43. Peculiar People
Most of us would not like to be thought of as peculiar people. It seems kind of cranky. For someone to boast that he is peculiar would seem to be the craziest form of egoism. The Israelites of old, however, took it quite naturally when Moses exhorted them: "The Lord hath chosen you to be a peculiar people unto himself" (Deut. 14:2). Again, "The Lord hath declared this day concerning you, that you are to be his peculiar people, and that you should walk in his ways, and keep his statutes and his commandments and his judgments, and hearken unto his voice" (Deut. 26:17,18). Evidently the word "peculiar" has changed its meaning since the Bible was first translated into English. It simply meant: "of one's own," as one might speak of the properties "peculiar" to oxygen or some other chemical. The peculiar characteristics of a certain person meant the characteristics specifically his own. "God's peculiar people" were those who belonged specifically to God. Paul wrote in this sense to Titus, that Titus as a minister should show himself a pattern of good works, and exhort his flock to shun ungodliness and worldly lusts, live soberly and righteously in this world, looking to the blessed hope of a life in heaven hereafter, because "the Lord gave Himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works" (Titus 2:14). In Phillips' translation, this reads "Jesus gave himself for us, that he might make for himself a people of his own, clean and pure." There are no overtones of crankiness or egoism, therefore, when we claim to be peculiar people. It simply means that we feel we have been set aside for a specific calling: to demonstrate in our own lives a peculiar relationship with God. Others may follow the crowd, or run with the herd; but we as Christians believe that there are many areas in which we should stand aloof from the crowd, or oppose the herd, especially if the herd, like the Gadarean swine, is running down a steep place into the sea!
In the old days, it was fairly obvious who were Christians and who were not, just from the way in which they lived. A rich young ruler, after watching Jesus with His disciples, was so impressed that he came humbly and asked the secret of eternal life. And, despite the apparent failure of the movement with the execution of its Leader, thousands of people soon joined it, finding in its discipline something which made life worth living, even though in many cases their life was cut short by a cruel death at the hands of the secular authorities. Today this zeal for the Lord seems singularly lacking, so that you can hardly tell from a man's life whether he is a Christian or a pagan. Is this perhaps why the churches are losing their influence, especially with the young? The young people today, in this New Age of freedom and anti-hypocrisy, are pragmatic, realistic. They do not take for granted the customs and values of their parents. They ask: "Why should we do this or that? What use does it serve? Why should we believe these dogmas you tell us about? Does it make any real difference whether we go to church or not?"
Well, let us see some of the ways in which a sincere Christian is outstanding, "standing out" from the crowd. Perhaps it shows best when trouble strikes. Everybody at some time or other has troubles to bear. How does he stand up to them? If he is a practicing Christian, with a proper understanding of Providence, he will take trouble in his stride. It will not be any lighter for him than for anyone else, but it will seem to be lighter because he will carry it in a different way, like a man who changes the position of a load so that he can carry it more easily. The Christian will be at ease and content where others are fuming with frustration, because he will understand the educative purpose of the whole of life, including its hardships and difficulties.
We knew of a dear old Christian lady who used to say, when anything harassed or harmed her, "This will do me a world of good!" When eventually her aging body was no longer able to support her spirit, and we heard she had died, I said I was sure she was saying as she slipped away, "This will do me a world of good!"
It was this capacity to bear unavoidable misfortunes with equanimity, even torture and martyrdom, which made the early Christians seem so peculiar to the Romans and explained the immense and rapid increase in their ranks. It was obvious to all that the Christians "had something." Everybody saw they had inner resources, and wanted to know the secret.
Then there was their mutual love. "How these Christians love one another," marveled the whole pagan world, with scarcely concealed admiration. You see, the Christians believed in a God of love, who required of His worshippers two things only: that they should love Him and love one another. So long as Christians obeyed these primary requisites and loved the Lord and the neighbor, the church flourished. It only began to lose its influence when other loves took the place of those two fundamental loves, and a self-perpetuating establishment with a power structure and all the trappings of worldly dignity and wealth, took the place of the "Koinonia" or shared fellowship of souls committed to one another and to their God. Sensitive Christians today are realizing this, and trying to get back to the spirit of the early church, with small groups of members personally known to one another, worshipping together in their own homes. It is here that one can see the miracle of what love can do.
Love leads to toleration, and toleration leads to a due respect for the other person's personality and point of view, which Christians should always cherish. The opposite of toleration is indignation. Every time anyone is indignant with anyone else, the devil steps in and destroys in a few minutes all the good which you had been building up for weeks! The power which enables us to overcome our indignation and irritation is the same resource of power from which we can draw forgiveness for ourselves in our own weaknesses and sins. For, if we forgive others their trespasses against us, so will our heavenly Father forgive us our trespasses.
You may ask, "Are we to condone and accept evil?" Of course not. We must oppose it in every effective way possible. But being indignant will not help, for indignation springs from contempt and self-righteousness, putting up our own standards, and mentally condemning others for not doing things our way. This is itself a very great wrong, and two wrongs do not make a right. Christians ought to be outstanding in their ability to relate to people and situations, by virtue of the resources of reconciliation available from the Lord working redemptively within them.
What other ways are there in which a Christian can be outstanding in our modern secular society? Principally, I would say, by a lack of anxious thought for the things of this world, and a great deal of thought and concern for the things of the spirit. In the early days of the church, you could tell a religious man by his poverty and a pagan by his wealth. St. Francis of Assisi refused on principle to own anything at all, and the immense force behind that choice of holy poverty exploded like an atom bomb in the sophisticated and over-civilized upper circles of the thirteenth century, and thousands of wealthy young men and women gave away all their worldly goods, taking literally our Lord's statement that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. We learn from Swedenborg how to take this teaching spiritually, as referring to the wealth or poverty of the human ego. Worldly riches and poverty are not in themselves either good or evil; it is the ruling love that takes a man to heaven or hell. Nevertheless we can demonstrate in our own lives that we do not worship prosperity and success, and that we are quite prepared to go short in our bank account if by doing so we can build up our balance in the kingdom of heaven. For what doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?
The Christian does not have to take himself so seriously as the pagan does. It is the pagan rather than the Christian who is pompous and self-important. I detect a lot of laughter, even banter, in Jesus' relations with his disciples. And, although Swedenborg did not find laughter in the highest Celestial heaven, he found it in the Spiritual heaven, and, of course, in the lower Natural heavens. If only we can grasp the idea that we ourselves are supremely unimportant, not even sufficiently important to be evil! - and that the only important thing in us is the Lord's life which can and should infill us. With such a philosophy we acquire a nature so light and buoyant that nothing can knock us down. We are entirely free of the itch and burden of self, and able to travel light, even walking safely on the waters while others founder beneath the waves.
I wish most sincerely that you and every one of us could acquire this lightness of touch, free from all selfish ambition, all desire to make a name for ourselves or amass property, or dominate other people; content with our lot, neither complaining nor expressing any sense of frustration or jealousy; feeling neither superior nor inferior, guilty nor innocent, but just joying in the presence of the Lord and our brothers and sisters. This would give us a reserve of power, contentment, stability and inner satisfaction which nothing could take from us. And my dearest wish would be that so many people would walk in these paths, and keep the Lord's statutes and commandments and judgments, and harken to his voice, that this kind of life would no longer seem "peculiar" but would become the normal thing. Meanwhile, let us do all we can personally to make ourselves a "peculiar treasure" to our God; for we have not chosen Him, but He has chosen us, and ordained us, that we should bring forth fruit, and that our fruit should remain.