5 Truths After 5 Years of Marriage

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Today Julie and I are celebrating five years of marriage. It’s been a wonderful five years. Here are five things I’ve learned along the way.

Time Flies
Sometimes if I don’t catch myself, I still think it’s 2007-or 1997!! Five years have gone by like the blink of an eye. Encapsulated, though, in that whoosh of time are shared moments that will last forever—trips, conversations, quiet moments, meals, laughter, tears, successes, failures—the things that make us, us.  

And because you can’t get special moments in time back, I’ve learned to prioritize being present for those I love. I don’t regret being at a single birthday party or wedding or special event with family and friends. I do regret missing some, though. Be present for the important moments in life, big and small. Once you miss them, you can never get them back.

You Never Grow Up
Sometime in my mid-twenties, I thought I finally realized that you never grow up. But today I realize that I’m still waiting for it to happen. There is no switch to flip that magically gives you the confidence, wisdom, authority and purpose of adulthood.

If I ever appear to have any of those things, I’m just pretending!

Even after five years of marriage I often feel like I’m just practicing “adulting” in preparation for the day when I finally grow up.

So don’t take yourself so seriously. If you never really grow up, then you never have to lose the light-hearted enthusiasm of childhood. Right? You don’t, do you!?!?

Live In The Moment
If you want to do it, do it now. If you want to see it, plan to go this year. Don’t neglect to plan for the future, but live life in the present. That “someday” you’re waiting for will always be a few years off in the future.

As the saying goes, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” So go skiing next year. Plan that trip to Europe. Swim with the dolphins. Eat at the fancy restaurant. Go to the concert. See the play. Climb to the top and take in the view. Stop to see the big ball of twine. Whatever. Knowing how way leads on to way, you may never have the chance again. So do it now.

Enjoy Simple Pleasures
You don’t have to go to Paris to enjoy a glass of wine in the long shadows of evening. You can do that on your back porch.  

You don’t have to shell out big money to go to the concert and dance the night away. You can dance to the Temptations in your living room tonight.

You don’t have to buy a plane ticket to go on a grand adventure. Lose yourself in a great book. Or create adventures in your own neighborhood. Explore a new park, head to the lake or just take an evening stroll through town.

Or, best of all, take time to dream as a family. Imagine what life could be like one year, five years or ten years from now—where you might be and what you might accomplish. Explore far-flung possibilities. Place no limits on the creativity of your ambitions. See where you end up. Thirty minutes spent in that kind of conversation is far better than any episode of the Big Bang Theory.

Pace Yourself
There are moments and seasons of life that require great intensity. But you can’t sprint all the way through life, so pace yourself.

I know a lot of people, young and old, who are racing through life right now, pedal to the metal. You can only attack life that way for so long before you crash. So slow down. Breathe. Relax. Rest up. Check your oil, fill your tank and rotate your tires so you’ll be ready to win the next race.

After five years of marriage, I’ve learned that there are few things life can throw at me that I can’t handle together with Julie—things that I could never imagine doing or facing alone.

On our fifth wedding anniversary, Julie is all the proof I need that God loves me and wants me to be happy. I lead a very charmed life.

See you Sunday.

Pastoral Meanderings: A Reflection for Memorial Day

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

On Sunday morning, Mark and Earlene Shadburn got to work with mops and towels and shop vacs to clean up a small flood in our Sunday School rooms after Saturday night’s heavy rain.

It was the kind of thing that could have been a HUGE crisis. But Mark and Earlene knew just what to do. You can imagine how grateful I was that they were there.

In twenty years, the church has never flooded. We have our fingers crossed that this was a one-time event that won’t happen again. As of Thursday—and after more rain—we’re still dry.

On Monday, Judy Brandon and Virginia Land met with a new intern who will help lead our summer lunch program. She’s a college student who is donating her summer to us, and she’s going to be great!

On Tuesday, I traveled back and forth to Macon for a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) of Georgia meeting. I got to see my brother while I was there. He met me in the parking lot of the CBF offices during a break. As I turned around from his truck to head back inside, I saw Ben’s pastor, Scott, also at the meeting, peering through the window at us, making faces. We all laughed.

On Wednesday, Kay and Davis Byrd stopped by the church to pick up the flowers they had provided for worship last Sunday. I, however, had already taken the flowers to a nursing home on Monday to give to one of our members who was supposed to have been transferred there from the hospital.

When I got to the nursing center, though, I couldn’t find her. So I just walked around in circles, feeling a bit like an idiot with this big arrangement of flowers in my hand and no one to give them to. I joked with the nurses that I’d been stood up for the prom.

I never found Cathy there. In fact, as I write this I’m still not sure which care facility she’s in. I’ve been telling people she’s gone missing. This is what you would call a pastoral failure!

I’m sure she’s safe or I wouldn’t joke about it. But I would like to know where she is.

Not finding Cathy, I got back in the car and took the flowers to a home-bound member whom I hadn’t seen in far too long. Her middle-aged son was out front cleaning up the yard in a light drizzle when I got there. Our eyes met as I walked to the door. He shrugged and said, “You gotta do it when you can find the time.”

I went inside and put the flowers on the kitchen table. Sue was most grateful.

