Reflections, Romans: Jesus Without Strings Attached

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Wherever a Christian culture exists that encourages its followers to believe and act as if their salvation, or sense of God’s approval depended on our human works (whether they are the works of the Law, or our own rules, or the rules dictated by church); or the works of our own subjective feelings – all of them are demonstrating that we are not sure if trusting in Jesus alone is enough to keep us in the saving relationship with God. Thus, the grace of Christ, as the supreme and all-sufficient agent of our salvation is compromised, diluted, even lost.

Today many are praying for unity, quoting the prayer of Jesus “that all may be one”. Unfortunately, they are forgetting that the only legitimate call to unity shared between the followers of Jesus is the one where Jesus is firmly occupying the throne, and deciding the rules of the game. “That all of them may be one, Father, just as You are in me and I am in You”’ prayed Jesus. John 17:21.

Jesus never prayed for unity at all costs. Unity that does not have Jesus-plus-nothing in the center is a hijacked unity. Cosmetic or politically driven unifications are not based on the truth but on the compromises that always sacrifice the Gospel. There where Jesus Christ is not on the throne, some other christ will be enthroned. This is why the warning of Paul the Apostle sounds so urgent and uncompromising: “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned”. Galatians 2:8.

As long as we are adding anything to Jesus, whatever that may be, to which we are crediting even partial redemptive attributes, we have not grasped the heart, meaning and continuing urgency of the Reformation.

The 16th century Reformers understood that the heart of the Gospel was the gift of grace in Jesus Christ without human strings attached. This was the landmark which they did not dare compromise or subject to improvisation. Neither should we.

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Moving Forward in Truth, with Courage and Hope

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Unique Integration Conference for Asylum Seekers Held in Croatia

On Monday, September 24, 2018 the unique six-day conference was completed in the picturesque village of Fuzine, Croatia. More than 50 asylum seekers, including an international team of facilitators, humanitarian and faith-based activists from twelve countries, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Iran including, came together to wrestle with a number of burning questions that asylum seekers in Croatia and Europe are facing daily in their prolonged processes of waiting between interviews and issuing of the final government decision to their requests to stay permanently in Croatia.

This dynamic and at times intense conference, with the theme “Moving Forward in Truth, with Courage and Hope,” represented the extension of the ROM – Renewing Our Minds international leadership project, and was organized by “Forum for Leadership and Reconciliation” (US), and “Business as Mission” (Zagreb, Croatia), in partnership with ECPM – European Christian Political Movement, from Brussels, Belgium. The conference was conducted in English, with simultaneous translations provided into Farsi and Arabic.

The conference objectives included helping seekers of the international protection in Croatia, and those who have had their asylum statuses favorably resolved recently, gain a balanced understanding of the integration processes and related challenges in Croatia. Likewise, the conference organizers wanted to hear from the participating asylum seekers what are their most daring challenges as they are often waiting for two to three years, driven by uncertainty and anxiety, to have their requests answered by the Croatian Government? In short, the objectives of the conference were to help immigrants in Croatia and Europe to integrate well, and to help them grasp the essentials of European culture and Christian faith.

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The daily afternoon workshops helped the conference participants, most of whom were family men and women with children, to vocalize their most urging needs and anxieties. Some of the most frequent questions were: Why is the process of waiting to receive the final decision taking so long? Why are some asylum seekers, who have come to Croatia only recently receiving their positive answers sooner than those who entered Croatia two or three years ago, and are still waiting to have their cases finalized?

Other questions included: While only a few asylum seekers have been allowed to work legally in Croatia, as they are waiting to have their asylum requests finalized, why are many more denied the privilege to work legally? Why is it that under the law some helpful privileges are promised to the waiting asylums seekers, such as learning the Croatian language and access to health care, while in practice those privileges are seldom accessible? Why is the Croatian government not helping reunite the families separated in different places and countries along their refugee trail?

Through carefully selected lectures, and much time devoted to questions and group conversation, the organizers of the conference devoted their attention to the issues of law, culture and place of religion in the Croatian society; the three overlapping areas whose understanding is necessary if the Integration into the Croatian society is to be fully appreciated and implemented. Special attention was given to building of friendship and trust between Muslim and Christian asylum-seekers, as well as building friendship and trust between asylum seekers and the Croatian citizens and institutions.

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At the workshop about the role of faith and religious communities in Croatian it became obvious that the asylum seekers are expecting more empathy and support from the religious communities of Croatia than from the government. “Since it is in the nature of religious communities to care about vulnerable groups,” they reasoned, “religious organizations, churches and faith-based groups should be able to put in place a synchronized care network” that could efficiently help asylum seekers in the months and years of uncertainty and prolonged months and years of anxious waiting; and also help the asylum holders who have recently been granted the right to remain in Croatia. For example, they could help the new asylum holders, especially those with children, to find their first home and first job.

The strength of this conference was that it dealt insightfully and compassionately with the challenges of integration as observed and handled by the three sides involved in the lives of asylum seekers: as they are handled by the Croatian and European laws and legal systems; as they are experienced by the asylum seekers themselves; and as they are addressed by the church and faith-based organizations and groups. Since most of the asylum seekers are spending long periods of time anxiously waiting for the final and affirming decision from the government, often being previously rejected two or three times, it became clear in the initial days of the conference that most of asylum seekers-in-waiting have suffered from the loss of trust in the Croatian government, its institutions and supporting agencies. The conference leadership team, which included also a group of asylum seekers and asylum holders, worked diligently to see the damaged trust and relationships healed and restored, and promised to contribute to the conversation by making the findings of the conference available to the public and relevant institutions.

The quality of the conference was enhanced by the choice of speakers and facilitators, and experienced ROM (Renewing Our Minds) team members. Among them were Heather Staff, an emerging UK politician and Policy Adviser to Kate Green MP; Leo van Doesburg, Director for European Affairs for the European Christian Political Movement (ECPM); Amir Hekmatpour, spiritual advisor and faith mentor from the US; Donya and Shayan Spanta, asylum holders and humanitarian activists from Iran, now Croatian residents; Mihal Kreko, Christian pastor and humanitarian activist from Zagreb, Croatia; Tihomir Kukolja, Renewing Our Minds (ROM) Director; and Ana Šutalo, a representative of the Croatian Ministry of the Interior, and Asylum Support Expert. Ana Šutalo’s contribution to the conference was especially significant as she explained in detail what needed to happen once an asylum seeker has received a residential status in Croatia.

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Although the conference dealt with very serious themes and issues, often accompanied by heated but honest discussion, this event also became a festival of friendship through the relaxing, and spirit-lifting hours of sharing in the energetic feasts of music, dances, customs, culture of the countries represented at the conference, and moments of thanksgiving. However, the special feature of the conference were the moments that addressed the spiritual hunger manifest by all participants at the conference, Christians and Muslims alike. No hours were too long, and no optional workshops too many for the groups of participants who never ceased to ask new questions as they listened to Amir Hekmatpour, even in the hours outside his official speaking sessions. Amir Hekmatpour, from the US and with the origins from Iran, served as a spiritual adviser, mentor and speaker at the conference.

“The results of this integration conference surpassed all our expectations” – stated Mihal Kreko, one of the organizers of the 2018 ROM Integration Conference, and the director of a unique integration project currently under construction in Zagreb, Croatia, known as “The House of Hope.” Heather Staff, a speaker at the conference and a UK politician commented: “I’ve never before experienced the level of honesty in our conversations as at this conference, and even when we disagreed we did it agreeably.” “The Thanksgiving Eveningon the closing Sunday demonstrated that we all became one forgiving, forgiven and reconciled family of friends who loved each other. By the end of the conference one could see that the faces of asylum seekers radiated with new hope and new joy,” said Liviu Bocaniala, the conference music director. And Tihomir Kukolja, the ROM – Renewing Our Minds Director stated: “This conference opened my eyes. I learned more about the hardships of being an asylum seeker in six days of this conference than in previous three years”.

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At this time the organizers are involved in the speedy preparation of a memorandum that will be presented to the governmental and non-governmental organizations before the end of this month, as well as to a number of church and faith-based organizations in Croatia and abroad. This document will present in detail the conference’s objectives, conclusions and recommendations. It will be released in Croatian, English, Farsi and Arabic, and presented to several international organizations too.

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Letter to America, Seventeen Years Later

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Seventeen years ago, only three weeks after the unprecedented Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S., which took more than 3,000 innocent lives, I shared the following letter, which I wrote from Croatia at that time, with a group of my American friends.

Dear American Friends,

Like you I too am overwhelmed with the recent tragedy that struck the United States in the form of a vicious terrorist attack. Even now, I cannot help but continue to reflect upon the consequences that are emerging from this incomprehensible tragedy.

I am still shocked by its extent. The pain of the thousands of relatives and friends who have lost their loved ones moves me deeply. I condemn the barbarian act of cruelty that had inspired a group of suicidal murderers to kill the thousands of innocent people. There is no human or divine justification for such an act of cruelty whatever the motives. I pray that those responsible will be called to account.

