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First Thoughts Blog

Why I Love (And Will Miss) First Presbyterian Church

A few weeks ago, Joy and I announced that we will be moving. The Lord has called me to plant a church in New Braunfels, TX, and we are excited to follow his lead. If you’d like to hear more about it, I’d love to talk with you. 
 
But here’s what I really want to talk about—you! Over the last 3 and a half years, you have encouraged my family and me with your love, hospitality and faith. There are so many things we are going to miss about you, but I’d like to name just a few:
 
• You hunger for God’s Word. Psalm 119: 33-35 says, “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.” I have found this to be true of the FPC community. You are a congregation that truly loves God’s Word and desires to be led in the path of his commandments. 
 
• You love one another well. Not only do the folks at First Presbyterian love the Bible, but you love each other too. You want to get together, eat together, visit together and serve one another. What a wonderful quality this is! Jesus says in John 15, “love one another as I have loved you.” It is evident that the people of FPC have taken this command to heart. 
 
• You are joyful. This is a church full of smiles. The greetings are warm and the interactions heartfelt. And it is a joy that is contagious! The Apostle Paul begins his list of the Spirit’s fruit with… “Joy!” What a joyful, fruitful congregation this is!
 
• You are generous. I have been both witness to and recipient of your great generosity. Hands are open with time, money and resources. And it is a generosity that comes from the heart rather than out of compulsion. The Bible says that God loves a cheerful giver—I love this about you too!
 
• Jesus is the foundation of all you do. More than anything, I love the fact that your study, love, joy and generosity all flow from a response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ—it is his love for you that is the foundation for your actions in return. 
 
We will miss you when we are gone. But I hope we will take some of what we love with us. I know we’ll leave here better than we came, and for that I am very thankful. 
 
With love,
Derek

That I May Know Him

“I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” 3 John 1: 14
 
May this be the goal of our hearts, that we may know him. It is good to know about our Triune God, but what I am addressing here is that we may know him personally. Our prayer for my own children and yours is that they run to Jesus before all things. We pray that each and every child will have a personal relationship with their Lord Jesus Christ so that they may seek to know him and to trust him. We are made in the image of God and created for a deep relationship with him. God wants us to be in two-way communication with him and to seek him daily and we want that for our children. We must understand though that we cannot change the hearts of our children or others for that matter. Only God can change hearts. He alone can save. 
 
We must also ask God to work in our own hearts and strive to put God first, before all things. Let your children see that you are making every effort to make your relationship with God your top priority and the center of your life. Show children you actually can stop in the midst of busyness to pray. Let them hear you say, “Please give me a few minutes. I need to spend time with God.” Model the behavior we are asking of our children and share the desire you have to seek God first, alongside of them. 
 
So how do we actually do this and where do we start? Begin with prayer. Pray fervently and remember these four words…God is in control. He is sovereign and nothing frustrates his divine plan. Our Father in heaven loves you and forgives you when you end up feeling frustrated or defeated. Extend this grace to yourself given to you by the blood on the cross. 
 
Second, in order for children to know God, children must also learn about the fear of the Lord. This can seem like a hard truth to teach children but there are encouraging ways to handle it. In order to teach children that they are both a friend of God and are to have a healthy fear of the Lord, we are to teach them a correct and balanced view of God. Let’s start by looking at the immanence and transcendence of God. God is both a personal God that dwells within us (Immanence of God) and a sovereign God who is distinct above all things (Transcendence of God). God lives within us through our Lord and Savior Christ Jesus and he is the Great I Am. Peter says in Ephesians 4: 6 “One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Ed Welch handles this topic beautifully as he writes, “The fact that God sees every aspect of our lives may, at first, leave us afraid and eager to hide from God rather than in awe, wanting to embrace Him. But the fear of the Lord makes us aware both of God’s holy purity and hatred of sin and His holy patience and forgiveness.  When we remember both, we have no reason to run in fear, especially since there is no place to run beyond the gaze of God. Instead as we look at the Lord we see that He invites, cleanses and empowers us to grow in holiness.”
 
Third, read the Bible with your children. There are plenty of ways to read God’s word with our children. Expose your toddlers and preschoolers to the Bible by giving them a children’s storybook Bible so they can play with it and look at its beautiful pictures. Allow your elementary students, tweens and teens to read to you and with you. Read the Bible in carpool, before or after dinner, before bed, in the morning or at breakfast. There is no master formula. Just open the Bible and spend 10-15 minutes in God’s Word with your children. Though remember, we are not perfect. We will fail but this is not about being perfect and doing everything right. This is about knowing God and putting him first. Only Jesus is perfect. We are not and neither are our children. That is hard truth but truth indeed.  
 
