February 2014

Warren, LifeWay to release ‘Son of God’ study

February 18 2014 by Carol Pipes, Baptist Press

NASHVILLE – Pastor and The New York Times best-selling author Rick Warren is partnering with LifeWay Christian Resources to release a Bible study for the upcoming “Son of God” movie from 20th Century Fox.
 
The small group curriculum resource by Warren is a companion piece to “Son of God,” produced by husband-and-wife team Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. The study will be available Feb. 15, two weeks before the movie hits theaters Feb. 28.
 
Son of God: The Life of Jesus in You” is a DVD small group Bible study, which features Warren explaining how you can find your purpose in studying the life of Jesus. The study is available at LifeWay Stores and LifeWay.com/SonofGod.
 
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BP photo

“There’s nothing more important you can do with your life than spending time getting to know Jesus,” Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” said. He also leads the Purpose Driven Network of churches, a global coalition of congregations in 162 countries.
 
“Through the ‘Son of God’ study, people will receive practical teaching on the life of Jesus and its impact on individual lives and life purpose. Jesus’ teaching transforms from the inside out.”
 
The six-session study features video clips from the theatrical movie “Son of God” and videos from Warren explaining Jesus’ teachings and their impact on people’s lives. Topics include baptism, temptation, suffering, death, resurrection and ministry. Scenes from the movie such as Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist will help illustrate each topic.
 
“Son of God” is the second Bible-based production from Downey and Burnett. The first was “The Bible,” the history-making miniseries on the History Channel viewed by more than 100 million people last spring. 
 
Burnett said bringing the full story of Jesus’ teaching and ministry to the big screen – the first time it’s been done by a major Hollywood studio in more than 50 years – is long overdue.
 
“A story larger than life needs to be experienced larger than life,” he said.
 
“Now people can bring their family, friends and neighbors to experience together the incredible story of Jesus,” Downey said. “We pray this film will really spread the word about Jesus’ love and sacrifice for all of us.”
 
The couple said they hope the movie draws generations of people closer to Jesus.
 
“We don’t want the experience to end for audiences when the credits roll,” Burnett said. “There is so much to learn from and apply to our everyday lives in the things Jesus did and said. So the companion study is essential for congregations to dig deeper into the life lessons of Jesus’ ministry.”
 
Downey, an Emmy-nominated actress, is best known for her recurring role on the television program “Touched by an Angel.” Burnett, a five-time Emmy winner, is the creator of hit shows such as “Survivor,” “The Voice,” “The Apprentice,” and “Shark Tank.”
 
The couple launched LightWorkers Media in 2011 with the children’s DVD and book series “Little Angels” and its companion “Little Angels Storybook Bible.” LightWorkers Media produced the 10-hour miniseries “The Bible” and the feature film “Son of God” for 20th Century Fox.
 
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Carol Pipes is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources.)
2/18/2014 12:51:52 PM by Carol Pipes, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



Seminary buys robot to study the ethics of technology

February 18 2014 by Amanda Greene, Religion News Service

Seminaries have a reputation for being late adapters when it comes to modern technology.
 
Southern Evangelical Seminary & Bible College in Matthews, N.C., wants to change that. On Friday (Feb. 14) it introduced a humanoid NAO robot (pronounced ‘now’).
 
The 22-year-old Christian apologetics school claims it’s the first in the world to use a robot to study the ethics of emerging technologies.
 
The white robot with an orange cap from the French company Aldebaran Robotics stands 23 inches high and includes voice and facial recognition and full mobility. It translates text to speech in seven languages. The robot retails for $16,000, but Southern got an end-of-the-year deal at $9,300.
 
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Photo courtesy of Southern Evangelical Seminary
Southern Evangelical Seminary & Bible College in Matthews, N.C., introduced a humanoid NAO robot (pronounced ‘now’) on Friday (Feb. 14).

Schools such as MIT, University of Tokyo and Carnegie Mellon are experimenting with NAO robots as personal assistants. They can be used to feed pets, dance and help children with autism.
 
For the last two weeks, Kevin Staley, associate professor of theology, said the robot has been living at his home and frightening his cat as he tested its mobility and programming capabilities.
 
“I want students to think about human-to-machine relationships, attachments we form that may cause us to dehumanize other human beings,” said Staley.
 
As to whether Southern’s robot will get a biblical name, Staley said the school’s hosting a contest to find the right name.
 
