Offensive Simplicity of the Gospel

Crossroads Bible Study Class, MDPC, Houston, Sunday, December 9, 2018. A supplement to the bible study.

Jesus is in the business of saving people. Paul says: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9.),and adds: “Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ” (Romans 8:38.39.).Could it be that simple? But rather than being a source of great joy, radical simplicity of the Gospel offends most people. The saving prescription is so simple that even a child will embrace it, and an elderly person whose mental faculties are already weak will find in it his or her ultimate comfort. It states: “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:13.)

My late father even on his death bed, whenever asked to pray, would pray the most beautiful prayer of assurance, reliance and dependence on Christ. This radically simple, almost childish truth, which he cherished in his heart and mind by faith for many years, proved to be the most important statement of his life even when the memories of everyone and everything else faded away. 

Although the beauty of God’s revelation in Christ remains profoundly deep and beyond our rational grasp, at the same time it remains so radically simple that no excuse will do on the day of reckoning, when Jesus asks, “What have you done with me?” 

It is this radical simplicity of the Gospel that says, “Trust in Jesus, and you will be saved,” that is so offensive to so many human hearts who desperately, deceitfully and foolishly want to believe that they are somehow in charge of their lives. It is due to the arrogant rejection of this profound simplicity of God’s gift in Jesus that the unsaved will have to blame no one else but themselves on the judgment day, because by their rejection of Christ they will say: “Sorry Jesus, you were not good enough for me!”

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I especially like this part of the same Bible study. This is only a 4.30 minute highlight of the 40 minute long Bible study on the Paul’s Letter to Romans, chapters 9 and 10, which I had a privilage to delivere, at the Crossroads Bible Study Class at the Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston, Sunday, Dec 9, 2018. 


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The Whole Creation Is Groaning

“The whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth up to the present time…” Romans 8:22-24

“He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then He said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away,” Revelation 21:5.1.

Human beings and their most immediate living environment are not the only ones in the state of groaning in the anticipation of redemption reaching its climax. The entire universe, including its most distant parts, are groaning just as much. 

The moment Adam and Eve made a fatal decision to distrust God something drastically altering happened to the design and the inner workings of the entire creation, entire world, entire universe. Sin, death and decay shook the universe, and altered its character just as dearly as they impacted our human character. So, when we are today wistfully looking at the distant stars and planets, hoping that one day our human salvation will come from one of those alienated places, we are forgetting that we are seeking to find our rescue in the realms of sin and decay no different than our own. 

Since the day of the Fall we have been living quarantined within the boundaries of drastically altered universe. With the help of our physical and mental faculties alone we are capable of perceiving the truth of God’s creation only as far as the affected alternations would allow. Thus, when we try to look within ourselves, or as far as the most powerful electronic telescopes would guide us, we always see caricatured and misleading shadows and shapes of the originally intended design. We see only what the flickering lights are projecting on the walls of the Plato’s cave. The transgression of the first couple (Adam and Eve) has infected us all profoundly. Everything integrated into the realms of God’s creation shares in the painful consequences of rebellion, sin, death and decay.

When God closed the gates of the Garden of Eden to Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:23), that meant much more than only an inconvenient separation from the conveniences of a beautiful and comfortable home. It meant that they were locked out of, and veiled from enjoying the wholeness and the wellness of God’s creation, and thus from the proper understanding of how it operates. We, human beings, together with our earthly world, and the entire universe with its most beautiful galaxies have been ever since on lockdown.

This simply means that we who used to live in the golden age of a three-dimensional world (or more),  metaphorically speaking, have been demoted to living in the flatness of a two-dimensional shadow. The bottom line is this: the entire universe contained within its space and time limitations has got the expiration date, the same way as our human death marks the expiration date of our human lives. There is no evolution available to save us through the mechanism of endless improvements leading towards perfection. All the fascination with grabbing the evolution fantasy and turning it into our own savior through genetic manipulations, or merging with artificial intelligence advancements are a big delusion that by each new step of preceived advancement only further reveal how crippled we are.

No wonder Paul talks about the whole nature (people, animals, whole natural world, universe) “groaning as in the pains of childbirth up to the present time.” Romans 8:22-24. In other words, in its own way the entire universe moans, groans and cries: “How long, Lord? How long?”

