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First Thoughts Blog


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.

If You Could, Would You…?

Go back in time that is.  Would you go back to some great day in your life to live it all over again?  To savor the time with someone now gone? To see the beauty all around you that you missed? To say what you really meant to say in that moment? Would you go back if you could?

In the movie About Time, the characters of both Tim and his father have that ability. They can go back to relive days in their past. By the end of the movie, though, Tim has all but given up this gift because he has trained himself to live each day as if it were a day he had chosen to relive. He begins to savor in the moment the extraordinariness in every ordinary day. What if we imagined, throughout the hours, “This is a moment to which I have returned in order to see the beauty, the poignancy, the wonder, the struggle, the life it offers?” 

That would be grateful living. Mindful living. That would be what Paul, long before people were making movies, meant when he said, “Give thanks in all things.” There is incredible power in giving thanks in the moment. In noting what is happening, whom you are seeing, what is being said, colors, sights, sounds, temperature.  We live in a world of wonders overflowing with the grace of God all the time. 

You can’t go back. But you can savor now. You can see every moment, even the hard ones, in a spirit of gratitude. You can realize the presence of God every hour.  It all begins with thanks.  Before another second passes. Thanks. Thank you God.

Please know that as we sit down to feast on Thanksgiving, Rhonda and I will give thanks for you, beloved congregation, and for all the joy of seeking to know and serve Christ Jesus together.

When a House Becomes a Home

I felt a holy awe during the dedication of the Habitat home; the church built with and for Marah Bowie and her family.  In less than a month, a concrete slab became a real home. Through the laying on of hands, that structure became a residence. Hands were laid upon that house with every swing of a hammer or swish of a brush. And hands were laid upon it in prayer, that this home will be a light which shines like a beacon showing the love of Jesus. That this home will be a place of peace and protection and nurture from which love can be launched into the world. More than 140 volunteers worked on the First Presbyterian Habitat house. Kudos to Whitney Alexander and Charles Courtney, who coordinated our efforts, and to Joe Willis and Hans Othmer, along with many others who led and served to make this a reality.  I’m so proud of you!

See a Real, Live Methodist!

Right in our church! Yes, we have a treat in store. The community Thanksgiving service will be held at our church this year. 6 pm, Sunday night, November 22. The guest preacher is Brady Whitton, pastor of First Methodist. He’s a dynamic speaker and a fine leader, and I look forward to welcoming him, and you, to worship that night. A grateful community will give thanks together. 

Mission Grants

The session continues to put the gifts of our people into play through carefully researched partnerships in our city and around the world. In September, the session made the final grants from the mission funds accumulated through our previous capital campaign. More than $100,000 was distributed to vital, gospel-driven ministries at Angola prison, Buchanan Elementary, Young Life, Campus Crusade, Smiles Foundation in Romania, the Magruders in Kenya, Kasr El Dobara Church in Cairo, the Veritas Forum at LSU, Manners of the Heart, Open Air Ministries to the homeless and more. We have a heart for our city and so we share the heart of Christ in every way we can!

Doctrine Into Life

How Theology Can Shape Ministry
In the Local Congregation

Doctrine Into Life is a course for pastors enrolled in a Doctor of Ministry program at Reformed Seminary. The notes on this website, though, might be helpful for anyone interested in why theology matters to the life of the church. My sermon series on the Apostle’s Creed was foundational preparation for teaching the course.  Those sermons are all available under the Resources section of the FPC website.  The power points for those sermons are here. The material in this “web section” is rather eclectic.  It explores the sources of the Creed, the teachings of John Calvin on union with Christ, the theological vision of George Herbert, and a number of the Biblical images that run throughout the pages of Scripture by which the whole story of our redemption may be told. 

-Gerrit Scott Dawson
Senior Pastor
First Presbyterian Church


Daily Schedule



Posted in: Doctrine Into Life

Why Not Me?

I want what you have. It’s supposed to belong to me. You don’t deserve it anyway. You won’t even appreciate it. You’ve got what’s mine and I hate you for it. I’ll scratch your eyes out for it. Ever feel that way?

You see the girl you adore kiss another guy by the lockers. You want to go at him, right there. You watch the rich kid show off the spoils from another shopping spree and everything you own suddenly seems ready for the thrift shop. You burn inside. Your parents look at your brother’s report card and praise him for being so smart. They turn to you and smile sympathetically. Not every one can have all the gifts he has. If looks could kill, your brother wouldn’t make it out of the room.

