA is a national Christian mentoring program which enables churches to undergird schools with prayer and intentional mentoring. Every volunteer mentor has a prayer partner lifting up both the student and the mentor. Each hour spent with children has intentional activities designed to build character, communicate love and improve academics.  Annette Lamond will direct our program and I’d love for you to contact her to find out more.  And, as ever, I give thanks for you as I rejoice in being your pastor,
 

The Key That Unlocks It All

Have people ever said this to you? “Well, you know you can make the Bible say anything you want!” They have a point. People use the Bible to justify all kinds of unbiblical things. Both “liberals” and “conservatives” do this. We are all always looking for a Jesus more in our own image: he’s much safer that way!
 
So how do you know the correct way to interpret the Bible? What’s the key to faithful interpretation? How do you keep from going wrong when you read the Word?
 
These are actually very ancient questions. Already in the 2nd century, a group called the Valentinians was talking about the Christ within. They were claiming to be Christians even as they cut off the real Jesus from their very inward focused spirituality. And they quoted Scripture doing so! This was confusing “normal” Christians. Thankfully, a bishop named Irenaeus came to the rescue.
 
Irenaeus knew we need a key to unlock the Word. We need to find Scripture’s core story so we can understand all the other stories in the Bible. We need one true “rule of faith” that guides the way we read any and every verse.
 
Irenaeus knew this golden key, this secret code, was not hidden. It was right there in the preaching of the gospel. The key is simply the core story of the Triune God as he made himself known in Jesus Christ. Irenaeus wrote out the crucial formula of faith that resolves the meaning of all Scripture.
 
Now here’s the kicker. His rule of faith sounds almost identical to what came to be known as the Apostles’ Creed. The Creed gives the boundaries within which we can understand the Bible, and the God of the Bible, truly and rightly. 
 
Wait, did I just hear you yawn? Did you just mutter, “The golden key is just that old dusty creed?” I know. The Creed is a bore if you don’t know what it is. I found that my love for the Apostles’ Creed transformed when I stopped thinking of it as a set of abstract principles and dry doctrinal statements. Instead, I see the Creed as a story. It’s the bones of the essential story of what the Triune God has done, is doing and will do in the creation and redemption of the world.
 
One core story is the key that unlocks the whole story. The Creed is the story that pulses with energy. It leads us to meet Jesus, the real Jesus of history, the one Redeemer and Lord of all. 
 
This fall, we’ll be exploring this golden key in worship each week starting August 11. Don’t miss even one episode in the story that explains it all!
 
Should Boys See The Lion King?
 
You bet! As I sat in the theatre with a four-year-old grandson nestled on my lap, I was struck anew by the positive power in this story of Simba the lion cub who learned to be king. In a world too often full of male-bashing, The Lion King offers a rousing view of what makes a strong man and why he’s so needed.  
 
Psychologists have identified essential tasks of fruitful manhood. They include being a warrior, a king, a lover and a sage. Simba learns that a realm only flourishes when the king serves a higher good than himself. He learns from his father that a king’s job is not to take but to protect, to give and to serve the realm.  
 
We know this is true whether the realm is a whole country or just a single life. A man is only a fruitful man when he knows he exists for a higher good than himself. When Simba grasps this, it makes him bold to be a warrior willing to defend his people and a husband willing to commit to his wife. He also learns to trust the sage baboon, to lean on the wise one as he seeks wisdom. The Pride Lands are only saved, the lions only rallied, when Simba takes up this servant leadership with great courage and willingness to risk. 
 
Does the movie have all the Christian worldview I would like? Of course not. But by all means, every boy (and Dad) needs to see this lushly illustrated tale of what makes for genuine, life-giving manhood.
 
Worship Director Update
 
With the untimely departure of Steve Newman, we’re so thankful Nancy Spiller has agreed to postpone her plans and serve as Interim Director of Contemporary Worship through December.  Thanks Nancy! Meanwhile, the search revives and we ask for your prayers.
 
I love being your pastor.
 

Damnable Lies and Who Tells Them

You are a terrorist. You are plotting the overthrow of the government. If the coup had succeeded, you would have been named head of the CIA.
 
These are some of the outrageous accusations the Rev. Dr. Andrew Brunson faced in his trial in Turkey. This EPC pastor who had served the people of Turkey for more than two decades was jailed for two years and on trial for his life: as an enemy of the state, as the mastermind of a planned rebel coup. 
 
The charges were ridiculous, of course. But they nearly stuck. Who tells such lies? The paid witnesses. The government officials seeking political capital. Paranoid politicians. But behind every outrageous lie, there is another power. Our Enemy. The one Jesus prayed about in the Lord’s Prayer: deliver us from the evil one. There are spiritual forces arrayed against truth, against love, against fidelity, against flourishing.
 
Here in America, the Turkish lies look silly. That’s only because we weren’t actually immersed in the daily web of deceit. Here, the lies the evil one tells us seem more reasonable. They are so well embraced that we accept them. They get told by the nicest, most attractive people. Even though they are just as outrageous and just as destructive. Such as:
 
You belong to no one but yourself. It’s your life. It’s your choice. You must hate women, since you’d restrict abortion laws. You must be a bigot since you believe marriage is between a man and a woman. Gender, after all, is but a social construct. Your children need to experience it all in order to succeed. Games are more important than spiritual formation if you don’t want your kids to be weird. All that matters is the bottom line. Money is power. Purchases will soothe me; experiences will fulfill me. You only have one life to live, and it’s yours to live. No one has the right to tell me anything.
 
Yes, chances are you’ve spoken some of those lines, or been told them, or thought them. They are all lies, woven with half-truths. They undo us every day. 
 
Andrew Brunson found his love and loyalty for Jesus tested to the depths in 700 days of lonely imprisonment. He discovered, in the pit of forsakenness, that love for Jesus was at the core of his being. The ultimate reality. And that Jesus was not only worthy of his love, but worth his suffering. 
 
That truth cut through the despair in the web of lies in Turkey. It still cuts through the fog of illusions in our culture.
 
At FPC, we are a truth-telling, love-inspiring, idol-smashing, mission-propelling community. We’re proud that Andrew Brunson is part of our denomination. He is a faithful prophet with a word for us. Wherever you go this summer, dear ones, stay close to the one who is Truth. Expose the damnable lies you get told, and the damnable lies your own heart generates. Stay close to each other, because we can’t do this alone. May you refresh and return as together we go deeper in Christ the way, the truth and the life and further into the world with his shimmering, loving truth.
 
 

Looking Back and Visioning Forward

The weeks following Easter are a time for both gratitude looking back and visioning forward. Your leadership takes a breath, giving thanks for the full seasons that ran from Advent and Christmas through Lent and Holy Week. What a glorious time we had! And we start now to anticipate and shape our direction for the fall. 
 
I write, of course, as the senior pastor whose rhythms follow the church year. Other ministries aren’t taking a breath at all. Youth ministry gears up, not down, with summer trips and Children’s Ministry steams into a week of camp at Lake Forest, then Vacation Bible School week. We take advantage of the pauses in our students’ schedules to get them involved in service and study.
 
For me, these are the days when I can give thanks for all you make possible through your outpouring of time, prayer, money and service. Our membership remains steadily dedicated in all these areas week by week. You make possible this ridiculously talented, faithful and harmonious staff team. You make possible a myriad of ministries into our community. You undergird our church plant in New Orleans: Church of the Resurrection is now two years old, with more than 100 making membership commitments. The Gardere Community Christian school pulses through its seventh year, with more than 125 students learning in an exciting, faithful, loving environment. The Christian Outreach Center has put hundreds of students through job training in a climate of faith in Christ, many of whom have moved into financial self-sufficiency. Our worship services inspire us each week with glorious, textured music featuring talented musicians and an expert technical team. Now you’ve made possible a full time worship pastor to take us into the future. We underwrite mission efforts around the world and engage a faithful, mission oriented denomination as part of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Your gifts and your service make all these relationships possible. The numbers tell us that you are one of the most generous congregations in the nation. I fight the sin of pride regularly! So, thank you for loving your Lord through loving your church in such tangible and significant ways. How could I not love being your pastor?
 
