Jesus is Never About the National Prosperity Gospel

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Tihomir Kukolja reflects on the President’s remarks delivered at the 66th National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC. Note that the author is not calling into question the purpose and the organization of NPB, nor the hard work and dedication of many men and women who labor hard to make this beautiful gathering of leaders possible.

Overall it was a very good, diverse and encouraging National Prayer Breakfast (Washington DC, February 6th – 9th), and in tune with its historic purpose: to lift up the name of Jesus in the presence of the world leaders.

This was the 66th National Prayer Breakfast (NPB), and no doubt many good people, committed to the cause have spent many laborious months putting this annual mega-event together for the enjoyment of the hundreds of international guests and about 3000 American participants.

To understand the intentions and workings of the National Prayer Breakfast one needs to taste more than just the big Thursday morning event at which the President speaks. Every time NPB takes place, it is surrounded by a number of international, regionally organized breakfasts, luncheons, dinners and other meetings in-between that start on Tuesday and finish on Friday during the NPB week.

The themes this time covered reconciliation, forgiveness, leadership of service, following Jesus, and praying across political divides. A number of international guests were invited to speak, share or lead a prayer. Among them were Jeannette Kagame, the wife of the Rwandan President Paul Kagame; David Beasley, Executive Director of the U.N. World Food Program; Yulia Timoshenko, former Prime Minister of Ukraine; Grace Nelson, wife of the Senator Bill Nelson; Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagels quarterback; Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe from Uganda; Eran Duran, the producer of the movie A New Spirit – to mention but a few whose messages captured my attention. (Keep in mind that there are number of various events taking place simultaneously, so I have missed some of the good content too.)

But the central event, the actual National Prayer Breakfast held on Thursday morning (February 8, 2018), the occasion attended by the thousands, was somewhat weak, as if put together in haste. Something was lacking.

To his credit one has to say that the message of the President Trump was more subdued this time, than the one he delivered one year ago. This time there were no verbal excesses, nor abusive or bragging comments. In fact, this was probably his most “Christian” message delivered so far. The good thing was that he did not improvise too much. He kept following the script from the beginning to the end. Most likely this was the reason why his message was somewhat monotonous and impersonal, and maybe this was also the reason why we did not witness this time the outbursts of enthusiastic applauding or endless stand-up exercises. In other words, the response of the audience was not nearly as euphoric as it was one year ago.

Many were relieved that the President Trump did not go wild with his out of control, twit-like comments, and thus they considered his speech a success. However, they ignored the real content which was dry and inappropriate because it glorified the greatness of America through the use of spiritual, Christianized language and images. So, his speech was “good” only in so far that he did not make the organizers of the event sweat in the anticipation of his unpredictable, excessive, tweet-like remarks. However, the content of his message was a far cray from a message centered in Jesus.

When I shared the link to the video of the President’s address on my Facebook page, some of my friends who did not have a luxury of attending NPB 2018 captured well what was the problem with the President’s presentation. Sometimes watching and listening from a distance helps.

One of them wrote: “He didn’t say anything I would consider “uniquely American” – but he claimed it all proved how “blessed Americans are for being American.”  His remarks were a celebration of “America”. Not of prayer. Not of following Jesus. So, everyone else remains to be the second-class? But the Gospel is not about promoting “national identities” or “nations”. The examples Trump gave of goodness, faith and selflessness were good – but not unique to America alone. Followers of Jesus are not called to defend anyone’s flag. We are called to serve, protect, care for, and defend people. Not flags.”

Another friend commented: “In his speech there was not a single sentence about admitting or repenting of the national wrongs and sins. Yet those are the norms in Biblical narratives about kings, prophets and leaders. Consider Daniel, Moses, Nebuchadnezzar. Mr. Trump’s speech was a quasi-Christian speech, dominating in nationalism (America above everything else). His was not a Christian message, despite the fact that it repeatedly referred to God, and often quoted the Bible.”

While we may agree that the President’s message was free from his usual wild verbal excesses, from the beginning to the end it was a political pamphlet, a kind of mini State of the Union Address, in which he gloried in the God given American greatness, wrapped in the jargon of insincere “Christian” humility.

But one cannot preach nationalism, national greatness, and the greatness of the Gospel in one breath, and claim that through it all the name of Jesus is being lifted up. God will not accept our declarations of God’s power and glory when blended with preaching of the physical strength, toughness and exclusiveness of a nation, American or any other.

