Harold Babcock's Sermons

December 26, 2010

“When the Song of the Angels is Stilled”

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 12:02 pm

Hear the sermon

When the song of the angels is stilled . . . the work of Christmas begins.”
– Howard Thurman

I hoped I would have more of the answers by now. Instead, I find after all this time that even some of my old certainties no longer seem so certain. This would be more disconcerting had I ever been a true believer. But in fact, I have always been something of a skeptic. I have often described myself as an “emotional theist,” but an “intellectual skeptic.” I like the idea of God, I even have a kind of relationship with God, but when push comes to shove, I have my doubts.

I have always been fascinated by religious questions. Even as a young child attending Sunday School, I wondered a great deal about God and Jesus and whether all that was said about them was true. I have to tell you that although I wanted it all to be true, I had and to this day have absolutely no anxiety about it possibly turning out otherwise–probably a positive result of my guilt-free, Unitarian Universalist upbringing.

I knew from a very early age that it was ok to question—as it says with truth in one of our hymns, “. . . even to question is truly an answer.”

However, I am not so naïve as to believe that questioning is necessarily a better answer. It is, as we like to say, what it is.

For as long as I have known about it, I have always had an interest in the mystical. Maybe I am a bit of mystic myself! Or maybe I’m just a mystic wannabe. Mystical writers and religious have always been among my favorites.

It’s the Emerson who feels “glad to the brink of fear” while crossing Cambridge Common that appeals to me, not the Emerson of “Self Reliance.” It’s Saul of Tarsus, struck by lightning on the road to Damascus, about whom I want to know more, not the apostle Paul. It’s the T. S. Eliot of the “Four Quartets” and not of “The Wasteland” whom I would bother to re-read. It’s the Jonathan Edwards of the “Personal Narrative,” who experiences the “sweet . . . sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God” while riding in the woods who interests me, not the Edwards of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” fame.

I am drawn to writers, whether sacred or secular, who have experienced the “something more” element in life, those who have felt the presence of the divine, or whatever it is, even if I have not; or, at least, even if I have not felt it to the extent that those writers and religious practitioners have.

But as I approach sixty years of age, I find, as I said, that I have more questions than answers, more doubts than assurances. And, as I suggested at the outset, I thought it would be different by now, after three years of theological school and almost thirty years of ministry. Like the Rabbi of Minsk, I’m no longer so certain about the answers I’ve formulated along the journey of life. Yes, maybe life is like a river,–then again, maybe not.

An article in the Ideas section of the Boston Globe last April suggested that such uncertainty is not just an issue among us “godless” Unitarian Universalists. Entitled “The Unbelievers,” and subtitled, “What happens when a minister decides there is no God,” the article suggested that doubt among clergy, even of the true-believing variety, is much more prevalent than had been previously thought.

Personally, I found this conclusion neither surprising nor shocking, but, then again, I’m one of those godless Unitarian Universalists. But the reality is that I have known many religious people and even clergy of more conservative faiths who are more skeptical than I am, possibly because their more systematic study of theology and their confessions of faith have brought them more frequently into conflict with their personal experience, resulting in a crisis of faith, than has my more eclectic, less dogmatic, and non-creedal approach to religion.

I believe that anyone who deals with the tragic side of human experience on a regular basis will have at least an occasional twinge of doubt about the existence of a wise and benevolent and all-knowing deity or will have at least some questions about a cosmic system in which the innocents like the beautiful baby we dedicated this morning are all too often victimized.

Of course, the easy response is to say that someone like me lacks the faith essential to maintaining my belief in the face of such terrible realities. And that’s ok, I can take that criticism, because the truth is that although I am disappointed by my personal lack of certainty, for me it is not a crisis of faith. Mine has always been a doubting faith. For me, God—religion—has always been more of a question than an answer. I wish that things had become clearer with time, but unfortunately they have only become more obscure. Maybe life isn’t like a river at all. Maybe it’s more complicated than that.

Part of what I hope to accomplish during my sabbatical leave is to re-engage some of these ultimate questions of life, death, and in between; to regain some clarity, or at least some acceptance (if not comfort) for where I am on the path of life; and to find, if not answers, at least the will and the stamina for the remainder of the journey and all its questions. We’ll see how that works out.

But you know, there is one certainty that I have held on to from the beginning. It is the one that Howard Thurman points to in his familiar reading about the song of the angels:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost
to heal the broken
to feed the hungry
to release the prisoner
to rebuild the nations
to bring peace among the peoples
to make music in the heart.

The fun part of Christmas is over; now what? Life doesn’t always give us what we want or expect; sometimes, as the saying goes, it gives us lemons, not lemonade. Every day isn’t Christmas. Peace, hope, and joy are not the most common characteristics of most of our common days.

In spite of having more questions than answers as I approach what are euphemistically called my “golden years,” Thurman’s affirmation has endured. More than ever, I am convinced that the heart and soul of true religion and meaning in life is to be found in service to suffering humanity. I believe that this was the message that Jesus brought, and that whatever we may believe about him personally, we’d better believe that his message is as commanding today as ever before in the two thousand years since his birth.

