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First Thoughts Blog

Category Archives: Thoughts from the Staff and Leaders

Memorial Garden Expansion

Several years ago my daughter, Molly, and I were driving down to the Purple Cow on Jones Creek Road. As we were about to pass Resthaven Cemetery, where both my mom and dad were buried, I suggested we turn in and visit their grave sites for a brief prayer time. To my disappointment (and frustration), it took us over 20 minutes to find them. We’d not been to Resthaven for almost nine years!
 
Becky and I have plans to be cremated and our remains placed in our church’s very own Memorial Garden. It’s becoming a “high demand” bit of real estate. It is a beautiful, quiet, even reverent place to visit. We first opened it ten years ago. The initial banks of niches (the holding place for the urns) is already almost filled with the urns of First Presbyterian family members. It is so easy to visit and spend quiet “remembrance” time. And it is less expensive than a traditional cemetery plot. It is intentionally accessible so that one can visit a loved one’s burial niche at any time.
 
Our session approved the addition of a second phase of niches which were completed a couple of months ago; a good thing since there is but one niche remaining available in the original site. So we have 80 “homes” in the original phase. We have 78 available now remaining in phase two. 
 
If you’ve not yet visited our Memorial Garden or considered this an option to traditional cemetery burial, you owe it to yourself to take a look. You’ll be impressed. For more information contact Sherry Tucker (sherry@fpcbr.org or 225.387.0617). She would love to send you a packet. 
 

What a Gift!

After 7 years serving at First Presbyterian, and 27 years of full-time ministry, the session has blessed me with a much-appreciated sabbatical. I am thankful and eager for the time to reflect, rest and prepare for the upcoming seasons of church life. Some have asked me what I’m going to do with the time. Some have asked how my responsibilities will be covered while I’m gone. To the first, I’m looking forward to vacation with family and friends, reading, reviewing my favorite subjects from seminary and doing some professional development. To the second, we have gifted church leaders who are ready to serve. For those with questions about community groups during the summer, contact Kelly Wood (kelly@fpcbr.org). For those with questions about men’s ministry or to plug into a weekly men’s group, contact Blake Fowler (blake@exitrealtybr.com). Sunday school will continue as normal for the next few months with our gifted leaders. As usual, we will not have Sunday school the month of July.
 
I appreciate your prayers during May and June. With our upcoming 200 year anniversary on my mind, I plan to spend a good bit of time reading about the history of the Presbyterian church. Personally, I’m looking forward to meeting with a counselor to process life and ministry. And though I will be around, I am eager to resume my responsibilities mid-July.
 

God's Hand Was in Everything: Uganda, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon

My most recent trip to Uganda, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon was truly one of the most encouraging mission trips of my life. I saw God’s hand in everything; from the moment I landed in Entebbe to the walk into the classrooms of the new Bethany Centre School. 
 
Every detail at the new Bethany Centre School has been carefully considered for the nearly 100 students attending high school and the 600 students in kindergarten through 8th grade attending the primary and middle schools. Upon arriving, Claire Wilson and Cheryl Tyler were welcomed with traditional African dances by the Bethany students. They in turn, presented the school with a beautiful giving quilt created by the children of First Presbyterian Church. The quilt’s squares depict gifts God has given the children they can share with others. The ladies also delivered special gifts created by students of Gardere Community Christian School and planted much needed trees on the Bethany campus. It is a beautiful partnership between First Presbyterian and Peter Kiwanuka and his family. 
 
The next opportunity was visiting Kevin and Jena Smith and their daughters, Lincie and Eden, in Jordan. It was a beautiful time as they shared how their Arabic studies have gone very well and they are excited to move to Lebanon in late summer continuing mission work with the Syrian refugees in Beirut. The highlight of my stop in Jordan was a trip to Petra, one of the modern wonders of the world. It was a beautiful experience to hike to the temple carved out of the mountain.
 
The Partnership and Prayer Conferences at the Beit el-Wadi in Egypt were the most inspiring I have ever been to. One hundred churches in Egypt were invited by Kasr el Dobara Evangelical Church to come pray together with more than six thousand people attending. It was truly an amazing privilege to participate in this time of prayer with Egyptians.
 
The final stop was to encourage our missionaries in Lebanon on the front lines sharing their faith with Syrian refugees. It was a powerful time to pray with them and be with them in their homes.
 

The Giving Quilt

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
 
Immersed in the powerful words from Paul to the Ephesians and leading up to Dedication Sunday, the children of First Presbyterian have learned what it is to be loved by God before the creation of the world and what it means to be his craftsmanship. In children’s church, little ones have viewed and discussed works of art including Da Vinci’s Last Supper and Monet’s Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge, learning that they, even more so, are priceless masterpieces. While singing songs, the children enjoyed a game of freeze where they struck a pose and said, “I am God’s masterpiece!” As God’s beautifully created workmanship, they learned that they can steward the grace given to them by serving others with their unique gifts out of love for Jesus.
 
And so the idea of the giving quilt was born.
 
“Children need to hold something tangible,” says Cate Heroman, lifelong educator and frequent collaborator who volunteers in ministries at First Presbyterian.“When children give something that they have created and have held in their hands, it impacts them.”
 
Beginning in October, the children of First Presbyterian began designing quilting squares during the Sunday School hour. On each square, a child draws a picture that depicts their spiritual gifts and how they can use these unique gifts for Christ, stewarding God’s grace that has been given to them. Some painted themselves singing and praising God with others. One drew himself sharing an umbrella in the rain. Others painted hearts, hands and feet to show that they can be greeters at church, pray for others and go share the good news of Jesus with the world. In addition to the quilting squares, stories from The Gospel Story Bible curriculum have been woven into the theme of stewardship throughout the nurseries and classrooms on Sunday mornings. 
 
Culminating November 12, the giving quilt showcasing the spiritual gifts and handiwork of the children will be incorporated into a combined Kingdom Kids Sunday School class with Cate Heroman as the guest storyteller. The quilt is the children’s contribution to the church and ultimately to Bethany Centre in Uganda, an orphanage and school that First Presbyterian children learned about in August during the Global Missions Conference.
 
Your turn. Freeze . . . strike a pose and say, “I am God’s masterpiece!” Celebrate giving out of the grace we have been given. 
 

Fill Your Horn with Oil, and Go

As our youth staff has a habit of doing together, we were recently studying 1 Samuel 16, one of the many passages we’ll cover with the teens this school year. This passage is well known for many reasons, not the least is that it contains the account of David’s anointing as king. However, before David was set apart and placed on that path, one phrase stuck out to us and inspired a great deal of thought: “Fill your horn with oil, and go.”
 
In the passages preceding it, we find Samuel at a low point. He’s been rejected by the people, his own sons have betrayed him, the man he felt forced to anoint as king has failed in dramatic fashion to fulfill his duty of office, and so Samuel now sits in his sorrow over lost years and feelings of uselessness. It’s at this juncture in Samuel’s life and ministry that God speaks to him in 16:1, saying, “How long will you grieve over Saul?” But after acknowledging Samuel’s darkened situation—and perhaps offering a soft rebuke—God speaks those words to his saddened heart. “Fill your horn with oil, and go.”
 
We might be left to wonder why it seems that God doesn’t seek to comfort Samuel in his grief, doesn’t invite Samuel to process his emotions in the way we might want, but instead gives him work to do. God’s intent for Samuel was seemingly to pull him out of his hole by giving him something to do, some sort of service. It was this very idea that got us talking.
 
Perhaps those of us (and many of our teens) who struggle with anxiety and intrusive thoughts don’t need something to think, say, or take. Perhaps we need something to do. God’s command to Samuel in his own grief was not a callous brushing aside of Samuel’s feelings, nor does its example condone the idea of stuffing down and ignoring those emotions. Rather, part of God’s design for us as his creatures might just be to work out those feelings through action.
 
God commanded Samuel to do something that would have been hard for him. The last man he anointed was Saul and that didn’t go well. But not only did it challenge Samuel, it forced him to change his perspective from inward-facing to outward-facing. Filling his horn with oil and going was not simply to make Samuel feel useful again. It was so that he could serve his people by anointing David to soon be their king.
 
To put it very simply, God made us to work and he made us to serve, yet we live in a world filled with inaction disguised as action and one that makes self-service and an inward-facing life more possible than ever. What difference might it make for our hearts and in the lives of others if when we next sought to face our darkness, we did so by seeking to do something productive, specifically for the sake of another?
 

God's Economy

Many times we look at our church financials as if we were a business with income, expenses and net profit. What we are really looking at are our offerings to God given out of love and obedience and the investments we hope to make advancing God’s kingdom. In advance of each budget year, we try to balance anticipated offerings with our investments in God’s work. It is much easier to plan for those investments than it is to anticipate the amount of offerings. Please know your Finance Committee is praying that God will enable all of you to give generously.

The Perfect Re-Gifting

Re-gifting. To most of us, this is a word that brings to mind bizarre statuettes, frozen smiles and “future white elephant party” fantasies. We try to pass off things we receive, but don’t want, to others who, we hope, won’t figure out that we took an unwanted gift and gave it away ourselves. But what if we re-gift the things that are most precious to us? It’s likely that our Christmas or birthday celebrations would be clothed in an experience of joy we’ve rarely known. Kristina’s Oma presented her with a carnelian pendant set in gold that belonged to her for many years when Kristina went for a visit in Amsterdam as a teenager, and she treasures it to this day. 
 
The Apostle Paul tells us of such a re-gifting. The Corinthian church he planted and pastored was filled with a large group of colorful characters. Some were catching onto the Christ-centered life, but others . . . not so much. There were problems involving sex, money, power and social relationships that Paul addressed with this young but undisciplined congregation. Finally, he turns to gifts from the Holy Spirit.
 
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed . . . there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit, and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12: 1, 4-7) 
 
Do you see that last sentence? EVERY believer in Jesus Christ receives a gift from the Holy Spirit, a manifestation of how God works among us. This includes abilities such as leadership, mercy, words of knowledge, craftsmanship and faith. There is a lively debate within Christian circles, including our wider Presbyterian family, over the continuing presence of all the gifts mentioned in Scripture, but all agree that the Father and the Son send the Spirit to each believer in the church. Yet what is the purpose of receiving these gifts? They are for the COMMON GOOD. In other words, Fred may receive the gifts of faith and help, but they are only activated as he uses them to bless Judy, John, and others in the church and beyond. Marjorie has gifts of shepherding and healing, but they only work as she acts on them toward others. Re-gifting is the whole point of spiritual gifts, and as we give away what God has given us to bless and serve, our church will see the ministry of Jesus Christ unfold and blossom both inside and outside the walls of our church. Talk about Christmas all year round! 
 
Unfortunately, many of us are simply uninformed about spiritual gifts, in particular the gifts God has given to us to share. This fall I am launching a Sunday school class, beginning August 13, that will spend several weeks looking at what the Bible says about the Holy Spirit, his work among us, and in particular, the spiritual gifts we may have to use. By the end of our time together, you should have a good idea of what your spiritual gifts may be, and how you can give them away in service! This is tied into our upcoming stewardship season and I’m so looking forward to what the Lord will show us! Instead of re-gifting that bald headed chia pet in your closet, you’ll have some “precious jewels” to pass on to your friends, neighbors and even the acquaintances in your life. “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9: 15)
 

Pastoral Counseling and Spiritual Direction

Many of you know that I am your Associate Pastor for Pastoral Care. This means you’re likely to see me if you’re in the hospital, homebound or in a Senior Care or rehab facility. But the other part of my title is Associate Pastor for Prayer which includes aspects of spiritual formation. This includes prayer, obviously, and numerous other spiritual disciplines, such as meditative reading of scripture, fasting, and retreats. Two other responsibilities under this heading are pastoral counseling and spiritual direction, which are often confused with each other. What is the difference?
 
Pastoral Counseling typically involves a defined focus on a life challenge, such as a relationship difficulty or a behavior where change is desired. Scripture, prayer in various forms, anointing with oil, and theological reflection and a recognition that the worshiping church family is a resource for healing are usually included in pastoral counseling at some point. We are blessed to have an outstanding team of Christian counselors right here on the third floor at the Baton Rouge Christian Counseling Center, and typically I will make a referral to one of our licensed therapists if more extensive work is needed. Yet there are certainly times when counsel with a pastor is the right approach, or a good beginning. 
 
Spiritual Direction is an opportunity for intentional, set-apart, prayerful presence, usually in a one-on-one setting, where the director creates and holds open space for the directee to notice God’s presence and the voice of the Holy Spirit in a more attentive and developed way. The goal is to shape the directee into fuller life in Jesus Christ. Meeting with a director can be helpful when one is facing a new “chapter” in life, such as an empty nest, a change in jobs or retirement, or a reevaluation of life due to a dramatic life event or a ‘tug’ from God through a sermon or prayer time. My doctoral work at Gordon-Conwell is in Pastoral Theology in Practice, which focuses on these two related, but distinct, pastoral responsibilities. Consider this a friendly invitation to meet with me over coffee or in my office if you want to explore either of these options in your adventure of Christian faith, as we follow Jesus, who has come “that you may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10: 10).
 

Watch and Pray

Over our years together, Rachel and I have taken many 10+ hour drives over the course of a single day. On one such occasion in August of 2018, we were facing the long drive back to Jackson, MS after a hot outdoor wedding as the sun began to set against a brilliant evening sky. While driving on previous road trips, I had felt my eyes droop and my head begin to nod (telltale signs of being on the edge of sleep), so I knew my physical limits of exhaustion while driving. During that particular drive home, I used every means possible to keep awake at the wheel. I cranked the AC uncomfortably high, I blasted music that would get my blood moving, I drank an amount of caffeine that was on the edge of unwise, I engaged Rachel in conversation for hours on end, and I even came to the point of slapping myself in 
the face!
 
Why would I resort to such ridiculousness? I knew the danger. Falling asleep at the wheel is deadly serious business, as I’m sure you know well. Knowing the danger, therefore, I will take every precaution to avoid the catastrophic effects of such an action. As I’ve recently pondered and preached over the last few verses of 1 Peter, these experiences came to mind as I considered the implications of what Peter calls Christians to in verse 8 of chapter 5: “Be sober-minded; be watchful.” The Holy Spirit through Peter’s pen exhorts each of us to have our eyes open, firmly awake and aware of our surroundings, ready for whatever might come.
 
