Harold Babcock's Sermons

January 18, 2009

Barack Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr.: Culmination of the Dream?

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 5:45 pm

“I have a dream that one day my children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

When Barack Obama is inaugurated on Tuesday, a significant milestone in the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. will have been reached.  But will the elevation of an African American to America’s highest office truly be the culmination of King’s great dream, as he so eloquently and movingly and unforgettably described it on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, or is there still a whole lot more work to be done?

My sermon this morning will attempt to honestly address this question, as well as to tell a personal story of how Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement profoundly influenced one kid from a small town in Maine growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The kid was me; the town was Castine, Maine.  Not exactly a hotbed of racial politics, but, surprisingly, a sometime seat of quite virulent racism.  Not because we had any black neighbors, mind you, because we didn’t at that time.  Oh, I do remember clearly when one local young woman married a black African man at around that time, that she was practically disowned by her family.  Otherwise, I suppose the closest we had to real racial diversity was an occasional family of Penobscot Indians coming through to sell their wares.  Even Maine Maritime Academy, our local, state funded educational institution, had few if any African American students at that time.  (I vaguely remember one, but he was a true novelty.)

Some of my earliest memories, though, are of television news clips of the Civil Rights movement.  Being a self-confessed wimp–some might say I was just “sensitive” (I cried when my best friend practically put his eye out while sledding; he never shed a tear and stoically wondered what all the fuss was about–I think we were in the fifth or sixth grade at the time)–I found those nightly news clips troubling, to say the least (as we would all a short time later find troubling the nightly new clips from a place called Vietnam).  And the answers to my troubled questions about them were not especially satisfying.

How could someone as articulate and convincing and obviously brilliant as Martin Luther King, Jr. be dismissed as merely a troublemaker, a rabble-rouser, or–and remember, this is the late 50s and early 60s–a communist?  Even my own father was susceptible to these arguments.  Why did people who never even met a black person in their lives use racial epithets to describe this, in my youthful opinion, amazing American, and a minister no less?  Wasn’t that the Bible he was always quoting, and the United States Constitution to which he constantly made reference?  Weren’t those echoes of the Gettysburg Address that I was hearing in his speeches and sermons?

Racial slurs were sometimes heard in local stores to describe King and his Civil Rights followers.  Even as a young boy, I found this remarkable, just as I found remarkable the somewhat softer racism of my Canadian-born grandmother.  Did she even know any black people?  I didn’t know any black people, either (ironically, this was a twisted argument often used against them–if we actually knew any black people we would understand why they were being beaten up and oppressed), but still I couldn’t believe that those who said such things about the inspiring Dr. King could possibly be as smart as he seemed to me to be.

Those news clips of Civil Rights protests, by the way, probably had as much to do with the success of the Civil Rights movement as anything that King ever said or wrote.  One could not lightly dismiss children and old people in peaceful demonstrations being beaten with billy clubs and knocked to the ground with fire hoses and torn by vicious dogs.  I compare it to the influence of the printing press on the Protestant Reformation: without the printing press, Luther would have been simply one more immolated heretic, like his predecessor, the Czech Jan Hus, who had all of Luther’s ideas a century before Luther, but without the benefit of a printing press to spread them to powerful potential supporters.  Without TV, without the attention it focused on the peculiarities and injustices and violence of racial segregation, there would not have been a Civil Rights movement as we have come to know it.

As a kid, as I say, I found all of this disturbing and confusing to say the least.  Secretly, Martin Luther King, Jr. became one of my childhood idols, to be joined by the similarly tragic figure of John F. Kennedy.  It probably wasn’t an accident that I idolized the minister King, as at around this time I came under the influence of a young minister at our local Unitarian Universalist Church and began, largely because of the figure cut by Dr. King, but also because of this youthful and athletic and to me inspiring Unitarian Universalist minister, to think of ministry and the church as a possible career.

