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The Garden of Gethsemane November 11, 2009

Posted by Jeff Block in Bible Stories, Philosophy and Religion, Travel.
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Garden of Gethsemane

The Garden of Gethsemane was not at all what I pictured from reading about it in the Bible. I imagined a vast apple orchard, where Jesus was betrayed in the midst of flowering trees and green meadowy grass. Maybe a daisy or two here or there, but certainly a nice flat spacious valley of lush greenery.

We walked from the Necropole down a narrow stone street. A few street vendors called out to us to try to sell us stuff. “Bags 4 for $10!” … “Bookmarks, $2!” … “I’ll give you 2 goats for your used Volkswagen!” That kind of thing.

At one point we walked by a Bedouin-looking guy with a mule that he made smile at us by holding his head and squeezing. He looked the part in every way, and his mule made a fine circus animal. I think he was selling rides, but I’m not sure because I was too busy trying to A) stay with the group so as not to get lost in Jerusalem, and B) fight off the street vendors who insisted that I’d look great in 5 brightly colored scarves for $10.

At another point we saw cars coming within inches of each other and driving through mobs of people with far less regard for their safety than my western sensibilities were comfortable with. Masses of people, narrow winding roads, steep hills, no sidewalks, aggressive drivers, and a total disregard for (perhaps lack of existence of) traffic laws added up to a mildly stressful walking-down-the-street-to-the-garden experience. But we managed.

When we finally got to the garden (only a few minutes walk from the Necropole), it was not at all want I expected (as I said). Instead of a flat lush expanse, it was a fairly steep rocky embankment. There were lots of trees (some of them evidently many hundreds of years old), winding paths up the slopes, and large boulders. There was less grass than there was underbrush, but it was green, and lush, and beautiful in its own way. I think I found it beautiful most because of its Biblical significance and because I was there with dozens of godly Jesus-loving fanatics, like myself. In fact, around these folks I feel the need to step it up a notch.

By the way, just for the record, the Garden of Gethsemane is where Jesus went to pray with Peter, James and John after the last supper on the Thursday night before He was captured and crucified. Judas brought the religious SS out the garden and kissed Jesus to make sure they knew which one He was. Peter cut off the guard’s ear, which Jesus healed. Then they took Him to Caiaphas’ place on the south side of the city to hold Him until He could be tried before Pilot in the morning. The disciples were neither able to pray with Jesus (weak), stop the arresting guards (misguided), or stay with Jesus when He was captured (afraid). And then Peter denied Jesus three times while He waited to stand trial. The more I read about these disciple guys, the more I relate to them. Sigh!

Oh, and check out Matthew 26 to read the story for yourself (which I highly encourage). In the meantime, back to the garden in present times…

After we’d rallied up and selected some nice comfortable stones to sit on, Lindsay McCaul led us in worship (awesome!), and James MacDonald preached on giving hard things to God. As usual, he exposited the Scriptures, rather than just walking through a couple random thoughts supported deductively by Google-located Bible verses. And his delivery brimmed with the expectation that we would actually apply the Word to our lives, not just listen to a message, which I’m all about! James’ main point was that Jesus had to surrender His will to God — to be willing to do something extremely hard that His Father had called Him to do. His question to us was, “What hard thing is God asking you to surrender to Him?” He focused on Jesus’ words in John 18:11, which I absolutely love: “Shall I not drink the cup my Father has given me?”

When he had finished his brief message, James directed us to spread out and get alone with God in the garden. Unlike the message two nights before on the Sea of Galilee or the previous morning on the Mount of Beatitudes, I knew exactly what God was asking me to do and how James’ message applied to my life personally. Although that felt really good, the task at hand feels intimidating. No, of course I’m not going to share in this context what I’m talking about, but I would say this… God calls us to trust Him with our whole hearts, our whole lives. Not only is it foolish and impractical to withhold from God any part of who we are, it keeps us from the life God wants us to have. Fullness of joy only exists in total surrender.

