While in college, I spent a semester in Paris—an era before email, cell phones with international calling, or WhatsApp. One thing kept me from unbearable homesickness—letters from my dad. Now that my dad has passed, I would do anything to be able to receive another one of his letters. Despite my dad’s long hours and pressures that often consumed him, he made time to sit down with pen and paper and write to me. His letters made me laugh, as well as cry—they were a great reminder that I was loved and missed. And more than anything, they served to encourage me.
In this age of texts, Facebook messaging and tweeting, a personal letter is rare. But is there anyone who doesn’t like to receive one? As I have been reading through some of the Epistles in the New Testament, I have often wondered what it must have been like to be a recipient of one of the Apostle Paul’s letters. The word epistle comes from the Greek word epistole that means “letter” or “message.” Epistles were a primary form of written communication in the ancient world, especially during New Testament times. Letters were the mode of communication that the Apostle Paul used to reach the new believers he left behind as he travelled throughout parts of Asia, southern Europe, and the Middle East. I am sure it was difficult for Paul to leave the “baby” congregations knowing the challenges they faced—influences from the secular world as well as persecution. These real letters addressed specific issues and problems that a local church or pastor was facing. While we don’t know whether Paul personally wrote or dictated them, nonetheless, the letters reveal his heart for the people.
When I left Ethiopia both last and this year, I had mixed emotions, and certainly a glimpse into what Paul may have been feeling when he left those with whom he had developed a relationship. One of the assignments of our team was to help train and encourage women from the local churches to mentor older teenage girls from a government-run orphanage. Leaving the women was difficult for many reasons. They had many questions—how would the girls react to their involvement in their lives, how would they balance their own lives (children, spouses and jobs) with this new time commitment? And they still had many basic questions as to what “mentoring” would involve. In fact, the word, “mentor” does not exist in the Amharic language! They were left with the hard work. We were leaving. What could we do?
Orphan Care Ethiopia (a philanthropic, not-for-profit organization established to improve the lives of orphans in Ethiopia) has continued its work with on-the-ground practical training, but our team wanted to stay involved relationally. A pen pal program became our solution. Scripture is clear that as followers of Christ we are meant to be encouragers.
“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”
1 Thessalonians 5:11
“And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” Hebrews 10:24-25
Over the past year, a group of women have each been writing a short letter of encouragement from God’s Word to an assigned mentor. These letters are intended to remind them that someone is praying and acknowledging the important work that they are doing. Typically, I collect and bundle the letters to be sent all together with someone traveling from our church to Ethiopia. In August, I was able to deliver them myself. I witnessed first-hand the excitement that the women experience receiving these notes. It was reminiscent of the same excitement I had upon receiving my dad’s letters. A simple gesture can have tremendous value.
Who could you write to today who might benefit from encouragement? My dad’s letters always came at the time I most needed them. I know that we can trust the Holy Spirit to a similar impact with a letter you write. And our obedience has a blessing for us—God’s peace.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.” 2 Corinthians 13:11
(I am still looking for pen pals for the mentors in Ethiopia. It doesn’t take much time or commitment. If you feel a prompting to help, please email me either through this website or by email—firstname.lastname@example.org)