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First Thoughts Blog
Author: Gerrit Dawson

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!
 

 

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,
 

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!
 
 

In Motion and At Rest

The rhythm of summer has begun. With the conclusion of the school year, many of us look forward to sleeping longer and doing less. But we’re also on the move. Vacations often include travel. Some even say they look forward to going back to work so they can rest from their holidays!  The church also moves into both rest and motion.  We have four Sundays with single services in July. But meanwhile many of us are traveling.
 
We’ve already had two dozen elementary students head to Lake Forest Ranch for a week of recreation and beautiful gospel reflection. (I can always tell in confirmation interviews which kids have gone to Lake Forest: they know the gospel).  A dozen middle schoolers have been in New Orleans working with Mission Lab on service projects. And fourteen high schoolers are heading to New York City for eight days of urban service projects in hopes of being inspired to do similar work in our city.
 
Several of our leaders will be heading this month to Fair Oaks, California for the General Assembly of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.  It’s always wonderful to go to Assemblies where there is no fighting over essential beliefs, but a joyful focus on sending missionaries, equipping the church, worshiping the Triune God, refreshing leaders and strengthening our ties of fellowship. 
 
At the end of June, we expect to host over 100 children again for our annual Vacation Bible School. Students can look forward to visits from Biblical characters and a lively week of creative teaching.  
 
Personally, the Dawson’s look forward to some vacation in the North Carolina mountains. We’ll celebrate Rhonda’s mother’s birthday, see family, hike, read and eat way too much. And I hope to begin research on next year’s Lenten Study, called Real Identity: Living as Christ Defines Us. Rhonda will be bringing her creative magic to several garden projects and working on some new oil paintings. During the weekdays of July 17-21, I’ll be in Orlando teaching a Doctor of Ministry course to a dozen pastors. Theology of Ministry is the course title, but my secret mission is to affirm and refuel these guys who spend all year on the frontlines of ministry.
 
One of my former doctoral students, Scott Bowen, has become the pastor of the vibrant Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, TN. Scott is writing his dissertation on the role of pastors and elders in shepherding congregations.  He could really use your help via a five minute survey. I told him I would invite you all to take the survey and help his project.  Here’s the web address
 
While I’m away the first two Sundays of July, the pulpit will be ably filled. Our Director of Discipleship, Darin Travis, will give his first Sanctuary sermon July 2.  And on July 9, our pastor emeritus, Russ Stevenson will be filling the pulpit July 9.  I am forever grateful for the twenty years of Word-centered, connective and innovative ministry Russ gave us. July 16, the Foto Sisters will join us to give us a musical treat in the midst of that summer heat. And on July 23, Albert White will deliver a dynamic message as we share leadership to continue to model racial reconciliation in our city. A picnic will follow that service.  Also, the Magruder family will be back from Kenya during the summer and we can expect to hear from them during our summer services. Also, several elders will be giving personal testimonies during that time.
 
So I hope you find some rest this summer, even if you are in motion part of the time.  I’m grateful for such a great team of elders and staff who will work together to keep the church pulsing even as we rotate our key staff through some days of refreshing. 
 
I love to be your pastor, 
Gerrit

Happy 190th!

On Sunday, May 28 we will celebrate our 190th birthday! Nineteen decades ago, the presbytery of Mississippi finally succeeded in planting a Presbyterian church down here on the River. A young pastor named John Dorrance had been preaching up a storm since January, 1827, and by May the church was ready to be officially formed. A more seasoned pastor named Dr. Jeremiah Chamberlain came down to give the founding sermon and conduct the Lord’s Supper. 
 
We began with 15 members, the first Protestant church in all of south Louisiana.  The church grew steadily as Dorrance delivered his persuasive sermons. (He also persuaded one of his new church members, Penelope Mercer, to accept his marriage proposal!) It would be two more years before we even had a building, opening on what is now 4th and Florida streets. Life was not easy, and carving out a Protestant identity in a Catholic town meant great dedication and stamina were required. But they did it. God did it.
 
And here we are, nearly two centuries later, grateful to be standing on such strong shoulders. We remain a church at the heart of the city with a heart for our city. God continues to draw, and raise up, leaders for our community who are formed in the gospel through our church. We’re the only church in Louisiana that currently has two active state legislators. Our history is resplendent with governors, business leaders, educators, professors, leaders in medicine, the arts and the practice of law. We’re vibrantly connected to the city we love, and deeply grateful that our Lord has kept us thriving through all the ups and downs through the years.
 
