The Taxman Cheats

Ecclesiastes 5:8-9

There’s a house in Jackson County, Missouri, the house where I grew up. On the county tax rolls, it is recorded as a three-bedroom home and taxed accordingly. I mention this because, if you were to count the bedrooms, you’d come up to five.

Why was a five-bedroom home recorded and taxed, for over fifty years now, as a three-bedroom one? From what I heard, my father had a friend on the assessment board when that house was being built. My dad didn’t ask this fellow to mis-record our house, but he did the favor anyhow.

I’m sure that this guy had some notion that my father, who owned a bank at the time, might do him a favor in return. I’m not sure if the quid ever got met with a quo, but I am confident that this house has been taxed too little for more than half a century. This takes me back to Ecclesiastes:

If you see oppression of the poor and perversion of justice and righteousness in the province, don’t be astonished at the situation, because one official protects another official, and higher officials protect them. The profit from the land is taken by all; the king is served by the field.

Ecclesiastes 5:8-9

Influence Peddling

Supposedly, some government official, accused of “influence peddling,” responded with this lovely quip: “What’s the point of having influence if you don’t peddle it?” And to some degree that makes sense. If you have the ability to make things change, then it only makes sense that you would make things change. It would be like having a perfectly operational car that you never drive anywhere.

Of course, influence can be used for good or ill. When my mother’s recent property assessment–in a house other than that one mentioned above–jumped by 35% this year, I not only filed the required appeal but contacted both of my county legislators. I knew that they were not likely to just go in and wipe away the increase, but I hoped that the complaint might do some good. As the news reporting has shared, there were apparently enough of these complaints that the legislature is looking for a way out of the mess.

But then there is the shadier dealing that goes on, only sometimes revealed to the public, when votes are bought, laws are amended to benefit somebody, prosecutions are quashed, and five-bedroom houses magically turn into three-bedroom ones.

Getting in Tune

What is Solomon saying with today’s passage? He’s not excusing corruption great and small, but then he’s not exactly condemning it either. What I hear him saying is that there is simply going to be corrupt behavior. Whenever people have power, whether they have power as employers, law enforcement, regulators, rulers, or anything else, some of them will use that power to defraud other people and line their own pockets.

We shouldn’t be surprised when these things happen. He’s not telling us to ignore it and think that it’s acceptable, but he is warning us not to be astonished.

We should work for justice and against oppression with a great deal of vigor, but we should not have the unreal notion that such work will ever produce a perfect result. Under the sun, there will be only an imperfect justice.

The Great Unplugged

I woke this morning to bad news, terrible news, the sort of things that makes you throw your head back and howl “Nooooo!” so the neighbors hear and wonder what wounded animal is in the area.

Picking up my phone, I looked at the charge indicator: 66%. What? It sat plugged in on my nightstand for more than eight hours. How could it be at 66%

A couple of weeks ago, I bought a new phone. I had limped along on the old one for a year, charging it at every opportunity. That thing held a charge the way the Kansas City Royals’ bullpen holds a lead: not at all. Then, when old unreliable started to turn itself off and lock up inexplicably, I decided to retire it.

The new one is great. Recently, I went through two days of steady use and still had 11% on the battery at the close of the second day. But this new phone uses the USB-C cord to connect. Not only does that mean I need all new cords but also I have to be deliberate about getting it plugged in, absolutely making it click. Otherwise, I get 66% in the morning.

These are the times that try men’s souls!

Our world is powered by electricity. Sitting between my living room and kitchen, I can see 26 things that run on electricity. Most of them plug in or are wired into the house, while a few, like that phone, have batteries. Regardless, if you cut off their power supply, they’re dead and useless.

Why do people in the church run out of juice? Why does that person who was clearly brimming with energy at 100% a year ago suddenly drag in at 66% or lower. Why do some of our people wind up completely out of energy, sitting uselessly somewhere like my old phone?

The answer, of course, is that they’ve been cut off from their power source. Like those devices we all carry around, we need to be recharged periodically. In Luke 5:16 we read of Jesus,

Yet he often withdrew to deserted places and prayed.

Not only do we find that “often” statement, but at least three other times in Luke we’re told of Jesus praying alone. If Jesus, who was fully man and fully God, needed to be recharged, how much more do we need to do so.

It’s easy in our busy lives to forget to plug ourselves in to the charger. Sometimes we might go through the motions of a plug-in, like I did with my phone last night, but not actually make the connection. That’s how we get those people sitting in our pews, bowing their heads at the right times, saying the right sort of words, and yet remaining powerless. As you look around the church for those people, make sure they aren’t you!

My phone’s nearly charged now. That’s good, but I need to ensure that my heart is just as powered up.

Faulty Connections

Recently I shared a bit about my experience in replacing the alternator in my wife’s vehicle. While I believe my initial post got across the idea that I am a far better English teacher than mechanic, I didn’t include one slightly embarrassing part of the endeavor.

After completing the installation, including attaching the two electrical connections, I re-charged the battery and took the newly powered vehicle for a test drive. All went well as I drove around the neighborhood. I pulled back into my driveway, switched off the ignition, and then started it up again. Still no problem. With my triumph nearly confirmed, I asked Penny to take a ride with me. We started up the vehicle again, although I noticed a bit of sluggishness this time. Pulling out of the driveway and putting the beast into drive, I saw matters go wonky. The gas and temp gauges started to rock as lights dimmed. After pulling back into the driveway, I grumbled. Apparently the alternator wasn’t the problem after all.

