Tom Jackson died in 2003 in Ilkley, just a few miles away from Horsforth. We never met, but he impacted my life. As leader of the Post Office Workers’ Union he led a seven week postal strike in 1971, which meant no letters for me over the period before and after my 21st birthday. I’ll never forget the sheer delight of receiving just one letter in that time, which was delivered by hand to me in Southampton from friends in Leeds. I unsealed it more excitedly than I would have opened a treasure chest.
Imagine the thrill of the Church in Ephesus receiving the epistle from their beloved church planter, Paul. Or picture the excitement of the Church of Colosse when they received their letter from the man they had only heard about. Think of the impact on Timothy or Titus to receive hand written letters from Paul. We know they kept them, and how glad we are that they did.
Yes, I am aware of e-mails, skype, texts and even twitter, and amazingly know how to use one or two of them. They each have a valuable place, but for me it is the hand written letter which means so much. I remember that there is an Inspector Morse line where he says much the same, adding that he likes a fountain pen with ink which you have to dip into. There is a warmth, a permanence and personal touch conveyed by a letter which cannot be mimicked by electronic mail. You cannot re-read a phone call, and rarely want to re-read a text or email, though I print out and keep some of these. Lord Byron expressed it well, “Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company”. Letters can convey across cities, countries and continents a warm human hand shake (though Warren Wiersbe once replied to a rather nasty letter sent to him, saying, “Thank you for your letter, which must have been very difficult to write, wearing boxing gloves”).
My mother, in her nineties is still a letter-writer, and taught me as a child to put pen to paper. As a teenager I had several pen pals in different parts of the world, and today find one of the most joyful ways to spend time is to simply write to a friend. I agree with Ernest Hemingway who wrote, “Or don't you like to write letters? I do because it's such a swell way to keep from working and yet feel you've done something.” I find such pleasure in sitting at a desk with pen and ink to write, address the envelope and put on a cheery stamp, which seals an individual message to be transported the many miles and delivered into the very home of the person who has been on my mind. And if the content has something of the Lord Jesus, not merely inconsequential chatter, what a sweet smelling fragrance we are passing on.
But this article is not about commending a hobby or a pastime (awful concept that that is), but more to do with a spiritual work that is available to all. The supreme example of this is the Lord Himself who wrote to the Seven Churches in the early chapters of Revelation. How grateful we are that the apostle Paul communicated to fellow labourers and to churches not only by visiting them himself, by sending a co-worker, but by writing a letter or even sending a postcard (cf. Philemon). Peter and John did the same. The letters of Samuel Rutherford and John Newton have been immortalised for their spiritual wisdom and helpfulness. How I treasure the copy of a letter that Amy Carmichael wrote to one of her orphan girls, Selva Ceruana. Selva showed it to me when she was in her eighties, but was written to her when she was in her thirties. Though only a few lines long, it had brought comfort and hope to her for over five decades. Ben Carswell has never forgotten a letter from George Beverly Shea hand written in answer to the little letter eight year old Ben had sent to him.
Letters, postcards, notelets are a means of encouraging, informing, ministering, strengthening, sharing, sympathising, identifying. They say to the recipient, I am sufficiently bothered that I will give time to input into your life, so that you will know that I care. Like a bench provided as a memorial to someone who loved that spot with a view, so a letter can be a means of refreshment to the mind and soul, providing the opportunity to reflect, to be renewed. John Donne, long ago vicar of St. Nick’s in Sevenoaks said, “Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls; for, thus friends absent speak.” There are people who have ministered to me simply because we have corresponded. Some of these letters I have kept and been blessed as I have looked back at them.
Considering that the Bible exhorts Christians to love one another in practical ways, the application of these thoughts couldn’t be simpler. Is there someone to whom you should or could write today? And is there somebody else tomorrow … and the day after? Would a letter (not a lengthy epistle) or a postcard encourage your missionary friend, a busy pastor, the person in an old folks home, or student accommodation, or a prison cell, or alone in their own home? The letter could be evangelistic in content, maybe sharing your testimony with a friend, or a niece, nephew, grandchild, or cousin. It could be written to be read at a later time explaining your passion and vision for life.
And none will hear the postman's knock
Without a quickening of the heart.
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?
Of course this takes time, but if, for example, George Verwer, with all his responsibilities in Operation Mobilisation, can keep in touch with hundreds of people on every continent, then I have no excuse.
If I may use one final quotation, German philosopher, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “Letters are among the most significant memorial a person can leave behind them.” So, if we want to leave a legacy, we can try writing letters, and with God’s blessing they may impact people for their eternal good. There’s a New Year’s resolution there somewhere.