Thursday, December 22, 2016

Devotion 12.23.16

God chose shepherds to reveal the birth of his Son to the world.  Why?  Why not the spiritual leaders in the synagogues who would be interested in the Messiah coming to earth?

We aren't told, so we cannot create God's meaning in the absence of an explanation from scripture, but the response from the shepherds may be all we need to know.  The angels come and inform the shepherds of Christ's birth.  "You will find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.  And suddenly there was with the angel a heavenly host praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace and good will among men!' When the angels went away from them into heaven, the said to one another, 'Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.  And they went with haste...." (Luke 2:12 - 16)

The shepherds heard the word and responded immediately without thought.  Today, we hear the Word of God's Shepherd, sent to tend to His flock.  "'Simon (Peter), son of John, do you love me?' Christ asked. 'Yes Lord, you know that I love you.' Christ said, 'Feed my lambs.'" (John 21:17)  Christ would ask two more times and would tell Peter to "tend" or "feed" His sheep.  We are Christ's sheep. 

Christ responded to the Father's will and gave his life as the ultimate sacrifice.  We, his sheep, receive the gift of eternal life because of our Shepherd.  We respond to this without thought as well, responding to the love of Christ.

Have a truly Merry Christmas in the name of Christ whose birth we celebrate at this time of year!

Hope Men's Ministry

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Devotion 12.22.16

The salt of the earth.  A phrase used to describe someone who is just a great person, known for giving someone "the shirt off his back," friend or even foe alike.  The salt of the earth works hard to provide for his family, and usually, these "old salts" are shaped physically by the work they do.  Their hands show they are working men.  Their faces are hardened and cracked by exposure to the elements, and yet there is a firmness to their features that is warm and friendly.

The salt of the earth comprises most of this nation's population.  If graduation rates are an indication of profession, only 25% of this country possesses a college degree.  So, much of the work to feed, clothe, build infrastructure, homes, places of business, and other such activities falls to these "old salts."  They aren't less than people who possess higher degrees or white collar jobs, but those in white collar positions aren't better than the working man either. 

God makes a statement by who He goes to and informs of the birth of Jesus.  While we cannot create a theology in this, it is telling that God sends his angels to shepherds.  As is noted in Luke in the King James version of the Bible, "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, an the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel of the Lord said unto them, 'Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2:8 - 11)

Shepherds?  Not the learned of the day?  The angels didn't go to the temple and say to the spiritual leaders the Messiah was here?  They didn't descend on Rome or other political leaders and say, "The new king is here?"  No, God chose shepherds.  God chose a shepherd boy to defeat Goliath, and now God chooses his Son to be our Shepherd to save us from sin and death. 

As we grow near to the day that represents our Savior's birth, we rejoice in our Shepherd, Christ Jesus, and all He does for us in our lives.

Hope Men's Ministry

Devotion 12.21.16

Favorite Christmas memory?  This year will mark Christmas number 57 for me, so asking me that question is difficult.  From my own childhood?  From my early adult life?  Early marriage?  That point where I became Santa with our own children?  One favorite memory for me was on Christmas morning, and the kids were about 2 years old.  We were back in our house after having Christmas in a rental house the year before after a tornado hit our home in November.

Fisher-Price theme toys were the order of the day, and Santa had brought our son a pirate ship and our daughter a farm.  Captured on video, our son sat mesmerized with his toy, and our daughter sat opening and closing the barn door, attempting to capture the source of the "moo" that occurred with each opening.

Children cause us to view Christmas differently, their excitement of the entire season.  Pastor teases the excitement each Sunday with the Advent Wreath, which is used to mark observations, but Pastor knows what's on the kids' minds:  How much longer until Christmas?  So, from four Sundays down to the final candle and the next candle is the Christ candle which is lit on Christmas.  We add to the excitement with calendars (we had one in our home) that observe the month of December and have a prayer for each day before Christmas.  We decorate and begin to put gifts under the tree. 

Yet all of this is designed around a very simple message that we need to remind ourselves of as the season unfolds. "For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2:11)  As we prepare for this day, this simple truth should be part of our daily routine.

Hope Men's Ministry

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Devotion 12.20.16

A phase of the election process we probably either didn't know exist or rarely paid attention to, the Electoral College, is over as they met yesterday in their various state capitals to cast their ballots.  We know of this process and sequence this year because the election for our president in the United States has been less than traditional this past year or so.  What we learn as men of faith is that we are fallible creatures after the fall of man, and this fallibility invades every aspect of life, from governing ourselves as individuals to governing at all levels.

