Reality, Obedience, Grace [part 1]

I taught recently on the passage in scripture where Jesus says “I am the true vine.” My main thesis, given that it was graduation Sunday, was that there are a lot of things you can give your life to, and in fact there are some things you can give your life to that are really good.

But, are those things true?

Jesus, in all of his I Am statements, is making the very radical claim that there are a lot of options, but only one way that is ultimately true.


I read this post the other day, and I thought, as one who works with millennial, that there were many useful insights.

One thing the author says never to say to millennials is “stop being so idealistic…the real world doesn’t work that way.” I agree with the heart of this sentiment: we shouldn’t be killing the spirit of the next generation. Don’t be a wet blanket.

But, I also see idealism wielded as an ultimate trump card. A way to justify our own behavior and to do our own thing without being accountable to anyone, especially someone older, and potentially wiser, than ourselves.

[For the sake of integrity, I have used this trump card myself on too many occasions.]


Of course, I also see a tremendous amount of cynicism, especially in my peers. A friend who just left the ministry told me a story about talking to another pastor who asked him, in so many words: “Doesn’t it feel so good to be out?!”

That kind of stuff kills me…I don’t ever want to be there.

Pastors do see the good, the bad, and the ugly, and there is a lot of the bad and the ugly, but we also know and preach and teach the good news about Jesus, which is fundamentally hopeful.

[For the sake of integrity I can be one crotchety, cynical mess at times.]


Back to the vine. Jesus constantly cuts across the grain of all the false narratives we can construct for ourselves.

Idealism sounds so good, and presents itself in such a positive light, but it quickly runs off the cliff of reality, becoming a balloon floating on the wind with nothing to anchor it down.

Cynicism wallows in “reality,” but in a way that keeps everything at arm’s length to mask the pain we feel, and as a result becomes an un-reality.

The true vine gives life and sustains us because it is true. It is reality. Jesus, the good news of his resurrection, is what is real, and what is true, and what is sustaining.

I see too many people choosing to avoid reality: the reality of their situations, of the decisions they’ve made, of the challenges they face.

But avoiding reality leads us to shallow perspectives and prevents us from ever maturing.

Choose what is real.

Parenting, Original Sin, and The Goal

The other day my wife asked our almost 18-month-old daughter to do something (I think it had to do with putting clothes away), and it was fascinating to watch the wheels turn in our little girl’s head.

She started to move towards obedience, then said “no,” then leaned back towards obeying, said “no” again almost put the thing away, and then finally ran in the other direction.

My immediate thought: “you little sinner.”

My second thought: “That was harsh.”

Which pretty much summarizes two prominent schools of thought on child raising out there in the world (and even within the church).

If you go with my gut reaction you are either “biblical” or a “cruel/shame-based” parent”.
If you go with my second thought you are either a “soft/hippy” or an “organic/love-based” parent.

Having reflected on that moment, and my reaction to it, over the past couple of days, I think it all misses the point.

I absolutely believe in original sin. It’s one of the easiest biblical truths for me to believe. But, I think far too often this gets applied in unhelpful ways.

Original sin (and the subsequent “total depravity” doctrine) are misunderstood to mean that given the choice between “right” and “wrong” we will always choose wrong.

No. We can, and do at times, choose right,
choose good,
choose beauty,
choose right relationship.

But we also choose the opposite. And, back to the scene with my daughter, we struggle and agonize over the choice.

Choosing good, choosing to submit, choosing others-over-self does not come naturally. That is what I mean when I talk about original sin, or total depravity, or whatever you want to call it.

I watched my daughter listen to my wife’s request, process it, and then wrestle (in a very visible way) with what to do with that request. And that struggle, that wrestling, is the issue to me. Most people focus on the outcome: did she obey or not. Or they debate the ethics and morality of obedience or imposing rules on a young child.

Which all misses the point: we are hardwired to choose ourselves over others. And that is the problem of original sin.

This is why Jesus’ invitation to follow him involves picking up a cross, denying ourselves, and becoming great (read, good) by serving others instead of ourselves.

I don’t want to downplay morality, but I think the parenting conversation gets lost there and then lives in denial about the real issue (self-centeredness).

The goal is not to raise rule-followers or narcissists, but wise, whole, self-giving human beings. 

That’s what we are shooting for.

Telling A Different Story Is Hard

I am a total fan of Donald Miller and his work with story. I cried several times reading A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. I gave it to friends to read, and Sojourn gave it away on campus and to graduates. I use story language all the time.

If I were to be critical of my stance, though, I would say this: telling a different, better, story is hard. And sometimes, talking about different, better life as story can mask the nitty, gritty work that goes into telling better, different stories.

Living a holy life is a better, different story, but it’s hard.
Living a simple, non-consumeristic life (with a budget and a lot of saying no to things) is a better, different story, but it’s hard.
Living a servanthearted/others-oriented posture is a better, different story, but it’s hard.

Lot’s of people want a better, different story, but they don’t want hard.

When I talk like this I’m afraid following Jesus can sound sad and joyless. It is anything but!

Holiness is hard, but I am so grateful and happy for the choices that Amy and I have made, for the suffering we’ve been spared as a result, and the relative innocence with which we get to live our lives.
Simplicity is hard, but I am so grateful and happy for the miracles we’ve seen and experienced, for the direct provision from God we get to see daily, and for the freedom we have as a result.
Serving others first is hard, but I am so grateful and happy for the meaning and purpose that comes from giving our lives away.

But none of those things are cool. None of them are sexy. And they stand in direct opposition to 99% of the messages we are bombarded with from advertising, families of origin, Facebook, the stories we see on TV and in movies, from our professors and peers, from the celebrities we worship.

Better, different stories have very little cultural reinforcement. And so living these stories and calling people to these kinds of stories is hard, hard work.

Who wants to live simply and raise money when they could get paid a steady and reliable income? Who wants to live a holy life when you can just do what you want? Who wants to serve others and put others first when every other message tells us that to get ahead we need to take care of ourselves (through networking, taking advantage of opportunities, making the right friends, meeting the right people, getting what we deserve, etc)?

All semester we’ve led our students through a series of conversations that have contrasted these different ways of living, different ways of viewing the world, and making decisions, and setting priorites. We’ve invited them to a different and better story.

All semester I realize that what we are doing is asking people to make a really hard choice.

But I believe it is the best choice they could ever make.

To live life in service of the King and his Kingdom is never going to be easy,
or safe,
or cool,
or “fun”.

But it is going to be good.
And adventurous.
And dangerous.
And costly.
And full of joy.

And beautiful.

Pain Deepens Love

“It is true that in a technocratic society all human relationships are reduced to the level of things, and general apathy is spreading on an epidemic scale. It is true that in a world of high consumption, nothing is so humanizing as love, and a conscious interest in the life of others, particularly in the life of the oppressed.

“Love leaves us open to wounding and disappointment. It makes us ready to suffer. It leads us out of isolation and into a fellowship with others, with people different from ourselves, and this fellowship is always associated with suffering.

“It [love] changes the world, in so far as it overcomes the death urge which turns everything into a possession or an instrument of power.

“It is right to follow Jesus at the present time in the specific activities of love, suffering, and revolt…His suffering contains more than merely the necessary suffering of love which becomes a reality in following him, the ability of love to be wounded and disappointed. When the pains of love are accepted, they deepen love.

– Jurgen Moltmann