January 22, 2015| 0

Beautiful Business (Philippians 4:8)

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Honor, justice, excellence: these come to mind easily when we reflect on what makes business commendable. To be fair, to play by the rules, to do an honest day’s work, and to succeed by dint of hard work and excellence - these traits are indeed praiseworthy, and they are often seen in business people. Admirable as these virtues are, however, they are not by themselves enough to nourish the soul: that takes beauty. If business is to inspire the highest virtues of character and enlarge the soul, we should expect to see beauty in it.  So let’s reflect for a moment on where beauty is to be found in business. In other words, how can business be “lovely,” as Paul describes praiseworthiness?

First of all, business is beautiful by the sheer force of its witness to God’s covenant and creation. Healthy business builds economic shalom, serving God’s purposes by bringing prosperity, meaningful work, and valuable goods and services into being. These are signs of creativity in fulfilling God’s mandate to be fruitful and multiply, and there is beauty in the creation of such tangible blessings. There is beauty in the talent and energy required to create them. These are all gifts which flow from God’s providence.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” so the old saying goes. In the case of business, beauty is not hard to find if we look for people intent on serving others and contributing to the common good. It is our sense of spiritual calling that inspires the kind of admirable work that enriches the soul. This is as true of serving in the arena of business as it is of serving in the arenas of the arts and crafts. In each case, the beauty is derived from a connection to a greater spiritual reality.

From the beginning, God’s signature was revealed in the diversity and abundance of heaven and earth, and especially in the plenteous life in the Garden. The Psalms glorify the lavish display of life and wonders of the heavens—“O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Psalm 104:24). This multiform creativity also shows up in the variety of works done by humankind (Psalm 104:23). The never-ending innovation of entrepreneurs bears witness to God’s delight in diversity, abundance, and generosity of spirit. Show me a prosperous community where people enjoy the quality of their life, and I will show you a beautiful web of inter-dependent businesses serving one another.

As Abraham Kuyper said, “multiformity is the undeniable mark of fresh and vigorous life.” [1]  The profusion of businesses in a healthy economy is thus a telltale sign of God’s common grace and points to the beauty of God’s design for human flourishing.

 

[1] Kuyper, “Uniformity: The Curse of Modern Life”, in Abraham Kuyper: a centennial reader, ed. James D. Bratt, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 25.

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© by Bruce D. Baker, 2015

January 12, 2015| 0

Caught Up in the Story (John 1:2–3; Ephesians 2:10)

He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. [John 1:2–3]

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. [Ephesians 2:10]

As Christmastide drew to a close last week, we pause to reflect on the meaning that Christmas brings to every season of every year.

Christmas celebrates the introduction of God’s campaign to destroy sin and death. The birth of Jesus, Son of Man and Son of God, changes everything. He is at the center of the greatest story ever told and is the focal point of human history. He was in the beginning. He will be at the end. He occupies the center, and he presides over all creation.

The story of Jesus changes everything. We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works. Through him we discover our own roles in the story, and through us the good works of God continue. We are caught up in the story - and this this is our place.

Everything we do plays out in the context of this story of God’s conquest of sin and death. The meaning of our work is rooted n the unfolding story of God’s purpose on earth in which every square inch of creation is touched by Jesus and every moment is redeemed at the end of the age. St. Patrick captures this well in his famous prayer:

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise…

Here is our job description: “... created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Whether in business, at home, in school, or in public office, we are created to do what Jesus does: the will of the Father. The incarnation - God literally taking on flesh - places us in the salvation story, living out the history of God’s saving acts, and connecting our story and our business to the Living Center.

The purpose and beauty of our work, our words, our thoughts, and our deeds is found at the point where they intersect with the life of Jesus, the Savior who was born in a stable and heralded by angels. We want to hear him say of our work, "This is good.” Receiving such a commendation would be a fitting response to the good tidings of Jesus' arrival and the call to become who he made us to be.

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.

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© 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.

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© 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.

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© Bruce D. Baker, 2014