At the center of our life, of course, pulses the gospel of Jesus Christ, the only reason we continue through 190 winters and summers, the only reason we have anything meaningful to offer our fair town. How stunning it is, when you really think about it, to realize that faithful elders and pastors have held up and held forth the Word of God so ardently all this time. May God be pleased to deploy us in his service for another 190!
 
I hope you will join us for our celebratory service, Sunday, May 28 at 10.30 am. Know that I feel so privileged to get to run with you one tiny segment of this enduring journey of faithfulness.
 
The Last Supper
 
The session has received the gift of a new and wonderful work of art for our campus. A cast of Deborah Luke’s sculpture of the Last Supper now hangs in our reception room. Stop by and view this moving rendition of that significant night. 
 

 

A Universe Reborn!

The ancient church came to understand three days as one grand event. From Maundy Thursday night to Easter morning Jesus engaged his testing, his trial, his crucifixion, his death and his resurrection. He underwent a great passage through death into new life. Over the years, Christ’s church came to call this event the Holy Triduum (literally, “three days”). No part works without the other parts. All of them fit together. Interlocking episodes in one extended event.
The fate of the universe as we know it rested on the shoulders of one Galilean carpenter. Contradictions smash together.  
 
   We tried to save our own skins.
   Jesus knelt and washed our feet.
   We betrayed and fled. 
   Jesus gave us his broken body and outpoured blood.
   We mocked him. 
   Jesus prayed we would be forgiven.
   We hung him up to die.
   Jesus committed his spirit to his Father.
   We buried him, sealed him up out of sight.
   Jesus rose victorious never to die again. 
 
By his dying and his rising, new creation began, humanity was remade and the universe reborn. Such is the promise to those joined to him by faith.
 
The Triduum is the event of events. These are the days of all days. We bring the power of these once-and-for-all events into the present as we enter the sacred time of worship. Maundy Thursday we keep watch with him as he is led away. Sunday at dawn, we become witnesses that the stone is rolled away. Sunday in full morning light, with the trumpets resounding, at the height of spring, we proclaim, “The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed.” 
 
Identity in Christ/Sexual Identity
 
This is the great discussion of our day. What defines my identity? Do I define myself by my preferences? By my passions? Or do the events of the Triduum lend a deeper meaning? Does Jesus claim me deeper than and beyond what holds me and molds me now?  
 
Questions of identity are at the heart of current cultural discussions about sexuality. The church has lost the culture war. So how do we address our culture with gospel grace and truth when we are no longer heard if we just say, “Thus says the Lord?”  
 
Dr. Rosaria Butterfield, in her book, Openness Unhindered, calls the church to a radical hospitality toward all people, particularly toward people identifying as homosexual. Dr. Butterfield herself knows the gay community from the inside out. She was drawn out of atheism and into Christ by the welcoming love of a Presbyterian Church. Formerly a professor of English at Syracuse University, Rosaria is a gentle, articulate, deep advocate for traditional views expressed through churches that are truly welcoming and loving in Christ’s name.
 
We have a rare opportunity to hear her speak twice, Friday, May 5, 7 pm and Saturday, May 6 at 9 am in our Sanctuary. No registration is necessary. We’re hosting this seminar in conjunction with South Baton Rouge Presbyterian Church and Christ Covenant Church. A portion of the expenses are underwritten by a gift from the Ed Grant Enrichment Fund. 

Jump in the Fountains!

A phrase became famous during the Protestant Reformation: ad fontes! Literally, to the fountains. What?! The phrase meant “Go to the source.” The Reformers realized that for the church to be renewed, we all needed to go back to the deep source of truth, the Scriptures. When faith gets dry, go back to the fountain of truth that is in God’s Word. When life gets confusing, go back to basic practices of prayer: thanksgiving, adoration, confession and intercession. When you feel far from Christ, go play in the fountain of baptism by remembering how you belong to Christ. Go drink from the endless cup of his life-giving blood in the Supper. Ad fontes. Go to the source to renew life and faith. The Reformers changed the world doing just that.

So this Lent, we are going to go ad fontes. We’re going to dive deep into the source of all Christian prayer: the prayer that Jesus taught us. Living from the Lord’s Prayer is a 42 day guide to sacred reading and prayer for each of us to use during Lent. The books will be given out during worship March 5. You can also sign up to have the daily readings sent to you in an email. Or you may access them on the church app. We will spend a week on each of the six phrases in the Lord’s Prayer. We’ll see how Jesus’ own prayer is sourced in the Hebrew Scriptures, and we will let the psalms he prayed flow through us as we join him in prayer. 

