The Ministry of Letter-writing
(From the Preface of "Intimate Letters on Personal Problems" J.R. Miller, 1914)
J.R. Miller, whom God called to Himself July 2, 1912, after a lifetime of ministry to others — was famous not only as author, editor and church builder — but also as a letter writer. And it was by his daily contact with people, in person and through the mails, that he was able to do the work which will make his name live as one who has served his fellows.
For years it was his habit on Sunday evenings, after the day's work was done, to make note of all the people of whom he had heard during the day to whom letters might do good. Of course the names of the sick went down on that list, as well as those who had recovered from sickness, those who had returned from a journey, and those who were about to leave home; those who were going to college, or parents who had heard good news from a son or a daughter at college — in fact, everyone into whose life had come some event of special importance. As soon as possible a letter was sent, with an appropriate word of sympathy, congratulation, cheer, or good wishes.
Then he kept a complete record of all the important dates in the lives of his people — birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and so forth — and he marked each of these by sending a short letter of remembrance.
As if this was not enough, when he heard from acquaintances, during the week, of sickness or death in a family with which he was acquainted — whether in his own town or in distant parts of America, or even in foreign countries — he seized the chance to write a letter. In fact, it was the rule of his life to send each day, at least one letter of cheer to someone who was in special need. Seldom, however, did he stop with one such letter; the day's mail from his office was frequently loaded with a dozen or more messages of cheer. The chance word with the street-car conductor, or the passenger who sat by his side, or the elevator boy, or the teller at the bank — would give him the hint that prompted a message. Perhaps the morning paper would tell him of someone who had been called to a position of honor; possibly a caller would casually mention the fact that a friend had just been married. Notes would be made of each of these opportunities for a helpful letter — and before the day was done, the message was on its way.
Once a visitor told Dr. Miller what one of these kindly letters had meant to him. Dr. Miller told the story himself in an article urging others to write such letters. It never occurred to him that friends would know at once that he wrote the letter of which the young man spoke. This is the story, with Dr. Miller's own comment: "Only yesterday a young man took from his pocket a letter which he had carried for five years and which he had read no doubt hundreds of times. It was written when he was in great perplexity of mind and was on the point of turning into the darkness of doubt and despair. He reached out his hands for help, writing to one he knew he could trust, and laying bare to him his heart's whole burden. He received a prompt answer which, if it did nothing else, at least brought to him the consciousness of human sympathy and interest. He was not alone. One cared for him. For the time, in the darkness, he could not see Christ — but he could see his human friend who stood close by him in love.
"The letter which came to him in answer to his heart's unburdening, proved the very word of Christ to him. For months it was all the gospel he could read. Its few strong, simple, confident sentences — were like anchor-chains to his soul amid the waves. At last all the darkness fled away, the storms were quieted, Christ himself was revealed once more in blessed, glorious light, and holy peace filled his soul.
"But it was the letter that saved him. It was the hand of Christ to him. Is it any wonder that he cherished it as the most sacred of all his treasures? It has been kept so long and read so often, that the paper is worn out. But no money would buy it from the young man."
"I can't understand how he could keep in touch with folks as he did," a business man said a few days after Miller's death. "I have, carefully laid away, a package of messages from him. Somehow he kept track of me from the time I took my first position. Every time my salary was increased, he wrote to me. There was a letter when I was married, and more letters on wedding anniversaries. When a child was born, when there was sickness in the home, when there were financial reverses, when we were rejoicing or sorrowing for almost any special reason — he wrote to us. And to think that he did no more for us, than for thousands of others, some of whom he had never seen!"
Dr. Miller wondered how it could be, that hundreds of people whose names he had never heard, were willing to confide in him and ask his counsel. Once he told his feeling in a letter:
"There is something very sacred in such experiences. One of the most uplifting things possible in human life is to be trusted, especially to have one come with questions and possibly troubles or difficulties, hoping and expecting to find light, comfort, or help. Nothing else in the world means quite so much to me as the fact that many people do thus put their confidence in me, taking my advice and counsel without question.
When Dr. Miller was asked to write a message as to the ministry of letter-writing, after speaking of the use the art may be to pastors, he said:
"Then others besides pastors may find many opportunities for helpfulness in letter-writing. It needs only a sensitivity which shall tell always when to write and to whom, and skill to write just the words that are needed, not too few, not too many, and never superficial; always from the heart; without platitudes, yet ever saying something worthwhile; free from sentimentality — but breathing always the spirit of love; in no case meddlesome or intrusive — but always sympathetic, inspired by the desire to be helpful, full of cheer.