The world must agree to disagree on a lot of stuff if it is to survive. The one thing on which I believe we all must agree is this imperative to work for the betterment of humankind. Whatever the questions we harbor, whatever the certainties we are lucky to attain, Jesus’s message of love to our neighbors, and of abiding by the Golden Rule of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, still bears the mark of truth. We must love our neighbors on this little spinning planet, if only for the obviously selfish reason that we will not survive otherwise. I’m not one to quibble over motives as long as the result is positive.

To our young people present this morning I would say that one of the unfailing certainties in life is if you help others, you will receive back manifold what you have given. Jesus called it losing your life in order to find your life. We don’t always do so happily or enthusiastically. But the world desperately needs people of all ages who care about others and are willing, as poet Marge Piercy says, “to submerge in the task” of trying to make a positive difference in the world. Whatever your questions, whatever your doubts, have no doubt that this is true.

It is a privilege to live a life of service on behalf of others. It isn’t always easy, I admit, and it isn’t always fun; sometimes I fail in its execution. But it is always rewarding. And unlike so many things in life, it really does change things for the better, if only one person at a time.

I hope that you all will take this message to heart. Perhaps we can’t save the world singlehandedly, but if we can help even one person along the way, it will have been enough. God knows that there are more than enough lost, broken, hungry, and oppressed people in the world who need our help, to go around.

And I can pretty much guarantee that the effort “to make music in the heart” will always be worth your while.

May we remember that when the song of the angels is stilled, our real work in the world begins. May your lives be marked, if not with certainty, than at least with an increasing comfort with, and a growing acceptance of, the mystery of all that is. I wish you all well during the next five months; may you be led forth in the paths of peace, and may you return with light.

Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
December 26, 2010

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December 19, 2010

In Search of Transcendence

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 3:05 pm

Hear the Sermon

“Transcendence is not to be comprehended, though it is to be apprehended.”
-Wilfred Cantwell Smith

Christmas is an opportunity. It is an opportunity not only in expected ways, of sharing, giving, and being together with those we love and care about. These ways are, of course, extremely important, if we can pull them off—the big “if.” They are what most of the good memories of the holidays are made of; they are, in part, what gives this holiday season its aura of heightened expectancy.

But sharing, giving, and being together are susceptible to the failure of expectations. Sometimes we are unable to meet the expectations of others and of ourselves. When that happens, Christmas becomes an opportunity in a more negative way: an opportunity for let-down, loneliness, guilt, and frustration.

There is another sense in which Christmas is an opportunity, one which is less susceptible to the failure of expectations. It is an opportunity which I believe such holidays were originally meant to provide. Christmas is an opportunity for transcendence. It is an opportunity, in Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s words, “to go above and beyond.” And it is an opportunity which, with a little effort, may not disappoint us in the way that our other expectations of the season so often do.

In a 1988 lecture entitled “Transcendence,” Smith offers us a different way to think about what some of us call God. Indeed, he speaks of transcendence instead of God in order to avoid confusion with a particular concept of God, of which, as we know, there are many. That is to say, God, if there is a God, is of course only God; but human beings, in the partiality of their individual and communal understandings, have created many different, limited, and even conflicting concepts of God. Every theology gives a god. So by using the term “transcendence,” Smith avoids the misunderstandings implicit in the word “God,” which has been understood in so many different ways.

Transcendence, he says, is “a reality that in principle cannot be denoted.” Transcendence cannot be adequately described or named. It can be “apprehended”—we can be aware of it—but it cannot be “comprehended.” Transcendence cannot be sufficiently explained by the limited and particularizing means at hand. However, it can be approached ever more closely, and understood more fully, by those who are willing to make the effort “to go above and beyond.” As Smith puts it, truth can be less partial today than yesterday, less partial tomorrow than today. It is a hopeful thought!

In attempting to describe more fully what he means by the transcendent, Smith turns to the Arabic idea of al-akhirah, which translates roughly as “what comes after.” Although it is sometimes translated as “eternal life,” al-akhirah, he says, “designates 2what comes after in the more here-and-now sense of what lies under the surface or behind outward appearances; what comes after probing, after maturing; what comes with more penetration of spiritual insight, and is found to be more and more rich, more and more divine, as one’s faith grows more sensitive and appreciative of the ultimate quality of life and of the world in which we live.” According to al-akhirah, transcendence is something that happens right here, not out there; right now, not at some later time.

The assumption here seems to be that there is a richness to which our human lives have access, but that that richness is greater than any of us has yet grasped. Smith writes,

Though never in its fullness, we encounter that richness in various places and ways, some of which we might not at first think of as religious. Beauty,–whether in nature or art or music—is one example. Pablo Casals, the great cellist, used to speak of the great unaccompanied cello pieces of Bach in terms of “miracle . . . [they render, he said] human things divine and divine things human.”

Such music takes us above and beyond; it transcends.