While it may not be evident immediately, I believe Peter’s command to exiled Christians provides a reflection of his on an experience with Jesus a few decades prior. It was Thursday night, the night when Jesus was to be betrayed, and as the disciples joined Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told them simply to “watch and pray” (Matthew 26: 41). Failing to do just that, the disciples fell asleep as Jesus prayed to the Father, the first step which led to their flight and abandonment of the Lord at his arrest. 
 
As with much in his life during Christ’s earthly ministry, Peter learned best from his failure. Therefore, he reminds us as Christians the importance of watching and waiting, to be sober-minded and watchful, to watch and pray. To take these imperatives to heart, we need to be aware of our tendency to spiritual drowsiness. As I am aware of my tendency to doze at the wheel while the day is dark, we ought to know what seasons of life might yield unique temptations to let down our guard. It may be in times of prosperity, times of spiritual victory, times of isolation, or times of uncertainty. Whatever the season, be aware of the temptation to let down your guard. 
 
Then, aware of our surroundings and the present danger, we ought to seek the Lord, running to him, fixing our eyes upon him, clinging to his promises, finding our strength in his. This is what is meant by Christ’s command to “watch and pray.” It calls us not only to holy diligence in watching but also holy dependence in prayer. As the watchman defends a city against attack by sounding the alarm to wake the sleeping guard, so too ought we sound the alarm of prayer before and during times of temptation. When we do so—grabbing hold by prayer and living into God’s promise to hear our cry, to never leave us nor to forsake us, to provide a way of escape when temptation does come—we are invited to find a firm place to stand, a refuge and strong tower to keep us safe. 
 
As this season of Lent progresses and we find ourselves in a heightened place of spiritual practice, don’t neglect the need for holy watchfulness. Rather, use these weeks leading up to the Lord’s passion to stand beside him, joining with him in the Garden on Thursday night, ready to watch and pray.

Saying Goodbye to Everything Familiar

What would cause an apparently sane pastor and his beautiful wife to say goodbye to everything familiar in western Pennsylvania and move 1200 miles to Baton Rouge?
 
Before I answer that question, let me share a little more about myself. My wife Kristina and I are Midwesterners, and met in music school at Northwestern, outside Chicago. We’ve been married 33 years, and have three grown children: Jessica, married to Taylor, and their darling 1 year old daughter Ruby, who live in Tacoma, WA; son Emerson, in Pittsburgh; and our youngest, Ian, and his wife Sarah, who reside in Washington DC. Our only companion at home currently is our black sheepadoodle, Schubert, who is an excellent social coordinator and face licker!
 
Kristina and I enjoy hiking, music and concerts of all sorts, conversations over open Bibles and good food, and traveling. In fact, I would say we’ve developed a healthy sense of adventure over the years, based on following God’s call, what the Iona Christians in Scotland several centuries ago called "chasing the wild goose." My Masters of Divinity was gained at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California, with a year of post-graduate study at Blackfriars, Oxford University, a Dominican (Catholic) priory. I tell people that year I felt like Julie Andrews in reverse! I’ve been in ordained pastoral ministry since 1992, serving Presbyterian churches in the Cincinnati and Pittsburgh areas. I’ve also had the opportunity to do some mission teaching in Albania and Sierra Leone, and am currently serving as board chair for an organization called Edunations, which has been planting EPC churches as well as schools across several rural villages in West Africa, presenting the gospel to several tribes that have never had the opportunity to hear of Jesus Christ’s saving love before.
 
My role at FPCBR is Associate Pastor for Pastoral Care, Prayer, and Spiritual Formation. Kristina and I were mostly minding our own business one evening when an email popped up on my screen from Gerrit Dawson. I certainly knew and respected Gerrit and First Presbyterian from a distance (my only previous time in LA was when you hosted the 2012 EPC General Assembly!), but I had never considered pastoral work in the south, much less THIS far south! Yet when the search committee sent the job description my way, we could tell the Lord was very much at work. I am extremely grateful for Biblically grounded, excellent preaching. I rejoice over gifted choirs and praise teams glorifying God with the congregation. I insist on being a part of a community of faith committed to mission both locally and internationally. But I also recognize that for many, growing in faith and trust in God’s character come when we are faced with difficulty or suffering. Pain, loneliness, grief, or crisis often provide the richest soil for biblical faith to flourish (see Hebrews 11). So, to answer my opening question: we’re in a new place because we’re excited to participate in the adventure of faith, hope, and love in Christ with you. Our Triune God is doing his wonderful work in the sanctuary, around the dinner table, and even by the hospital bed. It will be a joy to sit beside yinz/y’all as he does!
 

Start with Your Income

In an article by Dave Ramsey (Financial Peace University) on family budgeting for Christians, the first step he notes is this: “Start with your income. Write down what you will get paid.” The second step is that “it’s our responsibility to prioritize tithing.” He goes on to talk about zero-based budgeting, saving, listing all expenses, etc.  I’ve gotta tell you, it sounds a lot like our church budgeting process. Although we’ve begun the process of identifying all our expenses by department and line item, writing down what our income will be begins on Dedication Sunday when we receive your pledges or estimates of giving. Ultimately, writing down “what we will get paid” determines our mission and ministry budget for the coming year. 
 
Until the pandemic, our income forecasting model worked well for us. That, coupled with your faithfulness, helped us build predictive, useful budgets. For the past three years however, our giving patterns have changed. Some of you no longer pledge but continue to give generously. Some of you have opted to give automatically on a monthly basis using credit cards and ACH’s. Still others wait until year-end to make your gift to the church. 
 
Just as Christian families build their budgets each year, our commitment to an accurate, responsible budget is resolute. Your participation in Dedication Sunday by giving us an estimate of giving, or even pledging, helps us build a more accurate budget because we are able to “write down what we will get paid.” Thank you in advance for your financial investment in God’s economy at First Presbyterian Church.
 
One last thing. We already know of several fixed operating expenses that are increasing quite a bit. I’d also tell you that our church staff, part- and full-time, have not had an increase in their base pay since the pandemic began. If you can increase your investment, the return will be great. God bless all of you.
 

 

What Does It Mean to Keep the Sabbath Holy?

There is a kind of hurry that is a form of violence exercised upon time that is detrimental to our health, to our families, to our communities and to our relationship with God. Living under pressure is part of life and we must be careful not to rationalize. God didn’t make mistakes in creating time and he made enough of it. When we cannot find enough time and, as the psalmist says, find ourselves getting up earlier and going to bed later because we have too much to do, we can see this as a sign to make some changes in our lives.
 
One of the ten commandments is "Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day."  Today, there is a lot of confusion about what it means to keep the Sabbath day holy. For the most part, this commandment is simply ignored. As Wayne Muller points out, “we have turned a commandment into a lifestyle suggestion.  More and more, it’s business as usual on Sundays; many of us are obliged to work on that day, church attendance is declining steadily, and we are living increasingly pressured lives.”
 
What does it mean to keep holy the Sabbath day?  It means more things than we imagine.  It is one of the key practices of our Christian faith, and yet, it is ignored. On my Sabbath day five years ago, I had scheduled three pre-marital appointments with couples in New Orleans, but I never made it. Due to fatigue and exhaustion, I closed my eyes momentarily and awakened to the biggest lesson I learned in my whole life.
 
For the next seven months, I had many opportunities to cry out to God and learn that the Sabbath day is an important part of my life. Unless we pull back from our normal lives regularly to rest, we will lose perspective on what is ultimately important and become compulsive and driven people.  It’s no accident that as Sabbath observance is slipping today, we find ourselves feeling ever more trapped and more pressured, always behind, never able to rest deeply and less able to delight in the deep joys of life.
 
Last summer, this loving congregation gave me a precious gift: a sabbatical.  A sabbatical is not a vacation nor is it time away as much as it is an opportunity to become all that God has called me to be. I ceased to work and intentionally chose to give good energy and focus to my family. This was carefully planned so that Phyllis, Andrew and Patrick received this investment. I am forever grateful to this congregation for investing in our family during my sabbatical.
Sabbath is a gift we are to share with others. God gave us the Sabbath. Jesus taught us that we weren’t made for the Sabbath but that the Sabbath was made for us. In the coming months, I plan to share with you what the Lord is teaching me on how to keep the Sabbath holy. I am still learning every day what it means to keep holy the Sabbath day. This is a lifelong journey for me and I am deeply grateful to be one of your pastors who is being led by the Holy Spirit to learn what it means to rest and take the Sabbath seriously.
 

The Most Important Instrument

What do you think the most important musical instrument is for our worship services? Does the answer depend upon which of our three services you attend? Can we say we have worshipped “contemporary-ish-ly” if we do not use drums? Or the electric bass? Surely the power of the pipe organ is required for the hymns. Perhaps it all hinges on the magnificent voice of your amazing worship director. (Haha! Saints preserve us! If that is the case, we are all in serious trouble.)
 
What is the most important musical instrument in our worship services?
 
It is the congregation.
 
That’s right. The most important musical instrument in the weekly gathered worship of our God is your voice in combination with other voices. No one can replace you. None can sing for you. Singing is one way that every individual actively fulfills the call to be a member of the holy priesthood. Our singing is one way we offer spiritual sacrifices to God and encourage one another (1 Peter 2: 4-5).
 
Now we at First Presbyterian are blessed with the incredible, talented, and beautiful support of instrumentalists and vocalists. Their enrichment of our musical worship takes my breath away. So often being on the platform during the beautiful music-making offers me the best seat in the house. 
 
But let me it put boldly. We could worship musically without the help of a single instrument and without any vocal leadership on the platform. However, we could not say that we had biblically worshiped if the gathered Elect had not sung. 
 
Now I know, Beloved, that you may feel awkward when you sing. You may not be ready to audition for the next season of “The Voice.” That is just fine. Whether or not you think you can sing well matters nothing at all. Truly. The quality and affection that God is looking for in worship comes from the heart (Ephesians 5: 19 & Colossians 3: 16).
 
So, would you have courage and take the risk of singing out loud in gathered worship?  Start softly if you must but do not be silent. We will not have the option to be silent on the Great Day. There is much we do not know about our future glory. One thing for certain, however, is that when we are gathered around the throne with every tribe, nation, people, and tongue we will be singing to God and to the Lamb (Revelation 5).
 
May as well get in lots of practice now!
 

 

New Season of Youth Studies

Autumn brings a new season of youth studies and activities, and this year is no exception! In addition to the weekly Bible studies going through 1 Peter on Sunday evenings and a fresh confirmation class, we’re already a few weeks into a Biblical Sexuality Sunday school series and a new weeknight study in apologetics for both middle and high school students.
 
The world in which we live is one that is often divided over issues of sex and our teens are on the frontlines of the battle against the truth of biblical sexuality. From the issues assailing them in pornography, LGBT+ issues and much more, it’s as important now as ever that they be prepared, not only to know the truth of God’s design, but also how to fight temptation and graciously bring the truth to bear in the lives of those who have been hurt by sexual brokenness. The middle and high school boys and girls (four groups in total) have been and will continue to consider these issues openly and truthfully with an eye to grace, forgiveness and healing. Your prayers for us in this capacity are appreciated!
 
Additionally, we continue a study in apologetics that I’m writing. The “Reinforced” series covers 12 common problems or objections to the Christian faith ranging from logical questions about the Bible’s supposed “errors” and “contradictions” to moral questions addressing how Christians are often labeled as unloving and hypocritical. Both high school (Paradigm) and middle school (Pursuit) will spend the year considering these and other apologetic challenges as we continue to encourage students to speak the truth in love.
 

Exhilarating and Exhausting

Thank you for the sabbatical and vacation time this summer. It was an exhilarating and exhausting walk across Northwest Spain May 24-June 1 on the Camino de Santiago with six friends from First Presbyterian and Abounding Love Ministries. Charles Goebel, Annette Lamond, Milt Witty, John and Carol Norwood and their son-in-law Josh all participated in this incredible walk. It will be a cherished trip for as long as I live. I arrived at Santiago de Compostela Cathedral on the fifth anniversary of my terrible car accident. 
 
Much of my time during sabbatical was spent reading the book of Revelation in preparation for leading 20 men in two different Bible studies this coming year. The month of July specifically focused on reading Ruth Haley Barton's newest book, Embracing Ryhythms of Work and Rest: From Sabbath to Sabbatical and Back Again. I also attended a retreat in July on Discernment: Recognizing and Responding to the Presence of God at Transforming Community in Wheaton, Illinois.
 
I had the opportunity to vacation with Phyllis in Colorado, be with Andrew for Father's Day weekend and see Patrick in California at the end of my sabbatical. The rest was needed and I am excited to return and serve again at First Presbyterian. 
 
Thank you for caring for my family and especially allowing me a break after my many years serving Christ here. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

All Things New

How would you describe a “good life?” For the average person in the West, the life well-lived looks like the fulfillment of the American dream: career success, financial stability, raising a happy family, dying at an old age surrounded by family and friends. For most Christians in the West, if asked, the answer would likely remain the same with perhaps the tacked-on afterthought of “and when I die, I get go to be with Jesus.” Is that it? Does the good news of Jesus’ victory over sin and death in the world and in our lives matter no more than for the 5 short seconds after we breathe our last breath? This was Reverend Brian Sorgenfrei’s question on the final night of our second RYM (Reformed Youth Ministries) trip of the summer. It’s a question, not only for teens, but for us. 
 
The theme for this year’s series of RYM conferences was “All Things New” taking its primary inspiration from Isaiah 43 and 65 as well as Revelation 21; glorious promises and depictions of God’s ultimate purpose for creation and humanity — to make all things new. This is our future hope, the day that we await. But what we need to understand about this future reality is that it has present implications. It is often thought that any long contemplation of the life to come might lead one away from being useful in the here and now, but the opposite should be true. Many theologians have made note of this, understanding that only by a right meditation and contemplation on the future life — when all things are made new — can we be freed to live a good life in the present. This truly good life is a life lived in the freedom that only Christ can give, a freedom both to die and to live. 
 
