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A 'giving up Facebook for Lent' image, via someecards.com.

Lent through a Different Lens

Steve Swope Mar 5, 2015

Christians are observing Lent around the world right now. For the unfamiliar, Lent is a season when Christians prepare to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at Easter.

Why “prepare” – other than purchasing necessities for a special meal or shopping for a new outfit? Because for Christians, Easter is not just a historical event but an ongoing opportunity.

Christians rejoice over the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth – the historical event – because it signifies God’s offer of new life for each of us if we follow in the way of Jesus – the ongoing opportunity.

And if Christians are preparing for a celebration, why does the season of Lent so often seem to be observed with gloominess and a focus on sacrifice and death? That’s a question I began to ask myself several years ago.

So many Lenten traditions are dismal and self-denying: giving up something that’s personally satisfying, abstaining from certain foods, extra efforts at prayer and spiritual disciplines. It doesn’t feel like anyone’s getting ready for a party.

The answer to my question seems to lie in some misunderstandings – even among Christians – about what Jesus’ life and death mean and how they function to “save” people.

Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, of Chapel Hill appears in a police booking photograph provided by the Durham County Sheriff in Durham, North Carolina February 11, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Durham County Office of the Sheriff/handout

Death penalty sought in N.C. murder of 3 Muslim students

Greg Perreault Mar 4, 2015

North Carolina prosecutors will seek the death penalty against a man who police say kept detailed notes on parking at his condominium complex before gunning down three young Muslims in a neighboring unit, according to documents released on Monday.

Craig Hicks, 46, is charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the Feb. 10 shooting deaths of a newlywed couple and the wife’s sister about two miles from the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill.

The Durham County District Attorney’s Office said on Monday it filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty for Hicks last week.

A hearing will be held in early April for prosecutors to present their evidence to a judge, a member of the district attorney’s office said.

Leonard Nimoy, cast member of the film “Star Trek Into Darkness”, poses as he arrives at the film’s premiere in Hollywood in this May 14, 2013, file photo. Leonard Nimoy, the actor famous for playing the logical Mr. Spock on the television show “Star Trek,” died Feb. 27, 2015 at age 83, REUTERS/Fred Prouser/Files. courtesy Reuters

Star Trek’s Spock describes his Jewish roots

Adelle M. Banks Mar 3, 2015

The V-shaped hand sign that made actor Leonard Nimoy famous as Mr. Spock may have seemed from a planet far away. But the “Star Trek” star who died Friday said he created it from childhood memories of his Jewish family.

“I reached back to my early years as a child when I was sitting in a synagogue in Boston with my family at the High Holidays,” he said in 2011 during a visit to B’nai Israel Congregation here. Nimoy was 83 and died in his home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles.

Before the sold-out audience in suburban Washington three years ago, the actor re-enacted the blessing Jewish leaders recited at that Orthodox service. Prayer shawl over his head, he stuck out his hands in the shape of the sign he adapted for the TV show that ran for just three seasons in the 1960s but became an instant pop culture phenomenon.

In a letter dated July 23, 2014, excommunicated Mormon Kate Kelly appealed her sentence to Scott Wheatley, the president of her former stake in Virginia. Creative Commons image by Maralise Petersen

Ordain Women’s Kate Kelly loses last appeal; husband to resign from Mormon church

Peggy Fletcher Stack Mar 2, 2015

Ordain Women co-founder Kate Kelly has lost her final appeal to regain membership in the Utah-based LDS Church.

The activist, who is pushing for female ordination to the all-male Mormon priesthood, received word Saturday (Feb. 28) from her former lay leader in Virginia that the faith’s governing First Presidency had rejected the appeal of her June 2014 excommunication from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I am disappointed in the outcome, but not surprised since the disciplinary process has been entirely opaque and inequitable from the get-go,” Kelly said in a news release posted on the Ordain Women website.

Islamic State militant ‘Jihadi John’ named by media

Jane Onyanga-Omara Feb 27, 2015

The Islamic State militant known as “Jihadi John,” who has been seen in videos of hostages’ beheadings, was identified Thursday (Feb. 26) by the BBC and The Washington Post.

Mohammed Emwazi, who is in his mid-20s, is believed to be a Kuwaiti-born British man from west London. The BBC said he was known to British security services, who chose not to disclose his name for operational reasons.

“Jihadi John” has appeared in videos showing the killings of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, U.S. medic Abdul-Rahman Kassig and Britons David Haines and Alan Henning. The black-clad militant also appeared in a video last month with Japanese hostages Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto, who were later killed.

The militant was given the name John by hostages who nicknamed him and three other British militants after the Beatles.