Smith uses the example of listening to music to get at what he means when speaking of transcendence: “One may listen to one’s [stereo] equipment, one may listen to the performance, one may listen to Mozart, one may listen to God.”

(One is reminded of the wonderful movie Amadeus, in which an oh-so-human Mozart is yet the creator of music which can only be described as “divinely inspired”—transcendent.)

In a similar vein, the great Boston Celtic Bill Russell used to speak of playing basketball in what he called “the zone.” At such times, Russell reported, his play would reach such a height of precision that he would seem to have transcended himself. It was as if he were observing himself play basketball. At such times he felt he could do no wrong on the court.

Such experiences invoke the sense of mystery which, Smith says, “is not to be clarified yet is to be explored,” is “apprehended, but not comprehended.”

The old Christmas carols have the same transcending quality for me. They are, after all, intended to point to something which is far beyond their seeming simplicity, yet something which is at the same time “apprehensible.” To borrow Smith’s metaphor, one may listen to the performance of the carol, one may listen to the composer or author, or one may listen for what takes us above and beyond the simple story that is told and sung.

The Christmas story is not literally factual and, I would argue, is ruined when taken that way. Rather, as most biblical scholars agree, the story of the birth of Jesus is a symbolic fiction; it is a sign pointing to the mystery of the divine becoming human, or the divine in the human, which can never be adequately explained. Here, we might say, reason fails us.

Just as the story of Adam and Eve is a symbolic way of talking about the tragic contradictions in human nature, so are the stories about the birth of Jesus a way of talking about something deeper, something which, to borrow Smith’s phrase again, we can “apprehend, but not comprehend.”

Those who read the story or hear it sung joyously or poignantly in the Christmas carols, but who take it literally, are missing its depth dimension, missing the story which “transcends,” that which takes us above and beyond. “Orthodoxies can stimulate, but eventually they stifle.” We especially are stifled by the demand to accept the story as literally true.

On the other hand, if we can’t get past the fact of it not being literally factual, and therefore conclude that it is untrue, then we, too, will miss what in the story is transcendent.

Truth, as the popular mythologist Joseph Campbell reminded us, can be both factual and symbolic or mythic. The symbolic truth of the stories and carols about Jesus’s birth is available to all, whether we accept the specifically Christian interpretation or not. That is why they continue to have a powerful hold even on those of us who are not Christian in a confessional way.

Perhaps an even more immediate example of transcendence is what happens in some of our relationships, when they take us above and beyond our individuality and isolation. The sense of “more” which we feel is transcendence. It is what happens occasionally even in this church. As Smith reminds us, community is “a traditional locus of transcendence,” because community transcends the individual.

Of course, the community, even the community of the church, will not always or consistently be a locus for the transcendent. More often than not, we “miss the mark,” which, we are reminded, is the actual definition of sin. But the possibility of transcendence always exists. And the hopeful thing is, that the longer we participate, the more often we open ourselves to its influence, the more frequently we will be aware of this transcendent potential within our religious community.

I think you know what I am speaking of. I’m speaking of those occasional moments when we feel as one, and when we know that we are feeling as one; moments when we sense that we are not alone, alienated, or isolated, but connected to one another; moments when we have been touched by something, and know that it has also touched our neighbor.

We know these moments by the tear in the eye or the lump in the throat. In those powerful moments of uplift, we are sometimes moved as one people; we know that the feeling is shared “from heart to heart.” Worshipping together doesn’t always provide this uplift, I know, but when it does we know that something special has taken place. We are hard-pressed to say what it is, but we desire it, and the encouraging thing is that we can take steps to provide that it happens more often. In this sense, coming to church to seek the transcendent is rather like continually putting ourselves in the path of a speeding eighteen-wheeler. Sooner or later, if we do it often enough, we’re going to get hit. Occasional or sporadic church going will probably enable you to escape unscathed.

I believe that the holidays were intended for something similar: intended to put us directly in the path of the transcendent. And what the world calls “scripture” originally was written to capture, always somewhat futilely, those moments when the transcendent has actually struck.

The simple carols of the Christmas season were written and sung in an attempt to make accessible what in the scriptures was thought to be too obscure for us simple folk. And the mistake that we human beings continue to make is attempting to set the experience down, once and for all, which is what Emerson was complaining about when he said that “God speaks, not spake,” and what the hymn writer meant to make us aware of when he wrote that “revelation is not sealed.”

It is what I believe the Catholic poet/priest Gerard Manley Hopkins meant to remind us of when he wrote that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Transcendence is perhaps what the mystics try to relate, always with only partial success; it is what all of the world’s religious traditions point to; it is what fundamentalism so tragically misses in its mistaken supposition that the mundane forms of religion are, in themselves, the transcending reality.

Transcendence is what we apprehend in a beautiful form, in a spectacular sunset, or in a beloved person; it is what will outlive our particularity; it is what ought to be meant by eternal life: al-akhirah, what comes after. It is what every child in every cradle points to; it is what the Christmas story tries to tell us, what the Christmas carols try to sing about. Transcendence is the universe speaking in us.

