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First Thoughts Blog

The Deepest Realities of Worship

Our elders have just finished a major review of worship at our beloved church. A special taskforce made of six elders and six deacons worked from the ground up to bring the session a report that, among other things, identified 11 primary worship values in our church. I’d like to share the first five with you this month. As you read, consider just how extraordinary an hour of gathered worship actually is. There’s so much going on that it actually dazzles the mind to think of how important Sundays are.
1) Exalt through the reading and preaching of Scripture Jesus Christ as Lord of the universe and Savior of the world.
2) Extol through prayer, song and message the glories of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and his mighty redemptive acts in history. 
3) Enact Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as evangelical sacraments meant to seal and nourish union with Christ. Celebrate the Supper at least monthly, with clear explanation and in continuity with the major components of historic liturgies of the Western church. These include a) welcoming to the table, b) present remembering of Jesus’ person and work, c) thanking the Triune God for his great deeds of salvation, d) asking for the Spirit to make the sacrament effective, e) instituting the Supper properly in word and act and f) offering Christ to the people through their partaking of the supper.
4) Express this worship through musical styles that are consistent with our Reformed heritage yet fresh in expression, are Scripturally-saturated and lyrically rich in Christ-content, arise from our unique personality as a congregation and evoke robust participation from worshipers.
5) Enfold the congregation into the communion of saints, that is the awareness that we are connected to the people of God in all times and places who have professed Jesus and are his one body.
In short, every time we gather for worship, we seek to become aware of the deepest realities. To know that the center of all things is the Triune God who has come to us in Jesus Christ. And we are connected to him by his Spirit, along with all those believers who have gone before us.  We have been gifted with specific ways to encounter our God: Word, Song and Sacrament in a fellowship of faith. This week, stop and think just how different Sunday worship is from anything else you do, ever. When I think of what we get to do together each week, it’s no wonder I love to be your pastor!

One Church, One Worship This July

The Sundays of July we will gather at 10.30 for worship. Each week we will take the journey of worship together, but every service will have a slightly different accent musically. These services will be a blend of each of our services, wrapping us all with the joy of partaking of the Lord’s Table as one body with one faith. We have some special preaching treats, too. On July 3, our dear pastor emeritus Russ Stevenson will be preaching. And on July 17, our dynamic young church planter Ben Cunningham will be back. Oh, and Derek and I will be leading and preaching in July as well. 
Sunday school for all ages will begin at 9.30 am in July, with three special tracks for adult education, including Christianity Explored, a global outreach course with MacGregor, and a course about community, following our Summer reading, “Side by Side.”

Further into the World, Further into the Future

Our church is blessed to have an endowment of funds set aside to enable us to do ministry and mission over and above our yearly work. The church Foundation manages these funds and then makes available to the elders a yearly distribution of income.    
Recently, the session approved some amazing grants to help create the leadership of the next generation, to further the planting of new churches and revitalization of an existing church. More than $62,000 was granted to new and continuing seminary students who all have an intimate connection with our church: Rebecca Botros, Jeremy Brokaw, Cheryl Brodnax, Mary-Emeline Dawson, Darin Travis and Josh Woltmann. (Speaking of Josh, he returns June 1 as our summer pastoral intern!). We made a grant to EPC pastor Will Johnson who will mentor in church planting as he works in Atlanta in a multi-ethnic community, and we made a grant to our granddaughter church River South for renovations of their worship space. And we approved Women in Ministry college grants. I love that we do not use our endowment income to “feather our own nest.” Rather, we reach outward to take Christ and his gospel far into the world and the future.

The Chancel Choir and Psalm 42

Almost every Wednesday night a group of faithful individuals gather around 7 pm in the choir room on the second floor of the Sanctuary building. They range in age from 16 to 80. They come with a singular purpose in mind and that is to pray with words, music, body, heart and soul. 
The evening evolves in fellowship; sharing stories of the week’s events, some humming from a random alto, one of the men hammering out his notes on the piano. It is a symphony of souls. They do not come because they have to or necessarily want to. They come because, since the last time they met, they have grown thirsty. 

As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God...By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.

Yes, it is a selfish act to show up at choir rehearsal. Individually thirsty for revival of the soul’s pneumatic needs, they gather to conspire also. Not unlike instructions on a plane flight, “In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.” In the end, their act is selfless as they know that giving is better than receiving.  
What they give to each other during Wednesday night rehearsals is a breathing together with a singular purpose. The sound of unified inhalation is followed by phrase after phrase of God’s unique gifts of scripture, poetry, prose and music. What they share is nothing short of a miracle; the healing power of music is the healing power of God.
By the end of rehearsal all are refreshed and their thirst is quenched. But reminded of their purpose, they recall the previous Sunday.  

