On Soil, Souls, and This Distracted Life

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Information overload. Constant updates. 24/7 cable news. Alerts on our smartphones. Text messages that scream for immediate attention. Endless Pinterest boards. Scrolling through social media newsfeeds. And scrolling. And scrolling. And scrolling. 

Mindless stimulation. The developed need for constant entertainment. The inability to be at rest. Ever-shortening attention spans.

You’ve experienced it. I’ve experienced it. And we all know it isn’t healthy.

In a recent article for New York Magazine called “My Distraction Sickness,” Andrew Sullivan writes, “This new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness.”

We spend hours a day on our phones and tablets and computers, often “alone together” in our living rooms with spouses and parents and children all physically present, but mentally—and I would contend spiritually—somewhere else.

I know I’m late to the party, but it isn’t good for us.

Much research has been done to discover what this new and growing state of distractedness is doing to our minds, but I’m much more concerned about what it's doing to our souls.

Distractedness is killing our souls.

One day, without noticing, when we started prioritizing communication over connection, we stopped using our souls. Souls feel. Souls empathize. Souls enjoy and savor and yearn. Souls mourn and celebrate. And our souls connect. They connect us at a deep level with other people. Our souls are the place where we love.

When we neglect our souls, we begin to lose the ability to connect as spiritual beings.

In Plato’s parlance, real love, if it is to exist at all, must exist at a deep, almost fundamental level that he describes as the “co-mingling of souls.”

But we don’t co-mingle souls anymore. Instead we Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat. And in our distractedness, we ignore our souls. 

So now we’re experiencing a sort of deep collective emptiness and hollowness—even, perhaps, a creeping inability to love—and it’s scary.

As a pastor, I’m worried because our souls are the soil in which God lives. God might work in our minds and through our emotions, but our souls are the place where God resides—the home base out of which God works in us and in our world.

Jesus tells a parable of four different types of soil—a rocky path, shallow soil, thorny ground, and deep, rich soil. Seed, he says, can only grow and thrive in one.

Distractedness robs our souls of the fertile ground needed for God’s presence to grow in us.

Think of each distraction of modern life as an erosion of our common soil or a thorny vine reaching up to choke what God is working to grow in us.

In this sense, distractedness and all the things that cause it can be real evils in our lives.  

So what do we do? What do we do when our collective soul is dying, when the ground on which our very being rests is bare and overgrown by thorns?

We need to begin giving our souls what they crave most. My soul craves human connection and music. It craves creative space, emotional renewal and mental rest. It craves time in nature and time with God.  I bet yours does, too.

So here are a few things I bet we can do together.

1.      Intentionally engage with other people. Join a Bible study group at church. Find a fitness class or an art class or a card game or a supper club. Volunteer at a hospital or school.

2.      Listen to music. Find music that helps you relax and smile and remember and escape.  

3.      Pray. Be quiet with God.

4.      Get outside. Stay connected to the natural world. Find an activity you enjoy that gets you outside as often as possible.

5.      Read. A book. Made of paper. That you can physically hold in your hands. Let your imagination get lost and run free.

6.      Put the phones and tablets and laptops away. Intentionally decide to be fully present in the moments and spaces in which you find yourself.

7.      And then, every so often, just sit with your soul. Visualize it. What does the soil of your soul look like? Speak to it. Pray with it. Dig in it. Feel love rising up in it. And celebrate as your soul becomes more fertile and welcoming to the seeds God is planting in you.

See you Sunday.

My Last Game at Turner Field

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

My love affair with the Braves appropriately began with heartbreak. In 1982, on the way to my first Braves game, I asked my parents, “Does Dale Murphy know we’re coming?” When my parents told me and my brother that he didn’t—and that we wouldn’t get to talk to him—we both started crying.

In 1991 my family moved to Richmond, VA. Before we got the TV hooked up, my brother, my dad and I spent September nights sitting out in our Ford Aerostar minivan because it had the best radio reception. We pulled AM 750 WSB down out of the stratosphere to listen to Pete Van Wieren, Skip Caray and Ernie Johnson describe Ron Gant’s arms, Steve Avery’s curve ball and Otis Nixon’s speed as the Braves chased a pennant.

By the time Sid slid in 1992, thankfully, we were watching the games on TV again. On that night, I had given up and gone to bed. But I heard my brother yelling about a rally and made it back to the living room in time to see David Justice waving Sid Bream down to slide.

Whole worlds are contained between Skip Caray’s call of “He is…”and the final pronouncement of “…safe!” Caray’s exultant refrain, “Braves win! Braves win! Braves win!” still echoes in my ears every time I cross the Green Lot where Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium used to sit.

In 1995 and 1996 we made family pilgrimages from Richmond to the old stadium to see the Braves play in the World Series. I’m 1-1 in World Series games.

And then the Braves moved next door to my beloved Turner Field, the home to most of my Braves memories.

On one spring Saturday at Turner Field, Chipper Jones hit a monster home run, and we yelled at him so loudly as he rounded third base that he smiled and pointed his fingers at us, making pistol motions with his hands. When ESPN showed Chipper’s reaction on SportsCenter for the whole world to see, Ben and Keith and I knew he was “shooting” at us.

I was sitting right behind home plate at Turner Field for Jason Heyward’s first game. Half the people in the stadium that day were wearing Heyward t-shirts, so when the “J-Hey Kid” from Henry County hit a home run in his very first at-bat, Turner Field went bananas.

Later, I would see the replay on TV and hear Jim Powell’s call, “This stadium is upside down!” And it was.

I was in the upper deck at Turner Field the night Eric Hinske hit an eighth-inning home run to give the Braves the lead in a playoff series against the Giants. We went so crazy I thought the stands were going to fall down.

And then I watched an inning later as a ground ball rolled between Brooks Conrad’s legs to give the Giants the win. The stadium didn't fall down then; it just deflated.

Turner Field/ September 29th, 2016

Turner Field/ September 29th, 2016

I was at Turner Field the next night, too—this time in the left field stands. We lost the playoff series that night, which made it Bobby Cox’s last game as our manager. After the game was over, the whole Giants team returned to the field from their locker room celebration to honor Cox as he tipped his cap one last time. There was a reverence about that moment I'll never forget. 

And, I was on the third base line at Turner Field for Chipper Jones’ last game, although it’s better remembered as the “infield fly” game. The one-game playoff against the Cardinals was interrupted when fans protested an umpire’s call by throwing beer cans and other debris on the field.

In fairness to the fans, it was—and is—the worst call in the history of calls. A girl behind us threw her shoe onto the field. I still laugh when I think about her walking home with just one shoe.

During my years at Turner Field, I saw Gary Sheffield swing through more fastballs than any human being has any right to.

At Turner Field, I've booed Barry Bonds until I was hoarse.

I’ve been to Turner Field with my mom for several Mother’s Days. Mothers and their children can run the bases together after the game on Mother’s Day. We never did. Now I wish we had.

I’ve been to Turner Field to watch my brother honor Bobby Cox as the newest member of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. 

I’ve banged the drum in left-center field, I’ve tomahawk chopped until I thought my arm might fall off, and I’ve made more memories with more friends than I can name—all at Turner Field. 

At Turner Field, I’ve high-fived strangers, yelled at umpires, screamed encouragement to pitchers, and told countless Braves batters that they had a “good eye.”

For 20 years at Turner Field, I’ve thrown my hat in frustration, covered my eyes in dismay, raised my arms in triumph, hung my head in disappointment, and literally jumped for joy.

In a few weeks, though, it will all be gone. Bulldozers, moving with all the finesse of Ryan Klesko, will be brought in, and Turner Field will be torn down.

After this season, the Braves are abandoning the hallowed ground of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and Turner Field to move to the wild hinterlands of Cobb County.

I’m not a big fan of the idea, but I’m starting to think I’ll come around. I may go to a few games next season, and I might even learn to like it.

But it won’t be Turner Field.

I'm a pastor. I'm supposed to write about God. I'm sure there’s a way to connect these memories to God somehow, but I’ll let you connect the dots yourself.

Right now, though, I need to get to the stadium. I wonder if Freddie Freeman knows I’m coming. It’s a big night. Tonight is my last game at Turner Field.

See you Sunday.

The Autumn of Our Discontent

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Now is the autumn of our discontent. On this second day of fall, Colin Kaepernick and countless other athletes are kneeling during the national anthem. More African-Americans have inexplicably been killed by police bullets. Bombs are going off in New York City. And protests are disrupting life in Charlotte and have at times turned violent. 

As bombs go off in New York we’re forced again to grapple with challenging conversations surrounding Muslims and immigrants. And, sadly, much of the political and religious rhetoric surrounding all of the events of the last week betrays an unsettling level of prejudice and seems specifically calculated to prey upon our fears. 

US Rep. Robert Pittenger, who represents a portion of the Charlotte community, said that the protesters there are angry not over the hard to explain death of another black man, but because they “hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not.”

