How can we tell if something is alive?
Biologists look for 5 traits, processes or functions as signs of life:
- metabolism (consume, construct, destruct, excrete)
- growth (learn, build, improve)
- reproduction (spawn offspring or ideas)
- responsiveness (sensitive, attentive, active)
- movement (action, progress, liveliness)
These are the characteristics of life — the life of anything.
That’s cool, because I can ask, how does my group or organization fare in this test?
- Does it have a healthy intake, constructing, evaluating and excreting the excess?
- Is it growing in size, stature, knowledge and/or numbers?
- Is it spawning new ideas, new energy, spin-offs, satellites?
- Is it sensitive to the needs of community and responding effectively to those needs?
- Is it doing things and taking action rather than standing by, waiting or watching?
If my organization is alive, I can dive in. If not, how can I enliven it? If I can’t, perhaps I should look elsewhere.
Even better, I can do the life-test with projects I am considering taking on or investing in.
- Will it engage me in a healthy way and allow me to sift out and toss the excess?
- Will it contribute to my growth? help me learn, improve or perform better?
- Is it creative and something I will want to share and pass along?
- Does it meet a real need in a way that is effective at reducing the need?
- Will my active participation offer satisfaction, fulfillment and contentment?
Of every opportunity, I can ask: Is this alive for me?
… If maybe? Give it a try and test again.
… If no? Then it’s someone else’s project.
It’s worth the test. Our biology shows us how. All things we choose to do should answer yes to this question: Is this life-giving for me?
Does it surprise you to look at these two photos, side by side?
The one on the left is among the tiniest of miracles, a cell in the brain. The one on the right is perhaps the grandest of miracles, the universe. Their similarity is striking. It’s all a matter of scale… and perspective. One wonders if they aren’t both the work of the same hand. (See my post: Divine Design makes you wonder.)
Why waste a perfectly good idea, right? As my friend Mary Lou puts it, “God is the ultimate economist and consummate recycler.” When we have the ability to look with appropriate perspective, we may see the signature of the designer.
But I wonder if the similarity isn’t just in appearance. Often the structure of a thing gives us clues to its function. Perhaps our growing understanding of the operation of the brain cell may shed light on interactions across our universe. Could what’s in us help explain what’s outside us and help us manage what’s between us?
Is it so far-fetched to think that the God of the universe has intentionally planted the answers to our deepest questions inside us? Is He patiently waiting for us to find them? I, as a student of the human body, find myself both dumb-founded to consider this and excited to think it might be so. Are God’s answers hiding in plain view, waiting to be acknowledged?
Certainly the beginning of new life begs us to consider God’s hand in its midst. Can there be anything more miraculous? Is there any more convincing witness to the hand of a Divine Creator?
Biblical writers certainly had this same awe, even though they had no ultrasound images to confirm their suspicions:
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth. ~ Psalm 139: 13-15
But let’s not stop at the miracle of the development of one body. All of us, the Church Universal, are being formed into the body of Christ.
From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. ~ Ephesians 4:16
If we were designed to be joined and held together and thus to grow in love as we work together, our world today suggests we are far from God’s design. Yet, if God intends it, surely He has not made this an unsolvable puzzle. Perhaps the model for us as the Body of Christ is suggested in the workings of our own individual bodies.
Allow me, if you would, a moment of speculation as I put on my hat as physiologist. Science demonstrates that the human body is so much more than its anatomy – more than the skin we can see, the muscle we can bulge, the pulse we can touch, and the breath we can take in. Underneath all of these functions are the delicate and highly regulated interactions which make them work: organs and organ systems made up of tissues and cells all contributing what’s necessary for life.
The key to healthy life in the human body: cooperation among systems to co-exist while competing for a fixed supply of resources. Their successful interdependence is guided by a simple and familiar principle: to each according to its need. This delicate balance is maintained in response to the demands of life. Survival of the fittest is nonsense within the body because each part is necessary for the survival of the whole body.
No two systems in the human body are alike. Each is specialized for an essential task; none “considers” itself above the rest. How could it? What good would the heart be without blood to circulate? What good would the muscles do without limbs to move? What good is our breath if it can’t deliver what it inhales and exhales? What good is our skeleton without ligaments to allow it to stand? What good is a brain without means to connect and communicate? What good is sight without vision or sound without hearing?
Is this an echo of the message in First Corinthians?
If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. ~1 Cor 12:17-20
Could our bodies hold God’s message for our world?
They demonstrate so beautifully and seamlessly the choreography of interdependent parts negotiating life, giving and responding obediently for the good of the whole. There is no greater and no lesser, no greed and no hoarding, no scarcity and no hunger. The better the parts work together, the more abundant is the life.
Who in the world could have ever thought of that?
If we are to believe that our God is the ultimate economist and consummate recycler who loves all He created, then God wastes not one bit. Each part is necessary and intended for the good of the whole. Each one is essential to the life of the body. Each interaction effects all others. Unique, for sure. Different, for certain. Interdependent, completely. No exceptions.
It is the genius of perfect living balance: I take only what I need, so you will have what you need. Our ultimate survival may depend on it. So simple that any body can show you.
I need to see some evidence of life before I can declare it alive.
The textbook says that a thing must move, grow, reproduce, metabolize, and respond to stimuli to qualify as alive.
I need to …
- move through difficulty and ease
- grow in spirit and in strength
- reproduce and mentor to replace
- partake only my portion
- do unto others as I would want done unto me
to be fully alive.
There is life and then there’s life, abundant.
I’ll take abundance any day.