Moving Forward with a Clear Focus: His Kingdom First

Throughout the months of November and December 2019 I turned my morning walking hours into the times of reflection and prayer. My thoughts were focused on the coming year (2020), its challenges, and my own journey with the Lord in the coming year and beyond. There was one theme that was always coming to the forefront of my reflection times – His Kingdom First. We live in a spiritually and morally confused and confusing world; the world increasingly cynical about the Gospel of Christ, and ignorant about what the Kingdom of God is all about. Even worse, we Christians in the West seem to be increasingly uncertain about how does the Gospel of Christ make sense in the world of conflicting voices and overturned values?  It is for those reasons and more that I have decided to be committed in 2020 to seeking “His kingdom first” and ahead of all other priorities and challenges of the day. Should you wish to do so I would welcome you, my friends who truly desire to seek the Kingdom of Christ as the value of your uttermost importance, to journey together with me. So, let’s reason together in the presence of an audience of one.

His Kingdom First
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Ministry Video Highlights 2019

Let me share five video reports produced in 2019 that highlight several aspects of the Renewing Our Minds (ROM) ministry in 2019 as well as partnerships connected with this ministry in various ways. I’ve been privileged to lead the ROM ministry since 2001 until the summer of 2019.

ROM20 #3, Jesus Plus Nothing: Since its birth in 1999 ROM – Renewing Our Minds ministry has always remained faithful to its message of friendship, reconciliation and sacrificial leadership. But what made its ministry unique and effective was its focus on Jesus. For all those years it has been on my heart, as its director for the past eighteen years, and on the hearts of the core team to make sure Jesus remains the center of the ROM ministry, and keeps informing everything we are, do and teach at ROM. This video features several short Jesus centered highlights I shared at various ROM gatherings in the past years. I’ve enjoyed leading ROM very much but of all aspects of ROM leaderships I loved teaching about Jesus the most. I’m confident that under the leadership of Bojan Ruvarac, ROM’s new director, this precious ministry will continue to be firmly rooted in Jesus. This video is enhanced with a random selection of photos depicting many moments in the 20 years long ROM history. Time 10:40 min.

ROM 20 #2 – Festival of Friends: 2019 was a special year in the history of ROM – Renewing Our Minds. 200 participants, ROM alumni, gathered in Ohrid, North Macedonia at the end of August to celebrate the first twenty years of the ROM ministry. ROM 1999-2019 Anniversary Celebration Gathering was about reenergizing, sharing, empowering, thanksgiving, peace building, reconciliation, leadership of service, and following Jesus – which have been the core values of ROM since its birth in 1999. ROM 20 was also a festival of friendship, joy and laughter, and lots of music. Time: 10.00 min.

ROM20 #1 – Empowering Generations: 2019 was a special year in the history of ROM – Renewing Our Minds. 200 participants, mostly ROM alumni with families and children, gathered in Ohrid, North Macedonia at the end of August to celebrate the first twenty years of the ROM ministry. ROM 1999-2019 Anniversary Celebration Gathering was about reenergizing, sharing, empowering, thanksgiving, and in reminding the ROM alumni of the values of peace building, reconciliation, leadership of service, and following Jesus – which have been the core values of ROM since its birth in 1999. This is the first of several short videos featuring different aspects of the ROM 20 Celebration Gathering in Ohrid, North Macedonia. 

Uganda Report: You must see our Uganda Report? just over a month ago Bojan Ruvarac and Tihomir Kukolja were visiting Uganda. We met with the leaders of the Africa Youth Leadership Forum (AYLF) from Uganda and Eastern Africa. We shared our experiences of work with the Renewing Our Minds (ROM) ministry and our governing organization Forum for Leadership and Reconciliation. Our African friends shared their experiences with AYLF and Cornerstone Development. We were impressed, humbled and inspired at the same time as we watched how young people of Uganda and East Africa are becoming transformed into the future leaders of this region thanks to the dedicated work of the African youth Leadership Forum and Cornerstone Development, and their vision of “nurturing a new breed of African leaders”. Out of our visit and time spent with our friends from AYLF a new vision has emerged: AYLF is seriously planning to move forward with an African version of ROM. Watch this video and be inspired! Time 11:30.