Protests in Charlotte/The Charlotte Observer

Protests in Charlotte/The Charlotte Observer

This week of unrest follows a bit of a lull that may have allowed us to forget police shootings in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis, and the tragic targeting of police officers in Dallas just a few months ago. But now we are reminded.

And, this week happens in a context where it’s somehow become controversial to acknowledge that African-Americans continue to face daily obstacles and challenges that the rest of us don’t—controversial to acknowledge that prejudice is real and that the legacy of racism persists in every corner of our nation. But unfolding events seem to be removing any doubt.

Eric Reed and Colin Kaepernick kneel for the national anthem/ The Sporting News

Eric Reed and Colin Kaepernick kneel for the national anthem/ The Sporting News

So what are we to do? How do we act in this climate? Do we kneel or stand? Do we march in protest or stay home? Do we wade into political waters or stay silent? Those aren't "one size fits all" questions. Those are decisions we each need to make for ourselves.

But there is one thing that's true for all of us. Whether we kneel or stand before the American flag pales in importance to whether we’re willing to kneel before the throne of God—and not just to ask for guidance in challenging times, but to beg for forgiveness for the roles we have played in getting us to this point in our national history.

Forgiveness for our own prejudices. Forgiveness for giving in to our own fears. Forgiveness for feeding divisiveness. Forgiveness as white American Christians for our indifference to the needs of our more vulnerable brothers and sisters of differing races, religions and ethnicities.

NY streets shut down by bomb blasts/ NY Daily News

NY streets shut down by bomb blasts/ NY Daily News

I’m reminded this week of how important it is to model holiness, health and wholeness in our communities. So I hope that some of the things we’re doing at HERITAGE right now will help us as we seek to be faithful Christians in this unusual American climate.

I hope REST on Wednesday nights is helping us to be holy. I hope it’s helping us to listen for and recognize the real voice of God, so that when someone tells you that the voice of God is heard in terrorizing bomb blasts or the hateful rhetoric that inevitably follows, you can say, “No, you’re wrong. I spent some time with God last Wednesday, and that’s not what God sounds like.”

I hope that our HERITAGE Home Groups are helping us to form healthy relationships that encourage us to stand together to reject division, hatred and fear—relationships that encourage us to see that in our common humanity there is far more that unites us than divides us.

And, I hope that in our HERITAGE Home Groups we are forming healthy relationships with the larger purpose of building whole communities together.

We are a divided nation. Our communities are fractured across so many lines it’s hard to see a productive way forward. As we watch that fracturedness play itself out in hateful political rhetoric and kneeling football players, in bomb blasts and the religious divisiveness that follows, in the misfired guns of police officers and the misguided actions of protesters, we have a responsibility to represent something different--to model and embody some sense of wholeness.

As Christians, we have a responsibility to speak across the fracturedness to remind our neighbors that we need each other and to point through all the clutter to the true nature of God.

Holy. Healthy. Whole. Is that seared into your memory yet? At HERITAGE we seek to be HOLY individuals who are forming HEALTHY relationships to build WHOLE communities together. Our community needs us to model holiness, health and wholeness now more than ever.

Thank you for your partnership in that journey.

See you Sunday.

Being Faithful Christians in an Election Year

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Back in January, before the first votes were cast in the Iowa Caucuses, I shared a few thoughts about this year’s election. Now that the election is only 53 days away, I thought I'd share them with you again.

In January I said that Christians had four main responsibilities this election season: to pray, teach, challenge and vote. (You can read the whole post from January HERE.)

I hope we’ve all been praying, and I hope we’ll all vote. But, as this election season has unfolded, I’ve come to more fully appreciate just how important our teaching and challenging responsibilities are, too.

Our teaching and challenging responsibilities are important because I'm not sure our elected officials understand just how much the teachings of Jesus lead us as Christians to be concerned for the most vulnerable among us. I don't think they know how often Jesus teaches us to exhibit a bias toward the poor and marginalized, to put the last first, and to place the needs of others ahead of our own. And if our elected officials don't realize that, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

As Christians, our values intersect with more than just a few hot button issues. When we only demand that politicians hear our (increasingly diverse) Christian views on LGBTQ issues and abortion, for example, we let our elected officials off too easy.

Our Christian concern for all people as holy individuals created in the image of God ought to influence our approaches to health care, creation care, education reform, criminal justice reform, wealth and wage inequality, gun control, poverty initiatives, racial discrimination, women’s rights, immigration, defense and military spending, and a host of other issues, too.

But we can’t expect candidates to understand all the ways our Christian values intersect with public policy if we’re not willing to teach them. 

And, we can’t expect candidates to take the broader implications of our Christian values into account if we’re not willing to challenge them to do so and then hold them accountable for how they govern.

The people we elect this fall at the local, state and national level will either make our communities look more like God's kingdom or less so. That means that who we elect and how they govern is extremely important. 

So write a letter to your school board candidates. Send an email to your city council members. Visit your state representative. Remind your local, state and national officials that your faith leads you to be personally concerned about how the most vulnerable in our society are treated.

And let your elected officials know that you intend to evaluate their policies through the lens of your faith in Christ who teaches us to care for the least among us as if they were the Lord himself (Matt 25:31-46).

And, if you haven't already, take a few minutes to read (or re-read) my post from last January, too. 

Here it is again. Preachers, Politicians and the Presidential Election

See you Sunday.

5 Things I've Learned As A Pastor

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

This Sunday our church will celebrate its 22nd anniversary. I’ve been at HERITAGE for two of those twenty-two years, and in those two years I’ve learned a lot.

To celebrate our anniversary, I thought I’d share a few of the things I’ve learned as your pastor.

1.      Slow and steady wins the race. Our work as Christians is best described as a “long obedience in the same direction.” Our life’s work is just one link in a much larger chain. We pick up where others have left off and others will come along to advance the work when we’re no longer here to do it.

The work of the church is not a sprint. It won’t be accomplished in a few months, a few years or even a few generations. Our job is to push the ball forward just a few feet. It’s not flashy. It won’t usually make the news. But over time it will lead to great progress.

As easy as it sounds to just do our small part, there are a thousand ways to stay where you are and only one way to move forward: develop a plan and see it through with discipline, focus and patience.

The reward of discipline, focus and patience is progress. It’s easy to wander from one idea or one program or one vision to the next. The only way to stay the course is to firmly believe that God is leading in the process and to trust that God will be present in the results, too.

2.      People matter. Nothing else does. Programs, plans, buildings, worship styles, strategies—Jesus didn’t come to save any of them. In fact, God hasn’t brought eternal salvation to a church building yet. As far as I know, no electric guitars or pipe organs have professed their faith in Jesus Christ yet, either.

Our biggest assets as churches are the people who serve in them. So our greatest investments should be in our people. Our time and energy and resources ought to be invested in building up and encouraging and equipping people for ministry.  

We think of buildings and programs and worship traditions as legacies that we can leave as enduring monuments to our faithfulness. But here’s the truth. In Jesus Christ, we’ll outlive them all.

What we do to bring people into the presence of God and to turn them into fully-functioning followers of Christ is the only thing that matters.

3.      The circle of who is included in God’s kingdom is expanding. It always has been and it still is. There was a time when we were excluded from the faith, when people like us—Gentiles—were universally considered to be beyond the scope of God’s love and salvation. But our understanding of God’s love and God’s kingdom has expanded over time so that we now understand that God had intended to include us all along.

One of the best ways to understand scripture is as a record of our expanding understanding of who God is and as a record of our growing awareness of the scope of God’s love.

One of the best ways to understand the incarnation is as God’s ultimate effort to explode every boundary we’d put up to contain and limit God’s love, and Christ still works among us to do the same.

We don’t have to wonder where Christ is at work in the world. Just like on nearly every page of scripture, God is at work among the people we’ve overlooked or excluded. I become more convinced of that truth—and it gains more power in my life—every day.

4.      What local churches choose to do in the next few years will be EXTREMELY important. The future of the church in the United States--its effectiveness, its impact, it size, and what it looks like to future generations—depends entirely on the independent, individual decisions of thousands of churches like ours. If most of us choose faithful, God-inspired paths forward in the next few years, the sky’s the limit.

But, if we choose to carry on with business as usual, doing the same things we’ve always done, the church in America is undeniably in real trouble. The statistics about the decline of the church in America are staggering. If we don’t do something new, then we’re facing a spiritual dark age in the near future in the United States. 

The choice is real. The stakes are high. But here’s what’s so exciting. What we choose to do really matters!!! We have a real chance to make a real kingdom difference from right where we are. We can be one of the churches that tips the balance and turns the tide.

We could be on the leading edge of America’s next great spiritual revival.

5.      We serve a remarkable God. God is guiding the church. God is guiding HERITAGE. I honestly believe that. In the fleeting moments when I fully grasp that truth, it is genuinely awe-inspiring.  

I’ll be honest. It can be disheartening at times to serve what is a shrinking—some say dying—institution. But in my best moments, I see a future for the church that is better and more completely God-revealing and God-inspired than anything we’ve experienced yet.  

