“A well-presented letter will show the outside world that you and your company are professional, capable and on the ball. On the other hand, a badly laid-out letter that is full of grammatical and spelling errors, and takes an age to get to the oint is irritating and time-consuming to deal with and, above all, bad public relations.”
So runs the advice in Louise Bostock’s Office Handbook.
“It is desirable,” she goes on to say, “that your layout and punctuation are consistent …”
Body of letter
Position or Company name
Conventions in letter-writing are nothing new.
In a remarkable discovery at Vindalanda, one of the major forts on Hadrian’s Wall literally hundreds and thousands of letters have been discovered written from as far away as North Africa and Syria from family to relations posted to the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire. There are personal letters. There are formal letters. They follow the conventions of the ancient world – and we shall be taking a look at them in our visit to the British Museum in May. They were written only thirty or forty years after Paul was writing his letters.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, to discover that Paul follows the conventions of his day in writing his wonderful letters. There is a consistency through all his letters and they make for remarkable reading.
They are written to churches and to individuals, like the church in Colossae and the individual, Philemon, in whose house the church met.
And they make you think!
His letter to Colossians starts quite formally with an identification of the writer
From Paul, who by God's will is an apostle of Christ Jesus, and from our brother Timothy
Then comes the identification of who the letter is addressed to … there’s a warmth in Paul’s words …
To God's people in Colossae, who are our faithful brothers and sisters in union with Christ:
Then comes a greeting, a blessing, a moment’s prayer …
May God our Father give you grace and peace.
Stand in the courtyard at Witcombe Roman Villa and imagine what it must have been like to gather together in Philemon’s house in Colossae with all the members of that church, young and old, to hear the letter read out. These were words for you!
Just imagine, for a moment … what if … Paul were writing to our church on the eve of our annual meeting on Thursday. What would Paul say to us? Maybe we can draw some thoughts from Colossians that speak very much to our church as we gather together to mark the passing of another year in the church’s life.
Paul’s letters invariably start with prayer.
We miss Adrian. Our thoughts and prayers are very much with Katherine, with Rosamunde and Mark. Over the years Adrian has shared with us his passionate commitment as a Christian to Christian Aid, to the care of Prisoners, to people in need. It is in the last couple of years that he has shared with us a passion we need very much to continue to take to heart and develop. It was at a Deacons meeting that he posed the question, “Are we a praying church?” When we shared responsibilities among the deacons, he took the responsibility of prayer. Two meetings ago, he knew that he would be standing down as he had served his six years as a deacon. He told us that he would not be standing again. He handed round a paper for all of us, reflecting on the importance of one of the deacons taking responsibility for prayer in the life of the church, so that we could grow as a praying church.
Imagine a letter to Highbury that’s precious to us … and it will begin with prayer. But notice the prayer Paul begins with. He invariably begins with prayer of thanksgiving. For in each church he writes to, there is much to give thanks for.
As we gather together in our church meeting on Thursday there is much to give thanks for. All the work that has been done by so many over the last year … this year we say a big thank you to Jean and Roger for all the work they have done as Church Secretary. So many things to give thanks for.
Paul’s thanks go deeper than that. His prayer prompts us to think more deeply about what it is we give thanks for in our church here at Highbury.
We always give thanks to God,
the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
when we pray for you.
For we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus
and of your love for all God's people.
When the true message, the Good News, first came to you,
you heard about the hope it offers
So your faith and love are based on what you hope for,
which is kept safe for you in heaven.
If Paul were to look at our church family, would he be able to make that prayer of thanksgiving. I would stick my neck out and say ‘yes’ to that. That is what’s special. Our faith could be deeper, our love more extensive, our hope more secure … but with all God’s people down through the ages, with those folk at Colossae we share a faith in Christ Jesus and a love for all God’s people. That faith and that love are based on what we hope for, something that is kept safe for us in heaven.
What a wonderful thought.
Much to give thanks for in our church. But much to pray for as well. We are all too conscious that we need to strengthen our faith, develop our love and hold fast to that hope even especially when times are difficult.
It is good not only to pray as a church and to be a praying church. It is good also to know that people are praying for us. Paul’s prayer for that church in Colossae is his prayer for our church as well. For us, here at Highbury. It’s wonderful to think people are praying these words for us.
For this reason we have always prayed for you,
ever since we heard about you.
We ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will,
with all the wisdom and understanding that his Spirit gives.
Then you will be able to live as the Lord wants
and will always do what pleases him.
Your lives will produce all kinds of good deeds,
and you will grow in your knowledge of God.
May you be made strong
with all the strength which comes from his glorious power,
so that you may be able to endure everything with patience.
And with joy give thanks to the Father,
who has made you fit to have your share
of what God has reserved for his people
in the kingdom of light.
This is the prayer for us to take into our Annual Meeting on Thursday. Of course we want to pray for God’s blessing on our new Church Secretary and on those who will join our Diaconate; of course we want to seek God’s blessing on Becky Hartwell as she joins us as our Pastoral Assistant. We want to seek God’s blessing on the work we do as a church …
The prayer is that we be filled with the knowledge of God’s will, with the wisdom and understanding that only God’s Spirit can give.
The prayer is that we be doers of God’s word and will … living as God wants us to live, doing what pleases him. It becomes a circle. As our lives bear the fruit of the Spirit’s working within us and produce good deeds we will grow in the knowledge of God … and the circle begins all over again.
Tough times come upon us, often unexpectedly. The prayer is we have strength to endure everything with patience, that strength that comes not from within ourselves but from God’s glorious power.
