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First Thoughts Blog

Category Archives: Thoughts from the Staff and Leaders

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. 
 
 

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!

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
 

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
 
 

Walking the Talk

Although I grew up in a very religious home, I became agnostic during my high school and college years. Eventually, as I entered the business world upon college graduation in 1989, through the guidance of an older, wiser and more educated sister, I took some steps toward having not so much a religion about God but a relationship with God. Elizabeth was there for me when I needed her most, bringing joy out of sorrow during a difficult time in my life. Although a few people I knew believed in miracles, I didn’t. I had suffered from many unanswered prayers in seeking peace in the midst of many problems that caused me lots of pain along my path. Nevertheless, many years later, following more spiritual growth, I found myself serving as a former businessman turned Protestant minister in a role as an Associate Pastor for a very large church in Connecticut. I had already been married to a wonderful woman with whom I had been blessed to become a dad of two beautiful daughters, affectionately known as my “princesses.”
 
One day in early spring 2003, someone in the church brought to my attention another man who was also married to a beautiful wife with whom he had two wonderful girls. Described as a “man’s man,” William Cox was not only rough and tough but also very hard working and capable in his role as a custodian. Unfortunately, he was very seriously injured while moving furniture. His prognosis was sobering. At best, he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, most likely paralyzed from the waist down, never to walk again. At worst, he would die.
 
William’s wife, Joanne, invited me to join her and some other believers in praying for William at the ICU of Danbury Hospital. This dear woman of faith recently revealed to me that she felt God had given her a list of those he wanted there that night. 
 
In line with guidance found in the New Testament book of James, we anointed William with oil and prayer in the name of Jesus, the ultimate Wounded Healer, who stated that “with God all things are possible.” When I laid my hand on William’s head, I felt compelled to ask for what seemed to be the impossible. I was certain that as crazy as it may have seemed given this man’s current medical condition, I was to swallow all pride when it came to managing the perception of others and simply ask God to completely heal William. At that very moment, I felt a strange heat sensation I had never previously experienced running through my hand, which I had placed on William’s head.
 
My foremost concern in that moment was learning William’s wife and daughters had accepted Christ but he had not. Yet, like me, they wanted him with them—not only temporally on earth but eternally in heaven. 
 
While laying my hand on William’s head, before I could even think, the following words came out of my mouth: “Lord Jesus, you’ve created the universe and blessed it with William who lies here not yet knowing you and your love for him. Please do not let him leave this earth without making a conscious decision as you have requested of all to accept you as his Savior and follow you as his Leader. Your Word tells us that with God all things are possible. Though these good earthly physicians have done all they can, we know that you, the great Heavenly Physician, can do what they can’t. We beg you to go beyond medicine in fully healing William not only physically but also spiritually so that he can one day enjoy you eternally. We ask this in Your Name. Amen.”
 
Several weeks later, William WALKED into my office! He looked at me and smiled. I was simultaneously astonished, excited and amazed! Goose bumps, which I have since called “God bumps,” ran up and down my arms while the hair on my arms and the back of my neck stood up. His only question for me, even though he had never previously spoken to me, was this: “What do I need to do to know God? I’m ready.” As you can imagine, I ran with that! William understood that God gave him a second chance at life—and he took it! A man who at times had been bitter and resentful soon miraculously became better and peaceful. The peace that replaced his anxiety inwardly continues to shine through his life outwardly. 
 
Although many years have passed since I’ve last seen William, not a day has passed when I don’t believe in miracles, as he is a walking one. 
 
Previously printed in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hope and Miracles.” Soul Publishing, LLC.
 

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.
 
 

A Difficult Topic

“For he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”  

 
These words of Scripture from 1 John 4: 4 encourage me greatly when I think about the topic which God has prompted me to write about this month. Pornography isn’t an issue that we like to dwell on often; instead, we mention it in quick, passing statements because it’s such a monster.  We know it’s out there: a recent survey revealed there are currently 4.2 million pornographic websites. We know that the problem is pervasive: among 13-17 year olds, 8% admit to daily watching pornography, 18% admit to watching weekly and 17% admit to watching once or twice a month – the percentages go even higher for 18-24 year olds. The numbers aren’t just about males. 33% of women ages 13-24 admit to seeking out porn at least once a month. We know that it wreaks havoc: pornography treats men and women as sexual commodities thus resulting in pornography playing a significant role in over 50% of all divorces.  Therefore, we can sometimes feel like the battle isn’t winnable. However, I believe the Bible offers hope in the midst of this darkness. Prior to working at First Presbyterian, I served for 20 years in campus ministry. I have personally watched God deliver young men from the claws of pornography time and time again to a life that restores sexuality to its proper relational context as human beings made in God’s image for God’s glory, rather than as sexual commodities to be bought, sold and consumed.
 