I believe God is moving among us, preparing us to do something amazing. And when I say us, I mean us at HERITAGE, but not just us. I mean little pockets of people like us all over the nation and all over the world. I’m not sure we even glimpse the possibilities yet.

Our tendency is always toward a smaller vision of what is possible. But God’s vision tends toward resurrection, toward new life where once there was only death.

So whenever you’re gripped by a small vision or find yourself with a deficit of courage, remember that you serve a remarkable God whose vision for you and for the kingdom is grander than anything we’ve yet imagined.

Happy anniversary. See you Sunday.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Book Review

Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Harper Collins: New York, 2016.

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Hillbilly Elegy tells the true story of an Appalachian family struggling through three generations to keep it all together in a changing America. Like thousands of other families, the author’s family left their Appalachian mountain home in the first half of the twentieth century for the promise of a better life in the industrial Midwest fueled by the growth of the car and manufacturing industries.

For the subsistence farmers and coal miners of Appalachia, factory jobs promised better pay, safer work, and unrivaled pensions and benefits. Through the Great Depression and the post-war years, families left en masse from East Tennessee and Eastern Kentucky for cities and towns scattered across Ohio, Indiana and southern Michigan.

The author’s family was one of those families, moving from eastern Kentucky to settle in a southwestern Ohio factory town. 

The industrial promise of job security and middle-class prosperity served about one and a half generations well. But, under increasing pressure from international competition, Midwest manufacturing jobs began to dry up. When factories that used to employ thousands of people and support thousands of families closed down—or when, in order to remain competitive, the once good-paying manufacturing jobs with benefits and pensions became low-wage jobs with few benefits and even less job security—entire communities were economically and socially devastated.

Hillbilly Elegy tells this story of promise turned to crisis through the eyes of the author, a third-generation “hillbilly” migrant, and a member of a lost generation for whom the dream has largely become a nightmare and for whom there are no easy answers.

I devoured the book. It’s easily one of the best books of any genre I’ve read in the last ten years.

Available on Amazon. Click on the image.

Available on Amazon. Click on the image.

The book is exceptional for a few reasons.

First, it’s honest. Hillbilly Elegy is a remarkably honest portrayal of family struggles and triumphs, of fierce family loyalties and bitter family rivalries, and of the kind of heroically flawed people that make up all of our families.                             

Second, it’s exceptionally well-written. The author’s story is clearly and powerfully expressed with an uncommon depth of thought and self-reflection.

Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, the book is uncharacteristically balanced in its analysis—an analysis rendered inherently credible by the first-hand experience of the author.

Vance’s prescription for these struggling communities is uncharacteristically balanced in that it refuses to absolve either the individual or the larger society of blame for the current situation. Instead, it points to the need for both greater individual responsibility and greater societal accountability and engagement to move beyond the present crisis.

And, it is precisely because of his balanced approach that Vance’s prescription can serve as an important reminder for churches serving hurting people in hurting communities.

Too often, we describe the church as being at its best when it is prophetic toward the powerful and pastoral toward the downtrodden—when it afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.

Vance, though, reminds us that both the powerful and the downtrodden need to hear both prophetic and pastoral voices. 

So here are a few things the church can be reminded of in Vance's analysis.

First, we have a prophetic responsibility to clearly articulate a biblical vision of justice and equality to the corporate and political powers in our culture.  Our prophetic responsibility requires that we remind those in power that our faith compels us to exhibit a bias toward the most vulnerable among us. Many churches do that well.

But, as Vance reminds us, we also have a prophetic responsibility toward those who struggle—to individuals who need to be reminded of Christian accountability and God-honoring responsibilities to our families, our communities and ourselves.

That doesn’t mean that we should pile on the downtrodden, but it does mean that we can’t faithfully sit silently by in the midst of the moral decline and social decay that so often accompanies economic hardship.

The church also has a pastoral responsibility to minister to those most in need in our communities--to be God's presence for people in crisis. As a whole, we are generally pretty good about recognizing our pastoral responsibility to the downtrodden, although we would all do better to be more unconditionally accepting of all people in our churches--no matter their backgrounds or circumstances.

But Vance’s balanced approach reminds us that we have a pastoral responsibility, not just to the struggling, but to the civic and corporate leaders in our communities, too. We have a responsibility to comfort leaders who wrestle with tough decisions without easy answers;  to help instead of criticize them; to pray for and encourage them; and, to engage and work alongside them.

Our civic and corporate leaders need to be prophetically held accountable, but they need to know and feel the pastoral presence of the church, too.

The story that J.D. Vance so powerfully tells in Hillbilly Elegy resonates so deeply because his story isn’t just true to his experience, it’s true to many of our experiences as well.  His is a story of both struggle and hope familiar to coal-mining mountain towns, industrial Midwestern factory towns, struggling inner cities, and southern mill towns like Canton, GA, too.

Take the time to read it if you can. And remember the critical role of the church as we pray for God to redeem this culture in crisis.

See you Sunday.

In Celebration Of Our National Parks

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Nowhere is God more completely revealed than in Jesus Christ, but Glacier National Park runs a close second. Today is National Parks Day, and this year we get to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

I had hoped at this point in my life to have visited more of the national parks than I have. But, of the ones I’ve visited so far—the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Glacier National Park, and the Great Smoky Mountains—Glacier is my favorite.

Some people go to our national parks and come home without having seen God, but I honestly don’t know how. So if you haven’t been to any or all of the national parks, you ought to go, if for no other reason than that God is so clearly present in them.

More people than ever think that believing in God is crazy. They wonder what evidence believers have to support their belief in a divine creator. But as we celebrate our national parks, I’m reminded that the evidence of God is all around us.

Me and Julie in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (2014)

Me and Julie in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (2014)

I wonder if those who question God’s existence have ever dangled their feet from the ranger tower at the top of Apgar Lookout in Glacier National Park. I wonder if they’ve traced the peaks of the continental divide rising up over Lake McDonald with their fingers.  

I wonder if they’ve stood with the deer in the early morning fog to watch the sun rise over the cliffs of the Yosemite Valley.

I wonder if their hearts have skipped a beat as they peered over the edge of the Grand Canyon, trying to see the Colorado River more than a mile below.

I wonder if they’ve hiked the wooded ridgelines of the Great Smoky Mountains and imagined the journey of their ancestors who crossed those mountains more than two centuries before.  

I’ve done all those things and more in our national parks. I’m thankful to God for creating all that is in them—the lakes and the mountains, the rivers and the canyons, the deer and the valleys, the ridgelines and the hollows, the cliffs and the fog and the rising sun. And, I’m thankful to God for creating in me the capacity to see God through them.

President Teddy Roosevelt, in many ways the father of the National Park Service, once camped overnight at Yosemite with preservationist John Muir. He said of the experience, "It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man."

The national parks remind us that the whole earth is full of God’s glory (Isaiah 6:3). The grandeur of the national parks both reveals and celebrates the one who created them. But, as grand as the national parks are, nothing preserved in them represents the high point of God’s creation. That distinction is reserved for you.

As grand as the vistas in Glacier National Park are, as awe-inspiring as the Grand Canyon is, as intricate as the inter-connecting ridgelines of the Great Smoky Mountains are, you are more so. Your intricacy is more stunning, your capability more awe-inspiring, and your humanity more revealing of God’s grandeur than is anything in any of our national parks.

So today I thank God for the ways that God is revealed in our national parks. But even more, I thank God for the ways that God is revealed in you.

See you Sunday.

On Liturgy, Providence and Rest

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Each morning when I sit down at my desk to fill out my daily calendar, I complete a sentence that begins, “If I could live today over again…” It’s a neat little trick I got from author Donald Miller—starting your day by imagining what you’d do differently if you could live your day over again. 

Lately, I’ve been completing that sentence by saying, “If I could live today over again, I would rest more comfortably in God’s providence.” Our lives, I hope, are records of God’s guiding and sustaining influence, and the idea of God's providence has become increasingly comforting to me.

The concept of God’s providence is deeply rooted in scripture. In Genesis 22 when God provided Abraham with a ram to sacrifice in place of Abraham’s son, Isaac, Abraham named the place, “The Lord will provide.”

The Lord’s Prayer encourages us to rely on God’s providence, too. When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we are acknowledging that we rely on God’s providence to make it through the day.

Resting comfortably in God’s providence can be a challenge, though. It requires faith and trust, but it’s not blind faith. Faith in God’s providence is informed by our experience. Grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home as the song goes.

The God who guides me through today has seen me through more than 13,000 others, so I believe God will see me through tomorrow, too. That doesn’t mean every day will be perfect. Some days—even some weeks, months and years—are downright dreadful. But things have a way of working out, at least they have for me.

And while everyone may not have experienced the same blessings in life that I have—every close call of mine may have been a direct hit for you—most of us can say the same. Things do have a way of working out. All of us have experienced more in the way of grace, forgiveness and second chances than we deserve. 

So maybe it’s time to stop being surprised when we experience God’s guiding and sustaining influence in our lives. Maybe it’s time to start resting more comfortably in God’s providence. 

