Harold Babcock's Sermons

December 18, 2011

Giving Meaning to Your Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 5:33 pm

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December 18, 2011

 “. . .and all who heard it were amazed. . .”
– Luke 2: 18


What gives your life meaning?  It’s a good question to ask yourselves in this holiday season, or at any time, for that matter.

Religion has always been about the search for meaning in life.  Among other things, we gather to explore the various meanings that others have found, and, perhaps, to find in them a meaning for our own living.

Unfortunately, most of us do not have as much time to spend on the search for meaning as we would like; we even may not be consciously aware of the meanings which actually sustain us.  It is one of the tragic consequences of modern life that so many of us find ourselves separated from the ground of our being: fragmented not only within and among ourselves, but in our relationship to the sources of meaning in life.  In traditional terms, we would say that we are alienated; separated not only from other people, but from God.

To be separated from others is to be separated from God: from ultimate reality, the ground of our being, and meaning in life.

Our alienation is apparent in the way that we relegate religion to one day of the week, if that.  How very different is the experience of the Pennsylvania Amish community, about whom I have been recently re-reading.  For the Amish, every smallest and seemingly insignificant act has religious consequences.  The Amish have intentionally kept the pace of their lives slow, so as to be able to keep the awareness of the meanings of their days.  To the outsider, they seem merely quaint; but a closer look reveals a conscious, well thought out system for keeping the fragmented modern world at bay.

The Amish make numerous well-considered sacrifices in order to hold on to a life which knows less of the modern separation of the sacred from the secular, the heavenly from the mundane.  They are not separated from their meanings, but live in them at all times.  Paradoxically, their separation from the modern world has allowed them to hold on to and be constantly aware of those meanings.

For us to live in our meanings requires an equally conscious effort: first, to become aware of the meanings, and, second, to keep the awareness of those meanings throughout our busy days.

I’m not suggesting that we become Amish, even if that were possible, which it is not.  But religion doesn’t have to be a once-a-week event in our lives.  The search for meaning can and should be carried on in all that we do, even in the midst of our too-crowded lives.  In our rush to get things done, we often lose sight of the meanings which are to be found even in the most common of tasks.  We are too often in a hurry to complete those tasks, only to find when they are completed that we feel empty; we feel that our work has been for nothing.  Too often, we are left with time which we do not know how to fill, and so end up filling it with a lot of “sound and fury, signifying nothing” [Shakespeare].  We hurry up and wait—but for what?

We forget that all of life is religious, that all of life contains traces of the sacred; we forget that all of life has the potential in its parts to tie up our fragmented lives, to “rebind us,” to help us to “get it together.”  But we have to pay attention to the details; we have to be aware, and practice a little of what the Buddhists call “mindfulness.”

Life, as many have pointed out, has both a horizontal and a vertical dimension.  Most often we are aware only of the horizontal dimension of our lives, without giving much thought to the vertical.  That is, we are not often enough conscious of the ways in which our relationships to ourselves, to others, and to the universe have a transcending quality.  As the Amish recognize, the smallest act of a busy day can have a meaning which far outweighs its appearance.  To be mindful is to be aware at all times of the miraculous nature of life, of the sacred in the ordinary: the mysteries of birth and love, of laughter and grief.  Joy and sadness can find us when we least expect it.  We are moved by other people and by the natural world; we can feel empathy; we are able to care, and to experience the beautiful.

Everything we encounter is meaning-full: all things, all experiences.  Nothing is meaningless, although the meanings may not be always immediately clear to us.  Poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins said it in traditional terms: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”  Our lives and those of our fellow human beings are filled with moments of meaning.  The feeling of meaninglessness is perhaps better understood as our inability or failure to see the meaning that is always there; or, perhaps, the mistaken idea that meaning is supposed to be “out there,” rather than right here under our noses.

The job of religion, I believe, is to focus our attention on the meanings that are right at our fingertips, on the tips of our tongues, in the smiles of our children, in the embrace of those we love but too often take for granted.  In short, on the meanings that are to be found in the everyday, in the so-called ordinary and mundane.

The question, what gives meaning to your life, is a question that calls not for some weighty metaphysical speculation on our parts, but for our undivided attention to the details of our living; and not just during this one hour of the week, but during every moment of every ordinary hour and day.

Because what gives our lives meaning is the people, the things, the memories and thoughts which move us to joy or sadness; those everyday experiences which, almost without our knowing it, make life worth living; those fascinations and even those confusions which constitute our awareness of ourselves and of the world in which we live and move and have our being.

One of our most common shortcomings is our tendency to take things and people simply as they are and to see nothing more than meets the eye.  We are much too literal-minded.  We spend way too much of our time in the horizontal dimension.  It is possible to live almost completely in the horizontal dimension, and never to be aware of the vertical one at all.

