Giving makes me feel like I’m living

The above title is a quote offered by Morrie Schwartz, the subject of Mitch Albom’s book “Tuesdays with Morrie.” The book continues to sell with over fifteen million copies sold in 45 countries. It describes Albom’s weekly visits with his favorite teacher and mentor named Morrie.

Albom shared today on CBS This Morning, he was not the only person to routinely visit his mentor. Others went with the goal of cheering up Morrie, but they would leave being comforted as Morrie would invariably ask them about their lives and challenges.

When Albom inquired about this of Morrie, he said “Giving makes me feel like I’m living.” What profound words coming from a teacher. To me, this echoes the term I have used called “psychic income.” Giving to others with your time, ear, support, donations, etc. provides you with a psychic income.

Yet, like with lessons in the book, Morrie’s phrasing of why he gives is much more profound. Albom notes this is the reason his book strikes a chord with so many.

Please honor our teachers, mothers and fathers by paying forward their giving to us. We will also benefit.

Happy Easter, too

While I did not grow up Catholic, my best friend did. So, one of our rituals that lasted about ten years was going to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. One of the traditions of that mass was the Father would also wish Happy Easter, as he knew he would not see more than a few parishioners until next Christmas.

While fewer people are church goers than before and some check the box “none” when surveyed, Christmas remains an important holiday for the promise it brings. Whether you believe that Jesus is the son of God, there was a man by this name who walked the earth and spoke to gatherings of people of all sizes. He reminded us of four key themes among his many parables and lessons. And, these themes can be found in other religious texts.

– Treat others like you want to be treated.

– Help people less fortunate than you.

– Recognize each of us is imperfect.

– Forgive those who trespass against us.

To me, if we live our lives doing our best to remember these four things, Jesus’ words will help us be better people. And, if enough of us do this, the world just might be a better place.

 

Jesus on my mind

On PBS Frontline, they are airing a two-part series called “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians” about how Christianity took shape. It is a fascinating history lesson that blends biblical writings with other known historical and archaeological findings. It interviews twelve religious scholars, theologians and historians who offer terrific insight.

I gained a greater appreciation for the role Paul played in spreading the teachings of Jesus following his death around Year 30. His followers were scared after Jesus’ death in Jerusalem as the Romans did not tolerate much dissent. So, Paul spread the word through home gatherings away from Jerusalem and through his many letters which were the first writings about Jesus. These home gatherings were usually over meals and sharing of prayer and stories. It was noted that these followers were a mixture of socio-economic classes, whereas around Jerusalem Jesus’ followers were more agrarian. Hence, Jesus’ parables had to be interpreted for more urban followers of Paul.

I also got a better understanding of the context of when the Gospels were written. Mark was the first Gospel author who wrote around forty years following Jesus’ death, but after the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem squelching the first rebellion of the Jews. He also wrote just after the deaths of three key Christians – Peter, James and Paul. Following this massacre, there was a much somber audience, so Mark highlighted the agony of Jesus’ death noting how much he suffered, just like they were now. He also wanted to record the life of Jesus, with the passing of these three principals.

Matthew and Luke years later followed with their Gospels and used some of the same words as Mark did, which gave the scholars the sense there was another document that had recorded some of Jesus’ teachings. The scholars noted they had to be working off a previous text of Jesus’ parables, as they were written in different regions by different men.These three Gospels are more symbiotic than John’s Gospel, as a result.

The scholars also note that Luke’s writings must be viewed in tandem with his second piece called Acts. They said Luke was more educated than Mark, so his writings flow more like the stories of the day. He also was writing to a more urban audience around the Aegean Sea who spoke Greek. John’s Gospel writings took a different tack as his writing was later and at a time when people were looking for something more lasting. He wrote more of a spiritual Jesus that is the basis for much of modern Christianity.

These scholars spoke of the Gospels in terms that makes sense to me. Gospel means “good news,” and that was the purpose of writing them to share the news of Jesus. But, as one scholar pointed out, these were not four reporters summarizing what just happened in a courtroom. They were writing down the stories that had been told and retold following Jesus’ death. He went on to say he would err on the side that these writings were meant symbolically and have been interpreted literally, rather than the other way around. Since four people are telling the same stories from different perspectives and times, there are inconsistencies in the stories.

Two examples would indicate this, as the day of Jesus’ death is different, where in one it is occurring at Passover where others showing it occurred later. Also, the example of Jesus’ overturning the gambling and trading tables in the temple, occurred earlier in one Gospel, while it is the reason for his ultimate arrest and later crucifixion in the others.

The final key takeaway for me is the separation between Judaism and Christianity became more prominent after these writings. Jesus was Jewish and much of the earlier teachings especially near Jerusalem were in keeping with the Jewish faith. The scholars explain that 90% of people in the Roman empire were paganists worshipping multiple gods. So, the only organized religion around one God was the Jewish religion. This is one reason the Romans feared teachings that wrapped religion and politics together, as in the Roman rule, the emperor was the supreme leader. This is also the reason Christians worshipped in secret in their homes.