For Southern Evangelical, incorporating a NAO robot in classes was about being on the cutting edge of ethical arguments, according to Richard Land, the school’s new president and former leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
 
Human-robot relationships is a current hot topic of conversation in information technology circles, especially surrounding David Levy’s book “Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships.”
 
The Danish Council of Ethics also has explored recommendations on what ethical concerns would follow “when social robots pretend to have an inner life.”
 
Staley said the NAO robot will open up conversations his students haven’t had access to before. It might even teach a portion of a class, especially since it can read articles from the Internet or email.
 
“We’ve already developed relationships with the devices we use, and we need to be talking about it,” he said. “It’s already shaped our culture, and we need to take a look at things and be wise instead of carte blanche approval and acceptance to every new technology that comes out.”
 
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Amanda Greene is the editor and community manager of Wilmington Faith & Values.)
2/18/2014 12:38:58 PM by Amanda Greene, Religion News Service | with 0 comments



Hockey player goes for gold, focuses on ‘Audience of One’

February 18 2014 by Allen Palmeri, Baptist Press

ST. CLOUD, Minn. – Anne Schleper, a defenseman on the United States women’s Olympic hockey team, is an Olympian with a plan.
 
Schleper, 24, said she approaches her team’s quest for a gold medal in Sochi, Russia, as a Christ follower who invites Him onto the ice with her.
 
The U.S. will play Thursday (Feb. 20) in the finals.
 
“I’m a Christian and nothing happens in my life that isn’t filtered through God’s hands first,” she wrote Feb. 6 on her Twitter account.
 
Hockey players who compete internationally, as Schleper has been doing since 2008, can struggle at times with trying to impress teammates, coaches, family and friends, she said. More than anything her walk with Christ helps her to overcome pressures that may come on the Olympic stage.
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Photo by David G. McIntyre
Anne Schleper competes during a women’s ice hockey preliminary round game against Finland in Sochi.

 
The United States and Canada have owned the medal platform in women’s hockey, winning all four of the gold medals, three silvers and a bronze since it became an Olympic sport in 1998. Now with the U.S. advancing today (Feb. 17) to the finals after defeating Sweden 6-1, they could come away with gold.
 
But “it’s not about that,” said Schleper, talking about the pressure of playing in the big game. “It’s all about my Audience of One and playing only for God.”
 
She learned how to do that at an Athletes in Action training camp that “absolutely changed [her] life.” She was raised in church but had missed out on having a personal, daily time with Him. The Holy Spirit moving through the athletes at the camp helped her put it all together.
 
“That was kind of my game-changing moment,” Schleper said. “That’s when I really got to know the Lord. I developed that personal relationship with Him which I was missing all along growing up.”
 
Born in St. Cloud, Minn., Schleper said she was a typical Minnesotan in that “you pretty much learn how to skate before you learn to walk.” She won numerous honors with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers including: All-America; Big Ten Medal of Honor; all-conference all-academic team (three times); second all-time scorer for defensemen (114 career points); and a member of the 2011-2012 national championship team as an assistant captain.
 
She proved to be a durable player, never missing a game and setting the school record for career games played with 158.
 
She almost made the 2010 U.S. Olympic team that won a silver medal in Vancouver, lasting until the final cuts. When she did make it this time her hometown was ready to celebrate. St. Cloud mayor Dave Kleis showed up at a Jan. 31 rally in her honor at her high school, St. Cloud Cathedral, to proclaim it “Anne Schleper Day.”
 
Though her play in Sochi could help her team earn gold, which would delight her friends and family back home all the more, Schleper seems to have a stronger desire to be a reliable presence that her teammates can trust.
 
“I just constantly try to be a light to them,” she said. “I want them to be drawn to me so that they are ultimately drawn to Him.”
 
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Allen Palmeri is a writer from Jefferson City, Mo. The interview for this article was conducted by Baptist Press Sports Editor Tim Ellsworth.)
2/18/2014 12:24:19 PM by Allen Palmeri, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



ERLC joins brief, defends marriage laws

February 17 2014 by Tom Strode, Baptist Press

WASHINGTON – The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) has joined a diverse coalition of religious organizations in telling a federal appeals court that state laws limiting marriage to a man and a woman are not based on hostility toward same-sex couples.
 