But the good news is here: “In Christ, and only in Christ (the second Adam) the veil is taken away.” 2. Cor. 3:16. Because God decided to reveal Himself in a radical way through Jesus we are not going to stay forever in the Plato’s cave of flickering lights, spiritually and empirically blind, and with only a shadowy and sketchy access to the ever-evading truth, always delusional and always substituting a shadow for the truth. 

The promise is ours. “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then He said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away,” Revelation 21:5.1.

Until then we will continue to see the reality of God’s creation only “through a glass, darkly.” 1. Corinthians 13:12.

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A Metaphor for the Hijacked Church

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The newly elected Brazilian president Jair Messias Bolsonaro promised: “God above everything. There is no such thing as this secular state. The state is Christian and the minority will have to change, if they can. The minorities will have to adapt to the position of the majority.”

The statement of the far-right Brazilian president sounds sweet to the ears of Christian supremacists and dominionists in the US, who are rejoicing in what they see as the important international fruit of the leadership of the American president Donald Trump. In their view America and Brazil are being conquered for Christ. Like the recently resigned Attorney General Jeff Sessions they would like to see the separation of church and state dismantled first; this archaic obstacle in their path to the ushering in of the Kingdom of God in the US, Brazil, and elsewhere soon. So, the emerging of the Brazilian president, barely elected and already declaring that the non-Christians of Brazil will have to submit to the rule of Christians, comes as a glad tiding to the ears of American Christian supremacists.

In their view Jair Bolsonaro is a God’s choice, divinely appointed and anointed at this time to lead Brazil the same way the current US President was “divinely” elected two years ago. This should not come as surprise when one considers that Brazilian “evangelical leaders have used their pulpits, church rolls and massive media outlets to unabashedly push Mr Bolsonaro’s upstartcandidacy,” despite the fact that president’s pre-presidential record has for years been anything by godly. The same man was reported as having said that Afro-Brazilians are “lazy and fat”, in the same breath calling refugees from Haiti, Africa, and the Middle East as the “scum of humanity”. About the use of torture, the love of all dictators, he said: “The dictatorship’s mistake was to torture but not kill.” He was also reported saying about a fellow female Brazilian politician: “I would never rape you because you don’t deserve it”.

Sounds familiar?

Should anyone think that the religious radicalism of the newly elected Brazilian president is just a coincidence with no serious consequences, consider that in the US, which still holds the banner as the world’s leader in the advancement of religious freedom, a far-right Washington Republican winner of the reelection bid  Matt Shea, apparently holds and promotes even more radical views for which he is investigated by FBI at this time. He believes that in “Christian America” all ‘unbelievers’ will eventually have to yield to armed Christians. Matt Shea recently constructed “Biblical Base for War”,  a four page “Bible study” document intended to guide ‘the church militant” in how and whom to kill in the “holy war”, led by a “holy leader” and executed by “born again” warriors, under the direct guidance of the “warrior God”.

Apparently Matt’s ‘holy war’ outline explains “how to establish Christian law through armed struggle, calls for the end of same-sex marriage, abortion, and the death of all non-Christian males in the US if religious law is not upheld”. The document is actually an elaboration of the Old Testament theocratic rules for war applied in the days of Moses. They look very much like what a jihadist rule book might look like that describes how to treat ‘the infidels’ who would not “yield” to their particular interpretation of Islam.

Matt Shea is a Christian Dominionist. He is a part of a small but vocal branch of Evangelical supremacists who believe that Jesus gave Christians the authority to rule over the world in his name, in the most literal sense, with guns and full assistance of the law. He and many other Evangelicals believe that their day has come to “reclaim America for God”, by all means necessary. Over the past two years we have been witnessing the increase of people from the religious fringes coming out of their ideological closets of political insignificance, united in the belief that the current US President is God’s gift to them to finally bring about “the reign of God” in America.

