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First Thoughts Blog

We Want Our Children to Live for Him!

The Scriptures testify to the supremacy of Christ Jesus, and this affects everything about Children’s Ministry. I recently read through the Old Testament and was delighted to discern the many ways that the Law and the Prophets anticipate the coming of Jesus. As I moved on to the New Testament, I also began reading a short book on redemption by Sandy Willson (yes, the father of our beloved Mary). This was no coincidence. I could not help but humbly ponder the redemptive work of our Savior at the center of all our blessed work we do here in Children’s Ministry at First Presbyterian Church.

The cry of our Children’s Ministry is, “that in everything Christ might be preeminent!” (Colossians 1: 18) Here at First Presbyterian we teach our children what it means to have a Christ-exalting life by equipping them with the tools they need to get there: prayer, gospel love and theologically sound lessons that point our kids to Jesus in every story. We want our kids of First Presbyterian Church not just to know about God but to know him in a deep way, such that they would rely upon him in all things. We want our kids to know that Jesus is our all and all so that they may turn to him, pray to him, believe him, trust him and live for him! This is our mission and our prayer.

We teach our children of First Presbyterian about our Triune God, so that they may learn how God the Father creates and watches over us, how God the Son saves and sustains us and how God the Holy Spirit plants faith in our hearts in order to grow it. Our children see the healing mercies of Jesus and how he provides for his people. We, as a church, model this to our little ones and model it well, by God’s grace. We show our kids what it means to engage in his mission and what it looks like to take up our cross in order to serve him wholeheartedly. Our church loves our children and they flourish in this place where they are "so loved" and nurtured! Just as our beloved Pastor Gerrit teaches our congregation to return the blessing to God by boldly reading Scripture aloud, the children are reciting and reading Scripture out loud. What music to the ears of our Father in heaven this must be!

So as you observe our Children’s Ministry program here at First Presbyterian Church, look for Christ. He is on the move! You can see him through our many volunteers pouring into the lives of our little ones. You can see him when you see prayer cards the children have written out on Sunday mornings. You can see him when our children are offering their only coins and dollars, or simply touching the offering plate giving himself or herself to God. You can see him in the attentiveness as they receive gospel-centered teaching in Sunday school. Their hearts are hungry and we want to all take part in equipping these little ones early so that they may know him and accept him as their personal Savior.

I am honored and truly blessed to take part in the life of each child—your child. My family and I reap the blessing of this God-given mission every day. I am grateful to walk alongside you as a sister, parent and friend. May Jesus Christ be praised!

Change Through God Via Community

How do people change? We talk often about going “deeper into Christ,” but it’s important to remember how it happens. How do people come to know Jesus, and how do those who know him get to know him better? How do we begin to see change in our lives, in our communities and in the society around us?

One of the most fundamental claims of the Christian Church for the last two millennia is that God’s revealed Word, the Bible, is the foundation for change in people, communities and societies. David writes these words in Psalm 19:

The Law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul.
The testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
The precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart.
The commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes.

He goes on to say that God’s Word is sweeter than honey and more desirable than gold. Why? Because God’s Word has the power to change us for the better. The New Testament echoes the same teaching. Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3: 16 that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness…” And in Romans chapter 1, we read these wonderful words: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” The Power of God is in the Gospel! God’s Word has power to change us!

But there’s another piece that we also need to remember. As a preacher, I wish the formula looked like this—preach the truth and everyone will change. Unfortunately that is not always the case. We know that for change to happen, the Holy Spirit must be at work enabling that change. And what we see throughout the Bible is that the Holy Spirit most commonly works that change in community. It’s in people learning, working, loving, crying, questioning together that God’s Word seems to take the firmest hold. In his loving wisdom, the Lord created us to need each other, even in the process of Spiritual growth. So we can revise the formula to look more like this: The Truth, when processed and experienced in community, leads to change.

