tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Figuring out the purpose of work

This is a column I wrote for the May/June edition of Family Foundations magazine:

With four children and a wife at home, I am very attuned to my responsibility to provide. It takes a lot of money to pay the mortgage, eat three meals a day, buy insurance and household goods, maintain two cars, send the kids to the local Catholic school and pay my taxes on time. Then I read those Money Magazine articles that tell me I need to save three million dollars if I hope to send my kids to a good college some day. And they tell me I need to save a million more if I want anything to retire on!

The weight of this responsibility was casting a cloud over my work. The more I focused on what I was earning, the less I focused on what I was doing, and that made the work less fulfilling. For a long time, I used to think that the purpose of work was to earn money. After all, I have to provide. But then, as a Christian, I know that it is God who provides. If I really believe that, then I can’t say I provide. If I claim to be providing for my family and myself, then am I really claiming to be my own god?

It took me some time, but I have resolved in my own mind the dilemma between my role as provider and my belief that God provides. With this conflict resolved, I have found it easier to focus on what I do at work, and that has led to new levels of fulfillment in my work. It was a story in Matthew’s Gospel that helped me.

You know the story. A man is going away on a journey. He gives one servant five talents, another servant two talents and a third servant one talent. When he comes back sometime later, he rewards the first two servants for doubling his money and he punishes the third servant who did nothing with his talent. If the man in this story is like God, and I am like one of those servants, then my dilemma clears up: God provides, but He still expects us to work. The man in the story provided for all three of the servants, and he clearly expected all of them to work. So the fact that God provides does not mean that I am not supposed to work.

But that still leaves me with a question about the purpose of work. If the purpose of work is not to make money, then what is it? If God provides, then why does He want me to work? My wife and kids helped me to see the answer.

Before we had children, I could spend a lot of time thinking about playing softball, taking vacations, going to movies and dining out. In other words, it was very easy to be selfish. But with the arrival of each child in our family, it became a little more difficult to remain selfish. By the time the second child came along, I gave up the softball game. With the third child, weekly nights out with the guys became a thing of the past. I found myself redirecting my energy and attention on my family. And you know what? I didn’t even mind. By the time the fourth child arrived, I had given up most of the personal pastimes that seemed so important to me years ago. Clearly, God gave me a family to help me mature toward selflessness, away from my natural born selfishness.

God could have set up the world any number of ways. He could have chosen to simply create everyone as adults. But He didn’t; God created a system of children and parents called ‘family’ that naturally draws its participants closer to Him.

It’s the same with work. God could have set the world up any way He wanted and He chose a system that requires our participation in the workforce. The point of this participation is not so we can provide on our own, but to draw us closer to Him. Just like parenting is supposed to help us grow closer to God, so is working. Interacting with those in our workplace, paying attention to details, really trying to do a good job, these are all small steps on our faith journey.

For those first two servants in Matthew’s Gospel, fulfillment came from pleasing their master more than it did from doubling their money. The possibility of pleasing God makes my work far more fulfilling than my paycheck.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Wood: Make all the time you can for your children, while there’s still time

I had an opportunity to interview Steve Wood recently for Family Foundations, the membership magazine of the Couple to Couple League ( Steve has built a name for himself as a former Protestant minister who converted to Catholicism. He heads the Family Life Center International, based in Greenville, S.C., and frequently speaks at Christian men’s conferences. Steve is one of the originators of St. Joseph’s Covenant Keepers, Inc., an international network of Christian men. Wood is the author of several books, including the just published “Legacy – Handbook for Fathers.” Following are excerpts from our conversation:

How does a father parent differently to a daughter than to a son?

Certain things take on added importance with a daughter. For example, keeping your marriage together is critical for a boy or a daughter, but a daughter will always carry the image of the man either being faithful or unfaithful to her mother. And if she can’t trust the first man in her life to stick around, she will find a lifelong challenge trusting any man to commit to her for life.

In a similar fashion, it is important for fathers to spend generous amounts of time with their children. But with daughters, I have found, the time window of opportunity for doing that is far shorter. For instance, I could wake up my teenage sons this Saturday and say, ‘Who wants to go to Home Depot?’ and they would jump out of bed and join me. When my daughters were young, I could say to them, ‘Who wants to go to Home Depot?’ and they would all jump in the car with me. But if I say to my teenage daughters, ‘Would you like to go with your brothers and me to Home Depot?’ they would look at me with a funny look on their face because their interests have changed. There is a very natural separation that will happen more acutely with daughters. So if fathers are going to impact their daughters, they better not lose the opportunity of doing that in childhood.

How does a father weigh the role of disciplinarian and friend to a son or daughter?

Well, isn’t that what the Christian life is? Balance? Think of our Heavenly Father; some people want to make Him only a judge, and not a merciful father. He is both. The reason He is good at either one is that He is good at both.