Their intentions are not a secret. They are using Google, Facebook, YouTube and many other social media platforms generously to promote their radical worldviews. You will see them featured in videos, praying for God’s favor, with their guns and Bibles proudly in their hands. Their self-styled prophets are mass-producing “the word of the Lord” in support of President Trump as their champion, while their heavenly dreams and revelations are warning their audiences of former President Barack Obama’s plot to return, this time as the Antichrist, and declaring the judgments of God upon America for all “the sins of Democrats”. They appear convinced that their fight is for Christ, His kingdom, and the rebirth of America as an undiluted Christian nation. And when that day comes, their versions of “Christian nation” will not tolerate homosexuals, Muslims, communists, immigrants, and – rest assured – Christians who do not fit their ideological paradigm.

It would not be fair to present Donald Trump as a Christian Dominionist. Certainly not yet. Neither are most Evangelicals there yet. But all kinds of Christian supremacists and reconstructionistslove love to be around the president, serve in some capacity close to him, be his spiritual advisers, take photographs with him as they lay their hands on him while prophesying over and about him. They all believe that Trump is their man, God’s anointed, the Cyrus of our days who will make the work of their radical evangelism flourish.

And Donald Trump loves them too.

Earlier this year I wroteabout a somewhat unsettling gathering of prophetic minds called “The Turnaround: An Appeal to Heaven National Gathering”, that took place, with the blessing of the President, in the Trump International Hotel in Washington DC last March. Over one thousand Dominionists in attendance prayed in earnest for the “unleashing [of] angel armies against Trump’s enemies.” The organizers claimed claimed that the gathering 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 Sheet, the self-proclaimed prophet and driving force behind the event, “decreed” that Donald 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 against everyone who dared oppose the 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.”

When one considers the threatening arrogance and raw boldness of such ‘prophetic’ utterances, it does not take much to imagine what groups of fanatics, biblically illiterate militants eager to “do the bidding of the Lord” could be capable of doing “in the name of the Lord”, provided the circumstances are favorable. Imagine what the rallies of “God’s warriors”, caught up in a holy frenzy, could literally do to former president Barack Obama, if only “the affirming word of the Lord” comes to some of them? Imagine, under such circumstances, what an ugly scene it would be if former Democrat presidential nominee Hillary Clinton were to be delivered into the hands of a mesmerized crowd of ‘holy warriors’ yelling “Lock her up! Lock he up!”?“People are never so completely and enthusiastically evil as when they act out of religious conviction”, wrote Italian novelist Umberto Eco.

Freedom of religion has become a fashionable promise under the current US leadership. However, the best safeguard against finding ourselves one day ruled by any form of Christian dictatorship, fascism or tyranny is to guard jealously a state of clear separation between church and state, whether we speak of the US, Brazil, or the countries of secular European Union that are increasingly becoming vocal about the need to protect their millennial Christian heritage; and there are more of those in Europe today than Hungary, Italy and Poland only. Tragically human history has amply demonstrated that when Christianity and earthly power blend into a single entity instead of staying apart, a beautiful promise always turns into a beast that devours not only non-Christians but Christians who are not of the desired brand too.

Are we heading that way?

Only a few days prior to the midterm elections I was driving along a major Houston highway when I saw a domineering billboard (two weeks later it is still there) displaying the image the American President, posing seemingly as an emerging American evangelist, overlaid with the Biblical quote “The Word Became Flesh”, and undersigned with “Make the Gospel Great Again”.  It is dubious who is behind this highly visible and costly piece of advertising displayed along important highways in at least several US cities, although Facebook  hosted a group that claimed to be responsible for its placement. The group that is calling itself MGGA, or “Make the Gospel Great Again” explained on their Facebook page (the Facebook page has been taken down a few days ago): “God does send his messengers to us, and just as King David liberated the faithful in his day, President Trump is doing this today through his protection of the unborn, defense of our land against foreign invaders and standing up for Israel. Compared to the disaster of a president we had in Obama, how is this not the “word become flesh” for Americans”?

Was someone joking, intending to insult, having a good laugh in the pre-midterm election days of hyphened anxiety, or trying to evangelize America in a highly provocative way? Or, could it be that the whole visual and verbal billboard design penetrates much deeper into the hidden parts of the soul of average white American Evangelicals who, unlike Jesus, are not willing to resist the addictive temptation to get hold of “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” if only they bowed down to the Deceiver? Whatever the case the billboard left me with a feeling of disgust, because its display has become a metaphor for the hijacked Christianity in the US, in which many white, right-wing American Christians are in so many ways placing a divisive, deceitful, vane, narcissistic, self-serving, discernment-lacking and hate-filled Donald Trump on par with the loving, serving, truthful and saving mission of Jesus Christ.

