Harold Babcock's Sermons

September 26, 2010

Why Can’t We Get Along

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 10:34 pm

Hear the sermon

Civility is “the sum of the many sacrifices
we are called to make for the sake of living together.”
– Stephen Carter

Why can’t we get along?  Recently I was asked by members of our Sunday morning Current Events Forum if I would preach on this question.  “How can we (better) talk/listen to one another in U. S. Society today?” they asked.

Some of you may remember that several years ago I delivered a sermon on the subject of civility.  Here, in part, is what I said:

Civility . . . is most fundamentally about citizenship.  It is about the broadest possible citizen participation in the political process.  It is about politeness only insofar as courteous behavior helps make that process and that participation possible.  In other words, civility includes politeness not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end.  Civility requires politeness, but it is not synonymous with it.

In the United States, we might be able to agree that the ends sought by civility are freedom, justice, and equality.  Or, as the Pledge of Allegiance has it, “liberty and justice for all.”  In order to maximize these ideals, it is desirable, but not inevitable, that any debate about them should be carried on in what we might call “a civil manner.”  While, as we know, or should know, that polite behavior is a must in the smooth running of a group where everyone knows everyone else, and even within our own families, how much more important it becomes when we are dealing with strangers: those whom we don’t know as well, those who are different from us, those who disagree with us.

Civility, then, is about politeness only insofar as it enables conversation and debate about issues which are, or should be, of concern to us all.   It is not about agreement, though I suspect it is usually, or often, about reaching compromise.  At its deepest level, civility is about our duty to practice good citizenship through constructive participation in the political process and in the local community.

“I am not a philosopher or a logician,” I said, “but I think that I have learned a few things over the years about the benefits of decency and courtesy.  I have observed first-hand how a well-timed apology can defuse a volatile situation, and how a willingness to listen to others can calm a difficult situation and make reconciliation, if not agreement, possible.”

So, why can’t we get along?  How have we arrived at the current, highly polarized state of things in our country and our world?  Let me offer a few possibilities that come to mind:

  • the advent of 24 hour news programming (not only Fox News, but also MSNBC)
  • the decay of objective journalism and its replacement by journalism as entertainment, or journalism as propaganda
  • the inability to envision a third (or fourth or fifth) way between black and white alternatives: is it really only either or?  (Is the “clash of civilizations” really inevitable?)
  • the promotion of an “us versus them” mentality
  • clinging to our own truth
  • belief in our own self-sufficiency
  • laziness
  • failure to listen, especially to those with whom we disagree
  • defensiveness
  • arrogance
  • the unwillingness to compromise
  • the unwillingness to give those who differ with us the benefit of the doubt
  • the unwillingness to apologize
  • fear, especially of the Other
  • economic uncertainty
  • the triumph of ideology over practicality and common sense
  • plain old mean-spiritedness

I could go on, indeed I could preach a whole sermon about each of these, but I think you get the picture.  (If you didn’t see yourself or your own situation in at least a few of these possibilities, that may also be part of the problem.)

From a religious point of view, we are talking here about something as fundamental as the value of kindness and love: not some sappy, romanticized version of love, but the kind of which St Paul wrote,

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

As the satirist Jonathan Swift once observed, “We have just enough religion to make us hate one another, but not enough to make us love one another.”  Ouch.

Episcopal priest and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor relates a wonderful story from lore of the so-called Desert Fathers in her book An Altar in the World:

Once, two elders who were living together decided that they should have a quarrel like ordinary men.  Since they had never had one before, they were not quite sure how to begin.  So one of the elders looked around, found a brick, and placed it squarely between him and his brother in Christ.  “I will say, ‘It is mine,’” he instructed his brother.  “Then you say, ‘No, it is mine.’  This is the sort of thing that leads to a quarrel.”

“Are you ready?” he asked his brother.

“I am ready,” he brother said.

“Okay,” he said, regarding the brick. “It is mine.”

“I beg your pardon,” his brother said, “but I do believe that it is mine.”

“No, it’s not; it’s mine,” the first monk said.

“Well, if it’s yours, then take it,” his brother said.  Thus the two elders failed to get into a quarrel after all.