But I am concerned, too. When I see the multitudes of Afghani refugees, hungry and homeless, surviving under humiliating living conditions — men, women and children suffering circumstances beyond their control, seeking some safety in an unsafe neighborhood, I wonder if our global conscience will be pacified solely with the tones of humanitarian aid. And when I hear about incidents that involve some people quick to categorize others on the bases of their race, skin and religion, I pray that God may grant us all minds renewed by the Spirit of Christ, who has embraced everyone regardless of our ethnic, racial, cultural and religious differences. The very character of Jesus speaks powerfully against any jihad or holy war, including those with the Christian overtones.

Only yesterday, I received an email from a good friend of mine, an educator who has worked for the past five years as the principal of a Christian educational institution in Pakistan. Last week, he and his family, like many other Western professionals, had to leave Pakistan abruptly. I believe he would understand my need to share a few lines form the email he sent to a group of his friends:

“We have left Pakistan with mixed feelings. Yes, we had to get out due to the unfortunate circumstances precipitated by the events in the USA. Yet we feel so deeply for the people we left behind. In the process of departing once again the truth about humanity has been confirmed. There are wonderful people, everywhere Christians and Moslems, male and female. We were not prepared for the outpouring of the genuine love and affection (mixed with fears and feelings of insecurity) from the people we have served for the past four years. Many tears have been shed. Written, verbal, and all sorts of other, culturally peculiar, expressions of affections have been given to us. In such a short period of time and in such measure, it is difficult to accept it all and process it though our hearts. Our Muslim friends have demonstrated that there are people who are able to show respect and acceptance no matter what. We said goodbye like brothers. We should never ‘box-in people’ into predetermined categories”.

The events of September 11 will leave long-lasting scars for many ways; not only on global politics, but also on how many understand civil, human, religious and other individual rights and freedoms. I cannot help but think of a question posted at CNN.com last week, which (from memory) went something like this: “Would you be willing to have your personal freedoms limited if doing so would bring an end to terrorism?” Is this the only alternative we are about to face in the coming days and years?

Ever since September 11, I’ve been asking myself: What have I learned from the many different facets of this until-now unthinkable tragedy? Have I, as someone who had witnessed much of what happened in the former Yugoslavia since 1991, learned enough from our Balkan tragedy so that now I could offer some meaningful insights to our American friends who are going through the stages of shock, pain, mourning, anger and a strong urge to see justice done? How does a vision of Christ who has embraced all, including Muslims, influence the way I relate to other people today? Will I succumb to pressures that are urging me to embrace a tribal mentality, or should I stand firm in retaining a sober and discerning judgment?

I have been meditating lately about the zealous biblical prophet Elijah. Hurt by injustice and indifference of people, overwhelmed by loneliness, anger and lack of direction, he ran into a cave expecting to see God unleashing the full extent of his vengeance against the source of the prophet’s frustration. While he was in the cave, a powerful wind tore the mountains apart, a strong earthquake shattered the land and a devastating fire hit the ground, but God was not in any of them. Instead, God appeared in a form of a gentle, calming, sobering, serene, inviting whisper. The ancient prophet learned that even in the midst of the most alarming circumstance, the quiet, gentle and sobering voice has more power than violence, aggression and vengeance.

In the days to come may God help us all to embrace each other more than ever before with an open heart.

Originally released on Oct. 5, 2001 from Zagreb, Croatia.

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God of Our Depraved Image

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When churches, theologians and faith scholars accept the Darwinian theory of evolution as the objective truth of our beginnings, it is only a matter of time before they fully embrace the theory of social and spiritual evolution too, and with it the full spectrum of perverted worldviews and twisted truths. It is not possible to embrace the evolutionary philosophy and remain faithful to the essentials of Christian faith as intended by the Biblical revelation. They are mutually exclusive.

Likewise, whenever a Christian church does not take the first pages of the Bible seriously, eventually it will fall for some perverted version of the Gospel too. By that time all the foundational beliefs, that have been upheld by Christians for centuries, will have disappeared in a sinkhole of popular fictions and fairytales that promote a god fashioned in the image of a depraved man.

This kind of god is no longer the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Father in Heaven. He is a pal, a mate, a dude, a Santa Clause or anything else that is emptied of any authority and power; for through the process of “demystification” he is being stripped of all attributes which offend a self-indulgent generation that desires to be accountable to no one. Thus, infusing the social and spiritual worldviews of the Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection into the Christian worldview becomes a way of raising our human fists into the face of God, with the tirade of a spoiled kid: “Be gone! We will make ourselves our own idols that will lead us henceforth”.

It is not surprising then that those Christian denominations and their centers of learning that have taken the lead in the “liberation” of Christianity of its “mythical past,” have become wishy-washy in their profession of the historic pillars of Christian faith, to say it mildly. There where the principles of evolution have infiltrated Christian theology and vision, believing in the literal fall of man, sin, redemption and the literal return of Jesus Christ is becoming an embarrassing theological nuisance. It is not coincidence at all that more and more denominations are diluting their stand on the centrality of Jesus in their beliefs. They speak and act as if they are not sure any more if Jesus Christ is “the only name under the heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11). Not surprisingly, the number of Christians who claim that they do not believe in God any more is on the increase.

The latest call for the release of the gender-neutral language Book of Common Prayer by American Episcopalians fits this paradigm of the ongoing spiritual erosion well. This American denomination has recently decided to “revise its 1979 prayer book, so that God is no longer referred to by masculine pronouns.”  The official Episcopal Church web portal delivered the news on July 4, 2018 that the delegates attending the 79th meeting of General Convention in Austin, TX have decided “to correct the overwhelming use of masculine language to refer both to God and to human beings.” “It is an impediment to the (denominational) mission and evangelism,” stated Ruth Meyers, an Episcopalian theologian. Apparently, the church is not growing because its servants are overindulgent in the usage of the “humanly constructed” gender-defined nouns and pronouns as they go about addressing God and their fellow brothers and sisters. According to this kind of reasoning, it is now up to the denominational scholars and theologians to correct the images that have become “socially, politically and morally” corrupt.

While it is true that God transcends gender, for He is neither male nor female, it is equally true that He decided to project His image onto humanity by deliberately creating biologically and sociologically recognizable male and female gender distinctions. The Apostle Paul reasons in the first chapter of the Book of Romans, that missing to see the imprint of God in his obvious and deliberate acts of creation amounts to the actions of intentional pretense on the part of men and women who desire to be accountable to no one. In other words, the fact that the first humans were created as man and woman, with all their physical, biological and sociological distinctions, and had not evolved as some nongender or transgender entities argue, was not a result of a divine joke in the experimental process of a theistic evolution. As God goes about creating He does not leave anything to chance, or to some future improvements this side of eternity.

Moreover, it is also true that God, throughout the entire history of revealing himself and speaking to us, has decided to present himself predominantly by assuming male or masculine images and forms. Yes, He does use also female metaphors to describe his qualities of care, love, kindness. However, He comes to us even more regularly bearing the male titles of authority. So, on the pages of the Bible we meet God who is “our Heavenly Father”, “our King”, “our Husband”, and never as “our heavenly mother”, “our queen”, “our wife”. And, as He chooses to communicate to us more like a man than a woman, he is doing it deliberately, and not in response to the ancient cultural demands.

In fact, in the days when the books of the Bible were written, when the neighbors of Israel and Judah were indulging themselves in all kinds of worship of female deities and debased practices of pagan temple prostitution, it would have been quite acceptable to venerate all kinds of goddesses, queens of heaven, and indulge in all kinds of gender confusing practices under the protection and attraction of various pagan religions. Had the Bible authors been the victims of cultural peer pressure of their days the use of confusing gender constructions on the Bible pages would have been a commonplace, and the Old Testament prophets would have never dared condemn the leaders of Israel and Judah for their idolatrous deviations.

It goes without saying that Paul spoke more than metaphorically when he compared the marriage union between husband and wife with the organic union shared between Jesus Christ and His Church, in which Jesus is the Husband and the Church is His Bride. Ephesians 5:22-32.Jesus himself used a similar imagery in his parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25).In it He is the long-awaited Bridegroom, and his waiting, sleepy Church is His Bride. Nowhere in the New Testament Jesus or its writers would ever reverse the use of gender-like comparisons.

Moreover, Jesus was born as male. It must have been more than just a coincidence that this was so. Many centuries earlier Isaiah the prophet announced prophetically: “To us a sonis given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of PeaceIsaiah 9:6.The prophet prophesied also: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call himImmanuel.” Isaiah 7:14. Matthew 1:23. NIV It would require lots of unnatural mental gymnastics if one were to try to excuse the maleness of Jesus on account of cultural prejudices of the age in which those prophetic declarations were made. That Jesus Christ came into our world and history as male was a divine statement and a result of divine decision, and not a random choice of God, or a consequence of cultural inconvenience or convenience.

C.S. Lewis suggested that “gender goes far deeper than our human distinctions reveal”. He said that “God is so masculine” and that we are all “feminine in relation to Him”. There is nothing discriminatory, degrading, devaluing or culturally derogative in many masculine descriptions of God throughout the pages of the Bible, unless our ego or some kind of political or social correctness makes them appear irritating to us for the purely narcissistic and egoistic reasons.

