March 9

Who Will Stand in the Breach?

I saw a huge army on horseback marching across a plain. Each of the horses was white with a golden mane, and each rider was clad in golden armor, and they carried banners of gold and red, and everything shone in the light that emanated from a cloud above them, a light as bright as the sun. They approached a fortified city, but I could see a breach in the wall.

Then the Lord said to me, “Who will stand in the breach on behalf of your people?”

I replied, “I will.”

But he said to me, “You are but one man, a single grain of yeast in a barrel of flour which cannot leaven the whole. It will require a multitude.”

March 9

Conviction and Mercy

This word came to me:

This is my case against you, says the Lord: The virgin has become a prostitute, lying with anyone who will pay. You lie even with Satan himself, and store your treasure in vaults of concrete and steel! You worship wealth, and the cause of the poor does not come before you. The cause of the alien does not come before you. Though you speak my name with your lips, your heart belongs to another.

This is my case against you, says the Lord: You worship idols! Idols of gold, and of steel, and of concrete. Idols of destruction and vengeance. You say “In God we trust,” but you trust no one, not even each other. Your hearts are hard, and your minds think only of comfort and pleasure.

I have spared you the rod, says the Lord, because you are my chosen people. I have called you by name, but you have not answered. You have not walked in my ways. Now I can spare the rod no longer. Indeed, you will be disciplined with a rod of iron. Your enemies will surround you, and they will bring pain to you and your children, but they will not be the cause of your destruction. No, I, the Lord, will send fire and flood upon you. Your fields will lie desolate, your cities in ruins. Then you will know that your idols cannot help you. Wealth will not save you, nor will weapons.

In that day, says the Lord, you will look to the sky and pray, but I will not answer you. In that day, you will be broken as a pot is smashed upon the ground. In that day, you will see no hope. In that day the first shall be made last, and the greatest shall become the least.

But this I promise: when you have been purged with fire and cleansed with water, when you have paid your debt and changed your ways, when your hearts once again turn to me with sincerity, then I will hear your cries.

Can the prostitute again become a virgin? Can the one who created the universe not make new what has been soiled? I tell you, in those days you will say to me, “We have sinned, have mercy!” And I will have mercy, for you will not be entirely destroyed.

There will be a new Eden, a garden I shall plant in your midst, and you shall dwell there in peace all your days. You shall dwell with my Spirit in your hearts, and your eyes will no longer lust after idols. Neither gold nor steel nor concrete will turn you from my path.

In those days, the forests shall blossom and the plains shall bear fruit, and children shall play and sing with joy, for they shall know me in their hearts. In those days, there will be no poor among you, neither shall any seek to be rich, for your hearts shall seek justice and your hands will lift up one another, and your voices will praise the Lord, and joy shall fill the land. Then you will be the light I have called you to be, a light that shines to the world, for I will illumine you with the light of my Spirit, which will shine for all to see.

December 23

We Have Been Deceived

Dante’s fourth circle of Hell, as portrayed by Gustav Dore.

“Greed is idolatry.” Paul (Colossians 3:5)

“Greed is good.” –Oliver Stone (“Wall Street”)

Sometimes fiction seems to create reality. Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie portrayed what was then a caricature of the American financial system. In it, Wall Street trader Gordon Gekko proclaims, “Greed is good!” So far as I can tell, no one had ever said that before. though clearly Stone intended to convey that some people already believed it.

In the ensuing years, the slogan has been echoed not only by Wall Street traders like Ivan Boesky, but by economists and commentators. Both Bill Maher and former [Obama] Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank have quoted this line from the movie with approval.

Our current president, Donald Trump, said, “You can’t be too greedy.”

And it is clear that acquisitiveness is what makes our economy tick. We exploit resources and cheap labor. That’s part of the fundamental philosophy underlying our economic system. We borrow money to buy more stuff.  In May and June of 2015, several websites, including conservative Business Insider and more liberal CNN Money, warned that Americans are “saving too much” and (in the words of BI) “it’s killing the economy.”

Our economic system embraces this simple truth: “Greed is good.” We’ve heard it so often, most of us no longer question it.

