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First Thoughts Blog

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A Farewell Benediction

One of my favorite passages of Scripture is this benediction Paul offers to the Ephesians (Eph. 3: 20-21): "Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us,  to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen."

I wait with excited anticipation as I think of God working out in our lives more than we could ever ask or imagine. As I leave First Presbyterian, I pray that you will be perceptive to the power that is at work in you. That you will know the presence and love of God as he guides and leads you. I pray that your life, and mine, will glorify this God that can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine. May we serve him well! I love you.  

 

 

Listening Through the Crack

What if you found the door to the divine throne room left slightly ajar? What if you could listen through that crack to overhear what the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were saying to each other? And what if you discovered they were talking about us?!
 
Hidden Conversations: Overhearing the Trinity is the theme for three special presentations January 31/February 1. We call it a “Stay-Treat” because it’s like a retreat: we eat together, hang out together and study the Word together. But we get to go home and sleep in our own beds! Friday evening and Saturday morning, Dr. Matthew Bates will lead our explorations of conversations recorded in Scripture between members of the Trinity. Often overlooked entirely, these amazing passages led the early church to realize that the one God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We actually get to overhear the Trinity talking about how to save us! 
 
Mark your calendars now! You will never read Scripture the same way again! All this, plus a great dinner Friday night, yummy desserts and a special track for kids. Also, I’ll be leading an intro session to the topic in the Crossroads Class January 5, the Kingdom Builders class January 12 and the Essentials class January 19 to help get us ready.
 
 
Hellos and Goodbyes
 
As the New Year begins, we say goodbye to some faces we love and hello to some faces we will grow quickly to love. Elizabeth Parker has concluded her five and a half years with us, and we give thanks for dedication among our women and in the ministry of the Word. Nancy Spiller is concluding her second tour as a worship director. 
 
We’re so grateful she postponed her retirement to step in last summer when we had a critical need. There’s only one Nancy! And we welcome Chris Phillips as our new Director of Worship.
 
Chris begins January 12. He is moving here from Jackson, MS along with his wife Virginia and son Benjamin. I know you’ll be delighted to meet the Phillips. 
 
And I’m delighted to begin another new year with you, beloved congregation!
 

Listening Through the Crack

What if you found the door to the divine throne room left slightly ajar? What if you could listen through that crack to overhear what the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were saying to each other? And what if you discovered they were talking about us?!
 
Hidden Conversations: Overhearing the Trinity is the theme for three special presentations January 31/February 1. We call it a “Stay-Treat” because it’s like a retreat: we eat together, hang out together and study the Word together. But we get to go home and sleep in our own beds! Friday evening and Saturday morning, Dr. Matthew Bates will lead our explorations of conversations recorded in Scripture between members of the Trinity. Often overlooked entirely, these amazing passages led the early church to realize that the one God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We actually get to overhear the Trinity talking about how to save us! 
 
Mark your calendars now! You will never read Scripture the same way again! All this, plus a great dinner Friday night, yummy desserts and a special track for kids. Also, I’ll be leading an intro session to the topic in the Crossroads Class January 5, the Kingdom Builders class January 12 and the Essentials class January 19 to help get us ready.
 
 
Hellos and Goodbyes
 
As the New Year begins, we say goodbye to some faces we love and hello to some faces we will grow quickly to love. Elizabeth Parker has concluded her five and a half years with us, and we give thanks for dedication among our women and in the ministry of the Word. Nancy Spiller is concluding her second tour as a worship director. 
 
We’re so grateful she postponed her retirement to step in last summer when we had a critical need. There’s only one Nancy! And we welcome Chris Phillips as our new Director of Worship.
 
Chris begins January 12. He is moving here from Jackson, MS along with his wife Virginia and son Benjamin. I know you’ll be delighted to meet the Phillips. 
 
And I’m delighted to begin another new year with you, beloved congregation!
 

Why I Love XMas!

