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

A Lot Has Happened

It feels like it was a just a few weeks ago that I drove over the Mississippi bridge for the first time and saw First Presbyterian on the horizon. It baffles me this scene was six and a half years ago. But a lot of life has happened in these years. We have watched our 1 year old become a beautiful young girl now heading into 3rd grade. You were there when our firecracker of a little man came into the world 4 years ago. We bought a home, started elementary school, loved on special needs students, got ordained, embarked on a doctoral program, baptized our kiddos, worked on flooded homes and traveled thousands of miles over the years with students in tow to see them go “deeper in Christ and further into the world.”
 
There are so many scenes that fill my head when I think about FPC and the enormous impact this church family has had on my family and me. One particular one was filling the Sanctuary after one of our dear young ones went to be with Lord. It was the church living out the great calling to love and care for the next generation by surrounding them with Christ’s love. It has been a great privilege of my life to serve alongside you as we seek for young people to hear the good news of the gospel and surrender all of who they are to our Savior.  
 
This summer we will be departing to serve the Lord in a new pastoral calling back in Texas.  It will be an opportunity for me preach the word which FPC has given me a great passion for. My passion will also take the incredible things we do for students and live that out with adults, connecting them to Christ and to one another. In many ways it will be like I am serving at FPC in Texas. We love this church family and will be excited to see all the ways Christ draws you closer to himself. 
 
I cannot say thank you enough for the many blessings you have bestowed upon me. The biggest one was taking a scraggly youth guy and forming me into a young pastor with a passion for the preached word of God and seeing God’s people live out the Great Commission.   
 

God Is Love Or Love Is God?

Which of these two statements is true? Our world is confused on this particular issue, but the answer is found in 1 John 4, where John says that, in fact, God is love.   
 
Our culture, however, including our American church culture, is unfortunately lulled into the false belief that “Love is God.” Love is perceived as the ultimate ideal. Our culture screams, “Just love people!” What they mean is,“Be nice; be tolerant; don’t judge people.” But is this truly loving?  
 
John reveals in 1 John 4 that God is love, but in chapter 1 he also says that “God is light.” In God’s character, there is no darkness. He is without blemish, perfectly pure, perfectly holy. He is pure in his character, judgments and dealings with man. As the sovereign autonomous personal being of righteousness, he is the one who gives us the law to relate to him and to others. He says, “Be holy, for I am holy. Have no other gods before me. Do not covet.” He requires obedience to his authority and stands as the judge over all those who fail to live according to his moral demands. To say that God is loving, but fail to convey that God is holy, does not do justice to the wholeness of who God is. He is loving and holy, therefore requiring justice.  
 
As we study the Scriptures, preaching them to ourselves and those around us, we must be careful not to present a relativistic worldview and be ignorant of the revealed nature of God. Our world is full of half-truths. An old U.S. Navy advertisement said, “Join the Navy and see the world!” Everyone knows that if you join the Navy, you will indeed see different ports and different cultures, but you will not do so as a passenger on a Mediterranean cruise ship. “God is love” is a true statement, but our world needs to know that he is also holy. His holiness demands that we who have sought independence from God deserve eternal separation because he is a just God. The beautiful revealed love of God is that though we deserve judgment, he has given us opportunity to draw near because he is also loving. A.W. Tozer said, “The cross is a symbol of death.  It stands for the abrupt, violent end of a person. God salvages the individual by liquidating him and then raising him to newness of life. The corn of wheat must fall into the ground and die.” The liquidation of self, the dying of self, is often a very painful death, but new life in Christ is how God’s justice is melded with God’s love. Jesus said, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, he is the one who will save it” (Luke 9: 24). Let us remember that love is not the ultimate thing; God is. God is ultimate. He is love (1 John 4: 8, 16). He is light (1 John 1: 5).
 

By God's Grace and Mercy

On May 31, 2017, I was driving to New Orleans to do pre-marital counseling for three couples, but I was driving dangerously tired and did not realize my high level of exhaustion. As I drove about forty miles along Interstate 10, my eyes closed and only because of an angel did I awaken in time to keep from rear-ending an 18-wheeler. My eyes opened in time to slam into the right side of the 18-wheeler. The Lord Jesus allowed me to stay on this earth, but I received multiple breaks on the left side of my body. Through three operations and a day of radiation at OLOL, the Lord quietly began to put my heart and soul back together along with my broken body. I was crushed on the outside but my spirit was destroyed on the inside. I cried out to the Lord daily asking him to please help me through this pain. 
 