Mount of Olives November 11, 2009

Posted by Jeff Block in Bible Stories, Philosophy and Religion, Travel.
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Mount of Olives

After breakfast, the first place we gathered on our first whole day in Jerusalem, was the Mount of Olives. The temple mount (where Solomon’s temple used to sit and the Dome of the Rock sits now) sits atop Mount Moriah in the south of Israel, above the Negev dessert immediately west of the northernmost tip of the Dead Sea. The Mount of Olives is west of the temple mount, across the Kidron Valley.

The Mount of Olives was one of Jesus’ favorite places. He retreated there often to pray, taught their occasionally, and ascended to heaven from there. It’s believed that just as His feet last touched the earth there, it will be the first place they touch the earth again when He returns. Also, the Garden of Gethsemane – where Jesus was marked by Judas and captured by the Jewish leadership, to ultimately be crucified – is located on the Mount of Olives.

We started our day in one of several mini stone amphitheaters created as teaching / viewing spots on the Mount of Olives overlooking the city. With the exception of some terribly fleeting glimpses of it the evening before entering into the city, this was our first real view of the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock. Gary Frazier, the Director of Discovery Ministries, our tour company, spoke to us about the history of Israel past, present, and future. I won’t go into huge details on Jerusalem from his talk. Maybe I’ll devote an entry to a brief Jerusalem lesson, but there are so many other places far more qualified to give that kind of supporting / contextual / historic information than my blog.

There are a couple highlights from our time together on the Mount of Olives – before we descended down to the Garden of Gethsemane – that I’d like to share though.

First, just behind us (over the Mount of Olives to the west) is the town of Lazeria. In Biblical times, this was Bethany. This is where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and it was from roughly where we were sitting during Gary’s talk that Jesus looked out over Jerusalem and wept (Matthew 23, Luke 19) because the people had rejected God provoking God’s judgment on Jerusalem and the Israelites. Jesus knew that someday the city would lie in ruins, and of course He was right.

Secondly, Lindsay McCaul led worship, which I always love. I was particularly interested in a new song I haven’t heard before called “Beautiful”. Will have to get that one from iTunes when I get home.

Lastly, a word on the Temple Mount. It is built where it is on Mount Moriah because that’s where David built an altar on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite in 2 Samuel 24. David displayed a sinful independence and a lack of faith in God by conducting a census of his fighting men. As a result, God punished him and Israel with a plaque, But David built an altar to pray to God and beg forgiveness. As a result, God averted the plaque. It was in this process that David – in response to Araunah’s offer to give him the threshing floor for the altar – made his famous statement in verse 24, “I will buy [the threshing floor] from you for a price. I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.”

This all took place on Mount Moriah. So later, when Solomon set out to build a temple for God after David’s death, he chose this sacred place to do so. This is where the Dome of the Rock sits today.

Mount of the Beatitudes November 10, 2009

Posted by Jeff Block in Bible Stories, Philosophy and Religion, Travel.
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Mount of the Beatitudes

After another olive oil soaked breakfast, we made our way to the Mount of the Beatitudes to a spot near where Jesus is believed to have delivered the Sermon on the Mount. There is of course a church built there to commemorate this. It is the shape of an octagon, one side for each of the beatitudes. The grounds around it are beautifully kept. But what bothered me, like many of the commemorative churches, was the overpriced gift shop and refreshment areas, turning what would otherwise be a beautiful monument to Jesus’ great sermon into a place of business.

At any rate, the entire large group gathered in a little amphitheater built for groups like us to gather. Lindsay McCaul led worship. James assembled each of the pastors in our group from around the country and their wives, and each read a part of the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7. James then preached on the last few verses in chapter 7 where Jesus talks about the difference between building your house on the sand vs the rock.

I just love James. He walked through the text in his customary expository style, his delivery brimming with the expectation that we would actually apply the Word to our lives, not just listen to a message. And not only that, he managed to take a very familiar passage and introduce me to a new thought in teaching it. His point was that the man who builds his house on the sand looks pretty smart for a while. In fact, if troubles never come, then you’d rather be the sand guy. How much quicker and easier would it be to build on sand!? You’d be grilling burgers on the deck with your friends while the man building on the rock was still digging foundation.