House of Hope March 2019 Report: For many years this house was a home of drug addicts and prostitutes. After several moths of hard work  and some opposition the work of transformation is almost complete. Unfortunately, since the time this video report was made the work on the house restoration has faced some major, malicious opposition. Time: 3:01 min.

For more ROM video reports visit this place. 

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Let Jesus be Jesus

Short Advent Reflection

At this time of Advent, leading to Christmas, when everything seems so radically politicized and polarized, let’s remember that Jesus refused to be a military emperor. He refused to be used to go against the Roman Empire with the might of his physical force. 

Neither was Jesus born to be a revolutionary, or a political or a gender equality activist.  

Moreover, dare we not use Jesus as if He were an important sponsor or a member of our favorite political party. His mission was not to be the advocate for one’s right-wing and left-wing political cause or a movement. 

He was not born to be manipulated into a leader of the never ending chain of liberation causes, revolutions or occupy movements, which are more often than not misguided in their causes and intentions. 

His mission was more dignifying than any of those, and above all of them. He was born, lived and died to deliver us into His world in which uncorrupted justice and unspoiled peace reign. He will never allow himself to be used as a mascot for the short-sighted and misguided causes of this world. 

Let Jesus be Jesus. Let Him be the Lord of Lords, and the King of Kings. His ultimate objective is to recreate us in His image, and He would never let us reduce Him to our corrupt image. He came into our fallen world to deliver us out of our fallenness, and never to become a fallen savior himself.

Jesus came down to us once as a weak baby. Next time He will come in power, God without disguise, to save and to judge to the uttermost. Let us not patronize Jesus. He is not our inferior. 

“Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all peoples on earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen.” Revelation 1:7. NIV

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We Have Seen What Draining the Swamp Looks Like

I am not overly concerned whether the President is going to be impeached or not.  I am concerned about the wellbeing of the nation hijacked by the President’s loyalists who, without blinking an eye, call evil good and good evil. This is exactly what have we witnessed  throughout the entire season of the  impeachment hearings so far.

For anyone who wanted to listen, however, the testimonies of twelve witnesses were clear, coherent and truthful. The facts complemented each other. Their accounts produced a single story, consistent and convincing. Even the testimonies of a few reluctant witnesses fit the thread. No way those twelve witnesses could have come up with so a consistent conspiracy story.

Those who cared to listen heard to following: we have an egoistic president who is interested only in advancing his own interests at the expense of the nation, Constitution and international relations. Even the testimony of the most evading witness, Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the European Union, “ripped away the last of the pretense that Trump cared about corruption in Ukraine”. We heard loud and clear that our President “cares only about the big stuff that benefits him personally“, namely, how to set a stage that would help him  maximize his victory at the next US presidential elections. In short, we heard that a person or a country matters to our president only as much as one advances his personal ambitions, agendas, and foremost his personal corruption.

This is not a new story. It is consistent with everything else we have seen about his presidency in the past three years. Alas, this is what his well-documented lifestyle of self-indulgence and corruption testified for many years before he ever became the President. In the light of his abusive treatment of women, and shady business dealings, who could believe that a corrupt president is really concerned about fighting corruption in another country? The new story we have just heard is that he has been unmasked most powerfully by a group of firsthand witnesses, associates, diplomats. They all testified that the President bullied and blackmailed a nation in a desperate need of the American aid, while treating his own country as if it were some kind of his privately owned enterprise. 

However, the most shocking thing is the blindness of his loyalists who continue to express their “innocent” outrage over, so they want us to believe, a supposed witch hunt against their messianic president. Some Christian leaders, among them Franklin Graham and Eric Metaxas unfortunately, are calling any opposition to the President “demonic”. Rick Perry, the US secretary of Energy, echoed the other day the sentiments of many Republicans and many white evangelicals when he called Donald Trump “the chosen one… sent by God to do great things”. Statements of this kind, thrown into the face of the avalanche of clear evidence to the contrary, only serve the purpose of further intensifying the stiffneckedness of the President’s loyalists, and radicalizing even more the populists’ outrage against anyone who dare question the integrity of the President’s leadership.

