Uncomfortable Faith

Brothers and sisters,

This coming Sunday, October 1, we will be starting a new sermon series entitled, “Uncomfortable Faith.” The basic premise of this entire series is that there are some teachings of Jesus that can make us feel a little, you know, uncomfortable. There are some teachings that we think, “Did Jesus really say that?” Or, there are things he said, particularly parables, that we may think, “You know, I remember that being in there, but I forgot just how intense that passage was.” Those are the types of passages we will be looking at over the next two months.

Here’s the thing. In the midst of these intense passages, these words of Jesus that may make us feel a little uncomfortable, there are beautiful messages of faith and love and grace. In the midst of these intense passages, I am fully confident that God will walk with us. And I would argue that if we are not willing to challenge ourselves, to examine the sometimes difficult teachings of our faith, to consider that we may not have all the answers, then we are doing ourselves a disservice. Faith is a journey. It is a quest to draw closer to God in all that we do. Sometimes that means wrestling with ideas we hadn’t thought of be-fore. Sometimes it means wrestling with passages that make us uncomfortable. But, again, God walks alongside us and guides us in all of this—if we will humble ourselves and listen for the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

Now, for this series we will mostly be looking at passages from the Gospel of Matthew, but we will have two detours. I will be on vacation on October 15th, so a student from Duke Divinity School will be preaching for me. I’ve told him to prepare a standalone sermon, rather than ask him to preach on an uncomfortable passage. And on November 19th, we will hop over to 2 Corinthians and have a more Thanksgiving-themed worship service. But I am looking forward to preaching this series. I’m looking forward to the questions we’ll get to ask and the conversations I hope this series will start.

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

Seasons of Life

Y’all, it’s that time of year again. Now, I write that and you might think, “Ah, yes. Football season is upon us!” And that’s true—college and professional football have started their seasons. Or, you might be thinking, “Ah, yes. We’re supposed to start getting cooler temperatures next week, so fall is coming!” And that’s also true—and a little closer to the season I’m thinking of. Truth is, it’s that time of year again—time for pumpkin-everything!

I went to Trader Joe’s last night (Tuesday night) and let me just list off the things I can remember that were pumpkin flavored. You ready? I saw Pumpkin-O’s (pumpkin-flavored Cheerios), pumpkin breakfast bars, pumpkin cornbread mix, pumpkin pancake mix (might have bought that), pumpkin muffin mix, pumpkin chili seasoning, pumpkin creamer, pumpkin yogurt, pumpkin spice coffee, pumpkin ravioli, pumpkin tortilla chips, pumpkin sandwich cookies (definitely bought those), pumpkin Oreos, pumpkin yogurt-covered cookies, and pumpkin oatmeal, among other things. Funny enough, I saw no canned pumpkin!

I bring that up because it seems like the beginning of “pumpkin-everything” season is the unofficial beginning of fall. It marks the time of the year when the days are growing noticeably shorter and there does begin to be a nip in the air—even though here in North Carolina you cannot truly rule out a 90 degree day till about mid-October. But this is a season of the year when we start to celebrate those around us and those in our community. We are preparing for things like the State Fair, where we will see the accomplishments of some of our neighbors in the various contests. We are preparing for Halloween where we reach out to strangers in the community and of-fer a moment of fellowship through trick-or-treating. We are preparing for All Saints Day when we honor those Christians who came before us. We are preparing for Thanksgiving, where we gather with family to remember the things we’re grateful for and, of course, to eat things like pumpkin pie!