On Wednesday when I told Kay what I’d done with the flowers, she gasped. I smiled. “I didn’t take your vase,” I said. “It’s in the kitchen.” She let out a deep breath and laughed. It’s a pretty fancy vase.

Also on Wednesday, our lunchtime Bible study group met for the last time before our summer break. On Wednesdays, four faithful ladies and I—along with some others who come and go—eat lunches together that we bring from home. As we sit around a table in fellowship hall eating our sandwiches and chips, we talk about our families and share concerns about our friends. And then we talk about the Bible.

It’s so simple, it’s refreshing. It might be the best part of my week.

This Wednesday, we wrapped up a survey of the New Testament by giving the book of Revelation our best shot—at least the best we could do in thirty minutes or so. I’d say we didn’t do half bad.

On Thursday morning, Karen was there when I got to church.  She was just finishing cleaning up the office. Did you know she’s the best church custodian anyone could ask for? It was the last day of school, so I asked her if her family was ready for summer. “Yes,” she said. “We’ve just survived the first year of middle school.”

“That’s no small feat,” I responded. And it’s not.

I spent Thursday evening eating barbecue on Joan Denney’s back porch with her HERITAGE Home Group. Then we had banana pudding before going inside to talk about a book the group’s been studying together.

As we talked, Harry Johnston made a joke that had all of us roaring with laughter. One day I’ll share it with you. The whole evening was wonderful.

We can choose to look back on our weeks (or years) and remember the stress and uncertainty—maybe an argument we had or plans that fell through or a project that didn’t get executed as well as we'd hoped. We can remember sleepless nights, overwhelming responsibilities and unexpected bills.

Or, we can remember the moments that give meaning and joy to life. As you pause this Memorial Day weekend, I hope you’ll do the latter.  

Remember the short interactions with co-workers, passers-by, family members and friends. An exchange at the grocery store. A phone call. A chance encounter at the restaurant. An evening with your Bible study group. A kind word. An act of service. A smile. A moment of shared laughter.

Each individual encounter may seem small at the time, but collectively, they make up the story of our lives. We have much for which to be grateful.

See you Sunday.

To The Class of 2017: Life Lessons From Albert Einstein

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

I’ve always been fascinated by Albert Einstein, so when the National Geographic channel announced they were producing a mini-series about him (Genius), it immediately became must-see TV in the Sapp household.

Einstein is fascinating for his once-in-a-generation kind of intellect. But my interest in the man extends far beyond his facility with physics equations. Einstein holds a unique place among scientists and continues to inspire people from all walks of life because of the playfulness with which he viewed the world and the joy he ascribed to the human experience.

He understood science as an art form and approached his life with a contagious sense of child-like wonder that continues to inspire his students and admirers today.

So, to the class of 2017, be more like Albert Einstein.

Embrace the Beauty of Simplicity

When ideas are complex, it means we don’t understand them well enough yet. In a profession that fills chalkboards with complex calculations, Einstein described the previously unrecognized relationship between matter and energy using the simplest of equations—e=mc2. And he described complex ideas about relativity and the properties of time using everyday language that even the average person could begin to grasp.

When our lives are complex, it means we don’t understand our purpose well enough yet. Discover who you are, embrace who God created you to be, and live into that singular truth.

Trust your unique relationship with God. Then trust yourself. And your life will become powerfully simple—so simple, in fact, that even the average person will be able to grasp the beauty of who you are.

Genius  airs on the National Geographic channel on Tuesdays at 9 PM.

Genius airs on the National Geographic channel on Tuesdays at 9 PM.

Harness the Power of Your Individuality
Your education has sought to form you as an individual, but it has also worked to fit you into a reproducible mold. Your employers will seek to do the same. Your ability to fit into and work within a system will be invaluable to you as you make important contributions within the organizational structures that compose our modern-day society.

But never forget that you are more than a cog in a machine. Conformity will help you get along; your individuality will help you get ahead.

Einstein struggled with authority and institutional hierarchy. He refused to conform in ways that would have doomed the prospects of people less gifted than he was.  

But his giftedness was more than intellectual. His giftedness included an innate and enduring sense of self-confidence that allowed him to more fully harness the power of his individuality.

We can learn the value of conformity from Einstein’s struggles—and the value of individuality from his successes.

Cultivate a Continuing Sense of Curiosity
Engage the world as a child would—with an active sense of imagination. Never become so grown-up that the myriad mysteries of life become less than wonderful to you. Einstein maintained a curious interest in all kinds of things as an adult--playing the violin, sailing, and hiking among them--and he always enjoyed playing with children.

So embrace a broad range of interests. You need not master them all. You need only let them master you—music, art, literature, baseball, history, fashion, architecture, technology, design. Develop the interests that spark your imagination and pursue them with determined curiosity. 

Be Persistently Resilient
Einstein demonstrated the courage to confidently pursue a dream or an idea even if no one else gave him much of a chance at success. And he didn’t give up even when the importance of his work went unnoticed. 

Although his colleagues were always aware of his potential, the genius of Einstein's initial work went largely unrecognized, in part because he didn’t have the right credentials or academic standing to be taken seriously.

But his persistence as he worked outside the normal structures of his profession—without a professorship or university position—paid off. Don’t be afraid to keep trying. And don’t be afraid to hold onto the big idea of your life, even if no one else gives you much of a chance.

