Watching For Signs of Life


They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us (1 John 2:19, ESV).

Slowly over the past several months (now into a couple of years) I have been cleaning out a brushy overgrown area between my house and my neighbor’s. I have tried to preserve a few shoots that have started there such as a couple of small redbud trees and some small Rose of Sharon shoots that have grown up off of a common root. Amazingly, despite my very brown thumb, they have shown signs of life! Last summer, however, I noticed that one of the Rose of Sharon shoots was not upright. Apparently a deer had broken it.

I couldn’t tell if there was still some life to the shoot or not, so I took some string and tied it to the remaining upright shoots, hoping that any life still within it would help to heal the break, but I have my doubts. The real test will be this spring (if spring ever comes) when the leaves and blossoms appear.

In several places in Scripture the Bible describes the life of the believer with an illustration from horticulture (see Psalm 1; Jer. 17; John 15, et. al.). The life of the believer is nourished from a root system that draws vitality from the soil (usually). In some plants the inter-connectedness of the roots stabilizes the plant just as the believer feeds off of the common faith of other believers in the church. In other words, we need the other believers in the church to be strong in the faith. But what happens when a tender shoot is broken off, when someone leaves the fellowship because of a nuance in doctrine, a sin, or a conflict over something trivial?

The Apostle John describes such a scenario in which an apparent believer leaves a congregation in the passage quoted above. We are tempted to ask if they were really believers in Christ to begin with, but that is not John’s point and we are not privy to their inner thoughts. John’s point is that they appeared to be alive and connected to the same Root (Jesus), but they left. He says, “Let them go; they were really not of us.”

As fallen people, it is natural for us to proudly tug on our lapels and congratulate ourselves on our steadfastness, usually imagining that it is because of our righteousness. May the Lord guard us from this sin and humble us with a truly repentant spirit, helping us to recognize our own areas of doctrinal or interpersonal error. The righteous don’t always win a church conflict.

The enemy of our souls also recognizes that this same fallenness makes us susceptible to a false guilt where we condemn ourselves for communicating an attitude of condemnation toward the person who left our fellowship. Maybe we did; maybe we didn’t. Happily it is the same genuinely repentant spirit of self-examination that can deliver us from Satan’s condemnation (see Rom 8:1).

As believers in Jesus, it is our purpose to seek to bind up the wounds of the brokenhearted. Hopefully, if there is genuine life in the wounded friend, they will return to the Shepherd and Guardian of their souls, even if they don’t return to our fellowship. The real test, however, will be seen in the blossoms appearing in the spring as a demonstration of the life of Christ that produces genuine fruitfulness.

A Post-Church Society

“…so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love…” (Ephesians 3:17, ESV).

I have been conscious for years that we live in a post-Christian world. The values of American society that used to be rooted in a Judeo-Christian worldview have eroded into a largely secular philosophy. This has happened in the last sixty years, but it has been amplified by the postmodernism of the past 25 years. Recently, however, I heard our world described as a “post-church” society.

The post-Christian moniker alarms me, but God’s people have always thrived when there has been a sharp distinction between our values and those of the world. I admit, however, that I am more disturbed by the “post-church” label. It seems that many today think that they can meet and be close to Christ without joining with a community of believers.

When Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus, he included two classic prayers, one in the first chapter and one in the third chapter. Unlike our prayers, they had little to do with someone’s health concerns or financial struggles. One phrase of the prayer in chapter 3 calls upon God to cause the people be “rooted and grounded in love.”

The imagery suggests a plant that grows because of the healthy soil in which it is planted. It draws nourishment from what surrounds it. If it is not in an environment that is conducive to healthy development, it will shrivel up and die.

When I lived in South Carolina many years ago I tried to duplicate my dad’s spectacular garden which was in downstate Illinois. My attempt was an utter failure because the sandy soil had few nutrients, especially compared to my dad’s garden which he planted near the old barn that had been where he had raised his hogs.

The technology of our day is a wonderful thing, but is no substitute for the rich wealth of the inter-generational relationships developed in the local church, especially in a church that feeds upon the richness of the Scripture. Yet, more and more, I hear of people who are turning away from the church. As I grow older, I understand the stress of people who tune in to some form of media because their physical condition limits their ability to assemble with the community of believers. But I am more disturbed by those who choose their “Lone Ranger” Christianity because the Church has been linked to right-wing politics or, worse, because they cannot forgive a hurt they experienced in the church in times past.

The Church has never been perfect; there have always been conflicts. Nuances in teaching can be sources of conflict, and hurtful comments over music, decorations, or architecture will always exist. Martin Luther is reported to have said, “When the devil was kicked out of heaven, he landed in the choir loft.” Even in Luther’s day, apparently, there was disagreement over the church music.