Best of all, we can know it in our own lives, in what is closest to us, in what is most ordinary. Indeed, that is where the transcendent is most likely to be found: in the ordinary, in the everyday, and in the human; in the child born in a manger in stable in Bethlehem of Judea, or in any other town, for that matter.

May we have eyes that see and ears that hear; may we celebrate the Christmas which takes us above and beyond Christmas; may we strive to make ourselves more and more the bearers of a transcendent vision for ourselves and for our world, a vision which rises above smallness and narrow-mindedness; and may we always seek to live our lives so as to realize “more transcendence than less.” Amen.

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

Readings: from “Transcendence,” by Wilfred Cantwell Smith; “Moments of Meaning,” by Ralph N. Helverson

Searching for Transcendence
“Transcendence is not to be comprehended, though it is to be apprehended.”
-Wilfred Cantwell Smith

Christmas is an opportunity. It is an opportunity not only in expected ways, of sharing, giving, and being together with those we love and care about. These ways are, of course, extremely important, if we can pull them off—the big “if.” They are what most of the good memories of the holidays are made of; they are, in part, what gives this holiday season its aura of heightened expectancy.
But sharing, giving, and being together are susceptible to the failure of expectations. Sometimes we are unable to meet the expectations of others and of ourselves. When that happens, Christmas becomes an opportunity in a more negative way: an opportunity for let-down, loneliness, guilt, and frustration.
There is another sense in which Christmas is an opportunity, one which is less susceptible to the failure of expectations. It is an opportunity which I believe such holidays were originally meant to provide. Christmas is an opportunity for transcendence. It is an opportunity, in Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s words, “to go above and beyond.” And it is an opportunity which, with a little effort, may not disappoint us in the way that our other expectations of the season so often do.
In a 1988 lecture entitled “Transcendence,” Smith offers us a different way to think about what some of us call God. Indeed, he speaks of transcendence instead of God in order to avoid confusion with a particular concept of God, of which, as we know, there are many. That is to say, God, if there is a God, is of course only God; but human beings, in the partiality of their individual and communal understandings, have created many different, limited, and even conflicting concepts of God. Every theology gives a god. So by using the term “transcendence,” Smith avoids the misunderstandings implicit in the word “God,” which has been understood in so many different ways.
Transcendence, he says, is “a reality that in principle cannot be denoted.” Transcendence cannot be adequately described or named. It can be “apprehended”—we can be aware of it—but it cannot be “comprehended.” Transcendence cannot be sufficiently explained by the limited and particularizing means at hand. However, it can be approached ever more closely, and understood more fully, by those who are willing to make the effort “to go above and beyond.” As Smith puts it, truth can be less partial today than yesterday, less partial tomorrow than today. It is a hopeful thought!
In attempting to describe more fully what he means by the transcendent, Smith turns to the Arabic idea of al-akhirah, which translates roughly as “what comes after.” Although it is sometimes translated as “eternal life,” al-akhirah, he says, “designates 2what comes after in the more here-and-now sense of what lies under the surface or behind outward appearances; what comes after probing, after maturing; what comes with more penetration of spiritual insight, and is found to be more and more rich, more and more divine, as one’s faith grows more sensitive and appreciative of the ultimate quality of life and of the world in which we live.” According to al-akhirah, transcendence is something that happens right here, not out there; right now, not at some later time.
The assumption here seems to be that there is a richness to which our human lives have access, but that that richness is greater than any of us has yet grasped. Smith writes,
Though never in its fullness, we encounter that richness in various places and ways, some of which we might not at first think of as religious. Beauty,–whether in nature or art or music—is one example. Pablo Casals, the great cellist, used to speak of the great unaccompanied cello pieces of Bach in terms of “miracle . . . [they render, he said] human things divine and divine things human.”
Such music takes us above and beyond; it transcends.
Smith uses the example of listening to music to get at what he means when speaking of transcendence: “One may listen to one’s [stereo] equipment, one may listen to the performance, one may listen to Mozart, one may listen to God.”
(One is reminded of the wonderful movie Amadeus, in which an oh-so-human Mozart is yet the creator of music which can only be described as “divinely inspired”—transcendent.)
In a similar vein, the great Boston Celtic Bill Russell used to speak of playing basketball in what he called “the zone.” At such times, Russell reported, his play would reach such a height of precision that he would seem to have transcended himself. It was as if he were observing himself play basketball. At such times he felt he could do no wrong on the court.
Such experiences invoke the sense of mystery which, Smith says, “is not to be clarified yet is to be explored,” is “apprehended, but not comprehended.”
The old Christmas carols have the same transcending quality for me. They are, after all, intended to point to something which is far beyond their seeming simplicity, yet something which is at the same time “apprehensible.” To borrow Smith’s metaphor, one may listen to the performance of the carol, one may listen to the composer or author, or one may listen for what takes us above and beyond the simple story that is told and sung.
