How To Read The Bible

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

This is the third post in a series designed to encourage more of us to read the Bible more often. You can read the previous posts HERE and HERE.

In part one, we talked about developing a basic understanding of what the Bible is and where the Bible comes from. When was it written? Who are the authors? Why were they writing and to whom? Most of these questions can be answered by reading the introductions and text notes in a good study Bible.

In part two, we talked about why scriptural engagement and biblical understanding is especially important as we face present-day challenges.

Today we’re going to try to understand how to engage the actual words of scripture on the page in front of us. We’re going to try to figure out how to read the Bible most successfully and most profitably.

WHAT QUESTIONS SHOULD I BRING TO SCRIPTURE?

As you read scripture, you should start by asking three questions:

-What does the text say? (a comprehension question)
-What does the text mean? (an interpretation question)
-What questions does the text raise? (an engagement question)

1.What does the text say? The Bible is an old and varied collection of books. So sometimes it takes work just to understand what’s going on in a Bible passage. But basic comprehension is the first step toward successful Bible reading. One way to do this is to use “who, what, when, where, why” questions. Each passage may not answer all five questions, but if you try to answer as many as you can, you’ll start to get a good sense of what's happening in the passage.

2.What does the text mean? What can I learn from the text? What questions might the text be trying to answer? What is this text teaching about God? the human condition? the world? This is an interpretive question and is the most important question to answer as you seek to understand how to apply the Bible to your life today.

3.What questions does the text raise in my mind? Where do I want to know more? What should I look up when I’m finished reading? This is an engagement question that encourages you to learn more about what you’ve read. Over time, following up on this question will help you get better at answering question two—the interpretive question.

So, first try to understand what the text is saying. Then try to understand what larger truths the text might be trying to communicate. Finally, identify areas for further study.

WHERE SHOULD I START?

If you want to get a good overview of the Bible in an attempt to understand the whole story, what parts of the Bible should you read first? Here are my suggestions. Admittedly, these selections leave out large and important swaths of scripture, but it's a place to start.

These are twelve relatively short selections that could easily be studied and absorbed over the next twelve weeks. 

THE OLD TESTAMENT
Genesis 1-11—The opening narratives of the Bible represent the first efforts of our religious ancestors to answer the biggest, most fundamental questions about human existence. They explore questions about human purpose, human relationships and our relationship with our creator. These ancient myths answer age-old questions about how and why we got here with profound insight and intuitive knowledge. The depth of understanding and the enduring truths revealed in these stories leave no doubt about God’s presence in their formation and preservation.

Genesis 37-50—The Joseph saga presents one of the most well-developed characters in one of the most well-developed plot narratives in all of ancient literature. Joseph represents an indispensable link in the story of Israel. Without Joseph, we cannot get from Abraham to Moses. And, as a character, Joseph has much to teach us about faithfulness, humility, judiciousness, wisdom and forgiveness.

Exodus 1-3 –an introduction to Moses and the Hebrew enslavement in Egypt. These chapters include Moses' birth and call to leadership at the burning bush. This is a necessary text to understand what comes later.

Exodus 11-14—These chapters recount the Hebrew people’s escape from Egypt. This is the story that birthed the nation of Israel. The people who marched with Moses through the Red Sea developed the laws, customs and worship traditions of the Jewish faith. These are the people who received the 10 Commandments and developed the rituals of temple sacrifice and worship.

Job 1-3, 38-42—Job is the oldest book in the Bible, but its insight into the human condition and God’s relationship with humanity continues to amaze. The first three chapters are Job’s complaint to God about the unusual trials he’s facing. In the last four chapters, God responds. You’ll notice this selection skips over most of the book. The middle of the book contains the responses of Job’s friends to Job’s plight. If you have the time, the whole book is worth studying.  

Psalms 1, 8, 23, 46, 51, 103—the worship and prayer practices of the nation of Israel. There’s nothing particularly special about this selection of Psalms. They’re just my favorites.

Isaiah 1-9, 40, 60-61—How do we act in accordance with the will of God? The prophets challenge us to live in accordance with God’s will and teach us how to do so even in challenging circumstances. Isaiah is one the Old Testament’s most important prophets. The language and imagery in Isaiah are exquisite. These chapters should give you a good idea of Isaiah’s message, and they include some of Isaiah’s most familiar and soaring passages.

THE NEW TESTAMENT
Matthew 5-7
—The Sermon on the Mount—the most important body of teaching in the history of the world. Read it. Then read it again.

Luke 2, 12-18, 22-24—Luke is perhaps the most recognizable gospel. Even non-Christians will find Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ parables, and Jesus’ death and resurrection familiar.

John 1:1-18 and 13-17—Johannine Christology and Farewell Discourses—The first chapter of John develops a philosophical underpinning for the identity of Jesus and the nature of God. In chapters 13-17 Jesus takes a private moment with his disciples during Holy Week to deliver his final instructions to them. At the end of his teaching Jesus prays for his disciples, and not just for the ones in the room, but for all who will come after them. When you realize that you’re reading a prayer that Jesus personally prayed for you, it’ll give you goosebumps.

Romans 3-8—The letter to the Romans is the most complete presentation of the theology of the Apostle Paul. This selection is the meat of the argument.

1 John—one early Christian community’s beautiful understanding of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. All you need is love.

WHAT TRANSLATIONS WORK BEST?

The Bible exists in all kinds of translations for all kinds of reasons. It’s best to use a modern translation that is the result of the best scholars using all of the available textual resources and manuscripts to achieve a translation that is both readable and faithful to the meaning of the original languages.

Four translations to try:

New International Version (NIV),
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV),
The Message (Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase),
Common English Bible (CEB).

You can use a Bible app to read scripture, like YouVersion on your phone. You can read the Bible online with biblegateway.com--a wonderful tool for searching scripture.  But the BEST thing you can do as you start to re-engage scripture is to get a good, printed study Bible. The introductions to each book, the summary tables and timelines, the in-text notes, and the cross references will be invaluable as you seek to better understand scripture. You’ll discover that the extra notes in your study Bible are often able to answer questions you have as you read the text, and the background and insight they provide will make your scriptural explorations more meaningful.

A NOTE ABOUT INTERPRETATION

If reading and understanding scripture continues to be hard for you—if you still don’t feel like you’re getting anything out of it—you’re not alone. That’s why so many people study the Bible together in groups. Join a Sunday School class or find a weekday home group.

In groups, we can lead each other to deeper biblical insights and steer each other back on course if we start to veer off track.

Also, scripture reading ALWAYS raises questions. If you’re part of a study group, you’ll start to discover that others in your group have the same questions you do—and some may even have answers to your questions.

If you’re hesitant to interpret the Bible for yourself, that’s natural. But you have everything you need to read and understand scripture for yourself. Remember these things, though.

The criterion by which we interpret scripture is Jesus Christ. As Christians, we read all of scripture through the lens of who Jesus is, what Jesus did, and what Jesus taught. If a particular passage of scripture seems to conflict with the life and teaching of Jesus, see if there’s a faithful way to reconcile the two. If there’s not, give priority to the teaching of Jesus.

Here’s a handy rule of thumb: If your interpretation of scripture leads you toward a more committed and complete love of God and neighbor (Matt 22:37-40), you’re most likely on the right track. If it doesn’t, you may need to look at how you arrived at your understanding again.

A FINAL WORD

I hope you’ll take the challenge and join me in re-engaging scripture for yourself. Biblical literacy is a foundational requirement for a healthy church. Our neighborhoods and communities NEED healthy churches led by healthy, biblically informed Christians.

The future of the church in America—and its ability to impact our world—depends on individuals just like you making the commitment to read and understand the Bible for yourselves.

Happy reading. See you Sunday.

Why We Need The Bible Now More Than Ever

This week's post is the second part of an ongoing conversation about reclaiming the Bible's importance in our lives. You can read part 1 HERE.

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Two weeks ago now, my HERITAGE Home Group met to talk about what we’d like to study together over the next couple of months. As we talked, we discovered that we simply wanted to know more about the Bible and how to read and understand the Bible for ourselves.

As a pastor, it was refreshing to hear that there’s a hunger for meaningful engagement with scripture—particularly among the younger members of our congregation.

I’ve been thinking about our conversation--and the timing of it--and I've been wondering if there’s something about our present context that would lead to a growing hunger for straightforward engagement with the Bible.

I've come up with two possible driving forces.

A Longing For Something With Enduring Value

First, there's a growing hunger for things that last. 

Daily news cycles move so fast now. In today's world, new and often conflicting information competes for our attention, and it comes at us more quickly than we're capable of processing it. And then, before we even have time to evaluate the truth and worth of all we see and hear, the world has moved on to a new and seemingly more incredible outrage.

So is it any wonder that we might be seeing a renewed interest in something of enduring value?

In a “post-truth” world, it’s nice to turn to something--the Bible--whose value and worth are already established. There's comfort in turning to sources and narratives that have stood the test of time.