The vertical dimension includes memory, beauty, the collective experience of humanity, dreams, the sense of mystery, the symbolic, the other: all of the things which expand our experience and make it more than it is.  It is the more that we are after.  Find the things in your life which give you the more and I think you will find that they are the same things which give your life meaning.

The holiday season is a good time to think about meanings, to think about the vertical dimension.  What ruins the Christmas story, in my opinion, is the literalness which cuts both ways: the literalness which says either the story is literally true, or that it is completely false.  Both interpretations are horizontal.

I happen to believe that the Christmas story about the birth of Jesus is not literally true, and I have it on pretty solid scholarly evidence.  But that does not mean that I believe the story to be false.  What I would say instead is that the story is true, but not in the factual or empirical sense by which we customarily determine the “truth.”  If there is anything that the late Joseph Campbell’s groundbreaking work on mythology should have taught us, it is that stories—myths, legends, fairy tales—contain fundamental truths about what it means to be human.  The story of the birth of Jesus is a case in point: it does not have to be factual to be true.

And what is true about that story?  That birth is difficult and often dangerous; that the world is not always a friendly place; that motherhood and childhood are beautiful and worthy of our worship; that bad people plot, and have always plotted, the destruction of the good and the innocent; that the human contains the divine; that when God became human (according to the story), God came in the form of a poor—literally poverty-stricken—helpless baby, born in a stable among lowly beasts, of common parents; that the universe was changed by the birth of a child; that the trajectory of the sacred moves toward justice; that life is miraculous; and that even God suffers: that God suffers with us.

There are hundreds and thousands of stories just as true as this one, but what makes this story special is that it is the common property of so many of us in western culture.  Indeed, this story is so deeply embedded in western culture that it is inescapable, efforts to eliminate it from public space notwithstanding.  In this sense the story is archetypal: it is a type for other, similar stories.  Any story about birth gives reference to this foundational story of a birth.

Not surprisingly, other cultures and other religions have their own birth stories, not about Jesus, but about the Buddha or Confucius.

And why is birth so important?  An obvious answer is that it is the way that all living things come into the world.  It is a miracle which we have all experienced.  Along with death, it is the great shared experience of creation.  Birth is the new beginning, the fresh start, the clean slate.  We even speak in terms of the “birth of the universe.”  Life is a miracle: life is where we should look for the divine, even in the most common and most ordinary representation of the life, which the birth story of Jesus purports to be.

This is what I mean when I speak of the vertical dimension of life.  The holidays are meaningful—either positively or negatively—because of the associations and memories that we have of them.  These are heightened times.  Experience is a little larger than usual, a little more exposed.  Other times may be just as meaningful, perhaps, but they don’t carry the collective weight that these shared holidays do.

Whenever I try to answer the question of meaning in life, I am reluctant to answer that “God” gives meaning to life, because that statement implies a lot of things I don’t mean.  And yet, it is a truthful answer to the question.  For as the late Forest Church reminded us, “God” is not God’s name, but our name for that which is greater than all yet present in each.  “God” gathers up all that is important to me and all that makes my life worth living.

God is the relationships that I have been blessed with in my family, marriage, friendships, church, and community.  God is love and beauty and intelligence and goodness.  God is music and literature and art, which discovers that in each of us which is common to all.  God is in my friend and in me and in the world in everything.  The world is charged with the grandeur of God, it is filled with divinity, the sacred is to be found in the ordinary and in the natural which we seem bent on destroying to our own detriment.

That which is greater than all yet present in each: when we begin to look for this we are beginning to live our lives in the vertical dimension.  When we begin to seek the meanings of our lives in earnest, we begin, as some familiar words have it, “to weave our lives into some semblance of the pattern we dream about.”

That is my holiday wish for each of you: that you will find the search for meaning becoming an essential part of your life, and that you will experience those moments of meaning which bring peace and wholeness to our too often fragmented lives.  May it be so for you, this day and in the brightening days to come.  Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Reading: from a newsletter column by the Rev. Phyllis O’Connell


December 4, 2011

Great Expectations

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 7:16 pm

Hear the Sermon

December 4, 2011


“To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life,
and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.
Charity is hard and endures.”

– Flannery O’Connor


It has often seemed to me that the most meaningful part of the Christmas season is not Christmas Day itself, but the days and the weeks leading up to it.  It’s the anticipation that I like.  But as my late colleague Forrest Church once warned, “Advent is the season of expectation.  One thing it teaches, however, is that we don’t always get what we expect.”

Recognizing this reality, the early Christians designated a time of preparation in anticipation of the actual arrival of the holy-day of Christmas.

