A Brave New [Digital] World :: The Weekend Reading List

“The basics of the production transformation are increasingly evident; the consequences are much harder to estimate.” — John Zysman

We no longer find it odd to download and tap squares on the screens of our phones in order to purchase the services of other human beings. Whether it’s a meal, homemade good, ride, flight, place to stay or any number of mundane tasks, people ready to help are just a simple icon press away.

Naturally we prefer for our longings to be satiated at the lowest possible cost.
This exerts extraordinary pressure on services providers to keep wages low and shift the risks of doing business onto their workers (many of whom are not employees with benefits and legal protections, but contractors). The gig-economy, which could benefit many, winds up devolving into a low-wage-labor economy. Ultimately the myopic focus on price devalues workers.

The race to the bottom, in the pricing of goods and services, is powered by dehumanized consumption.

“Many peer economy platforms are asset-based. When the primary purpose of a transaction is access to an asset, the value of skills is deemphasized,” observes MIT Researcher Denise Cheng. In Barriers to Growth in the Sharing Economy she continues:

“Everyday people just like you perform tasks and services, and this peer-to-peer commerce creates human connection. However, between price consciousness and a multitude of options for the same service, the service’s human-centered proposition is secondary to consumers.”

How can Christians respond and live out our faith in such a world?
I’ve written before about the tendency toward narcissism for those of us affluent enough to purchase the services of another person by tapping a square.

“One-in-three American workers are independent contractors. The financial software company Intuit projects that by the end of the decade, 40 percent of Americans will be independent contractors.” — Denise Cheng

There is also a massive ministry opportunity in caring for and protecting the service-providers in our new world. The gig-economy exists largely beyond current economic policies. Its workers are often taken advantage of by consumers working aggressively to save money.

“The current reality is that most people do not become independent contractors because they want to, but because they need to,” Cheng says. “The peer economy workforce has not yet hit its saturation point. When it does, services on some platforms may become even more commodified, which would affect the earning potential of providers.”

The words of Jesus should confront and reprove us if we do not rise up on behalf of those marginalized in transactional services, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

The first ministry opportunity is to take what is otherwise a transaction and turn it into an interaction.
We re-humanize the process when we seek understanding of the person to whom we are talking. Are they participating in the gig economy as a casual user to generate supplemental income? Or are they, in Cheng’s words, “independents [who] have no choice but to cobble together a piecemeal income” from a number of apps, gigs, and odd jobs?

Cheaper isn’t always better — theologically speaking. Because human beings are created in the image of God, any good or service that strips another person of their dignity is, by nature, sinful.

Live with less, be willing to pay more.

Christians can also demonstrate sacrificial living through getting by with less in order to pay more for a good or service which comes from a company that takes care of its workers. “In large measure, the current struggle is around efforts to escape what we call ‘the commodity trap.’” John Zysman clarifies in Where Will Work Come From In The Era of the Cloud and Big Data.

The pressure to deliver cheaper — partially in response to dehumanized consumerism — is intense. Zysman concludes, “A diverse array of competitors use widely available conventional technologies to generate roughly similar standard goods, components, and services. The resulting intense competition leads to commoditization, meaning competition based principally on price. The consequence of this commodity trap is intense pressure on wages and profit margins alike.”

The gig-economy will continue to grow aggressively in the next two decades. The Church will grow with it as we Christians in a consumeristic society are able to sacrificially love our neighbors, provide for the marginalized, and live in our world but not of it.

Today’s Reading
1 Samuel 20 (Listen – 6:42)
1 Corinthians 2 (Listen – 2:26)

This Weekend’s Readings
Saturday: 1 Samuel 21-22 (Listen – 6:35); 1 Corinthians 3 (Listen – 3:05)
Sunday: 1 Samuel 23 (Listen – 4:18); 1 Corinthians 4 (Listen – 3:15)

Weekend Reading List

God is No Longer Displeased :: Readers’ Choice

John Calvin — Excerpt from Commentary on the Book of Psalms (1557)

Readers’ Choice (originally published on Park Forum October 2, 2014)

“I have never seen the word ‘irrefragable’ before. And, I’m sort of a ‘word-guy,’ so I looked it up. ‘Ir’ (not) ‘re’ (again) ‘fragable’ (from ‘sufferage’ – ‘to vote’). God does not take a vote about us again after he has set his love on us in Christ. Pure gold.” — Steve

Psalm 85.2
You forgave the iniquity of your people; you covered all their sin. Selah

It was very natural for the faithful to feel alarmed and perplexed on account of their sins, and therefore the prophet removes all ground for overwhelming apprehension, by showing them, that God, in delivering his people, had given an irrefragable proof of free forgiveness.

