God’s Business

I heard a well-known Christian leader and author inform 250 successful Christian businesspeople and donors a few days ago that “your business is just a side business; you cannot ever lose track of the fact that your real business is God’s business”.

I am not saying his name or organization because I do not want what I say to be construed as me picking on him, for I am not. His viewpoint is typical of what is said today in American evangelical Christianity, and his viewpoint probably comes from good and decent motives. But what he said is ludicrous, dangerous, and in need of correction.

The notion that we have sort of two tiers to our lives – the extra-terrestrial level where all real spiritual work is done, and then the merely material where we do the “have to” stuff (you know, like run our businesses) – is unfounded in Scripture. I am happy to grant those who hold to this mentality that our business and marketplace efforts do not represent the entirety of our Kingdom identity. Indeed, God cares deeply for our families, our leisure, our church lives, our education, and our cultural endeavors (too). However, the notion that we have a “minor” business (the one we run for a paycheck) which is hugely inferior to the “big one (being God’s business)”, is simply untrue, or better, it is woefully stated.

What exactly, may I ask, IS God’s business? Is not God’s business the redemption of this world? Yes, it is. And does not the redemption of this world include our businesses, our families, our endeavors, our cultural efforts, our finances, etc.? It isn’t His side business, either. He is in the universe business, because after the Fall He covenanted to redeem the universe, and restore it to Himself. He is doing this in history, and in this glorious and eschatological process He has tasked us to work, maximize human dignity, chase our passions and dreams, provide for ourselves and our families, and grow the resources He has given us. The creation mandate is a mandate of growth, and few earthly venues provide more of a canvas for growth than our businesses.

The speaker doesn’t hate business. I know that. But his theology is either consciously wrong or poorly articulated. God’s business is our business, and our business is God’s business. We do not need to tier, prioritize, segment, or belittle anything. We need to work hard, live well, and in so doing, do the business of God.

Why the Stock Exchange Matters

As I gleefully communicated this week to my Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and even clients and professional associates via private email distribution, I enjoyed one of the great blessings of my life this week in participating in the ringing of the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange.
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The specific business interest and portfolio strategy that brought me there is not important for purposes of this blog, nor would it be prudent to delve into investment matters on this public blog (a sign-up is available for my privately distributed weekly commentary on the home page of this site). What I do want to address, though, is just why this event would be so significant to me, and why the stock exchange matters.

In a literal sense, the stock exchange as defined by the actual floor brokerage activity going on in the physical building at the corner of Wall and Broad actually doesn’t matter a whole lot any more. There are still some floor brokers there but the entire U.S. equity market could function without those literal activities. The exchange almost seems like a studio for CNBC now, and that is fine by me (I watch CNBC all day, every day). Of course, the activities of trading and market-making and listing securities (etc.) matters a great deal, but massive technological advances have enabled that business to mature beyond our wildest dreams. Execution prices are better than ever. Markets are more liquid than ever. Transparency is easier to come by than ever. And countless traders and market-makers are still employed all over the world.

So why does the actual New York Stock Exchange matter, then? Why was this a milestone event for me as a financial professional? And why is the corner of Wall and Broad important to Americans?

Just as the term “Wall Street” has long been a catch-all phrase for “capital markets” in our country, so is the “stock exchange” a catch-all phrase for the making of markets – the facilitation of the buying and selling of financial securities – and with that, the democratization of financial investment. There are actually few things MORE important to average Americans, whether we are able to realize that on a daily basis or not.

I am sensitive to the reasons many find the demonization of Wall Street so tempting, and I am certainly aware of some of the transgressions that have originated in the halls of Wall Street over the years. I do not offer a Gordon Gekko defense for the merits of greed (though I recommend a vigorous defense of the virtue of the profit motive re-enter American consciousness, and quick). Stereotypes become stereotypes for a reason sometimes, and the fact that many Americans see the white collar world of finance as a den of iniquity, greed, hubris, and callousness is most unfortunate (and only in a minority of cases fair).

