preacher and writer in Chicago



Everyday Awe

Nearly every Sunday I walk ten minutes to a coffee shop. My route takes me through a cross-section of my neighborhood--passed as many newly constructed homes as vacant storefronts with nothing left to tell the story but former company names hanging over the front door. I sit at a table with my sermon notes, my Bible, and a cup of coffee. Usually I only have about an hour before I walk to the school where our church meets on Sunday mornings. It’s one of my favorite hours of my week. 

During those sixty minutes I’m filled with a familiar expectation of gathering. Soon I will be with the people of my community and church family to sing, pray, encourage, mourn, and grow together. Not only so, but I’m on the edge of another opportunity to preach—my deepest vocational joy. Being with people is familiar. Preparing to preach is familiar. This hour before church is very familiar to me. 

But, nearly every Sunday morning I am struck by this familiar habit. You see, it can deceive me. Familiarity can lull us to sleep and convince us that what is familiar is no longer wondrous. But it is wondrous! In that hour I’m looking forward to gathering with the people of God. And in our gathering we announce the reality of Jesus amidst a world announcing much lesser glories. In that hour I’m anticipating heralding a message of great joy that is for all peoples; the good news of Jesus that has been preached just so for over 2000 years! Being with God’s people is wondrous. Preparing to preach the greatest news ever is wondrous. That hour before church is wondrous!

It’s familiar, obvious, and expected. But it is no less wondrous, amazing, and miraculous.

God in the Flesh

A few Sunday mornings ago, I was at the coffee shop, preparing to preach from Matthew 20. Now Jesus said a lot of memorable things. But perhaps one of the most memorable comes in Matthew 20 after a pair of his disciples sent their mom to Jesus to ask him a question. Essentially she asked that her sons be the second and third most powerful members of Jesus’ kingdom cabinet. I think Jesus’ response is both familiar and wondrous .... 

“...whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). 

With all the leadership books drafted every minute in western society the idea of service is familiar. From John Maxwell to Sheryl Sandberg to Simon Sinek to Brene Brown, the concept of adding worth and value to a movement or organization or relationship through self-giving leadership and love is fairly commonplace—because it’s human (Thank you Seth Godin). 

However Jesus’ words are nevertheless wondrous. You see, he is the Son of Man. He is the Messiah and the Lord of Heaven. This is not merely a moral business leader, this is God in the flesh and he just said he stepped into humanity, on to earth’s dirt not to be served but to serve. Jesus is somehow totally familiar and yet he takes our breath away. And it is in these words and in this person, Jesus where we as human beings find our calling ... it's in the obvious and the miraculous.

The Gift of Gifts

Let's begin by saying everyone has a gift … 

Some of us welcome. 

Some of us organize. 

Some of us paint. 

Some of us invite. 

Some of us run. 

Some of us preach. 

Some of us listen. 

Some of us defend. 

Some of us feed. 

Some of us lead.

Everyone has a gift. Perhaps this is obvious .... but it is also miraculous. After all, every gift is an opportunity and ability. A gift is a shot of authority—the capacity for meaningful action (Thank you Andy Crouch). Therefore our gifts present us with a mark of meaning and a capacity for making an impact or bringing change to the people and environments around us. It all depends on how we weld this power. At the end of the day, this is what revealed the brilliance of Jesus' words in Matthew 20 and what reveals our pathway to becoming more fully human. 

Here’s what I’m getting at in three movements—all of which are familiar yet wondrous …  

1. Creation Reflects its Creator

I think being entrusted and imprinted with a gift is inherent to the design of our humanity. We are made in the image of God. And being made in the image of God means you and I resemble our Creator. This is both familiar and wondrous. It is familiar because anything created looks like the one who created that thing (look no further than children and their biological parents). However it is also wondrous because this means we reflect the God of the universe. The. God. Of. The. Universe!

2. Gifts Come From Givers

Every gift tells a story. That means there is someone behind each gift with a reason for entrusting that skill, privilege, or joy to you. A gift has a giver. This is both familiar and wondrous. It is familiar because the very definition of a gift implies both a benefactor and a beneficiary. It is wondrous because the reality that you and I have been innately equipped or wired with a particular ability or quality whisphers the name of God. 

3. Gifts are Meant to Be Given

Somehow when a gift changes hands—from benefactor to beneficiary—we presume a change has taken place. Specifically we no longer see that gift as a gift. Instead we often view it as a possession or right. In other words familiarity swallows up the wonder. In this tragic habit we presume the purpose of a gift is to comfort and please and generally make us better. The gift becomes a commodity. But what if that gift was never transformed into a possession, what if instead the gift was meant to transform you into a giver? After all, that’s what a “gift” is; something to be given and shared to bless someone else—familiar yet wondrous.

Herein lies is a virtue as obvious as it is miraculous. Every gift is a dose of power. When we hoard these qualities and abilities in order to increase our own position, the gift is no more. It ceases to be a gift. Our power is presumed and familiar. But what if we never lost the wonder a gift was meant to engender within the human heart? In fact, what if the reason there is so much division within the human experience is because we have failed to embrace this aspect of our humanity? And what if in Jesus we're meant to be human again? 

Giving Power

Human beings are those born with gifts. But at an earlier age we learn to manipulate our gifts for our own gains. Gifts were meant to grow our hearts in generostiy and gratitude. We were meant to be transformed by the generostiy of God into a people that rightly reflected him ... instead we learn along the way to transform the generosity of God into entitlement. 

This is what makes the words of Jesus even more astounding. He came to serve. The most gifted of all came to serve all. In other words he was the most powerful human being ever. And Jesus had an infinitely different relationship with power than we do. Familiarity didn’t callous his heart from the wonder. Instead he released power, leveraged power, was victimized by the evil power, and defeated the powers of this world. This is what he meant when he said he came to serve, not be served. This is how he shows us what it is to be human.

  1. Jesus released power. Philippians 2:5-7 … Have this mind amongyourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

  2. Jesus leveraged power. John 8:7 … And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first tothrow a stone at her.”

  3. Jesus was victimized by evil power. Isaiah 53:3 … He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

  4. Jesus defeated evil power. Colossians 2:15 … He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Jesus’ power is revealed in his relationship with power. And because Jesus wasn’t like us, he shows us what it is to be truly human. And because Jesus wasn't like us, he possesses the power to make us human again. And because he wasn't like us, he can make us like him. This the familiar gospel narrative yet it is eternally wonderous. Jesus was not changed by power, he changed the world through his power. And he can change us too. Because Jesus is the gift. He gave himself for us and to us. Now in him we find the strength to use our gifts, our power for the sake of others ... that more and more others might see the wonder buried underneath the familiar. 

Everyday you walk by the wondrous and call it familiar. So do I. It’s most obvious to me on Sundays at a coffee shop.

How about you?