It was against this kind of idolatry that the President Abraham Lincoln spoke in his 2nd Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865. He spoke powerfully against a nation treating God as if He were their own private mascot when he said: “Each invokes His (God’s) aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” And this is exactly what we do when we arrogantly act as if my nation, my party, my race above all other nations, parties or races enjoys some special favors in the sight of the Almighty God.

One more thing ought to be said at the end. The exclusivity of the American nation was not a prevailing theme of the 66 National Prayer Breakfast. In fact, I do not remember any other speaker I had opportunity to listen to between Tuesday and Friday even remotely suggesting the idea.

So, the remarks of the President were out of character with the rest of this worthy international gathering of leaders. And although he did his best to be less intimidating in the choice of his words, nevertheless The President could not run away from his agenda of “making America great again”. Only this time he thought the idea would be digested easier if packaged with God.

And, while to many Americans the idea of restoring the “greatness of America” with the help of God looks like a noble plan divinely approved, to many of us international followers of Jesus the idea looks heretical and preposterous, and certainly far removed from the mission of the National Prayer Breakfast – which is to provide an opportunity for the world leaders to come closer to the Person of Jesus. For we know that the message of Jesus has nothing to do with the “national prosperity gospel”.

Read and watch the entire President’s address at NPB 2018 here.

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Postscript Feb 20, 2018: I watched Donald Trump’s message delivered at the 66th National Prayer Breakfast again, couple of times, and read the script of his speech again. These are my postscript thoughts:

From the beginning to the end his speech was impregnated with the spiritualized version of a nation worship. His statements constantly shifted from giving praises to God to giving praises to the greatness of the nation, the flag, the military. His entire message assumes that America enjoys a place of unique favor in the eyes of God, as “the light unto all nations”.

A couple of statements reveal this subtle blend of the nation and God worship. One of them was: “We place our hands on our hearts as we recite the Pledge of Allegiance and proclaim we are one nation under God.” Another one was: “Today we praise God for how truly blessed we are to be American”. Although it is a blessing to be American in many ways, in the context of the current White House narrative this statement sounds more like the statement of an arrogant Pharisee recorded in the Gospels: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…, or even like this tax collector” Luke 18:11.

There are many good, truthful and benevolent things listed in the presentation of the President about America, its people, and about God’s kindness and providence. One of them is: “Across our land we see the splendor of God’s creation. Throughout our history, we see the story of God’s providence. And in every city and town we see the Lord’s grace all around us through a million acts of kindness, courage and generosity.” However those features are just as true for many other nations in the world, and not for America alone.

Considering that the President spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast and not at a political or election rally, his presentation was lacking the features that have marked the prayers of all great Godly leaders throughout the history. The President’s message lacked in humility, repentance for the nation’s sins, and empathy for the oppressed and the otherwise disadvantaged.

For example, there was no room in his address for the refugees, immigrants, vulnerable people regularly separated from their families and deported just because they entered the US undocumented as children. Likewise, there was no word of empathy uttered for the homeless, jobless, the poor.

Moreover, it is a simply proven fact that there is more exhibited hatred and anger in the US today than two years ago. Unfortunately, all kinds of white supremacist and alt-right groups feel at home in the US today. In the light of those facts the President’s message was shallow, incomplete, one sided, and unconvincing.

On the other hand, considering the speaker this was probably the best speech he delivered to date. The President refrained from using his otherwise well known, tweet-like, wild and cynical comments, and other verbal excesses. At least he did not insult or humiliate anyone this time.

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Podcast: Developing Transformational Leaders in the Polarized Balkan Region

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In the latest The Peacemakers Podcast Randall Butler interviews Tihomir Kukolja about  his growing up in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Tihomir describes the shocking rise of ethnic nationalism after the death of Yugoslavia’s long time leader, Josip Broz Tito and the resulting devastating wars in the 1990s.  He also tells the story of the founding of the ROM – Renewing Our Minds leadership development and reconciliation project in the immediate aftermath and its transformative work for the past 19 years with young leaders in the polarized Balkan region. Time 81 min.

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Audio: Leading Jesus’ Way

Friends, take a moment to listen to the message I shared at the end of ROM (Renewing Our Minds) Gathering 2017, in Fuzine, Croatia. It is a relevent message to all of us who take Jesus seriously. In the message I invited everyone to follow the leadership example of Jesus. Jesus demonstrated that the only legitimate kind of leadership was the leadership of service administered through love and humility. This kind of leadership is offensive to many leaders today because they believe that humility is a weakness, and that the greatness in leadership is achieved by walking over the other people. But we are here because we want to become a different kind of leaders, leaders who will not create a graveyard of people. It is Jesus’ humility that made Him the greatest leader of all. To be big one needs to become small first. Time 16:34 min.

