Are we Following the Same God? 

In my new, weekly video reflection I am asking a question – Are we following the same God? 

I love to reflect on the lives of men and women like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, William Wilberforce, Maximilian Kolbe, Desmond Doss and many more of the kind. They have shared the plight of the poor, stood for justice, fought against slavery, proclaimed peace and reconciliation, unmasked oppressive regimes, saved lives. Not all died a violent death, but they all gave themselves up in an honorable, dedicated and consuming service to their fellow men and women. They were the true martyrs who walked in the shoes of Jesus of Nazareth. Wherever and whenever this world became a better and happier place, this happened only thanks to the heroes who radiated the image of the loving God in their lives. Listen to hear more, and recommend to your friends. 4.08 min.

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A Letter to My American Friends

“A great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was and earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.” 1. Kings 19:11.12.

Twenty years ago to date a group of terrorists shook America and the world. The world has never been the same. Soon after the terrorist attack on New York and Washington DC, I wrote, from Croatia,  the following letter to a group of American friends. On this occasion, when we remember the thousands of lost lives, I would like to share the same letter again.

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 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 Muslims, 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 in 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 by a leading media network recently: “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.

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Ours is not a Tribal God

Today, despite all modern sophistications, we are returning to the age of tribalism just as savage as any in the former, barbarian ages. Bitter rivalries between ideological, political, gender, racial, ethnic, national, social, economic, cultural tribes are defining our days. It is not the war of civilizations that we are facing, but the war of tribes, each determined to settle the scores of the bygone hurts – real, perceived or falsified. Nothing else matters any more except one’s tribal pride. It seems everyone is up against everyone else in this war of survival of the meanest. Listen to our reflection for this week. 

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Speaking Holistically About Life

A homeless person in Houston. Photo Tihomir Kukolja.

I am pro-life, but not only for the unborn. And I wish many Christians who fiercely oppose the legalization of abortion, would dare go beyond a single issue too. It is for that reason, and a few more, that I cannot support  the Texas abortion law, or Senate Bill 8, signed last week by the Texas governor Greg Abbott.

Imagine what a transforming impact an army of Christian pro-lifers would have in the U.S. and elsewhere, if we would all as vigorously defend the rights and dignity of the poor, jobless and homeless among us; a health care reform that would take care of everyone regardless of their socio-economic status or age, even if this meant giving less for the military; legal and illegal immigrants, who are often treated as the scum of the world; overworked and poorly paid workers whose slavery to the greedy international corporate interests makes the extravagant lifestyle of the extremely rich possible; or young men and women sent to distant lands to sacrifice their lives in often dubious war conflicts, such as the embarrassing war in Afghanistan. Those and other are the issues that echo my understanding of what it means to support life in its totality; from the mother’s womb to the time of death.

I know Christians, churches and faith movements that see the organic connection between the Gospel of Jesus and its appeal to love our neighbors radically — near and far, believers and non-believers alike. They are all actively involved in helping, healing and upholding the neglected and the outcast. Their social activism is firmly rooted in a broader affirmation of the Gospel of Christ. They all understand that the embrace of Jesus that leads unto salvation, demonstrated by the cross, is inviting also the entire human family into a big, warm hug. And once one is caught in Jesus’ embrace, one cannot help but embrace others too.

Sadly there are too many Christians who fail to see the bigger picture: one that embraces a holistic understanding of the sacredness of human life. If one is to judge the quality and intensity of social engagement among Christians in the U.S. on the basis of the issues that the most vocal pro-life advocates advocate through public discourse, one can easily come to a conclusion that there are only a couple of issues they are passionate about: protecting the unborn and opposing gay marriages. 

A typical, vocal pro-life advocate lives in a state of cognitive dissonance. While he or she passionately supports the rights of the unborn, at the same time they might have no issue with the policies and actions that destroy the lives of the vulnerable, born and raised in poverty, racially and ethnically discriminated, homelessness, immigrants, refugees and otherwise subjected to the greed of the wealthy.