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and four other religious bodies filed a brief Feb. 10 urging the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver to uphold the right of the citizens of Oklahoma and Utah to define marriage as only a heterosexual institution. Federal judges in both states have struck down constitutional amendments restricting marriage to the union of a man and a woman.
 
“The government shouldn’t subvert the democratic process in a quest to institutionalize the sexual revolution,” ERLC president Russell D. Moore said in a Thursday (Feb. 13) news release. “The fact that this is happening in Utah and Oklahoma should send a signal to our churches that the struggle for soul freedom and religious liberty should concern all of us, everywhere, all the time.”
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The brief’s filing came the same week as federal courts continued to rule in favor of gay marriage. A judge in Virginia nullified Thursday (Feb. 13) the state’s laws and amendment restricting marriage to heterosexuals, and a judge ruled Feb. 12 Kentucky must recognize marriages of same-sex couples performed in other states.
 
Same-sex marriage is legal in 17 states and the District of Columbia, and federal judges have ruled in favor of such unions in three other states – Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia. Courts have blocked enforcement of those decisions while they go through the appeal process.
 
The Utah amendment struck down by a judge in December gained nearly a two-thirds majority in a 2004 ballot initiative, while the Oklahoma amendment invalidated in January received approval from 76 percent of voters, also in 2004.
 
The ERLC-endorsed brief describes as a “spurious charge” the frequent assertion that support for biblical, traditional marriage is based on anti-homosexual hostility.
 
“The accusation is false and offensive,” the brief says. “It is intended to suppress rational dialogue and democratic conversation, to win by insult and intimidation rather than by reason, experience, and fact.”
 
The brief says, “Our faith communities bear no ill will toward same-sex couples, but rather have marriage-affirming religious beliefs that merge with both practical experience and sociological fact to convince us that retaining the husband-wife marriage definition is essential.”
 
In his ruling, federal judge Robert Shelby said Utah’s laws deny “gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in so doing, demean the dignity of these same-sex couples for no rational reason.”
 
Federal judge Terence Kern wrote regarding Oklahoma’s marriage amendment, “Exclusion of just one class of citizens from receiving a marriage license based upon the perceived ‘threat’ they pose to the marital institution is, at bottom, an arbitrary exclusion based upon the majority’s disapproval of the defined class. It is also insulting to same-sex couples, who are human beings capable of forming loving, committed, enduring relationships.”
 
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops filed the brief, which was joined in by the National Association of Evangelicals, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as well as the ERLC.
 
The diverse groups say in the brief, “Our theological perspectives, though often differing, converge on a critical point: that the traditional, husband-wife definition of marriage is vital to the welfare of children, families and society.”
 
The brief asserts the Utah and Oklahoma amendments “cannot be explained as manifestations of animus toward any citizens but as a safeguard against perceived overreach” by judges in the states.
 
Research shows alternatives to the “husband-wife marital home” produce “significant risks” – including the likelihood of poverty, juvenile delinquency and unwed teenage parenthood – in society and demonstrate why the government has an interest in traditional marriage, according to the brief.
 
“Children need their mothers and fathers. And society needs mothers and fathers to raise their children,” the brief says. “That, in a nutshell, is why society needs the institution of male-female marriage, and why Utah and Oklahoma are right to specially protect and support it.”
 
The brief also asserts support for traditional marriage based on religious viewpoints does not invalidate Utah and Oklahoma’s amendments.
 
“Declaring a law void because it adheres to traditional moral beliefs is contrary to the fundamental constitutional right of religious citizens to participate fully in the process of self government as believers,” according to the brief.
 
The marriage laws of Utah and Oklahoma “are entitled to be judged on their merits based on settled rules of law – not on a more demanding standard born of suspicion toward religion, religious believers, or their values,” the brief says.
 
On the same day the brief was filed, the federal Justice Department officially announced new, wide-ranging policies in support of same-sex marriage benefits even in states where such unions are illegal. The policies, and rulings by judges on same-sex marriage, followed the Supreme Court’s June invalidation of a section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman. That ruling enabled same-sex couples to gain access to benefits previously limited to heterosexual, married couples, but it declined to say states cannot limit marriage to a man and a woman.
 
The case from Utah is Kitchen v. Herbert, while the case from Oklahoma is Bishop v. Smith.
 
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Baptist Press’ Washington bureau chief.)
 