Everything I enjoyed doing for nineteen years at First Presbyterian Church Baton Rouge came to a halt in one second. I was in ICU and did not realize the severity of my injuries for about a week. When I realized that I could not walk or get out of bed, my heart sank lower and lower. Many people came by to say hello and cheer my spirits, but the loss of my freedom to come and go came to an end for a few months. I tried to be calm and cheerful, but this was difficult as I had three plates in my body along with 29 screws. The pain was incredible, and my left leg had no feeling for about three months as nerves began to regenerate after severe injuries to my hip and pelvis. I began to experience anxiety and depression. In all my days of serving the Lord and living life to the fullest, now I had to learn how to receive and rely on hundreds of others to care for my broken body and devastated heart. But God had new plans to bring me back to him in daily quiet times and through the kindness of friends and strangers. God brought my heart back to him as I cried through reading the book of Psalms and doing my best to encourage others in the rehab hospital with me.
 
Why did I allow myself to be so dangerously tired on May 31, 2017? I am not completely sure of this answer but the month of May was painful as I endured the loss of my 93 year old Aunt Helen as she had a stroke and died a few days later. My heart grieved the loss of this aunt and the influence she had on my entire life. Then the sudden loss of a beautiful friend who went home to the Lord crushed my spirit again. I was feeling pain and exhaustion and did not realize the toll this was taking on my heart and soul. My body was fatigued, and I was not resting properly during a more than active Spring 2017. 
 
As of May 31 this year, I have learned how to exercise with perseverance as I continue to go to the medical wellness facility three days a week (115 visits and counting). I have chosen to care for my body with a determination unlike any time in my life so one day I will be able to enjoy biking, hiking, and hopefully, snow skiing. I have also chosen to care for my soul in ways that I have never done before. I have read and reread Sacred Rhythms and am applying these spiritual disciplines in my daily life. I have attempted and failed in the past to do this, but God has given me another opportunity to grow closer to him. My one year anniversary of being renewed, refreshed and encouraged to move at a slower pace has allowed me to begin healing from the inside out. My prayer for the remainder of my life is to seek his face and pray without ceasing before choosing to move forward in any and all activities. 
 
My family has been a tremendous blessing, and hundreds of friends continue to encourage and be cheerleaders for a full recovery. Your kind words to our family have made all the difference in my healing, and we are thankful for every visit, phone call, email, card, meal, and hug given. We have felt the body of Christ surround us with love and compassion. We love each one of you deeply!
 

 

I'll Be Back!

Ten weeks! That’s a long time. That’s incredibly generous. I’m so very grateful for the sabbatical leave the elders granted me this summer. The plan is to refresh, recharge and get ready for the next seven years of ministry. 
 
You will be in good hands. The “lads” will preach a sermon series on 1 John: Josh, Whitney, Darin and Barry will each take a chapter. In July, we will have one combined service each Sunday at 10.30. Jim will lead off with an important July 1 sermon on faith and the nation. Then we have a series of delightful guest preachers: Derek McCollum, Carmen LaBerge, Ben Cunningham and Alec Flynt will all be holding down the fort. You will be encouraged and challenged, and the time will go by in a blink.
 
I know I can count on each of you to keep our church strong and vibrant during this time. We have an excellent staff and great elders. As I recall, seven years ago when I got back, everything was actually running smoother than before I left! I’m sure the same will be true.
Rhonda and I will be “across the pond” as you read this, taking some time in England and Scotland. Our eldest son Micah and his wife Rachel will be joining us for part of the trip. I’ll also be attending a Torrance Retreat along the shores of Loch Tay. It’s three days of discussing the theology of my treasured mentors with colleagues whom I haven’t seen in years. Call me a pig in theological slop!
The rest of the time we will spend in North Carolina. I hope to do some deep reading on Jesus and the Psalms, pondering how he prayed from the same prayer book we do. Also, I’ve signed up for an online course called Story for Script. John Yorke’s book on story structure has profoundly influenced the way I shape sermons in the last six months. I’m excited for the opportunity to interact with Yorke and other writers about how the deep, basic structure of stories shapes all manner of communication. We’ll be enjoying lots of family time, including the annual celebration of a lot of July birthdays.
 
