June 11, 2014| 0

Setting our Sights Higher (Psalm 121)

A Song of Ascents.

1 I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? 2 My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. 3 He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. 4 Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. 5 The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. 6 The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. 7 The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. 8 The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.

In the wake of the senseless violence that took a life and injured others on our campus last week, this psalm offers comfort and wisdom as a touchstone for the closeness of God, and it remains in our prayers.

This is one of the “Psalms of Ascent” (Psalms 120 through 134), traveling songs for the journey up (the ascent) to Jerusalem for the annual liturgical holidays. As people walked they shared their hope in God by singing and reciting these psalms. We read Psalm 121 in a communal prayer of shared hope at the beginning of our journey together here at SPU this past week.

Times like these remind us that our hope is in God alone, the God we know as Father through the Son who gave his life for us. He is the one source of hope that will not disappoint [Romans 5:5].

During the ordinary “in-between” times, we can easily become lost in our work. Deadlines, budgets and objectives are important, but they have no lasting significance in-and-of-themselves. They make sense only within the context of the greater reality that imbues all of life with meaning. The ultimate meaning of our work is found not merely in its financial value, but rather in the joy we bring to it [Ecclesiastes 2:24-25; 8:15].

So as we get back to business, and pay attention to the practical necessities of life, we do well to remember to lift our eyes daily to the higher source of hope. When we raise our sights to the maker of heaven and earth, life has meaning, work has a purpose, and the pressures of daily life become strangely subdued as they take a backseat to the higher source of hope in every circumstance. We celebrate this greater reality and the bond we share in the Psalms of Ascent.


© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

June 4, 2014| 0

All for One and One for All (1 Corinthians 12:14-26)

14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many…
20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Show me a company where people truly care for one another, and I’ll show you a company with a sense of purpose.

During the Great Depression, George Marvin distributed Christmas trees and bags of flour to needy families in rural Warroad, Minnesota. His lumber company was one of the few businesses in town to survive those tough years. Marvin personally saved several struggling families from bankruptcy or worse.

Under the leadership of George’s son Bill, the company began manufacturing door and window frames to provide jobs for veterans returning from the second World War. It grew from a few dozen employees in the 1950s to more than 4,000 employees today, and became known as Marvin Windows and Doors.

When the housing market crashed after the 2008 financial crisis, many contractors and suppliers in the construction industry laid off workers, and many went broke. Not Marvin. Susan Marvin (George's granddaughter and now the company president) announced the company’s no-layoff policy: “If you treat your employees right, they’ll treat you well.”

Marvin’s family values and concern for employees demonstrate this spiritual truth: a healthy body is more than the sum of its parts, and a healthy company is more than a collection of individuals.

Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 12 [cf. Romans 12:4, 5; Ephesians 4:12; 5:30] refers specifically to the church, but the lesson of mutual interdependence and commitment also applies to companies. Indeed, the very word “company” derives from Latin (com pane) referring to people who take bread together [cf. 1 Cor. 10:17]. Similarly, “corporation” comes from the Latin word meaning to embody.

The lesson is simple yet profound: To the degree that a company upholds a living mutual commitment among its members, it will thrive.

As Paul explains, those who hold positions of power and privilege must do their best to care for those who do not. Furthermore, all members must work together in a spirit of collaborative compassion. This is what Marvin employees did during the recent “great recession.” No one was laid off. Full-time workers cut their hours from 40 to 32 per week. "Perks" were voluntarily reduced. And company-wide profit sharing was suspended until the end of 2012.

The willingness to share financial risks and rewards is just one indicator of a company’s spiritual health. Deeper levels of mutuality are evident in personal relationships characterized by care and service. Every day, every employee and every manager in every company have the opportunity to care for the community of work.

That’s how a company grows great in spirit.


© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

May 29, 2014| 0

Timing is everything (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7)

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

Is there any greater wisdom than to be able to read the times?

Success comes down to good timing. Whether to launch a product, run a campaign, fight a battle, or blow the whistle—it all comes down to judging the times and seasons for right action. This is the ancient wisdom attributed to King Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes.

Solomon’s advice might sound like relativism or situational ethics. To say there is a time for every matter seems to argue, “It all depends.” Any act could be justified based on one’s interpretation of the situation without reference to steadfast, absolute norms or principles by which to judge right or wrong. If every moral choice depends on the situation, then situational ethics prevail. This could lead down one of those slippery slopes that land us in relativism, with no basis for determining whether one person’s decision is better than another’s.

There is indeed an element of situational ethics here, but Ecclesiastes is not making the case for relativism. The point is simply that there is a right time to keep silent and a right time to speak. That’s wisdom. It would be foolish to say (as in relativism) that it doesn’t matter.

But how do we know when to speak and when to remain silent? In a current example, when would have been the right time for someone at GM to speak up about the defective ignition switches that led to 13 (by the company's estimate) deaths? In the swirling uncertainty that must have surrounded the initial clues about a problem, this would have been a very difficult decision.

Ecclesiastes offers wisdom, however, about making that choice while avoiding relativism: the only way to make sense of the times is to place our decisions in the greater context of our relationship with God:

I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. (vv. 3:12-13)

In the face of a tough moral choice, the right question  is: “How will this deed bear witness to the joy of doing the good work God has given me?” At times joy is found in silently persevering and working behind the scenes for the sake of God’s claim on our lives. At other times we must speak out, even though disruption and hardship may follow, in order to bear witness to the good that God desires for people.