In a world that moves from one thing to the next so quickly, it’s refreshing to open a book and read a story that has refused to move on for more than 2000 years.

The truth is, even the most insightful and inspiring Bible studies and best-selling Christian books will be hard to find in bookstores a few years from now. They won't last. Fifty years from now few will even be remembered.

But the Bible? The Bible has lasted. And the Bible will endure long into the future. So I think it’s a good thing if there really is a renewed interest in direct engagement with the Bible. I pray there is.

A Scripture-Led Course Correction

I have another reason to hope that we’re seeing a renewed interest in the Bible. Scripture is the only thing that has the power to offer American Christians a much-needed course correction.

For nearly forty years now, at least since Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, evangelical Christians have allowed our Christian identity to be co-opted by partisan political agendas.

Because we have so reliably aligned ourselves with partisan political operatives and candidates, today we find ourselves in the eye of the storm as political tensions and partisan wrangling reach a fever pitch.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that many who claim our faith are more energized by partisan politics than engagement with scripture— that as a group we have somehow become more committed to wielding political power than to following a Savior who specifically rejected worldly power as a means to achieving Kingdom objectives.

The allure of political power has always been one of life’s greatest temptations. It’s one of the three things Satan tempted Jesus with at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

This is from Matthew 4:8-11:

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,  and serve only him.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

When tempted with the idolatry of worldly power, Jesus used scripture (Deuteronomy 6:13) to turn the temptation aside.

We would do well to follow Christ’s example. The antidote to Christian alignment with partisan politics is engagement with scripture—more Bible, less talk radio, less cable news.

We Need The Bible Now More Than Ever

For the above reasons--and others--I hope we’re seeing a renewed interest in direct scriptural engagement. I know I’ve been reading my Bible more. I hope you have been, too.

In a post-truth world, the truth contained in the Bible is lasting, real, and increasingly powerful. And, the Bible and the principles it teaches provide a powerful hedge against the great temptations of our time.

There are, of course, many other reasons to re-engage scripture, but these two seem particularly important today.

Next week I’ll outline a twelve-week Bible reading plan. For those of you who would like to commit yourselves to re-engaging scripture with me, I’ve chosen a selection of scriptural “greatest hits." I hope it will get me, and maybe you, off to a good start as we reclaim the Bible and its wisdom together.

See you Sunday.

HELP! I'm An Adult Christian Who Never Reads The Bible: Part 1

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Wanna know a secret? No one reads the Bible anymore. Can you name the last time you opened your Bible at home? If you can't, know that you’re not alone.

Whatever your background with church—whether you haven’t missed a Sunday since you were a child or you’re just finding a faith of your own as an adult—most of us have one thing in common. 

Very few American Christians—regardless of their church involvement—read the Bible consistently on their own. 

Several years ago I sat in a church pew on a Sunday night listening to well-known Christian evangelist Tony Campolo speak. As he taught from the pulpit he called out to the congregation, naming chapter and verse of the Bible and asking us to recite the scriptures with him. 

All he got back from the congregation was uncomfortable silence and blank stares.

I was never very good at recalling scripture by chapter and verse, and I’m still not. I’m no memory verse or Bible drill champion. But all of us should know the Bible better. And to know the Bible better, we have to read it more. 

This isn’t a post, though, to blame Christians for not reading the Bible. This is a post to acknowledge that the church needs to do a better job of teaching people HOW to read the Bible.

WHY DON’T WE READ THE BIBLE MORE?

The Bible is hard to understand. You can’t just pick it up, flip it open and start reading—at least not if you expect to get the most out of it. So, mostly, people just don’t.

That means that Christian leaders need to do a better job of teaching the basics of scripture, and not just for our members’ sake—many pastors (myself included) could benefit from a review of the basics, too!

People have very basic questions when approaching the Bible like, “Where should I start reading?” And, “What should I know about the Bible before I start reading so I can understand it better?”

It seems like it should go without saying, but our churches MUST be prepared to intentionally engage these questions from our adult members if we want them to read the Bible more consistently.

WHAT QUESTIONS SHOULD WE ALL BE ABLE TO ANSWER AS WE READ THE BIBLE??

When we open the Bible, if we want to understand it better, we should bring some basic questions (and answers) to our reading.

1. How and when did the Bible come into existence? How did we end up with the sixty-six books of the Bible? What did the first Christians read before the Bible was formed?

2. What Bible translations should we be reading from? Why do we have so many different translations of the Bible? What are the differences between them?  

3. What type of literature is the particular book of the Bible we're reading—poetry, prophecy, history, gospel, letter? When was it written and where? And, what does that mean about how we should read any particular text?

4. What is the author's purpose for writing? Are there big questions the author is likely trying to address? What kinds of answers were the first readers of scripture looking for? And, what kinds of answers should we be looking for in a particular text? 

THEN WHAT? WHAT DO WE DO NEXT?

And then, once we’ve answered these questions, we need to help our church members READ THE BIBLE—not someone else’s application of scripture that turns it into seven easy steps for a happy life, and not someone else’s interpretation of scripture that tells you why your political positions are blessed by God. 

We just need to READ THE BIBLE, so we can seek to understand it for ourselves together in Christian community. Once we’ve developed an appropriate foundation, we need to trust our collective ability to interpret and apply God’s word in our own contexts and for our own lives. 

That’s a long way of saying we need to recommit to the foundational Protestant principle of the priesthood of all believers.

Last week, my HERITAGE Home Group met to talk about what we’d like to study together over the next couple of months. Here’s the feedback I got from my group. They simply wanted to know more about the Bible and how to read and understand it for themselves. 

I nearly wanted to cry when I heard their responses—both for joy that there’s a hunger for meaningful engagement with scripture and in sadness at realizing how poorly we’ve satisfied that hunger and need in our congregation.

So over the next several weeks, my home group is going to start trying to answer some of these questions as we simply READ THE BIBLE together. 

And you wanna know a secret? I can’t wait!

See you Sunday.

Next week, I'll offer some suggestions about where to start as we begin to re-engage scripture for ourselves.

On Stewardship and Reconciliation

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

We just finished a worship series about stewardship at HERITAGE. As I worked through the series, I kept wanting to appeal to scriptures that demonstrate the importance of bringing our offerings to God.

But, as I combed the scriptures for lessons about our offerings, I noticed something surprising. When the Bible speaks about our offerings, it mostly mentions them to say that God doesn’t want them!

That’s right! Over and over again in the Old Testament, the prophets teach that God doesn’t want our offerings if our actions and attitudes are not aligned with God’s will (See Isaiah 1, Micah 6, Hosea 6, Psalm 51, Psalm 40, Jeremiah 7, I Samuel 15, and many others).

We tend to think of our offerings as a pre-condition to living in a right relationship with God. In scripture, though, our offerings are ALWAYS an outgrowth of living in right relationship with one another.

And that’s a REALLY important thing to remember right now.

We live in trying times. All of the economic, political, religious and social trend lines seem to be moving in directions that put increasing pressure on our relationships with one another.

As Christians, faced with increasing division, our first inclination is to enter God’s sanctuary with fervent prayers and faithful offerings, hoping for God to give us the courage and strength to win the ideological battles of the day.

That's natural. It seems like the faithful thing to do.

We’ve started to think that our worship and our offerings are things we give to God to curry God’s favor so that we can defeat our political, religious and economic adversaries—both within our faith and beyond it.

But EVERYTHING in scripture teaches the exact opposite!!!

Somehow we’ve gotten our order of operations hopelessly reversed. In scripture, our offerings are not what reconcile us to God and God’s will. Instead, our offerings flow naturally out of our ability to be reconciled to our neighbors and their needs—first.

In the Old Testament, we are told that we are to work cooperatively for justice first and then bring our offerings to God.

We are to stand up for the widows and the orphans first and then bring our offerings to God.

We are to be merciful first and then bring our offerings to God.

We are to rid ourselves of idolatry—which then and now often looks like nationalism—first, and then bring our offerings to God.

If we are to be faithful to scripture, we must repair what divides us first. Then, and only then, will our offerings be acceptable to God.

And it’s not just the Old Testament prophets who teach this. Jesus has something to say about our offerings, too.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that if we come into the sanctuary prepared to give our offerings and remember that we are in conflict with someone, we should “[f]irst go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matt 5:21-26). 

In challenging times our first inclination is to turn to God, gifts in hand, fervently hoping that God will provide what we need to win the fight as we stand in opposition to one other.

God’s primary teaching on stewardship, though, from the beginning of scripture to the end, is to remind us that in GIVING ourselves to and for one another we have made our most significant offering to God.

Our most significant achievement as Christians in the days to come will not be the battles we win. Our most significant achievement will be the battles we avoid.

Go and be reconciled. Then imagine the celebration as together we bring our offerings into the sanctuary.

See you Sunday. 

Living Between Victories, or The Life of an Atlanta Sports Fan

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Last week, the Falcons routed the Green Bay Packers to secure their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. As an Atlanta sports fan, I’m excited. A Falcons Super Bowl victory would be historic for a city starved of championships. 

