December 17, 2014| 0

Solomon’s Wisdom on Career: How to Measure Success (Ecclesiastes 4:4)

Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

The old adage is surely true: no one says at the end of life, “Oh, but how I wish had spent more time building my career!” Even so, we don’t often teach this lesson in business schools. In fact, it may be anathema to business schools that focus on training and equipping people to measure success exclusively in financial terms.

The deeper questions about meaning in one’s career receive scant attention in most business schools: there is a pecuniary disincentive to ask them. That’s why Professor Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School is the odd exception in saying, “More and more MBA students come to school thinking that career in business means buying, selling, and investing in companies. That’s unfortunate. Doing deals doesn’t yield the deep rewards that come from building up people.” [1]

The problem does not lie in the accomplishments of a successful business career; honest deals, productivity, and profit are good things, after all. The problem lies in their animus: the will and spirit which motivate the striving after them.

Here’s where the wisdom of Ecclesiastes shines as a beacon to expose the futility of “striving after wind,” as the author puts it.

Envy is a stealthy and pernicious motivation. Peer pressure, culture, and the appetites of ego are dangerous taskmasters, yet they rule by default until and unless we pause to evaluate the costs and rewards of our journey. If ever our career is dictated by envy of pecuniary success, we will be chasing the wind - and we shall never catch it.

This is the Solomonic wisdom of Ecclesiastes. The poetic preaching of this book is attributed to Solomon, the wealthiest and wisest king of all time. He had it all. When he discovered it wasn’t enough, he concluded that striving after fame and fortune is a lost cause.

Success is not a bad word. Striving is not a bad word, either. But striving after wind is utterly futile and vain. The true test of career success lies in the purpose and motivations beating in the heart of the striver.

There is a built-in tension in the very notion of career. It forces practical choices upon us which carry real opportunity costs, as illustrated in William Butler Yeats' short poem, "The Choice":

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.

When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse.
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.

[1] Clayton Christensen, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” Harvard Business Review, July-August 2010, pp. 46-51, 48.

----------

© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

November 19, 2014| 0

Reality Check (Deuteronomy 30:15–20)

15 “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”

Last week five of the world’s biggest banks were fined $4.25 billion for currency-rigging.[1] Their crime was nothing new, just an old-fashioned scheme of collusion to defraud other buyers and sellers. To put it simply, a few currency traders cheated to make some easy money.

I can imagine those traders getting the same kind of thrill as though they were playing a game of fantasy football and winning big. In this case, however, instead of gambling with their own money, they were playing with other people’s money; and instead of a level playing field where everyone had a fair advantage, they created an artificial playing field on which only they could win. In effect, they had created a reality where the laws of nature were under their control. They became as gods in the new virtual reality of the foreign currency market.

God has given each of us the freedom to make a similar choice. We can ignore his commandments and create make-believe worlds in which we delude ourselves into thinking we can make up our own rules and behave as though our power exists solely for the sake of getting what we want. Or we can choose to play by God’s rules.

These are life or death choices. One leads to death in an artificial wasteland of our own creation; the other leads to life for ourselves, our children, and our children’s children. The choice is always before us: live within the bounds of reality (covenant) that bind us to the life-giving love of God, or walk away from those bonds to live in a delusion of our own creation. It all comes down to how we use the power God has placed in our hands.

Whatever power we have is a gift, like life. We can choose to promote the common good through fair dealing and hard work, or to manipulate the market in order to profit at someone else’s expense. The choice is as simple as life or death, reality or idolatry.

God has put us in positions of power, and he has given us the freedom to use our power for good or for bad, for life or for death. Freedom and power are his gifts of grace, and the choice is ours. By grace he invites us to choose life, and receive life abundant.

[1] Chad Bray, Jenny Anderson, and Ben Protess, “Big Banks Are Fined $4.25 Billion in Inquiry Into Currency-Rigging,” New York Times, November 12, 2014. http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2014/11/12/british-and-u-s-regulators-fine-big-banks-3-16-billion-in-foreign-exchange-scandal/, accessed 16 November 2014.

----------

© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

November 12, 2014| 0

The Business of Heaven (Revelation 21:22–26)

22 And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25 and its gates will never be shut by day — and there will be no night there. 26 They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.

Heaven is often idealized as a place of fluffy white-clouded perfection, floating high above the earth and far removed from our troubled times. With respect to culture and the arc of human history, that fairy tale picture misses the point entirely.

At the end of the Bible in the book of Revelation, we discover the amazing fact that our ultimate heavenly home with God is intimately connected with the cultures we create here and now. The glory and honor of the nations will be carried into the heavenly city [v. 26]. In other words, the work we do now, the honor we bestow, and the glory we receive will be remembered and celebrated to the end of time. Heaven and earth are united in the glory and honor of the nations.

It’s important to note that the holy city described here does not represent a cataclysmic reversal of history. Not at all. This is history's destination, the consummation of all that has come before. The holy city will be a beautiful assembly of people of faith from every nation. The light of God will be completely unveiled, with no need for a temple as a reminder of God’s presence. We are moving toward this destiny a day at a time, preparing the way by living faithfully in our present cities.

