Harold Babcock's Sermons

June 17, 2012

What the Bees Know

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Hear this sermon

June 17, 2012 

 “So work the honey bees,
Creatures that, by a rule in Nature, teach
The art of order to a peopled kingdom.”
 – William Shakespeare 

As many of you know, I became a beekeeper this year.  After taking a ten week beekeeping class this winter and spring, I acquired my first hive and my first three pound “package” of bees in mid-April.  I’m happy to report that, so far, my bees seem to be doing just fine in spite of me.

It turns out, however, that I stand in a long line of clergy who have kept bees.  The inventor of the modern beehive—an elegant contraption with moveable frames which makes it possible to harvest the honey without destroying the hive—and the discoverer of the measurement known as “bee space” which made it possible, was the Rev. Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, a North Andover clergyman.

There does seem to be something particularly spiritual about this pastime.  After all, human interaction with the honey bee goes all the way back to our human origins about 50,000 years ago.  Cave paintings attest to the fact that the earliest humans gathered honey.  The oldest written reference to honey dates back to the Egyptians in 5500 BCE.  As Richard Taylor, author of The Joys of Beekeeping from which the morning’s reading was taken, writes, 

Not everyone can be a beekeeper.  The tiny but pesky sting will always keep the membership in this strange class to a proper number.  But for one who can see beyond this, it is, indeed, an enviable life, opening one’s eyes not only to nature, to philosophy, to the life of the spirit that is basic to religion, but also to the warmth and idealism that dwell in so many of the human beings who are brought within one’s association.

Then there is the story that beeswax was used for church candles because it was made by virgins.  As you probably know, honey comb made into candles burns longer and cleaner than most any other wax.  AsNorthShorebeekeeper Bill Denhard—still keeping bees in his nineties—writes, 

The myth of the wax being made by virgins is true but for the wrong reason.  The myth . . . in the Greek format is that Zeus’s father, Chronos, had the nasty habit of eating his own children.  To save Zeus he was hidden on the island of Crete.  Unfortunately, Chronos learned of this and sent soldiers to bring Zeus back.  The daughters of the King of Crete made loud noises to hide the baby Zeus’s cries.  This attracted bees who not only fed Zeus but also drove off the soldiers.  Later Zeus’s reward to the bees was to give them the ability to reproduce without mating.  This myth substantiated the [erroneous] belief that the true queen was the King, the drones . . . deformed bees, and the workers . . . immaculate females, there being no mass of male bees with whom they could mate.  This, because the Greeks never observed any mating in the hive.  In truth, beeswax is made by virgin workers, but not because of Zeus’s reward to the bees.

One of the things I am learning is that keeping bees is not dissimilar to parenting: one is constantly worrying about one’s “children.”  And one needs to worry, given the number of diseases, parasites, natural disasters, manmade chemicals, and the amount of human stupidity, which currently afflict bees.  Probably you have read about the so-called Colony Collapse Disorder which is causing bees to mysteriously abscond from their hives.  How could I not worry?

The reality, of course, is that the bees could care less about my worrying.  As Hannah Nordhaus writes in her book The Beekeepers Lament, “They don’t care who owns them.  They don’t care who loves them.  They do what they do.  They forage; they build; they leave; they rob; they kill; they die; they sting.”

Yet there is still something fascinating about these small creatures, the only “domesticated” insects.  There is something fascinating about the remarkable order and industry of their lives.  Of course, it is also true that there is no individualism in the beehive.  Bees exist only for the community.  They live their brief lives and die their often violent deaths only for the good of the hive.  Still, we might learn a limited something from the honey bee’s selfless commitment to the whole.  This is a church, after all.

Did I mention that bees sting?  There is something quite exhilarating in removing the cover from a hive containing twenty thousand stinging insects—a number which, if all goes well, will increase to over fifty thousand by summer’s end.  It focuses one’s attention, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.  It keeps other cares temporarily at bay; at least, it had better!

In working bees, one is instructed to move slowly and deliberately and without undue anxiety—much easier said than done when surrounded by hundreds of them.  Bees have a great sense of smell, and one of things that they can smell is fear, which is apparently tipped off by our pheromes.

