Harold Babcock's Sermons

November 25, 2007

Choose a Star

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 9:05 pm

When I die choose a star
and name it after me
that you may know
I have not abandoned
or forgotten you.
– David Ignatow

How do you want to be remembered? It’s a question, oddly enough, which has provoked me for as long as I can recall.

I’ve often wondered where I got this obsession with my legacy.

Did it come from my family? Did it come from my religious upbringing? Or did it simply come from within?

Whatever the source, the question of how I will be remembered has seemingly always been with me. It has been a driving force in my life, pushing me to accomplish things I didn’t think were possible for me. I’d like to think that it has made me better than I might otherwise have been. It ultimately led me to pursue a religious vocation, because the question of how we shall be remembered is, I think, essentially a religious one.

Especially for Unitarian Universalists, whose primary concern is with this life, the question of how we shall be remembered is an important one. We express no certainties about the afterlife. But we definitely believe in this one, in the importance of living the best life of which we are capable. Someone has said that while we may doubt whether there is life after death, we are certain that there is life before death, and that it is for living well.

Sherwin Nuland, author of the rather depressing book How We Die, has written that,

The fact that there is a limited right time to do the rewarding things in our lives is what creates the urgency to do them. Otherwise we might stagnate in procrastination. The very fact that at our backs, as the poet cautions his coy mistress, we “always hear/ Time’s winged chariot hurrying near” enhances the world and makes the time priceless.

It is that sense of “urgency” that I have always felt, and it is one of the things that I feel passionately must be part of a religious awareness of the finite gift of life and of our need to live it well in the brief time allotted to us.

Unitarian Universalists are often said to have a belief in the “immortality of influence.” I’m sure we are not the only ones who believe this, but I would say that it is probably more true of more of us than of most other religious persuasions. It is the immortality that is written of in the ancient Wisdom of Solomon:

The memorial of virtue is immortal, because it is known with God and with people. When it is present, we take example of it, and when it is gone, we desire it. It weareth a crown and triumph forever, having gotten the victory, striving for undefiled rewards.

This is an immortality of which we can be certain, because we have known it in our own lives. We know that people who have lived well continue to have an influence long after they are gone. We think of the great men and women throughout history who have lived worthy lives. And we also know that those we have loved and lost live on in our own lives. We know that something of that love will continue to live on in those who will come after us.

I think this is why the author of the Book of Proverbs wrote that, “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold.” How we live our lives in the here and now, in this present moment, is the most valuable thing: it will have an impact long after we are gone. Perhaps it will last forever. I can’t say for certain, but that is certainly my faith. The good we do will last long after our own lives are finished. Maybe it will actually change the world for the better, if only in a small corner of it. That is my hope.

I believe that giving our children a sense of the importance of living a good and meaningful and productive life is one of the most important religious lessons we can teach. We may no longer believe in the old story of redemption and salvation as it is taught in many churches, but we still believe that it is of utmost importance to use well the gifts and talents that we have been miraculously given to make a difference in our world. We still believe in the importance of living the best life of which we are capable. We still believe that it is more important to do the right thing than to do otherwise. We believe that goodness and compassion ought to be the ultimate goals of life.

Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman once wrote:

Religion can teach us . . . how to understand the goal of life in the presence of mortality. That goal is that we should create a pattern that will be a blessing and inspiration to those who come after us. When we die, those who have been touched and illuminated by the flame of our being should think of us with joyous reminiscence. We can face death nobly when we resolve so to live and to work in the years allotted to us that no one shall cry in frustration or anger when we have gone, that no one shall silently curse the day of our birth, but rather that they shall recall our day upon earth in the concert hall of memory and shall laugh with the over-brimming joy that a dear one walked the earth bravely and lovingly once upon a time.

I know that my grandparents continue to live on in me, and I often find myself talking to them, particularly when I am in difficulty or troubled or down-hearted. No, I don’t expect a literal answer from them, but I still find it to be comforting. Perhaps that is why I found David Ignatow’s little poem, “For My Daughter,” so touching. “When I die choose a star,” he writes,

And name it after me
that you may know
I have not abandoned
or forgotten you.
You were such a star to me,
following you through birth
and childhood, my hand
in your hand.

When I die
choose a star and name it
after me so that I may shine
down on you, until you join
me in darkness and silence

To me there is great comfort in knowing that those whom I love have preceded me into the great mystery. And I know, as in the example of my grandparents, that how we live and love our lives has an impact long after we are gone, indeed, that as long as I live they will never really be gone. I know that they have not abandoned or forgotten me, and I have certainly not forgotten them. Like the stars, they are with me always.

