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First Thoughts Blog

Category Archives: From the Pastors' Desk

Restoring Your Soul Through Psalms

This wretched distancing goes on! Yet so does the need to connect to others. And to God. Our hearts are still made to be in communion. So how do we stay connected in isolation? This month we begin a series of interlocking ways to encounter Christ through the Psalms. I’d like to tell you about it in advance of a mailing you’ll receive next week. 
 
For 3,000 years, the LORD’s people have climbed the stairways of words that are the Psalms. By making these prayers their own prayers, they have ascended through psalms straight into God’s presence. The Psalms were the very prayer book of Jesus himself. We find Christ’s heart for his Father when we pray psalms in communion with Jesus. We get drawn close to each other when we pray psalms together and for one another. We even find words to pray for our enemies when we pray psalms on behalf of those hostile to us! Psalms express our souls; they also transform our souls, taking us deeper than we could ever go on our own.
 
This fall, for 100 days, we’re going to hone in on the Psalms. Spiritual riches beyond price reside in these songs. So I’ll be inviting you to engage these psalms in a variety of practices. 
 
Next week, you’ll receive in the actual mail a beautiful bookmark with the schedule of psalms we are studying and five ways—one for each week day—we can pray the psalms with different people in mind. Beginning August 10, each Monday you’ll receive by email a three-minute video introducing the psalm of the week, and then, the following Sunday we’ll use that psalm in worship. And, very exciting to me, for three Sunday evenings at 5 pm, we’ll be launching by livestream special presentations introducing these psalms. Guest speakers include one of my spiritual heroes, Malcolm Guite from Cambridge, and one of Darin’s heroes, Mark Futato from Reformed Theological Seminary. We’re hoping those of you with big TVs and spacious seating areas will host watch parties. And consider joining a Shepherding Through the Psalms group to encourage one another. These groups will consist of 3-6 friends who will weekly connect with each other via a text, phone call, lunch or coffee—whatever works best for you. Spur one another on by discussing what you’re learning from the psalm of the week, how the prayer rhythms are going, and how to intentionally pray for each other. For more information visit fpcbr.org. To sign up as a group shepherd or member, email Kelly Wood.
 
 
 
Global Mission Conference
 
I’m so pleased that our speaker this year is Rev. Brian Miller. Brian and his wife Katherine work with sex trafficked girls in Medellin, Colombia. He is a passionate and eloquent speaker.
 
 
LSU Prayer Walk
 
Saturday morning, August 15 at 8.15 am we will meet at the LSU Student Union to spend an hour walking the campus and praying for our university. In particular we will pray for our international students. Prayer walking is safe, fun, discrete and powerful. Full instructions will be given. Come casual.
 
 
 

American Privilege

Super Shuttle had forgotten me at the Orlando Airport. Only Uber Black (that’s the really nice cars!) was available. My driver was gregarious. Born in Haiti, he had come to America in his teens to play soccer. Now he was a proud U.S. citizen. “I love this country,” he said. “The electricity works all the time. I came here with nothing but soccer skills. Then my knee blew out, but I got great medical care. I worked hard, and now I have my own driving business. My wife became an accountant. We have such a great life here. I love America.”
 
In troubled times, when we’re straining to do better as a nation, it helps to remember just why so many people from around the world want to be here. To me, any discussion about our nation needs to begin with grateful acknowledgement of American Privilege. It flows across the tapestry of ethnicities that make up our nation of immigrants. As my driver said, the electricity works all day long. So does the in-flow of clean water, and, importantly, the out-flow of sewage. I’m thankful every Tuesday for the infrastructure of sanitation. They actually take my garbage away! (If I make the effort to put it in the bin.)  
 
All anyone has to do in a crisis is dial 911. Within minutes, fire, ambulance or police come no matter who you are. Emergency rooms treat any and every one who comes with astounding medical care, whether you can pay or not. Education from pre-K to high school is available to every citizen, including free transportation. Our schools provide ten meals a week to those who need them. Public assistance offers vouchers for food; housing for the disabled and disadvantaged; a host of services to the elderly, those fighting cancer, the demented, the physically handicapped; or those with other special needs. 
 
We have 2.7 million miles of paved roads. Pollution controls have cleaned up the air we breathe. Public libraries are heated and cooled for comfort as they offer both print and electronic resources for free to all. There is land to spread out to. There is natural beauty of such variety and magnitude that it takes your breath away. At the city, state and national level we have beautiful parks. Our nation’s resources have created an overflowing abundance of goods in which everyone can participate. (A Ralph Lauren polo shirt for $2 at the Purple Cow: amazing!) Opportunity for social and economic mobility continues to be the envy of the world. The mightiest military in history protects us. 
 
