Lydia’s conversion: Getting down to business | 1 May 2016

Text: Acts 16:9-15

Joel

Lydia was a businesswoman.  More specifically, she was “a dealer in purple cloth.”  Her conversion was important enough for the early church to include it among the limited selection of stories in the book of Acts.  But it’s a brief story, and it provokes just as many questions as it answers about the person of Lydia.

We’re told that Lydia was from the city of Thyatira, long known as a center for purple cloth production.  Kind of like saying you’re a corn farmer from Iowa.  Thyatira was in the region of Lydia in Asia Minor.  So not only are you a corn farmer from Iowa, but you are named Iowa.  Lydia was a dealer in purple cloth and she was… Lydia.

But when we meet her in this passage, she is not in Thyatira, or Lydia, or Iowa.  She’s in the city of Philippi, a major economic hub a couple hundred miles northwest of Thyatira.  And she has a home in Philippi.  She has a home.  She has a household.

We are told that Lydia was already a “worshiper of God.”  On a Sabbath she hears a message from another traveling salesman of sorts, a spiritual entrepreneur.  Paul is preaching to a group of women, and she’s one of them, gathered outside the city gate by the river.  She likes what she hears.  She joins this gospel movement and is baptized.  She and her household are baptized.  She invites Paul and his companions to join her, in her home.

And this is pretty much what we know about Lydia.

How does she come to be from two places?  Why is she the head of a household in a patriarchal world?  What exactly did baptism mean to her if she was already a worshiper of God?  And in those waters of conversion, how did her baptism and her business swirl together?

I thought it would be worthwhile to see what kind of thoughts a real live business person might have with this Lydia story.  So I went out and found one.  Ta-Da.

So, Jodi, for those who don’t know, why don’t you say something about what you’re in the business of doing.

Jodi

“I’m a music teacher!” Pete noted when he is asked what his wife does, he responds, “She owns a music studio with excellent teachers. They do piano, voice, and guitar lessons. Here’s her card!”  Yep, he always has my business cards. When invited to speak today, I turned to some mentors. “Talk about you–and how you started Allegro!” Ack. I stopped asking after the third similar response.  In my imaginings, Lydia is an expert–dyeing processes, fabrics, fashion trends. Would she have answered, “I dye fabric!” or “I deal in purple cloth. I have exclusive outlets from Thyatira to Phillipi. Here’s my card.”

My first identity is music teacher. My conversion, becoming more Christ-like, was becoming a business owner. The music teacher part is easy— at the end of jr. high I was presented the school Vocal Music Award AND I attended Music Camp at Friedenswald. The next 15 years, I worked towards becoming the greatest choir director in the state! Or that was the plan. In 2005, if I wanted to keep teaching, a state law mandated I finish my Master’s degree. I loved teaching in the public schools. With pressure to fund a Master’s degree that may price me out of my field, and a growing number of private students, I figured I’d put that money into a business.

Typically, private music instruction is either teach out of your living room, or rent a space at the music store. Both are fairly isolating, without much collaboration or standards and everyone’s stuck doing their own bookkeeping. So at Allegro, we’d have a full-time staff of employed, not independently contracted, teachers dedicated to helping students become joyful learners and musicians. And it turned out to be a GREAT idea! I became a much better teacher than I ever was teaching out of my living room—daily collaboration with other great teachers–students experiencing a variety of instructors—parents getting expert instruction for their children–we established an outstanding, unified, developmentally appropriate, curriculum–the staff never had to think about billing and self-employment taxes. Everybody wins! That’s how business should work!

In Lydia’s time, purple cloth was so precious there were often laws about who could and couldn’t own and wear purple. Lydia had exclusive customers. So do I. Not everyone can afford lessons at Allegro even though I believe that music is for everyone. Lessons at Allegro are a luxury, yet unlike expensive fabric–music instruction can last a lifetime–through dementia and other trials of old age–music stays. I wish I could open my doors to any eager new student. How do I reconcile the priceless value of music, yet still a luxury item, with a belief that we all deserve this quality instruction? Did Lydia have this struggle? Maybe she believed we all deserve to be beautiful; we all deserve the dignity and respect of “purple.”

