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First Thoughts Blog
Category Archives: Missions

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.
 

To Be A Buchanan Encourager

Being an encourager at Buchanan Elementary School has been such a blessing to me. This program seemed to answer the yearning from my heart to go outside of my comfort zone and utilize my spiritual gift of compassion to draw others closer to Christ. Over the course of the past year and a half, the relationships I have with the two ladies I encourage at Buchanan have drawn me closer to Christ. God is so faithful! He never ceases to take care of us, especially when we are earnestly trying to meet the needs of others. 1 Peter 3: 8 calls us to action, “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.”  
 
This First Presbyterian Church program is an outlet to truly connect with someone you would most likely never meet. I am calling on all members of our church who are gifted with compassion for others to consider adding adopting a teacher to pray for and support monthly. These teachers truly want to connect with a loving, praying friend. They accept us with smiling faces and open arms. If God is pulling at your heart, take this step and emotionally support a teacher at Buchanan Elementary. YOU will be blessed!
Posted in: Missions

We Caught the Vision

Folks caught the vision at the 2017 Global Missions Conference! After hearing from two phenomenal speakers, over forty people expressed interest in one of three mission opportunities —the Perspectives Course, hosting internationals through International Friendship Partners or joining a short-term mission trip to Romania with Smiles Foundation. 
 
Dr. Greg Livingstone kicked off the weekend with over 200 people in attendance on Saturday morning. For over 50 years, Greg has been a pioneer in missions to the unreached people of the Middle East with Operation Mobilization, Frontiers and now with the EPC’s World Outreach. Your Presbytery (EPC Gulf South) is focusing on Syria with Nour and Rebecca (Lunceford) Botros and their team ready to mobilize to that country once the war ends! 
 
Unreached people groups, of which there are 350 in the US alone, was the focus of the video Greg shared called, “What Is a UPG?” (Watch it on gogfm.org.) Understanding the meaning behind statistics which help missionaries gauge their effectiveness was a perfect tie-in to one of our global missions opportunities: International Friendship Partners. IFP currently has 14 international LSU students looking for friendship partners.  
 
International friends from Iran, Afghanistan, China, Bangladesh, Nepal, Kenya, Egypt, Taiwan, Japan and Ghana joined First Presbyterian members by sharing their cuisine at Saturday’s International Friendship & Food Festival. Americans and internationals shared tables giving everyone an opportunity to engage with someone from another country. Mac Magruder graciously introduced our guests. It was a joy to see the pride in the faces of our international friends as they gave their names, told where they were from and thanked us for hosting them. 
 
Steve Douglass, President of Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru), was Sunday morning’s guest preacher. Darin Travis had the honor of introducing his former boss and welcoming him to the pulpit. In Steve’s 50 years with Cru he has never seen God more at work increasing prayer movements across the globe, reaching “unengaged, unreached people groups” where there is no church and no one is trying to bring the gospel, improving Bible translation, making The Jesus Film available online in 1,561 languages and church planting. The big takeaway is that the task of the Great Commission can be finished in our lifetime! As in the story of the woman at the well, our challenge is to “lift up our eyes” (John 4: 35) and get involved in the harvest. It is now.
 
Greg Livingstone and Gerrit Dawson wrapped up the conference Sunday evening with a time of prayer for global missions reminding us of Jesus’ words in Matthew 9: 35-38. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
 
Do you want to catch the vision? Do you want to find your place in the story? Find out more about participating in a global missions opportunity by visiting fpcbr.org/missionsopportunities.com. You may also text missions to 38470 and see what happens! 
 
Cody Watson, a mission mobilizer with Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, has been supported by First Presbyterian for many years. Cody attended our missions conference, and shared his thoughts and impressions.
Posted in: Missions

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!
 
 

International Friendship Partners

The Lord is sending the world to the church and the church to the world. During the last year we had visitors attend worship services with us from Nepal, Thailand, China, Taiwan, Egypt and Iran. It was the first time for each of them to visit a Christian church service. How amazing is that?!
 