Ultimately, it is the gospel, obedience to God’s word and quality fellowship that renews one’s mind and moves one toward freedom. Steps toward sexual wholeness also include walking in truth with trustworthy brothers and sisters in the Lord. A practical way that I have found to do this is to bring one’s internet habits into the light by using an accountability and filtering software called Covenant Eyes. Covenant Eyes is a trusted company whose software I personally installed on my computer over two decades ago and which can be installed on all devices including phones and tablets. As parents, Barat and I wanted to prevent the onslaught of temptation for our kids, so we signed up for a family account. Every device we have now limits access to pornography, thanks to their software. We are not naïve enough to think that the battle is won, or that we no longer need to discuss this issue with our kids, but we are thankful to have a first defense with Covenant Eyes. Seeking to shepherd our church, I have worked a partnership with Covenant Eyes to provide a discount off their monthly fee for anyone who signs up from First Presbyterian (see direct link below). Please contact me at darin@fpcbr.org for more information and additional resources to help in this battle. I pray for freedom from sin and relational wholeness as we walk in the light of God’s glory and holiness as a church body!
 
 

I'm Retiring After 27 Years of Ministry

Dear Church Family,
 
I am writing to let you know that I am retiring from leading Sunday worship at the end of January. This is very hard for me to say, as you are my family, and will always be my family. I have prayed about this for some time and feel that God is telling me it is time for the next chapter in my life, one now filled with a growing extended family, as well as it is time to pass the baton here at church. It is my desire to continue in Creative Arts Ministry and to assist our new worship director, as needed, to become familiar with our wonderful church family and worship ministry.
 
So what can I say in a few paragraphs to sum up 27 years of ministry? I want to simply say thank you for the opportunity God gave me. What amazing things I have seen God do over the years in the church’s life, in your personal lives and in my own life. And I would like to say thank you to some very special people.
 
I am grateful for Gerrit and his friendship over the past 14 years, as well as our former pastor, Russ Stevenson, who let me spread my wings and fly. Both pastors have stood beside me and trusted me. That is a gift not taken for granted. 
 
To our church staff–my friends with whom I work day and night, sometimes 24/7 when in crisis mode. What a joy to serve alongside you. Thank you for always going along for “the ride” with all of my ideas. You have prayed for me, and have given me great free advice and counsel through the years. I can't ever repay you, but I love you!
To the worship team–You truly love the Lord and are some of the most humble people I know. You are each my dear friend. So many memories we have made together. It will be nice to not have to boss you around! Some of you have been here as long as I have. We have been through life together and there is nothing greater.  
 
I do want to especially thank my husband Rick, who calls himself “Mr. Nancy” and has stood right there beside me. He has made me “breakfast to go” on Sunday mornings and has driven me to church each week like I was a rock star for 24 years. And a quick note to say that my children lived at the church while they were growing up. They have so many great memories and I believe they count that as a blessing now that they are young adults with families of their own.
To my church family–It has been my honor and blessing to serve you, serve others with you and be served by you. I am not planning to go anywhere and will continue on with “joy to the Lord.” I have learned that “the joy of the Lord is our strength,” in battling this aching and wonderful world we temporarily live in. 
 
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!! Amen." (Ephesians 3: 20-21)
 
God bless First Presbyterian Church always and forever. How can we keep from singing? 
 
Sincerely written with all my love and thanks,

Better Like This?

An eye doctor asks this question a million times as we peek through different lenses: better like this? Or like this? The process continues until you find the lenses by which you can see the clearest. The letters on the screen don’t change. Just the lenses by which we view them.
 
There’s just one Jesus. He has made himself known. We don’t get to make him up. But we do get to look at him through different lenses. And in that way see new wonders about him. We get to be surprised and refreshed as Jesus comes into glorious focus when we gaze at him through a biblical lens we may have overlooked.  
 
My passion is to bring Jesus into clear focus for you every week as we study Scripture. In my personal studies over the last half decade, I have been gazing at Jesus through a particular lens and making note of what I see. I have been meditating, researching, pondering and writing about the event in Jesus’ life known as the descent into hell. I have seen some wondrous sights when viewing the story of Jesus this way. His whole story of redemption “pops” with meaning when you see what his final descent meant. 
 
At last, I can share them with you! We’re launching my book: Raising Adam: Why Jesus Descended into Hell. On Sunday, October 14 at 5 pm in the Sanctuary I’ll be doing a presentation on the subject, then we’ll have a book launch party at 6 in the Reception Room. I’m so excited to share these insights into Christ with you and I hope you will help me in spreading the word.
 
Meanwhile, there’s lots of other great stuff going on at your church. We’re finishing our Habitat build. The women are gathering October 6 for a “Day Treat” out at the Boydstun’s farm. The October 23 Gala to support Gardere School will be in the super-cool venue of the new Estuary @ the Water Campus. And on the 28th we’ll have our annual Kirkin’ O’ the Tartans celebration. By then, the weather will have cooled and we’ll be ready for a festive worship service as one congregation.  
 
I love to be your pastor!