Ultimately, the beginning of “pumpkin-everything” season also reminds me of the fact that we are preparing for the celebration of Advent and Christmas. As I sipped pumpkin spiced coffee from my pumpkin-emblazoned coffee mug this morning, I got a reminder from my phone that the choir will start practicing their Advent music this Saturday (9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. in the choir room if you’d like to join them). And all of this, together, made me think of the various seasons we all go through in our lives and the myriad experiences that come with those seasons. Sometimes, we’re in a season of celebration and rejoicing, where it seems like everywhere we turn our friends, our family, even ourselves are experiencing joy. Sometimes, it’s a season of loss and mourning, where each day is a struggle and getting out of bed is an accomplishment. Sometimes it’s a season of uncertainty, where decisions are not easy to make and a way forward is not clear. The good news of the gospel, though, is that God is with us in all those seasons. Joy, sorrow, uncertainty—God is there. Fall, football, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas—God is there. Even in “pumpkin-everything” season—God is there. Don’t believe me? Google “pumpkin spice communion wafers images” and have a laugh!

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

Prayers of the People

Brothers and sisters,

This week I want us to just take some time to pray for all of the various things that are happening or have happened within the last few weeks. It seems like the news cycles have been particularly difficult and so I would ask you to take some time and pray for folks all over the country. Use my suggestions below as starters if you’d like to, but then take some time to speak to God and ask for God’s grace in all of this.

For the people of Hawaii. The search and rescue process continues on the island of Maui after the wildfires. The process of identifying bodies drags on, particularly because so many of the bodies crumble when touched in any way. Pray for the people who have lost loved ones. Pray for the people who have not heard yet whether their loved one is among the dead. Pray for the rescuers as they continue to do this work that is hard physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Pray for the people of Hawaii as a collective as they process the trauma, the grief, the tragedy of all of this.

For the people of Jacksonville, Florida. They are reeling from the rampage of someone who espoused truly hateful, bigoted views about our brothers and sisters in the black community. Pray for the family of the shooter as they grieve the loss of their loved one and must deal with who he turned out to be. Pray for the families of the victims as they now have to deal with the grief and the trauma of losing someone they loved so suddenly and so violently. Pray for the people of Jacksonville, as they process their grief.

For the UNC community. They are also reeling from a senseless shooting and the death of a young, bright scholar. The university is doing their best to care for the students, but pray for everyone there at Carolina right now. Pray for the students who were in Caudill Laboratories as it happened. Pray for all those students who had to lock down and wonder for hours what was happening. Pray for the elementary, middle, and high school kids who also had to lockdown during the manhunt. Pray for the family of Zijie Yan, the professor who was killed, as they grieve his loss. And pray for the family of Tailei Qi, the shooter, as they grieve and grapple with what he has done.

Finally, pray for the people of Keaton Beach, Florida and the surrounding area. Hurricane Idalia has made landfall there and as I write this article, 1 person has been declared dead and 286,000 people are without power. Pray for everyone in the path of the storm. There will be property damage, loss of life, and so many other things they’ll have to deal with over the next days, weeks, months. Pray that they would receive the help they need. Pray for everyone who has lost or will lose a loved one. Pray for all those who have lost or will lose their homes. Pray for that community, that they can come together and help one another in the wake of this storm.

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

Respite in Downtown Goldsboro

Brothers and sisters,

Years ago, my hometown of Goldsboro began a project to revive our downtown. The Downtown Goldsboro Develop-ment Corporation (DGDC) cast a vision of what downtown Goldsboro could look like and began applying for grants to execute that vision. And, over the last twentyish years, they’ve done just that. Downtown Goldsboro is now a thriving part of the city with local shops and restaurants dotting Center Street and local special events happening throughout the year. But there was one thing I noticed when I was home last month that brought a smile to my face.

See, one of the unique features that the DGDC incorporated into the design of downtown was an amphitheater near the fire station. The idea behind this amphitheater was that concerts could be had there, events could set up emcees and DJs there, and folks could just meet there throughout the week. But since it was near the fire station (which actually also houses police and EMS), emergency services also like to take advantage of it to do public outreach. And as I was driving downtown recently, I looked and saw where one of our fire crews was out in the amphitheater playing all kinds of water games with local children. They had hooked up one of the fire trucks and were spraying water all over for kids to jump through, jump over, get misted by, and on and on and on. The little kids were all running around, just squealing with delight. When I asked someone about what was happening, they told me that the fire station does that once a week, every week during the summer to give the local kids something cool and fun to do in the midst of hot summers. It serves as a bit of respite for the children’s parents as well. And it helped build camaraderie between police, firemen, EMS drivers, and the community.

