Harold Babcock's Sermons

November 20, 2011

Thanks, Yes

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November 20, 2011


“For Everything that has been—Thanks.
For Everything that will be—Yes.”
– Dag Hammarskjold

 Dag Hammarskjold’s little quotation, which I have included on your orders of service this morning, just about says it all for me on the theme of thankfulness.  His simple words would seem to constitute a thoroughly adequate attitude toward life.

Not that it an easy one.  As I noted a couple of weeks ago, I am not an optimist by nature.  But I try to be thankful for my blessings, and even to find the thankful places in the losses and disappointments that I, like all of you, have sometimes experienced.  And most of the time I try to say “yes” to life.

Often, I turn to my religion to help me through the “dark nights” of my soul.  I am grateful, among other things, for our hopeful faith which draws me out of my negativism and occasional defeatism toward something resembling appreciation and gratitude for what I am and for all I have.  As self-help author Melody Beattie has written,

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.  It turns what we have into enough, and more.  It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion to clarity.  It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.  Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.

I suppose what I am saying is that thankfulness doesn’t always come easily or naturally for me, and perhaps it doesn’t come so for you.  In so many ways, the world belies our gratitude.  As former Catholic priest and Boston Globe columnist James Carroll has written, “An intense awareness of what is given assumes the like awareness that it will be taken away.”  Suffering and tragedy and loss are part and parcel of this life we share, and sometimes, and for some of us, they are the larger portion.  This is unfair, but it is a fact, and we had better not equivocate about it.

So I don’t want to offer you just another glib catalog of all the reasons why you should be thankful.  Certainly there are manifold reasons for sorrow and sadness in this world, and in many of our individual lives.  But part of what we need to get over is the idea that an attitude of thankfulness must preclude the element of sadness and regret.  Indeed, it would seem that a mature thankfulness must include a recognition of these other realities of our existence.  That is, we must be thankful in spite of, and even in some instances, because of, those realities.

Perhaps a true spirit of thankfulness and the ability to say “yes” to life is impossible without them.  Not that we must have those realities, but that, as the Buddhists so clearly recognize, we do have them.

The Buddha’s great discovery was that all existence is suffering.  Despite his parents’ best efforts to protect him from this reality within the walls of his palace, Prince Siddhartha Gautama found out, as we all do eventually, that life is not the proverbial bed of roses.  His Buddhahood—his enlightenment—resulted from this initial discovery of the suffering which existed beyond the palace walls and united every living being.

I daresay that the most inspiring people we know in life are those who remain grateful and hopeful in the face of great suffering.  Those who have suffered loss but who have transcended it.  As someone has said, with truth, the greatest company is the company of those who have suffered loss.  All of us, if we live long enough, will suffer loss and disappointment at some time in our lives.  All of us will experience sadness and sorrow and regret.

Fortunately, that is not all there is.  The vast majority of us survive and even thrive.  And that, to my mind, is the true source of thankfulness.  It resides in the resilience of the human spirit and its ability to rise above the suffering and to be grateful once again.  We need to give thought to this word of thankfulness so that we will be reminded of our ability to rise again, so that we will remind ourselves of what is precious and life-giving in this world and in our lives.

A few years ago, our fellow church member Cyd Raschke shared with me the following poem which she had written; it’s a great reminder about some of the things we ought to be grateful for, but oftentimes aren’t: 

Shout to the stars your
prayers of thankfulness
for safe journeys,
profound insights,
and friendly strangers.

Loft into the wind your
indebtedness to failures
that teach you to pay attention,
or fulfill an obligation thoroughly.

Welcome warmly like the break of day
the difficult person who compels you
to be patient and gracious.

Bow at sundown
and seek forgiveness
for gratitude not expressed
for a loved one now lost,
good health,

And when a thousand small storms
threaten to cloud your vision,
may you see that your greatest blessings
have been right in front of you
and deep inside you all along.

A few years ago, I elaborated as follows on a favorite prayer of mine [“The Word of Thankfulness”] by the late Unitarian Universalist minister, Robert Storer:

I remind myself to be grateful and to say yes to the new day that never fails to dawn.  It will come even when I am gone, for others to enjoy as I have, and there is comfort in that.  For the earth with its high places and its low places: for my native coast of Maine with its dark spruce trees against granite and ocean, for the prairies of Minnesota and the Black Hills of South Dakota, and for the beautiful green mountains and valleys of Transylvania, home of our partner church.

