Word of the Week

One question I've gotten recently is "Why haven't you changed the name of your blog?"

The official title of my blog is Preacher on the Plaza. I started this blog back in January 2009 (back when not everyone and their brother had a blog) when I became the pastor of Washington Plaza Baptist (WPBC) in Reston, VA. This church sat as the centerpiece of a commercial/ residential district of Lake Anne with our next door neighbors being a coffee shop, a real estate branch office and a Thai restaurant. (What fun, right?) Hence the name-- Preacher on the Plaza--- I was the only "preacher" on Lake Anne Plaza.

On my last Sunday at WPBC, I was given a couple of gifts. One of them was a binder full of my blogs printed out (remember the 2012 election joke about binders?). It was a funny yet appropriate gift. The congregation knew me well. They knew how much I loved writing and sharing the story of our little church with the larger community. They knew the blogs I'd written during my tenure with them meant something.

Though blogs are not meant to become doctrinal statements or even be the kind of thoughts shared that you'll always go back to years later-- I kind of like having these binders in my closet as a way to remember WPBC and their thoughtfulness.

So, when January 2013 rolled around, I thought about changing the name of this site. A chapter in the life had ended, you know. I was no longer "the preacher on Lake Anne Plaza." One day, there would be another pastor to care for this group of people I loved so much. Maybe he or she would want to be "the preacher on the plaza?"

But somehow I just couldn't change the name. The title had become a part of what I was and who I was in the process of becoming.
I decided to remain "Preacher on the Plaza" for two reasons:

1. In this current phase of life, God seemed to be calling me to be a pastor who was "on the plazas" of life (as I always seem to be somewhere that wasn't where I was the week before). I would not pastor a traditional church, but I would be out among the people where I found myself seeking opportunities to engage others in the deeper stories of life. The plazas of this world would be my new ministry. And I would need to write about them.

2. The church that made me their "Preacher on the Plaza" gave me my voice. One of the greatest gift my tenure at WPBC gave me was confidence in the leader/ teacher/ preacher I was made to be. I tell the truth when I say NEVER did WPBC ask me to be any less than who I was-- a rarity among churches these days. I actually think they would have been ill at me as a congregation if I'd backed down to be any less than I was. In keeping the name "Preacher on the Plaza" for my blog, it's my way of paying tribute to this wonderful congregation that empowered me in my becoming and having a piece of them always with me.

So, thanks for reading, oh faithful blog readers. Thanks for being on this journey with me-- this journey that I often have no idea where it is going from day-to-day.

I look forward to possibly visiting a plaza near you sometime soon!

Resurrection Unfolding: Openness
Acts 11:1-18
Preached at Broadneck Baptist Church, Annapolis, MD

I don’t know about you, but it is easy for me to think at certain points of my own story of faith that I have “arrived” at what is the right way. That I’ve finally had enough education, enough life experience, enough personal reflection to make a sound judgment on what I believe on a particular issue is right.

I’ve talked to enough people.

I’ve read enough books.

I’ve been in church long enough. My mind is made up and that’s that.

Before I entered seminary in the summer of 2003 one such moment in my life occurred. I had figured out, or so I thought at the time, the only “proper” or “theologically sound way” to talk about God.

All of this came about thanks to a new friend introducing me to a new genre of books: feminism. These new books I began reading described the world in ways I’d never heard of during my 20+ years of growing up in small, Southern Baptist centric Tennessee towns.

In my childhood church, when we prayed, we always prayed to our “Heavenly Father” called God “He” and if you really wanted to be seen as extra holy, you’d be sure to capitalize in writing any pronoun reference for God.

But after reading and discussing texts new to me like Sue Monk Kidd’s Dance of the Dissent Daughter, I believed I’d arrived at an epiphany. I’d been taught all wrong. No, no. Never again would I pray to God in male dominate language. Never again would I use the word “He” to refer to God. God wasn’t a man or a woman after all—I believed so why did we refer to God as such?