Joel

One of the things that intrigues me about Lydia is that her first act after her baptism is an act of hospitality.  She invites Paul and his companions to come and stay at her home.  And there’s one extra piece to the Lydia story that doesn’t show up in this reading.  Paul and Silas are soon put in prison for disturbing the peace of Philippi.  They make an earthquake-assisted prison break, and the first place they go when they are free is Lydia’s home, like it had already become a hub of the church of Philippi.  A letter written later to the Philippians from Paul is one of the books of our Christian Scriptures, and one can only wonder if that letter would have been read to a group eagerly gathered within Lydia’s home.

I wonder how many other people of relatively high social status like Lydia there were in the early churches who don’t get mentioned by name.  I think of the gospel’s brief reference to a group of female disciples who provided for Jesus out of their own means, key financial sponsors of the movement.

I’m intrigued with how business owners who are people of faith often see their business as a place of hospitality.  Along with providing a needed service, and jobs, businesses often sponsor community events, and donate a portion of profits to social causes.  When I hear you, Jodi, talk about your studio, I think about the ways it’s a place of hospitality for your teachers, and your students and families who get to learn in a carefully shaped environment.

And I know you have a different first response when you read about Lydia persuading Paul and the others to stay with her, which you’ll be mentioning later.  But you have an important story about how being a business owner inspired you to first get your own financial house in order.  Like when we know we’re inviting people into our house it makes us take a closer look at what all we’ve got laying around in there.

Jodi

In the May issue of the Atlantic, Neal Gabler writes an article, “The Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans.” He cites a survey where 47% of respondents said they would cover a $400 emergency by borrowing, selling something, or not coming up with the money at all. Half of us can not cover a $400 emergency. Another survey reveals that 62% of us would not cover an unexpected $500-$1000 expense with saved money. The shame is what Gabler calls “financial fragility,” living on the edge of financial peril, often while having the privilege of middle class status to nearly continually take on new and more debt. I relate!–except that I became a business owner and had to do some hard thinking about my relationship to money. Remember how nice and neat the music teacher part is? The business part isn’t. There is shame connected to it. It revealed my weaknesses and vulnerability. This may be TMI-too much information for some of you–and I agree personal finance IS personal. My intention is not to “preach” at you; my intention is to bring awareness, empathy, and hope. When I was first struggling financially it never would have occurred to me to turn to the church. I was too filled with shame to realize it was also crushing me spiritually. So I am going to share with you today because that shame kept me silently alone for too long and the stats tell me half of us are in this situation. You are not alone. If I have learned just one thing from business it is that we all belong to each other.

So how does this connect to Lydia? As a woman and probably a widow, Lydia would have been keenly aware of “financial fragility.” She would have felt the weight of providing for her household and I imagine she had to become very educated and exact about how she was going to relate to money. When she heard about Jesus–who spent most of his ministry talking about money & power–and how we relate to money & power–she would have recognized this TRUTH as a Truth with a capital T.

Gabler & I both realized we had accepted that our spending and not saving–was “normal.” Spending beyond our means–yet just to get by, not anticipating future maintenance or replacement costs–essentially being owned by our stuff, having no emergency fund and not enough retirement–our intent was never extravagance or out-doing “the Joneses.” As a society, even Mennonite society, rather than debt being a rare and brief event in life, we have accepted continual debt as normal. “You’ll always have a car payment!” NEVER in my life have I lived in a household that didn’t have some debt; my parents carried debts through my childhood, I left college with hefty school loans, then a car loan, a credit card or two, a medical bill, a mortgage…or two–and then a generous business line of credit and credit card. At one point our income was so low and our debt so high that it was not mathematically possible for us to pay our creditors and give a tithe. We were owned. Scripture taunted me, “You cannot serve two masters.” It was heart-breaking. How “shameful!” I cried, alone. In December of 2009, with an underwater mortgage (2!) we were one financial crisis– a minor crisis–away from financial ruin. That’s what they refer to as a “Come to Jesus moment.”