These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.

The rehearsal always ends with a prayer, thanking God for the privilege to be recipients of such unique and fulfilling blessings.
It is the following Sunday morning when they gather again; this time to pour out their souls, leading worship with songs of praise. Spiritually refreshed from the Wednesday night journey of filling their souls with spiritual oxygen, they assist in worship by energizing the throng, giving multitudes the inspiration to praise him who taught us all to pray and sing.  

What Does It Look Like to Walk Side by Side?

As a preacher, I really wish God worked with a different formula. Here’s the one I would like: preaching=immediate change. But God’s way of changing us includes another key ingredient—each other. Because God has made us as relational creatures, and because he has called us to the community of the Church, the formula for discipleship looks more like this: God’s Truth, processed and experienced in community, creates change. That community piece of side-by-sideness can’t be left out of the equation. It’s why at First Presbyterian, we really care about community. We want people to walk side by side with each other as they process and experience together the truth of the Gospel. 
Ed Welch’s book Side by Side is a fabulous introduction to this idea. If you want to know some simple, practical ways that our community can process and experience the Truth of the Gospel together, start here. Here’s the way Welch describes the book in the introduction…

The basic idea (of this book) is that those who help best are the ones who both need help and give help. A healthy community is dependent on all of us being both. So the book is divided into two parts. The first part guides you in sharing your burdens; the second part guides you in bearing the burdens of others… (God’s formula) is the perfect system. If God only used experts and people of renown, some could boast in their own wisdom, but God’s way on doing things is not the same as our way. We ordinary people have been given power and wisdom through the Holy Spirit and are called to love others (John 13: 24). From this beginning, we are compelled to move toward others rather than stay away…

We think the message of this book is so good that we’re going to give these books away. Free. After our combined worship service on May 29, we will have free copies of Side by Side at the Connection Center. Just come get one. Furthermore, we’re going to devote one of our Sunday school classes this July to discussing the book and its major points. 
Going to the beach this Summer? Need something short but powerful that you can keep by your bedside? Why not read Side by Side? And why not read it together? 
I hope you’ll pick up a copy on May 29. And I hope you’ll commit to read it. Talk to a friend, your spouse, your neighbor about reading it together. I think you’ll be happy you did. 

Showing Up Together

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.” Matthew 18: 20

God has entrusted us twenty-first century Christians with an enormous opportunity: in the midst of a culture that promotes isolation and self-sufficiency, we can show forth the transformative beauty of gospel-centered community. 
So often our culture measures success by how much we can accomplish without the help of anyone else. We rarely feel the need to communicate face to face. So many of us have access to anything and everything right at our fingertips. We do not even need to leave the privacy of our own homes to create a dramatic worship experience on any given day or time: pick your favorite pastor, download his sermon with the most likes on Facebook, incorporate the up-and-coming praise and worship music and voila!, you have yourself a “church service” that keeps you entertained. I hear it all too often: “I livestreamed this week because I wanted to sleep in. I just didn’t want to have to get up early, put on make-up, you know, it's just so hard when I work all week long.” 
I regret that I have been guilty of this kind of attitude myself. To be sure, for those people who are unable to participate in corporate worship or community groups, access to technology can be an invaluable resource and they should feel no shame in using it. Technology is not in and of itself a dreadful thing, but it becomes debilitating when we use it in a way that diminishes our participation in the Great Commission to which the Lord has summoned us. 
What a joy it is that God has given us the gift of going “deeper in Christ and further into the world” together, as a family who meets together regularly to spur one another on as we exalt the Lord Jesus through our worship and our mission!
Through my job, I have the privilege of meeting many visitors and new members of our church. It always warms my heart to hear their experiences as visitors and it makes me very grateful for each and every one of you. I hear comments like “this is the friendliest church I have ever attended” or “I’ve been searching for a church for a long time and this place truly feels like family.” These friends of ours would not have the opportunity to participate in Christian community if we were not present here. Because we are present here, we know the joy of putting the gospel on display as we love one another, care for one another and partner together in ministry. 
Thank you for inviting your friends, neighbors and co-workers to church. Thank you for reaching out to new faces and inviting them to your Bible studies, Sunday school classes, small groups or even into your homes for dinner. When you see a new face in your Sunday school class or during the greeting time, thank you for making an effort to reach out to them and introducing yourself.
Friends, let’s continue to show up together, for the glory of Christ and the good of one another.
First Presbyterian is brimming with opportunities to participate in Christian community. If you would like to talk about connecting more with First Presbyterian, please contact me (
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Deeper Magic

Can you figure out this puzzle? Can you decipher what C.S. Lewis is talking about in the excerpt below?