Atlanta only has one professional sports title (1995 Braves) in more than 160 combined seasons of major professional sports competition. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s not an impressive record.

We live in a world that conditions us to expect every moment to be the best moment ever, every day to be a victory, and every season of life to be a championship season.

But the truth is, no one wins every game. In fact, some moments in life are pretty awful. And, in each of our lives, most of our time is spent between championships, not celebrating them.

In Exodus, the Bible tells the story of a group of people caught between victories. The Hebrew people celebrated a big victory when Moses led them out of slavery in Egypt only to wander in the wilderness for forty years before God led them into the Promised Land.

Forty years must have seemed like a long time to wander in the wilderness. By comparison, though, Falcons fans have been waiting for a championship for FIFTY years. That kind of waiting is enough to make you question your allegiances.

While the Hebrew people waited for their next victory, they questioned their allegiance to God and wondered if they would be better off returning to slavery under Pharaoh. Falcons’ fans have often wondered if they’d be better off throwing their lot in with someone else, too. It isn’t easy to remain faithful between championships.

In February we’re starting a new worship series at HERITAGE called “The In-Between Times.” Did you know that even after entering the Promised Land, the Israelites endured another 400 years of inconsistent leadership before they could celebrate a unified kingdom under King David?

That’s a long time between championships.

In our February worship series, as we study the period of the Judges, we’ll be reminded that ordinary life is messy, dangerous and often difficult. 

And guess what? That’s normal! And that's where we'll most often find God, down in the everyday muck of life as we experience it.

No matter what the world would have you believe, most of life is spent in the in-between times. All of life can’t be a championship celebration. Every day won’t be a mountaintop experience.

And you wouldn’t want life to be like that anyway! It’s the valleys that give the mountaintops their glory and the waiting that makes victory so sublime.

As we study the Judges in February, we'll learn that the in-between times teach us courage and strength. They teach us patience and wisdom. And they force us to rely on God in ways that championship seasons don’t.

Life between championships isn’t always easy, but it’s the in-between times that make us who we are. 

In life, like in football, the in-between times teach us the power of resilience and hope. The in-between times forge our characters and teach us determination.

It's the in-between times that will make next week's Super Bowl victory so special. And it's the in-between times that give meaning to your personal victories, too.

So even if it seems like you've gone an awfully long time without a win, remember, God is present—even in the messy confusion between championships—to give you the strength to rise up.

See you Sunday. 

On Inauguration Day: Pray. Teach. Challenge.

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

The election is over, Inauguration Day is here, and I'm exhausted. It's been a long year, so if you’re like me, you’re ready to put electoral politics on the back burner for a little while.

Just because we've made it to Inauguration Day, though, doesn't mean that our Christian responsibility to be good citizens has ended.

So in the spirit of good Christian citizenship, here are three things I would encourage all of us to do as we inaugurate the 45th president of the United States.

Pray
Pray for our president. Pray for all of our elected leaders. And pray for our country. Our elected leaders will make important decisions this year that will affect the lives of millions of families across our nation. So pray for them.

And as you pray, pray honestly and equitably in a spirit of goodwiil for leaders of every political party and ideological stripe. At HERITAGE we dedicated an entire service to praying for President Trump the Wednesday after he was elected. You can read our prayer HERE.

Teach
We should consistently remind the world--and our political leaders--what it means to think and act like Christ. It is no longer true (if it ever was) that most non-Christians understand what Christians believe. In fact, after this election, non-Christians are more likely than ever before to be confused about what we stand for.

Many wonder if our overwhelming support for President Trump--81% of white evangelical Christians voted for him--means that we endorse all that he has said and done. That means we must be more clear today about what we believe than we have ever been.

To those who now have questions about the content of our faith, we need to be clear that we believe in marital fidelity and respect for women. We need to be clear that the single-minded pursuit of wealth is antithetical to our gospel and that our faith compels us to exhibit a bias toward the poor. We need to be clear that honesty, humility and selflessness are bedrock principles of Christianity. We need to be clear that Christ celebrates the meek and the peacemaker; that Jesus encourages us to turn the other cheek and bear one another's burdens; and that our faith demands that we recognize in ourselves the need to both forgive and be forgiven.

Even though we voted overwhelmingly for President Trump, we need to be clear that much of his behavior falls well beyond the realm of what we as Christians can endorse. In short, we need to be clear that we’re working to create a world that looks more like the Sermon on the Mount and less like The Art of the Deal.

If we aren’t clear about what we believe and intentional in how we present ourselves, our witness for Christ has the potential to be irreparably compromised. We have an urgent responsibility in 2017 to teach our fellow Americans and remind our elected officials--the vast majority of whom share our faith--what it means to live and think like Christ.

Challenge 
Finally, having clarified what we believe, we should challenge our president to reconcile his political agenda with the central tenets of his faith. 

We should ask tough questions about how President Trump's policy positions demonstrate concern for the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, and the stranger. And we should challenge all of our leaders to demonstrate in their personal lives the same Christ-like qualities of humility, obedience, service and selflessness that we seek to model in our own.

In 2017, people all over the world will be closely following the American political process. Candidates supported by evangelical Christians now have unprecedented power to affect change in our country. The only question is how accurately their actions and our voices will reflect Christ as they do so. 

Proclaiming Truth in a Post-Truth World

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

2016 wasn’t a great year for truth, and the first days of 2017 don’t appear to have offered any improvement. When Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” in 2005 everyone laughed. Few are laughing now.

Colbert used the word to mean understanding something to be true because it "feels" right or because our gut tells us it ought to be true. Truthiness means that facts are secondary to emotion and that wishful thinking somehow has the power to bend the truth. The idea behind truthiness is closely related to confirmation bias, the idea that we are more likely to uncritically accept ideas or opinions as true if they tend to reinforce what we already believe.

During the 2016 presidential election we discovered an electorate primed to be susceptible to confirmation bias and truthiness. And our presidential candidates quickly proved ready to take advantage of the new reality by intentionally seeking to obscure the truth; by muddying the waters about the basic standards of truth; and by constantly calling into question what we previously accepted as reliable sources of truth—in the media, the scientific community, and the government—all in an effort to advance their own agendas and to the distinct detriment of our democracy.

Truthiness and confirmation bias are not, of course, only political phenomena. Religious leaders and constituencies fall prey to the same fallacies. In fact, there are few, if any, areas of our lives where basic standards of truth haven’t begun to erode. We see the results of this every time we see someone, maybe even one of our friends, post something on Facebook that's obviously not true--and live in fear that we'll do the same one day. 

All of this leads many to conclude that we are living in a “post-truth” America. In fact, “post-truth” was named the 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries.

In a post-truth world we seek out and lend credence to only those sources of information that tend to confirm our biases, and we begin to reject the idea that there are any unbiased, objective sources of truth.

When information bubbles and echo chambers become so exclusionary and loud, when confirmation bias and wanting to “feel” right become more important than facts, and when we become so entrenched in our ideological ghettos, that winning an argument--or an election—becomes more important than truth, then we live firmly in a post-truth society.

To the extent that what I’ve just described is happening, we are in real trouble as a country. And a post-truth society presents a distinct challenge to Christians because we believe that Christ is the truth (John 14:6).

So how can we be faithful Christians in a post-truth world?

First, we must maintain a steadfast commitment to truth as an overarching good. We must be THE MOST VOCAL ADVOCATES FOR TRUTH AND HONESTY when  those motivated by power, greed or the desire for victory begin to manipulate facts. 

Second, we should speak the truth calmly, persistently, intentionally, prayerfully and deliberately--and understand our unwavering commitment to truth as a Christian commitment to God's kingdom--so that we guard ourselves against a drift toward truthiness. We should never forget that we are just as susceptible to truthiness as anyone else.

Third, we shouldn’t preach the truth only reactively—the truth must be more than just a response to every “post-truth” flare up.

In a post-truth world we should confidently proclaim that there is such a thing as truth, that it has a unique and unrivaled power, and that it wins in the end.

No amount of post-truth yelling, money, intimidation, religious chest-thumping or political browbeating can keep truth down.

Truth is like yeast in the dough or the faith of a mustard seed—and, like Shakespeare’s Hermia, though it be but little, it is fierce! So truth doesn’t need us to defend it. But it does need us to let it out into the world; it does need to be insistently and persistently proclaimed.

The truth doesn’t have to "feel" right. It is right. It doesn’t have to shout to win an argument. And, as hard as it may be for us to understand, it doesn’t have to win every news cycle or even every election. Our faith teaches us that it’s already won the war--and it will set us free (John 8:32).

See you Sunday.

A Choice For 2017

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

So I watched The Wall this week. Have you seen it? It’s a new game show on NBC. I’ve only seen one episode, but from the very beginning, there was something off-putting about the show. I have to admit, though, that it hooked me. I watched until the end, I couldn’t look away, and I’m ashamed.

