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First Thoughts Blog

Small World. Big God.

We live in an interconnected world. In Information Technology and Communications. In Economics and Personal Finance. In Politics. Sports. Education. Medicine. It is a global village.
 
Global communications, for example, have become instantaneous. The internet is worldwide. You can send an email from Baton Rouge and immediately communicate with someone across the Atlantic. With Skype, you can talk face–to-face with anyone on the planet. In Finance, traders follow the Nikkei as much as the S&P 500. OPEC affects the price you pay at the pump and Beijing affects the price you pay at Home Depot. International events also affect U.S. government strategies and policies. Sarin gas in Syria. Trade policy in China. Nuclear tests on the Korean peninsula. Scary stuff, to be sure. (Thankfully, we can place our cares on God, who cares for us.) 
 
Should it be any surprise that our personal walk with Christ and our participation in our local church community is, by God’s design, also part of a global movement? When God first called Abraham, God said that through Abraham he would bless “all the families of the earth.” From the start, God had the whole world in mind. Through the prophet Joel, God said “[I]t shall come to pass that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” At Jesus’ baptism John the Baptist said, “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” John the Apostle famously wrote, “For God so loved the world . . .” We are told in Acts that the reach of God’s plan for humankind is global, “to Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost part of the earth.” There is a whole world out there in need, and what it needs most is the Savior.
 
We are to “seek the welfare” of our city of course, by doing good works that help others in our own community. If our vision stops at the city limits, though, then we will miss the full picture. God wants us to see both near and far. Make no mistake. Jesus’ objective was to reach the world. He ordered his life by this. Men were his method but all humanity was his goal. He invested his time in training the twelve -- disciples who would multiply and make more Christ-followers who would reach the world. Jesus’ final words to his disciples were “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . .” The Apostle Paul explained in II Corinthians that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself—and has now entrusted that message to us. We are now Christ’s ambassadors. Today God makes his appeal through us. On behalf of Christ, the Bible says, we are to implore others to be reconciled to God.
 
In what way is your faith a global faith? How can you become more engaged in Christ’s worldwide movement? Through the Holy Spirit who dwells within each believer, God can use you to help shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked -- and widen the global circle of faith of those who have been transformed through trusting Christ as Savior and have come to know God’s love and forgiveness. 
 
This year our church has declared August “global missions month.” The theme is “Catch the Vision!” A special conference on August 19 and 20 with two internationally renowned speakers will highlight the month. Throughout August, though, we hope each week to increase awareness about global missions in the life of our church. We hope you will reflect on the many exciting and creative ways you can participate in changing the world for Christ and his Kingdom. As a congregation, let’s “catch the vision” together!
 

Momentous, Meaningful and Memorable

It’s that time of year. Teachers get ready for a much-needed break and parents readjust their lives for summer. We plan camps, vacations, play dates and extra family time. As teachers wind down children’s ministry winds up. One of the greatest ministries in our church is Vacation Bible School. Why is our VBS ministry so important? 
 
During VBS we have our children with us for an entire week of the summer. This is so exciting for us in children’s ministry. We take this time seriously and provide a fun and dynamic way to teach children the Bible and point them to the gospel. We use a variety of teaching elements to reach kids for Christ . . . music, drama, art and physical education.
 
So, this is great for kids but why is it important for us? We are in this together! During each baptism at First Pres we take a vow to set a godly example and invest in the spiritual nurture of our children. My husband Kinch and I do not have family in Baton Rouge. We could not have made it through our journey as parents without our church family, the nursery staff, the children’s ministry team and the many Sunday School teachers that have poured into our children over the past eight years.  
 
VBS is an excellent opportunity to minister to our children in our church and in our community. By word of mouth, we continue to increase our numbers each year. Friends invite friends. During the week of VBS, our church becomes a melting pot for kids from different schools and different backgrounds.
 
VBS serves as an opportunity to reach families for Christ. We offer home connections for parents so they can connect their kids to the gospel at home. Kids learn and guess what? They want to talk about it and have lots of questions about the Bible and Jesus. Some of them even give their hearts to Jesus. We equip parents to foster these conversations at home and often times parents themselves are being spiritually impacted by what their children are learning at VBS and talking about at home. 
 
We want to foster spiritual formation for our children, volunteers and parents. VBS will not only foster spiritual formation but you will end up spiritually refreshed. Our VBS leaders, teachers and volunteers leave VBS week so spiritually full we start planning the next year the following week. We leave singing hymns with our children, talking about the Bible, discussing the gospel of Jesus and jamming out to fun and exciting songs from our VBS CDs. Last summer my family and I took a road trip to New York and we listened to our VBS CD over and over (and over) again.
 