For growing things, for our own ability to grow, for our children whom, we pray, will outgrow us.  For treasures we can see, and for treasures that are hidden.  There is always hope, and if we are patient our treasure will be revealed to us, and it may be buried under our own kitchen.

For the places where we live, where our true treasure lies, where we are at home and safe, where we learn to share and to understand one another,–perhaps the most difficult and challenging task, as we must reveal ourselves, our own true, hidden selves, to discover the ground of that understanding.

For people we have learned to trust, and who trust us: that is faith in a nutshell, my friends.  “Be ye faithful people”: that is, trust.

For people who have never let us down—we know who they are—who believe in us when we fail (over and over again), who help us over the rough places (and on the long haul, they’re mostly rough places), and for whom we wish to give thanks (for whom we must give thanks, if we think about it at all).

For the life that is ours on this once only day of our lives, the only day of which we can be certain, the only day that really matters at all, since none of the others is certain, and all the ones that have gone before are gone for good.  The life we would not exchange with any other person: this one is hard, because it is always tempting to believe that the grass is greener in someone else’s yard.  The life we would not exchange (it’s the only one we’ve got) with any other person (because it is unique and it is precious and it is ours, and we are loved if we are loved at all for what we are, not for what we might be).

My prayer to the ever present help for each of us is that we will say “thanks, yes” for this day and for all the days still to come.  Not because we are naïve and foolish optimists, not because we have never had any doubts, but because we have looked at all the realities of life and of our particular lives and know that we must be thankful and affirmative.

May we be truly thankful for every gift of life we have received.  And may we have hope and companionship to carry us through the inevitable disappointments and heartbreaking losses, and over those rough places where we cannot yet be thankful, that our lives might be filled not with despair and loneliness, but with the possibility of grace and life.  So may it be.  Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock



November 13, 2011

Revisiting the “City Upon a Hill”

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November 13, 2011

 “But if our hearts turn away so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced and worship . . .
other Gods our pleasures, and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day,
we shall surely perish out of the good Land whether we pass over this vast Sea to possess it. . .”
– John Winthrop

 The reception of new members into the church is a reminder to us that it is people who must embody Unitarian Universalism if it is to have any impact on the world.  It is people who are the church, who not only occupy the pews but who, by their participation in the machinery of its governance, make it go.  It is people who live its ideals, and do its good works.  It is people who pay the bills.  It is hard to believe that we could ever take any of that for granted.

Yet, in our Unitarian Universalist tradition, the church as an institution has sometimes received short shrift.  The pendulum of our emphasis on the individual has sometimes swung so far that the church has been treated as hardly important at all.  This was the case with some of the Transcendentalists, and with Emerson in particular.

I personally love Ralph Waldo Emerson, but it is really inappropriate to name churches after him, as we are fond of doing, since he was mostly an anti-institutionalist.  Emerson left the ministry of theUnitarianChurch.  He placed responsibility for religious authority upon individual conscience alone, as in his famous admonition, “Acquaint thyself at first hand with Deity.”  He had more respect for individuals than I suspect we deserve.

Fortunately for us, not all Unitarian Universalist ministers—not even all Transcendentalist ministers—felt as Emerson did.  It is fortunate for us that there have always been a few institutionalists among us, people who keep the churches going when idealistic ministers and wayward congregants decide to go off tilting windmills, as they so often do.

I mean the kind of people who stick by a church through thick and thin, who stay even when they disagree with the minister, who work, often thanklessly, to keep the liberal church going for the rest of us to enjoy and benefit from.  I mean those people who sit through interminable committee meetings, and who work on rummage sales, auctions, book sales, and May Breakfasts.  I mean people who serve as canvassers during the annual pledge drive.

Because it is easy to forget that the institutional church, for all is faults and shortcomings, embodies our liberal religious tradition and values.  Disembodied souls wandering aroundWalden Ponddo not preserve traditions, or create sanctuaries from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

I happen to believe that the preservation of our liberal religious tradition is important.  We can’t afford to take it for granted.  We need to remember that it is by institutions such as the church that the riches of ages, the experience and wisdom of humanity, are handed down.  We have something precious here, something which demands our love and support.

For it is our ongoing tradition which bridges the gap between our past and our future.  It is our tradition which holds meaning that is transformed to meet the needs and challenges of today.  Our tradition shows us the progress of the liberal impulse in religion: it is what we live by.  And by way of synthesis with our present, personal faith, we are enabled to live better and happier and more meaningful lives, and perhaps to make better sense of the difficult and confusing world in which we live, and which we hope to serve.

