I’m a letter-writer. That should surprise no one since I’m part of the last generation of Americans to have been birthed and brought up on letter-writing. As a child of the 1940s, I remember so well the joy of my mother as she opened letters from her sister and mother on the Alabama farm. Living in the coal fields of far-off West Virginia, Mama missed her family so much. Aunt Sis would often include a couple of sticks of Juicy Fruit gum in the envelope. Mom would tear off a piece and make those two last a week.
When I went off to college, I wrote letters–to my parents and to my girlfriend.
Somewhere in my files now are personal letters to me from Dr. Billy Graham, Cartoonist Charles Schulz, and western author Louis L’Amour.
I’m 81 years old (don’t look it–ha–and certainly don’t feel it) and count it a privilege. Five minutes ago, I put in the outside mailbox four envelopes: two of them paying bills, one to a minister in Alabama and one to a cousin who is battling cancer.
I believe in letter-writing. But it takes effort.
When someone writes me a letter, I take that as a compliment of the highest order. They cared enough to skip the email and phone text and went to the trouble of gathering paper and pen and stamp and writing. The letter is a tiny part of themselves.
Much of our New Testament is made up of letters. Aren’t we glad they went to all that trouble?
Some years back, televangelist Robert Tilton was “outed” by a network news team. All those letters which he promised viewers he would pray over, interceding with the Almighty for the healing requests they contained, were ending up in dumpsters without having been read. The envelopes had been slit open to remove money or checks, then sent them on their way into oblivion.
The nation–religious and irreligious alike–correctly called this shameful and the exposure promptly put that con-man out of business.
Contrast the callous attitude of that man toward his correspondents with the graciousness and openness of C. S. Lewis.
Among the numerous C. S. Lewis books on my shelves is one titled Letters To An American Lady. For over 10 years, Lewis carried on a correspondence with this woman–known to readers only as “Mary”–whom he never met. He had no idea these letters would ever be published. They were published in 1967, four years after Lewis’ death.
Clyde S. Kilby, a Lewis scholar (who incidentally used to worship with us at the First Baptist Church of Columbus, MS, while I was pastor, during his visits South to relatives) from Wheaton College, wrote in the introduction to that book that the reason for publishing the letters was “they stand as a fascinating and moving testimony to the remarkable humanity and the even more remarkable Christianity of C. S. Lewis.”
To the modern reader, someone who knows Lewis only through Narnia or a couple of his other books, these letters provide wonderful glimpses of the humanity of the man and his keen insight into matters of God and man.
But what strikes me even more is that Lewis took the time to continue this correspondence with someone he never met and that he did so for so long. There are over a hundred of his letters in the book. (But none of Mary’s. We assume she kept his letters but he did not keep hers.)
We wonder. Do the famous write letters to their fans today? Why did Lewis write these letters and hundreds more of a similar character?
Kilby writes, Here is a man who could have found a whole bag of reasons to justify pitching his mail into the wastepaper basket. He was often worked to the point of distraction by his university duties, a man whose successful books both in scholarship and religion clamor for more of the same sort, a man with a remarkable combination of logic and imagination that might produce such books almost endlessly, a man who by nature tends to avoid strangers and loves the inner world of ideas and the intimate circle of old friends.
And yet, this man meticulously endeavors to answer, sometimes with an arm so rheumatic that he can hardly push the pen, the vast correspondence falling into his hands from around the world. Why?
It was not just one woman he was writing; the correspondence load was apparently unending, overwhelming, insistent.
Why did he do it?
A lesser man would not have bothered.
Kilby gives us his answer. The main cause was that Lewis believed taking time out to advise or encourage another Christian was both the humbling of one’s talents before the Lord and also as much the work of the Holy Spirit as producing a book.
Along with John Wesley, Kilby states, Lewis had…the belief that one’s days and his talents are given him not for private expenditure but to be used in all lowliness within the will of God. Though the flesh abhorred it, he mortified the flesh.
Two thoughts linger with me at this point.
–When pastors (primarily) write asking me to mentor them over the internet (primarily), far from feeling imposed on, I welcome the opportunity. Both parties benefit. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m no C. S. Lewis. But God does not require that of me or of you. Just “do what you can” (Mark 14:8).
–It’s fun reading other people’s mail. There’s a tiny element of the peeping tom involved. You’re glancing through the crack in the door at the inner lives of strangers.
Have you ever done it?
Sure you have. If you’ve opened the New Testament and delved into the writings of the Apostle Paul, you’ve done it. These are letters from a very busy Christian leader to churches mostly, but sometimes to a pastor (Timothy, Titus) and once just to a friend (Philemon).
The difficulty is that–as with Lewis’ book–we are hearing only one side of the conversation. We do not have the letters written to Paul which he is sometimes responding to. So, we listen in to his counsel, his rebuke, his explanations, and try to backtrack and flesh out the conversation. Sometimes it’s simple; sometimes it’s impossible.
Your very lives are a letter that anyone can read by just looking at you. Christ Himself wrote it–not with ink, but with God’s living Spirit; not chiseled into stone, but carved into human lives–and we publish it. (II Corinthians 3:2-3 THE MESSAGE)
God wants others to read you and me like a book. Like a letter from Him to them.
For that, we need to be transparent. And legible. And available.
The object is not that they would learn something about you and me, although they will do that. The purpose is that in reading us, outsiders will come to some positive conclusions about the Lord who redeemed us and who governs our lives.
C. S. Lewis believed that if only 10 percent of the world’s population had holiness (that is, lived Christlike lives), the rest of the people would be converted quickly.
Who needs a letter from you today? I consistently challenge pastors and staff ministers to write short personal (i.e., hand-written) letters to people. Yours may be the only thing in their mailbox today, and I can almost guarantee you they will keep it nearby a long time.