But I need to return to this concept of the democratization of investment finance. America has been the city on a hill to the world when it comes to finance for over a century. Our national free enterprise system has lent itself to the greatest innovations and advancements the world has ever seen, and those innovations and advancements have produced a lot of wealth. Certain countries have done quite well at generating wealth for their select oligarchs and power-holders, but the United States has seen its innovations, improvements, pursuits of profit, new technologies, and business feats create wealth for the MASSES. Stock option plans have made millionaires out of former pizza delivery drivers. Mutual funds and 401k plans have provided for the retirement savings of millions and millions of blue collar workers, teachers, municipal employees, and administrators. Concentrated stock positions have enabled loyal employees to retire with income far greater than they ever earned in their working lives – all from the publicly traded security of their employing company. Hundreds of billions of dollars of funds in the non-profit sector – foundations, endowments, and charitable trusts – have funded great acts of charity and compassion, all from the fruit of their capital markets trees. Ours is a nation of democratized investment access – from the pension funds millions of employees live off of (or will live off of), to the individual savings people of all incomes and net worths have accumulated. This is a celebration of the American way – a victory of the American experiment – and it is made possible by the “stock exchange” – the hub of market-making and trading that drive American financial markets.

Is this a simplistic summary of the nature of finance in our country? Sure. I’m not intending to do a deep dive here. I am, though, offering an indisputable thesis for how the oft-demonized world of Wall Street has improved the quality of life for so many in our society. I hope they keep that building at Wall and Broad there forever, and I hope I get to go back again, even if by the time I get there they are just running a souvenir shop. The history of that building and its iconic place in our society is powerful – more powerful than most could be expected to understand. This week I not only got to better understand it; I got to appreciate it at the deepest level possible. And this investment manager is permanently grateful not just for my experience ringing the bell this week, but for over a century’s worth of financial evolution that this glorious place has facilitated – to the betterment of all in our society.

(And if you are curious, I do not believe it will ever be just a souvenir shop; there is a glory in that building that will remain one way or another for decades to come – I am certain of it. And is it ever a gorgeous, gorgeous building).

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Some Musings on Upper Middle Class Guilt Manipulating Pietism

There are few things in the world that annoy me more than upper middle class pastors living an upper middle class lifestyle in an upper middle class home within an upper middle class community who moralize over the evils of an upper middle class existence. The dangers of idolizing wealth are prevalent in the Scriptures and ought to be preached. In fact, they ought to be preached intelligently and repeatedly. But when the messaging turns to a pietistic drivel about Jesus not caring about your retirement accounts and not needing you to make money or steward money or grow money the pastor has made a theological decision to miss nine Biblical messages entirely for the purpose of getting one Biblical message patently wrong.

Any attempt to equate “Christian service” with “abandoning our earthly careers” is a message hostile to the Christian faith as laid out in the Scriptures. I no longer willing, as a matter of conscience, in discerning between when this error is made with good intentions and when it is made with bad intentions. I don’t extend the same grace in the public policy sphere and I shouldn’t here either. A message that pretends that God is not interested in our achievements, our careers, and our material prosperity is devoid of Biblical basis. Pointing out that God doesn’t NEED our careers to accomplish his ends is a worthless point; He doesn’t NEED heart surgery to heal a sick patient either but we don’t spend time bemoaning the evils of modern medicine. God has certainly planned to use our careers and good endeavors for His purposes, and to pietistically suggest that these things are peripheral to the “really important stuff” is offensive to any decent theology of Kingdom living.

We make distinctions in today’s church on this subject (and sometimes ONLY on this subject) that the Bible not only doesn’t make; it repudiates. The only noble possible reason to preach such a cavalier and dismissive message of career and wealth is because of a separatist, tribalistic view of the Christian life. And I don’t find that very noble.

The other reason is why it really happens 90% of the time: Because it is a rank guilt-manipulation towards a utilitarian goal normally involving a church budget and a church building fund. Anyone want to bet me how often churches without debt preach these messages vs. churches with debt?

