Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

Mail contains very few letters nowadays

Monday as I wrote this column I was wistful for the postman. It was President’s Day — that ungainly combination of Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays — and so the banks and the post office were closed. Two of my essential daily activities were “on hold.” I was out of sorts!

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that our national holidays have their importance, and as a small town pastor, I will not pretend that I have the most pressured of work schedules — certainly not to begrudge anyone else their chance for a day off.

It is just that I look for the delivery of my mail with the same sense of regularity and expectation that my dog looks for food in his bowl. But if the letter carrier is twenty minutes late, I am likely to be calling the Postmaster General in Washington for an explanation!

I guess you could say that I enjoy getting letters. Funny, though, very little of my mail consists of these anymore. I get tons of slick paper catalogs — for clothing, appliances, furniture, office supplies, hardware, and books. Did I mention books? You see, if you order from one catalog of a certain genre, they sell your name to ten other catalogs that sell similar products, and then you get all of their catalogs, too.

I also get multiple mailings of all sorts of items. One to R. Milton Winter, another to Milton R. Winter, one for R. M. Winter, and often one for R.K. Winter (my father). Then there are items for the person who used to live at my address, and — well, why am I telling you about all these things? You get them, too.

But, as I said, the thing I am always hoping for is real letters. I think my love of letters goes back to my grandmother. Grandmother loved to get mail as much as I do. But she did what one has to do to get mail. She wrote letters. My enduring memory of her is at her desk in the afternoons and in the evenings after supper, writing letters in longhand with her pen she dipped in a large jar of blue ink. (More than once, playing around her desk, I upset that bottle of ink, spilling it on the wallpaper behind her desk. Because she was my grandmother and not my mother, I was somehow not punished for these infractions.)

Grandmother corresponded with her sister and four brothers, her two sons and their wives, and her daughter who lived in another city. Each day she would write two or three letters to this inner circle, as well as to any number of friends — local and out-of-town — and always these letters were long — three or four pages at least.

My grandmother lived in an era when the telephone was for important messages only. Long distance calls were much more expensive then than now, and besides she did not hear on the phone. And so she wrote letters. I still have many of these letters that she wrote and received, and a great deal of our family history is recorded in them.

It is amazing how much more significance ordinary events assume when they are written out in longhand and sent through the slow delivery of the U.S. Post Office. Oh, yes, words can be multiplied and mailed at the speed of light via the internet, they can be talked and instant-messaged via cell phones and pagers and all manner of new technologies with which I am only dimly familiar. In fact, I am likely to bang the computer monitor if it does not serve up at least ten e-mails (and have you ever sampled the doctrinal disputes in the Presbyterian denomination’s online “chat room” — ugh!). But somehow, to borrow the Lord’s good phrase, the senders of such messages ought not think that “ye are heard for your much speaking” (Matthew 6:7).

No, the best words are those that are written carefully and delivered deliberately. And I receive just enough “real letters” that I continue to wait expectantly for the delivery of the postal mail and to miss acutely the arrival of the letter carrier on those holidays when she does not make her run. I also know that on Tuesday the mail will be late, because, after all there are two days worth to be delivered. But maybe something in the stack will be a “keeper.” I certainly hope so. I always do.

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