As part of my new personal practice of referencing God without a gender association, I simultaneously started looking down on those who weren’t as “enlightened” as me. I don’t believe such was intentional. Or even such thoughts often left the confines of my brain.

But, because I’d made up my mind on this—openness to others was out of the realm of possibilities.

In fact, one time, I dared to correct my husband’s dinnertime prayer, in which addressed God as, “Heavenly Father.” Later, I reminded him in my serious preacher tone of voice: “If he was going to say father than he needed to say mother too.” You can imagine how well that went over and I’ve barely since lived such down (the prayer criticizing incident as we now refer to it as)—not one of the shinning star days of our married life for sure …

But is this what growing in our faith is really supposed to look like? Illumination that puffs us up with self-righteousness and isolates others who may think or have a different experience of God than we do? Is this what resurrection unfolding in our lives becomes?

I know that for these past four weeks, Pastor Abby has been helping you stick closely to the idea of resurrection as a season, of resurrection as something that is not a one-time experience, but something that unfolds and finds resonance in surprising ways over time. And such is certainly the case with our resurrection story for today.

In Acts 11, we find a story that asked Peter and asks us, as readers, today to reconsider how open we are to the fresh wind of the Spirit moving among us. Especially as the Spirit’s wind moves through our most cherished set of religious, spiritual, Biblical, or whatever you want to call them beliefs—and says:

Why are you excluding those who believe differently from you?

And, what might you learn about God if you include them?

What I find most interesting about Acts 11 is that it is not the first time we’ve heard the details of the interaction between Peter and Cornelius. Probably the tale you’ve most heard read of this story (if you’ve heard it before) comes from the Acts 10.

In Acts 10 we learn that Peter—the disciple of Jesus, Peter—has a vision while he is on the roof praying. In this vision he see the heavens being opened and a something like a large sheet coming down from heaven full of all kinds of animals. And Peter, hears a voice saying, a voice he believes to be the Lord: “Get up, Peter. Kill and Eat.”

Such a directive did not seem to Peter to be of the Lord. For this word of “eat whatever kind of meat you’d like” went against everything he’d believed to be true about purity.

And not just the kind of purity for purity sake, but prescribed words from the Torah, words that told generations of Jews what relationship with God entailed. There was just no way that the Lord would ask him to associate with people like that!

But after asking the Lord again, Peter receives confirmation that he’d indeed heard correctly. And before Peter could over think his way out of his vision, several men from the household of Cornelius, a non-Jew (who also just had a vision from the Lord about making contact with Peter) showed up. These Gentile men asked Peter and his friends to journey with them to Caesarea.

Peter goes, shares the gospel with this non-Jewish crowd at the home of Cornelius, and as a result the Holy Spirit comes upon all those who gathered. And, then, Peter could not deign that God loved these kinds of people with whom he had previously kept at arm’s length. Peter saw new life coming to this family before his eyes! Soon a baptismal service was in order to make it all official.

In this life altering moment, Peter proclaimed: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”

But by time we get to the re-telling of the story in Acts 11 (where Cornelius’ name is not even mentioned specially by the way), we find Peter giving testimony to how this experience opened him up.

For word was getting back to Jerusalem and the established religious guard were upset: Jews eating with Gentiles? No way! If the purity laws were out, in the way of Christ, what was next? As is true of most conversations like this, fear paralyzed.

Yet, in the midst of it, what was Peter going to say for himself?

What follows is not an argumentative debate or even a lecture in proof texting the Torah, rather it is Peter, in a very pastoral way, in a very loving and patient way telling his story of what the movement of resurrection had looked like in his life.

He brings the conversation back to Jesus—how Jesus taught his followers that after he left the earth, the Holy Spirit would be given, the Spirit that would lead this followers in all things.

Peter gives personal witness to the fact that his heart and mind changed. Saying, in the way of resurrection there’s one sign that emerges as guide and that is: the Holy Spirit.