The young minister, too, was accused of being a communist; and while he no doubt had his faults (he was possibly arrogant and self-righteous and tactless) he paid me attention I desperately needed and was on what I considered to be the right side of the Civil Rights struggle, with which I had come to deeply sympathize.  The church became the one place in town I felt safe to take my secret feelings and questions about Dr. King and the essential rightness or even righteousness of his Civil Rights cause.

Indeed, religion appealed to me first of all because of its ethical imperative: it was, for me, mostly about living a good life and being a good person–Jesus was in this understanding of religion the ultimate role model, but King wasn’t far behind in my mind.

The fact that King was not only a minister but also an unsurpassed public speaker made him more attractive yet in my youthful search for adequate and inspiring role models.  He was always calm and rational and exhibited great physical courage.  Though lacking the latter, I, too, wanted to be a good person and to make some kind of a difference in the world.  And though I have become less sanguine with age about the individual possibilities of creating systemic change, I have always held on to that yearning for a better world that King, Kennedy, and others inspired in me at a very early age.  Despite my own frequent failures over the years to confront the powers and principalities that be, I still believe at heart that that is what religion should really be about.

Until thrust into the leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott at the tender age of twenty-five, King himself had wanted nothing more than to be an academic.  His Boston University doctoral dissertation was focused in part on the work of the liberal process theologian Henry Nelson Wieman, a Unitarian whose idea of “creative interchange” as a modern understanding of God appealed strongly to King.  He would later become skeptical about the effectiveness of a too-complacent religious liberalism in helping bring about real social change, though religious liberals remained among his strongest allies.  While he would later become the Civil Rights movement’s undisputed leader, readopting the more emotional style of the Black Church and the more traditional language of the Bible, becoming a master of its metaphors and its rolling cadences, he would always remain a somewhat reluctant activist, one on whom the weight of leadership responsibilities weighed heavily.  Ultimately, that leadership role cost him his life.

It is interesting in hindsight to consider that King thought it would take at least fifty years for the kind of changes the Civil Rights movement was pressing for in the 1950s to take effect.  Now, only a little more than fifty years since the beginning of the bus boycott, the United States has elected an African American president, with the unlikely name Barack Obama, who will be inaugurated on Tuesday.  King would, I believe, be amazed by the changes that have taken place in America in the last forty years since his death, but in all honesty I do not think that Obama’s election can be taken as the culmination of King’s dream.  Maybe we are not even close.

I know that many of my colleagues consider Obama close to the second coming–whether of Lincoln or Roosevelt, King or Jesus, I’m not quite sure.  I, too, was deeply moved by his election, feeling it to be a great step forward toward a new possibility of racial understanding and reconciliation, and an affirmation of my earliest sympathies and ethical convictions.  I too had tears in my eyes during his acceptance speech.   But I confess that I am less optimistic and more constrained in my hopes than are many of my friends.

The recent flap over Obama’s obviously political choice of the evangelical preacher Rick Warren to offer the inaugural prayer is probably only the first of many disillusionments to come.  Offering a pre-inaugural prayer opportunity on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to gay Episcopal Bishop Eugene Robinson doesn’t take away the sting of his choice of Warren.  I understand the political expediency of why he did it–but in my heart of hearts I wish that he could have made less diplomatic choice.  It would probably be too much to ask that he had chosen someone from the Universalist tradition adopted by his grandparents, which, I like to think, has been a formative element not only of his political and social vision but of his character as well, whether consciously or not.

Obama’s speeches are often compared to sermons, and his style to preaching (and as a preacher I can be excused for grasping at the hope that he might elevate good preaching again to the place it once held in this nation’s affections), but in spite of his skillful use of the preaching traditions of the Black Church, not unlike King’s and perhaps not heard since King and his amazing ability to use words to inspire, he is at heart a politician.  While I believe in the power of words well used to change the hearts of at least some listeners–and while I also believe that Obama may be the most skilled orator we have had on the political scene since at least Franklin D. Roosevelt or at most Abraham Lincoln–I remain cautious about what he can accomplish.  Not only do I not want to become more disillusioned myself, but also I do not want the weight of impossible expectations to stand in the way of what President Obama might actually accomplish.