But a larger view of life, as seen through the eyes of Jesus, informs us that the life of a homeless person begging on the street corner is just as sacred as the life of a president of the state; the life of an elderly person in his or her final hour is just as precious as the life of a new born baby; the life of a prisoner on a death row is just as holy as the life of the most reputable person; the life of a medically uninsured person is just as valuable as the life of a patient fully covered; the life of a wanderer who apparently does not contribute much to the community is just as important as the life of the executive director of a big corporation; or the lives of a Muslim, Hindu, Mormon or an atheist, immigrant or refugee are just as loved by God as the life of a mainstream Christian. And if we claim to be the followers of Jesus, their lives should be precious to us too.

Likewise, we may say that any abuse, degradation, enslavement, character assassination, oppression, humiliation, dehumanization or any other condition by which one human being strips another of dignity and value; or when one person or a group of people are taken advantage of by other group of individuals, government, political, military or ideological system, all of those represent a form of killing. So is the hate speech often buttressed by plausible religious concerns, increasingly in use to demonize those who do not belong to my religious, ethnic, racial or social tribe. None of us is completely innocent of many subtle ways by which we have become accomplices in gradually murdering our close and distant neighbors, often by omission, sometimes by deliberate action, as we condone the circumstances and policies that perpetuate the unjust social conditions.

Maybe the most enlightening New Testament reference that leads us towards a better understanding of how God is inviting us to value human life in its totality and from a holistic and more inclusive perspective is found in the appeal of Jesus: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, You did for me … For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Matthew 25:40.35.36. NIV

In the eyes of God human life is not only precious at the time before one is born, but always and under all circumstances. The sooner followers of Jesus understand that, the sooner our local communities, churches, neighborhoods, countries and the world might reflect more closely Jesus’ vision for our world, expressed in the prayer He taught us to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven!

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God Without Disguise

There was a time when believing in the soon return of Jesus Christ defined the lives of many of my generation. I grew up in a church culture that believed in and proclaimed the imminent return of Jesus. As a child I used to dream seeing Jesus coming in the clouds of Heaven. Listen to our reflection for this week. 

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Are We Ready to Welcome Refugees This Time?

Refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan walking towards the Croatian border in Serbia, September 2015

I am at this time working on putting together my first book. It will be a selection of a number of my articles, released and published over the years. This one is a candidate for the book. I would like to share it with you today: 

The currently developing crisis in Afghanistan, with the anticipation of a new wave of refugees fleeing the return of the Taliban regime, reminds of the situation five years ago on the refugee trail in Southeast Europe.

The moment our international team of volunteers moved to the Hungarian and Croatian borders in Serbian mid September 2015 we were under attack from Christians who could not approve of our action. They were scoffing at us and warning us that we were “naïve and misguided”.  Some even said that we were “aiding terrorists and human traffickers”.  

In their view a daily inflow of thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and other neighboring places, including Kurds and a number of Christians, that led across a number of European countries, was the result of a sinister and guided plot to conquer Europe with Islam. They often used the Bible verses to buttress their accusations. Their concerns, shared often aggressively, unfortunately resonated with many Christians across the world whose attitude towards the refugees and immigrants were formed by questionable hermeneutics and confused prophetic interpretations.

The experience of our team, led by the Renewing Our Minds (ROM) initiative in cooperation with EUS Serbia (Evangelical Association of Christians Students), could not disagree more with the loud concerns of those Christian friends who saw the rapidly developing refugee crisis as a serious threat to the “European Christian culture and identity”. 

Our ROM Community Refugee Response, as we nicknamed the action, involved a group of followers of Jesus, mostly young leaders from Serbia, Romania, Croatia, Israel/Palestine, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, UK and the US. We believed that if there was ever a time to demonstrate the love of Jesus toward the people in distress, the time was there and then when Europe was facing the most overwhelming challenge since the end of the World War II. 

