This article by Preston Pouteaux is reposted from Forge Canada’s Missional Voice newsletter, December 2015.
As a pastor I’ve made it a practice of mine to write letters to people. I used to write cards by hand, but that changed when I bought a used Lettera 22 typewriter. It’s old, and a bit finicky, but oddly satisfying.
When I meet new people, or want to encourage a friend, there is something good that happens when I pull down my typewriter and take it out of the case. It takes a few minutes to set up, find a nice sheet of small typewriter paper, and adjust the ribbon. I take that time to think about what I want to write, how I want to convey my thoughts. Then, clack, clack, clack, I write. It’s nothing like writing a column, email, tweet, or essay. It’s slow, methodical, and strangely raw. Typewriters have no “backspace” or way of correcting mistakes. If I make an error, it stays on the sheet, perhaps crossed out, but there nonetheless. Typing takes time and I find myself getting to the point of what I want to say. Maybe, “thanks for being my neighbour” is all I need to say sometimes.
The real magic comes from sending the letter in the mail. In a world of emails and junk mail, a personally written letter sent with intentionality is a powerful and countercultural gesture. My typewriter, a stack of paper, and some stamps have transformed relationships and conversations. Sending letters or cards might seem like a grandmotherly kind of activity, right there along with crochet or 1000-piece puzzles. Yet I’ve found that a moment spent sending a letter, expressing my thoughts in simple and kind ways, can shape the way I see others, and allow God space to speak.
Years ago I painted portraits of people in our church congregation. It’s a project that turned into something larger. But at the time I would simply sit down with some watercolour paints and a blank piece of paper and create. It was slow work, each painting would take days or weeks. But as I would sit and paint I would find myself praying. Almost like sitting with the person in real life; I was asking God to bless them, I would wonder what God was doing in their lives, and I would just be present to God’s nudging in my own heart. It was a unique experience in my life and I don’t think I’ve ever prayed so much for other people as I had when I was painting their portraits. It was a function, I believe, of simply being present and patient with them, before God.
When I’m in my office clacking away on my little blue typewriter I find myself entering a similar place of prayer for the people I am writing to. The slow work of writing this way allows me a moment to listen, reflect, and allow God space to speak. My Lettera 22 typewriter is a little altar of prayer.
A few years ago I wrote to Eugene Peterson. He is a voice of wisdom for pastors and his books have taught me to reflect about the pace and posture of my life as a pastor and neighbour. By slowing down and living intentionally with the people and place where God has brought me, I’m more likely to see and participate in what God is already doing all around me. Eugene Peterson has long since been retired and I heard he was living somewhat off the grid. Or at the very least, he wasn’t checking his Twitter or Facebook feeds like the rest of us. So I pulled out my typewriter and wrote him the old fashioned way. I had been thinking a lot about what it means to love my neighbours, slowly, patiently, and attentively. I asked for his advice, and surprisingly, received a letter back. He wrote two pieces of wisdom in his letter that I think about often: “being a pastor is the most context-specific work there is” and “the most dangerous thing is impatience…keep it slow.”
Writing letters to people is deeply contextual. Social media and sharing articles go out into the world and can be read across contextual lines, and there is a place for that. But letters bring us back to the local places where God is working among us. They are written to a particular person, in a particular place. They are hyper-contextual and that makes them deeply powerful. Personal letters declare that the small, the unseen, the personal, and the kind are values we hold dear. From God’s perspective, these activities are never done in vain, in fact, they may be the most life transforming activities we can engage in. Never underestimate the potency and beauty of deeply context specific work, like being a pastor with a typewriter.
Going slow is never a waste. By being impatient with the people we seek to encourage or comfort with our letters, we rush past what God may be doing. I’ve had people come up to me months after I had written (and forgot that I had written) them a letter.
The slow process of intentional communication doesn’t have a built-in immediate response and gratification mechanism. You can’t click a button to publicly “like” that I sent you a note. You can only engage in the same intentional way. Slow builds trust, friendship, and life.
Living missionally requires that we think differently about many of our practices, and try on new practices that could help us engage in the patient way of Jesus within the places where we live. How we speak, write, or care for others reflect what we value and believe to be true about God’s work in our midst. What does slow and intentional communication look like between you and your neighbours? In what ways can you reflect the Kingdom of God in the way you speak and encourage others?
Preston Pouteaux, DMin. Tyndale Seminary, is a National Team member with Forge Canada, and is a pastor at Lake Ridge Community Church in Chestermere, Alberta. He studied at Briercrest College, Regent College, Tyndale Seminary, and Jerusalem University College in Israel. Preston is the author of Imago Dei to Missio Dei. He’s an avid beekeeper. @prestonpouteaux