Vacation Bible School!

Brothers and sisters,

As I’m writing this article, the church is decorated for Vacation Bible School. The sanctuary is decorated with trains, mountains, trees, and a giant water tower. The choir room has been transformed into Ananias’ house for Bible stories (though that will change each night!). The fellowship hall’s windows have been painted with a train that is chugging on to a wonderful time! All of this in preparation for our adventure on the Rocky Railway, where Jesus’s power pulls us through!

I’m excited for the next four days of VBS as we come alongside these children and talk to them about our faith in God and the simple, but profound truth that Jesus can bring us through difficult times. I do want to add just one layer of shading to that theme. Part of the amazing power of Christ, the wondrous love of God, is that God is with us through these difficult times. Our faith tells us that not only does Jesus have the power to pull us through, he has the will to stand with us in the face of adversity. The presence of God is always with us. You’ve heard me say this before, but it always bears repeating—there is no problem, no crisis, no challenge that can scare God away. Nothing.

This week, pray for the children that are coming to our church. Pray that they would have fun, that they would make new friends, and that they would hear and remember that they are loved deeply by God. Pray for the volunteers. Pray that we would be able to encourage these children in their faith, that we would have ears to hear them and words to say to them. Pray for our feet and knees and backs, that we don’t shuffle into church on Sunday like zombies. Most of all, pray that God would be glorified in all of this and that God’s kingdom is served by this VBS.

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

“Faith and Art”

Over the last few weekends, I’ve been spending a lot of time in some of our local art museums. Art museums interest me for a few reasons. One is simply that they are wonderful places to slow down and spend time thinking—about life, about faith, about what I’m going to eat for supper. Another reason is just that it is always amazing to me to go to a place where you can be surrounded by so much talent. The time and dedication these artists put into their work, not to mention their command over their tools and materials is inspiring! Finally, I love being surrounded by so many stories from so many different people. Whether the artist is telling their own story, telling their version of a familiar story, or speaking to some truth that is difficult to put into words, it is always incredible to me. I love the way the artists are willing to share themselves with people.

I tell you all that to introduce you to our next sermon series, “Faith and Art.” The series will start on July 3 and each sermon in it will draw inspiration from a piece of art that is currently on display at one of the three major art museums here in the Triangle: the Nasher in Durham, the Ackland in Chapel Hill, and the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Each piece will be paired with a scripture passage that the artwork reminded me of, meaning that the sermon itself will be based on the scripture and the art will help to illustrate the themes of the sermon. I am not an art expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I am a firm believer that art can speak to what it means to be human. I think that can pair beautifully with the scriptures because God so consistently tells people that we are loved, that we bear God’s image, that we are precious to God. God knows what it means to be human and speaks to that experience.

One of the major components of this sermon series that I would encourage everyone to participate in is simply to go and see the pieces we’ll be talking about. Some of the pieces are huge (paintings taller than me!) and their size helps communicate their message. Some of the pieces are highly textured and the hardness or softness of the medium speaks to the artist’s ideas. All the pieces that I’ll be talking about are available in the parts of each museum that are free to the public. If you cannot make it in person, you can go to each museum’s website and look up the pieces (websites at article’s end).

All that being said, the first piece we will be looking at on July 3rd is at the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill. It is entitled, “Aligned by the Sun” and it was created by a team of artists known as Ghost of a Dream. It is a simple piece, but it has a message of unity that will go wonderfully with that first sermon. The reason I mention it now is because it is only on display through July 3rd, meaning if you’d like to see it in person, you’ve only got about two weeks!

I’m looking forward to this series and the insights into our faith we can gain through this art.
Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University— nasher.duke.edu
The Ackland Art Museum at UNC-Chapel Hill—ackland.org
North Carolina Museum of Art—ncartmuseum.org

Pentecost …

Brothers and sisters,

It is hard to believe it, but June is upon us! The (very) high temperatures are becoming more regular and the sun is shining longer and longer each day. To me at least, it feels like Easter was just a couple weeks ago, not a month and a half! But as the Easter season comes to a close this Sunday we are invited, as a church, to contemplate the arrival of the Holy Spirit and what that arrival means for us as Christians. There are three main symbols used by the church to reflect on Pentecost and what it means.