I tell you all that story because we have yet another opportunity to reach out to our community and provide a day of respite for folks. Our next Super Saturday Adventure is coming up on Saturday, August 19th. At each of our Adventures, we’ve elevated one of the stations to be our “big event.” In June, we did the cookout. In July, we painted ceramics. This month, we’re playing water games with the kids! And I’m so looking forward to it! I’m looking forward to the parents being able to come, drop their kids off, and know they’ll be cared for. I’m looking forward to getting to see these children again and get to know them better. I’m looking forward to seeing their smiles and hearing their joyful squeals. In all of it, I hope that the children will get to hear about a God who loves them, a God who loves their joy, and a God who gives abundantly.

If you would like to help out, there are several ways you can do that. Registration is open for both children and volunteers on our website, www.hvbc.org. And if you are unable to join us the day of, please be sure to take time to pray for the volunteers, the children, and their parents. Pray that all of us would be knit closer together as a community. Pray that August 19th would serve as a welcome respite for everyone as we learn about God and play some really fun games!

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

Minor League Baseball

Brothers and sisters,

A couple of friends of mine and I have an interesting hobby. We don’t get to take part in it very often together, but when we do we always have a blast. We enjoy going to minor league baseball games together. Just about every year for the last three years, we have gone to a minor league game to celebrate my birthday. The first two years we went to see the Durham Bulls and had a wonderful time. Both years they played and beat the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp! We enjoy going to see them, but there’s another layer to our new hobby that the Bulls don’t quite measure up to.

My friends and I love to go to minor league baseball games, but specifically if the team has a funny/ridiculous mascot. Where they live, my friends go to see the Frederick Keys (named after Francis Scott Key) or the Spire City Ghost Hounds. But did you know that right here in North Carolina, we have teams like the Burlington Sock Puppets? Look them up—their mascot is amazing! Or, even better, Winston-Salem hosts a summer collegiate team known as the Carolina Disco Turkeys—I will be spending far too much money on their merch!
Last week, my friends and I made the trip over to see my hometown team, the Down East Wood Ducks, whose mascot is a wood duck carrying a gnarled tree branch like a baseball bat—I love it! Only, we didn’t see the Wood Ducks that night. We saw Los Avocadoes Luchadores de Down East—the team’s alternate mascot, which is half an avocado wearing a luchador mask and flexing his biceps. But in the store at Grainger Stadium, you could buy merch for their other alternate mascot, the Kinston Collard Greens—an old-timey baseball player with collard green leaves for a beard. Now, the game was mostly good. Heading into the top of the 8th, it was tied 3-3, but after a disastrous top of the 8th involving four errors, the Avocadoes were down 8-3 to the Salem Red Sox (what a lame mascot!) and never recovered. But my friends and I had a great time catching up, watching the ball game, eating surprisingly good stadium food, and en-joying the people-watching that goes along with baseball. It was a wonderful night, perfectly timed.

Now, why write about this in a church newsletter? Is it just to send web traffic toward the Disco Turkeys or the Wood Ducks? No. This week reminded me of all the many different identities all of us have. We are sons or daughters, brothers or sisters, wives, husbands, friends, colleagues, customers, fans, etc. We all have unique ways that we interact with the world around us, unique ways we speak to one another. But I also wanted to remind us all that we have specific, unique ways we care for one another and show each other love. Some of us cook amazing food and offer it freely. Some of us are quick to hop in the car and carry folks from place to place. Some of us send cards or emails, make phone calls or house visits.

