Harold Babcock's Sermons

September 25, 2011

Turning Sixty: Reflections on the Next Chapter of Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 7:20 pm
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“Age is an issue of mind over matter.  If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
–  Mark Twain
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”
– Ecclesiastes 3: 1

Some of you are aware that this week I turned sixty.  Oh, I know, to some of you that probably seems like the bloom of youth.

A story is told about Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.  You may remember that Holmes refused to retire from the United States Supreme Court until he was ninety-one.  A year before his retirement, Holmes was walking down Pennsylvanian Avenue in Washington with his friend Justice Louis Brandeis when a pretty girl walked by.

Holmes turned to Brandeis with a gleam in his eye: “Oh, to be 75 again!”

People who know me well know that I am not especially wild about birthdays.  On my birthday, I tend to prefer a quiet evening with those I love best to a blow-out party.  Oh, I’m not a complete pessimist about growing older; some of my most inspiring mentors were already old when I met them.  And some of my best friends are a lot older and wiser than I am now.

But another birthday is sobering, and it always leads me, at least, to some contemplation, not just on the relentless approach of death, but also on the chanciness and fickleness of life.  For death is an equal opportunity phenomenon.  It strikes young and old alike, and though the odds are increasingly stacked against the old, I have lost too many friends and seen too many lives cut-off before what we like to call “their time.”

So I know all that.  I know how lucky I am to still be here and to be in good health.  I know all about the alternative, having done literally hundreds of funerals and memorial services over the last thirty years.

And though the aches and pains have been steadily increasing of late, and I am aware that I am not quite as strong and agile as once I was, I have to say that my fifties have been one of the most rewarding decades of my life.  I have been blessed to see my children grow into adulthood, to enjoy a long and nurturing marriage, to have my career advance in the right direction, to have meaningful and fulfilling tasks to do and interests to pursue, and to have the means and time to travel to far and exotic places (especially when starting out from West Castine, Maine).

There is a little Inuit Indian song which puts life into good perspective:

I think over again my small adventures,
My fears,
Those little ones that seemed so big,
For all the vital things
I had to get and reach.
And yet there is only one great thing,
The only thing:
To live to see the great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.

Though I freely confess to my tendency to see the glass as half empty rather than half full (I am part Scottish and from Maine, for God’s sake), I continue to enjoy life and not to be overly cautious about it.  Some of you know of my aversion to intentional physical training (though not to physical activity).  My late colleague Forrest Church, in his book Love and Death, tells the following anecdote:

People who claim that higher knowledge will free us from suffering are fooling themselves.  So too those who place their faith in a perfectly tuned and well-fortified body.  Don’t get me wrong, Forrest says.  It makes good sense to take care of our bodies.  But to do so to the point of obsession only invites another form of pride.  I have a friend who has given up alcohol, cigarettes, coffee, eggs, meat, milk, and the sun.  He eats oat bran for breakfast, takes megadoses of vitamins C and E, rides his Exercycle religiously, and never uses his microwave oven.  He may not live any longer than his least prudent neighbor, but as his doctor told him, it will certainly seem longer!

In spite of my inherent pessimistic streak, or as I prefer to term it, my “realistic” streak, I am determined to enjoy my life to the fullest, and to do the things I want to do before it is too late.  For better or worse, this includes eating and drinking lots of things that have been determined to be hazardous to my health.  Though you are unlikely to see me often so engaged, I have to say that I am in sympathy with the 6th century poet Anacreon, who wrote,

Young men dancing, and the old
Sporting I with joy behold:
But an old man gay and free
Dancing most I love to see;
Age and youth alike he shares,
For his heart belies his hairs.

The reality of diminishing time is paradoxically one of those things that makes life meaningful.  Dr. Sherwin Nuland, in his not-so-cheery book How We Die, writes that, “The fact that there is a limited right time to do the rewarding things in our lives is what creates the urgency to do them.  Otherwise we might stagnate in procrastination.  The very fact that at our backs, as the poet cautions his coy mistress, we ‘always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,’ enhances the world and makes the time priceless.”

A couple of years ago I attended a workshop on “Thinking About Retirement,” presented by the Alban Institute, a church think-tank, for clergy in their last ten years of ministry.  One of the great lessons I came away with from that experience is that if there are things you think you are going to want to do in your retirement, you should begin to do them now and not wait.  The fact is, our presenter said, you may find that those things you so enthusiastically look forward to, in actuality bore the heck out of you.  Or—and I have seen this happen way too often– you may become incapacitated or die before you even have the opportunity to do them.