2/17/2014 11:02:21 AM by Tom Strode, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



Rick Warren, others rent theaters for ‘Son of God’

February 17 2014 by Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Religion News Service

Christian leaders, including megachurch pastor Rick Warren, plan to rent every screen in numerous multiplex theaters across 10 cities for the premiere of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s upcoming Jesus film, “Son of God,” on Feb. 27.
 
The unusual move reflects the confidence Christian leaders have in Burnett and Downey’s work in the wake of “The Bible” a hit miniseries on the History Channel.
 
The “Son of God,” an adaption from “The Bible” series, opens in theaters nationwide Feb. 28.
 
Many religious leaders are citing the movie as a natural opportunity to evangelize. Warren may have an vested interest in the film, since he wrote a curriculum tied to the movie and published by LifeWay Christian Resources.
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Photo courtesy Lightworkers Media
Diogo Morgado plays Jesus in “Son of God”.

 
Cinemark Theaters is scheduling a few large-scale buyouts on Feb. 27, said James Meredith, head of marketing & communications.
 
“The interest level for meetings, events, screenings and buyouts seems to be on par with that of major blockbuster, tentpole or franchise movies,” said Meredith.
 
The couple behind the show, producer Burnett and former “Touched by an Angel” star Downey, have enlisted interdenominational support from religious leaders such as Texas megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes and Roman Catholic Archbishop José Gomez.
 
The couple has also tapped Compassion International, a large evangelical relief organization, to distribute tickets to churches. The couple are close with Joel and Victoria Osteen, who flew to Morocco to see the filming and have bought 8,000 tickets to distribute.
 
Burnett, who has produced shows like “Survivor,” “The Voice” and “Shark Tank,” said he’s never seen a buy out before.
 
“There aren’t many things that could garner this kind of support,” Burnett said. “People are going to watch the movie collectively, in community.”
 
After Mel Gibson’s the “Passion of the Christ” made $612 million, observers expected to see more films about Jesus. Several upcoming Bible-related films are now in the pipeline.
 
LD Entertainment is backing the upcoming film  ”Resurrection,” a drama set immediately after Jesus’ death. American Trademark Pictures is set to release “The Resurrection of the Christ.” And the nonprofit Jesus’ Name Productions is planning to release a film on the life of Jesus called “The Messiah.”
 
While evangelicals are often credited with shoring up support for movies like “The Passion of the Christ” and “Fireproof,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl has commissioned discussion guides and videos for Catholic churches and schools, and Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami is planning to rent a theater for thousands of Catholics in Miami.
 
Several business leaders are also donating tickets to churches and non-profits, including Mart Green, heir to the Hobby Lobby family of companies.
 
The film is about 2 hours long, featuring actor Diogo Morgado playing Jesus during his life, crucifixion and resurrection. Downey plays Mary, the mother of Jesus. Recording artist CeeLo Green who stars on “The Voice” will sing “Mary, Did You Know?” during the closing credits.
 
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Sarah Pulliam Bailey joined RNS as a national correspondent in 2013. She has previously served as managing editor of Odyssey Networks and online editor for Christianity Today.)
2/17/2014 10:55:01 AM by Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Religion News Service | with 0 comments



Olympics give men’s group ministry moment

February 17 2014 by William Bagsby, Baptist Press

SOCHI – Trembling, a Russian teenager made his way down the aisle of a Russian Baptist Church to respond to the gospel message proclaimed through the music of the Singing Men of Oklahoma and an invitation by Russian and American pastors.
 
“What struck me,” said Ken Bartholomew, member of the Singing Men of Oklahoma, “I couldn’t see him well from where I was, but I could hear him sobbing. That seemed just a genuine, heartfelt repentance, and he wanted to give his life to the Lord. It was a remarkable experience just to be there and be a part of that.”
 
Apart from the church concert, the Singing Men, made up of more than 80 members, split into four groups and went throughout Sochi, sporadically harmonizing old Gospel tunes and their state song “Oklahoma.”
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Photo by Byron Stacey
Two Russian women are reading the Engage Sochi Gospel pamphlet while one records the Singing Men of Oklahoma in concert in Sochi, Russia.

 
As crowds gathered and two or three songs were sung, the Singing Men would meet those in the crowd, get to know them, exchange contact details and hand out Engage Sochi pins. Engage Sochi is an effort driven by Southern Baptists seeking to make a positive impact for Christ during the Olympic Games.
 