By Gerrit Dawson
Senior Pastor
 

Long Live God!

I had only recently come awake to Christ. My heart was full of praise. I  was eager to enter the drama of his saving acts. Around that time, Godspell became a hit Broadway musical. I had the soundtrack and one Easter Sunday, my father took me to see a visiting production. The crucifixion scene against a chain link fence was simple, searing and sad: 
    “O God, I’m dying,” sang Jesus.
    “O God, you’re dying,” echoed the disciples.
    “O God, I’m dead,” and Jesus sang no more.
    “O God, you’re dead,” mourned the disciples.
 
Then quietly, the music turned. All our hopes rode on a simple, wistful call:
    “Long live God. Long live God.”
 
Then, as resurrection dawned on the disciples, the band struck up and the soft wish became jubilant proclamation, “Long live God!” Jesus was alive. The show ended by taking us all the way back to the beginning lyric, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” 
 
Back then, there wasn’t much music that sang of Jesus in a style similar to songs I liked on the radio. Godspell filled an important gap. It brought me deep in the story of Jesus. Though several decades have passed, this musical still works to bring us Jesus exuberantly, creatively and winsomely. This April 5-7, it will be a great prelude to Easter. 
 
As ever, we will enter the story of Holy Week through a joyful Palm Sunday service, followed by egg hunts, a crawfish boil and tons of games and fellowship. The mood turns contemplative on Thursday with the Service of Shadows. Once again, we will enter the passion narrative through the voices of our great actors. This year, for the first time, we will mark Holy Saturday with a simple service called “The King Sleeps.” We will read and pray as we consider the prayers at hand for Jesus as he underwent death. Such entry into the sorrow releases great joy on Easter Sunday. We gather in the terraced garden for the sunrise service and then two festive services in the Sanctuary. These are the days when we draw closest to Christ Jesus as we join ourselves to his story. See you at the House! And know that especially in these holy days, I love being your pastor,
 
Gerrit

 

Press into Jesus

As for me, it is good to be near God (Ps. 73: 28). This verse became my personal theme last summer as I had the luxury of intentional time to be with the Lord. Out of those times of personal worship and deep meditation came our study for Lent. I’m eager to share it with you, and personally eager to return to the practices that refreshed me so much. 
 
Lent begins this Wednesday! As ever, we will host a noon service in the chapel. This includes the marking with ashes as we prepare for this intentional season of focusing more on Christ.
 
Then, I heartily invite you to participate vigorously in this year’s theme: Living into His Name. We will be raiding the vaults of Scripture for treasure! Each day we will bring forth a jewel, a beautiful name for Jesus. We will study it and pray it, inviting Christ more deeply into our hearts as we more robustly praise him through his names and titles. 
 
What’s new this year is the ways in which we will strive to move through head knowledge to heart-knowing. Every day I will invite you to close by praying in song: and there will be links to our website where each song will be presented by our own team of Lauren Honea and Joshua Staes, accompanied by Rachel Reese and Steve Gustafson. You can sing with them! Every day I will invite you to use the ancient Jesus Prayer. We will have an opportunity to discover something most Presbyterians have never been taught: how a repetitive Scriptural prayer can dramatically deepen intimacy with Christ. In the home groups we will study Bible passages and also practice time-honored forms of prayer by which Christ can fill our hearts. In our Sunday messages, we will extol the name of the Lord Jesus Christ by working through the great Bible themes of his person and work.
 
I can promise you: you won’t be bored! But you will be nourished, stretched, comforted and challenged. If you and I engage this study daily for 42 days, trusting the process, we will, without doubt, know Christ in a marvelously deeper way. Dive in with me! As for me, it is good to be near God. And, as ever, it is good to be your pastor!

The Power of the Name

I used to dread Lent. The austerity and sheer length of it daunted me. But now I eagerly anticipate this season. Why? Because I finally get to share with you what I’ve been working on for eight months! This year we’re focusing on Lord Jesus Christ: Living into His Name. When I began preparing our guide book last summer, I wondered if I could find enough names and titles of Jesus to fill 42 days.
 
Silly me! The challenge was actually limiting the selection of amazing titles given to Jesus in the Scriptures. And each one is a pathway into knowing him better and praising him more.
 
I’m stunned by how powerful it is to pray the names of Jesus.  Each title is like the facet of a diamond. As we admire a particular facet, discovering and rehearsing its beauty before the Lord, the splendor of the whole stone lights us up. Names are intimate. They speak of the essence of a person. They grant entrée into someone’s life. As we pray the names of Jesus, we know him better and therefore love him more. Loving him through his names, we discover how he transforms us. 
 
This Lent, I want to lead you into the kinds of prayer that opened up the names of Jesus for me. I long to guide you down paths of contemplation which I had seldom walked but now cherish.  I’m eager to read and pray daily with you, to be in small groups with you, and to take up these gorgeous names of our savior each week in worship.
I sincerely believe this could be the most powerful Lent we’ve yet experienced. Not because anything that comes out of me is so great. But because Jesus is so magnificent. And his Spirit leads us to experience that glory as we take his names on our lips and offer him the praise that arises from deep consideration of his Word. 
 
Please, please plan now to attend a Lenten home group. Sign-ups begin February 17. Books will be distributed March 10 with groups beginning that night. You will also be able to sign up for e-delivery which includes access to songs and hymns we have recorded to go with the series.
 
Stewardship Update
 
You continue to amaze me! The final count on our Christmas offering for city ministry has now topped $60,000! Gardere Community Christian School and the Christian Outreach Center will put these funds to great use. Meanwhile, our estimates of giving for 2019 have broken all records. We’ve had a significant increase in the number of people making estimates of giving, and therefore a wonderful increase for the mission and ministry of the church. This was truly great timing and answered prayer.Several years ago, we used some special funding for Sunday worship enhancement. As those funds conclude, the augmenting of our worship music needed to be picked up by our regular budget. Now we can do that! And of course we will be expanding mission and church programming as well. God has worked through you to keep our church strong and surging forward. I’m so thankful!
 
Congregational Meeting
 
The session has called a congregational meeting for Sunday, February 24 at 10.15 in the Sanctuary. The purpose is to receive a report on 2018, hear a presentation on our 2019 budget, elect at-large members to the nominating committee and conduct any other business that is before us. These annual meetings give us a great opportunity as one church to give thanks for all that God has done and is doing in our midst. There will be no adult Sunday school classes that day.
 
By Gerrit Dawson
Senior Pastor
 

The Church Distributed

That’s a great title for a book about how God sends his people throughout the world as leaven that causes the whole dough to rise. As the New Year begins, we rejoice in the Christmas celebrations we had and all the homecomings we enjoyed. And we also return our gaze outward to see what the Triune God of Grace is doing and hear how he calls us to be part of it.  
 
January is our Global Missions Month. We give thanks that several missionaries were called from this congregation and are now serving throughout the world. Ashley and MacGregor Magruder didn’t feel far enough away in Kenya: they’ve relocated to Malaysia! Their work continues in training indigenous leaders to share the gospel. Rebecca [Lunceford] and Nour Botros have been on the front lines of ministering to Syrian refugees in Beirut. They’re home for rest right now, which means we will get to hear firsthand from them at our missions conference.  
 
