Harold Babcock's Sermons

October 19, 2008

Disturbing Questions

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 1:32 am

“. . . the positive correlation between expansionism and prosperity, national power and individual freedom has begun to unravel.”
– Andrew J. Bacevich

As the 2008 Presidential campaign dissolves into increasingly common incivility and, blessedly, draws to a close, we are left with a large number of what I can only call disturbing questions, no matter who is elected President of the United States on November 4.

I am not even including the frightening question of global warming which is the elephant in the room for any discussion about the future prospects of the human race in this country, or in any other on good old planet earth.  That is a subject for another day.

We are in the middle of perhaps the worst financial crisis since the crash of the stock market in 1929.  As our good friend and fellow member Lark Madden said at the Leadership Council meeting the other night, reporting for the First Religious Society Board of Trustees on the current state of our modest endowment, what is needed most at this time is patience.  Apparently, most of the stock holders in this country have little of that, as they frantically try to recoup the losses incurred in the last few weeks.

If one were a believer in a God who intervenes in history, one could pray for Divine deliverance from the present crisis, which would be comforting; or one could, quite plausibly, I believe, ascribe the crisis to God’s punishment for our multitude of sins.  This, too, could be seen as a comforting, if somewhat depressing, even though deserved, reminder that God is still in his heaven, and all is well.

For those of us who do not believe in a God who acts so transparently, mechanically, or rationally within the universe, there is little comfort to be found these days.

In a column last week in the Boston Globe, columnist James Carroll tried to “make some sense” of the government‘s $700b bailout (which, by the way, is growing larger by the day):

How much is 700 billion?  The mind registers the number with such imprecision as to make it meaningless.  One blogger has proposed this way of grasping the figure:  As a stack of $100 bills, it would reach 54 miles high.  But who can imagine that?  On the other hand, someone at the Smithsonian once calculated that counting to one billion, at the rate of one digit per second, would take 30 years.  By that scale, counting to 700 billion would take 21,000 years.

Carroll’s point, however, is even darker, raising a more disturbing question yet.  For $700 billion is also the current budget of the Pentagon.

Is something out of whack here, or am I just naïve?

Did the world have to turn out this way?  Is the junk on TV the only possible outcome of the great promise of television programming?  Did a fascination with violence and death have to become the common fare of 21st century entertainment?  Wasn’t there another possibility?

As Carroll writes in his recent column, “One needn’t be an economist to know that spending money on war planes, missles, and exotic weapons systems, not to mention combat operations, creates less social capital than spending on education, bridges, mass transit, new forms of energy–even the arts.”

Is this the way it has to be?  Was it somehow preordained that this is the way the human race would spend its precious and perishable, and ultimately irreplaceable, resources?  (What kind of a God would preordain such a world?)

Is it only wishful thinking to hope that something good may yet come out of this crisis?  That some rebalancing of our resources and priorities, both individual and national, even global, might result from this financial meltdown?  After all, my job is to bring you hope and courage along the way, not despair, though I confess it is increasingly difficult, and perhaps even irresponsible, in these dark days to do so.

In a recent article in Bill Moyers‘ Journal entitled “The Limits of Power,” international relations expert and former US Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich writes that, “From the very founding of the Republic, American political leaders had counted on the promise and the reality of ever greater material abundance” to resolve “the internal contradictions produced by the American way of life.”

Is it possible that this promise and reality have finally reached the end?  Is it possible that we might finally have to live within our means, both materially and spiritually?

In his article, Bacevich invokes the memory of the great 20th century theologian, ethicist, and prophet, Reinhold Niebuhr, a practically forgotten figure today, whose critique of the United States in the mid-twentieth century now seems especially prescient.

Among other things, Niebuhr warned Americans about “the persistent myth of American Exceptionalism” or what is often called “Manifest Destiny,” the belief that Americans have been especially chosen by God as his instrument in the world.  (If the last few years haven’t tempered that belief, than I am convinced only our total destruction will.)  Niebuhr also warned about what Bacevich calls “the indecipherability of history.”  Beware of those, like our incumbent President, who claim to know God’s will or to be able to predict historical outcomes (e.g., swift and easy victory in Iraq).  “History,” President Bush has said, “has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.”  History, however, like Mother Nature, has a strange way of fooling us.