The Christmas story is not literally factual and, I would argue, is ruined when taken that way. Rather, as most biblical scholars agree, the story of the birth of Jesus is a symbolic fiction; it is a sign pointing to the mystery of the divine becoming human, or the divine in the human, which can never be adequately explained. Here, we might say, reason fails us.
Just as the story of Adam and Eve is a symbolic way of talking about the tragic contradictions in human nature, so are the stories about the birth of Jesus a way of talking about something deeper, something which, to borrow Smith’s phrase again, we can “apprehend, but not comprehend.”
Those who read the story or hear it sung joyously or poignantly in the Christmas carols, but who take it literally, are missing its depth dimension, missing the story which “transcends,” that which takes us above and beyond. “Orthodoxies can stimulate, but eventually they stifle.” We especially are stifled by the demand to accept the story as literally true.
On the other hand, if we can’t get past the fact of it not being literally factual, and therefore conclude that it is untrue, then we, too, will miss what in the story is transcendent.
Truth, as the popular mythologist Joseph Campbell reminded us, can be both factual and symbolic or mythic. The symbolic truth of the stories and carols about Jesus’s birth is available to all, whether we accept the specifically Christian interpretation or not. That is why they continue to have a powerful hold even on those of us who are not Christian in a confessional way.
Perhaps an even more immediate example of transcendence is what happens in some of our relationships, when they take us above and beyond our individuality and isolation. The sense of “more” which we feel is transcendence. It is what happens occasionally even in this church. As Smith reminds us, community is “a traditional locus of transcendence,” because community transcends the individual.
Of course, the community, even the community of the church, will not always or consistently be a locus for the transcendent. More often than not, we “miss the mark,” which, we are reminded, is the actual definition of sin. But the possibility of transcendence always exists. And the hopeful thing is, that the longer we participate, the more often we open ourselves to its influence, the more frequently we will be aware of this transcendent potential within our religious community.
I think you know what I am speaking of. I’m speaking of those occasional moments when we feel as one, and when we know that we are feeling as one; moments when we sense that we are not alone, alienated, or isolated, but connected to one another; moments when we have been touched by something, and know that it has also touched our neighbor.
We know these moments by the tear in the eye or the lump in the throat. In those powerful moments of uplift, we are sometimes moved as one people; we know that the feeling is shared “from heart to heart.” Worshipping together doesn’t always provide this uplift, I know, but when it does we know that something special has taken place. We are hard-pressed to say what it is, but we desire it, and the encouraging thing is that we can take steps to provide that it happens more often. In this sense, coming to church to seek the transcendent is rather like continually putting ourselves in the path of a speeding eighteen-wheeler. Sooner or later, if we do it often enough, we’re going to get hit. Occasional or sporadic church going will probably enable you to escape unscathed.
I believe that the holidays were intended for something similar: intended to put us directly in the path of the transcendent. And what the world calls “scripture” originally was written to capture, always somewhat futilely, those moments when the transcendent has actually struck.
The simple carols of the Christmas season were written and sung in an attempt to make accessible what in the scriptures was thought to be too obscure for us simple folk. And the mistake that we human beings continue to make is attempting to set the experience down, once and for all, which is what Emerson was complaining about when he said that “God speaks, not spake,” and what the hymn writer meant to make us aware of when he wrote that “revelation is not sealed.”
It is what I believe the Catholic poet/priest Gerard Manley Hopkins meant to remind us of when he wrote that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Transcendence is perhaps what the mystics try to relate, always with only partial success; it is what all of the world’s religious traditions point to; it is what fundamentalism so tragically misses in its mistaken supposition that the mundane forms of religion are, in themselves, the transcending reality.
Transcendence is what we apprehend in a beautiful form, in a spectacular sunset, or in a beloved person; it is what will outlive our particularity; it is what ought to be meant by eternal life: al-akhirah, what comes after. It is what every child in every cradle points to; it is what the Christmas story tries to tell us, what the Christmas carols try to sing about. Transcendence is the universe speaking in us.
Best of all, we can know it in our own lives, in what is closest to us, in what is most ordinary. Indeed, that is where the transcendent is most likely to be found: in the ordinary, in the everyday, and in the human; in the child born in a manger in stable in Bethlehem of Judea, or in any other town, for that matter.
May we have eyes that see and ears that hear; may we celebrate the Christmas which takes us above and beyond Christmas; may we strive to make ourselves more and more the bearers of a transcendent vision for ourselves and for our world, a vision which rises above smallness and narrow-mindedness; and may we always seek to live our lives so as to realize “more transcendence than less.” Amen.
The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
December 19, 2010
Readings: from “Transcendence,” by Wilfred Cantwell Smith; “Moments of Meaning,” by Ralph N. Helverson

December 5, 2010

What Remains of Our Ministry?

