On letters to treasure
When I arrived in these villages just over 2 years ago I was told that I was expected to write a piece for some of the village newsletters. All I knew was that these newsletters were for everyone in those villages, whether they were members of churches, chapels, synagogues, mosques or simply people who lived in the villages. My main hope was that people might feel from reading them that the vicar was someone it might be ok to get to know, to meet with or to talk to if anyone ever felt they needed to do so. I was daunted by this task, because I don’t find writing easy.
Words have enormous power to transform. They can be used to build people up or to ‘cut them down to size’. Spoken or written they can harm or heal. Letters can be treasured long after the writer has died because they speak of love and comfort shared.
Some years back the gift of a book with blank pages was intended to act as a place to record words of encouragement: here I record the letters that have helped. The kindly card when I’ve been down or unsure; the little notes that have encouraged me, when things have gone wrong, to have another go. The invitation to a conversation face to face to work out why people might have different ideas about how to serve the same purpose.
This book is called a Barnabas book and it is so named after a friend and companion of Paul, for Barnabas means ‘child of encouragement’*. However, as far as we know Barnabas didn’t write letters, or at least none have come down to us, although his friend Paul was a great letter writer.
Paul wrote several letters to encourage the small communities of people who had begun to follow Jesus in the years following his life, death and resurrection, and today Christians still read and value his letters even though many of them are challenging in what they say. Christians also argue about how we should use and understand these letters, and that also reminds me that words can also be weapons. As another biblical letter writer says: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.*”
Letters can be treasured and they can also be hoarded and used to reignite the pain and upset caused by their words.
Although we have some of Paul’s letters we do not have the replies. But many of his letters include the promise that he will come and meet with his correspondents in person so that difficulties can be cleared up and misunderstandings sorted in order that the whole community can be built up to serve God. Even when Paul is disappointed in these early Christian gatherings he gives thanks for them and reminds them that they are loved and valued, and sends farewell greetings written in his own hand.
These days my hope for these strange little newsletter snippets that I write is that even when people find them disappointing they will know that I give thanks for the people of these villages and hope to respect, value and learn to love them.
*The etymology of Barnabas is quite complex as it may also mean ‘son of the prophet’ and ‘encouragement ’ here is a word that includes comfort and challenge and consolation.