The Wall appeals to what’s worst in us, and it reveals a fundamental flaw in American society.

The general idea is that deserving couples—carefully screened to be sympathetic contestants, of course—have a chance to make their dreams come true by winning millions of dollars. The whole show is driven by the idea that Money has the power to change your life.

Admittedly, that’s been the central premise of every big-money game show to precede The Wall. It’s also the draw of the lottery and scratch-off tickets. It’s the allure of Life Styles of the Rich and Famous and MTV’s Cribs. It’s why we keep up with the Kardashians and the Real Housewives.

But in my one episode of watching, there’s something different about this show. The Wall somehow seems more transparent in its idolatry than any of its predecessors. Just look at the picture below. 

After watching The Wall, any reasonable observer can only come to one conclusion. We worship Money and pray at the altar of good fortune. The show strips away any pretense that there is any other central truth in American society.

And, it reveals that we’ve reached a point where most people—maybe even most people reading this article—are willing to acknowledge our collective adoration of Money and simply shrug and say, “Yeah. So what?”

What’s wrong with dreaming about what we might do with newfound millions? What’s wrong with worshiping at the altar of wealth and believing in the power of Money?

What’s wrong with The Wall?

The Wall reveals that we don’t even know that we should be ashamed of our attitudes toward Money. It is naked and brazen and worshipful idolatry—nothing more and nothing less. And that doesn’t bother us anymore. You’d be hard-pressed to find a church where people prayed for God to appear as fervently as these contestants pray for that ball to drop in the million-dollar slot.  

And, if we're honest with ourselves, we're not all that different. 

Most of us are much more emotionally invested in the health and growth of our financial accounts than in the health and growth of our spiritual lives. What if we invested as much time and energy in thinking about our spiritual potential as we do to thinking about our financial potential?  

We think that Money is more real than God. More powerful than God. More useful than God. More lasting than God. More protective. More appealing. More worthy of our careful attention and devotion. And on The Wall, we don’t even have the decency to hide it.

We’re starting the New Year at HERITAGE with a worship series called “More Than Enough.The Wall is based on the idea that we all need more--a lot more. But God teaches something different.

So how do we flip our mindsets to begin to understand the promise of God’s abundance? We'll try to at least scratch the surface of that question over the next few weeks in worship.

Almost all of us have been blessed with more than enough. The question isn’t how can we get more; the question is how can we make the best use of what we have.

That might be my guiding question for 2017.

So the next time you watch The Wall, don’t let the idolatry wash over you unnoticed. And ask yourself which altar you pray at.

The Wall presents its contestants with lots of choices. But here’s the only choice that matters. You can’t worship both God and Money. Either you will love one and hate the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other (Matt 6:24). The choice is yours.

See you Sunday. 

All I Want For Christmas

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Dear Santa,

All I want for Christmas is a home playoff game for the Falcons—on a Saturday, please. Sunday games are tough for pastors to get to. I don’t care what you have to do to make it happen. If Tampa Bay has to lose every game for the rest of the year, so be it. If the Panthers need to lose 72-0 on Saturday, I can live with that. If Drew Brees has to throw six interceptions against us two weeks from now, it wouldn’t bother me at all. Do whatever it takes.

I know you can do it. I'm not asking for a first-round bye or a number one seed, just a division title and a home playoff game. Again, preferably on a Saturday.

I’ve been really good this year—even better than Vic Beasley, and not nearly as expensive. I’ve tried all year not to drop anything. I’ve avoided false starts. And that one flag for unsportsmanlike conduct was just a big misunderstanding.

The only thing I’m guilty of holding this year are hopes for a Super Bowl championship.

So if you can just get me a Saturday home playoff game, I would really appreciate it. I’ll forgive Matt Ryan for every bad pass he’s ever thrown—even those fourth quarter, red zone interceptions.

And, I know we shouldn’t hate anyone, so If you can do this one thing for me, I may even forgive Bobby Petrino for quitting on us in the middle of the season. I might even soften my feelings toward the New Orleans ‘Aints. I mean the Saints.

No promises, though. Old habits die hard.

If a home playoff game isn’t possible, I’ll settle for an away playoff game as long as we win it. And if neither of those is possible—or even if they are—I have a few other things on my list, too.

Could you make sure that 2017 is free from hunger and war and hatred and greed? From pride and jealousy and deceitfulness and worry?

Could you banish fear and doubt and sickness and ignorance and sin, too? Along with hurt and loneliness and depression and hopelessness and divorce and violence?  

Could you place a permanent ban on cheating and stealing and lying and idolatry and aimlessness and want and addiction and alcoholism?

Instead, could you replace all that with double doses of fulfillment and peace and kindness and charity and humility? With joy and honesty and serenity?

Could you give everyone an extra measure of courage and confidence and health and knowledge this year? And heaping portions of righteousness and wholeness and companionship? And maybe throw some happiness and optimism and fidelity and compassion into your bag, too. 

And, then, if there's still room in your sleigh, would you make sure that we all have plenty of integrity, generosity and truthfulness?  And enough holiness and purpose and freedom and temperance and faith and hope and love to last the whole year?

Especially love. Maybe even make it a triple measure of love. We need all the love we can get. 

Love endures all things--just like Falcons fans.

And love will cover a multitude of sins—just like Bobby Petrino’s biography!  

Oops. I did it again. That’s the last dig at Bobby Petrino, I promise. At least for this year. 

Thank you in advance. And don’t forget the home playoff game. On a Saturday. Please.

Go Falcons. 

And Merry Christmas. 

 

Billboards At Christmas

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Tim Ferris hosts one of the America’s most popular podcasts, writes one of America’s most popular blogs and is well-known for his best-selling book The Four-Hour Work Week.  I’ve been peripherally aware of Ferriss for some time now, but I just listened to his podcast for the first time this week.  

Tim was interviewing Ezra Klein, a political commentator, blogger and founder of the news website, Vox.com. I’ve followed and enjoyed Ezra’s insightful takes on politics and public policy over the years, so when I saw his name on the podcast I decided to listen.

Recently, GQ Magazine listed Ezra among the fifty most influential people in Washington. He's made it to the top of a challenging and competitive profession. So the fascinating thing about listening to Tim’s interview with Ezra was Ezra's complete transparency about his insecurities and struggles along the way.

While talking with Tim, Ezra was open about his awkward and challenging childhood. He struggled with his weight. He was socially inept. He described himself not just as unpopular, but as the “least popular kid in school.”

He was bullied to the point of switching schools several times. And even though Ezra is clearly a brilliant guy, he talked about struggling to make good grades.

In the interview, he talked about his first attempts to get into politics and then journalism. He recounted internships he didn’t get and first jobs whose funding disappeared. He shared a great story about a failed, uncomfortable experience with one of his political heroes as he was first starting out.

Throughout the interview, I was reminded of my own first opportunities when I didn’t have any experience. Of moments of failure and awkward steps forward. Of challenging slides backward. Of incredibly uncomfortable experiences when I didn’t know what to do or was unprepared for the situation I’d put myself in.

Truth be told I still feel unprepared and uncomfortable more often than I’d like to admit. I bet Ezra does, too. How about you?

Just looking at Ezra, all you see is someone who's become incredibly successful at a relatively young age. You wouldn’t know that he grew up with such insecurity, but he has. 

We all hide our insecurities well, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.

Tim Ferriss ended the interview by asking Ezra a question he asks many of the people he interviews: “If you could put one message on a billboard for the whole world to see, what would it be?” First Ezra said he would get someone really creative to design a billboard that brings “wonder, happiness and levity” to the people driving by.

And then he said, “Maybe it would just say, ‘You’re almost there.’”

Ezra said he knew the question was coming, so he’d had time to think about it, and he’d made a conscious decision not to try to persuade. He said changing people’s minds is too difficult; he’d rather inspire.

Christmas is in nine days. The message of Christmas fits on a billboard, and the message of Christmas isn’t intended to persuade. It’s meant to inspire.

The Christmas message isn’t Ezra Klein’s “You’re almost there.” The Christmas billboard says, “God is with us.”

It’s a simple message, perfect for people who feel insecure and unprepared and uncomfortable. That means--as Ezra Klein reminded me this week--that it’s the perfect message for people like us.  

If you want to inspire someone this Christmas, remind them of God’s message and let them know that God’s message is your message, too—that you’re with them and for them, too.

Of course, God didn’t just use words. God poured God’s whole self into the message. We’re challenged to do the same.

So this Christmas, what message would you put on your billboard? Who would you want to see it? And how will you demonstrate that your words are true?

See you Sunday. 

Remembering War and Waiting for Peace—Together

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Wednesday was December 7th, a date that President Roosevelt said would live in infamy. And it has. Wednesday marked the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

This year, the anniversary of that event fell only three days after churches all over the world lit the candle of peace on the second Sunday of Advent.

