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First Thoughts Blog

Advent Thoughts

We become like that which we love. Watch two people who have recently fallen in love and you’ll see that it’s true. Suddenly she starts watching football; he starts eating salads. They start using the same phrases and might even buy matching sweaters. At a more profound level, we sync up with the people that matter to us the most. We develop a shared history; we have compatible goals; we know how to be together. We become like that which we love. God became man in Jesus Christ. Sit with that a moment. We become like that which we love: God became one of us. How great a love is this? How ardent must be his desire? How dizzy in love must he be? God took up skin and bone. He spoke through vocal cords. He walked under the force of gravity. He got thirsty in the heat and tired from a day of work. He laughed at dogs and gathered children in his arms. He took what we are and made it his own. Forever. When we gaze into the straw of the manger this year, we can hold close this miracle. We become like that which we love. God so loved that he became like us. 
 
Great Christmas traditions continue at First. This Friday night, the Live Nativity will unfold in our terraced garden at 6 and 7 pm. Encore presentations will follow December 18.  On Sunday, December 11, the combined worship team and chancel choir will present On This Shining Night at both Sanctuary services. That afternoon, the annual downtown Pilgrimage will flow through the streets of Baton Rouge, stopping here about 6.30. And, as ever, we will keep Christmas Eve together with candlelight communion services at 4 and 6 pm. My message is entitled, “In the Fullness of Time.” I hope you’ll plan to join us as we come to adore this God who loves us enough to take up our humanity forever in Jesus.
 
I’ll Think About That After Christmas
 
Ever say that phrase? Everything normal seems to stop between now and the New Year. It’s hard to make plans for January. But I’d like to impress two crucial dates onto your Yule scattered minds!  
 
1) “Can We Trust our Bibles?” is the theme for our “Stay-treat” January 20-21. Dr. Michael Kruger, president and New Testament professor at Reformed Seminary in Charlotte, will give three presentations on the reliability of Scripture. Dr. Kruger will address common doubts we have about the truth of the Word as well as frequent criticisms of Scripture found in popular media. (We’re sandwiching Dr. Kruger in between a festive dinner, an ice-cream social, kids’ events and Saturday snacks!)
 
2) Prayer Service for Racial Reconciliation, featuring Dr. Tony Evans. Thursday night, January 26 at the River Center. This joint effort by multiple Baton Rouge churches seeks the healing of our divided community and the launching of new initiatives in our city for crossing racial lines. 
 
 

An Extraordinary Meeting

 
 
At our last session meeting, we spent forty-five minutes praying over six areas in our church life and ministry. First we studied Ephesians 6 together. That’s the passage about putting on the whole armor of God to engage in the spiritual struggle that is the mission of the church amidst a lost and reluctant world. We noted that it’s not enough just to have the spiritual armor that is the breastplate of Christ’s righteousness or the sword of his Spirit. We have to know the choreography of how to move in that armor. That dance is prayer.  We deploy faith and salvation and the righteousness of Christ when we move into the world by prayer. So it was beautiful to me to hear the elders you have elected offer up their supplications for our children, our facilities and finances, our youth, our work with the Gardere School, our missionaries in Lebanon and our church plant in New Orleans. Prayer opens our eyes to the will of God that he wants to work through us. Prayer undergirds our mission, for it draws us into the heart of Christ for his world.  
 
After such a refreshing season of prayer, it was no accident that our other business moved easily. (Prayer always makes us more, not less, efficient!) The session has released $85,000 in additional flood relief to three of our key mission partners that were flooded: Abounding Love Ministries, Caring to Love and Heritage Ranch. We also assigned $10,000 to global mission projects and a grant to River Community Church South. Your elders realize that God blesses us with extraordinary resources in order that we might bless others. 
 
So at our meeting, we also authorized asking for a special Thanksgiving offering for flood relief among our ministry partners. The gifts we were able to make do not meet the full extent of the need among these ministries that were totally flooded. On November 20, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, we will all be asked to make a one time gift to Flood Relief in gratitude to God for all his mercies toward us and all the work he has done through our partner organizations.
 
For this pastor, that’s a daring move. My whole philosophy of stewardship is a focus on the yearly pledges we make 
to the work of the church. I want every person who gives even a dollar to know, “By this gift, I’m part of the mission work in Lebanon and the children's program downstairs; I’m at the Gardere School and in the pastor’s study. My annual gifts connect me to the entire work of the church.” In the last dozen years, that philosophy, and God’s grace, has seen our giving soar. The only special offering we take is at Christmas. We know that our regular gifts power everything we do. So why take a special offering at Thanksgiving? Because I believe that these are extraordinary times. I believe we will feel great joy in giving above and beyond our annual pledges and Christmas offering to undergird ministries we love and support in our city.  
 
Creating a Pro-Life Culture
 
That’s a daunting task in today’s world.  The historic Christian valuing of life from the moment of conception to natural death is contested in our wider culture.  Our prizing of life exceeds that of any philosophy or religion in the world. Yet the hegemony of individual choice in the western world has caused a devaluing of life at every level. How can we lovingly, passionately bring others into the Christian valuing of life? That’s the topic Kristan Hawkins will address at a breakfast meeting at our church, Friday, November 11 at 7.30 am. Kristan is the founder and director of Students for Life, an organization now on more than 1,000 college campuses. There is no charge for the event (it is sponsored by our Ed Grant educational fund), but you must register to have a place. Call or email Laura at the church office to sign up. 
 
