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The Strange Command to Pay Your Taxes

United States Tax formsAs the dreaded April 15th approaches, it’s interesting to note that there are many Christians today who say they “like to get paid in cash” because, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, “I don’t have to pay taxes on it.” This kind of thinking at once surprises me and doesn’t surprise me. First, it surprises me because I know the clear teaching of Romans 13 on the subject:

For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Romans 13:1-7 (ESV)

But then again, the failure to pay taxes should be no surprise because I know the logic of the “cash under the table” crowd – first of all, sending money to the government “is a waste”. The bureaucrats in Washington squander money left and right. And even more than that, so much of the money goes to ungodly uses, i.e. abortion, restrictions on religious freedoms, etc.

But then again, as many have said before me, if we think our government is wasteful and wicked, then consider the Roman government in Paul’s day. It was far worse. And yet…Paul still paid the full tax.

Now there is a powerful lesson in all this: I once knew a man who had very flourishing ministry – still does today.  And yet, when I got to know him some years ago, I would have had to say that he had, well..issues. Back in the day, his anger was sometimes off the charts, going all the way from cussing out a subordinate…to giving a server in a restaurant a piece of his mind that he couldn’t afford to lose.   And yet, as I’ve indicated, God used him…and quite powerfully.  Many came to Christ through his ministry.

Then I stop and think about me. Obviously, I have issues too, albeit different than this man; but then, if I may, you’ve got your issues too. And yet, how about that – God uses all of us too.

The lesson?  Well, first, we need governments, and they will always be flawed. So God calls us to support them by paying what we legally owe.  But more than that, we need each other.  And we ourselves will always be flawed.  But God also works through very flawed people.  The cynical among us might say, “Well, after all, what choice does He really have?” And there’s truth to that point, but I think we are rightly led to think about this in a different way:

His choice to use flawed individuals and institutions is a prime example…of His glorious grace.

 

Tomorrow, Wednesday, April 8: Romans 14

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Karma?

250px-My_Name_Is_Earl_title_screenThe T.V. show “My Name is Earl” ran from 2005 – 2009.  Its premise was stated by the title character in the opening sequence:

“You know the kind of guy who does nothing but bad things and then wonders why his life sucks? Well, that was me. Every time something good happened to me, something bad was always waiting ’round the corner: karma. That’s when I realized that I had to change, so I made a list of everything bad I’ve ever done and one by one I’m gonna make up for all my mistakes. I’m just trying to be a better person. My name is Earl.”

Karma.  It’s an ancient idea, and yet as the T.V. show illustrates, quite modern as well, so modern that even many Christians today still buy into it.  It was certainly a prevailing worldview when Paul found himself shipwrecked on Malta and tried to build a fire:

When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” Acts 28:3-4 (ESV)

Do you see it?  Paul had been bitten by a poisonous snake; therefore Paul had done something to deserve it.  They called it “justice”, but they really meant Karma – the principle of causality.  If bad things happen to you, it’s because you did bad things.  If good things happen to you, it’s because you did good things.  By the way, Karma is not to be confused with the law of sowing and reaping, which is biblical (Galatians 6:7) – some positive behaviors really do (in general) cause positive outcomes, and some negative behaviors really do cause other negative results, i.e. if you eat donuts for breakfast, lunch and dinner…you will end up looking like a donut. That’s not Karma – it’s just poor nutrition.

Anyway, the idea of Karma is different – the negative thing happening to you stems from an unrelated negative behavior – Paul’s viper could never have been caused by a supposed murder.  Karma is really not hard to understand, and somehow, the idea of it is even harder to escape.  Even Jesus’s disciples seemed to buy into it:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  John 9:1-2 (ESV)

But Jesus straightened them out – it wasn’t that anyone sinned, but that God wanted to glorify His name.

The great problem with Karma is that it’s just not true – it isn’t in fact the way that the world works.  And beyond that, Karma can only lead to one of two outcomes: First, if something negative happens to you, believing in Karma causes a deeper despair than the negative event alone. How could it not? Apparently, Karma says, your cancer diagnosis stems from the way you treated that kid in the third grade.  You were already feeling scared and upset over the cancer.  Now Karma allows you to add guilt. In short, Karma piles on.

And of course, Karma also leads to another outcome.  When good things happen to you, you get proud.  You got promoted at work because you worked hard, and also because you’re a great gal. You got an inheritance from your great aunt Sally because you are a cut above the rest in so many ways.

Pride or despair, two inevitable outcomes of Karma.  There is no middle ground.

But the biblical worldview is that bad things happen because of the fall of man, because the ground was cursed.  All of us suffer in this world, and some of us far more than others, but not based on whether we were decent to the other kids in middle school.