Nordhaus tells how the ancient Roman writer Columella wrote that beekeepers “‘must avoid such things as offend’ bees, like being ‘unchaste or uncleanly; for impurity and sluttiness . . . they utterly abhor’; along with ‘smelling of sweat, or having a stinking breath, caused either through eating of leeks, onions, garlick, and the like’ (he suggested quaffing a cup of beer to make it go away); or being ‘given to surfeiting or drunkenness’; or being too sudden in one’s movements. ‘In a word, thou must be chaste, cleanly, sweet, sober, quiet, and familiar; so they will love thee, and know thee from all others.’” All of which characteristics would satisfy the most pious religious practitioner as well!

Richard Taylor has another take on how to approach one’s bees:         

The best description of the demeanor needed for beekeeping, he writes, was conveyed to me years ago quite by accident.  A sweet and saintly woman came upon me as I was working with some hives, and she was impressed by my bare hands and shirtsleeves.  After watching from a safe distance for a while she remarked: “You just send love out to them, don’t you?”  That is it exactly.  It is not just a matter of loving bees; I suppose every beekeeper loves bees in some sense or other.  It is more a thing of spirit or attitude.  However absurd it may sound to those of scientific orientation, a good beekeeper sends love out to the bees, without giving it any particular thought.  In that frame of mind, the work goes well, smoothly, efficiently, without upsets and, in fact, usually without many stings.

And then there is the product which the bees produce, which, by the way, they are not actually producing for us.  They make honey for their own survival; we, on the other hand, steal it.  If we want them to survive, we’d better not steal too much.

We steal it, of course, because it is so good, and because there is a lot of evidence that it is also good for us.  The healthful benefits of honey have been known for a long time.  The eighteenth century English writer Sir J. More waxed eloquent about those benefits, writing that honey 

openeth obstructions, and cleareth the heart and lights of those humors which fall from the head; it purgeth the foulness of the body[,] cureth phelgmatick matter, and sharpeneth the stomach; it purgeth those things which hurt the clearness of the eyes, breedeth good blood, stirreth up natural heat, and prolongeth life; it keepeth all things uncorrupt which are put into it, and is a sovereign medicament, both for outward and inward maladies; it helpeth the greif [sic] of the jaws, [and] the kernals growing within the mouth. . . ; it is drunk against the biting of a serpent or a mad dog; it is good for such as have eaten mushrooms, for the falling sickness, and against the surfeit.

The only other product I know of for which so many healthful benefits are claimed is the Hungarian double-distilled plum brandy known as Palinka.  I have a suspicion that the claims made for honey are considerably more likely to be true.

In the process of making honey the honey bee does something quite amazing and absolutely essential to our survival.  They pollinate.  And without pollination, we would find ourselves on a much reduced diet.  All joking aside, it is the bee’s role in pollination which makes the survival of these little insects so vitally important to us all.

Bees are under incredible stress these days, and anything we can do to help them survive has, for me, a religious dimension.  Bees have been called “the canary in the coal mine” of Mother Nature.  The fact that they are under stress should give us pause.  The fact that many of the problems besetting bees are due to manmade herbicides and insecticides should give us even more pause.  The story of the link between those herbicides and insecticides and the huge chemical companies with the money and power to control the outcome of research into Colony Collapse Disorder should raise the alarm level even higher.  And no one really knows what effect the development of genetically modified crops and vast monocultures may be having on the health and well-being of honey bees, but it likely isn’t good.

But that’s pretty depressing stuff, and conspiracy theories just generally get me down, and you can, and should, read about all of this on your own, and today is the final Sunday of our church year, and it’s Father’s Day, and I want us all to go away in a hopeful and optimistic spirit.

So let me close with this happier thought, again by Richard Taylor from his wonderful book: 

The pursuit of beekeeping, whether as a source of livelihood or, as is usually more practicable, as a sideline, is totally engrossing.  It offers fulfillment for the golden years whose approach seems so relentless and filled with emptiness to those who have somehow become estranged from nature.  Sometimes the world seems on the verge of insanity, and one wonders what limit there can be to greed, aggression, deception and the thirst for power or fame.  When reflections of this sort threaten one’s serenity one can be clad for the bees, for the riches they yield to the spirit of those who love nature and feel their kinship with everything that creeps and swims and flies, that spins and builds, to all living things that arise and perish, to the whole of creation of which we are only a part, like the bees.