Lastly, obey him. Let us make ourselves known to God by being obedient and transparent. Teach your kids to not only obey you but to obey God. Tell your children that when we obey him we become more like him. This is a free gift that we receive through our Lord Jesus Christ. Confess not only to God but also to your children that you are a sinner, saved by grace and by no means perfect. 
 
We have a very important mission on our hands. God has entrusted his children to us so that we may ‘train them in the way they should go’ (Proverbs 22: 6). We must equip our children with the truth of the Gospel and use every opportunity to point them to our Savior so that we may prepare them for their own personal walk with the Lord. 
 
There are three ways we can deepen our relationship with the Lord: 
 
1) Spend time in God’s word
2) Devote yourselves to prayer
3) Mediate on his truths daily
 
We all know the world is broken, but take heart God has overcome the world. We have many questions about how to raise our kids in today’s world but we can have hope and courage because Jesus is the answer. Through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ we can allow ourselves to listen for him when he is knocking on the door of our hearts. May we incline our hearts to the truth and together, stand firm in God’s grace to us in Christ, even in a world of suffering. Remember the rainbow. The glory of the Lord will be revealed through his covenant promises.
 
 
 
 
 

Re-Naming Baton Rouge

In the summer of 2016, dramatic events threatened to define us. Looking at the pictures, people wanted to call us names. The grainy video showed a struggling Alton Sterling suddenly shot after someone called out, “Gun.” Many wanted to name our city Racist. The image of a face-off between armed protesters and armor-suited police on Airline Highway on a hot July night made some want to name us Fascists. The brutal gunning down of police officers on a quiet Sunday morning made others want to call us City of Anarchy! The videos of flooded streets and water devoured homes evoked a name like Disaster Zone. If you just look at the pictures, you could simply conclude that Baton Rouge is a first rate Mess.
 
Those names, of course, miss the reality.  Those assessments fail to see what is rising in our city even as flood waters are subsiding. There is a fierce determination to help one another. A resiliency that rests on hope that we will not let each other go. The clasping of hands that are black, white, brown and every shade in between as we lift each other up. We express open gratitude to God and an unashamed calling upon him to help us. We are not a community of atheists or isolationists or racists. The deep Christian roots of our city still send forth sheltering branches full of green leaves: these are people who give their lives to help other people even as they know the joy of acknowledging a Creator who made them and a God to whom they are going.
 
But even more, the citizens who actively know they belong to Jesus have found a near boundless energy to give their lives in service to people in need. The Church loves the city where God has placed us.  Do you not feel it? As you drive through our streets, you realize you love this town more, not less, in its distress. You feel more pride to be here than ever before.  You want to restore streets and recreate dwellings. You want to get along. You have zero tolerance for looters, outside agitators and poachers. But you feel the arms of your heart stretch wide to all the rest of the crazy, quirky, zesty, good-humored people you find here. You want everyone to share in what an old word describes as the commonwealth. 
 
So, yes, I think the summer of 2016 is a time for re-naming Baton Rouge. We will never be the same. But the first name I’d like to propose to define comes from a promise of God to his people in Isaiah 62:  You shall be called A City Not Forsaken.  The thousands of people pouring into our city to help us confirm what we citizens have discovered in the summer of 2016:  we are not forsaken. The Lord is with us. Great things are ahead.
 
With such pride in your dedication to the work of Christ in the city, more than ever, I love to be your pastor.
 
Gardere School Banquet
 
The Gardere Community Christian School is one of our highest priority city ministries. So we are pleased to let you know of their fundraising banquet Tuesday, September 27 at 6.30 pm at the Renaissance Baton Rouge Hotel. This will be an inspiring evening of testimony and vision. Gerrit is hosting a table for FPC members. You can join him or host your own table of guests. Contact jaci@fpcbr.org.

Stewards of God's Grace

As mothers, our primary mission field is our family. Some of the most important work we do happens within the walls of our home, where we have the great privilege of raising up a new generation of Christians to be bold ambassadors for Christ. 
 
The Mothers of Little Ones (MoLo) Bible study aims to equip us in this mission through fellowship, study and prayer. This group of women is committed to pressing deeper into God’s Word, exposing the gospel truths and applying the hope and promise of Scripture to our calling as mothers, wives and sisters-in-Christ. We allow God’s Word to penetrate our hearts in real and tangible ways in order to grow deeper in Christ and further into communion with one another.
 