Advent is the ecclesiastical season immediately before Christmas, consisting of the four Sundays preceding Christmas, and today is the second Sunday of Advent.  The word “advent” comes from the Latin word meaning, simply, “to come.”

The first clear references to Advent appear in the latter half of the 6th century—long ago enough to indicate that Advent is very old indeed.  Pope Gregory the Great, who was pope from 590 to 640 AD, is said to have introduced the Advent season into the Christian calendar.  This Gregory is the same whose name is so closely linked with plainsong that it is commonly known to us as “Gregorian Chant.”  He was a prolific writer who produced works on the duties of bishops as well as commentaries on the Bible.  One of his most delightful works is his life of St. Benedict, a charming little book full of fact and fiction that still makes good reading.

Advent season is observed as a time of preparation, not only for the great festival of Christmas which follows it, but also for the Second Coming of Christ as Judge at the last day.  It is this latter interpretation of Advent which finds expression in a hymn by the Protestant reformer Martin Luther:

Great God, what do I see and hear!
The end of things created!
The Judge of mankind doth appear
On clouds of glory seated!
The trumpet sounds; the graves restore
The dead which they contained before;
Prepare, my soul, to meet Him!

Advent is thus not all happiness and light.  It is a serious time, a time of  great expectations.

A former ministerial colleague, Elizabeth Alciade, once wrote, “It is no coincidence that the more we can prepare for this festival [of Christmas], the more meaningful and joyful and peaceful it becomes—all the things most of us ‘expect’ from Christmas, but alas, so often do not find.”

Many religious rituals and rites of passage begin with a similar period of special preparation, as a way both of heightening the experience itself and of getting the most out of it in terms of new understanding and knowledge.  Time and space must be made in our busy lives if we are to have any chance of realizing our great expectations.  As my colleague writes, “Quietness must be made, or should I say discovered, even in the midst of the heightened activity.  The more of this side of preparation, the more we allow for noticing an exquisitely wrought snowflake, new fallen on our winter coat, for listening to a child, for holding the hand of one who is afraid, for hearing the sounds of silence, for sharing a simple meal with a lonely neighbor—the more Christmas will ‘come’ for us.  The real preparation for Christmas,” she writes, “is largely this making of space, this allowing of quietness, this refusal to be caught up in the tinseled rush.  This is the ‘being’ part of preparation, that we, too, may perchance ‘hear the angels sing.’”

I know all too well how difficult it is to find the necessary time for our own quietness and peace of mind, because almost yearly I fail in the effort myself.  Even if we do not expect the imminent return of Christ, we still expect a lot from Christmas—perhaps more than it can ever provide or satisfy.  One thing is certain, though: it is very difficult to meet our great expectations, or any expectations for that matter, if we are too busy or too hurried to enjoy the moment in which we are living.

The idea of consciously preparing ourselves for the holiday and for the expectations we cherish for it would seem to be transferable to other areas of our lives, as well.  For having expectations is important, as long as we heed the warning of author Flannery O’Connor, who wrote in the words I included on your orders of service this morning that “To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life.”  We need something to look forward to, something to work toward, something to give us hope for the uncertain future, some vision of how things ought to be.  As the prophet Isaiah wrote, “without vision, the people perish.”  But we need to keep our expectations realistic, or we are sure to be disappointed.

Just as we need our great expectations for the holiday season, I think we need to have great expectations for our church.  These expectations begin with a vision of what our church is and can be, not only for ourselves, for those of us already here, but also for those in our community whose lives we may yet touch.  These expectations begin with a vision plenty rather than poverty: the idea that there is still more than enough to go around.  It is a vision not only of what we already are, but of what we might become.

We need to remember that at least half the fun in life is, or can be, getting there.  John Daniels, in his book The Trail Home, writes that, “A destination sets you in motion, but once you’re moving here, what’s important is where you are.”  We need a destination, a common purpose, a shared vision, a dream to set us in motion.  But what I think Daniels is saying is that we also need to be fully present in the moment in which we find ourselves.  It’s a paradox: where we are now, what we do now, is just as important as anything we may accomplish in the future.  Or to return to my original conceit, these Advent days of preparation are just as important in their own way as the Christmas holiday to which they lead.  Perhaps, even more so.

A writer in the newsletter of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Larger Fellowship, a church without walls for those who find themselves living in places without a Unitarian Universalist congregation like ours, once wrote, “Advent cannot have for [religious] liberals the meaning the season holds for more traditional Christians, but it can provide families with an opportunity to become aware of the significance of spiritual values inherent in the winter festival season for them.  During this season, families can become acquainted with the many Christian legends, customs, and traditions of our heritage and discover those which are particularly meaningful to them.  Out of such experiences come the special family observances so dear to each member of the family and yet so unifying in the effect.”

