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

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 at the Water Center. 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!
 

I'm Retiring After 27 Years of Ministry

Dear Church Family,
 
I am writing to let you know that I am retiring from leading worship beginning January 20, 2019. 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 remain part-time for one year, 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.

Calling All Moms

It’s the hard truth. No matter how hard we try, every mom can attest to the pestering power of mom guilt. Whether you’re a mom to toddlers or teenagers, chances are you strive daily for some measure of parenting success that you don’t reach. We constantly set ourselves up for failure. We set expectations for ourselves that we can’t meet. We go to bed feeling regret over what we didn’t accomplish rather than joy over what we did. Frankly, I’ve just about had it with #MomGuilt. Can I get an Amen to that?
 
This is exactly why I run (not walk!) to our Mom’s Thursday Morning Study. Not only is this a time of deep, expositional Bible study, but it’s also a time of meaningful (and much needed!) fellowship with other tired moms like me, needing to refuel and reconnect. Each week, I learn more about our Savior, and I’m reminded of who I’m truly performing for. This time together helps me refocus on what’s really important (him, not me!). We have prayer time dedicated to praying over our children, our marriages and our parenting joys and struggles. This is a safe place where we gather together in his name on behalf of our families. I leave feeling refueled, secure in Christ and more in tune with God’s desire for me as a wife, mother and friend. Mom’s Bible Study meets on Thursdays from 9.30-11 am in Education Building Room 301. The majority of women who attend are mothers in their 20s, 30s and 40s, basically anyone who has kids still at home and in the season of “active” parenting! We are not formal at all. Come in your activewear! We offer childcare for children five and under, but you can even bring your babies with you to study if you prefer. All are welcome! 
 
Our fall semester begins Thursday, September 6, and we will be studying through Jesus’ parables in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus often teaches through the use of parables, illustrative stories that convey spiritual truths. My prayer is that we grow deeper in our understanding of how these stories were important to the disciples, and also that God grants us the wisdom to teach the spiritual truths found in the parables to our children and apply these lessons to our everyday lives with our families.  
 
We would love to have you! Contact Jaime Carnaggio if you have questions. 
 
 
 
 

Did You Know? A Special Thanks

Dear Beloved Session and Church, 
 
On June 26, I had the opportunity to experience Europe for the first time in my life traveling to Salzburg, Austria. I was invited by my good friends from college, David and Gayle Galasso, of St. Peter’s Methodist Church in Katy, TX, to join a mass choir of 145 singers from all around the USA. My two good friends, college roommate Claire Wilson, and Tracy Munson, who sang as well, traveled with me. We participated in the “Jubilate” Mozart Festival, which is held every summer to celebrate the music of Amadeus Mozart. Salzburg is the city where Mozart was born and lived. We sang in the Salzburg Dom (the most beautiful cathedral I have ever seen). Tracy and I worked hard learning the most beautiful and inspiring music (an hour and 15 minutes worth) singing with a professional orchestra and soloists. The soloists were standing in the balcony beside one of the six organs in the church! We sang under the direction of two accomplished conductors, and met many other incredibly talented people. 
 
I wanted you to know that the Lord worked it out for me to go. The session decided to give this trip to me as a gift to celebrate my 25th year anniversary working here at First Presbyterian. Not only did I see beautiful Salzburg and Vienna, Austria, but the Lord let me experience it while singing praises to him! I knew this was his doing and his blessing on me. He was loving me through my church. 
I could not have had anything better given to me! I can’t even talk about it without getting emotional, so I wanted to write to all of you and thank you for the gift of a lifetime, and, a lifetime of leading worship for the most amazing church family. 
 
God bless you all.  
 
 
 
 
 

So Many Ways to Go Deeper in Christ This Fall

Jesus said that the greatest commandment was to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. The second is to love your neighbor as yourself. These two commandments summarized all of the Old Testament Law and Prophets. Here at First Presbyterian, we have a long tradition of living out these two commands in a myriad of very practical ways. Every Sunday, our heads and hearts are captivated by the high view of the Scriptures being preached, and every Sunday, we offer outstanding Sunday school classes to help foster depth and community. Truly, loving God and loving others is a joy to live out here at FPC! 
 
This August and September we are offering even more opportunities to live out these commandments. The first opportunity will be the Complete: Why Jesus Alone Is Enough Family Stay-Treat with Dr. Mary Willson. For those of you who were here a handful of years ago, Mary was our Women in Ministry Director before our beloved Elizabeth Parker arrived. The Lord led Mary to leave our church to pursue a Ph.D, that she might be able to further equip the body of Christ. Now we get to be the beneficiaries of her hard work!
 
By carving out time from your schedule to attend, you will feast on the relevancy of God’s word as Mary unpacks Paul’s teaching in the book of Colossians. Those in Colossae battled dangerous teachings that tempted the Christians to look for something “deeper” than Christ, something more “relevant” than his commands or more empowering than our union with him.
 
Paul dramatically shows that both the person and the work of Jesus Christ are completely sufficient to fill our needs and repurpose our lives. Mary will help us explore these sparkling truths and others. This family retreat will begin at 6 pm on August 10 with dinner and will conclude at noon on August 11. The beauty of being on a Stay-Treat together is that there will be plenty of time to connect over meals and breaks to process what you are learning in community with others. For more information and to register click the button below. 
 
Another outstanding opportunity to plug into the body here at FPC is through our small groups. Every fall, we join together in living rooms across the Baton Rouge area to study the Scriptures and form friendships. This year the content for most of our small groups is going to be from a book entitled, Gospel-Centered Life by Robert Thune and Will Walker. This book, comprised of 9 short lessons and exercises, delves into the heart of walking in truth and grace. I have recently led a group of men through the book and our conversations from these 2-3 page chapters have provided some of the most invigorating conversations our study has had in a while. I’m eager to have our church engage with this book! One other small group option to note is that there will be a group focused on parenting using Family Life’s new content entitled The Art of Parenting. We are hosting a “mix-and-match” after worship on September 9 to help connect interested people to groups.
 
The last opportunity I wanted to share about that will be kicking off this fall at FPC is called Alpha. Alpha is a series of sessions exploring the Christian faith that God has used around the world. It creates space to explore life’s big questions, to say what you think, and to hear other people’s points of view. It is a global conversation that began in London which millions have gone through in over 168 countries and into 112 different languages. We are hosting Alpha Sunday mornings beginning September 16 continuing to October 28. Click here to learn more about the Alpha Course.
 
 
 

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.