“When will Jed get his real uniform?” I asked my husband Ben. My fifteen-year-old son Jed joined a newly formed basketball team, and they wore sports pennies over t-shirts for their games. Pennies are flimsy mesh tank tops that coaches often use at practice to divide their players into two teams or a team may wear pennies during a game if both teams have the same color uniforms. They are normally ill fitting and don’t stay on well during game play. So, I was surprised when Ben said, “Actually, the boys have decided they like wearing the pennies. The other teams underestimate them when they show up in the pennies.”
I found this strategy fascinating. The other teams thought our boys could not play well because they weren’t dressed out in custom uniforms. They assumed our team was thrown together haphazardly or spur of the moment. We appeared like the underdogs as we came onto the court even though that was not necessarily the case. And our team wanted to capitalize on that impression. If the other team underestimated us, they might let their guard down. Then, our guys could take advantage of that, seize the momentum, and gain an early lead.
We frequently underestimate ourselves and others. A few years ago, I was quite content to teach the elementary Sunday School class when my oldest kids, Riley and Jed, gave me an ultimatum of sorts. They would go to Sunday School without argument if I taught the youth class. But Riley and Jed didn’t know that I was scared to teach the youth class. I could handle the younger kids, which included our two youngest boys. Tell a Bible story, lead them in a craft – I could do that. I worried that I wouldn’t connect with the youth. I feared they wouldn’t take me seriously or that I would be too serious for their tastes. What if they challenged me with faith questions that I couldn’t answer? All of my own issues with rejection as a teenager flared back up at the prospect of teaching teenagers every week. Nevertheless, I decided to volunteer to teach the youth. I ultimately concluded that it was better to teach imperfectly than for my kids to protest against Sunday School attendance. Of course, the experience of teaching the youth far exceeded my limited expectations. We learned about our love languages, poverty, and racial injustice to name a few subjects. Looking back, I realize I’d underestimated myself, the teenage students, and God.
People underestimated Jesus all of the time. After Jesus called Philip to become one of his disciples, Philip told his friend Nathanael that Jesus was from Nazareth. Nathanael replied, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” John 1:46. Jesus wasn’t rich. He didn’t have clout in society or culture. He demonstrated servant leadership instead of taking the role of master. He didn’t attempt to raise an army or seize the reins of power. Jesus spoke to and spent time with outcasts and those considered low class sinners. He picked a group of humble day laborers as his disciples. Jesus didn’t meet the expectations of those who thought the messiah would establish a literal kingdom on earth. He disappointed his closest friends when he chose not to argue with the authorities who accused him of blasphemy. He didn’t fight back and accepted an unjust punishment, which led him to the cross. And yet, by focusing on love and mercy and grace, Jesus established a far reaching and long-lasting movement that still lives and breathes today.
We’ve been rightly taught not to boast excessively about our accomplishments, but many of us take that lesson to heart and degrade ourselves instead. We label ourselves as incapable or even worthless. We don’t think God would ever call us to do anything on God’s behalf. With our human view of things, we underestimate God’s ability to work in and through us to connect with others, create community, and share God’s love.
God has always championed the underdog. We can believe that God wants to use us to build the kingdom on earth. We may underestimate ourselves and others, but God doesn’t underestimate us. God never has and never will.