Resting comfortably in God’s providence is much easier to say than it is to do, though. So where does this ability to comfortably rest come from?

I’m discovering that a return to more practiced habits of devotion—a return to liturgy—is helping me. I wonder if the same thing could help you, too.

Providence is about trusting God to lead us. Liturgy can be both the way we see God leading AND the way we learn to trust.

Liturgy literally means “the work of the people.” In more liturgical traditions of worship, the liturgy is the portion of worship in which the people participate, reciting creeds and scriptures and prayers. Liturgical elements of worship like the Lord’s Prayer, the Doxology, the Apostle’s Creed and the Prayer of Confession might be familiar to you.

For years, liturgy has sounded old, repetitive, boring, and dead to me. But I think I’ve been wrong. Or at least I am beginning to sense that I’m entering a season in my personal life where liturgy is becoming more important to me.

Evangelical traditions—Baptists, for example—have emphasized independence and spontaneity in worship because we believe in local church autonomy and the guiding of the Holy Spirit. And, we come from a tradition that embraces scripture alone, instead of the often man-made prayers, confessions and creeds of other Christian traditions. So we have traditionally eschewed more liturgical forms or worship and prayer.

But there’s something powerful about prayers and confessions that connect us with people who are praying those same words all over the world. There’s something deeply grounding about repeating words that have proven effective in forming faithful Christians for centuries or even millennia.

In Water to Wine, Brian Zahnd shares the daily office of prayer that he follows. I've started following it myself. And I’ve borrowed his prayer practice to provide a suggested series of prayers for our new midweek prayer service called REST.

REST is my attempt to share my return to liturgy with you. It is an opportunity to allow God to form all of us into more faithful and faith-filled Christians through the intentional practices of prayer and presence. It is an effort to use liturgy to lead us to rest more comfortably in God’s providence.

Our journey begins on Wednesday, September 7th at 6:30. I hope you’ll join us.

See you Sunday.

What We Teach When We Teach Children To Pray

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

For those of us who grew up in church, the mystery and miracle of prayer is something we too often take for granted. I’ve been praying—sometimes more often, sometimes less often—my entire life. I was taught to pray as soon as I could talk. One of my first memories of church is bowing my head and closing my eyes and folding my little hands to pray in my kindergarten Sunday school class.

For regular church attenders prayer has become so routine that we rarely think about all that we’re teaching when we teach children to pray.

When we teach children to pray, we are teaching that God listens, not in some amorphous way, but that God listens specifically to them.

When we teach children to pray we are teaching that God cares, not in some general way, but that God cares specifically about them and the things they care about—from a sick cat, to an ailing grandparent, to the forgiveness of sins.

When we teach children to pray, we are teaching that God acts now in this world to intervene on their behalfs. God listens to them. God cares about them. God intervenes for them.

God listens to us. God cares about us. God intervenes for us. We’re really teaching a lot when we teach children to pray.

REST begins at HERITAGE on Wednesday, September 7th

REST begins at HERITAGE on Wednesday, September 7th

How Does Prayer Work?

If prayer teaches all of these things and prayer is real and prayer is true, then how does prayer work exactly?

That’s a harder question. How God hears and the ways God acts are both as much mystery and miracle as is the full nature of God. In that sense prayer is both an article and expression of faith. But for those who have made prayer a regular part of their Christian lives, the efficacy of prayer is no mystery, only miracle.

Most often we think of individual prayer as a silent conversation with God—an internal dialogue that we purposefully enter into when we consciously choose to pray. Prayer “happens” when we pause from other things to mentally address ourselves to God--“Dear God, please help me make it through the day, AMEN.”

But prayer is more than those moments of formal address. I was reminded this week by a church member about all the ways and all the places we talk to God.

What is Prayer?

Prayer is the mindful conversation we have with ourselves while working in the garden whether the conversation starts with “Dear God” and ends with “Amen," or not.

Prayer is singing familiar hymns while cleaning the house.

Prayer is taking mental inventory of one’s life while jogging.

Prayer is clearing your mind and breathing deeply at yoga.

Prayer is problem solving. Prayer is asking, “How can I fix this?” Prayer is developing a plan and putting it into action.

Prayer is waiting and patience. Prayer is refusing to act too soon. Prayer is discerning when the time is right.

Prayer is working together with others and trusting that God is a collaborative partner, too.

Prayer isn’t just speaking, trusting, acting and waiting, though. Prayer is also listening. Prayer is listening for God to speak.

So how do we hear God’s voice?

How Do We Hear God in Prayer?

God speaks in moments of clarity and through our intuition. God is in those moments of inspiration when big jobs seem small and tough solutions seem simple. We should trust those moments.

God speaks through the well-timed words of friends.

God speaks through the alignment of circumstances.

God speaks when some doors are opened and others are closed.

God speaks through music and art and literature.

God speaks through scripture and proclamation and corporate worship.

God speaks. If we tune our ears and hearts right, God isn’t hard to hear. 

So Here's What Prayer Is

Prayer is mystery and miracle. Prayer is powerful. Prayer is God listening. Prayer teaches that God cares and God intervenes. Prayer is waiting and trusting. And prayer is God speaking.

We’re starting a new emphasis on prayer at HERITAGE. The centerpiece of that emphasis is a midweek worship experience called REST. REST is a way to engage prayer that moves beyond the routine and that keeps us from taking prayer for granted.

You can learn more about REST here. It starts on Wednesday, September 7th at 6:30. But you don’t have to wait until then to start praying. You can start to re-engage a meaningful prayer life now. How will you speak to God--and where will you listen for God--today?

See you Sunday.

If I Were King...

“If I were the king of this old crazy world, I’m telling you there’d be some changes made.” –Robert Earl Keen

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

If I were king, I’d outlaw the Braves move to Marietta.

If I were king, tea would only be sweet.

If I were king, there would be no such thing as turkey bacon.

If I were king, February would be stricken from the calendar.

If I were king, I-285 would be reserved at all times for my personal use. And I-575, too, for that matter.

If you were king, what kind of changes would you make?

Inspired by a song by Robert Earl Keen, we'll be looking in worship this August at four of the most familiar Old Testament kings to see what kind of changes they made and to learn how we can make some changes, too, to become more holy, more healthy and more whole.

Here's a quick preview of what you can expect at HERITAGE over the next four weeks.

More Holy

King Josiah accidentally ran across some long-lost scripture as he was cleaning out the Temple. When he read the newly discovered scriptures, it changed the way the whole nation worshiped. Israel became more holy overnight. 

What if we re-discovered scripture to become more holy, too? Bibles we don’t read and scripture we don’t know is just as useless as the scrolls lost in Josiah’s temple.

The Bible is so big and diverse that a lot of people are intimidated by it. They don’t know where to start and are worried that it will be hard to understand. So what “lost” scriptures should we re-discover? I would suggest starting in two places—the Sermon on the Mount and the First Letter of John.

The Sermon on the Mount is the central body of Jesus’ teaching. If you want to know what Jesus believed and what Jesus gave priority to, you need look no further than Matthew 5-7.

First John is a letter from one of Jesus’ closest followers, the apostle John. In his old age, John wrote to an expanding community of Christians who had grown up under his teaching. In the letter, John’s main idea is that God is love, so if we are to be like God, then we have one responsibility—to love one another. 

You can read both the Sermon on the Mount and First John in less than an hour. Give it a shot! Eugene Peterson’s Message translation makes them both very easy to understand.

More Healthy

King Saul struggled with his mental health. Sometimes we think that mental health issues are a problem limited to the modern world, but men and women throughout history and throughout scripture have had to deal with mental illnesses. King Saul was one of them. Before mental health physicians and medication, Saul discovered the power of music—specifically David’s music—to soothe his troubled mind.

There’s still too much stigma attached to mental illness. The church ought to be a place where people who struggle with mental health issues are welcomed and included—where all of our mental health problems are acknowledged. If we’re willing to talk honestly about mental health issues at church, then our faith and our faith communities can provide much needed support.

More Whole

King David was constantly fighting for wholeness—both for himself and for God’s people in Israel. It wasn’t easy for him. David fought for wholeness his entire life. What if we fought for wholeness with the same tenacity? What if we returned to God like David did—as many times as it takes—to achieve wholeness for ourselves and our families and our communities?

So many things in the world lead to brokenness—addiction, anger, depression, violence, divorce, unemployment, jealousy, poverty, etc. King David reminds us that it takes perseverance and tenacity to achieve lasting wholeness—and that the struggle is worth it.

Holy, Healthy and Whole For Others

King Solomon was blessed with the wisdom to put it all together—holiness, health and wholeness—for others. Solomon’s life’s work was the construction of the temple. When the temple was finally dedicated, Solomon offered a blessing and petitioned God to use the temple, his life's work, not just for his own glory, but to bless all of Israel and everyone else who came to Israel because of the temple. What if we, too, asked God to use all that God has blessed us with and all that we have worked to achieve to bring holiness, health and wholeness to everyone with whom we come in contact?