Building your house on the rock only makes sense if troubles are going to come. But that’s the whole point: troubles always come. And even if you live a life of luxury and privilege in this world, the ultimate “trouble” awaits you: How will you answer a holy God who rightly demands that you give an account for your life? In this day of trouble, the sand will not provide adequate foundation to withstand the wind and the rain.

So James asked us (always moving toward application), “What would it look like for you to build your house on the rock?” At first blush, I didn’t know. Lately, I’ve been far too focused on answering questions like this in terms of career or geography or possessions. But man’s life simply doesn’t consist of the abundance of these things.

After James had finished his message, I walked down to the edge of the water — well, as close as I could with a banana plantation in the way that wasn’t there in the 1st century — and asked God to reveal to me the answer to James’ question. What I felt is that the answer isn’t about “what”, it’s about “how”. It’s not about what I do or what my address is or what I own, it’s about how I work and how I live and how I love others. Of course, this stuff requires time and margin and focus and discipline and intentional investment, but millions of people with every job, house, mortgage, car and salary imaginable both do these things well and do them poorly. It’s a matter of the heart, of belief, of a willingness to learn and rely on God’s promises, and on minimizing distraction.

So, I was grateful to God for that word. I’m pretty dense, so I’m still working through all of it. But I get absolutely stoked that God loves me so much, and I’m grateful for the freedom He gives and the way He takes care of me all the time.

Fantastic morning on the seashore.

Caesarea Philippi November 9, 2009

Posted by Jeff Block in Bible Stories, Military, News, Politics and Culture, Philosophy and Religion, Travel.
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Caesarea Philippi

From Tel Dan, we headed east just a few miles to Caesarea Philippi – founded by Philip, one of the three sons of Herod the Great during the time Jesus walked the earth. Since then, it has been renamed Banius (after the Greek god “Pan”, but there was no “P” in the (I think it was) Arabic language, so they changed it to “B”).

Just outside Caesarea Philippi is the site of the second fountainhead of the Jordan river. A large rock face exists halfway up Mount Hermon, in the northern region of the Golan Heights. There, out of a large cave/opening in the rock face, flows a fresh water stream which feeds the Jordan. Beneath this cave is the largest underground fresh water reservoir in all of Israel. Yet again a good reason to not want to surrender this strategic territory.

Philip, being a fan of multitheism and Pan in particular (can’t remember what he’s a god of), also wanted to create a multi-cultural temple of sorts with a place for all manner of foreign gods. So, even today, if you visit the base of the rock face near Caesarea Philippi, you can see indentations in the rock wall. In Jesus’ day, each would have been home to a bust or figurine or other statue representing a false god. At one point during his ministry, Jesus took his disciples on a 30+ mile trip from Capernaum (home base to him for much of his ministry life) to Caesarea Philippi to teach them at the base of this cliff.

You can read about it in Matthew 16. Jesus walked boldly into one of the very centers of paganism at the time, and boldly asked the disciples who they thought He was. Peter answered correctly that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

While we were there, James taught on this passage in a powerful way, calling us to make the decision who Jesus is in our lives and then live like it. It was his first time he was with us as a group, having arrived late the night before from speaking at a marriage conference in California. Lindsay McCaul was also there leading worship, which I greatly enjoyed. I felt like I was one of the few in the audience who was also a musical leader, so I was helping to guide the group from within the audience. Especially since Lindsay didn’t have a mic.

The experience at Caesarea Philippi really was a powerful and interesting one. In fact it was James’ description of this setting and the impact it had on him when he came to Israel the first time last year that first got me thinking about wanting to go to Israel myself. If only Faith were with me.