Meanwhile, to return at last to the question of the day, I’m afraid that I do not believe that the forces of backwardness and racial prejudice have been magically eliminated by this election.  I believe we still have  a long, long way to go before we have fully realized Dr. King’s dream.  In spite of the incredible progress that has been made since King’s assassination in 1968, we still have a long way to go until we truly judge people by what King called “the content of their character.”  We still have a long way to go to overcome the terrible legacy of slavery and racial prejudice which remains as a blight on our nation even to this day, and will remain so even after Barack Obama is sworn in on Tuesday and his family moves into the White House.  We still have a long way to go to eliminate the poverty and want against which King struggled.  We still have a long way to go before we fully recognize the privilege which accompanies white skin or the systemic racism which continues to hold poor people down.  We still have a long way to go before the warring banners are finally furled.  And we still have a long, long way to go before all the traces of racism secretly lurking in own hearts is eradicated.

This is perhaps the most insidious reason why I believe King’s dream will remain unfulfilled for some time still to come.  We simply aren’t that good yet.  Until we can look into the secret recesses of our own hearts, and not find there the lingering fear of the other, the stranger, the one who is different from ourselves, the dream will not be fulfilled.  It is much too early for self-congratulation.  But may the day come soon when our hearts are truly clean.  Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

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January 11, 2009

Our Father (and Mother) . . .

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 9:25 pm

“Pray then in this way. . . .”
– Matthew 6: 9, RSV

As some of you may know,  my personal spiritual practice in recent years has included reciting the words of what is familiarly called “The Lord’s Prayer,” though in this church there is a long-standing tradition of calling it “The Prayer of Jesus.”  I have discovered that if I recite the prayer three times it equals about one minute, so if I want to take a minute of silent prayer, I simply say the “Lord’s Prayer” three times over to myself.

This is easy, because the Lord’s Prayer is one of the few things I have actually managed to memorize in my life, probably having to do with the fact that, growing up, I had to recite it not only in Sunday School and church, but also in public school!  Be that as it may, I have the Lord’s Prayer, in that wonderful expression, “by heart,”–though remembering that even the great 19th century Episcopal preacher Phillips Brooks once publicly blanked on its words, I always keep a printed copy of the prayer in front of me when I am reciting it at a worship service or funeral.

It’s not that I agree with its theology, or at least all of it–this is not a pitch for bringing the Lord’s Prayer back into regular use here at the First Religious Society–but rather that, for me, its words are comfortingly familiar as not many words are.  (The question of its theology is one that I have dealt with in a previous sermon.)

We may think of the Lord’s Prayer as something more or less carved in stone, as some no doubt wish it were, and in public places no less; but in fact even within the New Testament itself there are two separate and not identical versions of the prayer, and within the biblical tradition at large there are a significant number of different translations into English.  Most of us Protestants are familiar with the version which goes,

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done
on earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power,
and the glory, forever and ever.  Amen.

Catholics, of course, leave off the little doxology, “For thine is the kingdom. . . .”  In fact, this doxology doesn’t appear in the original Greek of the New Testament, but seems to have been added by early translators to give the prayer a more sonorous and “liturgical” close for use in communal worship.

That word “trespass,” which always confused me as a kid (it wasn’t particularly difficult to ask forgiveness for trespassing, since I didn’t do much of that), appears to be a softening of the Greek word, which actually translates as “debt.”  Forgiving debts is a lot more challenging than forgiving trespasses, I think.  Even the highly popular King James Version (KJV) of the 17th century uses the word “debt” in its version of the Lord’s Prayer as found in the gospel of Matthew.  In the Gospel of Luke’s version of the prayer, which is more concise and less poetic (and thus probably closer to the original), the word “sin” appears in the original Greek, thus,

And forgive us our sins; for we also
forgive every one that is indebted to us. (KJV)

This version of the prayer ends abruptly, without the doxology, similar to the contemporary Roman Catholic version:

And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.