If this is true, what should we do? That part is actually pretty easy: we connect. First, connect to the Truth; read his Word, be active in gathered worship and focus your attention on the person and work of Jesus Christ revealed through the whole Bible. And secondly, connect to others; get into a group to study the Bible, pray or just fellowship. Connect to your neighbors and to those who don’t share your faith (God works through them as well) and welcome them in to the hope that you have come to know. And thirdly, look for gradual change in your life and the opportunities for change around you. Serve. Create. Empower.

That’s how people grow. The Truth of the Gospel at work in, among and through the community of God’s people. Truth. Community. Change. Amen!

Hit the Road!

How’s this for a planning a move:

“Grab the wife, stuff a suitcase, get in the car and drive out of town.”

“Where are we going?

“Just drive. I’ll tell you when we get there. By the way, it make take a few years.”

As crazy as that sounds, it happens all too often to parents who work in the corporate world. The company decides they need someone in another town, so they transfer your mom, or your dad, with no notice and no questions asked. Next thing you know, your whole life is on the move. It happens, too, when all of a sudden your folks announce you have to move because granddad can’t care for himself anymore. Or worst of all, your parents are splitting up and they can’t afford your home anymore. So your family and your house are being left behind. We can get yanked out of our lives with very little warning.

In of the wildest Bible stories, a man named Abram and his wife Sarai got sent packing far away from everything they knew and loved—by God! It was supposed to be part of being incredibly blessed. One day, the Lord suddenly spoke to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” The couple had to pack up and leave immediately.

Years passed before Abram and Sarai were able to settle in the land they were promised, the land of Canaan, and even more time went by before the child promised to them, little Isaac, was born. But in the end, everything worked out and the people of God multiplied in order to be a blessing to the whole world. From Abram and Sarai came all the great heroes of faith: Moses, Miriam, David, Esther and even Jesus!

The keys to success in the long move were Abram’s faith and God’s faithfulness. The words we translate as “the land I will show you” can also be translated as “the land I will provide.” God provides. Abram believed God would provide even though it took years to get to a place called home and see all the promises come true.

He hung on through all the miles and all the changes. God was in control. God had sent him on this journey. God had promised to provide. So Abram journeyed on in faith that God would be as good as his word, even when it seemed that word had gone silent for a long time.

When you have to move, especially when it’s not your choice, Abram and Sarai can be your travelling companions. They tell us that no matter what strange lands we get sent to, God is still there while we journey, and God is there when we arrive. We cannot be lost from God’s care nor travel outside the circle of his love. It just can’t be done. And we cannot be separated from the promise of God to us in Jesus Christ. God has promised, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Hebrews 13: 5). The Lord really does provide—not always the way we’d expect, but always the way we need.

That means all our moves and all our quiet days at home, all our journeys and all our routines, are adventures. For God is going to show up, and provide what we need. The adventure is discovering how God does it.

Next Day Stretch

Many of us have known what it’s like to have to go to a “foreign” place, whether we’re moving permanently or just travelling. Take a moment to consider what difference it makes whether you’re going alone or with someone. Consider what difference it makes when you arrive in a strange place if you’re with someone who knows where you are like the back of your hand. Psalm 139: 9,10 says “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand will shall hold me fast.” In your prayers today, invite God into all the strange and difficult places you must go. Remind the Lord of the promise made to Abram, “The Lord will provide.”

Posted in: Devotionals

Directing My Path

Recently challenged to give a testimony/devotional during staff meeting on a favorite or meaningful Bible verse, I discovered that I can’t really pick a favorite verse…I have different go-to verses for different situations. The above wouldn’t normally even make the cut as a favorite but I used it because it is the verse that has been a part of my life for the longest time.

The plaque pictured has been hanging on my wall since the third grade. I won it for memorizing the most Bible verses in a summer group called “Good News Club” that some kindly ladies ran for kids in my apartment complex.

