In Their Shoes

If you had been a Pilgrim in 1621, would you have been thankful?

That year, Gov. William Bradford chose a day for giving thanks to God and he invited local Indians to their humble celebration. Chief Massasoit came with 90 Indians to feast on fish, berries, watercress, lobster, dried fruit, clams, venison, and plums. To strengthen their resolve, they cited King David’s words in the 92nd Psalm: “It is good to give thanks to the Lord.”

This goodness is what Thanksgiving is about. To cultivate gratitude, we annually recall this 17th century account of Indians and Pilgrims bringing food to a common table, or blanket. That story took all sorts of turns and tumbles from there, but that moment in time remains worth celebrating.

Like most holidays, Thanksgiving turns our attention toward the past. After all, we cannot be grateful without a memory. There is so much from the past that needs to be remembered and celebrated, even your birthday! Like history, Thanksgiving carries good memories, values, ideals and traditions into our hearts and our culture. But honest history also carries some bad memories, dragging serious human vices and hardships into view. Still, the reality of human vices and hardships throughout history should not keep us from celebrating the virtues and blessings.

Consider the Pilgrims. Their 65 day trip across the Atlantic (“a sea of troubles”) was cold and damp. Aiming for Virginia, the Mayflower was blown north to the unknown land of Massachusetts. Scurvy, typhus and personal loss followed them all the way until they landed at Plymouth on December 11, 1620. Thankfully, they did not give up.

Chew on this: Would you have been thankful in their shoes?

Their troubles were just beginning. The colony record keeper, Nathaniel Morton, wrote that they had “no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh them, no houses, or much less towns, to repair unto to seek for succour; and for the season it was winter… What could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wilde beasts and wilde men?”

Would you have been thankful?

Of the 103 who boarded the Mayflower, only 55 souls were still alive after their first winter in the new world. Almost half of them perished. 12 of the 18 married women perished. Those who remained barely had the strength to put in the next year’s crop. Supplies soon ran out. The seeds they brought from Europe for growing wheat wouldn’t grow in the stony soil. The flour was gone so there was no bread or pastries. There was no milk, cider, potatoes or domestic cattle.

It is healthy to wonder if we would have been grateful in pilgrim shoes, but the better question is–are you grateful in your own?

Paying attention to the past is like traveling—it broadens your perspective on life. It builds an informed foundation for pursuing a better future. Best of all, honest history cultivates the following two virtues:

  1. Gratitude. We are inspired by the good that was done and our gratitude grows. History can shed a bright light on the pursuit of virtue. Seeking a better future, countless forebears lived out virtues like courage, patience, love, purity, hope, hard work, forgiveness and more. We benefit from their sacrifices.
  2. Humility. Studying history, we are also saddened by the bad that was done. Our humility grows under the ample evidence of humanity’s flaws.

Like most virtues, gratitude and humility can feed each other. That’s a feast worth attending! Informed gratitude for our forebears can also make us humbly thankful that we are not living in their shoes. As you enjoy your Thanksgiving turkey, don’t forget to feed your soul some nutritious servings of gratitude and humility. Read some history.

“It’s A Wonderful Life”

When it comes to Christmas movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) surpasses all other favorites. Why? Because it’s a story about man’s greatest need (conversion) and the most formidable force standing against it (ourselves). It’s about the battle between virtue and vice that rages in us all.

George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) has big dreams that repeatedly get trampled over by real life in a not so wonderful world. George’s unselfishness enables others to fulfill their dreams, like going to college, seeing the world and owning homes, but he remains stuck in stuffy old Bedford Falls.

As a boy George learns that doing the right thing can get you into trouble. When his boss Mr. Gower, the town druggist, learns that George failed to make a delivery, he slapped him so hard that his ear began to bleed. Actually, George had prevented his boss from inadvertently poisoning a customer. Mr. Gower had just learned of his son’s death and his profound sorrow led him to make an unintended but serious misstep. George understood how such grief in others calls for grace from him.

As a newly-wed, George again puts his own happiness on hold for the sake of others. On the way to their honeymoon, George and Mary see a panicking crowd making a run on the bank. They stop to deal with the problem. Then, in the bank, George shows grace and understanding to people who refuse to show it to him.

George’s virtues often go unrewarded. Instead, the vices of others eventually draw him into deep trouble and take him to the breaking point. It is at this point that we realize that even a “good” man needs conversion.

We all know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed by adversity. Under stress, we are tempted to put virtues and vices into a blender and do whatever we think will work to our best advantage. It’s called moral compromise. In a moment of weakness, George is confronted by old man Potter with a temptation to compromise. If George would just sell short his aspirations and principles a little bit, everything would work out fine. If he could just be a little selfish this one time, his problems would immediately resolve into a secure and cushy life.