I believe that a highly religious father commitment to disciplining his children needs to know how to have fun. One of my favorite examples is Saint Thomas More. Here is a man who wore a hair shirt. He got up in the middle of the night to study his faith, died a martyr and everything else. A lot of people don’t know that St. Thomas More kept a monkey in his home simply for the pure entertainment of his family. As the monkey did silly things, they could all sit there, as a highly religious family, and laugh. If dad can’t lighten up, and I am talking about the religious dads, it is a huge mistake to be so serious about your faith that you just can’t have some wild and crazy fun. A dad needs to do both.

Do you have any thoughts for fathers who find themselves in disagreement with their wife about how to raise their child, or about how to deal with a particular issued involving their child? The father has a headship role in the family. If he finds himself in disagreement with his wife should he assert his headship even if it means going against his wife?

I greatly prefer that both parents make a lifelong journey of learning about their faith, about marriage and about parenting. And rather than having two, opposite, inflexible opinions, ideally husband and wife grow together. So if my wife is reading an interesting article on discipline that she thinks has certain insights and a certain balance that might be needed in our family, I would like to look it over. And if I find something that really seems to strike home, then I ask her to listen to that. Rather than having entrenched opposite positions, you try to grow together, and the earlier you begin this process the better.

What is the most important thing a man can do to become an even better father?

I am going to mention what I believe is perhaps the most neglected thing – that’s a man being a man. That’s doing the things you love and making your children a part of that.

For instance, so many men feel that they love their sports life, their outdoor life, and they also love their children, their family life. But they keep these things as distinct spheres. I believe that men can and should pursue their sports and hobbies, their outdoor life, but do so in a way that whatever you love, you incorporate those you love in those activities. By doing so, you are building an incredibly strong relational bridge between you and your children because you are sharing something you really love with your children. A father who does that is setting himself up to be the best religious educator in the world because the strength of the faith conveyed by any religious teacher is directly dependent upon their relationship between the teacher and the student. And if a father builds these relationships in a special way –- by fishing, hunting, kayaking, backpacking, bicycling, whatever it is with your children –- then you do a little bit of religious instruction and it goes a long, long way, and it doesn’t pass away during the adolescent challenges.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Rome in Milwaukee

Rome is a great destination, but if you can’t get there any time soon, you might consider Milwaukee, at least between now and the end of the month. The Milwaukee Public Museum is hosting a fantastic exhibit called “Saint Peter and the Vatican: Legacy of the Popes.” I had a chance to tour the exhibit on a recent Saturday and found it to be well worth the six-hour drive from Minneapolis.

The gold, silver and jewels in the crosses, chalices and other items on display are striking, but the most impressive part of the exhibit for me was the historical account of the popes and St. Peter’s Basilica. The story of the largest church in the world points to two very controversial periods in the history of the Catholic Church.

The first period was three or four decades after the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Often, it is purported that Peter, the impetuous apostle whom Christ designated the leader of His sheep, died in 64 a.d. This exhibit notes, however, that Rome was largely destroyed by fire, perhaps set by the emperor Nero himself, in 68 a.d. Nero blamed Christians for the fire, so there is speculation that both Peter and Paul were executed at that time. Either way, the belief is Peter was crucified upside down in Nero’s circus, or stadium, and buried in a non-descript grave nearby. After the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312, he built a church on the site of the grave, which eventually became the St. Peter’s Basilica we know today.

Fast forward to the 20th century. In 1939, workers accidentally discovered the cemetery below the basilica. Pope Pius XII authorized exploration. They discovered monuments which appeared to honor Peter. They found human bones of a man who was ultimately declared to be Peter. The skeleton believed to be Peter was cut off at the feet, which scholars speculate is consistent with Peter’s execution. Supporters likely stole his body in the middle of the night, ripping him in haste from the cross. An ax may have been used to cut his feet which were nailed down. In 1968, Pope Paul VI declared the find to be the actual bones of Peter.

As the Milwaukee Public Museum exhibit explains, the Vatican offers a tour under St. Peter’s Basilica where one can view the burial place and the bones. My wife and I actually took that tour when we were in Rome in 1994. It is impressive, given the proximity of the find, which is directly below the high altar of the church.

But the bones are controversial. Of course there is no way to know for sure whose bones they are. Many scholars claim Peter’s tomb is in Jerusalem. And, another church in Rome, St. John Lateran, has long claimed to have Peter’s skull enshrined in its altar. People who attack Catholicism have been known to point to this discrepancy to prove the fallacy of papal infallibility. A pope’s pronouncement regarding an archeological find, however, does not carry the assurance of infallibility. The Church always has taught that infallibility only applies to papal pronouncements regarding matters of faith and morals.

