Breathe In, Breathe Out

January is an interesting month. On the one hand, the month is best known for its first few minutes, as folks celebrate the beginning of a new year with friends and loved ones. Those first few minutes are followed up by the New Years resolutions I mentioned in my article two weeks ago. From that point on, though, there’s not a whole lot else that happens in January. The College Football Playoff happens. Everyone takes a Monday to commemorate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But beyond that, January can feel empty in comparison to the hubbub of December.

But as the staff and I have talked about January, we’ve talked about it in a different way. We’ve referred to this month as being one in which the church gets to “take a breath.” December is a wonderful month full of music and joy and celebration, but it is also a month that is full of practices, appointments, deadlines, shopping, and events. And so January comes in to provide respite and a sense of peace. It is a moment when people can breathe deeply, get back to a sense of routine, and start looking forward to what the rest of the year has in store.

I like that idea of January as a month to take a breath because there are several moments throughout the scriptures where breathing is emphasized. The first instance, perhaps the most famous one, is in Genesis 2:7. God gently holds the sculpted figure of Adam’s body close to God’s own face and breathes the breath of life into him. It is God’s breath that gives Adam life. It is not a chaotic moment—God is not beating back forces of chaos or darkness or anything like that in order to give Adam life. No—it is an intimate moment be-tween Creator and Creation.

The other moment that comes to mind happens in Exodus 3:13-14, when Moses asks for God’s name. Moses is already on Mount Horeb and has already witnessed the burning bush. He’s received his call to go and free the people from Pharaoh. He asks God, “If the people ask me for your name, what should I tell them?” God replies with, “I AM WHO I AM.” That phrase is translated from the Hebrew word, “YHWH,” or what we say as “Yahweh.” Why bring that up? Because scholars have pointed out that saying the name, “Yahweh,” mimics the pattern of breathing in and out. Try breathing in and saying, “Yah,” followed by breathing out and saying, “weh.” The breath of God, that same breath that gives life to us all, is what defines God. It is God’s very name!

So, this January, take a breath. After all the wonderful chaos of December, take this month to breathe in deeply. Take this month to slow down and appreciate all that you’ve been given. Take this month to look forward to your future, as you consider all the possibilities 2024 holds. And remember that with every breath, God is with you. That is the depth of God’s faithfulness. With every breath, God fills your lungs with life and love and peace.

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

Looking Back to Forge Ahead

Brothers and sisters,

Here we are at the beginning of another new year! 2023 is done and 2024 lies before us. New Year’s resolutions are being made right now, with the most common ones being things like going to the gym, saving money, spending less time on social media, etc. Resolutions are always interesting things because they are, on their surface, meant to be projections for what a person wants to do in the new year. We think of them as being “future” things. But I’d argue that resolutions only make sense in the context of a person’s past. You have to understand where you’ve been in order to project where you want to be.

With that in mind, let’s look back at what we’ve done together as a church this year. We started out the year preparing for our church yard sale. We had the ACC Tournament Food Drive (which UNC won, I might add). We made our way through the cycle of Lent and Easter once again. We reached out to the children and families in our community with our Super Saturday Adventures, reminding them all of the love God has for them. We worshiped alongside passages of scripture that rarely, if ever, get preached on. We held a fall festival. We brought back Lemonade on the Lawn and changed it into our Sunday Social. We made shoeboxes for children in Appalachia. We provided school supplies to local students. We made it through another cycle of Advent and Christmas. Through all of that, we celebrated birthdays and anniversaries, trips and promotions, engaged couples and expectant families. Through it all, we came together to mourn losses, to struggle alongside each other, and create space for each other.

The key to everything our church did last year was a single-minded focus on remaining faithful to God. At both our best and our worst, I would argue that we sought God’s will for us as individuals and us as a church family. And so, I would propose that our New Year’s resolution as a church would be something along the lines of , “Seek new ways God may be pushing us to be faithful.” I understand that sounds vague, but I think it needs to be. When we genuinely seek God’s will, there’s no telling where it will take us—so why limit it? Let’s embrace all the possibilities of 2024 and believe that God will guide us and help us to remain faithful to our community, to each other, and to our Lord.