I am not picking on any particular church or minister here. My own senior pastor is, I believe, simpatico with my perspective on this issue. But the Calvinist-Kuyperian view on vocation, calling, and wealth has tremendous implications for the Christian life. Sadly, the view that varies from it does too.

Business Ethics as the New Thing?

I write a blog every Monday for my company’s internal Advisor website, basically read only by advisors within my own firm. I thought the following entry had a broader ethical message worth sharing to a wider audience.

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When I was a financial advisor trainee many moons ago I heard from a manager (who has since been barred from the industry) that our success as a financial advisor would be “in having the brain of a capitalist and the heart of a socialist”. I was a little too politically educated to take his comment seriously, but I guess the raw intention of it, soaked in naivete and simplicity as it was, was this: Be sharp and aggressive in how you pursue monetary advancement, but also do everything with a real care for human beings. Simple enough, right?

I would suggest that the false dilemma embedded in his statement is the least of his concerns, as I would not grant that those who advocate seizing private property have good hearts, and I would not grant that pursuing monetary advancement without really knowing how to care for your clients have good brains, but be that as it may, what are we to do with the underlying instruction to care for our clients?

I have served on the Advisory Board for a university’s business college. I have spoken around the country on the idea of values juxtaposed with economic pursuits. And I read now on a weekly basis that the need of the hour is to teach business students (or young financial advisors) “ethics”. I would think that 17 years of an education at the hands of the great ethicists who dominate modern secular education would have done the trick, but I digress. Here’s my take as it applies to the profession we are blessed to call our own:

If you need an ethics course at age 35, or 45, or 55, to tell you what to do or not do for your clients, you are a lost cause. The need for ethics is not a post-2008 thing, or a post-Enron thing; it is a post-Sinai thing. It is a post-garden thing. Whatever. And if the “capitalist” in us does not see that we do best by most comprehensively serving those who pay us, than we are bad at doing business. If the “human” in us does not know that we are obligated to demonstrate honesty, integrity, morality, and empathy in what we do, than we are bad at doing THIS business. These are not separate things – they are integrated. We do well by doing good, sure, but we do more good when we are doing “more well”. It is an entrepreneurial business, but if we are to hit a moment of a wake-up call in our careers, it should be because we realize we have gotten complacent in business development, or that a fee-based model is more objective and sustainable, or that we like or dislike more than we thought a given investment philosophy … It should NOT be, “you know what, I think I want to start being ethical”.

Every single day take care of your clients. Take care of them because you want to do right by them. Take care of them because you care about them. Take care of them because if you don’t they’ll stop paying you a fee. All of the above, always and forever, with no need to delineate or bifurcate along the way.

19-Year Olds are not Children, Terrorists or Otherwise

This last week has been a chilling reminder of the painful reality that America has enemies who will stop at nothing to hurt her. Whether it be two radicalized Islamic terrorists from a radicalized Islamic country, or the coordinated effort of twenty terrorists working within a globally coordinated terrorist cell, there is a basic reality at play here, and it is an uncomfortable one: We have enemies who will not go away. In between the unforgettable attacks of 9/11 and the drama that ended Friday night in Boston, there were many other attempted attacks on American soil, but the tools available to law enforcement and the paradigm terrorists now have to work in defeated those particular efforts (and God only knows how many others we do not even know about). My heart goes out to the victims’ families of the Boston Marathon attack, and my heart goes out to all the victims who [praise God] were not killed, but who did suffer unspeakable pain and suffering. This was an eggregious terrorist attack against the most innocent of women and children. There should be no mercy for the perpetrators of this act.

Which brings me to the purpose of this little article: The 19-year old perpetrator we have in custody 24 hours after his little rampage of car-stealing, cop-killing, and bomb-throwing came to an end. I am firmly in the camp of those who do not believe this man should have been carried out of there alive, but things unfolded the way they did. His 26-year old brother is now where he belongs, after attempting to murder half the Boston police force, and we are stuck with a 19-year old who, at this writing, is recovering in a hospital from various medical impediments suffered Friday, and awaiting formal charges for his role in this week of terror. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is nineteen years of age, and already the cries are loud and rampant: “He is just a baby” … The issue of this young man’s age has prompted a larger societal consideration I feel compelled to address.