What if we were to act in a similarly simple but profound manner?  Would it be a sign of weakness, or might it in fact be a strength, possibly even leading us to something unexpected and new?  As Barbara Brown Taylor writes,

The wisdom of the Desert Fathers includes the wisdom that the hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self—to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.  All you have to do is recognize another you “out there”—your other self in the world—for whom you may care as instinctively as you care for yourself.  To become that person, even for a moment, is to understand what it means to die to your self.  This can be as frightening as it is liberating. It may be the only real spiritual discipline there is.

What we are talking about is empathy: the ability or quality of “feeling with” another person.  As Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, writes, “The supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.”  What we are talking about here is the old-fashioned idea of self-sacrifice for a larger good.  As Silver Moore-Leamon, a member of the South Paris, Maine Universalist Church, recently wrote with truth, “People wrapped up in themselves make mighty small packages.”

What I am suggesting here is not that we never again enter into a lively debate about issues we feel passionately about, but that we know when to let go.  Sometimes when we do that we paradoxically open the door to compromise. I believe that this is the only way to move past the gridlock in which we presently find ourselves.  As one of our hymns says with truth, “Kindness can heal us, as we give we gain.”

It’s deceptively simple, like Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek.”  What the little story of the two monks suggests to me is that sometimes we can agree to disagree.  Most of us, I hope, have friends or family members with whom we disagree on politics or religion, but whom we choose to love anyway.  Sometimes the safest and best course of action in life is simply to avoid an argument.

In his book entitled Civility, ethicist Stephen Carter defines civility as “the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together.”  We can agree to make sacrifices for the good of our relationships. We can also agree to make sacrifices for the good of the whole, though this will inevitably mean giving up some of our own self-interest in favor of the common good.

Getting along with each other, I think, will mean returning to the golden rule and to the idea of loving one’s neighbor as oneself.  As the morning’s reading by Rabbi Shapiro reminded us, “Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices,/ Ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles.”  As someone has wisely said, we must be the change we hope to see.

May we strive to work toward a church, a country, and a world where differences are respected, where opinions are heard, where ideas are shared, where good ends do not justify unjust or unkind means, where each of us takes responsibility for creating the beloved community we dream of, where all are welcomed and where all are cherished for who they really are.

-The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
September 26, 2010

Readings: Matthew 5: 38-42; “We Are Loved By An Unending Love,” by Rabbi Rami Shapiro


September 19, 2010

Unitarian Universalism’s Global Reach

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 11:14 am

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“In our interconnected world we must learn to feel enlarged,
not threatened by difference.”
– Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

This summer, as many of you know, I attended back to back conferences in the Netherlands sponsored by the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists.  These wonderful conferences brought together over sixty participants from sixteen countries around the world, including four countries from the continent of Africa: Nigeria, Uganda, Burundi, and South Africa.  Also represented were countries with long histories of Unitarianism: the United States, Romania/Transylvania, and the United Kingdom.  Other countries represented were Canada, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Germany, the Philippines, Argentina, France, Belgium, and Austria.

This remarkable turnout unfortunately didn’t even include any representatives from the Khasi Hills of India, where there is a well- established Unitarian tradition going back over one hundred years, nor Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Kenya, Cuba, Bolivia, and Mexico, which have exciting emerging Unitarian Universalist groups.

Though most of these are small, consisting in many instances of a single congregation, often meeting in a home or even, in one case, out of doors, they give evidence of Unitarian Universalism’s increasing global reach.

Many of these groups are poor and rural, giving the lie to the idea that Unitarian Universalism is a religion only for the affluent, and many of them include mostly uneducated and even illiterate people, giving the lie to the idea that ours is faith appealing only to the highly educated.

English served as the lingua franca for these conferences, fortunately for those of us (mostly Americans) who struggle with a knowledge of foreign languages.  This is not the case for our international co-religionists, many of whom speak three or more languages with fluency and ease.  Native languages besides English spoken by participants included French, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Dutch, German, Yoruba, and Cebuano.

Many of the groups represented have only recently discovered Unitarian Universalism on the world wide web.  But curiously, the narrative of discovery (what was traditionally called “conversion”) is often one with which many North American Unitarian Universalists are familiar: “I was a Unitarian Universalist and didn’t know it.”

These were among the most exciting and inspiring conferences I have ever attended as a Unitarian Universalist minister, and not just because I was in Holland during the World Cup final!  As my colleague Vail Weller wrote, “The experience of both conferences renewed my spirit, deepened my connection to our faith, and energized my commitment to partnership and international engagement.”  The ministerial conference, which came first, focused on the question of “How We are Called.”