The young Jesus knew what it was to have to flee violence in the middle of the night; to seek refuge in another country, arriving with nothing more than the clothes on his back. Jesus’ church sees the worldwide refugee crisis as an opportunity to extend the hospitality of gospel love. That’s why your church session recently approved up to $42,000 for medical mission trips to war-ravaged Syria. But here’s the kicker: these mission trips will be conducted by our Egyptian partner church Kasr El-Dobara, enabling more work to be done at a fraction of the cost.  
 
Meanwhile, we hear great reports from Brian Miller in Medellin, Colombia. A gift from our church contributed to his successful efforts to build a “safe house” for girls escaping sex trafficking. Wycliffe missionaries we have supported for years, the Tolivers, this year presented the work of a lifetime: the Bible translated into a Peruvian dialect. For the first time thousands will hear God’s Word in their native tongue!
 
Don’t you love being connected to Christ’s work around the world? You will love our Global Mission Conference February 2-3. We will hear from the Botroses and the Tolivers. And we will engage personally in Global Mission by doing what we do best: hosting a lunch for international students. Finally, we’ll hear from one of the best young preachers I know as Scott Castleman from Ocean Springs preaches to us on “Bringing Peace Far and Near.” As we look outward this month, we can see with wonder what God is doing.
 
Meanwhile back home, I’d like to highlight two hidden jewels of ministry. Every first Friday of the month a group of volunteers conducts reCess at our church: a night out for families of special needs kids. We keep the kids and their families enjoy an evening. And Threads of Love continues its quiet ministry of resurrection hope. These ladies sew garments for infants who have died, lending dignity and comfort to families who have lost children through miscarriage, still birth or infant illness. Both of these quiet ministries touch people deeply.
 
It astounds me to see all the ways our congregation serves and as a New Year begins I love, more than ever, being your pastor,
 
Gerrit Dawson
Senior Pastor
 
 

Keeping Christmas

There’s a rule in our house about Christmas movies. We must start with A Christmas Carol. And it has to be the 1951 version with Alastair Sim (who, by the way, taught speech to divinity students in Edinburgh!). The final lines of Dickens’ classic always choke me up: “And it was always said of Scrooge, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, 'God bless us, every one!'" Keeping Christmas well. Isn’t that what we long to do every year?
 
That’s a passion I see in our staff and leadership. In every way, we are trying to keep Christmas well for our beloved congregation. We want church to be the place where you get taken back to the wonder of the first Christmas. To see the Live Nativity and imagine that holy night. To hear the Scriptures recounting the story explored through messages and music. To feel the festive welcome of the season whenever you step on campus. To find gatherings of cherished FPC friends here and around the city. To be given opportunity to focus outwards on our city through our Christmas offering. To feel like church brings you fresh joy rooted in the warmth of cherished memories. I see that commitment at every level. From the guys who clean the building to the team that creates bulletins. From the team decorating the Sanctuary to the folks organizing events to those planning music. From the assistants who greet you to the pastors studying for messages to the coordination of care for those who are grieving this season. We’re all in.
 
We don’t take it lightly that we’re planted in the heart of the city on a uniquely beautiful campus with a faithful history undergirding us. We are keenly aware how many will have family and friends visiting from far away. We know Christmas brings once a year an opportunity to share and to show the gospel of Jesus. Pray for endurance for your staff. Pray for the Spirit to draw many to this house. And pray that we might keep Christmas well for the sake of the world and the glory of the Lord!
 
Especially in this season, I love being your pastor.
 
Gerrit Dawson
Senior Pastor
 
 

Gather In!

The first breath of autumn air has arrived! Midway through the season, it feels like football weather at last. Children have been trick or treating. And Thanksgiving is suddenly near. Songs I’ve known since childhood arise, “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing.” “Come ye thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home.”  As the year closes, we think about gathering in. Even though winter is not too perilous in the deep south, the homing instinct still rises in us.
 
Not many of us are farmers these days, but it still feels right that at harvest time we think about stewardship.  Gathering in before winter, a family thinks about how to steward their resources through the cold, non-growing months. As Christ’s people, we know that “All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above.”  All we have is from our gracious God, even, no especially, the things we have worked for. It’s God who gave us the strength, the mind and the opportunity to see our labor flourish. So deep in our Biblical spirituality, we know that giving back to God is an essential way we thank God. We make a return to acknowledge the source. We steward what we have received in a way that includes the Lord, his work and his people. 
 
For 190 years, our congregation has profoundly understood this spiritual need to gather in and make return. We get it that our primary worshiping community is the key recipient of our gifts of thankful return to God. That’s why our church speaks of stewardship only briefly each year. That’s why we have only one special offering (at Christmas), knowing that all year long, our regular gifts to the church go to all our church does here, in the community and around the world. 
 
So once a year, I get to remind you, with joy and thanks already in my heart for you, that every gift matters in our church, because we run full out for Christ and his work through FPC. Responsibly, of course, but vigorously.  
 
It’s a HUGE help to our elders if each of us makes our estimate for next year’s giving sooner rather than later. We want to dedicate our estimates of what we plan, and hope, to give to God through our church on November 11 at all three services. Plan now, dear ones, to pray, ponder and act in faith to estimate your 2019 giving this month, so your church can move confidently forward.
 
I love being your pastor!
Gerrit
 
 

Back from Sabbatical

It’s great to be back home with you. We are so grateful that you generously gave us this summer as a sabbatical to rest and refuel. The days passed like a wonderful dream as all of our rhythms slowed down. Time enough at last to pray, to read, to walk, to be with family, to see friends, to be together as a couple, and discover that turning 60 is not so bad. I’ve decided to stay young as long as possible. So, thank you! It was also grand to have time to work slowly and deeply on next spring’s Lenten prayer guide. We’ll be delving into the names of Jesus day by day. Finishing touches were also applied to Raising Adam: Why Jesus Descended into Hell. After five years of preparation, it will be a thrill to see it in print this October. 
 
Most encouraging to me was a passion that rose up from the depths: I seriously, madly love to be your pastor and I pray God will give me strength to lead you for years to come. So hang on as you read this issue because there is lots going on.
 
We’re continuing to explore the mystery made known in Paul’s letter to the Colossians. I’m thrilled that our Sunday school children are tracking with the same passages. Nearly 200 folks attended the kick off to our youth program: Paula, Thomas and the youth team already have it in high gear. Our members are providing invaluable support as school begins at Buchanan Elementary and Gardere Community Christian School. Small groups are organizing around town as together we explore the gospel of grace. And soon we’ll all be pulling together to blitz build our sixth Habitat for Humanity home. All that and football season too!  
 
Finally, our heartfelt thanks from Rhonda and me for your great outpouring of support following the death of her brother. How wonderful that it was the same week Caleb Daniel Dawson entered the world. Oh yes, a local grandchild to spoil! 
Glad to be doing life together with you,
 

An Indefinable Energy

We had more than 30 folks at our last Discover Class. I love to hear their answers to this question, “What makes a church great?” Contained in that query is an invitation to express what one is looking for and what one has found at First. These answers thrilled me, “An indefinable energy. A feeling of positive excitement. A welcome that is real. An enthusiasm for being there. A true sense of caring.” If that is what new attendees at our church are feeling, then we can truly rejoice at what God has been doing. They describe an intangible that makes all the difference in whether one is attracted or indifferent to what is happening here. Energy. Caring. Welcome. Authenticity. That’s the report of new people who want to be part of what’s happening in this fellowship of believers.
 