Chorister Concert
 
We’ve all grown fond of our music students (choristers) who augment our choir program. From Lauren Honea’s radiant renditions to Joshua’s rousing baritone to Kevin’s Irish tenor to Alexandra’s limitless vocal resources, we thrill to have such talent work with our members. Now these choristers will offer a joyful vocal concert in our chapel, Tuesday night, November 15 at 6.30 in our Chapel. Admission is free, though an offering for flood relief may be given.

A Season of Change

For so many reasons, I’m thankful it’s autumn. The summer of 2016 pressed and flushed over our city. Tragic shootings. Historic flooding. Relentless heat. We long for a change. Maybe, just maybe, as you read this a breath of cooler air has revived your spirits. But more, people of all races, classes and accents have joined hands across the ruined homes to work together in rebuilding our city. We have declined the definition of our city that outside groups want to give us. We are determined to be more. And it’s very clear that God is at work among us.
 
Some fifty members of Abounding Love Ministries joined us for worship for five weeks. The energy and the love were palpable. For the first time in 190 years a black woman preached the Word strongly from our pulpit. For the first time I know of, an African American pastor broke the bread and poured the wine before we partook together in communion. The tears we shed as this season came to an end were heartfelt. I believe these relationships are a Spirit “foothold” for the churches of Baton Rouge to cling together when racial tensions threaten the shalom of our city.  We have so much yet to do, but there is a real basis now for moving forward.
 
The connectional nature of being Presbyterian has also been stunning. Dozens of fellow EPC churches and members have sent relief funds, teams and supplies to us. The trust built up through our connections in shared worship, meeting, prayer and mission have meant that we are not alone in this work. The national leadership of the EPC remembered us abundantly.
 
Meanwhile, the work of the church has continued to surge forward. Mission teams have visited Romania, Lebanon and Russia this summer. More than 30 small groups have begun meeting this fall. A significant parenting conference was held.  The children’s Sunday school overflows. The fellowship and joy of our worship has never been sweeter. 
 
Yet a reality in a vibrant ministry is that we not only attract great members and staff: we send them off to new ventures with our love. In the history of our church, we have nurtured two kinds of associate pastors: 1) those who stay with us for many years and become foundational to our mission, such as Whitney Alexander and Dick Gates, and 2) those who launch out to lead elsewhere, such as Case, Alec and now Derek. We will miss our dashing, musical, Longhorn-loving colleague, but we know his church planting work will be fruitful for the kingdom.
 
The seasons change and ministry is always dynamic, but a what a joy that we get to do this together!
 
Caring to Love Banquet
 
Kristan Hawkins will be this year’s featured speaker November 10 at the CTL banquet and November 11 at a leadership breakfast at our church. Kristan is founder and president of Students for Life, now on over 1,000 campuses. The millennial generation is pressing the sacredness of life and the stark reality of the abortion industry with a boldness not seen before. These students are willing to tell the truth frankly and winsomely to their peers. Kristan is a loving, daring pioneer in leading the next generation to change our culture. Watch the bulletin for more info.
 

Medical Mission Trip to Lebanon

Don Elliot (FPC Corinth, MS) and I have been to Lebanon three times in the past 18 months. Each trip builds on the previous with the 2016 medical mission trip being no exception. It was most encouraging to see the Lord working through the efforts and prayers of this year's team of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, organizers and prayer warriors. The Lord is doing amazing things in the Middle East right now and we were privileged to be a small part of it. 
 
Engage 2025 is a small part of what God is doing in the Middle East right now. Engage 2025 is a committment of the EPC -  the Gulf South Presbytery and Central South Presbytery  in particular - to reach the Muslim refugees in Lebanon and beyond: maybe into Syria one day as well. Reflecting on how the Lord worked before, during and after the trip fills me with thanksgiving.
 
Before the Trip
 
The commitment of Rebecca and Nour (FPC mission partners living in Lebanon) is remarkable (last name purposely omitted). Humanly speaking, the trip could not have happened without their preparation, faithfulness and oversight. They are gracefully responding to their call as leaders of the first ever Engage 2025 Field Team. 
 
Putting together the team was a major prayer focus. We saw the Lord do new things as many team members were called from beyond the Central South and Gulf South Presbyteries.
 
The fundraising again was remarkable. Approximately $22,000 was donated by churches and individuals in CSP and GSP. God provided for us through his people.
 
During the Trip
 
The evening team meetings were great times of worship, sharing, prayer and preparation for the next day of clinicals. It was obvious the team members made the effort to come together. 
 
It was obvious that God was at work. The doctors were all remarkable and humble in their practice.
 
The Resurrection Church outreach on Thursday became the Lord's surprise of the week for the team. The Egyptian translators, the staff and the neighborhood were all encouraging gifts to us. We learned that the Resurrection Church is a vibrant church that the Lord is using to reach many refugees with the gospel.
 
The Philemon Project was the most distinctive clinic of the week. The project is a Christian day care ministry to children of refugees, migrants and poor Lebanese. Its 75 preschool students gave the team a change of pace, sitting on the floor and loving on the children. 
 
After the Trip
 
Amanda and Nick (last name purposely omitted) with their children, will be joining Rebecca and Nour to be the initial field team in the Engage 2025 vision. Their mission will be working with Syrian refugees in discipleship and church planting. 
 
Will there be another trip in 2017? Pray about this. We are committed to work closely with these families. 

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.”