Harold Babcock's Sermons

October 24, 2010

Making the World Habitable

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“. . . every poem, every work of art, everything that is well done,
well made, well said, generously given,
adds to our chances of survival
by making the world and our lives more habitable.”
–Philip Booth

In a 1996 op-ed article, syndicated columnist William Pfaff made the argument that, “for humankind, moral progress is a dream that will never come true.” Pfaff wrote that, “Since the Enlightenment, Western men [sic] have redefined the aim of their lives and actions as lying within time. They mean to achieve something inside history. The liberal tradition is committed to the belief that man and society can be perfected inside historical time, through reasonable and enlightened human action, building a better society and a more reasonable man [my italics].”

When I spoke on this morning’s subject some years back, I noted that Pfaff’s article was a not so carefully disguised argument in favor of the doctrine of Original Sin. And just in case one missed it, Pfaff quoted Cardinal John Henry Newman’s conviction that humankind must be “implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity.”

At the time, I noted that Pfaff’s argument held an uneasy attractiveness for me. Near the end of his article, Pfaff wrote,

My own belief is that history is a tragedy, and is ennobled by that fact. I don’t believe that history is going to be “solved” in historical time. I believe we are morally obliged to work to perfect the society in which we live but we must understand that while some of our efforts will succeed, there will be no final success. The hard thing is to act while knowing that our efforts will ultimately fail.

The pessimistic side of my nature has to confess to some sympathy for this tragic view of history, and even at times to some theological envy for a doctrine of Original Sin. Certainly, much has happened in the last fifteen years since Pfaff wrote that would seem to validate the idea that, as Newman said, we humans are “implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity.”

Much as I love the guiding spirits of our liberal faith, especially Emerson, one wonders, in view not only of the tragic events of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, but also of his own nineteenth, how he managed to remain so optimistic, indeed, whether his optimism about human nature was and is warranted.

I am reminded yet again of theologian and ethicist James Luther Adams’s warning about liberalism being too “lopsidedly optimistic,” when I listen to the news which awakens me each morning, or read the daily newspaper. I hear and read little evidence that humankind is proceeding “onward and upward forever,” as the old Unitarian affirmation had it. Human perfectibility does seem like a long-shot, and as I have occasionally suggested, that perfectionism may be our own, convoluted version of Original Sin, pushing us relentlessly onward to an endlessly receding and ultimately unreachable horizon of perfection.

One wonders, is there to be no rest for the virtuous?

But I find it interesting that the old argument between Original Sin and “progress” is still around, and that it still has the power to arouse my interest and my passion. Whether or not it is true, as Pfaff says, that “moral progress is a dream”—and as I have noted, I sometimes find it difficult to disagree with him—I am struck by the truth of his other claim, “that we are morally obliged to work to perfect the society in which we live,” even if there is “no final success.” And I know from exhaustive, first-hand experience how difficult it is “to act while knowing that our efforts will ultimately fail.”

Perhaps you know this feeling, too, in your own efforts to bring about change in this world. But that we must act, in spite of our doubts, in spite even of our foreknowledge of failure, is a given of what we do as religious people. Moral progress or Original Sin, we must act. That is the nature of our common call to ministry, and or our call to live a religious life. My individual actions may prove to be ineffectual, but I forge onward with the faith that my efforts are important and even necessary. I act in the faith that my efforts will bring about some change for the better, even if not in my own lifetime.

In his 1996 book Trying to Say It: Outlooks and Insights on How Poems Happen, my late friend, the poet Philip Booth, made the hopeful claim “that every poem, every work of art, everything that is well done, well made, well said, generously given, adds to our chances of survival by making the world and our lives more habitable.”

I first heard Philip make that claim in an interview I conducted with him as an undergraduate in a “Maine Writers” course back in 1972. The choice of words was different, but the idea was the same: poetry, Philip told me, “makes the world livable.”

We desperately need the kind of things which make our world more liveable. As Philip wrote in expanding on his original thought,

. . . any good poem, any great sympathy, any good Coleman Hawkins riff, makes the world more habitable. Because it changes the world. It changes the world slightly in favor of being alive and being human.