Over the next four weeks at HERITAGE we’ll look at these four kings and the things they did to change their lives and the lives of the people of Israel. As we do that, we’ll learn that we have more power to change our lives and influence our communities than we think.

So, would you change anything if you were king or queen?

If I were king, there’d be some changes made.

See you Sunday.

Don't Let The School Buses Fool You

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

On August 1st there will be 52 days of summer left. 52 wonderful days of warm weather, long evenings, and after dinner trips to Dairy Queen. 52 more days to root, root, root for the home team—actually 63 days until the final pitch at Turner Field. 52 more days to eat tomato sandwiches, boiled peanuts, and fresh-cut watermelon. 52 days until the sun crosses the equator and abandons us for six cruel months that will seem like forever. 

On August 1st there will be 52 days left of summer—unless, of course, you’re a Cherokee County School District student. In which case on August 1st, it’s back to school.

I know. It's awful. Even worse, if you’re involved in a fall activity like football or marching band, you’ve already been back at school since the middle of July.

I grew up in Richmond, VA. School started the day after Labor Day. August was like a gift from God.

By the time August rolled around, we’d already been to camp. The family had already been on vacation. The Fourth of July was a distant memory. And still, we had 31 wonderful days of August that seemed to stretch on forever.

In August, we played basketball outside until the sun had extracted the last drop of moisture from our bodies. We went to the pool in the morning and flirted with the life guards until the sun went down. We went to work and spent our $4.25/hour paychecks on gas and movies and concerts at the amphitheater. We sat out in our driveways or in our parents' basements until all hours of the night being young and foolish and happy.

And then we woke up in the morning and did it all over again.

For 31 glorious days in August.

I know, I know, kids get more time off during the school year now—fall breaks and Christmas breaks and winter breaks and spring breaks. And they get out of school a little earlier in the year than we did.

But none of that makes up for the four and a half weeks of August, at least not the Augusts I remember.

So here’s my suggestion. Don’t let the school district rob you of the last 52 days of summer. Don’t quietly acquiesce to buttoned-up responsibility nearly two months before it’s time to put away the flip flops and sunscreen.

Summer, after all, is more than just the dates on a calendar. Summer is a state of mind. So for the next 52 days--until the sun actually crosses the equator--remember these four things.

Be Carefree

Summer is laid back and relaxed. So don’t worry. Even if it’s been years, remember what it’s like to be carefree.

Take it easy for the next 52 days. I know you'll have to go to work. I know you'll have to take care of your families. I know life doesn't stop just because we need a break. But cut yourself some slack. That’s what summer is for.

Worry, I promise, will creep back into your life and heart soon enough. Don't give it a head start by cutting summer short.

Be Open

Summer is a time for new adventures; it’s a time for firsts. So be open—to new places, new people, and new ideas. Let yourself loose out in the wild. Be curious about the world and the people around you.

And as you see new things and bump into new people, be open to the differences you experience. You might learn something. Summer is a time to be open. 

Be Happy

Summer is sunny and optimistic. Summer is fun.

It’s easy—and natural—to believe that our circumstances determine our dispositions. But it doesn’t take much thought or observation to figure out how backwards that is. Happiness and optimism are choices we make independent of our circumstances.

So choose to be happy. Choose to be optimistic and fun and hopeful. Listen to your favorite music. And turn it up loud. Fire up the grill. Go ahead and get that ice cream cone you’ve been wanting.

Summer is no time for grouchiness, and there are still 52 days of summer left. So be happy. 

Be Expansive

Summer is big. Summer is blue skies and wide open spaces. Summer is bold colors and bold choices. Summer is loud and boisterous. Summer is daring. Summer takes chances that other seasons don’t. Summer is expansive.

So be bold and boisterous and daring. Take chances that you might not take in February. For 52 more days, be expansive.

When August 1st rolls around, don’t let the school buses fool you. There will still be 52 days left of summer. Take advantage of every one.

See you Sunday.

Rebuking The Persistent Power Of Prejudice

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

In 2009, I spent 6 months as an intern in a Senate office in Washington, DC. I started right at the beginning of the year, right after President Obama’s election in November of 2008 but before his inauguration in late January of 2009.

One of my first responsibilities as an intern was to answer the phones in the office and listen to concerns from citizens back in Georgia.

As you might imagine, in a Republican Senate office with a newly elected Democratic president, there was a lot of concern coming in over the phones about how things would change once the new president took office.

So during my first few weeks in Washington I fielded hundreds if not thousands of calls encouraging our senator to stand firm for conservative principles and to do everything he could to block the legislative agenda of the new president.

Some even encouraged our senator to skip the inauguration as a sign of protest.

In fact, as the inauguration got closer, more people started calling specifically in reference to the inauguration, and I would listen politely and keep a tally of their concerns to be reported to the senator’s chief of staff at the end of the day.

Then, one day, I heard a word I’d never heard before on the other end of the phone. Just as hundreds had before, a man called to express concern about Barack Obama’s inauguration, except he didn’t say in-aug-ur-a-tion. Instead, when referring to the swearing-in ceremony for our country’s first African-American president, he kept repeating the word, “in-nig-ger-a-tion.”

I thought for sure I’d misheard.

Then someone else called and used that same word, and I tried to convince myself that his mis-pronunciation was just an unfortunate effect of a southern drawl.

But after the third or fourth caller there was no mistaking the intent. In fact, once I knew what was coming I could almost feel the gleeful hatred dripping through the phone and down my collar.

Since then I’ve heard equally off-putting language and commentary inside the churches I’ve attended and worked for—quiet words spoken in hallways outside of Sunday School classrooms and murmured in gathering spaces when no one thought the minister was listening or could hear.

Just this week, flyers promoting the Ku Klux Klan were distributed in my neighborhood, and the most disturbing claim on the flyer was that this hate group was “Christian based and [upheld] the Bible.”

We've all seen rising racial tensions spread across our nation on our TV screens and in our Facebook feeds. So I share just a few of the ways I’ve experienced racism personally to remind you that the sin and stain of racial prejudice isn’t just “out there.” It persists even in our own communities, even in our own churches and even in our own hearts.

We who call ourselves Christians, and particularly those of us who claim leadership roles, must not assume that the church of 2016 is somehow immune from the worst elements of our culture.

Racism reaches—and reaches into—all of us. It’s woven into the social fabric of America. Whether we like it our not, it’s a part of who we are. 

So how do we deal with something that has so intimately infected us?

In the Bible, Jesus encounters the father of a boy who suffers from epileptic seizures. The father tells Jesus that he worries all the time because he never knows when the seizures might strike, and if his son is near the fire or by the water when the seizures come his son could be burned or drowned. Others, we’re told--even Jesus' disciples--have tried to heal the boy before, but his particular ailment has proven particularly difficult to get rid of.

Jesus, though, in his power, names the disease, rebukes it, and casts it out. The boy is healed.

There are three different versions of this story in three different gospels, all with slightly different twists on what is required to overcome this particularly persistent evil within the boy. One emphasizes the power of prayer (Mark 9:14-29), one the need to act and speak with faith (Matthew 17:14-23), and the other simply the greatness of God (Luke 9:37-43).

There is no safe amount of prejudice, just like there's no safe amount of epilepsy. It must be removed completely.

So pray; and speak and act with courage and faith; and believe in and rely on the greatness of God. Then, together with each other and with God, we can name the prejudice that persists in us, rebuke it and cast it out. We can be healed.

If we don’t, then like the epileptic boy, when we find ourselves in particularly vulnerable places--like where we are as a nation right now--our prejudice has the power to destroy us.  

See you Sunday.

Like Water On A Hot Day: 5 Things Christians Should Remember This Summer

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Water is necessary to life. 40% of the world’s population lives within 65 miles of the coast, and 90% of us live within 6 miles of a surface source of fresh water.

Water is a central element of scripture, too. In Amos, justice rolls down like waters. Baptism happens in water. Water is used to destroy in the flood. The waters part to save the Israelites in the Exodus and come together again to swallow up Egyptian armies. Jesus meets a woman drawing water at a well to offer himself as living water.

There’s something sacred about water. Water heals. Water cleanses. Water destroys. Water irrigates. Water quenches. Water purifies. And water puts out fires.

Life along the Nile River at night/Picture from NASA

Life along the Nile River at night/Picture from NASA

It’s been a hot summer so far—literally and figuratively. As temperatures have risen across the United States so has the heat around the important issues facing our country. There is undeniably a new—and warmer—air of tribalism in our national discourse, and it has me worried about the health of both our churches and our country.

Ever since last week, I’ve been wanting this sense of dis-ease inside me to go away. It hasn’t. I have this sense that we are even now retreating into our respective corners, hardening our positions and our hearts, readying our arguments, stockpiling our resources and preparing for battle.

I pray I’m wrong, but I have a sense that the hottest days of summer may still be ahead of us.

