March 19, 2014| 0

Storm Warning for Rainmakers (Numbers 20:10-13)

10 Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” 11 And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. 12 And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” 13 These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and through them he showed himself holy.

This is a puzzling passage. What did Moses do wrong to earn God’s stiff rebuke and be denied entry into the Promised Land? He responded to the people’s outcry when they had no water to drink in the desert, and feared they were going to die of thirst [Numbers 20:2]. Moses presented this need to the Lord. He and Aaron “went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. And the glory of the Lord appeared to them, and the Lord spoke to Moses” [vv 20:6-7a], telling him to bring water from the rock. Moses did as the Lord commanded: he brought abundant water from the rock, enough for all their livestock to drink [v. 11]. The Israelites were saved—again.

And Moses? He was rebuked—denied entrance into the Promised Land. Instead of enjoying the ultimate reward of the mission God had given him, he had to settle for viewing it from afar, on Mt Pisgah, above the Jordan Valley [Deuteronomy 3:27; 32:48-52]. Where is the logic in this rebuke? Moses was the greatest leader Israel had ever seen. God spoke to him personally, and he spoke to the people as though God was speaking. Even so, he clearly crossed a line somewhere with respect to God’s commands.

It's a good bet that Moses was frustrated and angry with the unruly people; he cursed them and called them “rebels.” He also appeared to take credit for the miracle (“Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” [v. 10]). God had said, “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle” [v. 8]. Bringing water from the rock was clearly God’s plan, but Moses’ mistake lay in how he did it. God had told him to speak to the rock, but he struck it—twice. God never instructed Moses to strike the rock, nor to speak to the people as he did.

Moses' behavior is not uncommon for “rainmakers,” those who bring in the money, land the clients, and deliver the goods. Was Moses on a power trip? Did his frustration get the better of him? We can’t say for sure, but it seems to fit the pattern of power’s corruptive influence in the leadership mix. Leaders—and especially “rainmakers”—face a constant temptation to let power go to their heads, as though power is a personal gift, and its exercise their personal prerogative.

It’s not. Power flows from God, to be directed by his will and used for his purposes. Power is given for serving, not grandstanding. It’s a lesson Moses never forgot. He remembered and taught it until his dying day [Deuteronomy 33], and prayed (in the closing line of the psalm that bears his name):

     Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
     and establish the work of our hands for us;
     yes, establish the work of our hands! [Psalm 90:17]


© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

March 12, 2014| 0

How Shall We Sing the Lord’s Songs in a Foreign Land? (Psalm 137:4)

Business is tough. Competitors chip away at our territory. Customers demand more. Employees need more. Investors want more. And the business manager is always caught in the middle. Tough business comes as no surprise, however, once we have heard God’s word to Adam: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.” [Genesis 3:17b-19]

In spite of the curse which makes it hard, work also carries a powerful blessing. By God’s grace we are capable of feeding ourselves and the entire world by the sweat of our brows. Business is the privileged path of harnessing human capital and the gifts of the earth for the sake of the common good. But it’s not always easy to bring a joyful response to the tough challenges.

Furthermore, we know as a practical matter that our belief in God and our trust in a higher purpose for business do not necessarily result in bigger profits and greater market share. Sometimes it’s just plain difficult to live out our faith amid the pressures of doing business in a highly competitive world in which others do not always play by the same rules. I admire Dennis Bakke, former CEO of AES (a Fortune 200 global power company), who exhorts those of us caught in the middle of tough business: “I want to encourage you to take your biblical values into business because they are right, not because they work, and to let the economic consequences fall where they might.”[1]

The faithful response is the joyful response—joyful because God is good, all the time. Even in a "foreign land," God is good. Even in tough business and hard work, God is good. Our response is therefore joyful, and we are committed to living out the truth of our faith in him.

This is why exile is a recurring theme in Judeo-Christian faith. We are always caught in a foreign land, whether it be Babylon, or the global marketplace where faith does not always rule the day’s trading.

We cry out with the psalmist, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” But where else are we going to sing it? This is where we live! Our job is not to complain about how tough it is, but to sing in a foreign land. We do that by bringing our joy to work with us, and then our business will be done in a way that sings his praises, come what may.

[1] Bakke, D. “Values Don’t Work in Business,” in On Moral Business: Classical Contemporary Resources for Ethics in Economic Life, ed. Max Stackhouse, et. al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 717.


© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

March 6, 2014| 0

Integrity, Plain as Day (Mark 4:21-23)

21 And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? 22 For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Corruption grows by hiding in shadows. Faith grows by stepping into the light.