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Prayer for 2018

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Dear Friends,

As we are crossing the bridge between 2017 and 2018 we are inheriting the world in distress, agonizing, and “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (Romans 8:22). It looks as if a blanket of darkness is descending upon the earth.

But these are not the days to despair. God, who will not let his glory and throne be hijacked by anyone, is in control. Our future is not guaranteed either by the right-wing or by the left-wing ideologies, nor by charismatic leaders. Instead, these are the days when we are called to listen to the summons of Jesus:  “Stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21:28.

Today, courageously we must reject all ethnic, religious and political nationalism, racism and ideological euphoria, if we are to discern with clarity what is good, honorable and righteous in the sight of God. The times are too serious and perilous that we should toy with the notion that a sugarcoated or mediocre religiosity would do the trick.

In fact, we must decide now to give our undivided loyalty to Jesus, and Jesus alone, and let all our values and actions spring up from there. As we are about to cross into the New Year may we pray together:  ”Wake us up, Lord! Open our eyes, quicken our souls, renew our minds.“

In 2018 may we move forward with the determination of Jacob who, having wrestled with the Lord and people, declared: “Lord, I will not let you go unless you bless me!” Genesis 32:26. May the Lord bless you as you continue to seek Him with ever increasing urgency.

Wishing You and Your Families a rewarding and Christ-anchored New Year 2018!

Tihomir Kukolja

 

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By Courtesy of the President and His Faith Constituency

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It is embarrassing to read the multitudes of praises lavished by the choruses of overjoyed Evangelicals at this moment upon the yesterday’s decision of Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. For them the President’s decisions was a prophetic milestone. In their view Donald Trump had just proved himself to be the Cyrus of our age, a leader handpicked by God, and the defender of modern Israel. Dr. Michael Brown now asks rhetorically, subliminally jubilant: “Will God bless Trump for moving our embassy to Jerusalem?” No doubt Franklin Graham will bless the President’s move soon enough too.

Trump’s evangelical constituency believes that their prayers are being answered. The President’s status as the Lord’s anointed one is being verified. In their eyes, Donald Trump is a fulfillment of the last-day prophecies. He is giving a helping hand to God so that the coming of the Lord may be hastened. His yesterday’s announcement, they believe, presented a big leap forward towards the rapture. In their views, we may soon expect the final seven years to begin, ushered in by the Antichrist. Of course, his evangelical constituency does not see him as a valid candidate. How could they since his evangelical advisers, prophets, and associates helped set stage for the Trump’s decision?

Let me put this in a straightforward language. His evangelical constituency is overwhelmingly populated by people who firmly believe in the theology of the “Left Behind” apocalyptic fiction; a deceptive belief falsely taken for the Biblical truth. It is widely popular across many denominational lines, and heavily preached by too many popular preachers, evangelists, self-styled prophets, and leading evangelical TV networks, and based on the faulty theology of dispensationalism.  And when blended with the American international politics, it becomes explosive.

Dispensationalism is a religious fiction that misses to understand, in the words of St. Paul, the “mystery of Christ” – namely that “Gentiles and Israel are members together of one body, and sharers together in the promises of Christ” (Eph. 3:3-12. NIV). It fails to understand that all messianic prophecies of the Old Testament were met in Jesus, and not in the geographical Israel of the 21st century. Its followers fall into the same trap the Jews of the days of Jesus fell two thousand years ago, who missed to see the true significance of Jesus because they expected a militant messiah, a heavily armed warrior who would lead their wars against the Roman oppressor. Mistakenly, they believe that the current Israel plays the leading and central role in God’s economy of salvation in the final days of human history. One day, so they believe, Jesus is going to fight the physical war for Israel, and they want to make sure they and America are fighting along the wining side. Thus, the Trump’s evangelicals believe that in order to be blessed one has to bless Israel. And, so they believe, this was exactly what their redeemer-president did yesterday.

And yet, we who read the Bible prophecies somewhat differently, know that a new pandora box has been opened. We will not need to wait for a long time to see the damaging consequences of the latest President’s decision upon the international affairs, knowing that the President is intimately and professionally surrounded by an army of advisers, counselors, prophets, and spiritual warriors – all of them firm believers in the “Left Behind” deceptive fiction. What a nightmarish prospect for misguided decisions and actions, when made to fit in the pre-made paradigm of the questionable prophetic interpretations?