Committing to 20 minutes a day for these 42 days will revolutionize your prayer life.  How can I be so confident? Because everything comes from the source of God’s Word. And God’s Word is truth. And when we pray from God’s Word, the Spirit flows in us and through us. Ad fontes. Jump in the fountains. The fountains of prayer that flows from the Word. It’s the guaranteed way to refreshment!

Give Meaning to Your Spring Cleaning

Spring cleaning? The Purple Cow needs quality furniture and housewares. We’re stacked with clothes right now.  But furniture is needed and all proceeds support the amazing ministry of the Christian Outreach Center (COC) transforming our neighborhood for Christ.
Speaking of COC, did you know we raised a record $66,000 at our Christmas Eve Offering. These gifts were shared between a) COC as it launches new job training, financial literacy and Bible study groups and b) Gardere Community Christian School, now with over 80 students and a new principal in place to undergird our teachers and the daily administration of the school.

Church of the Resurrection

Our church plant in New Orleans, the Church of the Resurrection, has found a fabulous facility for worshiping. We’re meeting at the newly restored Felicity Church in the Lower Garden District. We’re also organizing to send 8 to 10 people down each week to support Rev. Ben Cunningham and the congregation. Check out our website or visit the Connection Center to learn more. 

No Time to "Play" Church!

Have you been as convicted and energized by our study of James as I have? The apostle James blazes through his letter like a man with his hair on fire.  He doesn’t waste words. He doesn’t pull punches.  And he’s not afraid to upset how we think about God, ourselves and the world. In other words, James has no time for believers who just “play” at living for Christ.  His letter is strong medicine. And isn’t that just the way we like it? In a culture that is largely post-Christian, dabbling with Jesus just won’t do. We need the real stuff, and we need it straight. So each week I’ve been wading into such zingers as “Consider every trial a joy,” or “Faith without works is dead,” or “The tongue is a fire.” He slays me with truth, and, at the very same time, brings me to life with a more vital faith.  It encourages me that you seem to be responding the same way. I love how our congregation always wants the truth of the gospel, even when it sizzles us.

Living from the Lord’s Prayer

At the end of February, we will be switching focus from James to the prayer that Jesus taught us. Our 2017 theme for Lent is Living from the Lord’s Prayer. I learned so much as I prepared for this study, starting way back in the summer. What can seem like an overly familiar, slightly boring prayer is actually a pipeline into the very heart and mission of God for his world.  

As ever, we will be distributing the guides for daily reading and prayer, starting March 5. (some advance copies will be available the week before for those who are traveling). We will also be inviting folks to sign up for six-week home groups to study the various parts of this brilliant prayer together. Personally, I like to have the physical book to hold and read, and I also like getting the daily readings sent to me by email so I can read them anywhere, anytime. If you don’t have the church app, this is a great time to download it and get signed up for daily readings.
Ash Wednesday is March 1, and that marks the beginning of six Wednesday noon services in the Chapel followed by light lunches in the reception room. So, join me in clearing the calendar and getting spiritually ready to take on the Lord’s Prayer in dynamic, deeper ways this Lenten season.

Sign Up for Daily Emails

Download the Church App

Small Group Sign Ups Coming Soon

 

A Great Year Ahead

Our church begins the New Year with great opportunities for studying God’s Word and living out his peace in our city. As you recall, for five Sundays after the flood, members of Abounding Love Ministries worshipped with us. Several of their congregation even joined our fall small groups. We’ve directed work crews and resources their way and, at last, they are ready to re-open on Hooper Road. We are all invited for their festive re-opening worship service, Sunday afternoon, January 8 at 4.30 pm. Their new banner will read, “The House That Love Built,” because they have felt the love that flowed from us, from the community and from Christians around the country who came to help. Pastor Adraine will preach from Hagai on “Better Than the Last.” Our worship team will join theirs for special music, and Pastor Albert and I will be leading the communion service together. A huge dinner follows. Plus, we will re-launch our “Fifty on Fifty” program of sharing dinner in one another’s homes. We believe in healing the racial divide in our city through the unity and love shown between Christians. This is a tangible way to express that hope.

Can We Trust Our Bibles?