"Yes!” said a great voice behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane stood Aslan [the great Lion] himself.


“Aren’t you dead then, dear Aslan?” asked Lucy.


“Not now,” said Aslan.


“But what does it all mean?” asked Susan.


“It means,” said Aslan, “That though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But if she could have looked a little further back….she would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”

So, did the solution come to you as you read? I knew it would. Lewis wrote an allegory in which Aslan the great Lion represents Christ. He gave his life to save a traitorous young boy, but in doing so, he broke the power of the White Witch and shattered death. Just so, Jesus the sinless man, gave his life for a traitorous humanity on the cross.  Then he rose from the dead, breaking the power of sin, death and the devil. 
The gospel is a familiar story to most Christians, so well known that sometimes we aren’t dazzled by its brilliance like we used to be. That’s where stories like Narnia become so important. They bring the power of the gospel to people who may have had bad experiences with the church, or those who may have grown bored with the old story, or those who may never have heard it before.  
In two weeks, your church will present Narnia in our Sanctuary. The production values of this musical will reach standards set by Fiddler on the Roof and Roots and Promises. But here’s the twist: the truth of the gospel will never have been more clearly presented in one of our plays intended for outreach to the community. 
You won’t want to miss it. That goes without saying if you love and support our church. But will you, and I, take the next step, and invite others to join us? It’s the story we love presented with quality of which we can be proud. Pack the house dear ones!
Church of the Resurrection
I’m excited to tell you that one of our biggest initiatives over the last year is coming to fruition. Our church leads a network of Presbyterian churches in the Gulf South region who have joined to plant an EPC church in New Orleans. This past month we called the Rev. Ben Cunningham to be the church planter. Ben has been the assistant pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in uptown New Orleans.  Now Ben, and his wife Jenny (finishing her medical residency in N.O.), will begin the long journey of meeting people and gathering worshipers to become the Church of the Resurrection in an area of New Orleans intersecting the lower garden district and the central business district.  
Church planting succeeds best when it digs deep and starts slowly. We do not expect a full out worship service for at least a year.  New Orleans is a notoriously tough place to sink church roots. But all year Ben and Jenny will be gathering folks to become the launch team of the new church.  Do you know someone in New Orleans who might be looking to be part of this exciting venture? Contact Ben:  You can also hear him preach in our pulpit on May 29. Please pray for God to establish the Church of the Resurrection in a powerful way.

