Harold Babcock's Sermons

November 21, 2010

“In Every Thing Give Thanks”

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“Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks.”
– 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18

“Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, as indeed you are doing,” writes St. Paul to the Christian community in Thessalonica. Though I don’t agree with all of Pauline theology, his advice to the Thessalonians in this passage bears our undivided attention.

For “comforting ourselves together” seems as good a reason-for-being for the church, for any church, as I can think of. At our best, that is why we gather: as one of the early New England congregational church covenants put it, we pledge ourselves “to walk together in mutuall edification and love.”

That this is a thing easier to assent to than to do is demonstrated by Paul’s language in the first letter to the Thessalonians: he “beseeches” and “admonishes” them to follow his advice. It is clear that they have not been behaving themselves. They have been arguing and fighting amongst themselves and losing sight of the true reasons for their gathering in community.

We, too, occasionally lose sight of why we come together here. We need to remind ourselves that the church is not just any old group. The church exists for us “from cradle to grave.” It is the place where we come to celebrate life’s passages: birth, death, and in between. It is the place where we come to deal with the paradox of being born and having to die. It is, or should be, the place where we are encouraged to ask those ultimate questions of meaning which both plague and call to us: Why was I born? Why must I die? What shall I do with my life? It is, or can be, the place where we come with our joy and sorrow, our wonder and awe, and even our despair. At its best, the church can be a place of “hope and courage along the way” [John Murray].

Paul beseeches the Thessalonians to be at peace among themselves, to deal with the troublemakers in their midst, to encourage the fainthearted, to support the weak, and to be patient to all. No easy task, as anyone with any church experience can tell you. He asks that they render no one evil for evil, but ever follow the good, both among themselves and toward all people. Empty platitudes, unless we consider that he meant what he said.

He reminds the Thessalonians to “rejoice evermore.” One wonders how those strict New England Puritan ancestors of ours, who believed the Bible to be the literal Word of God, took this bit of healthy, well-meaning advice. Being a Yankee descendent of those stiff-necked people, I can only say “it don’t come easy.” Frankly, I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Rejoice evermore? When I know that I will have to pay for it tomorrow? (Obviously, Paul had no experience with New England weather.)

A late colleague from Maine, Al Perry, once wrote of us New Englanders,

In the Fall,
we complain about the cold and all those leaves to rake;
In the Winter,
we complain about all the ice and snow;
In the Spring,
we complain about all the mud and rain;
In the Summer,
we complain about the mosquitoes and heat.
But in what season do we rejoice and give thanks,
that this earth seems to possess just the right climate
to permit us the existence of life . . . and us?

I suspect that Paul was right, and that those of us who, like myself, occasionally suffer from “optimism deficit syndrome,” are wrong. I have observed that those who manage to keep a joyful spirit actually fare no worse than the rest of us. It’s true. They may not live any longer, but they certainly live happier. And I have noticed that they bring other people joy and happiness and sunshine along the way. There’s something to be said for that.

Paul next asks the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing.” Rather than being a prescription for incessant kneeling or sitting with our heads bowed in prayer, I believe that what he meant was something closer to the Buddhist ideal of “mindfulness”: pay attention to the here and now. This idea is nicely summed up in a little Thanksgiving prayer by Henry David Thoreau, an incipient Buddhist himself:

I am grateful for what I am and have. My Thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite—only a sense of existence. My breath is sweet to me. O how I laugh when I think of my vague, indefinite riches. No run on my bank can drain it, for my wealth is not possession, but enjoyment.

(On his death-bed, asked by his aunt if he had “made his peace with God,” Thoreau remarked, “I did not think we had quarreled.”)

Which leads nicely to Paul’s next admonition, “In everything give thanks.” Thanksgiving, we are reminded, is one of the central themes of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. It is no surprise that the Pilgrims, totally immersed as they were in the biblical record, should have chosen to celebrate a feast of thanksgiving. They got the idea from the Bible: O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,/ For his steadfast love endures forever! sings the Psalmist. We are told that “glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving” filled the air of the Israelites’ festival processions.

Especially in the Psalms, the theme of thanksgiving is prominent. God is thanked for faithfulness to the covenant with Israel. This faithfulness is manifested in many ways: in the protection of the nation and the individual from their enemies; in deliverance of the needy from judgment, from prison, and from death; in righteous judgment which puts down the wicked and exalts the godly; in forgiveness of sinful people; and in the wonderful provision for the chosen people of Israel.