“They did exactly what we asked them to do, and that was to come, break up into small groups, use their music to draw a crowd and use that to engage people,” Marc Hooks, co-director of Engage Sochi, said. “They really did make relationships, and that’s what they were here to do.”
 
The Singing Men weren’t confined to a stage, providing them several opportunities to sing along walkways and as they traveled on trains and buses from one part of Sochi to another.
 
“There were 25 to 30 of them all on one car of the train, so they started singing and ... the atmosphere of the train changed instantly,” said Hooks, retelling one of the Oklahomans’ many experiences.
 
“It was like a party afterwards. Then, they were able to share the gospel pins and Russians were giving them hats and all sorts of stuff. By the end of the whole thing, people were coming from other parts of the train to get one of their pins. So, rather than trying to give pins away, people were coming to them asking for them.”
 
Since the opening of the Olympics, the openness of Russians has been remarkable to Hooks, who has ministered in Russia for seven years, and spent the last four years preparing to come to the Sochi Olympics.
 
“Sochi today, since the Olympics started, is 180 degrees different than Sochi in January 2010,” Hooks said. “Never have I seen Russians so open. This openness has led to opportunities for relationships which leads to opportunities to share the gospel.”
 

Prayer request

Pray for the young man who chose to follow Christ after a performance of the Singing Men of Oklahoma. Pray for other believers who will come alongside this new Christian and disciple him.
 

Sochi Olympics updates

For daily photos, quotes and prayer requests about Olympic ministries during the Games, visit commissionstories.com/Sochi Olympics. Also: A BP reporter spends a day hanging out with the Singing Churchmen of Oklahoma at the Olympics in Sochi, Russia: commissionstories.com/Singing
 
(EDITOR’S NOTE – William Bagsby is an IMB writer based in London.)
2/17/2014 10:47:00 AM by William Bagsby, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



Va., other states face new marriage battles

February 17 2014 by Baptist Press staff

RICHMOND, Va. – Voter-approved marriage amendments are under fire in several states now, including Virginia, where a federal judge struck down that state’s protection of traditional marriage by saying it violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
 
Fifty-seven percent of Virginia voters approved the amendment in 2006, defining marriage as between one man and one woman, but U.S. District Judge Arenda Allen, an Obama appointee, ruled Thursday (Feb. 13) that the right to marry is a rigorously protected fundamental right” for all Americans.
 
“The right to marry is inseparable from our rights to privacy and intimate association,” Allen wrote.
 
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The judge also concluded, “Our nation’s uneven but dogged journey toward truer and more meaningful freedoms for our citizens has brought us continually to a deeper understanding of the first three words in our Constitution: we the people. We the People have become a broader, more diverse family than once imagined.... We have arrived upon another moment in history when We the People become more inclusive, and our freedom more perfect.”
 
Mat Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel, called the decision “outrageous and legally flawed.”
 
“The Constitution cannot be changed by the stroke of a judge’s pen, nor does it bow to a judge’s personal ideology. The overwhelming majority of Virginia voters who make up ‘we the people’ voted to affirm natural marriage,” Staver said.
 
On appeal, Liberty Counsel will file an amicus brief in the case.
 
Allen’s decision follows a turnaround by Virginia’s attorney general, Mark Herring, who as a state senator eight years ago supported the marriage amendment but now says he will not defend the law in federal court.
 
A spokesman for Equality Virginia called the judge’s ruling “an historic day in Virginia,” according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and said Virginians “are no longer asking if the freedom to marry the person you love will be a reality, but instead we are asking when.”
 
Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, lamented the ruling, which, if upheld, could make Virginia the first Southern state to legalize same-sex marriage.
 
“Regardless of one’s stance on marriage, the people of Virginia were disenfranchised by this ruling as our voice and our vote that amended our Constitution have been rendered meaningless by a judge with the aid and assistance of our own Attorney General,” Cobb said, according to the Times-Dispatch.
 
“Protecting a timeless institution for the well-being of children was the will of the overwhelming majority of Virginians, and the ruling denies this important state interest as it places the desires of adults over the outcomes of children,” Cobb said.
 
Much like in the Kentucky case handed down this week, in Virginia language from the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision last year in United States v. Windsor served as a guide.
 
Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Windsor “is, in a sense, a road map for the attack now being made by plaintiffs attacking bans on same-sex marriage in state and federal courts around the country,” A.E. Dick Howard, a constitutional law professor at the University of Virginia, told the Times-Dispatch.
 