The Frontline piece is excellent. It helps better understand context and the history of Jesus and those who followed him and created Christianity. Below is a synopsis of the two episodes.

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/etc/synopsis.html

 

Genghis Khan – Beyond his Brutality

My oldest son and I attended a traveling Genghis Khan museum exhibit on Sunday which is on our city for a few months. He is fascinated by Khan and his legacy that brought his Mongols to the doorsteps of Europe and conquered most of Asia, including China. He listens to a podcast with an avid and knowledgeable historian about Khan.

Khan first consolidated the nomadic tribes of Mongolia who tended to fight amongst themselves. He then turned his sights on other lands and was quite brutal in his quest. Yet, the story that cements his rule is he was a great leader that understood merit hiring over nepotism and allowed certain freedoms. More on this later.

The Mongols were a formidable fighting force for three principal reasons. They were superior horsemen where the entire battalion would attack on horseback overwhelming superior numbers. And, what amazed me is each rider would travel with two to three horses. Their army could move 75 miles in contrast to an opponent’s ten.

They were prolific archers with self-made and unusually shaped bows, which could shoot as far as 350 yards, much longer than other bows. And, they could shoot them accurately off horseback, even backwards. Often, the Mongols would pretend to retreat to lure their foes out and then reverse course and attack.

Finally, Khan organized them into a fighting force in numbers of ten. Each battalion had multiple groups of ten, who picked their own leader. And, the group of ten would be punished as a group for the failures of the one. These tens would be multiplied to a battalion of a thousand or ten thousand, which would be a potent and organized force.

Once a group was conquered, after certain leaders would be killed, the subordinate troops would swear allegiance and fight with the Mongols. They would not rule as harshly as they conquered, as they wanted the civilians to support the conquering enemy and new leadership. Plus, there were several governing principles that last to this day.

  • Religious freedom was provided where people would worship their religion of choice. Several religions were readily available even in the capitol city.
  • Civil service officials came from a wide swath of people based on merit. So, civil service officials were more proficient than if they were hired on relationships..
  • Diplomatic immunity was afforded any envoy traveling from another kingdom to visit. Kings do not kill envoys was a stated rule.
  • People could move around with some limits as a passport system offered organized travel. One passport we saw had three languages on it.
  • Environmental mandates were given for communities to protect their water sources.
  • Taxation was often lowered on the conquered lands and exemptions afforded teachers and religious figures.
  • Communication and organization were key. Some say Khan brought an organized purpose to previous rivals to fight together. The same held true in his governance.

These principles can be found in many societies today. The empire lasted for several hundred years, but what caused its retrenchment, in my view, are the vast distances to govern, but also the infighting of the Khan siblings and offspring. HIs grandson Kublai Khan was the last of the great Khan leaders, so after his demise, the empire started a slow wane.

If this exhibit comes to your city, I would encourage you to go see it. I am certain their are people more knowledgeable than me who can offer more specifics about the Mongolian empire, its rise, its governance and its decline. I would welcome any and all comments, especially if I am off base.

 

Hillbilly Elegy – Stabilizing Influences Matter

I recently completed the best selling non-fiction book by J.D. Vance called “Hillbilly Elegy.” Briefly, Vance tells the story of his roots in the Kentucky hills and how his grandparents traversed with others into Ohio to work in various manufacturing jobs. While that migration helped a great deal, many were not successful or plateaued because of lack of opportunity, lack of money for a college education and lack of consistent support.

Vance eventually became an attorney graduating from Yale law school, but he was very much the exception. Why? He attests it is primarily due to three stabilizing influences in his life, the first and most important of which, was his grandmother. HIs mother was very unstable with continual drug problems and multiple husbands and boyfriends. When Vance and his sister tried to live with his mother, far more often than not, it was a chaotic and verbally abusive setting which caused his grades, attendance, and attitude to plummet.

He lived with his grandmother (and grandfather while he was alive) off and on and frequently visited when he did not. Vance says when he chose to live with his grandmother full-time when entering the 10th grade, he finally had the stabilizing influence and support he needed. He notes his grades and attitude improved, along with his desire and a safe place to study. Mind you, his grandmother was not perfect and cursed like a sailor, but she made sure he had good friends, encouraged him to get a part-time job and said he was capable of going to college.

The second influence he discovered when he decided he was not mentally ready to go to college after being accepted. He joined the Marines. Vance said clearly the Marines taught him how to be responsible and accountable. They also taught him how to be an adult by helping him set up a checking account, mentoring him to stay away from predatory loans and how to budget and save. His grandmother hated that he joined the Marines, but even she saw the difference it made in him. So, by the time he went to Ohio State University and later Yale Law school, he was more mature and ready to learn and do what it takes to study.

The third stabilizing influence was his wife, whom he met at law school. A key example is the influence she had on how he reacted to negative news or arguments. Throughout the book, he notes that hillbilly pride in family would cause him to defend his honor at the smallest sleight. His wife shared that he need not react to someone, even her, so severely to jerk her head off if there was a personal affront. She convinced him, even when she disagreed with him, she was still on his side. This supportive love and calming demeanor had an impact and made him a better person. He noted that family meals at his wife’s home were civil and interesting.