Often at the end of memorial services I quote a little poem that I love from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you, because I have you in my heart.

This seems so much more meaningful a concept to me than the traditional one, that my loved one is “with God” or “in heaven.” How much better that I always carry them with me in my heart!

Poet Wendell Berry has a beautiful line in one of his elegiac poems, where he writes of a loved one who has died, that “He’s hidden among all that is/ and cannot be lost.” I think this is the same idea that David Ignatow is trying to convey in asking his daughter to choose a star to remember him by. There is a way in which the good we have done and the love we have given while we are here on earth is never really lost.

The novelist George Eliot once wrote,

. . .The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistorical acts; and that things are not so ill with you and with me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest now in unvisited tombs.

It is certainly my hope that this is so, that it makes a difference how we live our lives, even if no one ever notices how well we are living them. My faith is that it does make a difference. And if this is my only immortality, well, I could have done far worse than to have made life a little better for someone along the path of life. For as one of my favorite readings has it, “Life is short, and we never have too much time to gladden the hearts of those traveling the dark journey with us. O, be swift to love, make haste to be kind!”

Or as Emerson so beautifully puts it, “What is excellent,/ As God lives is permanent;/ Hearts are dust, hearts’ loves remain.”

The so-called “great infidel,” Robert G. Ingersoll, wrote that, “Character survives; goodness lives; love is immortal.” For as long as I can remember that has been my faith. What is most important is how you live your life in the here and now. It is never too late. We cannot know what follows our present life, but we do know that our actions today make a difference in the world, if only in the hearts of those who love us.

In the words of our concluding hymn,

Spirit of great mystery,
hear the still small voice in me.
Help me live my wordless creed
as I comfort those in need.
Fill me with compassion,
be the source of my intuition.
Then when life is done for me,
let love be my legacy.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
November 25, 2007


November 18, 2007

Being Conscious of Our Treasures

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 9:11 pm

.”We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”
-Thornton Wilder

It is famously said of Siddhartha Gautama, otherwise known as the Buddha, or “Enlightened One,” that when asked to describe the source of his great wisdom, he replied, simply, “I am awake.” Enlightenment, it would seem, has much to do with simply being fully conscious in and fully aware of the world around us: mindfulness, as the Buddhists have it. If we could only pay enough attention, the argument seems to go, our lives would be transformed and our world would be brighter. Indeed, we would have achieved nirvana; we, too, would be enlightened.

I am reminded of Henry David Thoreau’s familiar words:

I am grateful for what I am and have. My Thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite– only a sense of existence. My breath is sweet to me. O how I laugh when I think of my vague indefinite riches. No run on my bank can drain it, for my wealth is not possession, but enjoyment.

Spoken like a man who knows his own mind and heart, a man fully conscious to his own state of being in the world. Was Thoreau enlightened? Some would say he was.

Henry was famously attentive to his surroundings. He cataloged most of the animals and plants in his native Concord, discovering in the course of his peregrinations many new and previously unknown species. Perhaps this was to be expected from a man who, not ironically, claimed, “I have traveled much in Concord.”

Thoreau’s ability to find Indian arrowheads was legend. Once, being asked how he did it, he simply bent down to the ground where he was standing and picked up an arrowhead which was lying at this feet. Viola! (As one of my English professors once wrote on one of my papers, “If this isn’t true, it ought to be.”)

In the little quotation that I have included on your orders of service, Thornton Wilder, author of among other things the well known play Our Town, states that “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” Thoreau was, I think, but I often worry about the rest of us.

In a recent “In the Spirit” column in the Newburyport Daily News, I wrote about the challenge of being thankful even when we don’t feel like it. There is much in our world to discourage and dishearten us. Hope seems, at times, terribly elusive. Yet, I truly believe that we must give thanks in spite of what the late Paul Carnes, former President of the UUA, once called “the many causes of despair which life inevitably brings to us all.”

James Carroll, the Boston Globe columnist, has written that “On Thanksgiving we choose to pay more attention to the blessings of our lives than to the troubles. The troubles remain, but for once we see them in proper context: the essential goodness of what is.”

I admit that it is often difficult in these days to recognize the “essential goodness of what is,” but I believe we must try. We must try, as Wilder puts it, to be “conscious of our treasures,” and not to be dragged down by the manifold causes of despair which we find daily all around us.

I truly believe that we Americans, in particular, are not as thankful as we ought to be for the lifestyle that we are privileged to enjoy. I’m not sure we really grasp how fortunate we are, how lucky we are.

