Monthly Archives: August 2016

Does worship’s relevance trump reverence?

My earliest experiences of church worship, as a child, impressed upon me that something special was happening. People sat quietly, mostly without talking, awaiting the start of the service. Out of sight, the elders, in a circle, prayed God would bless this worship. An organ softly played hymns to prepare the congregation for worship.

Finally, the strains of “Holy, Holy, Holy” were rendered by the choir, while the congregation bowed heads in prayer and the elders quietly took their places on the podium, kneeling in reverence with a brief invocation for God to unite with our service of worship. My family, and most other members of that church, dressed in our best clothing in honor of our God and king.

Recently, while worshiping with members of Orthodox churches in Anchorage, I was similarly struck by their reverence for their church, each other and the act of worshiping God. Orthodox services are long and consist primarily of choral and chanted liturgies. For those who are able, standing is the norm, except during the homily. Order, decorum, and reverence are evident throughout the service. It’s respectfully quiet. Children are with their parents, and behave respectfully and quietly. I don’t know how their parents do it, but infants rarely interrupt the services I’ve attended. (Parents will take young children out if necessary so they will not interrupt the flow of the service.)

While I’m not Orthodox, as a Christian I also believe in many of the same things Orthodox adherents do and respect them for their beliefs. Reverence, daily worship, spiritual songs, and prayers in the home are part of the life they live in the Orthodox faith, and these extend into their worship services.

During the past decade or two, I’ve noticed a trend away from reverence in many churches, houses of worship, even in some of the Protestant churches I thought would never accept this type of change.

In many evangelical and Protestant churches, as I enter the worship sanctuary, a din of noisy talking, laughing and people bouncing from one to another prevails; this may last 10-15 minutes before services. As services begin in many contemporary churches, they often do so with a wall of music where people are, for the most part, told (not asked), to stand. The music often is a show or display of raw musical talent with sound levels from 95-120 decibels. This can continue for half an hour or more until one or more persons from the ministerial team make their appearance, often to warm up the crowd with announcements, offerings and more music. Finally, a sermon is delivered, replete with altar call in many evangelical churches.

Only once, in my many years of visiting churches here, have I heard a church address the issue of congregational behavior, particularly that of maintaining reverence. Otherwise, I’ve never heard a single pastor talk about the purpose of worship, with the exception of an exceptional experience of “slow Mass” taught by the Rev. Leo Walsh, formerly of St. Benedict’s Parish.

During a two-and-a-half-hour midweek service last fall, Walsh described what happens in a church from the moment the narthex (entryway) is entered. While not a regular service, he underscored the Catholic practice of the Eucharistic Mass being the focus of their belief. Walsh’s talk gave the 35 or so attendees a historical perspective on every aspect of a Catholic Mass. It’s too bad other churches, regardless of denomination, don’t follow this practice; I found it most educational.

A major discussion among church leaders today centers around reverence versus cultural relevance. In a piercing commentary on this subject, “Worship: Relevancy vs. Reverence,” writer Adelina Ghilea says, “It is not our responsibility to make God relevant to our societies and cultures. The church exists because Christ is to be worshipped. I cannot accept with any sympathy the idea that we go to church to soothe ourselves and calm our spirits; that we go to church to feel better. Worship has become too much about us, and is so many times far from being focused on God’s holiness. Somehow, now that we have direct access to God through Jesus Christ, we no longer perceive His holiness the same way. We almost think God is less holy (or at least we act like it).”

The purpose of worship is to glorify God. Over the two millennia since the founding of Christianity this has been done by communion or Eucharist (Acts 20:7), prayers to God (1 Corinthians 14:15–16), singing songs to God’s glory (Ephesians 5:19), collecting offerings (1 Corinthians 16:2), reading Scripture (Colossians 4:16), and proclaiming the word of God (Acts 20:7).

Most denominations have manuals and statements about reverence, especially in church. For example, the Assemblies of God statement reads, “Behavior in the sanctuary should always be respectful and reverent towards God. Those who have not been taught such reverence sometimes treat it as a place to play, run, shout, and socialize. Not only during worship services and altar prayer time, but also when the sanctuary is nearly empty, all should respect and reverence the place where God meets with His church community.”