I found this advice most useful and have begun to take it seriously to heart.  It’s actually good advice at any age.  “Carpe diem,” wrote the ancients: “live for today.”  The second part of that saying — “for tomorrow you may die”– is often left off, but I think it is the most important part.  Tomorrow—some inevitable tomorrow—we shall certainly die.  “Even those who live many years should rejoice in them all,” writes my favorite biblical writer, the author of the ancient Book of Ecclesiastes, “yet let them remember that the days of darkness will be many.”  He also said, “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil.”

So I have begun already to do some of the things I hope to spend more time doing during my eventual retirement.  If I find that they are not as fulfilling as I had hoped, I still have time to make some course corrections.

“Don’t put off until tomorrow the things you can do today.”  I think that is from Poor Richard’s Almanac, and it is good if cliched advice.  I have been trying to do that, and it includes remembering to say the things we need to say to those we love.

Please don’t think that I never fail to do it.  I fail constantly to count my blessings and to say my love.  Like most people, I have a tendency to be what my good friend Ed Russell from Maine calls “solar,” as in “solar system.”  Solar  is the belief that everything in the universe revolves around me.  But in my better moments I am aware of how important it is to do these things.  As Silver Moore-Leamon, a lay preacher in South Paris Maine, once warned, “People wrapped up in themselves make mighty small packages.”  I try to remember that, and occasionally I do.

One of the good things that I have found as I grow older is how much closer to the surface my emotions have become.  My sense of empathy, of feeling with others, has grown stronger with time.  How can people get older and meaner?  Can someone please explain that to me?  That is something I guess I will never get.

This growing sense of emotional freedom, if I may call it that, is an attribute of age that I think is often or even mostly lost upon the young.  People and life seem more precious to me these days.  It is one of the things that makes aging not just tolerable, but desirable.  Sometimes, when I am walking down the street, I will look at a total stranger and find the tears welling in my eyes.  I think this is because I suddenly realize that that person is loved and cherished by someone, or ought to be.  “In all their beauty or homeliness,” as one of the readings I often use in memorials services puts it.  We all deserve to be loved and cherished in this life, but unfortunately many of us aren’t that lucky.  Either way, it is something to be moved by.  If we don’t grow to be kinder and gentler and more empathetic people as we age, what’s the point?

Similarly, the tears come more easily when someone is recognized for something they have done.  It doesn’t have to be something big or momentous. It doesn’t even have to be someone I know.  For don’t we all long for the recognition of our accomplishments and gifts?  Don’t most of us, at heart, feel unworthy?  How can we fail to be moved when someone gets the recognition we all deserve?

Increasingly, I am called to do the weddings of young people who have grown up in our church, and the tears are never far below the surface as I speak to them about the meaning of their wedding vows.  Knowing all the potential pitfalls and vicissitudes of life, how can we who have already traveled a long way along life’s path not feel some anxiety and tenderness for those who are just starting out?  Our hopes must be tempered by the realities that this is not always a kind world, and that things do not always turn out as we wished and hoped.

“Youth,” someone has said, “is wasted on the young.”  Of course, it’s not completely true, and it has the smell of bitterness or envy about it.  The fact is, that much as it would be good to regain the physical well-being that I experienced at, say, twenty-five, I really don’t think I would want to go back.  Life is richer now that I have traveled sixty years along its path, and I would hate to give that up.  As the great artist Pablo Picasso once provocatively said, “It takes a long time to become young.”

Occasionally someone will tell me that they don’t “feel” old.  While it is true that I am still wondering when I will know that I have finally grown up, I have to say that I don’t totally agree.  I do feel older, and not only in a physical way.  Not in a negative way, either.  I feel older because there are just too many experiences that one has in a long life-time that must inevitably color everything that happens in the present.  We see our lives through the lens of all that has come before.  I happen to mostly think that this is a good thing, a treasure even.  I only wish that more of us could come to see it that way.  We elders, if I may include myself in that number, have wisdom to share about this life.  We also have love to give, if we will, for we know how challenging the journey can sometimes be, and we can help to ease the way for those who are younger than we are.  That love is desperately needed in this perilous world we live in; there will never be too much to go around.

In closing, a prayer by the Rev. John Corrado, entitled “Prayer as We Grow Older (which each of us does with every tick of the clock)”:

Dear tenderness at the heart of things,
hold us close.
Incline us to hold one another close.

Our living plunges us from yesterday to tomorrow
faster than we’re ever ready for.

We were kids on the playground just a few minutes ago.
Now look at us: kids in aging skin.

The story we become with every second
seems as though somebody is speed-reading it.

We hardly have time
to bump against one another,
let alone to make real connections.

We grab desperately for meaning
in this haste we seem to be.