So I wonder if we could use some water. Water to quench our thirsts. Water to irrigate some withered promises. Water to heal some festering wounds. Water to destroy some latent evils. Water to cleanse and purify. Water to put out some fires. Maybe even water than we can rise out of into new life together.

Each morning during the summer we pack lunches at the church to distribute to hungry children. But before we pack lunches, our Summer Lunch Program leader, Virginia Land, leads us in a brief time of devotion.

This morning she read scripture from Philippians chapter 2. It was like a cool drink of water on a hot summer day. 

2 Your life in Christ makes you strong, and his love comforts you. You have fellowship with the Spirit,[a] and you have kindness and compassion for one another. 2 I urge you, then, to make me completely happy by having the same thoughts, sharing the same love, and being one in soul and mind. 3 Don't do anything from selfish ambition or from a cheap desire to boast, but be humble toward one another, always considering others better than yourselves. 4 And look out for one another's interests, not just for your own. 5 The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had…

I’m not sure anything could have quenched my thirst in that moment quite like those words did. So as the summer wears on and the heat ramps up, I hope you’ll remember these five things:

1.      Our life in Christ—and not anything else—is what makes us strong. When we put other agendas ahead of Christ, it makes us weaker.

2.      Kindness and compassion for one another always beat anger and suspicion. Remember that God loves the person you’re suspicious of and that God demonstrates compassion toward the person at whom you are angry.

3.      Our greatest comfort isn’t in winning an argument or in being “right.” It is in being loved by God. Incidentally, that’s where our greatest power to influence comes from, too. We will influence our culture for Christ—and comfort it—by demonstrating God’s love.

4.      As Christians, we are clearly, repeatedly, and unequivocally called to look to the interests of others, not just our own. One of the most dangerous things for our nation is our shrinking ability to put ourselves in another’s place or see things from another’s perspective.

5.      We should always consider others better than ourselves. Always.

Paul’s words from Philippians came to me like water on a hot day. Maybe they'll have a similar effect on you.

It’s getting hot out there. The world is catching on fire. We can fan the flames or we can be water. 

See you Sunday.

The Time For Silence Has Passed

NOTE: Since I started writing this, one of our church members was held up at gunpoint at the bank she works for, another black man was killed by a police officer in St. Paul, MN, and 12 police officers have been shot (5 killed) in Dallas, TX. Lord, have mercy.

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Yesterday was my thirty-seventh birthday. I’m getting old. As old as thirty-seven sounds to me now, I have every reason to expect that I’ll be able to celebrate my thirty-eighth birthday and many more.

Another thirty-seven year old isn't able to say that. His name is Alton Sterling. He was pinned to the ground, shot in the back and killed by Baton Rouge police officers earlier this week. He was the 560th American killed by police officers in the United States this year. In the same time period more than fifty police officers have been killed in the line of duty, too.

We are in the midst of an epidemic of violence in America.

We used to be able to name the places of violence or the names of the victims—to rattle them off in a list to prove that they were mounting up. Now, though, the instances of violence have become too many and too frequent to keep a running list.

We can no longer say Baton Rouge and Cleveland and Baltimore and Charleston, or Tamir and Freddie and Sandra and Alton as if these incidences can somehow be categorized as localized or isolated.

It’s no longer enough to say that Staten Island was a dangerous place for Eric Garner or that North Charleston, SC was a dangerous place for Walter Scott. We must now speak in the broader terms that have always been true; America is a dangerous place for black Americans. Or maybe just, America is a dangerous place.

Here’s what makes these cases so hard. The victims are rarely completely innocent. It’s never 100% clear that the police were motivated by race and rarely clear that there was intent to use lethal force inappropriately. What is clear is that violence, in all its forms, is a real and growing threat to our way of life and peace of mind in America.  

And what’s becoming even clearer to me is that WE are to blame. The officers who are overly aggressive and physical with black citizens and who fire weapons out of fear for their own safety aren’t to blame. The black men who struggle and flee from encounters with police for the same reasons aren’t to blame.

A larger culture of fear and suspicion is to blame, and it isn’t created by the black community or the police community. It’s created by us.

When we mindlessly watch partisan anger spewed on cable news and just sit there like zombies soaking it in, we create it. When we stand silently while whole groups of people—immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, gays, African-Americans—are smeared with the brush of bigotry, we create it.

When we fail to demand accountability of our elected leaders, we create it. When we fail to expect more from and for our impoverished communities, we create it.

When we fetishize violence and celebrate weaponry even as we stoke fear, we create a culture of rising tension and distrust—and ultimately a climate of violence and death.

Sitting in my office in Canton, GA—even in 2016—I know it’s dangerous to write about race or guns. I know how hard it is to ask questions that tend toward the political. And that, more than anything, is what I mourn this morning.

I mourn how difficult it is to even talk about what’s going on right now. I mourn that fear, distrust and anger—even hatred—have gripped our hearts and stilled God’s spirit within us.

I mourn because I know that Christians were not created to live this way. When fear, anger and hatred rise up in us, they are not of God. They come from somewhere else.

But my hope lies in the knowledge that there’s at least one other thing Christians weren’t created to be—timid. Instead, God gives us spirits of power, love and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7). We are not powerless in the face of violence if we have the courage and self-discipline to respond with loving words of truth.

So here’s a word of truth. These things don’t happen in other places. This is a uniquely American problem. Encounters with police don’t end in death—for citizens or police officers—anywhere else in the world. It doesn’t have to be this way.

And, the answer is not more violence or the militarization of police forces. Every time we resort to violence to solve a problem, we make America weaker, not stronger.

The only way to fix the problem is not to demand better of the police or the black community. We must demand better of ourselves. We are the stagnant water in which these problems fester.

God’s Spirit needs to come and stir our waters. And, today, God’s Spirit stirs waters most often when God speaks through you. Fear has stifled God’s voice in us for too long. It’s time for our country to hear Christians speak God’s truth of peace, love, reconciliation and forgiveness with a clear and united voice.

God, free our hearts and voices. Give all of us the courage to speak your truth to a troubled nation.

The time for silence has passed. 

My Savior Calling-A Guest Post by Louise Byrd

This week's post is written by Louise Byrd, a HERITAGE member, guest preacher, accomplished church musician and a graduate--most recently--of the McAfee School of Theology. You can find more of Louise's writing at ThoughtWeavings

I can hear my Savior calling,
I can hear my Savior calling,
I can hear my Savior calling,
“Take thy cross and follow, follow Me.”

Where He leads me I will follow,
Where He leads me I will follow,
Where He leads me I will follow,
I’ll go with Him, with Him all the way. 

For the past few days I’ve been thinking about my calling. I am a minister in transition – meaning that I am not serving on a church staff at the moment. Because I seem to have spent so much time “in transition,” it feels natural to question my calling. The hymnals that I grew up with don’t offer all the verses to this hymn – and that may be a shame. Which ones do you know?

“I’ll go with him through the waters” – why do the Baptists leave this one out?

“I’ll go with him through the garden” – I don’t think we realize exactly which garden – maybe we’re thinking Bellingrath Gardens?

“I’ll go with him to dark Calv’ry” – Baptists leave this out too – we get crucified enough but for the wrong reasons.

“I’ll go with him to the judgment” – Really? We sing it – maybe we’re eager to watch while others are being judged, to see if God gets it right.

“He will give me grace and glory” – this is probably our favorite verse.

These verses do give a broad outline–perhaps a 19th century view–of the Christian life. Certainly they hit the highlights of Jesus’ life. But when we hear the Savior calling, what does it mean? What does it mean to me? What is my calling? Where is the Savior calling me?

We sing this hymn as a hymn of invitation – in a Baptist church, the “Invitational Hymn” is the time during the worship service when people publicly affirm their faith in Christ. But this hymn also holds a deeper invitation – God’s self, through Christ, invites us on this journey. Taking the first step is the easiest part, in some ways. Many never get much farther on the journey.

What does it mean to follow where the Savior leads? What does it mean for me? I have been a member of the paid church staff. I have also been a member of the congregation. Either way, I tend to do similar things. I sing in the choir, or I lead the choir. I teach children’s choirs. I fill in on the piano or organ. I teach or attend a Sunday School class. I participate in Wednesday night table fellowship.

I say that Worship is my “thing.” It is the area of – might as well say it – theology that most intrigues me. Why do we worship? How do we worship? Whom do we worship? How do I fit into that conversation? How do I follow my calling in the area of worship?

What about other areas of need? Dr. David Gushee once challenged a group of students at McAfee School of Theology to choose one ethical issue to become their cause of choice. There are so many injustices in our world, no one person can address them all. Choose one. So, that day, I chose hunger. How do I follow my calling in the area of hunger justice issues? I have in the past volunteered in food ministries. I wrote a sermon for class on hunger. What can I do now?

When I journal privately, I tend to ask precisely this kind of (almost) rhetorical question. I find that living out the answers is difficult. The even-more challenging thing is to live into the questions.

Who is calling? My Savior.