Another warning that Neibuhr issued, and one that really needs no further explanation, is “the false allure of simple solutions.”  There are none.

Finally, and perhaps, given the last eight years, most importantly, Niebuhr warned about the limits of power.

Bacevich writes at length about each of these four truths which Niebuhr labored, mostly in vain, to warn us about.  I share the following passage as representative of the scathing critique which Niebuhr tried to apply to one of those truths, the myth of American Exceptionalism:

In Niebuhr’s view, America’s rise to power derived less from divine favor than from good fortune combined with a fierce determination to convert that good fortune into wealth and power.  The good fortune–Niebuhr referred to it as “America, rocking in the cradle of its continental security”–came in the form of a vast landscape, rich in resources, ripe for exploitation, and insulated from the bloody cockpit of power politics.  The determination found expression in a strategy of commercial and territorial expansionism that proved staggeringly successful, evidence not of superior virtue but of shrewdness punctuated with a considerable capacity for ruthlessness.

One need think only of the ruthless treatment of the Native American and African American peoples on this continent, or to our questionable interventions abroad, to understand what Niebuhr was talking about.  I encourage you to read Bacevich’s entire article.  We Americans are not the wonderful, let alone the God-fearing, people we like to think we are.

Is it possible that the age of seemingly unlimited economic expansion is finally coming to an end?  Bacevich writes that since the Vietnam War at least, “. . . the positive correlation between expansionism and prosperity, national power and individual freedom has begun to unravel.  Since 2003 and the beginning of the Iraq War, it has become almost entirely undone.”

Our increasingly dangerous dependence on foreign sources of oil is only one result of the kind of exploitation and depletion of resources of which Niebuhr warned.  The destruction of irreplaceable farmland by industrial farming methods and the false hope placed by contemporary politicians in bio-fuels is, perhaps, a less visible but perhaps an even more alarming one.  And it should be clear to anyone who has traveled around this country that the period of seemingly endless expansion is done.  There is no place else left to go.

What might all of this mean for the way we live our lives, for the values we hold, for the way we protect our dwindling resources, and for the interrelationships that we might develop, not only here, but around the world?  Assuming that the human race can figure a way out of its present environmental predicament (a not terribly hope-filled assumption, I admit), is it possible that a more peaceful and a more interdependent world might result?

Bacevich writes,

To the end of history,” Niebuhr predicted, “social orders will probably destroy themselves in the effort to prove that they are indestructible.”  So it may be with the United States, which today finds itself in a position akin to that of the aging and flabby heavyweight champ, who is seriously in hock to the IRS, yet can see no alternative but to climb back into the ring.  The champ needs to clean up his act and devote himself to new pursuits.  Niebuhr would likely counsel the United States to follow a similar course. “The greater danger,” he worried a half-century ago, “is that we will rely too much on military strength in general and neglect all the other political, economic, and moral factors” that constitute the wellsprings of “unity, health, and strength.”  The time to confront this neglect is at hand.

The most disturbing question of all, perhaps, is whether there is any politician with the moral courage and vision to help us confront that neglect, and to forswear our foolish ways?  The stakes are terribly high, but one wonders if, short of a complete economic meltdown, or even of a social revolution, any real and substantive change in business as usual is possible.  As Bacevich writes, “Although I would not want to sell my countrymen short–the United States has in past demonstrated a remarkable ability to weather a crises and recover from adversity–I see little evidence today of interest in undertaking a critical assessment of our way of life, which would necessarily entail something akin to a sweeping cultural reformation.”

(This, of course, would run counter to the cultural reformation of the last twenty-five years, which has attempted to take us back to a never-existent past rather than forward to a more promising future.  But that, too, is a sermon for another day.)

Perhaps these disturbing questions which I raise today will provide you with the incentive you need to vote in just over two weeks time.  I certainly hope so.  But I warn you that no matter which candidate you vote for, and which candidate wins, the kind of sweeping change which is needed to re-ground and redirect this nation is unlikely to occur until we the people are willing not only to stand up for what we believe is right, but also that we are willing to change our lives in perhaps unprecedented ways.  I continue to hope that such a change of heart and mind and soul is possible, but I trust you will forgive me for having some doubts.