But the impeachment hearings are anything but “bizarre”. Certainly, they are not  “a circus”, “a hoax”, “a show trial” or “deranged”. They are certainly not based on “hearsay,” as the President’s loyalists are chanting in the absence of the substantial arguments. Nor is the opposition to Donald Trump “demonic”, for if it were what would we then call the relentless opposition throughout the eight years of Obama’s presidency coming from the same mouths, pens, TV channels and talk shows by the same sources that are now so firmly embedded with Donald Trump?

Bizarre and immoral and alike are morally deplorable defenses of the indefensible, repeated day by day by the overzealous defenders of the President. In the absence of the sustainable arguments they have fiddled throughout the entire impeachment season until now with trivialities and below-the-belt hits aimed at undermining the credibility and personal integrity of the witnesses. No wonder Socrates said: “When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the losers”. In other words, when the arguments are absent yelling and personal attacks follow.

It is this slanderous attitude of the Trump’s loyalists that condones, justifies, normalizes evil that keeps him firmly enthroned, since the isolated president without support would soon become what he really is, a parody. It is the same partisan loyalty that is further intoxicating the crowds already excited more than enough by all kinds of wild conspiracies, that represents a real threat to the nation and the world at this hour. Calculated loyalties motivated by personal interests, whether expressed by his defenders at the impeachment hearings, or by the members of the Congress, or blindly demonstrated by the President’s loyal crowds – all of them are certainly emboldening the President to continue ruling by his selfish impulses rather than by the rule of law. It is this kind of uncritical flattering support exhibited by his populist constituency that encourages him to believe even more that he stands invincible, beyond accountability and above the law, as the undisputed king of kings. The more often the President succeeds in reassembling himself unscratched and with the applause after each new blunder, the more he grows emboldened to rule like a despot with no public or private accountability.

When Richard Nixon was about to be impeached in 1974 he resigned because some Republican leaders dared to accept the facts. They dared, although reluctantly, eventually to resist the President, even if they had to do it at a personal cost. But this time it might be different. ‘The new normal’ has already intoxicated too many of the President’s loyalists. Rep. Adam Schiff was right when he closed the second week of the hearings with a statement which defines the problem. It is not that the two presidents were different, he stated. The heart of the matter is  “the difference between the two congresses”. It is his party that is the issue, and with it the white evangelicals who are sanctifying and deifying the President’s defiance.

It seems that this Congress does not have a moral courage to accept the facts wherever they lead. Instead the President’s loyalists are even more adamant to keep on endorsing this president whatever the facts. In other words, even after they have heard 12 witnesses testifying consistently about the corruption of the President, they seem to be more than eager to continue endorsing him. Some are even boldly promising violence should not the President get his way. Rick Wiles, a far-right conspiracist reverently  warns that “if Trump is removed from office, veterans, cowboys, mountain men, and guys that know how to fight will hunt down Democrats and kill them.” Wow!

St. Paul writes about people who do not only do evil but also “approve of those who practice” it (Romans 1:32.), making thus the endorsement of evil just as evil as the act itself. Why? Because a widespread endorsement of evil legitimizes wickedness, makes “the new normal” widely acceptable, declares evil good and good evil, and all together it builds speedily towards morally deprived culture; a kind of culture described in the Biblical depiction of the pre-flood generation: “Every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil all the time.” Genesis 6:5. NIV 

And this is exactly where we are heading with the President’s loyalists who brazenly keep on defending  the indefensible. Also, this is what we have been getting for the past three years as we watched the Republican Party turning into his condoning private ideological army. Likewise, this is what we are getting when we listen to the faith leaders who are messianizing Trump’s presidency instead of preaching the Gospel of Christ. And this is what we are getting when his mesmerized crowds are chanting, “Drain the swamp! Drain the swamp!” 

But a refreshing news is that one week ago we saw what the real swamp draining looks like, as we watched one witness after another, willingly or not, declare and demonstrate that “the emperor had no clothes”, the highlight of which was the moment when Fiona Hill, a former top White House official and the most dignifying witness who would not let herself be intimidated said:  “‘I think this is all going to blow up’. And here we are!”

