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First Thoughts Blog

Category Archives: From the Pastors' Desk

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.
 

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
 
 

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.
 
 

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.
 
 

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.