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First Thoughts Blog

Bailey and Me

I will never forget that day. I joined several people from First Presbyterian Church in bringing healing and hope to yet another victim of the flood of 2016. Little did I know that, as a result, some healing and hope would be brought to me in an unusual way. My deceased mother, who raised twelve children in a devout Roman Catholic family in Rhode Island, always said, through thick and thin, that “The more you give, the more you get.” I understand this truth to be not just circumstantial but spiritual. Yet, although there is the usual joy that comes from helping others there was another type of joy that I gained that day which I could never have foreseen. It came through a new friend—a canine one. 
 
This beautiful little dog, now named Bailey, strolled into the home in which we were working in Millerville on August 24, 2016. As she had no collar, name tag or microchip, her photo was soon posted on various websites for lost pets of Livingston and East Baton Rouge parishes. Many people wanted her but nobody claimed her. The landlord of our temporary housing did not allow pets in his home. As a result, my younger daughter (also a “pet person”) and I prayed that God would provide a home—or at least a foster parent—until the day came when we would have our own home, having moved here from Connecticut only one week before the flood. The answer to our prayer was a dear woman we met at a local retailer, Terry Harrington-Douglas, who became not only a foster parent to Bailey but a wonderful friend to us to this day. She kept Bailey for three months. Then Bailey moved in with us just after we moved into our new home. 
 
Since then, Bailey and I have become a Registered Therapy Animal Team through LSU Vet School’s Tiger H.A.T.S. program and are insured nationally through Pet Partners International. The evaluations, seven session course, and exams have been well worth the effort (although at one point I thought Bailey’s “ordination” would take longer than my pastoral ordination!). We have since visited over 40 people, young and old, rich and poor, black and white, hospitalized and healing or in hospice care and dying. Over and over again, Bailey has brought comfort, healing and hope to those we serve together. There is a reason why dog spelled backwards is what it is—they love us unconditionally. 
 
As a full-time Associate Pastor for Pastoral Care and Prayer, I am not only thankful but also inspired by how God often uses the ministry of “presence” to bring others divine peace—no words (or barks) necessary! 
 
Photo: Painter Kathy Stone with Jim Solomon and Bailey
 
 

Get Out! Now!

Claustrophobia runs in our family. No room, no air, no way out: it makes us all crazy. Rhonda’s Dad expresses it this way, “I sit on the aisle just in case I need to get out of there.” At a solidly built 6' 6", if Dick had to get out, he would get out. And I’d be right behind him. I just don’t want to be stuck and closed in. 
 
Maybe that’s why I love this Easter sermon so much, even though it’s from 1,500 years ago. The preacher imagines Jesus the moment before his resurrection. He speaks to Adam and all the dead souls who’ve been longing for a Liberator. “Rise! Let us leave this place. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell! Wake up, O sleeper and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” 
 
I just love that line: I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. You were not meant for a claustrophobic doom! You were not designed to languish in bondage to sin, death and misery. Jesus declares, “Jail break! Get up! Get out of here. Now!” 
 
That’s the spiritual heart of the Easter message. Jesus is risen. He defeated death so death doesn’t have to defeat us. He took our sin so we don’t have to live under it. In the risen Jesus, our destiny is life, forgiveness, and transformation. The Easter summons trumpets in our souls: Get up! Get out of there. Rise with Christ!”
 
Congratulations for your hard work pursuing your True Identity in Christ. All Lent you’ve delved deep into Scripture’s teaching about who we really are. And I’m proud of all the comments I’ve read, all the questing questions I’ve heard, and all the growth I’ve seen. Soon, soon, we will celebrate together that Easter means, “My true identity is Risen with Christ!”
 
So how I look forward to celebrating the festive victory of our risen Liberator with you. What a joy to see these faces I have come to know and love so well on that great day. And what a thrill to be able to say together, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” See you there!
 
Shadows Before the Dawn
 
Of course, our Lenten journey passes first through the dark night of marking Christ’s Thursday betrayal and Friday crucifixion. More and more of us each year mark that holy night by entering the shadows with Jesus. We take communion remembering the first Lord’s Supper. We hear the sacred story dramatically read. We see the candles extinguished and sit silently in the dark of Jesus’ death. We follow him to the tomb and begin the long wait til Easter dawn. Once again we will meet at 7 pm. I’ve got some stirring paintings to show you that take us to the inner meaning in the outer tragedy. See you there!
 
