Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 3:6-13
A little over five years ago, I led a retreat for Jr. High students. As part of that retreat one of the activities was for the youth to write a letter to themselves. The intention is they write about something they were struggling with in their life at that moment. They were then supposed to be intentional about praying about that struggle. Then after six months, I would mail their letter to them so they could see just how things had changed and how God might have responded to their prayers. However, I was shocked by what I learned at the end of that activity. Not a single one of those teenagers knew how to address a letter. To a person they all did it wrong, and more than one did not even know their zip code. Of course, why would they? Even five years ago, something as archaic as a letter was completely irrelevant to the life of a young teenager. Letter writing was replaced by email, and for personal correspondence email has been replaced by text messages and snapchat. Letter writing used to be one of the primary ways we connected and maintained relationships. Letter writing took time. When someone wrote a letter, it was an investment in the relationship. The letter communicated information, but a personal correspondence also communicated that I care enough about you to take the time to write this. Social media may keep us more connected than ever before, but it is a much more superficial connection. Liking someone’s picture and commenting “good pic” is not quite the same thing. Today though, letter writing is a dying art and I think we are all the poorer for it. In fact, this is backed up by some research. In 1985 a study was done that found on average people had three people they considered confidants or close friends. When the study was repeated in 2011, this number had dropped to two. Another study, this one from 2016, found that we have the most friends in our early twenties, and from that point on the number of people we consider our friends drops throughout our lives.
The reason for this is friendship requires work and investment. One of the researchers for this study, Robin Dunbar, stated “"Particularly with friendships, if you don't invest in them or see those friends, they will decay and quite rapidly drop." I like the idea that a friendship is really just an investment in a person. It is caring enough about them to intentionally spend time with them and on them. It is deeply ironic that we live in the most connected time in human history. Seriously, on my phone there are nine different ways to communicate with me. Despite that though, people truly do struggle more to make and maintain friendships now more than ever before. I think this is because we have traded true investment for convenient, superficial connection.
We are the beginning of Advent and the beginning of the cultural Christmas season. So much of this time is wrapped up in the idea of family, friends, and being merry together. For some there is a lot of comfort in the thought “I’ll be home for Christmas” but for others it is a thought of melancholy because their thoughts finish the line “if only in my dreams.” One of the things this causes a lot of people to confront this time of the year is that there are relationships with longtime friends that have faded and there are family relationships that are strained. If we are being honest many of us are in that boat. On the other side, some of you are incredible at taking the time to invest and maintain friendships and other relationships. In the very least we all have a relationship in our lives that we know, deep down, we have not been investing in like we probably should. This morning’s scripture from Thessalonians points us in the right direction to get those relationships back on track.
This morning’s scripture comes from 1 Thessalonians. While Paul may have written earlier letters to churches, this is chronologically the first of the epistles that Paul wrote in the Bible. Like all good letters, this one was an investment in the relationship Paul had built with the church. Writing this letter was also a necessity if Paul wanted to keep that relationship alive. In some of the places Paul visited, such as Ephesus, he stayed for a long time and he was able to really establish himself and build relationships. However, that was not the case in Thessalonica. We know from Acts, that because some agitators told the city officials that Paul was leading people to follow a figure other than Caesar, he was forced to leave. However, the budding church in the city was still important to him so he took the time to communicate that by writing this letter. Towards the end of 1 Thessalonians, Paul does address a theological question they had but for the most the letter is meant to encourage the Thessalonians. It shows he is invested in their success. However, since a relationship goes two ways, there are also parts in 1 Thessalonians where Paul informs the recipients about what he has been up to and doing since he left. This morning’s scripture and the entirety of 1Thessalonians is part of Paul’s attempt to intentionally strengthen and maintain his relationship with the Thessalonian church.
Again, this is something that I think we can probably all do a better job at, and Paul gives us two examples in this morning’s scripture. The first is that he invested the time. This morning’s scripture states that Timothy, Paul’s protégé, had checked in with the Thessalonians. They were getting some missionary support and leadership, Paul did not have to write them, but he took the time to do so. Not only did he invest the time, he invested the resources. While they were not quite to the level of luxury goods, writing materials, were not as cheap and readily available as they are today. To maintain a relationship with the Thessalonians, Paul had to be willing to take the time to do so.