That’s wonderful. God is doing it. And you are doing it. The church forms afresh each time we gather. How that gathering feels comes from what each person brings to our assembly. You do that! You show up consistently so that others can count on seeing you. You greet warmly old friends and new faces. You participate robustly in worship. You arrive having decided that this time matters significantly to you and that gets translated to others as the indefinable, but very real, energy of a church that loves Jesus Christ, both his Word and his mission. And of course that’s the gift that these wonderful new members bring to us: their energy, their enthusiasm, their gifting and their desire to participate. We get blessed so richly when we are refreshed by their arrival. I remain so grateful and wonder-struck by the way the heart of this church gets expressed. I love to be your pastor!
 
Future Leaders
 
Our church is blessed to have an endowment that contributes significant funds to our ministry and mission. We’re also blessed to have wise leaders who determine never to use such endowment income for the day-to-day and year-to-year operating of the church—that important responsibility remains with all of us ordinary givers. We use our endowment income to do more, to reach further into the world and to look further into the future toward the next generation of leadership. Our endowment giving supports big projects like Gardere Community Christian School and Church of the Resurrection. We also support students training for ministry as pastors, counselors and church planters. This month the session granted over $78,000 in such scholarships! Would you like to meet the recipients?
 
Rebecca Botros is the daughter of Cynthia and elder Lloyd Lunceford. She grew up in our church and has been full time on the mission field in Lebanon for the past three years. She is pursuing a Master of Divinity at Gordon Conwell.
 
Cheryl Broadnax is a deacon at FPC. She teaches in the elementary Sunday school and serves on the youth committee. She is beginning her third and final year of studies for a Master’s in Counseling and hopes to work with children and youth.
 
Sarah Gastinel is the daughter of FPC members Valerie and Philip Gastinel. She played violin in our acoustic communion service before moving to New Orleans where she led in worship and worked on staff at our church plant, Church of the Resurrection. She now hopes to serve Christ through Christian counseling.
 
Martell Hixon is the third recipient of a Russ Stephenson Scholarship for church planting residency. He will be working under Rev. Richard Rieves at Downtown EPC in Memphis, and has a passion for interracial church planting.  
 
Mary Emeline Rester is the daughter of Rhonda and Gerrit Dawson. She will complete a Master’s in Counseling from RTS Jackson this January and hopes to work in private practice as a marriage and family therapist.
 
Hector Reynoso/Genesis Church. On the far border of our presbytery (and country), in Texas, is Genesis Church, an EPC congregation committed to Latino outreach. Genesis seeks now to construct a building for their growing congregation.
 
Darin Travis is Director of Discipleship at FPC. He is married to Barat and the father of five. He is working on his Master of Divinity degree from RTS and is a candidate for ordination in the EPC. 
 
Josh Woltmann served three summers as our pastoral intern after growing up in our youth group. He expects to complete his Master of Divinity this August and begin an internship at Hope Presbyterian Church in Richmond. Married to FPC member Katy Cosby, Josh is a candidate for EPC ministry.
 

Get Out! Now!

Claustrophobia runs in our family. No room, no air, no way out: it makes us all crazy. Rhonda’s Dad expresses it this way, “I sit on the aisle just in case I need to get out of there.” At a solidly built 6' 6", if Dick had to get out, he would get out. And I’d be right behind him. I just don’t want to be stuck and closed in. 
 
Maybe that’s why I love this Easter sermon so much, even though it’s from 1,500 years ago. The preacher imagines Jesus the moment before his resurrection. He speaks to Adam and all the dead souls who’ve been longing for a Liberator. “Rise! Let us leave this place. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell! Wake up, O sleeper and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” 
 
I just love that line: I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. You were not meant for a claustrophobic doom! You were not designed to languish in bondage to sin, death and misery. Jesus declares, “Jail break! Get up! Get out of here. Now!” 
 
That’s the spiritual heart of the Easter message. Jesus is risen. He defeated death so death doesn’t have to defeat us. He took our sin so we don’t have to live under it. In the risen Jesus, our destiny is life, forgiveness, and transformation. The Easter summons trumpets in our souls: Get up! Get out of there. Rise with Christ!”
 
Congratulations for your hard work pursuing your True Identity in Christ. All Lent you’ve delved deep into Scripture’s teaching about who we really are. And I’m proud of all the comments I’ve read, all the questing questions I’ve heard, and all the growth I’ve seen. Soon, soon, we will celebrate together that Easter means, “My true identity is Risen with Christ!”
 
So how I look forward to celebrating the festive victory of our risen Liberator with you. What a joy to see these faces I have come to know and love so well on that great day. And what a thrill to be able to say together, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” See you there!
 
Shadows Before the Dawn
 
Of course, our Lenten journey passes first through the dark night of marking Christ’s Thursday betrayal and Friday crucifixion. More and more of us each year mark that holy night by entering the shadows with Jesus. We take communion remembering the first Lord’s Supper. We hear the sacred story dramatically read. We see the candles extinguished and sit silently in the dark of Jesus’ death. We follow him to the tomb and begin the long wait til Easter dawn. Once again we will meet at 7 pm. I’ve got some stirring paintings to show you that take us to the inner meaning in the outer tragedy. See you there!
 
Presbytery
 
At the end of this month, we will be hosting the meeting of Gulf South Presbytery. That’s the association of EPC churches in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas with whom we are affiliated. I’m always so proud when we host anything, but especially when we receive the elders and pastors from around our region. I hope lots of you will step forward to greet, serve and welcome our guests. Yes, it is a matter of pride to me: nobody, but nobody hosts events like we do!
 
You’ll enjoy the meeting too. My dear friend Dr. Dean Weaver will be speaking. He’s the moderator of our General Assembly. We’ll have a joyous celebration worship Friday night at 7. And, oh, you should hear these guys sing. The roof raises! I get to preach about Christ going up to heaven and we all share communion together. It’s the best Friday fun you can have!
 

Would You Make This Deal?

It’s an insane trade. A ridiculous switcheroo. A crazy swap. Who would do this?! Trading places with a bum. Switching names with a scoundrel. Taking the stigma of a predator. Asking for the penalty of a felon. Yet the Son of God exchanged identities with us! If you were the righteous and holy One, would you give your place, your prerogatives and privileges to someone like the “you” who is reading this article? No, I wouldn’t it. Not in a million billion years.
 
But Jesus did. He pulled the ultimate identity switch. God made him who knew no sin to be sin. Jesus embraced our lost and forsaken, condemned and hopeless identity as sinners.  All the way to death and hell. So that we could become the righteousness of God. He gives us his identity as beloved Son of God. 
 
This is the heart of the gospel. There is nothing like this anywhere in all the thought and religion of the world. God exchanges identities with us.
 
Beloved, dive into your Lenten guides for week 3 and 4 with all your focus and all your heart. Even if you got behind or didn’t even start, pick up your guide now.  (It’s all on our website.)  Don’t miss church. There is nothing more important than this truth for you, your children, your grandchildren, your parents or your friends. Christ Jesus takes our place and gives us his. The swap of all swaps. Get in on it!
 
News and Notes
 
Your elders recently gathered for a “stay-treat” at the church. We spent nine hours together working through the challenges and opportunities on the horizon for our church. We discussed new procedures and facility changes to enhance safety and security. We discussed the distinctives of our worship services and the kind of leadership we need to exalt Christ and make disciples more effectively. We reviewed the effectiveness of the mission priorities we set in regard to the Gardere Community Christian School and Church of the Resurrection in New Orleans. We rejoiced in the unity of our congregation and drank deep from passages from God’s Word.  You have elected some consecrated, joyful and committed leaders. Great things are ahead.
 
