On a special day at this time of the year, but more years ago than I care to remember, I received my very first birthday greeting. I still cherish it because it came from my father, who was serving away from home in the Air Force and who had hardly had a chance yet to get to know me. Not one to show much of how he was feeling, he nevertheless sent me this greeting, in beautiful copperplate handwriting on a simple piece of paper:
My dear Margaret. As the shop hasn’t got any birthday cards for little girls only one year old, I have to write and say ‘Happy Birthday’ this way. With lots of love from Daddy.
The memory of this letter came to mind twice recently, when I heard the stories of two other letters, both just as special for different reasons.
The first was a friend’s reminiscence about her early childhood. Her father, she told me, had been almost blind with apparently inoperable cataracts on both eyes. Unable, therefore, to manage his own business correspondence, he recruited his eldest daughter, then still of primary school age, to read his letters to him and write the responses. She became very adept at this task but, inevitably, sometimes resented the burden of her role.
Time passed, eye surgery techniques improved, and eventually it became possible to remove the cataracts. By this time she was grown up and living away from home. Then one day a letter arrived from her father, beautifully penned, thanking her for all her support in earlier years and celebrating the fact that now, at last, he was able to write this, his first letter in his own hand.
A few hours later, the second story came my way. It was at the end of a day of reflection in which a group of participants had been thinking, among other things, about how very often we don’t get to see the fruits of the seeds we sow in the soil of humanity as we live our lives. We called these the “hidden fruit” and had been struck by the importance of trusting that the seeds we sow will indeed bear fruit, but in God’s time and in God’s way.
One participant told how she had picked a book off the shelf and found an old letter folded away between its pages. The letter was from her mother, written a few months before her death. It was an upbeat, hope-filled letter, describing a wonderful afternoon spent in the garden planting bulbs for the coming springtime. “I know I won’t see the blossoms myself,” she had written, “but I have been so happy planting something that will bring joy to others when I am gone.”
There was a silence around the room. For a moment we were all there in that beloved garden which, the daughter said, had been vibrant with spring flowers on the day of her mother’s funeral.
Three letters, each with its own unique message to deliver: a message of love that transcends all separation and distance and difficulty; a message of gratitude that remembers past blessings and rejoices in being able to give thanks; a message of hope and trust in a future that we may never see but that we are seeding here and now in the present moment.
Paul reminds us: “You are a letter from Christ, written not in ink but with the spirit of the living God, not on stone tablets but on the tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor 3:1-3). Perhaps this is more than just a striking image. Perhaps it is a challenge for every single morning. Each day, as we emerge from the cocoon of sleep and come out from between our sheets, we might just pause to reflect that we are like a letter being taken out of an envelope and delivered into the world of this new day.
Every letter carries its own personal message. Some make demands. Some generate anxiety or frustration, or even anger. Some give life and hope. Some are full of words but mean nothing. Others say little but mean everything: letters written out of duty, threatening letters, letters of encouragement, letters that inspire, letters that speak of love.
When you get up tomorrow, and your “letter” comes out of its envelope, what kind of a letter will it be, and how will it affect the hearts of those who receive it? Will your presence in the world tomorrow shed light or cast shadows upon those you meet? We might do well to begin every morning by asking for the grace that we might truly be “letters from Christ,” adding a little bit, each new day, to the store of love, hope and trust in the world.