The theme of thanksgiving also carries over into the New Testament:

Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might to our God forever, reads a passage from the Book of Revelation.

This gratitude at the heart of biblical faith carried over in the thanksgiving feast of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. They, too, saw themselves as a chosen people, a faithful remnant, a new Israel in the wilderness of New England. And the only possible response to the miracle of deliverance to this new land “flowing with milk and honey” was one of thanksgiving, just as the Israelites of old had responded.

There are times in life when giving thanks seems ludicrous. How can we be thankful for sickness and death, for war and pestilence, for all the many sorrows and losses and causes of despair that life brings to us? To give thanks without a simultaneous recognition of these realities is to trivialize thanksgiving, to cheapen it, somewhat akin to the distinction that the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer made between true grace and “cheap grace.” Cheap grace demands nothing of us, while true grace demands sacrifice: in Bonhoeffer’s case, even the ultimate sacrifice of his life.

Similarly, true thanksgiving demands that we look with unswerving gaze upon the realities of our existential situation, both the good and the bad, the comic and the tragic, and still offer up our thanks for those gifts of life and love that we have received—especially the gift of Life itself.

We need to give thanks in order to acknowledge the mystery which is at the heart of our existence. There are things which are beyond our control, which are more than we think, which are greater than our means, and our very being is one of them. From whence do we come? Where are we going? To what or to whom do we offer thanks for this gift of life?

There is a special lesson here for us religious liberals. We are sometimes guilty of a proud arrogance in our knowledge. We have been known to think we already have all the answers. And yet, for all our knowledge, we are just as helpless as anyone else when it comes to explaining the source of life. We are just as helpless, for all our rationality, as those ancient Israelites who sang songs of thanksgiving to God. There are still questions which modern science and technology have been unable to lay to rest. We are still daily confronted by the mystery of existence,–of our own individual existences. As James Carroll wrote in the morning’s reading, the mystery of God “eludes every attempt at definition,” except, perhaps, that underlying urge toward giving thanks which is common to us all. Someone, of something, is worthy of our thanksgiving. What we call it is ultimately of little importance. That we acknowledge it is essential.

“In everything give thanks,” wrote St. Paul. And for once I agree with him. So I wish you all a happy Thanksgiving. Not a naïve thanksgiving, one which is oblivious to the pain and sorrow and brokenness in ourselves and in our world, but one which is precariously balanced against that reality. Not a thanksgiving full of self-satisfaction, but one filled with our restlessness and hope and our desire for a better tomorrow. And most important, may our thanksgiving be of that perpetual variety, full of rejoicing for what we are, for what we have, and, most especially, for what we might become. So be it. Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
November 21, 2010

Readings: 1 Thessalonians 5: 12-22; “The American Holy Day,” by James Carroll


November 14, 2010

A Place to Belong, A Place to Grow

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“We are knit together as a body
in a strict and sacred bond and covenant,
by virtue whereof we do hold ourselves straightly tied
to all care of each other’s good, and of the whole.”
– John Robinson, 1620

I suppose I was a pretty lucky kid.  I started my life in a close and caring if hardly perfect family that included my parents, my older sister Pat, a wonderful German Shepherd dog named Dutchess—my protector—and two loving sets of grandparents who lived within a few miles.  I knew that I belonged.  Even when I shattered the glass in my big sister’s framed, infant photograph with my little wooden workbench hammer—one of my earliest memories—I didn’t need to fear for my security.

For the first three years of my life, we lived on a little chicken farm four miles outside the village, which probably tended, by its isolation, to reinforce my sense of belonging to this family unit.

When I was almost four, we abandoned the farm and moved into town.  Our large, old Greek Revival house sat on an acre of land, which soon became the limits of my new universe.  Our lot was bounded in front by elm-shaded Court Street, by a stonewall on one side, a brook on the other, and, behind the house, a field that dropped sharply toward the harbor and the street which runs along its edge and bears the not surprising name, “Water Street.”  The yard contained apple trees, elm trees, and the larch trees for which our house, “The Larches,” was named; a lot of old, overgrown raspberry and blackberry bushes, and a wonderful if perverse Japanese bamboo patch which was a favorite playground for the neighborhood children.  It was a wonderful yard for a small boy, graced in our early days there by the milk cow from the farm that my father, at first, either couldn’t or wouldn’t part with, and I knew that I belonged there.

