A couple of years ago, on a December weekend, I was at the Alabama shore, Orange Beach, on the invitation of a dear friend. One of the same beaches, by the way, that was most damaged in the recent round of hurricanes.
Houses there were pummeled and shredded, with seasons of sand dollars and shells and family vacations gone.
I must tell you that I am not so much of a beach person, especially in the summer. Too many bodies, too much litter, too much sticky hot sand.
But in the winter, when the crowds have gone, even when it is chilly and wet, walks along the shore can be comforting and cleansing. So I walked and I picked up shells. And stayed inside for hours reading when it got to be too rainy. Walking and reading, reading and walking, in an effort to try to find some meaning, purpose, and wisdom for my life — for the thousandth time.
I can’t tell you all the books I picked up and put down, or even the ones I finished, in the three days I spent in that beach house on the redneck Riviera. But I do remember quite well the one book that gave me the one insight I took away.
Horror novelist Stephen King’s book on how to write.
And one instruction in particular.
Never use adverbs in dialogue.
If you haven’t conveyed what you mean in any other way, you haven’t written well, he admonished (sternly).
So, here I am on a Sunday morning responding to the sincere question of our Board president, whose sermon this is:
What is it you mean, first, when you sign e-mails and notes and newsletter columns “Faithfully Yours?” And second, what do you mean when you use the word faith?
First, the faithfully part. In this case, I am torn between the blunt and pithy advice of an extremely popular writer whose fiction, I must confess, I have never read — who tells me never to use adverbs like sincerely, cordially, warmly, truly, or faithfully, and the advice of people like Miss Manners, whose guides to how to live always include instructions for correspondence.
Who, from what I recall, always modeled ending with these familiar, if mostly overlooked, qualifiers.
As a Boomer (we can no longer call ourselves Baby Boomers), I have always found myself caught between forces like King — the now and future cultural icon — and Miss Manners — the guardian of all things past and proper.
My 18-year-old son, when asked how he signs off, told me he just writes — thanks, or later. So much more straightforward.
Later. (Of course, assuming that he really does mean later, as in, I will actually be back in touch with you sometime in the future.)
This notion of signing off with faithfully, of course, is not original.
Early on in my professional ministry, I eagerly looked for models of style and decorum. It became clear that my local UU colleagues all signed off with something. One of mine always says “blessings.”
Not to go into heavy theology here, but I have never regarded myself as having that much power.
Others do use the adverb “faithfully,” and what I think we mean is two things — one, that we try to do this work of ministry in a responsible way, a conscientious way, aware of the role(s) we have taken on; and second, that we do have faith in, or a faith in, aspects of life that are not always evident to the senses alone.
About this vocation called ministry. We believe as a religious association that we are all called — that in some ways, many ways, each person is priest, pastor, and prophet.
Ministry could be called the central activity of any religious congregation, one person has written.
Another, anything a congregation does in pursuit of its religious mission to its own membership and the wider community.
And still another, ministry is seeing compassionately and clearly, and speaking honestly and lovingly what you see —
Ministry is assisting members of the community in finding for themselves whatever spiritual and emotional nourishment they might need and elevating the commonplace to a level of holiness.
With or without the back-up of familiar creeds.
To do these things responsibly, conscientiously, faithfully, at all times is the challenge of ministry, lay and professional. Perhaps it is presumptuous to ever use the word — Faithfully Yours.
But use it we do.
When I went to seminary, after many years of informal and formal lay ministry, we were required to learn about stress and burnout in ministry.
Of course, then it seemed like something that happened to other people, not people as excited about becoming ordained ministers as we were, so full of faith, so faithfully yours.
One of the articles I read then and have saved was by an Australian minister Rowland Croucher. In it, was his cautionary tale.
It was a grey Canadian morning in April 1982. The children had gone to school, his wife to work, and he did something he had never done before. He turned the phone down, put a note on the front door, and went back to bed. He was burned out, and within two months resigned his ministry there.
When he returned home to Australia to rest and recuperate, he discovered that four new books had just been published: The Plight of the Australian Clergy, High Calling, High Stress, Battle Guide for Christian Leaders: an Endangered Species, and Conflict and Decline.
In these books, and others that have followed, there has been news about the toll that ministry takes on people — those of us who do it professionally — those of us, like many of you, who have taken it on as lay leaders for many years. No matter how faithful we are.
Doctors, lawyers, and clergy, reports now tell us, have the most problems with drug abuse, alcoholism, and suicide. Research 25 years ago showed clergy dealing with stress better than most professionals. But since 1980, studies in this country have revealed that three out of four parish ministers out of a sample of nearly 12,000 reported severe stress, causing anguish, worry, bewilderment, anger, depression, fear, and alienation.