So on Wednesday night December 7th,  during our REST prayer service, I reminded those gathered in our sanctuary of both the attack on Pearl Harbor and the peace candle of Advent, and then I told the story of a favorite hymn of Advent, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is a Latin antiphon, an ancient chant used in Christian worship dating back to the first centuries of the early church. Five verses in the “Emmanuel” antiphon were first translated into English in the 1850s.

Later, in 1916, Presbyterian minister Henry Sloane Coffin translated two more verses into English as some of the fiercest battles of World War I were raging. 

There were no battles more fierce than the Battle of Verdun. It began in February of 1916 and continued for 11 months. With Germans on one side and the French on the other, trench warfare and the use of chemical weapons made the fighting long and especially brutal. 

The French and Germans combined to suffer more than 900,000 casualties at Verdun alone, and when the battle ended neither side had gained a clear victory.

Of the battle, a French lieutenant wrote, "Humanity is mad. It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!”

And later, French historian Antoine Prost would compare the horrors of Verdun to the horrors of Auschwitz. 

In the middle of one of the most gruesome battles the world has ever seen, Henry Sloane Coffin translated the last two verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” into English this way:

“O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

“O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel."

Last Wednesday evening, after thinking for just a moment about the enduring juxtaposition of war and peace in our world, we ended our service as we do each Wednesday by celebrating the Lord’s Supper together.

Over the last several months I’ve been telling the people who come to REST on Wednesday nights that there’s something special and holy about gathering to pray—together; and something holy and formative about the shared and repeated act of celebrating the Lord’s Supper—together.

On Wednesday night, as I watched my friends and fellow church members quietly line up once again to eat the bread and drink the cup—together, I remembered that we have done this faithfully—together—for weeks now. And I thought about the different life paths that had brought each of us to that moment—together—and something holy clicked in me.

We don’t offer anything at REST except for soft music and a quiet place to sit. There’s nothing glitzy about it. But it does offer each of us the chance to aim for something holy--together--if only for thirty minutes.

You can pray alone. You can sing hymns alone. You can read scripture alone. You can consider God’s presence in war and peace alone. You can celebrate the Lord’s Supper alone. You can wait for Christmas alone. 

But you can't work for peace alone. That's something that has to be done together.

So we pray and sing and read and listen and celebrate--together; and we wait and work--together--until the whole world is filled with heaven's peace. 

Today I’m grateful for the faithful folks who join me each Wednesday night to REST and aim for peace—together.

See you Sunday. 

Approaching Christmas

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

We’re getting ready for Christmas at the Sapp house. That means that Julie’s been decorating the house and I’ve been buying myself presents online. That’s how we do it—or at least how we’ve done it so far this year. I helped carry the boxes down from the attic, and since then Julie’s done all the work.

She’s put up the tree, the wreaths and the lights. She’s carefully placed the ornaments and hung the garland. She’s put out the nativity sets. She’s gone to the store to add a few new things to our Christmas decorations. And now our home is filled with holiday cheer. 

And I have helped by taking advantage of the Black Friday sales to buy a new sound bar for the TV. Not exactly a "husband of the year" performance, I know.

What do Christmas preparations look like at your house? Do you go all out? Do you share the work equally? Are you lucky if you get a tree up at all?

We all get ready for Christmas differently. If everything goes according to plan, though, by Christmas Eve we will all arrive at the manger together.

And, because we’re all aiming to arrive at the same place at the same time, hoping to celebrate the same birth, it’s tempting to think that we’re all traveling the same road to get to there.

But we’re not.

I’ve been particularly struck this year by the different places from which we all approach Christmas.

Some still approach Christmas with child-like wonder and joy. Some are enjoying approaching Christmas with children of their own. Some are getting to relive the merriment of child-filled Christmases as grandparents.

For others, though, the holidays are a tough time of year. Loved ones who have passed away are most noticeably absent at Christmas. For many, divorce, and its memory, is never more painful than around the holidays.

Some will gather with family members who have hurt them profoundly and put on a brave face. Others will spend this Christmas alone.

That means that some of our journeys to Christmas will be easy. Others not so easy. And still others will be downright challenging.  

Our roads to Christmas this year will not be all alike. But, like all good pilgrimages, even though our journeys will be different, what waits at the end is the same.

Apple created a commercial for the Rio Olympics that uses a poem by Maya Angelou, “Human Family.” The poem ends with the repeated statement, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

If you're reading this in your email, you can listen to Maya Angelou read "Human Family" HERE.

For me this year, that’s one of the great messages of Christmas: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

The manger is a great leveler. No matter where we come from or what baggage we carry as we travel, we are all in equal need of what the manger promises at the end of our pilgrimage.

So, as you approach Christmas this year, remember that we’re all on different journeys.

Some of our paths to Christmas are lit by faith, and some are clouded by doubt.

Some will make the journey with merry bands of joyful pilgrims, and some will take grief-stricken steps alone.

Some will trudge along indifferently, not sure what propels them forward. Others aren’t sure they’ll make it to the manger at all this year.

But whether we approach Christmas with joy, excitement and wonder—or grief, loneliness and fear—or even weather-beaten indifference—once we get to the manger, we are all alike, my friends.

When we get to Bethlehem and peer down into the face of the Christ-child, we are, all of us, equally loved, forgiven, redeemed and known.

So skip if you can, walk if you have to, brace yourself against the wind and fight for every step if you must, but get to the manger this Christmas.

There’s great beauty this Christmas in knowing that the promise for each of us is the same.

“We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

“We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

A beautiful message, beautifully conveyed in Bethlehem.

See you at the manger.

A Box Full of Prayers

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

I have this box sitting on my desk right now that a good friend of mine, M.A. Sykes, gave to me several years ago. And for the last several months, it’s had some pretty important pieces of paper in it.

Back in August at HERITAGE we had this worship series called “If I Were King,” and as we wrapped up the four-week series, we asked the members of our congregation to engage in a prayer moment at the end of worship.

Everybody had a note card, and the card had two statements on it. The first statement said, “If I were king, I would change this one thing about my life.”

And the second statement said, “If I were king, I would change this one thing for someone I love.”

We asked people to think carefully about those statements and to prayerfully write their responses on the cards. So we had our prayer moment and people wrote their requests down and we all brought them forward and laid them on the altar. Then, after the service, I gathered up our prayer requests and put them in this box that’s now on my desk.

"I’m thankful for what this box of prayers represents—a faithful community of believers willing to share their deepest needs with a God who loves them."

"I’m thankful for what this box of prayers represents—a faithful community of believers willing to share their deepest needs with a God who loves them."

Since then, during every Wednesday night prayer service, this box with the prayer requests in it has been placed on our altar, surrounded by candles. 

We have bathed these requests—your requests—in prayer for 3 months now. If you were here back in August when we filled out our “If I Were King” cards, do you remember what you wrote?

I thought I remembered mine, but I wasn’t sure, so I went back to look at mine again, and I have to tell you, reading my card was a powerful experience. It was enough to make me believe in the power of prayer.

Jesus teaches that when we seek God’s kingdom first—when we work to align our priorities with God’s priorities—and ask God for what we need, it will be given to us. When we search for answers we will find what we’re looking for. When we knock, doors will be opened (Matt 6:33, 7:7-8).

That doesn’t mean that prayer is like magic or that God is like a genie in a lamp. It’s actually way better than that. Prayer isn’t about asking for what we want--it isn’t about wishing for more wishes or hoping for extravagant wealth.

Prayer is about discovering what God wants for us and from us—and then discovering that God is supplying in abundance all that we need to make it happen.

Where do you need direction in your life? Pray for God's guidance. What do you need clarity on? Ask God to unmuddy the waters. Are you wondering which door to walk through next? Prayer can help you know which doors are open to you.

Jesus is clear in his teaching that God hears and answers our prayers, so we should be people who pray boldly and with confidence.

So now it's Thanksgiving week and I’ve got this box. It’s full of the prayer requests of faithful people who are honestly seeking God’s blessing and direction in their lives and in the lives of people they love.

And you know what I believe? I believe I’ve got a box here full of prayers that are being answered.

That might be what I’m most thankful for this Thanksgiving. 

I’m thankful for what this box of prayers represents—a faithful community of believers willing to share their deepest needs with a God who loves them. God is answering my prayers, and I’m hopeful that you will see that God is answering yours, too. 

Happy Thanksgiving.

See you Sunday.

“The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
–James 5:16

Life At The Right Pace

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

This Thanksgiving I'll compete in my second half-marathon. Actually, "compete" might not be the right word. This Thanksgiving I'll hopefully complete my second half-marathon.

Running has gradually become a regular part of my life over the last few years, and I've discovered that there’s something uniquely therapeutic about running at just the right pace.

Running helps me do all kinds of things.

I run to clear my head. I run to work out problems. I run to relieve stress. I run to work through sermon ideas. I run to forget about everything except the music in my ears for an hour or so. And, ultimately, I run to get faster and fitter, to challenge myself, and to see progress in my ability.  

Running seems simple enough. Just put one foot in front of the other and repeat. At it's most basic level running is that simple, but to see consistent improvement you also have to learn to consistently run at the right pace.