What a privilege God is giving us to welcome and be conduits of his love to the nations here in Baton Rouge. As LeeAnn Kozan shared, “It is exciting to see the heartfelt joy on the faces of our international friends as they interact with the love of Jesus.”  
 
Fifty to sixty internationals, and sometimes more, are attending our monthly gatherings which serve as a bridge for our people to meet, interact and befriend internationals in our homes. We cherish these opportunities to show genuine hospitality and love. After a recent gathering, Mitzi Barber asked, “Are they always so thankful and tell you thank you over and over again?” Yes! Some words used to describe our gatherings are warm, peaceful, family, happy, relaxing, love, beautiful, inviting, fun, joyful. They love and appreciate coming to our homes and being included in regular family activities. 
 
Our constant prayer is that God will bring those to us who are spiritually hungry and us to them. God is answering our prayers. We have 30 internationals registered for a Friendship Partner or Family and 12 currently waiting to be matched with an American Friendship Partner. Consider becoming a friendship partner, friendship family, host or prayer partner and register on our church website. 
 
LSU will be home to close to 2,000 international students this 2017/2018 school year. Three quarters of them are graduate level students; the brightest and best from their countries. Many are visiting scholars. Will you help us welcome them? Our next gathering is during the mission conference Saturday, August 19 for the International Friendship and Food Festival in the gym. Plan on staying from 12-2 pm for a taste of international food and friendship.
Posted in: Missions

The Bench Warmer

In 1994, Henry Blackaby & Claude King authored the book titled “Experiencing God.” I’m sure many of you have either read the book or devoted hours to the workbook. The book asked you to take a look at yourself and your relationship with God. It goes on by walking you through seven realities, the third reality being “God invites you to become involved with him in his work. And we are to join him."

When I received the phone call to join the group traveling to Beirut, Lebanon, for a medical mission trip, I knew in my heart exactly how I was supposed to respond. Go. I did question my own worth and value to the team, until I was reminded from God’s Word that he has been preparing me for this. I knew in my heart that I wanted to be a part of it. I knew that God wanted to do something special in my life and he did.

Having attended church most of my life, I’ve watched and listened to many videos from my pew in church (bench). I’d think, that was nice, but they probably have a lot more time for that or I’d convince myself that they are a lot more “churchy” than I am. Or I may have even thought that someday when I have more “resources”, just maybe I will do something like that. The problem with the above thoughts is the “I.”

I knew that God’s work, this mission, was going to happen with or without me. It was merely a question of responding to a call to get off “the bench” in which I have been keeping warm for years. Even when I began to pray about going, as the pastor suggested, I felt ridiculous, because I already knew in my heart how God wanted me to respond.

After arriving late at night in Beirut, I met Rebecca and Nour (last name omitted), and their lovely daughter. What a blessing they are to the refugees and all the people God sends their way in Beirut. They walk with our Lord, led and strengthened by the Holy Spirit in such harsh conditions, both spiritual and environmental. There are not enough words, particularly in my vocabulary, to explain how my heart goes out to them. By the end of the week, I also learned that the teams could not have been successful without the effort, work and preparation made by this couple. Plenty more could be said about how God is using Nour and Rebecca in Lebanon.

At each makeshift health clinic we set up at an inner city church or school, I was able to witness for myself a team of doctors, nurses and laymen, led and strengthened by God’s love for those around them, caring for His children of all ages who had been exiled from their homeland. Smiles were everywhere and on almost every face. And of course tears as it was a matter of the heart.

We won’t know the physical or spiritual impact, that one week made toward supporting Rebecca and Nour. I do know over 820 refugees received health care that they wouldn’t have received otherwise. Maybe a few just in the nick of time. I do know I saw a beautiful group of people both young and old who said Yes God, send me. I do know that I was blessed and God used this trip to Beirut, Lebanon to open my eyes, soften my heart and witness once again His greatness and His sovereignty in a lost world. 