“Give Meaning to Your Spring Cleaning” is the theme for the Purple Cow this month. These thrift stores on Perkins Road and Jones Creek fund the ministry of the Christian Outreach Center downtown.  The dresser I give to Purple Cow translates to training people to get Jobs for Life. The stack of winter sweaters I donate translates to a course in financial literacy for people coming out of addiction treatment or prison terms. The housewares I drop off become food bags for the poor. Like the gospel, that’s a great swap!
 
I love to be your pastor.
 
 

Ways of Worship: Contemporary

Every Sunday, we offer three distinctive styles of worship. The Scripture and message are the same in each service, but the order and music vary. I encourage all of our members to become multilingual in worship: to try each service during the course of a year.  
 
The 9.00 service fulfills Psalm 150:
 
Praise him with trumpet sound;
         praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
         praise him with strings and pipe,
  Praise him with sounding cymbals;
         praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! 
 
A multitude of instruments augments the vibrant singing of both current and treasured worship songs. The atmosphere is the least formal of our services, and the congregation rejoices that every generation is well represented. The robust fellowship creates a wonderful loving atmosphere every Sunday at 9. The congregation communes monthly through the intimacy of forming small groups at the front of the Sanctuary.

Find Out Who You Really Are! An Interview with Gerrit Dawson

Will the church have a special theme for Lent again?  
Yes, we plan to focus on identity. That’s the question of who we most truly are.
 
That’s a hot topic in our culture right now.
There’s a lot of discussion about the power of choice: who do I want to be?
 
And about genetics and predispositions: who must I be?
We plan to take the discussion deeper:  who does God say that I am?
 
How do we find out?
Identity is actually a dominate theme in Scripture. Our God constantly tells his people who they are. They are meant to live from that.
 
How will you approach the identity teaching of the Bible?
For the six weeks of Lent, we’ll look at six key themes. Who am I? Scripture replies that I am:
 
1) Created, Called and Claimed by God
2) Hopelessly Fallen and Mortally Wounded by Sin
3) Utterly Redeemed by Christ
4) Lovingly Adopted into Christ’s own Sonship
5) Daily Dependent on Christ our Life
6) Significantly Sent on Christ’s Mission
 
What’s the one key to this whole identity business?
Here’s the open secret: Jesus is God identifying with us in our lost and forsaken condition. He identifies with us, even unto death, so that he can gather us to himself and enable us to identify with him in sonship with his Father. Our true identity is in Christ. That runs deeper than any genetics, choices or circumstances.
 
How will you invite the congregation to participate?
Once again, we’ll take a three-fold approach.  
 
1) Sunday worship: the messages will focus on the six identity themes.
2) Daily Prayer Guide: everyone will receive a book designed to lead us into 42 days of intense focus on our identity in Christ.
3) Home Groups: studying and discussing together is crucial to recovering our identity in Christ.
 
When does this get started?
Books will be distributed Sunday, February 18 and home groups also begin that week. Group sign ups start February 4.
 
You seem to ask a lot from this congregation!
I do! I have great confidence that our folks will rise to the challenge. I’m asking for 20 minutes a day for 42 days. That’s 14 total hours offered to the Lord as time he can mold us according to his Word. Plus about 9 hours spent in home groups and weekly worship. Of the 1,000 hours we all live during Lent, that’s really pretty reasonable! But more than that, I know our people. We have a hunger for Christ. We’re on a quest to grow closer and closer to him. This is just a great way to pursue Jesus, together.  
 
 

Ways of Worship: Chapel Communion

Every Sunday, we offer three distinctive styles of worship. The Scripture and message are the same in each service, but the order and music vary. I encourage all our members to become multilingual in worship: to try each service during the course of a year.  
 
The 7.45 service fulfills Psalm 108, “I will awake the dawn. I will give thanks to you, O LORD among the peoples.” There’s a special joy in gathering first thing in the new day to proclaim the praises of our God.
 
The services unfolds in our beautiful Dunham Chapel. We are surrounded by stained glass windows depicting the story of Jesus. And we share the Lord’s Supper every week. Worshipers note how formative it is to their faith to partake of both Word and Sacrament each week.  The intimacy of the Chapel creates a cozy, meditative feel to the morning. With piano, organ, special solos and personal prayers, Chapel Communion richly worships our Triune God.
 

Rage? No. Blaze!

Are you mad? Lots of people are. As we reflect on the year that has passed, we recall 2017 as a year of continual outrage.  Just a glance at a news site reveals constant use of trigger words for rage. Someone is always “furious,” “offended,” “attacked,” “slamming” or “accused.”  We snap, bite and devour with voracious outrage.  
 
But do you ever wonder who benefits from making sure you are in a constant state of agitation?  Lots of people want to keep us angry. News sites want you addicted to the chemical rush of being furious at “those” people. Politicians want you hostile enough to vote against their opponents.  Nonprofits count on our anger to inspire donations. In short, anger undergirds power. Outrage is a fuel, and we supply it by the tanker load to those who use our anger for their gain.
 
By contrast, Scripture tells us, “The anger of man does not accomplish the righteousness of God” (James 1: 20). In other words, we’re getting duped into thinking that outrage is productive.  Christ’s kingdom is not built on the screechy offendedness of a provoked people. When we seethe, we’re being deceived. We’re not building, we’re only burning. And we’re being used for others’ purposes.
 
The task of Christ’s people is very different than perpetual outrage. But that doesn’t mean we’re to be bland, passionless door mats. We’re called to blaze with the light of Christ. It’s a light that exposes darkness and leads people home. It’s a light that illumines injustice even as it reveals a better kingdom. Shining the unquenchable light of Christ will outrage the already outraged. So be it. There are those shivering in the dark who need the heat of the gospel. There are those falling into ruin from the users and the takers. They need the creative fire of Christ to rebuild their lives. Only Christ’s people have that light. We have to uncover it and let it shine.
 
At the beginning of WW II, the poet W.H. Auden noted, 
 
“Defenseless under the night
The world in stupor lies.
Yet dotted everywhere
. . . points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages.
May I . . . show an affirming flame.”
 
As we look forward to a New Year, let’s be committed to moving from rage to blaze. From shredding words to the affirming flame of encouragement, truth and love. Jesus the Light of the world told his disciples, “You are the light of the world.” We draw fire from him. He sends us to blaze with the flame that recreates.
 
I look forward to a year of shining Christ’s light together, and to another 12 months where I can affirm how much I love to be your pastor.
 

Risking Christmas

It takes some courage to face another Christmas! All those expectations. All those expenses. All those memories. All those family members! All that once was but is no more. All that should be but isn't. All we hope for and the inevitable disappointment. For many, Christmas is merely something to endure. Entering the enforced festivity is a risky business.
 
That’s why I like to dig beneath the demands of the season. We can cut through the trappings to that first Christmas. Almost nobody noticed what happened.
 
The Son of God laid aside the protection and privilege of his Deity. He risked entering the world as one of us. Roughly one in five pregnancies end in miscarriage. Jesus dared the dangerous process of developing in the womb as we do. Then he who set the stars in their courses in the vastness of space endured the squeezing hazards of the birth canal. He cried at the brightness when his eyes saw the first day. Later, he would cry over the cruelty of the darkness in the human heart. He came to us via a family that was displaced. Later, he would strive against all that tears us apart: giving dead sons back to lonely mothers, forgiving adulterers and dining with outcasts. He touched the diseased whom others shunned. He stilled the hands cocked self-righteously to throw stones. He liberated the possessed. Jesus risked temptation and he dared the disappointment of loving those who would betray him. Jesus learned as he grew up that an enraged Herod had slaughtered innocent children in an attempt to destroy him. On the cross Jesus would shed his blood to give eternal life to those children and to all who trust in him.
 
