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First Thoughts Blog

Category Archives: From the Pastors' Desk

Damnable Lies and Who Tells Them

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

Looking Back and Visioning Forward

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

Long Live God!

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

 

Press into Jesus

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

The Power of the Name

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

The Church Distributed

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

Keeping Christmas

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

Gather In!

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

Back from Sabbatical

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

I'll Be Back!

Ten weeks! That’s a long time. That’s incredibly generous. I’m so very grateful for the sabbatical leave the elders granted me this summer. The plan is to refresh, recharge and get ready for the next seven years of ministry. 
 
You will be in good hands. The “lads” will preach a sermon series on 1 John: Josh, Whitney, Darin and Barry will each take a chapter. In July, we will have one combined service each Sunday at 10.30. Jim will lead off with an important July 1 sermon on faith and the nation. Then we have a series of delightful guest preachers: Derek McCollum, Carmen LaBerge, Ben Cunningham and Alec Flynt will all be holding down the fort. You will be encouraged and challenged, and the time will go by in a blink.
 
I know I can count on each of you to keep our church strong and vibrant during this time. We have an excellent staff and great elders. As I recall, seven years ago when I got back, everything was actually running smoother than before I left! I’m sure the same will be true.
Rhonda and I will be “across the pond” as you read this, taking some time in England and Scotland. Our eldest son Micah and his wife Rachel will be joining us for part of the trip. I’ll also be attending a Torrance Retreat along the shores of Loch Tay. It’s three days of discussing the theology of my treasured mentors with colleagues whom I haven’t seen in years. Call me a pig in theological slop!
The rest of the time we will spend in North Carolina. I hope to do some deep reading on Jesus and the Psalms, pondering how he prayed from the same prayer book we do. Also, I’ve signed up for an online course called Story for Script. John Yorke’s book on story structure has profoundly influenced the way I shape sermons in the last six months. I’m excited for the opportunity to interact with Yorke and other writers about how the deep, basic structure of stories shapes all manner of communication. We’ll be enjoying lots of family time, including the annual celebration of a lot of July birthdays.
 
Truly, we will miss being with you. I am grateful for the opportunity to refresh spiritually without the normal work load, but oh I will miss this congregation I have grown to love so much. Keep us in your prayers and we’ll be back August 5.