Later, as I grew and was allowed to venture beyond the confines of my yard, the whole village became my playground.  Because it is situated on a peninsula, Castine, Maine where I grew up is a secure little universe.  Along with the village itself, the peninsula holds large, wooded areas traversed by old carriage paths, the lovely old town cemetery, a salt-water swimming pool and beach area, tall cliffs and plenty of seashore and waterfront for exploration, and even a golf course.  There are also a number of old fortifications dating from the Revolution and the War of 1812.  It wasn’t quite paradise, but it was a wonderful place to grow up.  There were only about 60 kids in the elementary school, grades sub-primary through eight, and I knew that I belonged.

I attended Sunday School in the Unitarian Church, which, like the elementary school, the old high school, the town library, and the Civil War monument, is located on the Town Common.  There may have been around twelve kids in the Sunday School, a lot fewer after Sabrina and her six siblings left town.  At Christmas and Easter we would be greeted by familiar faces of neighbors whom we saw just about every other day of the week.  It was pretty obvious that we belonged.

With adolescence and high school, which I attended away as a boarding student, that sense of belonging was tested.  I began to move out of the old, familiar communities of belonging.  It was necessary to find new ways of belonging, because the old certainties of belonging were seriously challenged.  Some of those new ways of belonging were healthy, and some were not.

But the need to belong persisted, through high school, into college, and, for me, into graduate school and beyond.  My original sense of belonging has remained precious to me.  We all, it seems to me, have this need to belong somewhere—some of us more than others, but all of us to some degree.  Belonging—having a sense of place, be it geographical or vocational or otherwise—seems to me to be an almost universal human need.  There aren’t too many true hermits; most of us seek some level of human companionship, if only in the proximity of neighbors who may not be well known to us, but who by their presence down the street reassure us that we are indeed a part of the human enterprise.

One of my favorite writers of the last twenty years, Wendell Berry, makes the point, in his fiction and elsewhere, that we all need what he calls our “places of membership.”  We all need what Garrison Keillor has called “places where people love us and are glad to see our faces.”  The tremendous popularity of Keillor’s “Lake Woebegon—a place where, for better and for worse, people are definitely known to one another—is an indication of our human hunger for places of belonging.

In our increasingly mobile society, many people are not as fortunate as I was in the certainty of my belonging.  Many of us are desperate for places where people might come to love us and be glad to see our faces.  Ironically, though there are more and more of us all the time, we seem more estranged from our brothers and sisters than ever before.  We are, I believe, more lonely than ever.  Mobility—often seen as a way to escape the sometimes stultifying past—can also sometimes leave us feeling isolated, alienated, and alone.

Throughout my ministry, it has been my conviction and my hope that the church might be, first and foremost, a place of belonging.  As I have said on many occasions before this and other congregations, it is the church as community that interests me the most.  The church can serve the function of community that geographical communities no longer seem able to provide.  More than a theology or a liberal ideology, the church is for me first and foremost a caring community.  My sense that this is true for others as well has been borne out time and time again during the last twenty-eight years.

Obviously, the church can become a true community only if we are willing to commit ourselves to it fully.  We must be willing to know and to be known.  We must become rooted in common knowledge and in memory.  As with any community, there are certain mundane and economic responsibilities that we must meet in order for the church to function.  And, as with any community made up of human beings, we must always be willing to make allowances for human frailty and imperfection.  Anyone coming to church and expecting it to be already perfected is ripe for a fall.  I try to be honest about this with newcomers.  The church, like everything else in this universe, is in a constant process of becoming.  It is striving toward the light, but it has not achieved perfect illumination yet.

But, we desperately need places, even imperfect ones, where we can find acceptance.  I happen to think that this is what religion is about.  It’s about loving God by loving those people around us who are the embodiment of God.  No one knows better than I how difficult this can be, and I often fail in the commission to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”  People are not always easy to like, let alone to love.  We do not always understand each other.  But loving people is what life is all about, tragic and misplaced and misguided as our love can sometimes be.  And, occasionally, in order for the community to continue to thrive and grow, we must say and hear and do some hard and hurtful things.

Building and maintaining a senses of community has never been easy.  If, as Marcus Aurelius held and as I firmly agree, “people are made for one another,” then it is equally true as he also said that we must often “bear with them,” or more difficult yet, bear with ourselves, whom we know all too well to be fraught with shortcomings.

In order to remain vital places of belonging, communities like the church must continue to grow, and not necessarily in numbers.  The community must evolve, and be able to withstand and to accept change.  It cannot stay the same if it is to help us in our personal struggles to grow as human beings.

