Yesterday the mailman delivered an amazing mystery object right to my door. The moment I saw the envelope I was captivated. The outside of the letter informed me that the Holy Spirit had instructed someone to loan me something inside that would “turn things around for me!” It was something that I could use that would bring blessings. The back of the letter actually had a prayer printed on it that made reference to divine power, and a sealed prophecy in it that I should open the next day at sunset.
The letter, from an organization called Saint Matthew’s Churches (www.SMCprayer.org) is is easily the most interesting piece of mail that I have received at my home in ages. Clearing a table, I carefully opened the letter and documented its contents.
Inside it contained printed material filled with images and quotes discussing the power of the “holy, blessed, powerful, prosperous, biblical handkerchief” that can work miracles. It featured images of money, healed people, success, objects of wealth and prosperity. It included a paper facsimile of a handkerchief and and a two-page letter that explained what the handkerchief was and how it is to be used.
Finally, and most mysteriously, there was a folded and sealed letter with a picture of “white Jesus” on it. Text on the outside it said that it was “A Sign from the Lord About Your Future”—a sheet with prophecies in it that I shouldn’t open until I have completed the preparation of the prayer page and the prosperity handkerchief and placed it in the mail before sunset on the next day. An important notice on the outside instructed me to destroy the sacred prophecy unopened and unread if I don’t complete the instructions and mail the handkerchief back.
Are you kidding me! The letter was absolutely cool. I’ve never received a holy prophecy in the mail and especially one that involved completing a sacred task before sunset the next day. Most importantly it had an interesting aspect of the gift to it. The handkerchief was explicitly lent to me to be returned after completing a required ritual.
Well, you don’t give a spiritually empowered object—even if it looks like junk mail—to an anthropologist and not expect that they won’t follow the rules. So this afternoon, before the mailman returned to my home I read over the materials and followed the ritual. (I made some minor adjustments to avoid getting on their mailing list. I assume that God also would avoid getting on mailing lists.)
- Write your name and your most pressing problem in the center of the handkerchief
- Underneath write the name of someone you really love that needs God’s help. (While the letter didn’t specify, I assume this is the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible.)
- Then open your Bible to the book of Acts, Chapter 19 verses 11-12.
While the letter told me that if I didn’t have a Bible it would be OK (“God sees”), I thought I should do my best to get things right, so I went upstairs and dug out my old confirmation Bible from 1984.
Then the instructions presented the real magical moment:
- Lay the Faith Prosperity Handkerchief on the scripture and leave it there for seven minutes. (“7 is God’s perfect number.”)
- So, I went to my kitchen and got the kitchen timer, put the holy handkerchief in the Bible at Acts 19:11-12, set the timer to seven minutes and waited while the time ticked away.
As soon as the timer rang I promptly followed the instructions to fold up the handkerchief and the attached prayer sheet and put them in the prepaid mailing envelope. After sealing it I put it outside for the postal carrier to pick up this afternoon.
About an hour ago the mailman came and picked up the sacred return letter. Now, with only a short time until sunset, I am waiting for my chance to open the sheet of prophecies.
So shortly after dinner last night, with the sun already set, I prepared myself to open the sealed document containing “a sacred, spiritual prophecy.” On the outside an image of the familiar bearded “white Jesus,” with his arms spread appearing to people (his apostles?) welcomed me.
Upon opening the document I was struck immediately by the fonts, capitalization and underlined content of the page-long text. Framed as a text of Holy Spirit-inspired words—presumably by a member of the church—the text was WRITTEN IN MOSTLY ALL CAPS with various BOLDED SECTIONS and many parts underlined in red for emphasis. Some were BOLDED AND UNDERLINED for no reason that I could understand. The opening text informed me that people want spiritual guidance, but are looking in the wrong places. They need to look to God. And, that prophecy is not given to “make people curious” about the future, but to “motivate them.” Then the prophetic section began with, “MY CHILD…” and continued for three-fourths of a page making the following basic points:
- Time is moving quickly
- Your life has a greater purpose than you know
- I will reveal the mysteries
- You have a decision you need to make
- I am directing you now
- You need to carefully, consistently and persistently communicate with me
- Set new goals in your life
- You cannot be happy if you don’t change
- I will help you remove apathy, no longer feel inadequate and be enthusiastic
- You will regenerate power into your sprit
- You will have the power to “speak blessings into your own life”
- You must discover how to use your new power
- People around you will notices you learn to use these gifts
- You will feel the holy spirit and gain grater control of your present and future
- As you get closer to me your power will grow
- I will direct you and this may mean I direct you away from those who would damage my plan for you
- I have so much joy planned for you
- You need to be faithful and engage in regular “seed sowing”
- Think about the things in this prophecy
- It is great that you have returned the prosperity handkerchief by mail
So, my takeaways from this were: Time is short and there are things to do. Things need to change. I have the power, but need to figure out how to use it. As I learn to use my power people will notice. Regardless, God is working on things too, but will only tell me the full story in installments. This is going to be great, but I’m going to need to regularly sew my seed. In the context of the prayer letter that I sent yesterday, “seed sewing” refers to giving a cash donation.