As we like to say during VBS week, “Keep calm and VBS on!” Please join me in praying for our children the week of VBS at First Presbyterian.
 

 

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. 
 

 

Good Grief

Recently I found myself crying over the loss of a dear friend who lived a very long and very full life. Yet, the thought occurred to me that it’s always too soon to lose someone you love no matter how old they are. Perhaps this is so because grief is part of love, as Jesus so powerfully demonstrated (John 11: 35). 
 
I have some questions for each of us to ask ourselves regarding how well we are currently living our lives in the grace and truth of the Author of Life who not only conquered death to give us eternal life (John 3: 16-17) but also empowers us to live a “good” temporal life. After all, Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly" (John 10: 10). Here are those questions:
 
Are you losing sleep? Are you sleeping too much? Are you overeating or under-eating? Are you drinking more than you know is healthy? Are you working too much or not enough? Do you sometimes fantasize about escaping your reality or even this world? Do you sometimes think you’re forgetting more than usual? Are you feeling sad? Are you feeling angry? 
 
If you are experiencing any of the above, you may be NORMAL if you have experienced loss in your life.  This includes not only loss of someone but anything you value (i.e. job, marriage, home, etc.).
 
On Saturday, May 20 at 10 am, we will have our second Good Grief Seminar. In this special two-hour seminar, insight will be shared regarding not only the psychological but also the emotional, mental, physical, relational and spiritual effects of grief in our lives. We will focus on steps that can be taken to rise above what would hold us below in how we deal with loss in our lives, becoming victors rather than victims as we navigate change in our lives and the lives of those we love. 
Although we don’t all grieve in the same way, we do all grieve. Yet, the grief process is something we can reluctantly go through or intentionally grow through, transforming our lives further into the image of God in whose image we have been created. After all, it is in becoming more like him that we find true contentment, fulfillment, meaning and purpose in this life as we prepare for the next. 
 
One of the “Dadisms” or “Jimisms” that my daughters like to quote is as follows: “Those most prepared to die are best prepared to live.” When we take care of the eternal, we are free to truly enjoy the temporal. Yet, sometimes what keeps us from such joy is the grief we experience. 
 
Won’t you join us?
 
To register for this free seminar, email Laura Shaw indicating “grief seminar” on the subject line of your email, or call 225.620.0222 and leave a voice mail with your name and anyone else attending with you. Coffee and light refreshments will be served. 

 

Children's Ministry Testimonial

Parenting young ones is such a hectic season in life that can often leave little opportunity to dive into the church body. But, our family has been blessed beyond measure by the So Loved Nursery these past four years. My husband, Jamy and I have been able to engage with the church in ways that would not be possible without Audra and her staff. As we attend services, conferences and Bible studies our hearts and minds can fully focus on seeking God because we know our children, Hudson and Holland, are in the best hands.
 
I’ve joyfully watched them over the years as they were rocked and cuddled in the Caterpillars class or ran and played with friends in the toddler classes. And now I anxiously await to see what Bible lesson Hudson has learned in his preschool class each Sunday. Not only are my children being loved on and making real friendships, they are being introduced to the Lord and shown his perfect love. 
 
I’m certain if it weren’t for this hallway filled with amazing volunteers and employees, that our family would be missing out on so many of the things the Lord has offered us at First Presbyterian. And for that I could not be more grateful!
 

Middle School Years: Yikes!

I have always found aversion to middle school (those pre-teen years) quite humorous. Whether working with middle schoolers or personal memories of being a middle schooler, perceptions for most people fall somewhere along the lines of “gross,” “miserable,” or “never, ever, again.” Why this aversion? Why this distance from that (albeit awkward) brief history of time?
 
Scripture tells us to “put off our old self, which belongs to your former manner of life” (Ephesians 4: 22).  In a sense, this is nothing new to how we’re wired. We are naturally drawn to rid ourselves of that which we don’t favor; that which is old. When we’re dirty, we take a bath. When we’re tired, we long to sleep. When we gain a few extra pounds, we have a desire to lose them. Humans are built with a tendency toward improvement. Whether or not we tap into that, all of us are constantly striving, in one direction or another, toward whatever the next step may be. One way we do this is with our memories; we try to forget what we did not cherish.  
 
Considering this, it makes sense that people would shy away from their pre-teen experience; monotonous growing pains, generally bad haircuts, braces that double as disco balls, overdependence on cheap “cologne.” Yikes! No wonder we tend to avoid those thoughts. Yet that which discomforts us is not our old self. Grace will not let us throw these years aside. A God who tells us to “become like little children” will not have us ignore them (Matthew 18: 2-4).
 