Scandals occur when people use personal power to conceal their deeds. Lance Armstrong hid his doping scheme for years. Steven Cohen of SAC has concealed his sources of insider information for years. Eventually, however, every deed comes to light. That’s why the “newspaper test” is a good test for ethical decision-making: would you like your deeds to be published on the front page of the paper?

This simple test could have saved many scandals from starting down the slippery slope of secrecy. Openness protects against corruption and the corrupting influences wrought by the temptation to manipulate personal power for illicit gain.

In God’s timing, every deed, both the honest and the corrupt, will eventually be exposed to the light of day. It’s just a matter of time.

There’s a tight link here between faith and obedience. The key to understanding this lesson (and also the “parable of the soils” [Mark 4:1-20] which immediately precedes it) is the double-meaning of the verb “to hear.” In biblical language, it also means “to obey.” To hear is to obey. This theme runs throughout the Bible, from the opening line of Ten Commandments, “Hear, O Israel!” [Deut. 5:1], to Jesus’ explanation here of all his parables. Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship, sums it up neatly: “only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.”

This explains why faith is revealed in actions, that is, in the fruit it produces. Faith is not a secret to be kept hidden; rather, it is a living witness. Faith is an open display of obedience to the living Word. Like a lamp on a lampstand, so should our deeds reveal their source in Him. Faith should be revealed by our attitude, our walk, and our genuine concern for the people around us. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.


© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

February 26, 2014| 0

The End of Worship (Isaiah 58:4-8)

Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. 5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? 8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Here is a challenging word from the prophet Isaiah. Although written to his contemporaries in Judah some 2,700 years ago, Isaiah's words hit home today and deliver a stinging indictment. Just like the people of Judah, we are called to account for our worship. The criteria are clear—loose the bonds of wickedness, let the oppressed go free, break every yoke, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. The prophet’s summons stings because we do not pay enough attention to those concerns.

These hard words remind me that my participation in worship doesn’t stop at the doors of the church, and my personal devotions are not the end of worship. The end or "goal" of worship goes far beyond singing songs, putting money in the collection plate, and finding inspiration. The end of worship is to serve God and neighbor. Jesus taught the same thing when he answered the question, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” He answered, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” [Matt. 25:37-40]

This summons to care for “the least of these” applies to my business as much as to my so-called “church mission” activities. The glory of the Lord is promised to us in the act of serving “the least of these.” It’s a worthwhile act of worship, therefore, to ask: How does my business serve not just my customers, but the least of my customers? How does my business serve the least of my employees? How does my business serve the least of society’s members?  Then - and only then - our light shall break forth like the dawn.


© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

February 19, 2014| 0

Above Market Pricing (Psalm 49:5-9)

5 Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
6 those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches? 7 Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life; there is no price one can give to God for it. 8 For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice, 9 that one should live on forever and never see the grave.

The best things in life are free, so the saying goes. We don’t consider a human life “free” however. Life is “priceless” but it’s not “free.”

As the psalmist says, “there is no price one can give to God for it.” Life is a priceless gift of the Creator, and only he can redeem it. Indeed, he has redeemed it, and at the cost of his only son, Jesus of Nazareth.

To place a price tag on life is to commit a category mistake. Life does not belong in the set of price-able things. To presume a life can be priced is an extreme example of the “economistic fallacy” in which everything is subject to the power of the market to set prices.[1] In the infamous “Pinto fires” case, Lee Iaccoca and the Ford Motor Company calculated the cost of deaths due to Pinto fuel tank explosions, and decided that it was "less expensive" than the cost of installing fuel tank safety mechanisms. Ford claimed no malicious intent; but we must see this as the natural result of a thought process that places everything—even life—in the category of "price-able" things.

The priceless value of human life seems obvious to us, but modern civilizations still treat human beings as commodities to be bought and sold in the free market, and the economistic fallacy (also known as “commodity price fiction”) is perpetuated throughout our economy.

Public policy is generally the only practical approach to avoid the commodity price fiction with respect to public goods like water quality, climate change, kidney transplants, and endangered species. But that leaves countless unpriceable private values on the table for business to deal with every day. Human dignity is at stake in every transaction—employees, customers, and neighbors near and far are affected. There is no price tag on the trust earned by maintaining product quality against competitive pressures, or by nurturing the spiritual health of an employee.

As the psalmist says, when it comes to the dignity bestowed by our commercial activities, “there is no price one can give to God for it.”

[1] Karl Polanyi diagnosed the “economistic fallacy” as a side-effect induced by the supreme power of capitalism. Polanyi, Livelihood of Man (New York: Academic, 1977) 5-6.


© Bruce D. Baker, 2014