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First Thoughts Blog
Category Archives: From the Pastors' Desk

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.
 
 

An Indefinable Energy

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

Get Out! Now!

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

Would You Make This Deal?

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

Ways of Worship: Contemporary

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

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

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

Ways of Worship: Chapel Communion

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

Rage? No. Blaze!

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

Risking Christmas

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

What Do You Love?

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