In contrast to Karma, there is a wonderful principle that under girds all of the Christian life.  It is called grace.

I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t a perfect friend to all the other kids in grade school. Not as bad as some, not as good as others. Beyond that, unlike Earl, I will not begin to list my faults and failures.  For I can say that if I were to truly be paid back for all my sinful thoughts and actions, I wouldn’t want to get out of bed tomorrow. So I have no reason for pride.

But because of His love, I have no reason for despair either. When things go wrong in my life, for whatever reason, I know that I am deeply loved by One who is molding me into the image of His Son, even doing it through the consequences of a broken world. And when things go well, I know I don’t deserve it – it’s certainly not Karma – but I am living under the smile of a good and gracious Father…who loves to give good gifts to His children.

“You see one day over 30 years ago, I realized that I had to change, so I took the list of everything bad I’d ever done and one by one, I asked Christ to pay for my sin on the cross. Now I’m trying to live each day in light of His grace. My name is Roger.”

 

Get ready – on Friday, March 20th: Romans 1

 

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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3 Keys to Paul’s Fruitfulness

Let’s put the words found in Acts 20:24 in contention for some of the most beautiful in all of Scripture. They also give us a clue as to why God used Paul so wonderfully.

The scene itself provides a perfect backdrop – Paul is saying goodbye to the elders from Ephesus, Ephesus being the city where he spent more time (2 – 3 years) than any other during his journeys. There is much history in this farewell, and it’s an emotional moment for them all realizing that they will only reunite again in glory.

On the occasion of the meeting, Paul has been on a sea journey, and stops at the port of Miletus, where he has requested the elders of Ephesus to travel for the meeting. In a moment they will walk him back to his ship, and he will put to sea, never to see them again, but before that…this:

“…And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me…” Acts 20:22-23 (ESV)

What a life this man has led, and how many eternities have been redirected by the Spirit’s work through him! But he has endured much pain, and apparently, according to his words above, there is more heartache and difficulty to come. But no matter…verse 24:

But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. Acts 20:24 (ESV)

Apart from the Lord Jesus, was there ever a life that accomplished more for the Kingdom of God than the life of this man Paul the Apostle? We’ll never know, I suppose, but it’s awfully hard to imagine. He was not only the greatest theologian in the history of the world, but he was also the greatest missionary, bringing the gospel to the great Roman Empire. And in the words found in verse 24, we get a clue as to why this man made such a difference.

First, he died to himself: “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself.” Jesus had said that a grain of wheat needed to fall to the earth and die to bear much fruit. (John 12:24) Paul was that grain of wheat, and in his mind, he had died. The bountiful fruit all around him was proof.

Second, he made up his mind to finish. Finishing what we start is sometimes half the battle, and yet this was a theme in his life, as for instance, when he wrote to the Colossians with a special message for a man in the congregation: “And say to Archippus, ‘See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord.’” Colossians 4:17 (ESV) It’s a word that Paul could have written to any of us – finish the task that God has given you to do. And Paul was no hypocrite – Jesus had given him a job to do also, and he was going to finish it.

Third, he had a glorious message. Christianity is not a self-improvement program; it is an announcement. God is gracious, and He has provided forgiveness for our sins through Christ. This was Paul’s message to which he testified solemnly all of his days after the Damascus road. And ultimately, it is this message – empowered by the Holy Spirit, and faithfully proclaimed by His messenger – that changed the world.

 

For Tuesday, March 10th: Acts 21

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Les Misérables

I knew that grace was showcased in Les Miserables, the latest blockbuster released on Christmas day, but I imagesCA9XGINMdidn’t know just how much.  We went with a large cohort to see a matinee yesterday afternoon.

The movie is based on the musical which began its run on Broadway in 1987 and ran until 2003, the fourth longest running Broadway play of all time.  Victor Hugo wrote the novel in 1862 on which the play itself was based, and it is considered one of the greatest novels of the 19th century.

Diane and I spent a memorable night in Chicago seeing Les Mis, probably 15 years ago.  It was only memorable because our seats were so awful, the very definition of nosebleed.  We also went in unfamiliar with the songs and storyline (not recommended for musicals), and found ourselves scratching our heads most of the expensive night.

Anyway, Les Mis is the story of Jean Valjean, a man sentenced to 19 years hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed starving relatives.  Every preacher worth his salt has told the story of an early scene from the tale, where Valjean, upon his release, finds shelter in the home of a bishop and returns the favor by stealing silver from the kind and godly man.  He is caught by the gendarmes, and brought to the bishop, whereupon, the man shocks the police and Valjean, by saying (from the novel):

“Ah! here you are!” he exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?”