This is the part of the sermon where I try to afflict the comfortable, where I try to get us to wake up to the blessings that we share as citizens of one of the wealthiest nations in the world. I wish we would take it less for granted; I wish that we would understand more fully that our privileged place in the world demands much of us, even if our government does not. I wish we Americans could be known as much for our wisdom as for our power and our wealth. I wish.

On the personal level, I wish we would spend more time counting our blessings. I wish we would spend more time with our loved ones than we do in answering our e-mail and chasing the eternal buck. If Wilder is right that we can only be truly alive when we are conscious of our treasures in life, then hadn’t we better start paying more attention to what is most important to us? Hadn’t we better appreciate more our friends and loved ones while we have them?

I recently went to a book signing by my colleague Forrester Church. Forrest continues to recover from surgery for esophageal cancer which, about a year ago, his doctors claimed would take his life within two months. In speaking to Forrest, he said that he had recently passed his 59th birthday, and that since all of his grandparents as well as his father had died before reaching that milestone, he had always assumed that he, too, would be dead by now. So, he said, despite the devastating effects of his illness he was feeling extremely grateful not simply to be alive, but more importantly, just to have reached age 59! He was counting his blessings merely for having already exceeded his own life expectancy. (Something else Forrest said that day, apropos perhaps of something, was that the reason he has been able to write so many books during his busy ministry is that he is “not a perfectionist.”)

Forrest once wrote a wonderful Thanksgiving newsletter column which he called “nostalgia for the present.” He said,

Do you remember that perfect Thanksgiving? “Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house” you went. Remember the wholesome bustle in the kitchen, the sweet smell of mince and yams, tart cranberries, two kinds of everything and turkey enough for thirds, everyone in his or her Sunday best, lots of winks and pats and kisses, not a tense moment, every word a gentle word, love overflowing from heart to heart? Remember?

It will never be like that again, of course, because it was never like that before.

Nostalgia is a sentimental tyrant. It selectively distills and embellishes our memories, fashions them into pictures, and leaves us longing, even aching for the glories of an imaginary past. We long for what never really was, regret its passing, and rue the present for its absence. The result is a fantasy, purified of imperfections, even of reality: the perfect Thanksgiving, the perfect anything.

I have a cure for this. Call it “nostalgia for the present.”

Imagine that what is yours today–the companionship of loved ones, your daily tasks, the very air you breath–was not yours to enjoy right now, this very instant. Instead of pining over a past that never existed, at least not as you remember it, you greet the present with a wistful welcome.

With the glow of nostalgia softening the edges of here and now, how thankful we become for the moment we are given to love and share, to celebrate and live.

Instead, we too often take life for granted, begrudging it for what we have lost or may never find. But life is not a given. Life is a precious, undeserved gift.

As Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations, “Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.”

My hope is that we all won’t need dire circumstances to learn to appreciate and be grateful for our own blessings. My hope is that we all might experience that “nostalgia for the present” of which my colleague Forrest speaks: experience it while we can, before it is too late.

For Forrest is right: life is a precious and undeserved gift. We did nothing to deserve it, and we surely can do nothing to hold on to it. We can only savor it while it is ours. We are alive in this moment: on this day, in this place. We cannot know what the future holds. As it says in the Bible, with wisdom, none of us knows the day or the hour. We hang above oblivion by the slenderest of threads, and yet we usually act as if our days were numberless.

Marya Mannes has written with truth that, “The Good Life exists only when you stop wanting a better one. It is the condition of savoring what is, rather than longing for what might be.”

I want to savor what is, if only for this moment. I want to be conscious of my treasures, if only for this brief time. And though I often fail to do so, I know in my heart that my life depends upon that consciousness.

I close this morning with a prayer by the Rev. Laurel Hallman of Dallas, Texas:

I say to myself: be grateful.

When the burdens of life seem overwhelming, when we cannot see our way and hope seems frivolous, it is time to “give an accounting of gratitude.”

Be grateful for the path that has brought you this far. There have been some close calls along the way, some scrapes with disaster–but you have survived them. And so many of your fears and worries have been about things that never came to pass.

Be grateful for friends, for common tasks undertaken and successfully completed. For the encouragement of others who were healthy when you were sick, happy when you were sad, hopeful when you had lost hope. They reminded you that life was much more than your experience of it at the moment.

Be grateful for life’s celebrations and life’s joys. But be grateful, too, for that which you would have avoided if you could, but which taught you the harder lessons of life. For it is in those moments that you can find the workings of a mysterious wisdom, and know a more than human love.

May each of us be conscious of our treasures, and may that conscious make us more alive to all that is, on this day, and in the days still to come. Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
November 18, 2007

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