Happy New Year,
Pastor Ben

The Importance of the Roast Beast

What is your favorite Christmas movie? When I ask that question, I’m sure there are a lot of classics that come to mind. It’s a Wonderful Life. The Miracle on 34th Street. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Among my generation, millennials, you’ll hear a lot of folks say they love to watch the Harry Potter movies or The Lord of the Rings around Christmastime. Home Alone is also a classic. But there is one Christmas movie that holds a special place in my heart—one that the title of this article gives away.

I adore the 1966 cartoon version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I have always loved that movie and the book it is based on. My grandmother used to read it to my brother and I anytime we went to visit her at Christmas. I have such fond memories of reading about that grinchy old Grinch and all his Christmas-stealing shenanigans. And I adore the animated version of the story, particularly the song, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” And, of course, I also love the message of the story—that Christmas is not about the things that we get—the ribbons, the tags, the packages, boxes, and bags. But there’s one important thing to remember in the final moments of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

For those that may not have seen the movie or read the book, the Grinch is a mean, green, Christmas-hating monster that lives on a mountain above the town of Who-ville. The Whos are people that adore Christmas and they celebrate it each year—loudly. That noise carries up the mountain and infuriates the Grinch. So, one year, he decides to go down into Whoville and steal all the trappings of Christmas—the presents, the trees, the lights, and the food, in particular the roast beast. After stealing everything and loading it up on a sleigh, the Grinch takes the presents up to the top of Mount Crumpit in order to dump them all over the edge. But as he’s standing there, he pauses to listen to what he assumes will be the weeping of the Whos. Instead, he hears them singing and celebrating Christmas all the same. It causes a change in his heart as he realizes that there is more to Christmas than just the material things. So, he races back down the mountain and returns everything to the Whos. The book and the movie end with a town-wide feast and the narrator saying, “He, he himself, the Grinch, carved the roast beast.”

What’s the thing to remember? The Whos open up their celebration to the Grinch without any questions. They simply accept him into their community, bringing him into the joy of Christmas. Later adaptations of the story (2000 & 2018) have tried to figure out some way to qualify the way the Grinch gets accepted by the Whos. Neither Dr. Seuss nor the 1966 movie do that though and that’s important. One of the points of Christmas is the reminder of the unconditional love that God has for all people in all places at all times. There are no qualifications to be loved by God. There is no transaction. There is no “proof” that you deserve God’s love. God just gives it to you. The Whos end up modeling that by creating a space for the Grinch in their celebrations—no questions asked. Not only do they bring him in, they place him in a position of respect and honor. The Whos saw this green monster who “stole Christmas” and chose to include him, to see him as their guest, to invite him into their community. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is, in part, a story about radical love and hospitality for all people.

Christmas Chili

I’ve mentioned this to a few of you in passing over the last few weeks, but one of my favorite nights of the year is coming up. Let me explain. I enjoy the Christmas season and I enjoy a lot of the decorations that go along with the season. I like the reds and greens and golds of Christmas. And I’ve got a good number of Christmas decorations myself. But you know the problem with decorations? They have to be dragged out of storage, dusted off, and then put up. That takes a lot of time and energy and thought and precision. When it comes to decorating, I don’t necessarily have all those things. That is especially true when it comes to the Christmas tree. All those ornaments. All those branches. It’s just too much!

The other problem with decorations? I really do like them! So, on the one hand, I enjoy having all these things around my apartment. On the other hand, I don’t want to take the time to put them all up! So, years ago, I asked myself, “How do I decorate for Christmas without decorating for Christmas?” And then it came to me! I texted some of my friends and invited them over to my apartment to help me decorate my Christmas tree. “In exchange,” I told them, “I’ll make a pot of chili and feed you.” I’m not great at decorating, but I’m pretty good at making chili! Sure enough, they showed up! We ate chili, decorated my tree, and spent the evening talking and catching up with each other.

