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First Thoughts Blog
Category Archives: Thoughts from the Staff and Leaders

What Do You Love?

“What do I love when I love you?” asked Augustine in a prayer 17 centuries ago. It’s still a good question. Especially in this season of Thanksgiving. When we feel we love God, and express that in worship, what are we loving? Augustine worked on his answer. “Not the beauty of bodies, nor the fair harmony of time, nor the brightness of the light, nor the sweet melodies of songs, nor the smell of flowers, nor the limbs that physical love likes to embrace.” Augustine loved all of these things but they in themselves are not God. Yet. Yet, somehow these lovely things send our love God’s way. He went on,
 
Augustine felt that the beauty in the world carried him into God’s presence. Every created delight awakened love in him. Yet none of these attractions in themselves were sufficient. All this world’s glory, both subtle and spectacular, directs away from itself to the deep beauty of our Creator.  
 
Augustine felt that each thing he loved in this world spoke to him, “We are not God, but he made us.” In his inner man, in his soul, Augustine perceived the light, the fragrance, the melody and the embrace of the Triune God. In him alone, these delights of earth do not pass away. Rather they lead us up in gratitude and worship to know the God who himself is light uncreated, everlasting song and eternal embrace of love. 
 
As you pause to give thanks this month, may you rejoice fully in all that is good in the world of which you get to partake. But I pray that each of these will speak to you: we are not God, but he made us. Look upward, beloved, to the Source, and rejoice in his eternal being! Know that as we sit down to table, Rhonda and I will give hearty thanks for you! I love to be your pastor!
 

 

What Is Gratitude?

On May 31, my life changed forever . . . in an instant. Driving to New Orleans to prepare three couples for marriage, I dozed for a moment and an angel of the Lord woke me to see the back of an 18-wheeler within inches of my car. I pulled the steering wheel to the right and prayed instantly, “Dear God, please help me,” and he immediately did. God spared my life and I would begin to receive his gracious blessings.
 
I crashed into the right side of the truck, peeling the left side of my car, while breaking several bones in my shoulder, hip, pelvis and knee. Within minutes after the car came to rest in the grass on the side of the interstate, a Good Samaritan pulled me gently from the wrecked vehicle and an ambulance took me to a hospital in Baton Rouge.
 
For the next 20 weeks, my family was reminded of the goodness of gratitude. We have been prayed for by thousands of people, many of whom we have never met. My recovery has been because of the prayers of the saints from all over the world. We have recognized that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves. We acknowledge that other people gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives. The Good Samaritan, people who stopped to help move my body from the wrecked vehicle, doctors, nurses, radiologists, numerous physical and occupational therapists, hundreds of friends who stopped by the hospital, a band of brothers who stayed with me for forty nights in the hospital (you know who you are), and hundreds of meals, cards and texts kept us from sinking into despair. We are deeply thankful for the acts of love given to our family.
 
Our family sees this time as an emotional relationship strengthening opportunity because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people. Many of our family and friends came to assist Phyllis immediately after the accident. This emotional support was key to our stability and welfare during the trauma of the first few hours.
 
As the outpouring of love and gifts overwhelmed us, I wondered why we received such an outpouring. I read his word often and realized the Lord’s people are generous and keep giving because of their deep abiding relationship with Jesus. One of our closest friends whispered to me, “Everyone loves your family and wants to support you in this difficult moment.”
 
As we enter into the Thanksgiving season, may we practice being gracious to our friends and especially our families. Gratitude brings us happiness, reduces anxiety and depression, and is good for our bodies. Grateful people sleep better and if you want to sleep more soundly, count blessings, not sheep. Gratitude strengthens relationships and I believe it promotes forgiveness. The past five months have taught me so much about being gracious and thankful for every person in my life. 
 
My favorite Scripture is Ephesians 3: 20: “Now to him who is able do abundantly more than we can ever begin to ask or imagine through the power at work in us.” God has worked through so many. My family is thankful for the awe-inspiring gratitude received in the past few months.
 