Something analogous can happen to our church family as we unite in the common purpose of expanding our community not only numerically, but spiritually.  There are always opportunities for more inclusiveness as we work toward our common goals.  The preparations we make are thus important in and of themselves, as well as in what they can lead to in helping us to realize our great expectations for the future of our beloved community.

There are also meanings to be found in this holiday time of preparation, and memories to be recounted.  There are moments to share and people to be with, which can enrich and heighten the holiday when it comes.

We must always strive to keep our expectations great, if realistic, because part of the expectation of the Christmas and Hanukkah seasons is that this is a time when we dare to hope for peace and freedom and good will for all.  It must be our hope and our commitment as well as our expectation if it is ever to become a reality.

This year as in all the years before there is much to bring despair.  The economic uncertainty in which we are living, the environmental challenges, the political intransigence, wars and rumors of wars, not to mention the many causes for despair in our individual circumstances, should caution us not to expect too much.  But let Advent, Christmas and Hanukkah be a time for recommitment, for it is commitment which brings hope and makes the present habitable.  It is as we work for a better, more expansive and inclusive world that our outlook on the world becomes brighter.

My colleague John Taylor has written, “If there were no Advent, we would need to invent it.  We human creatures, in spite of all that has happened to us, and been done by us, are still hopeful.  Something new, something vital, something promising is always coming, and we are always expecting.  Thus in Advent candles are lighted to mark the time of preparation, and with each new light our anticipation grows—as it should.  We are, after all, a hopeful people, and that hopefulness deserves a festival.  Advent is a time of anticipation and as long as we expect, as long as we hope, someone will light a candle against the prevailing darkness—and neither the winds of hate not the gales of evil will extinguish it.”

Advent, then, is a time which takes our great expectations seriously, but which also expects something from us.  Let it be a time to discover quietness and space, for memory and longing to have their day.  But let it also be a time for renewing our vision of hope for our church and our world, and for recommitting ourselves to both, and to the struggle for peace and justice once again.

In closing, a prayer by the late Unitarian minister, A. Powell Davies: 

O God, we thank Thee that at the darkest time of the year there comes to us the brightest festival.  Let the gladness of its faith and the joy of its promise be warm within us!  Let us believe its hope: that sometime there shall be a world in which humanity’s inhumanity is ended; a world of good will from which all cruelty is gone; a world in which the prophecies of old have found fulfillment, in which the nations are at peace and hatred and strife are known no more.  A world in which children’s faces are bright like the face of the Christ-child, and all harshness and bitterness are banished, and love and gentleness have everywhere prevailed.  Let the darkness of our skies be cloven!  Let the angel of hope appear!  Let the song be sung to our waiting hearts, the song that is sung by the heavenly host, and let earth join in the chorus!

May it be thus; may this Advent-time be the fulfillment of all our great expectations.  Amen.


 – The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Readings: from “The Courage to Hope,” by Peter Gomes; by Roy D. Phillips

from “The Courage to Hope,” by the Rev. Peter Gomes
Advent is the season of hope, and we worship the God of things that are not yet, the God of things that are to be.  That is both true and easy to say, and I have just done so; but hope, real hope . . . is not quite so easy to come by.  Sometimes our hope fails us for lack of imagination, lack of courage, or for not thinking or hoping ‘big’ enough—cheap and inadequate hope.

. . . Advent hope is not an exercise in nostalgia or seasonal optimism; Advent is not celebration but fortification against the very forces that would drive us to despair and drag us downward; Advent is an exercise in endurance, in preparation for the long journey to a time and a place we have not yet been, and for which all the past and all the present are mere preparation.

from a newsletter column by the Rev. Roy D. Phillips
Spiritually, Advent suggests to us that we have the darkness in our lives right now (not merely ‘had it’ or ‘know others who experience the darkness’).  We have a darkness in which we are living.  Advent is an opportunity to become more fully aware of our own darkness.  What form does it take for us—this year?  Failure, guilt, shame, sadness, disappointment, compulsion, puzzlement, loneliness, frenzy, boredom, fear, hopelessness.  What form is the darkness taking this year?  Get in touch with it.  Experience it.  Own it.

Let it be there.  Meditate upon it.  Pray about it.  Then—and not too soon—listen for the promise in Advent and Christmas.

The light is coming.  ‘Now is our salvation near.  The night is far spent; the day is at hand.’

What is the light for your life?  Not merely for someone else in another time and place.  The darkness and the light and salvation—here and now in your life, our lives:

‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.’

‘The light shines on in the darkness and the darkness has not put it out.’

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