"How often do you consume Christian-based media in the following formats?" graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

Who’s watching all that Christian media? Christians, but not many others

Cathy Lynn Grossman Feb 25, 2015

All the preaching, teaching, music and entertainment beamed by Christian TV and radio is primarily consumed by evangelicals and weekly churchgoers — the folks most often found in the pews. Meanwhile, 2 in 3 Americans are tuned out, a new survey finds.

But Ed Stetzer, executive director of Nashville-based LifeWay Research, which released the data Wednesday (Feb. 25), sees good news in the numbers

“Most people would be surprised that 1 in 3 of their neighbors is watching Christian TV. Do 1 in 3 watch the nightly news? I don’t think so. It’s an overlooked segment of society that is larger than most people think,” he said.

Erskin Anavitarte, a Southern Baptist pastor-turned-musician. Photo courtesy of Tate Music Group

Southern Baptists try to diversify churches — but will it work?

Heidi Hall Feb 24, 2015

How tough is it to create a racially diverse denomination? Consider a recent luncheon organized by the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

About 100 Nashville-area evangelical leaders accepted invitations to a lunch hosted by the denomination’s policy arm, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. On the agenda: a pitch for a spring summit and a short discussion by ERLC President Russell Moore about the need for churches to become more racially diverse.

The number of African-Americans who showed up for the lunch? Four (two of them denomination employees).

ERLC leaders originally planned a summit on bioethics. They quickly shifted gears after grand juries in November and December failed to indict police officers for the deaths of young unarmed black men. Moore’s social media remarks condemning the New York City jury’s decision not to indict the officer who killed Eric Garner were met with an angry backlash, some from people filling Southern Baptist pews and pulpits.

Justin Taylor runs the blog Between Two Worlds, hosted by the Gospel Coalition. You can find him on Twitter at @BetweenTwoWorlds. Photo by Josh Dennis

Is President Obama a Christian? It depends what you mean by ‘Christian’ (COMMENTARY)

Greg Perreault Feb 23, 2015

By Justin Taylor
Wisconsin governor and Republican presidential hopeful Scott Walker made headlines for the second time this month regarding worldview and religion. The first was when a journalist asked him during a trade mission to London whether he is comfortable with or accepts “the idea of evolution.” Walker declined to answer, protesting that it’s “a question that a politician shouldn’t be involved in one way or another.”

Last week he was asked whether he believes that President Obama is a “Christian.” The first three words of Walker’s response — “I don’t know” — made all of the headlines. He went on to complain about gotcha questions that are out of touch with what voters want to know.

As an evangelical with conservative political inclinations, I am simultaneously empathetic with Walker’s complaints about these questions and also frustrated at his flat-footedness in answering them.

On the one hand, it is increasingly clear that the press treats Republicans and Democrats differently when it comes to moral and public policy issues related to religion. It took a pastor to ask Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama when human rights begin for human beings (he responded that the answer would be “above his pay grade”), and it took a reporter from a conservative opinion magazine to ask House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi about the moral differences between Kermit Gosnell’s widely condemned late-term abortions and legal late-term abortions that she supports (she refused to answer the question).

When evangelicals are asked these sorts of questions, there are at least two rules to follow in formulating a clear and compelling response: (1) speak the truth, or at least say nothing untrue, and (2) clarify the terminology, which often involves making distinctions.

Regarding evolution, I have suggested some ways Walker could have answered the evolution question: the term “evolution” means several distinct things; many aspects of it are supported by overwhelming scientific evidence but the “blind watchmaker thesis” is not one of them; and public schools should teach more about evolution, not less, including the scientific questions raised about the theory in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

The Washington National Cathedral is finishing its first $10 million phase to repair damage sustained in a 2011 earthquake. The second phase, expected to cost $22 million and take more than twice as much time, has yet to begin. Religion News Service photo by Lauren Markoe

Washington National Cathedral finishes first stage of earthquake repairs

Lauren Markoe Feb 19, 2015

The Washington National Cathedral, which sustained heavy damage in a 2011 earthquake, has finished the $10 million first phase of its repair work and intends to embark upon a more daunting and expensive second phase.

Cathedral officials said the work to come, which will focus on the exterior of the building — repairing twisting pinnacles, damaged gargoyles and other masonry that suffered during the 5.8-magnitude quake — will cost $22 million and could take a decade.

Speaking from a scaffold 65 feet above the cathedral floor on Wednesday (Feb. 18), Jim Shepherd, director of preservation and facilities, said he sees the havoc wreaked by the earthquake every day but is reminded of its severity when he takes visitors to the cathedral’s heights.

“They’re just shocked as to the level of damage,” he said. “You don’t see it from the ground. It helps them understand why there’s $22 million of work yet.”