In other words, the billboard depicting a preaching Donald Trump as “the word becoming flesh” is a painful reminder that over the past two years the outlook of American Christianity has become morally degenerated.  The outcome of the 2018 midterm elections has demonstrated that deliberate cognitive dissonance still governs the minds and hearts of the 80% of white American Evangelicals, whose zealotry made the election of Donald Trump possible two years ago. It seems obvious now that no repentance or sobering-up has ever taken place in their hearts and minds. Instead they are continuing quite comfortably to sell the historical Christianity, and the Gospel of Christ for a bowl of plausible and fictional national greatness.

And what does the bowl of American national exclusivism, that tastes sweeter than the Gospel of Christ, consist of?

Historian John Fea describes it well in his sobering and recently published book “Believe Me – The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump”: “Trump promised to place a conservative on the Supreme Court, to build a wall along the southern border, to protect white America from all the ‘rapists’ who were illegally streaming across the border; to round up undocumented immigrants and kick them out of the country – even if it meant dividing families; (to) prevent Muslims from entering the United States; to bring an end to the Affordable Care Act; to defend ‘religious freedom’ by repealing the part of  the IRS code that prevents churches from endorsing political candidates; (and) to move the location of the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem;” – all of which would only boost white nationalism, racism, pride, control, injustice, militancy and wrong theology; none of which would ever advance Christlike empathy and compassion for the poor, homeless and immigrants. Meanwhile the love for human life in its holistic entirety (and not only from the conception to birth) has been completely forgotten.

So, when ahead of the midterm elections Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelist Billy Graham, urged Christians to “vote for the candidates who most closely align with the Biblical values”, one should have had every reason to ask what candidates and principles did Mr. Graham have in mind, considering that his entire faith-based and political constituency continues to prefer loyalty to Trump’s promises of the new American supremacy, to the clear counsel of the Lord that “whatever we do to the least of those – immigrants, refugees, homeless, beggars, the poor, and the racially, ethnically, religiously ostracized – we do it for the Lord!”

What kind of Biblical principles are the 80% of white Evangelicals really adhering to if by their choice and continuing support they have become an accomplice in the creation and sustenance of the national and international nightmare? What kind of leader are we recommending our fellow Christians too when, according to the words of Michael Gerson, The Washington Post columnist and former top aide to George W. Bush, Trump’s “unapologetic materialism, his tribalism and hatred for ‘the other’, his strength-worship and contempt for ‘losers’, smacks more of Nietzsche than of Christ”? Moreover, what principles of Jesus are we talking about when the white Evangelicals, with their willing submission to Trump, are holding the rest of Christendom hostage?

Finally, lest we missed the main point, the Trump evangelism billboard implies that Donald Trump has become just as sacrificial, effective and living “Word of God” in his work of “making America great again”, as Jesus Christ was effective in the work of salvation of the world from our sins. Apparently, God sent both of them for our salvation: one for our spiritual salvation, while the other for our national salvation. In this way this billboard broadcasts a blasphemous message that confuses the kingdom of God with the kingdom of the United States of America.

We are living in the days of humiliating transition for the Christian church. To quote again the words of a well-known columnist Michael Gerson, followers of Jesus, like myself, are finding it “difficult to see something (we) so deeply value discredited so comprehensively.”  80% of white Evangelicals in the US have kidnaped Christianity, stripped it of its clothes, and given it the character that is offensive to the character of Jesus. Many have gullibly fallen for a deepening deception that the Kingdom of God looks like a wistful “kingdom” of America. Together with Christian dominionists, nationalists, supremacists, racists, lovers of the prosperity gospel or “health and wealth gospel,”  and the leftovers of Christian Right  – they all see it as the golden opportunity to “reign” with Trump in the re-emerging American Christian nation.

