This short piece appeared in yesterdays Church Times:
There should be, in all of our filing systems, a place for those cards and letters sent by friends and strangers who have managed to express something precious however small. These words may take many shapes: it may often be a word of encouragement. The note may be the thoughtfulness of an expression of thanks. We may be challenged or even given admonition because the writer cares and wants to support us with advice. The picture or prose may serve as a reminder of happy times or just the sharing of something that is plain funny. These words and the care shown in writing them can make a huge difference to us at a various times in our lives.
I am in the process of transition. After nearly twenty years in the Midlands I moved a little over two months ago to a new ministry. I have been quite overwhelmed by the many people who have taken the time to write. There have been surprises! I have letters from some people, who to my shame I hardly remember, who remember a moment that made a difference. Carefully chosen cards from people who, knowing the upheavals of house and community, struggle to find the right words of support. In the envelope I find a photograph of a person who I had baptized or prepared for confirmation. Wedding couples who one thought had paid little attention to the spiritual dimension of the day send news of a growing family and occasional visits to their local Church. Many aspects of ministry remain hidden, unexpected and profoundly beyond any attempt to evaluate.
Surprises take the shape of different expressions of love! The man, keen not to over claim, tells me that he has been associated with my place of work for nearly 60 years – and that I definitely rate amongst the top four vicars he has known! History always takes the longer view. The older woman who shares only her disappointment that I haven’t been able to fill the Vicarage with children. Living up to expectations is a very full time and rather perilous occupation!
Or there are the people who one expected to hear from and the post yielded nothing. Excuses abound – for all of us – busyness; assuming that you matter when you are only one in many; or it may be that the written word isn’t fashionable any more or even that you are not as significant as you thought! But I am left asking about the quality of our communication and whether we should all take responsibility for nurturing an approach to our living that is graceful and generous. However reading reason into people’s silences is an inexact science!
Letter writing has been almost eclipsed by the advent of recent communications technologies. I continue to believe in the power of letters. In the midst of a culture addicted to the ephemeral and the superficial, letters continue to make a deep and lasting impression on the recipient. I do not think that an e mail or telephone call from St Paul would have quite the same influence of the early Christians in Rome as did the letter he sent them.
Letters take time. Finding the right words need space and a sensitivity often lacking in our task driven lives. Letters reveal a commitment to people and the fabric of their lives. The movement of a pen on paper can be an expression of our desire for a more relational living that attends with a pastoral heart to an individual with all their preoccupations, hopes and fears. Grace is to be worked out in the everyday and the ordinary. Attention to the detail of our lives is an expression of love and care.
So the next time you are out shopping find yourself some writing paper and envelopes. Let us never assume that people know that we are grateful or concerned or bothered about them. Attention to finding the right word at the right time will slow us all up into a more graceful, generous and relational life.
All of us have at least half a dozen such letters to be written. Write on and see what emerges for yourself and those who receive these expressions of our commitment to the building up the good.