How do we understand and experience our call to ministry, to a specifically Unitarian Universalist ministry?  Who are we, and what do we believe?  What about ministerial training?  Are there common minimal qualifications or qualities that all UU ministers must possess?  Is this even possible or desirable in a global context, where educational opportunities and congregational needs are so diverse?  Are the ministerial skills needed in, say, Uganda, the same as here in the United States?  What are some of our greatest satisfactions and challenges in ministry?

The “call” in ministry is, as you probably know, a familiar biblical theme.  Ministers often speak about their “call” to ministry.  But what does this really mean?  What is a call?  Is it the same for everyone?

As you might imagine, the responses we heard were wide ranging, from a voice literally speaking out of the silence to a gradual and growing awareness that ministry was the vocation to which one was most suited, or even a last resort.  For some, family influences played a major role, while for others it was the opportunity to play an important role in one’s community.  One Transylvanian minister said that he spent far less time thinking about his call to be a minister than about why, in light of the many challenges ministry has presented him in his remote village setting, he continues to be a minister.

Another, a former Catholic priest in training from Burundi, spoke of how during his study to become a priest, “I met many priests, but only one or two who impressed me.”  One of those who had impressed him as a young man had left the priesthood, moved to Canada, and eventually become a Unitarian, leading our colleague to want to find out about this obscure religion.  After looking up Unitarianism on the worldwide web, he had a realization.  “I didn’t convert to Unitarianism,” he said, “I realized that I had always been a Unitarian.”

Today this minister is raising money, with the help of his partner church in Kalamazoo, MI, to build a Unitarian church, possession of a building being the only way in Burundi for a religious group to gain official recognition.

Many of the emerging African groups were highlighted in an article in the UU World magazine after former UUA President Bill Sinkford visited Africa in 2009.  I encourage you to check that article out if you would like to know more about these fascinating developments.

It was wonderful to spend three days in various conversations on this question of calling, in both small and large groups, to think about how we maintain our own religious lives, and to emerge with a renewed and enlarged sense of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist minister.  To quote my colleague Vail again, “. . . the primary focus was in making connections: renewing old friendships and beginning new ones.  But it was also about expanding our horizons.”

As a small group facilitator, I was privileged to participate in a group which included two Transylvanians, a Hollander, a Canadian, and an Englishwoman.  Our sharing was deep, meaningful, informative, and inspiring.  For my Transylvanian colleagues, used to years of cautious silence and distrust under communism, such sharing was a revelation.  They were not sure at first how they would feel about such intimacy, but everyone I spoke with left hoping for more, and wondering if such a process could possibly translate back to their own ministerial settings.

The second conference, following immediately upon the first, was a theological symposium on the topic of how, as Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist groups around the world, in a variety of diverse geographical, ethnic, religious, and political settings, and with a diversity of theological understandings, we are related to one another.  Some of the groups represented, such as the Dutch Remonstrants, have long histories as independent liberal religious movements, but are seeking closer communion with Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists.

The central question of the symposium became, “Is Unitarian Universalism a truly global faith or just a loose collection of seekers?”  Is there a common core of values that holds us all together in spite of differences in theology, culture, language, history, and ethnicity?  The exciting consensus seemed to be that Unitarian Universalism really is becoming a global faith.  Our similarities are far greater than our differences, which are not insignificant but did not appear insurmountable.

(One difference, interestingly, emerged around one of Unitarian Universalisms central principles: the effectiveness of the democratic method.  In some African settings, for example, the imposition of democracy has actually had a negative influence.  Can we be in fellowship with UU groups which do not function in a primarily democratic manner?)

More importantly, there was a strong sense that our diversity is ultimately a strength and not a weakness, that going where we don’t already know the way expands not only our understanding, but our empathy.  The fact that we practice our faith in different ways is also a strength, bringing new opportunities for deepening our spiritual lives and enlivening our common worship.

In a summer which has seen increasing xenophobia here and abroad and growing interreligious tension around the idea of building a Muslim information center near the site of the September 11, 2001 attacks, not to mention threats of Quran burning, the need for understanding of the Other, whether Muslim or anyone else, has never been greater.  The threat of any kind of book burning ought to make us fear for our most sacred values.