Truly, we will miss being with you. I am grateful for the opportunity to refresh spiritually without the normal work load, but oh I will miss this congregation I have grown to love so much. Keep us in your prayers and we’ll be back August 5.
 
 

An Indefinable Energy

We had more than 30 folks at our last Discover Class. I love to hear their answers to this question, “What makes a church great?” Contained in that query is an invitation to express what one is looking for and what one has found at First. These answers thrilled me, “An indefinable energy. A feeling of positive excitement. A welcome that is real. An enthusiasm for being there. A true sense of caring.” If that is what new attendees at our church are feeling, then we can truly rejoice at what God has been doing. They describe an intangible that makes all the difference in whether one is attracted or indifferent to what is happening here. Energy. Caring. Welcome. Authenticity. That’s the report of new people who want to be part of what’s happening in this fellowship of believers.
 
That’s wonderful. God is doing it. And you are doing it. The church forms afresh each time we gather. How that gathering feels comes from what each person brings to our assembly. You do that! You show up consistently so that others can count on seeing you. You greet warmly old friends and new faces. You participate robustly in worship. You arrive having decided that this time matters significantly to you and that gets translated to others as the indefinable, but very real, energy of a church that loves Jesus Christ, both his Word and his mission. And of course that’s the gift that these wonderful new members bring to us: their energy, their enthusiasm, their gifting and their desire to participate. We get blessed so richly when we are refreshed by their arrival. I remain so grateful and wonder-struck by the way the heart of this church gets expressed. I love to be your pastor!
 
Future Leaders
 
Our church is blessed to have an endowment that contributes significant funds to our ministry and mission. We’re also blessed to have wise leaders who determine never to use such endowment income for the day-to-day and year-to-year operating of the church—that important responsibility remains with all of us ordinary givers. We use our endowment income to do more, to reach further into the world and to look further into the future toward the next generation of leadership. Our endowment giving supports big projects like Gardere Community Christian School and Church of the Resurrection. We also support students training for ministry as pastors, counselors and church planters. This month the session granted over $78,000 in such scholarships! Would you like to meet the recipients?
 
Rebecca Botros is the daughter of Cynthia and elder Lloyd Lunceford. She grew up in our church and has been full time on the mission field in Lebanon for the past three years. She is pursuing a Master of Divinity at Gordon Conwell.
 
Cheryl Broadnax is a deacon at FPC. She teaches in the elementary Sunday school and serves on the youth committee. She is beginning her third and final year of studies for a Master’s in Counseling and hopes to work with children and youth.
 
Sarah Gastinel is the daughter of FPC members Valerie and Philip Gastinel. She played violin in our acoustic communion service before moving to New Orleans where she led in worship and worked on staff at our church plant, Church of the Resurrection. She now hopes to serve Christ through Christian counseling.
 
Martell Hixon is the third recipient of a Russ Stephenson Scholarship for church planting residency. He will be working under Rev. Richard Rieves at Downtown EPC in Memphis, and has a passion for interracial church planting.  
 
Mary Emeline Rester is the daughter of Rhonda and Gerrit Dawson. She will complete a Master’s in Counseling from RTS Jackson this January and hopes to work in private practice as a marriage and family therapist.
 
Hector Reynoso/Genesis Church. On the far border of our presbytery (and country), in Texas, is Genesis Church, an EPC congregation committed to Latino outreach. Genesis seeks now to construct a building for their growing congregation.
 
Darin Travis is Director of Discipleship at FPC. He is married to Barat and the father of five. He is working on his Master of Divinity degree from RTS and is a candidate for ordination in the EPC. 
 
Josh Woltmann served three summers as our pastoral intern after growing up in our youth group. He expects to complete his Master of Divinity this August and begin an internship at Hope Presbyterian Church in Richmond. Married to FPC member Katy Cosby, Josh is a candidate for EPC ministry.
 