In considering this verse in light of a devotional, I began to wonder why God would have this be the one verse that was in front of me for the bulk of my life? Somehow that plaster plaque has survived multiple moves, college, graduate school and the years I was a devout non-believer. It has always hung on my wall in whatever apartment, dorm room or house I was living in. Why did this plaque matter so much to me when God didn’t? When I won the plaque, I was already being asked to bear heavy burdens that most 8 year olds didn’t have to bear. So why this verse in all those difficult times? Why not the "peace that surpasses all understanding" or "he will be there through all the fires" or some other seemingly more relevant verse to my circumstances??

Now I know God was thinking long term…not just something for the moment. God knew how independent I was going to be. I was forced to be independent far too young and I desperately clung to that independence as I got older. It has always been about me.

When I think about this verse now, as a maturing believer, it gives me great comfort to know that from the beginning of my life, he knew me. He wouldn’t have put this particular verse in my life if he didn’t already know I was going to need it in my face, on my wall, day after day, year after year for the rest of my life. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know him. He knew me. I’ve always found comfort in knowing that he knew me before I was formed, but the way this verse has been in my life proves that to me without a shadow of a doubt.

These days, I am always repenting of my independence idolatry. The crazy thing is, if I wasn’t a Christian, I would be applauded for it. Today's society is all about independence! However, I’ve had this plaque in my face telling me something different for years and years. Quietly preaching to me from my wall…quietly just there waiting for me to acknowledge it. To acknowledge him. He knew my sinful pride long before it began to rear its ugly head. For “your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” (Psalm 139: 16)

Today it’s a discipline to ask for a spirit of humility and then yield to his will. I am freer to serve him, to receive him and to recognize the work he began in me before I was even conceived. Praise, and thanks be to God. 

Posted in:

Belonging to God Is the Truest Thing About You

God has been working deep in my heart and soul over the past 100 days during a sabbatical, a Romania Mission Trip, Fuller graduation, General Assembly and the Transforming Community Retreat.

This quote from Wilderness Time by Emilie Griffin describes part of my journey: “Times come when we yearn for more of God than our schedules will allow. We are tired, we are crushed, we are crowded by friends and acquaintances, commitments and obligations. The life of grace is abounding but we are too busy for it. Even good obligations begin to hem us in.” The past few months have been healing for my soul as I reflected on Jesus’ words to Bartimaeus in Mark 10: 51: “What do you want me to do for you?” My desire is to be in God’s presence but this has been difficult over the past year. The German theologian Meister Eckhart puts it this way: “The reason we do not see God is the faintness of our desire.”

Normally shying from emotion, I have learned that it is important to let yourself feel how deep your desire goes. Desire is the fuel that drives the spiritual journey. Bartimaeus was able to cry out and throw off his cloak, get up and follow Jesus. Similarly, Jesus has invited me in during the sabbatical to help heal my heart and soul. When was the last time I felt a longing for God and a desire to awaken my soul?

God does heal us, and I have felt this process beginning. The safest thing is to be open with Jesus. I have asked myself several questions lately: Am I able to feel Christ’s compassion for the part of me that yearns for something I do not yet have? Am I able to be compassionate with myself? Who attempts to silence my desire?

Desire is the truest thing about you — desire to belong, to contribute to God’s kingdom, to live with the people you love and to live well with God. When I am in touch with desire, a myriad of opportunities begin to open up. Questions often come to my heart: What does Christ want to show me about myself if I am really honest about my desires? What parts of my desire seem to come from my ego-self or from my true self? Is there something Christ is inviting me to do in order to live out my heart’s desire? What aspects of my desires are something only Christ can accomplish? And am I really willing to keep owning my desire in Christ’s presence if I can trust in his timing?
 
These are questions I will continue to bring before God. Spiritual transformation is a process that only Christ can accomplish in us for the sake of others. God is the only one who can transform my heart and soul. I am learning what it truly means to be still and know who God is in my heart and soul (Psalm 46: 10). This spiritual transformation journey is for the rest of my life.

