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

Monday, March 31, 2008

The start of Christmas season

When a woman announces that she is pregnant, the whole household begins to make preparation in anticipation of the new arrival. I am beginning to make preparations today.

No, my wife is not pregnant, but today is the day Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation. That’s the commemoration of the announcement the angel Gabriel made to Mary that she would conceive and bear a son, who would be the savior of the world. The feast is usually celebrated on March 25, exactly nine months before Christmas. This year because that date fell during Easter week, the folks who determine the Christian calendar moved the date to March 31.

I love Christmas and its accompanying season. Even though they start playing Christmas songs on the radio during the middle of November, I find myself every year lamenting the season went too quickly. The spirit of Christmas is something we should carry in our hearts all year long anyway, so this year I am going to try to get serious about it. My Christmas season for 2008 starts today.

The Feast of the Annunciation comes every year, but usually it comes during the season of Lent, when I am thinking about Easter. This year, however, is different. We have already celebrated Easter, clearing the path toward Christmas. Easter and Christmas, of course, are linked. If we celebrate one, we are really celebrating both. This year I really want to be ready for the coming of Christ. The calendar gives us nine months to prepare and I am going to try to make the most of it.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Prager's sensibility

Dennis Prager, the national radio personality, was in town last week and my wife and I joined another couple for seats in the audience of 600 or so. He talked for a little over an hour, touching on a variety of subjects, lacing everything with humor.

While I have great respect for his commentary, I disagree with an assertion he made about marriage. He said long marriages are mostly the result of luck. My sense is that they are more the result of hard work. Now, certainly, there is a measure of luck in the equation. One has to be lucky enough not to get hit by a bus or involved in an airplane crash to live into old age, but setting aside the uncontrollables, I don’t really see luck having much to do with it. Rough spots emerge in every marriage and it is work on the parts of both spouses that typically gets them through, not luck.

He also commented that he is greatly troubled by the level of senseless suffering in the world. Who isn’t? But I think what troubled Prager was an inability to identify any purpose in suffering. Prager, a devout Jew, was in town to participate in a debate over the existence of God at a national convention of atheists. Many atheists deny the existence of God because they look around the world and see all the suffering and ask themselves: “How could a loving God allow all this?” They conclude there must not be a God.

On this issue, I am grateful for my Catholic faith which promises no relief from suffering but does bring meaning to it. Just as Christ suffered to atone for our sins, our suffering can atone for sin, and not just our own sin but the sins of others. We can actually enjoin our suffering with that of the Lord to participate in the world’s salvation. I am not a theologian and can’t explain it much better than that, but I know there is a world of theology behind this topic in Catholicism. Christ embraced His cross and we are to do the same. Suffering is inevitable, true; but pointless? No.

Prager’s strongest point was his last one. He said he worries about our country. He noted that on coins minted by the U.S. government we find three things: “Liberty,” “E Pluribus Unim,” and “In God we Trust.” He observed that all three of those ideas are under attack – not from some hostile nation, but from within.

A growing federal government, he said, is encroaching on our liberties. Furthermore, the Latin phrase means: “from many, one,” but today diversity is the mantra of the cultural elites. And secularism is stronger than ever in this country, forcing God out of every crevice of the public sector.

Prager is on the mark. We need to work to preserve our liberty by resisting needless federalism, we need to celebrate our national identify and we need to acknowledge God as the rightful sovereign over our country.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Humility at work

I have been studying business for years, and I am struck by the role of humility in successful management.

In Good to Great, author Jim Collins looks at the characteristics of really successful CEOs. In one of the biggest business books every written, Collins writes: “The best leaders display a compelling modesty, are self-effacing and understated. They are humble.” The best CEOs were not self-absorbed braggarts, Collins says. They attribute success to people other than themselves, but when things go wrong, they take responsibility.

Humility doesn’t mean walking around with your head down, responding “ah shucks” whenever anyone asks something. Being humble means admitting you don’t know everything. Collins is saying those really successful CEOs are willing to listen to others. Collins assures that no matter where you are in your career, you can benefit from listening to others. And that starts with humility.

A year or so ago, I had a chance to visit with David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University and an editor-at-large for U.S. News & World Report magazine. He links humility with faith. Gergen said: “Humility, in my experience, often comes from spirituality … The best leaders are ones who are well-anchored …Your best leaders often have been those who have been anchored in spirituality.” Gergen should know a thing or two about leadership, having worked for four presidents (Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton).

The wisest counsel on humility comes from the Bible itself. “Conduct your affairs with humility and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God. For great is the power of God; by the humble He is glorified.” This passage is from the third chapter of Sirach (17-19). Or consider this passage from Proverbs (22:4): “The reward of humility and fear of the Lord is riches, honor and life.”

The opposite of humility is pride, and it is pride which so often separates us from God and from those around us. That same noted chapter in Sirach warns: “a stubborn man will fare badly in the end…A stubborn man will be burdened with sorrow…For the affliction of the proud man there is no cure; he is the offshoot of an evil plant.” (25-27).

Humility is an important management characteristic for anyone in business to develop. I am working on it all the time, although I admit to only marginal success. Scripture offers a surprising amount of wisdom applicable to the workplace. At least for now, I am finding this to be my favorite area of scripture study.