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…
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 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 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.