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

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!
 

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.