Posted in: Missions

Detained In Russia

In September, Whitney Alexander, my daughter Katherine, and I traveled to Kaluga, Russia to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Word of Life Church. For over a dozen years, First Presbyterian has had a relationship with Word of Life church. We’ve shared fellowship, sent groups to visit the Kaluga church, and had their senior pastor, Albert Ratkin, speak at First Presbyterian conferences. So it was fitting that they would invite a group from First Presbyterian to celebrate with them.
 
In the last two and a half decades, the church has faced low-level harassment and legal assaults on their property rights, just because they are openly Protestant Christians. In the last year, however, changes at the national level have made their situation, and the situation of Protestant Christians throughout Russia, more tenuous.
 
On July 11 this year, while the team was working on visas, Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill prohibiting any evangelism except in a church building—be it online, at home or on the street. This was a dramatic roll-back of religious freedom in Russia. Many Russian Christians were concerned. Arch-bishop Sergei Ryakhovsky, head of the Russian Evangelical Union, (of which the Kalgua church is a part) wrote in an open letter to Putin that the law “creates the basis for mass persecution of believers.”
 
We went ahead with our plans, and on arriving in Russia for the celebration found the 300-member Kaluga church full of joy and surrounded by well-wishers from other nearby churches. I was struck by how much love the other churches poured out on the Kaluga church: one church sent people to help serve tea at breaks, another sent a team to cook for the whole Kaluga congregation on Sunday, a number sent members bearing gifts, and several sent leaders to bring greetings.
 
The new laws didn’t dampen the joy of the event. Part of the celebration was a commemoration of the life and martyrdom by Stalin of the founder of Russian Protestantism in Kaluga. Even this potentially somber story filled the church with a spirit of courage.
 
On Friday night Whitney spoke, bringing greetings and encouraging the church. Saturday night he spoke again along with arch-bishop Sergei Ryakhovsky who came from Moscow for the event. After dinner at the church the arch-bishop left for Moscow and a few minutes later we, along with Pastor Ratkin and his family, walked out of the gates of the church-yard headed for the pastor’s van. 
 
Suddenly a uniformed police officer and five plain clothes officers (who turned out to be FSB, the current day equivalent of the KGB) approached us. “Let me see your documents,” said the uniformed officer to me and Whitney. (Thankfully, the pastor’s wife Elena put her arm around my daughter Katherine, spoke to her in Russian, and guided her to the van and out of the situation).
 
We were told we had to go to the police station. Albert, his wife and a number of church members (and visiting pastors) accompanied us and waited all night. At the police station, Whitney and I were separated and questioned for hours with no opportunity to have a lawyer. Finally, at 2.30 in the morning, a police colonel brought us together and pronounced us guilty of “religious connections” and fined us 3,000 rubles each.
 
During the Sunday service the next day Albert explained to the church what had happened: how a police informant had secretly (and illegally) video taped Whitney speaking to the church; we had been questioned without a lawyer until late at night and found guilty on the spot. Albert pointed out how appropriate it was that they had just learned how the Russian Protestant tradition in Kaluga was started in persecution and to take heart, because God is in charge. 
 
After that serious note the service turned joyful, with greetings and gifts from other churches then baptisms, and then cake, tea and food and more food and wonderful fellowship between the members of the Kaluga church and other churches who had come to share their joy.
 
The next day, as Albert drove us to Moscow to leave Russia, I told him I was concerned that the our case might cause problems. “This is bigger than you or me,” was his wise reply.
 
And he was right. The US embassy in Moscow has become involved, Russian media has picked up the story (both for and against), and a local television station has made it part of a documentary lambasting Protestant Christianity. And still it is bigger than all that. It’s part of the unfolding of the gospel story.
 
The Word promises: “Indeed, all who desire to live a Godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” We don’t think about it much in the US, but I for one, have decided maybe I should.