Regardless of who God has made you to be—and God has made you to be uniquely you—God has given you a unique, special way to show your love and appreciation for others. You have been loved by God in your own unique, special way. So, embrace the gifts and talents God has given to you.

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

Mary and Martha

Brothers and sisters,

At this week’s Super Saturday Adventure, we’re going to be talking with the children about the story of Mary and Martha. It’s a pretty simple story on its face. Jesus and his disciples make their way to a village where they are first welcomed by Martha. She brings the disciples into her home and there they meet Mary, who sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him. Martha, however, was engaged with the many different tasks involved with hosting people in the ancient world — food, drink, overnight accommodations, etc. Frustrated, she came to Jesus and asked him to tell Mary to come and help her. But Jesus replied that Mary had chosen “the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42).

Based on that passage, Martha tends to get a bad rap. The more traditional interpretation tends to go something along the lines of, “Mary was right and Martha was wrong. Mary loved Jesus more than Martha. Mary was wiser than Martha, thus Martha needed to be corrected. Don’t be like Martha.” And that interpretation doesn’t sit well with me. Jesus and his disciples depended on people bringing them into their homes in order for them to offer their ministry to folks. And right there at the beginning of this passage, Luke says that Martha “welcomed him.” She believed in his ministry enough to be willing to open her home to him and provide for his disciples. And, yes, she does have her moment of frustration, but the tone of Jesus’ response implies something more along the lines of, “Martha, the things you’re doing are not wrong. But more than anything else, I want to be able to spend time with you.”

At this Saturday’s adventure, we’re going to teach the kids more about that second interpretation. We’re going to talk to them about the different ways that Mary and Martha showed their love for Jesus. And we’re going to remind them that each and every one of us has unique gifts and talents that have been given to us by God. Those talents help us reach out to others, help us care for other people, help us connect with God, and help us become better disciples.

So, if you have not signed up to help on Saturday morning, you can still come by and offer your gifts and talents to help care for these children. You can help teach them about the love God has for each of them. You can come and teach them that the folks at Hope Valley Baptist Church love and care about them too. Or, if you can’t come by, you can still pray for the kids, their parents, our volunteers, and this ministry in general.

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

P.S. Martha appears in John’s gospel as well and reminds us of her faith in Jesus. After Lazarus died, she met Jesus on his way into Bethany and they had a conversation about resurrection. In that conversation, Martha identified Jesus as “the Son of God.” The only other person to say that so plainly in John’s gospel was John the Baptist.

What’s His Name?

Brothers and sisters,

I wanted to give you all a little insight into our up-coming summer sermon series. At this point in the church calendar, we’ve got a huge swath of time in which there are no major Christian holidays. That means that we’ve got a little more freedom over the next few months to explore some really interesting parts of the Bible. This is the time of year when we get to experiment some with different ideas, different passages, different books and authors.

So, as part of that, we’ll be starting a sermon series on June 11 entitled, “What’s His Name?” Now, writing the name of the series down doesn’t quite do it justice. To really understand the title, you need to imagine you’re having a conversation with a friend or a family member. As you’re talking, you say something about someone you know or know of — a friend of a friend, an old coworker, a famous person—but you can’t quite remember their name. So, you sit there, snap your fingers repeatedly, and say, “Oh, what’s his name? What’s his name?!” That’s the title of the sermon series — the snapping of the fingers, the feeling that you know this, and the question, “What’s His Name?

For this sermon series, we’re going to be looking at more obscure books of the Bible or more obscure passages from famous books (we’ll end with a passage from Luke’s gospel that almost never gets preached on). The idea behind this is pretty simple—there are some really interesting texts that don’t often get preached on. In prepping for this series, I ran across some interesting numbers related to which parts of the Bible get preached on and which ones don’t. These numbers are based on the passages chosen by the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). For those that may not know, the RCL is a three-year cycle of verses that cover most of the Bible. In other words, if you read through every passage selected by the lectionary, you’ll read most of the more famous passages from the Bible. In that sense, it can be a wonderful tool!

