When a Letter Isn’t Enough
Rev. Dr. Amy Butler
Imagine my shock this week when I mentioned how I used to use Aerogrammes all the time when I was in seminary and lived overseas, and my younger colleague looked at me blankly.
Aerogrammes. You know them! They are these crinkly, extremely thin blue papers that you write a letter on, then you fold over and secure the edges? An aerogramme folds into the exact size of a letter, and the folded front is printed with blue and red stripes on the edges. There’s often a picture of an airplane next to the box where you write the delivery address, and on the front the words “Air Mail” and “Par Avion” are printed?
She still looked at me blankly.
Before email and when long distance telephone calls were prohibitively expensive, my family and I would write letters on aerogrammes, I explained, carefully condensing a meticulous cursive to fit in as much news as we could on that one sheet of paper, sealing the edges, and depositing it in the nearest mailbox so the letter would find its way around the world. Every afternoon after class I’d come to the main seminary building, turn my mailbox key, and if that slip of blue paper was in my mailbox, my heart would speed up. I knew I’d open that letter and get a detailed, if time-delayed, update on everything going on at home.
I explained all of this, but my younger colleague still had no idea what I was talking about.
A letter. Of course that’s changed now with the advent of cell phones and email, but back then it was the very best way to feel the presence of someone you loved. Frankly I feel sorry for my poor colleague, who may never know the feeling of carefully peeling off the edges of an aerogramme and savoring the handwritten words on the page. Letters were how I felt connected to people I loved who were so far away from me. What a gift.
But sometimes…sometimes a letter is not enough. Distance from the people and places you love is difficult; you can send or receive a letter, but a letter is a poor excuse for seeing someone in person. Sometimes you want to hug somebody hard…or feel the grasp of a hand…or rock a sweet baby to sleep. Sometimes a letter isn’t enough.
Perhaps we feel that most acutely this time of year, when so many of us travel long distances to see the people we love. How many of you have traveled or will travel this holiday?
During Advent we’ve been thinking about the many simple gifts of our lives, things that we take for granted but that enrich our human experience in ways we sometimes don’t even realize. Travel is our simple gift this week. I think that might be a bit of a hard sell to the folks who were in the Atlanta airport this week when the whole airport lost power. But that’s not quite what I mean. It’s not the sitting in hard plastic chairs or buying overpriced airport food or losing your luggage that I’m talking about when I talk about travel as a simple gift. I’m talking more about journeys that change our lives; traveling to the people we love to start or renew or deepen relationships that remind us of the beautiful potential of our humanity: how we can show up in the world when we choose to give everything that we have and everything that we are over to the work of love. Travel is a simple gift, but it can change our lives. What journey changed your life?
I want to tell you about a journey that changed my life. It began in Waco, Texas, on a hot summer day. June 11, 1997 was a Wednesday. I didn’t live in Waco then, but I’d flown in the day before to lead a Wednesday night church service at Lake Shore Baptist Church, the church where I was licensed to the ministry. By then I was several years beyond seminary and running a homeless shelter for women in the city of New Orleans. Lake Shore had invited me back to talk about my work, about the problem of homelessness, and to help the congregation think about ways they could be part of ending homelessness in Waco.
The fellowship hall floor was tiled with linoleum, as they usually are, and I remember the faint smell of spaghetti sauce and ranch salad dressing—lingering from dinner—as I stood up to speak to a crowd gathered around tables and sitting in folded chairs. After talking for awhile about my work, I assigned the tables topics of conversation and we began discussing questions and ideas. Almost immediately as the groups began talking, the church secretary came into the fellowship hall, pulled me aside and told me I had an urgent telephone call and I needed to come to the office.