Successive translations into English have attempted to more accurately render the original Greek of the New Testament.  Thus the Revised Standard Version or “RSV,” a mid-twentieth century modernization of the familiar and beloved King James Version, leaves off the non-biblical doxology, and keeps the word “debt” instead of “trespass.”  In the somewhat later New Revised Standard Version or “NRSV,” the prayer is still more accurately translated, as follows:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

That final line is interesting, though it perhaps leaves intact the difficulty with which John Mercer’s father struggled [in the morning’s reading] , substituting “time of trial” for temptation, and the more accurate “evil one” for “evil.”  This may remove the difficulty that some of us have with the concept of “evil” as a force separate from or outside of ourselves, though it replaces it with the equally challenging problem of who that “evil one” is.  (Is it “Satan” or “the devil”?  If so, those of us who have trouble accepting the existence of such a being will not find much comfort in the change.)

And there have been still other recent attempts to accurately translate the prayer, as in this version from the popular “New English Bible” or “NEB” which ends:

Forgive us the wrong we have done,
as we have forgiven those who have wronged us.
And do not bring us to the test,
but save us from the evil one.

(Why is it that translators seem to want to avoid that word “debt”?)

For those who have difficulty with the patriarchal aspect of the prayer and its invocation of God as “father,” I’m afraid there isn’t much that an accurate translator can do.  There is much evidence both within the New Testament and without that this is the form of address that Jesus regularly used for God.  In fact, the Aramaic word “Abba,” which is found in the original text and is taken from the language that Jesus is most likely to have spoken, actually means something more intimate still, closer to “papa.”  As in, “Papa, your name be hallowed.”

Before turning to some other translations, renderings, and revisions of the Lord’s Prayer, I would also briefly mention that most scholars today believe that the Lord’s Prayer is a compilation of several shorter prayers, or in technical biblical critic-speak, “pericopes,” which may originally have been in use independently in the early Christian community.  Thus,

Our father in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors.

Save us from the evil one.

Whether this prayer (or these prayers) actually originated with Jesus, or was in fact taught by Jesus to his followers, is a thornier question yet, and one for another day.

Over the years I have collected a number re-translations, loose renderings, and near total-revisions of the familiar Lord’s Prayer, which I thought I would share with you this morning.  Some are quite good, I think, some take considerable liberties, some are just bad, and some may even seem a little sacrilegious, depending on the extent to which one believes the Bible to be divinely inspired and thus unalterable.

One of my favorite versions is anonymous:

Our Father/Mother who art without us and within us,
Holy and beautiful is thy name.
Thy truth be told,
thy love unfold in us as it is in thee.
Give us each day acceptance of grace

and compassion for unwholeness in others
and in ourselves.
Protect us from false belief in our own power.
And deliver us from meaningless and ego-centered
lives.
For thine is the real, the creative, and the joyful
in the eternal now.

Another good, albeit wordy one, is from the late Unitarian Universalist minister and liturgist, Jacob Trapp:

O Thou, whose kingdom is within, may all thy names be hallowed.
May no one of them be turned against the other
to divide those who address thee.
May thy presence be made known to us
in mercy, beauty, love, and justice.
May thine kingdom come to be in the life of all
humankind.
May it come with peace, with sharing, and in near
time.
Give us this day our daily bread,
free from all envy and alienation,
broken and blessed in the sharing.
Keep us from trespass against others, and
from the
feeling that others are trespassing against us.
Forgive us more than we have forgiven.
Deliver us from being tempted by lesser things
to be heedless of the one great thing: the gift of thyself in us.

A person named Jim Riley offers an earth-centered version:

Our Mother, who art the earth,
Holy be thy name.

Thy garden come–where we are one
And all is face to face.
Give us this day the grace we need;
Like mountains capped with snow,
Cascading down and circling round
Your family here below.