Growth can be a lot of fun.  Many of us seek out opportunities and experiences which help us to grow.  Sometimes, however, growth seeks us out, unsolicited.  Such growth can be painful, as the expression “growing pains” suggests.  Sometimes growth hurts.  But even change—even drastic change like loss and death—can be an opportunity for what someone has called “growing a soul.”

If the church were only a place to belong—only a place to park our bodies and tune out the rest of the world—people would not remain in it for long.  People want places not only where they can belong, but also where they are given opportunities to grow as people and as a community.  These opportunities can be as enjoyable as a Sunday worship service, or as painful as the loss of a familiar and beloved friend.  These opportunities can be affirming, or, sometimes, they can be angry.  At its best, the church can help us to make the move, as one of my colleagues once put it, “from membership to ministry.”  At its best, the church can help us to make use of our unique gifts and talents for service in the wider community.  It can help us, as it says in one of those old Congregational covenants I love so well, to be “ministers one to another.”

But just like our families of origin, the church is a mixed bag of acceptance and rejection, joy and sorrow, love and—though we would rather deny it—hate.  There has never been a human community yet which managed to avoid this reality, this yin and yang of our common existence.

In terms of growth, the most painful experiences of my life have often been the best.  Oh, I’ve had some wonderful and happy growth experiences, too!  But those from which I have usually learned the most have been those which hurt the most.

Occasionally, someone has said to me, “No one said it was going to be easy.”  No one ever said life was going to be a piece of cake.  After all, as poet Adrienne Rich has written, “we take on everything at once before we’ve begun/ to read or mark time,/ we’re forced to begin/ in the midst of the hardest movement/ the one already sounding as we are born.”  Life—change, growth—almost always catches us in the moment of our becoming.

Twice a year, we formally welcome new members to our congregation.  God knows, it is not a perfect institution!  It is not run by perfect people.  But many of us know it as a precious place of belonging, a place where we can know and be known.  Some of us are even connected to this place by its absences of people who are no longer among us except in spirit, held here by bonds of love which transcend even death.  Others of us are new to this place.  We come for many reasons: for company, for inspiration, for a brief respite from our cares and ourselves.  But I suspect that we all come for the sense of belonging not only to this particular church, but to the wider human community, and, indeed, to the universe itself.  We come to feel that we are part of something larger than ourselves, and that we are not alone.

And we come here to grow, because to participate in the company of strangers is to become less strange, both to them and to ourselves.  To join with other people in a common endeavor is inevitably to be forced into new experiences and to grow.  Some of these experiences, as many of you know who have been here for many years, are not easy.  Some of them hurt us deeply.  But if we stand firm—if we remain fast; if we forsake not the bonds of community, recognizing both its glory and its imperfections, we will find opportunities to grow and to be more than we could otherwise have been.

With your participation, this church can withstand any storm.  Whatever the shape of adversity, with your presence this church can stand strong, can be the place of hope, courage, inspiration, and joy that generations have already found it to be.  It can be a place where our lives are deepened and expanded, where our unique gifts are recognized and put to use for the well-being of us all.  At its best, the church can become a place of ministry for us all, a place which sustains and encourages and inspires us as we seek to reach out into the wider community beyond these walls.

A place to belong, a place to grow.  It is not a given, but a continuous challenge.  A bright shining goal, perhaps a dream.  But, strangely, too, a reality already, right here, right now.  Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
November 14, 2010

Reading:  “Why I Come to Church,” from the writings of A. Powell Davies

November 7, 2010

The Pursuit of Meaning

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“Man’s [sic] main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain
but rather to see a meaning in his life.”
– Viktor Frankel

What is the purpose of life? What is the purpose of my individual existence? These, it seems to me, are the ultimate religious questions. As I approach thirty years in ministry, and sixty years of life, having had ample first hand opportunity to ponder the questions of life, death, and suffering in between, these are the questions which continue to challenge, often to frustrate, but always to motivate me.

Why am I here? Is there any reason for my being? In response to any satisfying answer, or even to none, to this elusive question, what ought I to do with my life?

My colleague the late Forrester Church once defined religion as our human response to what he called “the dual reality of being born and having to die.” In other words, religion is mostly about our search for a meaning in the face of this reality of life and death.

As I have noted on other occasions, my experience with the dying has shown me that most people are much less concerned about what happens after they die than they are with what their lives have meant. They want to know if their lives have made a difference. Helping people to discover the meaning of their lives would seem to be one of the main goals, if not the goal, of any religion worthy of the name, not only at the end of life, but throughout it course.

