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First Thoughts Blog

Christmas Begins with Christ

The Christmas season can be an overwhelming time for many. However, it doesn’t have to be when you begin the season with Christ. The Christmas season is actually a time of waiting. Waiting for the birth of Christ. 
 
With the new craze of hiding and finding elves, I have stumbled upon a fun, new Advent tradition you can start with your family. It is called The Christmas Star from Afar. This new tradition teaches children the true meaning of Christmas. Similar to The Elf on the Shelf, you hide the star each night until the wise men make their way to their newborn king Christ Jesus. You can find the boxed set on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or by visiting starfromafar.com. I will read The Christmas Star from Afar to our younger Sunday school classes beginning November 26. 
 
 

Risking Christmas

It takes some courage to face another Christmas! All those expectations. All those expenses. All those memories. All those family members! All that once was but is no more. All that should be but isn't. All we hope for and the inevitable disappointment. For many, Christmas is merely something to endure. Entering the enforced festivity is a risky business.
 
That’s why I like to dig beneath the demands of the season. We can cut through the trappings to that first Christmas. Almost nobody noticed what happened.
 
The Son of God laid aside the protection and privilege of his Deity. He risked entering the world as one of us. Roughly one in five pregnancies end in miscarriage. Jesus dared the dangerous process of developing in the womb as we do. Then he who set the stars in their courses in the vastness of space endured the squeezing hazards of the birth canal. He cried at the brightness when his eyes saw the first day. Later, he would cry over the cruelty of the darkness in the human heart. He came to us via a family that was displaced. Later, he would strive against all that tears us apart: giving dead sons back to lonely mothers, forgiving adulterers and dining with outcasts. He touched the diseased whom others shunned. He stilled the hands cocked self-righteously to throw stones. He liberated the possessed. Jesus risked temptation and he dared the disappointment of loving those who would betray him. Jesus learned as he grew up that an enraged Herod had slaughtered innocent children in an attempt to destroy him. On the cross Jesus would shed his blood to give eternal life to those children and to all who trust in him.
 
In other words, Jesus came straight into our mess in order to redeem it all. He risked the first Christmas and he risked 33 years in our midst. He drew on the courage of his Father to endure this life faithfully in order that we might be saved. This Christmas, before the madness begins, I want to dare to draw from the courage of the One who risked Christmas for me. And I’m so glad we get to do that together!
 
This article is also appearing in Baton Rouge Parents Magazine.
 

What Do You Love?

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

 

What Is Gratitude?

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

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

It's Autumn!

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

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

A Word on Discipleship

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

Right at Your Door: the Whole World!

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

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