Signs of Life
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This book is a mirror by which you can see yourself as others see you.
Bobbing on the sea like a pelican, the Cruise Queen was a floating mansion, as long as a gymnasium and dazzling white against the blue waters of the Aegean. But something was wrong: the yacht seemed strangely deserted. As silently as death, the detective boarded the ship, pistol in hand, looking for signs of life....
How often have you watched a scene like that in a movie or on television?
One of the reasons whodunit shows are so popular is because there's a little detective in us all. We're all looking for signs of life, hints of our identity, and hidden secrets. Remember Sherlock Holmes? He could unravel a person's entire life by the mud on his shoes, the calluses on his hands, and the threads on his coat. Many of us have played Sherlock Holmes at airports or in waiting rooms, whiling away the time by people-watching, constructing a silent profile of their lives by their clothing, accessories, body language, facial appearance, and mannerisms.
The "hidden person of the heart" shows up in all kinds of ways. Your appearance and your home environment are extensions of your thoughts and values. Others can tell a great deal about us by the way we look, the car we drive, the language we use, the habits we keep, the friends we make, and the places we frequent. It's amazing how quickly we can size someone up—or how quickly someone can size us up!
As Christ's followers, we should exhibit certain signs of life that evidence our commitment to our Lord and His kingdom. Some of these are obvious to those who see us in our private moments when we're at prayer, reading our Bibles, writing our tithing checks, and resisting personal temptations.
Most people, however, don't have access to such personal moments. They see us from across the street, across the fence, across the hall, across the office, across the miles, or across the pews.
How do those people recognize that we are God's ambassadors?
It's by our smile ... our joy ... our compassion in the face of another's misfortune ... our friendliness ... our simple lifestyle ... our willingness to commit random acts of kindness ... our benevolence ... our social ministries ... our tears ... our generosity ... our public expressions of our private faith.
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One man approached a cadet at the military academy at West Point a couple of years ago and said to him, "You must be a Christian." The surprised cadet said that he was indeed a follower of Christ. "But how did you know?" asked the young man.
"I saw you in the dining hall," replied the guest. "It was loud and chaotic there with bands playing, a pep rally going on, and a thousand cadets eating and laughing and shouting. But I saw you, in the middle of it all, quietly bow your head before eating your meal."
Does anyone ever come up to you and say, "You must be a Christian"? Do they ask a reason for the hope within you? Has anyone recently said, "There's something different about you; I can't figure it out, but I want what you have"?
Egged on by an entertainment industry and national media that often paint us in a negative light, our society tends to have an unfavorable view of Christians. At the same time, however, the very culture in which we live desperately needs genuine people who display signs of abundant living. This world is starved for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, radiance, simplicity, honesty, and compassion.
Christians specialize in these things.
It's not enough just to talk about the Lord, as important as that is. It's not enough to serve Him in secret with our acts of private devotion. We have to display the lifestyle of the Nazarene in the midst of our corrupt culture. Jesus called it letting our light shine before men that they might see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. The apostle Paul said, "Do all things ... without complaining ... that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world" (Philippians 2:14–15).
Think of this book as a sort of mirror that can help you see yourself as others see you. It's also like a doctor's office where you can examine yourself for signs of life. And it's a pep rally where you can be encouraged to walk the talk.
All that—under one cover!
After all, we're not deserted yachts bobbing in paradise. We're fishing boats fitted for the Master's use.
May the Lord give us dusty shoes, worn-out knees, rolled-up sleeves ... and other signs of life.CHAPTER 2
A Faith That Works
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The world around us can't see our inner faith, but it can see our good works that flow from our faith.
When the Ringling Brothers Circus went to New York City in April 2004, thousands of people jammed Madison Square Garden to see the greatest show on earth. What they saw instead was a terrifying accident. A performer named Ernando Rangel Amaya, a thirty-four-year-old Venezuelan high-wire daredevil, lost his balance and plummeted to the ground. The crowd gasped in horror as emergency workers rushed to his side. Rangel somehow survived the fall, but he taught us a valuable lesson: life is all about keeping your balance.