MoLo meets every Thursday morning from 9.30-11 am during the fall and spring. We kick off our fall study on Thursday, September 8 in room 301 of the Education Building. We will explore how to be stewards of God's grace,  the joy in suffering and how to stand firm in our faith in this timely in-depth study of 1 Peter. “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.” 1 Peter 5: 10-11
 
We love new faces! We would love to pray for you and learn alongside you! This study is not just for mothers of “little ones.” It is for any woman who desires to push deeper into God’s mighty Word and form relationships with other women who desire to do the same. Please contact Jaime Carnaggio if you are interested!
 
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Can You Unleash the Power of 55?

What can happen by making 55 our goal?  What will God do through people whose passion is 55?
 
And what in the world am I talking about?
 
I’m talking about 8.55 and 10.55. I’m talking about church members who commit to arriving inside the sanctuary at least five minutes before the scheduled start. I believe it will transform our worship experience!
 
55 makes a much bigger difference than most of us ever realize.  
 
Why does 55 matter? I’ll give you three reasons:
 
1) Critical mass. If you’ve hosted a party, you know how grateful you are for the people who come early and get the festive atmosphere started. By contrast, have you ever gone to a party on time and found almost no one there? You wonder if you are in the right place. You worry that this event will be a dud. But if you arrive to laughter and conversation, you know it’s going to be great. If you’re a church member, you’re no longer a guest: you’re a host!  And good hosts love to get the party started!
 
2) Engaging Worship. All this past June, we talked about the journey of worship. We noted how the worship hour is an interconnected, carefully planned structure.  Our engagement with God magnifies when we engage worship as people prepared, present and focused. If we arrive at 55, our very experience of worship will change: I guarantee it! 
 
3) Visitors. Visitors to our church usually arrive early. They don’t want to miss the start of things. A critical part of a welcoming atmosphere is having people greet them upon arrival. Not just at the door but in the sanctuary.  Just by living out 55, and keeping an eye open for new folks, each one of us can grow our church.
 
There’s power in 55. You and I can change our church for the better by committing to 55.  In a few short weeks, readjusting our habits to arrive at 55 will become normal. And we will be contributing to the health and vitality of worship significantly. 
 
I’m looking forward to a wonderful autumn of worship with you. We will be taking up the golden chapters of John 13-17, the story of Jesus’ final night, uniquely told by the apostle John. My passion is to be with you in worship as we press deeper into Christ. And as ever, I love to be your pastor!
 
The Next Generation of Leadership
 
At a recent meeting, the session granted nearly $60,000 in scholarships for six students to pursue seminary degrees. These six represent future ministers, counselors and missionaries. They all have close ties to our church. A vibrant church ignites hearts for full time ministry, and it’s wonderful to see so many rising leaders.
 
Our church supports our denomination’s vision to grow the Kingdom of God through planting churches. We know that to plant churches, we have to specifically train pastors for this unique work. So, with great joy, the session awarded the first-ever Russ Stevenson Scholarship for EPC Church Planting Residency. The Rev. Will Johnson will be moving with his wife to Atlanta to begin training to plant a multi-ethnic EPC church. Supervised by two seasoned EPC pastors, our $10,000 grant will help Will get started. Will is part of a growing trend of church planters who also work “regular” jobs to support their ministry. He will be working in web development as he also works in a church. 
 
We believe in supporting new leaders whom God raises up. It’s exciting to see the vibrancy of those who will lead in the future.
 
 

Our Warrior Wants Strong Arrows

We had a fun-filled summer at MDO. This was our first year to offer summer camps to our MDO families. Children enjoyed week long camp sessions exploring Commotion in the Ocean, Bugs and Insects and then some Fairy Tale Fun. What a blast we had! 
 
We are now “gearing up” for another MDO school year. We will welcome 20 new families to our program with a total of 76 families that our MDO program will minister to this year. As we seek to educate the little hearts and minds of our children, I often think on this verse: 
 
“As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth.” Psalm 127: 4.
 
What seeds will we at MDO help to plant in the lives of our children? What impact will we have not only in our childrens’ lives but their family’s too?  
 
Children are like arrows and as a mighty warrior wants strong arrows, we too want to help develop strong, well-rounded children. Children that know God’s great love for them and know our Lord and Savior. Children who are learning God’s truth and word. Children who while exploring the world around them and interacting with friends and teachers at MDO are learning Godly values. Our children are at such a young, impressionable time in their lives. As we are preparing to “shoot and send” them on their next journey in life and into our world outside of church and MDO, we want to make sure to point them in the right direction.
 
We truly consider it a privilege to partner with parents to train-up our little ones. What a blessing it is to have parents share:
 
“MDO has become a second home and family for our little girl, and we couldn’t be more pleased. We have watched her grow and change in such beautiful ways while in your care.”  
 
“MDO has been such a rock and a constant for our family. You have overwhelmed me and blessed our family. Thank you for loving my kids and my family.”
 