This certainly played itself out when Christ entered the world, a very hostile world under a most cruel system.  Rome and the Romans used iron fists to rule and they used regional kings and governors to enforce a rule that was designed to send a clear signal. 

Consider the hostile environment Christ was born under King Herod, whom the Study Bible notes was named king of Judea by the Roman Senate in 40 BC.  In Matthew 2, Herod learns of the birth of the "king of the Jews" from the wise men.  After hearing this, Herod summons his chief priests and scribes who inform him from the book of Micah, "And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah... for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people." (Matthew 2:6)  Herod uses the wise men to inform him of this "star" that appeared above the Christ, whom the wise men were searching for.  Herod uses a line that is revealing and disingenuous:  "Go and search for the child, and when you have found him, bring me world, that I too may come and worship him." (2:8)

The wise men were warned in a dream about Herod (2:12) and Mary and Joseph were warned in a dream and fled to Egypt.  Herod then plays his hand and begins to kill all the male children in Israel, age 2 and under, to snuff out this new "king" who would threaten his rule and stability over the region.

Today we observe the birth of Christ and soon we celebrate that birth in formal worship.  However, that birth and the subsequent years were not easy, and the birth marks the beginning of the promise that is fulfilled in Easter, where we learn nothing we do can overcome our sinful nature and the Christ we celebrate gives his own life to make perfect despite our imperfections.

Hope Men's Ministry

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Devotion 12.15.16

Ever have work that you just, in a word, hate?  It's part of the job that you just dread.  You work to avoid it and wait until you absolutely have to do it, or put it off until the due date no longer gives you that option.  When I was in full education career, I did.  I can give you examples, but why?  You have them as well.

Imagine my surprise recently when my former boss and I were talking at a social engagement, and he began talking about some work at the office.  He looked at me and said, "I wish you were here to meet with (a person they contract with, not an employee) and to help him/her develop these reports.  He/she has no idea what they (the body making the request) expect.  You could probably help her."

That made me think about the frame of mind we have when we approach a task, including those we detest.  The task my former boss mentioned was one I did not look forward to, but apparently I did them to a level he liked or he wouldn't have said what he said.  How do we approach those things that are burdensome?

Imagine Mary, who has been told she's having a child who is God's Son.  Imagine the burden she must have felt when, at a young age, she becomes pregnant and is informed by an angel it is the Holy Spirit that has delivered this pregnancy to her womb (Luke 1:35).  Mary's response is best shown later after going to stay with Zechariah and Elizabeth, pregnant with John.  John leaps in the womb and Elizabeth praises Mary among women.  Mary's response, now known as "The Magnificat," tells of Mary's frame of mind:

"My soul Magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked o the humble estate of his servant.  For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed, for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name." (Luke 1:46-49)  The full Manificat is Luke 1:46-55.  I encourage you to read it because it reveals the humility that Mary views the pregnancy of our Lord Jesus Christ with, and the blessing she feels God has bestowed upon her.  What could be a burden is seen as a blessing.

Pray that we approach all God gives us is viewed as a blessing and not a burden.  Pray that we have that same frame of mind that Mary approaches her life with.

Hope Men's Ministry

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Devotion 12.14.16

The role of the step-father is an important one, and it is one, from my observation of years in education, that requires the skill of a great tight-rope walker.  The good step-fathers realize they've walked into a role that is one of being a true steward of the responsibility you've been given.  Being a step-dad doesn't necessarily mean there is a father in absentia.  In fact, the biological dad can be a very active person in the child's life.  So, the question is how and when to actually intervene in a situation in a child's life as "the dad?"

In some cases, the step-dad has an on-going relationship with the dad (in the more healthy relationships) and there is an understanding.  In other instances, there is acrimony between the former spouses, and the child can become the unfortunate object of that acrimony.  So, the step-father has to walk a delicate line of just when to intervene in situations that intuitively he thinks he is needed, lest the situation goes to the biological dad and becomes further exacerbated as he begins to question how it was handled and why "he" got involved.  In other cases, the biological dad has vanished and the step-dad is now responsible for becoming the father that the child needs, in both secular research as well as in scripture - the fathers we are to be.

It's not easy.