With that gentle reminder in mind, let us go forth into these brief summer months recalling the friendships we have shared, the inspiration we have gathered, and the faithful service we have rendered.  May we be guided by gentle breezes and blessed by sunny days, until we meet again in this special and beloved place.  So may it be.  Amen. 

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Readings: Genesis 1 : 20- 25; from The Joys of Beekeeping, by Richard Taylor


June 3, 2012

Married to Amazement

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 5:28 pm

June 3, 2012 

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
– Mary Oliver

 This year, even more than usual, I have been conscious of the passage of time: the passage of my time.  Perhaps it had to do with turning sixty.  Maybe it was the birth of my first grandchild.  But it begs the question: have I been appreciative enough of all the gifts of my life?  Have I accomplished all that I set out to do?

The answer, of course, is no.  And I suspect that I am not alone in that admission.  Probably none of us ever fully appreciates the giftedness of our lives.  And I hope that I will always have dreams and goals still awaiting fulfillment.

But Mary Oliver’s poem [“When Death Comes”] is a reminder that I need to stay on my toes.  With her, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”  With her, when death comes “I want to step through the door full of curiosity. . . .”

I don’t believe that we can live our lives totally without regrets.  But the goal is to live them with as few regrets as possible.  The goal is to live until we die.  With Thoreau, I don’t want to reach the end of my life and discover that I haven’t yet lived.

I want to maintain what my colleague Bruce Marshall once called “a holy curiosity” until the end.  I want to keep learning.  There is so much left to do, to experience, to discover.

How does one begin each day with appreciation?  This seems to me to be a most worthy religious discipline.  If we could accomplish this, what a religion, what a church, what people we would be!

Today the sun rose on a beautiful, if rainy, June day.  Did I notice?  The Buddhist Pema Chodron has written, “. . .no matter what comes along, we’re always standing at the center of the world in the middle of sacred space, and everything that comes into that circle and exists with us there has come to teach us what we need to know.  Life’s work is to wake up, to let the things that enter into the circle wake you up rather than put you to sleep.”

For better and worse, I have always had this consciousness of time’s passage.  With the poet, I have always sensed “time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”  I have not always responded to its presence with the gusto and attention I wish I had.  I’ve always been a little bit lazy.  I could have lived my life more fully and more appreciatively.  I could have been more awake.

But this, it seems to me, is the challenge.  Our attention spans are short.  We must constantly call ourselves back to attention.  We must try to remain as open as we can to the possibility of the divine breaking into the most ordinary moments of our life.

The great thing is, that it is never too late.  Yes, as we grow older our world constricts more or less, but there is always more to experience and to learn, no matter what our limitations.  As my colleague Parisa Parsa has written, “The new life that appears around us as spring blooms is an outward reminder of the yearning and presence of new life within us all the time.”

Of course, it is easy to stifle the new life within us.  But as religious people, we know that our goal, as long as we are alive, is to nurture that new life and to bring it to fruition.

This year, for the first time in many years, I have planted a vegetable garden.  In spite of the inevitable frustrations that any gardener knows, gardening reminds us of that new life waiting to surprise and delight.  As our friend Greg Garnache suggested in his recent Journey of Faith, gardening is both a present reality and a metaphor for what happens in our own lives.

Poet May Sarton, in a poem entitled “An Observation,” writes,

True gardeners cannot bear a glove
Between the sure touch and the tender root,
Must let their hands grow knotted as they move
With rough sensitivity about
Under the earth, between the rock and shoot,
Never to bruise or wound the hidden fruit.
And so I watched my mother’s hands grow scarred,
She who could heal the wounded plant or friend
With the same vulnerable yet rigorous love;
I minded once to see her beauty gnarled,
But now her truth is given me to live,
As I learn for myself we must be hard
To move among the tender with an open hand,
And to stay sensitive up to the end
Pay with some toughness for a gentle world.

“To stay sensitive up to the end”: that is our challenge.  To remain engaged, in spite of all that urges us to withdraw into ourselves and to avoid all that bruises and destroys, that is our task as religious people.  She is right: we must be hard, at times, we must be tough in order to survive and in order to make the world more fair.