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 5:18 pm

Hear this homily preached at Christina Sillari’s installation at First Parish UU in Portland, ME

“Each one of us would wish
to leave some part of ourselves;
yes, every one of us,
some memory,
some influence for good.”
– John Lovejoy Elliott

So what remains of our ministry? What remains of the good works we do, of the quality of presence we bring, of the words of truth we speak and of the silences we are loathe to break?

And what remains of our mistakes: the calls we fail to make, the issues we are afraid to tackle, the awful sermons, the comfort we don’t provide, the misunderstandings we create?

In either case, we must hope, not much! Certainly, as John Lovejoy Elliott writes, “Each of us would wish to leave some part of ourselves; yes, every one of us, some influence for good.” But with ministry, it’s tricky. Either way, for good or ill, we don’t want to leave too much of ourselves behind. Certainly, we shouldn’t want to leave a cult of personality behind. Ministers come and go, after all, but congregations remain. Better, I think, that we are quickly forgotten. Better, at least, that we fade away, like old soldiers, and that our ghosts are put to rest sooner rather than later.

It may seem strange to speak of endings at a time when we are gathered to celebrate a beginning. But like death, I believe that thinking about endings can help us to focus on the things that are of most importance in the present.

In Newburyport, where I am currently serving as minister, there are marble plaques on the walls listing all of the ministers of the church since 1725 with their dates of service. This is both humbling and sobering: humbling, because several of those ministers served more than 40 years, making my piddly sixteen seem a little insignificant. I’ve hardly started! (They needn’t worry: I’m too old to make it much past twenty—if they’ll still have me, of course.)

And it’s sobering because it can make you feel dead before your time to see your name up there among all those others.

I’m not sure that those plaques are a good idea, though all but the most recent and most famous of those ministers have pretty much slid into the obscurity of passing time. “They have perished as though they never existed,” as it says in the ancient book of Sirach. Probably a good thing.

I would like to think that what those plaques mostly represent is the continuity of ministry, a ministry that includes not only those now forgotten ministers, but everyone who has served the ministry of that church from its beginnings down to the present day. Perhaps what those names now more than anything represent are eras and epochs of the church, rather than to suggest that those named were solely responsible for whatever, for better and worse, that church has produced over almost three centuries of its existence. On the plus side, since there are only fifteen names including my own on those plaques over two hundred and eighty-five years, it speaks well either of the congregation’s support of its ministers or of its long-suffering tolerance of them.

Those of us who have chosen to make ordained ministry our vocation know, or should know, that successful ministers and meaningful ministry are created only in relationship to the congregations we serve. As Gordon McKeeman has written with truth, “Ministry is all that we do—together.” We ministers don’t minister in a vacuum. It’s up to all of us, clergy and laity, working closely together on a common vision, to create something more than any of us could ever build alone.

McKeeman recognizes this reality in a wonderful piece he calls “Anyone’s Ministry”:

Ministry is
a quality of relationship between and among human beings
that beckons forth hidden possibilities
inviting people into deeper, more constant, more reverent
relationship with the world and one another
carrying forward a long heritage of hope and liberation
that has dignified and informed the human venture
over many centuries
being present with, to, and for others
in their terrors and torments
in their grief, misery, and pain
knowing that those feelings are our feelings, too
celebrating the triumphs of the human spirit
the miracles of birth and life
the wonders of devotion and sacrifice
witnessing to life-enhancing values
speaking truth to power
standing for human dignity and equity
for compassion and aspiration
believing in life in the presence of death
struggling for human responsibility
against principalities and structures
that ignore humaneness and become
instruments of death.
It is all these and much, much more than all of them, present in
the wordless
the unspoken
the ineffable.
It is speaking and living the highest we know
and living with the knowledge that it is
never as deep, or as wide
or as high as we wish.
Whenever there is a meeting that summons us to our better selves, wherever
our lostness is found
our fragments are united
our wounds begin healing
our spines stiffen and
our muscles grow strong for the task
there is ministry.

Obviously, this is not the purview of a single person, no matter how beautiful, brilliant, or well-qualified, but of each and every one of us, of anyone, working together in the quest to become more fully human. None of us can do it alone, ordained or no.

Today you are installing a new minister. But more accurately, you are all beginning a new ministry together. Its success or failure will be a joint venture! I hope that you will remember that, and that you will work with all your heart, mind, and soul to make this the most meaningful ministry you have known. Not just for Christina’s sake, but for your own.

Someday, of course, this particular ministry will end. May it be many years from now! What, then, will remain of it? That will be up to you.

It is human nature, as I noted earlier, to want to leave some mark on the world. I confess to a little hubris in seeing my name inscribed in marble on the walls of our sanctuary in Newburyport. But I also recognize that anything of worth that has been accomplished there has not been of my doing alone. I do hope that something more will remain than just a name, even if it is my name, and more than a memory, even if it is a good memory.

What I hope remains is an ongoing dedication to building a beloved community. What I hope remains is loyalty, devotion, and kindness in that congregation’s dealings with one another and with the world beyond its doors. What I hope remains is a desire to go deeper in their spiritual searches. What I hope remains is a stronger and more intentional commitment to truth and good. What I hope remains is a church that wants to make a difference in a troubled world, and knows that it can and that it will.