Hold us close.
Slow us down.
Give us, at least, a sense of pause.

Help us see each day
with grateful wonder
as if it were the first page of the story.
Help us to live each day in thoughtful fullness
as if it were the first page of the story.

Hold us.
Slow us.
Help us.
But keep us going as long as we can.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
Readings: from The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jean Giono; Ecclesiastes 11: 5-10

September 18, 2011


Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 5:08 pm
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“Therefore walk in the way of the good, and keep to the paths of the just.” 
–Proverbs 2: 20

What is character, anyway?  Is it an inherent trait, something we are lucky to be born with (or not)?  My dictionary offers as one definition of character “Moral or ethical strength.”  Do some of us just naturally possess this, or is character a process which continues throughout our lives, with no guarantee of outcome, requiring constant vigilance to assure that we remain on the right track, whatever that may be?

We generally assume that we know what we mean when we describe someone as a “character.”  It can be either a compliment or an insult, but in general it means that someone has a pronounced or even exaggerated personality.  Where I grew up in Maine, being a character mostly meant that a person was uniquely him or herself, for better or for worse, but for the most part it was considered a positive attribute, even in the odd or eccentric or peculiar.

This would seem to imply that “character” is somehow a process of becoming more fully oneself, with no implication of good or bad.  But is this what we are talking about when we speak of “building character”?  To read the ancient Book of Proverbs one gets the impression that character is something that can be studied and learned, though in the case of the Proverbs the way to achieve a “good” character clearly is to follow the advice of one’s elders as to prescribed rules of behavior and to avoid those who might lure one away from the straight and narrow.

“Proverbial wisdom” has come to have a somewhat pejorative meaning, a result of changing notions of morality which chafe at such sentiments as “a wise child loves discipline” or “a good wife who can find?” which have an almost sinister connotation for those of us living in the early 21st century.

Perhaps it has always been so.  We are not quite sure whether Shakespeare thought his character Polonius [in Hamlet] an admirable father teaching his son about “character” or a pompous buffoon.  You remember Polonius, right?  “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” and “This above all, to thine own self be true,/ And it must follow as the night the day/ Thou canst not then be false to any man.”  I’ve preached on the idea of being true to one’s self, but I’m not so sure that it will keep one as safe from wrongdoing as Polonius implies.  And achieving a “good” character is no guarantee of happiness or safety, either.  Just look at those who have.

I’ve always been taken by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s line in his “I Have a Dream” speech about black children being judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their characters.”  We think we know what that means, but I’m not so sure.  And as I’ve already suggested, our idea of what constitutes “character” is changeable.

While the Book of Proverbs seems to imply that “being good” is the way to achieve character, we know that many whom we would probably agree have great character have also been great troublemakers who broke the rules and confronted the powers and principalities that be.  King, his mentor Gandhi, and Jesus of Nazareth come immediately to mind.  This would suggest that character is in the eye of the beholder, and that there is no single definition of character that will fit all.

If character is not an inherited trait, but a learned one, the implication is that it must be something that can never be finished during our lives.  One does not achieve character once and for all.  This is the conclusion of psychologists David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo in their recent book Out of Character: Surprising Truths about the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us.”  They dispute the traditional view of character as some “indelible core of a person.”  Rather, to quote a Boston Globe review of their book, they “build a case that character is the ever-fluctuating product of warring impulses in the brain—one focused on immediate rewards, the other on long-term payoffs.  Good and bad have little to do with it,” writes the reviewer, “but the situation does.”

This is the kind of conclusion that is sure to drive moral absolutists crazy, because it implies that good probably isn’t always good or bad always bad.  There is no single definition of “a good life.”  Rather, we find ourselves in another ethical gray area.  The good news, as DeSteno and Valdesolo suggest, is that “A model of character as a delicately evolving balance . . . may give people an edge when it comes to understanding their own behavior, and to improving it.”

As DeSteno said in an interview with the Globe reviewer, “ ‘The question of, “Am I a good person?” is an evolving question or an iterative question. . . .  To some extent that’s going to be dependent on what I am doing and the weight of those acts I have committed, which is changing.  The question is, “Am I a good person now?” not “Am I a good person?” ’ ”

As we know, a lifetime of good actions can be destroyed in an instant by one careless or thoughtless act.  Fortunately for most of us, we get many chances to redeem ourselves, and the balance has a greater likelihood of working out in our favor.

Character building, for better and worse, really only ends with one’s death, as before that we are incomplete.  I guess you could say, “It ain’t over until it’s over.”  Until then, as the cliché has it, “the jury is out.”