We have gotten together every year since 2017 (with one notable exception in 2020) to eat chili and put ornaments on my tree. It has become a tradition among my friends and me. And every year the tradition flexes to include new people and new ideas. My friends will bring new dishes to go with the chili. They’ll bring presents if we’re not sure when we’ll see each other next. We’ll invite other friends to come and join us. This year I think we’re going to bake cookies together as well that night. But in all of it, we reaffirm our love and friendship. What started out as a sneaky way to get my tree decorated has morphed into a sincere night of friendship.If you were here for the Hanging of the Greens service, you’ll remember I talked about the idea that the traditions we carry forward tell a story about what we believe. They are a refrain to a song that we sing throughout our lives. In the church, we carry traditions regarding the birth of Christ, his death and resurrection, and all manner of other wonderful things God has done for us and for our world. They tell the story of our faith. They tell the story of the God we worship. They are beautiful expressions of our shared beliefs, as long as we remember that they tell the story of a God who loves all people in all places.

What are the traditions in your own family? What story do they tell? How do they connect you to others? How have they changed to accommodate new people? And what does all that say about the God we worship?

Merry Christmas,

Pastor Ben

Abundance in Advent

Brothers and sisters,

By the time you read this, Thanksgiving will already be over. I would imagine your fridges will be full of food, your shopping carts full of Black Friday deals, and/or your TV full of football games. Thanksgiving is a time of year that reminds so many of us Americans of the fullness there is to life. It is a season associated with abundance and bounty leading into the Christmas season.

In light of that, though, I want to be sure to remind us all that Advent is also a time of abundance. We typically think of it as a season of waiting, of anticipation—and it is! —but it is also a time when we remind ourselves of the love of God that pours over all of Creation. That love was so abundant that God chose to come and live among us, to take on flesh and be a part of our world. God came to us in the per-son of Jesus Christ and experienced all that it means to be human, to be one of us.

In response to that abundance, to that love, and to all the human experiences Christ had, we at Hope Valley Baptist Church have planned many different special services this year. I want to be sure to run through all of them with you and give you an idea of what we’re planning this season.

The first special service will be on Sunday, December 3rd during morning worship. It will be our annual Hanging of the Greens service as we mark the beginning of the Advent season. The Hanging of the Greens is a beautiful service in which we, as a church, finish decorating our sanctuary. It is an intentional service in which we remind ourselves why we do the things we do during Advent and what they say about our faith.

The second special service is our Service of Lament. This will be on Wednesday, December 6th at 6:30 pm in the church sanctuary. The Service of Lament is a unique service that carves out space for those of us who are mourning or carrying grief through the holidays. It is a service that reminds folks that even if they do not feel particularly joyful right now, the church has room for them.

Our third special service will be our annual musical service on Sunday, December 17th at 5:00 pm in our church sanctuary. This year, it is entitled, “Let There Be Christmas,” and it promises to be a beautiful, joyful service that sings out the wonder, the joy, and the beauty of this season. In addition to wonderful music, there will be delicious food served at a reception immediately following in the Fellowship Hall.

Finally, we will be having our Christmas Eve Candlelight and Communion Service this year on Sunday, December 24th at 5:00 pm in our sanctuary. I love this service. It is a time for all of us to come together as a church family on the most exciting night of the year—the night when we celebrate the birth of our Savior. It is a service filled with joy, with singing, with the celebration of communion, and finally with the lighting of candles. Be sure to bring your family with you as we come together as a church family in celebration of all God has done for us.

So, there you have it. Love. Grief. Joy. Celebration. This year, our special services look to tell one overarching thing—God is with us, always. The love of God is abundant in this season.