The ideal church and commonwealth to which John Winthrop’s sermon [“A Modell of Christian Charity”] points is an extremely loving and helping community, a place where all are called to be ministers to each other on their spiritual journeys and in their daily lives.  How far the contemporary situation falls from this ideal is, I would argue, one of the primary motivations behind the Occupy movement.

Winthrop called upon the undocumented immigrants to the Massachusetts Bay Colony to “always have before our eyes our commission and community in our work, our community as members of the same body,” in order that they might keep “the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”  That’s good advice for both churches and secular communities, which forWinthrop, of course, were inseparable.

His sermon is a reminder that for the earliest settlers on these shores, behavior was at least as important as theology:

. . . We must be knit together in this work as one person, we must entertain each other in brotherly affection, we must be willing to abridge ourselves or our superfluities for the supply of others’ necessities, we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality, we must delight in each other, make each others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together. . . .

Winthrop didn’t just say it, he tried to live it.  Samuel Eliot Morrison, in his classic Builders of the Bay Colony, wrote that, “In his private affairs Governor Winthrop was not what New Englanders would call a good manager.  He consistently neglected them for the public business.  For many years he refused a salary, spending the proceeds of the sale of [his English estate] in public concerns, when there was no money in the colonial treasury.  He gave generous hospitality as befitted the station of the chief magistrate, although so temperate in his own habits that his friends called his attention to Paul’s precept to Timothy: ‘drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake.’

“He was almost recklessly charitable, and died ‘land poor.’

What goods he had he did not spare;
The church and Commonwealth

Had of his Goods the greatest share,
Kept nothing for himself

declares Perciful Lowle with truth, in his ‘Funeral Elegie on the Death of the Memorable and Truly Honorable John Winthrop Esq.’”  Morrison continues,

A dishonest agent in England embezzled the Governor’s property there; and a rascally steward of his Ten Hills estate on the Mystic, diverted to his own use the profits of the Governor’s crops and cattle.  Winthrop did not mind these losses at Ten Hills so much as the discovery, after the steward was sacked, that the neighbors had taken advantage of the man’s unfaithfulness to make some very questionable bargains [by way of full disclosure, one of those neighbors was the Rev. Ezekial Rogers of Rowley] . . . .  There is no better summary of the Governor’s life than that of William Hubbard, the earliest historian of Massachusetts: ‘A worthy gentleman, who had done good in Israel, having spent not only his whole estate . . . but his bodily strength and life, in the service of the country; not sparing, but always as the burning torch, spending. . . .’

When redressed by small-minded neighbors (possibly the same who had swindled him, as mentioned before) for failing to prosecute a man caught stealing wood from his woodpile,Winthropreplied that he had cured the man of stealing: he had simply let him have all the wood he needed.

How refreshing such honesty and generosity and wisdom seem in the face of so much that passes for government and religion these days!

In 1936, the Unitarian Commission on Appraisal characterized the mission of the liberal church in this way:

The members of a church are held together not by the common belief that it is well to be reasonable, but by an ardent desire to help each other and the world . . . .  The measure of unity and efficiency which the church is to achieve will be determined chiefly by the intensity of its religious life.

To help each other and to help the world: that is to be the service which our churches render, and we are told that the success of this service depends on the living of “an intensely religious life.”  What might this mean for Unitarian Universalists today?

I believe it means that in order to fulfill the church’s role of service in the community at large, we must first of all assure that our churches are the kind of places where the intensely religious life can be lived.  This is not about selfishness; rather, we must first respond to the spiritual needs of those within our churches, and the rest—service to the world beyond our doors—will follow.

It is this radical being together as a community that I see as the prerequisite to the true ministry of service in our churches.  If we expect people to stay within our fellowship, we must provide a home for them in which they can freely grow and develop as faithful, dedicated, and generous persons.  We must be “ministers one to another.”

Fortunately, the excessive emphasis on the individual in our movement has given way in recent years to a greater appreciation for the value of the communal aspects of religious life.  For what had been missing in some understandings of religious liberalism was any sense that spiritual growth takes place in community, a reality which had been recognized and celebrated in the past.  In 1936, the Unitarian Commission on Appraisal had defined the central role of the church as “nourishing the spiritual life of its members and . . . disseminating through them the highest form of religion that it knows, in the life and atmosphere and constitution of the community which belongs to us all.”

In recent years Unitarian Universalists have begun to question a narrow emphasis on “self-fulfillment” and to rediscover the importance of the institutional church as a place where spiritual growth may be encouraged and nourished with and among others, and where “service” truly is “its prayer,” as we say in our Affirmation of Faith.