It's Autumn!

It’s autumn! At least, that’s what the calendar says. John Keats began his ode to autumn, “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” Clearly, the poet did not live in south Louisiana! Our mellow weather comes later. But we still feel the tug toward harvest. The days still grow shorter. The holidays loom. The yearning to “in-gather” loved ones grows in us as the nights lengthen. 
 
That makes sense, then, that we do our stewardship during the fall season. We commit together as a community of believers to bring in a portion of what God has given us for his work through his church. As we harvest, we make a return to the Lord. We share with others.
  
There’s a great season of harvest and sharing for First Presbyterians this month! This month, you’ll be invited to a seminar for managing grief and also a wonderful concert by the Foto Sisters. The Joyful Noise Children’s Choir will treat you to Fish Tales, a mini-musical. You’ll see opportunity to support Gardere Community Christian School as we hear Olympic champion Mary Lou Retton speak. You’ll hear testimony about stewardship and we’ll celebrate our heritage at the annual Kirkin’ O’ the Tartans service and lunch. You’ll get a chance to join our youth in making your way through a dark and scary youth-sponsored cardboard maze in our gym! We’ll offer a Discover First Dinner as the Lord continues to send us wonderful new people. October is indeed a month of celebration and in-gathering.
 
And all month long, we remember that it was a mere 500 years ago that Martin Luther began the Protestant revolution when he posted his 95 theses on the door at the church in Wittenberg, Germany. We’ll celebrate by including in worship excerpts from the Heidelberg Catechism all month long. 
 
So gather in at your church, let’s raise a harvest of thanks as we do life together in this beloved community,
 

A Word on Discipleship

The month of September is exciting in the life of our church. As kids jump back into the rhythm of school, our church presses full speed ahead toward the goal of going deeper in Christ and further into the world. One way we go deeper in Christ is through discipleship. What exactly is discipleship? Jesus said,“Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Paul said,“God is the one who brings to fruition the good work that he has begun in us.”  How do these two seemingly parallel concepts of spiritual growth and discipleship take place?  
 
The Bible has much to say about these topics, but in short, God has always dealt with his people through covenants and those covenants have always had responsibilities. When God first called Abraham, he told him, “I will make you a great nation.” In the very same paragraph God also told him, “Now, go to the place I have for you.” Abraham was specifically chosen by God to be his people by a divine act of grace; that foundation of who Abraham had become also required action.
 
You might not audibly hear God speak to you exact commands like he did for Abraham, but make no mistake, his directions for you and me are clear—we are to grow in being conformed to the image of Jesus. This month First Presbyterian has a few easy entry points to do just that. Every Sunday morning our Sunday school classes are an incredible place to be taught from God’s Word in an intimate environment. Gifted teachers open God’s Word in such a way that it isn’t simply an intellectual event, but a journey into community with God and others. Have you not yet attended or has it been a while since you have attended a Sunday school class? Now is a great time to graft into one of our ten different classes! 
 
Sunday school provides an opportunity for community in our church because of its practicality; we’re already on campus for Sunday services and the class time is short—generally around 40-45 minutes. The challenge of Sunday school is that you may leave with a desire for more! More personal conversation, more time to pray together, more time to share lives with one another.  
 
One way we seek to meet that challenge is small group ministry.  This is a great way to create the space needed to go deeper with God and others. Many of our small groups are seasonal; starting in the fall, they run up to the holiday season and then pick back up during the season of Lent. Some of our small groups are active year round. I encourage you to find a group that is near you and fits with your schedule. To facilitate this, we are having a small group mixer on September 17 that will help you find the right group. Join us in the reception room immediately following 9 and 11 am worship to meet our current small group leaders. 
 
Whether you are going deeper by attending a Sunday school class, small group, or both, the Bible exhorts us to do all things for the glory of God! He is worthy of your investment! 