Neil Douglas-Klotz offers a similarly creation-centered translation:

O Thou, the Breath, the Light of All,
Let this Light create a heart-shine within
And your Counsel rule til Oneness guides all.
Your One Desire then acts with ours, as in all light,
so in all forms.
Grant what we need, each day, in bread and insight.
Loose the cords of mistakes binding us,
as we release the strands we hold on others’ faults.
Don’t let surface things delude us.
But keep us from unripe acts.
To you belongs the ruling mind,
the life that can act
and do,
the song that beautifies all,
from age to
age it renews.
In faith, I will be true.

(Don’t know what those “unripe acts” might be!)

I also found this humorous, anonymous “feminist” version:

Our Mother, who art in heaven
Sister shall be thy name.
Our washing’s done, our kitchen’s clean
On earth and it isn’t heaven.
Give us this day equality.
And forgive our shortcomings
As we try to forgive those who have short-changed us.
And lead us not into Home Economics,
But deliver us into politics
For there is the power, and the glory, and the money
Forever . . . A-Woman.

The political satirist Mark Russell also has a humorous take, in this “generic Lord’s Prayer for the public schools”:

Our Father or Mother, who are either in heaven,
Nirvana, Mecca, or Salt Lake City,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
providing thy will is that America is always
the winner over the foreign heathen.
Give us this day our daily white bread, black bread,
Italian bread, Jewish rye, English muffins, or
tacos,
and a quarterpounder with cheese and a large fries to go.
A
nd lead us not into temptation, or into
school buses that take us to neighborhoods
where the kids are different.
For thine is the kingdom and the power and the
glory,
especially for people who still use
words like “thine.”

On a more earnest note, I find interesting this version, which claims to be a “translation from the ancient Aramaic,” which I sincerely doubt:

Our Father who is throughout the universe,
May your name be set apart
Let come your kingdom,
Let be your desire,
Even as in the cosmos
So also on earth
May we have bread for our sustenance
from day to day
Free us from our offenses
Even as we also have
Freed our offenders
And let us not enter into our temptations
(worldliness)
But part us from error
Because yours are the kingdom and the power and
the song
From ages through all ages
Sealed in trust, faith, and truth

After some of these you may feel, as I do, that the original is actually pretty good.  (Notice how even these new-agey versions avoid the concept of debt forgiveness.  Not that I’m cynical. . . .)

David Turner sent me the following “Native American” version, which is actually quite good:

O Great Spirit,
You are our Shepherd Chief in the
most high place.
Whose home is everywhere, even beyond
the stars and moon.
Whatever You want done, let it also
be done everywhere.
Give us Your gift of bread day by day.
Forgive us our wrongs as we forgive
those who wrong us.
Take us away from wrong doings.
Free us from all evil.
For everything belongs to You.
Let your power and glory shine
forever.  Amen.

I actually like some parts of this version with “spiritual interpretation” by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science.  I promise this will be the last one:

Our Father which art in heaven,

Our Father-Mother God, all harmonious,

Hallowed be Thy name.

Adorable One.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy kingdom is come; Thou art ever-present.

Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

Enable us to know,–as in heaven and earth,–

God is omnipotent, supreme.

Give us this day our daily bread;

Give us grace for today; feed the famished affections;

And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

And love is reflected in love;

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil;

And God leadeth us not into temptation, but deliver us from sin, disease, and death.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.

For God is infinite, all-power, all Life, Truth, Love, over all, and All.

Perhaps you will not be so ready to take one of these as your new spiritual practice!  As in much else in this world, the tried and true turns out still to be the best:

Our Father, who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those
who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the
glory, forever and ever.  Amen.

-The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

January 4, 2009

“In the Sun Which Is Young Once Only”

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 5:53 pm

“The most effective way to cope with change is to help create it.”
– L. W. Lynett

“Time is a river of passing events, and strong is its current,” wrote Marcus Aurelius, the second century Roman emperor and philosopher.

No sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by, and another takes its place, and this, too, will be swept away.  Observe always that everything is the result of change, and get used to thinking that there is nothing Nature loves so well as to change existing forms and to make new ones like them.  Everything is in a state of metamorphosis.  Thou thyself, he wrote, art in everlasting change.  So is the whole universe.

How difficult it is to accept change.  We cling to the past, we crave an uncertain future–and too often we forget to cherish the present.  Accepting change doesn’t mean that we remain untouched by it.  It means rather that we recognize that change is the unalternating current of the universe, and that we must use this recognition to season the present moment in which we are living.  “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom,” wrote the Psalmist.

My colleague in New York City, Forrester Church, has written of what he calls “nostalgia for the present.”  Nostalgia for the present, he says, “. . . involves our looking longingly at that which we have, here and now, and resisting the impulse to long for what now is not.  Today is a good old day, wistfully to be welcomed even as it passes.”

Along with “nostalgia for the present”–which, incidentally, plays with the past–Forrester suggests another technique, one which plays with the future, in order to help us appreciate the here and now; he calls this technique “looking forward to the present.”  “Imagine,” he says,

that what is ours today, the companionship of our loved ones and friends, the tasks we are called upon to do, the very air we breathe, were not ours this very instant to enjoy.  Such imagining puts an edge on life, it really does.  Instead of pining over a past that is no more or longing for a future that may never be, one greets the present with a wistful and anticipatory welcome, thankful for the time that is given us to love and share and celebrate and live.

We all know people whose lot it is to dwell almost continually in the past, people who are unable to deal with change, people who spend their time in continuous longing for things as they used to be.  I have read that Queen Victoria wore mourning black for Prince Albert, her deceased husband, for fifty years, unable to constructively relinquish her grief for him even to the end of her days.  It’s not because she continued to grieve that I single her out, for that is inevitable so long as we remember the object of our grief.  But it is because she was seemingly paralyzed by grief, locked into the past, unable to move forward or to appreciate fully the present.

If we are lucky, we know at least one person whose ability to change with the times, or at least to cope with change, seems unfailing.  Such persons do not dwell incessantly on what used to be, but continue to feel pleasure and interest in what is, and to meet the challenge of a world in flux.  My grandmother Gertrude Leach was such a person, working well into her eighties while continuing to enjoy the simple pleasures of every day, such as feeding the birds at her birdfeeder, or watching the sunset from her “piazza.”

Dylan Thomas’s great poem “Fern Hill” captures as perhaps no other poetry the poignant recognition of change.  Thomas longs in the poem for a past that is “forever fled,” for a “sun which is young once only.”  Some might say that this is the only theme in Thomas’s poetry.  He was obsessed by the reality that birth is the beginning of death, that childhood is but the fleeting threshold of old age, and that in the face of this terrible truth we are totally helpless.

Who has not been gripped by that same sense of recognition? Who has not felt a similar sense of loss, or a similar fear of death, at some dark hour of the night?  Time marches inexorably toward our individual extinction.  As Marcus Aurelius reminded us: “Thou, thyself, art in everlasting change.”

Dylan Thomas, of course, was eventually immobilized by this truth.  He sought escape in drink, and eventually died of “massive alcoholic insult to the brain” at age 39, leaving us to wonder what might have been.

Too many of us also long for a past which is gone or for a future which may never come, and which will certainly not come as we anticipate.   In another place, Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessing you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you could crave for them if they were not yours.”

Let your nostalgia be for the here and now!  Look forward to the present.

The changing of the year is a good time to reflect on these themes.  It is a good time to reflect on where we have been and where we might be going, but it is an especially good time to reflect on where we are right now.

Sometimes when I indulge my sense of the mysterious, I like to think about the way that life has led me.  At times I am nearly convinced of a power beyond myself which is leading me in mysterious ways unknown.  How else to explain the richness and surprise of the journey?  I often ask myself what I have done to deserve the good that has been my portion.  As poet Wendell Berry writes, I sometimes feel “the grace of the world upon me.”  Skeptic though I often am, at times my sense of a purposeful intervention in my life has been so intense as to nearly convince me of the existence of some guiding spirit or guardian angel with a controlling interest in my personal destiny.

