Harold Babcock's Sermons

February 17, 2008

Why We Must Not Only Think, But Act Globally

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 2:07 pm


“Global consciousness is important not only to help people ‘over there,’ but to grow people ‘over here.’”
– Thomas G. Bandy

My friend George is not your typical internationalist, but then, who is?  George, who is a geologist by training, is in the oil business.  An Ohioan by upbringing, George and his partner out in Oklahoma make a living by buying up old oil leases.  When the price of oil goes up, even an old, barely producing oil well can become quite valuable, sometimes overnight.  George’s other line of work is related: he caps old oil wells, of which, in Oklahoma, there are thousands, often literally situated in your own backyard.  Most of them were never properly capped and constitute a considerable hazard, and so when oil prices aren’t so good, George can still make a living.  This Ivy Leaguer by education, and one of the sweetest guys I have ever met, spends many of his days out in the Oklahoma countryside working alongside hard-living Okie roustabouts.  Believe it or not, they seem to get along just fine.

George was brought up an Episcopalian, but in Tulsa he discovered the Unitarian Universalist Church, just down the street from where he lives, and began attending there with his wife Tracy and his daughter Chelsea.  Several years ago, he learned that his congregation was planning a choir trip to visit their partner church in the village of Enlaka, in Transylvania, and he and Chelsea decided to go along.

George is one of the most enthusiastic people I know, so the rest, as they say, is history.  George came home from Transylvania thoroughly committed to the UU Partner Church movement.  He now serves with me on the UU Partner Church Council Board, and has become a fast friend.  His daughter has since made several international journeys on her own, and hopes to make a career in international work after college.  She wants to make a difference in the world!  Traveling to Enlaka was a life-changing experience for both of them.

This fall Chelsea decided to take a gap year before starting college in order to live and work in the African country of Kenya.  Just before Christmas, as a result of the increasingly unstable political situation there, George and Tracy decided to bring Chelsea home.  Shortly after she safely arrived, George wrote me the following note:

Her experiences in Kenya are additional evidence of the importance of Partner Church, he wrote. As Tracy admitted with great embarrassment, “If Chelsea wasn’t in Kenya, the news of the unrest would have been a blip on the screen, just another piece of hardship far away from home.”  But with Chelsea there, and with the personal connections that have been forged between her and the many wonderful people there, and with the relationships forged between Tracy and [me] and Chelsea’s unknown parents in Kenya, it is impossible not to be involved in what is going on.

And that is good.

Partner Church, like any form of reciprocal international travel and engagement, connects PEOPLE, and that is the only way that PEACE can break out.

I can’t imagine a better testimonial for why I am so passionate about the Partner Church movement!  Not everyone who travels to visit his or her partner church will be touched and changed the way that George and Chelsea have been, but it is the possibility of such life-changing experiences–experiences that I myself have shared–that has led me into a deeper commitment to and love for the partner church program as a way to experience the world beyond our borders.  Not because it is perfect, or because it is the only way to become involved internationally; but because it is a start, and we all need to start somewhere.

Recently, George returned to Transylvania along with his wife Tracy.  George is one of the most friendly people you will ever meet, so it is not surprising that one day he decided to take a walk on his own through the village of Enlaka.  Now, George speaks no Hungarian, and no one in the village speaks English, and he had no translator along.   But as you will learn, it didn’t matter.

Some of you have seen pictures and heard stories from our own partner church travelers about “when the cows come home,”  which in Transylvania they literally do every evening in the spring and summer.  Well, on this particular day one of the village cows had managed to get itself wedged in the gate leading into its owner’s yard.  George happened to be passing by just then, and could see the villager desperately tugging on his cow, trying to free it from the gate.  Having made a few gestures to make sure that the farmer did indeed want to get the cow inside, and being a good Oklahoman, and knowing a thing or two about wayward cows, George gave a good old cowboy whoop! from behind and bingo, the cow came free.

The villager, who was very happy to have his cow freed and safely back in the yard, threw his arm around George’s shoulders and laughingly invited him into his home to meet his wife and share a glass of palinka, the ubiquitous Transylvanian plum brandy which is shared at every social opportunity.  George and the farmer had never met, they had no shared language and no translator.  But a friendship was born.  Now the story of the “cowboy” from Oklahoma who helped to get the cow unstuck has become a part of village lore in Enlaka, and a part of George’s store of precious memories.

It is shared stories like these that make the partner church movement what it is.  Small things, perhaps, but with, I believe, a profound significance.