Seventeen states allow gay marriage, and 33 have laws protecting marriage between a man and a woman.
 
Other actions against state marriage amendments include:
  • In Alabama, a civil rights group sued the state Feb. 13 on behalf of a gay man who says he should be allowed to claim the estate of his husband who died in a car crash. The man seeks the proceeds in a wrongful death case, but Alabama does not recognize him as a surviving spouse. The gay couple married in Massachusetts, Reuters reported.
  • In Louisiana, four same-sex couples filed a federal lawsuit Feb. 12 challenging Louisiana’s refusal to recognize gay marriages performed in other states. The couples claim Louisiana, by restricting marriage to unions of one man and one woman, is violating the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection and due process guarantees, the Shreveport Times said. Part of their case involves the IRS recognizing same-sex marriages but the state of Louisiana recognizing only traditional marriages.
  • In Missouri, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit asking a state court trial judge to force the state to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. Though the lawsuit does not specifically ask the court to invalidate Missouri’s marriage amendment, experts believe the legal argument used in the case will lead to its nullification.
  • In Indiana, legislation protecting traditional marriage has been delayed by lawmakers who have changed their positions. “We had a number of legislators two years ago who supported this marriage amendment who changed,” Curt Smith of the Indiana Family Institute said. “... They had filled out questionnaires, signed written statements saying they would support this amendment and they flipped this year.”
 
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Erin Roach.)
 
2/17/2014 10:03:00 AM by Baptist Press staff | with 0 comments



Nepalese love story started with a leaf

February 14 2014 by Caroline Anderson, Baptist Press

KATHMANDU, Nepal – In the West, the question, “How did you meet your spouse?” garners a variety of answers. Some husbands and wives meet in high school or college. Some are set up on blind dates or meet through dating websites. Other couples meet through mutual friends.
 
Bal and Anila Rai met through the sounds of a leaf.
 
The Rais believe music and instruments are not just a way to meet spouses but are a way people can connect with their Creator. In the past, the Rais translated worship songs for a Christian organization and now are involved in writing worship songs in their native language.
 
The Rais are incorporating traditional instruments into the songs – a leaf being one of them. 
 
Nepal is a nation rich in musical instruments, and some people groups use leaves as an instrument. The Rais live in eastern Nepal and are from the Lorung Rai people group. Nepal has 120 people groups.
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Photo by Caroline Anderson/IMB
Bal and Anila Rai and a fellow Lorung Rai believer dance and sing a song they wrote at a recent music workshop. Music and dancing are an important part of life and culture for Nepal's 120 people groups.

 
“Playing the leaf was not something our parents taught us,” Bal says.
 
Rather, leaf whistling is something that someone passed on through giggles and whispers in jungles and rice fields.
 
When Lorung Rai youths are out collecting firewood or working in the fields, a boy who wants to communicate romantic interest or get a girl’s attention whistles a tune on a leaf. If she’s interested, she’ll play back.
 
Blowing leaves is like blowing kisses, Bal explains. It’s how he and Anila met and fell in love.
 
When asked who sent the first leaf whistle, the couple chuckles, and, in an instant, the wrinkles disappear and they’re both teenagers again. Bal is now 55 years old and Anila is 53.
 
“The rooster crows, and the hen answers,” Bal says impishly, slapping his knee and breaking out into a boyish laugh. Anila playfully swats him for his comment.
 
Anila is pleased he remembers and that he still gets excited talking about it.
 
In Nepal couples don’t often talk of “love stories” and how one would meet his future spouse. The culture is conservative, which is one reason for not talking about love, but people don’t often ask. Bal and Anila expressed thanks for being asked how they met. 
 
Times are changing now, but most Nepalese couples in the past met through arranged marriages.
 
Bal and Anila have what’s known in South Asia as a “love marriage.” Technically, it was first the leaf that arranged it, Bal and Anila say jokingly, and then they went to their parents to officially arrange it.
 
“We have a 40-year love story,” Bal says, grinning from ear to ear. Anila smiles shyly.
 
The Rais became Christians at a young age. Their parents initially rejected their accepting Jesus Christ as their Savior. Their relationship with their parents was strained for many years, but Bal says their relationship is now restored.
 

Turning over a new leaf

The leaves aren’t right here, Anila says, plucking a leaf off the nearest tree and carefully folding it. She places it in her mouth and begins blowing. A shrill sound comes after a few tries.
 