Right at Your Door: the Whole World!

This month, our focus will be on global missions. In worship and Sunday school classes for all ages, we want to find our place in the story the Triune God is telling in the world. And we want to consider what place we have in telling that story. Our God is on a massive redemption project. He intends to take the news of his atoning victory to the ends of the earth. And he purposed to make that Gospel known person to person to person. Through us.
 
We only know Jesus because someone told us about him. There’s no other way.  But God did not have us told in order for us to keep our mouths shut. The news of his all-redeeming love cannot stop with us. He sends it on. Through his church.
 
From the beginning the Gospel has been about reaching the world. “You shall be my witnesses,” Jesus told his disciples. “Here in Jerusalem. Then throughout Judea. Then even up among the Samaritans. And then to the end of the earth.” The gospel has always been about the world. Every human being is in the sphere of the church’s concern and mission.  
 
As Presbyterians, we know that salvation is a gift. We know that faith is a gift. We only know Jesus because God chose to make him known to us when he did. We understand we have been called to Christ by God himself. But such election is not unto privilege. Such election is unto service. Anytime in Scripture God called someone, he also sent that person to others. If we know Jesus, we have been sent. That’s a Biblical fact!
 
With a global perspective, the task can seem daunting. But God has given us a special place in Baton Rouge. The world comes to us! Thousands of graduate students from around the world attend LSU. Leaders who will return to their countries. What if they met Christians who loved them? What if they encountered Christ’s people who welcomed them into their homes? What if they found out we would be friends with them? Most international students are never (never!) invited into an American home. What if Christ’s people changed all that? 
 
This month, we are considering the Big Story of God’s world redeeming love, and our place in it. We will also be discovering how we can participate without ever leaving our city. Check out all the details in this issue.
 
I love to be on the journey with you!
 
 

The Most Important Tool for Christian Parenting

Do you know what the most important tool is for Christian parenting? Your own relationship with Christ. Seek the Lord in his Word daily so that your own relationship with Christ will deepen. Your own walk with the Lord through prayer and the daily reading of his Word will equip you on how to have healthy conversations and discussions with your children. I know life is busy. In a world that offers us way too much we feel as though there is no time for what is important. However, God’s mercies are new every morning and he wants to care for you and grow you closer to him so you may be used to point your kids to the gospel. He loves your children far more perfectly than we ever will and he wants us to rely on him and grow deeper in his Word. Let us start with the Word of God. It is the Scriptures that give us wisdom to minister to our children.
 

“This is our tool, because it is his tool. This is our means of doing ministry, because it is his means of doing ministry– both in us and through us.” ~ Rev. Jason Helopoulos

 

Small World. Big God.

We live in an interconnected world. In Information Technology and Communications. In Economics and Personal Finance. In Politics. Sports. Education. Medicine. It is a global village.
 
Global communications, for example, have become instantaneous. The internet is worldwide. You can send an email from Baton Rouge and immediately communicate with someone across the Atlantic. With Skype, you can talk face–to-face with anyone on the planet. In Finance, traders follow the Nikkei as much as the S&P 500. OPEC affects the price you pay at the pump and Beijing affects the price you pay at Home Depot. International events also affect U.S. government strategies and policies. Sarin gas in Syria. Trade policy in China. Nuclear tests on the Korean peninsula. Scary stuff, to be sure. (Thankfully, we can place our cares on God, who cares for us.) 
 
Should it be any surprise that our personal walk with Christ and our participation in our local church community is, by God’s design, also part of a global movement? When God first called Abraham, God said that through Abraham he would bless “all the families of the earth.” From the start, God had the whole world in mind. Through the prophet Joel, God said “[I]t shall come to pass that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” At Jesus’ baptism John the Baptist said, “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” John the Apostle famously wrote, “For God so loved the world . . .” We are told in Acts that the reach of God’s plan for humankind is global, “to Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost part of the earth.” There is a whole world out there in need, and what it needs most is the Savior.
 
