Churches without All the Noise

My church in Daegu, Korea is very modest. Besides the geometric stained glass behind the altar, it has the feel of most Protestant churches that were built in the 50’s: the architecture and decor is built for function more than religious expression. For the English service, the congregation of about 20 people meets on the third floor and are seated behind folding tables draped in flower-patterned table cloths. The worship team, which anyone who mentions they play an instrument will be encouraged to join, nearly outnumbers those in the congregation.

Growing up, I rarely went to church, even though my family was Christian. In college, I accepted that, unless I joined a community of Christians, I wasn’t going to develop my relationship with God. I was constantly faced with a sense of loneliness and laziness in my faith and started seeking a community that would support and encourage me. I had witnessed a drastic change in heart and attitude of an acquaintance on Facebook after he started attending a church in Colorado Springs, where I lived, so when he invited me to attend that church’s Bible study, I was excited. However, I had experienced Bible studies held in people’s homes before, and they always seemed insincere or lacking in meaningful discussions, so I didn’t know what to expect from this one.

I was struck when I walked through the door, very hesitantly taking off my shoes in the entryway, and I heard my name called out. Two friends from high school, who I hadn’t talked to since right after we graduated, greeted me. It started to dawn on me that most of the people here were tied to my high school, which normally would fill me with panic and dread, but it felt welcoming and familiar. Who would have thought that my old friend, Kim, would be here? (Well, God did…)

I started attending their church services with the accountability of Kim, who also became my roommate later on, the year before I left for South Korea to teach English for a year. Having this connection to a church was vital to my future in Korea, because, as I was preparing for this transition, I always had people praying with me and encouraging me. So when I left the States, I was hoping to find a church where I also felt a sense of belonging.

And I discovered, as I continue to discover, that prayer works. My first day in Korea, I met my best friends, Timmy and Rachel, who became like my brother and sister, and they invited me to a church they had chosen out of a few they had visited.

When I had attended church irregularly in high school, before I started going out of the desire of my heart instead of out of guilt, I went to a mega church: a church famous for the Ted Haggard scandal, when the pastor was found guilty of engaging in prostitution and drug use; a church that used up tens of thousands of dollars buying world flags so that we could pray over/at/to (?) them in the auditorium, and then following it up with a “Move the Mountain [of Facilities Debt]” series wherein they emphasized the importance of tithing; a church that hosted guest speakers that prioritized salesmanship over teaching; a church that believed strongly in pleasing the masses over addressing difficult questions of Christianity; a church that produces cirque du soleil-magnitudinal performances of the salvation story and sells pricey tickets; a church that people flock to because their worship services are rock concerts with colored spotlights and fog machines. From this, my experience with the church was that it was a business. It was a corrupt government. It was a popularity contest.

So I learned to love churches without all the noise.

God led me to these small, welcoming churches. This church in Daegu, where the Korean pastor tries so hard to speak our language and apologizes because his English is “short,” and it doesn’t matter because he’s so kind and joyful. Where my favorite pastor is a woman because she knows how to get to the point of her message and talks to us like it’s a conversation, a devotional, rather than a lecture. Where the worship service is led by passionate people from Uganda, the Philippines, Korea, the United States. Where we all speak in different tongues to worship our Lord. Where, afterwards, we gather together and pray and converse over rolls of kimbap and Costco muffins.

And that’s how I want to worship the Lord on Sundays.

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A Spirit of Quietness at St. Herman of Alaska’s Monastery

Today’s guest blogger is John Parker.

High up in the tree-covered hills of Platina, California sits a string of buildings and huts strewn throughout the woods. From morning until sunset, men in black robes, young and old, can be seen walking or working on various tasks: adding new rows to the cobblestone path, tending to the gardens, or most commonly of all—prayer. Dogs wander aimlessly, happily, between the buildings, looking for pinecones to chew. And at the appointed times, a resonating hum of bells sounds across the hillside, beckoning listeners. This is the brotherhood of St. Herman of Alaska’s Monastery.

Orthodox Christian Monasteries have been in existence for well over a thousand years. The monastic life is a removal from the chaos of society, a sort of self-imposed exodus into the wilderness—a place where many throughout history have encountered the spiritual life in God. St. Herman’s began out of the desire to return to the spiritual heart of ancient Christian truth and praxis. Father Seraphim Rose, a prolific writer of Orthodox books, helped bring this vision to fruition at this monastery. Since then, this brotherhood has lived in simplicity and humility living out the Orthodox Christian Faith, occupying themselves with devoted prayer and worship, hard work, and hospitality toward the many frequent visitors (ourselves included) who come to see Father Seraphim’s grave. We were there to stay a day in the life of the monastics.

I came on this pilgrimage as the culmination of a year of “returning” to my inner self. I had been running for years from God and from anything resembling church, and had only recently been drawn back into that life. I felt as though God was slowly softening my heart and leading me back, so that by the time I visited St. Herman’s, the noise of the life I was coming out of had diminished enough for me to be able to listen and at least catch a small measure of the stillness of prayer.

After two full days of nearly non-stop driving from Colorado to the west coast, crammed in a van with four other young adults I’d only recently met, I wasn’t sure of what to expect when we arrived. I only knew that I felt something when we walked through the gates—stillness, a quietness returning to and settling on the earth.

Brother Cassian, a man in his early twenties and the most recent addition to the brotherhood, showed me and fellow traveler Jeremiah to our rooms—cells, as they’re called. Like most of the other monks, Brother Cassian was very quiet. Not standoffish or rude, just quietly engaged in a deliberate, contemplative silence. Beyond showing us our rooms and amenities and asking if we needed anything, there was very little conversation. This was the consistent theme throughout the stay: we were given a tour of the monastery, ate meals with the monks, attended services, and were treated with every kindness—nevertheless, a spirit of quietness infused all of these things.

One encounter my friend had with a monk is a fairly good representation of the whole trip’s experience. When we had free time to explore the grounds, this friend of mine was walking and singing to himself. Unknown to him, an elder monk named Brother Theophil was sitting nearby, praying in solitude. My friend thought he was alone, and was singing rather loudly, no doubt distracting Brother Theophil. As soon as my friend noticed the monk, he quickly stopped singing and began apologizing: “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to distract you from your prayer, I’ll leave now.”

Brother Theophil, a man who I would have otherwise thought seemed strict and austere, cracked a warm smile and turned to my friend saying, “It is alright. We must learn to pray, especially in the midst of distraction.”

Even though we only stayed a day at St. Herman’s, this truth has stayed with me. In the midst of a work filled with noise, chaos, pain, and suffering—there is a stillness that is waiting to be encountered. There is a life of prayer and inner quietness that I believe not only helps one endure the outside world, but actually helps sustain the world. These small, humble spaces where people strive to overcome the noise and seek a full life of faith help give breath and life to the surrounding world, even if it can’t perceive it.