It does not sound convincing at all that the real reason behind the recent announcement of the Episcopal Church is to be found in the concern that “limiting God to masculine pronouns and imagery limits the countless religious experiences of billions of Christians throughout the world.” Instead, it seems that this mainstream Protestant denomination desires to open its doors to the current LGBTQ movement that promotes gender confusion as a god given gift to humanity. The church activists who are fighting for a gender-neutral God are not doing it because they would like to see God being called “our Mother” just as much as “Our Father”. They really want to construct a god who will condone and bless the demands of all artificially constructed genders that are mushrooming among us today at the incredible pace, so that the words of a “non-binary” transgender delegate attending the recent triennial conference, may one day become the respected norm within the church community: “I am not your brother or your sister. I am your sibling.”

And here we come back to the church hunted by the ghosts of the Darwinian evolution and its detrimental social, moral and spiritual implications. Reshaping the image of God according to the demands of the gender confusing agendas of this age is becoming possible only there where the opening creation statements of the Bible are dismissed as a myth, and instead the theory of evolution is revered as its guiding theology of human origins. It is only within the context of those circumstances that anyone can call the otherwise clearly distinct and obvious gender separation “a social construct” or “a human construct”, and not a deliberate designe of the very creative God. Once this is done it is only a matter of time when a Pandora box containing all kinds of perversions will become wide open, and its goods presented as the gifts of God given graciously to His people.

This is the crux of the matter: there where today it is becoming offensive to call God “our Father”, or “our King”, and “our Lord”, tomorrow it will become offensive to call our fellow believers in Christ “our brothers and sisters”, and our own children “our sons and daughters”, or anything else that acknowledges the reality of the only two genders created by a deliberate creative act of God.

I can only imagine what the mind confusing, tongue twisting and morally corrupt those days will be!

 

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Audio: Lessons from the First Christian Movement

How much does the Christianity of today resemble the Christianity of its early days, when the Holy Spirit came mightily on the first group of Jesus’ followers who would soon turn the world upside down? What did Jesus mean when He said to his disciples: “Follow me!”? What did this first movement of Jesus’ followers look like? What was the cause of their success, although they did not attend previously any professional training? They were not trained by any kind of spiritual counselors or directors either. What they had was the love of Jesus, and a clear sense that a new, unique community was being born in which they needed to take care of each other. Let me share three points: 1)They understood well the importance of community; 2)Their lives were centered in Jesus, and Jesus alone; and 3)They understood that experiencing suffering was not an option for the followers of Jesus. These are some of the highlights of the sermon titled “Lessons from the First Christian Movement” preached by  Tihomir Kukolja at the International Christian Fellowship Church in Belgrade, Serbia in June 2018. Time: 17:08 min. 

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Bulevardul Libertatii and Other New Videos

The most recent “Ambassadors for a Better World” video features – August 2018

Changing the Future

Roades, Romania: Liviu and Elena Tudosie, and their ministry “Perspective – Investing in the Present, Changing the Future” are making a profound and lasting difference in the lives of the Roma children living in the villages near Sighisoara, Romania. The ROM – Renewing Our minds Team visited recently one of their camps held in Roades, a Roma village near Sighisoara. The children attending the camp were Roma children who did well at school last year. Camps like this one, and other supporting activities, are organized to encourage the Roma children and their parentes to take education seriously. Time: 4:27 min.

Bulevardul Libertatii – Visit to the People’s Palace in Bucharest

Nicolae Ceaușescu (1918-1989), a former Romanian Communist dictator dreamed big beyond megalomaniac proportions when he decided to build his grandiose People’s Palace (the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon). He never lived to live in his dream palace, which became a grave for many who were forced to labor as slaves to have it completed. Today, in this huge mansion resides the Romanian Parliament. Ceausescu also ordered that a huge complex of new buildings be built in front fo the palace. Those huge buildings were never meant to be inhabited by people since the paranoid dictator did not want to have anyone living nearby. Two months ago the Renewing Our Minds (ROM) Core Team visited the palace. As we were going through the many corridors of the building, and visiting its surrounding area our Romanian team members shared some additional, even  personal insights into the story behind the history and the present circumstances of this building and its former and current occupants. 

Dare to Dream

Gusti and Dana Ilies are the founders and leaders of the Dare 2 Dream Agape ministry based in Soard, a poor Roma village near a beautiful and historic town of Sighisoara in Romania. With limited resources, equipped with the love of God for their Roma villagers, and especially for the Roma children, they are building a family community center that will make a difference in the lives of the Soard’s families, parents and children. The Renewing Our Minds (ROM) Core Team visited their village and the Dare 2 Dream Agape ministry this June.

Celebration of Friendship – Visits to Serbia, Macedonia, Albania and Romania

ROM – Renewing Our Minds Core Team spent four weeks in June 2018 traveling and visiting the ROM and EDI Alumni and friends in four countries of the Southeast Europe: Serbia, Macedonia, Albania and Romania. The purpose of this follow-up trip was to strengthen, encourage and inspire our international ROM family; and for the ROM team members to prepare better for the 20th anniversary of ROM next year. Next year (2019), in May, we are also planning to visit Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo and Bulgaria. Time: 9:39 min.

Message of Trust

Zagreb, Croatia: A project intended at building bridges of trust connecting local community and people seeking international protection in Croatia. The House of Hope, a former police station, is becoming a powerful witness for what happens when a group of volunteers – refugees, local people and international volunteers get together and turn this for many years neglected building into a welcoming center for integration and empowerment of the socially unintegrated people. Mihal Kreko, the Project Director tells more. Time: 2:50 min. 

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The Unfortunate Legacy

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“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” Hebrew 1:1-2. (NIV)

Waco, Part 2

David Thibodeau, one of the few survivors of the Waco inferno 25 years ago and the author of “Waco – A Survivor’s Story”, stated in his book that as soon as the siege started “the Adventist rushed a public-relationships damage-control team to Waco to deny that the Branch Davidians had grown from their tree.” He also wrote that “apart from a few people, most of the Mount Carmelites had a Seventh-day Adventist background.” Could this have been only a coincidence?

Advancing in the Light

There was much more to the conversion story of David Koresh’s followers than their fragile social and emotional makeup. Koresh and his key evangelist and manager Steve Schneider, who in the summer of 1988 converted a group of students from Newbold College in England – and through them almost 30 other Adventists, their friends, family and church members – knew how to use familiar, “prophetic” language and imageries, which they held in common with traditional Adventists.

Albert A.C. White, a Newbold College Physics lecturer, wrote in his detailed report “From Seventh-day Adventism to David Koresh – The British Connection”: “Fanatical adherence to anything, even the Bible, is unhealthy. They were examples of Britons who were fanatical about the writings of Ellen G. White.”

Most of Koresh’s new followers did not see their ideological transition as if it were a radical change in their spiritual makeup or loyalties. They thought that they were only advancing forward, spiritually maturing, and upgrading their faith journey. They believed that they were receiving “more light” and digging deeper into the already well known “Present Truth.” Joining David Koresh, in their view, meant arriving at the final destination in their restless but honest search for the “Truth”.

This was certainly true about my good friend and fellow student at Newbold College in 1988, Cliff Sellors, who would spend many hours each day reading the writings and listening to the recordings of Ellen G. White, and assessing the inadequacies of his life in the light of her “inspired” statements. In his mind she was not “a lesser light that led to the greater light”, the way Adventists like to neutralize her input into the formation of the Adventist belief system. For every practical purpose she was all the light that mattered.

Once Cliff and a number of other traditional Adventists, who were fanatical about their devotion to Ellen G. White, discovered David Koresh, they applied themselves to the same kind of loyalty, zeal and devotion, now directed to him. And once they were in Koresh’s embrace, they believed he was the only true light that mattered. By identifying with Koresh’s teachings they came to believe that they finally belonged to the truest “Remnant”. Ultimately “once a person thought he (Koresh) was a prophet, he had them. Once a person thought he was God, there was no turning back”, wrote Marc Breault, once Koresh’s right-hand man who defected in 1989, in his book “Preacher of Death.”

So, why the traditional, Ellen G. White-loving Adventists, including my friend Cliff Sellors and almost all 30 British followers who moved to Waco, Texas, in the years before 1993, were willing to give their unconditional loyalty to a new prophet-messiah, the same kind of loyalty they had until recently given to Ellen G. White?

When they heard familiar language, concepts and imagery, which they loved very much, and which – in their view – mainstream Adventism had betrayed, their conversion was easy and quick. Regardless of the fact that the “new light” brought into their lives plenty of misery, and contents that were foreign and appalling to them previously, in their hearts they believed that they had finally become part of a movement that was restoring them back to their lost Adventist roots.

Marc Breault described the reasoning behind his joining of the Branch Davidians: “Well, the Seventh-day Adventist Church was founded by a prophet. Who says God can’t raise up another one!” (Preacher of Death; Martin King and Marc Breault). In short, the fanatical and restless followers of Ellen G. White shifted their allegiances, because they believed that the absolute prophetic word of Ellen G. White was now upgraded and vindicated by the absolute prophetic word of a more radical prophet, David Koresh.