In other words, Jesus came straight into our mess in order to redeem it all. He risked the first Christmas and he risked 33 years in our midst. He drew on the courage of his Father to endure this life faithfully in order that we might be saved. This Christmas, before the madness begins, I want to dare to draw from the courage of the One who risked Christmas for me. And I’m so glad we get to do that together!
 
This article is also appearing in Baton Rouge Parents Magazine.
 

What Do You Love?

“What do I love when I love you?” asked Augustine in a prayer 17 centuries ago. It’s still a good question. Especially in this season of Thanksgiving. When we feel we love God, and express that in worship, what are we loving? Augustine worked on his answer. “Not the beauty of bodies, nor the fair harmony of time, nor the brightness of the light, nor the sweet melodies of songs, nor the smell of flowers, nor the limbs that physical love likes to embrace.” Augustine loved all of these things but they in themselves are not God. Yet. Yet, somehow these lovely things send our love God’s way. He went on,
 
Augustine felt that the beauty in the world carried him into God’s presence. Every created delight awakened love in him. Yet none of these attractions in themselves were sufficient. All this world’s glory, both subtle and spectacular, directs away from itself to the deep beauty of our Creator.  
 
Augustine felt that each thing he loved in this world spoke to him, “We are not God, but he made us.” In his inner man, in his soul, Augustine perceived the light, the fragrance, the melody and the embrace of the Triune God. In him alone, these delights of earth do not pass away. Rather they lead us up in gratitude and worship to know the God who himself is light uncreated, everlasting song and eternal embrace of love. 
 
As you pause to give thanks this month, may you rejoice fully in all that is good in the world of which you get to partake. But I pray that each of these will speak to you: we are not God, but he made us. Look upward, beloved, to the Source, and rejoice in his eternal being! Know that as we sit down to table, Rhonda and I will give hearty thanks for you! I love to be your pastor!
 

 

It's Autumn!

It’s autumn! At least, that’s what the calendar says. John Keats began his ode to autumn, “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” Clearly, the poet did not live in south Louisiana! Our mellow weather comes later. But we still feel the tug toward harvest. The days still grow shorter. The holidays loom. The yearning to “in-gather” loved ones grows in us as the nights lengthen. 
 
That makes sense, then, that we do our stewardship during the fall season. We commit together as a community of believers to bring in a portion of what God has given us for his work through his church. As we harvest, we make a return to the Lord. We share with others.
  
There’s a great season of harvest and sharing for First Presbyterians this month! This month, you’ll be invited to a seminar for managing grief and also a wonderful concert by the Foto Sisters. The Joyful Noise Children’s Choir will treat you to Fish Tales, a mini-musical. You’ll see opportunity to support Gardere Community Christian School as we hear Olympic champion Mary Lou Retton speak. You’ll hear testimony about stewardship and we’ll celebrate our heritage at the annual Kirkin’ O’ the Tartans service and lunch. You’ll get a chance to join our youth in making your way through a dark and scary youth-sponsored cardboard maze in our gym! We’ll offer a Discover First Dinner as the Lord continues to send us wonderful new people. October is indeed a month of celebration and in-gathering.
 
And all month long, we remember that it was a mere 500 years ago that Martin Luther began the Protestant revolution when he posted his 95 theses on the door at the church in Wittenberg, Germany. We’ll celebrate by including in worship excerpts from the Heidelberg Catechism all month long. 
 
So gather in at your church, let’s raise a harvest of thanks as we do life together in this beloved community,
 

Right at Your Door: the Whole World!

This month, our focus will be on global missions. In worship and Sunday school classes for all ages, we want to find our place in the story the Triune God is telling in the world. And we want to consider what place we have in telling that story. Our God is on a massive redemption project. He intends to take the news of his atoning victory to the ends of the earth. And he purposed to make that Gospel known person to person to person. Through us.
 
We only know Jesus because someone told us about him. There’s no other way.  But God did not have us told in order for us to keep our mouths shut. The news of his all-redeeming love cannot stop with us. He sends it on. Through his church.
 
From the beginning the Gospel has been about reaching the world. “You shall be my witnesses,” Jesus told his disciples. “Here in Jerusalem. Then throughout Judea. Then even up among the Samaritans. And then to the end of the earth.” The gospel has always been about the world. Every human being is in the sphere of the church’s concern and mission.  
 
As Presbyterians, we know that salvation is a gift. We know that faith is a gift. We only know Jesus because God chose to make him known to us when he did. We understand we have been called to Christ by God himself. But such election is not unto privilege. Such election is unto service. Anytime in Scripture God called someone, he also sent that person to others. If we know Jesus, we have been sent. That’s a Biblical fact!
 
With a global perspective, the task can seem daunting. But God has given us a special place in Baton Rouge. The world comes to us! Thousands of graduate students from around the world attend LSU. Leaders who will return to their countries. What if they met Christians who loved them? What if they encountered Christ’s people who welcomed them into their homes? What if they found out we would be friends with them? Most international students are never (never!) invited into an American home. What if Christ’s people changed all that? 
 
This month, we are considering the Big Story of God’s world redeeming love, and our place in it. We will also be discovering how we can participate without ever leaving our city. Check out all the details in this issue.
 
I love to be on the journey with you!
 
 

In Motion and At Rest

The rhythm of summer has begun. With the conclusion of the school year, many of us look forward to sleeping longer and doing less. But we’re also on the move. Vacations often include travel. Some even say they look forward to going back to work so they can rest from their holidays!  The church also moves into both rest and motion.  We have four Sundays with single services in July. But meanwhile many of us are traveling.
 
We’ve already had two dozen elementary students head to Lake Forest Ranch for a week of recreation and beautiful gospel reflection. (I can always tell in confirmation interviews which kids have gone to Lake Forest: they know the gospel).  A dozen middle schoolers have been in New Orleans working with Mission Lab on service projects. And fourteen high schoolers are heading to New York City for eight days of urban service projects in hopes of being inspired to do similar work in our city.
 
Several of our leaders will be heading this month to Fair Oaks, California for the General Assembly of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.  It’s always wonderful to go to Assemblies where there is no fighting over essential beliefs, but a joyful focus on sending missionaries, equipping the church, worshiping the Triune God, refreshing leaders and strengthening our ties of fellowship. 
 
At the end of June, we expect to host over 100 children again for our annual Vacation Bible School. Students can look forward to visits from Biblical characters and a lively week of creative teaching.  
 
Personally, the Dawson’s look forward to some vacation in the North Carolina mountains. We’ll celebrate Rhonda’s mother’s birthday, see family, hike, read and eat way too much. And I hope to begin research on next year’s Lenten Study, called Real Identity: Living as Christ Defines Us. Rhonda will be bringing her creative magic to several garden projects and working on some new oil paintings. During the weekdays of July 17-21, I’ll be in Orlando teaching a Doctor of Ministry course to a dozen pastors. Theology of Ministry is the course title, but my secret mission is to affirm and refuel these guys who spend all year on the frontlines of ministry.
 
One of my former doctoral students, Scott Bowen, has become the pastor of the vibrant Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, TN. Scott is writing his dissertation on the role of pastors and elders in shepherding congregations.  He could really use your help via a five minute survey. I told him I would invite you all to take the survey and help his project.  Here’s the web address
 
While I’m away the first two Sundays of July, the pulpit will be ably filled. Our Director of Discipleship, Darin Travis, will give his first Sanctuary sermon July 2.  And on July 9, our pastor emeritus, Russ Stevenson will be filling the pulpit July 9.  I am forever grateful for the twenty years of Word-centered, connective and innovative ministry Russ gave us. July 16, the Foto Sisters will join us to give us a musical treat in the midst of that summer heat. And on July 23, Albert White will deliver a dynamic message as we share leadership to continue to model racial reconciliation in our city. A picnic will follow that service.  Also, the Magruder family will be back from Kenya during the summer and we can expect to hear from them during our summer services. Also, several elders will be giving personal testimonies during that time.
 