Run too fast and you’ll burn out too quickly. Run too slow and you'll never know what it is to challenge yourself.

Run too fast and you’ll be more susceptible to a sidelining injury. Run too slow and it's hard to develop a comfortable rhythm.

Run too fast and you’ll start to make mistakes in form. Run too slow and it's hard to sustain momentum.

Run too fast and each step becomes a struggle. Run too slow and you'll feel like you're never getting anywhere.

Run too fast and defeatist and negative thoughts begin to mount in your brain—"I’ll never make it to the finish…there’s no way I can keep this up!" Run too slow and you'll never see improvement.

But when you learn to run at just the right pace, wonderful things start to happen.

Run at the right pace and you'll find real joy in the effort. Run at the right pace and your steps seem effortless. Run at the right pace and you’ll feel like you can go on forever. Run at the right pace and you reach the finish line triumphantly.

As simple as running appears--just put one foot in front of the other and repeat—it’s not always easy to find the right pace.

I wonder if life is that way, too. It seems simple enough. Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat. But it’s not always easy to find the right pace.

There’s a sweet spot to the pace at which we live our lives. Sometimes, the speed of life can feel like a hamster wheel out of control. Sometimes, the speed of life can feel like a long slog through quicksand.

But sometimes--the best times--we find ourselves engaging life at a pace that lets us feel as if we’re effortlessly clearing hurdle after hurdle without breaking stride. 

So what’s your pace right now? Too fast? Too slow? Just right? We all need periodic opportunities to assess the race we’re running--and the pace at which we're running it.

Maybe you'll figure out that you’re entering a season of life where you can pick up the pace and really challenge yourself.  

Or maybe—perhaps, more likely—you'll pause and figure out that you’ve been pushing too hard and need to settle into a more sustainable rhythm for the long haul.   

Whatever your pace, next week we all get a break for Thanksgiving. Everybody gets at least one day off and If we’re lucky two or three. Take them and rest. You need them. Enjoy them and use them to re-assess your pacing.  

And don’t just do it for yourself. Your family, your church, and your community all need you to take these days to rest and re-assess, too. They need you to be at your best as you run the next leg of your race.

So, my wish for you this Thanksgiving? Enjoy the break. You deserve it. Then ease back into a familiar, healthy, comfortable rhythm. There’s something uniquely therapeutic about living life at the right pace.

See you Sunday.

On Presidential Elections and Baloney Sandwiches

NOTE: As this post is being published, an increasing number of Americans are reporting instances of harassment, discrimination, and assault because of their religion, race and/or ethnicity.

Others are engaging in violent protests. Elections ARE important and do have consequences.

If anything, though, these isolated instances of violence and racism serve to further illustrate the smallness of the Empire and to underscore the need to re-double our efforts to speed the arrival of the in-breaking Kingdom of God. 

The things of the Empire will ultimately be destroyed. But the Kingdom of God will last forever.

This is an edited and adapted version of a sermon from our "God and Country" worship series. It was originally delivered at the end of July as part of a series that anticipated this week's presidential election.

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

The Current Situation
We’re in the middle of an election in America right now. In 100 days we’ll go to the polls and elect a president for the next four years. People are saying, “It’s the most important election of our lifetimes.” People are saying, “Never have the stakes been so high. Never have the choices and contrasts been so stark.”

People are saying, “The future of our children, America’s standing in the world, our way of life, and the very future of the republic may hang in the balance.”

And this IS an important election. Every election is important. And, I think we’ll all acknowledge, there are dynamics that make this election unique.

But guess what? I’ve heard that “most important” rhetoric about EVERY election in my lifetime. And I don’t care how old you are, you have, too.

In some of the previous “most important” elections, your candidate won. In some of them, your candidate lost. And guess what? We’re still here. Our families are still intact--although the rhetoric in this election leads some to wonder how long that will remain true.

So far, though, life goes on.

This year the United States celebrated 240 years of independence from Great Britain. In those 240 years we have expanded our territory and influence considerably with states and territories and military outposts that now literally span the globe.

We are a powerful empire—one whose influence dominates the globe in a manner unrivaled in human history. But... 

But, in the grand sweep of history, at least so far, the American empire is but a blip on the map, not even approaching one-tenth of the staying power of ancient Egypt (3000 years). Today, we’re more than 1000 years short of the influence of Rome (1500 years).

I’m sure all of you remember the all-important Roman election of 64 BC? You don’t?  Do you remember all the hype around the introduction of the new pharaoh in Egypt in 1878 BC? Of course not.

Were they important? Egyptians and Romans surely thought they were at the time. But memory fades, and history has a way of leveling things out.

We give priority to the present in a way that inflates its importance, and we always have.

So how does the present moment—the current election—compare? Where does it fit into the big picture?

 

What The Bible Teaches
Scripture, I think, can help us.

In Revelation 18 and Revelation 21 we are presented with two visions—two pictures of what our world is destined for. One is of Babylon—the Empire, a representation of the world we live in now. The other is of New Jerusalem—a representation of the in-breaking kingdom of God, the world as it one day will be.

In the first vision, Babylon is destroyed, and it’s a gruesome sight. The Empire is gone and gone forever.

In the second vision—the one of New Jerusalem—we get a decidedly more pleasant picture. Something comes to replace Babylon. Something comes to replace the Empire. And it’s incredible.

A new city comes to replace the old city. A new vision to replace the old vision. A rising reality emerges to replace the decaying and destructive reality of the present age.

The New Jerusalem is a vision of a place and time where God will reign forever and ever. It’s a vision of the Kingdom of God.

The Book of Revelation is full of symbols and intentionally coded language. It can be very hard to make heads or tails of it. But everybody at least agrees that Revelation teaches this: The Empire WILL NOT last. But the Kingdom will.

The Empire doesn’t last. But the Kingdom of God will last forever. As citizens of the Empire, we don’t want to hear that the Empire won’t last; it’s one of the hardest truths that Jesus came to teach us.

We want to be able to place our trust in princes and governments, to believe that God will use the traditional authority and power of this world to usher in God's Kingdom. 

Jesus teaches something different, though. In fact, Jesus is a specific and explicit repudiation of the idea that God will use the political power of the Empire to achieve God’s kingdom purposes.

But that’s not always easy for us to see, especially when it’s hard to imagine anything more important than the present moment—or the current election.

 

What We Can Learn From Scripture
Contentious elections have great potential to skew our perspectives so that things that are closer to us look really big while things that are farther away look really small. Like when you hold out your thumb and close one eye to blot out the moon.

Now is one of those times when our perspective might be skewed.

The American Empire has endured for 240 years and counting.

But God’s Kingdom is way bigger than the American Empire, and God’s reign dwarfs our 240 years.

We sing about the scope of the Kingdom of God in our “Glory Be” doxology most Sundays:

“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the BEGINNING, is now and EVER shall be. World without end. Amen. Amen.”

In the grand narrative of God’s story—a story extending from even before the creation of the world and into an eternal future—our 240 years of American history look pretty small. And a 4-year election? Even smaller.

So as we move through a contentious election, let’s do it with a little perspective.

When we talk about God and country, we tend to hold those two things equally—our responsibility to the nation in one hand and our responsibility to the Kingdom of God in the other—as if the two are more or less of the same size and importance.

But they’re not.

God is first and last. The alpha and the omega and everything in between. When we put everything in its proper perspective there really is nothing else. There is only God and God’s Kingdom.

Sometimes, in our skewed perspectives, when we hold the Empire up just so, it seems big enough to blot out our vision of the Kingdom. The Kingdom, though, will always be the moon to the Empire’s thumb.

 

How Does What We've Learned Change Our Approach To The Current Situation?
So...with things in their proper perspective, what are we to do? As citizens of the Empire and citizens of the Kingdom, what are we to do?

That’s pretty clear. We are to give the Kingdom priority and live out our kingdom values now. 

For nine weeks over the summer at HERITAGE we prepared and distributed about 400 lunches five days a week to hungry children in our neighborhood.

Whatever the Empire says about the importance of making sure that everyone is fed, whatever your empire politics tell you about your responsibility toward the poor, there can be no mistake about your kingdom responsibility.

The Kingdom of God exhibits a distinct bias TOWARD the poor and the hungry and the child and the least among us. So in the Kingdom, we feed hungry children.

Every time we hand out a lunch, we take a stand for the Kingdom.  And each lunch is in its own way a subversive threat to an Empire that has failed to care for needy children or feed the poor--or even to believe that those things are important enough to do.

But we say they are important enough to do, because whatever they are to the Empire, they are priorities in the Kingdom.

Whatever the empire says about immigration, about welcoming the stranger, and loving your neighbor, there can be no mistake about our Kingdom responsibility to our neighbors.

So for nine weeks this summer, five days a week, with hundreds of lunches a day you have welcomed the immigrants in our community by feeding their children.  I don’t know if most of you are aware, but the majority—maybe even the vast majority—of the lunches we so lovingly prepare and distribute in the name of Christ, go to help people who are regularly and consistently demonized on your TV screens each night—undocumented immigrants and their children.