Persistence and resilience may be the two most important predictors of life satisfaction and accomplishment.

And, finally, if all of this seems like too much to remember, remember this:  the world you’re entering is serious enough already. So don’t take yourself too seriously. Smile. Laugh. Goof off. Sleep in. Binge watch. Play.

And, remember that life is a gift, that God is love, and that you were created to be a uniquely powerful force for good in the world.

See you Sunday.

The Johnson Amendment and the Christian Voice in the Public Square

Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.
-Isaiah 10:1-2

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the role of the church in the public square, particularly with respect to the Johnson Amendment, a piece of legislation that prohibits churches (as 501(c)3 organizations) from publicly endorsing or specifically campaigning against candidates for public office.

A recent executive order instructed the IRS to overlook the Johnson Amendment when reviewing the 501(c)3 status of non-profit organizations—in effect saying that churches and pastors should feel free to endorse political candidates without fear of IRS reprisal—and many American Christians cheered.

I wasn’t one of them. During last year’s presidential election, I wrote that I objected to pastors publicly endorsing political candidates and gave my reasons why.

But a larger question remains: What is the appropriate way for churches and religious leaders to engage the political process? What’s the mission of the church when it comes to engaging and influencing government and public policy?

My answer: We are to be prophetic witnesses to what a world governed by Kingdom principles looks like.

The prophetic mission of the church is to call the world to a new and higher standard of justice—a standard not of fairness, but of generosity.

The prophetic mission of God’s people extends back thousands of years. Isaiah's challenge to lawmakers (see above) is 2700 years old. It has been the mission of God’s people to sound the call to justice at least since then.

2000 years ago, Jesus sounded the call, too, in Matthew chapter 5:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus teaches that we live in a world that celebrates an ethic of fairness—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, love for love, and hate for hate.

But Jesus clearly states that the prevailing ethic of fairness, while it might be sufficient for tax collectors and pagans, is insufficient for Christians.

Christians are called not to uphold standards of fairness, but to be prophetic examples of what a new standard of justice might look like—a standard of generosity that offers more than is expected, more than is reciprocal, and more, even, than is fair.  

Jesus is saying, “You have heard it said of old, be fair. But I say, be generous.”

As the church engages the issues that dominate today’s public square—issues like health care, taxes, civil rights, education, poverty, and immigration—we must consciously be aware that the Christian standard of justice isn’t fairness, it’s generosity.

We have to stop asking, “What’s the fairest thing we could do in this situation?” 

The question the Christian must ask instead is, "What’s the most generous thing we could do in this situation"?

And, as Isaiah reminds us: What’s the most generous policy we could advocate for on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, the widow and the fatherless--categories of people in whom and toward whom the God of scripture consistently exhibits an interest and a bias.

  • What’s the most generous policy we could support with respect to the poor and health care?
  • What’s the most generous thing we could do to alleviate poverty among the oppressed in our society?
  • What’s the most generous way to structure the tax code so that it supports widows and single mothers?
  • What’s the most generous proposal we could imagine to improve education systems and outcomes for the most vulnerable children in our communities?

That’s what the Bible teaches about how the Christian should engage the world for Christ. We need not be guided in our public witness by the Johnson Amendment or a presidential executive order. We need not fret over whether to endorse this candidate for office or oppose that one.

Instead, we should speak the words of Isaiah boldly. We should advocate on behalf of those Isaiah spoke up for often. And we should speak with prophetic clarity as Jesus did, bravely articulating a new standard of justice—one guided not by fairness, but by generosity.

If we really want to influence the political landscape and be heard in the public square, we should be endorsing Christ and Christian standards of justice to our politicians--not endorsing polticians to our Christians.

"Woe to those who make unjust laws. Who issue oppressive decrees to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless."

See you Sunday.

The Ministry of Mindfulness

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

We hosted our final REST service of the year last Wednesday.

We started REST at HERITAGE last September as part of an intentional effort to engage our church in a season of prayer. REST is a mid-week prayer and communion service designed to provide a few moments of quiet reflection in the middle of a busy week. 

We met weekly through the fall. And in the new year, we’ve met monthly on the first Wednesday of each month.

As we wind up REST for the year and break for summer, I thought I’d tell you how I’ve experienced it.

At first, REST was jarring. The interruption of quiet and stillness with no phones, no conversation, no motion, and no activity was jarring.

As I sat down to REST each Wednesday with the lights dimmed, our prayer guide in front of me and our musicians playing softly in the background, I would take a few deep breaths and even close my eyes. Conditions should have been perfect for prayer and meditation.

But at first, despite the setting, it was hard to get my mind to be quiet. To slow down. To really REST.

Somewhere along the way, though, in the middle of the jarringness, REST became deeply meaningful to me. The quiet moments of reflection that I longed for finally appeared. The comforting assurance of God’s presence finally broke through.

But what became most meaningful to me was the way I came to feel the presence of my fellow church members around me.

The idea that REST was something we were doing together—the same faithful Christians gathering in holy rhythm each Wednesday—became profoundly meaningful to me as the weeks went by.

When we seek the same silence together; listen for the same God together; approach the same table together; partake of the same bread together; and drink from the same cup together, week after week, month after month, season after season—these things start to form us—together—into the body of Christ, the church.