We freely elect our government officials. We govern by rule of law, with powers divided between three branches, the model of liberty for the world. We still have remarkable freedom to express our opinions and exercise our religion. Moreover, we have the ability to critique ourselves, to have the conversations that lead to change.  
 
Are we perfect? Of course not! But this July 4, I want to begin with gratitude for all we have. And respect for those who sacrificed and labored and fought to make it so. Would I prefer the level of religious freedom that’s in Saudi Arabia? Or machine guns on every street corner like in Cairo? Would I prefer the surveillance culture of China? The heritage of ethnic genocides in Bosnia or Rwanda? The dictatorship of Russia? The poverty of the socialist experiment in Venezuela? No, thank you to all of the above.
 
Even the least among us have great privilege. Even the poor among us have, in the world context, great wealth. American privilege is a precious, priceless privilege that undergirds all our national conversations. We must begin, continue and conclude in gratitude for this nation in which God has seen fit to place us. 
 
Happy Independence Day!
 

Masquerading Worship

Feeling a bit like Darth Vader in my mask, I walked through the Sanctuary greeting a number of families who had come to the confirmation service. I found comfort that we were all doing the same. From a safe distance, I said, “It’s like a masquerade ball. Or a Halloween party. You feel ridiculous getting ready. But once you see that everyone else has on a costume, it’s ok.”  Indeed, it was ok. No, I’m not a big fan of breathing back my own breath. But I get it. We’re helping each other. We’re making the best of the situation given to us. And I’m awfully proud that you are making the effort to regather our congregation in the Sanctuary while following the safest recommendations in a spirit of adventure. Of course you are!
 
Now I don’t mind telling you, leadership in an unchartered crisis is exhausting! Every week, sometimes every other day, we have to pivot. We have to adapt. To plot a new course knowing it might change overnight. I’ve been so impressed with the flexibility and innovation and sheer hard work of our on-the-ground staff. Our team bowls me over with the way they’ve communicated and created worship and ministry for all of us in these strange days.
 
Lately, I’ve found a place to be peaceful. I think our elders have found that same place. We’re sheltering in the leadership that is above us. We’re thankful for and praying for our freely elected government. As long as what the state asks doesn’t compel us to compromise the gospel or doesn’t egregiously and specifically target people of faith, we are glad to follow. To be part of Team Louisiana.   
 
This gives us two strong directions. On the one hand, we want to do everything that is permitted to us to do. Our business is gathered worship. We exist to proclaim the gospel in community for the community. So when we can open at 25%, we do. We energetically embrace what we may do, offering the best we can give to the most who can come. On the other hand, we accept what is prescribed for our safety. If sanitizing, distancing and masking is what is asked, we’re happy to do it. It’s not fun. But it’s what is called for. And that makes me peaceful. 
 
I don’t want to try to think I know better. Nor do I want to live in fear. I want to live boldly within the guidance of what is both permitted and safe. Down this road, lies peace, restoration and love for our community. Just think, no one has ever done this before! We’ll always remember this time. I will always remember your overwhelming love for your church and commitment to our ministry in the heart of Baton Rouge. These days, it’s easy as pie to say I love being your pastor!
 
Gratitude for Steve Rushing 
 
The director of our chancel choir ends his tenure with us this month. Dr. Steve Rushing has partnered with me in leading Classic Reformed Worship for the last fifteen years. His outstanding full-time vocal teaching at Southeastern University and then at Baton Rouge International School have meant that Steve’s service to us has always been on a quarter-time basis. With the arrival of our first full-time worship director who is fluent in both classic and contemporary styles, there is too much overlap to continue with two choir directors. So it is with both sadness and gratitude that we bid farewell to Steve in his official capacity. 
 
But first, we want to celebrate his work among us. Steve raised high the excellence of our choir program. He established the reputation of our music throughout the community and especially amidst the musicians in town. His gracious spirit and love for all kinds of music played a significant role in healing tensions that once existed between our worship styles. Steve has freely offered vocal lessons to many members, taking a personal interest in his choir and enhancing the careers of our student singers. And that voice! Could anyone else have sung the voice of God in Roots and Promises? The annual cantatas with orchestra have become a beloved tradition among us. Seeing and hearing Steve’s great pleasure in getting the most out of his singers and musicians communicates joy to all of us. We will miss his humor, his spiritual insights and his collegiality. 
 
Though social distancing limits our options, we can still heartily celebrate Steve on Sunday, June 21 at the 11 am service. We all want to express our appreciation for this fine Christian man, musician and vocalist. 
 

How I Went from Worry to Hope

Anxiety. I had it. When our isolation first began, we had to pivot everything. I worried. Would the congregation hold together or fragment? Would people drift apart? Would people decide they don’t really need a church after all? Personally, I had to wrestle with the question, “What exactly is the point of a pastor anyway?” 
 