Today we have witnessed only a beginning. More is coming. Indeed, the yesterday’s decision of the President might just as well have a prophetic meaning. If it does, it will be of a different kind from what the President’s evangelical friends believe. But there is a hope. Not all Christian leaders have fallen for deception.

One more thing. What we believe does have consequences. For, what Michelle Goldberg, the author of the article “Antichrist Politics” published sixteen years ago said, could be more than true today: “When people believe their politics are endorsed by God, today’s ally can be tomorrow’s Satan”.

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PS. I am adding some now points that I shared on Facebook in response to the comments shared by the readers of this article:

  • It is not the Gospel that does this to people but the twisted beliefs about the Gospel. I am not criticising the Christian faith, but its perversions. Dispensationalism is one of them, and at this moment many who surround DT believe in it. When you bring a twisted belief into the political arena, it becomes dangeorus. Our President craves a continuing support of 81% white evangelicals and he wanted to please them. Now he can do whatever he wants, and they would not mind because they are now reasured in their deceit that DT is a man sent by God to bring America and the world in order. I have an issue with them, not with the Gospel of Christ.
  • I am not sure I know what the Presdident believes. But I do know what his faith constituency believes. He would not have ever become the President if it were not for the 81% white evangelicals who brought him to the White House. Many of them believe in what I have described in the text. They have blended a perverted belief with politics, thus the issue has both – religious and political connotations. In their view Donald Trump has scored big with what he did yesterday. Now he can do whatever he wants, and his evangelical constituency will not mind. Who cares now that he groped who knows how many women, and that he lies and brags about himself habitually. He is now their champion appointed and annointed by God. And this is the only thing that matters to them.
  • I have no issue with Israel deciding about its capital. I have an issue with the way the President goes about his business, and the influence of a large segment of his evangelical friends who are definitely formatting the US international politics with their misguided beliefs.
  • Also, a clarification is needed. Not all Evangelicals support Donald Trump. The 81% (most likely less by now) who are behind him are still a minority, but a vocal, militant and restless minority. There are many evangelicals, and even more other Christians who see things differently. So we need to be careful, including myself, that we do not put all American Christians into the same box.
  • Dec 9, 2017: I feel tempeted to expand this earticle further because at this moment a number of statements and comments are growing at many places across social media that demonstrate that my article, urgently completed two days ago, was not an exaguration at all. Feel free to google and visit YouTube. For example, Senator Doug Broxson declared yesterday: “When I heard about Jerusalem, where the King of Kings, where our soon-coming King is coming back to Jerusalem, it is because President Trump declared Jerusalem to be capital of Israel!…” It seems Senator Broxon and many like him cannot wait for the Armagedon to start, and they would be very proud if some credit for it would go to the Presdient Trump and his faitful followers. It almost seems that one day Jesus would have to say “Thank You” to Donald Trump. However, such an insane statement reminds me of the Bible warning given to many Christians today who are ready for some kind of Christian jihad to take place: “Because of you the name of God is being blasphemed among the people”. Romans 2:24. What we believe does have consequences, indeed. And what Michelle Goldberg, the autor of the article “Antichrist Politics”, published sixteen years ago said, might just as well come true today: “When people believe their politics are endorsed by God, today’s ally can be tomorrow’s Satan”. Read also this and this.

Recommended reading:

What President Trump’s Jerusalem Proclamation Means for Palestinians, Shadia Qubti

 

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Predestined in Christ and Because of Christ

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God did not arbitrarily draw the line between the saved and the unsaved. The election of believers can only be properly understood in the light of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

A long time before anyone of us existed God predestined Jesus to be the Redeemer of the world. Then, for no apparent inherent reason, of all people God elected Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to deliver Jesus into the human family. And then, in and through Jesus, God made His election effective for everyone who trusts in Jesus – regardless of our religious, national, ethnic or racial backgrounds.

Election and redemption of believers are not two independent events or categories. Notice that, according to Ephesians 1:3-11, anything that has ever happened to us in regard to predestination, has already taken place “in Jesus” for the purpose of “bringing all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ”. Eph. 1:10. NIV.

When Paul debates “God’s sovereign choice” in the Letter to the Romans (chapters 9, 10, 11) he is not doing it to justify an arbitrary will of God in regard to the final destiny of people, or to argue on behalf of “limited atonement”. He is trying to tell the Jews of his days, who were steeped in religious nationalism and national self-importance, that just as much as it was God’s sovereign will to choose formerly Abraham, Isaac and Jacob out of so many other human families, peoples and nations, because of Jesus God now has equal sovereign right to choose anyone else (Romans 10:11), without apologizing to the Jews, or to anyone else for doing so.

