My father, 84 years old, is a man of letters. Not simply in the traditional sense. He is not simply an author or a scholar, but someone who really writes letters.
His weekly correspondences began in 1989, hand written in his distinctive style of fast, flowing capital letters. Then the original was placed in a Xerox machine and the 10 or 15 copies were folded into individual envelopes, sealed, addressed, stamped and mailed.
Originally, they went to family members. Five kids who had grown and scattered, grandparents who were in Alabama and Tennessee, and a few aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews. The letters were one or two pages long and, years before the internet and social media, kept everyone connected. We knew when a baby was coming, a birthday party happened, a new job was accepted, or someone was moving to another town. We learned when an old graying dog passed away, when illness visited, or when an emergency room visit resulted in stitches or located a broken bone. His letters were a second-hand way of busy lives, in remote locations, staying in touch. And one arrived in the mail, every week.
And now, almost 30 years later, they are still coming. The recipient list eventually grew to include additional relatives and family friends, both near and far. Grandkids in Chicago, Baton Rouge, Sydney, and Athens (Georgia), who were born years after the first letter was written, now share them with their own young families. The letters went from handwritten to typed. When my father retired at age 70, became a Methodist minister and moved to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, the letters continued via email. By age 80 he decided that both preaching and managing a thriving church were too much. He retired again, this time to Florida.
However, he missed writing a Sunday sermon and sharing it with those eager to listen. So now, four years later, every week we receive an email, usually about 8 p.m. on Sunday. It now contains not one but two attachments: the first a letter keeping everyone up to date on family and friend activities, the other his sermon. And, get this, the mailing list is just shy of 100. And it keeps growing. When folks whose lives he has touched find out about the weekly letter, they always exclaim, “Oh, I want to get it!” So, they do – and in a sense, they join our family.
As time passes, it is not just the number of people who receive Dad’s letter that have grown; he has grown. He is freed by years and wisdom to comment unfiltered on what he observes in the world around him. This past week he based his sermon on a news article describing the desperate lives of the families in the migrant caravan fleeing the dangerous conditions of their homes. The article emphasized the welcoming love and support the caravan found in towns along the way, often from those just as poor.
I think my Dad feels a kinship with those who help, not those who judge. I think my Dad sees the Old Testament as a sacred book of historical knowledge and spiritual guidance. And I am pretty sure he considers the New Testament as the part of the Bible that tells us how to live.
He closes his letter this week talking about the individuals and communities who, along the way, have helped the poor families and desperate souls in the migrant caravan survive the scorn and conditions that he knows he will never have to endure:
“I’m looking forward to seeing these folks in heaven as well as others who operate from their hearts to help the needy. In relation to those who demean people in desperate circumstances and close their hearts and pocketbooks in relation to those in need, according to what Jesus says, they better enjoy it while they’ve got it!
Matthew 25:41, ‘Depart from me you are cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you did not invite me in.
They will answer ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger and not help you.’ He will reply, ‘Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”
And then Dad proved his final offering this week:
“I was reading of another refugee family fleeing for their baby’s life. Their names were Joseph, Mary and Jesus.”
Tim Osment works with a variety of local nonprofit organizations. He and his wife live in downtown Sylva.