And that is what I hope remains when this ministry we celebrate today comes to an end, as it inevitably will. That whatever lingering memory of Christina Sillari still haunts this place in years and decades to come, it will be that you and she worked together to create something of lasting beauty and worth, that your lives were made forever richer and more meaningful for the time, long or brief, that you spent together, and, most importantly, that your own ministries were called forth so that all you achieved together in love and service shall outlive your time, moving all of us a little closer to “a world more fair, with all her people one.” So may it be, and so may it remain. Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
December 5, 2010

From Tolerance to Acceptance

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 5:13 pm

Hear the sermon

“Perhaps, after all, there is a profound lesson
in the fact that the Hanukkah lights
increase from day to day
and that their full radiance is achieved
only by gradual stages.”
– Theodor H. Gaster

Perhaps the greatest struggle that any of us ever has to endure is the struggle to become ourselves. It is the struggle which most characterizes the period of adolescence. We desperately want to be part of the group. But, simultaneously, we desire to become ourselves, those truest selves that we long to be and are meant to be. Some of us never make it. Some of us manage only to reach a place of uneasy compromise between who we are and who the world expects us to be. Sometimes, in order to survive, we hide our true selves behind a mask, and live a kind of half-life.

But deep down, I believe that we long for acceptance. We long to be accepted for the people we really are, to be heard and understood. We want our special gifts to be recognized and valued. We want, as St. Paul once said, to be known “face to face.” We want to be loved.

This personal problem of identity is writ large in the so-called “problem” of diversity. In our society today, there are whole groups of people struggling to gain acceptance, struggling for inclusion, struggling to bring their unique gifts and insights to the common table. These people long to be part of the whole, to be welcomed at the table, but also they long to be who they are. They long to be respected and loved for who they are. They wish to maintain their uniqueness. Too often, what they get is our tolerance.

You may be surprised to hear me say that. After all, tolerance is good, is it not? Tolerance, according to historian Earl Morse Wilbur, is along with freedom and reason, one of the three guiding principles of our liberal religious faith. What’s wrong with tolerance? My late colleague Forrester Church has written,

The word tolerance means “to bear with.” By one familiar connotation, to tolerate means to bear with repugnance. Tolerance of this sort—call it mere tolerance—is a cheap virtue.

Merely to tolerate another person or faith implies that we don’t take him or it seriously. Tolerance encourages us not to respect our neighbor, but to put up with him.

And there is a further problem with tolerance, in that it can become a license for complacency and indifference. Years ago, political scientist Herbert Marcuse wrote, “Tolerance is extended to policies, conditions, and modes of behavior which should not be tolerated because they are impeding, if not destroying, the chances of creating an existence without fear and misery.” Speaking among other things to the nuclear proliferation of the 1960s, Marcuse wrote, “Toleration toward that which is radically evil now appears as good because it serves the cohesion of the whole on the road to affluence and more affluence.” With a little translation to the contemporary scene, we can see that the validity of Marcuse’s criticism of tolerance still stands.

A similar critique is offered by my retired colleague, Earl Holt:

Here is the great danger of tolerance: that it is not a positive virtue but an abdication of something. Tolerance can be an expression not of our broadmindedness but of our confusion, our insecurity, our fear of being wrong, our lack of idealism, our lack of fervent belief in our own ideals. We ought to know our own beliefs, convictions, values, and standards, and to believe in them fervently enough so that tolerance becomes difficult. We cannot tolerate too much tolerance for too much tolerance breeds intolerance.

The Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which began at sundown on Wednesday, can perhaps help us to understand this dilemma of tolerance. Hanukkah, which commemorates a long ago victory by the Jews over an oppressor, is often misconstrued as simply a celebration of triumph over tyranny, as an early shot in the much larger and universal battle for human rights. But as Jewish scholar Theodor H. Gaster writes, “The real issue at stake was not the right of the Jews to be like everyone else, but their right to be different [my emphasis]. And victory meant not the attainment of civic equality . . . but the renewal, after its forced suspension, of that particular and distinctive way of life which embodied and exemplified the Jewish mission.” In other words, the Jews wanted the right to be themselves. They wanted the right to practice their religion and to maintain their unique and separate identity without being persecuted.

The distinction is an important one, and gets to the heart of the problem with tolerance. For it is one thing to “bear with” those who are different from ourselves; it is quite another to accept and respect their right to be different. It is still another to affirm and promote that right. And it is yet another to embrace that difference, to understand it, and, ultimately, to love it.

This distinction between tolerance and acceptance, I believe, lies at the center of the contemporary debate over multi-culturalism, or “multi-culti” as my Transylvanian friends say. Here again Hanukkah can help us, for as Gaster writes, “Hanukkah commemorates and celebrates the first serious attempt in history to proclaim and champion the principle of religio-cultural diversity in the nation. . . . What was really being defended was the principle that in a diversified society the function of the state is to embrace, not subordinate, the various constituent cultures.

