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First Thoughts Blog

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.  
 
 

Ways of Worship: Chapel Communion

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 our members to become multilingual in worship: to try each service during the course of a year.  
 
The 7.45 service fulfills Psalm 108, “I will awake the dawn. I will give thanks to you, O LORD among the peoples.” There’s a special joy in gathering first thing in the new day to proclaim the praises of our God.
 
The services unfolds in our beautiful Dunham Chapel. We are surrounded by stained glass windows depicting the story of Jesus. And we share the Lord’s Supper every week. Worshipers note how formative it is to their faith to partake of both Word and Sacrament each week.  The intimacy of the Chapel creates a cozy, meditative feel to the morning. With piano, organ, special solos and personal prayers, Chapel Communion richly worships our Triune God.
 

Renovations, Replacements and Repairs

It was a blessing to return my focus (after the 2016 flood) to our beautiful campus in 2017! It has been a busy, messy, but productive year! It started with completing the replacement of all Education Building windows and the restoration of the lower stained-glass windows—which all turned out beautifully!
 
Before the window paint had even dried, we moved on to repairing or replacing the roofs throughout our campus. This was no small undertaking. We had eliminated roof repairs from the 2010/2011 renovation, due to downsizing the scope of the work. Many of you have pointed out damaged walls and ceilings throughout the campus, and if these issues were not fixed by the new windows, they were to be fixed with the roof repairs or waterproofing—which was coming next! From fixing the Sanctuary’s pitched roof, to replacing the flat roofs over the Sanctuary and Education Buildings, to repairing every other roof, the work is nearly complete and all leaks eliminated!
 
Before the roofing dumpster was even gone, we were on to waterproofing, including new sealant around windows, replacement of damaged wood, to coating the buildings with special protectants. Our contractors will resume the work right after the new year.
 
We are already getting quotes to repair and repaint damaged walls and ceilings. Within months, we will be finished restoring the interiors and exteriors of our beautiful campus. Thank you for your generous giving which makes all this possible—and my job more fun!
 

Right Now Media

As the director for discipleship at our church, I am often asked about where good content for small groups or Sunday school material can be found. Others are asking me for solid Bible studies for their personal devotional time at home. When someone is wanting to develop a deeper walk with Christ, wrestling through challenges in a marriage, seeking wisdom for raising children or simply looking for good programming for their kids' entertainment, where can they turn?
 
Our church would like to equip you with resources for these areas of life and more, which is why we are giving every First Presbyterian Church member a free subscription to Right Now Media (RNM). RNM is an online treasure trove of Biblical content with hundreds of videos from many of our nation’s Christian teachers. You will find series on individual books of the Bible as well as relevant topical subjects. Within the site is also a wide variety of downloadable Bible studies for personal and small group use.
 
One of the best things that my family has personally enjoyed about RNM is the programming for kids. Have you heard of Veggie Tales or watched an episode of What’s in the Bible? I have found that kids and adults alike love learning Biblical principles while enjoying the witty comedy of these series. Road trips in our mini-van wouldn’t be complete without watching a few episodes of Adventures in Odyssey or Bibleman. The kids’ videos on RNM are plentiful and excellent.
 
My desire in making all of this material available to you is that you would walk deeply with Christ.  Look for an email from the church inviting you to create a login and enjoy your membership to Right Now Media!
 
For more information about how to get your RightNowMedia subscription, email Darin Travis.

Rage? No. Blaze!

Are you mad? Lots of people are. As we reflect on the year that has passed, we recall 2017 as a year of continual outrage.  Just a glance at a news site reveals constant use of trigger words for rage. Someone is always “furious,” “offended,” “attacked,” “slamming” or “accused.”  We snap, bite and devour with voracious outrage.  
 
But do you ever wonder who benefits from making sure you are in a constant state of agitation?  Lots of people want to keep us angry. News sites want you addicted to the chemical rush of being furious at “those” people. Politicians want you hostile enough to vote against their opponents.  Nonprofits count on our anger to inspire donations. In short, anger undergirds power. Outrage is a fuel, and we supply it by the tanker load to those who use our anger for their gain.
 