He had before traced this deliverance to the mere good pleasure and free grace of God as its source; but after it was wrought, the iniquities of the people having separated between them and their God, and estranged them from him, it was necessary that the remedy of pardon should be brought to their aid.

In saying that their iniquities were taken away, he does not refer to the faithful being reformed and purged from their sins, in other words, to that work by which God, sanctifying them by the Spirit of regeneration, actually removes sin from them. What he intended to say he explains immediately after. The amount, in short, is, that God was reconciled to [his people] by not imputing their sins to them.

When God is said to cover sins, the meaning is, that he buries them, so that they come not into judgment, as we have shown more at large on the 32d psalm, at the beginning. When, therefore, he had punished the sins of his people by captivity, it being his will to restore them again to their own country, he removed the great impediment to this, by blotting out their transgressions; for deliverance from punishment depends upon the remission of sin.

Thus we are furnished with an argument in confutation of that foolish conceit of the Sophists, which they set forth as some great mystery, That God retains the punishment although he forgive the fault; whereas God announces in every part of his word, that his object in pardoning is, that being pacified, he may at the same time mitigate the punishment.

The sequence of the pardon of sin is, that God by his blessing testifies that he is no longer displeased.

Today’s Readings
1 Samuel 19 (Listen – 3:43)
1 Corinthians 1 (Listen – 4:03)

Faith, Love, and Apps :: Readers’ Choice

Faith, Love, and Apps :: Readers’ Choice
Steven Dilla (originally published July 20, 2015)

Readers’ Choice

“This opened my eyes and moved my mind out of its box of what’s comfortable and taken for granted. A topic that needs to be addressed thoughtfully, prayerfully, and unselfishly by any calling themselves followers of Christ.” — Sam

Acts 7:55
But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

“The only way to do great work is to love what you do,” Steve Jobs famously admonished Stanford’s graduating class a decade ago. “If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” The message was reverberant; Follow your passion became the central career goal of an entire generation.

Steve Jobs got to do what he loved because tens of thousands of laborers on the other side of the world did not have access to such privilege. They labored daily — and still do — to painstakingly assemble tens of millions of electronic devices for the western world’s insatiable consumption.

We don’t have to travel to the other side of the world to see such effects from technology. The on demand economy is roaring into the mainstream — lead by the likes of Uber, a so-called unicorn, valued at $50 billion.

Uber has over 130,000 drivers worldwide — none of them are employees. They do not get healthcare, holidays, vacation, or overtime. Drivers in California are fighting back — but Uber’s plans for the future don’t appear to be focused around making life better for drivers. The company recently lured 40 robotics engineers away from Carnegie Mellon. Drivers are a stop-gap until the robots take over.

The world does not need another impotent social media campaign against injustice. It needs Christians who, like Stephen in Acts, are willing to lay down their lives because they have a clear vision of God’s glory.

I struggle with this reality. I regularly punch through emails on my iPhone while riding through Midtown in an Uber. I try to connect with my drivers on a personal level, to tip, and to enter into even small moments of redemption in what can otherwise be a dehumanized transaction. But I feel like there is more to be done.

Job’s exhortation, “don’t settle,” which he repeats in the speech, is apt advice. God’s grace frees us from demanding our every need be met and from expecting to spend each day in comfort while others suffer. Christians can engage differently in the on demand economy — starting a conversation around this in our communities would be a first step. We can also encourage one another not to simply make the vocational choices of least resistance or most benefit, but to passionately engage our faith in our work.

We remember Stephen not because he did what he loved, but because he gave up everything to follow the one he loved.