Peter speaks boldly in verse 17 when he says, “If then God gave them (referring to the Gentile believers) the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

Or, in other words, “Listen fellas, if the Spirit is a work, you can’t discrimmate. You have to accept. You have to be open to what resurrection looks like even if it is nothing like you’ve ever considered before.”

The believers at Cornelius’ house certainly had the Spirit, and for this, Peter explained to the Jerusalem leaders that openness was unavoidable.

The first time I ever preached a sermon on the Peter and Cornelius story, I was a new full-time pastor as an associate. I had to wait my turn to preach and it when it was finally my turn to speak, I wanted it to be good—piercing, really hitting a home run. When I found out that Acts 10 was the lectionary on that day, I was thrilled. I was thrilled because I knew this text would give me the opportunity to call out the congregation on all the ways I felt their actions did not show openness to the gospel. It was a home-run in the making: for I had so much to say!

But, looking back on it now, I think the particularities of what I defined as “openness” mostly missed the point. For, when I re-read this sermon again this week, I realized that I preached a message that was in line with beliefs that held true for me at that time—acceptance of people I accepted, theology of people I believed in, and acknowledgment of doubts I had already explored in my own life. I hoped the sermon would encourage the congregation to be more like me.

But is this really what openness to the Spirit is all about? Converting people to believe exactly as you do?

Anne Lamott has become famous for saying: “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

And it’s true, isn’t it? While it is easy to create an agenda that you think is the “proper way” or the “right way” or the most “theologically astute way,” it’s not always the God way.

The Spirit really cares little for all our nonsensical categories.

The Spirit really cares little for who we think was made more beautifully in God’s image.

The Spirit really has no time to waste on those who can be approved by church councils and denominational boards for who has the most pristine theological pedigree.

The Spirit lives and moves and breathes in all kinds of people . . . even people, from our perspective, that we find very little common ground with actually often it is the Spirit moves in people we don’t agree with very much.

Professor Roberta Bondi of Emory University Divinity School says in her volume, To Pray and to Love this about being open to the Spirit in one another: “the goal of life . . . if you want to live by love is not to live by principles . . . rather relationship.”

Of course this doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when living as God people in a particular community as you are doing here that you won’t need to be prescriptive or prophetic. Or that principles of faith don’t matter. Or that there won’t be times when the church will discern together on something and not every one will come along 100% and relationships will suffer.

But, it does mean that as we are open to the Spirit, our theology will shift as we grow and the people in whom we converse with about our faith to might just shift too. And, our church has to reflect this kind of growth.

Rather than sticking with labels people place on our faith or our communities like, “progressive” or “conservative” or “justice centric” or “evangelistic” we’ve got to be ready to move with the Spirit, even if there isn’t a label for what exactly it means.

I don’t know what kind of people in your life you have trouble seeing the Spirit of God in or welcoming in your community—

-people who strongly support a political party you don’t belong to

-people who make poorer driving decisions in the car than you do

-people who live in neighborhoods you don’t feel comfortable in

-people who live in regions of this world you don’t like too much

-people who worship with louder or softer voices than you prefer

But, regardless, we are all called out on our exclusive behavior of one kind or another and asked us to be open to the new.

For me today, if push came to shovel and you asked me how I prayed, I’d tell you I rarely use male language for God- as I have since 2003. But, I have been gently led the Spirit over the years, in particular in the last year to be more inclusive in conversation with those who do. After all, Jesus calls God His Father throughout the Gospels . . .

Not only does this make family mealtimes more nurturing and loving environment for both Kevin and me too, but it opens me up to learnings about God that I might miss if I am too stuck on the “proper way.” And, it has given me some friends back and let me to new ones too—friends that might not call God the same thing I do, but who are full of the Spirit with much to teach.

In a world of words flying across the internet and on cable tv about why this party or this type of person or this kind of church is bad for believing or doing a certain thing, what a resurrection it could be if we let the Spirit unfold in us direction.