Staying-at-home offered more time. God led me deeper into his Word. I felt his presence more in prayer. When my sense of self and worry for the church started to wash out with the tide of worry, the Spirit of Christ Jesus flowed in through these times of reflective prayer and study. That, after all, is what our beliefs have told us all along: the Spirit is the glue who keeps us joined to Christ and to one another. He is the magnetic force of our communion. He is the skin and sinew of the body of Christ, keeping us whole. 
 
How wonderful it has been to see the Spirit cohering our church. You didn’t drift away or apart! If the stats are correct, more people, not fewer, are entering the worship we offer. Your beautiful video testimonies have linked us across all ages and stages. Hundreds of you have been checking on hundreds of you! Hundreds of boxes of food have been shared with the community. People continue to meet through Zoom or by phone. Giving continues. The staff pivoted to engage our members and produce our worship and communication, learning more and updating every week. In all, our church has proved herself dedicated, agile and energetic. I’m so thankful, and I’m so proud of you! I’m filled with hope.
 
Neighbors Helping Neighbors
 
The session has called for a special offering to be collected during May to offer relief to our members and neighbors during the pandemic. The first $10,000 will go to the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, as we’ve tragically seen how hunger is a real need in our city. The second $10,000 will assist the Christian Outreach Center in their work resettling the homeless population (the pandemic led to the clearing of several “tent villages” in the city). Further gifts will go to our church’s Helping Hands fund to assist church members, partner ministries and neighbors affected by this crisis. We know there will be personal needs when the ripple of government support runs out. We will be offering “grace grants” to church members, who can apply discretely through Barry Phillips. We’d love to help our members over a rough patch, trusting that in years to come, as they are able, they will give back to this same Helping Hands fund. You can give online or through checks marked “Neighbors Fund.” 
 
 
Emerging: May 17?!
 
In an unprecedented crisis, everything is always subject to change. But in hope, we plan using the best information we have. Our hope is that limited gathered worship will resume Sunday, May 17. That looks like two Sanctuary services, 9 am and 11 am, with capacity for 150 worshipers. We will have 50 to 60 sections marked off for family groups or singles to sit while maintaining distance. We will offer sign up online or by phone so we hopefully won’t have to turn anyone away. We will still offer “up close” livestreaming for those at home. Other precautions related to sanitizing will be taken. More details to come the week of May 10. This means we will plan now to go ahead with our Confirmation service at 4 pm on May 17. If demand warrants, we may be able to add an afternoon service in the future. We’ll all have to stay nimble and watch for updates.
 
 
Staff Changes 
 
Happy news: welcome Jaime Carnaggio as our new Director of Women’s Ministry. Jaime has served on our staff since 2015 as an assistant in Children’s Ministry and then with our women. She’s full of love for Christ, her family and our people. She’s a deep, energetic and engaging Bible teacher. She connects to women of all ages and has a passion for sharing Jesus through his Word. While Jaime served 6 months as our interim director, it became clear that she was growing with the job, getting more effective as her responsibilities grew. The session has delightedly endorsed her in this new position.
 
Sad news: the Cato family is moving to Texas in July. Kinch has taken a position as assistant head of a Christian school in Fort Worth. That means we will be losing Audra, who has worked so effectively for a decade. She began leading the renovation of our nursery ministry, turning it into one of our most successful programs. Then we asked her to lead Childhood Ministry, and we’ve seen wonderful growth in the depth of ministry and in numbers of children. We’re going to miss Kinch, Audra, Robert and Helen, but we pray a wonderful new life for them, knowing they will bless many wherever they are. Meanwhile, join us in prayer as we search for a new staff leader in Childhood. 
 

FPC Suspends Gathered Worship: A Message from Gerrit and Dr. Katie O'Neal

Beloved Members and Friends of First Presbyterian,
 
I despise media hysteria. I am skeptical of crowd-induced panic. I am determined that First will not behave out of fear or peer pressure.
 
And I now believe we should go to what is basically online worship for the next three weeks. It’s about serving our community, especially our health care services, by limiting large groups in social contact to “flatten out the curve” of a disease that will, inevitably, spread.
 
I’ve spoken to FPC member Dr. Katie O’Neal, who heads Disease Prevention at the Lake. I get it now in a way I didn’t. It’s not about what one individual handshake causes. It’s about the statistical reality of how epidemics spread. The facts, as best as we know them, are that “social distancing” slows down the spread and makes care of sick individuals more manageable. 
 
I then spoke to Dr. Keith Meador at Vanderbilt Medical Center and he confirmed all of the above.  
 
And following that, I have consulted with the session who agreed:
 
For March 15, 22 and 29, we will hold one 10.30 am service in the Sanctuary to which elders, deacons, staff and their families who are not in at-risk categories are invited. We will livestream this service, having communicated to our congregation that beginning Sunday we will eschew large gatherings. Nursery and Sunday school will be suspended for this time.
 
