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

Brothers and sisters,

Here we are at the end of the year—and what a year it has been! There have been ups and downs, twists and turns, things expected and plenty of things unexpected! But for this week’s issue of The Illuminator, I wanted to take some time and just talk about some of the many things we’ve done together as a church family.

In the year 2021—or at least in my eight months here—we have been incredibly dedicated to reaching out and helping our neighbors. We have collected all kinds of non-perishable foods to take over to our neighbors in McDougald Terrace, maintaining that ministry throughout the summer, and staving off hunger for dozens of kids when schools were not able to. We have collected food for the Yates Food Pantry, feeding people all over Durham. We have collected money for the Global Missions Offering. We adopted a family for Christmas this year and provided that family with three cars full of presents. We collected school supplies for teachers and provided them with gift cards to purchase more supplies for the children at Park-wood Elementary.

In the year 2021, we have been able to bring back wonderful moments of worship and of fellowship. We’ve been able to worship God together as a church family, celebrating special moments within the church calendar. We have spent time in fellowship with one another drinking lemonade and eating cookies during the warmer months. We just got through with a month of special services in which we hung the greens, ordained deacons, cried out to God in lament, sang the story of the Gospel, and welcomed the Christ Child once again. We’ve found ways, even in the midst of a global pandemic, to worship God in fullness and in truth.

In the year 2021, we’ve taken in several refugees, giving them a safe place to stay and find their footing here in America. We’ve built relationships with them and with other churches who also want to help refugees. We’ve had our first big public event since the pandemic began, with nearly two-hundred people coming to our Trunk-or-Treat. We’ve built a relationship with CBF Field Personnel in Kentucky and helped provide Christmas presents for children and teens in one of the poorest counties in our country.

And of course, I can only say that “we” did all this because on May 1 of this year, I officially began my time as your Senior Pastor. After months of emails, phone calls, interviews, a Bible Study, and a trial sermon, we agreed to partner together in ministry. I’m excited about all the things we’ve managed to do together so far and I look forward to the coming year as we continue to figure out what God would have us do for our community. The opportunities to serve God are endless and I look forward to making the most of those opportunities with you all in the future. My prayer for us all, as we move into 2022, is that we will continue to seek God and God’s will. As long as we do that, we will be able to honestly say that we have remained faithful to the call God has placed on all our lives.

Grace and peace to you all,
Pastor Ben

Advent!

Brothers and sisters,

Here we are—Advent! This is a wonderful time in the church year where we take time to actively wait for Jesus. We take time to hope for his arrival once again, to believe that his presence in our world changed our world. Advent is this deeply meaningful season of the church year where take time to contemplate what it means for God to have taken on flesh, to walk among us, to live the kind of life we live. It is a season for reflection and contemplation and anticipation.

Now, the way that typically plays out in American culture is that the lead-up to Christmas is a time of busyness. Commercials on TV tell us how many shopping days are left till Christmas. We see characters in commercials, shows, and holiday specials rushing through crowded malls, desperate to get the right present for their loved one. This season is crowded with Christmas parties and special events within the community. It ends up feeling hectic, as we go from one obligation to another.

This year at Hope Valley, we want to help cut through that busyness. We want to provide services that you are welcome to come to and hear the good news of this season—that Christ is coming, and that is enough! We want to provide services that offer words of hope, peace, joy, and love, in the midst of all the busyness! So, I wanted to take time in this week’s Illuminator to explain what these services are trying to accomplish.

The first of these is the Service of Lament happening on Wednesday, December 15th at 6:30 PM in our sanctuary. Christmas is a time of the year when we are often encouraged to focus only on the joy this season can bring. But some of us are carrying grief into the holidays with us. Perhaps you’ve lost someone this year. Perhaps a relationship has been strained or you’re just not feeling joyful right now. The Service of Lament seeks to create a space for all of us to come together, as a church family, and name those burdens we’re carrying, as well as help others carry theirs. Our second special service this year is called, “Sing We Now of Christmas”, and it will be on Sunday, December 19th at 5:00 PM in our sanctuary. I’m excited for this service! Kathryn and the musicians at our church have planned and prepared a wonderful evening filled with songs and scripture that seek to capture the joy and wonder of the Christmas season. It is a service where you will be able to come and hear the gospel in both word and music, as we prepare for the birth of our Savior.
Finally, we will be having a Christmas Eve Candlelight and Communion Service on Friday, December 24th at 5:00 PM here in our sanctuary. I love this service because it provides an opportunity to see our church family and experience the joy of Christmas together. At this service, we’ll take Communion as a re-minder of God’s love for us and we’ll light candles as a reminder to take the light of Christ into the world, a light which the darkness could not overcome.

We invite you to come to any and all of these services. They are designed to help each of us reconnect with God as we move through Advent together. They are meant to be times of respite in the busyness of the holidays. At these services, you will hear about the love of God, the presence of God, and the miraculous grace of God. You will not hear how many shop-ping days till Christmas or that if you order over $100 worth of stuff you can get FREE SHIPPING, but only if you order right now! You will hear a good word from a good God—thanks be to God!