When George did the right thing and turned down the cushy life, life did not suddenly get wonderful. After a long string of unselfish choices, George is blind-sided by unexpected and undeserved twists of fate and the prospect of financial ruin and scandal looms large. He goes to Mr. Potter with his life insurance policy begging for a loan and the miserly old man tells him he’s better off dead than alive. Convinced the world would be better off had he never lived, George is on the verge of suicide. That’s when an angel is assigned to convert him from a floundering failure, a dejected dad, and a hopeless husband into a confident friend, father and spouse who realizes how richly blessed he is. This will take some work.

I won’t reveal the ending here, except to say that if money is the point in life, then this holiday classic ends with Mr. Potter as the winner. Already the richest man in town, he ended up with thousands more in money he never earned. But money is not what makes life wonderful. Neither are external circumstances, be they pleasant or not. Virtue is. And virtue is not contingent on money or circumstances. As Robert Duvall said in the movie, “Broken trail,” “Never use money to measure wealth.”

The angel assigned to George did nothing to change his circumstances. He merely helped George see a bigger picture. He showed him that his life had made a far bigger difference for good than he knew. This changed him. It finally enabled him to meet a horrible fate (which nearly drove him to suicide before his conversion) head on without compromise. He found what he really needed and it was not just money or a good lawyer. That’s when his brother Harry declared poor George, “the richest man in town.”

I believe God is the ultimate source of the kind of virtue that transcends money and circumstances. I also believe that trusting in God is essential for seeing a picture big enough to offer hope in the face of wretched irreversible circumstances. Suffering from spiritual myopia, we often lose sight of the impact our lives have on others (for good or for ill). The good of our goodness can be much better than we think it is and the bad of our badness can be worse than we think it is. This truth can be life-changing.

The Best Argument Against Multi-Culturalism is…
Noah Webster (1758-1843)

When Noah Webster was born (October 16, 1758), America was by no means united in its culture, language, values, or political institutions. Colonial America consisted of competing groups that spoke various dialects of English, German, French, Dutch and other languages. Values and virtues varied dramatically across the rancorous colonial landscape. Almost since the Mayflower, earnest Puritans and mercenary materialists lived side by side. Some lived in harmony with Indians and others did not (mostly the mercenaries).

In 1776, with war looming large, Webster and other Yale students heard an emotional address from president Timothy Dwight in which they were charged to go out and lay “the foundations of American greatness.”

Young Noah took this to heart. He pursued many diverse careers but his lifelong passion was to bring unity out of national and cultural chaos in America. He graduated in 1778 hoping to study law, but money was short. To make a living, he taught school in Glastonbury, Hartford and West Hartford. In 1783, he wrote his own teaching textbook: A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, or the “Blue-backed Speller.” For over two centuries, it remained the best selling book, written originally in English, of all-time. It sold over 100 million copies even into the 1900s. It was Webster’s declaration of American cultural independence and it gained a monopoly in classrooms for over a century. It changed the course of education in America. Webster’s Speller taught children to embrace their nation and her heroes. It enabled millions of children of different nationalities, ethnicities, language groups, religions, and political persuasions to share a common language, identity and cause as Americans. It also taught children geography, politics, economics and virtue. It offered moral wisdom too; “He that lies down with dogs must rise up with fleas.”

So, by age 27, Webster had graduated from Yale, established a school, written a classic grammar and speller, met most of our nation’s founding fathers, and written a pamphlet that influenced the formation of the U.S. Constitution. During a promotional book tour for his Blue-backed Speller, he found time to lead a choir in Baltimore that greatly enriched the church life of that city. In the end, no American did more than Webster to eradicate illiteracy, something he saw as the most effective means for sustaining tyranny–more effective than prison cells, torture or murder. He unified the English language itself in a time when diverse dialects, spellings and pronunciations were rampant.

In his lifetime, Webster studied 26 different languages, mastered 12 of them and began the scientific study of etymology. He was no cultural isolationist but he understood that life together in a common land calls for shared cultural values and definitions. He revolutionized education, unified our culture around the English language, initiated copyright laws, fought for the abolition of slavery and the increased education of women, and he helped shape the abiding identity that came with the title; American.

In 1789, he married Rebecca Greenleaf who bore him eight children. He loved children visibly, carrying raisins and candies in his pockets for them to enjoy. In 1787, he wrote, “The only practicable method to reform mankind is to begin with children.”