Many of my visits to Assembly churches have shown me this standard is not always upheld. Despite similar statements from many denominations, their adherents rarely seem to have been taught its significance.

Christ cleansed the temple twice before he was crucified. He clearly said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer.” I’m afraid many Christian faith bodies have succumbed to giving their constituents what they want instead of what God commands. The account of Moses and the burning bush tells of God instructing Moses to remove his shoes because the ground on which he stood was “holy ground.” This was a lesson by God to Moses of reverence.

Despite the casual way in which worship is often practiced today, all Christians might reconsider, in every way, what reverence in worship really means. Are we dressed to meet God? Are our songs really praising God? Are our prayers from the heart? Do our offerings represent our truest gifts to God? Have we taken the message (or sermon or homily) to heart? Do we understand and apply the partaking of communion or Eucharist? The heart of these practices could well bear fruit in enhanced reverence.

‘Gospel of Simon’ offers a freshly reimagined perspective on the crucifixion and its meaning

The role Simon the Cyrene played in the passion narratives in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is familiar to many Christians. Matthew mentions him by name, his country of origin, Cyrene (in present day Libya), and that Simon was forced by Roman soldiers to carry Jesus’ cross on the way to Golgotha. Luke mentions his name, and country and that Simon was in from the country. He also added he was made to carry the cross behind Jesus. Mark, corroborating Luke’s testimony adds Simon was also the father of Alexander and Rufus. But beyond this, Simon remains somewhat of a mysterious person in the Gospels. John is totally silent about him.

To this spare Scriptural testimony, longtime Alaska author John Smelcer has created a rich narrative that imagines the events surrounding and following this brief incident mentioned in the passion narrative. In his novel, “The Gospel of Simon,” (which is to be published by Leapfrog Press next month) Smelcer details the impact of the crucifixion upon Simon the Cyrene. The story begins outside Jerusalem in the present day with a grandfather and grandson who both bear the name Simon. The elder Simon wants to share a family treasure, an ancient manuscript, with his time-pressed and late-for-a-date grandson. The manuscript traces the story of Simon back to the beginnings of the name, and grandfather Simon leaves grandson Simon alone to read.

The cover of John Smelcer’s forthcoming novel “The Gospel of Simon,” from Leapfrog Press.
The cover of John Smelcer’s forthcoming novel “The Gospel of Simon,” from Leapfrog Press.

Smelcer places Simon the Cyrene in a believable context of being a country farmer who goes to Jerusalem during Passover to sell wine and obtain medical help for a daughter teetering on the brink of death. During the process he stumbles upon a crucifixion procession headed toward Golgotha and is forced by soldiers to shoulder Jesus’ cross when His strength failed.

Many mysteries are unveiled to Simon during the course of the story. That night after returning from Jerusalem, during a dream featuring a wise teacher, Simon learns more about the power of love. While Simon is thinking about people who can quote Scripture but not live by it, the teacher tells him, “Love is not found in your stale and empty words, but in your actions. Be patient and kind with the young; show love and concern for the aged; offer sympathy and compassion for those who suffer and for those who despair, and afford solace to those who are helpless or in desperation, for at one time or another you will be all of these things. Love is the great, good use we make of one another. Without love you are as a flower without water. But remember, Simon, it is easy to show love and compassion to those who are close to you, to friends and family. The true measure of compassion is how much you love people who can do nothing for you, even unto those who do not believe as you believe — especially to those who do not believe as you believe.”

The teacher reveals other gems of truth, which have an impact on Simon’s heart. Smelcer’s skillful use of narrative gradually builds in readers a sense of the life-altering understanding and new confidence Simon gains. In another sequence Simon thought about how much he’d been praying for God’s help with his daughter, asking God to take him and let the girl live.

“You do not pray to seek God,” the rabbi continued. “You pray to be found by God. Know that religious fanaticism is ruinous and poisons the well of love with disunity, setting one group against others, mothers and fathers against children—all contrary to God’s commandment to love one another.” This saying was confusing to Simon as it went against the grain of what he’d been taught.

