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First Thoughts Blog

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 (meagan@fpcbr.org).
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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: cunninghambenj@gmail.com.  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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Words

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

Godspeed Dick and Judie!

An era ends. I can’t believe it’s been a decade. Dick Gates is retiring January 31 and he and Judie are moving to Arizona to be near their family.

Now the rest of us pastors are going to have to work for a living!

Dick has been a visiting, praying, mission promoting machine. His absence will be felt. His shoes are impossible to fill.

In fact, it’s nearly impossible to overstate the impact he has had on our church.

A decade ago, tensions between our services were real. They’re pretty much nonexistent now. Loving care of each and every member who is ill, grieving or in crisis goes a long way in creating unity.

A decade ago, we made some hard decisions about day care, denominations, service time changes, and a commitment to renovate our buildings. In a time when questions got asked, attendance dipped and my leadership could have been questioned, it wasn’t. A committed session joined a loyal pastoral staff. And none more loyal than Dick Gates.  He has always, always, always had my back. He never hesitated to tell me directly if he saw me making an errant turn. He never hesitated to follow decisions I made, even dumb ones, and no one could get him to utter a negative word. We got through that season and entered a time of great advancement. Dick’s passionate loyalty was key in that.

Under Dick’s leadership, global mission got re-energized even as it got more personalized.  It takes a globe-trotting pastor to keep the ties tight between a church and its missions around the world. Dick had the vision to invite Sameh Maurice here, and that ignited our partnership with Kasr El Dobara Church in Cairo, allowing us to see a dynamic influence for Christ through these partners. And that inspired new full time missionaries from our church to hit the field. Our mission conferences still grow in both excitement and attendance. Dick’s leadership has raised our profile in the world community of evangelical churches.

And he has taught us to love prayer.  Every week, between the 9 and 11 services, Dick and a team pray for people with particular needs. Every week, he leads prayer for our nation and community. Every week, he visits dozens of people, with his faithful beloved beside him, to pray for those facing surgeries, funerals or crises.

Talk to him ten minutes, and he will get you promising to pray for suffering Christians in the Middle East. Ten more minutes and you will be on a plane to do a mission trip!

Dick works with the joy of the Lord. His whistling and his laugh are heartiest in the early morning, and he refuses to let us be grumpy in the office.  We could never get him to give up the Buckeyes as his favorite football team, but we did teach him how to shoot pistols!

Soon, a search committee will seek an Associate Pastor for Pastoral Care, Prayer and Spiritual Growth. Whitney, who shares Dick’s vibrant passion for global as well as local mission, will add world mission to his full pastoral plate. Whitney will also help coordinate pastoral care until the new associate arrives. The church will go on, far better for this decade of wonderful, consecrated service. But oh, how we will miss Dick and Judie!

Dinner to Honor the Gates

The church will host a ticketed, catered dinner Sunday, January 17 at 5PM to honor (and maybe roast a wee bit) Dick and Judie. Tickets are $15 and limited to 300 people. Child care and children’s choir will be provided concurrently. Email Gerrit if you would like one of a limited number of complementary seats.

Global Mission Conference

Dick’s final weekend includes his favorite event: the annual missions conference.  Pastor Sameh Hannah from Cairo will be our speaker during Saturday morning sessions, Sunday services and a special Sunday evening prayer event. I can’t think of a better way to encourage Dick than to swell the house for this conference, especially for the prayer focus Sunday night. It means so much to him: we can bless him on his way by supporting this great event

It Happens All Over Again!

For centuries, the body of Christ has told and retold the story of Jesus’ life and work among us. Early on in our history, we developed a rhythm of highlighting the remembering of particularly significant Jesus-events throughout each year. Advent is a word that means “coming” and it marks the beginning of the church year. For four weeks we enter the story of the yearning of the world for rescue, the yearning of the people of God for a savior and the hope in the human heart that God has not left us alone. We anticipate being surprised anew that God showed his face in the baby in Bethlehem.

Christian remembering, of course, is not mere nostalgia. We remember what happened uniquely in history in such a way that the meaning of what happened becomes a fresh experience. We relive anticipation for a savior’s birth in such a way that we touch our longing right now for God to be at work in our world. We celebrate Jesus’ birth in such a way that we feel hope in the present moment. Year by year, the Holy Spirit makes historical events come alive in our hearts as we gather for worship. That’s what makes it such a joy to keep Christmas together!

So you won’t want to miss our special advent service, “The Silence and the Sound” on December 6. We’ll have just two services that morning, at 9 and 11. They will be identical as the worship team, choir and an orchestra combine for this rich, inspiring musical. I’ll have a short message preceding.

The Scriptures Behind the Carols

This Advent, we’ll look at four famous Christmas carols and the Bible passages that inspired them. Two of these carols are exceedingly well known: "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Joy to the World." One is 16 centuries old: "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence." And the other is merely five hundred years old and only recently surging in popularity: "Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming" (listen to soprano Rene Fleming sing it on YouTube!).

At our 4 and 6 pm Christmas Eve services, the message is entitled “Ready to Eat!” Can you figure out what Christmas has to do with the British food chain called Pret a Manger?

Surging Forward: Session Grants

Last year when Dr. Robert Lewis led a men’s day with a focus on mission, he noted a particular role for a church like ours. We can provide the “jet fuel” for members launching out into ministry. Our worship and teaching inspire our members to open their lives to what God wants to do in and through them. Usually that means being available to our Lord right where we are in daily life. Sometimes it also means stepping out in new areas of service.

Our session (our board of elders) made grants totaling $55,000 to members and ministries connected to our church. We’re helping one of our young adults, Micah Webber, with seminary education. We’re providing computers for Buchanan Elementary School and the Abounding Love STARS after school program. We’re enabling new programs at Gaitway Therapeutic which member Shelly Rose leads. And after being inspired by the reports of Claire Wilson’s visit, we’re enabling Bethany Centre in Uganda to complete a vital multi-function building. We also approved beginning a scholarship for ministers in our denomination seeking to do residency training in how to plant new churches. The scholarship will be named in honor of our former pastor Russ Stevenson who has such a passion for starting new congregations. Your church is supplying jet fuel to ministries flying grace into our city and world!

Christmas Offering

Every year, we take up only one special offering. This is our Christmas offering for local ministry. Last year, we raised over $45,000 which was shared between the Christian Outreach Center and Gardere Community Christian School. This year, let’s bless even more this two fabulous ministries that are effecting long term transformation in our city.