"There is one kind of letter which we should never be guilty of writing — letters which would discourage, which would make the heart less brave for its tasks and struggles. It is a sin to be a discourager, yet there are some people who are forever committing this sin. When we write letters, we should always have something bright and uplifting to say. If we cannot write in this strain — we should put our letters into the wastebasket instead of into the mail box!
"When we write to those in sorrow, we need not dwell on the sad phases — our friends know these aspects of their trouble well enough already; our letter should rather bring its word of hope, something of God's wonderful comfort. When we send a letter to one who is ill — we are cruel if we say a word to make our friend more conscious of his illness — too much sympathy has precisely and only this effect. It will be far kinder if we try to make our sick friend forget his illness, and lift up his heart in hope and song.
"The art of letter-writing ought not to be buried away among lost arts. It ought to be one of the fine arts of the best Christian life. No matter how busy we are, there come moments when the greatest thing we can do, is to drop everything else and take time to write a letter to a child, to a young person at the parting of the ways, to one who is in sorrow or in struggle, or to one who is not yet clear as to his duty. It may prove the word in season for the weary. "
Dr. Miller 's belief in letter-writing as a helpful art was once shown by this message, sent to a correspondent:
"I am glad that you are able to write letters. You always write cheeringly and inspiringly. By the way, there is no form of ministry in which a person who is gifted for it, can do more good than in letter-writing. Have you seen the account of the newest league — the League of the Golden Pen? It is not a society with officers and enrollments and dues and all that — it is simply a league which a person makes with himself and his fellow members, promising to write at least one letter every month to some person who needs cheer and comfort, strength and help.
"I often think about Paul's prison life at Rome. When a man is shut away in prison, he is not supposed to have much opportunity of doing good. But Paul seems to have belonged to the League of the Golden Pen. At least we know that he wrote letters to many people. Four of these prison letters at least, we have preserved to us in the New Testament.
"A shut-in who cannot engage in the activities of Christian life — but is able to write letters, can send out continually inspiration and encouragement to those who need these helps. No one knows the full value of such letters — letters written to sick people, to those in sorrow, to those in special joy, to those who are discouraged or depressed, to those who need guidance and counsel.
"The other day a good woman came to my office and showed me a package of letters that I had written to her during a year or two when she was passing through difficult experiences — about twenty-five years ago. They were all letters meant to lift her out of her disheartenment, to put new hope in her heart, to show her the reality of God's comfort, and to help her to make the most of her circumstances. She told me how sacredly she had kept those letters, and that she read them over frequently. She told me also how she had used them in helping other people in similar circumstances. The letters have been read and reread until some of them are literally worn out! This was a revelation to me. Of course I knew the value of letter-writing — but I had no thought that twenty-five years after they were written, the letters would still be kept and read and reread!
"I am sure you are doing a great deal of good by your letter-writing. If you have not strength to engage in teaching as you used to do, so long as you are able to use your pen as you do now — you need not feel that you have no opportunity of being of use any longer. Use your pen and send out every day, or as often as you can, a letter or letters which will carry lessons or inspiration to hearts and homes where they are needed. I know enough about your letters, to know that they are always bright and cheerful. I think it was Walter Scott who said, at the close of his life, that he did not know that he ever had written a single word, which he could wish to have recalled or blotted out. Not everyone can say this. It seems to me that letters should always be just what yours are — letters which will give a new hope and encouragement.
"One of my little rules is, 'Never be a discourager.' The last place I would put discouragement, would be in a letter, because when written down it stays there, to give discouragement every time it is read again. Your letters, I am sure, never contain a discouraging word — any sentence which would make life harder for the person to whom you have written, to make the burden heavier, to make the path seem rougher. You always write words which put new courage into hearts, new hope, new joy.
"Go on, my dear friend, in your ministry of letter-writing, and let Christ use your pen in this way for his service. God has given you a big heart — a great fountain of love and sympathy and cheer. Let the streams pour out continually in all directions, to bless the world. Hundreds and thousands of people need encouragement and uplifting. You will scarcely meet one man or one woman in the next ten days, whom you cannot make a little stronger or braver — by saying the right word.
"I have a habit of writing letters, not only to people in my own church, or to people with whom I am personally acquainted — but to other people in my neighborhood who I hear are in trouble. I never have known of any case in which such a letter was unwelcome. If pastors only understood the value of letters — how much comfort and strength they would give — they would make very much larger use of their pens in this way, than they do!"
John T. Faris,
Philadelphia, May 15, 1914