Forrest’s definition of religion, of course, flies in the face of much contemporary and not so contemporary wisdom, which claims that the primary purpose of life is the pursuit, not of meaning, but of happiness.

Happiness, it turns out, is not so easy to define, not so easy to hold on to once we think we have found it, and often not so satisfying as we hoped and expected it to be. Especially when happiness becomes confused solely with the pursuit of pleasure, it often ends up by leaving us feeling empty.

Our particular curse in the western world seems to be the belief that the more stuff we have, the happier we will be, even though all the saints and sages from Jesus and the Buddha down to Thoreau and innumerable contemporary voices have warned about the emptiness and even the burden of having too many possessions and the futility of materialistic desires as a means to attaining happiness.

It was good to be reminded recently of the groundbreaking and inspiring work of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel, author of the influential book Man’s Search for Meaning. In his book, Frankel argued that “[our] main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in [our] life.” Human beings have a remarkable ability to make meaning, even in the face of tremendous suffering, and it is this search for meaning, not the search for pleasure or the avoidance of suffering, that Frankel believed characterizes us as human beings.

As philosopher Jacob Needleman has written, “We are born for meaning, not pleasure, unless it is pleasure that is steeped in meaning.” Each of us, Frankel wrote, must answer the question of meaning for ourselves: that answer is not a given, but rather something that we must make.

“Our fundamental drive,” writes contemporary author Daniel H. Pink in his book A Whole New Mind, is the pursuit of meaning.”

The main problem of contemporary life, as succinctly put by Nobel laureate economist Robert William Fogel, is that “[P]eople have enough to live, but nothing to live for; they have the means but no meaning” [my emphasis].

To return to the question I posed at the outset of my remarks, what is the purpose of life? If the purpose of life is the pursuit of meaning, and if there is no single meaning, no one-size-fits-all-meaning, then how do we best go about finding the meaning of our individual lives?

If the accumulated wisdom of the world’s great and lesser religious traditions is to be believed, we find meaning for our lives mainly by looking outside of ourselves, by selfless rather than by selfish means. Jesus referred to this in his Great Commandment as “love to God and one’s neighbor.” The Buddha taught that only by transcending the self with its selfish aims could suffering be overcome and enlightenment achieved.

Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, founder of the “positive psychology” movement, has written that “the pursuit of meaning [is] knowing what your highest strengths are and deploying them in the service of something larger than you are.”

I think this is the message that I would like our young people, especially, to hear this morning. If we are to find a meaning in our lives, if we are to live with a purpose and if we are to discover that elusive state we call happiness, it will only be indirectly, as we use our special gifts and give our lives in love and service to something greater than ourselves.

So much of contemporary life is based on the idea that happiness can be found only by achieving our own ends, by meeting our own selfish needs and desires, by getting and spending more: “Just do it.” How else explain magazines with titles like Self and Us? We are fed the lie from a very early age that things and more things will bring us happiness, when what we really need is to find a meaning in our existence, a reason to be.

The way to that meaning, and the greatest satisfaction in life, comes not from serving ourselves only but from serving others or some higher cause. As Jesus famously said, we must lose our lives in order to find them. Knowing that we have helped someone along the sometimes dark journey of life is far more rewarding than helping ourselves. Knowing that we have helped the cause of justice and mercy to flourish, knowing that we have practiced forgiveness and extended our hand in small acts of kindness, these are the tried and true way to find meaning in our lives.

Happiness, it turns out, is mostly not an end in itself, but more of a by-product.

The most satisfying times of my life have been those in which I have transcended myself and my own needs and desires, those times when I have shown more courage than I normally am able to muster, those times when I have extended the hand of friendship, those times when I have been more generous than usual, those times when I have forgiven someone who has wronged me, those times when I have taken the time to truly listen, those times when I have held the hand of someone in the throes of difficult times or on the threshold of death.

Let us go forth this morning determined to seek the meaning of our lives in something greater than ourselves, ready to dedicate our lives in love and service to some wider purpose. It doesn’t have to be something huge, for any time we can transcend ourselves even for a moment, we are opened to the possibility of the “something more” in life which usually we only but dimly perceive.

May our efforts to see a larger purpose in our individual existence bring us, if not happiness, then at least the satisfaction of work well done, along with hope, with a sense of peace, and with gratitude for the gift of life. So may it be.


– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
November 7, 2010

Reading: “The Meaning of Life” from Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankel

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