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Inside the current Branch Church in Waco

 

A Skeleton in the Closet

What was the skeleton in the closet shared by both groups?

In the days when the Adventist movement was still in its infancy, it desperately sought to make sense out of the Great Disappointment. Thousands in the United States were expecting in vain for the Second Coming of Jesus to take place on October 22, 1844. A prophetic hand was needed to provide divine guidance out of the confusion and give the disappointed group a sense of new identity and purpose. It was found in the dreams and visions of Ellen G. White, a young woman of Methodist upbringing, who would soon be recognized by the Adventists as the “Spirit of Prophecy” (Revelation 19:10), or their legitimate prophetic voice.

Although, most of the early pioneering Adventists were either former Baptists or Methodists, in order to maintain the credibility of the new movement, they had to shape its theology around a very flexible concept of revelation and inspiration, which by default had to provide a space for some new truths not easily constructed with the use of straightforward Biblical methods of truth-setting, or historically approved Christology. This construct of Biblical interpretation had to be big enough to embrace the prophetic statements of Ellen G. White with which it was hard to argue, such as “I was shown” or “the Lord told me”.

Thus, into existence came doctrines never heard before. The most notable, for the purpose of illustration, was “The Shut Door Doctrine.” It declared that only the Adventists who were expecting Jesus to return in 1844 were worthy of salvation. They believed that the door of mercy had been closed to everyone else, including the “backsliding” Adventists who were not willing to accept the new truth known as “The Shut Door Doctrine”. “The light behind them went out leaving their feet in perfect darkness… It was just as impossible for them to get on the path again and go to the City, as all the wicked world which God had rejected” – wrote Ellen G. White “under the inspiration” in the Word to the Little Flock in 1847.

Then, thanks to the graphic dreams and visions of Ellen G. White that followed shortly, this doctrine evolved into the “Doctrine of Investigative Judgment”, more recently rebranded into “The Sanctuary Doctrine”. This doctrine continues to claim even today, but in the ever-softer way, that October 22, 1844 was indeed a Biblical date of distinctive importance, but misunderstood by the pre-Adventist movement of William Miller. According to the rebranded doctrine, instead of coming to the Earth Jesus entered the Most Holy Place in Heaven to begin the investigative judgment of all “professed Christians” who have ever lived on this planet. However, the part that claimed that the door of grace was closed was left out.

At the same time, dictated by the momentum of survival, many other concepts were developed in those early days of Adventist formation, before Adventists became an organized denomination in 1864. Adventists came to believe that they were the only ones who mattered to God in his plan of salvation, and that all culminating events at the end of human history would revolve around them, because only Adventists who emerged victorious out of the Great Disappointment represented the true Remnant acceptable to Christ.

They also believed that at the very end, just before Jesus Christ comes again, they would remain to be the only true believers, persecuted under the “Beastly Sunday Law”. They believed that their distinctive doctrines were the mark of the true Church of God, and that the only true interpreter of the word of God was their prophet Ellen G. White. They also believed that they were “the Third Angel” of the book of Revelation, destined to give the final call to all other true Christians in other denominations “to come out of the Babylon.” (Revelation 18:4). For many decades the Adventist Church acted as if needed no one but itself. If today many modern Adventists do not appear so rigid any more, this is only because the Church has over the years softened its shield of exclusivity and self-righteousness significantly.

None of those beliefs would have ever survived if it were not for the solidifying visions of Ellen G. White, and the application of a plastic interpretation of the gift of prophecy. Even today, many Adventist pastors never preach a sermon without stating multiple times “Sister White said… this or that.” Even today, in the eyes of traditional Adventists, any truth of the Bible is only as true and as clear as it is validated through the interpretations of her many Testimonies. In other words, even today many Adventists reason: “If sister White said it, who am I to dispute it”.

Here a Little and There a Little

The Branch Davidians – from their birth as an Adventist breakout group in the thirties of the last century – picked up on the kind of Adventism described above. They claimed Ellen G. White as their prophet. Along with her they inherited the same flexible view of inspiration and revelation, and a questionable eschatology, Christology and ecclesiology. The difference was that Davidians, David Koresh especially, radicalized the entire Adventist spiritual inheritance beyond the wildest Adventist imagination.

It is important to notice also that both groups believed that God, even in the age of the New Covenant, continued to reveal himself and his plans progressively through the ministry of his prophets. According to the words of Ellen G. White, God continued to reveal his plans to his “Church” through the administration of her prophetic gift “here a little and there a little”, as the church was “ready” to receive. “I do not write one article in the paper, expressing merely my own ideas. They are what God has opened before me in vision – the precious rays of light shining from the throne” – wrote Ellen G. White, Testimonies, Volume 5. David Koresh radicalized the inherited concept of the progressive revelation of truth. David Thibodeau, one of the survivors of the Waco siege, wrote in his book: “We understood that David’s truth was progressive, always evolving, revealing more and more of itself.” Both saw the revelation of God operating dialectically.

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When visiting the current New Mount Carmel Center in Waco, on the walls of the church hall – built on the same ground where the fire swallowed almost an entire generation of Branch Davidians 25 years ago – one will find photographs, maps and descriptions depicting a dialectic progression of how, in their view, God was progressively leading “his Church” through many centuries, always reveling “more truth” and “more light”. The progressive line leads from the days of the apostles, across the Reformation and Martin Luther and John Wesley, until the days of the Baptist preacher William Miller and the Seventh-day Adventist Movement – when, according to the monument displayed at the entrance of the camp, the baton of truth was passed on to the Branch Davidians and the “seven shepherds of the Advent Movement”, of which the first one was Ellen G. White and last one was David Koresh.

Frontline PBS shared an interesting article online written by a playwriter and former Adventist David Valdes Greenwood in 1993, under the title “Waco – The Fire Next Time”. He writes, “When Koresh looked at Adventism, he saw a church that did not adhere strictly enough to White’s teachings and, moreover, adhered too strictly to the dogma that she was the only prophet. Koresh co-opted White’s theory of “Present Truth,” which holds that not all of God’s truths were made clear in the Bible, so the revelation of additional meanings must be made manifest in a living prophet. Koresh saw himself and White as being on a continuum.”

It needs to be said, however, that it was not the size of the shared platform of beliefs that attracted Koresh’s converts from within Adventist circles. The Seventh-day Adventist Church, like most other Christian churches, finds most of his teachings discussing, nonsensical, pathological and blasphemous. Whatever one might think of the Adventist Church and some of its distinctive beliefs, theologically speaking the Church today is largely in tune with mainstream Protestant theology. The perversions of Koresh’s prophetic interpretations, his messianic claims, his twisted teachings and polygamist practices that included sexual relationships with underage girls, and his belief in the literal Armageddon in which he and his followers would fight a real physical war with real guns against the wicked earthly and spiritual powers – none of those had anything in common with the teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The Adventist Church of today would undersign without any difficulty all the creeds of the historical Christian faith. When compared with the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, numbering only a few today and still remaining a cult (certainly those who still follow David Koresh), the Seventh-day Adventist Church is a well-organized denomination of 25 million members worldwide.

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Not a Coincidence

However, it was not a coincidence that most of Koresh’s followers, however few in numbers, were of Seventh-day Adventist background. The late Roy Branson, a former editor of Spectrum, reflected in his May 1993 editorial: “We began to learn more about the people who died at Ranch Apocalypse: sisters in their 20s from an Adventist family in California; a former student at Andrews University; young adults from Australia; several former ministerial students from Newbold College and their lifelong Adventist relatives. These were not third-generation children of the Shepherd’s Rods (Branch Davidians). We didn’t start the fire but the tinder was ours.”

The tinder was Adventist not only in that at least 90 percent of the deceased victims of the Waco tragedy came directly from Seventh-day Adventist churches, but that much of the Branch Davidian software was made of the metastasized mutations of traditional Adventist material. The early eschatological and theological wonderings of the Adventist pioneers, as they were seeking to format their new identity and purpose out of a disappointing non-arrival of Jesus Christ on October 22, 1844, introduced a culture of modern day American prophets as the most authoritative voice in Biblical interpretations, and developed a very plastic or progressive concepts of revelation. Soon some new beliefs and concepts, official and not-so-official, were born about the spiritual superiority of the “Truth” given to Adventists, and their central place in the final days of the world’s history.

In short, the early Adventists, by the dictate of their survival, created a special brand of eschatology that affected their understanding of Christology, ecclesiology and missiology. Thanks to their elitist and self-centered approach to Christian faith, many other Christians for many years could not make up their minds what to make of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Today the Adventist Church is facing a serious crisis of identity, still balancing its walk along the line of cognitive dissonance, trying to rebrand itself as an historic Christian denomination, rooted in the Reformation, while pursuing an impossible task of trying not to offend its conservative and traditional constituency that fights with all its might to conform the church to what it believes to be the only true Adventism – the one of its confusing infancy years.