Perhaps naively, I still believe that our liberal church can be a “city upon a hill” in the sense that the gospel of Matthew and Winthrop speak of it.  To become so, we must be a church which reaches out into the wider community, a refuge meaningful and accessible to all those who would join with us.  As a church we must do all that we can to encourage social and economic and racial and intellectual and sexual diversity in our membership.  The task which lies always before us is to locate our theological message firmly in the midst of a community that cares and world that needs.  Too often, we have heard stressed the negative and individualistic aspects of liberalism, while sacrificing the unity and community necessary for effective service.

Author Peter Marin tells of a conversation with a young man who was much taken with New Age trends and with a kind of other-worldly mysticism.  It was all very attractive, but the young man said desperately to Marin that he was troubled.  “I know there is something outside me.  I can feel it is there.  But what is it?”

Marin replied, “It may not be a mystery.  Perhaps it is the world.”

The world is out there, people.  And it needs us. Winthrop’s vision still awaits fulfillment.  To build that city upon a hill, we must begin with love and courage.  If we can be a truly caring community of faithful persons, we will already have cast our communal light abroad in the world. In the words of our closing hymn,

These things shall be, a loftier race
Than e’er the world has known shall rise,
With flame of freedom in their souls,
And light of science in their eyes.
New arts shall bloom of loftier mould,
And mightier music thrill the skies.
And every life shall be a song
When all the world is paradise.


– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Reading: from “A Modell of Christian Charity” by John Winthrop



November 6, 2011

Optimism and Hope

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November 6, 2011

 “Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart.
It is not the conviction that something will turn out well,
but the certainty that something makes sense,
regardless of how it turns out.”

– Vaclav Havel


I don’t know about you, but for me one of the most difficult challenges in life is how to maintain an attitude of hope.  It is awfully tempting, in the face of a world with so much suffering and tragedy, to succumb to pessimism.  I have always been grateful that I was raised in a hope-full religion, one that affirms our human ability to overcome adversity, not with magical or wishful thinking, but by our own efforts and with the help of a loving and supportive community.

I am not, by nature, an optimist.  Nor am I a total pessimist.  I prefer to think of myself as a “realist,” or perhaps you could say that I am a “realistic optimist.”  Like the Czech poet, playwright, and politician Vaclav Havel, I lack the conviction that everything will turn out well, and, just to be on the safe side, I am also usually waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I happen to think that optimism is overrated, and I’m not alone.  In her book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, author Barbara Ehrenreich decries what she calls “the mass delusion of positive thinking.”  Her book is a warning, among other things, against those who claim that upbeat attitudes lead to improved health outcomes.  They don’t, at least not always or even most of the time.  And she blames our current economic woes, in part, on a kind of wishful thinking that infected our financial institutions and obscured the uncertain and irrational realities of a market economy.

Ehrenreich sees positive thinking as a reaction to the Puritan Calvinism of our nation’s original founders.  (I happen to think this is at least partly a misinterpretation of Puritanism, and perhaps even of Calvinism, but that’s a subject for another sermon.)

But Ehrenreich also warns about the kind of neo-puritanism that preaches a so-called “gospel of  prosperity,” certainly a perverse twist on the Protestant Work Ethic and one that doesn’t align at all with John Winthrop’s ideal of “a city upon a hill” where it is the prosperity of the “commonwealth,” and not of the individual, that is ultimately important.

The good news isn’t that God wants you or me to prosper, as some are claiming, but that God wants us all to prosper, which we could do if only we were to make real the ideals of a beloved and truly caring community.

It may seem odd, given what I have said about myself, that I am a great admirer of our Unitarian and Transcendentalist forebear Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of those positive thinkers who reacted so strongly against the pessimism of his day.  It’s true that Emerson was an optimist, but in his case it was a hard-earned optimism, forged in the furnace of loss.  Emerson lost his father at a very young age, experienced poverty and dependency as a youth, lost to early deaths two older brothers who were expected to do far greater things than he, and to whose lost potential he forced himself to live up, suffered the death of his beloved young wife, Ellen, when she was just nineteen, and lost his favorite son Waldo to diphtheria when he was only four.

It is Emerson’s optimism, or perhaps we should more accurately say, his hopefulness in the face of such losses, and of all the evidence to the contrary, that I admire.  Emerson can never be accused of being naïve, as some have sought to do.

One of the books that I most enjoyed reading during my sabbatical was the late Peter Gomes’s The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus. Peter was the minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church for over thirty years, and for a brief time in the early 1980’s, Peter was my academic advisor at Harvard Divinity School.