For we live in a diminishing world where fear, isolationism, and stereotypes are too often the norm for international thought and policy making.  The need for international understanding has never been greater.  Indeed, our Unitarian Universalist purposes and principles call upon us to affirm and promote “the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”

But without some kind of action, these are just words.  Partnership was established as one way to help make those words a reality.  As it says in one of the Partner Church Council’s promotional flyers,

Forming an international partnership enhances congregational life in stimulating and sometimes surprising ways.  Congregations uncover fresh insights about the history of our faith and its continuing global impact.  Global issues come to life in the personal stories of their partners.  And they discover that cultural and spiritual exchanges add joy and laughter to the lives of congregants.  These partnership experiences inspire congregations to collectively take action to fight poverty, improve educational access, support international social justice activities, and build a peaceful global community.

As is so often the case these days, our Evangelical brothers and sisters are several steps ahead of us when it comes to understanding the importance of international partnership.  Though we, of course, do not share their more traditional notion of “mission”–we are not out to “convert” anyone, and, in fact, are working mainly with groups that already share our liberal religious approach anyway–nonetheless, there is much we can learn from their commitment to acquiring a global consciousness.  In an article entitled “Global Consciousness for Growing Churches,” Tom Bandy, an evangelical pastor and theologian, writes that the motivation for this new global consciousness

. . . is the realization that there are no “faraway lands” anymore.  You can’t  minister to your neighbor without caring for her or his country of origin, and your can’t care about another country without talking to your next-door neighbor.

It is the discovery that credibility among people under forty depends on  micro-macro connections between the local church (however small) and  the current  events and daily lives of people around the world.

Global consciousness is important not only to help people “over there,”  but to grow people “over here.”

For our Evangelical friends, having a global consciousness and international connections are considered a major priority.  As Bandy writes, “It really doesn’t require money.  That’s just an added benefit.  What it requires is faithfulness. . . .”  Forget whatever ulterior motives you think they may have toward others:  they recognize that it is only partially about helping “them” or even converting “them.”  Just as important if not more so is what international work does for us: for our own personal and spiritual growth, and what Bandy calls “issues of faith formation, individual transformation, personal calling, and future hope.”  (Interestingly, Bandy writes that “The litmus test [for a true global consciousness] is the congregation’s willingness to learn a second language.”  It’s good to have my recent efforts to learn Hungarian, however hopeless, justified!)

As the inspirational speaker at this year’s Greater Newburyport Martin Luther King, Jr. breakfast, Rosalin Acosta, made clear, we can no longer ignore the reality that we live on a shrinking planet with shrinking resources.  We desperately need to have a deeper understanding of the humanitarian concerns and realities that underlie such debates as the current one in this country surrounding immigration policy.  I happen to agree with Acosta, the child of Cuban immigrants, that building border fences and fostering a fortress mentality are not the solution.  Such efforts are doomed to failure and will only end by making us prisoners of our own devising.

On this morning when the disputed province of Kosovo has declared its independence from Serbia, with who knows what results for good or ill, we are reminded that no such world event takes place totally in a vacuum.  For our Hungarian friends in Transylvania, the independence of Kosovo would send a strong message to the Romanian government about the potential benefits of offering regional autonomy to ethnic Hungarians.  They welcome the support of the United States for Kosovar independence.

But one has to wonder what right the United States has to make such a judgment about another nation’s territorial integrity?  Sounds a little like the 19th and early 20th century territorial manipulations of the Great Powers revisited.   Do we really understand fully the deep historical connection which Serbians–who now constitute, it is true, only about 10% of the population of Kosovo, the other 90% being ethnic Albanians–feel for that province?  We can only imagine how our government would react if Massachusetts were to declare its independence from the rest of the country, for whatever reasonable or exalted reasons (and probably more than a few of us, during the last few years, have wished that it would!).

It is questions such as these which drive our need to make connections beyond our borders, in the wider world.  We must not only think, but act globally, no matter how modest the effort.  I happen to believe that supporting people who share our liberal religious values, regardless of where they live in the world, is a necessity if those values are to survive.  They deserve our friendship and support, and we have the means to be able to give it.

For me, the partner church connection has opened new vistas for understanding our often troubled and troubling world.  It has made me aware of the vast inequities that exist, and I hope more sympathetic to the hopes and dreams of those who have not had the incredible advantages that I have had along the way.  Partnership beyond our political and ethnic and racial borders has become for me a religious imperative.

As we move further into the 21st century, I believe that only by getting to know and understand and act on behalf of our global neighbors will we be able to forge a livable future in a world that is growing smaller day by day.  My hope, and my greatest dream, is that world community might yet become a reality.  My fear is that if it does not, the future looks dark indeed.

Let us then go out, everywhere into the world, taking with us the hope and courage and inspiration that we have found in this community, and using it to build the better world of our dreams.  The world needs us,–but we need the world even more to become the people we long to be.   Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
February 17, 2008

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February 10, 2008

Love and the Search for Meaning

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 2:14 pm


“What is the deeper purpose of the work of living together within the embrace of love?”
– Jacob Needleman

Love, Peter Gomes reminds us, is not about feeling, but about doing.  We shall know love by its fruits: by what it produces, not by how it feels.  We’ll know it when we see it.

This is an interesting concept for many of us.  Love not about feeling?  As we prepare to celebrate the holiday of love later this week, it is something to ponder.

One thing we do know: love isn’t easy.  A few years back, my colleague Charles Stephen, now retired, wrote a column in his church newsletter entitled “Love Ain’t Easy”:

Let’s do a church service on love, said I in writing to the members of the Worship and Celebration Committee. . . .  The response was positive . . . so we settled down to plan and read to one another.  And here is how the dialogue (slightly edited) went:Love?  It’s an awfully big word.  Are we talking about romantic love?  Marriage?. . . .  What’s romantic love got to do with marriage?. . . . Come on, folks, settle down, don’t be so cynical. . . .  We don’t want to be too sentimental, of course, not a whole lot of “How do I love thee/ Let me count the ways” sort of stuff. . . .  Oh, I love that poem, let’s use it. . . . Now, here’s a cute little poem about a man’s lust for blondes, a bit sexy, perhaps. . . .  I think it’s sexist. . . .  Sexist?  God, neo-Puritans are everywhere.  We aren’t sexual neuters, after all. . . .  We won’t use it. . . . Love isn’t an easy theme, you know.  Love hasn’t been kind to everyone.  True love isn’t always that long-lived. . . .  Let’s have a section on love’s risks. . . .  No, love’s difficulties. . . .  How about love’s failures?. . . .  No, that’s too negative. . . .  Love’s difficulties is best. . . . But we don’t want to send people home in despair. . . .  It’s too easy to be cynical, over-sophisticated.  How about a section on love’s hope?. . . .  You mean like someone’s definition of second marriages as the triumph of hope over experience?  No, that’s too cynical, again. . . .  No, it’s not, it’s just funny. . . .  Well, maybe we’ll use it. . . .  How about love’s grace as a closing section?. . . .  Grace?. . . .  Sure, that’s a good word. . . .   What  does it mean?. . . .  We will think about these matters and meet again next week.

We know that love isn’t easy.  But perhaps our first mistake is believing that it should be.

In a recent book entitled The Wisdom of Love: Toward a Shared Inner Life, philosopher Jacob Needleman asks the question, “What is the deeper purpose of the work of living together within the embrace of love?”  Needleman argues that the secret to a “sustained, mature love” is to join in a mutual search for meaning.  “The point is,” he says, “that we human beings are in search of meaning, in search of ourselves . . . .  And in love we have the possibility and the need to help each other search.”  Needleman is really talking about what we do after the heat of romantic love has cooled.  Obviously, his assertion about the search for meaning has deep religious implications.

Unitarian Universalists who have been around for a while may remember that our original Purposes and Principles called for us to engage in “a free and disciplined search for truth and meaning.”  A later generation disliked that word “discipline,” not recognizing or honoring its deep roots in the Christian tradition of spiritual practice, so changed it to “responsible”–but you still get the point.  Searching for meaning–whether in a disciplined or a responsible way–is what our particular religion is all about.

In fact, however, it is what religion is all about.  The word “religion,” as I have reminded you on many occasions, means simply “to rebind together.”  That is, religion is the act of putting back together something which has been torn asunder, some original wholeness which is now visible only in fragmentary glimpses.  It is about making connections in the effort to discover our original purpose, our original reason for being, our original oneness.

Jacob Needleman believes that every person, in his or her deepest self, is a searcher.  Each of us is on a sacred quest for ultimate meaning and identity: who am I?  Why am I here?  What am I intended to do?  If we could only clear away the clutter of our lives

–all those distractions of the world which prevent us from truly engaging the ultimate questions–we would see that our lives at their deepest level are about this quest.  Only the quest for meaning can bring us the joy for which we are so desperately seeking–seeking, usually, as the song has it, “in all the wrong places.”

“We are born for meaning, not pleasure,” writes Needleman, “unless it is a pleasure steeped in meaning. . . .  We are born to overcome ourselves, and through that overcoming to find an inner condition of great harmony and being . . . .  We are searchers; that is the essence of our present humanness.”

But it doesn’t end there, because if it did, the search would turn out to be just another narcissistic exercise, the kind of “sham spirituality” that doesn’t do anything, about which theologian James Luther Adams once warned us Unitarian Universalists.  Ultimately, the search for truth and meaning must lead us out of ourselves and toward a greater obligation of love for our fellow human beings and for the world.  As Antoine de Saint-Exupery reminds us, “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

The purpose of the inner search is to help us learn to love more as God loves, which is the true meaning of “love” in that passage from Corinthians that Peter Gomes spoke about in the morning’s reading.   It is by our fruits–by our actions–that our love will finally be known.

According to Needleman, the “great secret” of falling in love–the great secret hidden in romantic and even in erotic love–is that it can show us how it feels to be selfless.  Usually this happens during the romantic beginnings of love, perhaps only for moments at a time.  We all know about the many little and bigger lies to which romantic love is prone.  But if we are lucky we may have at least a taste of that selfless love wherein we are able to let go of ourselves, to “overcome” ourselves and our overweening Egos, and to experience a true state of oneness with the Other, a state wherein we truly want only what the Other wants.

Elizabeth Badinton, in an essay entitled “The Couple, or the Mutations of the Heart,” writes that “It is when passion falls silent that true love can be born, and true love is no longer merely the desire for possession and submission.”  Rather, true love allows us “to open our heart more widely to the Other. . . .”

Needleman calls these times of selflessness “moments of pure presence”; they are, he says, a kind of “eternity” in the here and now.

There is much more to Needleman’s analysis of love, and I encourage you to read his little book.  But what I want to concentrate on in the remainder of my remarks this morning is the idea that in a long-term, loving relationship we are given this opportunity to help each other to grow and to become the better people we long to be.  It is this idea of our hidden, too often terribly wounded capacity to become more human that fascinates me.  As Needleman puts it, “We are human with a human possibility and a human destiny: we can become a new being before we die.  We wish for that, you and I; and we do not wish for it.  [my emphasis]  We are human.”

We are ambiguous creatures, you and I, creatures of paradox.  As St. Paul put it so well in his letter to the Romans [7: 15], “I hate the things I do and I do the things I hate.”  Growth is therefore only possible when we begin to recognize that we are not perfect people–that we are not gods–and when we begin to recognize the many ways in which we have learned to deceive ourselves.  It is only when we begin to be completely honest with ourselves that we have the potential to become more than we are and to help another become more than he or she is.

Needleman’s central thesis is that we can do this far more easily together than alone.  Could it be that the search for meaning really is the ultimate purpose of romantic love?  How precious would it be to help another human being to achieve full manhood or womanhood?  I suspect that many of us have entered our marriages and other long term relationships with the intention of doing something like this.  We all know the clichés about finding fulfillment in love, becoming who we are truly meant to be.  Perhaps, after all, there is some truth to them.

But then, life takes over.  The world calls to us with all of its false promises, the most false of which is that it will make us happy.  We stop listening to each other as we did when we first met and first tasted love.  We struggle to make a living.  We have children to raise.  We encounter life’s myriad difficulties and experience life’s sometimes terrible losses along the way.  We lose sight of our reason for being together in the first place.  We fail to make time enough for each other in our busy days.  We forget about the search.  And pretty soon we are simply living parallel lives, and we wonder why it is that we stay together.

But the true wisdom of love, Needleman says, is that it can help us to “become free of the reactions of life” which prevent us from engaging in the search.  “. . .Two people living together can be to each other a greater source of help than almost any other source,” he writes.  “Two people together can help each other maintain their personal struggle to stay open to influences in life that favor inner growth.”  I have known this to be true, at its best moments, in my own marriage; perhaps you have, too.

What if we really were to live and love as if our most important job was to help each other grow and achieve wholeness in our individual lives?  The theologian Daniel Day Williams has written that, “Love does not put everything at rest; it puts everything in motion.  Love does not resolve every conflict; it accepts conflict as the arena in which the work of love is to be done.  Love does not separate the good people from the bad, bestowing endless bliss on one, and endless torment on the other.  Love seeks the reconciliation of every life so that it may share with all the others.”

It is that reconciliation of every life–yours and mine–so that it may share with all the others which is, I believe, the true end of love.  It is something far more important than the love about which we will be hearing so much in the week to come.  If in this life we could help even a single person to realize more fully his or her inner potential, to realize his or her unique personhood, then we would truly be doing the work of love, indeed, the work of God on this earth.  Indeed, as Needleman suggests in the closing paragraphs of his book, “Love is surely the answer to death.”  It is that force in life which allows us to ask, in St. Paul’s triumphant words, “O death, where is thy sting?  O Grave, where is thy victory?”  For love truly is stronger than death.  It is my hope that you will think upon these things in the days ahead, giving thanks for the life we share, in which such questions are even possible.  May it be so, and God bless.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
February 10, 2008

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