. . . .

We say we are tolerant people, but what we usually mean is that we are willing to put up with difference and diversity so long as it does not impinge upon our vision of what is right and acceptable. We are willing to be tolerant so long as our tolerance doesn’t change the way things are, or rather, the way we prefer things to be.

And yet, I dare say, most of us would agree that diversity has been one of the great strengths of our nation, just as homogeneity has been one of the great weaknesses of many others. Our diversity has contributed to our creativity in the arts and literature, as well as in the sciences and politics. The rich heritage of American popular music, as only one example, reflects the positive influence of a diversity of sources and styles.

And only the most radical, I believe, would argue that religious diversity has not been a good, even a great, thing for our nation. That diversity is actually growing, but will we treat that reality as a gift or a threat? Shall we merely tolerate our Hindu and Muslim and Buddhist neighbors, or might there be new lessons to be learned, new insights to be gained, new truths to deepen our spiritual and ethical lives? Will we continue to merely tolerate the placement of a Menorah alongside the traditional crèche in the public square, or might we celebrate its presence, giving thanks for its message even as we celebrate the story of a long ago birth in a manger?

The right to be different means that we do not merely tolerate, but that we respect and celebrate our neighbors’ differences. We do not ask them to be just like us. Indeed, we give thanks that they are not.

This has become very challenging, I know, in our post-9/11 world, but it is essential that not sacrifice our values to our fears.

The issue goes beyond religion to questions of race and sexual orientation. Do we simply bear with our black and Asian and native American and gay, lesbian, and transgender brothers and sisters, wishing secretly that they were more like us, or do we truly accept and respect the fact that they are different, and affirm their right to be so? “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” comes to mind in this context. If our tolerance is only indifference, then what good is it to them or to us?

According to Theodor Gaster, Hanukkah also provides an answer to my colleague Earl Holt’s concern about the tolerance which is only indifference and confirms his admonition that it must be a positive virtue based in disciplined self-knowledge: “. . . Hanukkah affirms the universal truth that the only effective answer to oppression is the intensified positive assertion of the principles and values which that oppression threatens.”

We usually say that we do accept the right to be different, but in reality most of us are fearful of difference. We find it difficult to overcome the taboos which say that white is better than black or that homosexuality is a sin, the prejudices that say that Christians are better than Jews or Protestants better than Catholics. We fear what is strange or unknown, and we will continue to fear it until we open our hearts and minds to that strangeness, until we make the effort at understanding, until we finally rid ourselves of all the irrational fears which impede us and keep us separate and along and blindered against the world of difference that lies, literally, just beyond our often barricaded doors.

That’s the message of Christmas, too. I have always thought that “peace and goodwill” doesn’t stop at the doors of the sanctuary. And Hanukkah can help us to see, perhaps, that it doesn’t, by reminding us that we all, Jew and Christian, Muslim and Hindu and Buddhist, gay and straight, black and white and yellow and red, have a fundamental right to be different, to be who we are. Our Unitarian Universalist purposes and principles call this and “inherent right,” others would say that it is “God given.”

To quote Theodor Gaster again, “. . .[Hanukkah] celebrates more than the independence of one people—it glorifies the right to freedom of all peoples.”

But neither, of course, should we merely tolerate that which is destructive or hate-filled or just plain wrong. There must be limits to our ability to bear with the manifold sins of our world. As Forrester Church wrote in the morning’s reading, we must learn to discriminate, in the positive sense, between acceptable and unacceptable behavior:

. . . We must discriminate between our respect for any group or religion, and our ability critically to assess the actions of any of its members, here maintaining a fierce intolerance for anything too repugnant to abide. And in this country, when it comes to violence, or the inciting of violence, intolerance is the only proper response.

People may believe whatever they will. But when they choose violence as the instrument of their beliefs, whether they be radical Mullahs or Christian anti-abortion fanatics, they abandon their rights.

No one, especially in the name of God, should get away with intimidating his or her neighbors with the threat of violence. The punishment should be swift, certain, and severe.

Interestingly, both Hanukkah and Christmas are festivals of light, both celebrations probably built upon pre-existing pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. The kindling of the Hanukkah candles each night at dusk is a reminder both of the light which always exists, even at the darkest time of year, and of that light of God which can never be extinguished even in the darkest of times. The Christmas lights, too, are a reminder of the always present light of love and peace and hope.

My wish at this time of year, for all of us, is that these holiday lights will serve as a precious reminder that every human being has a right to be who he or she really is. As Voltaire once wrote, “What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly.”

We are all formed of frailty and error, but we are also the stuff of which angels are made. The monks in ancient monasteries recognized this reality when they greeted even the most lowdown and sorry visitors to their door with the words, “Oh Christ, is that you again?” May we, too, at this coldest and darkest time of year, show an affirming light toward all who travel the journey of life with us. Amen, Shalom, Peace.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
December 5, 2010

Reading: from “Tolerance and Discrimination,” by F. Forrester Church

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