Financial fragility carries psychological weight and shame that keeps (47%-62%) of us silently suffering. It mars and distorts interactions with others. Instead of a car repair being a normal event in owning a car, it becomes an anxiety-filled emergency– and then resentment–attempting as much of the repair yourself as possible (you don’t want to expose yourself as being unable to afford the repair!); cynically second-guessing the mechanic who’s probably over-charging (it’s hard to feel generous or trusting when you don’t have a penny to spare). Financial fragility, I believe is a modern-day slavery of first world society–and I believe a large part of the Good News from the Torah to the New Testament is about setting the captives free. In the responsibilities of being a business owner I gradually, humbly learned that our loving almighty God–Creator of the Universe does not need my piddly tithe; God wants the captives freed. As we paid down debt, and were able to start giving, it was like a light bulb—or maybe the sun–morning by morning new mercies I see.

Since Dec. 2009, we have refused to take on any new debt. Ever. It has made for some very interesting choices. Humbling choices like wanting to expand the business over 3 years ago–think of what we could do with the larger space–think of the larger expenses and smaller raises for my staff. I learned in business, debt magnifies your mistakes. Having funds set aside and telling the money you do have where to go magnifies your generosity. Changing how I related to money was exhausting. Many times I’ve just wanted to quit; remodel the house or finally go on vacation and put it on a credit card; trade-in our 15 yr.-old car and get a ‘small’ car loan, do some necessary and major home repairs using the financing available; just live like everybody else! It is exhausting and exhilarating; impatient tedium and building peace-of-mind each time we paid off one more debt. We currently have no debt except our ONE mortgage. Working our way to becoming debt-free (and we’re still working) has been the most life-changing, character-building, self-improving experience in my life. It is awful. Yet, the freedom is bliss. Guess how different my attitude is WHEN, not IF, I need to go the mechanic? Did you know there are amazing humans doing good work all over the place? One of the most ecstatic moments of my life, was making that last payment on my business line of credit. I cried at the bank.

Early on I thought, if we can just get more students–THEN I’ll finally make enough money to feel free! –THEN I can be really generous!  And for some of us, a little more income might be part of the solution. The life-changing question during my “Come to Jesus moment” was, “What would you do if you had NO payments?” And, “What would my business do, if it had no debt?” One of many conclusions for me was that most people, tend to do pretty great things–usually for and with other people. My conversion reframed my beliefs about people, stuff, and wealth. Our Jesus spent a lot of time talking about those topics. And after crying at the bank, I gave my staff raises.

Joel

Part of what I’ve learned from our conversation is how helpful it can be when we bring our own stories and experiences to these biblical stories.  At their best, these biblical stories can give us a greater permission to tell our own stories and hold them up to the light so we all learn something about ourselves and about the way the Spirit is inhabiting our lives.  Even our financial lives, which can be hard to talk about.  I know we’re not all business owners here, but I see this as a congregation filled with a lot of Lydias.  A lot of resources.  A lot of creativity.  We might even think of this space the same way Lydia thought of her house.  A hub for spiritual entrepreneurship.  I like to think that our baptismal identity makes us unpredictable to our culture, even as we seek the common good for one another and our neighbors.

Jodi

Do you know how many women are quoted in the Bible? I can’t tell you–even the Google didn’t understand my question. Lydia was, and maybe still is, unpredictable,–a wealthy, female, Jesus-following, business owner who actually gets quoted! (Acts says:) ‘And she urged us saying, (And here’s the quote:) “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.’ I don’t think she was offering a cushy bed and hot breakfast. This was a command, from someone who gets things done–someone who quickly identifies a process where everybody wins–someone who endlessly thinks about how we are all connected–Lydia recognized the Truth with a capital T and she urged and prevailed upon those with the ability to communicate the Truth, to stay and get it done. So for those of us who are currently “normal” middle class Americans, I prevail upon you, “What could you do if you had no payments?” I urge you to release your shame, ask for help, you are not alone, we belong to each other.

 

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