Remember when you watched your toddler learning to walk? when you taught your child how to ride a bike? when you showed your teenagers how to balance their checkbooks? Many aspects of life are all about balance.
Well, we need a balanced theology too. The New Testament talks a great deal about the balance between faith and works. In Ephesians 2:8–9, we're told: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast."
In other words, we might as well try to reach the stars on a pair of stilts as to try to qualify for heaven by living a good life, doing kind deeds, giving generous gifts, or sacrificing our bodies in the flames. We're sinners who can never redeem ourselves in God's sight by our own efforts. "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us," Paul wrote in Titus 3:5.
But James, the half-brother of our Lord, apparently felt that some people were misunderstanding this fact, so his letter provides a counterbalance. Though we're saved by faith and not by works, said James, our faith must be the kind that works. We're not saved by good works, but for good works. Faith is the source of our salvation, but good works are the way we express the reality of our salvation.
"What does it profit, my brethren," asked James, "if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? ... Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (James 2:14, 17).
In other words, if your faith doesn't express itself in compassion, love, kindness, generosity, helpfulness, mercy, and good deeds ... well, it's not real faith at all. It might be intellectual assent or emotional release, but real faith trusts Christ alone for salvation—and then believes enough to be Christlike in daily practice.
I guess some people in James's day, like some people today, spoke the language of Christianity without reflecting the reality of its truths in their lives. That's why James wrote such a practical book. As you read through the book of James (you can read the whole epistle in less than ten minutes), you can't help seeing his emphasis on living out our faith. You'll also see that a faith that works ...
Enables us to have a positive attitude in troubled times (1:2).
Inspires us to resist temptation (1:12).
Makes us good listeners (1:19).
Takes care of orphans and widows (1:27).
Gives honor to the poor (2:5–6).
Provides food and clothing for the needy (2:15–16).
Controls and restrains the tongue (3:1–12).
Doesn't speak evil of others (4:11).
Doesn't grumble about others (5:9).
Shows concern for the sick (5:14).
Prays fervently (5:17).
Christians have changed the world by living out this kind of faith. In the third century, Tertullian wrote that the Christians of his day gave generously and without compulsion to a common fund that provided for the needs of widows, the physically disabled, orphans, the sick, those in prison, and even for the release of slaves.
History tells us of a pagan soldier in Constantine's army named Pachomius who was deeply moved when he saw Christians bringing food to fellow soldiers who were suffering from famine and disease. Curious to understand a doctrine that would inspire such generosity, Pachomius studied Christianity and was converted.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the church sponsored orphanages, built schools, and fed the hungry. In the 1800s, believers such as A. H. Francke and George Müller provided homelike environments for unwanted children.
Also in the 1800s, a group of Christians in Great Britain worked tirelessly to reform child labor practices. The indefatigable Lord Shaftesbury devoted his life to making speeches and writing policy to improve the conditions of working children.
At roughly the same time, statesman William Wilberforce and his fellow Christians were fighting for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.
It's been the influence of Christians in society that has built hospitals, halted infanticide, discouraged abortion, inspired relief societies, and enhanced the arts. The world around us can't see our inner faith, but it can see the good works that flow from our faith. That's why Jesus said plainly, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).
Some years ago, I read a satirical piece that brought this truth home to me:
I was hungry, and you formed a humanities club and discussed my hunger. I was imprisoned, and you crept off quietly to your chapel in the cellar and prayed for my release. I was naked, and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance. I was sick, and you knelt and thanked God for your health. I was homeless, and you preached to me the spiritual shelter of the love of God. I was lonely, and you left me alone to pray for me. You seem so holy, so close to God, but I'm still very hungry and lonely and cold.
That's not biblical faith.