Hey, keep Christ in Christmas!! I agree! Merry Xmas! (Has our pastor lost his mind? Probably, but that’s another column . . . ).
 
Did you know that the familiar abbreviation for Christmas does not have secular origins? An “X” has been used for Christ since the time of the ancient church, even in some manuscripts of the New Testament! The “X” represents Chi, the first letter in Greek for christos, or Christ. An X for Christ has also been found in English writing since the 15th century. 
 
So, I’m happy to reclaim the “X” in Xmas. And I enjoy the “X” all year long. I’ve even abbreviated my personal vision for ministry to these 3 characters: Q4X. Quest for Christ. As you study ancient Christian symbols and art, you’ll often find this symbol: two Greek letters combined, the Chi (X) and the Rho (an “r” that looks like a “p”). These are the first two letter in christos and they make a beautiful symbol for our Lord and Savior. So, joyous Xmas to you!
New Xmas Eve Morning Service
 
The session has authorized a third Christmas Eve service! This 11 am worship will be a multi-media journey of lessons and carols designed especially for families with young children. We will tell the ancient story and sing the favorite songs in a way that appeals to our youngest worshippers. Glow sticks will replace drippy candles, and we’ll use instruments, arts and stories to keep it creative and joyful. An infant nursery will be offered. There won’t be communion. And, of course, we will be offering our 4 pm and 6 pm festive services of candlelight and communion. 
 
It’s always a joy to keep Christmas with you.
 

Why I Love XMas!

Hey, keep Christ in Christmas!! I agree! Merry Xmas! (Has our pastor lost his mind? Probably, but that’s another column . . . ).
 
Did you know that the familiar abbreviation for Christmas does not have secular origins? An “X” has been used for Christ since the time of the ancient church, even in some manuscripts of the New Testament! The “X” represents Chi, the first letter in Greek for christos, or Christ. An X for Christ has also been found in English writing since the 15th century. 
 
So, I’m happy to reclaim the “X” in Xmas. And I enjoy the “X” all year long. I’ve even abbreviated my personal vision for ministry to these 3 characters: Q4X. Quest for Christ. As you study ancient Christian symbols and art, you’ll often find this symbol: two Greek letters combined, the Chi (X) and the Rho (an “r” that looks like a “p”). These are the first two letter in christos and they make a beautiful symbol for our Lord and Savior. So, joyous Xmas to you!
New Xmas Eve Morning Service
 
The session has authorized a third Christmas Eve service! This 11 am worship will be a multi-media journey of lessons and carols designed especially for families with young children. We will tell the ancient story and sing the favorite songs in a way that appeals to our youngest worshippers. Glow sticks will replace drippy candles, and we’ll use instruments, arts and stories to keep it creative and joyful. An infant nursery will be offered. There won’t be communion. And, of course, we will be offering our 4 pm and 6 pm festive services of candlelight and communion. 
 
It’s always a joy to keep Christmas with you.
 

Presents or Presence?

Parenting is one tough job and not for sissies or the fainthearted. Giving birth is a snap compared to parenting and being the biological male sire is by no means the same as being the parenting father. It is kind of like the fact that weddings do not necessarily result in marriages, if you get my drift.
 
The world doesn’t honor parenting. It never has, and a lot of lip service is given but like the saying goes, “words are cheap.” The world has pulled mother out of the home under the guise of liberating her to equal status with men. By what standard are we measuring this worth? The world’s standard? Money? As for men, they have never been encouraged by the world to put as much energy into parenting as they do their labor for the almighty dollar.
 
Parenting takes more time than money. It is really true. Just look at the number of boarding schools and children’s homes that have been built for the purpose of kids being put aside while parents pursue their careers. If you ask children what they desire, their answer will be, "To be at home with their family." Toys and entertainment (i.e., Play Stations) don’t make up for the longing for home in their hearts that shows in their eyes.
 