Presbytery
 
At the end of this month, we will be hosting the meeting of Gulf South Presbytery. That’s the association of EPC churches in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas with whom we are affiliated. I’m always so proud when we host anything, but especially when we receive the elders and pastors from around our region. I hope lots of you will step forward to greet, serve and welcome our guests. Yes, it is a matter of pride to me: nobody, but nobody hosts events like we do!
 
You’ll enjoy the meeting too. My dear friend Dr. Dean Weaver will be speaking. He’s the moderator of our General Assembly. We’ll have a joyous celebration worship Friday night at 7. And, oh, you should hear these guys sing. The roof raises! I get to preach about Christ going up to heaven and we all share communion together. It’s the best Friday fun you can have!
 

What If the Unthinkable Happens Here?

Increasingly we are exposed to violent things that happen at schools and churches across our nation. We read about them in newspapers. We hear about them on our radios. We see reports about them on television where we often actually see footage of the event or the immediate aftermath. Most often our initial response is that these kinds of things are "unthinkable"’ and would never happen here.
 
Our church session has created a Security and Safety Committee that is tasked with the responsibility of enacting a plan to improve both procedures and facilities to better respond to emergencies related to weather, fire, civic unrest, and, yes, even violence on our campus and in our facilities. The committee is hard at work and has completed much of the plan. Now they’ve begun the really difficult task of asking hard questions about preventing and responding to those who would do us harm.
 
Part of that effort is to expose and educate as many of our church family as possible about this type of crime. And to ask how we might do everything we can to prevent such a thing from happening and, as remote as the possibility is, how we might best respond if it did. On Saturday, April 7, from 10 am until 2 pm, Dr. William Aprill will help us begin to address the unthinkable.
 
Dr. Aprill is a licensed mental health professional with almost 20 years' experience across the continuum of clinical care. He presently maintains a private practice and consultancy specializing in post-traumatic interventions and several other disciplines. He is a former Deputy Sheriff (New Orleans Parish Criminal Sherriff’s Office) and Special Deputy U.S. Marshal (Eastern District of Louisiana). He is one of the leading criminologists in the nation. His seminars cover such things as the decision making of violent criminals, defensive incident aftermath, mindset development and defensive preparedness. 
 
Being educated and having a heightened awareness are major steps toward increased security. It is the committee’s hope that many of you will join us on April 7. Lunch is only $5 and childcare will be provided. You must register for both. 
 
 
 
 

I Truly Don't Have Words

This phrase keeps coming to my mind as I think back on how absolutely beautifully you, as the body of Christ here at First Presbyterian Church, have shown God’s love to Ray and me during my recent back surgery. After serving with you for 13 years, I knew that you were THE BEST, but personally witnessing how you have been the hands and feet of Christ has truly been humbling. From the unceasing prayers, scrumptious meals (so much for my husband’s perpetual diet), to the flowers, visits, cards, phone calls, texts, emails, etc., I had NO DOUBT I was being cradled in the arms of our Heavenly Father. I wish I could personally hug each of your necks and say thank you but please know how much we love you and thank God for all of you.
 
Your tender care reminded me of one of the parables in Matthew:
 

Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you? Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me (Matthew 25: 37-40).

Thank you for bringing this Scripture to life for the Gaspards. May God continue to bless and keep you.
 
 

Ways of Worship: Classic Reformed

I encourage all of our members to become multilingual in worship: to try each of our three services during the course of a year.  
 
Classic Reformed worship draws upon the rich heritage of our  Presbyterian faith as we sing the most vibrant hymns of our tradition, augmented by some of the newer worship songs written in a traditional style. Strings and horns create lush texturing to the majesty of the organ music, and our choir presents weekly anthems which adorn the week’s Scripture passage. Classic Reformed follows the traditional pattern of gathering around the Word, hearing the Word and responding to the Word. This includes twice monthly communion. This service increasingly appeals to a younger generation longing for the depth of an ancient tradition. 
 
The 11 am service fulfills Psalm 145:  
     One generation shall commend your works to another,
            and shall declare your mighty acts.
 

Baker’s Dozen: Things to Know About Your Church

1. ME stands for Ministry Executive.
2. 37% of our giving arrives in November & December. Our fiscal year ends December 31.
3. The average annual pledge is $6,657!
4. Almost 70 of us who pledged last year have not ‘yet’ pledged this year.
5. Our utility expense this year will exceed $108,000.
6. Our comprehensive insurance costs $81,500.
7. Our Missions budget is well over a half a million dollars.
8. We have secured our Mother’s Day Out/Childhood hallway and entrances with magnetic locks and card readers, significantly increasing our ability to protect our children.
9. We hired security consultants to assist us in developing a campus-wide security plan which the Session has approved in principle.
10. The Session also approved a Safety and Security Committee to continue our efforts to substantially improve our ability to respond to emergencies of all kinds.
11. We hired an architect to design portions of this plan as part of a Master Campus Plan.
12. We have increased the presence of Baton Rouge police officers on our campus during Sunday worship.
13. When you give to your church you are part of all of this and so much more.
 