Let’s plan to participate together through our website, sending livestream viewership into the hundreds! Link is below.
 
However, home groups and small groups at church may continue, and people will be urged to follow the prescribed cautions, exercising personal discretion.
 
Chris Phillips and I will shape these services in various styles over the time period. 
 
The Youth Gala is already “out of the gate” and we will trust people to use discretion in their attendance, using good hygiene. 
 
We’re very thankful to Dr. O’Neal for conducting this video interview amidst a crushing schedule. 
 
Please pray especially for our medical providers, our elderly and the shalom of our city.
 
As ever, your pastors, elders and staff are available to serve you and uphold the faith we share.
 
With you in Christ
Gerrit
 
 
 
 
 

Never Would I Ever!

Did you ever play that game in your misspent youth? Someone names an outlandish behavior beginning with the phrase, “Never would I ever . . . ” But, if a participant has ever done that crazy thing (like swallowing a live goldfish), it must be admitted.
 
What if we played that game with the Passion story?
 
Never would I ever . . . get near a crucifixion. Yet, even as Simon of Cyrene raises his hand and describes carrying the cross for Jesus, I hope that I, too, would have had courage to help Jesus along his painful way.
 
Never would I ever . . . say I didn’t know Jesus. Yet, watching Peter ashamedly admit his denial, I recall all the times just this week that I did not take a stand for Christ.
 
Never would I ever . . . betray Jesus with a kiss. Yet even as Judas stands up to confess, I know that every time I “kiss” the cup as I drink during communion, my lips have also betrayed Jesus many times that week.
 
Never would I ever . . . give away a family heirloom on a lost cause. Yet, I see Mary anoint Jesus with a perfume worth tens of thousands of dollars. I see Joseph offer the executed Jesus his own burial plot. And I long to show extravagant love to Jesus.
 
We may well approach the stories of Passion Week thinking “Never would I ever . . . ” Surely those people then are nothing like me now. But just a bit of reflection and we realize, “I was there!” 
 
Studying the people Jesus encountered during Passion Week can rock your world, change your life and set your heart aflame with love for the Savior who undertook death and hell for your sake. 
 
So don’t miss a day! Get your beautiful Lenten book Were You There: Meeting the People of Passion Week, sign up for the daily emails, join a weekly home group and make it a priority to be at church every Sunday from now through Easter. You won’t be the same!
 
Youth Department News
 
We’re blessed to have a great youth staff team. Working to maximize the gifts of our staff, we’re reorganizing the ministry. 
 
Youth Ministry Administrator: Jessica Saffell 
 
Director of Youth: Middle School and Girls, Paula Walker
 
Assistant Director of Youth: High School and Boys, Noah Pourciau
 
The difference is that Jessica will become the “organizer” of our ministry, deploying our on-the-ground directors, Paula and Noah, in reaching middle school and high school students. Students will notice no change in how their programming works. Parents will notice that questions about trips, logistics, dates and details will go to Jessica first, rather than Paula, thus freeing Paula to spend more time with our students. 
 
 

Were YOU There?

It’s your story. And it has all the makings of great drama. Intrigue. Sudden reversals. Intimate interactions. Betrayals. Violence. Courtroom maneuvers. Help from unexpected places. Dire villains. A hero who passes through grave peril to glorious triumph.
 
It’s your story. Because it’s the story of Jesus. We are in Christ. So in all he said and did, Jesus included us. All of his life was on our behalf. So always, his story is our story.
 
But we also find ourselves in the people who interacted with him. We identify with his opponents and his followers, with the betrayers and the devoted, with the conflicted and the proud. From Mary to Pilate, from Judas who betrayed to Simon who carried his cross, from Peter who denied him to the centurion who confessed him, we were there.  
 
The story of Passion Week is a story that touches our souls with poignancy. It reaches our hearts with conviction and comfort, with sorrow and rejoicing. Passion Week is the story we can’t stop telling. The best became the worst and then became something even better. It catches up our whole lives, the whole world. Nothing is more important than this true story.
 
And I want to take you there. This Lent, we’ll be studying the people of Passion Week. Day by day we will read about the many characters and the lesser characters, seeing how each one fits as we follow the episodes of this great story. We’ll learn to see through their eyes, and even pray through their prayers as we identify our lives through these characters. And discover anew how Jesus relates to us in truth, grace and love.  
 
Beginning February 9, you will have an opportunity to sign up to be part of a home group study. On March 1, we’ll receive our beautiful all-new Lent guides: Were You There? Meeting the People of Passion Week. We’ll be able to sign up for daily email delivery. And each week at worship we will go in depth with one of the characters.  
 
 
 
 

 

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.