The first symbol is a flame. Drawing on the story from Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples as tongues of fire, the church has used fire imagery to symbolize the arrival of the Spirit. The church talks about the Holy Spirit “lighting a fire” in us to go and do the work of the kingdom. You’ll hear people say they have a “burning passion” for something. Famously, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, spoke of attending a church service and having his “heart strangely warmed.” That moment renewed his faith and spurred him to continue to preach. The Holy Spirit creates a kind of energy that fire represents so beautifully — strong and persistent.

The second symbol you’ll see on Sunday is a dove. This is actually a symbol that gets moved from where it originally started over to Pentecost. The dove descending from heaven comes to us from Christ’s baptism in Matthew 3. Jesus goes down into the waters of baptism, led by John the Baptist, and as he emerges from the waters, “suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him” (Matthew 3:16). And so the dove comes to us as a heavenly symbol of the Holy Spirit’s presence.

Finally, you’ll notice a lot of red in the sanctuary on Sunday. The paraments, the scarf on the cross, even Amy’s and my stoles will all be red. On the surface, the red symbolism is pretty simple — it hearkens back to the tongues of fire. Heat and fire can be represented by the color red. But for a long time now, the color red, as a liturgical color, has symbolized a desire for justice. It has come to represent the arrival of God’s Spirit, yes, but also a church that speaks up for those whose voices are ignored. I particularly like this symbol because I think it speaks to the main point of the Pentecost story. Yes, the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples with power, in the form of flaming tongues. God’s presence is reestablished with them, but the Spirit then immediately sends them out into the world to care for people. The Spirit immediately sends them out to continue Christ’s ministry. It does not descend upon them for no reason! The Holy Spirit comes to guide them to the people who are hurting and give them power to help them.

As we come to Pentecost this year, seek the Spirit’s presence in your own life. Who may the Spirit be calling you to? How might God be calling you to help those people? Jesus’s ministry was centered around his conviction that every person was a child of God. How is the Spirit leading you to continue that ministry?

I look forward to seeing all of you on Sunday in your brightest red!

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

“First”

Brothers and sisters,

It is hard to believe it, but my one-year anniversary here at Hope Valley Baptist Church was this past Sunday! My tenure as Senior Pastor began on May 1, 2021, with my first sermon being the very next day! It was a sermon entitled, “First”, and it was based on a reading from 1 John 4:7-21. The theme of the sermon was love (always a good topic!) and we talked about the way that God chooses to love people well and the call for each of us to love people well. I used a tennis analogy to talk about the love of God. I said that the most important part of a tennis player’s serve is the toss—that everything literally hangs in the balance when the ball is in the air. And I said that when God was choosing how to define Godself, everything hung in the balance, and God chose love.

Over this past year, I think we’ve done a good job, as a church, of choosing love. We reached out to McDougald Terrace and helped provide snacks during a time when kids would struggle to stay fed. We have started forming a relationship with teachers at Parkwood Elementary School to remind them that they are appreciated. We created goodie bags for healthcare workers at UNC, donated socks and underwear to Durham Urban Ministries, collected food for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. We’ve continued to house refugees in Hope House and help other people through Families Moving Forward. We’ve introduced new services (like the Service of Lament) in order to meet the needs of our congregation. And we’ve found new and innovative ways to gather together as a church family with Trunk-or-Treat and our Easter Egg Hunt.

It has been a good year and I am looking forward to what the next year has in store for us. I am encouraged by the fact that Covid case numbers continue to go down and so I am hoping that as 2022 continues, we will be able to gather in ways that look a little more normal. I hope that we can continue to reach out to our community, to build relationships with them, and discern God’s will for our church. I hope that we will continue to define ourselves by our love for others. Join me in praying for Hope Valley and the ways that we can remain faithful to God’s call for our church.

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

Services This Week

This is the last Illuminator before our joyous celebration of the resurrection and so I want-ed to be sure to write a little bit about the special services we have coming up.

The first is Palm Sunday—this Sunday—at 11:00 AM in the sanctuary. You are invited to join us in worship as we celebrate and commemorate the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. We will celebrate Christ’s arrival as the arrival of a different kind of king, one who will bring true peace to his people.

Our second special service will be on Wednesday, April 13th at 6:30 PM in our sanctuary. This will be our hand-washing service where we will seek to imitate our Savior by washing each other’s hands as an act of love and service. We will make sure to perform the hand-washing in a Covid-conscious manner that is safe for all involved.