We wanted to make a statement of love, compassion, empathy and example. The summon of Jesus was clear to us: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”. (Matthew 25:40. NIV) Our hearts resonated with the words of the Old Testament too: “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:33.34. ESV)

The refugee trail of the late 2015 followed through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovenia, Austria and Germany. But among them Serbia carried the heaviest load at the time.  Its government and people treated the refugees well. Croatia joined Serbia in sharing the burden almost immediately, when Hungary decided to seal its border with Serbia and the refugee trail moved to Croatia.

The encouraging news was that in Serbia and Croatia different Christian church communities and organizations, including a number of self-organized faith groups acted as the first responders almost immediately.  Baptists, Pentecostals, Reformed Christians, Adventists, Lutherans, Orthodox, Catholics, and some more visible faith-based humanitarian agencies were in the fields, on the roads, and in the camps assisting the refugees too.

The refugees on the move were not terrorists. They were the young people, desperate yet daring men and women, families with children, many of them babies still who left their countries because they did not want to be killed, raped or kidnapped. We heard them say: “It is not only one side that you have to dread. There are several militant groups there that are equally evil. If you are a man they want you to fight for them. Otherwise you are a dad man. If one group doesn’t kill you today, the other one will tomorrow. And if you survive those two there are always others that will be after you soon enough.” One refugee said: “People should not judge us because we have smartphones. I have nothing in Syria to return to. We are here because we have no other choice.”

It was not hard to communicate with refugees at all. Many refugees we met were well-educated people who spoke good English. They were always available for a heart-to-heart conversation. Among them were those who already suffered more than the others from a prolonged journey. Some of them had walked for two weeks and some for two months since the day they left Syria. Their feet were hurting, and many walked with crutches, or were helped to move forward in wheelchairs. 

The most moving scenes were those of small children walking with their parents on the dusty dirt road through the cornfields leading to the Croatian border. Those were the days of the late but very hot summer. In two days, in our four cars, we drove close to one hundred children, mothers and people with crutches or walking difficulties the final miles to the border. Hardly anyone in our team could hide our tears.

Our presence, and the presence of the mostly Christian groups at the Hungarian and Croatian borders in those initial days of the refugee crisis were the most meaningful statement of our faith. As we were distributing food, water, some clothes and shoes, and were giving warm hugs and handshakes we heard the refuges saying in a number of different ways: “Our people have forgotten us, but you Christians love us!” Or they would simply say with a smile: “You are good people. Thank you.” At such precious moments we were “little Jesus’” to the hungry and tired refugees on their journey to safety. 

The  refugee crisis placed an enormous pressure on the EU, and especially on Serbia and Croatia. In those late months of 2015 both countries were doing their best to treat the refuges well, and when compared with some other countries along the refugee trail  their record was the best one. Three months later, around Christmas 2015, when our team served in the winter transit refugee camp in Slavonski Brod, Croatia we witnessed many acts of kindness done by numerous civil society groups, faith based humanitarian agencies, Red Cross, even the Croatian government and Police. It seemed everyone involved was proud of being given the opportunity to help.

But it did not take long for the welcoming atmosphere to change. In 2016 the refugee honeymoon was almost abruptly over, while the need to save the incoming refugees remained to be an urgent matter until today. Governments of Europe shared a common attitude that the refugees are not their problem. Aggressive populism grew in Europe and the US towards refugees and immigrants. Border walls and pushbacks replaced the spirit of welcome. And yet those thousands of refugees, hundreds of thousands, alas millions are the real people, real men and women, real families with real children are still waiting for our unconditional embrace.

As we are at this time bracing ourselves for a new wave of refugees, mostly from Afghanistan, let’s hear Jesus speaking louder than ever: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25: 35.36. NIV)

Are we ready to welcome refugees this time with open arms and hearts?