Smelcer’s dialogue in this narrative mirrors the markers of disunity disrupting many facets of our contemporary lives. The story continues with Simon’s return to Jerusalem to fit the pieces of the puzzle together in his mind, all of which combine to produce a cliffhanger plot that comes to a swift and startling conclusion to this wonderful book.

At the end, there is a delightful interview between Smelcer and W.P. Kinsella, author of “Shoeless Joe,” which was made into the movie “Field of Dreams.” Kinsella asks why it took Smelcer 20 years to write the book.

“I worry about the future of humanity, about the world my daughters will inherit,” answers Smelcer. “There’s too much hate and suffering, much of it centered on religious intolerance, despite every religion’s tenets of love, compassion, mercy and charity. Too many people use religion to sow divisiveness and prejudice, to foster separation instead of unity, and to build walls between us, both physical and metaphorical. To paraphrase Robert Frost, be careful what you wall in or wall out. There are too many atrocities, large and small, inflicted against humanity every day in the name of religion. I felt the world needed to be reminded that Jesus’s message was love and peace and mercy.”

You, like me, might find the book hard to put down and will be tempted to quickly read its 150 pages. That’s fine, but I’m guessing you’ll want to return to  it time and again to tease out more truths. This type of book is overdue in Christian literature, and presents a life-changing narrative for those who’ve lost their faith, for those who are disgusted with the religious attitudes of some, or those who are looking for an encounter with something or someone greater than themselves.

As an Alaska Native, Smelcer has authored an extensive number of books featuring Native culture and events. His website ( is well-stocked with background information about him, and his achievements. My first contact with Smelcer was last year when he responded to my column about Thomas Merton. He told me he’d just been given Merton’s last possessions at the time of his death, which inspired another column.

“The Gospel of Simon” was an enjoyable and inspirational read. I can imagine it having a significant impact on spiritual thinking. I recommend it.

Eagle River Institute is a great way to learn more about Orthodox Christianity

Each summer since 1995, St. John Orthodox Cathedral has conducted the “Eagle River Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies” which draws extraordinary Orthodox clergy and scholars to Alaska to speak on a variety of Orthodox topics. I’ve enjoyed attending these seminars for several years. They’ve provided me, as a scholar and historian, with a better historical and theological understanding of Christianity in general, and the ancient Orthodox faith more specifically.

One example is one of last year’s speakers, Syrian-born Rev. George Shaloub, who articulated how Muslims and Christians coexisted then and could now — a dialogue many of us need to understand. I wrote about an interview I conducted with him in a column last year, “Does your churchgoing give you a settled faith?

A busy schedule this year only allowed me to attend the Thursday sessions, and Friday’s final question-and-answer session. The sessions I attended would have been of interest to a broad range of individuals exploring current religious issues.

This year’s presenters were a pair of scholars and professors from Fordham University. Aristotle Papanikolaou is the Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture, and co-director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham. George Demacopoulos is the Father John Meyendorff & Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies, and shares co-directorship of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center with Aristotle.

The title of their presentations was “Orthodoxy and Culture: Past, Present, and Future.” Demacopoulos dug into Byzantine Christianity, asceticism and monasticism, tradition without fundamentalism, and war and violence in early and Byzantine Christianity. Papanikolaou explored the purposes of religion and Orthodoxy, spiritual practices, Christian secularism, war, violence and virtue.

Eagle River Institute is always held at the beginning of August, a two-week fasting period preparing for the Celebration of the Transfiguration of Christ (last week), and the Dormition of the Theotokos, falling asleep of Mary (this week). At dinner breaks, spare cuisine in line with Orthodox fasting practices was served — a great introduction to a key Orthodox belief. Orthodoxy is more rigorous with schedules of fasting than any other Christian religion I’ve observed. Feasts such as these are preceded by fasts.

Demacopoulos, in his session on “War and Violence in the Early Church,” noted the Orthodox church has been ambivalent about war and violence over its 2,000-year history. Prior to the conversion of Constantine (approximately in 313) it tended toward nonviolence but became more accepting of war and violence. Killing during war required canonical penance — often with 20 or more years transpiring before Eucharist was allowed to be taken. According to St. Ambrose, a 4th century  bishop of Milan, clerics must not be involved in armed combat, but as the Roman empire had become Christianized, it had duties to uphold with regard to maintaining the empire and the inhabitants thereof.