I was, of course, immediately worried that something had happened to my three year old, but I also felt hope rising in my heart, because I knew something that nobody at Lake Shore Baptist Church knew. Only a week and a half before, we’d gotten a call we’d been waiting for for such a long time. There was a young woman having a baby, she’d chosen us to be the adoptive parents of her child, and the baby—we didn’t know anything more than that—was due in three weeks. We just had to wait for the call telling us the baby was born, and then we would need to come immediately to the hospital to meet our new child. Sure enough, as I pulled the office chair toward the telephone and put the receiver to my ear, I heard the words I’d been waiting for: it’s a little girl. It’s a little girl! She’d been born just a few hours before, and I should get to north Louisiana as fast as I could to meet her.
As I hung up the telephone and made my way back to the fellowship hall, I wondered how on earth I’d be able to make it seven hours to the hospital with no car and in the middle of the night. The minister who had invited me asked if everything was ok, and in my stunned state I managed to try to explain the news as if it was just a normal turn of events, still bewildered about how I might make it to meet my new daughter.
After the service ended and people were packing up to go, my friend the minister told me she’d been thinking…and she could drive me three hours into East Texas, where my brother in law could meet us, and he’d drive the rest of the way to the town where the hospital was.
And that’s what we did.
We got in the car at about 9:00 p.m. and drove. We drove through the darkness for three long hours, talking over the miraculous turn of events that had us speeding toward this life changing miracle. I wonder if her birth was easy or hard? I wonder what she looks like? I wonder what we’ll name her? I wonder, I wonder…all the things I could not know the answers to until I was there. With her. Looking into her eyes and running my hands over her newborn head and hearing the sound of her cries and feeling how she fit in my arms.
Right about midnight we pulled into the parking lot of a Dairy Queen—pretty much the only thing open in Marshall, Texas. Sure enough, my brother in law was waiting to meet me in his blue Ford pick-up truck, country music blaring from his radio. I hugged my friend goodbye and she began her three-hour drive back to Waco. And I got into the truck, turned down the country music, and began the out-loud wondering all over again. I wonder if the nurses are taking good care of her? I wonder if she’s eating? I wonder how her newborn baby skin smells? For three more hours we sped through the darkness and finally arrived in the town where this little baby had just been born. It was three o’clock in the morning, and I was so excited I could barely wait until visiting hours began at 8 am.
Sure enough, that journey changed my life. I’d known it before I saw her, of course, but I knew it deeply and surely the moment I looked down into that plastic bassinette and those dark chocolatey brown eyes fringed with the most beautiful lashes looked up at me as if to say: just you wait until I have motor skills!
I’m telling you about that journey, this journey that changed my life, because it’s now 20 years since that day in June, and that little baby is a beautiful young woman who is sitting here today, and I could never, ever imagine my life without Hannah. There was no making a phone call and a letter would never have been enough: I had to take the journey for my life to be transformed.
Today is one of the holiest days of the year, Christmas Eve and a Sunday where we read and hear again some of the most beautiful passages of scripture. Today we’ve been reminded of some epic journeys, stories from scripture of travel that brought people together in ways they never expected. In the story of Ruth we hear of a young Moabite widow who gave up everything to travel with her mother in law to a totally foreign land. And her entire life changed. And we heard the story of Miriam, the sister of Moses, who joined her brother in leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Miriam’s journey changed an entire race of people. And we heard the story we hear every year on this day: the story of a young, pregnant woman, who rode a donkey to a stable and gave birth to a little baby. Angels sang and shepherds visited; sages from the East showed up to bring gifts. And the night sky filled with stars…and with song: glory to God in the highest and peace…peace on earth.
We turn the pages of our biblical text and read the story again. It’s almost like God has sent us a letter—reminders of these courageous women who risked everything to take journeys that would lead them to the presence of someone or some thing that would totally transform them.
But leaving this story in the dusty pages of a book just won’t do, because sometimes, you know, a letter isn’t enough. And that’s, in short, the message of Christmas. It was like God knew that God needed to show up in person, a God with skin on…to taste the salt of human tears, to gaze in wonder at the night sky, to love his parents like we love ours, to understand on the deepest and most visceral level what it means to be human…what it means to be you and me.
Today we’re preparing to welcome the Prince of Peace, God’s reminder that sometimes a letter isn’t enough. Sometimes—sometimes—even God will take a journey that changes everything.