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First Thoughts Blog

Category Archives: Thoughts from the Staff and Leaders

Solitude, Silence, Rhythm

There are cherished rhythms that happen every year at our church. One of these happens during the month of July when we combine services on Sunday mornings. By being all together, we can enjoy fellowship with the whole church. Another benefit is that we give our year-long Sunday school leaders a chance to rest from their weekly teaching responsibilities, and thus, space is created for new teachers to lead us in Scripture and topics that are important for our church. Beginning July 7, we have three powerful Sunday school options for you to consider providing spiritual growth as well as opportunity to reconnect with old friends or make some new ones. 
 
Option 1: Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation 
In our hectic and splintered world, the practice of having solitude, silence and space to examine one’s inner world can seem like an unattainable goal. This in-depth class will help you on your journey of learning the sacred rhythms of life for inner spiritual vitality. We will consider topics such as Work and Rest Through Establishing a Sabbath, Intimacy with God Through Prayer, Creating Space for God Through Solitude, and Recognizing and Responding to the Presence of God Through Discernment. Come join Whitney Alexander, Judy McGimsey and Hans Othmer as they lead us in the formation of transforming communities. Room 202 of the Education Building.
 
 
Option 2: Jesus’ Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John, Chapters 13-17  
John’s Gospel is an evangelistic and apologetic masterpiece that was written so that “you may believe.” Chapters 13-17 depict Jesus’ transition from focusing on his public ministry in the world to a powerful interaction between Jesus and his most intimate followers. Join us each Sunday as we delve into the significance of these chapters happening during Passover, the magnificent promise of the coming Holy Spirit, the beauty of abiding in Christ the Vine and the intimate conversation of God the Son speaking with God the Father in chapter 17. This class will be taught by Jamy Comeaux, Braden McIntosh and Blake Fowler. Room 220 of the Sanctuary Building.
 
Option 3: Smart Stepfamily 
Did you know that there are 67 forms of stepfamilies today? Did you know that strong stepfamilies have been proven to help heal the brokenness that comes with divorce? Did you know that stepparents can have a major impact on the young lives in their families? Please come and join Nancy and Rick Spiller as they lead a Bible study based on the newly-revised book by Ron Deal called The Smart Stepfamily. We will combine instruction and encouragement that affirms both husbands and wives and their intent to build strong families. We’ll look at seven fundamental steps to blended family success. Whether married or soon-to-be married, you’ll discover how to communicate effectively and solve the everyday puzzles of stepchildren relationships. Room 219 of the Sanctuary Building.
 
Each of these Sunday school options will provide a fantastic opportunity for growth and fellowship. Please note, to give adequate time to study these topics, we are beginning a bit earlier than previous summers. Plan to join us beginning July 7 at 9.15 am. 
 

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.
 
 

Living Dangerously Tired

Henri Nouwen, author of 39 books on the spiritual life, shares, “We aren’t rest-filled people who occasionally become restless: we’re restless people who sometimes find rest.”
 
Over the past four years, I've learned to identify and name my dangerous levels of exhaustion, and the choice to begin attending Transforming Community Retreats in Chicago has begun to slowly replenish my heart and soul. Two years into these transforming retreats, my Aunt Helen had a stroke and died soon thereafter in May 2017. During that month, I traveled to be with her on ten occasions sitting and praying before she went home to Jesus. While caring for my family and others that month, I did not realize I was on the brink of disaster. On the morning of May 31, 2017, I was driving to New Orleans one more time, to prepare and counsel three couples for marriage and fell asleep at the wheel of my automobile for a moment. The rest is history.
 
“There are at least two kinds of tired we might experience—good tired and dangerous tired. The differences between the two are important because the remedy for each one is different. Good tired is the poured out feeling we experience after a job well done or an unusually intense season of activity. Remedies for that include a good night’s sleep, our normal Sabbath, a weekend off, or even a vacation. But the condition of being dangerously tired is not simply the result of an intense run of activity or even a crisis, as demanding as these may be. Dangerous levels of exhaustion usually accumulate over a longer period of time in which we are consistently living beyond human limits, functioning outside our giftedness, or not paying attention to the sources of our exhaustion.” Invitation to Retreat: the Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God by Ruth Haley Barton, p 24.
 
When we are dangerously tired, we are unable to be our best selves. We find it difficult to make wise and discerning decisions. My body began to break down under the stress and strain of doing too much. I have learned that exhaustion from juggling so many balls so much of the time is not going to be touched by shorter times spent in solitude. When I arrive on Transforming Community Retreats every quarter, I am so grateful for rest. I literally fall down onto my bed closing my eyes for as long as possible to renew my strength.
 