By contrast, Scripture tells us, “The anger of man does not accomplish the righteousness of God” (James 1: 20). In other words, we’re getting duped into thinking that outrage is productive.  Christ’s kingdom is not built on the screechy offendedness of a provoked people. When we seethe, we’re being deceived. We’re not building, we’re only burning. And we’re being used for others’ purposes.
 
The task of Christ’s people is very different than perpetual outrage. But that doesn’t mean we’re to be bland, passionless door mats. We’re called to blaze with the light of Christ. It’s a light that exposes darkness and leads people home. It’s a light that illumines injustice even as it reveals a better kingdom. Shining the unquenchable light of Christ will outrage the already outraged. So be it. There are those shivering in the dark who need the heat of the gospel. There are those falling into ruin from the users and the takers. They need the creative fire of Christ to rebuild their lives. Only Christ’s people have that light. We have to uncover it and let it shine.
 
At the beginning of WW II, the poet W.H. Auden noted, 
 
“Defenseless under the night
The world in stupor lies.
Yet dotted everywhere
. . . points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages.
May I . . . show an affirming flame.”
 
As we look forward to a New Year, let’s be committed to moving from rage to blaze. From shredding words to the affirming flame of encouragement, truth and love. Jesus the Light of the world told his disciples, “You are the light of the world.” We draw fire from him. He sends us to blaze with the flame that recreates.
 
I look forward to a year of shining Christ’s light together, and to another 12 months where I can affirm how much I love to be your pastor.
 

Christmas Begins with Christ

The Christmas season can be an overwhelming time for many. However, it doesn’t have to be when you begin the season with Christ. The Christmas season is actually a time of waiting. Waiting for the birth of Christ. 
 
With the new craze of hiding and finding elves, I have stumbled upon a fun, new Advent tradition you can start with your family. It is called The Christmas Star from Afar. This new tradition teaches children the true meaning of Christmas. Similar to The Elf on the Shelf, you hide the star each night until the wise men make their way to their newborn king Christ Jesus. You can find the boxed set on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or by visiting starfromafar.com. I will read The Christmas Star from Afar to our younger Sunday school classes beginning November 26. 
 
 

Risking Christmas

It takes some courage to face another Christmas! All those expectations. All those expenses. All those memories. All those family members! All that once was but is no more. All that should be but isn't. All we hope for and the inevitable disappointment. For many, Christmas is merely something to endure. Entering the enforced festivity is a risky business.
 
That’s why I like to dig beneath the demands of the season. We can cut through the trappings to that first Christmas. Almost nobody noticed what happened.
 
The Son of God laid aside the protection and privilege of his Deity. He risked entering the world as one of us. Roughly one in five pregnancies end in miscarriage. Jesus dared the dangerous process of developing in the womb as we do. Then he who set the stars in their courses in the vastness of space endured the squeezing hazards of the birth canal. He cried at the brightness when his eyes saw the first day. Later, he would cry over the cruelty of the darkness in the human heart. He came to us via a family that was displaced. Later, he would strive against all that tears us apart: giving dead sons back to lonely mothers, forgiving adulterers and dining with outcasts. He touched the diseased whom others shunned. He stilled the hands cocked self-righteously to throw stones. He liberated the possessed. Jesus risked temptation and he dared the disappointment of loving those who would betray him. Jesus learned as he grew up that an enraged Herod had slaughtered innocent children in an attempt to destroy him. On the cross Jesus would shed his blood to give eternal life to those children and to all who trust in him.
 
In other words, Jesus came straight into our mess in order to redeem it all. He risked the first Christmas and he risked 33 years in our midst. He drew on the courage of his Father to endure this life faithfully in order that we might be saved. This Christmas, before the madness begins, I want to dare to draw from the courage of the One who risked Christmas for me. And I’m so glad we get to do that together!
 
This article is also appearing in Baton Rouge Parents Magazine.