by: Thomas Zak
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!
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.
In 1994, Henry Blackaby & Claude King authored the book titled “Experiencing God.” I’m sure many of you have either read the book or devoted hours to the workbook. The book asked you to take a look at yourself and your relationship with God. It goes on by walking you through seven realities, the third reality being “God invites you to become involved with him in his work. And we are to join him."
When I received the phone call to join the group traveling to Beirut, Lebanon, for a medical mission trip, I knew in my heart exactly how I was supposed to respond. Go. I did question my own worth and value to the team, until I was reminded from God’s Word that he has been preparing me for this. I knew in my heart that I wanted to be a part of it. I knew that God wanted to do something special in my life and he did.
Having attended church most of my life, I’ve watched and listened to many videos from my pew in church (bench). I’d think, that was nice, but they probably have a lot more time for that or I’d convince myself that they are a lot more “churchy” than I am. Or I may have even thought that someday when I have more “resources”, just maybe I will do something like that. The problem with the above thoughts is the “I.”
I knew that God’s work, this mission, was going to happen with or without me. It was merely a question of responding to a call to get off “the bench” in which I have been keeping warm for years. Even when I began to pray about going, as the pastor suggested, I felt ridiculous, because I already knew in my heart how God wanted me to respond.
After arriving late at night in Beirut, I met Rebecca and Nour (last name omitted), and their lovely daughter. What a blessing they are to the refugees and all the people God sends their way in Beirut. They walk with our Lord, led and strengthened by the Holy Spirit in such harsh conditions, both spiritual and environmental. There are not enough words, particularly in my vocabulary, to explain how my heart goes out to them. By the end of the week, I also learned that the teams could not have been successful without the effort, work and preparation made by this couple. Plenty more could be said about how God is using Nour and Rebecca in Lebanon.
At each makeshift health clinic we set up at an inner city church or school, I was able to witness for myself a team of doctors, nurses and laymen, led and strengthened by God’s love for those around them, caring for His children of all ages who had been exiled from their homeland. Smiles were everywhere and on almost every face. And of course tears as it was a matter of the heart.
We won’t know the physical or spiritual impact, that one week made toward supporting Rebecca and Nour. I do know over 820 refugees received health care that they wouldn’t have received otherwise. Maybe a few just in the nick of time. I do know I saw a beautiful group of people both young and old who said Yes God, send me. I do know that I was blessed and God used this trip to Beirut, Lebanon to open my eyes, soften my heart and witness once again His greatness and His sovereignty in a lost world.
Our pastors speak these words or some variation each time they invite us to participate in communion. They are the very words of Christ to his disciples and Paul as he gave instruction to those who would partake of the body and blood of their Savior. What a privilege to receive this invitation to the Lord’s table. We approach the table with humility and wonder. In this simple, sensory, tangible act we participate in a spiritual reality that transcends our ability to truly comprehend. And yet, in the doing of it, we find the wonder and comfort of God’s grace, the love of his only Son and the presence of his Spirit who transforms this temporal but personal act into one of eternal substance and significance.
But who sets the table? Christmas Eve we had over 1,600 for supper. We will have as many or more come Easter. As our church calendar plays out over 2017 we will celebrate communion almost 100 times on our church campus and almost as many times throughout our city as our elders and deacons take ‘supper’ to those who are unable to join us on campus. We pass the trays of elements. We partake by ‘intinction,’ assembling in circles or moving steadily forward dipping the bread in the cup. We approach these communion Sundays with great anticipation. But who sets the table? Who prepares the elements, pours the wine, drapes the table, cuts the bread and prepares for this ‘meal’ that we so look forward to?
Mike Salassi, Beth and Joel McClain and Rosemary and Mike Dorman are your primary ‘hosts’ behind the scenes. They are the ones who come early to prepare for your arrival. They have been doing it for years. They require no reminder. They quietly, faithfully arrive, often long before you’ve awakened, and they assemble the elements in trays and baskets and chalices and cups. (Can you imagine pouring juice into all those little plastic cups?) They gladly serve us without fanfare or acclaim. They faithfully perform this role Sunday after Sunday, Christmas after Christmas, Easter after Easter, and they love doing it. They love serving you.
For those who don’t know, Mike Salassi’s “day job” is as a full professor at LSU. Joel’s is working for the La. Dept. of Social Services. Beth labors for the La. Dept. of Health and Hospitals. Rosemary and Mike are in the medical field. Whomever they serve in their ‘day jobs’ are blessed indeed. And the five of them bless us each communion Sunday.
The Apostle Paul instructs us on the nature of the Body of Christ of which we are all a part when he says, “ . . . we have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.” He speaks of preaching and teaching and encouraging with our gifts and he says that “ . . . if your gift is serving, then serve.”
Truly Mike, Joel and Beth, and Rosemary and Mike have the spiritual gift of service. They are so faithful in their obedience to Scripture and to serving the Body of Christ in this gathering of believers we call First Presbyterian Church. The next time you see them, greet them in the name of Jesus with thanksgiving for their faithfulness. The next time you partake of Jesus’ body and blood at our communion table, remember Christ your Lord and Savior until he comes again . . . and remember who set the table.
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.
A Sunday School teacher asked her children on the way to church service, “Why must we be quiet in church?” One little girl proudly replied, “Because people are sleeping!” I trust that didn’t happen while I delivered the message at FPC on January 1! Whether or not you were able to join us then, I’d like to share some encouragement regarding how we might practice on weekdays what we learn on weekends with you now.
In my sermon message, we considered, at a time of New Year’s resolutions, the most popular of which usually involves dieting, four items on the menu of a healthy diet for growing Christ-followers based on Acts 2: 42-47. One of the items included healing, causing us to ask how we can be healed of ailments if nobody knows we have them except ourselves! What is true of physical illness is true of emotional, psychological, mental, relational and spiritual illness as well. If nobody knows about your sickness, you won’t be given anything that may heal you of it!
What is your sickness? Perhaps it is something that has been hidden in the darkness of your heart that needs to be exposed to the Light of God’s Word in the midst of truly Christ-centered fellowship. James tells us, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed." (James 5:16a, NIV)
It’s easy to correlate prayer with healing while never asking what confession has to do with it. As a former accountant, I sometimes find it humorous that the Lord gives me “equations” to help me understand his timeless truths in an easy way. I’d like to share one with you here: Vulnerability + Accountability = Possibility. If your life is falling apart, it may be a result of not surrendering something to the One who can put it back together. (Colossians 1: 17) Yet, he can’t do his part if you won’t do yours. If you won’t open up to somebody about something that is keeping you from looking up, then you will eventually fall down. This is why confession is critical before we can be free from all things that are detrimental and as a result, rise above what would hold us below in our thoughts and actions, growing not only in God’s peace but also in God’s power released in post-confession prayer. “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective." (James 5: 16b, NIV)
Why waste more time managing the perception others have of you when you can be real with others so that Christ can heal you even through others? May the joy of loving one another into obedience of him be full in our walk with him! (John 15: 11-12)
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.
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!
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.