This point was made poignantly clear to me in reading the recent  column by Roxana Robinson in the Globe “Idea” section which I read to you this morning [“In the North Tower,” 9/11/2011].  As Robinson suggests, character is something that is elusive while we are living, but which seems to crystalize after we have died.  While we are living, our weaknesses are all too obvious, but with death something happens.  “Now that he is gone,” Robinson wrote, “you see his strengths: what he was trying his best to do was live his life.”

I think that this is one of the reasons I have always loved reading biographies.  Biographies are attempts to get at that crystallized combination of qualities and features that we call “character.”  Most of the time we know that the subjects of biographies were flawed, sometimes fatally so.  But death allows us to tally up the score, for good or bad.  It allows us to see what were the turning points, what the momentous decisions that tipped the scales toward good or evil.

Even Jesus, considered by many to have lived a “perfect” life, lost his temper at times, was impatient with the density of his disciples, and found his courage sometimes failing.

I believe we should find this infinitely reassuring, and I think many of us do.  I have always thought of character building as being a quintessentially religious activity.  It is certainly one of the goals of our religious education program, for both children and adults.  I would like to believe that at least a small portion of the character demonstrated by some of our remarkable young people can be traced to the lessons that we have tried to teach them here about how to live a good life.

As my late colleague Forrest Church writes in his last book, Love and Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow, our goal in life should be “to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.”  We think we know what that goal looks like, but what we mostly know is how short we fall in trying to achieve it.

What is a life “worth dying for”?  Forrest’s claim contains at least a little of that Unitarian Universalist “perfectionism” that I have often cautioned us about: our liberal correspondent to Original Sin, in that both have an aspect of hopelessness about them.  We grow weary trying to be good, and more so trying to be always better than we are, and especially so believing that it is possible to be.

That caution aside, I actually do think we have a pretty good idea of what “character” and “a life worth dying for” looks like, though I would argue that there is no “one size fits all” good life.  To return to a suggestion I made at the outset, perhaps “character” is in reality a process of becoming more fully who we are.  Maybe Polonius was right about being true to oneself.  But I have to believe that “character” is also in part a learned trait, that there are role models out there that it would behoove us to follow, and that there are patterns of behavior that lead us in the direction of more and better life.

Character would seem to transcend barriers of race and creed and culture.  But as I have tried to suggest, it is mostly a process that begins when we are born and ends only when we die.  Where character is concerned, we can’t rest too much on our laurels, but need to be constantly aware of the choices we make and the chances we take. If, as authors DeSteno and Valdesolo suggest, character is a “delicately evolving balance,” then the good news is that it is never too late to take the action and make the changes that we need to in order to become the better people we long to be.  We will not always succeed, but until our lives have ended there is always the opportunity for us to progress in the direction of our dreams of a better life and a better world.  May it be so for each of us.  Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Reading: “In the North Tower,” by Roxana Robinson

September 11, 2011

Remembering September 11, 2001

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 1:15 pm

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“I learn by going where I have to go.”
— Theodore Roethke

 What a joy it is to re-gather and to share this communion of flowers with all of you in this beautiful building, this “visual prayer,” as I once called it! Truly, it is good to be together in this place where, in the inimitable words of Garrison Keillor, “people love us, and are glad to see our faces.”

For all of our joy at coming together this morning in this place made sacred by the life passages of over two hundred years, we are also aware that this is a momentous tenth anniversary. Perhaps, like me, you would prefer to let this anniversary pass in silence. Words, after all, can never capture the terrible sounds and images of that day, or take away the pain and suffering to which it gave birth. And perhaps, like me, you would prefer to forget the horror and uncertainty we felt at that time, and in the days immediately following.

My colleague John Gibbons, speaking at the dedication of a 9/11 memorial in Bedford in 2007, spoke of the eerie silence that followed that day, “a most unusual quiet in the immediate aftermath, during the first days and weeks. A kind of hush fell over our town and country,” said John. He continued,

For a short while, we were relieved of bombardment by the things that ordinarily clog our media, our prurient attention and our gossip, the inane distractions of celebrities and scandals and commercial advertising and even sports—those things which the poet Wordsworth called “humanity’s degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation.” To be sure, it was a stunned silence after September 11, but it was also a reflective, listening, thinking, considering silence. We listened intently. We wondered what it all meant. Oh so painfully and suddenly, we were intensely aware—not only of the immensity of our national loss but we became suddenly aware of all we did not know, the global forces and issues, grievances and stratagems, text and subtext. We listened intently for we knew there was much we must learn, or perish.

Of course, as my colleague John points out, the silence was short-lived. Perhaps also the learning. And many of us would argue that a great, a singular, opportunity was lost, not just for our country but for the world, in those days immediately following 9/11. And what of the thousands of lives that have been lost since?

