Epistles, Part 1: Mailboxes
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | June 7, 2018Hi friends, I mentioned on Sunday that I plan to preach on the epistles through June and July. Epistle just means “letter,” so writing and mailing letters has been on my mind.
Nowadays, with as many different digital media as we have at our fingertips, writing or receiving a handwritten letter is rare. Still, I’m old-fashioned enough to appreciate the intimacy of a handwritten letter. When you receive a letter, you know that someone was thinking of you. And not casually, either. Your emotional gravity in their heart bent, however slightly, the course of their day: they ceased what they were doing, sat down with pen and paper, and set about performing on your behalf the well-worn ritual of incarnating physical affection across great distance: sign the note, fold the paper, seal and stamp the envelope, drop it in the mailbox from which it will be spirited dutifully away, as if by benevolent fairies, to another mailbox far away.
At Lucy’s and my apartment building, the mailboxes are all together in one spot. We run into our neighbors there. Each of us shares this unspoken knowledge that the mailbox is an intimate place. People’s lives change, from one day to the next, based simply on what’s in the mail. The mailbox is a place where our lives are on display.
At some houses, the mailbox stands at the end of the driveway, which is to say the mailbox signifies the end of our property and the beginning of the great in-between spaces we don’t control, the space that separates us from the person to whom we’re writing. To put a letter in the mailbox and raise the little red flag for the postman is to entrust something to the world and its people. This involves risk. What if it gets dropped from a bag and lost in the gutter? What if the recipient doesn’t catch my tone correctly and misses the joke? What if the postman is having a bad day and delivers it to the wrong house? Because of all these contingencies, to mail a letter is implicitly to trust in powers greater than ourselves and beyond our control: others deliver and receive what we have written. The mailbox marks the boundary beyond which that trust must become active if we would reach others and be reached by them.
A mailbox is a powerful symbol. A mailbox is the mysterious container where the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of persons unseen are suddenly receivable despite great distances between us. A mailbox is a place where our lives are on display—doctors’ bills, financial history, and personal correspondence all in one spot. A mailbox is a totem that marks the edge where the familiar realm of our front yard meets the world beyond.
Seen this way, we might say that the bible is a kind of mailbox, albeit a strange one. It’s the container where the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of our spiritual forebears are suddenly receivable by us, despite the great cultural and historical distances between us. The bible is a strange mailbox because even though its letters are our inheritance as Christians, we are usually not their original intended recipients.
However, like a mailbox, the bible is also the place where our lives are on display. Here’s what I mean: even though Paul makes it clear he’s writing not to us but “to the church of God that is in Corinth” (2 Cor. 1:1), the Holy Spirit will inevitably conjure our own lives by his words. For example, Paul writes
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh (2 Corinthians 4:7-11)
For those of us whose experience in this life is marked by physical pain and tribulation, Paul’s words might be a source of comfort and encouragement. For those of us whose experience in this life is marked by physical health and relative stability, we might receive a kind of spiritual challenge never to take our ‘clay jars’ for granted.
These connections and contrasts between our lives and the witnesses of scripture call our attention to the third way in which the bible is like a mailbox: when we walk beyond the mailbox at the end of our driveway, just like when we begin reading the bible, we are entering a world which is not our private property. We are entering a realm not of our design or control, in which we must depend on a power greater than ourselves. The bible testifies to this realm as the kingdom of God. To attend carefully to how our lives are similar to, or different from, the persons of scripture (Jesus, Mary, Pilate, Paul, the Corinthians) is to say that when we venture ‘beyond the mailbox’ and open our bibles, we are opening ourselves to judgment.
Take the passage I quoted above. As a Christian in America during a time of intense cultural and political divide, it is tempting to think of myself as persecuted for my beliefs. Intellectual and artistic elites frown upon religious conviction as though it were mere superstition. Abortion, divorce, gay marriage, bathroom debates, religious pluralism, Wall Street, immigration—all of these spicy news topics may trend counter to my understanding of the Christian faith. Given their prominence and frequent acceptance in society, I may experience myself as living in a hostile environment—and so when I read Paul’s words in the passage above, I may feel a certain kinship. “Yes, I too am persecuted, but by God not forsaken!”
But this is nonsense. If I am attentive and recognize at the outset that neither the bible nor the reality of God to which it testifies are the works of my fingers, then I will receive and realize a much needed judgment: that my discomfort at 21st century American culture simply isn’t the persecution to which Paul was subject (even, it must be said, when that discomfort is justified on orthodox theological grounds). Whereas I may experience a certain ideological pressure, Paul was imprisoned, given over to wild animals, whipped by the lash, beaten with rods, and stoned (Phil. 1:3-11; 1 Cor. 15:32; 2 Cor.11:24-25). To uncritically identify his situation as my own is to claim for myself the moral superiority of a victim unjustly persecuted for doing the work of God. To return to the ‘realm beyond the mailbox’ metaphor, this is like my imagining that the public street is an extension of my own driveway. I’m annexing God’s Kingdom, not entering it. Hopefully, Paul’s witness will lead me to the judgment of a wiser, more faithful perspective on my own life: perhaps my own convictions cost me very little, perhaps I rarely act on them in any life-giving way, and perhaps they are largely untested by interactions with people I actually know.
That’s a lot to get in the (e)mail. Next week, I’ll attend more specifically to what sending and receiving a letter would have been like for Paul and the people to whom he was writing.