We all need stabilizing influences in our life, no matter where we are born. Yet, far too many Americans and citizens of other countries, do not have any or very few stabilizing influences. In America, where and to whom you are born matters more than it used to, in getting ahead. America has plummeted in global rankings in getting ahead. In my volunteer work with homeless working families, many of the children only have a mother to rely on. And, without a roof over their heads, the stability of a safe place to live, much less study, is compromised. By breaking the cycle of homelessness, a child has a better chance of avoiding homelessness as an adult.

Vance clearly states if he did not have the support and stability of his grandmother, he would not have ever gone to college and may have been a high school drop out. Two present and interested parents is far more the ideal, but with such a high divorce rate, with so many out-of-wedlock births, and with the temptations to drink or do drugs as an outlet when life gets tougher than you are prepared to deal with, that ideal may not be attainable for many. So, he argues that a childcare support system designed to serve kids in troubled situations needs to be flexible enough to confirm where those stabilizing influences are for that child. He had to fight to live with his grandmother rather than his mother and living with his father was not fruitful.

I encourage you to read this book which offers through example, what real and imperfect people are going through. It may challenge preconceived notions, which is always a good thing, in my view. It did mine.

Let’s give thanks

My favorite holiday is upon us, one that brings families and friends together. We have a crowd of twenty-two joining our feast and fellowship this year, which is more than ever.

Especially nice will be seeing some new faces with our niece and two of our children each inviting a friend. It brings my wife and me joy to see them feel comfortable enough to invite a friend.

We will also be meeting the son of one of our nephews for the first time. They live in California and he has not had the opportunity to bring him east until now.

Of course, we are excited to have everyone here. My daughter asked how long ago did we start this tradition. When my grandmother passed away, going to her home for Thansgiving passed away with her. So, we remember her by making her cornbread dressing and continuing her  tradition.

Please enjoy your Thanksgiving and travel safely if you must. Hug everyone a little longer this year and share plenty of stories.

Vistas are beautiful, but people make the journey

My wife and I returned yesterday from a wonderful trip to New England. Flying into Boston, we ventured north to Maine for a few days returning to Boston for a brief visit then traveling southwest to Connecticut to see more family. The vistas and scenery were terrific, but what made the trip so special was visiting with our nieces, nephews and friends.

Our first stop was in Bar Harbor, Maine, which is quite the place. It sits on an island reached by driving, that mostly consists of the Acadia National Park, a true treasure. On Saturday, we met up with our niece and nephew (and his son) who live in Maine. Our niece loves showing her favorite place off to visitors and she traveled up from Portland to be our tour guide.

We all met at her favorite breakfast restaurant.  We hiked two separate gardens – Thuya and Asticou gardens – and then ventured into the park to see lakes, mountains, beaches and beautiful scenery, returning to Bar Harbor for an early dinner.Spending all day with them was a treat and allowed us to get to know them. We had never met our great-nephew and not seen his father in over ten years.

On the way to Boston, we hugged the coast at the suggestion of my wife’s brother and saw more vistas and extremely quaint towns. Boston offers so much, but our time was limited as our relatives in Connecticut said they would love to have us stop by for dinner before we left. So, we did two walking tours downtown probably walking as much or more than we did in Maine.

Like true world-class cities, Boston has beautiful parks in the downtown area, the Public Garden and Boston Commons. Later we visited the Back Bay Fens Victory Garden, which is a few blocks from Fenway Park, the famous baseball stadium. Boston is a pedestrian friendly city with wonderful architecture, restaurants, river and bay shorelines and markets. We did do the Quincy Market, which is a treat and went down to the bay. I realize we had only a small taste of Boston, but it was nice.

Our final destination was to drive past Hartford to a small town in western Connecticut. There we saw another niece who had moved with her two kids to her mother’s, who we also know. Our niece had to separate from the children’s father and was living with her mother, her mother’s second husband and their two kids. We had not seen our niece in over ten years and had not seen her mother in 31 years, as she was in our wedding along with our niece.To say we had a delightful time is an understatement as my wife was good friends with the mother. Her husband and other two children were a delight as were our niece’s kids.

The reason we had not seen them is divorce affects more than just the couple. My wife’s brother, who is the father of the children, lives near us and we love his third wife dearly. The niece in CT was his first child and my wife became friends with her mother. After their divorce, my brother-in-law married his second wife and had two children who were our tour guides in Maine. So, we lost touch with his kids and his first wife, who he remains very amicable with. This trip was so meaningful and exceeded our expectations to reconnect. We sensed that they enjoyed reconnecting with family, as well.

I mention this has it is never too late to reach out. Don’t miss the opportunity to reconnect. Seeing his first wife after thirty-one years is now a treasured experience and we have invited them to come down. It was truly like old times and she looked forward to our visit as much as we did. While we had just seen one of our nieces after a long  ten year hiatus, seeing her with her brother in Maine was truly joyful. These two lovely days made the trip even more worthwhile, even more so than the beautiful vistas.