We are to “seek the welfare” of our city of course, by doing good works that help others in our own community. If our vision stops at the city limits, though, then we will miss the full picture. God wants us to see both near and far. Make no mistake. Jesus’ objective was to reach the world. He ordered his life by this. Men were his method but all humanity was his goal. He invested his time in training the twelve -- disciples who would multiply and make more Christ-followers who would reach the world. Jesus’ final words to his disciples were “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . .” The Apostle Paul explained in II Corinthians that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself—and has now entrusted that message to us. We are now Christ’s ambassadors. Today God makes his appeal through us. On behalf of Christ, the Bible says, we are to implore others to be reconciled to God.
 
In what way is your faith a global faith? How can you become more engaged in Christ’s worldwide movement? Through the Holy Spirit who dwells within each believer, God can use you to help shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked -- and widen the global circle of faith of those who have been transformed through trusting Christ as Savior and have come to know God’s love and forgiveness. 
 
This year our church has declared August “global missions month.” The theme is “Catch the Vision!” A special conference on August 19 and 20 with two internationally renowned speakers will highlight the month. Throughout August, though, we hope each week to increase awareness about global missions in the life of our church. We hope you will reflect on the many exciting and creative ways you can participate in changing the world for Christ and his Kingdom. As a congregation, let’s “catch the vision” together!
 

Momentous, Meaningful and Memorable

It’s that time of year. Teachers get ready for a much-needed break and parents readjust their lives for summer. We plan camps, vacations, play dates and extra family time. As teachers wind down children’s ministry winds up. One of the greatest ministries in our church is Vacation Bible School. Why is our VBS ministry so important? 
 
During VBS we have our children with us for an entire week of the summer. This is so exciting for us in children’s ministry. We take this time seriously and provide a fun and dynamic way to teach children the Bible and point them to the gospel. We use a variety of teaching elements to reach kids for Christ . . . music, drama, art and physical education.
 
So, this is great for kids but why is it important for us? We are in this together! During each baptism at First Pres we take a vow to set a godly example and invest in the spiritual nurture of our children. My husband Kinch and I do not have family in Baton Rouge. We could not have made it through our journey as parents without our church family, the nursery staff, the children’s ministry team and the many Sunday School teachers that have poured into our children over the past eight years.  
 
VBS is an excellent opportunity to minister to our children in our church and in our community. By word of mouth, we continue to increase our numbers each year. Friends invite friends. During the week of VBS, our church becomes a melting pot for kids from different schools and different backgrounds.
 
VBS serves as an opportunity to reach families for Christ. We offer home connections for parents so they can connect their kids to the gospel at home. Kids learn and guess what? They want to talk about it and have lots of questions about the Bible and Jesus. Some of them even give their hearts to Jesus. We equip parents to foster these conversations at home and often times parents themselves are being spiritually impacted by what their children are learning at VBS and talking about at home. 
 
We want to foster spiritual formation for our children, volunteers and parents. VBS will not only foster spiritual formation but you will end up spiritually refreshed. Our VBS leaders, teachers and volunteers leave VBS week so spiritually full we start planning the next year the following week. We leave singing hymns with our children, talking about the Bible, discussing the gospel of Jesus and jamming out to fun and exciting songs from our VBS CDs. Last summer my family and I took a road trip to New York and we listened to our VBS CD over and over (and over) again.
 
As we like to say during VBS week, “Keep calm and VBS on!” Please join me in praying for our children the week of VBS at First Presbyterian.
 

 

Happy 190th!

On Sunday, May 28 we will celebrate our 190th birthday! Nineteen decades ago, the presbytery of Mississippi finally succeeded in planting a Presbyterian church down here on the River. A young pastor named John Dorrance had been preaching up a storm since January, 1827, and by May the church was ready to be officially formed. A more seasoned pastor named Dr. Jeremiah Chamberlain came down to give the founding sermon and conduct the Lord’s Supper. 
 