So, this was personally a bit disappointing, because I was expecting a bit more in terms of the prophecy—especially given the ritual of the handkerchief. Also, the writing and style of the prophetic text sounds much closer to the label on a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap (I found a copy of the original text here) than a revelation from the almighty.
Up until just now I have pretty much taken this letter at face value as an interesting (albeit a bit kooky) mystery object. I took a brief break to look up a bit about the church and these letters on Wikipedia and was fascinated to learn that this organization, Saint Matthew’s Churches, is an evangelical revivalist “church by mail” that was established in the 1960’s by a Reverend James Ewing. Apparently they target their letters using census data and are accused of preying on low income and elderly people. Also, according to this post, apparently if one returns the letter they are opened up to a never-ending stream of mailed appeals for “seed donations” of money.
Evangelical believers aside—because I assume they would recognize this and immediately believe or dismiss it based on their belief system—how might it be received by others? Looking online I imagine that most just throw it away as junk mail. While I suppose if one is a stereotypical “lonely old person” or “low income person” who needs their life turned around, the mailings images and promises might entice a few. Still, however, the hokey graphics and poor grammar and writing style certainly signal that something is amiss. I found lots of folks online who joke about the letters or dismiss the correspondence outright as a “scam.”
Certainly, however, the letters on some level must be effective or they presumably wouldn’t generate millions of dollars in revenue for the church. (This is assuming that the people who work for the church aren’t simply believers who are bad at marketing.) So how about some observations on how this letter might function:
- The letter presents itself to the receiver as a divinely-inspired call. The wording on the envelope and the text inside expliclty tell the receiver that the message of the letter is for them or someone “connected with this home” who is in need.
- It is a call backed by many levels of authority. The call is made by divine intervention of God through the Holy Spirit to a “68-year old church” with ministers many of whom are “80 years old , or older.”
- The letter’s call requests a response. The message of the letter is that the person in need should respond to the call in order for the message to be received.
- The response requires ritual work. The response to the letter’s senders (and ultimately their divine director, the Holy Spirit) requires work—writing, praying and blessing.
- The ritual work creates multiple connections. The rules of the ritual work require the receiver to write their name and the name of someone they love together on an object provided by the letter’s sender (“the Holy Handkerchief”). This object is then ritually connected to God through a ritual infusion facilitated by direct physical contact to the text (“Word of God”) of the receiver’s own personal Bible. In a pretty simple ritual the letter’s receiver is connected to an actual loved one, a virtual church community and God all actuated by physical contact with their own Bible and prayers.
- The connections between the receiver, the church, and God are reinforced by multiple gifts. Marcel Mauss in his classic book, The Gift, he describes how social relationships between people are maintained by the circulation of objects. These objects connect through mutual flows of reciprocity. A gift object is given and received and the gift objects connect at a level that cannot be reduced to a financial arrangement. A gift can only be responded to by a return gift and to not respond in this way breaks the connection.The letter from Saint Matthew’s Churches specifically says that it is lending the “Bible Faith Prosperity Handkerchief.” As a loan from the church, the object of power must be returned to the giver in order that the connection to the church be made. And, the return of the loaned object is, at the same time, the key to a second gift—the prophesy given by God through the church.The gift of the prophesy is interesting because it is a church-mediated gift that informs the receiver of a third gift—that of the “power” given (a gift) by God, that is only actuated by the return gift of the receiver’s attention to God. (“careful, consistency and persistent” communication with God.)And, all of the giving and receiving of these multiple gifts can only continue if seed (money) for future gifts is freely given. In other words, one is not paying for any of these gifts–one is only “sowing seed.” (It is an interesting aside that even while a majority of recipients of these letters are surely urban dwellers, the metaphorical language of “sowing seed” is still a rural one.)
- The exchange of gifts is magical. Interestingly, in spite of the fact that the prophecy letter overtly says that spiritual guidance such as that offered by the letter, does not come from “wrong places” like “psychics, mediums and clairvoyants” the power of this letter works on some very similar principles. It opens with a call from the realm of the supernatural that requires a response. This response invokes mysterious supernatural powers through a specific formulas that claim to have concrete effects in the actual world.In fact, it was this magical formula that caught my attention. If it were just a letter from a church that wanted money I would have tossed it in the mail. Instead it demanded that I do ritual work and wait a day until after sunset(!) to get my response. I had to actively “power up” the sacred object with physical inscriptions (my name and that of someone I love), ritual incantations (prayer), and sympathetic magic (contact with a Bible). And then I had to “actively wait” until after sunset.
Yes, in the end I was disappointed by this whole thing, but the purpose of Mystery Objects is the curious sensation that they evoke and the opportunity to try and see things from a different perspective. In this sense, the Bible Faith Prosperity Handkerchief was a success!
(I’m just glad that I didn’t return it with any personally identifiable information on it. One letter from them is enough!)