Meanwhile a challenge remains worthy of our pondering: as long as a church denomination or movement is not firmly rooted in the truth that God has spoken conclusively, with finality and without strings attached through His Son Jesus Christ, once and for all, but instead intently seeks to deliver “new truths” and “new light”, or seeks new demonstrations of truth guided by some tense and subjective experiences, it will eventually witness someone opening a Pandora’s box of the most extreme Biblical interpretations and beliefs, and its followers will become an easy target for any deception and delusion under the hijacked but powerful claim: “Thus saith the Lord!”

Read part 1: The Truth That Will Blow Your Mind

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Some insightful comments in response to this article:

Amelia Han Riegert:

I concur with you about Koresh’s Messianic claims. That was how I decided I would leave the group study, it was after he arrived in Binfield and met with our study group, when I heard him apply these Messianic titles and prophecies to himself that I knew I could not accept his message. It was blasphemy to say the least. He was also arrogant, and I noted that he never prayed before or after a study session. 

Roger Flalokken:

Interesting, and I think valid points you are making. I have been thinking that in some aspects of SDA eschatology the emphasis has been on the Remnant being the only true followers of Christ, interpreted to be SDAs only,  and the rest of the world would turn against them in a last days’ persecution, even unto death. This could have prepared the Branch Davidians to stand with their «Messiah» even in death. I think the FBI was not well enough informed of the theological framework that the group subscribed to. It seems to me it would have been much more succcesful to detain mr Howell once he was outside the compound – rather than attacking them in military style, as you pointed out, for them the Harmageddon was interpreted to be a literal battle. It is so strange to think Cliff Sellors would arm himself for such a war.

Edlira Cepani:

I think it is very important to focus on the person of Jesus rather than on people. I am happy the Adventist church in Albania is 100% focused on Jesus. Contributions from people who know the importance of Jesus as the center of faith are very important.

Mike Fleetwd:

I think the problem with Adventist understanding of EGW which leads to the problems with David Koresh and Davidians, Shepard’s Rod, etc etc… is caught up in the misrepresentation of what Spiritual Gifts are, and are not. Spiritual gifts are ordinary gifts given to believers for service. They are not extraordinary gifts as Adventism seems to present EGW’s gift. The Bible clearly says the gift of prophecy will be within the church in the later days as given to multiple persons not a single person. The Spirit of Prophecy are those who testify of Jesus, or give testimony to Jesus. Ellen G White seem to have done this when she wrote her books. Jesus was the center upon which each book was written. Unlike the many compilations made afterward. So she demonstrated what the spiritual gift was in her writings but she never claimed the gift was exclusively hers. I think I remember her desire was to see this gift multiply. She counseled Pastors and Teachers to make Jesus the center of their preaching and teaching. This would enable them to participate in the Spirit of Prophecy because the Spirit attends our testimony of Jesus. Note also that giving testimony should never be about ourselves as it is popularly done.

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The Truth That Will Blow Your Mind

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Waco, The Unfortunate Legacy, Part 1

 

“If anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the desert,’ do not go out; or ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.” Matthew 24:25. NIV

 

Prologue

At the beginning of the 51-day long siege, orchestrated by the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Texas state law enforcement, the Branch Davidian compound, otherwise known as Mount Carmel in Waco Texas, was the home to about 120 followers of a self-declared prophet and messiah David Koresh, whose real name was Vernon Howell.

At the violent end of the longest siege of the kind in the US, on April 19, 1993, 76 Koresh’s followers were burned to death in the fiery inferno, including David Koresh and more than 20 children. Debate still goes on if the deadly fire was caused by the Branch Davidians or the FBI action, was it a tragic accident or deliberately set?

According to Wikipedia, in addition to 76 Davidians burned to death, “five others were killed in the initial ATF raid. One was killed by the ATF after the raid, and 35 left the compound during the FBI siege.” Nine Branch Davidians survived the fire. Eight Branch Davidians were charged for the possession and use of firearms during the siege and sentenced to up to 40 years each. By July 2007 all of them were released from prison.

Most of the survivors continue to be loyal followers of David Koresh. They believe that one day they will see him victoriously coming back in the clouds of Heaven to reign in Jerusalem over the entire world as the new King David.

Background Reflection

I write this article with malice towards no one. However, the more I read about David Koresh, believed by his followers to be a prophet and the Son of God, the more I am disgusted by his manipulative, controlling, deceiving and toxic personality. One wonders how was it possible for him to build a following of fanatically loyal people, willing to go as far as to surrendering their own wives and daughters to him, eventually their lives too? Considering the perverse character of his teachings and lifestyle, one wonders indeed how was it possible for him to bring into his brainwashing machinery a number of people with sophisticated levels of education? Some of them were teachers, nurses, business people, retired military men, theology students, professors, musicians, artists.

On the other hand, however abhorrent David Koresh and his tactics of deception were, I find almost equally unacceptable the methods the US government used against David Koresh and his followers during the days of a long siege, and especially on the final hell-like day of the siege. Their use of psychological warfare, and the excessive deadly force against a community of people, looked more as if the siege was taking place in some far-removed jungles of Vietnam, rather than on the American soil. I believe that something needed to be done. However, even now, 25 years later am not really convinced that it was really necessary for ATF to attack the compound, and FBI to exercise brutal militarized force which ultimately led to perishing of 82 people, many of whom were children?

I write this article not because I consider myself an expert in the circumstances surrounding the Waco tragedy, but because I knew some people personally who lost their lives in the raging inferno of Waco on Monday, April 19, 1993. Five years earlier we studied together at Newbold College, England, a leading Seventh-day Adventist educational institution in Europe.

 A Deadly Conversion

The first time I heard about David Koresh was in the summer of 1988. At that time David was still called by his real name, Vernon Howell. Steve Schneider, the Koresh’s right-hand man and his liaison officer, visited Binfield, a tranquil English village close to Bracknell, Berkshire.  He was on the recruiting mission to England, and his plan for the summer was to bring the “new truth” about “the prophetic and messianic call” of Vernon Howell (David Koresh) to the students of Newbold College. Since those were the summer months, free from any academic activities, only a small group of unsuspected students, professors and staff members remained at the college facilities. I was there too, working several summer jobs in the anticipation of securing some income that would help me move on with my education.

Steve Schneider used to study at Newbold College too, fifteen years earlier, but was expelled from the college due to some behavioral issues. When the college administration realized that Steve did not come back to Newbold for a brief nostalgic visit, a common practice among many former students, but that he was on the weird recruiting mission, they denied him the privilege of staying and “evangelizing” within the college boundaries. Steve was then welcome into the home of a sympathizing staff member. The home of a college cook became his teaching sanctuary for a few weeks, and the base for all his outreach activities on behalf of David Koresh.

For several weeks a group of curious students, some staff members and a few locals gathered together every day, in the late after-the-work afternoon hours, to listen to Steve Schneider. His teaching sessions went on for many long hours, reaching into the early morning hours of the following day. While initially most were attending the meetings out of sheer curiosity, some were undergoing a steady and visible process of conversion.

The rumor about the weird visitor from Waco spread quickly. The fact that the overnight meetings lasted for many long hours every night, and that almost all attending had to go every night without adequate sleep, although each one of them had to work early the following morning, was a good enough warning for me that a cultic brainwashing was in progress every night in our neighborhood. One day we heard that the prophet Vernon himself had arrived, with his guitar, to harvest the fruit of Steve’s labor.

The Lesser Light

Although I did not have any desire to join the group, I remember having several conversations with a few who could not hide that the conversion of their hearts and minds was very much in progress at that time. I was the most directly aware of a serious belief shift in the life of my friend Cliff Sellors, recent convert to Adventism and a good friend of mine. A video production project that both of us shared as the Communication Class requirement brought us closer a few months earlier.

Even before Cliff met Steve Schneider and David Koresh, I knew that he had the exaggerated passion for the writings of the 19th century Adventist prophetess Ellen G. White. In the formative years of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the mid 19thcentury in America, her dreams and visions had a crucial role in shaping the identity of the emerging church. Since then in the Adventist circles she has been called by several attributive titles, including – “the Inspired Pen”, “the faithful servant of the Lord”, “the Lord’s Messenger”, “the lesser light leading to the greater light”, and the most often “The Spirit of Prophecy”.

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Cliff Sellors was a good, modest and humble young man.

On several occasion Cliff and I discussed various topics related to the inspiration of the message and writings of Ellen G. White. We were good friends who did not share the same conviction about the importance of the Adventist prophetess. Cliff was a very good, modest and humble young man, who in the writings of Ellen G. White constantly sought to find “more truth” and “more light.” He read her writings more than he read the Bible.

Cliff Sellors was a genuinely gifted artist. In those days he was painting a beautiful mural named “Genesis”, depicting the seven creation days on the front wall of the college Science Room. Any time he worked on the painting he would listen to the audio recordings of her prophetic messages. He was deeply dissatisfied with his spiritual condition and imperfections. In the writings of Ellen G. White he was seeking to find the truths that would elevate his obedience to the Law of God, ever closer to the perfection that had been eluding him all the time. In his eyes the truth of God was progressive, and there was always a room for the new light, only granted to “His faithful Remnant” – those who “keep God’s commandments, hold to the testimony of Jesus,” and believe in “the Spirit of Prophecy” (Ellen G. White). (Revelation 14:12; 19:10.)