We began with 15 members, the first Protestant church in all of south Louisiana.  The church grew steadily as Dorrance delivered his persuasive sermons. (He also persuaded one of his new church members, Penelope Mercer, to accept his marriage proposal!) It would be two more years before we even had a building, opening on what is now 4th and Florida streets. Life was not easy, and carving out a Protestant identity in a Catholic town meant great dedication and stamina were required. But they did it. God did it.
 
And here we are, nearly two centuries later, grateful to be standing on such strong shoulders. We remain a church at the heart of the city with a heart for our city. God continues to draw, and raise up, leaders for our community who are formed in the gospel through our church. We’re the only church in Louisiana that currently has two active state legislators. Our history is resplendent with governors, business leaders, educators, professors, leaders in medicine, the arts and the practice of law. We’re vibrantly connected to the city we love, and deeply grateful that our Lord has kept us thriving through all the ups and downs through the years.
 
At the center of our life, of course, pulses the gospel of Jesus Christ, the only reason we continue through 190 winters and summers, the only reason we have anything meaningful to offer our fair town. How stunning it is, when you really think about it, to realize that faithful elders and pastors have held up and held forth the Word of God so ardently all this time. May God be pleased to deploy us in his service for another 190!
 
I hope you will join us for our celebratory service, Sunday, May 28 at 10.30 am. Know that I feel so privileged to get to run with you one tiny segment of this enduring journey of faithfulness.
 
The Last Supper
 
The session has received the gift of a new and wonderful work of art for our campus. A cast of Deborah Luke’s sculpture of the Last Supper now hangs in our reception room. Stop by and view this moving rendition of that significant night. 
 

 

Good Grief

Recently I found myself crying over the loss of a dear friend who lived a very long and very full life. Yet, the thought occurred to me that it’s always too soon to lose someone you love no matter how old they are. Perhaps this is so because grief is part of love, as Jesus so powerfully demonstrated (John 11: 35). 
 
I have some questions for each of us to ask ourselves regarding how well we are currently living our lives in the grace and truth of the Author of Life who not only conquered death to give us eternal life (John 3: 16-17) but also empowers us to live a “good” temporal life. After all, Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly" (John 10: 10). Here are those questions:
 
Are you losing sleep? Are you sleeping too much? Are you overeating or under-eating? Are you drinking more than you know is healthy? Are you working too much or not enough? Do you sometimes fantasize about escaping your reality or even this world? Do you sometimes think you’re forgetting more than usual? Are you feeling sad? Are you feeling angry? 
 
If you are experiencing any of the above, you may be NORMAL if you have experienced loss in your life.  This includes not only loss of someone but anything you value (i.e. job, marriage, home, etc.).
 
On Saturday, May 20 at 10 am, we will have our second Good Grief Seminar. In this special two-hour seminar, insight will be shared regarding not only the psychological but also the emotional, mental, physical, relational and spiritual effects of grief in our lives. We will focus on steps that can be taken to rise above what would hold us below in how we deal with loss in our lives, becoming victors rather than victims as we navigate change in our lives and the lives of those we love. 
Although we don’t all grieve in the same way, we do all grieve. Yet, the grief process is something we can reluctantly go through or intentionally grow through, transforming our lives further into the image of God in whose image we have been created. After all, it is in becoming more like him that we find true contentment, fulfillment, meaning and purpose in this life as we prepare for the next. 
 
One of the “Dadisms” or “Jimisms” that my daughters like to quote is as follows: “Those most prepared to die are best prepared to live.” When we take care of the eternal, we are free to truly enjoy the temporal. Yet, sometimes what keeps us from such joy is the grief we experience. 
 
Won’t you join us?
 
To register for this free seminar, email Laura Shaw indicating “grief seminar” on the subject line of your email, or call 225.620.0222 and leave a voice mail with your name and anyone else attending with you. Coffee and light refreshments will be served.