Anila insists the leaves in the hilly area where she hails from make better sounds. She lists the Nepali names for the trees.
 
As another Lorung Rai woman dances, Anila plays the leaf to the tune and beat of the song they’ve just written at a recent music writing workshop.
 
Bal is the musical coordinator of the group of five Lorung Rai who attended the workshop. As the group rehearses, Bal leans over Anila’s shoulder, using his reading glasses to help him see to mark where Anila’s voice should rise and fall with more vibrato.
 
Anila is the singer and dancer of the group. Even though she’s older now, her voice can still hit the high notes and fluctuate between notes that typical Tibetan songs have. She sits on a bed, legs dangling and missing the floor by several inches, and sings through the newly written lyrics.
 
The songs they’ve written have a clear gospel presentation and use their traditional instruments – a mini-tambourine and leaves. One of the songs features Anila playing a leaf.
 
Though the leaf whistling was associated with romance, it can also be used for the Lorung Rai to express love for God.
 
“Tomorrow may not come; we have today,” Anila sings in the traditional Tibetan mournful manner.
 
People groups in Nepal are described as hill people or “terrain,” plains people. The people of the hills have Tibetan lineage and the plains have lineage from the Indian subcontinent.
 
Anila says singing and dancing have been a part of her life since she was young. As Anila and women her age get older, “you lose it a little bit,” she says.
 
She believes it’s time to refresh traditional music.
 
“We know these songs are the ways hearts are touched,” Bal said. He and Anila want to reach their people with the love of Christ and they know music is an inroad.
 
They also see these new songs as a way to save their slowly disappearing culture.
 
“Further up in the hills, it is much easier, our culture is more distinct,” Bal said.
 
In cities, the youths are distributed and the young people leave behind cultural roots.
 
The younger generation of Lorung Rai are going to other countries and moving to the cities where they only speak Nepali.
 
Now, with the songs they’ve written, parents have an attractive way to pass on their mother tongue and musical styles, Bal offers.
 
It saddens Bal and Anila that the tradition of leaf whistling is disappearing. “Nowadays, we have mobile phones,” he says. “We didn’t even have letters back then.”
 

Next generation

Music workshops like the one the Rais attended are salvaging this dying art. The workshops have also sparked interest and enthusiasm in a younger generation of believers.
 
Anila says that when people see her playing a leaf, they ask about what she is doing and she’s able to give a brief history. She was recently able to give a brief lesson to youth from the Magar people group, one of the most populous people groups in Nepal.
 
Spit and escaped breaths fly as a group of Magar boys try to replicate Anila’s leaf-whistling skill.
 
The teens draw in deep breaths and mostly just manage to generate brief spurts of sound. But their interest was piqued. Bal and Anila hope more youth in Nepal will carry on the tradition and use the music to worship the Lord.
 
Maybe, just maybe, traditional music will be a part of a new generation’s love story.
 
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Caroline Anderson is an IMB writer in Southeast Asia.)
2/14/2014 11:25:30 AM by Caroline Anderson, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



N.C. school faces legal challenge for refusing secular club

February 14 2014 by Kimberly Winston, Religion News Service

A North Carolina high school is facing a legal battle for refusing to allow a club for the nonreligious.
 
According to a letter sent by First Amendment watchdog groups to school administrators at Pisgah High School in Canton, N.C., an assistant principal repeatedly blocked requests to found a chapter of Secular Student Alliance there.

The letter, sent by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, state that the students were told such a club would not “fit in” and that no sponsor could be found. The school has about 30 extracurricular clubs.
 
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Photo courtesy of Cash Atheos
Kalei Wilson, a student seeking permission to establish a local chapter of Secular Student Alliance at Pisgah High School in Canton, N.C.

That response is a violation of the Equal Access Act, the letter states. The act requires all schools receiving federal funds to refrain from discriminating against student groups on the basis of their religious, philosophical or political beliefs. It also requires schools to appoint a sponsor if none volunteer.
 
The conflict began last October when Ben Wilson, 17, asked assistant principal Connie Weeks for permission to establish a local chapter of Secular Student Alliance, a national organization of nonreligious students with 379 chapters, including 45 in high schools.
 
Weeks said she was unfamiliar with the organization and would look into it. Wilson and his sister, Kalei, 15, complained that no investigation occurred, requests for sponsors were hindered and additional requests for a club were declined.
 