We say we’re a church that embraces being holy, healthy and whole. When we sit together on Wednesday evenings, our hearts and minds seeking some sort of synchronicity, seeking a shared experience of God’s presence in the moment, it doesn’t get much more holy, healthy and whole than that.

I’ll admit, too, that we’ve gathered for REST some Wednesdays when I would rather have been somewhere else—when I was antsy and distracted, or tired, or bored, or disinterested, or worried, or angry, or sad—when I’ve let whatever else was going on inside me get in the way of really resting.

But even on those Wednesdays, I’m glad I was there. If I didn’t REST, at least I acknowledged my distractedness or tiredness or antsyness.

As it turns out, we’re not the only ones seeking REST. Mindfulness and meditation have become important cultural touchstones as people from corporate boardrooms to inner-city schools embrace the need to slow down, focus, and be present to our feelings and emotions.

And, as one of our church members reminded me, there’s always an app for that. Insight Timer and 10 Percent Happier both let people use their phones to set aside a few minutes in the day to slow down.

Maybe you could try one of them. As we take a break from REST, you don’t have to take a break from intentionally seeking to connect with God’s presence within you.

I’ve enjoyed the routine of REST, and this season of intentional prayer has been important for our church. REST, though, will probably look different in the fall.

As we look forward to what REST will become, I’m grateful for what it’s been. One of Jesus’ most memorable invitations is one we continue to be in desperate need of—

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you REST.”

See you Sunday.

Running With The Wind

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Sometimes you’re running with the wind. Sometimes the wind is against you.

I spent last week at the beach, and a few mornings while I was there I got up and went for a run. My goal each day was to run over a bridge a few miles down the beach road and back.

The first day, as I started out, I felt great. I got over the bridge and I still felt great. I’d kept a pretty good pace, I was a few miles in, and I wasn’t tired or winded at all. I felt like I could keep going forever. It was incredible.

I thought to myself, “Man, this vacation is really doing wonders for me. I’m relaxed and energized. This is wonderful!”

And then I turned around to run back.

As soon as I turned around, I felt the wind in my face. I thought for sure the strength of the breeze would subside once I got over the bridge and back down on the road again.

But when I got back on the road, the breeze was even stronger, and it never let up. Eventually, I had to stop and walk the rest of the way home.

And then I realized why the run out to the bridge had been so easy. I’d had the wind at my back.

On the way out, the wind was helping me every step of the way, but I couldn’t feel it. When I was moving with the wind, I didn’t notice it at all. But when I had to run against it, I felt like I was running into a hurricane.

Later in the week, Julie and I went kayaking. The paddle out was easy. We were moving with the tide. The paddle in was a different story, though. I can still feel my muscles from the challenge of paddling against the tide.  

Those watching from shore as we paddled—or those watching runners go by on the beach road—wouldn’t naturally know that the wind or the tide was helping or hurting. It isn’t something that’s immediately noticeable.

The same is true in life.

We never feel the strength of the wind until we’re forced to work against it. When embedded cultural norms and societal factors are helping us, we don’t even notice that they're there. Instead, we think that all the progress we make is due to our diligence, hard work and strength.

And when we see others struggling to make progress, we think, “If only they were only as strong as I am, as diligent as I am, as conscientious as I am, they wouldn’t struggle so much.”

But we never imagine that the same wind that helps us may be hindering someone else.  

In fact, the only way to know for sure what headwinds people might be struggling against is to turn around and run with them—to walk a mile in their shoes.

So when life seems particularly easy, don’t forget the helping wind at your back. And don’t imagine that you’re flying ahead on your own. Remember, instead, to thank God for the unseen helpers propelling you forward.

And when you see others struggling to make progress, remember that many of your neighbor’s challenges are often unseen, too. Remember what it feels like to run against the wind yourself. You might even offer a helping hand.

Maybe our tendency to underestimate what helps us, while at the same time underestimating what holds others back, is the reason Jesus warned us about being too judgmental (Matt 7:1-3).

If you’re in a season of life where the wind is at your back, enjoy it. And if the wind is in your face, remember that it won’t last forever. An easier leg of your journey is just over the bridge.

See you Sunday.

Earth Day, Glacier National Park, and Psalm 148

This post originally appeared in Ethics Daily as part of a series of articles for Earth Day. You can read the whole series HERE. Earth Day is celebrated every year on April 22.

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Glacier National Park is one of my favorite places on earth. I’ve never been anywhere where God’s majesty is so clearly on display. And there’s one spot in the park that stands out in my mind—Apgar Lookout.

The only time I’ve been there, I was hiking with my brother. After hiking more than three miles through a wooded mountainside and climbing nearly 2000 feet, my brother and I came around a bend and into an open plateau, and there for the first time we saw the grandeur of God’s Montana handiwork stretched out in front of us.

The view from Apgar Lookout in nearly indescribable.

It took me a second to realize what I was looking at. It was as if my brain had to adjust to the scope of the scene to properly comprehend just how big the view was. When it did, what my eyes saw literally took my breath away. My heartbeat quickened and so did my steps as I hurried further out into the open to take in the whole view.

Lake McDonald, a pristine glacial lake, was stretched out thousands of feet below me, serenely reflecting the clouds in the sky thousands of feet above me. Forests rose from the lake’s edge to snow-covered Rocky Mountain peaks that appeared to stretch on forever. It was almost other-worldly.