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

Brothers and sisters,

Believe it or not, we are less than three weeks away from the beginning of Advent! It amazes me how, each year, November just seems to melt away. Regardless, we’ve got a lot of really exciting services coming up throughout the rest of the year. This coming Sunday, November 14, will be the close of our sermon series, “We Are How We Eat.” Then the next Sunday, November 21, will be Christ the King Sunday, a day on which we celebrate the royal, regal nature of Christ’s character. The Sunday after that, November 28, is the First Sunday of Advent—the Sunday of Hope—and our Hanging of the Greens Service. I’m excited for this Advent season. I’m excited for this season of preparation as we await the celebration of Christ’s birth. I’m excited for the simple fact that this is our first Advent together! In another part of the Illuminator we’ve printed the schedule of services for the Advent season with times so everyone can be sure to make plans to be here for those services.

As we move closer to the season of Advent, I did want to go on and tell you all about our Advent and Christmas sermon series, “Incredible”. I know that may sound like an underwhelming title for a series, but as I sat here and thought about the different passages we’re going to look at, the different people we’ll meet, and the way that God brings it all together, the only word that kept coming to mind was, “Incredible.” And for this sermon series, I want us to think of the word incredible in all its different meanings. Most of the time, when you hear the word in-credible you think of something being great, right? Krispy Kreme Doughnuts? Incredible! The Sound of Music? Incredible! Spending time with loved ones? Incredible! And I do think that applies to the season of Advent as well. The Savior of the world is coming? Incredible!

But the word incredible also means, “difficult or impossible to believe; too extraordinary and improbable to be believed.” And as we read through the passages I’ve chosen for this sermon series, I think you’ll find that the people in these stories believed that what they were hearing was incredible too. It was impossible to think that this was happening. The plan God was setting in motion was too improbable, too unlikely to work. And yet, time and again, we see the people have faith. We see people trust in God. And, of course, we know that doing incredible things—that’s God’s specialty. So I want us to take some time this Advent to think of the incredible things God has done for humanity. I also want us to take some time to think of the incredible things God has done for each of us.

This will be the last Illuminator before Thanksgiving, so I would encourage you to think about these things over the Thanksgiving holiday as well. What are the things you’re thankful for? What are the things God has done that amaze you? How can you do something incredible for your friends, your family, your neighbors?

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

An Opportunity …

Brothers and sisters,
As I’m writing this article, our church is preparing for our Trunk-or-Treat this Saturday, October 30 (from 4:30-6:30 if you’re reading this ahead of time and want to come!). There is candy in the office. There are pumpkins and scarecrows scattered around the church. There is a wonderful chill in the air and the trees are at this wonderful stage of half-green, half-turned leaves. It feels like the week of Halloween. It feels like something fun and exciting is coming!

I mentioned in an earlier Illuminator article that I love fall and everything that comes with it. In particular, I enjoy Halloween. I love the feeling of mystery and suspense that comes with the holiday. I love the mischief in the air. I love to read some ghost stories and watch a scary movie. But I also love some of the themes that come along with Halloween. It is a holiday that brings up the ideas of life and death. It reminds us that there is still mystery and wonder in our world. And it also can remind us of the communities to which we belong. Over the last few years, I’ve taken an interest in the history of Halloween, particularly where some of the traditions of the holiday come from. Perhaps the most famous tradition, I would argue, is trick-or-treating.

Interestingly, scholars are not sure where exactly trick-or-treating came from. There are some traditions from hundreds of years ago that might be the origin, but those were more focused on cakes and singing hymns. Some say that it comes from concerned homeowners trying to appease pranksters, i.e. “I’ll give you a treat if you don’t play a trick on me.” But most scholars seem to think that trick-or-treating came about during the Great Depression, when money was tight for families all over the country. Their children still wanted to celebrate Halloween and have a night of fun, but not everyone could afford to provide big meals for their own families all on their own. So, neighbors each agreed to make one little treat that they would pass out to any children that came by their door. That way, even though individual households did not have much, the neighborhood could come together to bless their children.

To me, that’s a wonderful way to look at a holiday like Halloween—as a community-driven effort to care about our neighbors. It is a holiday on which we can provide a small blessing to our neighbors, our friends and families, and even complete strangers. It is a time of the year in which we can remember that we are called to be in an authentic community with people, finding creative ways to love them. Halloween can serve as a time of year when we think back to the communities that came before us and shaped us, to the communities that loved us—and be thankful. It can serve as a time of year to bless those around us. And it can serve as a wonderful reminder that those children coming to our doors (or our trunks this Saturday, October 30 from 4:30-6:30 in the church parking lot!), will remember the time that total strangers cared for them. They will remember the time when church people loved them and gave them candy. So, let’s take this opportunity to bless them. Let’s come together and show our community how much we care. Happy Halloween, y’all!