And here we are wondering what’s coming next? Are we going to witness more defiance and denial coming from the mouths and pens of the President’s loyalists despite the obvious? Will we eventually have to be satisfied seeing only more collateral, secondary players go because “the big stuff” will remain unreachable, as it was the case with the outcome of by now almost ignored Mueller Report? Or, will the only outcome be the relentless harassment of the witnesses? Or, shall we finally see more eyes open, sufficiently more for this nation to move out of the swamp of lies, hypocrisy and corrupt leadership? 

If, however, after the hearings are over the nation continues to be so dangerously divided, this is not going to be because the testimonies of witnesses were ambiguous or lacking in substance, but because some people (too many actually) have deliberately made up their minds to follow a lie wherever it leads.

PS: There is one significant difference between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump, however. Nixon had a decency to resign. This one wouldn’t mind brining the whole nation down together with him.

PS: The bottom line is this: It is not the president who concerns me as much as the army of Christians who endorse evil he represents, for they are the ones who are making his presidency possible and sustainable. 


Sunday, December 1, 2019: A friend of mine responded: “Yes, I could easily go along with what you say. The problem is, we are deep into “post-truth” time and hence your arguments carry so much less weight. Not, of course, because they are deficient in any way but because your potential audience – perhaps unlike at any other time in history – just couldn’t care less. Large chunks of them, anyway. And to illustrate my point and highlight the mirror situation in the UK (only c.10 days away from general election) I call on this rather interesting US vs. UK comparison of political landscapes by Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian this last Friday. In both of these entities, “facts” appear to be the least of anybody’s worries. The two main, would-be winners – Mr T and Mr J – they are all about entertainment first and foremost. Crude, rude and, yes, at everybody’s but their own expense. And the masses? They are falling for that, head over heels… Why worry about facts and morals when you can have what passes in their circles as a good laugh? The easy way out. Will worry about the consequences later. Or, better still, let the next generation do that… Reminds me of the last days of Rome. “Bread and circuses” (or bread and games; from Latin: panem et circenses). Hope I am wrong. Or maybe not… will see. Will see. Anyway, this is the article…..

Friday, December 20, 2019: Breaking: Christianity Today, a leading Christian magazine in the US, founded by Billy Graham, calls in no unclear terms for the removal of Donald Trump: “Unfortunately, the words that we applied to Mr. Clinton 20 years ago apply almost perfectly to our current president. Whether Mr. Trump should be removed from office by the Senate or by popular vote next election—that is a matter of prudential judgment. That he should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments. To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?” I rest my case. This is exactly what I’ve been saying since 2016, and have been reproached for a number of times. My concern is that this is coming only a bit too late. The link….

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Morning Commentary: Jesus’ Followers and Society

What is the place for Christians in society? What should be our attitude towards political engagement, social activism, environment protection? Are we interfering with the coming of Christ if we are trying to make this world a better place? Are we disobeying God’s will if we desire to help and stand by immigrants, refugees, homeless, the poor, or people who are racially or ethnically different from us? Are we in tune with the character of Jesus if we stand by the leaders who are known to be corrupt and advancing all kinds of discrimination? Should we care at all knowing that whatever our hands touch has an early expiry date anyway? Listen to my latest morning commentary.

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Video: Memories of Assurance

My mother Krista Kukolja died in February this year. My father Pavao Kukolja died in October 2017. I returned back to Croatia in June this year and visited the place of their burial. The feeling of being there was a different one than in the days of their departure and funerals. The fact that some months have passed made the awareness of their absence lass surreal and more real. At the time of my last visit to their grave (in June) I recorded the following reflection, which I have recently enhanced with some photos. I would like to share this latest video feature with my friends as an act of thanksgiving for the gift of their lives.

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Walls are Not Everlasting

Thirty years ago this month the Berlin Wall was brought down, echoing the plea of one president who said, “Tear down this wall!”. Thirty years later a different kind of leader is ranting: “Build that wall! Build that wall!” 