Whitney Alexander
Associate Pastor of City Ministry

Refueling Through Fellowship

Let's see. An average day in the life of a mother of young children: Make coffee, make beds (if time), change diapers, brush teeth and hair (don't forget self), sign homework papers, wipe up spill, grab breakfast to go, spend 20 minutes loading up car, wipe up another spill, drop off 5-year-old at school, go to grocery, realize 2-year-old doesn't have shoes on... And it's only 8 am. So when Thursday morning rolls around, there is nothing I'd rather do than to refuel in fellowship with my Mothers of Little Ones group (MoLo), to be rescued from life's many distractions and focus on Scripture.

It has been such a blessing for me to lead such a strong group of women each week who are hungry for the gospel. I honestly don't know how I would survive this season of life without this beautiful community of women to lean on, study with, pray with, laugh with and even cry with. I'm in awe of their insight, the comments shared and questions raised, all of which push us deeper into our understanding of our Father. Madeline Ellis told me, "I always leave grounded in the Word, renewed in spirit and tethered more tightly to women I love and trust more every day." And Lindsey Cotton has said, "MoLo is an answered prayer in my life. This group has provided lifelong friendships and a deep study of God's Word. To be able to pray for your fellow sister in Christ and encourage one another is truly a gift." I echo both of these women's sentiments. I love being connected to each of these women through prayer and study, and I leave every week feeling so re-energized and inspired by each of them.

The majority of the women in MoLo are in their 20s and 30s with younger children. Our fall semester starts on Thursday, September 10 from 9.30-11 am, and we will be studying Ephesians. If you are interested in learning more, please contact me at jlcarnaggio@yahoo.com.

Doing God's Will Series: Introduction

Introduction

Sooner or later, everyone who seeks to know God asks questions like these, "So what does God want from me?  How do I know what God wants me to do?" 

We wonder, "Is there a specific plan I can discover?  Or is it all as simple as Martin Luther's famous prescription, Love God, and do what you please?" 

These days, we have so many choices that we get fatigued weighing all our options.  I wish God would just drop the instructions in my lap!  But it seldom works that way. 

Over the next month, through messages from the pulpit and the Scriptures in this guide, I will be inviting you to open yourself to God's will for your life.  When we get in sync with God, the world is full of wonders as we see our God show up in so many amazing places and ways. Life takes on a sense of adventure--even if we never leave our homes! 

We will discover that doing God's will is more about deepening a relationship than executing a specific plan.  Let's go together, then, deeper into Christ.

As you journey, feel free to contact me (gerrit@fpcbr.org) or any of our pastors if we can be a companion along the way.

With you in Christ,
Gerrit S. Dawson
 

Shortcuts to posts in this Series:

 

Doing God's Will Series: Week One

Day One

Read I Samuel 3.
Consider how each of these ideas from the story relates to God’s call in your life: 
a) Samuel slept in the house of the Lord.  He located himself in a place where God’s presence was known to be felt.  In other words, he positioned himself to be “in the way” when God’s words and call came. 
b) Samuel got up from sleep and made inquiries of an older, wiser person when he first heard God’s call. 
c) Samuel offered a prayer of availability to God, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
d) Samuel had the courage to obey even though it meant risking his mentor’s displeasure.

Use the phrase, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” throughout the day and night.

Day Two

Read Isaiah 6: 1-9. 
Consider Isaiah’s response to being in the presence of the LORD.  What feelings of inadequacy and guilt for “unclean lips” might be making you fear to be in God’s presence?  Consider what gift is given to Isaiah to heal his guilt.  What does God offer you?  Consider as well the question which the LORD asks, “Whom shall I send?”  and Isaiah’s prayer of radical availability, “Here I am; send me!”

Use that phrase throughout your prayers today and tonight.

Day Three

Read Luke 11: 38-41. 
Meditate on the difference between a vocation of busyness and a vocation of devotion.  Why is Mary’s the better part?  What tasks would you like to leave off so that you might pursue your first love, Jesus’ first call to you?