Peter was a lousy advisor, and a sometime critic of Unitarian Universalism, but that’s another story.  I continued to admire Peter as a great preacher and teacher and as a truly unique human being.  When he came out of the closet as a gay man in the early 1990’s, I admired him for his courage.  The fact that he was a black man in a predominantly white institution, and that no one seemed to notice that obvious fact of his being, was one of the mysteries of the unusual man that Peter was.

Though I didn’t always agree with him—he was politically and theologically conservative whereas I am not, particularly—I have always found his work to be intellectually stimulating, and, in a weird and unexpected sort of way, reassuring.

Such is the case with one of the chapters in Peter’s book which I mentioned before.  It is a chapter on “hope.”  Peter writes in that chapter,

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once warned against cheap grace, and I warn now against cheap hope.  Hope is not merely the optimistic view that everything will turn out all right in the end, if everyone just does as we do.  Hope is the more rugged, the more muscular view that even if things don’t turn out all right and aren’t all right, we endure through and beyond the times that disappoint or threaten to destroy us.

Peter continues by making the old-fashioned, and to me surprisingly comforting, claim that real hope is actually the product of suffering and adversity.  As the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca wrote at the beginning of the Common Era, “The good things that belong to prosperity are to be wished, but the good things that belong to adversity are to be admired.”  This claim that we grow as a result of adversity is, I think, one of those unpleasant and unpopular truths that the trend toward positive thinking has, in recent years, tended to obscure.  Gomes continues,

This kind of hope requires work, effort, and expenditure without the assurance of an easy or ready return.  [St. Paul] . . . reminds us of this: we pass from sufferings that are not avoided to endurance, which is the quality that allows us to keep on when it would be easier to quit.  The process of enduring produces character, that inner quality, not to be confused with image or reputation, that is who we are when no one is looking.  It is from character that hope is produced.  That is where the old aphorism comes from that says, “Show me what you hope for, and I will know who you are.”

Hope, Gomes concludes, is “much more than mere optimism.”  What a relief!

This is the lesson that I would hope that all of you, but especially our young people, would take away from my sermon this morning.  There is so much in this world, economically, environmentally, politically, and even religiously that can easily defeat our optimism.  There is much in our personal lives that can easily defeat our optimism.  But it can never defeat our hope, because our hope is more realistically grounded in the real world where suffering and disappointment are not the exception, but the rule.

“Hope,” as Emily Dickinson once wrote with characteristic truth,

is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops at all.

Hope is not about instant gratification.  It is not the certainty that everything is going to turn out ok.  It is definitely not the mistaken and sometimes harmful belief that I can avoid pain and suffering by simply wishing it away or by having a positive attitude.  Rather, hope is that inner quality that confronts the suffering and tragedy and brokenness of the world and of ourselves, rolls up its sleeves, and gets down to work.  “Hope,” as Havel reminded us, “is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”  “Hope,” as Gomes suggests, “. . . is not the opposite of suffering; suffering is the necessary antecedent of hope.”

It is optimism that leads to despair, not Hope.  For optimism, Gomes says, “. . . seduces us into looking at the bright side at the risk of failing to take reality seriously.”  A hopeful person, on the other hand, is one who looks directly at that reality, and nevertheless keeps on keeping on.  A hopeful person may be hurt and disappointed, but will never despair.  As my colleague Bruce Southworth once said, “We have the power to choose; we have that power to choose between good and evil and to wrestle with the gray areas.”  It is what our religion calls upon us to do.

What I hope that we are teaching our young people here at the First Religious Society is to be hopeful, and not merely optimistic.  What I hope we are doing is helping them to build the strength of character which will carry them through what the late Paul Carnes reminds us are “the many causes of despair that life inevitably brings to us all.”  As the great 19th century Unitarian minister Minot Savage once wrote, we must “Teach [our children] that they may become part of this great effort of humanity to lift up the world.”  For that great effort is the surest way to overcome despair, and to nourish our hope.

That is my message for this morning, in a nutshell.  You may give up your optimism, but never give up your hope!

In closing, an anonymous prayer for hope:

I am afraid of nearly everything:
of darkness, hunger, war, children mutilated.
But most of all, I am afraid of what I might become:
reconciled to injustice,
resigned to fear and despair,
lulled into a life of apathy.

Unchain my hope,
make me strong.
Stretch me towards the impossible,
that I may work for what ought to be:
the hungry fed,
the enslaved free,
the suffering comforted,
the peace accomplished.

So may it be.  Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock


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