Let's Face It, We Need Each Other

As an only child my perspective of the church is kind of unique. Let me tell you why. Only children can’t help but be just a little bit spoiled because on a day-to-day basis we didn’t have to share toys until we went to school. There was no competition with siblings so we were always winners. There was never a brother around to (literally) pound some humility into us and there was never a sister around to steal our most beloved dresses. One of my favorite compliments is someone seeming surprised that I’m an only child. It's always strange when someone asks me if I had siblings and, after I answer, the reply is “Oh yeah, that makes sense.” 
As a member of the Church (God’s people from Adam to eternity) we are NOT only children. We are a part of a huge family. This is the family that God uses to bring about his purposes and to bring glory to himself. When we function as a family we put our gifts and skills together with others and we use that combination of gifts to fulfill our calling as the Church. We work together to take our faith and the truth of the Gospel to our city, our country and to all the world. Our western notion of individuality is not biblical and is anti-church. How is that so? We are called in Scripture to be life-givers to one another. We are called to serve, to sacrifice and to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are to be each other's greatest prayer warriors lifting one another up to God just as Christ intercedes for us in heaven. Women’s ministry, youth ministry and all the other ministries of the church are not there to give you just another thing to do. Speaking for the women’s ministry specifically I can say we really have a lot of fun! Bible studies are enjoyable and there is often laughter. Retreats are exciting in that we get away from daily life, play fun games and laugh with (hopefully not at) one another. HOWEVER, Women in Ministry doesn’t primarily exist for fun. Every Bible Study, every luncheon, every retreat we do is primarily to take women further into Christ and to connect them with one another. 
At First Presbyterian, I have found men and women who are committed to praying for me; not just as the women’s ministry director, but as a 20-something young woman trying to figure out her life. I have men and women who pour into me their knowledge of God and their experience of his sovereignty and goodness. Some of you have taken the time and energy to meet with me and share about God’s faithfulness in your lives and you challenge me when I fear he will not be faithful in mine. I have had the privilege of walking with women through excruciating life circumstances. I have reaped the benefits of loving reminders of my sinfulness. Thank you for being my brothers and sisters. Thank you for welcoming me into your family.
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I don’t know about you, but the older I  get, the more I seem to cry. I feel things deeper than I used to. You would think I would be getting my “act” together at my age! As a singer and a musician, I have always been moved to tears by moving melodies and beautiful harmonies. That is why I still love what I am doing at FPC. It’s part of my job to listen to beautiful music that lifts up the name of Jesus, and to find songs that can help us do that. We want to articulate our love back to him. 
I know you've noticed that Gerrit is a “word” guy. He has us thinking about God’s Word all the time, and he stretches us to think so hard my brain aches. I think it has caused me to think more of the lyrics we sing, as well as the words that come out of my mouth when I speak. So, now I cry every Sunday during worship. It’s true! When I stop singing, it is not because I am too emotional, it is because I am thinking too much! I see very deeply how much God loves us and cares for us and I just can’t help it. But I am not alone. There are plenty of grown men out there doing the same thing. And you always want to let me know for some reason. I love that! The Holy Spirit is moving us to tears!  
And another thing, the same thing happens to me when I hear a testimony of what God is doing in people’s lives, whether through your joy or pain. It is amazing to me. So let’s not ever stop singing and speaking “words” of what God has done, words of what he is doing in our lives presently through the Holy Spirit, and words of the glorious future we will have in heaven because of the resurrection of Jesus!
“Be very careful, then, how you live-not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in  your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5: 15-16, 19) 

Early Easter: March 27

Why is Easter so early this year? For that matter, why does the date of Easter change every year? It’s all about the moon! Centuries ago, the western church determined to celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the first day of spring. This year, there’s a full moon on March 23, right after the first day of spring (March 20), so we get Easter on March 27. Really early. If the moon had peaked just before the first day of spring, we would have had to wait all the way through another moon cycle before we could have Easter in late April.  Interestingly, the Archbishop of Canterbury is hoping to have a chat with the Pope and the Orthodox patriarch about decreeing Easter to be the second Sunday in April every year. That would sure make planning easier. But truthfully, I sort of like having to reorient my life and calendar around Easter every year. It makes me plan for Easter, as if it’s the most important day of the year (which, by the way, it truly is!).

Palm Sunday Celebration

Our annual Palm Sunday festival is March 20, beginning at 10 am with our procession around North Boulevard. A jam-packed combined worship service occurs after the procession. This year, we will introduce our new members at that service, so you’ll have about 25 new faces to greet. Egg hunts, a picnic and street party follow worship.

Service of Shadows

We observe the Thursday before Easter as a sacred day, remembering that Jesus initiated the sacrament of communion on that night, and washed his disciples’ feet, giving them the commandment to treat each other the same way. (That’s why it’s called Maundy Thursday from the Latin word for mandate, or command). Our service on March 24 at 7 pm includes a very quiet communion, the dramatic retelling of the passion narrative and a visit in silence to the garden where the entombment of the body of Jesus will be reenacted. As the stone is rolled across the tomb, we sing “Were You There?” It’s a very moving moment. That also sets up the particular joy of meeting in the same place at sunrise on Easter.

Easter Services:  6.30, 9 and 11

We gather around the stone rolled away in the garden at 6.30 am for a brief service followed by breakfast. Then we have two festival worship services in the Sanctuary at 9 and 11. Acoustic Communion worshipers will join in with these services.
I look forward eagerly to the sweet joy of keeping Holy Week and Easter with you, beloved congregation!

The Power of Narnia!

Millions have read C.S. Lewis’ book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Millions more have seen the movie. Christians know that Lewis’ classic fantasy story conveys the depth of the cross more powerfully than a zillion theology books. When the great Lion Aslan gives his life to save the traitorous child Edmund, we see Jesus in a fresh, deep way.  
Your church will present a stirring musical version of Narnia on April 15-17. You know the quality of productions we’ve done from Fiddler on the Roof to Roots and Promises to the Sound of Music. This is a great opportunity to bring people to see excellent theater and hear the gospel. 
So here’s the word of encouragement from the old pastor: let’s not make our church spend all her energy wooing our own members to come. Let’s plan now to be there as a matter of course so we can spend our energy getting people from outside the church to see the gospel in this attractive format.