 

Taking Care of Business

Our campus and facilities were provided through God’s benevolence and by the generosity and sacrificial giving of our members. They provide a place from which we do mission and ministry far beyond downtown Baton Rouge. Inevitably, they require not only tender love and care, but also renovation and restoration. God has provided for this as well. So that you know:
 
• After careful professional analysis, a much needed campus wide waterproofing project has begun. It includes the replacement of the windows in the Education Building. And it will repair damage that has occurred over many years, prevent future deterioration and stop invasive moisture from seeping in to begin new damage. 
 
• Our Bell Tower will benefit from a new control and sound system, giving us a purer sound and greater flexibility with songs and tunes. 
 
• Our Dunham Chapel will be up-fitted with new lights for the chancel and primary space, improvements to the sound and lighting control system and tailored pew cushions.
 
• You may have noticed the stained glass windows on the east and west sides of the Sanctuary are ‘missing.’ They’ve been taken out for refurbishment and cleaning but will return by the end of July.
 
• The screens and projectors in our Sanctuary will be replaced over the next few months. Existing equipment is aging and failing. Look for a ‘new look’ up front when this project is complete.
 
• The grassy area between the Sanctuary and the Chapel will become more usable as it is upgraded to match our terrace garden north of the Chapel. The turf affords an outdoor platform for creative programming throughout the year (even when it rains).
 
Finally, we’ve begun exploring a campus wide wireless communication system that will enable our greeting and ministry teams, staff and pastors and all security personnel to communicate in real time. Coupled with additions to our security and emergency response plans, this will provide our members and guests with greater protections and security for emergencies of all kinds.
 
All of this we hope to complete this year; and all of this because God has already provided the resources in the form of special funds, pledges and bequests. May we never take these many blessings for granted. May we be faithful in all things. May God be glorified in all that we have and all that we do.

What's the Big Deal About Small Groups?

Let’s face it—these days it's easy to put together a really wonderful worship experience in the comfort of your own home or car. You can download the best music, find the best preaching and tailor everything to your most particular desire. But guess what? Finding the best of everything on your own is the worst way to go about the Christian life. Why? Because we need each other in order to grow as Christians. As one author puts it, “your walk with God is a community project.”
 
It’s because the Lord has built into us a need for community that First Presbyterian is making a strong push this fall for greater involvement in small groups. In particular, we are re-launching our home fellowship groups (remember the groups from Lent?). These groups are a great opportunity to get together with others and experience the truth of the gospel together. 
 
Let me give you a quick glimpse of how things are going to roll out in the early fall (we’re planning for these groups to begin right after Labor Day). 
 
• Groups are already starting to organize. In fact, this is a great time for you to start discussing the idea of a small group with your friends and neighbors. Been in a group before? Talk to those group members. New to the small-group-thing? Start talking to those you know about getting together. It’s really that easy. 
 
• Then, as August ramps up, we’ll host two major small group events—we’re calling them Meet and Match events (m&ms!)—and they will take place in the reception room during the Sunday mornings of August 21 and 28. These events will simply let you find a group based on the criteria that matters most to you. All of our groups will be represented, allowing those unattached to mingle, meet and match up with those that represent the best fit. It’s like speed dating for small groups!
 
• The majority of our groups will then get together weekly (between Labor Day and Thanksgiving) and study the Bible passage that was preached on the previous week. With the content already delivered and discussion questions provided, we think getting together will be both easy and flexible.
 
Our goal is to have 500 people connected in a small group. That’s an ambitious goal, but I think it’s doable. Will you consider being one of those people? I hope so. 
 
July Combined Worship and Sunday School
 
During the five Sundays of July, First Presbyterian will come together for one single 10.30 am worship in the Sanctuary. We’ll have three adult Sunday School options. Each begins at 9.30 am with combined worship following at 10.30 in the Sanctuary (No SS on July 3):
 
1. Christianity Explored. A good class if you…a. Aren’t sure what you believe or are new to church and/or to Christianity. b. Have a friend who fits into that first category. This is a great class to bring a friend. c. Have been a Christian for quite some time. It’s easy to forget what it is like to hear the Gospel for the first time. Come and hear it afresh and be reminded of the core message of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
 
2. “Side by Side.” This class will explore deeper the book, “Side By Side,” that was given out a few weeks ago. Come and discuss what it means to be needy and to be needed—the roots of true community. Call the church office (387.0617) if you need a copy of the book.
 
3. Global Outreach. Let MacGregor Magruder and Whitney Alexander walk you through the materials Mac uses on the mission field and learn more about God’s mission in the world. We encourage you to invite a friend for these blended services.
 

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.