As those following the path of the Cross, by fixing our eyes on our eternal destiny, we must find the freedom first to die to sin, to give up fleeting pleasure for the surpassing joy and lasting satisfaction that is in God alone. But this understanding leads not only to dying continually to sin, it ought also to lead us willingly to die to ourselves. If we truly believe that one day all will be made new, every wrong made right and every tear wiped away, it should lead us deeper and more freely into a life of selflessness, of forgoing personal satisfaction and joy in view of others, even of opening ourselves up to weep and mourn with others — something we often hold ourselves back from doing because we fear that temporary pain and discomfort will define our existence. And, what’s more, this contemplation of the future life should free us to die in an actual sense. Calvin wrote in his Institutes, “If we deem this unstable, defective, corruptible, fleeting, wasting, rotting tabernacle of our body to be so dissolved that it is soon renewed unto a firm, perfect, incorruptible, and finally, heavenly glory, will not faith compel us ardently to seek what nature dreads?” In other words, knowing that God is making all things new and that this life is only a foretaste of eternal glory, should make us free to die.
 
But not only should this grand picture of all things being made new give us freedom to die, it must grant us freedom also to live. As Reverend Sorgenfrei put it in our RYM large group sermons, it should free us to live life “holding on with open hands.” So many of us experience a profound level of self-imposed anxiety — especially in younger generations — simply because we fear that at any moment in time we might not be living our lives to the fullest, that we might have passed up “the chance of a lifetime” unknowingly by committing to just about anything. With a worldview that sees this life as all we get, such an anxiety about each passing moment would make sense. But in view of that Eternal Day, we ought to be free to live life “holding on with open hands,” enjoying the highs while they last and not turning away from the lows. All the while, being free also to live as glimpses of the New Creation, to love sacrificially, to welcome as God intends to welcome his own, to heal as those who serve the Great Physician, to listen as those who follow the one who hears the prayers of his beloved. This is true freedom to live.
 
Living as followers of Christ, therefore, is much more than just something that changes the end of this existence as we transition to the next. Again, as Brian said, “If God is making all things new, it changes our purpose. He is making all things new in you and through you.” It changes everything. 
 

Our Heritage in Hymns

At one point in the not-so-distant past, I (like many my age) looked at the old hymnal that I grew up with and considered it a relic of a bygone era, something that desperately needed to be moved past in order to remain “current.” It was something I only faintly remembered reading as a child before my home church, like so many, decided the same. Yet, as the Lord would have it, my days of cracking hymnal spines were far from finished as I was confronted with this tradition once more when the Lord led Rachel and me to worship and serve in several small PCA churches in Mississippi while I was in seminary. I remember distinctly kicking against the goads at first, refusing to appreciate the rich history preserved in these contexts. Through the quiet leadership of previous mentors and the Lord’s softening of a proud heart, slowly the joy and beauty to be found crept in, at first in trickles, and later in a flood. While I respect and appreciate the variety of traditions of praise within the Christian heritage and in numerous cultures and contexts, I’ve become more and more convinced, as time goes by, that the songs of ages past are songs to which we should return. 
 
The beauty of a hymn is more than just in its sound; admittedly, the simple tune played on a piano with a few voices to sing out its lyrics is often an underwhelming experience. Many things in life are perfectly simple, even mundane at first glance. Waking up and taking a warm shower, cooking and eating a meal, that first sip of coffee, small talk with strangers, driving home through the Baton Rouge traffic. The list endlessly goes on. These are plain things, everyday tasks and experiences, but the depth to be found in each of these is so much more than what we might first acknowledge. We take so many profound things in life for granted and the simplicity and modesty of a hymn is no different. For this reason, in addition to what many perceive as archaic language, many of us turn our noses up at songs from “grandma’s church,” yet, in doing so, we rob ourselves of honest beauty, profound faith, and substantial theology. But why?
 
What person who knows the transcendence of God is not stirred to sing to the Holy One of Israel: “Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide thee, though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see, only thou art holy; there is none beside thee perfect in pow’r, in love and purity”? What soul convicted of sin finds no comfort in singing, “Not the labors of my hands can fulfill thy law’s demands; could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone, thou must save, and thou alone”? Or what troubled heart is not strengthened in crying with brothers and sisters: “Whate’er my God ordains is right: here shall my stand be taken; though sorrow, need, or death be mine, yet I am not forsaken. My Father’s care is 'round me there; he holds me that I shall not fall: and so to him I leave it all”?
 
I believe it’s high time that we reclaim our heritage in hymnody, an inheritance in song that has stood the test of time. If we were to take the time to sing, study and devote ourselves to these songs, we would find true treasures of our people from ages past, hymns that teach us the great truths of the gospel, hymns that we can sing on our deathbeds. 
 
My desire is not to convince you to abandon all other “worship styles,” nor do I ask that you prefer hymns and psalms over more contemporary worship music whether in corporate gatherings or at home. I merely hope to shine a light on the beauty of what these lines really are.They are the heart-poetry of Christians from age to age, prayers poured out from both joy and anguish, anthems of the people of God to strengthen us in the darkest of nights. For that reason, they ought to have a place not only in our pews, but also in our hearts.  
 
 

Stepping Down As Director of BRCCC

It has been the biggest honor of my life to serve as the founding director of Baton Rouge Christian Counseling Center. BRCCC started July 1, 1991 and I step down on July 1, 2021; exactly 30 years to the day. I came when I was 37 with big hair and am now 67 battling gray hair.  On the first of July, I will give the reins of the Center over to the very able hands of one of our counselors, Sherry Kadair, MA, LPC.  
 
My ministry was the ministry of showing up year after year. There’s something to be said for just showing up and getting to see first-hand what God had in store for YOUR Counseling Center. And he had much in store! I’ve witnessed the coming and going of the 17,000 clients that he brought to BRCCC. Because of Russ Stevenson’s, and later Gerrit’s support, the Center has been able to provide more than 145,000 client hours. And we’ve only just begun.  
 
I’ve also witnessed the coming and going of many FPC and BRCCC staff, many gifted Christian counselors and many, many wonderful BRCCC Board of Governor members over 30 years. 
 
I’ve had tremendous support from the church, this awesome church. I’m blessed to be able to continue counseling here as I shed the administrative part of my job. And I’ll continue leading the “Created for Connection” couples’ workshops – with one at FPC in October. I’m so very thankful. I can’t say that enough.   
 
Although I’m not a member, given my 30 years, my husband Pete and I have been granted special permission to be buried in the FPC Columbarium, which sits just below the window where I counsel. For now I will continue to be a part-time counselor at BRCCC and I will one day be buried there–so I will be at First Presbyterian for a long time!
 

Our Tasks Before Our Time

With doctor’s orders to lie face down staring at the floor for up to two weeks following emergency surgery on a detached retina, I have become thankful to the Great Physician for not only allowing me to keep a proper posture in praying for each of you but also for all your prayers for me! I’ve also had some thoughts to share. Having faced 22 deaths in only 6 weeks (two to COVID), I’ve been asking again about each of our tasks before our time. What came to mind for myself and each of us as members of the Body of Christ and FPCBR is the difference between unity and uniformity in a culture that may have confused the two.
 
True unity doesn’t require uniformity in meeting a common goal. God’s goals may be mysterious when it comes to understanding his purpose for our particular paths in life. Yet, his goal is clear when it comes to determining his purpose for the church: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . .” (Matthew 28: 19-20). We can only fulfill this great commission by being empowered by the Holy Spirit individually in order to serve as God’s witnesses collectively, as Christ Jesus said “. . . you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1: 8). Then we can go deeper in Christ and further into the world effectively.
      
Much of the power of the Holy Spirit comes in the form of the gifts from the Holy Spirit. Yet, in our use of these gifts, the saying that “united we stand, divided we fall” holds true for the church perhaps even more so than for other organizations. Why? Because Jesus himself said that non-believers will know that we belong to him not by our gifts but by our fruit (Matthew 7: 20), the fruit of love leading to unity being the greatest of them all (1 Corinthians 13: 13, Galatians 5: 22-23). This makes us true witnesses of Christ.
      
This great witness of Christ in us and through us as a body of believers can only take place when we have unity in the midst of diversity. Unlike uniformity, unity doesn’t require that we all look, act and think the same way, nor does having one voice require that we all sound the same. Rather, unity requires that diversity doesn’t become a threat but a treat. It requires that we learn to appreciate one another’s differences rather than be threatened or annoyed by them. It also requires that we accept the gifts God has given us, not wishing that we had someone else’s gifts, nor thinking that we can choose our gifts, but realizing that the Gift-Giver saw fit to give us just what we have in order to fulfill the purpose he has.
      
You are needed by the church in order for the church to fulfill its purpose, and yet, you need the church in order to fulfill yours. The church is not complete without you, and you are not complete without the church. Yet, God is sovereign in determining your role in the grand scheme of things. And although we may not understand how God picks and chooses who does what in the body of believers, we can have unity in fulfilling our purpose when we’re more concerned about the “common good” (1 Corinthians 12: 7) than our own. Let’s do so! And again, thank you for praying for me as I pray for y’all! 
 
 
 

Music Is Evocative

Victor Hugo once wrote: “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”
 
Every culture, past or present, has expressed itself musically. There are no exceptions. Music is a powerful cultural force. The anecdotal experiences of individuals anywhere in the world testify to it. Neuroscience validates it. Music activates places in us that might remain inactive otherwise—places where ideas, emotions and truths dwell.
 
Sometimes, when we make music in the Lord’s house, an interesting dilemma presents itself. It is an ancient dilemma. Early in the 5th century, Augustine wrote in The Confessions: 
 
. . . I realize that when they are sung these sacred words stir my mind to greater religious fervor and kindle in me a more ardent form of piety than they would if they were not sung; and I also know that there are particular modes in song and the voice, corresponding to my various emotions and able to stimulate them because of some mysterious relationship between the two. But I ought not to allow my mind to be paralyzed by the gratification of my senses, which often leads it astray. For the senses are not content to take second place. . . . (Book 10, Chapter 33, The Confessions)
 
During moments of musical worship, Augustine sometimes wondered if the beautiful music was moving him rather than the truths the music was conveying. I think it is good to give this some thought. Now, the point is not that we should try to avoid enjoying the beauty of music or being moved by it. Music, by God’s design, is evocative. 
 
The issue is a matter of sequence and motivation. So, when we come together, dear church, let us not wait for the swelling wave of the music to move us. Rather, let us make the waves by singing Truth—combining words, melodies, voices and instruments in ways that reverberate with eternal significance. Rest assured this will deeply gratify. Will always be beautiful.
 
When we gather as God’s people we do so as a royal priesthood. We meet to do the work of worship. Cues are given from the pulpit to the pew. But we all are tasked with sending the various offerings of worship upward to the throne room of the Most High. We harness the power of music as one way of doing the work of worship. It has been so since the days Moses led Israel through the Red Sea (Exodus 15). And according to John’s visions in Revelation 4, 5 and 7, it will remain so throughout all eternity. 
 

Our Columbarium's Five Year Anniversary

Eight years ago your session voted unanimously to create a space on our church campus for securing cremated remains of members of our church and their immediate families, as well as for past members. Almost to the month five years ago, we held our first memorial service in the Dunham Chapel with an inurnment service following in the beautiful garden courtyard between the Dunham Chapel and the Education Building. Since that first inurnment we have had an additional 23 memorial services. Each of them were intimate celebrations of life and life eternal through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
 
Phase 1 of our columbarium includes eighty niches. Each niche can accommodate two urns. Sixty of the eighty niches have been purchased. With only twenty niches remaining, plans are now underway for Phase 2.
 
Funerals and memorial services continue as part of the life of our church even during this pandemic. Certainly, they are unique experiences and different from what we are used to doing. 
 
Consideration of a columbarium niche may be on your ‘to do’ list. They are an increasingly popular option for final arrangements for several reasons. First, the financial investment is substantially less than traditional cemetery funerals. Second, many are expressing an increased preference for a memorial service rather than a traditional funeral. This allows for an intimate family gathering for mourning the loss and a celebration of life following. Finally, the garden courtyard is a wonderful place to visit. And it is close and available for times of reflection and meditation throughout the day.
 
We do not publicize our columbarium and it sometimes goes unnoticed. Newer members of our fellowship may not even know about it. As Phase 2 begins, some of you may want to make this step for the first time or to complete this item that has been on your ‘to do’ list for a long time. For information about our columbarium please contact Sherry McKinley (sherry@fpcbr.org or 225.620.0224). 
 

First Presbyterian and Kids Hope USA

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

You Are My Tribe; My Ministry

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

The Proper Perspective In the Midst of Life’s Problems

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

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

 

What a Joy It's Been!

It has been a true joy and honor to serve as your Children’s Ministry Director for nearly a decade. The children at First Presbyterian are absolutely amazing. I am blessed by the opportunity to see children come to Jesus, to hunger for him, ask questions about him and get excited at the sound of his name. I have enjoyed walking alongside parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers. Serving as your leader in Children’s Ministry has been a privilege. Now it is time to take the next step of our journey. Life is journey after all isn’t it? 
 
Kinch has been blessed with a wonderful opportunity to advance his career in Ft. Worth, TX. Our children, Robert and Helen, will begin 4th and 6th grade come fall at Ft. Worth Christian School. We are all very excited about this new adventure and will be moving in the next couple of months. First Presbyterian has been home for 12 years and is truly what has made Baton Rouge special to us. I have always said it is the people that makes living in Baton Rouge great. You are those people! 
 
Thank you for letting me teach your children about Jesus. Thank you for helping me to grow. Thank you for loving my family and me so well. Thank you for being you. 
 
I hope the waters of isolation will be parted soon so we can bid you a formal farewell. Or at least give you an air-hug. If not, trust that we will return to you when time allows. 
 
