The mountain peaks burst through the clouds like massive granite daggers punching holes in the deep blue sky. A great valley stretches as far as the eye can see. In the summer a sparkling blue lake would dominate the landscape, but now all is covered in snow. The great evergreens that manage to survive up here are stooped low by the weight of the snow, barely discernible in the whitewashed landscape. The sun burns brightly, impossibly high in the sky.

At the head of the valley is a simple log cabin, the only evidence of humanity in this pristinely preserved plot of God’s country. Smoke curls from the chimney, signaling the invitation and call: “Here is warmth, rest, peace, and joy. Here is shelter from the cold. Here is a drink to warm your body and a meal to renew your strength.”

Maybe this sounds like hell to you, but for me it’s idyllic. When I think about the lives of America’s most influential pastors, this is the image that comes to my mind. It’s not that I think they actually live in cabins like this, but the image is an impression, a metaphor, for their life as I imagine it. Put simply, they are living the life I want to live. They are successful in ministry . They are writing books. They are speaking at conferences. They are in-demand, famous, and well-respected. It’s hard not to want what they have; it’s even harder not to idealize (or idolize) them.

But here’s the thing. As I enter that idyllic cabin in the mountains, as I go through the great wooden door and into the warmth and richness of the interior, as I gaze at the masculine trinkets decorating the walls and warm myself by the roaring fire, I realize something: Nobody lives here. It’s not just that nobody’s home, it’s that this house is vacant. It’s unoccupied. The idyllic life I imagine these pastors have doesn’t exist. It’s not where they live. The cabin is empty.

What it looks like from the outside is not what it is on the inside. Fame and celebrity are fundamentally false, and the picture they paint (or tempt you to paint in your heart) is a lie. Don’t give in to their temptation, and don’t be deceived. That cabin may look perfect from the outside, but inside, it’s uninhabitable.

“I’m just being honest.” When was the last time you said that? What did you mean when you said it?

This phrase usually finds its way across my lips when I’m giving full, unfiltered vent to emotional frustration. It’s a way of justifying the extreme language I’m using and the acute emotions I’m feeling. “You can’t fault me, I’m just being honest.”

But just how honest am I being when I give full, unfiltered vent to my emotions, particularly my emotional frustrations? Is what I feel necessarily an accurate representation of what is real?

Let’s say that someone is going 35mph in a 45mph zone directly in front of me, and the road is constructed such that I cannot pass them. (Not that this sort of thing doesn’t happen all the time on freaking Maxtown Road!) Is it necessarily true that that person is an idiot? When I exclaim, from the safety of my own car, “You’re an idiot!”, am I being honest? Or am I just being subjective?

Of course I’m being subjective. But in that moment I truly believe that person to be a blithering moron who is a clear danger to themselves and everyone around them and has no business being on the road because they don’t know how to drive the speed limit. My angry exclamation may be an accurate reflection of my emotional state, but it is not an accurate reflection of reality.

I find that “being honest” often leads to greater deception. When I give full vent to my emotional frustrations I am crafting a world that fits my emotional state, rather than letting reality influence my emotions. I become angrier and angrier, but I also become more detached from reality. In fact, by “being honest” I become less honest.

Rather than giving full, unfiltered vent to my emotional frustrations, I need to learn to see the world, and the people in it, from God’s perspective. He, not my emotions, is the definer of reality. This is not to say that we ought not to be emotional, but rather that our emotions ought to be in congruence with God’s emotions. Our perception of reality ought to be in line with God’s perception of reality. That’s what it means to be honest.

Karen Spears Zacharias wrote a piece at Patheos called Time to Tax America’s Churches. She looks at Ed Young, Jr. as the archetype of a new breed of CEOs, people who are leading vast and wealthy churches that function as corporations. She has some harsh words for these “celebrity” and “rock star” megachurch pastors, and she concludes her post with these statements:

We are facing hard economic times. A lot of much-needed revenue could be generated by taxing the Church.
If we are really interested in living out a life of faith, instead of just preaching about it, isn’t it about time the Church picked up its cross and carried it instead of pushing the tax burden off on everyone else?

I encourage you to read the article, but I have several responses.

1) Church employees are taxed like everyone else, with the exception of two benefits for ministers–a tax free housing allowance and the option to withdraw from social security. But if you claim the housing allowance, you better opt out of social security, otherwise that portion of your income will be considered self-employment, and you’ll have to pay both sides of the social security and medicare taxes. Other than these benefits, church employees pay the same tax as everyone else.

2) There is no distinction, in the state of Ohio at least, between a church and any other nonprofit organization. If the government were to implement income taxation on churches, it must also tax every nonprofit organization, otherwise it would likely face a lawsuit of religious discrimination.

3) It may be flat out illegal to tax churches and nonprofits because the income they generate is not recompense for goods or services, but is rather given of the free will of the givers. In other words, despite Zacharias’s depiction of megachurches as corporations, there is no commercial transaction taking place.

4) We live in a society where we constantly let one person ruin it for everyone. One person bends the rules and suddenly the masses have to bear the consequences. Freedom is impinged every time some idiot decides to do something stupid because we immediately run to the government to fix our problems and keep us safe. Let’s not do that with churches and nonprofits. Their work, which cannot be duplicated by any government, would be crippled by taxation. Sure, Ed Young would get his comeuppance, but thousands of churches and nonprofits would be forced to close their doors.

