Life consists of seasons – of birth and death; of joy and sadness; of silence and speech; and of deep issues and comparatively trivial issues (see Eccles.3:1-8). Yet, in a real sense, nothing we do is trivial. A cup of cold water given to a little one, as a Christian act, will not go unrewarded (Matt.10:42). In his blindness, John Milton wondered how he could serve God compared to those who travelled over land and sea to make Him known. However, he rightly concluded his sonnet with: ‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’

            Apparently trivial acts can have everlasting consequences. On many occasions I have tried to argue the Christian case to unbelievers, and often to little effect. One of my most successful efforts was, in a phone conversation, to recommend J. I. Packer’s Knowing God to a friend. He later thanked me and said that it had changed his life. I had paid so little attention to what I had said that I had quite forgotten what must have taken about thirty seconds.

            The death of Emily has no doubt made me rather hyper-sensitive about greetings. ‘How are you?’ became intrusive. It is usually just a formal, even non-descript, greeting, not really meaning what it says. One is expected to reply: ‘Fine’, and press on with life. I would feel wounded, and half-inclined to tell the poor greeter about Emily. At times this may have been appropriate; at other times it was not; but the question always seemed barbed. Once, I was in the post office, and the woman behind the counter, whom I had not seen before, gushed at me, as she did to all customers: ‘And you have yourself a wonderful day, darling.’ I hate to think what I looked like in response, but I would almost have rather had her attack me with a knife. The time was not right for ‘a good day’ and certainly not ‘a good day’ with syrup added.

            The greeting of Boaz to his reapers in the book of Ruth took on an almost intense meaning. Boaz said to them: ‘The Lord be with you!’ And they answered: ‘The Lord bless you’ (Ruth2:4). It seems so healthy and life-enhancing. It reflects a brotherly and godly attitude on the part of Boaz to all his workers, not just Ruth. The same sort of attitude is found in Job (see Job 31:13-15).

The great theologian of the New Testament church was undoubtedly the apostle Paul; and his epistle to the Romans was, in Luther’s words, ‘the chief book of the New Testament’. Yet the last chapter, Romans 16, is not so much full of doctrine and commands as greetings. There are some 26 names mentioned, and eight appear to belong to women. John Murray, a conservative Scotsman raised in the Free Presbyterian Church, commented that there was ‘an unnecessary reserve’ in the Western Church – which can, no doubt, be reflected in our greetings.

            So much in life depends on context. ‘How are you?’ or ‘Have a good day’ are harmless enough, and to feel aggrieved at them – as I almost was – is unwarranted. Life cannot consist of deep and meaningful conversations whenever we open our mouths, especially to comparative strangers. But we do many things thoughtlessly, and our greetings can be quite thoughtless. And for all my new awareness, and the inspiration of Ruth 2:4, not much has changed.

We struggle to get the words and the tone right. A usual, Charles Wesley expressed it well:

Steadfast may we cleave to Thee,

            Love, the mystic union be;

            Join our faithful spirits, join

            Each to each, and all to Thee.

In the new heaven and new earth, the greetings will more surely echo Ruth 2:4, but in a perfect key.

– Peter Barnes