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Jesus Plus Nothing

A short reflection, part of the series “Something to Think About”. The reason we are continuing to live in the state of cognitive dissonance of claiming the name of Jesus only, while blissfully continuing to venerate various additions of our own making, is that we ourselves no longer can tell the difference between Jesus and our own wrappings of Jesus. Our hardest challenge today, that always meets the strongest opposition from within and without, is to unwrap Jesus, take the layers of unnecessary, even misleading and deceptive wrappings off, and let the undiluted and unveiled Jesus speak from the pages of the Gospels and the New Testament. And the good place to start would be if we ask ourselves: “Do I care enough to let the real Jesus stand up?” Something to Think About #002

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Ambassadors for a Better World

Fuzine, a small, picturesque Croatian town that for 20 years mentored hundreds of young leaders from many countries of the world

I am at this time working on putting together my first book. It will be a selection of a number of my texts released and published over the years. This one is a candidate for the book. I would like to share it with you today: 

Mainstream and social media today feed our imagination with stories of  leaders, celebrities known for dubious morality, scandalous relationships, questionable prosperity, and irresponsible leadership. Some of the government leaders, former presidents, celebrity pastors and popular evangelists are a case in point.

It is important at this time to have our minds focused on the memories of a different brand of leaders, such as William Wilberforce (1759-1833), an English parliamentarian who dedicated his entire life to abolishing of the slave trade on the British Isles. Dietrich Bonheoffer (1906-1945), German theologian and clergyman, paid with his own life for daring to stand up to the National Socialism of Adolf Hitler at a time when most German Christians were applauding the Fuehrer. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), US Civil Rights leader led a movement that brought closer the American society across its racial divides. Mother Teresa (1910-1997), an ethnic Albanian nun with a global impact, brought hope and love to millions of the outcast in India and the world. Desmond Tutu (1931), a South African bishop, stood up against apartheid long before it was abolished in 1994. 

They were the leaders of substance and character who brought hope, inspiration and healing to broken relationships, a taste of undiluted justice and a vision of a better world. They were the “salt and the light of the world” — Matt. 5:13-16. What set them apart from the celebrities of the moment was that they resolved to stand up, not for their own convenience, prestige or gain, but for human dignity and the freedoms of others. 

They were the true heroes, armed with the attitude of service and sacrifice. By the power of example and action they gained the right to be the leaders worth following. Their vision and passion came from a higher source of authority than themselves. In the words of C.S. Lewis, they were the people who “did most for the present world precisely because they thought most of the next.” Their leadership was a prophetic, and often a costly one. They were the ambassadors for a better world.

Sadly, the concept of what constitutes good leadership today has largely lost its prophetic focus and transformative power. For too many being a leader today means an entitlement to undeserving empowerment: a position they gain by walking shamelessly and ruthlessly over their political and ideological opponents. Destroying anyone at whatever cost who stands in their way of claiming the throne of power has become a standard way of advancing to the top. Lying, demonizing, defamation, character assassination, fact manipulation, appealing to populism, gossip designed to ruin another’s reputation, and shameless blame-shifting seem to be a blueprint followed by many rushing to the attractive summits of power.

Unfortunately, much of power grabbing in the US and elsewhere is done by the leaders who love to brag about their faith and their support for Christian values. They love to make sure we know how concern they are for the spiritual and moral wellbeing of their nation. They are selectively pro-life. They love to be seen in churches, be photographed with the Bible in their hands, present themselves as the sole defenders of religious freedom.  

And yet if the 21st century is not to sink further into moral hypocrisy, the world needs leaders who are more than religiously correct. It needs leaders whose minds, hearts and characters are thoroughly transformed in the way the characters of William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Mother Teresa and Desmond Tutu were transformed.