Our third special service will be on Good Friday, April 15th at 7:00 in our sanctuary. At this service we will read through and ponder the crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus. It is a more somber service as the Christ light will be extinguished, the altar will be stripped of all decoration, and the service itself will end in silence and darkness. It should be a powerful service that re-minds us all of the tremendous faith and courage of Jesus.

Finally, please be sure to make plans to be with us on Sunday, April 17th at 11:00 for our Easter Sunday celebration! The good news of the Gospel is that while Jesus may get laid in a tomb on Friday, he doesn’t stay there long! Come as we celebrate the resurrection of the Lord and declare that Christ has risen!

Make plans to be here with us for as many of these services as you can! I look forward to seeing you all throughout this coming week!

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

Operation InAsMuch

Brothers and sisters,

I am excited for us to be participating in Operation Inasmuch this year for two reasons. The first is simply that it is nice to do something that feels like “normal” after the last two years. It feels good to be able to take part in a big mission project together. It feels good to work with each other and pull together toward a common goal. It especially feels good to know that we can reach out to people who are in need — whether it is the healthcare workers over at UNC who need to hear how much we appreciate them, those folks experiencing homelessness who need basic supplies to survive, or the children over at Lenox Baker Children’s Hospital.

The other reason I am excited for us to be doing Operation Inasmuch this year is because of some of the memories I have of participating in it as a youth at my home church. I think I have mentioned this before, but I grew up in Goldsboro and was raised at First Baptist, Goldsboro. My home church is a very missions-minded group, always looking for opportunities to help others. So when we first heard about Operation Inasmuch twenty-some years ago, we jumped at the chance to get out and help people! Each year I was inspired by how many people at First Baptist came out to help other people and I was shocked at how many different ways people had thought of to help! Some of us went and did yard work for homebound Goldsboro residents. Some went and built ramps onto houses for people who used wheelchairs. Some stayed at the church and baked cookies for local first responders and wrote them notes. Others sorted through all kinds of donations made to the church that were going to local shelters. And I am sure there were other things we did that I just did not see!

Typically, whenever we did Operation Inasmuch, I would invite my friends to come and participate as well. There was one year in particular that I remember one of them saying, “This is great! I like how everyone is working at different sites, but you’re all working together to help people! It makes it feel like everyone is a team just trying to help.” At its best, that’s what Operation Inasmuch pushes us to do. It pushes us to work together, even if we are separated, in order to accomplish a common goal — helping others. Christ tells us that we are to help our neighbors, to love them as we love ourselves. Operation Inasmuch is such a wonderful expression of that belief. It is a week in which we put actions behind our words.

So, to everyone that is participating in any way, shape, or form, thank you! If you would like to get involved, the most pressing needs we have right now are for new packs of socks and under-wear of all sizes. These will be delivered to Urban Ministries. We will be collecting those through-out the next week, from March 27 through April 3. If you would like to make a blanket for the children over at Lenox Baker, please be sure to contact Barbara Sanders for a kit to get started! And to those of you that have volunteered to bake cookies or write cards for the healthcare workers at UNC, remember that those are due to the church this Sunday, March 27. Again, regardless of how you want to get involved, thank you! This is a wonderful way for all of us to use our time and our talents to provide a blessing to our neighbors here in Durham!

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year …

Brothers and sisters,

We are nearly upon the most wonderful time of the year. Most folks hear that phrase and immediately think, “Is he talking about Christmas?” But us North Carolinians know what’s coming up soon—the ACC tournament! My fondest memories of the ACC tournament are simple. Every year I was in grade school, from elementary to high school, literally every teacher with a TV bolted to a wall in their classroom would tune it to the ACC tournament. It would constantly be on in the background—muted—but still on. And teachers that didn’t have a TV set already in their classroom would check one out from the library and hook it up to the school’s cable so we could have the tournament on! It has always been the most wonderful time of the year!

This year, we wanted to tap into the energy and excitement of the tournament to do something good for our neighbors. As most of you know, we were unable to have our Souper Bowl of Caring on Super Bowl Sunday this year due to the pandemic. So, instead of having one Sunday where we bring canned goods in to the church, we’re going to collect cans throughout the week of the ACC tournament. This canned food drive will start on Sunday, March 6th and end on Sunday, March 13th, but all during the week you can bring canned goods up to the church. However, there is going to be a twist this year.