If we are honest, many of us have given up hope that we will ever be rested. My life felt out of control and I chose to walk through it exhausted. I was convinced that being rested was not an option. But God’s invitation to go on retreat four year ago and be in his presence began a deep healing that was greatly needed. If you are struggling with living dangerously tired, please let go of all the striving for productivity and believe that in the resting you are accepting 
Jesus' invitation to all his busy disciples.
 
Ask yourself, where am I in danger these days? Your answer will give you insight as you quiet yourself in God’s presence and begin to get in touch with your soul.
 
By Whitney Alexander
Associate Pastor for Missions
 

A Shared Heartbeat for Worship and Ministry

It’s hard to believe that we have been here at First Presbyterian for  almost three months. What a blessing it has been to step into this new and exciting role. You have all been so gracious to Lisa and me. We quickly experienced the love and family of First Presbyterian on so many levels. We have embraced the staff, worship ministry team and congregation to the point where we feel like we are already a part of this amazing church family.
 
My faith journey began while attending a Christian youth church camp in Hawaii. Even though I grew up in a pastor’s home, it wasn’t until my teen years that I placed my faith in Christ. Those early years as a follower of Christ were forming as God was preparing me for something bigger than myself and something that I would embrace with my entire being.
 
My story as a Director of Worship began while I was attending college in Oklahoma. Sitting on my dorm room bed during my devotional time, God impressed upon me his purpose for my life. It was one of the most real experiences I have ever been a part of. My commitment to serve Christ faithfully in the ministry of music and worship began that day and continues to this day. The passion and pursuit to be a true worshiper who worships in spirit and in truth is the heartbeat of my ministry and my life. The desire to share that passion with the local church is who God designed me to be.
 
I am so excited to be in a church that shares the same heartbeat for worship and ministry.
 
Thank you for being who you are in Christ to reach the city of Baton Rouge and beyond. We so look forward to getting to know each of you personally. A special thank you to the search committee and staff team for being an integral part of this journey and process. May God be glorified in all things. To God be the glory and honor.
 
By Steve Newman
Worship Director
 

On the Receiving End of Pastoral Care

While I have felt humbled and honored to see what the Lord is doing in and through the ministry of Care and Prayer, I have wondered how it would all go without me. Well, as I suspected, it has gone just fine; in fact beautifully!
 
As many of you know, my wife Anne recently had emergency surgery and will have a few months of recovery. At times like this, what is a Pastor of Care and Prayer to do? Simply put, he is to carry out what God’s Word says to elders and deacons when called to care for the church. First, focus on the care of his own wife and children (1 Timothy 3: 5) allowing others to care for him (1 Corinthians 12:7). Well, I have felt unspeakably cared for by you through your care for my wife, our daughters and myself. As a result, I cannot thank you enough! 
 
In Acts 2: 43b-45 we read, “Many wonders and miracles were being done through the apostles.” In other words, they were using their gifts to serve others and not themselves, as seen in the passage immediately following this text where Peter heals a crippled beggar. We read also that they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
 
How do we give of ourselves? In at least three ways:
 
1. We give ministerially by using our spiritual gifts and abilities to serve others rather than ourselves. God’s Word is very inclusive when it comes to the question of who is eligible to give in this way! We all are! 1 Peter 4: 10 tells us we each have at least one gift to share with others! I truly enjoy recruiting and equipping my sisters and brothers in Christ to serve in their realm of giftedness, as I believe and have seen that everyone is great at something!
 
2. We also are called to give financially (Mt.23: 23 and 2 Cor. 9: 5-16), whether you make $20,000 or $200,000 per year; whether you are a multi-millionaire or feel you barely have enough to get by (Luke 21: 1-4, Acts 20: 35)!
 
3. We are called to give voluntarily, motivated by joy and thanksgiving rather than guilt and obligation, as we follow the One who gives us everything (Romans 8: 32)! 
 
My mother always said, “The more you give the more you get.” I add to that, “as long as you don’t give to get.” My dad did pretty well as an accountant but even well paid professionals may not have much money when supporting a wife and twelve children. Somehow, all twelve got through college. How? I believe it was due not so much to my dad’s budgeting but more so my mom’s giving. I remember moving to a neighborhood where we felt like the poorest on the block. Yet my mother would have me help her load up clothes and other items we no longer needed to drop off to the Salvation Army. She did not always have what she wanted while she was on this earth, but when she left this earth, I realized she always had what she needed. Jesus promises us if we rely on him and not ourselves for provision then we will have our needs met. 
 
