Monday, September 08, 2014

Paul wrote love letters

I miss writing letters. Or maybe I miss receiving them. I've never been particularly great at the letter-writing genre. My hand-writing is lousy, and I think better while typing. So perhaps I should say I miss writing e-mails.

But mostly I don't even write e-mails anymore, except as the means to arrange meetings or send other basic types of information.

The kind of letters I miss are the ones my Grandma Johnson used to send me in college. They were long, loving, hand-written things, sometimes with newspaper clippings enclosed. There would be a breezy conversational opening, often something about the weather, that would then shift into something deeply philosophical, followed by a quote from a poem or Scripture, some words of advice, and expressions of love.

Very few letters from grandma were less than two precisely scripted pages front and back. I always learned something. Often I teared up. My grandma knew how to write letters.

I used to write e-mails that at least attempted something like the epistolary form. Prior to the existence of Facebook, thoughts and experiences would pile up long enough to warrant long letters home. One friend in particular, a former parishioner from Seattle and now a monk in Arizona, loved to write letters, and the two of us nurtured a close friendship over many years almost exclusively via letters.

A good letter is, above all, an act of love expressed at a distance.

I don't argue that similar things can't be accomplished with our new mediating forms. I've had chats via text that arguably are as philosophical as the collected correspondence of actual philosophers. And I've had read enough status updates from friends to know that we can really experience shared life together in shorter, ambient snips.

But I still miss the letter, and perhaps what I miss the most is the chance to read contemporary examples of literature that parallel the part of Scripture that is my favorite--Paul's epistles. Whenever I sit down to read Paul's letters, I'm once again and over and over amazed that there were communities of readers, small little enclaves, in remote places all over the Mediterranean to whom these strange and beautiful texts made sense.

I like to imagine the people who carried the letter. I am astounded by the expense involved in the materials to simply write a letter. I wonder at Paul's careful thought and prayerful meditation that led to the composition of texts so white-hot and fraught with import and faith.

I love the analysis. I love how we can't tell if he wrote all the letters ascribed to him, or whether epigones wrote some in imitation of his style or in honor of his name. Did he take on different voices when he wrote to different communities? Did he think of these letters as forming, eventually, a collection? How are they connected? Are they each occasional?

Did Paul really steal the gospel away from Jesus, like some contemporary theologians argue? Or is it more the case that he deepened and applied it?

But more than anything else, I simply love the fact that these are letters, written by a real man (with an anamneusis in most cases) to real people, specific communities. I love the individuality of them. The breadth of Romans. The sharp focus of Philemon. The sharpness of Galatians. The spiritual depth of Phillipians and Colossians.

And I love that although the letters do include direct instructions, sometimes even news, they actually also trust that people we write to actually want us to think fresh things, and write them down, to find fresh ways to express ancient impulses, that we love, and are beloved, and these pages between us are illustration of that.

If you're interested, we begin a series on the Letters of Paul at noon Wednesdays at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church here in Fayetteville.

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