Meditate upon Jesus’ words, “You have need of only one thing.” throughout this day and night.

Day Four

Read Romans 1: 1-7.
Consider that if you know Jesus as Lord and Savior, God has called you to himself. Try to recall the times when you have felt God’s claim and call on your life most clearly. Perhaps write down the story of your first call to know him, and any times of renewal when the first call seemed to come afresh. Explore the circumstances of your responding to God’s call. Give thanks that you were able to say Yes, and affirm those moments with joy throughout the day.

Day Five

Read Revelation 2: 1-7. 
Reviewing yesterday’s work, consider ways in which you may have lost your first love for God.  What has come between you and an undivided devotion to God? Let the memories of your first call to follow Jesus work in you to get behind the later resistance and loss of luster.

Day Six

Read Mark 10: 17-22.
Hear Jesus’ words to the rich young man as words to you. He sees you and he loves you. But then he speaks the one thing you lack? What is it? What might he be asking you to give up so that you will be free to follow him more nearly? Do you feel that you will walk away grieving as this man did? What would help you move towards radical availability?

Day Seven

Read Acts 22: 1-21. 
What was the primary call given to Saul?  What response of availability did he make?  How does responding to Jesus Christ as his Lord precede being given a mission to the Gentiles?  As you prepare to enter a second week considering your vocation, what yet needs to be abandoned in order to be ready to hear God’s particular instructions?  What needs to be embraced?

Doing God's Will Series: Week Two

Day One

Read Isaiah 5:1-7 and John 15: 1-4.
Consider how the image of the vine and vinegrower has been altered from Isaiah 5 to John 15.   Who is the vinegrower?  Who now is the vine?  What expectation of us remains from the Old Testament?  What has changed?

Consider what ways God has pruned you back through the years to make you more fruitful.  Consider what areas of your life might require pruning, and ponder what instruments God might be using to do that.  In prayer, try to risk asking God to do what is necessary to make you a fruitful branch in the vine.

Day Two

Read John 15: 5-8. 
How do you feel about your inability to please God or bear fruit or be radically available on your own strength?

Can you recall a time or a season during which you tried to produce fruit apart from Christ, the Vine?  What were the results?

What causes the branch to wither when cut off from the Vine?  How do people wither when they are cut off from Christ?  When they try to produce different fruit than that which God has designed for them?  Today in prayer, concentrate on admitting your need to be connected to Christ, the vine, in a living way.

Consider the word abide, which means to remain in, or to dwell in.  How does a branch abide in the vine?  How can we remain so naturally, effortlessly in Christ?

Day Three

Read the story of Paul’s living reliance in 2 Corinthians 12: 2-10. 
Concentrate especially on the phrase, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  Are there times in your life when weakness led you to discover God’s strength?   What areas of defeat, inadequacy, illness or weakness may be urging you towards a greater reliance on God today?  Today in prayer, try to give thanks for the weaknesses you have been given, and invite God’s strength into them.

Day Four

Read Psalm 16, focusing especially on the phrase, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” 
Why do we tend to try to live apart from the Lord?  Why does such separation destroy the very “good” in our lives.  Concentrate on the phrase from vs. 11, “In your presence there is fullness of joy.”  Today in your prayers, give thanks for the joy of God’s presence, and invite God to keep you closely connected all through the day.  Tonight, consider if such dependence on God led you to fewer or more loving, useful activities.

Day Five

Read Psalm 32. 
What causes us to keep silent about our sins?  Why does such denial dry up our strength?  How does confession renew our strength?  Read Psalm 130, and note the three blessings connected with God:  vs. 4 “there is forgiveness with you;” vs. 7, “with the Lord there is steadfast love;” “with him there is great power to redeem.”  How does the character of God influence our ability to enter into a relationship of living reliance?  In prayer today, acknowledge both your sin and need for God, moving quickly from yourself to thanksgiving for the forgiveness, steadfast love and power of God.  Take note today of how a concentration on the character of God influences your character and actions.