So, what about Joseph?  How would you like to have been Joseph?  We see an understanding Joseph when he learns of Mary's pregnancy in Matthew 1, wanting Mary to have dignity in spite of the condition, as Matthew notes, "being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame...." (see Devotion 12.12.16). Joseph is going to be given the role of a lifetime - God's Son will be his stepson.  Joseph will be the earthly father of our Father's Son Jesus Christ.  It's not a statement in scripture, so this is truly speculation, but I have to believe in choosing Mary God chose a house where the Father would bring up His Son as God desired.

So, dads and stepdads, we also know that children and their faith are a primary responsibility of ours as well, as Ephesians notes, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (2:10)  Being a husband and father are primary among those works we are given, to be stewards of what God gave us, just as Joseph was.  Our role is no less important than Joseph's.

Pray we live up to that role we've been given, as we believe Joseph did (scripture sheds little light on that relationship).  For those of us who have already done the bulk of child-rearing, be there for those who seek answers to situations they face as newer dads.  If you come to me, my answer will be Lou Holtz' answer, "Before I had kids, I had a lot of answers.  Now I have kids and no answers."

Hope Men's Ministry

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Devotion 12.13.16

"Festivus" was the holiday George Costanza's dad created to coincide with Christmas.  "Festivus for the rest of us" was the saying that came with it.  According to Wikipedia: "Originally a family tradition of scriptwriter Dan O'Keefe, who worked on the American sitcom Seinfeld, Festivus entered popular culture after it was made the focus of the 1997 episode "The Strike". The holiday's celebration, as it was shown on Seinfeld, includes a Festivus dinner, an unadorned aluminum Festivus pole, practices such as the "Airing of Grievances" and "Feats of Strength", and the labeling of easily explainable events as "Festivus miracles."

The airing of grievances and feats of strength caused George to moan as his father began each.  Basically, what did you do to make me angry and let me show you how inept you are were behind both in the comedy.  What is it about Christmas, the actual holiday, or its made up counterpart Festivus, that has that potential to bring out the worst in us?  Especially a holiday that celebrates the birth of the Christ who came to this world to save us?

Peter talks to us a family of God in 1 Peter, but the passage has application for us as we prepare for Christmas, both as a church preparing for Christ's coming and as a family preparing to assemble:  "Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.  Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing." (1 Peter 3:8 - 9)

Pray for that unity and humility as we gather, and pray that we are a blessing to those around us.

Hope Men's Ministry

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Devotion 12.12.16

(Adapted from Sunday's sermon by Pastor Eric Hiner)

The images evoked at Christmas when it comes to family are usually those that are ideal.  We picture the family all getting together with smiles around the tree, the fireplace glowing, and the anticipation of the gift exchange, the perfect gifts that will make each person happy, is in the air.  It is, for all intents and purposes, something captured by Norman Rockwell.  Realistically, though, it may be more appropriately captured in "Christmas Vacation," where Clark Griswold (played by Chevy Chase) has placed impossible demands on the expectations of the "perfect" Christmas.

Even in a scene reminiscent of one of Rockwell's more famous paintings, the family gathered around the table as the turkey is being placed on the table as the father, wearing a tie, is preparing to carve it as the large family all smiles in anticipation, so too in "Christmas Vacation," Clark Griswold, wearing his own tie and preparing to carve the turkey, smiles as though it is perfect.  As the scene unfolds, Clark's Aunt Bethany says "The Pledge of Allegiance" instead of the prayer for the meal, during which Cousin Eddie stands up and covers his heart.  Next, the turkey gasps and gives a cloud of steam as Clark tries to carve it, showing it was over-cooked.  As the scene moves on, they discover Aunt Bethany put cat foot in her Jello dish, and Cousin Eddie's dog "Snot" goes through the trash in the kitchen.

Our expectations exceed reality at times like Christmas.

We learn the pains of Christmas go back to its roots, the birth of Christ.  In Matthew 1, Matthew tells us that Mary and Joseph are engaged to be married, and then the news comes to Joseph that Mary is pregnant.  Mary is pregnant and not married, an offense in Judaism that carries the weight of a stoning as punishment.  Joseph realizes the magnitude of this, and apparently, as Matthew writes, chooses to leave Mary rather than carry out the request for punishment.  "And her husband, Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly." (1:19)  Mary may have attempted to explain to Joseph where the child came from.  Scripture does not reveal that, but imagine being Joseph if she had. "This baby is God's.  His Spirit made me pregnant."  That would be difficult to believe. 