Where is my Savior calling? Can I hear my Savior calling? Will I go with him? Through the waters, through the garden, to dark Calvary? Will he give me grace and glory? Will I go with him, with him, all the way?

Who Are Your Prophets?

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

When Jesus calls Matthew to be a disciple we’re told that faithful Jews questioned Jesus’ choice because Matthew was a tax collector who hung out with the wrong kind of people. To respond to the questions of the crowd, Jesus appealed to the prophets Hosea and Micah. When a growing consensus of conventional wisdom began to form in opposition to his decision, Jesus cited leading figures from Jewish history with which the people would be familiar.

By appealing to the prophets, Jesus was able to borrow from the authority of important voices from the past and temper the heat of present-day concerns with the wisdom and perspective of history. That’s one of the most important functions of prophetic voices--to provide historical context and perspective to the passionate concerns of the day. 

The best prophets have a deep understanding of culture and a gift for compellingly presenting both how things are and how things should be in ways that encourage, challenge and inspire. In times of turmoil and transition, when institutions and traditions are being challenged, prophets are our guiding lights.

So my question is, “Who are our prophets?” To whom could Jesus appeal to answer our questions and concerns today?

My fear is that for most of us, the answer is no one. I worry about our knowledge of history and our familiarity with prophets from decades gone by. Many of us don’t have a lot of voices to provide broader context amid the daily barrage of marketplace and media prophets spouting conventional wisdom on TV.

Jesus responded to the crowd in Matthew 9 with the expectation that his audience would have some knowledge of history—national and religious—as he sought to address their concerns. But, if Jesus were to appeal to figures from our history, I worry that rather than knowing nods, he’d get a lot of blank stares.

As I thought seriously about this question, I was reminded of the voices I encountered during the course of my education. They are in a very real sense my prophets. They give context and counterbalance to the heated rhetoric of the day and lend the time-tested weight of history to important conversations and issues.

I’m grateful for English teachers that introduced me to American essayists like Mark Twain and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Benjamin Franklin, and to poets like T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden. 

I’m grateful for a political science education that lets me return to the voices of Jefferson, Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’m grateful for the theology professors who exposed me to John Cobb, Paul Tillich, William Stringfellow and Karl Rahner.

I’m grateful for modern-day prophets like Brian Zahnd and Eugene Peterson whose example encourages me to be a better pastor. And, I'm grateful that female voices like those of Barbara Brown Taylor, Diana Butler Bass and Anne Lamott have influence in the current conversation, too.

Even more, I'm reminded of the biblical voices of Jeremiah and Elijah, Isaiah and John the Baptist, Hosea and Micah and Amos. 

So when the marketplace prophets in media, government and popular culture speak the truths of consumer capitalism or a particular political ideology I’m grateful I have other voices to give context and perspective to what I’m hearing. God’s prophets--in the Bible and now--almost never speak from positions of power or enjoy the amplification of widespread popularity, so we have to actively seek them out and tune our ears to hear their voices.

We are in the middle of significant religious, moral and political conversations in America right now---conversations that deserve a word from God. So what prophets are you listening to? Is God likely to speak through them? More importantly, how likely are you to listen to—and give priority to—the often counter-cultural message of God's prophets? And most importantly, what will you do when you hear God speak through them?

See you Sunday.

In Defense Of Religious Liberty

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

A few months ago, we changed our name from Heritage Baptist Fellowship to Heritage Fellowship: A Cooperative Baptist Church. As we started to wrestle with our growing desire to update our identity, the first question everyone appropriately asked was, “Why? Why do we feel the need to change our name?”

We answered that we were changing our name to emphasize the particular kind of Baptist church we were and that we had two reasons for doing so. First, we said, we’re proud to be a church that identifies with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) and we wanted our name to more clearly reflect that identity. And second, we wanted to use our name to try to distinguish ourselves from the sometimes controversial positions and statements of the Southern Baptist Convention.

This week I was reminded of why it’s important for our congregation to let people in our community know that we’re “not that kind of Baptist.”

On June 6th, Gerald Harris, editor of the Christian Index, the official publication of the Georgia Baptist Convention, published an editorial with the headline, “Do Muslims Really Qualify For Religious Freedom Benefits?” As the headline suggests, the editorial goes on to question whether Muslims are deserving of the same First Amendment protections that all Americans enjoy in the United States.

This line of argument represents a clear departure from traditional Baptist values. Baptists have long been on the front lines of defending religious liberty, not just for ourselves, but for everyone. And Baptists have good reasons to be among the most ardent defenders of religious freedom. Today, it’s Muslims being targeted for religious discrimination, but a few centuries ago Baptists were the persecuted minority.

In 1635 Roger Williams founded Rhode Island to flee religious persecution in Massachusetts, and he established the first Baptist church in America there in 1638. He was one of the earliest American defenders of the absolute freedom of conscience, arguing that every American had the right to worship—or not worship—in any manner whatsoever without any interference from government.   

When Baptist pastor Obadiah Holmes was publicly whipped in Boston’s town square in 1651 for practicing his Baptist faith in Massachusetts, the price of religious liberty was literally paid in Baptist blood.

In the late 1700's, the widespread persecution and even imprisonment of Baptists in Virginia led Baptist pastor John Leland to be a leading champion of Thomas Jefferson’s Bill for Religious Freedom in Virginia and later to encourage James Madison’s successful efforts to include full religious liberty in the Bill of Rights.

Our Baptist forebears knew first-hand what could happen if the rights of religious minorities were not secured and vigorously defended. As Baptists today, we ought to remember how hard it was to secure the liberties we now enjoy, and use our distinctive history as a reminder to vigorously defend the rights of religious minorities when they are under attack today.

Dr. Harris’s editorial fails to do that.

Instead, in an effort to avoid the appearance—if not the actual fact—of trampling on religious liberty, Dr. Harris argues that Islam shouldn’t be considered a religion at all. He reasons that because Islam has the stated goal of establishing a worldwide caliphate under Islamic law, Islam should be categorized as a geo-political movement—and a threat to American democracy—rather than a religion.

But I wonder what would happen if we applied that same kind of logic to our own faith. Each time Christians pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that God’s kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven (Matt 6). Our Christian hope is located precisely in the belief that the ruling powers of this world will one day be replaced by the absolute rule and reign of Christ (Daniel 7, Rev 11). Maybe Christianity ought to be re-classified as a geo-political movement, too. Of course it sounds ridiculous when we apply the logic to ourselves.

I’m normally reticent to play the critic when someone from another part of the Christian community misspeaks or even honestly states a deeply held conviction that is different from my own. We best model Christ’s behavior when we demonstrate a high tolerance for diversity characterized by forgiveness and charity toward all.

But, when Christian voices speak loudly in favor of religious discrimination and openly denigrate another major faith tradition, people who are listening deserve to know that those voices do not represent all Christians or all Baptists or even all Baptists in Georgia.

The defense of religious liberty isn’t just a central part of our Baptist heritage. Religious liberty is an important part of our American heritage. So the idea that First Amendment protections ought not be extended to Muslims not only offends my sensibilities as a Baptist; it offends my sensibilities as an American, too.  

The United States has been clearly committed to unfettered religious liberty for everyone since our founding. That commitment is a key part of what makes America great. So, for me, defending religious liberty for Muslims isn’t just a matter of faith; it’s a matter of patriotism, too.

See you Sunday.

One More Trip Around The Sun

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Yesterday was my fourth wedding anniversary. On June 2nd, 2012 I married Julie Knight and I’ve been privileged to live in her orbit ever since. Each year we each travel 93 million miles around the sun.  So, today, Julie and I have made it 372 million miles together—an incredible journey already.   

And, as cliché as it sounds, I can’t believe it’s been four years already.

Time is a tricky thing. The same moments in our lives—like wedding days—can at one moment seem like only yesterday and at other moments seem like a lifetime ago.

I spent a good portion of my three-year master’s program thinking about time and its relationship to eternity and our sinfulness. I won’t bore you with those thoughts here, except to say that as Christians we live in a world governed by the realities and rules of time, but we look forward to an eternal future in fellowship with an eternal God. That makes our relationship with time strained at best.

Time, like us, is part of a fallen world that needs to be redeemed. That means time is not an unqualified good; it is not an essential part of God’s design. When time is used wisely, it can feel like a gift. But when time is squandered it feels like a curse.

Time is a tricky thing. So here are three thoughts about time as I celebrate another trip around the sun with Julie.

1.      Learn to live with your past.

Every previous second—even the most painful ones—even the ones marked by my greatest disappointments and mistakes—contributes to who I am today. And even though I know I’m far from perfect, I’m happy with the person God is leading me to become. I haven’t always been able to say that. Who has? But I’m working, as I hope you are, too, to live beyond past regrets. Don’t let any regret about who you’ve been or what you’ve done rob you of the joy of being who God calls you to be today.

2.      Don’t fear the future.

The control freak in all of us wants to know just exactly how tomorrow or next year or the next decade will turn out. Uncertainty—and uncertainty is always about the future—naturally breeds fear. Worry about the future robs us of the joy of now. Jesus devotes a significant portion of the Sermon on the Mount to this idea. We should take note.