If we let the Spirit unfold in us expanding wisdom

If we let the Spirit unfold beyond labels we place on ourselves or others

If we let the Spirit unfold in us renewed community

If we let the Spirit unfold in us most of all, love.

Give Us a New Name!

John 20:19-31

What’s in a name? Does it really matter what we are called? Anyone been called the wrong name lately-- even if the person didn't mean any harm by it? Such a situation can bring out all the frustrations in our bodies, can't it? The names we give ourselves and we are given by others are important and often change the trajectories of our lives.

Start a conversation with an expectant parent who just found out the gender of their child and you'll find one obsession on their minds: the name. No wonder expecting parents often time spend hours flipping through those “1001 Names” books, looking for just that right “feel” of a name for their new son or daughter. They want to give their child the best and most meaningful name they can. Names matter!

As for me, even though my name is one that is popularly shortened or modified, I've never liked being called anything other than Elizabeth. Even though I hear names of others sometimes that sound pretty or more interesting than my own and even went through a phase in college where I wanted to be addressed as Liz (but it never stuck)—Elizabeth is just who I am, like it or not. I imagine many of you might feel the same about your name as well. We are who we are called.

But, beyond the names we are all given at birth, we are also given descriptive names  that often say a lot about who we are too. We might have been known as the “the smart one” or the “pretty one” or the “athletic one.” We cling to these positive descriptions of our selves-- claiming their complete worth, shaping our becoming through all our growing up years.

Then, there are those names which speak to our less than stellar moments which stick to us like post-its that we can never seem to find a way to get off our backs, no matter how hard we try. Names like “the cry baby”, “the dumb blond” or even “the black sheep of the family” follow us too. Even though these names come to us sometimes because of one person’s moment of stupidity or insensitivity, such names haunt us in pain and frustration any time we recall them. We always remember the time when we were called ___ as much as we'd like to forget.

In our gospel lesson for this morning, we are met by a disciple of Christ who also has a name lurking around him, although he is never called this by Jesus or anyone else in the text. You all know his name. If I say Thomas, you think________. (Doubter) It's hard to complete a sentence with Biblical Thomas in it without the name, doubter descriptor isn't it?

We remember Thomas by this famous scene in John’s gospel of Thomas refusing to believe that Jesus was risen until he saw and put his finger the marks of the nails in his hands and in his side.

Even though scripture gives him another name Didymus which means literally “The Twin,” we don’t think of Thomas by the name his momma provided; rather, we call Thomas: Thomas the Doubter or the Doubting One. And while Thomas’ nickname: the Doubter was much better than the other disciple we have nicknamed: Judas as the Traitor, I imagine that if I did a pre-sermon quiz this morning, few of us would rank Thomas in among our top five on a “Best of Jesus’ Disciples” list.

We remember Thomas for his name of "doubter." Because of his moment of doubt as recorded in John, Thomas would be remembered for his failure, not his later moment of belief.

But, I offer you this morning that in calling Thomas the doubter and dismissing his significance from the gospel means we are really missing an opportunity to get to know this faith hero and a confession of faith that we as resurrection people can model our church after. Maybe, we need to give Thomas a new name in history.

Let’s first consider the scene. On Easter evening, the disciples (minus Judas who has died and Thomas who is for some unknown reason away from them) are locked in a room scared out of their pants, hoping that the religious leaders won’t come to arrest and crucify them like they did to Jesus.

Mary Magdalene knocks on their door sometime that afternoon and to tell them what seems like a ridiculous story. She claims she had “seen the Lord” alive at the tomb.

Yet the disciples are seemingly unmoved by her testimony and continue to stay locked in their upper room. And then when evening falls, the risen Christ comes and stands in the midst of the disciples saying “Peace to you.” Jesus SHOWS them his hands and his side and breathes on them the gift of the Holy Spirit and departs yet again.  It was quite a moment of resurrection before their eyes.

The obvious problem is that Thomas is not there. Thomas does not see Jesus. And when he returns and hears the great story of what has transpired, he makes a particular request in verse 25:

"Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe."