Nonetheless, we can still choose to live our lives well and nobly and even patiently, trusting that in the great scheme of things a life well-lived is still a pearl of precious worth, as the ancient author of Ecclesiasticus wrote, “immortal both with God and with humanity.”  That, in spite of much evidence to the contrary, remains my conviction.  Go forth in peace, and return with light.  Amen, and blessed be.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock


October 5, 2008

Forgiveness and Promise

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 1:38 am

“. . .The meaning of the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur [is that] the sins of the past year are forgiven and a new year full of righteous and noble promises begins.”
– Richard Stower

Because of our penchant for taking the summer months of July and August off, a practice which over the years I have found my ministerial colleagues in other faiths either fascinated, envious, or irked by, I like to think that we Unitarian Universalists here in Newburyport return to church each fall re-energized, refreshed, and ready to jump enthusiastically into the work of a new church year.  (Please don’t disillusion me about this!)

For me, autumn has always seemed more like the beginning of a new year than the New Year, which perhaps explains why I have never particularly liked that mid-winter holiday.  You know, and I know, that September is when everything really begins, and for that reason it is the time both of great hope and promise, and of what in recent years I have come to call “cosmic dread.”  There is so much to do, and so little time.

For suddenly, after a season of gentle summer breezes and no rigid schedules to keep, fall descends with its crisp, cool days and lengthening nights and with its hint of colder and darker things to come.  After some weeks of letting my mind wander wherever it will, the discipline of the weekly sermon reasserts itself with a shock, and evenings which have been mostly free and flexible are once again taken up by the business of making the church go.

Truly, this is the new year, and it is hard not to measure my life by the number of Septembers in which this ritual of church-start-up has taken place.  For me, if I count my three years of Divinity School training, this marks year number twenty-nine, not counting a brief hiatus of two years.  (Even then, I worked in an educational institution which shares that academic calendar with which so many of us, teachers and students especially, are familiar.)

No, autumn is definitely the beginning of the new year, and so it is appropriately coincidental that this time of year also marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah.  Rosh Hashanah, which marks the beginning of the Jewish High Holy, or Solemn Days (the so-called “Days of Awe”), is a most meaningful holiday, one that speaks to me in this season of new beginnings.

For as my colleague Rich Stower, who grew up in a Jewish family, has written, “. . .The meaning of the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur [is that] the sins of the past are forgiven and a new year full of righteous and noble promises begins.”

All of us need to start over from time to time.  All of us need that new beginning, and to let go of the mistakes and misunderstandings of the past.  Too often we fail to let go of them, and thus we miss the opportunity, as it said in our responsive reading, “to begin again in love.”

Let us not fail to notice how profound such a letting go can be.

You may remember the story, some years ago now, of Jeffrey Curley, a young, North Cambridge boy who was kidnapped and murdered by two of his neighbors.  Death penalty advocates seized upon this terrible event to press their case for making Massachusetts a death penalty state.  At first, in the midst of his grief, young Jeffrey’s father was co-opted into this effort, even seeming to lead the charge.

But several years later, Mr. Curley stated publicly that he no longer supported bringing the death penalty back.  In fact, he had decided that the feelings of rage and of desire for retribution which he had been carrying for several years were doing him and his family more harm than good.  He decided to let go of those feelings, and to move on which his life.  He no longer desired the death of his son’s murderers.  It simply was not worth the pain and agony of the effort of holding on.

Was this forgiveness?  I suppose that only Jeffrey Curley’s dad could tell us that.  But I know how his change of heart affected me.  For me, it was an incredibly moving and powerful example of beginning again with love.

As my colleague Rich Stower has written in another place, the High Holy Days are “about the process of growth and change.”  If someone who has suffered so catastrophically can grow and change, so might we.  Each of us has that potential, because each of us contains that “spark of the divine,” but the first step is always letting go of the hurts and errors of the past.

Most of us, I believe, give lip service, at least, to the concept of forgiveness.  And yet I suspect that many of us can think of things which we might consider “unforgivable.”  The problem, as the great religious thinkers in all ages and traditions have always recognized, is that without forgiveness, there can be no hope, no promise of new life, no change and no growth. Forgiveness may actually be a selfish act, because it frees us even while it may not change the forgiven one.  If so, it is a selfish act of the best kind: an act of self-preservation, and ultimately an act of love.