Every year, some clever author or television network takes a new angle on an old heresy: telling us that we cannot trust our Bibles. In ever sensational ways, we are told the Bible was put together by a bunch of power hungry old guys who suppressed the brave thinkers. Or Jesus never said half what the Bible says he said. It makes us wonder, “How did we get our Bibles? How do we know they are accurate? How do we know this is what God said rather than what man said?” 

We have a world expert in the reliability of Scripture coming to speak to us! Dr. Michael Kruger is a New Testament Professor and the President of Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte. He’s going to be leading us in three powerful sessions, Friday night and Saturday morning January 20-21.

Video link to Professor Kruger

Can We Hang Out More with Each Other?

Dr. Kruger’s lessons are part of an all-church “Stay-Treat.” What’s a stay-treat? It’s a retreat where you get to sleep in your own bed! We’re wrapping the learning with food and fellowship. Dinner for all ages and stages Friday night at 6 pm then an ice-cream social after the Friday teaching. (Plus both nursery and separate children’s lessons during the adult sessions).Saturday morning will feature snacks before and between Dr. Kruger’s two presentations with a sandwich lunch to follow. All for a super-low price! Register now! Underwritten in part by our Ed Grant enrichment Fund

Believers for Baton Rouge

More than two dozen churches across our city are joining together for a worship service of prayer and racial reconciliation, Thursday, January 26, 6.30 pm at the River Center. The service will feature internationally known speaker, Dr. Tony Evans. We believe that the peace and well being of our city requires the churches of Christ Jesus to cover our town with a blanket of prayer and unity in Christ. We want 5000 people to attend! 

This is a major endeavor and features unprecedented cooperation among the churches. I urge us all to attend.  Change your plans, skip the kids’ activities, forego other entertainments. This will be a historic evening!

Respect BR

As our city strives to find its future after a year of racial tension and flooding, one of our ministry partners has a unique plan for weaving us all together. Respect BR is an initiative created by Manners of the Heart (their offices are in our Sanctuary building!). It’s a plan for each of us, in practical ways, to daily show respect and love to our neighbors. Consider getting on board by taking the pledge of respect. You can find it at mannersoftheheart.org.

As you can see, in 2017 our church life starts strong with these major events. I’m so thankful to be your pastor in these important days.

Advent Thoughts

We become like that which we love. Watch two people who have recently fallen in love and you’ll see that it’s true. Suddenly she starts watching football; he starts eating salads. They start using the same phrases and might even buy matching sweaters. At a more profound level, we sync up with the people that matter to us the most. We develop a shared history; we have compatible goals; we know how to be together. We become like that which we love. God became man in Jesus Christ. Sit with that a moment. We become like that which we love: God became one of us. How great a love is this? How ardent must be his desire? How dizzy in love must he be? God took up skin and bone. He spoke through vocal cords. He walked under the force of gravity. He got thirsty in the heat and tired from a day of work. He laughed at dogs and gathered children in his arms. He took what we are and made it his own. Forever. When we gaze into the straw of the manger this year, we can hold close this miracle. We become like that which we love. God so loved that he became like us. 
 
Great Christmas traditions continue at First. This Friday night, the Live Nativity will unfold in our terraced garden at 6 and 7 pm. Encore presentations will follow December 18.  On Sunday, December 11, the combined worship team and chancel choir will present On This Shining Night at both Sanctuary services. That afternoon, the annual downtown Pilgrimage will flow through the streets of Baton Rouge, stopping here about 6.30. And, as ever, we will keep Christmas Eve together with candlelight communion services at 4 and 6 pm. My message is entitled, “In the Fullness of Time.” I hope you’ll plan to join us as we come to adore this God who loves us enough to take up our humanity forever in Jesus.
 
I’ll Think About That After Christmas
 
Ever say that phrase? Everything normal seems to stop between now and the New Year. It’s hard to make plans for January. But I’d like to impress two crucial dates onto your Yule scattered minds!  
 
1) “Can We Trust our Bibles?” is the theme for our “Stay-treat” January 20-21. Dr. Michael Kruger, president and New Testament professor at Reformed Seminary in Charlotte, will give three presentations on the reliability of Scripture. Dr. Kruger will address common doubts we have about the truth of the Word as well as frequent criticisms of Scripture found in popular media. (We’re sandwiching Dr. Kruger in between a festive dinner, an ice-cream social, kids’ events and Saturday snacks!)
 
2) Prayer Service for Racial Reconciliation, featuring Dr. Tony Evans. Thursday night, January 26 at the River Center. This joint effort by multiple Baton Rouge churches seeks the healing of our divided community and the launching of new initiatives in our city for crossing racial lines.