Apgar Lookout gets its name from an old ranger station/fire tower that precariously sits just where the land begins to steeply fall away toward the lake below.

I climbed up onto the fire tower and sat on the edge of the railed walkway with my feet dangling over the edge of the world and stared slack-jawed out into the clear Montana sky as I ate a sandwich I’d brought with me.

It reminded me so much of a Dave Matthews Band lyric that I played “Lie In Our Graves” on my iPod before I moved another inch. “Would you not like to be/sitting on top of the world with your legs hanging free?” Matthews sings.

After lunch, I explored the rest of the plateau, drinking in the view from every conceivable angle. I felt like I was in a dream. The sun was shining warmly, birds were chirping as if on cue, the wind was rustling through the trees, and the air was legitimately sweet with the smells of spring.

I’ve never experienced a moment like it before or since. It was perfect as I imagine God to be perfect.

Psalm 148 is one of the “Hallelujah” psalms--so named because each psalm in the group begins and ends with the word, “Hallelujah,” or praise the Lord. Psalm 148 imagines that all of creation gathers together to praise God as if with one voice.  

The psalmist writes that the sun, moon and stars praise the Lord. The ocean depths and the highest heavens praise the Lord. Lightning, hail, snow and wind praise the Lord. Mountains, hills, fruit trees and cedars praise the Lord. Wild animals, woodland creatures and songbirds praise the Lord.

Kings and princes, men and women, young and old all join in the psalmist’s chorus, too, saying, “praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his splendor is above the earth and the heavens” (Psalm 148:13).

I never read Psalm 148 without remembering my afternoon at Apgar Lookout. I imagine the trees, the birds, the clouds in the sky and everything else from the depths of Lake McDonald to the snow-capped peaks of the surrounding mountains singing “Hallelujah” together. And I imagine my little voice as part of the chorus, too.

On Earth Day, we remember that “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). The earth is to be treasured, celebrated, and preserved. As the psalmist reminds us, the majesty of the earth both reflects and announces the majesty of its Creator.

We have a responsibility to nurture and care for all that God has created. We should actively seek to maximize our positive impact and minimize our negative impact on the natural world, always remembering that the only appropriate response to God’s creative initiative is unending praise.

So, this Earth Day, go outside. Take a few minutes to read Psalm 148. Imagine your place in the chorus. And sing, “Hallelujah.”

Happy Earth Day.

See you Sunday.

The False Finality of Friday

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

When Jesus is crucified on Good Friday, it feels final. I know Good Friday isn’t the end of the story. That doesn't stop Jesus' death from feeling like the end, though. 

Death is always final. We've never experienced death any other way.

Even more, Good Friday plays into something we already believe. In the back of our minds, even the most optimistic of us are at least partially expecting everything to fall apart at any minute. And on Good Friday it does. 

We’re constantly preparing ourselves for our hopes to be dashed. For our fears to be realized. For our nightmares to come true.

So when Good Friday happens, we say, “Yep. Knew that was coming. That’s how it always ends.”

We’ve seen things fall apart too many times before not to expect them to fall apart again.

And when they do, it always feels so final.

Friday isn't final. Spend Easter at HERITAGE. Click for more info.

Friday isn't final. Spend Easter at HERITAGE. Click for more info.

When your family moves away and you leave your childhood friends behind, it feels final.

When you look at the roster taped to the wall and see you didn’t make the team, it feels final.

When you ask her to the prom and she says no, it feels final.

When your grades come back and you didn’t pass the class, it feels final.

When the job you were hoping for doesn't come through, it feels final.

When addiction drags you back in one more time, it feels final.

When your boss tells you to clean out your desk, it feels final.

When your spouse asks you to move out of the house, it feels final.

When the bank issues a foreclosure notice, it feels final.

When the doctor says she has some bad news, it feels final.

When another prayer goes unanswered, it feels final.

When they nail your Savior to a cross, it feels final.

Jesus DIES on Good Friday. Hope DIES on Good Friday. Love, too.

Our dreams. Our identity. Our purpose. Our destiny. They all die on Good Friday.

And it feels SO final.

But it isn’t.

See you Sunday.

Chemical Weapons, Holy Week, and a Revolution of Values

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Last Tuesday marked fifty years since Martin Luther King, Jr. called for a “revolution of values” and an end to the Vietnam War at Riverside Church in New York City. Calling for an end to war was controversial then. It’s still controversial today.

On the same day that we remembered King’s speech, more than 80 civilians were killed by chemical weapons in Syria as part of the ongoing civil war there. Many of them were children. It’s not the first time Syria has used this tool of terror against its own people.

Nerve agents like the ones used this week in Syria kill indiscriminately, dooming those who breathe them in to cruel and torturous deaths. The use of these weapons is barbaric and banned by international law—as is the targeting of civilians.

In response, the United States launched more than 50 missiles into Syria last night.

Also, last week, a US-led airstrike killed 200 civilians in Mosul, Iraq—again, many of them children. By some estimates, US-led airstrikes in Syria and Iraq killed more than 1000 civilians in March alone.

War is hell. It always has been. It always will be. There is no way to make it easier or nicer or cleaner or less cruel.