If you connect the dots on this baker’s dozen, you’ll note that we have a lot going on. Balancing our budget is mandatory. Our challenges in doing that are significant. Security and safety are increasing in priority. Yet our mission to be a loving, caring congregation remains our vision. We continue to base our faith and life on the Scriptures. Our desire to help others become devoted followers of Christ through prayer, friendship, invitation and witness has not changed, in fact, it has deepened. 
 
God’s will for us is to be thankful in everything, to pray without ceasing and to rejoice evermore. All of this we can do in Christ Jesus. So in our planning, in our doing, in our giving and in our worship let’s pray and rejoice as we participate in God’s economy. In this way we demonstrate our gratitude to him for his great gift to us. 
 
 

Would You Make This Deal?

It’s an insane trade. A ridiculous switcheroo. A crazy swap. Who would do this?! Trading places with a bum. Switching names with a scoundrel. Taking the stigma of a predator. Asking for the penalty of a felon. Yet the Son of God exchanged identities with us! If you were the righteous and holy One, would you give your place, your prerogatives and privileges to someone like the “you” who is reading this article? No, I wouldn’t it. Not in a million billion years.
 
But Jesus did. He pulled the ultimate identity switch. God made him who knew no sin to be sin. Jesus embraced our lost and forsaken, condemned and hopeless identity as sinners.  All the way to death and hell. So that we could become the righteousness of God. He gives us his identity as beloved Son of God. 
 
This is the heart of the gospel. There is nothing like this anywhere in all the thought and religion of the world. God exchanges identities with us.
 
Beloved, dive into your Lenten guides for week 3 and 4 with all your focus and all your heart. Even if you got behind or didn’t even start, pick up your guide now.  (It’s all on our website.)  Don’t miss church. There is nothing more important than this truth for you, your children, your grandchildren, your parents or your friends. Christ Jesus takes our place and gives us his. The swap of all swaps. Get in on it!
 
News and Notes
 
Your elders recently gathered for a “stay-treat” at the church. We spent nine hours together working through the challenges and opportunities on the horizon for our church. We discussed new procedures and facility changes to enhance safety and security. We discussed the distinctives of our worship services and the kind of leadership we need to exalt Christ and make disciples more effectively. We reviewed the effectiveness of the mission priorities we set in regard to the Gardere Community Christian School and Church of the Resurrection in New Orleans. We rejoiced in the unity of our congregation and drank deep from passages from God’s Word.  You have elected some consecrated, joyful and committed leaders. Great things are ahead.
 
“Give Meaning to Your Spring Cleaning” is the theme for the Purple Cow this month. These thrift stores on Perkins Road and Jones Creek fund the ministry of the Christian Outreach Center downtown.  The dresser I give to Purple Cow translates to training people to get Jobs for Life. The stack of winter sweaters I donate translates to a course in financial literacy for people coming out of addiction treatment or prison terms. The housewares I drop off become food bags for the poor. Like the gospel, that’s a great swap!
 
I love to be your pastor.
 
 

Ways of Worship: Contemporary

Every Sunday, we offer three distinctive styles of worship. The Scripture and message are the same in each service, but the order and music vary. I encourage all of our members to become multilingual in worship: to try each service during the course of a year.  
 
The 9.00 service fulfills Psalm 150:
 
Praise him with trumpet sound;
         praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
         praise him with strings and pipe,
  Praise him with sounding cymbals;
         praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! 
 
A multitude of instruments augments the vibrant singing of both current and treasured worship songs. The atmosphere is the least formal of our services, and the congregation rejoices that every generation is well represented. The robust fellowship creates a wonderful loving atmosphere every Sunday at 9. The congregation communes monthly through the intimacy of forming small groups at the front of the Sanctuary.

Giving Other Churches a Fighting Chance

Howdy from Texas! Our family is mostly settled in here. Even so, we think of you all often and greatly miss your fellowship, which still feels to us very much like home. I have lost count of how many local churches we have visited here. So many are joyfully advancing the work of the gospel, and in this we are encouraged. The Body of Christ is alive and well here; glory to God!
 