I don’t know about you, but I need that glimmer of optimism. Here is what it takes to hold Original Sin at bay. Maybe our actions won’t bring about some golden age of morality, but perhaps they can help to “change the world slightly in favor . . . of being human.”

Now more than ever, it seems to me, our goal as religious people, as inheritors of Luther’s “priesthood of all believers,” must be to make this world more habitable. It is this idea that I am reaching for when I invite you into “the shared ministry of our church.”

Making the world habitable is what I believe “ministry” is all about, and I think we are sometimes more successful than we imagine even in our wildest dreams. By the words we say, the music we make, the art we create, even by our smallest actions, we can help to make the world more habitable for the people who look to us for some saving or comforting or inspiring word or act. Sometimes we try too hard, and sometimes we fail, but more often than we imagine, I believe we can make a difference for the better.

And we know, also, that those same people to whom we minister in our daily lives sometimes make our world more habitable. I’m in agreement with Philip when he says that it is “. . . the world of human lives whose music most moves me.” “Lives,” he writes in an early poem, “we barely know, lives/ we keep wanting/ to know.”

In my personal struggle to confront the demon of pessimism concerning our human prospects, that old devil of Original Sinfulness, I try to cultivate ways of making the world more habitable: ways such as working in my garden; playing and listening to music, which legendary jazz drummer Art Blakey said “washes the dust of everyday life from your feet”; reading poetry, which Nobel Prize winning author Czeslaw Milosz has written, “stands for being as over against nothingness”; nurturing friendships to stave off the loneliness which is an inevitable part of every life; and promoting kindness and caring in what poet Wendell Berry calls my “small acreage of the universe.”

For I know all too well now the truth of another of Philip Booth’s statements, that “We grow to know too much we cannot bear to feel.” As we grow older, loss and disappointment, failure and grief, can increasingly mark our days. We are forced to become more aware, as he so beautifully puts it, of “. . . the round of enigmas and ambivalences and mysteries that make life the most certain poem of all.”

As one who cares about people and life, I can also identify with Philip when he speaks of “. . . the joy of being so true to human experience that however painful it may seem, it is finally sustaining.” For this is what all of us are or should be about: to give some sustaining evidence that we have lived, whatever our doubts about the ultimate progress or the humble fruits of our labors.

At the conclusion of his article, William Pfaff wrote, “There is progress in civilization, but this is not the moral progress of man himself. I believe that our struggle to progress against the limits imposed by the divided moral inheritance of man . . . is both the duty and the justification of our existence.” Well, that is something of a backhanded affirmation, I suppose.

While I may never be fully convinced of the futility of my efforts to produce change in human nature within the boundaries of time and history—in this world, rather than in some other, as we like to say—I am convinced that it is my duty to try and to act as if it were possible, and that such action may well be “the justification of my existence,” Original Sin or no.

For who among us does not look around upon the preciousness of this world and of the lives within it, imperfect though it and they may sometimes be, and not feel that we must act for it and for them, indeed, for ourselves? Who among us, who has given any consideration to the tragic dimensions of birth, death, and in between, has not felt the urgency to do something, to do anything, however small and seemingly insignificant, to lighten the load of those “traveling the dark journey” with us? I return always to Wordsworth’s claim that it will not be for grandiose gestures that we shall be mourned at our passing, but for our “little, unremembered acts of kindness.”

Looking back on his own life and relationships, my friend Philip remarked poignantly, “. . . how quickly the dark has come down.” Life is short. Who knows but the “old story of salvation” with its Original Sin may yet turn out to be true, and the dream of moral progress be disproved? In the meantime, however, we have work to do; and I know that many of us are doing it beyond our most doubtful expectations, beyond even the skeptical expectations of those we serve.

Making the world more habitable seems more than ever to be the work we are called to do, whether as justification for our divided being, as overly optimistic dream, or even as hidden reality. As Philip Booth writes in his poem, “Saying It,”

we say the world
is a wedding for which
as we are constantly
finding, the ceremony
has not yet been found.