Most of us, thank God, will never face a situation as terrible the Curley family’s.  Unless we walk in their shoes, we cannot know what forgiveness would look like in such a circumstance.  But almost all of us, I dare say, are aware of situations in our own lives where we are holding on to old grudges, old hurts, old failures of loyalty and love.

And all of us, I dare say, have done or said or even thought things about which we feel tremendous guilt and regret.  What would happen were we to let go of these things, to forgive ourselves and others, and to begin again, fresh, and in love?

Theodor H. Gaster, in Festivals of the Jewish Year, has written that

The ultimate purpose of Yom Kippur, as the Bible states expressly (Lev. 16:30), is not merely to cleanse [us] of sin, but to cleanse [us] before the Lord–i.e., to wipe out, year by year, “the world’s slow stain,” to restore [us] to that state of wholeness and holiness which is a condition of our fulfilling our function in the world and of serving as effective co-workers of God.  The whole process of introspection, confession, and atonement, the so-called “affliction of soul,” with which the day has come to be identified, is, in the final analysis, simply a means to an end–the removal of an initial impediment.”

Thus, if I understand correctly, the forgiveness and letting go which we are asked to do during Yom Kippur is both to restore us to wholeness and to free us to act in new and positive ways, indeed, to free us to act as “God’s co-workers” on behalf of a troubled world.  As Rabbi Harold Kushner once put it wonderfully, “The ultimate goal is to transform the world into the kind of world God had in mind when God created it.”

Seen in this light, forgiveness of ourselves or others ultimately turns out to be an unselfish act.  It may not be about us at all.  Perhaps the greatest sin would be to hold on to those feelings of guilt and anger which prevent or divert us from acting on behalf of the common good.  Those feelings, in other words, which can become an excuse for inaction, an excuse for wallowing in our own suffering and our own pain, to the exclusion of all others.

Those “righteous and noble promises” which my colleague Rich reminds us are our true work in the world: they are certainly the work of our church.  They are our highest aspirations, but they cannot be attained, it is clear, as long as we are caught up in holding useless grudges, in pointless self-depreciation, in anger at past wrongs done to ourselves, or in guilt for our own wrongs and shortcomings.  (This could apply to faiths and communities and nations as well.)

Another colleague [Roberta Mitchell] has written that, “During the Days of Awe, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is incumbent upon one to reflect and return anew to a faithful life.”  This, it seems to me, is the ultimate goal of religion.  It is the goal to which we return each fall, refreshed and renewed to take up the work of our church again.

And what might a faithful life look like?  Would it not be a life lived in the light of those “righteous and noble promises” of which my colleague Rich Stower writes?  Would it not be a life dedicated to “transform[ing] the world into the kind of world God had in mind when God created it”?  I think we already know what such a life and such a world looks like.  The poets and prophets and teachers in all the ages have shown us the way to live, and we can recognize the kind of transformative actions which make our world a better place for all, the kind of world for which we long.

We must strive to build such a world.  It is no wonder that I approach each new church year with a sense of cosmic dread.  It is an audacious work to which we are called: to change the world, to make it a place more like unto our dreams, to create a better future for our children and for all the generations still to come.

This is not a reality which can be realized without our hard work and sacrifice.  Building a real community on this little planet will take everything we have: time, talent, and treasure.  But this is the work to which we are called.

I guess another way to say it is to say that we are not here for ourselves alone.  We are here for those who have come before, and we are here for those who will come after we are gone.  We are here to do something, not simply to take up space on the planet, or in the pew.

Forgiveness and promise.  None of us is perfect, and therefore we will always need forgiveness.  Forgiveness opens to the door to growth and change, and thus to hope.  We make our promises, knowing or suspecting that we will always come up short of them.  But then we forgive ourselves and others, and begin again in love.  Never let go of the dream: let go only of the things which keep you from realizing it.

May we all be those better people we long to be, and may we ever strive to build the beloved community of memory, hope, and love here on earth.  So may it be.  Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Blog at WordPress.com.