 

God Paved a Path for Me

I am beyond honored and humbled to step into this important role as your Women’s Ministry Director. In some ways, I’m an unlikely choice! I’m just your average small-town Louisiana girl with a business degree from Alabama (the horror!), a wife and a mom of three busy kids. But as I reflect on these past several years, I can see how, in God’s great sovereignty, he has been paving this path for me; leading me to this place. I feel certain I am exactly where he wants me. 
 
It’s been such a joy to serve voluntarily and on staff, and this opportunity is a wildly unexpected answered prayer. So despite my (many!) shortcomings, I promise to continue to work passionately for you and more importantly, for the Lord, always seeking his wisdom and guidance. I have been an expository Bible teacher for several years and love to help others encounter the Scriptures in a way that conforms us to the incarnate Jesus. More than that, I am an ever-eager student of the Word, ready to learn and grow alongside of you.  
 
I love this church and the women of this church more than I can put into words, and I pray that together, we grow deeper in our individual and collective relationships with the Lord Jesus Christ and encourage each other as ambassadors of the gospel. 
 

The Expression of Truth Through Art

As a musician I often think about beauty and the expression of truth through art. If we use the most puritanical lens, beauty could be seen as a distraction-maybe even a temptation. Do we really need form as long as we have function? Aren’t frills frivolous?
 
Since her time hiding in the Roman catacombs, the church has struggled to define her relationship to beauty. Augustine worried about being seduced by the artistry of the singer rather than the sublime truth of the text being sung. At times, the church has adorned her sanctuaries with painting, sculpture and iconography. At other times, she has abandoned this adornment, shattering stained glass and choosing white walls over detailed murals.
 
For me, many answers to questions about beauty can be found in the existence of a tiny little critter called the peacock spider. The peacock spider will fit on the tip of your finger with room to spare. You could easily miss him. You may have squashed him. If you get really close, however, you will see a work of art. These tiny arachnids carry on their backs paintings worthy of wall space in a fine gallery. Do an image search in your web browser and discover the delights of the peacock spider’s plumage. 
 
The existence of the peacock spider tells us something about the nature of our God. He made a cosmos that is extravagantly, unnecessarily beautiful. Creation is as much a canvas as it is a construction. God designed a sturdy creation that functions well. He also made something gorgeous. As creatures, we must praise such a Creator. We can delight in his stunning artistry. We can celebrate our individuality. 
 

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
    who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
    may the whole earth be filled with his glory!
Amen and Amen! 

Psalm 72: 18-19

 
 

Sing Aloud His Righteousness!

We have only been with you for a few weeks. Yet, we already feel like part of this wonderful Church. The friendly handshakes and “Welcome to First Presbyterian!” introductions are appreciated. I believe that the Lord in his gracious, sovereign providence has brought us together. I am asking the Lord to build his Kingdom through us. I look forward to leading you to “pour forth the fame of God’s abundant goodness and sing aloud of his righteousness” (Psalm 145: 7).
 

A Restful Resolution

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Exodus 20: 8-10a).
 
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2: 27).

How restful are you? As the son of a WWII veteran, I had no choice but to develop a work ethic. My earthly father believed in productivity. Our Heavenly Father does too. Yet, He also believes in rest.

In a restless society, it is easy to take the Fourth Commandment as a suggestion rather than a commandment from the God who created the universe and created you and knows what is best for us.
 
When we are not willing to rest, we eventually are given no choice but to rest. At best, the rest comes when one has a vacation, a holiday or retirement. At worst, rest comes only due to unexpected illness, personal crisis, or even death. In such cases, rest is looked upon simply as a form of recovery. God has something better than that for you and me.
 
The command for rest is given in the book of Exodus in light of God’s example of “resting” on the seventh day of the first week, following six days of his “work” of creating (Genesis 2: 2). As an omnipotent God, he rested, not because he needed rest, but because we do, even as an example to others of how to remember that he is God and that the world doesn’t depend upon our abilities but upon his (Psalm 46: 10). He is able.
 
For Christians, the question is not, “How should I keep the Sabbath?,” the day during which the Israelites kept Ceremonial Law, resting from any and every type of labor. Instead, it is a two-part question. We ask “How should I keep the Lord’s Day?,” Sunday, the day on which Christ rose from the dead, when Christians gather for corporate worship (Acts 20: 7, 1 Corinthians 16: 1-2). Also, “How can I appropriately adhere to the divine command to rest, taking a break from the usual routine of the other six days, as we are not under Old Testament law but New Testament grace?" (Galatians 5: 1-26)
 
Sunday may be your day of rest, outwardly and inwardly, physically and spiritually. As a pastor, it is not mine. In fact, I have often told others that on Mondays, my day off, I am not available to anyone other than my wife and children, unless it is truly a matter of life and death. Of course, after I said this, many have died on Mondays! I even had one friend, Johnny Wheeler, tell me that he is intentionally going to die on a Monday just to have one on me–and he did! I’m glad that God has a sense of humor! I am also glad that we will see Johnny again (John 11: 25-26).
 
Nevertheless, ceasing from our work for 24 hours weekly is still necessary for each of us regardless of our career/calling. It helps us to realize that God is still in control and he will continue to get done all that we are called to do even without us. This keeps us humble as servants in his kingdom rather than sovereigns of our own (Psalm 46: 10). Even more poignantly, it keeps us from missing out on the privilege as his children to hear from our Father in heaven while we are still here on earth.
 
I have found that my times of being still, reading and meditating upon his Word, in prayer and contemplation, empower me to keep a proper perspective in the midst of life’s problems, hearing his voice in the midst of all the other voices of this world, including my own.
 
Nevertheless, if we have a sabbath rest of only praying, we have not progressed from our Puritan ancestors who tended to be legalistic in their observances. If we have a sabbath rest of only playing, we are no different than the self-centered society in which we live. Regardless of how the rest is practiced, it is not true rest unless it refreshes our relationship with God and our perspective on life.
 
Being busy yet not hurried is another thing altogether that I thank the Lord for teaching me in my desire to be more like him. Perhaps we can discuss that goal in the days ahead. Meanwhile, I have a challenge for you in this year ahead:
 
Would you consider making a New Year’s resolution to observe and enjoy the command to rest one day each week this year and as long as we are on this earth until we enter the eternal rest (Hebrews 4: 1-16) of the One who said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest?" (Matthew 11: 28).

 

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.
 

Presents or Presence?

Parenting is one tough job and not for sissies or the fainthearted. Giving birth is a snap compared to parenting and being the biological male sire is by no means the same as being the parenting father. It is kind of like the fact that weddings do not necessarily result in marriages, if you get my drift.
 
The world doesn’t honor parenting. It never has, and a lot of lip service is given but like the saying goes, “words are cheap.” The world has pulled mother out of the home under the guise of liberating her to equal status with men. By what standard are we measuring this worth? The world’s standard? Money? As for men, they have never been encouraged by the world to put as much energy into parenting as they do their labor for the almighty dollar.
 
Parenting takes more time than money. It is really true. Just look at the number of boarding schools and children’s homes that have been built for the purpose of kids being put aside while parents pursue their careers. If you ask children what they desire, their answer will be, "To be at home with their family." Toys and entertainment (i.e., Play Stations) don’t make up for the longing for home in their hearts that shows in their eyes.
 
Children want presence not presents. Oh, we have taught them well; that like us, they are supposed to like presents. It is the material way. The American way. But I’m not sure it is God’s way. Please don’t get me wrong. We do have to live in this world and we do have to have real material bread for the journey. The economic status of many single mothers and couples dictates that both work. But even if that is the case, the economic necessity doesn’t reduce the missed time of presence for both parent and child.
 
What is the answer? I’m not sure, but this much I know: children need parents present as much as possible. That means not just in their rooms but also paying attention and participating in their world. Quality time is vital and there needs to be a lot of quality time or else there will be no parenting going on. Take time to reflect for a moment on how we adults long for God’s presence. And guess what? He shows up! 
 
 
The Gift of Presence
 
How can you give the gifts of presence to your family? One step at a time. The following suggestions will help you get started:
  1. When you come home, give yourself thirty minutes, if possible, to unwind and change gears before you enter into the family dynamics. (Maybe you can do this in the car on the way home or maybe each parent can give the other thirty minutes of alone time before everyone comes together).
  2. When you enter the family, give each child thirty minutes of your undivided attention. Children want to know that that you are present and interested. At the end of that time, they will have had enough of you and will go off to play on their own. (However, if you come in, listen with one ear, watch TV or read the paper with both eyes and just say “uh huh” a lot, they will pester you all night to try to get you to really notice them).
  3. Plan family time and possibly a family meeting each week. Family time is a time when everybody plays or talks and listens together. Family meeting is when everyone gets to put their two cents worth in, knowing it will be heard and considered, even if not acted on every time.
  4. Have a “date” with each child at least once a month.  Mom and Dad can each do this. (When my boys were young, I took them to breakfast on Wednesday (Patrick) and Friday (Andrew) mornings before school: we had 100/breakfasts per year x 10 years). 
  5. Praise your children for who they are --- their humor, their smile, their ability to think, their insights, their gifts and talents. You cannot bless a child’s being too much.
  6. Correct their doing and don’t attack their person.
  7. Let siblings work out their differences whenever possible. They don’t need to get you in the middle.  They are better arbitrators than we give them credit for sometimes.
  8. Love your spouse! Stand together! Discuss your differences in a private space away from the children and then come out as a united front. Don’t let the children split you up.
  9. Take some time for yourself. You cannot give all the time and not run out of juice. Batteries run down, and you will too.
  10. Take time to be a couple, if you are not a single parent. Make some memories together. One day, the children will be gone and don’t live through them.
  11. Be present. Be present. Be present as much as possible. Children just need to know you are there and that they can get to you when they really need you.
  12. Sometimes when the culture is cheering us all on to our death beds (both culturally and individually), we just have to listen to the still, small voice of God inside us. Get still and listen. I believe God will let you know a lot better how to do this parenting thing than the world would lead you to believe. But remember: to hear God will take the same thing it takes to be present – presence! Be present please, Mom and Dad. And God says, “Be present please, children; I want to enjoy my children, too.” 

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.
 
  

Prayerful Listening

At a Young Life Staff retreat at Windy Gap in 1991, Henri Nouwen asked, “What is it like for you to be in the presence of God? What images come to mind?” Almost immediately, the answer came from deep within me. It’s like visiting my grandmother. Every Saturday from age eight till 18, I would take three buses across the city to clean her home and enjoy a Saturday lunch that was incredible. My grandmother desired spending time with me, and I loved the adventure to get to her home. After cleaning her home and having an amazing lunch, we would visit with one another, sitting in the quiet of her home playing a few games of “crazy eights or canasta.” I would speak about my life and ask her about hers. Grandma listened and I listened. There were times of silence, and there was no sense of hurry, except she wanted me on the bus by 4.30 to begin the trek home to uptown Nola.  
 
Even when I got busy with other things and came less often, Grandma didn’t scold me for not coming sooner. She always greeted me as though I was the best part of her week. I don’t recall her telling me she loved me or that she was praying for me, though there was no doubt that both were true. She gave me an image of God that was accepting and loving and spacious. She helped to listen my soul into being, and she pursued my heart since I was born.  Grandma Thelma was my only living grandparent when I was born, and we remained very close until her death on November 15, 1989 (the same day our son Andrew came into our lives). The irony of this gift was that the Lord Jesus was in charge of the timing.
 
Perhaps Grandma guided my vocational life without ever speaking of it or planning it. Maybe she had a desire I would become a priest or pastor, but grandma helped to prepare me by which my spiritual life has been nurtured.  Throughout my adult life through listening and talking in small groups of people, I have been seeking to deepen my life in God. These small groups have often been formed through the church and youth ministry, and became known as breakfast clubs with young men and adults. Since 1976, it has been a joy to listen to God and to others, and this has been a precious gift. It is called prayerful listening. 
 
Henri Nouwen on this Young Life staff retreat shared of the healing that is available in prayerful listening. “Healing means, first of all, the creation of an empty but friendly space where those who suffer can tell their story to someone who can listen with real attention. Healers are hosts who patiently and carefully listen to the story. Our most important question as healers is not, ‘What to say or to do?’ but, ‘How to develop enough inner space where the story can be received?’ Healing is the humble but also very demanding task of creating and offering a friendly empty space where strangers can reflect without fear, and find the confidence that makes them look for new ways right in the center of their confusion” (Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, p. 67-68). 
 
My grandmother, in her own limited situation, without knowing the larger impact of her faithfulness, pointed me to God, who is always ready to listen, to heal, to love and to invite us into deeper places. Without a doubt, grandma was prayerfully listening to every word that I shared and our Heavenly Father does the same.
 

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.
 
 

Living Dangerously Tired

Henri Nouwen, author of 39 books on the spiritual life, shares, “We aren’t rest-filled people who occasionally become restless: we’re restless people who sometimes find rest.”
 
Over the past four years, I've learned to identify and name my dangerous levels of exhaustion, and the choice to begin attending Transforming Community Retreats in Chicago has begun to slowly replenish my heart and soul. Two years into these transforming retreats, my Aunt Helen had a stroke and died soon thereafter in May 2017. During that month, I traveled to be with her on ten occasions sitting and praying before she went home to Jesus. While caring for my family and others that month, I did not realize I was on the brink of disaster. On the morning of May 31, 2017, I was driving to New Orleans one more time, to prepare and counsel three couples for marriage and fell asleep at the wheel of my automobile for a moment. The rest is history.
 
“There are at least two kinds of tired we might experience—good tired and dangerous tired. The differences between the two are important because the remedy for each one is different. Good tired is the poured out feeling we experience after a job well done or an unusually intense season of activity. Remedies for that include a good night’s sleep, our normal Sabbath, a weekend off, or even a vacation. But the condition of being dangerously tired is not simply the result of an intense run of activity or even a crisis, as demanding as these may be. Dangerous levels of exhaustion usually accumulate over a longer period of time in which we are consistently living beyond human limits, functioning outside our giftedness, or not paying attention to the sources of our exhaustion.” Invitation to Retreat: the Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God by Ruth Haley Barton, p 24.
 