Like it or not, it is our task as free religious people to search for that as yet undiscovered ceremony. But let us not forget to enjoy the wedding while we’re still here. Amen.

– The Rev. Harold Babcock
October 24, 2010

Readings: Encyclopedic definitions of “Original Sin”


October 17, 2010

“The Stubborn Ounces of Our Weight”

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“But I am prejudiced beyond debate
in favor of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.”
– Bonaro Overstreet

Perhaps some of you were transfixed, as I was this week, by the rescue of the thirty-three Chilean miners from the two thousand foot deep San Jose Mine in Chile (by way of reference, this is some 600 feet deeper than the height of the Sears Tower in Chicago). It is not so often that we get to experience live coverage of such an uplifting story, in spite of around-the-clock news outlets, and one shudders a little bit to wonder what a cynical media will now find to sully this amazing tale of courage, of fortitude, and, not least, of love, under the most horrific of circumstances. For certainly this is a story about love.

My new hero from this event is not one of the miners, notwithstanding the remarkable and inspirational leadership of shift foreman Luis Urzua, the last of the trapped miners to be pulled to freedom in the Phoenix escape module, and the man probably most responsible for the miners’ survival. Rather, my hero is Manuel Gonzales, the first rescuer to enter the module and to descend through that incredibly narrow escape shaft, and the last to return to the top following the successful rescue. I was worried that his courage would not be recognized in the excitement over the successful rescue. But as one of his fellow rescuers said to him as he began the final ascent to the surface, “You are a big man, Manuel.” Big man, indeed.

As a confirmed claustrophobe, I could not begin to imagine the courage it must have taken to begin that first terribly confined and uncertain ride to the bottom of that tunnel. No one knew what would happen, after all, in spite of all the precautions that had been taken to assure that the module could safely negotiate the journey.

Moving as were the reunions of the thirty-three miners with their loved ones at the top after almost 70 days, it is the courage and selflessness of Manuel Gonzales that I will always remember.

Most of us will never have the opportunity, thank God, to perform such an incredible act of bravery. As one not blessed with a lot of physical courage, I cannot really imagine it. But thankfully, there are other ways that we mere mortals can make a difference for the better in our troubled and sometimes tragic world. There are, as poet Bonaro Overstreet wrote in the morning’s reading, those “little efforts” to which we can add what he calls “the stubborn ounces of our weight.”

We can, however, take from the heroic actions of someone like Manuel Gonzales some courage and inspiration for our own little efforts to increase the best in humanity

This morning I have been asked to speak about our “Stir the Pot” initiative, an effort which, it is hoped, might engage a significant number of people in our congregation over the next year or two in adding their “stubborn ounces” to making a difference not only in our community, but especially in ourselves, and perhaps even in the world.

As I suspect you all know by now, this initiative, which we have subtitled “food, spirit, justice,” was voted into existence at last May’s Annual Meeting, after nearly a year of study by our Governance Task Force. That Task Force has now morphed into what we are calling the “Stirring Committee,” any and all puns intended. We hope to stir you up to participate, in whatever ways you can, in this church-wide effort!

I was pleased to see that our Director of Religious Education, Julie Parker Amery, has made “Stir the Pot” an integral part of this year’s Young Church School curriculum. We really want this to be a congregation-wide, cross-generational undertaking.

In addition to making Stir the Pot a part of our religious education program, there has been a successful fresh vegetable drop-off program at the YWCA this summer and early fall, which resulted in over 700 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables begin contributed to the residents of the Y. Around twenty people participated in the program, which in some cases, such as my own, only involved dropping off a couple of bags of fresh tomatoes and peppers from my garden. But such little efforts sometimes can produce big results. Some of the moving testimonials of what this program has meant to those residents were published in a recent issue of the Steeple Bi-weekly.