And every city across the globe has a role to play in the kingdom of God. Just imagine: Seattle is a source of blessings that will be retained in heaven. To the extent that we create a culture of glory and honor in our homes, businesses, schools, and city streets, these cultural achievements will be celebrated in the New Jerusalem, the holy city of God. Every city is thus a mixture of heaven and earth.

It is the case in every age that we - like the exiles in Babylon - are called to “seek the prosperity of the city” [Jeremiah 29:7]. We are called to bring prosperity to our cities and to be a blessing wherever we live. Business is a huge factor in this calling. As an engine for prosperity, business is a culture-creating enterprise. Business serves the city by producing valuable goods and services, and by building a reservoir of righteousness in healthy relationships, fair practices, and human dignity for those on the margins of society.

This is the heavenly calling of our lives in business – to be culture creators in the city, for heaven’s sake.

----------

© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

November 7, 2014| 0

Dual Citizenship (Hebrews 13:14–16)

14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. 15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. 16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Followers of Jesus possess dual citizenship, living in cities already built on earth while anticipating “the city that is to come.” God cares deeply about - and calls us to seek the welfare and prosperity of - every earthly city, town, and village. At the same time, we look forward to our ultimate and eternal home with God in the new Jerusalem [cf. Rev. 21:2].

"Dual citizenship" captures the essential tension of Christian life and is at the core of our identity. It can sometimes be a private affair, a personal experience of faith that may go unnoticed by people around us. At other times we can be called upon to do things that bear witness to our citizenship in heaven.

Running a successful business can highlight the tensions built into our dual citizenship. Business offers abundant opportunities to serve both heaven and earth, but the drumbeat of daily demands and pressures can drown out God's call to attend to the work of his kingdom. Reflecting on our identity as dual citizens can help us pay attention to opportunities we might otherwise miss.

Star Sprinkler (a manufacturing company in Milwaukee) was on the ropes and in need of a turnaround. Milt Kuyers saw an opportunity to live faithfully as a dual citizen when he bought it. He easily could have “kept his head down” and focused on operational challenges; instead, he lifted up his head and followed a call to help his home town of Milwaukee become more like the “city that is to come.”

Milt recognized that God was asking him to use his talents for the sake of his business and for the sake of the city. He felt a particular call to create jobs for unskilled and under-employed workers. Milt’s dual calling — to serve both his business and the urban poor — was a sure sign of his dual citizenship. His business served as a way to share God’s grace and provide transformational job opportunities.

Visible expressions of our dual citizenship often involve hard choices. It can be costly to work toward making our cities look more like the city that is to come. But we know, as the writer of Hebrews says, that such sacrifices are pleasing to God [v. 16]. And as citizens of heaven, we also know that God will complete the good work he began in us [Phil. 1:], and we will experience his joy.

http://edensbridge.org/2013/06/26/milt-kuyers-redefining-success/

----------

© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

October 29, 2014| 2

Investment Advice to the Exiles: Create Culture (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Jeremiah gives practical, down-to-earth advice to his kinsmen living in exile: build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce; let your children marry and have children of their own. Sounds like everyday common sense, right? But the exiles needed to hear it because they were struggling to make sense of their lives in the strange city of their captors. They were uprooted, cut off from everything they used to find comforting. They longed for home, and in the midst of their exile, they needed to hear a word of hope.

We also need to hear this word of hope. Though we are not held captive by a conquering enemy, we are exiles nonetheless: we’re no longer in Eden. As people of faith, we are in the world but not of it.  We long for a homeland where relationships are wholesome, where we are comfortable with the people around us, where the culture affirms our values. We long for the “New Jerusalem” of the biblical promise [Rev. 21:2]. But we’re not there yet.

So we live in an in-between place and time. God is alive. His grace abounds. We know that, and yet we live in a broken world where powers and pressures work at cross purposes and pit people against one another. Sin intrudes upon all our relationships.

In business we always run up against the “stakeholder paradox”—the intractable problem of making decisions and economic trade-offs so that all of our stakeholders benefit. In an ideal world, we would be able to serve the needs of all our stakeholders with equanimity: the product would always be perfect; the service would always delight; the paychecks would always be generous; the community would always love us; the environment would always be unspoiled; the bills would always be paid; and the customer would always be right. But we don’t live in that imaginary world. Had we stayed longer in Eden, we might have built cities and businesses unstained by sin. But we didn’t.

The stakeholder paradox is thus a sign of our exile. Although our citizenship is in heaven [Phil. 3:20], we don’t live there, and our business is pressed on every side. We are therefore challenged by Jeremiah’s advice to seek the prosperity (i.e., the shalom, or “welfare”) of the city.

How? How are we supposed to make business decisions that “seek the prosperity of the city”? A good rule-of-thumb is to choose to serve the long-term interests of the communities we inhabit—the community of work, the families of our employees, and the cities in which we live. Profit alone is not a big enough goal for citizens of heaven; prosperity is. Prosperity is the answer to the stakeholder paradox. Prosperity demands far-sighted vision for all the lives we touch. Prosperity focuses our attention on the common good. Decisions seeking prosperity give witness to the hope we possess as citizens of heaven.

----------

© Bruce D. Baker, 2014