Disheveled Theologian: Christmas letters are to conversations as prayer is to God

O'Donnell Gretchen

For 25 years, I’ve sent out Christmas letters to friends and family. It’s a pretty big deal. My list is up to 183. This year, weirdly, I wasn’t feeling motivated to write a letter to include with our photo card. In fact, I decided not to do it.

I then proceeded to message several friends, asking for their new addresses. I received timely replies and three out of four of them said some version of, “I always love reading your letter!” Argh! What was I to do? Being a people pleaser, the guilt sank down upon me. I couldn’t take it, so I wrote a letter and I had fun doing so.

There are several people I send to whom I have completely lost touch with other than at Christmas. One of them, Ruth, stopped sending cards a few years ago. She was well into her 90’s, I’d guess. I understood. Every year since then as I’ve addressed her envelope, I’ve wondered, “Is this the year this will be returned?”

This year was, indeed, the year. “Not deliverable as addressed. Unable to forward,” the yellow United States Post Office label read. (Ah, the theology therein! It’s hard to forward mail to heaven.) My heart sank when I saw her returned card in the pile of mail. I quickly messaged a friend from her church and she replied that yes, Ruth went home to be with Jesus in July. “She was a remarkable woman and one we were so thankful to have known,” she wrote.

Tears filled my eyes. I barely knew Ruth, really, but she’d helped me when I was facing a difficult situation in my life, offering support and prayer and understanding and I will forever be grateful for that. Her Christmas cards had always been full of wisdom, pointing to God in everything she said.


When I married into my husband’s family, his aunt gave me a Christmas address book to keep track not only of addresses but also to track to whom I wrote — and from whom I received — cards. This year, after 22 years, the pages were filled and I re-wrote every single entry. The clean pages are bizarre. No white-out. No scribbled changes. I actually miss the old entries, each a story of my friends’ lives through the years. So many moves. New last names. Children, added in the margins. And deaths, like Ruth’s. I pray for each person as I address their envelopes. Sometimes I forget, I admit. But I try. These are my friends, after all, and I smile at each and every name.

Staying in touch in this old-fashioned way matters to me, a lot. In this world of instant messaging, somehow it feels even more important. Sure, a lot of the people I send letters to know what’s going on in my life through social media, but that’s not the point. The point is to reflect. To share. To welcome these people I care about into my life. And to do it in a way that brings humor and honesty and points to that wee tiny baby, to remind us that he, Jesus, is the reason we celebrate.

As the new year begins, let’s keep in touch. With each other, yes, but even more importantly, with Jesus. He, even more than any person, deserves our attention. A Christmas letter is, to me, a conversation. I’m telling the recipient my side of the story. It’s up to them to give me theirs. That’s exactly what prayer is like. We talk to God, give him our side of the conversation, and it’s up to him to reply through our Bible readings, through the Holy Spirit nudging us, through sermons and Bible studies, and through Godly wisdom from saintly friends.

People like my friend Ruth who, though I have not seen her in years and won’t until I get to heaven, leave marks on our lives, helping to make us into the people God wants us to be.

“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” Romans 12:12 NIV

Gretchen O’Donnell is a freelance writer who lives in Worthington with her husband and three children. She has a master’s degree from Bethel Seminary and enjoys writing about the things she sees and applying theological truths to everyday situations. Her column, The Disheveled Theologian, is published weekly. Her email is .

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