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Praise: Honoring God for his word in Salt Lake City — National Bible City 2013

SALT LAKE CITY — You can call it serendipity, coincidence, kismet or fate. Roma Downey has another explanation for it.

“It’s a God thing,” she says, simply, confidently.

The popular actress (“Touched by an Angel”) wasn’t planning to be in Salt Lake City to observe the 72nd annual National Bible Week, as well as the city’s designation as National Bible City 2013. Rather, she and her husband — producer Mark Burnett (“Survivor,” “The Apprentice,” “The Voice,” “Shark Tank”) — were planning to be in town for a special advance screening of “Son of God,” a theatrical film based on what she calls “the Jesus narrative” from the wildly successful “The Bible” miniseries that the couple produced for the History Channel.

But when National Bible Association president Richard Glickstein invited them to host the organization’s Concert of Praise, scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 23, at 7 p.m. in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Temple Square — the exact same day the private screening was scheduled for earlier in the day — putting “The Bible” creators together with the national Bible observance was a no-brainer.

“On the set of ‘Touched by an Angel,’ we used to say that coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous,” Downey said in a telephone interview earlier this week. “At first blush, it looks like things just worked out. But when you step back and see how it was all laid out, you can see that it was providential.”

So Downey and Burnett will host the Concert of Praise Saturday night in the Tabernacle, hosting an interfaith gathering aimed at celebrating the Bible and its teachings. The concert will feature an inner-city children’s choir from Baltimore, a Jewish cantor singing ancient melodies that were sung in synagogues at the time of Jesus Christ, the Brigham Young University Singers, the Salt Lake City Mass Choir (a group of evangelical Christian singers) and dramatic readings from the Bible by Downey and Burnett.

“My husband is a little nervous about the fact that I’m going to have him up there performing,” Downey said, chuckling. “But he’ll be great. And it will be a beautiful pleasure for Mark and I to share some of our favorite passages of scripture.”

The Concert of Praise, which is free to the public, is one of two major events scheduled in honor of Salt Lake City’s designation as the National Bible Association’s National Bible City for 2013. The other will be Monday, Nov. 25, at noon in the Utah State Capitol Rotunda.

“It’s going to be a public Bible reading, but we’re calling it a ‘free speech gathering,’” Glickstein said during a recent visit to Salt Lake City. Gov. Gary R. Herbert will be the first reader, and he will be followed by a number of political, business and religious leaders, both local and national, including Utah Jazz president Randy Rigby, Elder S. Gifford Nielsen of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Quorum of the Seventy, Pampered Chef founder Doris Christopher and National Bible Bee competitor Tia Thomas.

“None of our readers are going to offer any commentary or explanation, and there won’t be any preaching,” Glickstein promised. “We’ve just asked them to bring their favorite scriptures to read and share as a way of honoring God.”

Glickstien has drawn from his Jewish roots in creating ways to celebrate the Bible.

“The Jewish people have always had the Torah at the center of their culture,” said Glickstein, who became a Christian after a miraculous healing experience in the 1960s. “God told them that his word is the most precious thing that he gives to them, and they take that very seriously.”

He spoke of being in Jerusalem in 1997 at the time of Shavuot, the holy day during which Jews commemorate God’s gift of the Torah to the children of Israel at Mount Sinai.

“I saw thousands of people there, just thanking and praising and honoring God for his word,” Glickstein said. “That’s what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to honor God for what he did for us in giving us his word.”

The decision to honor Salt Lake City as National Bible City 2013 was a little less grandiose.

“Each year we choose a large American city as National Bible City, and we go there to encourage people to read the Bible,” Glickstein said. “Last year there were a number of people here in Salt Lake who invited us to come, and so here we are.”

Among those who have urged and supported the Salt Lake City designation is the Rev. Gregory C. V. Johnson, director and president of Standing Together, a ministry aimed at “uniting the Utah Christian community through relational efforts of prayer, worship and strategic evangelism.”

“I see this as an amazing opportunity for all Bible-believing people to come together to celebrate the importance of the Bible,” the Rev. Johnson said. “We’re not holding prayer meetings or worship services that are distinctive to our respective faith communities. We want this to be inclusive and open. We can set aside whatever differences we may have long enough to affirm our common appreciation for the Bible.”

And that’s important, he said, because of the Bible’s power to change and inspire lives, individually and collectively.

“Every time I read the Bible, I am in awe of the majesty, the richness, the depth and the wonder of God’s word,” the Rev. Johnson said. “I am a student of the scriptures. I try to read the Bible all the way through every year. I’ve studied the scripture in Hebrew and in Greek. And yet I can still read a psalm and think, ‘Gosh, I never saw that before.’”

It is his hope that as Utahns “see the Bible being respected, they will get the sense that this is a pretty special book and maybe they ought to spend a little more time in it.”

“God has this treasure chest for us,” the Rev. Johnson said. “If we don’t read it, we’re just picking our own pockets.”

Glickstein, who was himself a pastor for more than 20 years before returning to the business world and getting involved with the National Bible Association, shares the Rev. Johnson’s concern.

“Research tells us that a little over a third of Christians read from the Bible about once a week, which suggests that they are only reading it while the minister is talking about it in church,” he said. “Experience says you need to read the Bible at least four times a week for it to have impact in your life over a long period of time.”

He shakes his head at the thought.

“There’s just such an abundance here, and we’re not partaking of it,” he said.

He spoke of a farmer he knew of who had been paralyzed in an agricultural accident.

“Every morning, his wife would bathe him, dress him, feed him, then put him in a chair at the kitchen table with a pencil in his mouth and a Bible on the table in front of him,” Glickstein said. “He would sit there and read the Bible all day, every day, turning the pages with the eraser tip of the pencil in his mouth. He knew what a treasure the Bible is. I’m just afraid that most of us don’t treasure it like that.”

Which is why Glickstein, the Rev. Johnson, Downey, Burnett and others are involved in events like National Bible Week and the National Bible City Concert of Praise and public Bible reading.

“We just want to encourage people to read the Bible,” Glickstein said. “There is so much there for them: hope, encouragement, counsel, love. The more you’re in there, the more you understand that this whole thing is about love — God’s love for his children and their love for him.”

“It’s a love story,” Downey agreed, adding that one of the driving forces behind “The Bible” miniseries was the desire she and Burnett both felt “to tell this story as a love story.”

“It’s a book that changes lives,” she said. “It has changed my life, and it continues to change it.”

“I love the Bible,” the Rev. Johnson said. “To me, as a Christian, it is the text of all texts.”

For Glickstein, the business man leading an organization of business professionals, there is a bottom line.

“The principles of the Bible work,” he said. “They simply work. Aside from the religious overtones, this stuff works. It really does.”

The Concert of Praise is scheduled at Saturday, Nov. 23, at 7 p.m. in the Tabernacle on Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City. The public Bible reading at the Utah State Capitol Rotunda is scheduled at Monday, Nov. 25, at noon.

Both events are free and open to the public; tickets are not required.