That, by the way, is also true of the backpacks we’ve just prepared and are getting ready to distribute through Give a Kid a Chance.

Every time we handout a lunch or distribute a backpack, we take a stand for the Kingdom.  And each lunch and each backpack is in its own way a subversive threat to an Empire that has failed to feed the poor or welcome the stranger, or even to believe that those things are important enough to do.

And you know what? It makes your pastor proud, because those subversive little sandwiches add up. And they lend significance to our ministry—to who we are and what we do.

Our lives, if they are significant at all, are significant because we have devoted them to things that are eternal.

The baloney sandwich in the brown paper bag, of course, isn’t eternal. Neither are the glue sticks and notebooks in the backpacks. But the love of the Kingdom represented in each of them IS eternal.

The things of the Empire will ultimately be destroyed. But the Kingdom of God will last forever.

So, is this election the most important election of our lifetimes? I don’t know.

But I do know this. Our perspective is skewed. We tend to overestimate the power of presidential elections and underestimate the power of baloney sandwiches.

The Kingdom of God is only advanced through one of them.

 

The election is over. The Empire will never advance the work of the Kingdom. That's up to us. Back to making sandwiches.

 

A Prayer For The President-Elect

On Wednesday at HERITAGE, we will gather for our regular mid-week prayer and communion service to pray for our president-elect. This will be our prayer.

It is in some ways a very Christian prayer, and in other ways it simply expresses the hope that all Americans of good will have for our country and its leadership.

I share it now because it's important to understand that our prayer is the same no matter who our next president is. 

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

God of all creation, ruler of heaven and earth,

We gather this evening to thank you for our president-elect and to thank you for allowing us a voice in selecting our country’s next leader.

We pray that our new president will seek the best interests of our nation and all her people with the benefit and blessing of your guidance and providence.

We pray not only for our country and our fellow Americans; tonight we pray also that our president-elect will use the office of the president to seek the best interests of our world in a way that acknowledges that you are the God and creator of all people in all nations.

And, as Christians, we pray that our new president will seek to govern in ways that are consistent with the dawning reality of your kingdom here on earth.

Tonight we pray hopefully for a bright future of shared prosperity.

We pray hopefully for growing peace—in our own hearts, among the people of our nation and throughout our world.

We pray that our president-elect will inspire unity and seek to heal the divisions among us.

We pray for leadership that is generous and forgiving as you are generous and forgiving.

We pray for leadership that calms rather than inflames our fears.

We pray for leadership that inspires the best in us and that avoids exploiting the worst in us.

We pray for leadership that recognizes our genuine anxiety about the future and pray that our president-elect will find helpful ways to move us beyond our worry.

You can pray this prayer with us in person on Wednesday at 6:30. I hope you will.

You can pray this prayer with us in person on Wednesday at 6:30. I hope you will.

We pray that God will help our president-elect build a shared vision of a hopeful future among Democrats and Republicans and Independents; among rich and poor, male and female, young and old, rural and urban, immigrants and native-born; and among people of every race and from every nation.

We pray for God’s blessing on our president-elect. Bless our president-elect with the wisdom to know what is right and the courage to do it.

Bless our president-elect with the humility to admit wrongs and the dignity to seek forgiveness.

Bless our president-elect with compassion for those who struggle and with a genuine concern for the least among us.

We pray for the president-elect and for the president-elect’s family. We pray for their collective health and happiness, for fulfillment in the work they will engage, and for joy from the progress they will achieve. We pray that the next four years for our first family will be marked by Christ-like love and faithful devotion to God and to each other.

In the coming days and weeks, give the president-elect--and all of us--a growing awareness of your presence. Align our collective vision with your vision for our future. Make us steadfast in pursuing kingdom priorities and in living by kingdom values.

Now and in the years to come, may our individual lives be characterized by righteousness and our collective lives by justice, until that day when the world as it is gives way to the world as it should be, and you reign in our world and in our hearts forever.

AMEN.

P.S. If you're reading this on Tuesday and haven't voted yet, go vote.

 

 

 

Putting Leaves Back On Our Branches

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

We’re building a tree at HERITAGE. It’s not a big tree. It’s actually pretty small, but it’s the perfect size to serve as the centerpiece of our communion table.

In fact, you can’t even quite call it a tree yet. It’s really just a collection of bare branches carefully pieced together by Joy McDaniel to resemble a tree. But that won’t last for long.

Over the next three weeks, as the leaves fall off the trees outside, we’ll be adding leaves to our tree inside as part of our November leadership series called, “Prophet, Priest and King.”

Last Sunday in worship we each got a yellow construction paper leaf, and we wrote the names of prophetic leaders on our leaves as we celebrated the influence of their vision, imagination and courage.

This Sunday we’ll write the names of priests (ministers) on our leaves—people who guard and communicate the mystery of God for us through word and sacrament.

And two Sundays from now we’ll focus on royal leadership by filling our leaves with the names of people who have been like Christ to us—those whom God has blessed with positions of influence and authority and who have used their positions not to flaunt their power, but to model humility, generosity, obedience and grace in our lives. 

As the weeks go by, our tree will come to life with more and more of our leaves so that on the Sunday before Thanksgiving—what we call Gratitude Sunday at HERITAGE—our tree will be full and bursting with color as we celebrate the leaders God has used to influence and encourage us.

And I, for one, can’t wait to see our tree when it’s done.

I can’t wait to see it because I know too many people who are entering this season of gratitude with branches that have been stripped of their leaves.

Maybe you know some people like that, too. Maybe you’re one of them.

There’s a kind of existential melancholy weighing on the spirits of too many of us.

Some people say it's the presidential election. But I think it's more than that, and I know it isn't going away next Tuesday.

Over the next three weeks, we’re literally gluing construction paper leaves onto the bare branches of our communion table tree. I wonder if we could do something similar out in the world.

At church, we’re honoring people who have been prophets, priests and kings to us. What would happen if we went one step further and found ways to be prophets, priests and kings ourselves?

We need some people who are willing to grab some glue and construction paper and paste some life back onto their neighbors’ bare branches.

I bet you know someone who needs more vision and imagination right now. Send them a text message that lets them know you believe in their future. That’s what prophets do.

Maybe you know someone who hasn’t felt the wonder of God’s presence in a while. Offer a blessing for them. Invite them to church and help them reconnect with the habits of our faith. That’s what priests do.  

Maybe you know someone who needs an extra dose of generosity and grace right now. Use whatever authority you have to be generous and compassionate toward them. That’s what Christ the King does.

You get the idea.

So here’s a challenge. Between now and Thanksgiving, find three people to whom you can be prophet, priest or king, and start putting some leaves back on some branches.

It isn’t hard to do. And it won’t cost you anything. But it does require that you be intentional about doing it.

So get started today, and I promise you, even in November, you’ll discover new leaves on your branches, too.  

See you Sunday. 

Standing Up To Bullies

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

What if Christians did a better job of standing up to bullies? 

Bullies are mean. They pick on people weaker than themselves to make themselves feel powerful, and they come in all shapes and sizes. 

Pastors can be bullies. Politicians can be bullies. Your boss at work can be a bully. The big kid on the playground can be a bully.

We've all come across enough bullies in our lives--some of us may have even been bullies ourselves--to know that it takes a lot of courage to stand up to one. And because too few people stand up to bullies, bullying is increasingly becoming an accepted style of leadership in our world and even in our churches.

Bullying, though, is decidedly not a Christ-inspired model of leadership.

THREE MODELS OF Christian LEADERSHIP: PROPHETS, PRIESTS AND KINGS

During the month of November, we’re talking about  leadership at HERITAGE, and we'll explore three different Christ-inspired types of leaders—prophets, priests and kings.

This Sunday, we’re starting with prophets, and one of the easiest ways to identify a prophet is to look for someone with the courage to stand up to a bully. Prophets are people who stand up to bullies.

JESUS MODELS PROPHETIC LEADERSHIP

Jesus modeled prophetic leadership in his very first sermon when he spoke out on behalf of the poor, the blind, the imprisoned and the oppressed (Luke 4).  And guess what? Before he could even finish speaking, bullies ran him out to the edge of town and tried to kill him.

As it turns out, bullies and prophets have never co-existed very well. In fact, like in Luke 4, prophets drive bullies up the wall. If you want to smoke out a bully, bring in a prophet.

One of the problems with identifying bullies, though, is that bullies don’t call themselves bullies. A lot of times bullies actually seek to fashion themselves as prophets, but they're just wolves in sheep's clothing.

BULLIES ARE FALSE PROPHETS

That’s why the Bible refers to bullies as false prophets. If you want to try something fun, start replacing the words “false prophet” in scripture with the word “bully.”