What good news!
Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

Tears of the Kingdom

Brothers and sisters,
Six months ago, I wrote an Illuminator article entitled, “The Legend of Zelda and Loneliness.” In that article, I wrote about a game called Tears of the Kingdom and how it addresses themes of loneliness and finding community. And I remember telling you all then that once I beat Tears of the Kingdom, you could expect another article about the game. Well, I beat the game! So I want to talk about one of the aspects of the game that Zelda fans like myself particularly enjoy before connecting it back to our lives as Christians.

The Legend of Zelda games are known for a lot of different things. The gameplay is great. The characters are iconic. The stories are simple, but deeply moving. But perhaps more than anything else, Zelda games are known for their music. And while every new Zelda game has its own unique musical sound, they also tap into themes from previous games and use them to help tell their story.

In Tears of the Kingdom, the music is played by a full orchestra. One of the most celebrated musical moments comes early in the game. Link, the hero of the story, is battling a giant flying worm-thing called Colgera. Colgera is a wind monster and so most of the battle takes place in the sky. Because of that, the music that plays during the fight is carried by lots of wind instruments—oboes, flutes, saxophones, etc.

As the battle wears on, Colgera gets more aggressive and so does the music. Longer, soaring wind sections are interrupted with sharp, aggressive punches of sound from horns. Strings come in and play a tight loop of anxious notes as Colgera throws massive attacks at Link. But if the player dodges those attacks, the orchestra bursts into this bombastic, triumphant choral rendition of a song from a previous Zelda game, The Wind Waker. For those of us that played The Wind Waker back in 2002, it feels like the hero of that game nudging you and saying, “Hey, you’ve over-come challenges before. You can do it again.”

This past Sunday, we celebrated All Saints Sun-day. We took time during our worship service to read out the names of our brothers and sisters in Christ who had passed away within the last year. We talked about the ways in which our brothers and sisters in Christ have shaped and molded our faith over the years. Sometimes their influence is as broad as, “I come to church because this person invited me years ago.” It can be as personal as a relationship—someone from a church who stuck with you during hard times and who is the first to celebrate with you in good times. Sometimes it is as literal as something you say or do because someone else influenced you. Growing up my youth minister began every prayer with, “Gracious and loving God.” When you hear me pray on-the-spot, you’ll notice that I often start with, “Gracious and loving God.”

As we move through life, the saints remind us that we can meet highs and lows. I am reminded of Scott and my home church family at FBC Goldsboro every time I pray. I remember the way they all guided me and showed me how to be a Christian. It is as if they are nudging me and saying, “You’ve got this.” We are never truly alone in our faith journey and that’s a comfort. There will always be things we do that remind us of our brothers and sisters in Christ—those that are with us and those that have passed on. But isn’t it comforting when life throws challenges at you to know there are people in your corner who believe in you? That is part of the gift God gives us in the church.

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

P. S. If you’d like to hear the music I mentioned in this article, go to YouTube and type in, “colgera battle ost”. The moment I describe starts around the 2:35 mark, with the choir joining in at 2:55. The whole piece is just under 5 minutes—listen to it all!


Brothers and sisters,

It’s been almost a year since I took a trip to Salem, MA with two of my closest friends. If you were to dig up your Illuminator from 10-26-22, you’ll see that I wrote about how much I was looking forward to the trip. And it was a great time! We were there the Saturday before Halloween, so Salem was in its finest form. Lots of people. Lots of costumes. Crisp air. History all around us. It was fantastic!

I remember when I came back, folks kept asking me, “So when are you going to work some of your Salem trip into a sermon?” Over the last year, I’ve not found a good sermon to include some of the stories from that trip. But there is one story I’ve told a lot and a related story that I think has some-thing to say about our upcoming Trunk-or-Treat.

Part of the reason I was so excited to go to Salem last year was because of its reputation as “Witch City.” I majored in religious studies at Carolina and so I find all kinds of belief systems fascinating. So, going to “Witch City,” I wanted to wander through some of the more “legit” witch shops—places where people could buy supplies that they believed would allow them to cast “spells.” We went into one shop and I was amazed by everything I saw in there, but two things truly caught my eye.