Yet the Bible differs. “Greed is idolatry,” Paul says in Colossians.

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.” (Col 3:5-6)

And again:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, promiscuous men, the lazy, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, author-modified translation)

And he’s not alone. From Jesus

“Be on your guard against all kinds of greed…” (Luke 12:15)

“You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 16:24)

To the writer of Hebrews

“Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.'” (Hebrews 13:5)

The message is clear: Greed and God are mutually exclusive.

We have been deceived!

But the deception doesn’t end there.

I once expressed to a dear friend, a devout Catholic, my concern about the line in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our tresspasses as we forgive those of others.” At the time, I was dealing with anger issues and was plagued by unforgiveness. How could I expect forgiveness when I was unable to forgive others? He said, “That’s not what Jesus meant.” Really? Jesus spells it out pretty well!

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15)

Another time, a Protestant reader of my blog took exception when I quoted Jesus on loving our enemies. She said that wasn’t what Jesus really intended. Really? Jesus discusses it at length (Matthew 5:43-48, Luke 6:27-36), and he doesn’t leave much room for ambiguity.

How is it that we, a supposedly-Christian nation, accept these deceptions without thinking?

The Bible warns in many places about the Deceiver, Satan, and those who are convinced by his lies. One site lists 35 such verses. Jesus warns that he will try to lead even “the elect” astray (Mk 13:22, Mt 24:24). The Deceiver tells us what we want to hear. He offers an easier path. He wants us to believe that we are beyond his grasp just because we go to church, though Jesus’ warning tells us otherwise. He even wants us to believe he does not exist!

How is it that, though Jesus cast out many demons and instructed his disciples to do likewise, we don’t believe in evil spirits? We have been deceived! Those very spirits are whispering to our hearts, wanting us to believe they don’t exist so they can do their work without interference.

And their work is to lead us astray.

A friend of mine just attended a funeral of a family member who ministered for over 30 years to those considering suicide. He had no history of depression himself. Yet one day, he took his own life.

A couple we know, both Christians, came to us and asked for help because they were afflicted by demons. But before they completed the deliverance process, they decided that going to church was enough and deliverance was unnecessary. The irony is, what could deliverance hurt? We don’t charge for it. All they might lose is an afternoon of their time!

These people were deceived.

I’m not saying that every mental and physical illness and every wrong belief is caused by an evil spirit. But I am saying that many mental illnesses are exacerbated by spirits, and sometimes spirits are the actual cause. Wrong belief may not be caused by spirits, but the spirits will certainly take advantage of it!

Last night, my son woke my wife up after having a dream in which he was being crushed. He complained that his hands had gone numb.  It didn’t pass like a normal “hand going to sleep” sort of thing, and she considered taking him to the ER. Instead, she decided to check for spirits, and when she had cast them out, his hands returned to normal.

One might argue that the timing was coincidental. Yet I’ve seen this sort of recovery happen often enough that I am convinced that spirits do affect our lives.

Not only that, I have the gift of discernment. I can often see them.

Contrary to what the Enlightenment worldview tells us, the spirit world is real. Not all spirits are evil. I’ve seen benign spirits, which we call fairies and others call earth spirits. But I’ve also seen the dark ones– shadows, and animal forms, and humanoid shapes all lurking with the intent to do harm. They can even disguise themselves as spirits of light! (2 Cor 11:14) Test every spirit– though they lie and deceive, an evil spirit will not confess Jesus Christ as Lord.

The good news is, there are rules these spirits have to follow. Christ conquered them. The war ultimately has been won. But, in our own time and experience, the battle continues. But, with the authority given to us by Christ and some basic knowledge of the rules, we can get rid of these deceiving spirits.

But only if we don’t listen to their lies, because they are going to do their best to convince us that they don’t exist, that we don’t need deliverance, and that this blog post is the ravings of an unstable person.

Don’t be deceived.

 

December 9

The End?