On the other hand, I was satisfied that all truth and light that mattered for my salvation was contained to the fullest in the person of Jesus, and that no relevant truth existed outside Him. I wanted Cliff to see too that the beauty and simplicity of the Gospel of Christ did not require any kind of doctrinal or prophetic gymnastics in order to be appreciated and understood. I did not believe that the role of the New Testament prophets was to be the revealers or upgraders of any God given truth, let alone the saving truth since all of it had already been reveled once and for all, and to the fullest, in the person of Jesus Christ. I shared with Cliff that I believed that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus gave the complete meaning to the whole prophetic ministry of the Old Testament, and there existed no other truth that would ever go beyond or outside Jesus.

When Steve Schneider begun his UK indoctrinating mission in the summer of 1988 Cliff became hooked by his message almost instantly. He would share with me the fragments of what was happening at the meetings. I thought for a moment that his commitment to Ellen G. White would keep him away from the prophetic claims of anyone else. But this was not to be. He, and a few other Newbold students, were impressed with the apparent ease by which Steve was “interpreting” the Old and New Testament Bible prophecies, including the writings of Ellen G. White. For Steve’s Newbold audience, mostly made of traditional Adventists who revered their prophetess, Steve prepared a familiar platform. He quoted Amos 3:7. “The Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.”

“They believe in Ellen G. White!” – these were some of the very first remarks Cliff shared with me after one of the first Steve’s classes that he attended. To Cliff it mattered that this “new message”, or “the new truth” he was hearing from Steve affirmed the prophetic authority of Ellen G. White. And Steve worked hard to impress the emerging disciples that Ellen G. White was very much revered by both, Vernon Howell (David Koresh) and himself.

For Steve however, setting a common ground was only a means of moving forward from a familiar ground into a new territory. He argued that if “God hand-picked” Ellen G. White to fulfill a special prophetic mission in the 19thcentury, he certainly did not stop there. Steve reasoned that just as much as God appointed Ellen G. White as his “special messenger”, God had now chosen another inspired vehicle to upgrade his “last message”. And, sure enough, the name of the prophet was Vernon Howell, soon to be revered by his followers as David Koresh. It did not take too long for Cliff, and a group of other converts, to feel reassured that believing in the prophetic mission of a new prophet would not contradict their faith in the prophetic gift of Ellen G. White.

The Mind Blowing New Truth

But their arrival at the new light only meant the beginning of a journey that would thereafter become filled with one surprise after another.

Steve proceeded to teach that David Koresh was actually much more than a prophet. He was soon to be received by the new converts, one step at the time, as the “antitypical David”, “the antitypical Cyrus”, “the Lamb of God”, and “the Son of God” – the only one to whom it was given to open the mysteries of “the seven seals” of the Book of Revelation. Moreover, he was to be received as “the new Messiah of the House of David”, “God’s anointed”, “God in sinful human flesh” sent into the world to complete the saving work of Jesus by becoming the “Sinful Messiah”. Since the first Jesus was the spotless and sinless Lamb of God – the reasoning followed – Jesus could not have completely identified with the human race. To complete his saving work, God had to send another Messiah, the second Jesus, David Koresh, to complete the work of redemption by radically indulging into the sins of the world. Salvation now required that one would not believe only in Jesus Christ, but even more in David Koresh.

Each time Steve was stepping onto a new, more preposterous ground, he would enthusiastically declare: “This truth will blow your mind!” Whenever anyone in the attending group would dare ask a critical or disagreeing question, Steve would respond: “You are not ready to receive this new light yet!”

Consequently, one of the “mind blowing truths” Steve delivered to the new converts was that David Koresh would have to marry many virgins, in order to bring into the world a new race of perfect God’s children, who will together with him reign in Jerusalem over the new world. Actually, he would need 144 virgins, the number that went beyond any reasonable expectancy even in the circles of the most unrestrained polygamists.

Another “mind blowing truth” was that David Koresh, as the new messiah, was going to be killed in 1993 by the wicked people, and like the first Jesus 2000 years earlier he would be raised from the dead.

As the 1988 summer weeks were advancing I remember that several of us, who were concerned for the wellbeing of our friends caught up with David Koresh, were warning them that their newly discovered prophet and messiah was a charlatan, and one of those false Christs whom the real Christ warned us against when He said: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ, and will deceive many’” Matthew 24:4. Although all of us knew next to nothing about Branch Davidians at the time, what we heard about the character of Steve’s “Bible studies” was enough to make us see the gravity of deception that was claiming the hearts and minds of our friends.

We wanted to help them see that this “new truth” was so preposterous by challenging them with questions like: “What if David Koresh, unable to find for himself so many virgins decides “under the inspiration” to make advances on your own wives?” (Although David Koresh already had several unofficial wives by that time, the “revelation” by which God “authorized” him to claim the wives and daughters of his followers came one year later, in 1989).

We also asked: “What if on the day the wicked decide to take David’s life, your “messiah” decides that all of you, his followers, would have to share in his sacrifice, by giving up your lives too?” We were completely oblivious at the time that our cynical questions, designed to wake-up the new converts out of their intoxicating dreams, were actually unintentional prophetic statements.

But no question, criticism or a joke could make sense to our friends anymore, who were sinking ever deeper in justifying the new teachings they were receiving from Steve Schneider, the ambassador of David Koresh. Their responses were: “Who said that we’ve received all the light, and that no more is coming? We need to be open to receiving new truths! Why should we believe that Ellen G. White was the only one entrusted with ‘the Present Truth’”? In the summer of 1988 they came to believe that the time had come for the children of God to receive the “new light”, and God had decided to use David Koresh to deliver it to his faithful.

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Epilogue

Five years later their new light will turn into the hellish darkness.

On April 19, 1993 my friend Cliff Sellors was consumed by the fiery inferno that totally destroyed the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. John McBean, another person I knew from my student days, was burned to death too. Livingstone Fagan, another Newbold student who joined the Branch Davidians in Waco survived the siege. Of the small surviving group of Branch Davidians, he remains until now the most vocal advocate for the cause of David Koresh. The family that hosted Steven Schneider in their home never reached the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. Their lives were spared because the US authorities were slow in issuing them the visa documents they needed to enter and stay in the US. The casualty toll directly linked to their conversion multiplied several times over since all of them actively recruited others, their family members, cousins, friends. In total 24 Britons died in the Waco fire as the result of their recruitment activities.

All of those people were actually good people, in many ways not unlike many of us. Most certainly they did not have criminal minds. None of them joined the Branch Davidians because they were desperately seeking to kill and die in the pursuit of some apocalyptic armed adventure. Yet they all paid a heavy price for their gullibility and falling for a deadly deception.

But more than for anyone else who died in Waco 25 years ago I mourn for my friend Cliff Sellors. I believe he was sincerely seeking “more truth and more light”, which tragically he decided to quench from a broken cistern. From the day he left Newbold College and the time he joined the Koresh’s cult in Waco, until the fatal Monday on April 19, 1993 I did not hear anything about my friend. It was only a number of years later that I started picking scarce bits of information here and there.

With the same passion he used to paint the big Genesis mural in the Science Lab of Newbold College, in the years that followed he used his talent in service to his new messiah Koresh. According to the David Thibodeau’s book “Waco – A Survivor’s Story” Cliff was the official artist at the Branch Davidian’s compound. He artistically customized Koresh’s guitars with his explicit apocalyptic themes. Cliff also painted murals, posters and other illustrations depicting Koresh’s vision of the Apocalypse.

I read recently in the book “Preacher of Death,” co-authored by Marc Brault, who in the initial years of the Koresh’s prophetic advancements served as his right-hand man (Marc left Branch Davidians in 1989), that Robyn Bunds, one of the Koresh’s many wives married Cliff Sellors in a phony marriage arranged by David Koresh. This became a common practice within the Branch Davidian cult living in Waco, intended at creating a cover-up for Koresh’s polygamist practices, and for the children born out of the Koresh’s polygamist unions. In 1990 Robin abandoned the cult.

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I read somewhere also that Cliff too, either left the cult for a period of time, or intended to leave because the promiscuity of David bothered him. While he studied at Newbold College several years earlier, Cliff was known as a person of “high personal morals”. Albert A.C. Waite, a professor in Physics and Sciences at Newbold College, who was also a good friend of Cliff (who tried hard to discourage him from joining Davidians) wrote about Cliff: “He was more interested in showing a young lady the beauty of nature than in holding her hand”.

How I wish I was more diligent in trying to persuade Cliff not to join the cult. But at that time, five years before the tragic end of the Waco siege, we (his friends) were all oblivious about the true deadly potential of the Koresh’s “messianic” cult. To us who watched from a distance the whole summer episode of 1988 looked ridiculous and insane. We saw our friends turning into some weird, but harmless fanatics. Until, five years later, when we all watched the CNN’s live reporting on the blazing Waco fire on April 19, 1993.