“How will this deed bear witness to the larger story of God’s movement in and through our choices?” Even though the answer is not always an easy one, the question is always the right one. That is the timeless test of moral discernment for all times and seasons.


© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

May 21, 2014| 0

Making Money the Old-Fashioned Way (Proverbs 13:11)

Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.

It’s a common misperception that the Bible regards wealth and money-making as inherently evil. The proverb offers a more balanced view, recognizing that wealth is a blessing, and that there are right and wrong ways to acquire it.

The right way to make money is the old-fashioned way—honest work, done a day at a time. The wrong way is the hasty, vain rush for riches.

The word used here to describe wealth obtained the wrong way is hevel (הֶ֫בֶל). It describes the fleeting quality of vapor: evanescent; here one moment, gone the next. The same word also refers to idols: vain; without substance or lasting value; deceptive like a mist that quickly evaporates—now you see it, now you don’t. Wealth earned by deception, trickery, special favors, or unfair pricing is like that. The King James version calls it, “wealth gotten by vanity.” In economic terms, such wealth exceeds the reasonable, sustainable value of the work done to get it. And the proverb warns that wealth gained hastily will dwindle.

Sustainable wealth, on the other hand, is gathered little-by-little. Literally translated, the proverb says, "wealth by vanity diminishes, but for the one who gathers by hand, it increases." In other words, wealth is earned by an honest day’s labor; by the amount of work a person can do one day at a time. Nothing quick or flashy here. It's the ordinary and old-fashioned stuff.

In a modern economy like ours, fewer of us do physical labor. Even so, the concept of doing an honest day’s work remains the same. Wealth gained in this manner is a blessing, and it will increase. It is not fleeting like the vanity of quick riches.

The proverb directs us to “take the long view” with regard to profits and strategic goals. Sudden riches make headline news, and so do the collapses of deceptive, ill-gotten gains; both frequently end in ruin. Fewer headlines report the steady and hard work of honest businesspeople investing their labor to produce wealth that builds a solid foundation for society to flourish. That's a lasting legacy.

There is no shortcut to sustainable, moral business. It’s made the old-fashioned way.


© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

May 14, 2014| 0

Banking on Grace (Luke 19:12-27)

12 He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. 13 Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’ 14 But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ 15 When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business. 16 The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ 17 And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ 18 And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ 19 And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ 20 Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; 21 for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ 22 He said to him, ‘I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant!'"

Great news for entrepreneurs! Who wouldn’t like to be given money, earn five- or ten-times on investment, receive the Lord's commendation, then be rewarded beyond their wildest dreams?

Of course, this parable isn’t just about the money. It can be read on many levels, as Jesus is teaching here about God's kingdom. In this instance, he responds to his disciples’ expectation that the kingdom of God would break out at any moment and disrupt the ruling political powers of the day [Luke 19:11]. The story of the nobleman’s departure could foreshadow Jesus’ imminent death, resurrection, and ascension. In that sense, “Engage in business until I come” might well be symbolically interpreted as an exhortation to remain faithful until the Lord returns.

Even so, the literal interpretation of the story also makes sense as a call to entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship is about risking capital, time, and energy for the sake of a better future. It has more to do with taking on a worthy project than it does with making (or losing) money. Entrepreneurs are driven by a passion to create, to do something new in a way that solves real problems. The prospect of building a company of people who share a worthy mission drives entrepreneurs to risk their time and money. Dave Packard, co-founder of HP and an icon of Silicon Valley, put it this way:

“I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists solely to make money. … We have to go deeper and find the real reason for our being… [P]eople get together and exist as an institution that we call a company, so that they are able to accomplish something collectively that they could not accomplish separately—they make a contribution to society, a phrase which sounds trite but is fundamental.” [1]

Jerry Sanders, another Silicon Valley giant, explains:

“It wasn’t a quest for fame and fortune that drove us in those early years of isolation and struggle. It was passion—a passion to develop, proliferate, and evangelize technology to empower people everywhere to lead more productive lives.” [2]

Of course monetary wealth rewards business success, but both Packard and Sanders reveal that money is not the primary motivation. Entrepreneurs tap into deeper passions. In the parable, the entrepreneurial spirit that invites risk-taking has a deeper source because Jesus is teaching a bigger lesson about trust.

The difference between the good servants and the wicked servant lies in whether or not they trust their master. The good servants trust him. They receive his capital with open hands and put it to work. They believe their master will take responsibility for the outcome of their labor, and they act in good faith. The wicked servant, however, believes his master to be an evil, dangerous taskmaster. In order to protect himself from failure, he calculates that avoiding risk and hiding the money is the best plan.

The parable works as a principle of business as well as a picture of following Jesus wholeheartedly. In a biblical sense, to be an entrepreneur is to live under the presumption of grace and trust the Lord with the outcome of our efforts. Knowing that God is gracious and kind frees us to act as good stewards of his gifts, investing them wisely to create useful products that meet needs and bless others.

[1] David Packard quoted by Charles Handy in The Hungry Spirit: Beyond Capitalism: A Quest for Purpose in the Modern World. New York, Broadway Books, 1998, pp. 70f.

[2] Jerry Sanders quoted by Michael S Malone in The Valley of Heart's Delight: A Silicon Valley Notebook, 1963-2001. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002.


© Bruce D. Baker, 2014