No two independent lines of salvation exist anywhere in the Bible; one that goes through a random act of election of an arbitrary God, and another one through the cross of Jesus. The line of election and the line of the cross are one and the same line. They are the two facets of the same truth.

In fact, everything is very simple: “To all who received Him. to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” John 1:12.13. NIV

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Reformation Without Strings Attached

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Five hundred years ago, on 31st October 1517., a German monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church in Germany. This event set in motion the unstoppable wave of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, and led to the departure of the churches identified with the Reformation from the Roman Catholic Church.

In the heart of the big split were two incompatible interpretations of the centrality and the role of the saving grace and faith in the lives of believers. On the one hand the Roman Catholic Church, through its teachings and popular beliefs acted as if it were the authorized administrator of God’s grace to believers. In other words, the grace of God came into the lives of believers with some conditions attached, of which the Roman Catholic Church was in control.

The Reformers, however, understood that if the grace of Jesus Christ were to be the undiluted grace, it had to be administered without any human strings attached. According to the Reformers, grace is no longer grace the moment subjective interpretations or requirements are added to it. Such was the case with the offensive sale of indulgencies in the days of Martin Luther, when the Roman Catholic Church of the days was adding a monetary value to the grace of Christ. It deceived the millions by the Johann Tetzel’s formula: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul out of the purgatory springs”.

As the Reformation reached its momentum, following the brave Luther’s declaration “Here I Stand, I can do no other”, the Reformers guarded the rediscovered Gospel by the following statements of faith: “Jesus alone! Grace alone! Faith alone! Bible alone!”

Today, 500 years later, we are hearing the choruses of Christian leaders and scholars declaring that the Reformation was a big mistake, and that all theological differences that continue to keep the Roman Catholics and the Protestants apart were caused by “a tragic misunderstanding”.  “Our differences are only a matter of semantics. After all don’t we all believe that we are all saved by grace! Aren’t we sharing in the same Holy Spirit!” – many are reasoning today.

A case in point was the late Anglican Bishop Tony Palmer, who dedicated his life to building bridges between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestants, especially the Evangelical charismatic communities claiming that the “Luther’s protest is over”.  In his view the protest achieved its purpose in 1999 when the “Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Lutheran church signed an agreement that brought an end to the protest”.

Likewise, a recent visit of  Pope Francis to Sweden, where he met with the top leaders of the Lutheran World Federation about the commemoration of 500 years of the Protestant Reformation, seemed to be suggesting that Pope Francis too believed that the end of five hundred year-long separation was almost over. As the time of celebration of the important anniversary was nearing the voices declaring the ushering in of the age of new unity of the Spirit were becoming increasingly louder. It seems as if the embarrassment of the fragmented Christianity is about to end soon?

But, is that really so? Has anything substantially changed for better in our appreciation of the Gospel of Christ since that day in 1517 when Martin Luther protested against the religious manipulations of the day? Have we finally come to a clearer understanding of the meaning, centrality and all-sufficiency of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in our salvation? Have we finally stopped turning our denominations and churches into the ‘dens of robbers’ by selling in them our own brands of saving supplements? Have we all, after many debates, commissions and joint declarations come to share in the transfiguration experience of Jesus, so that finally we “see no one and nothing else but Jesus”? Matthew 17:8.

I am not convinced that we have. And I am saying “we” because all kinds of self-saving placebos are marketed across the entire spectrum of Christendom today, and not only by the fringe Christian movements.

The examples vary from the outrageous and extreme self-molestations of Catholics in Philippines during the days of Easter, to the superstitious veneration of relics and deceased human intercessors and co-redeemers, still very much alive even in the most liberal circles of the Roman Catholic Church. There where the leaders of the church are still directing their followers to seek the redemptive and mediating qualities in their saints, bones, holy objects and holy places, reformation has not taken place yet.

By the same token, have we Protestants moved forward “always reforming” when many of us are relying on our subjective forms of mysticism?  Listen, for example, to the popular contemporary praise and worship services and you will discover that too many Protestants/Evangelicals are indulged in the praise of their emotions rather than in the praise of Jesus the Redeemer.

Or, what to say about depending too much on the subjective prophetic and charismatic experiences for the assurance of our standing with God rather than on the firm promise that “whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved?” Romans 10:13. Are we truly reformed if it matters to us more that we feel right, rather than that we believe right?