I stop here to point out that while Thomas asked for proof, to see Jesus’ wounds for himself: he only wanted a viewing of what the other disciples had already seen. It was not more “doubtful” than any of the other of the 10.

In fact, it is important to note that the disciples had received similar testimony from Mary Magdalene before seeing Jesus for themselves but didn’t believe just like Thomas.

So, if we were playing the blame game, we would need to call out all of the disciples as doubters. Thomas was not alone in wanting to see for himself.

As the story continues we realize that a week later all of the disciples (including Thomas) were again the room with the doors shut. Jesus comes to speak explicitly to Thomas. What is most interesting about this part of our text is the interchange between Jesus and Thomas after proof is offered—notice with me again verse 27. Jesus tells Thomas to “Reach out your hand and put in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” A better translation of the last part of this verse would read: “Do not be unbelieving but believing.” To which Thomas replies in complete belief saying: “My Lord and My God.”

And, I dare say  in this confession that a transformative work took place Thomas: he was a new man, empowered by the fact that his faith came from not merely seeing Jesus, but professing his fully name.

And in these five words, Thomas makes the greatest confession of Christ found in all the entire Gospel of John, saying not only that Jesus was Lord, but that he was God incarnate! In fact, this is the only time any disciple of Christ “gets” him enough to link his identity with God. Thomas, thus, provides the Gospel of John with its bookend.  Just as the gospel began with the statement: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” Thomas rightly names Jesus as the Word, God who was and is the great I AM. And in naming Jesus as God, Thomas gave the church a  statement of faith, saying what it meant to have life in the resurrection power of Jesus’ name. Who are we asked to call the Resurrected one? My Lord and My God! Just as Thomas did!

Consider the rest of the story taken from one chapter over in John 21. We find Thomas again at a crucial moment of faith. He’s out fishing with the boys when Jesus comes to meet them. Through being there, Thomas became one of the key witnesses at this crucial appearance final appearance of Jesus in the book. Thomas gets a second chance. Moreover, according to historical tradition, Thomas goes on to proclaim this name of Jesus throughout his life. He becomes a Christian missionary in India in fact, risking his life to bring the gospel to those who had never heard.

Thus, in the case of Thomas— how he NAMED Christ in our text for today became not only a catalyst for the message of the John’s Gospel to go forth but his personal sense of mission too. Thomas received power from the name of Jesus that empowered his own name, his own life and his own purpose for living.

As people of the resurrection, how is our confession of Jesus as Savior and as Lord-- just as Mary modeled before us this morning-- going to change our names too? How might our association, our dependence on the name of Jesus shape everything we say and do as a community?

In a small North Carolina town where I once served as a pastoral intern in seminary, I once overheard a conversation that struck a nerve in me and I've never forgotten. At a local diner, two men sharing a relaxed conversation over a cup of coffee. I was "trying" to study my Greek verb flash cards two booths away for an upcoming exam, but got distracted.

I knew the first gentleman in the booth. He was a regular attendee at my church, though he didn't remember meeting me. I began to listen in when the second gentleman loudly offered to the first that he hadn't been to church in years. Going on to say with a big bite of a donut in his mouth: "There's no difference between membership at a church and country club."

"How so?" my church member asked.

The non-church attendee said both groups had dining halls were people gathered to eat.

Both had Sunday worship services of sorts- the churches in sanctuaries and the country clubs on the golf courses (singing praises to the best golfers of the day).

And who serves in leadership positions, he said, at each often have a lot to do with race and family position-- "For you just don't go to any church or any country club and become President," he noted. "There's a selective process." And he concluded by offering, "So why do you want me to come to your church again? I think the country club route would be more fun and without the guilt."

And in response, my church member said nothing. And said nothing. My jaw dropped a little as I observed the silence.

(Silently, I cheered the church member on in my head, trying to give him messages of delightful things to say about how much he loved our gatherings (and my sermons of course), what a difference a relationship with Jesus had made in his life, and how I knew being part of a church community had brought him closer to his wife and his grandkids who recently joined the choir)

But, none of my seminal messages worked it seemed. Finally, the gentleman who was my church member spoke and added that the golf course did sound more fun so he might try it out the next Sunday. What???