The prayer for us is that in all of this we have joy, the joy that comes from being part of God’s people, and belonging in a world of darkness to God’s glorious kingdom of light.
What a wonderful prayer.
From prayer Paul turns in each of his letters to the substance of his message. Often it is developed at some length. Always it finds its focus in Jesus Christ.
Here the substance of that message can be summed up quite simply:
He rescued us from the power of darkness
and brought us safe into the kingdom of his dear Son,
by whom we are set free,
our sins are forgiven.
Salvation, freedom, forgiveness – that’s what our Christian faith is all about …
As we are forgiven, as we are set free, the salvation given us by God brings us safe into the kingdom of his dear Son. That’s not just a hope for the hereafter. It’s a reality in the here and now. Here and now we belong to the kingdom, we are kingdom people, living under God’s rule in our lives.
In her Office Handbook, Louise Bostock finishes the section on letter writing with some letter writing tips.
Keep your letters short and to the point!
Make sure that your letter starts with a statement of intent and ends with a request or promise of action.
Brevity may not have been one of Paul’s strong points.
But his letters are always rounded off with a request, with a call to action.
If we are forgiven, set free, safe under God’s rule, part of God’s kingdom that means we have to live our lives in a certain kind of way. There’s a call to action from Paul that speaks directly into our church life here in Highbury at our Annual Meeting.
Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance, forgiveness – these make up the set of clothes we are to wear as Christian people loved and chosen by God.
Paul was writing this letter from his imprisonment in Rome. He had no time for the passing fashions of the day he was all too aware of in what was in many ways a decadent city. He wanted Christian people to put on a different set of clothes. And he wanted those clothes to be tied together with a belt of love – which ‘binds all things together in perfect unity.
This is a call to action for our church as we embark on a new year in the church’s life.
You are the people of God;
he loved you and chose you for his own.
you must clothe yourselves with
Be tolerant with one another
and forgive one another
whenever any of you has a complaint against someone else.
You must forgive one another just as the Lord has forgiven you.
And to all these qualities
which binds all things together in perfect unity.
The peace that Christ gives
is to guide you in the decisions you make;
for it is to this peace
that God has called you together in the one body.
And be thankful.
Christ's message in all its richness must live in your hearts.
Teach and instruct each other with all wisdom.
Sing psalms, hymns, and sacred songs;
sing to God with thanksgiving in your hearts.
Everything you do or say, then,
should be done in the name of the Lord Jesus,
as you give thanks through him to God the Father.
That’s the measure of what we are called to do. Faced with any decision, any uncertainty let’s make sure that everything we do or say be done in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Francis Bacon, in his essay ‘Of Cunning’ reserves ‘cunning’ in a letter to the postscript. He says this,
“When he wrote a letter, he would put that which was most material in the postscript, as if it had been a by-matter.” ~Francis Bacon, "Of Cunning," Essays
The Quote Garden Website on letter writing came up with an even more pointed comment about postscripts from Richard Steele, writing in the Spectator.
A woman seldom writes her Mind, but in her Postscript. ~Richard Steele, Spectator
Paul’s letters usually end with something of a Postscript, final very personal greetings. The sting is in the tale of the letter to the Colossians. I am going to suggest that there is a sting in the tale of the letter to Highbury Church for our Annual Meeting as well.
Paul’s greetings towards the end of Colossians seem innocuous enough at first sight.
Our dear brother Tychicus,
who is a faithful worker and fellow-servant in the Lord's work,
will give you all the news about me.
That is why I am sending him to you,
in order to cheer you up by telling you how all of us are getting on.
With him goes Onesimus, that dear and faithful brother, who belongs to your group.
They will tell you everything that is happening here.
“Onesimus, part of your group!” Up to that point Philemon, in whose house the church of Colossae had gathered to listen to the reading of Paul’s letter, had nodded in gentle agreement.
Love, forgiveness, tolerance He could go along with all of that. He had no difficulty with any of it.
But Onesimus. He was the runaway slave who had let him down and let his whole family down. Forgiveness for Onesimus – that was impossible.
Then it was that Tychicus came over to Philemon – he had a personal letter to him. Philemon opened it … it was a very personal letter. It was all about Philemon and Onesimus.
Paul knew that Philemon had something very personal inside him that he needed to sort out – and Paul challenged him. Sort it. Welcome Onesimus back, no longer as a slave, but as a brother in Christ.
Philemon knew there was nothing else for it. His heart was warmed. His specific need was addressed.
It’s all very well imagining what a letter to Highbury Church would say. What is the personal thing that each of us needs to hear. Only one person knows that – it’s you and it’s me. We each need to do something about it. What’s Paul’s personal Philemon letter to you? What is that letter to me? What is the specific thing we must address? Like Philemon let’s be big enough to address it.
One convention you see in those Vindalanda letters is that people often used a scribe to write their letters – but then they would add a personal greeting in their own handwriting.
As Paul winds up his letter he does just that. He takes pen in hand and inscribes his own signature.
With my own hand I write this: Greetings from Paul. Do not forget my chains!
And then comes one final prayer. Blink and you’ve missed it. But it contains that one word Paul wants to leave that church in Colossae with. It’s the one word that counts more than anything else for us here in Highbury. It is the word ‘grace’ How much we are strengthened by it as it is given us by God. How much we need it in our love for one another.
I have been reading The Testing of Hearts, a Journal written by Donald Nicholl in the short time from his diagnosis with a serious cancer to his death. It makes moving reading. As he comes to the end he says …
Everything, everything depends on God.
All is Grace.
… you might add that one word, Grace, says it all. So it is that Paul’s prayer for all of us and for each of us at Highbury is simply this …
May God's grace be with you.