Also, have we really understood the heart of Reformation if our mainstream denominations are watering down all the denominational statements that have until recently declared the appreciation for the uniqueness of Jesus as “the only name given to men to be saved”? Acts 4:11.

In other words, wherever a Christian culture exists that encourages its followers to believe and act as if their salvation, or sense of God’s approval depend on our works of any kind; or on our subjective inner feelings and notions; or when we are encouraged to look for the revelation of God in the inner mazes of our consciousness and emotions – through it all we 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.

As long as something is being added, whatever that may be, to which we give even partial redemptive attributes, we have not grasped the heart, meaning and continuing urgency of the Reformation. Instead of “always reforming” we are continually deforming.

Today many are praying for unity, quoting the prayer of Jesus “that all may be one”. Unfortunately, they are forgetting that the only legitimate unity shared among the followers of Jesus is the one with Jesus 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. Claims that “since we all share in the same Spirit we ought to share in the visible unity too” are very deceptive claims. Unity that does not have Jesus-plus-nothing in the center is a hijacked unity. Cosmetic unifications are not based on the truth but on compromises that always sacrifice the Gospel. There where Jesus Christ is not on the throne, some other “christs” will be enthroned. This is why the warning of Paul the Apostle sounds so urgent and so 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.

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

 

Postscriptum added November 14, 2017 :

No church organization, movement or a group can honestly claim to be the flag-bearers of the Reformation if they have departed from believing in the central importance of the substitutionary life and death of Jesus Christ, and his literal, bodily resurrection. Trusting in Jesus-alone, plus no one or anything else, is the heart of the Reformation. Understanding its meaning is enough to know that the reasons for the Protest have not been removed yet, and that they are very much alive today across the Protestant spectrum too.  Any Christian group that undermines or caricatures the most literal centrality of Christ in its teaching; or that pays Him a lip service only, or hijacks the Gospel of Christ for the promotion of its own peculiar teachings are not the Reformers of our days. Neither are those who major on the social and cultural benefits of the Reformation alone, while being embarrassed of its Christ-alone centered heart. Only those who continue to see and interpret everything they believe through the glasses of the exclusive and substitutionary importance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and are ready to get rid of all other additives to our salvation as redundant, are legitimate flag bearers of the Reformation.

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Becoming Agents of Forgiveness and Reconciliation

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ROM 2017 Generation, Fuzine, Croatia

Tihomir Kukolja wrote this article for the October 2017 Forum for Leadership and Reconciliation Newsletter

The 2017 Renewing Our Minds (ROM) leadership gathering held in Fuzine, Croatia this August brought together, a group of seventy young and seasoned leaders from fifteen countries. Among them were politicians, social activists, founders and directors of various non-governmental organizations, professors, journalists, artists, community and faith leaders, and pastors, students eager to make a positive contribution to their societies, and refugees from distant and conflict ridden countries seeking a new home.

Most of us came from Southeast and East Europe countries like Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Moldova. Some came from more distant places, such as Iran, Afghanistan and South Africa. Some came Norway, UK and USA. We all came to wrestle together with hard issues that are hurting and dividing our countries, communities, and the world.

We talked in our small groups about the rise of nationalism, fascism, hatred, and intolerance.  We wrestled with the sins of modern day slavery, ethnic and religious discrimination, and increasing threats to human rights, freedom of conscience and religion, and to the peace in the world. Through it all we focused on Jesus as the source of healing, personal and social, and the answer how to uphold the dignity and integrity of human life. We discussed at length about how to become agents of forgiveness and reconciliation in our communities.

What distinguishes ROM from numerous other leadership development initiatives, is that we believe that the only humanism, social engagement and entrepreneurship that make a lasting difference in the world are those sanctified by the transformative power and example of Jesus Christ. The underlining understanding behind the ROM worldview is that only those leaders whose lives are moved and instructed by the power and example of Jesus, who through the cross embraced the whole world into His forgiving and healing embrace, are able to spread their hands in the loving embrace of our fellow men and women. Consequently, only the people with their minds renewed by Jesus are empowered to become the true ambassadors of genuine renewal in the world (Romans 12:2). Hence the ROM motto “Ambassadors for a Better World”.

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Participants at ROM 2017 from South Africa, Afghanistan and Moldova

 

If one is to single out the most powerful and transforming moments at the 2017 ROM Gathering it would be hard to do justice to the abundance of powerful moments that made this ROM Gathering stand out. We ought to mention a few, however: Agape Dinner, a welcoming dinner at the beginning of ROM; Refugees Morning and the Persian Night – special moments when refugees shared their stories and cultures; Empathy Night, a powerful evening session that opened our eyes to the hurts of others; and the feet washing moment at the end of ROM 2017 that powerfully and meaningfully demonstrated the power of humility in leadership. The most individually transformative times at ROM 2017 however were the afternoon small group activities.