Taking an audience question about whether the U.S. was a Christian nation, Demacopoulos emphasized we weren’t a Christian nation and we don’t wage war to protect a Christian nation. The founding fathers, he said, were deists, not Christians, and wanted to avoid the governmental systems that promoted religious persecution and caused waves of immigrants to flee Europe and populate America. Demacopoulos stressed the current position of the Orthodox Church as, “our church prays for peace.”

Telly, as Aristotle Papanikolaou is known, addressed “War, Violence, and Virtue” in his session. He alluded to St. Maximus and his “Peace of Virtue.” Maximus (580-662) wrote and taught extensively. Well known for his work, “400 Chapters on Love,” he had a profound effect on the post-Byzantine empire. Papanikolaou noted Maximus said “self-love and self-loathing” get in the way of virtue. Saying there is no “just war” theory in Orthodox, he further noted that the effects of violence on the poor were tragic.

Many of Papanikolaou’s thoughts on virtue are contained in his scholarly essay, “Learning How to Love: Saint Maximus on Virtue.” I particularly liked his statement, “In the writings of St Maximus the Confessor, communion with God, which is an embodied presencing of the divine, is simultaneous with the acquisition of virtue: Virtue is embodied deification.”

The question and answer session was dominated by war and violence questions. Several participants talked about growing up with violence in the family, child trauma, war experiences, addictions, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Both speakers noted the church can offer victims of trauma community, hope and therapy choices.

Both speakers urged the practice of asceticism: Self-denial for the sake of the kingdom. They say it equals faith formation. Typical Orthodox aesthetic practices are prayer, fasting, and repentance. They said our entire life should be one of faith formation. The war and violence and question and answer sessions had a deep impact on those present.

“The speakers at this year’s ERI — one a professor of theology, the other of church history — succeeded admirably in obliterating any impression of Eastern Orthodoxy as less intellectually rigorous than its Western counterparts,” said St. John parishioner John Morrison. “Their presentations were provocative in the best sense of the word; thought-provoking and challenging us to more critically examine what we thought we knew about church history, and giving us a swift kick out of the comfort zone of our faith. At the same time, I kept my own sense of balance and perspective by remembering that Orthodoxy does not believe in papal infallibility, nor the infallibility of the saints … much less the infallibility of professors!”

These sessions were a blessing to me. Though I’m not Orthodox, I’ve come to love and appreciate this fine community of Christians who daily show that their ancient traditions have relevance for life here and now. Due to global connectivity, we are now privy to the toll war and violence inflicts on individuals. Orthodox faith has some great answers.

Previous ERI speaker presentations are available and this year’s audio presentations will be posted shortly at

The Alaska Greek Festival is almost here

Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church holds its annual Alaska Greek Festival Aug. 19-21. Find more at This wonderful festival is used to raise money to build and maintain their beautiful new church. The Rev. Vasili Hillhouse will give daily tours and explanations of their faith, iconography, and worship meanings, and there will be food, wine and dancing for all who attend.

A training approach that seeks to redefine missions – one person at a time

Summers provoke a burst of interest in missions, both here in Alaska and abroad. Some provide demonstrable good, others may target faith groups who differ from the sponsoring mission organization’s ideals, and yet others may insinuate themselves into native communities in culturally insensitive ways. We should not ignore local missions by preferring foreign missions. All missions could benefit from changes in approach.

In my June 10 column, “Africa is showing Alaska how to do missions,” I focused on the training Faith Christian Community has offered our community for years through Community Health Evangelism. Faith’s CHE trainer, Larry Kingry, has trained over 100 people during this time, providing them with tools to approach missions insightfully. Many trainees do not take expensive trips to foreign destinations; some do, but a goodly number employ those skills in everyday interactions with people here and in other parts of Alaska.

Kingry was helpful connecting me with CHE-trained individuals. One of them was Heidi Navarro of Community Pregnancy Center.

“We had six of our people trained in CHE,” Navarro said, “and now we not only include our clients in the design of services in the very beginning, but we stop and think through our strategies in helping. We want to build the dignity of those we help and for them to take ownership of the solutions.”