For those of you who wish to learn more about the food we eat, there is a book group which has formed to read Frances Moore Lappe’s book Diet for a Small Planet. Our parishioner Tom Stites recently gave a talk on “The Food We Eat” at the September meeting of the First Religious Society Alliance, in which he explained some of the frightening consequences of factory farming and agribusiness and gave some of the rationale behind the Unitarian Universalist Association’s “Ethical Eating” campaign. There are also several guest preachers scheduled during this year who will speak on Stir the Pot themes. In November, Alan Khazei, founder and Chief Executive Officer of “Be The Change,” a Boston-based group dedicated to building national coalitions of non-profit organizations and individuals to enact legislation on issues such as poverty and education, will be our guest speaker at a Saturday program on volunteerism to which we will be inviting other local service agencies. And more is in the works.

In fact, with Stir the Pot the sky is the limit! We already have existing activities, such as the Friendship Table at the Salvation Army, for which we regularly solicit your volunteer food donations and service. We already collect food for local food pantries such as Community Service of Newburyport and the Pettengill House in Salisbury. Some of you may also be volunteers at other meal programs, such as Our Neighbors Table in Amesbury. If so, you are already participating in Stir the Pot, even if you don’t know it. What we would ask you to do, if you don’t do it already, is to think about your work in the context of our church community here at the First Religious Society. Think about it as the way you are living out your religion.

One of the things which Jeff Bard, Chair of the Stirring Committee, and I want you to know is that we understand how busy most of you are, and that is why Stir the Pot is such a great program. It only asks you to give what you are able to give, be it your time, your talent, or your treasure.

We know that the days when most women were at home and had lots of time to volunteer are gone. We know that most of you, female and male, are over-taxed and over-extended. But as Jeff says, even if you eat two less hamburgers a month, you are participating in Stir the Pot: not only will it make a small difference in the food chain, but also you might just become healthier! Even sharing healthy recipes can be an important part of Stir the Pot.

Some of you have wondered whether Stir the Pot is really making much of an impact, or questioned why we are doing this. To that, I answer, it already has made a difference, and it really is important that we do it: after all, as we are fond of saying each week, and I hope we really mean it, “service is our prayer.”

Of course, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that our little efforts will have no real impact on the overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable array of problems facing us. Consider what would have happened to our thirty-three miners if they had had a hopeless and defeatist attitude about their eventual survival? Who could have believed, during those first seventeen days before contact was made, that rescue was even possible? Obviously, they did. When I am feeling despair about the impact my little and seemingly unimportant efforts are making, I take heart from those words of Thomas Merton that I read to you this morning. Remember that he said,

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no worth at all, if not perhaps, results opposite to what you expect.

As you get used to this idea, you will start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.

Even if those miners had not survived, there was nobility in the efforts they made to do so, and especially in the hopefulness and love for one another that they represented and embodied.

Bonaro Overstreet wrote,

You say the little efforts that I make
will do no good: they never will prevail

to tip the hovering scale
where justice hangs in the balance.
I don’t think
I ever thought they would.
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
in favor of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.

It is not how much we do, after all, that counts, but simply, and not so simply, the doing of it. I truly believe that even the smallest efforts, well done, can make a difference. Perhaps they make all the difference in the world. As the little bird lying on his back in the middle of the road, trying to hold up the supposedly falling sky with his spindly little legs, says in the Middle Eastern story I am fond of telling, “One does what one can.” We all must do what we can. And that kind of hope, my friends, is often enough.

Because of the actions of Manuel Gonzales and others, I feel a lot better about human race than I did a week ago. And because of our Stir the Pot initiative, I feel a lot better about our church. Our little efforts, our stubborn ounces, are essential if we are to truly build a beloved community here and in the world beyond our doors. Every little bit counts. As it says in our Affirmation of Faith,

Love is the doctrine of this church;
the quest of truth is its sacrament;
and service is its prayer.
To dwell together in peace;
to seek knowledge in freedom;
to serve humanity in fellowship;
to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine.
Thus do we covenant with each other, and with God.

Those aren’t just words, folks, but what we say we live by. May we go forth, seeking those places where we might apply the stubborn ounces of our weight, remembering, as Merton said, that what is important is “more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.” May it be so. Amen.

The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
October 17, 2010

Readings: from the writings of Thomas Merton; “Stubborn Ounces,” by Bonaro Overstreet

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