Day Six

Read John 15: 9-17.
How can abiding in Christ be at once so effortless and so fruitful?  How, in other words, do we expend energy and strength for God in a way that is both peaceful and exerting?

In practical terms, according to verse 10, how is this abiding expressed?

Visualize in prayer the way a branch abides in the vine, and see yourself as held and holding to Jesus.

Day Seven

Consider this quotation from Andrew Murray’s book, Abide in Christ:
...the feeblest can, each single moment, say, as he consents to occupy his place as a branch in the vine, “Yes, I do abide in Christ.”  It is not a matter of feeling--it is not a question of growth or strength in the Christian life--it is the simple question whether the will at the present moment desires and consents to recognize the place you have in your Lord, and to accept it.  If you are a believer, you are in Christ.  If you are in Christ, and wish to stay there, it is your duty to say, though it be but for a moment, “Blessed Saviour, I abide in Thee now;  Thou keepest me now.”

Practice saying this prayer of living reliance throughout the day.

Doing God's Will Series: Week Three

Day One

Read this selection from Andrew Murray’s Abide in Christ.
Each time your attention is free to occupy itself with the thought of Jesus--whether it be with time to think and pray, or only for a few passing seconds--let your first thought be to say:  Now, at this moment, I do abide in Jesus.  Use such time, not in vain regrets that you have not been abiding fully, or still more harmful fears that you will not be able to abide, but just at once take the position the Father has given you: “I am in Christ;  this is the place God has given me.  I accept it; here I rest; I do now abide in Jesus.”

Practice such abiding each day this week, and reflect upon what difference it makes.

Day Two

Read Luke 1: 26-38, concentrating on Mary’s words in vs. 38, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” 
Consider what situations you may encounter today into which you especially want to pray those words.  In prayer, visualize yourself in each encounter maintaining this attitude of “active passivity.”

Day Three

Read Luke 6: 43-49. 
What causes a tree to produce good or bad fruit?  How can the kind of fruit our lives are producing be changed?  What is the connection between the words of Christ, faith, and our actions?  Today in prayer, make the connection between the concept of abiding and Jesus’ instructions on obedience and fruit.

Day Four

Read Galatians 5: 16-26.
What is the difference between a “work” and a “fruit”?  Take a moment to contrast the works of the sinful nature and the fruit of the Spirit.  In what form do you experience the conflict between the fruit God desires to grow in you and the works your old nature wants to manufacture?  In this passage, what are the instructions for winning the struggle?  On what previously accomplished facts do we rely?  What does it mean for you to consciously “live by the Spirit”?

Day Five

Read Romans 6: 5-11.
Note that Paul says both that “our old self was crucified with” Christ and that we yet “must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”  This consideration, or “reckoning” as some translations have it, is similar to abiding in the vine and living in the Spirit.  All three involve counting on certain facts to be true, and then living in agreement with those facts.  Prepare for today by briefly considering the sins, diminishments and defeats which typically belittle you.  Count them as dead, as crucified with Christ.  Then consider yourself, visualize yourself, as one who is alive with Christ in his resurrection, made new by the Spirit.

Day Six

Read Colossians 3: 1-4. 
Here is yet another Biblical way of describing the balance between Christ’s work and our consent.  Begin this day by taking time to set your mind on the things above.  Consider who Jesus is and all he has done for you, and is doing now.  Ponder how your ambitions and anxieties may be hidden with Christ in God, and consider that your true life is in Jesus the vine.

Day Seven

Read Colossians 3: 5-17. 
Contrast the two ways of life Paul describes.  How does he use the idea of “clothing ourselves”?  What actions and attitudes would you like to peel off today?  What kind of spiritual clothes do you feel led to dress in this day?  In vs. 15-17, some specific instructions are given to aid this process?  What are they, and how do they apply to your life?

Practice giving thanks, making music in your heart, and letting the words of Christ dwell in you today.