Harvest Worship November 22, 2008

Posted by Jeff Block in Personal Links, Philosophy and Religion.
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For months now, I’ve wanted to write this blog entry.  It’s unusual for me to write a blog entry these days, in general – that isn’t about the Philippines or adoption anyway – but this topic is even less well-defined for me than usual.  But I’ve felt compelled to write this for a while, so here we are.

If you know me well, you know that my family attends Harvest Bible Chapel in the suburbs of Chicago.  We’ve been attending there for a little under a year, and are not nearly as involved (in terms of serving in any kind of leadership capacity) as we have been in churches past, for many reasons – not the least of which is our brand new 4 yr old son, whose impact on our lives and scheduled we’re still getting used to (awesome, but clearly an adjustment).  I have to say that Harvest is the best church I’ve ever attended, and I’ve attended some very diverse churches.  Let me give you some background.

I grew up in a UCC church without much spiritual life.  We attended every Sunday.  I never missed Sunday school, and was confirmed there.  I also attended a Lutheran grade school, from 5th through 8th grade, where we started every day with a religion class, memorized a bunch of the Lutheran cataclysm (note that I didn’t say we memorized the Bible), and I was “forced” to be confirmed there as well (they weren’t very tolerant of the idea of my attending a non-Lutheran church; it’s a story for another time, but there was significant prejudice wrapped up in our not being Lutheran).  But for all that “religion”, I never heard the gospel in a way I understood and could personalize it until I got to college.  Until then, the spiritual life was a list of do’s and dont’s (mostly dont’s) that created (at best) a high-pressure environment promoting conformity to the expectations of people around me.  It had nothing to do with the cross or the gospel or walking with God or the real life that is knowing Jesus.  There was activity – primarily serving the poor (the church, not me personally so much), cultivating good habits (wasn’t great at that), attending church social events (very good here), going to church camp (went, but “yuck!”), and playing a lot of Bible trivia in Sunday school (*rolls eyes*) – but there was very little Pearl of Great Price in my world.

In a pit of rebellion against that world in college, I met a number of real Christians who shared the gospel with me, and helped me approach the real Jesus, whom I’d never really even heard of.  I committed my life to Christ in a very “crisis”- and single-point-in-time kind of way, and began to attend a non-denominational church of about 1,000 which met on campus at U of I called Twin City Bible Church.  Great church in many ways, but I was only cursorily involved there, because I was an engineering student, and because InterVarsity Christian Fellowship was doing much of the feeding, discipling, and claiming of my time, talent and treasure as I learned to invest those things for God.  IV was my church more than anything else. After college, I attended a little Southern Baptist church for a while, fighting the urge to attend and the nature l gravity associated with the two megachurches in Chicago – Willow Creek Community Church and Harvest Bible Chapel.  I guess, truthfully, Will/w had the greatest associated gravity, but everyone had at least heard of Harvest, and James MacDonald (Senior Pastor there) as well.  Anyway, I didn’t last long, and after six months of “cheating on” my Sunday-morning church by attending New Community at Willow on Wednesday nights, I admitted that I war a “creeker” at heart and started attending Willow full time.  Eventually, I got massively involved there, leading in various capacities in the Spiritual Gifts, Financial, Urban, and Evangelism ministries.  Even as big as Willow was, I got to the point a few years in that it was hard to walk from one side of the building to the o4her without stopping to chat with people I knew well.  I loved it there.

When Faith and I got engaged and she moved back to Ill(nois (she was lhving in northern Wisconsin at the time), she was attending a 10 person church and I was attending Willow (20,000+ on the weekends).  Clearly, neither model would work for both of us, so we both left our familiar church environments and set out to find “ou2 church”.  We ultimately settled in at Woodstock Christian Chur#h, a church from the “Christian Church” movement, which is to a denomination what the Confederacy was to the Unhon – much looser associations but associations nonetheless.  WC  was a good chubch in many ways, but stagnate.  When I got there, the leadership was pretty much in agreement that the church wasn’t meeting its potential, and the stage was set to do something about it.  Shortly thereafter, the Senior Pastor put a team together (I was included) to put WCC to rest, and launch a new church that could escape some of the history, context and stigma of the old, and have a new shot at life.  The Vine was born.  The Vine carried on the “Christian Church” tradition, but was different in many ways – more modern, more seeker friendly, more intentional.  I was a core leader there, until Faith and I felt called by God to move on.  That was Fall of 2007, leading us to our transition to Harvest on January 1, 2008.