As part of the internship, I shared weekly mentoring sessions with the senior pastor. I couldn't wait to tell him about what I heard at the diner. I expected the pastor to respond in outrage to what I'd heard, promising me that he'd put on his holy high shoes and give the congregation a talking to about their evangelism practices the next Sunday. But, he didn't seem as outraged as I had hoped. And he didn't start condemning the congregation from the pulpit the next week either. But he did tell me that he'd have a special message to offer.

But, he got into the pulpit the next week claimed one simple point: Jesus is Lord.

He said that naming Jesus as Lord was what we as a church needed to keep claiming and claiming and claiming again for why it was we did everything. He challenged us all to take this name-- even if it was brand new for some of us-- and place it as a banner over all aspects of our lives.

When nursery workers changed diapers, washed little hands and played with play dough  in children's Sunday School, do so in the name of Jesus being Lord.

When volunteers show up to clean the gutters or wash the pews on church work days, do so in the name of Jesus being Lord.

When we sing hymns, and pray prayers and give our tithes and our offerings, do so in the name of Jesus being Lord.

When we decided what to make, prepared and set out our covered dishes for church lunches, do so in the name of Jesus being Lord.

And say it with me, whatever we do and wherever go in the future as a community, we do so with the name of Jesus as Lord going first.

And what wisdom this was! To join for worship each Sunday in the name of Christ, we are given an entirely way of existing in this community which speaks to EVERYTHING that we do.

And while sure, there will always be those who "don't get it" who don't understand why centering ourselves in God and in community is worth it, we keep going. We keep teaching the children. We keep washing the windows. We keep making the Sunday meals. We keep saying the name. We keep professing Jesus as Lord, in the footsteps of our dear brother Thomas, believing, trusting that this confession of faith connects us now and forevermore with the resurrection power we need in this world to make a difference.

Today, the cry of our hearts must be Lord: “Give Us a New Name.” For there is no other way than in the name of Christ that we or our church can go forward in God’s mission to the world. Our own name just won’t do. So, come Lord Jesus, give us your name, a name new to some of us for the first time, and to others of us a name we’ve forgotten. Come and teach us how to live in unity with one another as claim together this hour that you are Lord.


Luke 1: 57-66 (CEB)

57When the time came for Elizabeth to have her child, she gave birth to a boy. 58Her neighbors and relatives celebrated with her because they had heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy. 59On the eighth day, it came time to circumcise the child. They wanted to name him Zechariah because that was his father’s name. 60But his mother replied, “No, his name will be John.”

61They said to her, “None of your relatives have that name.”62Then they began gesturing to his father to see what he wanted to call him.

63After asking for a tablet, he surprised everyone by writing, “His name is John.”64At that moment, Zechariah was able to speak again, and he began praising God.

65All their neighbors were filled with awe, and everyone throughout the Judean highlands talked about what had happened. 66All who heard about this considered it carefully. They said, “What then will this child be?” Indeed, the Lord’s power was with him.

Earlier in Luke chapter one, we read that Zechariah was serving his tour of duty of a lifetime in the temple making the offering in the Holy of Holy place. And, it was in the temple that he heard the word of the Lord that was unthinkable to him: he was going to have a son.

According to Jewish tradition at the time, it was expected that the first-born son would carry on the family tradition by receiving the surname of his father.

But, this would not be; for, as unusual as the circumstances of the birth were (Elizabeth and Zechariah were well past childbearing years), the name would be just as unusual. The angel Gabriel said the baby would be named John which means "God has been gracious." And, nine months later came this babe.