You may have heard about a man who went on a trip to Israel and was about to enter the famous and impressive Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv to take in a concert by the famed Israel Philharmonic. The man was admiring the unique architecture, the sweeping lines of the entrance and the modern décor throughout the building. Finally, he turned to the Israeli tour guide and asked, “Is the building named for Thomas Mann, the world-famous author?” “No,” the tour guide responded. “It’s named for Fredric Mann, from Philadelphia.” “Really? I never heard of him. What did he write?” asked the tourist. To which the tour guide responded, “A check!” 
 
You can be involved in your family, or even in a church family, by giving money, but you can only be committed to God and his children by giving of yourself. 
 
I think you can give without loving but you cannot love without giving. Although Our Resurrected Lord said that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20: 35), I have been so blessed by your giving to me for a period of time when I was unable to continue giving to you. For that, Anne, our daughters and I thank God for you! 
 
Learn more about how to become involved in the Prayer and Care Ministries.
 
By Jim Solomon
Associate Pastor for Pastoral Care and Prayer
 
 

Thank You for 26 Years

Dear Congregation, Staff and Worship Team, 
 
It has been an honor and a privilege to serve alongside of you these past 26 years as your worship leader. Thank you for always encouraging me, praying for me and my family,and walking along side me through life’s trials. I pray you continue to lift the name of Jesus high, to give thanks in all things and remember his goodness to us all. I will work part time from May 1 to December 2019 with some fun things planned ahead! I will see what new direction the Lord has planned for me after December. My heart’s desire is to be planted somewhere in the “real” world where I can make a difference. Hopefully, I have done that at FPC as well.  I will leave you with a favorite verse because it talks about my two favorite things; singing and rich food! 
 

I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands. My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods, with singing lips my mouth will praise you (Psalm 63: 2-5).

 
With much love and a grateful heart,
Nancy Spiller
Creative Arts Director
 
 

My Cup Overflows

In well-known Psalm 23, David is so content, so overwhelmed with emotion in light of God’s provision and promised blessings that he proclaims, “My cup overflows!” Women, in some capacity or another, all yearn to feel like David in this psalm. We are all thirsty for God’s Word and God’s grace and blessings. We want to be “filled up” to the brim, to the point of overflowing! We show up with our empty cups, ready to be filled with God’s goodness and joy.
 
But often, we underestimate our ability to pour into other’s cups. We believe the lie that we can’t really contribute unless our own cup is overflowing.  Or maybe we miss opportunities to pour into others because we believe that we have nothing to offer, that our presence doesn’t really matter. Or more boldly, we don’t pour into others because it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable for us, or because it means sacrificing something we don’t want to give up like our time or energy. But the truth is, on a daily basis, we can simultaneously feel “full” in some ways and “empty” in others. And so it’s possible to approach each day with an empty cup in one hand and a water pitcher in the other. 
 
Women’s ministry requires all of us. We are a complex gender, full of wants and needs, desires and dreams and emotions. We are absolutely not one size fits all. So we need all hands on deck. We need to retrain our brains to believe the truth that we do have something to offer, that our presence DOES matter. After all, God created us for a reason, giving each of us our own characteristics. And wherever he has put us, we express the gifts and strengths he’s given us. Even in our everyday lives, we have endless opportunities to be ministers of the gospel. God can use anyone (and we mean anyone!) to spread gospel truth and to be his hands and feet. We are all different, but we are all united in Christ.
 
So come thirsty. Come with an empty cup in one hand because the good news, more than anything else, is that God’s Truth is sufficient to fill us up. God is always ready and willing to pour out his grace. Come ready to drink up God’s goodness and joy.
 
But also come with a water pitcher, ready to serve his life-giving water to others. Come willing to be inconvenienced. Come willing to move into empty spaces and stir one another up in love using the gifts and talents he has instilled in you. Come willing to nurture other women in their relationship with Christ. It’s a weighty and important responsibility, but oh, what a privilege it is!    
 