Today’s Readings
1 Samuel 18 (Listen – 4:30)
Romans 16 (Listen – 3:30)

Thwarted Plans :: Readers’ Choice

Readers’ Choice (originally published April 22, 2015)

“‘The glory of grace’ is something I somehow manage to overlook in daily life. How amazing that God would give his only Son for me? That the pain of my sin would fall on his shoulders? And yet, He loves me. He loves me.” — Anna

Psalm 33:10-11
The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Stephen Colbert mocked the terrorists, saying their intentions were thwarted by the very people they tried to hurt: “But here is where these cowards really don’t get. They attacked the Boston Marathon. An event celebrating people who run twenty-six miles on their day off … And when those bombs went off, there were runners who, after finishing a marathon, kept running for another two miles to the hospital to donate blood. So here’s what I know. These maniacs may have tried to make life bad for the people of Boston, but all they can ever do is show just how good those people are.”

In Psalm 33, the Psalmist sings, “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.” Thousands of years ago, “lawless men” sought to silence the King of Glory, but God frustrated their plans. 

As Peter said, “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”

In Spectacular Sins, John Piper writes, “In the death of Christ, the powers of darkness did their best to destroy the glory of the Son of God. This is the apex of evil. But instead they found themselves quoting the script of ancient prophecy and acting the part assigned by God. Precisely in putting Christ to death, they put his glory on display—the very glory that they aimed to destroy. The apex of evil achieved the apex of the glory of Christ. The glory of grace.”

Lord, although much about the bombings in Boston remains a mystery to us, we know one thing—when we see terrorists try to spread fear and hatred and, instead, spread love and compassion, we see your glory. No plan of yours can be thwarted—not even when evil appears to have won. Give us a vision for spectacular sins that achieve the apex of Christ’s glory. Amen.

Today’s Readings
1 Samuel 17 (Listen – 8:59)
Romans 15 (Listen – 4:32)

The Hardest Prayer :: Readers’ Choice

Readers’ Choice (originally published July 17, 2015)

“When friends ask me to pray for their prodigals I always ask permission before I pray as I do for my own children: ‘Whatever it takes, Lord!’ That prayer takes a little courage and a lot of trust because He may not answer the way I would choose.” — Sam

And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness. —Acts 4.29

I pray the safest prayers for the people closest to me. Praying risky things for myself seems slightly more natural: my prayer, my life, my risk. Sometimes I pray for strength and courage for a martyr I’ve read about, partially because I’m not sure how else to pray for them. Their faith is deeper than mine.

Then I get to my family and closest friends. I’m quite content praying for safety, comfort, instant healing, and a host of other luxuries. I just want things for them to be fine.

I’ve often gotten lost looking at the picture of Martin Luther King Jr. pulling a burnt cross out of his lawn. Hatred came to his home. Radical anger burned in his front yard. His young son stands next to him as he pulls the charred cross out of the lawn. Dr. King’s prayers and bold response to the gospel put his family at great risk. Every day.

Surely he meditated Acts 4. In the account, Peter and John have just been released from questioning. They have been threatened with jail — a threat with the subtext of beatings and possibly death — and yet they pray for boldness.

The easy thing for Peter and John would have been to have a prayer meeting about the government’s overreach and pray God would stop it. The comfortable thing would have been to pray for blessing and a new leader. But the Church’s growth would have stopped in that moment.

Like Dr. King, it was the disciples’ boldness, risk, and willingness to sacrifice for the sake of Christ that moved the gospel into the forefront of civic and social life.

Faith atrophies in the pseudo-comfort of modern life. Children who grow up without taking risks or engaging their beliefs against opposition, or friends who never work through hardship and forgiveness together, become intolerable. It is only in great difficulty that people discover the strength woven into them as image-bearers of God. Only when someone is overwhelmed do they look beyond their own strength to a God who loves and cares for them.

The hardest prayers are often the most loving prayers we can pray. They grow our trust in God, engage our faith in the complexity of the world, and challenge our communities to unite around the gospel. God grow our faith.

Today’s Readings
1 Samuel 16 (Listen – 3:45)
Romans 14 (Listen – 3:28)

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