When we are dangerously tired, we are unable to be our best selves. We find it difficult to make wise and discerning decisions. My body began to break down under the stress and strain of doing too much. I have learned that exhaustion from juggling so many balls so much of the time is not going to be touched by shorter times spent in solitude. When I arrive on Transforming Community Retreats every quarter, I am so grateful for rest. I literally fall down onto my bed closing my eyes for as long as possible to renew my strength.
 
If we are honest, many of us have given up hope that we will ever be rested. My life felt out of control and I chose to walk through it exhausted. I was convinced that being rested was not an option. But God’s invitation to go on retreat four year ago and be in his presence began a deep healing that was greatly needed. If you are struggling with living dangerously tired, please let go of all the striving for productivity and believe that in the resting you are accepting 
Jesus' invitation to all his busy disciples.
 
Ask yourself, where am I in danger these days? Your answer will give you insight as you quiet yourself in God’s presence and begin to get in touch with your soul.
 
By Whitney Alexander
Associate Pastor for Missions
 

A Shared Heartbeat for Worship and Ministry

It’s hard to believe that we have been here at First Presbyterian for  almost three months. What a blessing it has been to step into this new and exciting role. You have all been so gracious to Lisa and me. We quickly experienced the love and family of First Presbyterian on so many levels. We have embraced the staff, worship ministry team and congregation to the point where we feel like we are already a part of this amazing church family.
 
My faith journey began while attending a Christian youth church camp in Hawaii. Even though I grew up in a pastor’s home, it wasn’t until my teen years that I placed my faith in Christ. Those early years as a follower of Christ were forming as God was preparing me for something bigger than myself and something that I would embrace with my entire being.
 
My story as a Director of Worship began while I was attending college in Oklahoma. Sitting on my dorm room bed during my devotional time, God impressed upon me his purpose for my life. It was one of the most real experiences I have ever been a part of. My commitment to serve Christ faithfully in the ministry of music and worship began that day and continues to this day. The passion and pursuit to be a true worshiper who worships in spirit and in truth is the heartbeat of my ministry and my life. The desire to share that passion with the local church is who God designed me to be.
 
I am so excited to be in a church that shares the same heartbeat for worship and ministry.
 
Thank you for being who you are in Christ to reach the city of Baton Rouge and beyond. We so look forward to getting to know each of you personally. A special thank you to the search committee and staff team for being an integral part of this journey and process. May God be glorified in all things. To God be the glory and honor.
 
By Steve Newman
Worship Director
 

On the Receiving End of Pastoral Care

While I have felt humbled and honored to see what the Lord is doing in and through the ministry of Care and Prayer, I have wondered how it would all go without me. Well, as I suspected, it has gone just fine; in fact beautifully!
 
As many of you know, my wife Anne recently had emergency surgery and will have a few months of recovery. At times like this, what is a Pastor of Care and Prayer to do? Simply put, he is to carry out what God’s Word says to elders and deacons when called to care for the church. First, focus on the care of his own wife and children (1 Timothy 3: 5) allowing others to care for him (1 Corinthians 12:7). Well, I have felt unspeakably cared for by you through your care for my wife, our daughters and myself. As a result, I cannot thank you enough! 
 
In Acts 2: 43b-45 we read, “Many wonders and miracles were being done through the apostles.” In other words, they were using their gifts to serve others and not themselves, as seen in the passage immediately following this text where Peter heals a crippled beggar. We read also that they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
 
How do we give of ourselves? In at least three ways:
 
1. We give ministerially by using our spiritual gifts and abilities to serve others rather than ourselves. God’s Word is very inclusive when it comes to the question of who is eligible to give in this way! We all are! 1 Peter 4: 10 tells us we each have at least one gift to share with others! I truly enjoy recruiting and equipping my sisters and brothers in Christ to serve in their realm of giftedness, as I believe and have seen that everyone is great at something!
 
2. We also are called to give financially (Mt.23: 23 and 2 Cor. 9: 5-16), whether you make $20,000 or $200,000 per year; whether you are a multi-millionaire or feel you barely have enough to get by (Luke 21: 1-4, Acts 20: 35)!
 
3. We are called to give voluntarily, motivated by joy and thanksgiving rather than guilt and obligation, as we follow the One who gives us everything (Romans 8: 32)! 
 
My mother always said, “The more you give the more you get.” I add to that, “as long as you don’t give to get.” My dad did pretty well as an accountant but even well paid professionals may not have much money when supporting a wife and twelve children. Somehow, all twelve got through college. How? I believe it was due not so much to my dad’s budgeting but more so my mom’s giving. I remember moving to a neighborhood where we felt like the poorest on the block. Yet my mother would have me help her load up clothes and other items we no longer needed to drop off to the Salvation Army. She did not always have what she wanted while she was on this earth, but when she left this earth, I realized she always had what she needed. Jesus promises us if we rely on him and not ourselves for provision then we will have our needs met. 
 
You may have heard about a man who went on a trip to Israel and was about to enter the famous and impressive Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv to take in a concert by the famed Israel Philharmonic. The man was admiring the unique architecture, the sweeping lines of the entrance and the modern décor throughout the building. Finally, he turned to the Israeli tour guide and asked, “Is the building named for Thomas Mann, the world-famous author?” “No,” the tour guide responded. “It’s named for Fredric Mann, from Philadelphia.” “Really? I never heard of him. What did he write?” asked the tourist. To which the tour guide responded, “A check!” 
 
You can be involved in your family, or even in a church family, by giving money, but you can only be committed to God and his children by giving of yourself. 
 
I think you can give without loving but you cannot love without giving. Although Our Resurrected Lord said that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20: 35), I have been so blessed by your giving to me for a period of time when I was unable to continue giving to you. For that, Anne, our daughters and I thank God for you! 
 
Learn more about how to become involved in the Prayer and Care Ministries.
 
By Jim Solomon
Associate Pastor for Pastoral Care and Prayer
 
 

My Cup Overflows

In well-known Psalm 23, David is so content, so overwhelmed with emotion in light of God’s provision and promised blessings that he proclaims, “My cup overflows!” Women, in some capacity or another, all yearn to feel like David in this psalm. We are all thirsty for God’s Word and God’s grace and blessings. We want to be “filled up” to the brim, to the point of overflowing! We show up with our empty cups, ready to be filled with God’s goodness and joy.
 
But often, we underestimate our ability to pour into other’s cups. We believe the lie that we can’t really contribute unless our own cup is overflowing.  Or maybe we miss opportunities to pour into others because we believe that we have nothing to offer, that our presence doesn’t really matter. Or more boldly, we don’t pour into others because it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable for us, or because it means sacrificing something we don’t want to give up like our time or energy. But the truth is, on a daily basis, we can simultaneously feel “full” in some ways and “empty” in others. And so it’s possible to approach each day with an empty cup in one hand and a water pitcher in the other. 
 
Women’s ministry requires all of us. We are a complex gender, full of wants and needs, desires and dreams and emotions. We are absolutely not one size fits all. So we need all hands on deck. We need to retrain our brains to believe the truth that we do have something to offer, that our presence DOES matter. After all, God created us for a reason, giving each of us our own characteristics. And wherever he has put us, we express the gifts and strengths he’s given us. Even in our everyday lives, we have endless opportunities to be ministers of the gospel. God can use anyone (and we mean anyone!) to spread gospel truth and to be his hands and feet. We are all different, but we are all united in Christ.
 
So come thirsty. Come with an empty cup in one hand because the good news, more than anything else, is that God’s Truth is sufficient to fill us up. God is always ready and willing to pour out his grace. Come ready to drink up God’s goodness and joy.
 
But also come with a water pitcher, ready to serve his life-giving water to others. Come willing to be inconvenienced. Come willing to move into empty spaces and stir one another up in love using the gifts and talents he has instilled in you. Come willing to nurture other women in their relationship with Christ. It’s a weighty and important responsibility, but oh, what a privilege it is!    
 
We believe that God has intentionally placed every woman in this church, not only to grow our faith upward, but also to grow it outward, with one another. Our prayer is that Women’s Ministry would be a safe, honest, God-glorifying place where we can come together in study and prayer, serve one another in love, and connect in deep, meaningful ways. Our prayer is that we come together with compassion, attentiveness and grace-filled sacrifice, and then we take our water pitcher outside of the church walls, outside of Sunday morning and into the mission fields God has called us to. Our prayer is that each of us come with an empty cup in one hand and a water pitcher in the other. Let’s encourage a culture of water pourers, and may our cups overflow!
 
By Elizabeth Parker
Women's Ministry Director
 

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1: 6-8).

 

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
 

Walking the Talk

Although I grew up in a very religious home, I became agnostic during my high school and college years. Eventually, as I entered the business world upon college graduation in 1989, through the guidance of an older, wiser and more educated sister, I took some steps toward having not so much a religion about God but a relationship with God. Elizabeth was there for me when I needed her most, bringing joy out of sorrow during a difficult time in my life. Although a few people I knew believed in miracles, I didn’t. I had suffered from many unanswered prayers in seeking peace in the midst of many problems that caused me lots of pain along my path. Nevertheless, many years later, following more spiritual growth, I found myself serving as a former businessman turned Protestant minister in a role as an Associate Pastor for a very large church in Connecticut. I had already been married to a wonderful woman with whom I had been blessed to become a dad of two beautiful daughters, affectionately known as my “princesses.”
 
One day in early spring 2003, someone in the church brought to my attention another man who was also married to a beautiful wife with whom he had two wonderful girls. Described as a “man’s man,” William Cox was not only rough and tough but also very hard working and capable in his role as a custodian. Unfortunately, he was very seriously injured while moving furniture. His prognosis was sobering. At best, he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, most likely paralyzed from the waist down, never to walk again. At worst, he would die.
 
William’s wife, Joanne, invited me to join her and some other believers in praying for William at the ICU of Danbury Hospital. This dear woman of faith recently revealed to me that she felt God had given her a list of those he wanted there that night. 
 
In line with guidance found in the New Testament book of James, we anointed William with oil and prayer in the name of Jesus, the ultimate Wounded Healer, who stated that “with God all things are possible.” When I laid my hand on William’s head, I felt compelled to ask for what seemed to be the impossible. I was certain that as crazy as it may have seemed given this man’s current medical condition, I was to swallow all pride when it came to managing the perception of others and simply ask God to completely heal William. At that very moment, I felt a strange heat sensation I had never previously experienced running through my hand, which I had placed on William’s head.
 
My foremost concern in that moment was learning William’s wife and daughters had accepted Christ but he had not. Yet, like me, they wanted him with them—not only temporally on earth but eternally in heaven. 
 
While laying my hand on William’s head, before I could even think, the following words came out of my mouth: “Lord Jesus, you’ve created the universe and blessed it with William who lies here not yet knowing you and your love for him. Please do not let him leave this earth without making a conscious decision as you have requested of all to accept you as his Savior and follow you as his Leader. Your Word tells us that with God all things are possible. Though these good earthly physicians have done all they can, we know that you, the great Heavenly Physician, can do what they can’t. We beg you to go beyond medicine in fully healing William not only physically but also spiritually so that he can one day enjoy you eternally. We ask this in Your Name. Amen.”
 
Several weeks later, William WALKED into my office! He looked at me and smiled. I was simultaneously astonished, excited and amazed! Goose bumps, which I have since called “God bumps,” ran up and down my arms while the hair on my arms and the back of my neck stood up. His only question for me, even though he had never previously spoken to me, was this: “What do I need to do to know God? I’m ready.” As you can imagine, I ran with that! William understood that God gave him a second chance at life—and he took it! A man who at times had been bitter and resentful soon miraculously became better and peaceful. The peace that replaced his anxiety inwardly continues to shine through his life outwardly. 
 
Although many years have passed since I’ve last seen William, not a day has passed when I don’t believe in miracles, as he is a walking one. 
 
Jim Solomon
Associate Pastor of Pastoral Care and Prayer
 
Previously printed in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hope and Miracles.” Soul Publishing, LLC.
 

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
 
 

A Difficult Topic

“For he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”  

 
These words of Scripture from 1 John 4: 4 encourage me greatly when I think about the topic which God has prompted me to write about this month. Pornography isn’t an issue that we like to dwell on often; instead, we mention it in quick, passing statements because it’s such a monster.  We know it’s out there: a recent survey revealed there are currently 4.2 million pornographic websites. We know that the problem is pervasive: among 13-17 year olds, 8% admit to daily watching pornography, 18% admit to watching weekly and 17% admit to watching once or twice a month – the percentages go even higher for 18-24 year olds. The numbers aren’t just about males. 33% of women ages 13-24 admit to seeking out porn at least once a month. We know that it wreaks havoc: pornography treats men and women as sexual commodities thus resulting in pornography playing a significant role in over 50% of all divorces.  Therefore, we can sometimes feel like the battle isn’t winnable. However, I believe the Bible offers hope in the midst of this darkness. Prior to working at First Presbyterian, I served for 20 years in campus ministry. I have personally watched God deliver young men from the claws of pornography time and time again to a life that restores sexuality to its proper relational context as human beings made in God’s image for God’s glory, rather than as sexual commodities to be bought, sold and consumed.
 
Ultimately, it is the gospel, obedience to God’s word and quality fellowship that renews one’s mind and moves one toward freedom. Steps toward sexual wholeness also include walking in truth with trustworthy brothers and sisters in the Lord. A practical way that I have found to do this is to bring one’s internet habits into the light by using an accountability and filtering software called Covenant Eyes. Covenant Eyes is a trusted company whose software I personally installed on my computer over two decades ago and which can be installed on all devices including phones and tablets. As parents, Barat and I wanted to prevent the onslaught of temptation for our kids, so we signed up for a family account. Every device we have now limits access to pornography, thanks to their software. We are not naïve enough to think that the battle is won, or that we no longer need to discuss this issue with our kids, but we are thankful to have a first defense with Covenant Eyes. Seeking to shepherd our church, I have worked a partnership with Covenant Eyes to provide a discount off their monthly fee for anyone who signs up from First Presbyterian (see direct link below). Please contact me at darin@fpcbr.org for more information and additional resources to help in this battle. I pray for freedom from sin and relational wholeness as we walk in the light of God’s glory and holiness as a church body!
 