Why is pastoral ministry so stressful to all of us who do it?
Croucher’s article reminds us that recent research is unanimous in citing the following problem areas: the disparity between somewhat idealistic expectations and hard reality; lack of clearly defined boundaries — tasks never done, workaholism, the Peter Principle — feeling of incompetence in leading an army of volunteers, conflict of being leader and servant at the same time. Multiplicity of roles, inability to produce win-win situations in conflict resolution, preoccupation with playing it safe in order to avoid enraging parishioners, and loneliness, ministers are less likely to have a close friend than any other person in the community.
This is not a whine. This is not an indictment. This is information that I look at when I know I am not being always faithfully, yours. That in this small congregation, with its lay leader-ministers and ministries, that we are not any of us always faithfully, yours. Faithfully, ours.
So when I share this list of suggestions to religious people — helpers, priests, and prophets, they are mine, and they are yours, and they are ours.
- Find fresh spiritual disciplines. New or renewed spiritual practices — whatever they may be — whether walking a labyrinth, learning new music, walking a meditation, gardening mindfully.
- Take regular time off. If we do not rest, we are told in Christian scripture, we shall break down. Even the earth must lie fallow and have her Sabbaths, and so must we.
- Relax. The relaxation response is the opposite of the fight and flight response. Just 20 minutes a day free ourselves from the tyranny of things present — breathe, meditate, or pray.
- Join a small support group — a covenant group, a place where you can feel safe and supported and loved — a place of what is sometimes called spiritual friendship.
- Realize, as M. Scott Peck noted in his book The Road Less Traveled, when you expect life to be difficult, it will be much less difficult.
That we need to recognize, that it is helpful and hopeful to recognize, that it is hard to be faithful, faithfully yours, and hard to keep the faith, whatever faith we have.
In this UU denomination we call a chosen faith.
The most concise definition of faith found in the Christian scriptures is from Hebrews 11.1. Faith is both the substance of things hoped for and the evidence that things exist that are not yet perceived by the senses.
In Greek, which was the original language of the New Testament, the definition of faith is that which has real existence, the basic essence, the actual reality, the substance of something.
Defenders of orthodoxy would say that this essence, this actual reality is deity, it is supernatural. They would say, they do say, that faith is not what they dismiss as mere human hope, or natural faith in natural laws, or trust in other human beings.
By their definition, then, faith would be an uncomfortable and inaccurate word for many of us in the Unitarian Universalist faith tradition.
While there are many among us who are theists — having faith in a supernatural presence or power or energy — there are many, many among us who are Humanists. Religious humanists who believe that that goodness, truth, power, can be found in us in an unmediated way. That there is an essence, a potential — inherently in each one of us, that is often hidden, waiting to be discovered. As one Humanist writer observed, humanity’s sense of beauty and decency, the power to love, our creativity — all the best things about us — belong to us, to human experience in the real world.
And our faith is in this possibility, as infrequently as we can find it in ourselves and others at times, as absurd as this faith in the strength and goodness of people can be in the face of selfishness and greed and violence.
Whenever I help lead a New UU class, which I did recently, I am reminded of those eloquent resources that exist to help define, to help explain, this religious movement we call a chosen faith. John Buehrens, a UU ministerial colleague and former president of our UU association, in Our Chosen Faith, an introduction to Unitarian Universalism, reminds us that we offer an essentially democratic way of being together. Not just because we vote on how the congregation should be run and sometimes which issues we take positions on, but because we come together to be religious together, to share in reverence and wonder. To hear each other’s stories and discoveries of wisdom and inspiration. With no one holding lordship over what is real truth, real belief, real faith.
We do not limit the truth of God (even to the word God) as UU minister Stephen Kendrick has written, but live in openness and belief in human freedom and dignity and the eternal message that truth must grow, enlarge, and move in creative freedom.
You say you want it simpler, he asks. Try this: We join in celebrating one world, one people, one love, which is Truth.
Yesterday morning at our Mid-South UU gathering at the historic Fourth Baptist Church in Columbus, Georgia, both the mayor of the city and the pastor of the congregation, members of a non-profit change group named, simply, One Columbus, both let us know that they look to the Unitarian Universalists as the models of a religious community trying to live as one.
It is, as John Beuhrens believes, a tall order, but our heritage inspires us and our conscience compels us to do no less.
May we be both giving and forgiving as we answer this call — to be faithful in this faith —