Children want presence not presents. Oh, we have taught them well; that like us, they are supposed to like presents. It is the material way. The American way. But I’m not sure it is God’s way. Please don’t get me wrong. We do have to live in this world and we do have to have real material bread for the journey. The economic status of many single mothers and couples dictates that both work. But even if that is the case, the economic necessity doesn’t reduce the missed time of presence for both parent and child.
 
What is the answer? I’m not sure, but this much I know: children need parents present as much as possible. That means not just in their rooms but also paying attention and participating in their world. Quality time is vital and there needs to be a lot of quality time or else there will be no parenting going on. Take time to reflect for a moment on how we adults long for God’s presence. And guess what? He shows up! 
 
 
The Gift of Presence
 
How can you give the gifts of presence to your family? One step at a time. The following suggestions will help you get started:
  1. When you come home, give yourself thirty minutes, if possible, to unwind and change gears before you enter into the family dynamics. (Maybe you can do this in the car on the way home or maybe each parent can give the other thirty minutes of alone time before everyone comes together).
  2. When you enter the family, give each child thirty minutes of your undivided attention. Children want to know that that you are present and interested. At the end of that time, they will have had enough of you and will go off to play on their own. (However, if you come in, listen with one ear, watch TV or read the paper with both eyes and just say “uh huh” a lot, they will pester you all night to try to get you to really notice them).
  3. Plan family time and possibly a family meeting each week. Family time is a time when everybody plays or talks and listens together. Family meeting is when everyone gets to put their two cents worth in, knowing it will be heard and considered, even if not acted on every time.
  4. Have a “date” with each child at least once a month.  Mom and Dad can each do this. (When my boys were young, I took them to breakfast on Wednesday (Patrick) and Friday (Andrew) mornings before school: we had 100/breakfasts per year x 10 years). 
  5. Praise your children for who they are --- their humor, their smile, their ability to think, their insights, their gifts and talents. You cannot bless a child’s being too much.
  6. Correct their doing and don’t attack their person.
  7. Let siblings work out their differences whenever possible. They don’t need to get you in the middle.  They are better arbitrators than we give them credit for sometimes.
  8. Love your spouse! Stand together! Discuss your differences in a private space away from the children and then come out as a united front. Don’t let the children split you up.
  9. Take some time for yourself. You cannot give all the time and not run out of juice. Batteries run down, and you will too.
  10. Take time to be a couple, if you are not a single parent. Make some memories together. One day, the children will be gone and don’t live through them.
  11. Be present. Be present. Be present as much as possible. Children just need to know you are there and that they can get to you when they really need you.
  12. Sometimes when the culture is cheering us all on to our death beds (both culturally and individually), we just have to listen to the still, small voice of God inside us. Get still and listen. I believe God will let you know a lot better how to do this parenting thing than the world would lead you to believe. But remember: to hear God will take the same thing it takes to be present – presence! Be present please, Mom and Dad. And God says, “Be present please, children; I want to enjoy my children, too.” 

Season of Thanks

Gratitude is the path to well-being.  Thanksgiving transforms toil into delight.Saying a blessing brings more pleasure to the meal.  A grateful heart is a merry heart.  Scripture urges us to rejoice always and to give thanks in all circumstances. So true. Yet, at this time of year we more intentionally appreciate all that God has given us. As we prepare to celebrate the birth of God’s Son, our hearts want to make a return for such a gift.
 
It’s easy for me to be thankful for our church. We stand in a crowded Sanctuary singing “A Mighty Fortress” with the organ and brass sounding forth. I rejoice to be in the company of the saints, both the ones in that hour and all the faithful ones who have raised their voices through two centuries. I can’t help but smile when I see the sweet faces of our Mother’s Day Out children gathering for chapel. Practicing for the Christmas play with elementary students, I delight in their enthusiasm. Hearing the questions of confirmation  students, laughing with a group of men about the foibles of our discipleship, or feeling the passion in our members doing city mission and international ministry, I’m just moved with thanks. All year long I am grateful for our life among the extraordinary believers in Baton Rouge.
 