There are many stories of young people doing great things for the Kingdom, yet I’m most drawn to John 6, when Jesus feeds the multitudes. Known only in the story as “the boy,” he is the only one among 5,000 adults who thinks Jesus could do the impossible. While the many sit and wait circus-like for the Messiah to act on their behalf, he humbly shows his faith by offering his small portion for the possession of the many. This was no giant affair, no great task, no “hard thing,” but a simple act of obedience led by an inquisition that only a teenage boy could have: “I wonder what would happen if I did ____.” 
 
This same wonder we see today. It shows itself in Sunday school, youth group and Bible study when our kids try to play kickball in the Sanctuary, yet also when a life-altering question is asked merely out of the curiosity to know the reason for all things. It shows itself at camps, when they try to pull pranks in the middle of the night, yet also when they discover that life is not about themselves, but Someone much greater. It shows itself on mission trips, where windows are broken amidst dorm-held wrestling matches, yet also when they see need, hopelessness, despair and realize that they’re broken too. 
 
It’s this amalgam of the profound yet immature that compile the pre-teen experience. It’s a sense of wanting to know all there is but not knowing how to get to that knowledge, of which I have the glorious privilege of being their guide. Come join us.
 

Youth Testimonies

Each year Student Ministry takes a trek to Colorado for 5 days amid the beauty of God’s creation to do some skiing. It is a wonderful time to play in the snow, connect with the Lord and learn the delight that is snow skiing. 
 
Here is an issue a lot of us struggle with. Our eyes stay down, our ears constantly have white wires attached to them, we only look at what is directly in front of us. We weave through life, trying to maintain some idea of control, but frequently fall short. It’s only when we take a second to step back, to catch our breath, to look up and see our surroundings that we find our place in God’s plan again. Everyday problems weigh us down, they draw our attention from the bigger picture and force us to forget the much greater purpose we have. We must remember to take a break every once and awhile, to look around at the world he has given us, to reaffirm ourselves in his plan, and then to keep skiing forward - this time with our eyes ahead.  
 
-Bennett Franz, 11th grade, Baton Rouge High School
 
“The mountains were magnificent, with their snow caps and purple bases. When I first saw those mountains, I saw God’s greatness, power and glory. It shows me how he wants to rule my heart and help me keep him at the center of my life. Just looking at all the surroundings, I saw God. He created all of it and it strengthens my faith in him because he created such beautiful things, just like you and me. During this trip, we did daily devotionals. I really took away from the Saturday devotional about the difference between amazement and faith. I really related to it because it showed me how I was not living by faith, but by amazement.” 
 
-Kathyln Capone,
10th grade, Dutchtown High School

 

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. 

After the Flood of 2016

Is it 2017? Did we really just live through the (not so) great flood of 2016? How could God have shown us so much favor, and rallied his body of Christ to help us through this natural disaster? Is this painful and difficult chapter of our lives finally ending? Are we really settling into our beautiful home in another neighborhood and approaching the closing date of our flooded/gutted house?

It is difficult to comprehend how good God has been to us, and sometimes as difficult to receive. I guess that is what grace’s unmerited favor is all about. It’s humbling. I cannot fathom going through this without the support system at First and beyond.

You may know me as the media guy in black, holed up in the AV booth. So many of you were at my flood-ravaged house swinging hammers, hauling debris and trudging through filth, demonstrating your love of Christ through works of faith. Words cannot express my thankful appreciation, but thank you.

As the rising floodwaters flowed through my driveway, I was texting Barry and Gerrit about missing Sunday services, needing somewhere to stay and something to drive since it was clear the flood was taking our house and cars. Within hours, we had lodging, loaner cars, meals, and everything else needed lined up. It was overwhelming.

Six months later, I am just now getting back into my daily work routine overseeing media, technology and facilities at First. My latest projects are overseeing replacement of all windows in the Education Building, and preparing to fix all roofing and waterproofing leaks campus-wide.

It’s also my pleasure to supervise First’s incredible media and facilities team. If you enjoy our beautiful campus, it is because of our awesome sextons. Everything you hear in the services, or see on the screens, are due to our highly trained and dedicated media team. They are amazing!

Have you had a chance to watch our livestream of the Sunday Sanctuary services? It’s the next best thing to being there! If you are traveling, home sick or want to recommend First to a friend, then the livestream is ideal. You can livestream from our website, or from the First Presbyterian app, and even watch archived entire services!

It is a joy to serve First Presbyterian Church. I love you all!

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.