Asked in the survey what they were taking home from ROM 2017, most of the participants said: “a genuine demonstration of love and service, friendship and transformation, a fresh understanding of leadership, powerful human stories, motivation to be deliberate in serving and loving others, better understanding of the centrality of Jesus, and of how one’s faith in Jesus informs one’s actions in society.”

A special gift to the ROM 2017 generation were the seven refugees who attended the gathering from the beginning to the end. Two refugees joined the ROM 2017 summer team. The other five attended ROM for the first time. One of them, a professional taekwondo sportsman from Iran, recently received the residence status in Croatia. The other six are caught up in a lengthy and tiring process of waiting to receive the final decision about their legal status in Croatia. Three of them, Christians had to leave Iran due to religious persecution. Two of them, Muslims from Afghanistan, left their country due to ongoing tribal discrimination and persecution. All of them are beautiful young people whose life stories, their attitude of service and gentleness have moved and enriched everyone attending the Gathering. All of them were also profoundly moved by the kindness, acceptance and love they received from everyone attending ROM 2017. “To us you are not refugees. You are our friends, brothers and sisters. We are your family, and you are our family,” those were the words of encouragement they often heard at the ROM 2017 Gathering.

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Small Groups are the heart of ROM

One of the two refugees from Afghanistan who attended ROM 2017 for the first time embraced the welcome he experienced at ROM with the following words: “I was a person who was not normally welcome into any community due to the reasons which were not my fault. I am from Afghanistan and this created in me a sense of growing hopelessness in my heart about God, people and everybody around me. But coming to ROM created a very different experience. I was no more a refugee. I was not a foreigner or a Muslim. I was a friend. I was a brother among other brothers and sisters. I understood that I am liked by others, and that God loves these people and me.”

It has to be said that the center of everything we did, taught or practiced at the ROM 2017 leadership and reconciliation gathering was the person of Jesus. The objective of the ROM leadership team was to encourage everyone attending to follow Him and emulate Him. One of the participants said a few days the ROM 2017 was over: “I was worried I would get depressed in the days after the gathering. But I did not because I see myself now as a person on a mission”. Another participant wrote: “A broken hearted and frustrated girl turned into an inspired, happy and full of hope person. The best gift I am taking from ROM 2017 are many friends who share the same values and love for Jesus.”

That ROM is much more than just another event to be quickly forgotten is demonstrated by the intensity of interactions between the new friends who now think alike in the days following the  ROM gathering. Debora Salgau from Romania wrote on her Facebook page a few days ago: “There were participants from many countries, of different backgrounds and different age groups. They slowly became my friends, and all my walls came down, and my prejudices were gone. So now, countries like Afghanistan, Iran or Serbia are more than just a point on the map”.

Violeta Altmann blogged recently: “I came to the (ROM) table hungry, dehydrated, discouraged, and then I was served clarity, encouragement and wisdom in the most unexpected ways. What I loved the most about ROM 2017 is that not every attendee was a Christian. If we don’t dine with the nonbelievers, when will we witness to them? I loved the way there was room for respect and conversation, understanding and love at the table.” You must read her entire article.

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Shayan and Donya Spanta share some music in Farsi

 

It is very hard to explain the passion and transforming impact the Renewing Our Minds ministry has on everyone who comes in contact with it unless you’ve seen it and experienced it yourself. Yes, ROM has to be experienced. The main reason I have myself stayed at the helm of the ROM leadership for so many years (since 2001) is that I am continually witnessing the work of the transforming power of God in the lives of the hundreds of young people who have allowed their minds to be renewed through its ministry. Nevertheless, one thing we witness again and again in connection with the Renewing Our Minds ministry: God is using it to direct, shape and change the lives of the young leaders, one at the time.

At the end of the 2017 ROM Gathering, through her own experience, Heather Staff – a young and emerging politician, and a director for the Youth Leadership Board of Christians in Politics in the UK, who serves also as a member of the ROM Core Leadership Group – summarized well the impact ROM ministry has had on the young leaders who attended the ROM Gathering in Fuzine, Croatia this August: “I am inspired. I work in politics in the UK. I am inspired, have become more cross-cultural, working with different groups and different people, but also basing all of it on the principles of Jesus. I am now louder and stronger, and a better voice in my community.”