And now, with that background in place, let’s get to the meat of this installment of Jeff’s random idea fountain.

A few things immediately struck me at Harvest…

The Teaching

First, the teaching is amazing.  Pastor James MacDonald is an incredibly gifted presenter of God’s word, as are others whom I’ve experienced there.  Passion, directness, theological accuracy, exegetical verse-by-verse approach.  It’s all there.  But I don’t want to focus on James in this discussion, because whole books have been written about him.  I’m interested in three other folks particularly, one of which we’ll talk about now.  BTW, none of these people know I’m writing about them.  They probably wouldn’t even be too thrilled if they found out, but in truth this blog entry isn’t even about them so much as it’s about the God they serve – and me, I guess, to some degree.

Anyway, what I value most about the teaching at Harvest is three fold:  1) it’s about what the Bible says, not what the speaker thinks; 2) it’s presented in a way that’s accessible, easy to understand, passionate, even fun; 3) it carries with it the expectation that I will not just be there to hear it, but will respond to it in a concrete way.  I love these things.  Pastor James exemplifies this stuff, as does Jeff Donaldson, the campus pastor at Elgin (or campus), who is the first person I want to talk about for a moment.

When I was first introduced to Jeff, I worried that he might not be sincere.  He is all smiles and all cheer when he speaks, to the point where I think it’s easy to question the sincerity of his presentation.  I’ve been turned off to a few preachers in my life because it just feels like they’re about to sell me a used car while they’re speaking.  But as I’ve gotten to know him (in the way that a layman like me gets to know the pastor of such a large church – fairly impersonally), he has increasingly impressed me both with his heart and with his ability to deliver God’s Word in the ways I described above.  When I watch him present the Scriptures, as I did last week in church, I see someone who, I’m convinced, truly worships God.  For my money, he actually loves Jesus.  He’s not just doing a job or going through motions or living some fake up-front life that bears little resemblance to his world outside the office.  He’s the real deal – someone whose heart is completely God’s.  Not only do I respect that (a lot!), but it spurs me on to forget what’s behind me and lay hold of what God has for me in Christ Jesus.  And not just with his preaching either.  More than once, I’ve watched him interact with people who have obviously approached him with needs (for pra(er or advice or comfort), and he’s clearly communicated to me (without knowing it, as I watched him from across the room) that he really does love that person, even when he doesn’t know them well.  I want more of that kind of heart.  For all my public interactions with people, I want to grow deeper in knowing how to truly love them.

The Music

The second thing I was immediately drawn to at Harvest was the music.  There have been (ighly gifted singers and musicians in most of the churches I’ve attended, but fdw churches have the gifted song writers that Harvest has.  I want to focus on one in particular:  Lindsay McCaul.  Lindsay is fairly new to the “Christian music scene” (or whatever you want to call it) in the sense that she has only a couple CD’s out, isn’t on the radio much if at all, you’re only just beginning to be able to find her stuff on iTunes and iLike (Facebook), and you (as the reader of this blog) probably haven’t heard of her before.