I returned from the ICUU conferences with a renewed sense of excitement and hope for the future of our Unitarian Universalist faith.  There was a level of collegiality present which I have seldom experienced, though it is hard to put in words exactly what it consisted in.  Perhaps it is a similarity of approach to the ultimate religious questions.  Perhaps it is simply a way of being religious which distinguishes us, or a shared understanding of the possibilities and limitations of ministry and even of religion itself.

Regardless of where we come from, we Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists and even Remonstrants speak a common language of religious liberalism.  We share the core values of freedom, reason, and tolerance which historian Earl Morse Wilbur posited as the heart and soul of our liberal faith.  We take a non-doctrinaire and non-literal approach to the study and use of sacred texts.  And wherever and however our free faith is practiced, it always strives for openness and compassion.

Though we do not always live up to those high ideals, that is the goal toward which we are always moving.  As one of our hymns reminds us, “we are in the making still.”  We are not perfected yet, and probably never shall be.

Several years ago, my colleague David Keyes wrote about some of the benefits of international partnership.  David wrote,

Lives are changed
Villages are saved
Americans start thinking globally, and acting both globally and locally
Faith grows
Paternalism and power needs are confronted
Assumptions are challenged
Hearts are opened
Roots and wings, mission and identity are discovered.

“Once you have given of yourself to go deep enough to truly experience it,” he concluded, “it is hard to sit by and watch it wither.”

In my own work in partnership, as the UUA’s Ambassador to the Transylvanian Unitarian Church, and most recently in these international conferences, I have found all of what David wrote to be true.  For better and worse, it is no longer possible for me to view my religion, my country, or the world and my place in it in the same way I did before.

May we all continue to have experiences which broaden our perspectives and deepen our spiritual lives, and may the knowledge that we are part of a vital and growing liberal religious movement give us hope and inspire us to work even harder for this free faith which is not only more widely shared than we suspected, but also more desperately needed in our often troubled and troubling world.  May we be a light of love and reason which shines in the darkness of ignorance, fear, and hate, and may we know in new and surprising ways how much alike we are, wherever we may be, to one another.  May it be so.  Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
September 19, 2010

September 12, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 10:24 am

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
– T. S. Eliot

You came back!  And I am so glad that you did.  I need you to do what I do.  But more important, we need one another in this beautiful but sometimes troubling world.

Bill Houff, a Unitarian Universalist minister and author of a book about spiritual growth entitled Infinity in Your Hand, has written that for him, “religious experience always has a ‘coming home’ aspect to it,” and, he continues, “you wonder why you ever left. . . .”

As the morning’s reading by Dan Wakefield reminds us, “ ‘Returning’ . . . does not just mean going back to something, but rather, re-turning as in ‘turning again,’ for the process is continuous and lifelong, a constant renewal and discovery.”

Besides, even if we return to the same places or ideas, we are not the same people we were before; the impact of our living brings constant change unless we have become so hardened to life that we no longer let it affect us.  No matter how often we return to a place—say, to this church—it is not the same because we have changed; inevitably, we are different.

A good analogy for this is returning to a book or poem we have read when young, and finding in it a meaning we never dreamed it had.

As the words of T. S. Eliot on your orders of service imply, returning is the ultimate goal of all our seeking.  The knowledge of the place where we have started is cryptic: it is ultimate knowledge, alpha and omega, beginning and end.  Yet clearly we must return in order to find it; and it is good to do so, for later in the same passage of poetry Eliot quotes the familiar affirmation of the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich:

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well.

Each time we return to a well-known or beloved place, thing, or person, there is more to learn, and fresh knowledge to be had, and it is good.

Today is a return, and it carries what Maine writer Mary Ellen Chase once called “. . . that expectancy which returns always, for some odd reason, excite in greater measures than departures.”  Today is, perhaps, a coming home to a place we love, and to relationships we cherish.  It is returning in the best possible sense, and it is full of expectancy.

For many of us it is a return to the familiar, but let us hope not to that familiarity that Dan Wakefield calls “a comfortable excuse for hiding out in old certainties.”

For some of us, today may be a return to some kind of “organized religion” ( a not altogether fitting euphemism for the church, since being religious and being organized don’t always go together).

Perhaps today is even for some of you a return to “faith.”  If that’s the case, I trust that the faith to which you are returning is a searching faith, the growing kind of faith which Wakefield describes as “a constant pushing forward to test one’s belief and use it, a challenge to respond to an interior pull . . . toward whatever source for each individual is the source of light.”