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Cliff (second left) and I shared a video project at Newbold College

How I wish Cliff Sellors was strong enough to break away from David Koresh completely. Unfortunately, a small plaque that bears his name, next to the plaques of other inferno victims, forming a modest monument at the Mount Carmel property near Waco, reminds us today that this amazingly gifted artist died too soon, in the fires of Waco “with his music still in him” (Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr).

 

Next: Waco 25 Years Later Part 2 – The Unconfortable Legacy

There was much more to the conversion story of Koresh’s followers than their fragile social and emotional makeup. David Koresh and his key evangelist Steve Schneider knew how to use a familiar, prophetic language and imageries, which they shared with the traditional Adventists. Most of his new followers did not see their ideological transition as if it were a radical change in their spiritual makeup and loyalties. They thought that they were only advancing forward, spiritually maturing and upgrading their faith journey. They believed that they were only receiving “more light,” and “digging deeper into the Present Truth”. Joining David Koresh, in their view, only meant arriving at the final destination in their restless search for the truth…. Read more….

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Some Insightful Comments in Response to This Article:

I would like to share several insightful comments shared on several Facebook pages by friends who too knew some people who died in Waco, or had some close encounters with David Koresh or Steve Schneider:

Analisa Torkeisen Kleven:

David Koresh visited the church my Dad was pastoring in Hawaii when I was young. I remember being terrified as a kid of him and sitting through church fearing for and praying for my Dad through each sermon. My Dad spent hours at meetings with Koresh and a group of young adults he eventually lured away. I remember finding my Dad at home on his knees sobbing pleading prayers.

Keith Lockhart:

I knew Sellors as well as it happens. He comes out in your article as I remember him. I disagree slightly with your view that the authorities could have acted otherwise. In the end I believe they had no choice but to end the siege the way they did. But that’s a small matter. Good piece though.

Amelia Han Riegert:

I attended the “Bible study group” that Steve Schneider led at assistant cook John’s home that summer of 1988. I even met Vernon Howell in person. I’m so thankful I was impressed to leave the group study after an experience I had one night after a study, and also after Vernon showed up. Long story, but It wasn’t without much fervent prayer. Sad about Cliff and John McBean’s demise.

Niina Greggas:

I remember Cliff as a very kind and friendly person. So sad all this could happen.

Gavin Anthony:

I took the assistant dean job John McBean had before he left for Waco. I remember standing in Keough house watching the buildings burn knowing that he and Cliff were inside. Deception has terrible consequences.

Roger Flalokken (Jakobsen):

I came to Newbold College in 1987 and Cliff and I quickly became friends in the autumn that year as the academic year started in September. He was such a friendly and good hearted man, always looking out for what good he could do for others, caring for his friends and those around him.

He was eager to know and follow the truth, to live according to what he thought to be right. He was one of the most genuine and selfless friends I had, always thinking about the needs of others before his own, greeting people with a smile and a word of encouragement.

It is now long ago, and it is not totally clear to me when and where it took place. It might have been in a dormitory room at the college. I was invited to listen to Steve Schneider, whom Cliff had met and was enthusiastic about having his friends meet and listen to. It happened in the late evening, going on for hours. 

Schneider said he had new light on important biblical truths. He introduced himself as a messenger, a prophetic voice, preparing a group to meet the leader of the movement at a later stage. He would start by quoting from the Old Testament, often from the Minor Prophets or the Book of Isaiah, as I recall, often texts about promises made to Israel. It was impressive to hear how he knew so many Bible verses by heart. 

He would talk and talk, intensely, painting his picture of this important new light on the true followers, the Remnant of Christ, always quoting the Scripture to validate his claims. Questions from the listeners were not answered, but he said he would come back to them, telling us we needed the whole picture to understand his message. For me it was frustrating that questions were not answered, and I think it must have been after two or three gatherings I stopped attending. I also questioned the fact that we had to meet so late at night, going on till well after midnight.

I had several talks with Cliff, one-on-one, while he painted the creation-painting. I was worried about him. I also asked one of the lecturers in Theology to talk with him. And so he did. He spent hours with Cliff trying to convince him of the faulty teachings of Schneider.

After Cliff left for the USA to engage more fully in the work of the movement Schneider was a messenger for, we heard nothing or very little from the group. The name David Koresh surfaced at times, a name Vernon Howell had taken as he assumed the messianic role in the movement, Branch Davidian of Seventh-day Adventists. I never met him myself.

As the tragedy of the confrontation between the FBI and the cult happened in April of 1993, I had many questions as to how it was at all possible for my friends (John McBean and Cliff Sellors) to have become part of such an extreme cult. The connection between the cult and the SDA Church was downplayed by the SDA Church. It seemed important for the leadership of the church to distance themselves from the cult, claiming Vernon Howell had been disfellowshipped from the church years before. 

The fact that only one of the cult members came from a non-SDA background, virtually all were Adventists, (88 people died in the siege) should be a wake up call and give a reason to reflect and investigate how Adventists theology could make people prone to join a cult like this.

In retrospect it is easy to say more should have been done to convince our friends not to join the cult. But the extreme tendencies developed little by little over time. And it is also easy to claim that the FBI underestimated the commitment of the cult members to their leader David Koresh and did not understand the underlying theology of the Remnant and the eschatology Koresh built his cult on.

Bjorn Eivind Holm:

Thank you Tihomir and Roger for your refelctions. And also for your sensitive and respectful description of Cliff. Cliff and I ran a bible group together for a while both before and after he became involved with the Branch Davidians. I also knew Cliff as a very honest and well-meaning friend. Unfortunately a victim of a twisted theology in the end.

I met with Steve Schneider one-to-one a couple of times during the summer for 1988, but I left to go home to Norway before David Koresh came himself. Steve’s reluctance to answer critical questions was also one of the things that turned me off. Of course in addition to some theology that sounded rather unbiblical to me. However, I must say that the full extent of Koresh’ theology became clear to me first when I returned to Newbold that same autumn, and Cliff tried to explain to me what “new light” he had found in this teaching. Unfortunately my objections did not convince him. Neither the objections from many others, as you have mentioned.

I have very fond memories of Cliff. I wish his kindness and talents had been used for a better cause, and for so many more years.

Veli Albert Kallio: 

I did know Steve Schneider too, and advised him to go after other churches as well, rather than hanging around SDA’s if it were real gospel. He did tell me quite a bit about himself and he was the brains of the group. David Koresh was a former drug addict that also explains his weird ideas. Steve had a degree, MA or BA on Group Psychology from the University of Hawaii. He had previously tried to set up his own independent church before “discovering” Vernon’s group and then joining and becoming their brain. He was their Judas who managed their funds, and was one who sold properties of the converts to pay the bills for the cult to go on as they did. I thought him as evil afterwards. He also had a liberal view on women’s ordination to my surprise, or may be he said so because he was just “everything to everyone” to make them interested in his group. Women’s ordination was a big thing in the SDA theology circles and heavily debated at that time at Newbold.

 

 

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Linda Quist, Balkan Memories – Audio Interview

Linda Quist from Seattle, US remembers the years in the 60s and 70s when she and the group of American singers, dancers and musicians, all of them in their twenties and thirties at the time – loved to visit Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina (former Yugoslavia at that time), and other neighboring countries. They would bring with them American folk music, and while visiting learn the folk music, dances and customs of their hosting countries.

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Soon their repertoire was enlarged by the Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Greek and Turkish folk music and dances. Linda is especially fond of her singing and dancing group’s performances at the Croatian festivals of traditional folk music in Zagreb and Đakovo, known as Međunarodna smotra folklora (International Folklore Festival) and Đakovački vezovi.

In 1975 the group released its first LP album with their interpretation of a number of Croatian traditional folk songs.

Today Linda continues to visit the region, especially Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro, as the director of the Seattle based Balkan Task Force that supports several faith-based initiatives in those countries. She is also an adviser to the Forum for Leadership and Reconciliation, a Seattle based leadership and reconciliation organization with the international work focused on leadership development, peace building and reconciliation. I interviewed Linda two weeks ago in her home in Everett near Seattle. Take 15 minutes and listen to Linda’s story.

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One Can Only Imagine What “the Lord” Might be Telling Them Next?

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“Once you believe someone has a direct phone line to God, you’re in trouble.” Marc Breault, David Koresh’s second-in command, who left the cult in 1989.

Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” Matthew 7:22.23.

 

Today all kinds of false prophets are mushrooming everywhere. They claim they are receiving dreams and visions from the Lord. They want us to believe that the Lord communicates with them directly, through audible messages and pictures impregnated with meaning. You know them by their signature claims: “The Lord told me!” They like to say also: “Last night the Lord gave me a dream”. Some of them even believe that God gave them the authority to decree future events and circumstances into actual existence. Unlike the prophets of old, who were often rejected and persecuted, the modern-day prophets are superstars, even celebrities.

One does not need to go far beyond YouTube or some familiar Christian TV networks and channels to become aware of their relentless activities. They could also be easily found in your next-door “word of faith, signs and wonders” church, prophesying about “enlarging your tent”, or “receiving a favor from the Lord”. In their eyes God uniquely favors America, above all nations in the world, and it is their duty to help God create favorable circumstances to bring about the biggest revival America has ever witnessed, as well as to usher in the Kingdom of God with power.