Bailey and Me

I will never forget that day. I joined several people from First Presbyterian Church in bringing healing and hope to yet another victim of the flood of 2016. Little did I know that, as a result, some healing and hope would be brought to me in an unusual way. My deceased mother, who raised twelve children in a devout Roman Catholic family in Rhode Island, always said, through thick and thin, that “The more you give, the more you get.” I understand this truth to be not just circumstantial but spiritual. Yet, although there is the usual joy that comes from helping others there was another type of joy that I gained that day which I could never have foreseen. It came through a new friend—a canine one. 
 
This beautiful little dog, now named Bailey, strolled into the home in which we were working in Millerville on August 24, 2016. As she had no collar, name tag or microchip, her photo was soon posted on various websites for lost pets of Livingston and East Baton Rouge parishes. Many people wanted her but nobody claimed her. The landlord of our temporary housing did not allow pets in his home. As a result, my younger daughter (also a “pet person”) and I prayed that God would provide a home—or at least a foster parent—until the day came when we would have our own home, having moved here from Connecticut only one week before the flood. The answer to our prayer was a dear woman we met at a local retailer, Terry Harrington-Douglas, who became not only a foster parent to Bailey but a wonderful friend to us to this day. She kept Bailey for three months. Then Bailey moved in with us just after we moved into our new home. 
 
Since then, Bailey and I have become a Registered Therapy Animal Team through LSU Vet School’s Tiger H.A.T.S. program and are insured nationally through Pet Partners International. The evaluations, seven session course, and exams have been well worth the effort (although at one point I thought Bailey’s “ordination” would take longer than my pastoral ordination!). We have since visited over 40 people, young and old, rich and poor, black and white, hospitalized and healing or in hospice care and dying. Over and over again, Bailey has brought comfort, healing and hope to those we serve together. There is a reason why dog spelled backwards is what it is—they love us unconditionally. 
 
As a full-time Associate Pastor for Pastoral Care and Prayer, I am not only thankful but also inspired by how God often uses the ministry of “presence” to bring others divine peace—no words (or barks) necessary! 
 
Photo: Painter Kathy Stone with Jim Solomon and Bailey
 
 

Get Out! Now!

Claustrophobia runs in our family. No room, no air, no way out: it makes us all crazy. Rhonda’s Dad expresses it this way, “I sit on the aisle just in case I need to get out of there.” At a solidly built 6' 6", if Dick had to get out, he would get out. And I’d be right behind him. I just don’t want to be stuck and closed in. 
 
Maybe that’s why I love this Easter sermon so much, even though it’s from 1,500 years ago. The preacher imagines Jesus the moment before his resurrection. He speaks to Adam and all the dead souls who’ve been longing for a Liberator. “Rise! Let us leave this place. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell! Wake up, O sleeper and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” 
 
I just love that line: I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. You were not meant for a claustrophobic doom! You were not designed to languish in bondage to sin, death and misery. Jesus declares, “Jail break! Get up! Get out of here. Now!” 
 
That’s the spiritual heart of the Easter message. Jesus is risen. He defeated death so death doesn’t have to defeat us. He took our sin so we don’t have to live under it. In the risen Jesus, our destiny is life, forgiveness, and transformation. The Easter summons trumpets in our souls: Get up! Get out of there. Rise with Christ!”
 
Congratulations for your hard work pursuing your True Identity in Christ. All Lent you’ve delved deep into Scripture’s teaching about who we really are. And I’m proud of all the comments I’ve read, all the questing questions I’ve heard, and all the growth I’ve seen. Soon, soon, we will celebrate together that Easter means, “My true identity is Risen with Christ!”
 
So how I look forward to celebrating the festive victory of our risen Liberator with you. What a joy to see these faces I have come to know and love so well on that great day. And what a thrill to be able to say together, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” See you there!
 
Shadows Before the Dawn
 
Of course, our Lenten journey passes first through the dark night of marking Christ’s Thursday betrayal and Friday crucifixion. More and more of us each year mark that holy night by entering the shadows with Jesus. We take communion remembering the first Lord’s Supper. We hear the sacred story dramatically read. We see the candles extinguished and sit silently in the dark of Jesus’ death. We follow him to the tomb and begin the long wait til Easter dawn. Once again we will meet at 7 pm. I’ve got some stirring paintings to show you that take us to the inner meaning in the outer tragedy. See you there!
 