But war is not inevitable. To the extent that military action is ever necessary, it represents a prior failure to achieve peace. War is ALWAYS failure. And, too often, war is the easy way out.

War is easier than peace. War allows us to dehumanize and devalue our enemies. Peace requires us to see all people as equally loved by our Creator. Peace demands that we see that all people—especially our enemies—are created in the image of God.

43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete. (Matt 5:38-43)

Peace-Dove-Sign.png

War is easier than peace. War allows us to give in to the excesses of our selfishness—to greedily claim that our physical and material well-being is more important than the well-being of others.  

Peace, though, requires that we be willing to put ourselves in the shoes of our adversary and at times even to consider the needs of others ahead of our own.

3 Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4 Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

War is easier than peace. War allows us to continue to hold the priorities of the marketplace alongside the priorities of God’s kingdom—and to pretend that they never conflict.  Peace requires that we choose to clearly place the teachings of Jesus ahead of the gospel of capitalism.

24 No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matt 6:24)

Fifty years ago, King warned of the dangers of “power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.” Fifty years later we would do well to heed King’s warning.

King went on to encourage a movement from a “thing-oriented society” to a “person-oriented society,” a movement that would prioritize the human dignity of all people over profit and possessions.

The world stage looks different today than it did fifty years ago. But King’s words still ring true to me.

Next week is Holy Week--a week when Christians everywhere will worship a man whose power to transform the world is unrivaled in human history. He was not, though, the God of War. He is the Prince of Peace.

Christ demonstrated the transformational power of peace so completely on the cross that a former instrument of torture and death—one often used indiscriminately as a tool of terror against Rome’s own subjects—is now a universal symbol of healing and safety.  

Christ’s peaceful victory 2000 years ago turned Rome’s equivalent of Syria’s sarin gas canisters into a symbol of hope and new life.   

The kingdoms of this world shout that the ultimate way to demonstrate strength is to flex one’s muscles. Christ’s example during Holy Week demonstrates that the exact opposite is true.   

The world stage looks different today that it did 2000 years ago. But Christ’s example still rings true to me.

In fact, I’ve staked my life on it.

That Christ was not a military hero was a great disappointment to many who followed him into Jerusalem that first Holy Week. That we worship a sacrificial lamb rather than a mighty warrior continues to surprise and will be a great disappointment to many who will follow him into this Holy Week, too.

That is both the scandal and miracle of the cross. Why would someone so powerful voluntarily choose to be so weak and vulnerable?? It doesn’t make sense—until you see the cross as the most abrupt and effective break in the self-reinforcing cycle of violence the world has ever seen.

We’ve been told that war is a necessary precursor to a just and lasting peace. But war is never a precursor to peace; violence leads to more violence. Peace is the only precursor to peace.  

Our nation’s leaders have a responsibility to protect and defend our nation’s interests. I would not want to be in their shoes.

My responsibility is different. Christian leaders have a responsibility to promote and enact an ethic consistent with the teaching and example of Jesus. We act in service of a different kingdom.

And in service of God’s kingdom, we need more people committed to peace.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said so presciently fifty years ago, “A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just…We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace.”

Holy Week begins on Sunday. Until then...

Peace.

Do These Six Things Now To Be Ready For Easter

by Matt Sapp

by Matt Sapp

Holy Week is sneaking up on us. It begins a week from Sunday. If you want to get the most out of Holy Week, now is the time to start preparing.

Once we get to Palm Sunday things will start moving quickly, and it will be too late to get ready. So if you want to REALLY "get" Easter this year—if you REALLY want to experience Holy Week for the earth-shattering set of events that it is—now is the time to start thinking about it. 

So what can you do to prepare for Easter?  Here are few suggestions for the next week. 

SLOW DOWN
Slow down. Create blank space in your life this week. Let this week be a reminder that nothing is more important than your relationship with your Creator. Leave room this week for God, for family, for prayer, for silence. Start preparing yourself—and your calendar--to experience the holy.

At HERITAGE, we’ll even help you slow down. Just join us for REST on Wednesday evening.

FOCUS 
What should we focus on this week? Part of the story of Holy Week is the story of suffering and death. It's the hardest part to face, so it will require our focused attention. 

If we’ve been faithful during Lent, then we’ve prepared ourselves for Holy Week by acknowledging our sin. As we get closer to Good Friday, though, we should become increasingly aware that our sin is not painless or harmless—it has its cost.

Easter loses much of its meaning if we avoid Good Friday's cross. It's tempting to drive around, though, so we'll need to focus and steel ourselves to drive straight through.

Click on the picture to learn more about Easter at HERITAGE.

Click on the picture to learn more about Easter at HERITAGE.

BE AWARE 
When we read the biblical accounts of Holy Week, we learn that the Jerusalem of the first Holy Week was a place of energy—of almost supernaturally tangible electricity.

So be quiet. Be still. Start to feel the Infinite break into our world. Listen as the Eternal crackles to life. Begin to sense the Ground of Being rumbling deep inside you.

Don’t let anything crowd out time to listen for—and begin to feel—God’s presence next week.

READ
Read scripture. Read the prophets (Amos 5Micah 6Hosea 6Isaiah 61). Hear strong words of justice and mercy and salvation. Hear powerful voices proclaim a future that is better than our present or our past.

