Letter, Letters Everywhere and Not a Stamp in Sight

Last week I finished reading a great book, “The Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.” It reminded me of another of my favorite books, “84, Charing Cross Road.” In church, we just started a study in the book of Romans. All these books have something in common that I very much like: they’re all letters – either a compilation (the ones about Gurnsey and Charing Cross Road) or a single missive (Romans).

There’s something automatically enticing about reading someone else’s mail. When it’s not published in a book, it’s considered rude and bad manners. And yet, elevated to book status, it’s like being given permission to read someone’s diary. It’ so personal.

Sometimes letters in books are like diaries – you only get that writer’s perspective – but if the book includes recipients’ responses, you get to find out if the letter was received the same way you would have received it. If there is no record of the recipient’s response, you get to imagine what it was. That can be fun, too. For example, when Helene Hanff wrote to Frank Doel (in “84, Charing Cross Road) “…we live in depraved, destructive and degenerate times when a bookshop – a BOOKSHOP – starts tearing up beautiful old books to use as wrapping paper…You tore that book up in the middle of a major battle and I don’t even know which war it was,” we know that Frank wrote back and said, “…please don’t worry about us using old books such as Clarendon’s Rebellion for wrapping. In this particular case they were just two odd volumes with the covers detached and nobody in their right senses would have given us a shilling for them.” The confidence and closure is palpable on both sides.

On the other hand, when the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires,” (Romans 9:18) we don’t know if those words created the stir among the readers that they do today. Did anyone write back to Paul and say, “You’re a raving lunatic, man?” “God would never treat people differently!”Or did anyone write back and say, “Dear brother, thank you for your beautiful analogy, that God is the potter, perfectly right in making vessels for both honorable and common use in order to make known the riches of His glory?” “What an awesome, Holy God we serve.”

Is it ridiculous to compare these two letters? I know that Helene’s letters are meant to be amusing and Paul’s letters are meant to be instructive and authoritative. But to me, it’s pretty significant that they’re both dealing with real people. The God who created people like Helene Hanff (and me) who love books and the adventures in collecting them, chose to speak to us through very personal means – letters. That can’t just be incidental or practical, can it? The people to whom Paul wrote in Rome were just as real as Helene and Frank. Helene had an interest in historic battles, and what Roman citizen wouldn’t have had an interest in the empire’s battles?

How beautiful that God chose letters to pierce human hearts with His word, that His letters are about the The Word (i.e., His Son, Jesus), and that when it comes to battles, His word is “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword…” (Hebrews 4:12)

I don’t know if Helene was intrigued by that kind of battle and Word, but I am.

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