Starting on March 6th, there will be five boxes in the vestibule: one for Carolina, one for NC State, one for Duke, one for the other twelve schools (Wake Forest, Boston College, Miami, etc.), and one for those who don’t care about the tournament at all (I’m calling it the “I just hope both teams have fun” box). We’ll have a little friendly competition! When you bring your canned goods in, be sure to place them in the box/area of the team you’re supporting. Each unit of whatever you bring in will count for one point. In other words, if you bring in a flat of 24 cans, that’s 24 points! We’ll count them all up after the 13th and announce the winner in morning worship the following week.

I’m excited for this! It’s a chance to have some fun. It’s a chance for a little friendly competition. It’s a chance to show a little pride in what teams we pull for. But, most importantly, it’s a chance for us to push each other to give as much as we can to help our neighbors. Part of the call the gospel places on our lives is to reach out to those who are hurting, those who do not have enough, and help lift them up. This ACC Tournament Food Drive is a chance to do just that. So, starting March 6th, may the best team win!

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

The Folks Around You

Given the day on which I’m writing this article, I think it’s only fitting for me to say something about the Super Bowl! First of all, I’m a big fan of football—college and professional. Even if the Panthers are, well, “in a rebuild,” let’s say, I always look forward to football season. And I’ve got to say, the game this coming Sunday has two incredible stories coming into it. On the one hand, you’ve got the Rams led by Matt Stafford, who has managed to get his team to the Big Game in his first year with them. And on the other hand, you’ve got the Bengals, a Cinderella team led by their second-year quarterback Joe Burrow who just appears unflappable.

But typically when I think of past Super Bowls, I don’t remember too many of the games themselves. The Eagles vs. the Patriots a few years ago was compelling, as was Kansas City vs. San Francisco to years ago. Typically, when I think of Super Bowls, I think of who I watched the games with. In 2003, I watched with my church youth group at a friend’s house where we played games, ate good food, and, at the very end, watched the Panthers lose a field goal. In 2006, I watched again with my church youth group as Tony Dungy became the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl. In 2016, I watched with close friends as Denver’s defense tore the Panthers apart from the opening drive. And last year, I watched with my family as Tom Brady became the oldest starting quarterback in league history to win the Super Bowl—he was 44 years old.

Now, that last paragraph makes it sound like I actually do remember the games, but I can assure you that the only reason I can recall them is because I can think back and remember, “I was with this group for that Super Bowl,” or, “Yeah, I remember sitting on this person’s couch as we celebrated this win.” The games themselves were not all that important to me, even though I do love football! What mattered was who I was with. The Super Bowl is one of those events that has a way of drawing people together. Whether the game is good or bad, the commercials are funny or not, or the halftime show is memorable, I remember the people I took in the Super Bowl with.

In the Christian life, we don’t always remember the exact things we did at various places—specific Bible studies that informed our faith or specific special events that we enjoyed. But I bet we can all remember specific communities of people who were important to us. I bet we can all remember the folks who were there with us during seasons of joy and celebration! And I’m sure we can all remember the people who came alongside us during difficult times in our lives. At its best, a community of Christians can come together and support each other in such beautiful ways that a person can look back and remember that they are loved. So, take a look around you this Sunday as you’re watching the game and let the folks around you know you’re grateful for them. If you’re not planning to watch the game or you’re just relaxing at home on your own, take a moment and call someone you care about or send them a text to let them know you care. Being part of a loving community is a wonderful thing and we shouldn’t wait till the final football game of a season to remind folks we appreciate them!

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

The Basic Plot

Brothers and sisters,

I know that I’ve mentioned this before, but I love video games. I have loved them for as long as I can remember. I distinctly remember the overwhelming joy and excitement my brother and I felt when we got our first game console and our first two games – a Sega Genesis with Sonic the Hedgehog 2 & The Lion King. Since then, I’ve spent countless nights with friends playing round after round after round of Super Smash Bros, Phantasy Star Online, and Mario Kart. Games like those are wonderful because, well, they’re fun! But there is one series of video games that is my favorite. No contest.