So, how do you spot a bully? The surest way to spot a bully is to notice when someone is using a position of power and privilege to further denigrate and marginalize already oppressed minorities. Or, like Jesus, speak up on behalf of the marginalized and the oppressed and see who protests the most vehemently.

Bullies may claim they are being prophetic; that’s what false prophets do. But don’t be deceived. I can’t find a single place in scripture where God uses prophets to trample on the downtrodden.

Prophets do the exact opposite.

PROPHETS VS. BULLIES

Prophets are the ones on the bottom of the pile shouting up. Bullies are on the top of the pile shouting down.

Prophets speak on behalf of the forgotten, abused or otherwise oppressed. Bullies prey on them.

Prophets find us at our weakest moments and come alongside to lift us up. Bullies find us at our weakest moments and come alongside to take advantage of us.

Prophets seek to point us to the power and goodness of God. Bullies seek to convince us of their own power and goodness.

PROPHETIC LEADERSHIP TODAY

So what does prophetic leadership look like today?

Two prophetic leaders in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) right now are Stephen Reeves and Steve Wells. They, along with many others in the CBF community, are calling for basic fairness and just protections for Americans who are being taken advantage of by the title pawn and payday lending industry.

You can learn more about the work they’re doing HERE. I’m proud to partner with them and support their work.

Stephen and Steve are doing all the things I’ve described prophets as doing above.

They’re shouting up from the bottom of the pile. They're seeking to work alongside and lift up some of the most vulnerable Americans. They’re speaking out on behalf of people whom the powerful and privileged have taken advantage of. And they’re doing it all in a way that points to the power and goodness of God.

This week at HERITAGE we’ll talk about several different ways to identify prophetic leaders, and we’ll even think about how we might become prophetic leaders ourselves.

Until then, remember this starting definition of what a prophet is. A prophet is someone who stands up to a bully.

See you Sunday.

The Polls Are In. And They're Not Good.

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

A new poll out from Pew Research shows that only 17% of religiously-affiliated Americans have “a great deal of confidence in religious leaders to act in the best interests of the public.”

I wouldn’t have been surprised at all if only 17% of ALL Americans viewed religious leaders that way. But to see that even religiously-affiliated Americans have such a low opinion of their religious leaders is a bit of an eye-opener for me.

There are really only two alternatives to explain the results of this polling.

The first alternative is that kingdom priorities--the ones that religious leaders are supposed to be championing--really are in conflict with what religiously-affiliated Americans would consider to be “the best interests of the public.”

OR

The second alternative is that religious leaders are seen to be championing priorities other than kingdom priorities, and religiously-affiliated Americans see those priorities as being in conflict with the best interests of the public.

In the first alternative, religiously-affiliated Americans might hear their religious leaders championing the following kingdom priorities and question whether they serve the public interest:

- better treatment for the poor

-more compassion toward the sick

-increased efforts to feed the hungry

-a special concern for vulnerable children

-hospitality for immigrants and refugees

-love of neighbor

-an impulse toward forgiveness and reconciliation

-a bias toward the meek and the poor in spirit

-admonitions against worry and fear and judgmentalism

-cautions about being overly consumed by a drive to accumulate wealth and material things

-the benefits of placing God’s kingdom first

Maybe this poll indicates that religiously-affiliated Americans hear us advocate for these priorities and say, "That’s nice, but it’s not really aligned with the public interest."  But I pray that's not true.

Here’s the other, more likely, alternative.

People see religious leaders seeking personal power, influence and profit. They see religious leaders building kingdoms of their own—church empires or universities or online armies of Facebook followers, and wonder if we've become too self serving.

Maybe religiously-affiliated Americans see religious leaders constantly responding to current events with outrage and condemnation and are tired of our self-righteousness.

Or they see us making fear-based appeals on behalf of political candidates and question our motivations.

Maybe it's when they see us direct angry and fearful language toward Muslims and immigrants and gay people that they start to question whether we're acting in the best interests of the public.  

Or maybe they see us using language that makes people who are different than we are feel less than equal and less than loved, and they wonder if that's what Jesus would do.

Perhaps, it's when the religiously-affiliated see their leaders behaving in these ways that they start to question whether they can trust us to serve the public interest.

I think that’s the more likely alternative. At least I hope it is. And as a pastor, I take this lesson to heart.

But I also wonder if there’s something in this for all of us.

I wonder if the people who know you--your friends, relatives, neighbors and co-workers--think your religious values are aligned with the public interest?

There are, of course, legitimate areas where our interests as Christians and our interests as Americans diverge. Issues of war and peace come to mind—an appropriate response to ISIS, for example.

But I don’t think that’s what this poll is getting at. Mostly, I think, people in this poll are responding to the growing perception that most of us mix too many other allegiances with our ultimate allegiance to Christ.

Election seasons, of course, are especially bad for this kind of behavior. And social media, I fear, has increasingly encouraged us toward divisive and unhelpful rhetoric--both online and in person--that does little to serve either kingdom priorities or the public interest.

So, what do people see in you? Which version of faith expression best describes your conversations across the dinner table or in the grocery store aisle or on Facebook? 

Most of us, myself included, tend to parrot what we’ve heard and seen in other places. Very little of what we share with others is original to ourselves.

So, who are you parroting--Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount or something you saw online or on TV?  I know whose kingdom Jesus is building, and I’m convinced its ultimate priority is to serve the public interest.

The others we listen to--even some who honestly think they're speaking for God--I think they may be aiming for something different. So test their words, attitudes, actions, and motivations against Jesus’ sermon, and be careful who you parrot.

If this new Pew Research poll teaches anything, it's that people are watching, and they’re making judgments about you and the kingdom you claim to represent as a Christian.  

The polls are in. And they don’t look good. We have work to do.

See you Sunday.

A Letter to My Nephew on the Occasion of His Baptism

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

My nephew, Francis Matthew Sapp, was born on April 17th, 2016. This weekend, he will be baptized in an Episcopal ceremony and dedicated in a Baptist worship service.

I wrote a letter to him to mark the occasion. It's really just a random assortment of thoughts, but I thought we all might benefit from reading them. So here they are.

Dear Frank,

You won't remember this, but a lot of people are getting together this weekend for both your Episcopal baptism and your Baptist baby dedication.

A lot of kids these days don’t get dedicated or baptized in a church when they’re born. That makes you pretty lucky. Even fewer have parents who take their faith traditions seriously enough to want to do both. That makes you doubly lucky.

When you get older, I’ll do my best to explain the history behind why one church does one thing and the other another—and which one Jesus (who I'm pretty sure was a Baptist) would most approve of.

But, for now, as you're introduced to the love and care of Christ’s church, I hope you'll indulge me as I offer a few words of advice that I hope you'll find helpful along life's journey.

1.      You never grow up. If you’re like your uncle, you’ll always be a child at heart—at least for your first thirty-seven years. So be willing to claim responsibility before you feel ready for it. If you wait for the day you feel prepared, it will never come. The sooner you realize this, the better off you’ll be.

2.   Don't be afraid to embrace the mystery of God. In this life, you’ll never quite pin God down. But there’s great profit in spending your life trying to anyway, because one day in the effort, God will pin you down, and you’ll know, if only for an instant, who God is.

And then, too quickly, the mystery will return, but with a different and improved quality. Embrace the mystery again and repeat.

3.      You have wonderful parents who love you more than anything else in the world. You should listen to them, mostly. Sometimes, though, they’ll encourage you to be too cautious because they love you and want to protect you. And, sometimes, because they're partially convinced you're a superhero, they’ll encourage you to be too daring. So, listen to your parents; but also, listen to your heart.

Me and Frank

Me and Frank

4.      Be trusting. Everyone you choose to place your trust in will eventually hurt you—sometimes badly. Choose to trust anyway. People who refuse to trust live unhappy lives.

5.      Read and travel widely. There is no better education. And give appropriate value to every experience, good and bad. The hard-earned knowledge you gain from personal experience is an incredible gift, as unique to you as you are to the world. Treasure it as such.

6.      Two things are required to make a difference in this world: compassion and courage. If you're like your parents, you've been blessed with a double measure of both. Don't let the world rob you of either. If you can successfully pair compassion and courage with whatever it is you choose to do in life, they will take you far. 

7.      And, finally, always remember that as one created by God and in God's image you are invested with a deep and abiding goodness.

Always treat yourself and others in a way that reflects this deep truth. 

As a child of God, you were, on the day you were born, given all the resources you will ever need to speak for truth, to stand for justice, to know what’s right--and to do it, to love always, and to pursue God’s plan for your life, whatever it may be.

So live with steadfast focus, unwavering commitment, and dogged determination to be everything God created you to be, always remembering the love of your family and the fellowship of God's church.

And, if I've learned one thing so far in life, it's this. Perseverance is the key to success. So no matter what happens, no matter what mistakes you make or challenges you face, no matter how bad things look, remember your baptism.

That is to say, remember who you are and whose you are, and don’t ever, ever, ever give up.

-----------------------------------------------------

My advice to Frank. I hope some of it resonated with you.

See you Sunday.