I try to be cautious about such possibly ego-driven intuitions. But still I spend a considerable amount of time speculating about where it is I am being led, or at least where I  am going.  Perhaps it is the intimation of a destination, the sense almost of following a compass course to somewhere, that drives me to go there!  But, whatever it is, I give thanks that I have almost always had the feeling that there is something more than meets the eye.

The feeling of being on a pilgrimage and of having some ultimate destination is, of course, at the heart of religious experience the world over.  In my own experience, “hell” is losing the sense of purpose.  Hell is waking up in the morning not knowing where to turn, wondering what I am doing, having no interest in the meaning of it all.  It is the feeling that I have lost the path I am supposed to be following, and not knowing if I shall regain it.  Perhaps you know this feeling.

I give thanks that I have, so far, weathered my times of personal indirection, that there are goals as yet unattained, books still to read, places still to visit, work that still needs to be done, new friends still to be made, and old ones to be kept safe in the heart.

It is important to reflect on these things, these convictions, about the meaning of life, but too often I, too, fail to make the time to do it.  Like many of us, I let my life get clogged with busy work, and I forget to think about where I have come from, where on earth I might be going, and, most importantly, I forget to appreciate where I am at this present moment in time.

Perhaps this is the gift of a new year: not that we are a year older and perhaps not a whit wiser, not that we shall inevitably be deprived of some of those who make our lives worth living, not that we shall suffer and fail, not even that we have a new beginning (more like a continuation, in actuality) but that we are forced to look backwards whence we came, and forward to where we are going.  If we are lucky, we might experience one of those moments when we seem to be perched on the fulcrum of time.  As poet T. S. Eliot put it, “at the still point of the turning world,” neither time past nor time future, but right now.

“All creation nestles within the crucible of time–,” writes Unitarian Universalist minister Richard Kelly,

the strangeness, the passingness of duration, held perhaps in unknown hands.  The washed light of time surrounds us with our sorrow and our exultation, for it brings us endless departure, yet precious achievement, brings us glimpses of bright-flecked eternity.  Restlessness stirs forever within the crucible, eternally creating and transforming, and thus it holds both the problem and answer to our lives.

Perhaps what I am leading up to in this first sermon of a new year is that in order to accept the inevitability of change we must be willing to risk all in the present moment.  As someone has written with truth, “The most effective way to cope with change is to help create it.”  As the late Unitarian Universalist minister Ralph Helverson once wrote, “A ship is safe in a harbor, but that is not what a ship is for.”  We are safe in our memories of the past, and in our uncertain dreams of the future, but that is not what we are for.  We are for the open sea, where each moment we are challenged to stay afloat and steer a straight course through troubled waters.

It is important that we keep a weather eye, of course, but much more important that we deal with the situation as it presents itself to us in any given moment.  That is how we keep from sinking during the storms in our lives, and that requires faith in ourselves and in others.  There is only the wide-open sea ahead, and uncertain ports of call, and even, as our ancestors learned, the possibility of a savage reception.  But this is true faith: to face reality with hope and courage.

My New Year’s wish for all of us is contained in these words of my colleague Richard Gilbert:

Life is measured in years while it is lived in days.  Life tales are told in generations past, present, and future, while life is lived one day at a time.  The gift of life is not a gift of great sweeps of years but is the exhilaration of a single day–the day which we live now.  It is tempting to live off the capital of yesterday, or the anticipation of tomorrow, but it is today that the hands of the clock measure the days of our lives and it is the presence of time within us that tells its significance.  Why must we live in the past that can never again be, or the future that has not yet come?  Why can we not look at the gift of today and fall on our knees in gratitude?

Why, indeed?  Amen, and blessed be.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock


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