As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I sometimes feel like the guy in the old New England anecdote whose neighbor stops by one morning and says, “I was just lookin’ for someone to lend me five dollars,” and who replies to this understated request, “Well, you’ve got a good day for it.”

Like him, I don’t have the five dollars readily available: the certainties, the catechism of necessary beliefs, the unerring answers.  And I wouldn’t give them even if I thought I did, perhaps for the same reason the guy in the story doesn’t part with his five dollars: you have to work for them; the certainties must be your certainties, the beliefs your beliefs, and the answers your answers, if they are to have any sustaining meaning and reality in your life.

From time to time I may share my certainties and beliefs and answers—those answers that have been satisfying and helpful to me—but I offer no guarantee that they will be so for you, and I have no desire that you should accept them as yours unless you have tested them and found them to make sense in the context of your own life.

For most of us, today is a returning to this particular place and to these particular people whom we know as the First Religious Society in Newburyport.  It’s a kind of homecoming, and though we have returned here, some of us many times before, yet we know that it is never quite the same.   Just as there are new faces among us, there are also some old faces gone from us, and their absence now is as palpable as their presence was before.

For no matter how often we return, this community that we share is constantly changing.  Each beginning holds something in common with beginnings that have come before, and yet each is new, each is different than the one which preceded it.  We do not know in completeness what this new year shall bring, what changes and challenges it shall wring from us, what gains shall be made and what costs shall be paid before it is done.

Returning is an act of faith, for we know enough of this endeavor that we call “church” to know that there will be jobs to be done, expectations to meet, and responsibilities to fulfill.  Some of these will not be new, and some will not be easy to do, and meet, and keep.  There will be failures of creativity and of courage.  But that there are those who keep returning, year after year, knowing full well what is expected of them, is a kind of miracle.  I trust that there is still some learning to be done, even in tasks which have become annual and familiar.

The fact is that there is a kind of comfort in the known.  We crave a certain amount of habit, and as some of you know, church-going is definitely a habit.

In a sense, all religion is returning.  It is a returning to our earliest memories and impressions of the world, and to the persistent questions which, we may discover, change as we are changed by the vicissitudes of our lives.  I am constantly returning to the ultimate questions: what is the meaning of life?  Why must I die?  Who am I?  And the answers I give to these questions change as I change.  Our perceptions change with our living.  My thoughts about death and life are different today than they were five years ago, or even one year ago.

Religion is returning to these questions over and over again.  It is the search for answers, be they only temporary.  When I stop returning to those questions, not only will my religion be dead, so will I!

And so we are returning, not only here, not only today, but always and every day: returning to the familiar and to the commonplace, and finding that it is not always as familiar as we thought, or as common.

We may return to the faith of our childhood and find that it is not the same faith that we left behind, though the name is the same and the hymns—well, at least the hymn tunes—are still familiar.  We may return to God, and find that God is not who He was, but who She is, or even that God is not he, she, or it at all, but something else, something from which we are inseparable and which therefore cannot be objectified.  We may return to church, thinking it will be the same old place we know so well, and finding that it, or we, have changed so that it is no longer familiar at all.

Religion is returning, and since the activity of life is religion—in the literal meaning of the word, reconnecting—we might say that life, too, is returning.  You may recognize this as an idea central to eastern as well as so-called primitive religions, which view life and history as cyclical.  But it is not foreign to western religion, either: for we know of a certainty, even if we cannot know the reason, that we shall return to the earth which bore us, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” as the ancient formula intones.  As Wendell Berry wrote in the poem which I shared this morning, each of us will ultimately “turn aside, alone, out of the sunlight gone/ into the darker circles of return.”

We will return, though we are uncertain as to what it is that we shall return.  And troubling as that ultimate return may sometimes seem, it needn’t always be so.  As novelist Willa Cather wrote of death, in words which became the epitaph on her gravestone in Jaffrey, New Hampshire,

That is happiness; to be dissolved into
something complete and great.

Perhaps it is that dissolution into completeness that we crave in all our little returnings, in every homecoming, to every place like this.

It is good to be here, and to share this returning with you.  May all our returning be, as poet May Sarton urges, “to the most human.”  For only in our common humanity can we find the strength to continue on: to face the persistent questions; to endure the inevitable losses; and to share the blessed joys that should be the inheritance of us all.  Amen

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
September 12, 2010

Readings: from Returning, by Dan Wakefield; “Song (4),” by Wendell Berry

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