Have you ever noticed that many artists’ images of the New Jerusalem coming down from Heaven (Revelation 21) look a lot like a Borg cube? I’m just sayin’…

December 7

Minister’s Housing Allowance Under Fire

Pastor Matthew Bucher stands outside Immanuel Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, VA. This small, socially conscious church is one of thousands that faces hardships if the housing allowance for ministers is eliminated. (News Leader photo.)

It’s not often that my past career as a tax accountant intersects with my future career as a minister, but the recent 7th Circuit Court decision does exactly that. An anti-religious group challenged the minister’s housing allowance, and won. That won’t be the end of the story. The decision will be appealed, perhaps all the way to the Supreme Court. In the mean time, while ministers will suffer in the 7th Circuit, which covers IL, IN and WI, it’s unlikely the IRS will change the rules for the rest of the country until the matter is resolved by the courts.

The problem is, there’s a world of misunderstanding behind the suit and the decision. As one opponent of the decision said,

“This tax provision ensures that faith leaders like South Side, Chicago-based pastor Chris Butler receive the same tax treatment as other employees who must live in the communities they serve-like military service members, teachers, and overseas workers.”

And there’s the rub: secular employees who are required to be on-call, on-site are entitled to tax-free housing allowances. This includes not only teachers and emergency workers, but dairy farmers, factory specialists, and others. The key is the requirement is that they are on-call on-site, 24 hours a day.

The clergy housing allowance actually applies not only to “ministers of the Gospel,” as indicated in the original law, but to clergy of any religion. Why do they require a special law? Because their’s is a special case. Unlike most employees, IRS regulations specify that most ministers are to be paid as self-employed workers–sort of. They receive a W-2 from their church (not a 1099), but the church does not withhold taxes (including social security) from the minister’s check. The minister pays these taxes on Schedule C, just like a self-employed person. Presumably this is because IRS knows the part-time, probably volunteer church treasurer has no idea how to figure payroll taxes, and hiring a professional can be burdensome.

Like a self-employed person, a minister gets to deduct his or her business expenses. Oddly, though, if a minister makes extra money from performing weddings and funerals, for example, these must be reported on a separate Schedule C, along with their related expenses. Yet this extra income and expense is combined with their primary Schedule C to calculate the tax.

Unlike most self-employed people, but like an employee, a minister is allowed a housing allowance that is exempt from income tax (but not FICA taxes) if they are on-site on-call. And on their Schedule C, they are required to reduce their business expenses by the proportion of their income that comes from the housing allowance (so long as that housing allowance was actually used for housing)– but only for income tax purposes, since the housing allowance is taxed for social security.

For example, let’s say a minister earns $10,000 in a year, and she gets an additional $5,000 for housing. She has $750 of expenses. For self-employment (FICA) tax purposes, she earned $15,000 and gets to deduct $750. Her taxable income is $14,250. But for income tax purposes, 33.3% of her income came from housing allowance which is exempt from income tax, so she has to reduce her expenses by 33% and can only deduct $500 in expenses. Her taxable income is $9,500.

If this sounds complicated, it is. This is one of the most difficult calculations I’ve encountered in the arena of individual and small business taxes. And it gets worse once the minister is semi-retired and has pensions and other sources of income.

Moreover, it’s up to the church (or other employer) to determine whether the minister will even get a housing allowance. This differs from an employee, in which circumstances (i.e. on-call on-site) dictate whether a housing allowance is involved.

So, are ministers getting a benefit denied to secular employees–or are they burdened in a way secular employees aren’t for the same benefit? It’s hard to tell. There are some benefits to clergy, such as deducting their business expenses without having them subject to the 2% haircut on Schedule A. On the other hand, they pay both parts of their FICA (social security) taxes, twice as much as an employee. And they’re going to pay as much as 3 times more to have their tax return prepared!

The judge in this case recommended simplifying the law so that employees of any 501(c) organization are subject to the same laws. I concur. They will still have to address the status of ministers as statutory employees taxed as self-employed persons. But at least the system would be consistent.

Back to the original argument: The issue here is not that secular employees are denied this benefit–it’s that ministers by their nature are a special case.

 

Further reading: “5 Takeaways from the Clergy Housing Allowance Ruling