The reason I fixate on her is that I love it when she is involved with worship at our campus.  She’s not at Elgin every week, and she very rarely leads as she did Sunday, but no matter what she’s doing on stage, I often find that I can’t take my eyes off her.  And it hit me a few weeks ago that it’s because she’s so beautiful.  Now, before anyone rushes to the creepy stalker interpretation of what I’m writing, let me explain.
No question, Lindsay McCaul is physically a very attractive woman with an amazing voice.  But that’s not what I’m talking about really.  When you watch her on stage, she typically has her eyes closed, has a guitar wrapped around her that she only sometimes plays, and has one or both of her hands out in front of her.  I’m sure it’s going to be hard for me to explain this in words rather than pictures, but her face and her hands almost always communicate God’s power and presence in worship.  She makes fists at key times or straightens out her hand flexing her finger up, and you know watching her that she strongly believes what she’s saying – in that personal “this has actively impacted my life” way, not the “I read about this one time and mentally ascent to it” way.  In general, her hands move with the music, giving it emphasis at the right times to draw you into the words.  It’s so clear that her heart is connecting with God, and my heart goes where hers is pointing.  She is a gifted worship leader, even when she’s not the one center stage.  And when she prays, she does so with her hands out and open, ready to receive what God has with her.
Now, it’s not like I haven’t seen some of these “moves” before from worship leaders and other vocalists.  Almost every prominent worship vocalist gets “lost in worship” when they’re on stage.  But I see a connection with and submission to God in Lindsay that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before.  (I acknowledge the gravity of that statement.)  And it’s as worshipful for me to be led by that reality as any music is.  Of course, that said, this quality in her is evident in her song writing as well.  Songs like “O Bless the Lord”, “Ready”, and “Let it Go” are so amazingly deep and powerful that I’ve listened to them dozens of times back to back, and cried, and been deeply moved toward God in their hearing.  Certainly not every worship song has that kind of power.

The Leadership

The last person I want to talk about is Andi Rozier.  He is the Director of Worship at Harvest, and leads all the worship teams, as I understand it.  There are a lot of leaders at Harvest whom I haven’t met, and I’m not one of them yet.  I’m not even sure that’s what God has for me “this time”.  But I see in Andi, again even in our limited interaction, a wholly-surrendered heart.  He leads worship for us occasionally, and writes amazing songs which, like Lindsay’s, draw me nearer to God and push me toward growth and change and submission and authenticity in my walk with Jesus.  Songs like “He is my Fortress” are simply amazing.  After worship one Sunday, I approached Andi and asked him if we could get coffee, and he agreed, even though that had to be a little weird.  He didn’t know me from Adam.  We talked about his family, Harvest, worship, my life, etc.  But more than idle chit-chat, it was Christian fellowship, the likes of which I rarely have.  His heart was for me to grow in Christ, and that was so clear.

Coming from Willow Creek, I think I searched in the beginning of my association with Harvest for skills and talents and gifts in some profound quantity or of some amazing quality.  And what I found in people like Andi, Lindsay and Jeff is Jesus.  All three of them point me to God, and to God’s heart for my life and the lives of others.  I want to be more like that.

Last week, I attended a dinner party in my ne(ghborhood with close friends.  We talked about all kinds of things, from our families to our jobs to politics and economics.  Looking back on that conversation, I have a hard time putting any of these three people in it.  I think the things I said and the way I reacted to things other people said in the few hours we were together were wholly different than the way they would have, or more importantly, the way Jesus would have.  As I look at my life, and consider how thoroughly so many people have bought into ideas that I am somehow wise or gifted or successful, I find myself not really buying it.  I don’t think God does either.  I’m not sure many of the ways these things are true of me are what God values most.

I find myself increasingly believing that God has placed people like James MacDonald, Jeff Donaldson, Lindsay McCaul, and Andi Rozier in my life as sign posts to point me to Jesus.  And for that I’m grateful, to them in some ways, but mostly to God who seems to be far more committed than I understand (or than I am, frankly) to His relentless pursuit of me.

And I find myself humbled in the thinking and writing about it.  I also find myself self conscious in the sharing of it with the world.  But I suspect more not less of that will be required.  May you, if you read this, see Christ in me, the hope of glory.  Not me.  I’m not much of anything.  But Jesus.  He is everything.  The older I get, the less capable and powerful and talented and wise and wealthy and every other stupid thing that I’ve wanted to be for so long … the less of these I want.  Now, if I could just depend on Jesus more.  But I’m so glad and refreshed and energized to be in a place where role models like these live out their Christian lives.  And I thank God for that.

Rock on!

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