The Legend of Zelda is a series of video games dating back to 1986 that, basically, tell stories of a hero, Link, and a princess, Zelda, who work together to defeat an evil sorcerer, Ganon, who threatens their homeland. As the player, you control Link, moving him through the world, fighting enemies, and solving puzzles. And each game in the series offers twists on the basic plot—sometimes Link has to travel through time, sometimes Link has to travel to a mirrored version of his homeland, sometimes the whole adventure was just a dream – but at the end of the game, Link has some kind of showdown with Ganon to save his homeland, with Zelda helping him take on Ganon. The story of each Zelda game is simple (good vs. evil) but each version of that story is told beautifully. Zelda games are consistently considered some of the greatest games ever made and they add one level of nuance that I love, that helps make them my favorite games. I want to write about that nuance as we continue with the pandemic.

One thing that I particularly love about the Zelda games is that they never ignore the other people in Link and Zelda’s world. In other words, while the main plot has to do with defeating Ganon, the player is encouraged to stop along the way and help the other characters you meet. The player is encouraged to commit small acts of kindness to help other people in the game. Sometimes that means finding a lost dog. Other times you’ll be encouraged help an overworked soldier find a gift for his son’s birthday. In one instance, you’re asked to simply listen as an older character tells you about their life. Though these things seem small and random, particularly when you consider the main plot, the Zelda series does a good job of communicating that fighting evil and holding on to hope are done with everyday actions. There is no act of kindness too small to make a difference. And it is always good to do the right thing.

I say all that because as the church enters an-other month of virtual services, it can feel like the pandemic is overwhelming. It can feel like there’s nothing that can be done in the face of Covid and its variants. But I would encourage you, throughout this week, to find small acts of kindness you can offer to someone else. Send someone a card telling them you’re thinking of them. Pay for someone else’s coffee in the Starbucks drive-thru. Tell an essential worker—doctor, nurse, cashier, server—that you appreciate them. No act of kindness is too small to make a difference. Everyone you meet is a child of God, fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image, deserving of love, respect, and dignity. Everyone you meet is your neighbor (Luke 10:25-37). In the face of the pandemic, may we always love our neighbors. May we seek out chances to help others and do the right thing.

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

Happy New Year

Brothers and Sisters,

First things first, Happy New Year! This is the first Illuminator of 2022 and I hope that it finds you safe, happy, and healthy. I know that this year has started off rough with the continued presence of the Omicron variant of Covd-19, but my prayer is that 2022 will be a year in which we can return to some level of normalcy as a society and as a church. Regardless of what 2022 has in store, know that you are loved by your brothers and sisters in Christ here at Hope Valley. Know, as well, that you can call on any of us—both staff and church members—if you need anything! We want to be sure that we are all working together to love one another well.

As we start this new year together, we will be starting a new sermon series as well. There is always a bit of a lull within the church calendar between Baptism of the Lord Sunday (January 9th of this year) and Ash Wednesday (March 2nd), when the season of Lent begins in earnest. Over the next seven weeks, I wanted us to spend some time with the Apostle Paul, especially reading the latter part of 1 Corinthians. Paul’s letter to the Romans typically gets revered as his masterpiece—his best writing and his most elegant argument—but Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church contain elegant passages too. To read 1 & 2 Corinthians is to read letters between a church and an apostle who care deeply about each other. The Corinthians are unafraid to ask Paul questions about how to be faithful Christians and Paul is unafraid to tell the Corinthians exactly what he thinks! That relationship makes for a really interesting letter and so I wanted to spend some time with Paul and with the Corinthians, considering what it means to be Christian and what it means to be a part of a church full of different people with different life experiences.

The title of the upcoming sermon series is, “Gifts and Glory,” and is drawn from two of the major themes of the latter part of 1 Corinthians and the first part of 2 Corinthians. Simply put, as Paul writes to that congregation, he knows that there are divisions among them as people wonder what the gifts of the Spirit mean, how one should use their gifts, and why a person should be Christian to begin with. So, he writes to the people and speaks to them about the gifts of the Spirit. He writes to them about the mission of the church. He writes to them about the glory and majesty of God. He pushes them to embrace the mystery of faith. Ultimately, he reminds them that the love of Christ serves as a through line for everything Christians ought to do. He pushes them to understand that God is the animating force behind everything the church should be about. And he reminds them that God’s love has not failed and will not fail. This part of Paul’s letter is earnest and honest and beautiful. I’m looking forward to walking through it with you all over the next seven weeks!

Grace and peace,

Pastor Ben