Darin Travis
Director of Discipleship, Men's Ministry and Young Adults
 
 

Better Like This?

An eye doctor asks this question a million times as we peek through different lenses: better like this? Or like this? The process continues until you find the lenses by which you can see the clearest. The letters on the screen don’t change. Just the lenses by which we view them.
 
There’s just one Jesus. He has made himself known. We don’t get to make him up. But we do get to look at him through different lenses. And in that way see new wonders about him. We get to be surprised and refreshed as Jesus comes into glorious focus when we gaze at him through a biblical lens we may have overlooked.  
 
My passion is to bring Jesus into clear focus for you every week as we study Scripture. In my personal studies over the last half decade, I have been gazing at Jesus through a particular lens and making note of what I see. I have been meditating, researching, pondering and writing about the event in Jesus’ life known as the descent into hell. I have seen some wondrous sights when viewing the story of Jesus this way. His whole story of redemption “pops” with meaning when you see what his final descent meant. 
 
At last, I can share them with you! We’re launching my book: Raising Adam: Why Jesus Descended into Hell. On Sunday, October 14 at 5 pm in the Sanctuary I’ll be doing a presentation on the subject, then we’ll have a book launch party at 6 in the Reception Room. I’m so excited to share these insights into Christ with you and I hope you will help me in spreading the word.
 
Meanwhile, there’s lots of other great stuff going on at your church. We’re finishing our Habitat build. The women are gathering October 6 for a “Day Treat” out at the Boydstun’s farm. The October 23 Gala to support Gardere School will be in the super-cool venue of the new Estuary @ the Water Campus. And on the 28th we’ll have our annual Kirkin’ O’ the Tartans celebration. By then, the weather will have cooled and we’ll be ready for a festive worship service as one congregation.  
 
I love to be your pastor!
 
Gerrit Dawson
Senior Pastor
 

Calling All Moms

It’s the hard truth. No matter how hard we try, every mom can attest to the pestering power of mom guilt. Whether you’re a mom to toddlers or teenagers, chances are you strive daily for some measure of parenting success that you don’t reach. We constantly set ourselves up for failure. We set expectations for ourselves that we can’t meet. We go to bed feeling regret over what we didn’t accomplish rather than joy over what we did. Frankly, I’ve just about had it with #MomGuilt. Can I get an Amen to that?
 
This is exactly why I run (not walk!) to our Mom’s Thursday Morning Study. Not only is this a time of deep, expositional Bible study, but it’s also a time of meaningful (and much needed!) fellowship with other tired moms like me, needing to refuel and reconnect. Each week, I learn more about our Savior, and I’m reminded of who I’m truly performing for. This time together helps me refocus on what’s really important (him, not me!). We have prayer time dedicated to praying over our children, our marriages and our parenting joys and struggles. This is a safe place where we gather together in his name on behalf of our families. I leave feeling refueled, secure in Christ and more in tune with God’s desire for me as a wife, mother and friend. Mom’s Bible Study meets on Thursdays from 9.30-11 am in Education Building Room 301. The majority of women who attend are mothers in their 20s, 30s and 40s, basically anyone who has kids still at home and in the season of “active” parenting! We are not formal at all. Come in your activewear! We offer childcare for children five and under, but you can even bring your babies with you to study if you prefer. All are welcome! 
 
Our fall semester begins Thursday, September 6, and we will be studying through Jesus’ parables in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus often teaches through the use of parables, illustrative stories that convey spiritual truths. My prayer is that we grow deeper in our understanding of how these stories were important to the disciples, and also that God grants us the wisdom to teach the spiritual truths found in the parables to our children and apply these lessons to our everyday lives with our families.  
 
We would love to have you! Contact Jaime Carnaggio if you have questions. 
 
Jaime Carnaggio
 
 
 
 

Did You Know? A Special Thanks

Dear Beloved Session and Church, 
 
On June 26, I had the opportunity to experience Europe for the first time in my life traveling to Salzburg, Austria. I was invited by my good friends from college, David and Gayle Galasso, of St. Peter’s Methodist Church in Katy, TX, to join a mass choir of 145 singers from all around the USA. My two good friends, college roommate Claire Wilson, and Tracy Munson, who sang as well, traveled with me. We participated in the “Jubilate” Mozart Festival, which is held every summer to celebrate the music of Amadeus Mozart. Salzburg is the city where Mozart was born and lived. We sang in the Salzburg Dom (the most beautiful cathedral I have ever seen). Tracy and I worked hard learning the most beautiful and inspiring music (an hour and 15 minutes worth) singing with a professional orchestra and soloists. The soloists were standing in the balcony beside one of the six organs in the church! We sang under the direction of two accomplished conductors, and met many other incredibly talented people. 
 
I wanted you to know that the Lord worked it out for me to go. The session decided to give this trip to me as a gift to celebrate my 25th year anniversary working here at First Presbyterian. Not only did I see beautiful Salzburg and Vienna, Austria, but the Lord let me experience it while singing praises to him! I knew this was his doing and his blessing on me. He was loving me through my church. 
I could not have had anything better given to me! I can’t even talk about it without getting emotional, so I wanted to write to all of you and thank you for the gift of a lifetime, and, a lifetime of leading worship for the most amazing church family. 
 
God bless you all,
 
Nancy Spiller
Creative Arts Director
 
 
 
 
 

A Lot Has Happened

It feels like it was a just a few weeks ago that I drove over the Mississippi bridge for the first time and saw First Presbyterian on the horizon. It baffles me this scene was six and a half years ago. But a lot of life has happened in these years. We have watched our 1 year old become a beautiful young girl now heading into 3rd grade. You were there when our firecracker of a little man came into the world 4 years ago. We bought a home, started elementary school, loved on special needs students, got ordained, embarked on a doctoral program, baptized our kiddos, worked on flooded homes and traveled thousands of miles over the years with students in tow to see them go “deeper in Christ and further into the world.”
 
There are so many scenes that fill my head when I think about FPC and the enormous impact this church family has had on my family and me. One particular one was filling the Sanctuary after one of our dear young ones went to be with Lord. It was the church living out the great calling to love and care for the next generation by surrounding them with Christ’s love. It has been a great privilege of my life to serve alongside you as we seek for young people to hear the good news of the gospel and surrender all of who they are to our Savior.  
 
This summer we will be departing to serve the Lord in a new pastoral calling back in Texas.  It will be an opportunity for me preach the word which FPC has given me a great passion for. My passion will also take the incredible things we do for students and live that out with adults, connecting them to Christ and to one another. In many ways it will be like I am serving at FPC in Texas. We love this church family and will be excited to see all the ways Christ draws you closer to himself. 
 
I cannot say thank you enough for the many blessings you have bestowed upon me. The biggest one was taking a scraggly youth guy and forming me into a young pastor with a passion for the preached word of God and seeing God’s people live out the Great Commission.   
 

God Is Love Or Love Is God?

Which of these two statements is true? Our world is confused on this particular issue, but the answer is found in 1 John 4, where John says that, in fact, God is love.   
 
Our culture, however, including our American church culture, is unfortunately lulled into the false belief that “Love is God.” Love is perceived as the ultimate ideal. Our culture screams, “Just love people!” What they mean is,“Be nice; be tolerant; don’t judge people.” But is this truly loving?  
 
John reveals in 1 John 4 that God is love, but in chapter 1 he also says that “God is light.” In God’s character, there is no darkness. He is without blemish, perfectly pure, perfectly holy. He is pure in his character, judgments and dealings with man. As the sovereign autonomous personal being of righteousness, he is the one who gives us the law to relate to him and to others. He says, “Be holy, for I am holy. Have no other gods before me. Do not covet.” He requires obedience to his authority and stands as the judge over all those who fail to live according to his moral demands. To say that God is loving, but fail to convey that God is holy, does not do justice to the wholeness of who God is. He is loving and holy, therefore requiring justice.  
 
As we study the Scriptures, preaching them to ourselves and those around us, we must be careful not to present a relativistic worldview and be ignorant of the revealed nature of God. Our world is full of half-truths. An old U.S. Navy advertisement said, “Join the Navy and see the world!” Everyone knows that if you join the Navy, you will indeed see different ports and different cultures, but you will not do so as a passenger on a Mediterranean cruise ship. “God is love” is a true statement, but our world needs to know that he is also holy. His holiness demands that we who have sought independence from God deserve eternal separation because he is a just God. The beautiful revealed love of God is that though we deserve judgment, he has given us opportunity to draw near because he is also loving. A.W. Tozer said, “The cross is a symbol of death.  It stands for the abrupt, violent end of a person. God salvages the individual by liquidating him and then raising him to newness of life. The corn of wheat must fall into the ground and die.” The liquidation of self, the dying of self, is often a very painful death, but new life in Christ is how God’s justice is melded with God’s love. Jesus said, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, he is the one who will save it” (Luke 9: 24). Let us remember that love is not the ultimate thing; God is. God is ultimate. He is love (1 John 4: 8, 16). He is light (1 John 1: 5).
 

By God's Grace and Mercy

On May 31, 2017, I was driving to New Orleans to do pre-marital counseling for three couples, but I was driving dangerously tired and did not realize my high level of exhaustion. As I drove about forty miles along Interstate 10, my eyes closed and only because of an angel did I awaken in time to keep from rear-ending an 18-wheeler. My eyes opened in time to slam into the right side of the 18-wheeler. The Lord Jesus allowed me to stay on this earth, but I received multiple breaks on the left side of my body. Through three operations and a day of radiation at OLOL, the Lord quietly began to put my heart and soul back together along with my broken body. I was crushed on the outside but my spirit was destroyed on the inside. I cried out to the Lord daily asking him to please help me through this pain. 
 
Everything I enjoyed doing for nineteen years at First Presbyterian Church Baton Rouge came to a halt in one second. I was in ICU and did not realize the severity of my injuries for about a week. When I realized that I could not walk or get out of bed, my heart sank lower and lower. Many people came by to say hello and cheer my spirits, but the loss of my freedom to come and go came to an end for a few months. I tried to be calm and cheerful, but this was difficult as I had three plates in my body along with 29 screws. The pain was incredible, and my left leg had no feeling for about three months as nerves began to regenerate after severe injuries to my hip and pelvis. I began to experience anxiety and depression. In all my days of serving the Lord and living life to the fullest, now I had to learn how to receive and rely on hundreds of others to care for my broken body and devastated heart. But God had new plans to bring me back to him in daily quiet times and through the kindness of friends and strangers. God brought my heart back to him as I cried through reading the book of Psalms and doing my best to encourage others in the rehab hospital with me.
 
Why did I allow myself to be so dangerously tired on May 31, 2017? I am not completely sure of this answer but the month of May was painful as I endured the loss of my 93 year old Aunt Helen as she had a stroke and died a few days later. My heart grieved the loss of this aunt and the influence she had on my entire life. Then the sudden loss of a beautiful friend who went home to the Lord crushed my spirit again. I was feeling pain and exhaustion and did not realize the toll this was taking on my heart and soul. My body was fatigued, and I was not resting properly during a more than active Spring 2017. 
 
As of May 31 this year, I have learned how to exercise with perseverance as I continue to go to the medical wellness facility three days a week (115 visits and counting). I have chosen to care for my body with a determination unlike any time in my life so one day I will be able to enjoy biking, hiking, and hopefully, snow skiing. I have also chosen to care for my soul in ways that I have never done before. I have read and reread Sacred Rhythms and am applying these spiritual disciplines in my daily life. I have attempted and failed in the past to do this, but God has given me another opportunity to grow closer to him. My one year anniversary of being renewed, refreshed and encouraged to move at a slower pace has allowed me to begin healing from the inside out. My prayer for the remainder of my life is to seek his face and pray without ceasing before choosing to move forward in any and all activities. 
 
My family has been a tremendous blessing, and hundreds of friends continue to encourage and be cheerleaders for a full recovery. Your kind words to our family have made all the difference in my healing, and we are thankful for every visit, phone call, email, card, meal, and hug given. We have felt the body of Christ surround us with love and compassion. We love each one of you deeply!
 

 

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.
 

Bailey and Me

I will never forget that day. I joined several people from First Presbyterian Church in bringing healing and hope to yet another victim of the flood of 2016. Little did I know that, as a result, some healing and hope would be brought to me in an unusual way. My deceased mother, who raised twelve children in a devout Roman Catholic family in Rhode Island, always said, through thick and thin, that “The more you give, the more you get.” I understand this truth to be not just circumstantial but spiritual. Yet, although there is the usual joy that comes from helping others there was another type of joy that I gained that day which I could never have foreseen. It came through a new friend—a canine one. 
 
This beautiful little dog, now named Bailey, strolled into the home in which we were working in Millerville on August 24, 2016. As she had no collar, name tag or microchip, her photo was soon posted on various websites for lost pets of Livingston and East Baton Rouge parishes. Many people wanted her but nobody claimed her. The landlord of our temporary housing did not allow pets in his home. As a result, my younger daughter (also a “pet person”) and I prayed that God would provide a home—or at least a foster parent—until the day came when we would have our own home, having moved here from Connecticut only one week before the flood. The answer to our prayer was a dear woman we met at a local retailer, Terry Harrington-Douglas, who became not only a foster parent to Bailey but a wonderful friend to us to this day. She kept Bailey for three months. Then Bailey moved in with us just after we moved into our new home. 
 
Since then, Bailey and I have become a Registered Therapy Animal Team through LSU Vet School’s Tiger H.A.T.S. program and are insured nationally through Pet Partners International. The evaluations, seven session course, and exams have been well worth the effort (although at one point I thought Bailey’s “ordination” would take longer than my pastoral ordination!). We have since visited over 40 people, young and old, rich and poor, black and white, hospitalized and healing or in hospice care and dying. Over and over again, Bailey has brought comfort, healing and hope to those we serve together. There is a reason why dog spelled backwards is what it is—they love us unconditionally. 
 
As a full-time Associate Pastor for Pastoral Care and Prayer, I am not only thankful but also inspired by how God often uses the ministry of “presence” to bring others divine peace—no words (or barks) necessary! 
 