Lift Up Your Hearts

Lift up your hearts! I love to hear those words in communion! They call us to look up from our lives to see the Jesus who is giving himself to us by the power of his Holy Spirit.

“Lift Up Your Hearts: Questing for Christ” is our theme for Lent this year, which begins February 10. We’re going to answer the “upward call” of God in our lives.

On Sunday, February 14, every person will be given a 42-day guide for reading and prayer. (You can also sign up to receive the daily readings by email.) We’ll start our seven week sermon series and all will be invited to be part of a small group studying the daily readings together.

As usual, each day will contain three sets of readings. The first will be a story or teaching from Scripture about how God calls us upward to meet him. The first week we look at the mountains of God in the Old Testament. The second week we look at the mountains of Jesus (you’ll be amazed by how important mountains were in the story of Jesus!).  Then we’ll consider how Jesus ascended to heaven and the way he enables us to be spiritually united to him now.

The second reading every day will be a psalm that connects us in prayer to the day’s theme. Not surprisingly, we’ll read all 15 of the psalms of ascent, those prayers the pilgrims made while journeying up the hill to Jerusalem.

The third reading will be a quote from some great writings, prayers or hymns from throughout church history, taking us deeper into the theme.

Every week, pieces of great art will enable us to consider our themes through the eyes of Christ’s artists through the centuries.

The day’s work can be done in 20 minutes and I’m encouraging everyone to commit now to take a journey upward toward Jesus this Lent. For 42 days, let’s seek him by lifting up our hearts together!

I’m looking forward to taking my place with our other great small group leaders in meeting with you each week for discussion and prayer. You can sign up for both the readings and the groups today.

I love that we get to go on a quest for Christ every year in preparation for Easter, because as ever, I love being your pastor.

Financial Notes

This past Christmas, you gave more than $48,000 in our special offering! That’s astounding. Brian Sleeth of the Christian Outreach Center and Nancy Zito from Gardere Community Christian School both report how overwhelmed with gratitude they feel toward our church.

Meanwhile, the session has approved a balanced budget for 2016 of approximately $3.5 million, built upon your regular, sacrificial tithes and offerings. The finances undergirding our ministry will be presented at the annual meeting of the congregation on Sunday, February 28 at 10.15 am in the Sanctuary.

Closing Thoughts: A Farewell Letter from Judie and Dick Gates

This is a final opportunity to share a few things with you as I will retire January 31, 2016. Judie and I are moving to New River, AZ, to be near our two sons and granddaughter’s families. We will move sometime after the middle of February. We have had a house built and have our house here on the market.

When we moved here in May of 2005, we knew the reputation of FPC but not the depth of love and fellowship that has made this church the most wonderful ministry opportunity of all the six churches I have pastored the last 41 years through seminary and beyond! Judie and I have experienced much love and joy serving you all. It has truly been a labor of love for us both. We are very excited about being with our family but the sadness of leaving a large part of our hearts here is painful. You have been gracious to us and I believe Gerrit Dawson is the best Senior Pastor in the EPC! I won’t even miss his awesome sermons because I can watch him on streaming video in AZ!!! Our staff also is and the best days for Global Missions are just ahead with Dr. Whitney Alexander and the Global Missions Committee.

Coming Up In the New Year

Please plan to attend the Decision America Prayer Rally 2016 with Franklin Graham on January 13 at noon on the corner of North Blvd. and 3rd Street (Town Square) to pray for America please. We continue to meet every Sunday in the Sanctuary from 5 to 6 pm to pray for our country and the Church.

My final Global Missions responsibility will be our Mission Conference January 30-31, with Rev. Dr. Sameh Hanna Sr., Associate Pastor of Kasr El Dobra Evangelical Church in Cairo, Egypt. This event promises to be very insightful on what is happening in the Middle East and how the Gospel is at work by the Holy Spirit there. Please invite your friends because what Sameh will share you will not hear on the evening news! Thank you for praying for these opportunities to go Deeper in Christ and Further into the World with the Gospel.

I am in your debt for the privilege of serving you as one of your pastors these last short ten and a half years. I/we love you deeply.

- Dick and Judie Gates