Consider what Bible teacher Manfred George Gutzke wrote:
Faith is significant only when it promotes action. Faith without action is useless. This is the basic principle of everything everywhere, and it is true in every case. It would be true in the matter of farming. It would be true in the matter of insuring a home. It would be true in the matter of conducting a business. If we say that we have faith in anything and we do nothing about it, our faith does not amount to a thing.
Now what about you and me?
Perhaps you don't know any orphans, but what child whom you do know needs some extra attention? Do you have a neighbor who needs her lawn mowed? Has a family in your community lost their home to fire? Does your local crisis pregnancy center need counselors? Perhaps your church is sponsoring a missions trip to provide medical assistance in an impoverished area. Perhaps a single person in your church would like an invitation to dinner.
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Several years ago a pastor friend of mine was devoting a rare day off to his garden. Garbed in filthy cut-offs, he was lathered in sweat and dirt, fighting the weeds, and trying to get the last of his beans planted. Right then his sixteen-year-old daughter came running across the yard in a state of panic. "Dad," she yelled, "there's a man in the ditch a mile or so down the road. The cars are going by left and right, but no one has stopped to help. Come quick!"
Ron didn't want to "come quick." He was tired and dirty and involved in his gardening. He also knew that his daughter, a new driver, was easily excitable, and—truth be told—he thought she had probably misconstrued something. But at her insistence he finally pulled on a shirt, wiped away the sweat, found his keys, and went to see what had happened.
Sure enough, there was a man—elderly, dazed, half-asleep, and in the ditch. Ron and his daughter roused him and got him into their car. Revived by the air conditioning, he began mumbling incoherently. Finally, after repeated questioning, the old fellow muttered a street address several miles away. Ron drove him there.
As they walked up the sidewalk, an old woman came running out. "Praise God!" she exclaimed. "We didn't know where to find him. He's my older brother. He has Alzheimer's, and he wandered away this morning. I've been worried out of my head!"
Driving home, Ron had mixed feelings. He was thankful they'd done a good deed, but he also felt a nagging sense of guilt because he had done it reluctantly. His daughter had shown more compassion than he had despite his many years in ministry.
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Lots of people are in the ditch. Real faith lends a helping hand gladly, freely, lovingly, and in the name of Christ. Real faith is a balanced faith: it is a faith that works.
So for Jesus' sake, do something for someone—and do it today.CHAPTER 3
Turn On the Lights
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The human heart is dark without Christ, but what a difference Jesus makes!
Imagine a world without Christmas lights.
That would be the world before 1882. Oh, people built bonfires and attached candles to the limbs of their Christmas trees (sometimes burning down the town in the process), but it wasn't until Edward Johnson, Thomas Edison's associate, invented electric Christmas tree lights that American homes began to really sparkle and twinkle.
As Johnson's family decorated for the holidays that year, he poured his energy into producing a string of eighty small, brightly colored lights. As they sparkled through the front window, crowds of people lined up to gasp in wonder. It seemed magical, especially after Johnson developed a system for making them flash on and off. Wanting to see the lights more closely, people knocked on the front door. Newspapers sent reports all over the country, and reporters marched, one after another, into and out of the Johnson home.
Electric Christmas tree lights didn't immediately become a commercial item, however, because no one except Thomas Edison, Edward Johnson, and a few others had electricity in their homes. Furthermore, it was rather expensive. Johnson's string of bulbs cost over $100 in materials—more money than some Americans made in a year.
Gradually, however, as more people got electricity, Christmas lights became more popular. In 1910, General Electric introduced a string of bulbs that could be produced and sold inexpensively, and Christmas lights have been household items ever since....
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Nothing expresses the mission of Jesus Christ better than lights. In the Old Testament, the golden candlestick in the temple was a type of Christ signifying that the coming Messiah would be the light of Israel. And the prophet Isaiah predicted His coming by saying, "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.... For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given" (Isaiah 9:2, 6).
In the Gospels, Jesus declared, "I am the light of the world" (John 8:12), and John opened his Gospel saying, "In Him was life, and the life was the light of men" (John 1:4).