The Present under the Tree

My step dad was a great storyteller. In one of the last conversations I had with him, he wanted to talk about Christmas. But first, he had to lie down. His body was riddled with cancer. His strength was gone and he needed to rest. He closed his eyes and begin to reminisce about his childhood. He loved Christmas. He told me how his dad would buy a tree and set it up in their living room a week before Christmas. You could smell the fresh cut pine throughout the house. His mother would wrap up the presents and put them under the tree. He recalled how he and his brother would sneak in to inspect and shake the presents. They would try to imagine what was inside. Maybe it was some socks or a new coat. Or better yet, maybe it was that new toy you always wanted! It could be anything. The colorful paper and neat bows only added to the mystery and intrigue. He couldn’t wait for Christmas morning! The days and hours would stretch on for what seemed like eternity, but then Christmas Eve would finally arrive! They could barely sleep. At first light on Christmas morning, they would rush to the tree and tear open their treasures. It was magnificent!  

As he lay in his bed, struggling with some pain, a broad smile formed across his face. His eyes opened. They were beaming with a misty, joyous radiance. He looked directly at me. “Jason, I feel like Christmas is coming. Eternity is wrapped up in a beautiful package waiting for me under the tree. I can’t wait to open it. It’s like I’m holding it right now and wondering what’s inside. I keep shaking it and wondering how wonderful it will be. What is on the other side of this mortal life? What will heaven be like? Christmas morning is coming for me and I’m ready to open it.”

Not many days later, my dad opened that present. He breathed out his last terrestrial breath and drank in the brilliant glory of eternity. While his life was ending here on earth, his joy never did. With a tearful smile and a heavy heart, I sent my last wish to him as he departed, “Merry Christmas, Dad.”

I recognize this is a heavy and personal story to start off the new year, but I think it is an important one. For me, it is profoundly grounding. There are controllable and uncontrollable events on our horizon. What matters and what is in our control is how we prepare and respond to those. How we look at things shapes our destiny. It can limit us or propel us forward. Wrapped up under the tree are packages with our names on them. What will they be? What will we find inside? How will we respond? What new adventure awaits? What will we discover?

As the new year is born, we don’t know where it will take us. We will face new experiences and say farewell to others. New memories will be made and old ones will visit us. Like the stars in the heavens, they will illuminate our journey, orient us and encourage us. We will embrace the unknown and keep going. Every encounter, precious. Every person, infinitely valuable. Every day, a gift. 

The future is before us, full of potential, new adventures and new memories to enjoy. Like a present under the tree, it could be anything. It’s time to start unwrapping! 

Happy New Year!

What is Love?

“Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Happy Valentine’s Day!  It is the day we pick to celebrate love.  But, I have a question.  What do we mean by “love”?  I mean, really, what is love?

Did you know that there are seven distinct words in Greek that describe different kinds of love? With the Olympics going on, I reflected back on the two years I spent studying the Greek language and ancient Greek manuscripts as part of my Master’s program.  I have to be honest, I barely got by.  I kept looking at the Greek texts and thinking about math problems.  I found it way easier to understand quantum mechanics than how to conjugate ancient Greek verbs into the correct indicative mood and pluperfect tense.  Yet I found it profound that there are seven Greek words to represent the one word we have in English: Love.  We have so overloaded that word that it seems to have lost all of its meaning.  We “love” sunsets, our favorite Super Bowl winning football team, cars, family, artwork, friends and weekends.  Is it all the same?  The ancient Greeks didn’t think so.

Three of the seven Greek words for love really resonated with me. They are seen throughout ancient literature.  I think they can give us a modern insight into love that we may have lost today.  They are: Eros, Philia and Agape.  In the spirit of the Olympics, I think they represent the three winning medals: bronze, silver and gold.  I won’t make this a full course in etymology, but if you will bear with me, I would love (no pun intended) to unpack each one of those words and see how it relates to our modern concepts of love.

Eros is ἔρως.  I warned you it would look like a math lesson.  If that seems like it is all Greek to you, well it is.  This bronze word represents love as a feeling and a passion.  Plato and Socrates argue that eros is the soul acknowledging beauty.  The emotional elements of this type of love are strong and is the etymology behind words like erotic.  By far, this is the one form of love that we sing about the most.  Huey Lewis says it is the “power”, The J Geils Band would say it “stinks” and Foreigner just wants to know what it is.  Queen, Beyoncé and Jay-Z think it is “crazy”.  Captain and Tennille think it keeps people together, but Tina Turner just wants to know what that has to do with it.  Ray Charles can’t stop it and Whitney Houston will always have it.  The Bee Gees want to know how deep it goes and Diana Ross and Lionel Richie know it is endless.

Philia is φιλία.  Are you thinking about a fraternity or sorority by now?  This shiny silver form of love is related to friendship, community, loyalty to friends, care for family and kindness to fellow equals, often expressed as “brotherly love”.  Philia is the root of words like philosophy (love of wisdom) and philanthropy (love of human kind) representing the affection we place on things familiar and close to us. We see this at work in our lives through our affection and attraction to a group of like-minded individuals who also support us.  In our community, this is expressed as a connection with individuals that have shared needs, experiences or goals.  It can be tribal, national, or even global.  Building communities and getting to know each other builds philia, which I think we can all agree, we could use a bit more of these days.

Agape is ἀγάπη. The Greeks built on the Phoenician characters, creating the first true “alphabet” (alpha beta) by including vowels along with constants.  This form of love begins with alpha (α), the first letter.  In a lot of ways, this golden form of love is elevated above the others in its expression and could be considered “the first love”.  Unlike the other forms of love, this love is not determined by the object of the love. It is solely determined by the originator.  Said differently, agape is not a love that arises from passion, reciprocation, community or even the loveliness or the familiarity of the object being loved.  Instead, it is a willful, volitional love that is solely decided upon by the giver of this love without expecting anything in return.  We often call this “selfless” or “self-sacrificing” love.  It expresses itself in random acts of kindness, empathy, volunteer work and charity.  It thinks about the other person more than itself.  It is often considered a divine love, tightly coupled with mercy, unmerited kindness and grace.  It seeks the good for others.  It is the antithesis of hate.  It gives.  It endures.  It loves no matter what.  In this way, it is the pinnacle of love.  It can change the world.  In my mind, it gets the gold.

On this Valentine’s Day, I wish you love…. eros, philia and agape… but most of all, I wish you agape.  Set your sights on the gold!  Love others with all your heart.


“The more deeply one drinks of this spring,
the more securely one becomes in one’s own abundant happiness,
the more bountiful it becomes to relish the joy of other people.”

Have you ever entered a room where you didn’t know anyone but where everyone was excited, happy and enthusiastic and suddenly found yourself feeling the same way? Or perhaps you happened to witness a heated debate or argument and suddenly felt angry, frustrated and anxious? Maybe you are watching a movie, a show or a theatrical presentation and suddenly feel connected to the story in a visceral way, with fear, anger, disgust, sadness and joy. If so, you can thank your mirror neurons for those fun experiences. Researchers in cognitive neuroscience have been trying to figure out why we have mirror neurons and their specific benefits to us. It appears that at least for one thing, the mirror neurons are the neural basis of the human capacity for emotions such as empathy. I don’t know about you, but I’m immensely grateful to have these, and especially grateful that you have them too!

Mudita. In Spanish that word means “mute”, but in Pāli and Sanskrit it has a completely different meaning. In fact, you will find an equivalent word in many languages around the world sometimes even represented by a single character. That is, all but English. We don’t have an equivalent word. For us, it would translate to something like, “sympathetic joy”. It is the overwhelming feeling of pleasure that comes only from a vicarious delight in the well-being of others. In other words, it is feeling immense happiness for the happiness of others.

Some adversaries of mudita are jealousy, envy and derision. Mudita can heal these poisons and untap a reservoir of happiness. Many of our world religions teach the virtues of drinking in this joy. They encourage celebrating the delight and achievement of others, even when we are facing tragedy ourselves. “Rejoice with those who rejoice.” The real challenge is to cultivate mudita even in a world often full of misery.

