catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 7 :: 2008.04.04 — 2008.04.18


Letters from the saints

My house and office are tidy.  Very tidy. Colleagues and friends comment on my organization and on my clean desk.   People ask for advice about dealing with clutter.  But beneath this veneer, I’m a closet pack rat.  A keeper of outdated, useless things of a particular type.

I keep letters. You know, notes people have hand-written on paper or cards.  I have all the love notes my boyfriend Bobby wrote to me in seventh grade, though to my everlasting shame the misspelled words are circled so I could correct him later.  I have all the cards from each of my children’s births, kept in separate boxes or Ziploc bags.  Some of the signatures aren’t even familiar to me anymore—who are Don and Nancy, anyway?  I have cards from birthdays and Christmas and from just-because. I don’t keep all the cards I receive, though—they have to have something written in them.  Something to hang onto.

The most precious letters are the ones my students have sent over the years.  I’ve taught college for 11 years now, which translates into roughly 2,200 students and I once knew all of their names.  Only a tiny percentage ever write to me after graduation, and of those who do, most use e-mail (I keep those too, but it’s not the same).  Their letters thank me for writing a reference letter or to let me know they have gotten a new job or were accepted to graduate school.  Best of all, they often say that somewhere along the way, in a class or in a conversation, I made a difference in their lives.  
Surely it’s nice to receive appreciative notes, to feel good about one’s work, but to keep these notes around for years seems, well, desperate.  Pathetic, really.  Surely I have enough self-confidence to acknowledge and then leave these kindnesses behind.  Surely I don’t need concrete evidence that my efforts have had some effect.  Surely I realize that God is the one making the difference here, and he’s apparently doing a fine job of it despite my bumbled words and missed opportunities.  Surely this beat-up manila folder could be doing other things with its life.

But I do need them; maybe we all do.  In the Old Testament, God tells the Israelites over and over to remember their history and God’s work amongst them.  We are forgetful creatures, prone to downplaying good news and preferring to grumble (and faculty members, highly trained in critical thinking and sub-text analysis, can be an especially stiff-necked lot).  We forget that the Lord has work for us to be doing and that he is with us in all we do.  Fortunately, God made us a communal people—we need others to help us remember.  We need people to remind us, to encourage us, to cheer us on when we would rather throw in the towel and run away from tough times.

I don’t read my file of student letters often.  But behind me as I sit at my desk, just over my left shoulder, is a file that constantly murmurs a cheer. It represents a cloud of witnesses that helps me persevere and helps me face the day with gladness.  These young saints’ cheers are heartfelt and keep me on track when I’m tired and weary.  Pathetic?  Maybe.  But maybe no more so than any other stumbling, bumbling, grumbling servant of Christ, who so easily forgets that God and his saints are behind us, beside us and before us.

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