Presbytery
 
At the end of this month, we will be hosting the meeting of Gulf South Presbytery. That’s the association of EPC churches in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas with whom we are affiliated. I’m always so proud when we host anything, but especially when we receive the elders and pastors from around our region. I hope lots of you will step forward to greet, serve and welcome our guests. Yes, it is a matter of pride to me: nobody, but nobody hosts events like we do!
 
You’ll enjoy the meeting too. My dear friend Dr. Dean Weaver will be speaking. He’s the moderator of our General Assembly. We’ll have a joyous celebration worship Friday night at 7. And, oh, you should hear these guys sing. The roof raises! I get to preach about Christ going up to heaven and we all share communion together. It’s the best Friday fun you can have!
 

What If the Unthinkable Happens Here?

Increasingly we are exposed to violent things that happen at schools and churches across our nation. We read about them in newspapers. We hear about them on our radios. We see reports about them on television where we often actually see footage of the event or the immediate aftermath. Most often our initial response is that these kinds of things are "unthinkable"’ and would never happen here.
 
Our church session has created a Security and Safety Committee that is tasked with the responsibility of enacting a plan to improve both procedures and facilities to better respond to emergencies related to weather, fire, civic unrest, and, yes, even violence on our campus and in our facilities. The committee is hard at work and has completed much of the plan. Now they’ve begun the really difficult task of asking hard questions about preventing and responding to those who would do us harm.
 
Part of that effort is to expose and educate as many of our church family as possible about this type of crime. And to ask how we might do everything we can to prevent such a thing from happening and, as remote as the possibility is, how we might best respond if it did. On Saturday, April 7, from 10 am until 2 pm, Dr. William Aprill will help us begin to address the unthinkable.
 
Dr. Aprill is a licensed mental health professional with almost 20 years' experience across the continuum of clinical care. He presently maintains a private practice and consultancy specializing in post-traumatic interventions and several other disciplines. He is a former Deputy Sheriff (New Orleans Parish Criminal Sherriff’s Office) and Special Deputy U.S. Marshal (Eastern District of Louisiana). He is one of the leading criminologists in the nation. His seminars cover such things as the decision making of violent criminals, defensive incident aftermath, mindset development and defensive preparedness. 
 
Being educated and having a heightened awareness are major steps toward increased security. It is the committee’s hope that many of you will join us on April 7. Lunch is only $5 and childcare will be provided. You must register for both. 
 
 
 
 

I Truly Don't Have Words

This phrase keeps coming to my mind as I think back on how absolutely beautifully you, as the body of Christ here at First Presbyterian Church, have shown God’s love to Ray and me during my recent back surgery. After serving with you for 13 years, I knew that you were THE BEST, but personally witnessing how you have been the hands and feet of Christ has truly been humbling. From the unceasing prayers, scrumptious meals (so much for my husband’s perpetual diet), to the flowers, visits, cards, phone calls, texts, emails, etc., I had NO DOUBT I was being cradled in the arms of our Heavenly Father. I wish I could personally hug each of your necks and say thank you but please know how much we love you and thank God for all of you.
 
Your tender care reminded me of one of the parables in Matthew:
 

Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you? Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me (Matthew 25: 37-40).

Thank you for bringing this Scripture to life for the Gaspards. May God continue to bless and keep you.
 
 

Ways of Worship: Classic Reformed

I encourage all of our members to become multilingual in worship: to try each of our three services during the course of a year.  
 
Classic Reformed worship draws upon the rich heritage of our  Presbyterian faith as we sing the most vibrant hymns of our tradition, augmented by some of the newer worship songs written in a traditional style. Strings and horns create lush texturing to the majesty of the organ music, and our choir presents weekly anthems which adorn the week’s Scripture passage. Classic Reformed follows the traditional pattern of gathering around the Word, hearing the Word and responding to the Word. This includes twice monthly communion. This service increasingly appeals to a younger generation longing for the depth of an ancient tradition. 
 
The 11 am service fulfills Psalm 145:  
     One generation shall commend your works to another,
            and shall declare your mighty acts.