Just a few highlights for particular praise. The session has called Chris Phillips to be our new worship director. At Belhaven University, Chris taught worship leadership for both traditional and contemporary styles. At Lakeside Presbyterian in Jackson, Chris has been designing and leading services in both accents. We look forward to welcoming Chris, his wife Virginia and his son Benjamin in January.  
 
The session has authorized our hosting a third Christmas Eve worship service. This 11 am Sanctuary program will be especially designed for families with younger children. We’re trying it out this year in hopes of offering a convenient option for little ones while also alleviating some of the overcrowding we’ve had at the four o’clock service. More details next month.
 
We dedicate our Estimates of Giving November 10. My challenge: fill out your card before the LSU/Alabama game! That way you will know what matters most. And if the unimaginable happens and our idols are shattered, you can remember you acknowledged God first! And if our football dreams come true, you’ll be delighted to celebrate with this act of faith. Just sayin’!
 
As ever, I hope you can tell how proud I am of you and how much I love being your pastor.
 
  

Season of Thanks

Gratitude is the path to well-being.  Thanksgiving transforms toil into delight.Saying a blessing brings more pleasure to the meal.  A grateful heart is a merry heart.  Scripture urges us to rejoice always and to give thanks in all circumstances. So true. Yet, at this time of year we more intentionally appreciate all that God has given us. As we prepare to celebrate the birth of God’s Son, our hearts want to make a return for such a gift.
 
It’s easy for me to be thankful for our church. We stand in a crowded Sanctuary singing “A Mighty Fortress” with the organ and brass sounding forth. I rejoice to be in the company of the saints, both the ones in that hour and all the faithful ones who have raised their voices through two centuries. I can’t help but smile when I see the sweet faces of our Mother’s Day Out children gathering for chapel. Practicing for the Christmas play with elementary students, I delight in their enthusiasm. Hearing the questions of confirmation  students, laughing with a group of men about the foibles of our discipleship, or feeling the passion in our members doing city mission and international ministry, I’m just moved with thanks. All year long I am grateful for our life among the extraordinary believers in Baton Rouge.
 
Just a few highlights for particular praise. The session has called Chris Phillips to be our new worship director. At Belhaven University, Chris taught worship leadership for both traditional and contemporary styles. At Lakeside Presbyterian in Jackson, Chris has been designing and leading services in both accents. We look forward to welcoming Chris, his wife Virginia and his son Benjamin in January.  
 
The session has authorized our hosting a third Christmas Eve worship service. This 11 am Sanctuary program will be especially designed for families with younger children. We’re trying it out this year in hopes of offering a convenient option for little ones while also alleviating some of the overcrowding we’ve had at the four o’clock service. More details next month.
 
We dedicate our Estimates of Giving November 10. My challenge: fill out your card before the LSU/Alabama game! That way you will know what matters most. And if the unimaginable happens and our idols are shattered, you can remember you acknowledged God first! And if our football dreams come true, you’ll be delighted to celebrate with this act of faith. Just sayin’!
 
As ever, I hope you can tell how proud I am of you and how much I love being your pastor.
 
  

Prayerful Listening

At a Young Life Staff retreat at Windy Gap in 1991, Henri Nouwen asked, “What is it like for you to be in the presence of God? What images come to mind?” Almost immediately, the answer came from deep within me. It’s like visiting my grandmother. Every Saturday from age eight till 18, I would take three buses across the city to clean her home and enjoy a Saturday lunch that was incredible. My grandmother desired spending time with me, and I loved the adventure to get to her home. After cleaning her home and having an amazing lunch, we would visit with one another, sitting in the quiet of her home playing a few games of “crazy eights or canasta.” I would speak about my life and ask her about hers. Grandma listened and I listened. There were times of silence, and there was no sense of hurry, except she wanted me on the bus by 4.30 to begin the trek home to uptown Nola.  
 