The first was a big bowl filled with pre-packaged bay leaves—something like 10 to a pack. And everybody that came through was picking up a pack of bay leaves. Curious, I walked over, picked up a package, and turned it over to see why folks were gobbling them up. First of all, this store was selling just 10 bay leaves for $16, which is crazy enough on its own! Second, the package said that witches believe that if you place a bay leaf in the heel of your shoe as you head into court, you’re more likely to win your case. And remember, these bay leaves were flying off the shelves! I wanted to turn to the folks and say, “How many of you have court dates?! Salem, what have you done?!”

The second thing that caught my eye was a wall of “spell candles.” The idea behind these was simple. Supposedly, a witch had worked a spell and infused it into the candle. As the candle burned, the spell would activate. And when I say there was a wall of them, I mean there was a 6’ x 8’ display! This thing had sections! Candles for getting a new job, keeping your current job, getting a promotion, etc. Candles for finding love, keeping love, breaking up with someone, etc. Candles to win the lottery, find treasure, or just get cold, hard cash! But what made me stop and say a little prayer, was the fact that these candles I’ve listed were not selling. The ones that were selling were things like a candle to find comfort after the death of a loved one, to repair broken relationships, to make rent by the end of the month. The candles that were selling were candles for folks who were hurting and were looking for peace, looking for community.

Obviously, Trunk-or-Treat won’t help folks get a promotion or help them win the lottery. Putting a ticket from one of our games in the heel of your shoe isn’t going to help you win a court case. But for a couple hours this Saturday, we can offer folks a sense of peace and joy. We can offer them community and let them know they are loved. Not through candles or “spells” or anything like that. But through loving others, knowing that God has always loved us.

Happy Halloween,
Pastor Ben

The Bounty of Fall

Brothers and sisters,

There’s a lot going on right now. At the church, we’re planning events like the Trunk-or-Treat happening on October 28th from 4:30-6:30 p.m. We’re also planning a Deacon Ordination service on Sunday, October 29th during morning worship. On top of that, the choir is in the thick of rehearsing Christmas music for Advent and Christmas (did you realize the first Sunday of Advent is only eight Sundays away?).

Within the wider North Carolina community, college football is in full swing with Duke and UNC both looking good. The State Fair is coming to town this week and bringing all the buzz, the hubbub, and fried food that comes with it — though I must admit the crazy food offerings this year are a little lackluster. We’re also in the midst of a string of beautiful weather with perfect temperatures, picturesque skies, and the slightest hints of red, yellow, and orange beginning to show on the leaves.

On the national level, you can walk into any Starbucks and see the overwhelming number of options for how you’d like pumpkin spice in your coffee, with my favorite being the Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew. Or you can turn on any news channel and be treated to a bounty of news stories about how Taylor Swift has taken over the NFL. That includes so many reporters, analysts, and pundits trying to work one of the lyrics from a Taylor Swift song into a pun for their story. And, frankly, most of them should’ve said “No” to doing it.

It feels like a time of bounty and abundance. Summer is wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but to me there’s something magical about the fall. It feels like the whole world is relaxing. We’re all cozying up with coffee or tea for warm nights in or we’re putting on jeans and light jackets to experience the crisp in the air. This doesn’t even begin to touch on all the foods that come with fall which I’ve seen more and more people deeming the beginning of “soup season.” To me, it’s the time of year that just feels right.

In the midst of all of that, I think about the abundance and the bounty of who God is. Last Wednesday night, we talked about what God chooses to do with all God’s power. Specifically, we talked about it in the context of Philippians 2:6-11, where Paul says that Jesus did not see his power as something to be exploited. And so, what does God choose to do with pow-er? God chose to create. When we get outside and enjoy these calm days filled with crisp air, gentle sunshine, and beautifully colored leaves, we see what God does with power. When we gather together with our friends and family, people who have been made by God in God’s image, we see what God does with power. When we come together as a church to worship God, to reach out to others, and to be a positive influence in our world, we see what God does with power. God creates. God liberates. God sets things right. Now and evermore.

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

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