Let me cut right to the chase for you and just show my cards – A nineteen-year old male is not a kid, he is not an adolescent, and he is certainly not a baby. He is a grown adult. He is an impressionable young man, and he has a lot to learn, but he is a grown-up member of society. I am not saying this right now only for the purpose of defending the prosecutorial approach I recommend for this degenerate murderer, a murderer, I might add, who killed an eight-year old boy. I would like to apply my underlying point to all of society, for the only reason we are struggling with how to classify Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is because we struggle with how to classify all people under the age of 40 in this society. These are grown adults, and to the extent that arguments can be made that many nineteen year olds do not act like adults, that is not an argument for the case, it is the consequence of the argument. We have successfully treated so many people like children for so long, that of course, they act like it. This has absolutely got to stop.

In my defense, long before the tragedy of the Boston Marathon, I have been bemoaning the newly-discovered “odyssey” phase (David Brooks description) inserted into the life of an American individual. For generation after generation we expected people between the ages of 12 and 17 to go through a training or education period, while simultaneously working and developing discipline, and upon the completion of that period to enter a stage of productivity in society. I have a hard time understanding why those who either enter a more advanced training stage or early work stage of their lives could not and would not also enjoy themselves – take in the benefits that go with having a lower level of responsibility than, say, a husband or father of multiple children with a mortgage may have. There is obviously a progression to it all, but we are no such progression in our society whatsoever. We are raising an entire generation of video game-playing, live at home until they are thirty, no job, no contribution, no dignity, no self-respect degenerates. We are codifying this by mandating that they be included on their parents health insurance until they are old enough to run health insurance companies. The cultural expectation is not that people spend the ages of 18-30 develop skills, working, experiencing important things, and setting the stage for a productive adulthood; that would be the exception now, not the rule. Rather, the cultural assumption is that people will begin adulthood at age 30, and I will add, that number is being pushed up slowly but surely as well. The entire system is being facilitated by an utterly tragic higher education system that will take anybody, create nobody (special), and throw everyone back out, unprepared for the realities and complexities of life (and of course, this is for the percentage who actually go to school). I can bemoan the job market prospects for young people all I want, but what is even more tragic is the job aspirations of so many young adults: None whatsoever.

I am not going to tell every parent how to deal with their own situations – it is none of my business, and I am purposely writing this piece as a generalization. I am well aware of the countless complexities, challenges, and unique circumstances that exist in our present context. The complaint of this article is not particular but general: We have confused when adulthood begins. When I see an 8-year old child who does not do what is expected of him, I believe he should be disciplined and lovingly exhorted into getting his stuff done (homework, chores, etc.), but I do not see a degenerate. He or she is, well, eight years old. And when I see a 14-year old sleeping in longer than I wish, or procrastinating key things that need to be handled, I hope that the necessary prodding and poking will be there, but again, I know that individual is fourteen. But those tolerances and sentiments of forebearance need to go away when our children become adults. At age 18, 19, and 20, we no longer have kids. We have adults that used to be kids.

I will take some flak for this piece, and that is unfortunate because the only reason is that some people will unnecessarily personalize what I am saying. This is a piece about an underlying principle – a prima facie assumption – that I am recommending. We are doing unspeakable economic and cultural damage by enabling a system where people literally have 10-15 years of their lives disappear into a black hole (and I might add, those 10-15 years are among the most exciting and opportunistic years of one’s life). My dog in this fight is that I want a more engaged and productive and dignified culture for men and women of all ages. Our current approach is jeopardizing all of the above.

In Dave-land, not only would Dzhokhar Tsarnaev receive the death penalty he is due by Monday morning, but an entire generation of people age nineteen would be taking the early adult steps towards a life of meaning and contribution.