As I reflected on my wasted afternoon and the money I’d dropped on the new alternator, it occurred to me that the car was behaving in exactly the way it had before and that we had previously done the test to assign the blame to the alternator.

“Wait . . . ,” I said, startling my dog. “What if I didn’t get those wires connected properly.” One wire screwed on securely, but the other was a plastic plug with several smaller wires trailing from it. That plug had been a chore to disconnect. Walking out to the car, I raised the hood and reached down to the suspected culprit. When I pulled it to the right, it slid out easily. Pushing it back in, with some force, I felt it click into place. There was my problem.

Now, several weeks later, the car is operating perfectly. Like I said, I’m a better English teacher.

Before I made that connection, the new alternator had been sitting in the engine compartment, spinning under the power of the serpentine belt, and generating electricity. It was doing its job, but my failure to connect it to the devices that wanted to use that electricity made it useless.

In Philippians 4:13, Paul offers one of his best quotable nuggets: “I am able to do all things through him who strengthens me. ” How does God strengthen me? He strengthens me through the Holy Spirit. In fact, in Acts 1:8 we learn that the Holy Spirit will give us power–electricity, if you will allow me some latitude.

As a believer, I have the Holy Spirit and its power within me, but sometimes I don’t have the wires connected properly to make use of that power. Sometimes, the power just goes wasted within me.

Fixing that bad connection to tap the new alternator’s power was pretty simple. It’s slightly harder to restore my connection to the Holy Spirit when I’ve allowed it to shake loose. However, unlike in my driveway mechanic work, I have the master mechanic ready to assist me in making good that connection.

Amazing Stories–Mark 1:27

The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.”

 When was the last time you were amazed by God? I’ve heard people talk about God’s power through prayer for years. I’ve experienced it myself at times, but I have to admit that some of those examples of power can be explained without resorting to God. I’m reminded of the skeptic who, seeing the abandoned crutches and canes, supposedly left by those healed at the Marian shrine at Lourdes, said, “I’ll believe when I see a wooden leg left behind.”

I can claim to be amazed that God has granted me all the provision I need, but could as easily say it was my hard work that allowed that to happen. Since I haven’t received a check directly from God, there’s a limit to my amazement.

When the people in Capernaum watched Jesus heal that possessed man, they saw the people of God going from a defensive posture to an offensive posture. The whole Mosaic Law had not been established as a means of taking the world for God. It stands as more of a hedge against ruin. Yes, there were some moments of offense in the Old Testament. Joshua’s move into Canaan springs to mind, but largely the watchword of the people in the Old Testament was “Don’t mess it up!”

That changed on a Saturday in Capernaum, leading to the people being amazed. And we should continue to be amazed. No, we don’t have Jesus physically present with us, but he has promised to be with us. As we read through the book of Acts, we find amazing things following Peter and Stephen and Paul and Philip. We should be experiencing amazement within the church, at least now and then.

But are we? When was the last time you were amazed by God? And if you’re not being amazed by God, then why do you think that’s happened? From my own experience, I know that when I don’t feel God close, it’s because I’ve drawn away. When I don’t find myself amazed by God, it’s probably because I’ve tried to do so much for myself that I remove many opportunities for amazement.

Perhaps we’re not amazed by God because we need to be the vehicles through which the amazing deed takes place. Perhaps we can, enlivened by the Spirit, change the world, heal the sick, cast out demons, and even raise the dead (Matthew 10:7-8) Can we have faith and still be amazed? Give it a try. You might be amazed at what happens.

Lock Your Doors (Psalm 8:2)

Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger. (Psalm 8:2)

Olivia went out of the QuikTrip store last night, dashing ahead of me. As she neared the car, I turned to the clerk. “I’m not sure where she’s rushing off to. The car’s locked.” Then she opened the door.  Normally I don’t fret excessively about leaving my car unlocked for a quick stop, but my computer lay in the back set last night. That’s rather careless.

How many locks do we use in the course of a day? This morning, already, I’ve used that car lock for both the door and the ignition. I used my password to access campus wireless in a classroom. I had to supply a password to log in and add this post. The classroom door was locked, but someone had beaten me to that, and Nathan had already unlocked the office door. By the time the day is over, I’ll probably employ several other locks of various sorts.

When it comes to passwords, various computer systems evaluate our attempts, rating them from “weak” to “very strong.” I tend to prefer “very easy to remember,” but I realize that such security is rather illusive.

The purpose of locks is to keep the wrong people out and to protect the people and property within. Whether they be cyber security or metal deadbolts, car alarms or The Club, stronger inevitably appears to be better.

How strange then, that David, a military man, should talk about building a stronghold–a fortress, essentially–out of the praises of children. How exactly does that work? I suppose it works a little like sending an unarmored shepherd boy, armed with a sling and some rocks, to fight the Philistine giant. When the big man goes down at the hands of the boy, how much greater is the praise of God?

I tend to look at this verse in this manner. If God can create security out of the praise of children, then he must be a very powerful God indeed. My car is locked right now, but my real trust is in the Lord God.