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A Message to the Croatian Leaders

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On Monday, 25th September, 2017, Donya Spanta addressed a group of Croatian leaders about the plight of refugees, asylum seekers in Croatia. She delivered her message in the Croatian Parliament at the reception given in honor to Tvrtko Barun, one of the two recipients of the award “European Citizen” for the year 2017, for his leadership of JRS – Jesuit Refugee Service in Croatia and Southeast Europe. Donya Spanta spoke on behalf of hundreds of refugees who are at this time waiting to have their asylum statuses resolved. Donya Spanta and her husband Shayan are my good friends. Because of the urgency of Donya’s message I would like to share it with my other friends. Donya’s message delivered to the Croatian leaders a few days ago is the message that all governments slow to receive refugees must hear.

Donya’s message:

A refugee is a person who has been forced to leave his or her country in order to escape war, persecution, or other reasons. But who is a refugee according to media or in the minds of many people these days? A criminal, an illiterate person, or a dangerous person.

I’m from a modern country. I graduated in business administration, and my husband graduated in art. We’re trying hard to stay strong, and focus on our lives in this country.

We’re trying to help people however we can – with translation, with talking with them, spending time with them, or anything else that we think is important for them in this situation.

Maybe you want to know, in my country there is no war, but we had left our homeland, our family, our friends, our home, our job, and whatever else we had because of persecution. We didn’t have any other choice but escape.

Then we applied for asylum.  At the first meeting that we had with a legal advisor, they said that the asylum procedure takes around six or nine months. We had two interviews in the first four months. Our decision makers said we needed to wait two more months to hear from the MUP (Croatian Police).

Then sixth months later we got a letter letting us know we needed to wait for another three months. In the ninth month, we got another one telling us we needed to wait four more months. Finally, after waiting for fourteen months we had our decision from the MUP.  We were approved of receiving the international protection in Croatia according to our documents and proofs, but SOA (Croatian Security and Intelligence Agency) identified us as a threat.

I was in a state of shock for several days. I could not understand the reason why because they didn’t explain it. In fact, right now I am a threat to your country, and I am speaking in your parliament. What an amazing composition. We appealed, and are still waiting for the court date.

The procedure is really slow, and long. People are losing their hope, their patience, and their health. Women are depressed. Many marriages have been ruined. I know a girl who was left by her brother, who went to another country because he was not sure about his future here. And I know family with two little boys abandoned by their mother. She left them because she lost hope. You may come to our center to hear more real-life stories.

But I’m not here to complain.

Seen from another perspective, we live in a beautiful country with nice people and rich culture. You are friendly and welcoming. We have given us a shelter and food. It is not good but it is OK. You are giving us whatever you can. Many organizations work with us to help us have a better life, and I’m so thankful for all of them.

I am here to ask you to think about our problems and find solution for them. I am talking here on behalf of the people who are living in limbo, and suffering in a hopeless situation.

Please bring the change, do something however small. May God bless all of you!

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Audio and Video: The Way of Jesus

Tihomir Kukolja shared a message “The Way of Jesus” at the 2017 EDI – Economic Diplomacy and Integrity Forum in Fuzine, Croatia, July 2017. Time: 28:24 min.

The Way of Jesus: With a few adaptations, for the purpose of contextualizing it for the listening audience, I shared the message “The Way of Jesus” several times throughout 2017. I shared the same message with the participants attending the 2017 EDI – Economic Diplomacy and Integrity Forum (audio) at the end of July 2017 in Fuzine, Croatia. And then in August I shared it with the 2017 ROM – Renewing Our Minds participants (video). The available video segment features the middle part of the message presented at ROM 2017. Take 11:20 minutes, listen to the message and let me know your thoughts about the message and its implications. A message to EDI 2017 and ROM 2017 friends: let’s continue the conversation about the centrality of Jesus in everything we are, believe and practice. Video recorded by Silvia Nichita.

Additional thoughts: One day Jesus took three of his disciples – Peter, James and John – to a solitary mountain for a special educational moment. There the three disciples had a unique encounter not only with Jesus, but also with Moses and Elijah, the two pillars of the Old Testament religion. Delighted and afraid disciples wanted to turn the mountain into a holy shrine. The moment Peter suggested the idea to Jesus, everything changed. “A bright cloud covered” the terrified disciples. They fell to the ground and heard the voice speaking from the cloud: “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!” A moment later they looked up and “they saw no one else but Jesus.” Matthew 17:1-8. In other words, no one and nothing else mattered any more except Jesus.

Additional reading: Jesus Transcends Them All

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