I was visiting an older couple who had come along to one or two church events.
They told me a little of their own life in business and their travels. I can’t quite remember how the conversation turned, but suddenly the wife said something which took me aback but was very heartening. ‘The people at your church’ she said, ‘are like a different race – they are all so kind’. I quickly assured them it was the Lord’s church, not mine, and that despite God’s goodness to us we are far from perfect. But here a couple of outsiders had sensed something wonderful among us and as soon as I was able I related this comment to the church for folk’s encouragement.
Holiday at home
Where did this comment originate? This couple had first come along to a three-day ‘Holiday at Home’ hosted in the church during the summer. They had been thrilled by the fun and the love they had enjoyed. In particular they had been struck by the fact that during the school holidays many of our teenagers had been happy to get involved with older people and serve as waiters and waitresses. This had affected this couple so much that at the close of things, with tears in his eyes, the husband had got up and said how much they had both enjoyed themselves and that the way our society is going he had come to think that such young people had ceased to exist – but here they were. ‘I don’t understand why you do it’ he said, but then, probably with the short lunchtime messages he had heard about God’s love in mind, he concluded, ‘but perhaps I think I do’.
Hearing these comments about loving Christians seeming like a new breed of human beings, we are reminded of our new birth and Peter’s words: ‘But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation… Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God’ (1 Peter 2.9,10). And even hardened atheists and agnostics sometimes have to admit that there is something different about God’s people when they encounter Christian love.
In her Scenes of Clerical Life, the great doubter George Eliot grudgingly highlights this, concerning evangelicalism: ‘No man can begin to mould himself on a faith or an idea without rising to a higher order of experience: a principle of subordination, of self-mastery, has been introduced into his nature; he is no longer a mere bundle of impressions, desires and impulses. Whatever might be the weaknesses of the ladies who pruned the luxuriance of their lace and ribbons, cut out garments for the poor, distributed tracts, quoted Scripture, and defined the true gospel, they had learned this – that there was a divine work to be done in life, a rule of goodness higher than the opinion of their neighbours… that fitness for heaven consisted in purity of heart, in Christ-like compassion, in the subduing of selfish desires… Miss Rebecca Linnet, in quiet attire, with a somewhat excessive solemnity of countenance, teaching at the Sunday-school, visiting the poor, and striving after a standard of purity and goodness, had surely more moral loveliness than in those flaunting peony-days, when she had no other model than the costumes of the heroines in the circulating library’.
Often, so aware of the sins with which we battle and the missed marks which attend our lives, Christians can fail to appreciate who we really are by God’s grace. And sometimes outsiders can perceive more clearly than ourselves our true identity.
Last month’s commentary mentioned the editor’s poorly mother. She went to be with Lord, peacefully, on 7 November.