It is a tremendous display of grace, and the bishop later tells the criminal Valjean that he has bought his soul for God – use this incident to go and become an honest man.  He does indeed, and we witness the power of grace to transform (see Titus 3:7, 8).

Now what I didn’t know (because I hadn’t read the novel and the nosebleed seats were no help) is that the power of grace is all throughout the story, and most wonderfully set against the harsh taskmaster known as law. In short, I don’t know if I’ve seen a more “Christian” movie in years.

I wonder if Sacha Baron Cohen realized it.

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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3 Years in Heaven for Don Knowlton

Tomorrow it will be three years ago that Dad went to heaven.  It was one week short of his 86th birthday.  I miss him. 

The end came pretty quickly.  He fell in the fall of 2008, and suddenly our world was turned upside down.  Mom has Alzheimer’s and Dad was her caregiver.  Suddenly the “junior Knowltons” were her caregivers, and those 19 days living with Mom (until we got her to assisted living) while Dad had moved to the hospital/nursing home were tough.  I stayed with her in their apartment, and got so low that I took to having the kids stay overnight with me while we managed her medications and life.  Dad had been doing that for years.  What an amazing man.  I wish I had helped him more.   

As a little boy, I remember thinking that my dad was the most handsome man around.  Maybe that seems to you like a strange thing to think, let alone to admit to thinking, but I don’t think so.  He was a good-looking guy, but I’m sure my thoughts had more to do with my admiration of him than his chiseled features.

“DAD, AM I GOING TO HEAVEN?”

Around age 5, I asked Dad if I was going to heaven.  He said I was the best candidate he knew.  His theology stunk…but his love was over the top.  After I became a Christian at age 18, I was burdened that Dad would know the grace of God that had transformed me. I’ll never forget the Thanksgiving weekend where he and I sat down to talk about the gospel.  I had asked him if he would mind me telling him about what I had learned at West Point.  He was wonderfully gracious.  In a bedroom at my aunt’s house in Decatur, Illinois, I drew out the bridge diagram on a piece of paper, showing two cliffs facing one another, man on one side, God on the other, a chasm of sin between them…and a bridge made of a cross.  I so wanted him to trust in Christ, but he wasn’t ready.  However, I’ll never forget what he said and did. He took the paper, folded it up, and said he would carry it in his wallet and think about it.  Ever after that he would occasionally mention to me: “Son, I’ve still got that diagram you showed me in my wallet.  I’m still thinking.”

DAD TRUSTS IN CHRIST

Mom had come to Christ also, and was putting in a few good words for the Savior herself.  One Sunday evening as a junior at the University of Illinois, I called them for our weekly chat.  Dad started, “Son, I told you if I ever did this, you would be the first to know, and today…I asked Jesus to be the Lord of my life.”  The biggest prayer I had ever prayed had just been answered.

Dad was the real deal too.  He used to slip me 20 bucks and say, “Don’t tell your mother.”  But one day after his conversion, he said, “Son, if you’re wondering why I haven’t been passing along the cash like before, it’s because the Lord convicted me that your mother and I are one, and I shouldn’t be doing that behind her back.” Never was I so happy not to get money.

Dad took off in his faith.  We all attended Willow Creek Church for a time, and I would be in one section of the large auditorium with the single adult group, and my folks would be in their same seating section across the way every week.  I would watch from afar with joy as Dad served as an usher and communion server.  He and Mom got in a small group, served in Willow’s tape ministry and helped with various Willow conferences.

They moved to Waupun 7 or 8 years ago as we thought it might be wise to have them close in case of health emergencies.  That was prescient.

Though still alive, Mom is in some ways gone too, though not nearly as happy as Dad is right now.  I dropped by to visit her at the Christian Homestead at the start of the day yesterday.  “Who are you?” she asked, without apology, not trying to fake recognition as she has before. “I’m your son,” I said, and she hugged me like she believed it.  Alzheimer’s turns out to be bittersweet.  On the one hand, she doesn’t remember her only child.  On the other hand, she doesn’t have to mourn that she was once married to the handsomest man in town, gone now, but in a far, far better place.

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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How to get kids (and ourselves) to obey God…

Bash them with the Law (rules)?  Threaten with pain or grounding?  Cajole?  Nope.  Won’t work. 

How about trying it Paul’s way?

He wrote in Titus 2:11, 12…

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age. (ESV)

How about that?  The grace of God…trains us.  To be sure, we need to be certain that the rules are clear, and we need to discipline when the rules are disobeyed or flaunted.  But a home with the atmosphere of grace is surely the greatest draw to obedience. 

In the same way, focusing on God’s mercy and grace (displayed at the cross) in our lives moves us personally to obedience.  So Paul wrote, “The love of Christ compels me…”

 
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Posted by on March 7, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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