Photo: Painter Kathy Stone with Jim Solomon and Bailey
 
 

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!
 

What If the Unthinkable Happens Here?

Increasingly we are exposed to violent things that happen at schools and churches across our nation. We read about them in newspapers. We hear about them on our radios. We see reports about them on television where we often actually see footage of the event or the immediate aftermath. Most often our initial response is that these kinds of things are "unthinkable"’ and would never happen here.
 
Our church session has created a Security and Safety Committee that is tasked with the responsibility of enacting a plan to improve both procedures and facilities to better respond to emergencies related to weather, fire, civic unrest, and, yes, even violence on our campus and in our facilities. The committee is hard at work and has completed much of the plan. Now they’ve begun the really difficult task of asking hard questions about preventing and responding to those who would do us harm.
 
Part of that effort is to expose and educate as many of our church family as possible about this type of crime. And to ask how we might do everything we can to prevent such a thing from happening and, as remote as the possibility is, how we might best respond if it did. On Saturday, April 7, from 10 am until 2 pm, Dr. William Aprill will help us begin to address the unthinkable.
 
Dr. Aprill is a licensed mental health professional with almost 20 years' experience across the continuum of clinical care. He presently maintains a private practice and consultancy specializing in post-traumatic interventions and several other disciplines. He is a former Deputy Sheriff (New Orleans Parish Criminal Sherriff’s Office) and Special Deputy U.S. Marshal (Eastern District of Louisiana). He is one of the leading criminologists in the nation. His seminars cover such things as the decision making of violent criminals, defensive incident aftermath, mindset development and defensive preparedness. 
 
Being educated and having a heightened awareness are major steps toward increased security. It is the committee’s hope that many of you will join us on April 7. Lunch is only $5 and childcare will be provided. You must register for both. 
 
 
 
 

Ways of Worship: Classic Reformed

I encourage all of our members to become multilingual in worship: to try each of our three services during the course of a year.  
 
Classic Reformed worship draws upon the rich heritage of our  Presbyterian faith as we sing the most vibrant hymns of our tradition, augmented by some of the newer worship songs written in a traditional style. Strings and horns create lush texturing to the majesty of the organ music, and our choir presents weekly anthems which adorn the week’s Scripture passage. Classic Reformed follows the traditional pattern of gathering around the Word, hearing the Word and responding to the Word. This includes twice monthly communion. This service increasingly appeals to a younger generation longing for the depth of an ancient tradition. 
 
The 11 am service fulfills Psalm 145:  
     One generation shall commend your works to another,
            and shall declare your mighty acts.
 

Baker’s Dozen: Things to Know About Your Church

1. ME stands for Ministry Executive.
2. 37% of our giving arrives in November & December. Our fiscal year ends December 31.
3. The average annual pledge is $6,657!
4. Almost 70 of us who pledged last year have not ‘yet’ pledged this year.
5. Our utility expense this year will exceed $108,000.
6. Our comprehensive insurance costs $81,500.
7. Our Missions budget is well over a half a million dollars.
8. We have secured our Mother’s Day Out/Childhood hallway and entrances with magnetic locks and card readers, significantly increasing our ability to protect our children.
9. We hired security consultants to assist us in developing a campus-wide security plan which the Session has approved in principle.
10. The Session also approved a Safety and Security Committee to continue our efforts to substantially improve our ability to respond to emergencies of all kinds.
11. We hired an architect to design portions of this plan as part of a Master Campus Plan.
12. We have increased the presence of Baton Rouge police officers on our campus during Sunday worship.
13. When you give to your church you are part of all of this and so much more.
 
If you connect the dots on this baker’s dozen, you’ll note that we have a lot going on. Balancing our budget is mandatory. Our challenges in doing that are significant. Security and safety are increasing in priority. Yet our mission to be a loving, caring congregation remains our vision. We continue to base our faith and life on the Scriptures. Our desire to help others become devoted followers of Christ through prayer, friendship, invitation and witness has not changed, in fact, it has deepened. 
 
God’s will for us is to be thankful in everything, to pray without ceasing and to rejoice evermore. All of this we can do in Christ Jesus. So in our planning, in our doing, in our giving and in our worship let’s pray and rejoice as we participate in God’s economy. In this way we demonstrate our gratitude to him for his great gift to us. 
 
 

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.
 
 

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.
 

Renovations, Replacements and Repairs

It was a blessing to return my focus (after the 2016 flood) to our beautiful campus in 2017! It has been a busy, messy, but productive year! It started with completing the replacement of all Education Building windows and the restoration of the lower stained-glass windows—which all turned out beautifully!
 
Before the window paint had even dried, we moved on to repairing or replacing the roofs throughout our campus. This was no small undertaking. We had eliminated roof repairs from the 2010/2011 renovation, due to downsizing the scope of the work. Many of you have pointed out damaged walls and ceilings throughout the campus, and if these issues were not fixed by the new windows, they were to be fixed with the roof repairs or waterproofing—which was coming next! From fixing the Sanctuary’s pitched roof, to replacing the flat roofs over the Sanctuary and Education Buildings, to repairing every other roof, the work is nearly complete and all leaks eliminated!
 
Before the roofing dumpster was even gone, we were on to waterproofing, including new sealant around windows, replacement of damaged wood, to coating the buildings with special protectants. Our contractors will resume the work right after the new year.
 
We are already getting quotes to repair and repaint damaged walls and ceilings. Within months, we will be finished restoring the interiors and exteriors of our beautiful campus. Thank you for your generous giving which makes all this possible—and my job more fun!
 

Right Now Media

As the director for discipleship at our church, I am often asked about where good content for small groups or Sunday school material can be found. Others are asking me for solid Bible studies for their personal devotional time at home. When someone is wanting to develop a deeper walk with Christ, wrestling through challenges in a marriage, seeking wisdom for raising children or simply looking for good programming for their kids' entertainment, where can they turn?
 
Our church would like to equip you with resources for these areas of life and more, which is why we are giving every First Presbyterian Church member a free subscription to Right Now Media (RNM). RNM is an online treasure trove of Biblical content with hundreds of videos from many of our nation’s Christian teachers. You will find series on individual books of the Bible as well as relevant topical subjects. Within the site is also a wide variety of downloadable Bible studies for personal and small group use.
 
One of the best things that my family has personally enjoyed about RNM is the programming for kids. Have you heard of Veggie Tales or watched an episode of What’s in the Bible? I have found that kids and adults alike love learning Biblical principles while enjoying the witty comedy of these series. Road trips in our mini-van wouldn’t be complete without watching a few episodes of Adventures in Odyssey or Bibleman. The kids’ videos on RNM are plentiful and excellent.
 
My desire in making all of this material available to you is that you would walk deeply with Christ.  Look for an email from the church inviting you to create a login and enjoy your membership to Right Now Media!
 
For more information about how to get your RightNowMedia subscription, email Darin Travis.

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.
 

Christmas Begins with Christ

The Christmas season can be an overwhelming time for many. However, it doesn’t have to be when you begin the season with Christ. The Christmas season is actually a time of waiting. Waiting for the birth of Christ. 
 
With the new craze of hiding and finding elves, I have stumbled upon a fun, new Advent tradition you can start with your family. It is called The Christmas Star from Afar. This new tradition teaches children the true meaning of Christmas. Similar to The Elf on the Shelf, you hide the star each night until the wise men make their way to their newborn king Christ Jesus. You can find the boxed set on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or by visiting starfromafar.com. I will read The Christmas Star from Afar to our younger Sunday school classes beginning November 26. 
 
 

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 Is Gratitude?

On May 31, my life changed forever . . . in an instant. Driving to New Orleans to prepare three couples for marriage, I dozed for a moment and an angel of the Lord woke me to see the back of an 18-wheeler within inches of my car. I pulled the steering wheel to the right and prayed instantly, “Dear God, please help me,” and he immediately did. God spared my life and I would begin to receive his gracious blessings.
 
I crashed into the right side of the truck, peeling the left side of my car, while breaking several bones in my shoulder, hip, pelvis and knee. Within minutes after the car came to rest in the grass on the side of the interstate, a Good Samaritan pulled me gently from the wrecked vehicle and an ambulance took me to a hospital in Baton Rouge.
 
For the next 20 weeks, my family was reminded of the goodness of gratitude. We have been prayed for by thousands of people, many of whom we have never met. My recovery has been because of the prayers of the saints from all over the world. We have recognized that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves. We acknowledge that other people gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives. The Good Samaritan, people who stopped to help move my body from the wrecked vehicle, doctors, nurses, radiologists, numerous physical and occupational therapists, hundreds of friends who stopped by the hospital, a band of brothers who stayed with me for forty nights in the hospital (you know who you are), and hundreds of meals, cards and texts kept us from sinking into despair. We are deeply thankful for the acts of love given to our family.
 
Our family sees this time as an emotional relationship strengthening opportunity because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people. Many of our family and friends came to assist Phyllis immediately after the accident. This emotional support was key to our stability and welfare during the trauma of the first few hours.
 
As the outpouring of love and gifts overwhelmed us, I wondered why we received such an outpouring. I read his word often and realized the Lord’s people are generous and keep giving because of their deep abiding relationship with Jesus. One of our closest friends whispered to me, “Everyone loves your family and wants to support you in this difficult moment.”
 
As we enter into the Thanksgiving season, may we practice being gracious to our friends and especially our families. Gratitude brings us happiness, reduces anxiety and depression, and is good for our bodies. Grateful people sleep better and if you want to sleep more soundly, count blessings, not sheep. Gratitude strengthens relationships and I believe it promotes forgiveness. The past five months have taught me so much about being gracious and thankful for every person in my life. 
 
My favorite Scripture is Ephesians 3: 20: “Now to him who is able do abundantly more than we can ever begin to ask or imagine through the power at work in us.” God has worked through so many. My family is thankful for the awe-inspiring gratitude received in the past few months.
 

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,
 

A Word on Discipleship

The month of September is exciting in the life of our church. As kids jump back into the rhythm of school, our church presses full speed ahead toward the goal of going deeper in Christ and further into the world. One way we go deeper in Christ is through discipleship. What exactly is discipleship? Jesus said,“Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Paul said,“God is the one who brings to fruition the good work that he has begun in us.”  How do these two seemingly parallel concepts of spiritual growth and discipleship take place?  
 
The Bible has much to say about these topics, but in short, God has always dealt with his people through covenants and those covenants have always had responsibilities. When God first called Abraham, he told him, “I will make you a great nation.” In the very same paragraph God also told him, “Now, go to the place I have for you.” Abraham was specifically chosen by God to be his people by a divine act of grace; that foundation of who Abraham had become also required action.
 
You might not audibly hear God speak to you exact commands like he did for Abraham, but make no mistake, his directions for you and me are clear—we are to grow in being conformed to the image of Jesus. This month First Presbyterian has a few easy entry points to do just that. Every Sunday morning our Sunday school classes are an incredible place to be taught from God’s Word in an intimate environment. Gifted teachers open God’s Word in such a way that it isn’t simply an intellectual event, but a journey into community with God and others. Have you not yet attended or has it been a while since you have attended a Sunday school class? Now is a great time to graft into one of our ten different classes! 
 
Sunday school provides an opportunity for community in our church because of its practicality; we’re already on campus for Sunday services and the class time is short—generally around 40-45 minutes. The challenge of Sunday school is that you may leave with a desire for more! More personal conversation, more time to pray together, more time to share lives with one another.  
 
One way we seek to meet that challenge is small group ministry.  This is a great way to create the space needed to go deeper with God and others. Many of our small groups are seasonal; starting in the fall, they run up to the holiday season and then pick back up during the season of Lent. Some of our small groups are active year round. I encourage you to find a group that is near you and fits with your schedule. To facilitate this, we are having a small group mixer on September 17 that will help you find the right group. Join us in the reception room immediately following 9 and 11 am worship to meet our current small group leaders. 
 
Whether you are going deeper by attending a Sunday school class, small group, or both, the Bible exhorts us to do all things for the glory of God! He is worthy of your investment! 

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!
 
 

The Most Important Tool for Christian Parenting

Do you know what the most important tool is for Christian parenting? Your own relationship with Christ. Seek the Lord in his Word daily so that your own relationship with Christ will deepen. Your own walk with the Lord through prayer and the daily reading of his Word will equip you on how to have healthy conversations and discussions with your children. I know life is busy. In a world that offers us way too much we feel as though there is no time for what is important. However, God’s mercies are new every morning and he wants to care for you and grow you closer to him so you may be used to point your kids to the gospel. He loves your children far more perfectly than we ever will and he wants us to rely on him and grow deeper in his Word. Let us start with the Word of God. It is the Scriptures that give us wisdom to minister to our children.
 

“This is our tool, because it is his tool. This is our means of doing ministry, because it is his means of doing ministry– both in us and through us.” ~ Rev. Jason Helopoulos

 

Small World. Big God.

We live in an interconnected world. In Information Technology and Communications. In Economics and Personal Finance. In Politics. Sports. Education. Medicine. It is a global village.
 
Global communications, for example, have become instantaneous. The internet is worldwide. You can send an email from Baton Rouge and immediately communicate with someone across the Atlantic. With Skype, you can talk face–to-face with anyone on the planet. In Finance, traders follow the Nikkei as much as the S&P 500. OPEC affects the price you pay at the pump and Beijing affects the price you pay at Home Depot. International events also affect U.S. government strategies and policies. Sarin gas in Syria. Trade policy in China. Nuclear tests on the Korean peninsula. Scary stuff, to be sure. (Thankfully, we can place our cares on God, who cares for us.) 
 
Should it be any surprise that our personal walk with Christ and our participation in our local church community is, by God’s design, also part of a global movement? When God first called Abraham, God said that through Abraham he would bless “all the families of the earth.” From the start, God had the whole world in mind. Through the prophet Joel, God said “[I]t shall come to pass that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” At Jesus’ baptism John the Baptist said, “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” John the Apostle famously wrote, “For God so loved the world . . .” We are told in Acts that the reach of God’s plan for humankind is global, “to Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost part of the earth.” There is a whole world out there in need, and what it needs most is the Savior.
 
