In fifth grade, I had a pen pal.
I take that back.
“Pen pal” is probably not the right name since we passed only a handful of letters back and forth between us. Her name was Carol, and we were good friends until I moved from the bustling desert city of La Quinta, California to the tiny Midwest town of Norwood, Missouri. Population 407.
It was a rough transition in many ways. New climate, new friends, new school, new farm living. And in my loneliness and struggle to settle, my mother suggested I write a letter.
So I did.
In smudgy pencil on plain white, wide-ruled paper.
I even drew two, pony-tailed stick figures holding hands on the front of the envelope next to her mailing address.
And I remember distinctly the day Carol’s first letter came back to me. To a ten-year-old, it was the epitome of extravagance and ornateness. A dispatched malfunctioning masterpiece, if you will. Lisa Frank stickers bespattered the lavender cardstock envelope. The letter inside folded into some kind of smashed-up origami-like shape. I think it smelled of lilac.
I read and re-read that letter.
I then spent an exorbitant amount of time trying to recreate its origami form.
To this day, I honestly don’t remember what we actually wrote about. Probably what we ate for lunch or our red-headed classmate James who wore his shoelaces untied. I also don’t remember who quit writing first. Probably me, since I had neither lavender or lilac luxuries nor did I have adequate origami-making skills.
Either way, we did quit.
She and I.
We quit because at some level we must have thought our letters weren’t enough. Between the misspellings, the bad handwriting, the crumpled form, our messages just weren’t enough to keep us engaged, to keep us writing, to keep us “pals” over that long of distance and time.
Today, I actually think my poor pen paling pretty much mimics our greater lack of letter writing as a culture. Our undergirded belief that letters aren’t enough. That they’re a lacking form of communication somehow.
I mean we used to write letters. Lots of letters. For hundreds, even thousands of years, in fact, letter writing was about the only way to be in the know.
Yet here we are not writing.
And a provocative metaphor can be found there, I think.
That is, if we consider what the apostle Paul said in his own letters recorded on papyrus. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul talks about the powerful metaphor of letter writing. About how our spiritual living, our faith walking, our love giving are like a letter being written and read by “everyone,” by coworkers, friends, family, strangers who listen keenly and watch vigilantly what we say and do.
“Your lives are a letter written in our hearts; everyone can read it and recognize our good work among you. Clearly you are a letter from Christ showing the result of our ministry among you. This ‘letter’ is written not with pen and ink, but with the Spirit of the living God. It is carved not on tables of stone, but on human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:2-3 NLT)
What a profound thought.
To be an actual letter.
To consider our lives as a living message continuously communicating to those around us. But oh what a convicting thought too. To be Christ’s letter. To be the paper, the physical material on which Jesus Himself spreads His gospel message to the world.
Surely this is not what God intended.
Not me. Not you.
We’re simply not enough. We’re too theologically thin. To quick to fold up. We’re religiously warped. We stain easily. We also wrinkle and tear. If you ask me, we are the worst choice for God to write on.
And that right there is the problem.
That self-focused, ungodly thinking is where Paul’s metaphor breaks down. It’s where my pen pal writing ended too. Because, in all honesty, we’re never enough. We’ll never be enough. We’re rough draft material chock-full of errors, flaws and ample imperfections. And we’re all perpetually selfish too.
But maybe that’s it.
Maybe the feeble, fallible nature of our “human hearts” is actually the point of it all anyway. Maybe this makeshift, defective material on which God chooses to write is exactly what Paul means when he calls you and me Christ’s “letters.”
Think about it.
What is God’s greatest message to this world? What embodies His loving gospel truth more than anything else in all of creation?
Unmerited, unearned, undeserved grace.
Grace is what accepts defectiveness. Grace is what embraces inadequacy. Grace is what chooses the travelled, the creased, the wrinkled, the damaged. Grace clasps onto the tattered, the torn, the threadbare and says, “I will make up for what is missing. I will cover the lack.”
All of it.
Grace is the heart of the gospel. It’s the heartbeat of Jesus’ blood shed to cover our irreparable depravity. It’s the message of the gospel itself that God most wants to communicate to this fragmented, lonely world.
And it’s a shocking object lesson for us if we let it be.
It’s a real, life-transforming metaphor that can motivate even the quitters among us to keep on writing. To keep on spiritually living.
If you think about it, is there any better display of God’s hilarious, magnanimous grace than to choose your imperfect heart and mine as the material on which to write His lavishing, love letter to the world?
Surely, I can’t think of any.