The other controversial period in history highlighted by St. Peter’s Basilica is the beginning of the 16th century. The original church built on St. Peter’s burial site fell into dangerous disrepair so the construction of a new basilica was begun in 1506. Martin Luther began the reformation in 1517 when he nailed his 95 theses on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg, Germany. Luther built a following partly because of widespread ill-will generated by the collection of money around Europe for the construction of the basilica in Rome. Many people grumbled about having to pay for a church building they were unlikely to ever see themselves. (Perhaps the debate back then was a little like the one in Minnesota now about whether residents all over the state should pay for a new stadium in the Twin Cities.) Of course there were many other factors that contributed to the rise of the reformation, but the funding arrangement for the new basilica didn’t help.

History is very complicated, filled with conflicts and disputes. The history of the Church is no exception. The Milwaukee Public Museum exhibit gives us a great look back at some of that history. I would encourage everyone to go, if possible, regardless of your faith. My family went on a Saturday and it was very crowded; perhaps the crowds would be smaller during the week. The exhibit originally was scheduled to conclude today, but it has been extended through the end of the month.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Religious awakening spurs Medved’s socio-political conversion described in 'Right Turns'

I have long been interested in people who find ways to integrate their faith into their work and I was pleasantly surprised when I read Michael Medved’s “Right Turns” that such integration is the theme of his autobiographical book. The only thing I knew about Medved before I picked the book up was that he hosted a movie review program on PBS called "Sneak Previews" for a dozen years. Given that I don’t think much of most of the movies that come out of Hollywood, I wasn’t expecting much from the book.

But I was pleasantly surprised. Medved hooked me early and his robust writing style kept me all the way through the 400-plus pages. Published in 2004, I understand the book is just coming out in paperback. Of course it was interesting to read about his association with a number of famous people –- political people such as John Kerry, Hillary Rodham, Bill Clinton, and movie stars such as Barbara Streisand and Mel Gibson. But much more interesting to me was the transformation that took place within his life.

Medved chronicles his conversion from a far-left liberal to a conservative who currently hosts a right-wing talk radio show. At the foundation of his conversion is his devout Judaism. Medved grew up in a secular home that was Jewish in name only. As a young man, be brought home a girlfriend who happened to be Catholic. When it became apparent to his parents that the relationship might lead to marriage, Medved’s father expressed serious concern. He was angry that his oldest son would consider marrying outside his own faith. This shocked Michael, given he has seen so little to lead him to believe that his parents took their faith seriously. But Medved’s father was serious; he did not want Michael to marry a gentile.

Medved reacted with anger against his father and he left his parents’ home unsure about the possibility of an ongoing relationship with mom and dad. His girlfriend, however, sensed the family tension and decided she didn’t belong with Michael. They broke up not long after that meeting with Medved’s parents. Medved now found himself without a girlfriend and with a strained relationship with his parents.

He reacted by digging into Judaism. He wanted to learn what it meant to be a Jew; he wanted to understand why it was so important to his father that he get married within the faith. As he studied, he grew more interested in his faith. Judaism appealed to him. He started keeping the Sabbath and even the strict dietary laws.

As his faith became more important to him, he migrated toward the conservative end of the political spectrum. As a movie reviewer, his ideas founded in Judaism began to find their way into the reviews he would present on television. He wrote articles claiming Hollywood’s offensive films were out of touch with most Americans. He summed up those ideas in a 1992 best seller book called “Hollywood vs. America.” Today on his radio show, he regularly argues against left-wing political ideology, weaving in Judeo-Christian religious ideals.

Medved’s story impacted me because I know how powerful a father’s reaction can be to a young man’s dreams about marriage. When I was engaged to Susan, I told my parents we planned to travel together to Hawaii, where I happened to be traveling on business. I did not expect my parents to care. My parents graciously did not make a scene upon my announcement, as there were other family members present. But the next day I got a phone call from my dad. He expressed his displeasure with me. He urged me not to travel with Susan. He said it would be bad for Susan and for me. And he said it would set a bad example for my siblings. I was shocked. But in the end, I agreed. I couldn’t disappoint my dad.

That was a turning point in my life. My dad took a stand when it would have been so easy to look the other way. I was, after all, an adult. But Dad made his point, and it impressed me. Medved’s father also took a stand. And it made a lasting impression on him. My story, which I describe in my memoir, “Emerging Son,” and Medved’s story, described in “Right Turns,” shows the impact a father can have on a son –- especially when the son is a young man. A father’s responsibilities don’t stop when his children become 18. Medved’s father apparently understood that, and so did my dad. In my own case, I am very glad that he did; in the case of Michael Medved, a father’s loyalty to his faith shaped the life of a young man who went on to a very interesting, influential life described in this thoroughly enjoyable book.