Often, their dreams are not much different from the dreams of the rest of us, shaped by all kinds of stressful and anxious situations in life. The difference, however is in that they love to give the nonsensical and surreal images they see in their dreams and other moments of special inspiration the extravagant prophetic meanings. The weirder their dreams, visions or pictures are, the more convinced they are that God is directly revealing something of crucial importance to them.

But do not assume that those numerous “prophets” are agreeing with each other most of the time. Most of them are continuously upgrading and reinterpreting their dreams and visions. And when things do not happen exactly the way they’ve prophesied, they just move on as if nothing has happened. In the worst case they would simply delate the incriminating video from YouTube and replace it with another one with new dates and new charts. In any case it seems their followers do not mind the plasticity of their prophecies as long as their prophetic zeal continues to flourish.

I know of several “prophets” who have, over the past five years announced that the Earth would be hit by a huge celestial object, but their prophetically announced dates have already come and gone multiple times. One cannot even remember how many times they have changed the dates prophesied for the appearance of the Antichrist, signing of the Middle East peace treaty, beginning of the Armageddon, rapture or tribulation, or return of the Nephilim. Visit the YouTube search engine today and you will find a number of prophetically punctuated dates, spread across the calendar between now and the end of this year.

We need, however, to pay a special attention to a growing number of the militant “intercessors”, “spiritual warriors”, “God’s generals” and “prophets” who believe that their divinely appointed place is to be embedded with the current American administration. They are declaring peace, safety, spiritual and material prosperity to all who line up behind the “Lord’s Anointed”, and promising wrath to all those who dare challenge his leadership. Again, one only needs to google the following themes: “Trump Prophecies”, “Chosen by God to Stop America’s Destruction”, “President Trump Will Clean Up America”, “Amazing Revelation of President Trump in the Bible”, “God’s Trumpet”. These and many other similar videos speak volumes.

Mark Taylor, also known as “the fireman prophet”, is only one among many rising stars in the world of contemporary prophets who loves to prophetically elevate the President Trump. Jerry Falwell Jr. is at this time facing a strong opposition of the embarrassed Liberty University students, who are petitioning the university leadership to have the production of the new movie to feature Mark Taylor and his Trump prophecies stopped. Mark Taylor is known for his “prophetic” utterances by which he calls Donald Trump “God’s miracle to America”. He claims that God calls Donald Trump “My President.”. He said also that it was according to God’s plan that Barack Obama “was in the office for eight years”. According to him “America needed to build a righteous anger necessary to elect Trump and thereby save the world.” Apparently, Mark Taylor prophesied in 2011 that Donald Trump would become the next US President, and that “despite his many enemies, God would protect him”. “They will say things about this man, the enemy, but it will not affect him. For even as the feathers of a duck protect it (a duck), so shall my feathers protect this (next) president”, predicted Mark Taylor before the 2016 presidential elections.

A somewhat spooky gathering of prophetic minds, named “Turnaround: An Appeal to Heaven National Gathering” was held only a few weeks ago in the Trump International Hotel in Washington DC. Over one thousand in attendance prayed for the “unleashing angel armies against his (Trump’s) enemies”. The organizers claimed that the event will launch a worldwide spiritual revival, and spiritual breakthrough at home. All who dare stand in opposition to the current President were portrayed as “the Antichrist forces.” They declared that “now that the church woke up” it needed to “move from pleading with God to ruling with him and Trump”. They decreed also that God is now “authorizing the church to destroy all God’s enemies and all the enemies of America, in the name of Jesus Christ”.

Dutch Sheets, the main engine behind the event, “decreed” that Trump “will accomplish everything Almighty God sent him into that house to do, regardless of who likes it or who doesn’t”. He prayed defiantly, as if casting some kind of Christian curse, against every shadowy political and “deep state” entity, and everyone else who dared challenge or disagreed with the current president: “You will fail! The (Church) will take you out. The outpouring of Holy spirit will take you out. Angels will take you out. You are no match for any of the above. You are no match for his prophetic decrees. So, we push you back. Your finest hour has come and gone. And the church now raises to the place that he has called us to walk in. We now rise up and I call that new order into the earth.” (Watch the video at the end of the article.)

The most ironic twist in the current “prophetic” storm is that many “prophets” of the day are now busy hijacking the legacy of Billy Graham, the greatest evangelist of the 20th century, by claiming the mantle of his leadership. The New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) leader Lou Engle has been voicing such claims even before the departure of Billy Graham. Identifying himself with the prophet Elisha he marked the margin of his Bible with the following statement: “I will not let you go Billy Graham until you let a double portion of your spirit be upon me and a new generation of evangelists.” Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Paula White, John Hagee and numerous other “prosperity-filled” evangelists dream too of being seen as new Billy Grahams of America. In fact, it seems that the most vocal pretenders to his mantle are coming from the hyper-prophetic circles.

Let it be known that by all Biblical standards those “prophets”, even when fragments of their prophesying assume the appearance of truth, are not speaking for God. Their shaking and jittering, mumbles and shrieks are not the movements of the Holy Spirit. Their “kingly intercessions”, prophetic declarations and decrees, as well as their blessings and curses amount to nothing. Such prophets are charlatans and counterfeits, offering “a strange fire” to the Lord. Leviticus 10:1. They are the deceitful and presumptuous influences that fit the words of Paul, an attested apostle and prophet: “The time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”  2.Tim. 4:3. NIV

And this is why?

Modern day super prophets are doing everything opposite to what the prophets of old, appointed by God, ever did. Foremost, they are lacking the basic gift all true prophets must have – discernment. They are uncritically laying their hands on the man who is a habitual liar, a deceiver by profession, and lacking any moral compass. They are calling him “the God’s anointed”, and “a president after God’s heart” although everything we know about him points in the opposite direction.

Moreover, they are ideologically driven prophets who, unlike the prophets of old, do not care about “the poor and the widow, the fatherless and the immigrant” (Zechariah 7:9.10. Amos 8:4. Micah 6:8.). “The word” they are receiving, and their revelations and divine biddings are informed by their political allegiance and not from the Throne of God. Their god loves Donald Trump and his vices; and continues to hate just as passionately both Clintons and Barack Obama. Under the anointing of their god many of those prophets are continuing to expect, any day now, to see Obama transforming into the Antichrist. Accordingly, their god must love the policies that segregate people, build walls, excite racial prejudices and hatred; and will have nothing to do with the immigrants, social outcasts, homeless and otherwise abused. Consequently, concern for righteousness, justice, kindness and protection of the weak is far from the lips of the modern-day super-prophets. They are in the family of the ancient apostate prophets, hired by the corrupt kings of Israel and Judah, to endorse their unrighteous, corrupt, often evil policies and practices. Such prophets, unlike the ancient prophets of God, never dare prophetically speak truth to power.

By placing their laying utterances in the mouth of the Lord they are insulting the God of truth. There is a world of difference between making untrue statements in ignorance, or giving credit to God for one’s lies and wistful claims. Against such prophets Jeremiah the prophet warned with the unmistaken clarity: “Thus, says the Lord of hosts: ‘Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you.’ Jeremiah 23:16.17. ‘I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy lies in my name. They say, ‘I had a dream! I had a dream!’ How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy the delusions of their own minds? Therefore, declares the Lord, I am against the prophets who steal from one another words supposedly from me. Yes – declares the Lord – I am against the prophets who wag their own tongues and yet declare, ‘The Lord declares.’ Indeed, I am against those who prophesy false dreams,’ declares the Lord. ‘They lead my people astray with their reckless lies, yet I did not send or appoint them. They do not benefit these people in the least,’ declares the Lord.” Jeremiah 23:25-32.

America today is at important political, social and spiritual junction. We need God’s wisdom and discernment. I pray too that America will go back to God. We must ask “the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field.” Matthew 9:38. NIV. But we had better be careful who we follow lest we be deceived the way the followers of David Koresh were deceived 25 years ago.

May the Lord help us reject the hijacking voices and utterances of the lying prophets who are at this time presumptuously and arrogantly prophesying their visions of the political and spiritual revival of America. If those loud “prophets” would have their way, the officially sanctioned brand of Christianity in the US might not look much different than the aggressive religious jihadism of the Middle East. Indeed, one can only wonder what is in store if the unchecked power is granted to the choruses of prophetic zealots, intercessors and warriors who, emboldened by the current political climate, are alrady, “in the name of Jesus,” claiming dominion over “God’s and American enemies?” Maybe the Administrator for the “Prophets for Trump” website and Facebook page is giving us a possible hint as to the ambitions of their prophetic zeal: “We still have some uprooting or overthrowing to do. (But) Kingdom overthrow is upon us!”

It is a historically proven fact that when religious fanatics are given a free ride, in the times of social and political upheaval and confusion, the heads roll. Should any major war break out soon on our doorstep, those “holy” prophetic warriors, intercessors and “God’s generals” will, no doubt get around the President to prophesy his victory and dominion, and all of it “in the name of Jesus”.

One can only imagine what “the Lord” might be telling them next?

Recommended link: Craig Greenfield: Modern Day Prophets. They are not Who You Might Think.

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