When the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989 for a brief moment the world basked in a spring of refreshing air of a more promising future. Since then erecting all kinds of walls and fences has become a paranoid fashion. A false sense of security is being sold at the expense of liberty.

In the summer of 1986 I learned with enthusiasm what it looked like when countries were not fenced off with walls or barbed wire. I hiked a mountain trail between Sweden and Norway.  It was an inspiring moment of freedom. No walls, no fences, no checkpoints, no surveillance cameras, only  few markers letting you know where one country ended and another began.

My firsthand experience with the walled off communities that lived next to each other happened a few years later when I visited a divided Belfast in Northern Ireland. The same, warm and friendly people were divided between themselves by a lasting sectarian conflict. The picturesque wall graffiti that decorated many houses on both sides demonstrated clearly how they hated each other. I hope Brexit will not resurrect the long-gone walls and tensions again. 

Then in 2013 I stood next to the wall separating Mexico from the US.  It was there even before a new leader promised to build even a “better, taller, longer, stronger” wall. It was a sad experience as I looked through the metal bars into the river, trees, houses, half of the city on the other side. On both sides of the wall lived the same people, divided families, who spoke the same language, played and listened to same kind of music.

And then in 2015 and 2016 I saw the barbed fences put up between Hungary and Serbia, and Slovenia and Croatia. Hungarians and Slovenians argued that they wanted to “keep their countries safe from the invasion of refugees”. They said that they wanted to keep their “Christian values, heritage, history, traditions” protected, so by twisteding the command of Jesus they “did to others what they didn’t want others do to them”. 

More fences of all kinds have emerged since: fences and walls in the minds and hearts of mesmerized crowds that seem to enjoy yelling ugly statements of hysteria, hatred and division: “Go back home! You don’t belong here!” 

And some are promising even more fanciful walls. Only a few days ago our President promised to build a big wall in Colorado (!?!) “that really works. You can’t get over. You can’t go under it” – promised he.

November 1989 brought an end to the Berlin Wall, but a fresh and promising breeze of a better world born at its ruins did not last for too long. The builders of walls, fences, and all kinds of barriers and obstacles are busier than ever. But the writing on the Berlin Wall continues to prophetically declare: “Walls are not everlasting!” 

Wall that separated communities of people in Belfast in 1989
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Through a Glass, Darkly

Even when we behold the most attentively the magnificence of the universe we still remain unable to grasp its truth. Even if we could be sent to its furthest destinations, and plunged into other galaxies at the maximum warp, we would still remain under the veil of ignorance. Our senses are not sharp enough, and our scientific sight is inadequate. We see only “through a glass, darkly”.

We live in the quarantine universe with time and space bent in such a way as to project to us an altered reality. All our perceptions about the depth of space and lengths of time, even when enhanced by the latest scientific theories, hypotheses and desperate longings to discover some traces of life out there are only tricky illusions. We live in a dark cave in which flickering lights of the distant stars are confusing our senses. We do not see the things of the universe as they are.

A brief metaphor will suffice here. The other day I was taking my morning walk in a new, uncharted area. After walking for about 40 minutes along the trail that looked to me fairly straight, I decided to walk back the same route. I wanted to get back to my parked car on time to reach another scheduled appointment. Just in case I looked into my GPS to see the path and the distance I’ve already taken. To my surprise I realized I’ve been walking on a constantly curving trail. I have in fact already walked the two thirds of my planned distance not knowing that I was already well on my way back to the car.

We do not really know how far are the distant objects in the universe from us or if they are not far at all. Our truth of the universe is gained more from the wistful thinking delivered to us by fictional Darwinian movies such as Star Wars and Star Trek, and desire to avoid seeing God’s hand in the universe at all costs. This we see our universe as a cold, gigantic enemy to be discovered, conquered, claimed as we dream of bringing evolution under our management.

But once upon a time the cosmos was not our enemy, space and time were not our prisons, the eons of light years did not mislead us, and black holes did not radiate mystery. We became locked into the time and space container the moment we were escorted out of the Garden of Eden. And not even the most extravagant space exploration budget will change that. We can fantasize as much as we would like about finding our own truth out there “where no one has gone before”, we will never leave the threshold of our starry neighborhood even if our hands stretch beyond our solar system. 