Read the words of Jesus. Read the parables in Luke and Christ’s teaching in John and the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew.

Hear in the words of the prophets a vision that challenges the current order of things. Hear in the words of Jesus a radical and revolutionary message that consistently calls us to side with the weak and the forgotten over the powerful and the well-connected.

Marvel at the courage to speak so boldly, and realize just how powerful words and ideas can be.

PRAY
This is a week to pray. Pray for forgiveness. Pray for God’s mercy. Pray for justice and righteousness. Pray for courage. Pray for a new vision that allows you to see our world as God sees it. Pray for the coming of God’s kingdom. Just pray.

WORSHIP
And finally, this is a week to be in church. We worship each Sunday at 11.

See you then.

Sinners Like Us

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

Today we are exactly halfway through Lent. We are now twenty-three days into a forty-six-day journey.

On Ash Wednesday, we entered the season of Lent by confessing that we have sinned both by what we’ve done and by what we’ve left undone. At HERITAGE, we’ll confess our sins again using King David’s words from Psalm 51as Lent draws to a close on Maundy Thursday.

Lent is a time for reflection and honest acknowledgment of our need for a savior. It’s a time for us to remember our sinfulness and to come face-to-face with our ultimate inability to overcome our sins on our own.

It’s not much in fashion these days to dwell on our sins. But without acknowledging the real truth of our sinfulness, it's impossible to experience the full joy of our salvation.  

During Lent at HERITAGE we’ve been looking at individual encounters with Jesus in the Gospel of John. Each person in our series is in need of a different kind of salvation, and none of them go away unsatisfied. There is great joy in each of their stories.

Nicodemus, a Pharisee, is encouraged toward anew understanding of the spiritual presence of God in his life (John 3:1-17). A Samaritan woman discovers that when Jesus becomes part of her story there’s much more to her story and life than she ever imagined (John 4:5-42). A blind beggar gains his sight for the first time, and his transformation amazes all who see him (John 9:1-41). Lazarus is brought back to life from the dead (John 11:1-44).

To learn more about our Fully Human worship series, click on the picture above. 

To learn more about our Fully Human worship series, click on the picture above. 

These are four very different people forever changed by their encounters with Christ. And, importantly, they’re all people whom many would have excluded from the circle of God's salvation for one reason or another.

In each encounter, Jesus is expanding the circle of who is included in the Kingdom of God.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee. Jesus’ run-ins with the Pharisees during his ministry are perhaps the best-documented series of conflicts in the New Testament. Those in Jesus’ inner circle would have seen any Pharisee as a clear enemy. Yet Jesus welcomes Nicodemus and brings him into the fold.

Jews and Samaritans did not associate with one another. Samaritans were seen as religious heretics. Yet Jesus uses a Samaritan woman on the margins of society to bring a whole Samaritan town to faith.

A blind street-corner beggar would be widely considered as sinful and unclean then and now. Yet Jesus heals this man and demonstrates God's power in a previously unseen way that amazes all who see him.

Lazarus is the patron saint of lepers, someone associated with disease and contagion. Yet Jesus restores Lazarus  to life, and through him the fullness of God's power over life and death is revealed.

Each of these encounters does more than simply demonstrate Jesus’ power and compassion. Each expands our understanding of who God is willing to include in God’s kingdom. 

The question, then, is whether or not we can manage to expand our circles of inclusion, too.

One of the overarching themes of scripture—from beginning to end—is that God is constantly pushing down the boundaries we’ve constructed and inviting more and more people into the fold.

The circle of who is included in God’s kingdom is expanding and it always has been.

So I worry when I see us drawing smaller circles to define the area of God's compassion and creating increasingly restrictive barriers that exclude people from our faith communities who are different than we are.

As I examine my own sinfulness this Lent, I’m consciously working to acknowledge all the ways I overlook and exclude people whom Jesus didn’t. Jesus, as near as I can tell, didn’t exclude anyone. And those he was most harsh toward were those who overlooked the excluded and the downtrodden (Matt 25:31-46).

The people Jesus was most harsh toward weren’t sinners like them. Jesus reserved his harshest criticisms for sinners like us.

Today we are twenty-three days into our forty-six-day journey toward the cross, and I for one am praying to see an expanding circle of inclusion when I get there. Aren’t you?

It takes an awfully big circle to include sinners like us.

See you Sunday.

Demonstrating Hopefulness in Arbin, Syria and Macon, GA

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

In 587 BC the prophet Jeremiah bought a plot of land north of Jerusalem. At the time of its purchase the countryside surrounding Jerusalem, including Jeremiah’s new field, was under the control of the invading Babylonian army and Jerusalem was under siege.

When everyone else was taking what they could carry and fleeing for their lives, Jeremiah bought land that he might never see again. Jeremiah’s purchase is one of the most striking demonstrations of faithfulness in all of the Old Testament.

Last week I saw a picture of a man planting seedlings on a rooftop in the middle of a bombed out city in Syria. My mind was immediately drawn to Jeremiah and his field. Although separated in time by more than 2600 years, the rooftop garden in Arbin, Syria is less than 200 miles from Jeremiah’s field in Anathoth, and it is an equally striking demonstration of faithfulness.

