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First Thoughts Blog

Category Archives: From the Pastors' Desk

Listening Through the Crack

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

Why I Love XMas!

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

Season of Thanks

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

Beautiful Spaces

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

The Key That Unlocks It All

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

Damnable Lies and Who Tells Them

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

Looking Back and Visioning Forward

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

Long Live God!

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

 

Press into Jesus

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

The Power of the Name

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