Our physical universe, regardless of how spacious and impressive it appears with its distant galaxies, is only a vast looking chamber when beheld from within, and only a small room when looked at from without, locked securely in the palace of God’s garden. And no amount of science, no breakthrough technology, no matter the growing sophistication of AI toys, and no breathtaking height of the Tower of Babel will make the arrogant and the foolish break through the door of the chamber. We do not have what it takes to make the walls of our prison fall down.

This is what the rebellion against the Creator has done. This is what sin is all about. When the gates of the Garden of Eden were shut, and our great-great-great-grandparents exported out of the garden, we lost much more than a few conveniences. We were locked in a bubble, chained by altered reality, and enslaved within time and space alternations for our own safety. 

But there is a key that unlocks the bubble, and it is not the latest trans-human toy, nor the most advanced quantum computer.  It is Someone so many of us are so eager to dismiss – Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the King of kings, the Lord of lords. He is coming back to open the gates of the Garden of Eden, to unlock the Heavens, and to unbolt the quarantine that holds us prisoners, and let the universe become a friendly home to all God’s children again, as it was in the days of innocence of God’s creation.

“The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.” Revelation 6:14. NIV “Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” Revelation 21:1. NIV

Let’s trust His promise rather than our own fragile sight.

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Warning Against Fake Miracles

The Bible Study I had a privilege to teach yesterday was about Luke chapter 7.

Jesus did not raise the dead man out of or into some kind of zombie-like or a Frankenstein-like existence. It was an act of complete recreation of life, with an instant and full awakening to physical life. It was a manifestation of the same creative power, the same Word, and the same authority that was spoken into the creation of the universe. And whichever person was healed by Jesus he/she was completely restored to the most optimal conditions of health this side of eternity. None of them was healed partially or only seemingly. In other words, a previously blind man was not restored to see only vaguely, a previously paralyzed man could not now walk only for a week, and a resurrected person did not die one week later from the unfinished business of the sickness that killed him at the first place. Nor did he walk out of his coffin as a mindless zombie, struggling to unstiffen his bones and muscles for a week or two after the resurrection miracle.

Whenever Jesus heals one witnesses the unimaginable creative power of God at work and not a cheap and spooky magic.

Take a moment to listen to this short highlight of warnings against false miracles and miracle-makers.

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May All the Other Garbage Go

No church organization, movement or a group can honestly claim to be the flag-bearers of the Protestant Reformation if they have departed from believing in the central importance of the substitutionary, representative life and death of Jesus Christ, and His literal, bodily resurrection. 

Trusting in Jesus-alone, plus no one and nothing else, is the heart of the Protestant Reformation and its understanding of the Gospel. If we truly appreciate that “the Church reformed is always reforming” we will see clearly that the reasons for Protest have not been removed. 

Christian groups that undermine or caricature the most literal centrality of Christ in their teaching, or that pay the Gospel of Christ a lip service only, or if they hijack the Gospel of Christ for the promotion of their own peculiar teachings are not the Reformers of our days. Neither are those that major on the social and cultural benefits of the Reformation alone, while growing embarrassed of the exclusive claims of Jesus. And neither are those groups that are ascribing the redemptive attributes belonging to Jesus alone to their subjective and speculative prophecies, miracles and wonders. 

Only those who continue to sift everything they believe through the filter of the exclusive, substitutionary, representative and objective significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are legitimate flag bearers of the Reformation. 

Friends, no compromising formula has been discovered yet that bridges the gap between the two irreconcilable views of the Gospel. The only way to bridge the gap between us and God is for us all to embrace Jesus plus nothing (no one) else, and let all the other garbage go. 

It must be Christ plus nothing, or it soon becomes everything but Christ.  

May “the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse (purifies, heals) our consciences from acts that lead to death (FROM dead works, useless rituals), so that we may serve the living God!” Hebrews 9:14. NIV

Have a Thoughtful Reformation Day!

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