But the Church is the soil in which the nutritional benefits of the Word are best assimilated into a believer’s heart. It is here, in an atmosphere of forgiveness and compassion, that the Lord can create healthy disciples. Here, He can encourage us, rebuke us when necessary, and strengthen us to grow in the harsh environment of a hostile world. Without the Church (yes, and the Word), Christians shrivel up and die.

Avoiding Holiday Dysfunction

Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes! Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments (Psalm 119:5-6, ESV).

The holiday season is one of the worst for depression. The contrast between the joyful facades that are supposed to accompany the season and the painful realities we feel increases our sadness. Then there are the obligatory, but awkward, family gatherings that often highlight the dysfunctions of our relatives (or, sometimes, ourselves). We genuinely love them but recognize that their drug, alcohol, relational, or financial struggles are ultimately the product of their own decisions. It is difficult to sympathize while holding our tongues so that we are not perceived as being judgmental. To avoid these subjects, the conversation turns to football, the entertainment turns to new movies opening on Christmas Day (that connection is not coincidental), and the parties turn to alcohol.

Despite our best efforts we cannot eliminate the dysfunctions of our families. At best we can merely minimize our own dysfunctions. Although he dealt with problems of his own, King David recognized the best method for avoiding them — fixing our eyes on God’s commandments and keeping them (see Ps. 119:5-6, emphasis added).

This was the same recipe that the Lord gave to Moses to give to the children of Israel,
“Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” (Deuteronomy 32:46-47,ESV, emphasis added).

After Moses died and Joshua assumed the leadership position, the Lord told him the same thing, “[be] careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Joshua 1:7-8, ESV, emphasis added).

Not surprisingly, Jesus said the same thing in His first public address, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:24-27, ESV, emphasis added).

This list of significant Bible characters could go on and on, but the point is made. Reading, thinking about, and obeying the Word of God is the key to avoiding a dysfunctional life. Many Christians try to read the Bible cover to cover each year, but (sadly) far more have never read it even once. Whether you purpose to read the whole of the Scripture each year is not the point. Immersing yourself each day in some part of it with the purpose of obeying it will go a long way toward keeping your family members from being embarrassed by your struggles next Christmas.

Flee for Refuge

“… we who have fled for refuge in laying hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us” (Hebrews 6:18-20)

A dear brother in Christ passed into the Lord’s presence just before Christmas. Dang Lee was born in Laos in a tribal group known as the Hmong people. The Lord was pleased to use Alliance missionaries when He opened the eyes of the Hmong people in a remarkable way to the power of God over Satan. Truly Paul’s words, “how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God” (1 These 1:9), could have been written about these people. Dang understood more about the power of the demonic world than most Christians I know.

When he was seven months old, Dang lost his mother; when he was seven years old he lost his father, so much of his childhood was spent in the home of his uncle. At about age twelve Dang fled for refuge to Jesus as his Savior, never losing faith in Him. It was at this time that the war between the Communist-backed North Vietnamese and the democratic South Vietnamese caught the Hmong people in the middle. I don’t know the political decisions that led the Hmong tribal leaders to align their people with the pro-Western government. It may have been due to their conversion to the Christian Gospel, but I am unsure. Though a tremendous number turned to faith, not all did. Some chose to remain with their shamans and fetish worship.

Whatever the politics, Dang joined a Hmong militia unit that rescued downed American pilots from the jungles of Laos if they were shot down. They would then flee for refuge to the safety of the Hmong people until they could be returned to their units.

When Vietnam fell to the Communists, one of the first targets of the North Vietnamese and their accomplices, the Viet Cong, would have been to eliminate the Hmong people who had opposed them, so Dang and many others swam the Mekong River into Thailand, fleeing for refuge to the safety of that nation. Ultimately the refugee camp was a stepping stone to refuge in the United States. For the past forty years he lived in a country whose customs were foreign to him. He learned to adapt, but anyone with whom he talked would know that this was not his native land and English was not his first language. Later, after the political tensions were over, Dang returned to Laos and helped some of his remaining family, but that region of the world was no longer his home.

Dang’s life was a metaphor of how we should live as believers who have fled for refuge to Jesus. This country is not ours. Its customs are (or should be) foreign to our own. We adapt (sometimes too much) but everyone we meet should know that this is not our native land; we are really citizens of a different country. We may have come out of this world’s darkness, but it is no longer home.

The writer to the Hebrews reminded his readers that, if we have genuine faith in Jesus, we also are refugees, waiting until that time when we can return to the home that Jesus has prepared for us. Now, for the first time in more than four decades, Dang is home, never again needing to flee for refuge.