However, the RCL has some glaring gaps in the passages it chooses, with some books of the Bible being completely ignored (books like Nahum or Jude). To give you the numbers, the lectionary covers 72% of the entire New Testament. But when you break that down, the lectionary covers 90% of all four Gospels and only 54% of the non-Gospel parts of the New Testament. But, are you ready for the most glaring gap in the lectionary? If you exclude the times the RCL recommends one of the Psalms, the lectionary only covers 13.5% of the Old Testament. 13.5% of all those sacred scriptures! This summer, I hope we can remedy that. And I hope that by looking at some of these more obscure passages, you’ll be inspired to go and read some of the books of the Bible that maybe you haven’t thought of before!

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

The Legend of Zelda and Loneliness

Brothers and sisters,

As many of you know, last week a new video game that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time came out—The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. Now, since it came out last Friday, I’ve spent a good chunk of my free time playing it and have thoroughly enjoyed it and I’m pretty sure I haven’t even gotten to the best parts yet! I haven’t beaten the game, so I don’t know the full story or what all the major themes of the game will be, but there is one theme that has already been explored and I want to talk about it.

Before I do that, though, I want to give you a little con-text about Tears of the Kingdom. See, it is a sequel to a previous Zelda game, which is a rarity in the Zelda franchise. Typically, each game is a stand-alone game with a new version of Hyrule (the fictional world you play in), a new version of Link (the character you play as), and a new version of Princess Zelda (who the series is named after). But since Tears of the Kingdom is a sequel, you play as the same version of Link from the previous game, called Breath of the Wild. And there’s an important change that has happened in Link’s life between the two games.

In Breath of the Wild (the first game), Link is alone. The brief version of the story is that Link has woken up to a Hyrule that has been devastated by a great evil. One hundred years ago, Link had fought against that great evil and lost, nearly dying in the process. The only reason he survived was because of fast thinking from Princess Zelda. In Breath of the Wild, Hyrule has been broken. Link’s memories of his friends have been erased. And the few people Link meets tend to blame him for the fall of Hyrule. He is able to make some friends along the way, but it is a game about grief, burden, loss, and redemption. And while it is an undeniably beautiful game and story, Link undeniably feels alone.

In Tears of the Kingdom, that has changed. Link and Zelda had managed to save Hyrule at the end of the first game and the citizens have begun to rebuild. And now, Link has friends. There are people who care about him and support him. When the game begins, Link has been missing for several months after being attacked by a new great evil threatening Hyrule. But when he makes it back to civilization, everyone he meets starts each conversation by saying they’re so glad Link’s back! They’re worried about the injuries he’s sustained. They caution him not to push himself too hard—they don’t want to lose their friend again. And it’s touching to see that so many of the people who care about Link in Tears of the Kingdom were friends he made in Breath of the Wild.

So, why bring up these two games? Because I appreciate the change they highlight. In Breath of the Wild, Link is made to feel like he is alone. In Tears of the Kingdom, it’s revealed that he isn’t. He has friends and allies who care about him. And I think that’s a good message for everyone to hear right now. You are not alone. If you are getting this newsletter, it’s because you are a member of Hope Valley Baptist Church, which means you have a whole host of brothers and sisters in Christ you can reach out to. You have a pastor whose phone is always on. If you ever need help, please reach out.

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

P. S. Once I beat Tears of the Kingdom, y’all can expect another nerdy Illuminator article!

Thanks All-Around

Brothers and sisters,

I want to do three things: thank everyone for helping with our events this month, remind folks of another chance to help out, and share an Easter poem that I appreciate.

First, thank you to everyone who came out to participate in the special Holy Week services we had at the beginning of the month! Between the Hand-Washing service, our Good Friday service, and the East-er Sunday Baptism service it was a wonderful week of worship and community with each other. Thank you to all the volunteers, musicians, and committees that came together to make those services what they were, in particular, the handbells, the Deacons, and the baptism committee. Again, these services were wonderful and they could not have been as meaningful as they were without the participation of so many people.