Yet God intervenes, and an angel reveals himself to Joseph in a dream to assure Joseph "...that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit." (20).  In truth, much like in that first Christmas, our focus should only be on Christ.  Christ makes perfect out of imperfection, then and now.  The trappings of Christmas strip the miracle we know as Christ and leave us literally with empty packages.  However, with our gaze on the Christ-child, our hope is in Him.

Hope Men's Ministry

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Devotion 12.8.16

In the old Lutheran hymnal, The Offering always followed the sermon, and the italicized (if my memory serves me correctly) emphasis after the title was "given out of response to God's love," or some such derivative of that line.  We give not because of the tithe mentality, but rather we give as a response to God's love.  "We give thee but thine own, whatever the gift may be, all that we have is thine alone, a trust O Lord from thee" would also be a commonly sung response to the offering.  What we have is a trust from God, and it is all his.

Eugene Peterson talks about excellence in light of scripture, specifically Jeremiah and the excellence God requires of Jeremiah.  What interferes with that expectation?  Peterson notes that right at the start, Jeremiah pleads inadequacy.  "I'm not the right person for this," and/or "I'm not good enough." "Sovereign Lord," Jeremiah says, "I do not know how to speak; I am only a child." (1:6)  Peterson responds, "There is an enormous gap between what we think we can do and what God calls us to do. Our ideas of what we can do or want to do are trivial; God's ideas for us are grand."

What kind of service do we avoid?  Do we challenge our own giving during the offering, or a request of service, or other such kinds of things a church may need?  Don't have the time.... Don't have the skills.... Giving 'til it hurts already. 

In this season of preparation, we should examine our own lives and what we do with those lives when it comes to the response of what Christ gave, namely his life, suffering and death, and that he rose so that we may be acceptable before His Father.  That's true excellence from God the Father and Son so that we may have grace through faith. 

God says later to Jeremiah, "Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you  and will rescue you." (1:8)  When God asks you to rise to the challenge, know that God is with you, and He will provide all you need to achieve excellence.

Hope Men's Ministry

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Devotion 12.7.16

My wife and I are adoptive parents.  That's a fact I don't state often, if at all, because it no longer seems necessary.  Our children know it.  We know it.  Our family knows it, and if it comes up in conversation, we acknowledge it, but after 24 years, we feel that we are simply parents.  In fact, it rarely comes into my mind that 24 years ago we were privileged to become parents through the adoption process.

The agencies have you come to terms with your "grief," or at least Lutheran Social Services did.  During a weekend session, they have the prospective parents in the room to listen as they talk about infertility and coming to terms with that, and the pain that some people feel as they are childless.  I considered it a rather cruel session because that impacts women far differently than men, so the women begin to cry and the presenter almost put it into hyper-drive at that point, almost as though to pour salt into the wound.  The other fact was that several of us in the room had already begun to come to grips with this and didn't need a lecture.

That said, we soon became parents, and looking back on it, the delivery of children into our home was no less a blessing of God than a biological birth.  Our home became and still is home, and our lives intertwine as parents/children with all the interactions that occur as that relationship changes.  We firmly believe God put us in their lives and them in ours much as he would with biological children, so the notion of "adoption" is far behind us.

The other fact is scriptural as well.  We are all adopted.  We are not our own.  As we consider Christ's family tree, we ask ourselves, "Am I part of that tree if the gift of faith and a recipient of the benefits of faith are given to those in Christ's heritage?"  Yes, we are literally all adopted into the shoot of Jesse's stump.  In Ephesians, Paul writes about those who enter faith in Christ as "adopted." "For He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in His presence. In love He predestined us for adoption as His sons through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of His will." Christ's elect are adopted as a matter of their faith, which he knew about in advance (not chosen to be Christians in advance, but Christians chosen to advance his gospel). As Gentiles especially, we became part of God's elect as Paul writes in Romans 11:  "...and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree,...." Finally, we do not "belong" to our parents or ourselves, but rather, we belong to God.  Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, "Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;  you were bought at a price."

Our children are ours as a gift of God like all other children in a home.  All of us, in truth, are adopted, and Christ has predestined that adoption into his kingdom in order to advance his kingdom, with all the benefits his grace provides to God's "chosen" and to those grafted into Christ's tree.  We continue to give thanks for that gift as children of God as we prepare for his return.

Hope Men's Ministry

Monday, December 5, 2016

Devotion 12.6.16

We talked of family on Sunday after the sermon was about the genealogy of Christ from Matthew 1.  One man near me said, "My family tree was a stump," jokingly.  That was actually the theme of the sermon in a way:  Families have dysfunction, whether or not we want to admit it, and if you are uncomfortable with that, look no further than Christ's family tree as noted in Matthew (concluding with Christ being the only way to remove the stain of family dysfunction, including his own).