Webster’s most famous accomplishment was his dictionary. He began this monumental task of standardizing how Americans would spell, use and pronounce words at age 43. He finished it 27 years later. Webster once said: “The lexicographer’s business is to search for truth.” To this end, he omitted obscenities and profanities and he blended scholarship with faith. Listen to part of his definition for the word Indebted: “We are indebted to our parents for their care of us in infancy and in youth; we are indebted to God for life; we are indebted to the Christian religion for many of the advantages and much of the refinement of modern times.” Defining love, he wrote, “The love of God is the first duty of man.”

Webster’s biographer, Harlow Giles Unger, concluded: “Webster’s life was not about a dictionary. It was about creating a new nation–the United States of America–and making everyone in America an American.”

Listen to Webster himself: “Every child in America should be acquainted with his own country . . . As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country.” (Webster, “On the Education of Youth in America,” 1788).

Few founding fathers had a greater long-term impact on America than did Noah Webster. He was America’s great teacher, lawyer, statesman, editor, author, lexicographer and patriot! He is America’s greatest schoolmaster.

(Voting Integrity)

Our cherished right to vote in America is under attack! President Obama issued this dire warning in a speech last April 11th, to the National Action Network (led by Al Sharpton). He vowed to stand up against this heinous threat.

Horrors! What is this country coming to? Voting is a defining building-block for freedom. What repressive force would do this? Who hates freedom that much? Who would seek to undermine the foundations upon which America stands? Tell us who these seditious enemies of freedom are, Mr. President!

He did! “Across the country,” our president warned, “Republicans have led efforts to pass laws making it harder, not easier, for people to vote.” He added that minorities, women and senior citizens are most threatened.

    Actually, he was misrepresenting what Republicans want—which is to require valid identification to vote. Republicans want to make it harder to vote illegally.

The president continued, “You would think there would not be an argument about this anymore.”

    Actually, there is no serious argument about this. It’s partisan slander. Republicans actually want every legal citizen in America to be 100% free to vote.

The president asked his audience, “What kind of political platform is that? Why would you make that a part of your agenda, preventing people from voting?”

    Actually, that’s not the Republican platform at all. The president was lying.

Would a politician lie? Would he or she actually tell people they could keep their health plan and doctor under a new law knowing this was not true? How about inventing a false cause for a terrorist attack to divert criticism three weeks before an election? Would a political party actually misrepresent their opponents as racists, anti-women, haters of the environment and heartless to the point of wanting grandmothers to die? Unthinkable, right?

How’s your memory? During the 2012 presidential campaign, Vice President Biden told a predominantly black audience in Danville, Virginia, that his Republican opponents wanted to “put you all back in chains.” He actually said that! Decent Americans were outraged. President Obama was not. Given a chance to pull back on this hideous accusation, he actually backed his VP with agreement. Moreover, the 2012 Obama re-election campaign repeatedly accused Republicans of waging a “war on women.” And Democrats actually used an ad that portrayed a well-dressed Republican (VP candidate Paul Ryan) throwing a helpless grandmother in a wheelchair off of a cliff.

You cannot make this stuff up. And I didn’t!

If the Obama administration felt strongly about voting integrity, then Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department would not have dismissed a solid case for voter intimidation in Philadelphia against New Black Panther Party members. But they did.

An honor system for voting is not a reasonable option. Sorry. We are a culture awash in fraud–identity theft, plagiarism, performance boosting drugs, computer hackers, IRS scandals, cover-ups, legal shakedowns, infidelity, academic cheating, cheap diplomas, immigration fraud, false campaign promises, journalist forgeries, FBI leaks, “anonymous” sources, resume’ enhancement, tax avoidance, insider trading and more. We are required to show a valid ID just to board a plane, drive a car, buy alcoholic beverages, enter federal office buildings, sign up for Obamacare, receive food stamps, pick up a government check or validate a personal check. Why not for voting?

Regardless of party, race, gender, creed or age, reasonable people agree that asking citizens for verifiable identification to vote is legitimate, especially when such identification can be freely and easily obtained by any citizen prior to voting. In fact, in states that require a valid ID, those without them can still vote and are given 10 days to validate their identity. Voter impersonation is much easier where valid ID requirements are waved. That’s obvious. Yet, the president not only disagrees, he maliciously distorts the facts to outrage people on false pretenses.

In 2011 and 2012, the IRS was used to target and harass conservative organizations. Since then, an IRS official has taken the 5th, countless computers have “crashed” (all unrecoverable), two full years of e-mail communication vanished, and all back-up record-keeping systems broke down. All this at the very institution that punishes citizens like you and me if we fail to provide records. Holder’s Justice Department is doing nothing serious to seek truth or justice. This is every bit as egregious as voter fraud.

    Actually, one of the groups the IRS persecuted was called “True the Vote.” Their “crime” was to dare to work honestly to prevent voter fraud.