Another group I want to be sure and thank are the family ministry team and the missions team. They were the two groups that coordinated and led the church’s Easter Egg Hunt this year which was a success! We had twelve kids come out, make crafts, eat snacks, hear the Easter story, and hunt eggs. Thank you to everyone who helped plan that event out, prepare all the crafts, and then help the kids collect eggs. Also, thank you to everyone who filled Easter eggs this year or who donated money to help with this ministry. We were able to share abundantly with the kids because of you. Thank you!

With that in mind, I wanted to remind everyone again that we will be having our Church Yard Sale next Saturday, April 29 from 9 a.m. through 2 p.m. We still need plenty of volunteers to help out that day. You can come and help at different stations within the sale (housewares, books/DVDs, etc.), help with refreshments, or, if you’ve got a truck, you can come help carry anything leftover to Goodwill at the end of the day. You can also come and help out in the days leading up to the sale — setting up the gym, moving items into their stations, pricing, etc. But I’m looking forward to this because it gives us a chance to meet a wide array of people in our community. It allows us to see them and them see us.

In fact, all of the things I’ve mentioned in this article are instances where we, as a church, came together to tell people that they were seen. We came together to embody our faith, to live it out, because we understand that Christianity is not just an intellectual position to be held — it is a life that we live. And that is all based on the fact that we worship a risen Savior. That takes me to the poem I wanted to share with you all entitled, “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” and written by John Updike:

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the
molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

The CROP Walk

Brothers and sisters,

This past Sunday, I participated in my very first Durham CROP Hunger Walk! To say that I had a good time would be an understatement! It was a wonderful opportunity to get to go out and be a part of the wider Durham community as we came together to do our part to fight against hunger. There were hundreds of people there, all decked out in our CROP Walk swag. And, ac-cording to the CROP Walk website, they raised just under $125,000 to help fight hunger here locally and abroad.

What I appreciated most about the whole experience was the diversity of people, events, and education all around me. There were bands that played for us. There were dancers who performed. We were led through a stretching routine that reminded me of some of the dance moves from last year’s Vacation Bible School. I saw friends from seminary that I hadn’t caught up with in years. And, if I’m being honest, even a Tar Heel like me looked up at Duke Chapel and the flowers in bloom around it and thought, “Yeah, this place is kind of pretty, I guess.” And when we finally did start walking, it all reminded me of Holy Week.

CROP Walk happens on Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus entered Jerusalem for the final time. He came in to shouts of, “Hosanna,” and palms waving be-fore him. The people around him were filled with hope for what they thought he was going to do. And they were right to have hope, but Jesus was facing down a different enemy than they’d originally thought he would. Jesus rode into Jerusalem that day knowing full well that his week was going to end with a cross. He knew that at his last supper with his disciples, one of them would slip out to betray him. There were so many reasons for Jesus to stop walking. So many reasons for him to say, “How can anyone beat the power of sin? How can anyone conquer death?” But he kept walking.

In a similar way, we walked on Sunday knowing full well that we would not be able to defeat hunger on that one day. There will, most likely, al-ways be hungry people in our society. And there will, most likely, always be systems and structures that make it difficult for people to consistently feed themselves and their families. There are plenty of reasons to stop walking each year to end hunger. But there is always one reason to keep going—hope. We walked to raise money. We walked to raise awareness. We walked to make sure those who go hungry in our city and in our world do not go unseen. Christ walked into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday knowing that a cross await-ed him, but believing that there was life and hope on the other side. We walked on Sunday knowing that there would still be hungry people, but believing that if we keep walking, keep believing, keep hoping, that one day we might just see an end to hunger. That feels like an Easter message to me.

So, Palm Sunday next year is March 24—save the date!

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben