Harold Babcock's Sermons

September 21, 2008

Above All Don’t Wobble

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 11:19 pm

“In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit. Above all, don’t wobble.”
– Zen saying

Most of us are familiar with the work of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, even if we don’t know we are. He is the one who, writing in his now classic The Miracle of Mindfulness, made the famous statement, “While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.”

Such attention to the task at hand, or to no task at all, is what in Buddhism is called “mindfulness.” Thich Nhat Hanh explained it as follows:

Remember that there is only one important time and that is now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the person you are with, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future? The most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.

Over the years, I have tried, with varying success, to be mindful of this advice. Occasionally, I have actually been conscious of being fully present in the moment, but such mindfulness is difficult work, and it is getting harder.The proliferation of distractions: 24-hour news programming; e-mail which arrives even in the middle of the night and demands, by its simple presence in our inbox, an immediate response; gadgets of all kinds which claim to save us time, but which in fact make it harder and harder to remain fully focused or fully at rest in whatever task we are trying to complete–have you noticed how many of them, like those horrible leaf blowers, are noisy?; the incredible insidiousness of the so-called “information age,” which provides us with information about hundreds of events, mostly tragic and depressing, about which we can do absolutely nothing at all; all of these things, and more, I find, make it harder and harder to practice even a rudimentary form of mindfulness.

Also making it difficult to practice mindfulness is the fact that we live in a society that values “doing” over “being.” There is a reason for the proliferation of books on this subject in recent years. We long simply to be, while the world around us calls out constantly for us to act. Is doing all it is cracked up to be? Is acting always the best choice? Is there no rest for the weary?

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Why should we live in such a hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life. I wish to learn what life has to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived.”

One wonders what would happen if everyone would simply stop what they are doing for even a moment, and simply try to be? Would the panic currently rocking the stock market cease? Would we be engaged in a war that is now more than five years old, and still of doubtful consequence? Would someone out there actually make a sound judgment about something, about anything? Would we finally stop to count our blessings?

The newest take on the mindfulness theme that I have found is the one from the little quotation I have included on your orders of service this morning: “In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit. Above all, don’t wobble.” Don’t wobble. This feels like such sound advice. But it is hard: how do we keep from wobbling? Certainly not by rushing hither and thither like proverbial headless chickens. How do we keep from doing all those things which are trying to make claims upon our time and attention, and just be in the here and the now?

I am probably one of the last people I know who actually enjoys using hand-clippers to trim my yard. My neighbors probably think I’m crazy. Oh, I confess, I do own a weedwacker; but its primary use is with a small rototiller attachment which I use twice a year to turn my garden. I really dislike the noise and weight of the weedwacker, and prefer even the boring repetitiveness of working with the hand clippers, for it allows me to daydream and to think in a way that powered machinery doesn’t. Plus, the clippers do a much nicer job of trimming, and there is simple satisfaction in even a mundane job done well.

There is so much evidence from the world’s religious traditions, not just in Buddhism, that being is at least as important as doing, perhaps moreso. In Taoism we find the proverb, “No one can see his reflection in running water. It is only in still water that we can see.” In Psalm 46:10 from the Hebrew Bible, we find the psalmist’s words, “Be still, and know that I am God.” In our own Unitarian Universalist tradition are found these words from William Ellery Channing: “There are seasons when to be still demands immensely higher strength than to act.”

The great Black preacher and theologian Howard Thurman once wrote, “How good it is to center down! To sit quietly and see one’s self pass by!” When is the last time you sat quietly and saw yourself pass by? The poet, novelist, and essayist Wendell Berry has written, “It may be when we no longer know what to do,/ we have come to our real work,/ and that when we no longer know which way to go,/ we have begun our real journey.”

Chinese writer and philosopher Lin Yutang, author of The Importance of Living, has one of my favorite quotes on this subject: “If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live.”

As the late Donald Murray wrote in the morning’s reading, “I no longer live on the banks of a great flowing river of time, but I have moments, the fragments of time that can take me deep into the experience of living. . . . I have learned to enjoy the melodies of silence I have not heard before. I take pleasure, no longer suffer guilt when a memory becomes a dream, and I awake to find I have lived, for the moment, a different life.”

All of these writers know something that we ought to: that there is more to life than constantly rushing about, more to life than always doing and acting. Sometimes the greatest accomplishment is no accomplishment at all. Sometimes the greatest success is not to succeed. I love such paradoxes! Jesus said, memorably, that those who lose their lives will find them. I think this is what Murray and all the others are trying to tell us. It is only by stepping outside of ourselves–only by overcoming our narcissistic selfishness and self-centeredness–that we are freed to become and appreciate who we are truly meant to be.

Recently, in the newsletter of the First Universalist Church of South Paris, Maine–a little church which I had the interesting experience of serving for a year as part of a circuit-riding interim ministry with two other small churches–I read the following wise counsel: “Our culture has become a ‘doing’ one and those who are busy with barely time to stop and eat are frequently esteemed in our society, yet in conversations with such busy people, we find that more and more people yearn for something different, while feeling trapped by ‘the busy life.’” The writer went on to make the audacious claim that perhaps church could be of assistance here: “. . .In the midst of all our ‘doing,’” he wrote, “we will come together each Sunday at 10 AM as a community of faith to ‘be still and know. . . .’ This service is part of that something different, that something beautiful, for which so many people are yearning.” And then, the writer concluded, “It is my hope that all of us . . . in our own ways, will provide ‘spaces’ both for ourselves and others, by reflecting on these simple words, ‘be still and know. . . .’ Perhaps then we will find a deepening of our spiritual lives, and create ‘space’ for others in our world who are yearning simply, ‘to be.’”

I want to conclude my sermon this morning with a few suggestions, borrowed some years ago from the newsletter of the Haverhill Universalist Unitarian Church, about how we might begin just “to be”:

  • Try using a book of daily meditations or a collection of prayers. Read just one selection a day. Return to it at lunch or bedtime.
  • Name a quality you wish for yourself, others, or the world. Use the word as a mantra when you find yourself impatient or angry or scared, such as “God, bring me peace” or “Let there be peace.”
  • Beginning with the inner circles of your family or friends and working outwards to all living beings, meditate on the name of each person or group and wish them loving kindness or happiness.
  • Many of the biblical Psalms were written by people in times of devastation. Read through the psalms slowly. Notice which images stay with you. (In recent years, my own spiritual practice has included saying the words of the Lord’s Prayer to myself. The familiar words are comforting in and of themselves.)
  • Count each breath as you inhale and exhale, starting over each time you get to four. Alternatively, use one phrase with each breath: “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.”
  • Set a time and simply sit with a flower for ten minutes daily. Alternatively, find a warm, dry spot and lie down on the earth. Ten minutes is good; an hour, even better.

I don’t know who compiled that list of suggestions for simply being, but I think any of them might help us to become more fully present in time. Or, if even this seems too much like trying to do something, we can take the advice of the Sufi poet Rumi, and “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways,” he says, “to kneel and kiss the earth.”As the political campaigns heat up, and undoubtedly not for the better, in the coming weeks; as the money markets continue their rollercoaster ride; as the news of devastations and of wars and of rumors of wars continues to haunt our dreams: I hope that each of us will find some time simply to be, some time “to kneel and kiss the earth”; that we might even find this hour a week in church an opportunity, as that writer from Maine suggested, to “be still and know. . . .”

It is good to be together in this time and space. May you go forth in peace, and return with light. Amen, and blessed be.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock


September 14, 2008

Blessed are the Flexible

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 10:59 pm

“Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.”
– Anonymous

I don’t remember where or when I first came across the little quotation from which my sermon title is borrowed this morning, but I do remember that it immediately made me chuckle.

Part of the reason for that is that it seems so true that flexibility in just about every aspect of life is a wonderful and even a necessary attribute for survival in this too-often crazy world. The other part, and I’m sure that Sabrina and my mother would vouch for me on this, is that I often recognize in myself a quite adamant inflexibility which has often caused me to get, well, bent out of shape!

The inner struggle between my belief that flexibility–intellectual, spiritual, religious, psychological, moral, and even physical–is an admirable attribute worth striving for, and my occasional or not so occasional inflexibility in almost all of these areas, has caused me no amount of difficulty over the years. But that struggle is also why I have always felt so grateful that I am a Unitarian Universalist.

For flexibility, it seems to me, is at the very heart of our religious faith. It is at the heart of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.

As a by-nature somewhat inflexible person, I have found that being a Unitarian Universalist is actually good for me. Unitarian Universalism has helped me to accept that change and uncertainty are integral aspects of every life, and even of the universe of which we are a part. It has saved me from a kind of rigidity to which I might otherwise be prone.

Because inflexibility, I would argue, is hazardous to your health.

When I say that flexibility is at the heart of Unitarian Universalism, what do I really mean? I mean that ours is a faith which understands that there is a fundamental ambiguity about life. It understands that we live in a world marked by paradox and filled with uncertainty. It understands that change is the nature of the universe, and that in order to survive in this universe we need to be able to accept that difficult reality, and even to embrace it. It understands that nothing is permanent, and it encourages us to live our lives–the best lives of which we are capable–in the light of that difficult reality.

It also demands that we not rest in our blessed assurances, but that we get down to work in the here and the now. It’s emphasis is on living well today, which is the only day of which we can be certain. It is a this-worldly faith in the power of individuals and communities to make a difference in the world in which we live now.

As my colleague and divinity school classmate Andy Backus once wrote, “Religious liberalism depends first on the principle that ‘revelation’ is continuous. Meaning has not been finally captured. Nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism.”

This idea that, as our familiar hymn puts it, “revelation is not sealed,” is at the heart of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. But it requires flexibility to fully affirm that conviction. It requires that we give up the possibility of ever arriving at any final capital-T truth, and that we continually strive to discover new insights, new ways of living better lives, new ways of being more generous and more compassionate people. As I have said on other occasions, it means that there can never be any permanent rest for the virtuous.

As Thomas Ahlburn wrote in the morning’s reading, “The real issue [in religion] is whether one continues openly and honestly to question one’s convictions, or whether one merely regards them as final, and perhaps binding on others.” Continuing “openly and honestly to question one’s convictions,” I would hold, is difficult work. Unitarian Universalism is not, as it is sometimes accused of being, an “easy” religion. It is hard to remain open to new insights, new truths, new ways of seeing the world, new ways of acting toward our fellow human beings.

It requires, if I may say so again, flexibility. The 1936 Unitarian Commission on Appraisal report stated that, “The meaning of liberalism, whether in religion or in politics, is to be found in that exercise of freedom which leads directly to experimentation. Without experimentation, liberalism is mere escape.”

As Thomas Ahlburn wrote in another place,

Every Unitarian Universalist is free to fashion a religious philosophy in terms of personal experience, reason, conscience, and spiritual aptitude. The result is hardly as chaotic as one might suppose, though the diversity of belief in a given congregation is usually striking. There are humanists, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, feminists, Native Americans, pagans, theists, deists, pantheists, atheists, and agnostics.

“Such diversity is not everybody’s cup of tea,” Thomas wrote, “but we find it stimulating, creative, and inspiring.” He continues,

We do not ask questions of belief of one another so much as ask what we can do for one another, and what is our common hope. The common touchstones among us are kindness, tolerance, and mutual respect.

When Thomas says that diversity is not everybody’s cup of tea, he’s not kidding. It requires great flexibilty to tolerate such diversity. I have often said that it is the openness and non-creedalism at the center of Unitarian Universalism which is both the bane and the glory of our faith. It is what challenges us and it is what inspires us. It is what makes our faith difficult and it is what makes it fresh and exciting.
You might say that Unitarian Universalism is a liberating responsibility. There is a freedom here, but there is also a requirement of discipline, as in a disciplined search for new truth and for ever-higher forms of living. It is not an easy path because there are no permanent resting places along the way. But there is always the possibility of new discoveries, new vistas, new adventures, awaiting us around the bend.

As Unitarian Universalist minister Wallace Robbins once wrote, “We dare not fence the spirit.” We refuse to claim that the truths we have discovered are final. As former Unitarian Universalist Association President Eugene Pickett wrote, “I would remind us that the great lesson of Unitarian Universalism . . . throughout our history, has been that we must live with ambiguity and not reach solely for the certain. Definitions change, doctrines flounder, but the quiet persistent faith in future possibilities is the mark of the survivor.”

This refusal to rest in certainties has sometimes caused us to be accused of “believing nothing.” But as Wallace Robbins also wrote, “Ours is a non-creedal church–not because we have no beliefs, but because we will not be restrained in our beliefs.”

The fact of the matter is that there are many beliefs among us, but there is no particular belief to which everyone must subscribe, and there is no belief which can be allowed to go unchallenged.

Rather, as Unitarian Universalist minister Roy Phillips has written, “We give people permission to take themselves seriously–and their religion and their life’s mysterious context–when we say to them: ‘What do you see? What do you have to say? What do you wonder at? Doubt about? Trust in? You . . . Yourself, as you are now: what is your perspective? Begin by trusting your own experience, reporting it, living out of it.'”

“Unitarian Universalism,” another colleague has succinctly put it, “is a religion based on the proposition that some questions are too important to have only one right answer.”

What all of these Unitarian Universalist colleagues and sources share is a conviction that an open and experimental approach to life–including the religious life–is the only way to go. Though it doesn’t always come naturally to do so, I agree wholeheartedly.

All of us wish for answers to be found for life’s deepest questions and challenges. Those ultimate questions of life’s meaning, the who am I and what am I meant to do questions, the mysteries of God and death and beyond, demand our most profound engagement.

But it is the answers that have been claimed as final that have most often caused difficulties in this world. It is those who believe they have discovered the Truth, the absolutists and fanatics who would force their answers on all of us, who have more often than not dealt death and destruction on those who disagree. It is still so in our world, I regret to say. The brittle rigidity of such peoples’ beliefs and world-view, and the impossibility of ultimately proving their truths, has often caused them to shatter when they bump against the ambiguity and paradox of the universe. Unfortunately, it is often the innocent bystanders who must pay the price for their unbending belief.

Considered against this tragic reality, those who are flexible seem truly blessed! May each of us strive for that flexibility in all aspects of our life and living. May we ever greet the new day with a willingness to be changed by the people and events we meet there. May we continue to learn to embrace the journey and the sacred search for truth and meaning, and may we never, or at least seldom, find ourselves being bent out of shape. So may it be. Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

September 7, 2008

Fruits of the Spirit

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 1:34 pm
“. . .The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”

– Galatians 5:22-23

St. Paul’s catalog of the fruits of the Spirit is a reminder not only of our responsibilities as religious people, but also as human beings. It is a reminder of the good things that life holds for each one of us, if we are not distracted by what Paul calls “the works of the flesh,” among which he mentions enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy, all those things which kill the Spirit. [Gal. 5: 20-21]

To eat of the fruit of the Spirit is why we have gathered here this morning. It is the purpose of our church, and it is the purpose of our religion. It is that simple.

This past summer, on the same Sunday that I left Newburyport to accompany a group of teens from our church on a visit to our partner church in Transylvania, a lone gunman charged into our Unitarian Universalist congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee, and began shooting. A children’s performance of the play “Annie, Jr.” was underway at the time of the shooting, but fortunately none of the children was injured. However, several members of the congregation were wounded in the attack, and two of them ultimately died.

Yes, the gunman was a disturbed individual with a history of mental problems. He had recently lost his job. But apparently he had also been whipped-up into a frenzy by hate speech on talk radio directed at that amorphous group known loosely as “liberals.”

I believe that we Americans are really quite naïve when it comes to equating hate speech with free speech, and protecting it as if were a harmless expression of our personal liberty, but perhaps that is a sermon topic for another time.

Suffice it to say that the gunman in Knoxville believed that Unitarian Universalist “liberals” were the direct cause of his many problems. Perhaps it was the Knoxville congregation’s stand on gay rights that set him off, or maybe some discussion of the humane treatment of immigrants, whether legal or not. Who knows?

But the fact is, if we didn’t think our religion was making a difference or having an impact, perhaps we should think again. If we think that our values of freedom, tolerance, and reason are only so much nice talk, but not at all practical, perhaps we should think again.

Because, believe me, there are people out there in the world who are taking us terribly seriously, and we had better be prepared for the possible consequences of our words and actions. Speaking truth to power is dangerous work.

This summer when I preached in our partner church in Ujszekely, I preached on that passage from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians which I read to you this morning, and of which the late Roy Philips, one of our great Unitarian Universalist ministers of recent times, once wrote that it “. . .could be the beginning of person or group’s potential long-list of possible spiritual development outcomes, a list useful to people as they try to articulate their own short list: ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, gentleness, self-control.’”

Spirituality, by this definition, is not some ethereal, feel-good nonsense, but something real and measurable, something we can and ought to aspire to. Spirituality by this definition is actually achievable! And if practiced in this way, it is something with definite consequences.

Here, in part, is what I said in Ujszekely: “Our work as religious people is to grow those fruits of the spirit and to distribute them more widely. It is, ultimately, to look beyond the borders of our own village, our own country, our own nationality, or our own ethnic group. It is to recognize our brother and sisterhood with the entire human race, even with those we are tempted to call our enemies. It is to reach across borders not only of geography, but of language and culture and religion, and to share the ‘good news’ of love and universal friendship.

“As the first letter of John in the New Testament puts it, ‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them’ [1 John 4:16].

“This love is at the heart of our religion. It is the kernel, the core, the most essential part. It is the part which nourishes us to wholeness and health. We say that God is love. We say that God loves us. But we can only really know God’s love by the love of other people. We are God’s heart and hands on earth. We are the ones who must make God’s love manifest. We can only do that by reaching out beyond ourselves. . . .

“Never before in history,” I said, “has it been more important that human beings reach beyond their borders, both physical and psychological, to embrace their brothers and sisters. Never has it been more important that we truly get to know one another as individuals and as children of God.

“Our work as religious people is to grow our souls, to grow those fruits of the spirit that Paul mentions, and to become more open and loving human beings. This is really the heart of Jesus’ teaching: to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’ and to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ [Mt. 22: 37, 39; my emphasis].

Perhaps these are just so many words, but what I am suggesting is that we really ought to take them seriously, as idealistically naïve as they may seem, because obviously other people out there are taking us at our word. Jesus’s “Great Commandment” to love God and one’s neighbor, when it is actually taken seriously and acted upon, can be hazardous to your health. But it is also, I believe, our only hope.

I concluded my sermon in Ujszekely by saying, “In the end, I believe we know what God demands of us. We know what the religious life demands, though unfortunately we don’t always do it. It is that we live our lives with love. It is that we love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. All the great religious teachers of all times have said as much. As [Transylvanian Unitarianism’s founder] Francis David said with truth, ‘We need not think alike to love alike.’”

If we do this, I said, if we truly love the highest that we know and truly love our fellow human beings as ourselves, then “we will be those successful gardeners of the spirit whose fruits are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We will get to taste of those fruits in proportion as we practice them. As St. Paul says, ‘If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit’ [Gal. 5:25].

“We know that life will not always be easy. We know that there will always be sadness and loss, that there will always be death, too, and we know that we will not always succeed in the things we are trying to accomplish. Failure is part of every life. But if we have cultivated the fruits of the spirit I can guarantee that we will never be alone in our disappointments or our suffering. The work of the Spirit, which is love, is never wasted, whereas the works of the flesh almost always are.

“Our job as religious people . . . is to be exemplars of the Spirit. It is to be like ‘a city on a hill’ [Mt. 5:14], there for all the world to see. It is to live the best lives of which we are capable, lives of love and generosity and kindness and purpose. These spiritual qualities will never be wasted; our labors in them will always bear us good fruit.”

It is good to regather in this community of memory, of hope, and, I trust, of love. As we say in Transylvania as we greet the people leaving the church service, “Isten aldja meg,” which means, “God bless you.” It is good to be together! Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

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