Gregory A. Boyd, a Christian writer with a clear grasp of the Gospel, warned us in his book “The Myth of a Christian Nation”: “A Kingdom of God citizen could (and should) argue that the Christian version of the kingdom of the world was actually the worst version the world has ever seen. For this was the version of the kingdom of the world that did the most harm to the Kingdom of God. Not only did it torture and kill, as versions of the kingdom of the world frequently do – it did this under the banner of Christ”. He wrote, ”If violence and oppression are demonic, violence and oppression ‘in the name of Jesus’ is far more so. The church of Christendom thereby brought disrepute to the name of Christ, associating his kingdom with the atrocities it carried out for centuries. Hence, in the name of winning the world for Jesus Christ, the church often became the main obstacle to believing in Jesus Christ.”

Someone warned and it has been repeated millions of times: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  How much have we learned? Have we learned anything at all?

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PS: Nov 14, 2018: A few thoughts from the John Fea’s book “Believe Me” would strengthen the argument of this article that flirting between the President and militant elements of the Evangelical America is a much more serious issue that what we would often like to admit: “Trump was appealing to a different kind of evangelical voter. His business success and wealth made him attractive to those Christians sympathetic to the gospel of prosperity, or the ‘health and wealth gospel’ movement. Some of the powerful leaders of the Independent Network Charismatic (INC) Movement, an oft-overlooked segment of American evangelicalism, prophesied a Trump victory. In September 2015, when Trump met with nearly three dozen evangelical leaders at Trump Tower, the room was filled with Pentecostal, prosperity gospel, and INC leaders, such as Gloria and Kenneth Copeland, Jan Crouch, Paula White, and Mark Burns. By January 2016, Trump had also secured endorsements from Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, and Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the world.” 

PS: November 15, 2018: Another few eye-opening thoughts from the book “Believe Me – The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump by John Fea that complement the subject of this article, which I came across after the completion of my article. This time they are about Ted Cruz: “Ted Cruz’s grassroots campaign among evangelicals led to his eventual victory in the Iowa caucuses. Endorsements rolled in from James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family ministries and one of the architects of the Christian Right’s ‘family values’ campaign, and Tony Perkins, the president of the conservative Family Research Council. Ted Cruz turned fear-mongering into an art form. The Cruz campaign mirrored the old days of the Moral Majority. Anyone who attended one of Cruz’s rallies or watched him on television came away from the experience with a sense that he and his followers were on God’s side and that everyone else was working with the forces of evil to destroy America. Cruz talked about the need to ‘reclaim’ or ‘restore’ America. His father, traveling evangelist Rafael Cruz described his son’s campaign for a Senate seat as a direct fulfillment of biblical prophecy. The elder Cruz  told the congregation that God would anoint Christian ‘kings’ to preside over an ‘end-time transfer of wealth’ from the wicked to the righteous. This ‘end-time transfer of wealth’ would relieve Christians of all financial woes, allowing true believers to ascend to a position of political and cultural power so that they could build a Christian civilization. When this Christian nation would be set in place (or back in place), Jesus would return. 

There is nothing wrong with this Bible, and yet there is much that is wrong with its visual presentation and the reason for its release. What do you think is inappropriate with the message its cover design gives?
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Aren’t We in a Coma Already?

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Timothy Snyder reminds us in his book “On Tyranny” (book I would highly recommend): 

“Until recently, we Americans had convinced ourselves that there was nothing in the future but more of the same. The seemingly distant traumas of fascism, Nazism, and communism seemed to be receding into irrelevance. We allowed ourselves to accept the politics of inevitability, the sense that history could move in only one direction: toward liberal democracy”. 

He continues to write: “In doing so, we lowered our defenses, constrained our imagination, and opened the way for precisely the kinds of regimes we told ourselves could never return. This is what is called a teleology: a narration of time that leads toward a certain, usually desirable, goal. (But) the politics of inevitability is a self-induced coma.” 

I would dare add a thought here too: 

The best illustration to date that we are being comatose(d) more and more into tyranny is what happened yesterday at the White House press conference. This press conference was fitting a dictator, autocrat, despot, and certainly not a leader of the free world.