I needed to see that picture from Syria last week. It reminded me that we ALWAYS have more to offer than our surroundings might suggest. It reminded me that the future is worth believing in whatever our present circumstances.

And, it reminded me that even the gloomiest of prophets—Jeremiah was so pessimistic about Jerusalem’s future that he was thrown in prison!—can demonstrate faith in the future.

I’ll admit it. Sometimes I can be a bit of a gloomy prophet. Maybe you have that tendency, too. Sometimes I worry about churches that are struggling to find their footing in a changing world. I wonder if we’re making the difference we ought to be making. I worry when we’re not as faithful to Christ’s vision of God’s Kingdom as we should be.

We live in a tense time of religious, social and political transition.  As many of us struggle to negotiate the shifting ground, hope can sometimes be hard to come by.

But if a man can plant seedlings in the concrete jungle of a Syrian war zone and Jeremiah can buy a war-torn field, we can demonstrate hopefulness, too.

I found hope last weekend in Macon, GA at March Mission Madness, a youth missions weekend sponsored by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia.

More than 200 teenagers and chaperones spent the weekend painting houses, cleaning up yards, planting gardens, packing lunches, serving meals, and helping those in need all over the city.

Painting MMM.jpg
Matt Emily Autumn MMM.jpg

Their work reminded me to be hopeful. And it reminded me to do three things.

1. Be relentlessly future oriented. All of the work accomplished at March Mission Madness was an investment in tomorrow. The impact of refurbished houses, nourished children and improved communities will reverberate for years, maybe even generations. And, perhaps even more importantly, the opportunity our teenagers were given to serve others will have a lasting impact on their own lives, too. So plant seeds and buy new fields.

2. Add beauty to something desolate. The Syrian garden is a striking image of new life in a landscape scarred by death. Last weekend in Macon as gardens sprang up where weeds once stood and new colors replaced peeling paint, God’s promise for the future was tangibly demonstrated in the work of our teenagers. Watching them I was reminded that, as Christians, bringing new life to desolate places is kind of our specialty.

3. Do something for someone else. When you’re not sure what the future holds, don't just look out for yourself, do something for someone else. Acts of kindness are inherently hopeful acts. Leave a few extra dollars for the wait staff when you eat out next. Smile and make eye contact with the person across the counter. Send an encouraging note. Invite someone to share a meal with you. Be intentional with every act and gesture of your life. Let people catch you being kind and generous.

Jeremiah bought a field, and his demonstrated hopefulness has inspired millions of people for more than two millennia. Last weekend I saw that 200 people working together can impact the lives of hundreds of families in lasting ways. And one man in Syria has inspired at least one man in Canton for the last two weeks.

What kind of impact will the next thing you do have? Make it hopeful.

See you Sunday.

 

Fully Human: A Question For Lent

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

We just marked the beginning of Lent with a wonderful Ash Wednesday service at HERITAGE where I shared some thoughts about Lent from pastor Preston Yancey.

Lent, Yancey says, is a once-a-year chance for us to enter into the posture of a people who take seriously both the significance of our redemption and its cost.

At Lent, though, we don’t just count the cost of our redemption. We prepare ourselves for the great JOY of our redemption.

If you think Lent is just about giving up sugar or caffeine, chocolate or soda, you’ve been misled. Lent is about much more than that. 

In Lent, we go with Jesus to die. And in Lent, we prepare ourselves for the joy of new life—life that has a new, distinct and better quality, not in some faraway future, but in the here and now.

Jesus came not just to usher us into eternal life with God in heaven. Jesus came to show us what our earthly lives might look like if we could ever grasp what it means to be fully human.

Creation - God Instructs Adam in the Garden, from  Art in the Christian Tradition , a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.  http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46179  [retrieved March 3, 2017].

Creation - God Instructs Adam in the Garden, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46179 [retrieved March 3, 2017].

So what DOES it mean to be fully human? That will be the focus of our worship at HERITAGE between now and Easter. This Lent at HERITAGE, we’ll explore our limitedness and discover that Jesus is both present in our limitations and helpful in our efforts to live beyond them.

We’ll enter the desert with Christ and his Tempter, and wrestle with our own temptations (Matt 4:1-11).

We’ll sit under the stars with Nicodemus and ponder both our smallness and the possibility that we might be able to transcend it (John 3:1-17).

We’ll acknowledge together the thirst for more at the heart of who we are that no water can quench—but that maybe Jesus can (John 4:5-42). 

We’ll walk with Jesus and ask if those who choose not to see have any advantage over those who are blind (John 9:1-41).

We’ll discover together that it’s not just the physically dead who need to be called back to life (John 11:1-45).

This Lent, we’ll discover that encounters with Jesus are liminal experiences—that when we walk with Jesus we exist on the boundary between how we've lived so far and what it really means to be fully human.

That boundary raises important questions that gnaw at us in our more introspective moments--questions of purpose, fulfillment and identity. These deeper things require our attention. That’s why we have Lent.

During Lent, we acknowledge that even though we are redeemed, there is much left to be polished in us if we are to be fully human as Christ was fully human.

So in the coming forty days, we will take a holy account of our lives. We will acknowledge the dulling tarnish, submit ourselves to the polishing cloth, and ask God to apply God's cleansing pressure in the hope that we will once again be made new at Easter.

See you Sunday.

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.