The Reason for the Season

(originally written circa 1997)

This time of year, everyone gets caught up in the hustle and bustle of the “Holiday Season.” People flock to the malls and crowd like cattle through stores, having already given up on finding the “perfect” gift, now just hoping to find something that won’t be returned.

For some, this time of year is just an extended celebration of the end of the year, culminating in a joyous “ringing in” of the new year. A time to celebrate survival of another year, looking forward to new beginnings in the year to come.

For others, it is a time of “Yuletide Spirit”, “Season’s Greetings”, Santa Claus, and winter wonderland. Strings of lights decorate houses and yards. Evergreen trees occupy the place of importance in family rooms, with presents for all beneath.

Yet, in all of the scurrying around, parties, and celebrations, I note a disturbing absence of the One for whom the holiday is named. Even the season’s greeting, “Merry Christmas”, is being forsaken in favor of more secular phrases, such as “Merry Xmas”, “Happy Holidays”, and “Season’s Greetings”.

Pause for a moment and reflect upon the fact that nearly two thousand years ago, a child was born who would change the face of history. When the Supreme Court allows us to, we still gather at the manger to behold the miracle of the child born to a virgin. Most people are even willing to call this child the Son of God.

Unfortunately, the child will not stay in the manger. When he grows up, he becomes a stumbling block who offends all who meet him. To the religious people of the day He declares, “Your rituals and ceremonies for reaching God are useless. God wants repentant hearts and changed lives” (May the church today take note). To those who are broken by their sin, he offers forgiveness, restoration and life. And to those who will not come, he promises certain judgment. Small wonder the world did not accept Him then. Small wonder the world does not accept Him now.

You see, it is not the miraculous birth of the child in the manger which makes this season worth celebration. If the child stays in the manger, his birth is ultimately no more important than any other. It is only when YOU allow him to come out of the manger and into your life that you can truly understand why the angels broke forth with joy, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to men.”

Jesus IS the reason for the season.

Is this all there is?

Originally written 10/22/2009

As I approach 50, I’m in full-fledged mid-life crisis. I look back over the majority of my life and I critically evaluate my path across this planet. Do I matter?

As a man, I look first to my work for significance. I’ve been employed by the same company for over 27 years. I’m very good at what I do. This is not idle boasting; I have performance appraisals and a salary to back up my claim. I’m also sure that you could ask anyone with whom I’ve worked over the years and they would back up my claim. By all accounts, I would be considered a success at my job.

I’m a computer programmer. No, that’s not enough. I resist the title “Software Engineer” because I went to an engineering school and I know “real” engineers… the kind who are licensed by the State. I even dislike my current title, “Software Architect”, even though I am a Certified Information Systems Architect, because it fails to capture the scope of what I do. I design, develop, deploy and maintain complex automated processing systems. I deal with an ever-increasing number of complex technologies to create solutions to specific problems. And while I am capable of performing the full cradle-to-grave development cycle myself, I also have to communicate the vision of the system to the rest of my staff, teaching/mentoring, debugging, and optimizing.

But as impressive as all that sounds, when I look back over 27 years I have to realize that nothing I have built will really last. My current project, a labor of more than 10 years, is always one budget cycle away from being cancelled. Despite the fact that no other system in the world does what this system does, it has failed to achieve broad-based support, so we limp along from year to year with uncertain and insufficient funding. Regardless of all of that, I have no doubt that within 5 years of my retirement all my work will be (at best) a DVD-ROM sitting on a shelf somewhere until it gets thrown out with the other trash. So after a lifetime of effort, I will have nothing to show for it. Futility.

(updated 12/5/2011)

Recently, a friend died. He wasn’t much older than me, and his death was sudden and tragic. And, attending his funeral, it caused me to take stock of my life. How will I be remembered? Do I matter?

As I worked through this dilemma, I realized that my eulogy is not the final grade. What I’m really hoping for is “Well done, good and faithful servant.” What I want to avoid is the DiNozzo head-slap (“WHAT were you THINKING?”).

At Thanksgiving, I realized that I have a significant legacy. I have 3 adult children who are making their own way, and a teenage daughter whom I actually enjoy. I am disproportionately proud of them, as if I really can take credit for who they are. But the point is that I have have a profound impact on them and they are my legacy. There are others who I share life with; I impact them and they impact me.

The Westminster catechism states that the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. My goal is the former. My hope is the latter.

Hello. My name is Jim. I’m a Pharisee

“Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” “How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Matthew 16:6,11-12

I am a Pharisee. Oh, not a member of a particular sect of Judaism, yet still a product of a religious system as steeped in tradition and rules as in Jesus’ time. Specifically, I am one who has reduced the freedom and beauty of God’s redemption through the atoning death of Jesus to a set of rules to be followed. And I judge those who don’t obey those rules to my satisfaction as being inferior to me.

Every religion in the world is basically a system of rules and regulations, a set of “do’s” and “don’ts”. The degree to which one progresses in the religion, the level to which one attains the goal (the goal of every religion is always basically godliness — or God-ness) is measured by how well one obeys the rules.

The thing that sets Christianity apart from all other religions is just this. While religion is man’s attempt to get to (or become) God, Christianity is God reaching down to man. The true truth of Christianity is that God has done all the work and there is nothing I can do to earn my salvation or get God to like me more. Unfortunately, for the most part the modern Church has reduced that marvelous gift to a set of rules to follow. “I don’t drink, smoke, dance, cuss, or chew, or go with those who do.”

The Pharisees were not intentionally evil people. James Michner paints a beautiful picture in “The Source” of an ancient rabinnical scholar who so loved and revered the Torah (the Law of Moses) that he helped craft the rules and regulations that interpreted the law. They realized that transgressing the law was heinous in God’s sight, so they wanted to create a “fence” of rules around the law, such that even if one broke a rule, the law was still intact.

However, by Jesus’ day those rules had become a crushing weight around the neck of the people. No one, except the elite few, could ever know them all, much less obey them. The Pharisees, then, held themselves up as the standard of goodness.

It is a fact that the normative response of a soul reborn by the grace of Christ is to do good works. But the modern (evangelical) church has implied (if not stated outright) that it is the responsibility of the sinner to manifest these good works as a precondition to acceptance. This heresy puts the cart before the horse, demanding the fruit of new life in Christ prior to receiving new life in Christ. This emphasis on external works is the yeast of the Pharisees that Jesus warned against.

Like alcoholism, Phariseeism has no cure. The best one can do is to recognize the weakness and purposefully and repeatedly let go of the rules and the judgements, and return to the cross. I am a debtor to grace. I am a recovering Pharisee.