We are wired for mudita, with our mirror neurons helping us, but do we really experience it as we should? Or do we find that we live in more of a manic state, seeking and reaping things for ourselves while missing the real treasure of joy that comes from celebrating with others? I’m definitely guilty of that. We should be in the business of the happiness of others that we may be happy too.

Mudita is flowering all around us. Let’s not miss it. Grasp the moments as they come. Absorb the incredible joy that can be ours when we step out of ourselves and rejoice at the blessings of others. I suggest we all take time this week, stop and smell the fragrance of those mudita blooms.

Epilogue – Eternal Dividends

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.” – Steve Jobs

My wife’s mother, Alice, has myelodysplastic syndrome.  It is a disorder that disrupts the production of healthy blood cells and is related to leukemia.  Some of you had the opportunity to meet Alice at one of the annual Christmas parties we host (prior to COVID).  She enjoyed the holiday treats and the opportunity to meet many of you and your families.  She always loved to tell the stories of her 87 years.  She came to live with us about ten years ago and has been on many adventures with us this past decade.  Last week, at her request and the advice of her doctors, we put her into hospice in our home.  She is ready.  Our goal is to keep her comfortable and allow family and friends to safely visit, commemorate her pending graduation and bid last farewells.

As the final paragraph of my mother-in-law’s life is penned, sadness and joy crash against our hearts.  Like the tide, those feelings and memories rise and fall.  Those of you who have lost parents, siblings or other loved ones know the complex fog that sets in as grief and mortality arrive with powerful force.  The emotions and the moments begin to refine the matters of the heart.  There is a clarity that surfaces.  What’s really important begins to emerge.

How will we end?  We will all face and journey through the valley of death at some point.  We all have the pending task of writing the epilogue to our life.  What will be in that final chapter?  How shall we sum up?  Will we have regrets?  What would we have changed?  These powerful questions are really a gift. It’s life’s housekeeping angel that reminds us to examine what we are doing, reflect on our priorities and focus on what really matters.

I often say, “We should focus on high value targets.”  Don’t get busy with being busy, apply your talent, time and energy to what matters.  Understand the outcomes you want to achieve and trim away everything that doesn’t contribute to making that happen.  Keep the faith.  Don’t settle.  Pursue your dreams.  Love with all your heart.  Care for your loved ones and invest in others.  Eternal dividends are not measured in dollars and pounds, they are measured in the moments, the people and the legacy we leave behind.  Today begins the first day of the rest of your life.  Optimize for greatest impact.

Jewish Spirituality

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s book, “Jewish Spirituality – A Brief Introduction for Christians” is an easy to read and often eloquent journey through Jewish spirituality.  As Rabbi Kushner teaches, spirituality is a lifestyle or an approach to life that encourages us to become intimately aware of God’s presenece and purpose.  As the title indicates, the author does a good job introducing Christians to the Jewish spiritual world view, highlighting the common Scriptures (Torah) and heritage.  His teaching will bring an interesting depth to the Christian expereince.

One of my favorite passages in this book is in Chapter 15, where Rabbi Kushner talks about Praying:

Rabbi Dov Baer, the great storyteller (Magid) of the Polish town Mezritch, used to say that a person is like a shofar (ram’s horn, sounded on the Jewish New Year as a ritual of awakening).  A shofar sounds only when breath is blown through it; we can say prayers only because God moves through us.

Like God, the prayers are everywhere, but they need mouths and hands to give them melody and movement.  Without us they would flow unnoticed through the universe.  People are the instruments that transform prayers into music and words.

Thou Shall Prosper

Rabbi Daniel Lapin does a great job providing a Torah based (Biblical) framework for how we should view money and the act of making money.  He debunks the idea that making money is somehow intrinsically immoral or unethical.  Instead, he shows how making money (and therefore business) is really all about relationships.  While there are obvious and sadly very visible abuses in business, Rabbi Lapin’s convincingly argues that this is the exception rather than the rule.  The fundamental element of business is about providing a mutually beneficial transaction.  You benefit by providing a service that is of benefit to someone else.