A well known accredited journalist was stripped of his credentials by the president for doing his work because the president did not like his questions. He called a black journalist a racist because he did not like her questions. At the same time the president was ranting and fussing without anyone daring to try to wrestle the microphone out of his hands.

And by the way, “When did all the people who think that grabbing women by the ‘pussy’ in private is acceptable decide that touching a woman’s arm in public is appalling” – asked today James O’Brian the LBC talk radio presenter in London, England?

The fact that the White House blatantly lied into our faces, and released a doctored video to try to cover up the fact that they lied about a reporter assaulting an aid (we can all easily find the original recordings to see the truth) is already Orwellian enough, pointing towards the increasingly authoritarian style of leadership of the current president. The most alarming thing though is that all of this is becoming a new normal, acceptable norm of leadership. 

Aren’t we in a coma already if we are continuing to believe that we are still living in the days called “the business as usual”? Aren’t we naive enough if we believe that tomorrow will be a better day somehow, of itself? Aren’t we (deliberately) blind if we do not see the nightmare deepening? 

Of course that God is in control. He was in the days of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin too. But let us not patronize God by reconciling with what no sane person could or should ever reconcile with, while the instruments of democracy are still available.

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Devouring Midterm Elections

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This is what I blogged eight years ago, on November 2, 2010 exactly:

What to say about all the fuss, negative political campaign, demonizing and dehumanization of political opponents through offensive political advertising on TV, and of all religious euphoria pursued by too many militant Christians who believe that the 2010 midterm elections are a God given opportunity to “reclaim America for God”? What to say as an outsider who has lived in the US long enough to see what is going on, but enjoys still a luxury of not getting passionately engaged in all the hustle?

Foremost, I want to look at those questions as a follower of Jesus who believes that Jesus of Nazareth was not joking when he called us to love our neighbors and enemies as we love ourselves; and as someone who continues to believe that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22). Most of Americans still claim that they are Christians, living in a country built upon the Judeo-Christian values, and praying that God would  at this time replace the “ungodly” leaders with the those who are pro-life, who will display Ten Commandments in the courtrooms again; and who are against the current government healthcare reform. 

Sadly, some of those issues might seem godly, but I’ve seen nothing godly in the ways the current midterm campaign has been pursued across the American nation.

Let me give you an example of a Christian radio station broadcasting for the Houston area. This is a radio station that is at one moment able to deliver a wonderful sermon, church service, a feature on how to love our neighbors, or how to receive Jesus as “our personal Savior”; or talk passionately about the need to love our neighbors, the poor and needy (especially those in distant countries and missions); while at the very next moment it produces a negative and character defaming, completely disrespectful advertising against the current US President in order to advance a certain political candidate.  It also features a daily talk-show produced by a “born again” producer who brags that the purpose of his life and radio program are to “bring one soul to Jesus at the time” while, at the same time, he passionately demonizes anyone in the political arena he does not approve of – believing that by doing both he advances the Kingdom of God.

What concerns me more than the prospective outcome of the midterm elections today is the jihadist wrath of so many Christian zealots who are in their angry hearts and minds removed only one degree of separation from their religiously fanatical counterparts in some other parts of the world.  Often I feel that they would fight for the Lord with fists, clubs and worse, given a chance.

At this moment I do not know who will win the midterm elections. The next day or so will unveil the outcome. But I strongly suspect that it won’t be God. The devouring nature of the current campaign reflects more of the character of someone described in the Bible as “going around seeking who to devour”. (1. Peter 5:8.)

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The van belonging to Cesar Sayoc unmistakably reveals the source of his inspiration.

Observation, Friday, October 26, 2018: What happened this week did not take place in a vacuum. It was not the work of a “loner” acting without the inspiration created by a favorable context. It was the work of a sick mind indeed, but the mind that has been nourished for the past two years with conspiracy garbage and the bullying rhetorics …… In fact the climate that is today producing fanatics such as Cesar Sayoc has been in making since 2008. It was already alive and well  in 2010 when I wrote this reflection. What is even more scary is that today there are too many Cesars roaming around, agitated enough to desire “martyrdom” for a twisted cause. 

Observation, Saturday, October 27, 2018: What happened today belongs to the same narrative. They differ only slightly in the degree of madness.

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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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