Learn to accept the future—whatever it may be—without the anxiety, worry, tension and nervousness that often accompanies uncertainty. 

3.      Prioritize the present.

Prioritize the present. And even more, prioritize the people in the present. The most important parts of who we are—apart from God—are the people who make up the moments of our lives. As I think about Julie today—and the four years that have slipped by us—I’m reminded that we ought to prioritize people and our shared experiences together over everything else.

There is no other time but now. There is no better time. There is no perfect time. There is no future time. There is only now. Enjoy the present. Value where you are and who you are and what you have now. It’s the only way to be happy.

One day, we say, when I have more economic security, I’ll be more true to myself. One day, when I don’t have to worry what other people think, I’ll be bolder in my thinking.  One day I’ll be more truthful and daring in how I express myself. We have all kinds of excuses that keep us from living fully into the people God has called us to be. Now is the time to ditch the excuses. Now is the time to be who God has called you to be.

So, when you’re tempted to move beyond the present moment, either to the guilt of the past or the anxiety of the future, remember the great miracle that you are right now. Don’t believe me? Right now, you are hurtling through space at more than 33,000 miles per hour on one more trip around the sun. Feel the wind on your face, and enjoy the ride.

See you Sunday.

A Moral Turning Point?

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

As a country, we are as divided as we’ve been in decades. We’re divided politically and culturally. Geographically we’re becoming increasingly divided into ever more concentrated conservative and liberal pockets.

We’re economically divided, too. The richest individuals are getting richer while most Americans struggle—or fail—to keep up. And our richest states and cities are getting richer, while the poorest areas of our country are increasingly left behind.

The more divided we become, the harder it is for Americans to agree on anything. In the last few years we’ve seen vehement, angry disagreement over issues of class, race, culture, sexuality and politics. Economically, politically, culturally and socially the middle is disappearing. And as the middle disappears, our national ability to reach broad consensus on any issue becomes increasingly less likely.

But, according to new research released by the Barna Group, there is one thing Americans can agree on.

8 in 10 Americans are concerned about the moral condition of our country. In a nation as divided as ours, it’s remarkable that you can get 80% of Americans to agree on anything.

To summarize the report, the Barna team writes, “A majority of American adults across age group, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status and political ideology expresses concern about the nation’s moral condition.”

In other words, at least one issue seems to cut across all of the identity markers that are increasingly dividing us, and that issue is the moral condition of our country.

Even when allowing for an undeniable bias toward the present—i.e. every election is the most important of our lifetimes and the current moment always seems to be the defining moment of a generation—we are at a significant point in American history. 80% of Americans feel some sense that the moral status quo isn’t what’s needed for our future.

The question then becomes, “What moral vision, if any, will guide us as a people going forward?” For thirty-five years now, fundamentalist Christians have been fighting for a guiding ethic that has largely been rejected—and correctly so—as legalistic, judgmental, anti-intellectual and lacking in compassion toward marginalized minorities. This study—and others—reflects that rejection.

So what’s next? Was the fundamentalist incarnation of American Christianity the last gasp of the “Christian” worldview? Or are there enough of us left who believe in the basic truths of Christianity and the guiding ethic of love of neighbor to create a 21st century moral framework that the majority of Americans can embrace?

While Americans overwhelmingly agree that the moral condition of our country is cause for concern, there’s less agreement about what to do about it.

Younger generations are more likely to call for a moral relativism that sounds a lot like the biblical lament in the days of the judges when everybody did what was right in their own eyes. Today, 74% of Millennials and a strong majority of Gen-Xers agree that “Whatever is right for your life or works best for you is the only truth you can know."

But I wonder if there’s still a chance for goodwill Christians to do the community-building—and perhaps even community-transforming—work of developing a shared understanding of truth and right.

Previous Christian attempts at this have regularly placed doctrine and ideology ahead of people. We’ve used our own definitions of righteousness and our relative positions of privilege and power to exclude and demean.

And, we’ve uncompromisingly demanded that the world come to our positions without being willing to engage in substantive dialogue aimed at developing common ground. In short, we’ve done all the things that Jesus dedicated his ministry to combating.

As we’ve been working through our Strategic Planning process at HERITAGE, one of the questions we’ve been asking is, “Why does our community need a church like ours?” There are lots and lots of churches in Cherokee County, many of them with larger footprints and broader reaches into the community than ours.

So what makes us unique? What’s our niche? Why does God need us?

Maybe God needs us to proclaim a Christian truth that stands as an alternative to both the rejected fundamentalist Christian worldview and the rising secular worldview that places individual fulfillment and relativistic truth ahead of foundational Christian principles like love of neighbor and self-sacrifice for the good of the community.

When Christ first shared his vision of what the world should look like and how society should be ordered, his vision was radical and counter-cultural. It still is.

If America is at a real moral turning point—and I think we may be—then we have a real opportunity to be positive force for change in our culture. But only if churches like ours choose to use our voices to offer a clear moral alternative in our communities.

It won't be easy. Sadly, in a lot of cases, offering a clear moral alternative means proactively redefining what it means to be a Christian to our friends and neighbors who have seen the ugly side of fundamentalism and given up on the moral teachings of Christ altogether.

So it will take courage. To clearly speak love in an environment of fear always does. Ultimately it means standing in the middle and taking fire from both sides.

But when you think about it, that’s what Jesus did. He stood between Romans and Pharisees, Gentiles and Jews, pagans and faithful believers, and offered an alternative vision somewhere between “whatever feels right for you” relativism (instead love God) and the rigid dogmatism of religious fundamentalists (instead love neighbor).

He called it the Kingdom of God and said its first characteristic was love. And then he asked us to follow him. Maybe now’s the time to take him up on his offer.

See you Sunday. 

To The Class of 2016: Energy. Excellence. Expectation.

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

If you could do one thing tomorrow with real energy, what would it be?

What would it take for you to complete tomorrow’s—or next week’s—tasks with real excellence?

What expectation—if any—do you have that God will meet you in your work and in your life tomorrow? Next week? Next year?

At HERITAGE, we have three core values that we seek to embody in everything we do. They are ENERGY, EXCELLENCE and EXPECTATION. 

So every day, my goal is to get up and approach the work I do personally with energy, excellence and expectation. I want everybody on our church staff and all of our volunteers to approach their work with energy, excellence and expectation. I want our worship services to be characterized by energy, excellence and expectation. I want our Bible study groups and missions projects to be marked by those qualities. And, I want our church members’ lives to be infused with energy, excellence and expectation, too.

At church and at home, at work and at play, I want God to be so present in our lives that we can’t help but do things with God-inspired energy, God-honoring excellence and the expectation that God will be present in all that we do.

Anyone who knows me or knows anything about church, though, knows that we—and most churches—don’t always hit those marks. 

It’s one thing to say we value these qualities and another thing entirely to do the things that lead to them. 

I’ve been using energy, excellence and expectation as core values since my first year as a youth minister. When I was tasked with leading my first graduate recognition service, I wanted to be able to simply express the qualities I hoped our graduates would take with them as they went out into the world, and energy, excellence and expectation are the qualities I came up with.

Since then, I’ve discovered that these qualities aren’t just helpful for high school graduates; they’re helpful for all of us. So, with graduation season upon us, when you walk out your door tomorrow, whether you’re 16 or 116, whether you’re trying something brand new or doing something for the thousandth time, remember this advice.

Wherever you go, whatever you do, do it with ENERGY, confident that God will renew your strength, because scripture teaches that God will (Isaiah 40:31).

Energy requires focus and priority. We can’t give everything we would like to do the energy it deserves. That means that committing to energy as a value requires that we make wise decisions about what we will and won’t do. So guard against being stretched too thin by being willing to say no to some things, so that you can energetically say yes to other things. Whatever you do, do it with energy.

Wherever you go, whatever you do, do it with EXCELLENCE, as if you were doing it directly for God, because I believe you are. (Colossians 3:23-24)

Energy requires that we choose the right things to do. Excellence requires that we choose to do them the right way. Excellence takes time, practice, and repetition. Excellence requires dedication and patience. And excellence requires the willingness to be bad at something before we’re good at it. Whatever you do, do it with excellence.

Wherever you go, whatever you do, do it with the EXPECTATION that God will meet you in your work, because I believe God will. (John 14:15-18)

Expectation requires thoughtfulness, prayerful planning and a constant openness to God’s presence. It’s amazing what can happen when we expect God to be present in what we do. 

We’re only a few days past Pentecost, the day when churches celebrate the continuing presence of God in our world. So expect God to be present in all that you do.

At HERITAGE, we hope that these core values, along with our vision statement, will (1) guide how we choose what we do and what we don’t do; (2) serve as a lens through which to evaluate our work; and (3) provide clear ways to communicate who we are to both our members and those we seek to reach with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I wonder how you might use these values and how they might work in your context. So put them into practice and let me know how it works out.

See you Sunday.