We are to “seek the welfare” of our city of course, by doing good works that help others in our own community. If our vision stops at the city limits, though, then we will miss the full picture. God wants us to see both near and far. Make no mistake. Jesus’ objective was to reach the world. He ordered his life by this. Men were his method but all humanity was his goal. He invested his time in training the twelve -- disciples who would multiply and make more Christ-followers who would reach the world. Jesus’ final words to his disciples were “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . .” The Apostle Paul explained in II Corinthians that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself—and has now entrusted that message to us. We are now Christ’s ambassadors. Today God makes his appeal through us. On behalf of Christ, the Bible says, we are to implore others to be reconciled to God.
 
In what way is your faith a global faith? How can you become more engaged in Christ’s worldwide movement? Through the Holy Spirit who dwells within each believer, God can use you to help shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked -- and widen the global circle of faith of those who have been transformed through trusting Christ as Savior and have come to know God’s love and forgiveness. 
 
This year our church has declared August “global missions month.” The theme is “Catch the Vision!” A special conference on August 19 and 20 with two internationally renowned speakers will highlight the month. Throughout August, though, we hope each week to increase awareness about global missions in the life of our church. We hope you will reflect on the many exciting and creative ways you can participate in changing the world for Christ and his Kingdom. As a congregation, let’s “catch the vision” together!
 

Momentous, Meaningful and Memorable

It’s that time of year. Teachers get ready for a much-needed break and parents readjust their lives for summer. We plan camps, vacations, play dates and extra family time. As teachers wind down children’s ministry winds up. One of the greatest ministries in our church is Vacation Bible School. Why is our VBS ministry so important? 
 
During VBS we have our children with us for an entire week of the summer. This is so exciting for us in children’s ministry. We take this time seriously and provide a fun and dynamic way to teach children the Bible and point them to the gospel. We use a variety of teaching elements to reach kids for Christ . . . music, drama, art and physical education.
 
So, this is great for kids but why is it important for us? We are in this together! During each baptism at First Pres we take a vow to set a godly example and invest in the spiritual nurture of our children. My husband Kinch and I do not have family in Baton Rouge. We could not have made it through our journey as parents without our church family, the nursery staff, the children’s ministry team and the many Sunday School teachers that have poured into our children over the past eight years.  
 
VBS is an excellent opportunity to minister to our children in our church and in our community. By word of mouth, we continue to increase our numbers each year. Friends invite friends. During the week of VBS, our church becomes a melting pot for kids from different schools and different backgrounds.
 
VBS serves as an opportunity to reach families for Christ. We offer home connections for parents so they can connect their kids to the gospel at home. Kids learn and guess what? They want to talk about it and have lots of questions about the Bible and Jesus. Some of them even give their hearts to Jesus. We equip parents to foster these conversations at home and often times parents themselves are being spiritually impacted by what their children are learning at VBS and talking about at home. 
 
We want to foster spiritual formation for our children, volunteers and parents. VBS will not only foster spiritual formation but you will end up spiritually refreshed. Our VBS leaders, teachers and volunteers leave VBS week so spiritually full we start planning the next year the following week. We leave singing hymns with our children, talking about the Bible, discussing the gospel of Jesus and jamming out to fun and exciting songs from our VBS CDs. Last summer my family and I took a road trip to New York and we listened to our VBS CD over and over (and over) again.
 
As we like to say during VBS week, “Keep calm and VBS on!” Please join me in praying for our children the week of VBS at First Presbyterian.
 

 

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. 
 

 

Middle School Years: Yikes!

I have always found aversion to middle school (those pre-teen years) quite humorous. Whether working with middle schoolers or personal memories of being a middle schooler, perceptions for most people fall somewhere along the lines of “gross,” “miserable,” or “never, ever, again.” Why this aversion? Why this distance from that (albeit awkward) brief history of time?
 
Scripture tells us to “put off our old self, which belongs to your former manner of life” (Ephesians 4: 22).  In a sense, this is nothing new to how we’re wired. We are naturally drawn to rid ourselves of that which we don’t favor; that which is old. When we’re dirty, we take a bath. When we’re tired, we long to sleep. When we gain a few extra pounds, we have a desire to lose them. Humans are built with a tendency toward improvement. Whether or not we tap into that, all of us are constantly striving, in one direction or another, toward whatever the next step may be. One way we do this is with our memories; we try to forget what we did not cherish.  
 
Considering this, it makes sense that people would shy away from their pre-teen experience; monotonous growing pains, generally bad haircuts, braces that double as disco balls, overdependence on cheap “cologne.” Yikes! No wonder we tend to avoid those thoughts. Yet that which discomforts us is not our old self. Grace will not let us throw these years aside. A God who tells us to “become like little children” will not have us ignore them (Matthew 18: 2-4).
 
There are many stories of young people doing great things for the Kingdom, yet I’m most drawn to John 6, when Jesus feeds the multitudes. Known only in the story as “the boy,” he is the only one among 5,000 adults who thinks Jesus could do the impossible. While the many sit and wait circus-like for the Messiah to act on their behalf, he humbly shows his faith by offering his small portion for the possession of the many. This was no giant affair, no great task, no “hard thing,” but a simple act of obedience led by an inquisition that only a teenage boy could have: “I wonder what would happen if I did ____.” 
 
This same wonder we see today. It shows itself in Sunday school, youth group and Bible study when our kids try to play kickball in the Sanctuary, yet also when a life-altering question is asked merely out of the curiosity to know the reason for all things. It shows itself at camps, when they try to pull pranks in the middle of the night, yet also when they discover that life is not about themselves, but Someone much greater. It shows itself on mission trips, where windows are broken amidst dorm-held wrestling matches, yet also when they see need, hopelessness, despair and realize that they’re broken too. 
 
It’s this amalgam of the profound yet immature that compile the pre-teen experience. It’s a sense of wanting to know all there is but not knowing how to get to that knowledge, of which I have the glorious privilege of being their guide. Come join us.
 

Youth Testimonies

Each year Student Ministry takes a trek to Colorado for 5 days amid the beauty of God’s creation to do some skiing. It is a wonderful time to play in the snow, connect with the Lord and learn the delight that is snow skiing. 
 
Here is an issue a lot of us struggle with. Our eyes stay down, our ears constantly have white wires attached to them, we only look at what is directly in front of us. We weave through life, trying to maintain some idea of control, but frequently fall short. It’s only when we take a second to step back, to catch our breath, to look up and see our surroundings that we find our place in God’s plan again. Everyday problems weigh us down, they draw our attention from the bigger picture and force us to forget the much greater purpose we have. We must remember to take a break every once and awhile, to look around at the world he has given us, to reaffirm ourselves in his plan, and then to keep skiing forward - this time with our eyes ahead.  
 
-Bennett Franz, 11th grade, Baton Rouge High School
 
“The mountains were magnificent, with their snow caps and purple bases. When I first saw those mountains, I saw God’s greatness, power and glory. It shows me how he wants to rule my heart and help me keep him at the center of my life. Just looking at all the surroundings, I saw God. He created all of it and it strengthens my faith in him because he created such beautiful things, just like you and me. During this trip, we did daily devotionals. I really took away from the Saturday devotional about the difference between amazement and faith. I really related to it because it showed me how I was not living by faith, but by amazement.” 
 
-Kathyln Capone,
10th grade, Dutchtown High School

 

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. 

After the Flood of 2016

Is it 2017? Did we really just live through the (not so) great flood of 2016? How could God have shown us so much favor, and rallied his body of Christ to help us through this natural disaster? Is this painful and difficult chapter of our lives finally ending? Are we really settling into our beautiful home in another neighborhood and approaching the closing date of our flooded/gutted house?

It is difficult to comprehend how good God has been to us, and sometimes as difficult to receive. I guess that is what grace’s unmerited favor is all about. It’s humbling. I cannot fathom going through this without the support system at First and beyond.

You may know me as the media guy in black, holed up in the AV booth. So many of you were at my flood-ravaged house swinging hammers, hauling debris and trudging through filth, demonstrating your love of Christ through works of faith. Words cannot express my thankful appreciation, but thank you.

As the rising floodwaters flowed through my driveway, I was texting Barry and Gerrit about missing Sunday services, needing somewhere to stay and something to drive since it was clear the flood was taking our house and cars. Within hours, we had lodging, loaner cars, meals, and everything else needed lined up. It was overwhelming.

Six months later, I am just now getting back into my daily work routine overseeing media, technology and facilities at First. My latest projects are overseeing replacement of all windows in the Education Building, and preparing to fix all roofing and waterproofing leaks campus-wide.

It’s also my pleasure to supervise First’s incredible media and facilities team. If you enjoy our beautiful campus, it is because of our awesome sextons. Everything you hear in the services, or see on the screens, are due to our highly trained and dedicated media team. They are amazing!

Have you had a chance to watch our livestream of the Sunday Sanctuary services? It’s the next best thing to being there! If you are traveling, home sick or want to recommend First to a friend, then the livestream is ideal. You can livestream from our website, or from the First Presbyterian app, and even watch archived entire services!

It is a joy to serve First Presbyterian Church. I love you all!

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. 

Who Sets the Table?: The Silent Service of the Body of Christ

This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11). 

Our pastors speak these words or some variation each time they invite us to participate in communion. They are the very words of Christ to his disciples and Paul as he gave instruction to those who would partake of the body and blood of their Savior. What a privilege to receive this invitation to the Lord’s table. We approach the table with humility and wonder. In this simple, sensory, tangible act we participate in a spiritual reality that transcends our ability to truly comprehend. And yet, in the doing of it, we find the wonder and comfort of God’s grace, the love of his only Son and the presence of his Spirit who transforms this temporal but personal act into one of eternal substance and significance.

But who sets the table? Christmas Eve we had over 1,600 for supper. We will have as many or more come Easter. As our church calendar plays out over 2017 we will celebrate communion almost 100 times on our church campus and almost as many times throughout our city as our elders and deacons take ‘supper’ to those who are unable to join us on campus. We pass the trays of elements. We partake by ‘intinction,’ assembling in circles or moving steadily forward dipping the bread in the cup. We approach these communion Sundays with great anticipation. But who sets the table? Who prepares the elements, pours the wine, drapes the table, cuts the bread and prepares for this ‘meal’ that we so look forward to?

 

 

 

 

Mike Salassi, Beth and Joel McClain and Rosemary and Mike Dorman are your primary ‘hosts’ behind the scenes. They are the ones who come early to prepare for your arrival. They have been doing it for years. They require no reminder. They quietly, faithfully arrive, often long before you’ve awakened, and they assemble the elements in trays and baskets and chalices and cups. (Can you imagine pouring juice into all those little plastic cups?) They gladly serve us without fanfare or acclaim. They faithfully perform this role Sunday after Sunday, Christmas after Christmas, Easter after Easter, and they love doing it. They love serving you.

For those who don’t know, Mike Salassi’s “day job” is as a full professor at LSU. Joel’s is working for the La. Dept. of Social Services. Beth labors for the La. Dept. of Health and Hospitals. Rosemary and Mike are in the medical field. Whomever they serve in their ‘day jobs’ are blessed indeed. And the five of them bless us each communion Sunday.

The Apostle Paul instructs us on the nature of the Body of Christ of which we are all a part when he says, “ . . . we have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.” He speaks of preaching and teaching and encouraging with our gifts and he says that “ . . . if your gift is serving, then serve.”

Truly Mike, Joel and Beth, and Rosemary and Mike have the spiritual gift of service. They are so faithful in their obedience to Scripture and to serving the Body of Christ in this gathering of believers we call First Presbyterian Church. The next time you see them, greet them in the name of Jesus with thanksgiving for their faithfulness. The next time you partake of Jesus’ body and blood at our communion table, remember Christ your Lord and Savior until he comes again . . . and remember who set the table.

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

 

Healing Through Christ-Centered Fellowship

A Sunday School teacher asked her children on the way to church service, “Why must we be quiet in church?” One little girl proudly replied, “Because people are sleeping!” I trust that didn’t happen while I delivered the message at FPC on January 1! Whether or not you were able to join us then, I’d like to share some encouragement regarding how we might practice on weekdays what we learn on weekends with you now.

In my sermon message, we considered, at a time of New Year’s resolutions, the most popular of which usually involves dieting, four items on the menu of a healthy diet for growing Christ-followers based on Acts 2: 42-47. One of the items included healing, causing us to ask how we can be healed of ailments if nobody knows we have them except ourselves! What is true of physical illness is true of emotional, psychological, mental, relational and spiritual illness as well. If nobody knows about your sickness, you won’t be given anything that may heal you of it!

What is your sickness? Perhaps it is something that has been hidden in the darkness of your heart that needs to be exposed to the Light of God’s Word in the midst of truly Christ-centered fellowship. James tells us, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed." (James 5:16a, NIV)

It’s easy to correlate prayer with healing while never asking what confession has to do with it. As a former accountant, I sometimes find it humorous that the Lord gives me “equations” to help me understand his timeless truths in an easy way. I’d like to share one with you here: Vulnerability + Accountability = Possibility. If your life is falling apart, it may be a result of not surrendering something to the One who can put it back together. (Colossians 1: 17) Yet, he can’t do his part if you won’t do yours. If you won’t open up to somebody about something that is keeping you from looking up, then you will eventually fall down. This is why confession is critical before we can be free from all things that are detrimental and as a result, rise above what would hold us below in our thoughts and actions, growing not only in God’s peace but also in God’s power released in post-confession prayer. “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective." (James 5: 16b, NIV)

Why waste more time managing the perception others have of you when you can be real with others so that Christ can heal you even through others? May the joy of loving one another into obedience of him be full in our walk with him! (John 15: 11-12)

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.
 

Medical Mission Trip to Lebanon

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

Why I Love (And Will Miss) First Presbyterian Church

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

That I May Know Him

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

Our Warrior Wants Strong Arrows

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

Taking Care of Business

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

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 Chancel Choir and Psalm 42

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

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

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

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

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

What Does It Look Like to Walk Side by Side?

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

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

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

We Want Our Children to Live for Him!

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

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

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

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

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