This is true for us as well. It is so easy for us to justify not taking the time, by saying we are too busy. But we know that is not entirely true don’t we? Friendships, family relationships, if we are serious about it then we have to invest in it. This was visually demonstrated to me last year when I attended The Orange Conference. One of the resources the curriculum group offers for parents is called Phase. One of the concepts of this curriculum is from the time a child is born, to the time they graduate high school a parent has 936 weeks with them. One of the major points of this curriculum is that even though the days of parenthood are long, the years are short. The time to invest in children and build relationships with them will pass us by, if we are not intentional about it. To illustrate this point they had large jars of marbles, with each marble representing a week. These jars showed how full the jar was at various ages. As my son approaches nine, that means the jar of time is half empty, and I think about that a lot.
This concept does not apply just to parent-child relationships. Every week is another marble of our time gone. How many marbles do we go by and let our relationships with our friends, our neighbors, and our families lapse because we claim we are too busy? Maintaining relationships is important, and to do that we have to be willing to take the time to communicate to others, you are important to me.
There are times though when a lot of time has passed, there are times when a friendship that use to mean the world to us as faded to almost non-existence, and there are times where family relationships are strained and it’s complicated. The second example Paul gives us, is especially helpful for those times. In this morning’s scripture Paul prays for the Thessalonians. He thanks God for them, he expresses his desire to invest more time into their relationship, and he prays God’s blessing be upon them. For the relationships we have that are faded or strained, one of the best ways to rekindle and repair them is through prayer. The reality is that if we are regularly praying for something, then we are invested in it. If we regularly pray for other people, then we naturally become invested in their wellbeing. It is not much of a step to go from being invested in the wellbeing of a person to being willing to invest our time and energy in our relationship with them. If there is someone we know we have let fall through the cracks in our lives then the perfect starting point for repairing and reviving that relationship is by praying for them.
Prayer can do more than change our hearts, it can have a direct impact on the people we are praying for. Prayer truly can heal, repair, and even restore broken relationships. A year ago on their official blog page, the organization Compassion International shared a story that shows this. Compassion International is a charity dedicated to providing for children in the developing world, and this story comes from one of the children being sponsored through Compassion. Hurley’s father Joey was not a nice man. In the area of the Philippines where they lived Joey was known as the “king of bad news”. If someone wanted drugs or felt they needed someone roughed up they came to Joey to get it done. Through the support of Compassion, Hurley and his siblings got the support they needed. They were also taught about Jesus and God’s love. At home though, things did not improve. In addition to not being nice, Joey was an abusive husband. Eventually he hit too hard, and fearing for her life his wife, and the mother of Hurley fled. At just eight years old Hurley was left to care and fend for his siblings. During this time he prayed. He especially prayed for his parents. Finally, he decided that there was only place he felt truly safe: church. When his dad came home, Hurley took Joey by the hand and began leading him to church. Despite threats of punishment, the young boy was insistent and he continued to pull his dad long along. When they entered the church, God answered the prayers of Hurley. The Holy Spirit broke through, and the king of pain broke down in tears, desperate to change from his evil ways. He accepted Christ as Lord and Savior that day. A couple of months later his wife, Ritchelle, returned home, and she reported, “I came home to a changed man. My husband was a different person completely. Our son led us to the Lord.”
We do not write letters much anymore, but maybe that should change. If your hand writing is practically unreadable like mine, then find another way to reach out and express that you care. Friendships and other relationships take investment and they take work. During Advent we prepare ourselves to accept and celebrate the reality that God was willing to invest in us. God’s desire to say “I’m not giving up on you” to us was so great that he sent his own son into our world. May we be willing to communicate to others something similar. Through our prayers and the way we spend our time may we communicate to others “I’m not giving up on you”, I care for you, and I am still here for you. This Advent, I challenge you to reach out to that old friend who you have not talked to for in a while, or take steps to repair that strained family relationship. If we do then I think we will find our faded friendships have a bit more color again, our strained relationships are calmer, and “it’s complicated” will be a lot less so. I think, we will find that perhaps that is the best Christmas present we can give to ourselves.