Pastor noted, in a humorous say, "Everyone has that uncle, and you (those of us in the room) may be that uncle."  Indeed, my dad spoke of an uncle in his family, his mother's brother, who was "a hobo."  Never heard that phrase? It is nicely defined in Google as "a homeless vagabond, unlike a tramp who works only when forced to, or a bum who doesn't work, a 'hobo' is a traveling worker."  Dad said that his uncle, the hobo, would come bearing gifts, usually candy, for him and all his sisters, to his mother's chagrin.  This hobo (I believe his name is George, and his skill was carpentry - perfect for the life of a hobo out to see the world) would usually be heard singing a song (my dad sang it one time, and it was funny because he imitated how he sang it) as he came down the street.  The kids would get excited and the mom (my grandmother) would shake her head.  I asked what my grandfather thought of it recently and my aunt said, "He amazingly didn't care when he came to the house and he'd let him stay until he went on his way." 

So, we may indeed have that uncle or actually be that uncle (it has always been my goal to be that uncle to a degree, why be boring?).  And to my friend who said his family tree was a stump, he's in great company. "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.  And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him." (Isaiah 11:1 and 2a)

Matthew meticulously documents that branch that comes from the stump of Jesse's.  It starts as a shoot (a young branch) and grows to produce fruit.  Matthew states, "So all the generations from Abraham to David were 14 generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon were 14 generations, and from the deportation of Babylon to the Christ 14 generations." (1:17)  Twenty-eight generations from "Jesse's stump" to the birth of Christ, who is that shoot that eventually becomes the fruit-bearing branch with the Spirit of the Lord resting upon him.

Christ is that shoot in all of our family trees, taking our unbelief and creating that fruit in us as we grow in our faith.  Our Advent journey continues as we continue to prepare for the coming of Christ.

Hope Men's Ministry

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Devotion 12.5.16

I remember a comedian perform an "acceptance speech" as though he was receiving an Academy Award (a spoof of the sappy nature of Hollywood at such events).  He said, "We were like a family on the set, which is why we argued with each other all the time and quit speaking."  Family, the word is broad in meaning due to all the baggage that comes with it.  When I was an administrator, I didn't like using the phrase, "We are family here," not because I objected to the warmth and notion of caring it could convey.  No, I objected to it because if you say that in a room of more than two people, chances are someone who has had a negative experience with family (a dysfunctional family) may not get the same feeling others who hear it might.

Yesterday at church, we heard about family and the family tree.  I've been doing research on my own, as has been explained recently in these devotions, interested in learning about family I never knew because of my mother's loss of both parents by six years of age and subsequent foster parents throughout her childhood.  The few I ever met (a cousin specifically and some step-siblings) were interesting.  My dad didn't care hanging around them because, being from Minnesota, he wasn't comfortable with the southern redneck.  "You might be a redneck if the Jeff Foxworthy jokes strike a chord with your family tree," and they do with me.

The irony of my dad's viewpoint is that whatever he condemned in the life of a southern "redneck" is also reflected in the Minnesota family tree, the Baldner side.  They played hard, worked hard, and enjoyed strong drink at the end of the day.  They hunted, ice fished, and did all the things that accompany those events.  They were meat packers, the big employer in the hometown was Hormel, so they had a variety of jobs cutting, packing, and loading meat and meat products on the trucks and trains.  And they could sit and watch football in conditions we would say, "No thank you," in.  So, I'm not certain what made my dad uncomfortable with the southern redneck since the only difference was geography.

We see that in Christ's lineage in Matthew as well.  There is enough in the first chapter of Matthew to write a string of country hits with all the cheating, lying, and murder that is Christ's family tree.  Abraham and Sarah, David, Solomon are certainly names that stand out, but each of them carries baggage with the sins they commit.  They are, in fact, no different than our own family trees if we dig deeply enough.  And Christ, who brings the lineage to its conclusion in Matthew, is the only branch of that tree that can remove the blots and stains of the history of his own family tree, and ours.

We are family, and like families in this sin-filled world, our family trees are filled with lives that are broken.  Like Christ's lineage, the only assurance to heal that brokenness is Christ.  We lift a prayer of thanksgiving for Christ and for the healing he brings to a broken world.

Hope Men's Ministry