One certainly does not come into possession of a good character and renewed mind through political maneuvering or correct public utterances. The Old Testament account of Jacob’s wrestling with God unveils an amazing insight into the importance of letting a divine influence sharpen the character of any aspiring leader (Genesis 32:22-33). Jacob, whose name meant “one who deceives,” reached the point in his life when he was not willing to let God go until God changed him. He had enough of being a laying and deceitful Jacob. The wrestling encounter with God became a defining moment in Jacob’s life because that night Jacob wrestled with himself too. This was Jacob’s statement that he wanted God to take away from him all deformities of his character — dishonesty, hypocrisy, deception, and the lying spirit.

For anyone who aspires to be a leader called to make a difference, or if one simply wants to be a person whose life counts, wrestling with God and oneself will become one’s unavoidable and ongoing character pruning experience. This kind of character maturing starts with small things, such as — Are you faithful to your spouse, children and family? Do you lie about other people for business or political gain? How do you treat the less fortunate than you? What do you do when no one sees you? In other words, do you find Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” to be a guiding principle in your life?

Let’s decide today to become leaders and people of integrity, decency and truth in all matters, whatever the cost. Do not be afraid to wrestle with yourself and God and you will become a leader your family, community, country and the world desperately need — a leader worth following.

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In Love With the Vulnerable God

In Love With the Vulnerable God, a short reflection by Tihomir Kukolja. On the market of religious goodies today the most vocal salesmen are often the ones selling macho gods; gods of warfare, force, supremacism, racism, nationalism, and submission. Make sure you don’t fall for any of those. The first short message in a series “Something to Think about”. Time 3:16 min. 

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Eight Bells for Our Civilization

A beautiful horse I often meet during my morning walks

Following a 2008 Kentucky Derby race a runner-up horse stumbled as it completed the race, most likely due to a broken ankle, and was immediately euthanized.

Otherwise a horse in her prime, Eight Bells was not fit to live simply because she malfunctioned. Second place in the race was not good enough to honor her with life. Bred for speed, strength and winning, a treatable injury made her unfit for any further money-making gain. 

The ‘mercy’ killing of this horse carries a message: If it doesn’t deliver to the expectations, dump it – just as we dump leftover food, household garbage, yesterday’s newspapers, a broken toy, used car. Because Eight Bells was unlikely to race ever again, someone decided that she was no longer fit to live. Nursing her back to health again, with no prospect of a profit, was not considered convenient

The incident breathes with cynicism so prevalent to the culture of western consumerism that quickly disposes of everything that stands in the way of convenience. Dumped gadgets, disposed unborn babies and euthanized lives are only the scattered examples of a paradigm that treats everything and everybody as a cheap commodity. And a deluge of movie thrillers and TV soaps, in which most of the characters live and die for nothing, is only a metaphor for a society that is losing its moral compass. But there are more prevailing ways that define our culture as one of disposable values. At this moment I am thinking of the poor, too numerous to count, whose poverty is being perpetuated by the design and paradigms of global economics. For only in the world of the multitudes of the poor, there can be a few who are extremely rich. 

I am thinking also of many elderly people, children in foster homes and others who cannot afford social security, healthcare or a home – who, when hit with sickness, joblessness or home foreclosure, are being treated as a social nuisance or outcasts. 

I am thinking of the countless of employees too who, having worked dedicatedly for many years in a single company, are suddenly laid off on the altar of corporate advancements, with no prospect of new decent employment. I can’t help but think also about the waves of dehumanized refugees on the move seeking a new home in a safe environment who are contained in cages, filthy refugee camps, many of who have no prospect of ever again becoming citizens of any country. 

I am thinking of the thousands of young men in uniform whose lives are forfeit the moment they are plunged into the wars that should have never happened. And I am thinking of a devastated environment and the consequences of deliberate ruin brought upon our planet by the arrogant few who could care less should a deluge sweep the Earth after they are gone.

Ultimately, the ‘mercy’ killing of Eight Bells makes me think of a society in distress; one that urgently needs healing of its moral fabric. Torn apart by the lack of moral accountability, our generation calls for the prophets who will declare, plain and clear, that there is more to the substance of life than being measured by its commercial usefulness and its expected expiration date.

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