And yet this process of finding our new church family is draining, frustrating and sad. At first I couldn’t pinpoint what was so difficult. We were in church every week and, sure, things were different, but this isn’t our first rodeo, so we expected to have to adjust to theological nuances, worship style differences, differences in volume, lighting, in preaching style, etc. But as we walked out of each church feeling encouraged that the gospel has been proclaimed, we were also discouraged that just didn't seem to “fit.” Slowly I have realized what has been making this church-finding process so hard: I am looking for y’all! What I’m so eager to find in our new church home is something that took years and years for God to cultivate there with you all. It’s looking around on Sunday mornings and seeing all of you and knowing so many of you. It’s all of the connections and the history of sharing this journey for nearly a decade. It’s leaders whose love has been selfless and consistent over the long term. It’s having my eyes opened to the vision of a local body; knowing both the unity of mission and the diversity of roles. Its lives and personalities that challenge me as well as those that are a soft place for me to land. It’s a sense of love-debt that I want to repay and pay forward: the realization that much has been invested in me and an eagerness to share with others. These are the things that I miss so much. These are the things that feel like home. And I realize my discouragement in this process is because I am measuring each of these new churches against the one that has been home for so many years. But let’s be real. No other church can stand up to such a wildly unfair comparison. 
 
So in order to give churches here a fighting chance, I am shedding my unrealistic expectations of instant fellowship and community (which of course were never reasonable in the first place). And I’m mentally preparing myself to do the worthy work of building relationships and eventually the privilege of serving as God allows. But as I do so, I cannot help but think again of y’all there at First Presbyterian Church and I want to urge you to continue to welcome guests like you do: with joy and warmth. Maybe they are, like us, wishing for an irreplaceable church family they've had to leave behind. Or maybe they’ve never experienced the beauty of having a true church home. Either way, God is at work in them and your kind words and welcoming smiles mean more than you know. Those little gestures matter a lot! If visitors are cranky about silly things like the length of the sermon, the placement of their kids, or the timing of Sunday school, please realize they’re probably just a bit heartbroken and/or road-weary. May God fill you with compassion and love for them! And I pray for those visiting (as I pray for us) that the Holy Spirit will give them an inkling of the richness of family and fellowship that they'll find if they put down roots with you. What a special community awaits them! 
 
We miss y’all! When we do finally find our spot here, you will retain a very special place in our hearts. We are profoundly grateful for the years we had to grow and serve among you. We pray and trust that God will sustain and bless you for his glory.
 

Find Out Who You Really Are! An Interview with Gerrit Dawson

Will the church have a special theme for Lent again?  
Yes, we plan to focus on identity. That’s the question of who we most truly are.
 
That’s a hot topic in our culture right now.
There’s a lot of discussion about the power of choice: who do I want to be?
 
And about genetics and predispositions: who must I be?
We plan to take the discussion deeper:  who does God say that I am?
 
How do we find out?
Identity is actually a dominate theme in Scripture. Our God constantly tells his people who they are. They are meant to live from that.
 
How will you approach the identity teaching of the Bible?
For the six weeks of Lent, we’ll look at six key themes. Who am I? Scripture replies that I am:
 
1) Created, Called and Claimed by God
2) Hopelessly Fallen and Mortally Wounded by Sin
3) Utterly Redeemed by Christ
4) Lovingly Adopted into Christ’s own Sonship
5) Daily Dependent on Christ our Life
6) Significantly Sent on Christ’s Mission
 
What’s the one key to this whole identity business?
Here’s the open secret: Jesus is God identifying with us in our lost and forsaken condition. He identifies with us, even unto death, so that he can gather us to himself and enable us to identify with him in sonship with his Father. Our true identity is in Christ. That runs deeper than any genetics, choices or circumstances.
 
How will you invite the congregation to participate?
Once again, we’ll take a three-fold approach.  
 
1) Sunday worship: the messages will focus on the six identity themes.
2) Daily Prayer Guide: everyone will receive a book designed to lead us into 42 days of intense focus on our identity in Christ.
3) Home Groups: studying and discussing together is crucial to recovering our identity in Christ.
 
When does this get started?
Books will be distributed Sunday, February 18 and home groups also begin that week. Group sign ups start February 4.
 
You seem to ask a lot from this congregation!
I do! I have great confidence that our folks will rise to the challenge. I’m asking for 20 minutes a day for 42 days. That’s 14 total hours offered to the Lord as time he can mold us according to his Word. Plus about 9 hours spent in home groups and weekly worship. Of the 1,000 hours we all live during Lent, that’s really pretty reasonable! But more than that, I know our people. We have a hunger for Christ. We’re on a quest to grow closer and closer to him. This is just a great way to pursue Jesus, together.