Even when I got busy with other things and came less often, Grandma didn’t scold me for not coming sooner. She always greeted me as though I was the best part of her week. I don’t recall her telling me she loved me or that she was praying for me, though there was no doubt that both were true. She gave me an image of God that was accepting and loving and spacious. She helped to listen my soul into being, and she pursued my heart since I was born.  Grandma Thelma was my only living grandparent when I was born, and we remained very close until her death on November 15, 1989 (the same day our son Andrew came into our lives). The irony of this gift was that the Lord Jesus was in charge of the timing.
 
Perhaps Grandma guided my vocational life without ever speaking of it or planning it. Maybe she had a desire I would become a priest or pastor, but grandma helped to prepare me by which my spiritual life has been nurtured.  Throughout my adult life through listening and talking in small groups of people, I have been seeking to deepen my life in God. These small groups have often been formed through the church and youth ministry, and became known as breakfast clubs with young men and adults. Since 1976, it has been a joy to listen to God and to others, and this has been a precious gift. It is called prayerful listening. 
 
Henri Nouwen on this Young Life staff retreat shared of the healing that is available in prayerful listening. “Healing means, first of all, the creation of an empty but friendly space where those who suffer can tell their story to someone who can listen with real attention. Healers are hosts who patiently and carefully listen to the story. Our most important question as healers is not, ‘What to say or to do?’ but, ‘How to develop enough inner space where the story can be received?’ Healing is the humble but also very demanding task of creating and offering a friendly empty space where strangers can reflect without fear, and find the confidence that makes them look for new ways right in the center of their confusion” (Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, p. 67-68). 
 
My grandmother, in her own limited situation, without knowing the larger impact of her faithfulness, pointed me to God, who is always ready to listen, to heal, to love and to invite us into deeper places. Without a doubt, grandma was prayerfully listening to every word that I shared and our Heavenly Father does the same.
 

Beautiful Spaces

We enjoy an unrepeatable location in the heart of Baton Rouge. We worship in an irreplaceable Sanctuary and Chapel. Our forebears in faith looked well beyond themselves in giving us such beautiful spaces for our life together in Christ.
 
By God’s bounty, this season of the church’s life affords us opportunity to enhance and protect what has been left to us. We are able to offer current and future members unprecedented facilities and grounds. The session has approved spending up to $850,000 in renovations and improvements over the next two years.
 
Projects include installation of lovely brick and aluminum fencing like we have on our playgrounds. We will enclose both our inner and outer perimeters. We’ll be able to go between our buildings or play in our gardens without worry that children will get loose into the street or parking lot. The whole block will feel welcoming but secure, and we’ll be adding more lanes for drop off by our entrances. We plan to upgrade all doors and locks with a new security system, including better cameras at the entrances. Inside, we’ll be replacing the current Sanctuary screens with brighter, sleeker LED screens and we’ll be adding higher quality cameras for livestreaming. The project includes fire sprinkler replacement in the Education Building, electrical surge protection and general beautification in a number of rooms.
Best of all, this project will be funded by the carefully stewarded income from our endowments. We don’t plan to ask you for anything more! We never use endowment income for the ongoing operation of the church and its mission—that’s why your annual gifts are so very important. But because of these well-managed extra sources, we are able to do special projects like this. How bountifully our God has blessed us, and now we will pass along an even more beautiful campus to those who come after us.
 
KidsHope
 
The session recently endorsed augmenting our ministry to the Gardere Community Christian School through beginning a new initiative. KidsHope USA is a national Christian mentoring program which enables churches to undergird schools with prayer and intentional mentoring. Every volunteer mentor has a prayer partner lifting up both the student and the mentor. Each hour spent with children has intentional activities designed to build character, communicate love and improve academics.  Annette Lamond will direct our program and I’d love for you to contact her to find out more.  And, as ever, I give thanks for you as I rejoice in being your pastor,