But the beginning of wisdom is simply to pay attention.  At my wife Sabrina’s school, they recommend a practice of reviewing the events of each day before dropping off to sleep.  This seems to me to be a wise recommendation, because in the course of reviewing the day we can recall not only the places where we have missed the mark, but also all the places where we have had our small triumphs, and we can hold on to the latter even as we let go of the former.  This practice also reminds us to pay attention, to recall the gifts of this particular day.

Of course, there is much in our days that distracts us from that attention.  But thankfully there are those who have the ability, through music or art or literature, to call us back to what is most important in life.  One of my favorite pieces of writing along these lines, which I am sure I have shared with you before, comes from the Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, in his autobiographical novel Report to Greco: 

In the third grade [our teacher was] Periander Krasakis. . . .  He drove us to distraction for hours on end—which vowels were long, which were short, whether to use an acute of circumflex accent—while we listened to the voices in the street—vegetable mongers, koulouri boys, donkeys braying, women laughing—and waited for the bell to ring so that we could escape.  We watched the teacher sweating away at his desk as he repeated the points of grammar over and over again in an effort to make them stick in our minds.  But our thoughts were outside in the sun, on pebble warfare.  We adored this game and often came to school with broken heads. 

One divine spring day, the windows were open.  A tangerine tree was in bloom across the street and its perfume entered the classroom.  Each of our minds had turned into a blossoming tangerine tree; we could not bear to hear anything more about acute and circumflex accents.  A bird came just then, perched in the plain tree in the schoolyard and began to sing.  At that point a pale redheaded student who had arrived that year from his village, Nikolios by name, was unable to control himself.  He raised his finger.  “Be quiet, sir,” he cried.  “Be quiet and let us hear the bird.” 

More and more, life seems like a grand mystery that we are constantly trying to penetrate.  Sometimes we feel that we are very close to the meaning of that mystery, and that all might be revealed in the singing of a bird.  We are so close to the truth of it all that we can hardly fail to grasp it.  Then it slips from our grasp, and we are left only with the mystery again.  And perhaps that is as it must and should be.

We must learn to love the mystery out of which we and the world have grown.  In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, writer Annie Dillard says, 

We are here to witness. . . .  We do not use the songbirds, for instance.  We do not eat many of them; we cannot befriend them; we cannot persuade them to eat more mosquitos or plant fewer weed seeds.  We can only witness them—whoever they are.  If we were not here, they would be songbirds falling in the forest.  If we were not here, material events like the passage of seasons would lack even the meager meaning we are able to muster for them.  The show would play to an empty house, as do all those falling stars which fall in the daytime.

Later in the same chapter, she writes, 

The silence is all there is.  It is the alpha and the omega.  It is God’s brooding over the face of the waters; it is the blended note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings.  You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence, and even to address the prayer to “World.”  Distinctions blur.  Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing.

And later in the book, she writes, 

The mind wants to live forever, or to learn a very good reason why not.  The mind wants the world to return its love, or its awareness; the mind wants to know all the world, and all eternity, and God.  The mind’s sidekick, however, will settle for two eggs over easy.

We are left with the paradox that we must sometimes simply appreciate without understanding.  That makes it no less important that we do so. Maybe, as Dillard implies, that is all we are ultimately meant to do.

The late, great nature writer for the New York Times, Hal Borland, once wrote about this particular time of year, 

June invites tranquility, for it soothes the land and eases the haste of green and urgent growth.  June is a month to live with, to relax, to appreciate life.  Every field, every roadside, every woodland and meadow is evidence of the quiet abundance with which the earth clothes itself year after year.  No matter what man may be doing, the fundamental earth is not a hostile place.  It is a hospitable environment for life that would live in peace and know the essentials of existence.

None of these reflections will completely erase the urgency of wanting to know, of wanting to understand, of wanting to be certain that the path we have chosen to walk is the right one, or that what we have done is what we were truly intended to do.

But my wish for each of us, on this day and in the days still to come, is that each of us shall be that “bride married to amazement” and that “bridegroom, taking the world into [our] arms.”  Let us not simply end up as visitors to this beautiful and mysterious world, but let us embrace it even as we so often fail to understand it.

May you go forth into this wondrous world in peace, and may you return with light.  Amen. 

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Reading: “When Death Comes,” by Mary Oliver

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