So, according to Mosaic law, on the 8th day of life, when the circumcision was to take place, this surprising name choice was made known in the neighborhood too. For when Elizabeth said the baby's name was to be John and Zechariah affirmed the choice, the neighbors who had come to celebrate with them in this ritual practice were surprised. Probably saying something like: "What are they thinking bucking tradition in this manner?" as verse 61 (NSRV) records the response of the onlookers probably spoken in an accusatory tone to this new family of three, "None of your relatives has this name. [John]."

And not only was the actual community surprised at Elizabeth's childbearing abilities and the name given, but the prophecy declared over this newborn child's life.

Verse 66 says about the babe, "for the Lord's hand was with him." And, at this time in scripture history, you just didn't say that about anybody.

For even more than usual,  God was in this birth as answer to prayers like none other. Baby John was called out to play a crucial role in salvation history though the details of it all would be determined over time.

So with the surprise of all of this intact, what does the story say was the response?  Seems like a silly question doesn't it because surprises usually make people happy, make people want to go out of their houses skipping, or make one break out into song like they are living in a musical, right?

But if we consider the full context of Zechariah, this fellow had every reason not to be joyful about this surprise.

Sure, it was great that he finally held that son in his arms that he'd be hoping for. But, in his elder years, if his left brain was turned on, he knew that he probably was not going to live long enough to see his son do all the things every father hoped to experience with his child.  It might have been too old to watch John learn how to throw or chop wood or say words from the Torah by himself much less gotten married. And so Zechariah, could have said, "God if you had just brought me this blessing just a little bit sooner, THEN, I could be happy about it. But, now, I just can't."

Also, Zechariah could have been a poor looser about the choice of name. He finally gets the son he had dreamed about having for years and he doesn't get to name him after himself.  John would not be "marked" as his according to culture, no one would have automatically known he was Zechariah's child. And, so Zechariah could have barked at God saying: "Ok God, don't expect me to happy about it."

And, furthermore, Zechariah, like any proud dad, could have refused celebration because his son was not THE one, God's choose servant-- the Emmanuel God with us that they had all been hoping and praying would arrive. Just like any baseball coach dad or soccer mom, whose son is good but not that good to play on the all-stars team, Zechariah could have complained: "I am glad John is here, but I am not going to thank you for him because, you could have given me more. If you were going to all the trouble to bring about this one miraculously, why could not have my boy been the Messiah?"

But instead of being so uptight and self-seeking in exactly what kind of blessing that God needed to bring him, Zechariah took the path not so widely traveled called joy.

He accepted what he has been given as good. He didn't cling so much to the lost dreams of the past so that he couldn't take in this blessing. And, ultimately he allowed God to bless him so that there was nothing left to do but to sing for joy.

As I read and re-read the words of this Psalm known formally as the Benedictus which follows, what I couldn't help but notice is that the description was not about Zechariah. It wasn't about his son, funny name or not.

And it wasn't about the neighbors who came to coo and woo at the baby. This song of proclamation of a birth was not about any of the typical things you'd expect a first time dad to shout about.

Rather, the joy that Zechariah just had to proclaim was about God.

It was about how God had remembered a people who long thought they were forgotten.

It was about how faith in God could connect the past to the present.

It was about being so full of thanksgiving for God's presence that he just couldn't be held back.

How easy it is this time of year to think that joy comes in packages, that joy comes in the perfect holiday parties or the perfect family memories, but what if we allowed ourselves like Zechariah to be surprised for how the ways of joy led us too?

No matter what we see on the surface of our lives, joy can find us. It can find us if our Christmas tree is big and beautiful or if it looks like Charlie Brown's.

Joy can find us if we bake cookies or we eat store-bought ones.

Joy can find us if we watch "It's a Wonderful Life" for the 20th time or boycott tv altogether.

Joy is not about this season and all its gifts, joy ultimately is about God: the One who gives us hope that our life is greater than just what we see or can even understand right now.

So where are the corners of joy in your life that need to be uncovered? No matter what is going on in your life. No matter how difficult some circumstances are. No matter how out of hope you feel, I know deep down somewhere there is joy to be let loose for God is with us. And so, surprise, joy can find even you!