When Audrey and I were dating in college she studied abroad for a semester in Italy. We were committed to trying out a temporarily “long distance relationship,” but I remember having some real fears about how it would work. I think we both did.
This was the fall of 2004, some 17 year ago, and the options for communication were very different from what we have available to us today. We both had email, of course, but Wifi was not yet ubiquitous, especially where she was in Italy. She didn’t have internet access in her home and did not even use it much for school, so once or twice a week she would go to an internet cafe down the street and pay a few euros for a chunk of time at a connected computer.
We both had cell phones, but the cost of international phone calls or texts was outrageous. The one challenge that remains the same today is the considerable time difference.
So we emailed occasionally and even more occasionally arranged for brief phone calls (with minimal success, as I remember it), but mostly opted for one of the more old fashioned technologies available to us: writing letters.
We committed to writing each other a brief note each day, which we would collect and send weekly. So just about every seven to ten days we would receive a collection of diary entries of a sort that allowed us to share in all the minutia and monotony that in the end is the very essence of intimacy.
In the years to come, of course, we would finish school and get married, and have lived, both separately and together, in six different places. And at each stop along the way those boxes of letters have come with us, as a reminder of that semester and a testament to the power of those slowly written words that we both agree allowed our relationship to continue.
Our experience that year has also shaped how I understand the fact that a good bit of the New Testament is letters. Mail. Correspondence between two people, or one person and a group of people, written by hand and sent off into the world in a humble but nonetheless remarkable faith that it would get where and to whom it is intended, and that they would receive the words with all the necessary grace and understanding.
Most of these letters are of course attributed to Paul and are addressed either to congregations he founded and knew well, or that he hoped to one day visit. In other cases they seem to be more general letters he wrote with the expectation that they would be shared with others.
Some of them address local concerns and conflicts. Others share intimate details of Paul’s own life and ministry. At times they can even read like love letters, either to a specific congregation, or in the case of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, to the Church universal.
Over the course of these five weeks in August, as we all return not only from our summer travels, but a much longer season of separation due to this pandemic that does not seem to be going away, we’ll take an extended look at this Letter to the Ephesians. In it, Paul makes a beautiful and compelling case for the church in the world, reminding them of what they hold dear and what holds them dearly. Filled with hymns and prayers from the early church, the letter often reads like poetry, as Paul woos them into faith in the presence of Christ among them and the gift they have to offer each other and the world.
As we regather after a season of separation, it’s my hope that we would receive these ancient words with the same intimacy with which they were first written, and that after this long and at times difficult season apart, we too might be wooed in the same way.