When Ben Wilson left the school late last year, Kalei Wilson continued pressing school administrators. She reached out to the national office of SSA, which sent a letter to the school stating its refusal made them noncompliant with the law.
 
“I want a place where people who don’t have a religion can come and meet people with the same thoughts,” Kalei Wilson said. “This is a way to tell the school that not everybody believes in the same thing.”
 
Jessica Kirsner, a development associate with Secular Student Alliance, said her organization received 28 similar complaints from students from across the country in 2013 – about one every other week.
 
“In this case, the school did not respond and the student continued to receive pushback so we took it to our legal advisers,” she said.
 
So far school administrators have not responded to the letters. Attempts to reach administrators for comment were unsuccessful.
 
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.)

Related Stories:

Student reverses course on secular club, citing threats
After standoff, N.C. high school approves secular club
2/14/2014 11:09:46 AM by Kimberly Winston, Religion News Service | with 0 comments



Iraqi Christians feel ‘forgotten’ amid violence

February 14 2014 by Ava Thomas, Baptist Press

BAGHDAD – When Don Alan* thinks of Iraq, he thinks of friends who sit trembling in their walled neighborhoods, afraid to take their kids to school.
 
There’s good reason for their fear, he said. January 2014 was Iraq’s deadliest month in nearly six years. More than 1,000 people died at the hands of gunmen and bombers last month. A total of 200 deaths were recorded during the first week of February, according to iraqbodycount.org. The website has tallied the nation’s violent deaths since 2003.
 
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BP Photo

Scores of people were killed on Feb. 5 alone, according to CNN. During the course of the day, car bombs, suicide bombers and gunmen littered Baghdad and Mosul with bodies. Several of the attacks targeted security checkpoints, a normal part of life for Iraqis.
 
“Checkpoints there are as common as stoplights in the United States,” Alan, a Christian leader in the region, said. “In Baghdad, life is surrounded by blast walls. Every neighborhood is sealed off by walls with only one or two entrances.”
 
Fear is pervasive, and bloodshed is common, he said. “The whole country is more unstable than it’s been in quite a while, and it’s been heading that way for quite some time.”
 
Sectarian and political violence has been escalating for months, but recent fighting in the western province of Anbar has left 140,000 homeless and accelerated the uptick in the death count, according to CNN.
 
“My heart is broken for the people who have had to live through this for 10 or 11 years – they yearn for peace, and they are living with pretty severe post-traumatic stress symptoms,” Alan said.
 
But sometimes what breaks Alan’s heart the most, he said, is how the tragedy is lost on many Christians in the West.
 
“I’m afraid the Christian world has forgotten that there are hurting people in Iraq,” he said. “Do we in the West have the courage and boldness to engage lostness in the midst of tragedy? My heart breaks when I read of 20, 30, 60 who have been killed. I wonder if they ever had a chance to hear the gospel.”
 
He said he also wonders if Christians in the United States remember that they have brothers and sisters living out their faith in heavy persecution in Iraq.
 
“They feel forgotten, and we need to tell them they are not forgotten,” Alan said.
 
Christians in Iraq live their lives in the shadow of blast walls like everyone else there, but they also face extra pressure because of their faith, he said. Terrorists occasionally bomb churches or open fire on worship services like several gunmen did in 2010, killing more than 50 at a Catholic church in Baghdad.
 
Because of these attacks, Iraq has been experiencing a Christian “hemorrhage” ever since the second Gulf War, said Nik Ripken*, who has served more than 25 years with the International Mission Board and is an expert on the persecuted church in Muslim contexts.
 
“[Iraqi Christians] talk about their persecution as expected, as normal,” Ripken said after the 2010 attack. “What they talk about with brokenness is being rejected and forgotten by other people. The international Christian community has been silent. Iraq needs the prayers of Christians, for peace to come there so that Iraqi Christians can stay and those who have left can return home.”
 
Alan agreed that a “hemorrhage” of Christians was the trend in both Iraq and Syria.
 
“Pray that the believers would be steadfast in the midst of persecution,” he said. “They hold the peace that can bring stability to lives in Iraq. If they flee, that will be gone.”
 
(EDITOR’S NOTE – *Names changed. Ava Thomas is a writer/editor for the International Mission Board based in Europe. To learn more about how to pray for the people of Iraq, visit namepeoples.imb.org.)
2/14/2014 10:58:34 AM by Ava Thomas, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



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