This quote from the book (p. 69) shows some of the perspective on business, relationships and wealth creation:

…The contemporary significance of this message is best revealed by analyzing what economic life might look like for the last person on earth.  Imagine some catastrophe that wipes out all human beings but one.  Surely the survivor is the wealthiest human ever to inhabit the planet.  The survivor owns not only Fort Knox but also all the gold beneath the offices of the Federal Reserve in New York City.  He has access to every safe deposit box and owns every office building in the heart of every city. He owns more airplanes and yachts than have ever been owned by anyone in all of human history.

You might peer into the daily life of this unprecedented tycoon.  What does he do once the sun goes down on his first day as ruler of the world?  Why, read by candlelight, of course, because lights no longer go on at the touch of a switch.  Nobody is left to operate the electricity utility.  At first he will eat fairly well, at least until the grocery stores (all of which now belong to him) run out of produce.  Sooner or later, even the canned foods will spoil.  At that point he had better hope that his first harvest ripens successfully before he starves to death.

He may desire to travel.  At first, he is free to choose any car on the road because they all belong to him.  However, sooner or later they will all have empty gas tanks and will become quite useless to him.  If he can catch a horse, he might be able to travel at a rate faster than he could walk, but that is his best hope.  On his own, he could not operate a refinery to produce the petroleum that would so ease his life.  It quickly becomes apparent that the “richest man in history” is enjoying a living standard slightly below that of a third world subsistence farmer.  In contrast, the more opportunities people have to interact and to convey information to one another, the more wealth is created for every participant.

Rabbi Lapin presents “Ten Commandments for Making Money” which are represented by the table of contents:

  1. Believe in the Dignity and Morality of Business
  2. Extend the Network of Your Connectedness to Many People
  3. Get to Know Yourself
  4. Do Not Pursue Perfection
  5. Lead Consistently and Constantly
  6. Constantly Change the Changeable, While Steadfastly Clinging to the Unchangeable
  7. Learn to Foretell the Future
  8. Know Your Money
  9. Act Rich: Give Away 10 Percent of Your After-Tax Income
  10. Never Retire

Rabbi Lapin’s book is a refreshing perspective on business and making money.   His principles are backed by Biblical examples and teachings that lead the reader to understand the win-win scenario of being in business with the right perspective.  The small business owner, the tech, the CEO, the clerk, the salesman and the line worker should all take satisfaction from their “business” of work and making money.  It is an honorable thing that connects us all, helps everyone involved (employee and employer, owner and client), builds relationships, increases overall “wealth” and prosperity, and provides opportunity for people to give and focus outside of themselves (charity, philanthropy). 

Naturally, while the love of money can cause all sorts of evil, the making of money is not evil.  Money represents work and creativity in an easily exchanged form.  Doing what we can to make money is a reflection of our God given creativity that allows us to provide benefit to ourselves and others.

The Spiritual Brain

The study of neuroscience continues to expand.  As the name would suggest, the foundational science is the study of the nervous system which of course, includes the study of the brain.  As the study expands beyond the pure biological investigation, it branches to include the cognitive studies and modeling within computer science, including the study of artificial intelligence (AI).

I recently stumbled across this interesting book:


The Spiritual Brain
A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul
By Mario Beauregard, Denyse O’Leary

In this book, the authors discuss the various claims and studies that attempt to locate the “region” of the brain or “God gene” that is responsible for spiritual experiences (the emotion of faith, the sense of the presence of an outside intelligence, the connection to God).  In this they attempt to investigate and answer the question, has God created the mind or does the mind create God. 

Is the brain synonymous with “the mind”?   The brain appears to be the physical fabric in which the mind lives.  Instead of some special area of the brain that is predisposed to invent spiritual experiences, the mind has the ability to “wander” around within the brain, perceiving and communing with the eternal realities.