Jealousy is a powerful, overwhelming emotion. We’ve been plagued with it from the beginning. Cain and Abel were brothers with different jobs. Cain tilled the ground and grew crops. Abel kept the flocks of sheep and cattle. One day, they both brought gifts to the Lord. Cain brought some of his harvest from the fields. Abel brought an offering of the firstborn of his flock. At first sight, this seems normal enough, each one bringing something from his work. But the story from Genesis 4 tells us that God was pleased with Abel’s offering while having no regard for Cain’s. We are never really told why one was better than another.We do read that Cain was furious with jealousy, and his face fell into gloom.

The Lord spoke to Cain, saying in effect “Why are you so mad? If you do what is right, you’ll be accepted. But if not, be careful, because sin is lurking right at your door. It desires to own you, but you must overcome it.”

God knew exactly how jealousy works. It threatens to possess us. If we aren’t careful, it will take over and lead us into doing the worst things possible.

Cain, of course, didn’t heed the warning. He lured Abel into a field, then savagely attacked him. Still in a rage, Cain at first tried denying that he had killed his brother. God asked him where Abel was and Cain replied, “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?”

“His blood cries out to me from the ground,” said the Lord.

When Cain came out of his jealous fit, he realized the curse he had brought down on himself. His whole life was ruined by his envious rage.

Jealousy can do that. In a moment, it can seize us and lead us to ruin relationships. We can’t stop the feeling of jealousy when it arises. But our story gives us some cluse about what to do with those feelings. First of all, we can name them. I am angry because I am so jealous I could kill. Yes, I recognize you, you sin of jealous rage lurking around my door! But you can’t have me.” Second, we deny jealousy its full expression by remembering “I am my brother’s keeper. We belong to each other. I can’t just obliterate you, much as I’d like. We’re connected. We each belong to God and so we matter to each other. You really aren’t the problem, but my jealousy is.” And third, we can hold hard to God’s words to Cain, “If you do right, you will be accepted.” I’m not going to give in and have a fit that will make everything worse. I’m going to entrust myself to God, do what is right, and hang on till the wave of jealousy passes. And then we pray like crazy that God will see us through.

Posted in: Devotionals

All Bottled Up

I grew up with a German Shepherd who had a conscience. She loved to get in the trash; we scolded her every time she did. When our family would go out, the dog was often left alone in the house. The temptation to rummage through the garbage would overwhelm her. We would arrive home to find a trail of cans and half-eaten wrappers leading straight to a dog who was trying very hard to melt into the floor. The guilt overwhelmed her and she crouched as low as she could go, awaiting our judgement. She was miserable! Her remorse made it hard to go through the required lecture: "You were bad! You went in the garbage!" But what joy for all of us when at last the release came: "But you’re still our dog. Good dog! Come here and see me!" Being restored to the family sent her into leaps and wags of happiness.

Guilt is that way. Keep it quiet, stuffed away, and it drags you down towards despair. Confess, ask forgiveness, make what changes you can, and life returns. The relief is like the feeling you get when someone you’ve been carrying on your shoulders for ten minutes jumps off. You feel like you can float.

In Psalm 32, King David deals with what happened when he tried to avoid dealing with his sin. "When I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer" (Ps. 32: 3-4, NRSV). He never tells us just what sin he was holding back. But we know David had once committed adultery and then murder to cover it up (see 2 Samuel 11), and the consequences of those foolish, cruel actions rippled down the remaining decades of his life. So he knew about sin, and about trying not to deal with it. The result even has physical consequences. Refusing to come before God with our sin can suck the very life out of us. Bottling up our guilt wastes us. We just get mashed down in soul and body.

Though he still had to face the real-life results of his actions, David learned how much better it is to do that with a clean conscience and a restored soul. He went on to pray, "Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin" (Ps 32: 5). He found the release of coming clean before a God who has a bountiful forgiveness just waiting for us (see Ps 130).

The apostle John tells us that "if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." Denying what’s going on in our lives cuts us off from God and a life of truth. But, "if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1: 8-9). Unconfessed sin weighs down many Christians. We may well stuff down the truth for so long that we no longer remember when or how we got disconnected from God. If you ever feel depressed in your spiritual life, take some time to do some honest soul searching before God. Invite the Holy Spirit to reveal any areas of your life in which confession is needed. This isn’t always easy, but remember that our loving God longs to pour the release and the relief of forgiveness into our lives.

Next Day Stretch

Psalm 139: 23-24 says, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." That’s a daring prayer! Consider taking some time today to come before God. You may well want to get on your knees. Pray, "Search me O God! Show me any sins I need to confess. Show me any secret sins I have long denied." Listen for what the Holy Spirit brings to mind. You might then go on to consider the primary relationships in your life to examine if there are things to confess—things we have both done and left undone. Bring all this before God, consider what actions you may need to take to make amends, and then claim the forgiveness God has secured for us in Jesus Christ. Hold hard to what John wrote, "If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but from the sins of the whole world" (I John 2: 1-2).

Posted in: Devotionals