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben

Time Together

Brothers and sisters,
As I write this article, I’m preparing to go on vacation with my family. I’m working on getting volunteers lined up to lead the different parts of the worship service on the 17th. I’m thinking about what all I need to purchase before I go to the beach, with sunscreen being priority number one! And I’m thinking about what all my family and I will do once we
get to the beach. But there’s another thing on my mind as well.

Today is my friend’s birthday! I would imagine most of you have, at some point, heard me talk about my friend Dustin. Well, today he turns thirty-three! Dustin is one of my closest friends, but also one of my oldest friends. We met twenty-five years ago, around this time of year, when he invited me to his eighth birthday party. Since then, he and I have grown up together and have experienced so much of life together. Back in high school, we spent plenty of Saturdays with friends playing games, swimming, and eating pizza.

We’ve struggled through classes in middle and high school together. We’ve been there for each other when family members have died and relationships have ended. We’ve celebrated huge moments in our careers with each other—my graduation from Duke Divinity and his passing of the Professional Engineer Exam.

But when I think about my friendship with Dustin, one of the first things that jumps to mind is our time together in college. Dustin and I were roommates for two years at Carolina before he transferred to NC State to pursue a degree in Environmental Engineering. Even though we were roommates most of our time in the dorm room was spent studying or working on homework. Because of that, we started intentionally carving out time each week to have lunch together at a restaurant on Franklin Street. We would meet up somewhere on campus each week and then make our way to any number of restaurants—Mama Dip’s, Bon’s, Franklin Street Pizza and Pasta, Los Potrillos, B-Ski’s, etc. It was a wonderful time when we could get away from the stress of classes and just be present with each other, catching up on how things were going. Regardless of how stressful our schedules were, we would find time to share a meal together. We could take time to rest and encourage each other, even when we were tired and stressed.

So often in the scriptures, whenever food is mentioned, it serves to bring people together. It gives the people in the Bible a moment of respite, to breathe and reconnect. Sometimes they reconnect with each other. Sometimes they re-connect with God. Meals end up serving as precious moments in the gospels where Jesus can speak to people about the eternal love that God has for them. When Abraham entertains the angels of the Lord unaware, he does so with food, and he is able to build an unshakeable bond with God. When the prophets envision the heavens, they envision meals that are served at tables where everyone has a seat. God knows human beings very well. God knows that when we take time to break bread with each other, we build community with other people. God knows that we need community and God knows that the communities we build can endure all kinds of issues. The communities we build can withstand the test of time and enrich our lives. Every one of the restaurants I mentioned earlier, except Mama Dip’s, has gone out of business. But the connection Dustin and I built over meals in those restaurants continues. I’m grateful for those meals and for that time together.

Grace and peace to you all,
Pastor Ben

One of My Favorite Times of the Year …

Brothers and sisters,

I am excited for the sermon series we’re going to be starting this Sunday. We are moving into one of my favorite times of the year—fall! I really do love just about everything about this season. I love the crispness in the air. I love the return of football. I love the changing colors of the leaves. If I’m honest, I even kind of love how we get a pumpkin-spice version of everything! But perhaps my favorite thing about the fall is the food that comes along with the season. I love making a pot of chili for my friends and inviting them to carve pumpkins with me on Halloween. I love hot coffee on a Saturday morning when it’s cold out and the sun is shining. I love Thanksgiving and the incredible spread of food my mother prepares each year.

What does all this have to do with our upcoming sermon series, though? Over the next seven weeks, we are going to be taking a look at several different passages in the Bible in which food plays a critical role in the story. The Bible is filled with food imagery and stories and visions of meals. Food is a constant presence and a constant source of nourishment and sustenance for God’s people. But why focus on food (other than the fact that we Baptists love to eat!)? I want us to take some time to focus on the food in the Bible because of how basic food really is. Food nourishes our bodies. It gives us strength to meet each day. Food can also nourish our souls. How many of us have a favorite dish, something that just makes us feel good when we eat it? Food nourishes our communities. It brings people together to share a common meal, to share the stories of their lives, to share their culture and their heritage. Food ends up binding us to other people and to the rest of Creation. We are reminded, every time we eat, that we are de-pendent upon the wondrous bounty of God’s Creation to survive. Food reminds us of our place in God’s grander plans.

Finally, perhaps most importantly, food reminds us of the kind of love that God has for us and the kind of love we ought to have for one another. It takes time to prepare a meal for someone else. It takes intention on each of our parts to do that. We have to spend time and money planning the meal and purchasing ingredients. We spend time and effort cleaning, chopping, stirring, seasoning, tasting, seasoning again, and plating. All to let someone know we care about them. And there are so many moments in the scriptures where we see God doing similar things. We will see God break bread and provide for God’s people. We will watch God multiply scant resources in the midst of a drought. We will see God care for people through food and rest. We’ll even catch a glimpse of God’s table and see what the Lord will lay out for all of us one day. All these beautiful images of God, these wonderful under-standings of God’s love and God’s character—they all involve food. I’m looking forward to the next seven weeks. I hope you all will as well!

Grace and peace,
Pastor Ben