We believe that God has intentionally placed every woman in this church, not only to grow our faith upward, but also to grow it outward, with one another. Our prayer is that Women’s Ministry would be a safe, honest, God-glorifying place where we can come together in study and prayer, serve one another in love, and connect in deep, meaningful ways. Our prayer is that we come together with compassion, attentiveness and grace-filled sacrifice, and then we take our water pitcher outside of the church walls, outside of Sunday morning and into the mission fields God has called us to. Our prayer is that each of us come with an empty cup in one hand and a water pitcher in the other. Let’s encourage a culture of water pourers, and may our cups overflow!
 
By Elizabeth Parker
Women's Ministry Director
 

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1: 6-8).

 

Far and Near - Missions Conference Report

The 2019 Global Missions Conference was a joy to see the Holy Spirit work in the hearts of our missionaries in Lebanon, Peru, and Malaysia. Rebecca and Nour Botros from Beirut, Lebanon shared their hearts with us, and were vulnerable about what God is doing in their lives as they pour into Syrian refugees. Ralph and Marilynn Toliver from Peru presented our church with a New Testament that they spent thirty years translating into the Ambo-Pasco-Quechua language. MacGregor Magruder shared all the Lord is doing in their family as they serve in Malaysia.
 
Valerie Gastinel and the IFP team planned an International Friendship Luncheon in the gym that was a blessing for the 50 international students who attended along with 150 from the FPC family. If you are interested in being an International Friendship Partner, please contact Valerie Gastinel, 225.241.1386.
 
On Sunday morning, Scott Castleman preached from Ephesians 2 “Preaching Peace Far and Near.” His passion for missions was evident in his heart as he poured his life into us. God is leading us into a season of renewed enthusiasm as we prepare for our next mission trip to Romania, June 7-16. Our next Romania meeting will be Sunday, March 10 after worship from 12.15-12.45. Please join us in room 202 in the Educational Building if you are planning to go to Romania this summer. 
 
By Whitney Alexander
Associate Pastor of Missions
 
 

Safety, Beautification and Budget

If you really invest your spiritual energy in your church, which would include time on campus, it won’t be long before you realize that there are layers upon layers of life-giving and even life-altering aspects of First Presbyterian “church life.” Over time, the truth that’s borne on each sermon or Lenten lesson or small group study takes root and bears fruit. God’s Word discerns the thoughts and intentions of our hearts and draws us into God’s grace and life in his Beloved Son. Life flourishes. Lives are altered. One begins to recognize the subtleties of hallway embraces and the roar of Sunday worship greeting time and see how we love one another. It becomes evident in so many ways. We teach and care for kids and families in our community through Mother’s Day Out. We display the art of members who’ve been gifted to speak through charcoal and pastels and oils. We grace our place with seasonal decorations and care for this grand old structure to ensure it will live even into the 22nd century (God willing); the recent waterproofing and roofing project gives testimony. As the chill of a winter morning is cut by an outdoor fire on our multi-tiered terrace or as guests are welcomed into our Sanctuary for the annual Christmas pilgrimage or we welcome those who visit our campus to mourn the loss of friends or loved ones, Christ’s love is extended graciously. It comes, literally, as second nature to us as we live out new life in Christ Jesus.
 
And the not so apparent layers provide foundation for it all. Recent decisions of our Session to proactively provide an added layer of protection for our people has launched Security Response Teams that are present at each of our services and major events. Should there be a time of trouble or danger, they are equipped to respond. These same decisions ushered in an effort to improve the basic security of our campus, particularly enhancing the inner perimeter entrances, landscaping and fencing (similar to our playgrounds). All this while enhancing the beauty of this place at the same time. The final architectural rendering for these improvements will be reviewed next month. Work will begin in the spring. 
 
Layers upon layers of testimony and prayer, preaching and teaching, worship and the Table, attending to the work of missions abroad and ministries at home, our church is alive, living and active, unified in life and love so that the world may know that God sent his son to save us.
 
And then, there’s the budget. The reality of the western world. The cost of doing business. We maintain no inventory nor do we sell products or services. We don’t rely on fundraisers or benefactors. We rely on each other to recognize the financial reality of what’s required to be the church. We trust that the Lord will draw us into his economy to invest in his kingdom. We examine our blessings and resources and we know from whence they come. And then . . . we cheerfully give.
 
Our Stewardship this year has exceeded any before. Through you, God has provided for his church. Your estimates of giving for 2019 exceeds $3,000,000. It will provide full support for all the layers of mission and ministry God has called us to. We can look forward to the coming year with great expectation for what he is going to do in us and through us. Thank you for your faithfulness and cheerful giving. 
 
Grace,
Barry Phillips
Ministry Executive
 

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