But that, as the cliché has it, is water under the bridge. Those of you who were around then may remember that on the Sunday following 9/11, I spoke in my sermon about “The Burden of Why.” I spoke about how there are no easy answers to that awful question, “Why?” But I also spoke about how important it is what we believe, and how we treat others. I said,

It really does matter what we believe. It really does matter that we promote loving kindness, compassion, empathy for the suffering of others, and generosity. It is not a matter of indifference, because evil flourishes in the midst of our indifference. It is not a matter of convenience only, but of necessity. It is not a matter of “only when I feel like it.” Oh yes, I said, I get weary, too. I would rather be doing something else and thinking about something else and speaking about something else. But a week like the one we have just experienced shows me that I really don’t have any choice. To stand idly by is to acquiesce in evil.

I’m not sure that as a society we have done very well since that day ten years ago. Oh, I know that one can argue that the world is safer today than it was then, though I have my doubts. But is the world any better? Have we created a kinder gentler world in the ten years since 9/11? I suspect that you can infer my answer.

One thing I am more certain about than ever, though, is that it remains the work of religious people to hold the vision of “a world more fair, with all its peoples one.” It is our job, our duty even, to use an unpopular word, to imagine a better way. “Without vision,” says the Book of Proverbs [29:18], “the people perish.”

No matter how bad things get—and let’s face it, they can get pretty bad, and have: morally, politically, economically, environmentally, you name it—no matter how bad, we are the people who must hold tight to a brighter vision for our troubled and troubling world. In the words of this morning’s Offertory Anthem, “I see another time, another place,/ Where we can all be one, one human race–/ The walls will melt away, we’ll come together on the day of freedom. . . .”

Not for us the silence of despair; not for us the hopelessness of empty words; not for us the pointless anger and blame; not for us the hatred of the other, or of what is different; and perhaps most importantly, not for us the fear.

We cannot live by our fears. If we choose to do so, then the terrorists of the world have already won. We must continue to live our lives fearlessly in the face of all that threatens. As the ancient Psalmist wrote, in times no doubt as fearful and uncertain as these,

God is our refuge and our strength,
     a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
     though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
     though the mountains tremble
          with its tumult.

For fear is the most debilitating emotion there is. It paralyses us, and worse, it turns us against what we do not know and do not understand.

Ten years ago, I wrote that, “Such words of comfort do not remove the burden of why, but they do help to lighten its load, just as the opportunity to be together in this community of faith helps to lessen my loneliness and isolation, not just in times of tragedy, but in times of joy and in ordinary times as well.” We have no choice but to travel this road, a road which includes not only joy and love, but also sorrow and suffering. As poet Theodore Roethke has written, “I learn by going where I have to go.” Let it not be said of us that in our going, for good or ill, we learned nothing.

So on this day of re-gathering, and of remembering, let us pledge to live not by our fears, but by our hopes. Let us leave vengeance to God, which is where it belongs. Let us not be swayed by the purveyors of hatred and greed. Let us pledge to live life to its fullest, but also to pull our weight, to do our best to be the better people we long to be and to create the better world of our dreams. This, I am convinced, is the most fitting memorial to those who were lost, and more important, it is the best way to live our lives in the here and now.

I want to close with a poem by then Poet Laureate of the United States, Billy Collins, delivered before congress on the first anniversary of 9/11. It’s entitled “The Names”:

Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.
A fine rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,
And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,
I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,

Then Baxter and Calabro,
Davis and Eberling, names falling into place
As droplets fell through the dark.

Names printed on the ceiling of the night.
Names slipping around a watery bend.
Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.

In the morning, I walked out barefoot
Among thousands of flowers
Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,
And each had a name—
Fiori was inscribed on a yellow petal
Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.

Names written in the air
And stitched into the cloth of the day.
A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.
Monogram on a torn shirt,
I see you spelled out on storefront windows
And on bright unfurled awnings of this city.
I say the syllables as I turn a corner—
Kelly and Lee,
Medina, Nardella, and O’Connor.

When I peer into the woods,
I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden
As in a puzzle concocted for children.
Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,
Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,
Secrets in the boughs of an ancient temple.

Names written in the pale sky.
Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.
Names in silent stone
Or cried out behind a door.
Names blown over the earth and out to sea.

In the evening—weakening light, the last swallows,
A boy on a lake lifts his oars.
A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,
And the names are outlined on the rose clouds—
Vanacore and Wallace,
(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)
Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.

Names etched on the head of a pin.
One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.
A blue name needled into the skin.
Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in green rows in a field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.

Amen, and God Bless us all.

— The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

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