So I hope you find some rest this summer, even if you are in motion part of the time.  I’m grateful for such a great team of elders and staff who will work together to keep the church pulsing even as we rotate our key staff through some days of refreshing. 
 
I love to be your pastor, 
Gerrit

Happy 190th!

On Sunday, May 28 we will celebrate our 190th birthday! Nineteen decades ago, the presbytery of Mississippi finally succeeded in planting a Presbyterian church down here on the River. A young pastor named John Dorrance had been preaching up a storm since January, 1827, and by May the church was ready to be officially formed. A more seasoned pastor named Dr. Jeremiah Chamberlain came down to give the founding sermon and conduct the Lord’s Supper. 
 
We began with 15 members, the first Protestant church in all of south Louisiana.  The church grew steadily as Dorrance delivered his persuasive sermons. (He also persuaded one of his new church members, Penelope Mercer, to accept his marriage proposal!) It would be two more years before we even had a building, opening on what is now 4th and Florida streets. Life was not easy, and carving out a Protestant identity in a Catholic town meant great dedication and stamina were required. But they did it. God did it.
 
And here we are, nearly two centuries later, grateful to be standing on such strong shoulders. We remain a church at the heart of the city with a heart for our city. God continues to draw, and raise up, leaders for our community who are formed in the gospel through our church. We’re the only church in Louisiana that currently has two active state legislators. Our history is resplendent with governors, business leaders, educators, professors, leaders in medicine, the arts and the practice of law. We’re vibrantly connected to the city we love, and deeply grateful that our Lord has kept us thriving through all the ups and downs through the years.
 
At the center of our life, of course, pulses the gospel of Jesus Christ, the only reason we continue through 190 winters and summers, the only reason we have anything meaningful to offer our fair town. How stunning it is, when you really think about it, to realize that faithful elders and pastors have held up and held forth the Word of God so ardently all this time. May God be pleased to deploy us in his service for another 190!
 
I hope you will join us for our celebratory service, Sunday, May 28 at 10.30 am. Know that I feel so privileged to get to run with you one tiny segment of this enduring journey of faithfulness.
 
The Last Supper
 
The session has received the gift of a new and wonderful work of art for our campus. A cast of Deborah Luke’s sculpture of the Last Supper now hangs in our reception room. Stop by and view this moving rendition of that significant night. 
 

 

A Universe Reborn!

The ancient church came to understand three days as one grand event. From Maundy Thursday night to Easter morning Jesus engaged his testing, his trial, his crucifixion, his death and his resurrection. He underwent a great passage through death into new life. Over the years, Christ’s church came to call this event the Holy Triduum (literally, “three days”). No part works without the other parts. All of them fit together. Interlocking episodes in one extended event.
The fate of the universe as we know it rested on the shoulders of one Galilean carpenter. Contradictions smash together.  
 
   We tried to save our own skins.
   Jesus knelt and washed our feet.
   We betrayed and fled. 
   Jesus gave us his broken body and outpoured blood.
   We mocked him. 
   Jesus prayed we would be forgiven.
   We hung him up to die.
   Jesus committed his spirit to his Father.
   We buried him, sealed him up out of sight.
   Jesus rose victorious never to die again. 
 
By his dying and his rising, new creation began, humanity was remade and the universe reborn. Such is the promise to those joined to him by faith.
 
The Triduum is the event of events. These are the days of all days. We bring the power of these once-and-for-all events into the present as we enter the sacred time of worship. Maundy Thursday we keep watch with him as he is led away. Sunday at dawn, we become witnesses that the stone is rolled away. Sunday in full morning light, with the trumpets resounding, at the height of spring, we proclaim, “The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed.” 
 
Identity in Christ/Sexual Identity
 
This is the great discussion of our day. What defines my identity? Do I define myself by my preferences? By my passions? Or do the events of the Triduum lend a deeper meaning? Does Jesus claim me deeper than and beyond what holds me and molds me now?  
 
Questions of identity are at the heart of current cultural discussions about sexuality. The church has lost the culture war. So how do we address our culture with gospel grace and truth when we are no longer heard if we just say, “Thus says the Lord?”  
 
Dr. Rosaria Butterfield, in her book, Openness Unhindered, calls the church to a radical hospitality toward all people, particularly toward people identifying as homosexual. Dr. Butterfield herself knows the gay community from the inside out. She was drawn out of atheism and into Christ by the welcoming love of a Presbyterian Church. Formerly a professor of English at Syracuse University, Rosaria is a gentle, articulate, deep advocate for traditional views expressed through churches that are truly welcoming and loving in Christ’s name.
 
We have a rare opportunity to hear her speak twice, Friday, May 5, 7 pm and Saturday, May 6 at 9 am in our Sanctuary. No registration is necessary. We’re hosting this seminar in conjunction with South Baton Rouge Presbyterian Church and Christ Covenant Church. A portion of the expenses are underwritten by a gift from the Ed Grant Enrichment Fund. 

Jump in the Fountains!

A phrase became famous during the Protestant Reformation: ad fontes! Literally, to the fountains. What?! The phrase meant “Go to the source.” The Reformers realized that for the church to be renewed, we all needed to go back to the deep source of truth, the Scriptures. When faith gets dry, go back to the fountain of truth that is in God’s Word. When life gets confusing, go back to basic practices of prayer: thanksgiving, adoration, confession and intercession. When you feel far from Christ, go play in the fountain of baptism by remembering how you belong to Christ. Go drink from the endless cup of his life-giving blood in the Supper. Ad fontes. Go to the source to renew life and faith. The Reformers changed the world doing just that.

So this Lent, we are going to go ad fontes. We’re going to dive deep into the source of all Christian prayer: the prayer that Jesus taught us. Living from the Lord’s Prayer is a 42 day guide to sacred reading and prayer for each of us to use during Lent. The books will be given out during worship March 5. You can also sign up to have the daily readings sent to you in an email. Or you may access them on the church app. We will spend a week on each of the six phrases in the Lord’s Prayer. We’ll see how Jesus’ own prayer is sourced in the Hebrew Scriptures, and we will let the psalms he prayed flow through us as we join him in prayer. 

Committing to 20 minutes a day for these 42 days will revolutionize your prayer life.  How can I be so confident? Because everything comes from the source of God’s Word. And God’s Word is truth. And when we pray from God’s Word, the Spirit flows in us and through us. Ad fontes. Jump in the fountains. The fountains of prayer that flows from the Word. It’s the guaranteed way to refreshment!

Give Meaning to Your Spring Cleaning

Spring cleaning? The Purple Cow needs quality furniture and housewares. We’re stacked with clothes right now.  But furniture is needed and all proceeds support the amazing ministry of the Christian Outreach Center (COC) transforming our neighborhood for Christ.
Speaking of COC, did you know we raised a record $66,000 at our Christmas Eve Offering. These gifts were shared between a) COC as it launches new job training, financial literacy and Bible study groups and b) Gardere Community Christian School, now with over 80 students and a new principal in place to undergird our teachers and the daily administration of the school.

Church of the Resurrection

Our church plant in New Orleans, the Church of the Resurrection, has found a fabulous facility for worshiping. We’re meeting at the newly restored Felicity Church in the Lower Garden District. We’re also organizing to send 8 to 10 people down each week to support Rev. Ben Cunningham and the congregation. Check out our website or visit the Connection Center to learn more. 