5) Charitable giving pales in comparison to consumer spending. The benefit from taxing churches and nonprofits would likely not even cover the cost of government services required to fill in the gaps of those now defunct organizations. It would be the law of diminishing returns proven true on a grand scale of social deconstruction.

6) Finally, a commenter on Zachrias’s post says it best when talking about the purpose of the church and the love of Christ:

Government can never embrace such love, will never live out such reality, can never love the enemy without regard to self, will never embrace the street person rather than the CEO, won’t ever hold up to be emulated the one who is most despised by society, and is not ever going to reject power for meekness, vengeance for grace, and violent action for forgiveness. Government, and indeed our American society itself, will always look at such claims as either nonsense, sheer naivety or both. And yet, Jesus does exactly these things, over and over, and calls us to do the same.

So, where I constantly struggle with my own collusion with and participation in denominational systems that too often look contrary to gospel relationship and being, I do believe that ultimately only the church has any possibility of congruence with life in Christ and, at its best, must be a counter to the state’s systems of power, privilege, and possession.

The Church and the Government–whether it’s Rome, Nazi Germany, or the USA–are not after the same thing. The Church, at its best, is a woman with warm embrace, comforting those who mourn, feeding those who hunger, and seeking first the kingdom of God. The Government, at its best, is a bureaucratic system of cold and distant departments, assigning numbers instead of names, rubber-stamping applications, and seeking first the security of the State.

So, I say, don’t tax the churches and nonprofits. Don’t let a few abusers ruin a system that works. The Government has more than enough money. Maybe we should begin our audits with them, and then we can move out to the churches and nonprofits.

I’m reading Eugene Peterson’s memoir, “The Pastor” these days. It’s an excellent book, and quite timely for my own soul. There is so much that I would like to share, but what I just read struck me as especially poignant.

In a letter to a pastor friend who was pursuing a career in the megachurch world, Eugene wrote,

Classically, there are three ways in which humans try to find transcendence [God meaning]…apart from God as revealed in the cross of Jesus: through the ecstasy of alcohol and drugs, through the ecstasy of recreational sex, through the ecstasy of crowds. Church leaders frequently warn against the drugs and the sex, but, at least in America, almost never against the crowds. …But a crowd destroys the spirit as thoroughly as excessive drink and depersonalized sex.

What do you think of his diagnosis? Are crowds really as bad for the soul as drunkenness and fornication? He continued in the same letter,

I really do feel that crowds are a worse danger, far worse, than drink or sex, and pastors may be the only people on the planet who are in a position to encourage an imagination that conceives of congregation strategically not in terms of its size but as a congenial setting for becoming mature in Christ in a community, not a crowd.

What is the difference between a community and a crowd? Can a person become mature in Christ in a crowd?

I’ve been working my way through a Bible reading plan this year, and for the first time in my life I’ve actually stuck with it for longer than 3 days! The plan has you read four chapters from four different books–two in the NT and two in the OT–as you work your way through each book. There have been several days where the themes of the various chapters have been remarkably consistent, and today was one of those days.

This morning, two of the chapters that I read were Exodus 33 and John 12. I’ll quote a selection from each:

And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (Ex. 33:19)

“If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.” (John 12:47)

Isn’t it amazing what God says in that Exodus quote? “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy…”; and then we probably expect him to say something like, “…and I will condemn whom I will condemn.” But he doesn’t say that. Instead, he says, “…and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” God speaks of himself in terms of mercy and compassion, and the verbiage of condemnation is absent.

Then you have the verse in John where Jesus says, “For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.” Jesus didn’t picture his mission as one of judgment or condemnation, but rather as one of salvation. (See also, John 3:17) Truly remarkable, isn’t it?

Now, we know that judgment is coming for all of us, but it’s important to see that the Bible testifies that the first word is mercy, compassion, and salvation. That is the first word. That is the loudest word. That is the strongest word. Judgment is coming, of course, but not until God’s mercy, compassion, and salvation have run their course. Jesus goes on to say in John 12 that all who reject his words (i.e., the gospel message) will be judged by those words, and ultimately condemned by them. Sadly, there can be no salvation for those who reject Jesus’ word of salvation. If you reject the word of salvation, then all that is left is the word of condemnation.

But Jesus is committed to saving you; he is not committed to condemning you. Maybe you need to hear that today because it sure doesn’t seem true. All you’ve ever heard is that Jesus is coming and he’s going to throw all the unbelievers into hell. Jesus’ mission is not condemnation. It’s salvation. It’s grace. We Christians don’t often live that truth out. Maybe we need to hear that today, too. Jesus doesn’t want to crush you, destroy you, or throw you into the pit of eternal hellfire. What he wants–what he really, really wants–is to save you. He wants that so bad that he was willing to lay down his divine rights, become a homeless peasant, and suffer death on a cruel Roman cross so that he could live life as you live it, and speak to you that word of mercy, compassion, and salvation. Salvation is the free gift of God; condemnation is the end result of your rejection of God, who has exhausted every avenue in his relentless love for you.

Salvation is the word for today. I hope you hear him speaking to you. I hope you can come to terms with your sin and rebellion, set that aside, and trust in Jesus rather than in your own goodness, success, or intelligence. Jesus desperately wants to save you from sin, evil, and death. I hope that you can receive today’s word.