Heidi offered an example of a time where CHE training was useful. She’d started planning a Christmastime “birthday party for Jesus” for kids of clients. “I was all pumped up,” she said.”I would like to do this party for the kids but I stopped myself. I thought, wait! CHE talks about ownership.” She asked a client to take the lead, and own it. The client enlisted her friends, “reaching a whole new people group than before.” The event, held at University Baptist Church was a great success. Heidi says they also use the training day-to-day to encourage a team atmosphere, asking “Is this CHE?”

Joyce Matthews can be found most days working at Downtown Soup Kitchen. CHE-trained in 2014, she talked about her mission experience before CHE. “I have been going to Uganda on short-term missions for years,” Matthews said. “After taking CHE, training and education has been my focus versus taking huge suitcases of gifts. I have been promoting CHE as a strategy for development.

Previously, during twice-yearly trips to Uganda, Joyce noticed whatever she brought or did, or her actions on behalf of other people subsequently became “expected,” establishing a dependency in the Ugandans. Now, she only takes books, using them to share the Gospel.

If needs are expressed to her, she poses the question, “What resources do you have here to solve this problem?” an important key in development as taught by CHE. At DSK, clients also take meaningful responsibility for their actions, consistent with CHE principles. For instance, when a client uses a shower but leaves it messy, they’re called back to clean it if they expect to use it again.

Local real estate agent Fred Owen said, “I was a field coordinator for our church for missions in the Philippines. For years we have poured many thousands of dollars in relief efforts (that were not relief) and created huge dependencies on our church. We destroyed initiative. We then trained 30 pastors in three levels of CHE hoping to turn them away from dependency from outside funds. It still hasn’t happened; it is so hard to break the cycle of long-term dependency. They see Western culture as having unlimited money. Good intent gets lost.” He admits CHE is changing this mindset, but it takes time.

Fred encourages those considering CHE training to “Come with a very open mind if you are considering CHE training. If you have that open mindset, the lightning bolt will come to you. It’s about becoming disciples, not fixing everything.”

A clinical professional from Fairbanks, Jo Miller, took her CHE training last fall. “I started traveling overseas with mission groups as early as 2005, and although I enjoyed the work, I always felt like something was ‘missing’ from the end result after each mission. CHE has provided the missing key with the concepts of sustainability and a clear, measurable long-lasting effect on every community touched. After the CHE training, my entire view on both local and foreign missions has drastically changed along with the choice in what organization I may choose to travel. I am so much clearer on my mission goals and truly feel my efforts are directed by a spiritual basis of love and compassion while providing a solid foundation for those I have the honor and privilege to work alongside in every community.”

Amanda McKinley, a Kenai Peninsula nurse recently returned from Ghana after working with CHE-related programs for two years. I first met Mandy, at my May interview of Dayo Obaweya, regional coordinator of West Africa Community Health Evangelism. Her parents are the directors of Child Evangelism Fellowship; Mandy clearly has a passion for ministry.

“Through the ministry of my parents,” she said, “I have had a passion to help others become their own teachers so that they become less dependent on outside resources. Through nursing work I have seen that not just spiritual needs must be addressed. I think that often the Western Church completely separates spiritual and physical. But when we look at the life of Christ he did not ignore the physical needs around him nor did he ignore the spiritual, he addressed both.”

In Ghana, Mandy helped start Children’s CHE and Women’s Cycle of Life. Children’s CHE introduces children to learn through Bible and physical health prevention stories. They learn how to purify water, make fly and mosquito traps, prevent malaria, and make latrines to prevent disease. Beadwork was taught to help children make jewelry to sell to help their families or pay school fees. Parents become more interested in adult CHE programs as they are taught by their children.

The Women’s Cycle of Life gives women a forum to discuss pregnancy, danger signs in pregnancy, preparing for delivery, nutritious foods for children, and how God values women. Mandy said, “Some of the women told us that they were always arguing and fighting but when they started to meet together for WCL they learned how to get along and work towards a goal. They have worked together to start a market in their area.”

Kingry is offering a CHE training over two weekends in September. For more information and to sign up, visit