No Time to "Play" Church!

Have you been as convicted and energized by our study of James as I have? The apostle James blazes through his letter like a man with his hair on fire.  He doesn’t waste words. He doesn’t pull punches.  And he’s not afraid to upset how we think about God, ourselves and the world. In other words, James has no time for believers who just “play” at living for Christ.  His letter is strong medicine. And isn’t that just the way we like it? In a culture that is largely post-Christian, dabbling with Jesus just won’t do. We need the real stuff, and we need it straight. So each week I’ve been wading into such zingers as “Consider every trial a joy,” or “Faith without works is dead,” or “The tongue is a fire.” He slays me with truth, and, at the very same time, brings me to life with a more vital faith.  It encourages me that you seem to be responding the same way. I love how our congregation always wants the truth of the gospel, even when it sizzles us.

Living from the Lord’s Prayer

At the end of February, we will be switching focus from James to the prayer that Jesus taught us. Our 2017 theme for Lent is Living from the Lord’s Prayer. I learned so much as I prepared for this study, starting way back in the summer. What can seem like an overly familiar, slightly boring prayer is actually a pipeline into the very heart and mission of God for his world.  

As ever, we will be distributing the guides for daily reading and prayer, starting March 5. (some advance copies will be available the week before for those who are traveling). We will also be inviting folks to sign up for six-week home groups to study the various parts of this brilliant prayer together. Personally, I like to have the physical book to hold and read, and I also like getting the daily readings sent to me by email so I can read them anywhere, anytime. If you don’t have the church app, this is a great time to download it and get signed up for daily readings.
Ash Wednesday is March 1, and that marks the beginning of six Wednesday noon services in the Chapel followed by light lunches in the reception room. So, join me in clearing the calendar and getting spiritually ready to take on the Lord’s Prayer in dynamic, deeper ways this Lenten season.

Sign Up for Daily Emails

Download the Church App

Small Group Sign Ups Coming Soon

 

A Great Year Ahead

Our church begins the New Year with great opportunities for studying God’s Word and living out his peace in our city. As you recall, for five Sundays after the flood, members of Abounding Love Ministries worshipped with us. Several of their congregation even joined our fall small groups. We’ve directed work crews and resources their way and, at last, they are ready to re-open on Hooper Road. We are all invited for their festive re-opening worship service, Sunday afternoon, January 8 at 4.30 pm. Their new banner will read, “The House That Love Built,” because they have felt the love that flowed from us, from the community and from Christians around the country who came to help. Pastor Adraine will preach from Hagai on “Better Than the Last.” Our worship team will join theirs for special music, and Pastor Albert and I will be leading the communion service together. A huge dinner follows. Plus, we will re-launch our “Fifty on Fifty” program of sharing dinner in one another’s homes. We believe in healing the racial divide in our city through the unity and love shown between Christians. This is a tangible way to express that hope.

Can We Trust Our Bibles?

Every year, some clever author or television network takes a new angle on an old heresy: telling us that we cannot trust our Bibles. In ever sensational ways, we are told the Bible was put together by a bunch of power hungry old guys who suppressed the brave thinkers. Or Jesus never said half what the Bible says he said. It makes us wonder, “How did we get our Bibles? How do we know they are accurate? How do we know this is what God said rather than what man said?” 

We have a world expert in the reliability of Scripture coming to speak to us! Dr. Michael Kruger is a New Testament Professor and the President of Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte. He’s going to be leading us in three powerful sessions, Friday night and Saturday morning January 20-21.

Video link to Professor Kruger

Can We Hang Out More with Each Other?

Dr. Kruger’s lessons are part of an all-church “Stay-Treat.” What’s a stay-treat? It’s a retreat where you get to sleep in your own bed! We’re wrapping the learning with food and fellowship. Dinner for all ages and stages Friday night at 6 pm then an ice-cream social after the Friday teaching. (Plus both nursery and separate children’s lessons during the adult sessions).Saturday morning will feature snacks before and between Dr. Kruger’s two presentations with a sandwich lunch to follow. All for a super-low price! Register now! Underwritten in part by our Ed Grant enrichment Fund

Believers for Baton Rouge

More than two dozen churches across our city are joining together for a worship service of prayer and racial reconciliation, Thursday, January 26, 6.30 pm at the River Center. The service will feature internationally known speaker, Dr. Tony Evans. We believe that the peace and well being of our city requires the churches of Christ Jesus to cover our town with a blanket of prayer and unity in Christ. We want 5000 people to attend! 

This is a major endeavor and features unprecedented cooperation among the churches. I urge us all to attend.  Change your plans, skip the kids’ activities, forego other entertainments. This will be a historic evening!

Respect BR

As our city strives to find its future after a year of racial tension and flooding, one of our ministry partners has a unique plan for weaving us all together. Respect BR is an initiative created by Manners of the Heart (their offices are in our Sanctuary building!). It’s a plan for each of us, in practical ways, to daily show respect and love to our neighbors. Consider getting on board by taking the pledge of respect. You can find it at mannersoftheheart.org.

As you can see, in 2017 our church life starts strong with these major events. I’m so thankful to be your pastor in these important days.

Advent Thoughts

We become like that which we love. Watch two people who have recently fallen in love and you’ll see that it’s true. Suddenly she starts watching football; he starts eating salads. They start using the same phrases and might even buy matching sweaters. At a more profound level, we sync up with the people that matter to us the most. We develop a shared history; we have compatible goals; we know how to be together. We become like that which we love. God became man in Jesus Christ. Sit with that a moment. We become like that which we love: God became one of us. How great a love is this? How ardent must be his desire? How dizzy in love must he be? God took up skin and bone. He spoke through vocal cords. He walked under the force of gravity. He got thirsty in the heat and tired from a day of work. He laughed at dogs and gathered children in his arms. He took what we are and made it his own. Forever. When we gaze into the straw of the manger this year, we can hold close this miracle. We become like that which we love. God so loved that he became like us. 
 
Great Christmas traditions continue at First. This Friday night, the Live Nativity will unfold in our terraced garden at 6 and 7 pm. Encore presentations will follow December 18.  On Sunday, December 11, the combined worship team and chancel choir will present On This Shining Night at both Sanctuary services. That afternoon, the annual downtown Pilgrimage will flow through the streets of Baton Rouge, stopping here about 6.30. And, as ever, we will keep Christmas Eve together with candlelight communion services at 4 and 6 pm. My message is entitled, “In the Fullness of Time.” I hope you’ll plan to join us as we come to adore this God who loves us enough to take up our humanity forever in Jesus.
 
I’ll Think About That After Christmas
 
Ever say that phrase? Everything normal seems to stop between now and the New Year. It’s hard to make plans for January. But I’d like to impress two crucial dates onto your Yule scattered minds!  
 
1) “Can We Trust our Bibles?” is the theme for our “Stay-treat” January 20-21. Dr. Michael Kruger, president and New Testament professor at Reformed Seminary in Charlotte, will give three presentations on the reliability of Scripture. Dr. Kruger will address common doubts we have about the truth of the Word as well as frequent criticisms of Scripture found in popular media. (We’re sandwiching Dr. Kruger in between a festive dinner, an ice-cream social, kids’ events and Saturday snacks!)
 
2) Prayer Service for Racial Reconciliation, featuring Dr. Tony Evans. Thursday night, January 26 at the River Center. This joint effort by multiple Baton Rouge churches seeks the healing of our divided community and the launching of new initiatives in our city for crossing racial lines. 
 
 

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.
 

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.
 
 

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.
 

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.

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.

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.

 

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!

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!

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