Harold Babcock's Sermons

September 23, 2012

Older But No Wiser

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Hear the sermon

September 23, 2012 

“That is the great fallacy, the wisdom of old men.
They do not grow wise.  They grow careful.”
– Ernest Hemingway 

Those of you who have known me for a while know that I am not crazy about birthdays.  This contra-birthday sentiment of mine reflects no lack of appreciation for life, however.  Believe me, I am glad to be alive at now age 61, and as Maurice Chevalier once famously said, “Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.”

But as Mark Twain put it in his inimitable way, “Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen.”  As my father said to me when I asked him how it felt to be turning seventy: “I’d rather be seventeen.”  Perhaps Jonathan Swift was closest to the truth when he said, “Every man desires to live long, but no man would be old.”

I know that many of you consider me to be still young—thank you very much!–but you must remember that everything is relative.  To me, 61 seems, well, older.  I have always had a strong sense of what the poet Andrew Marvell called “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”  Carpe diem—live for today—still seems like an imminently practical piece of advice.  Even as a much younger person, I always had the feeling that life’s hourglass was running out, and that I needed to get on with whatever it was I intended to do with mine.

I think this heightened sense of time’s hasty passage has been a mostly positive force in my life, causing me perhaps to accomplish things I might otherwise have procrastinated over until it was too late.  I hope also that it has made me appreciate some things more than I might have otherwise.  There really is an urgency to life which only becomes clearer with age and experience and, perhaps especially, with loss.

Without this urgency, would life have any meaning at all?  Isn’t it life’s brevity which makes it precious?

Speaking of experience, Mark Twain also said, with too much truth, that “The first half of life consists of the capacity to enjoy without the chance; the last half consists of the chance without the capacity.”  In a similar vein, Oscar Wilde wrote that, “My experience is that as soon as people are old enough to know better, they don’t know anything at all.”

In all seriousness, though, it seems to me that I am not nearly as wise at 61 as I hoped to be.  My sermon title this morning is only partly tongue in cheek.  I sometimes feel that I know less now than I did twenty or thirty or even forty years ago.

Certainly this is true in a theological sense.  I feel as if maybe I know less about the divine than I did in my younger days.  God is more of a question than ever.  I confess that, considering my occupation, this is somewhat of a surprise and a disappointment.  I had hoped to know more, not less.  The moments of illumination seem to come less often than they once did.  I don’t feel nearly as certain about things as I did then, but perhaps that is a good thing.  All of the possibilities remain open.

Also on the plus side, I feel things much more intensely now than when I was younger man.  The tears are quicker to come, and the laughter is taken less for granted.  I don’t take the moments lightly, for I recognize now that they are all that really matter.  The passages of life—births, marriages, deaths—seem all the more poignant and precious now that I am older.  Our friends and loved ones are more precious to us when we realize how tenuous life is and how perishable they are.

There are many things about which, I am sure Sabrina would agree, I seem to have learned absolutely nothing.  I don’t often enough express my appreciation or say my love.  My annoying little habits have gotten, well, if anything, more annoying than they used to be.  They even annoy me!  I continue to willfully do things which have been a source of irritation in our marriage for now over thirty years.

I agree with Hemingway that we don’t always grow older and wiser, only more careful.  And who wants to be careful?  It seems to me that taking some risks is necessary to a meaningful life, at whatever age we happen to be.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained may be a cliché, but it contains some truth.

But there are a few things about which I am grateful to be no wiser.  I still believe, in spite of an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary, that it is better to be kind and to give people the benefit of the doubt than otherwise.  Is this wise?  I still believe that a life of care and service to others is the most satisfying, even if usually the least rewarding in a pecuniary sense.  I still believe that friendship is the greatest reward of life, and that love trumps all.  With the ancient author, I still believe that “a good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver or gold.”

Though, in Joni Mitchell’s words, my “dreams have lost some grandeur coming true,” I’m glad I still have a few.  I have had to scale my hopes back a little, though.  I no longer imagine I can save the world, or even that that is my responsibility.  But I do believe that it is possible to help out a few people along the way, and as a Jewish proverb has it, and I hope it’s true, “To save one person is to save the whole world.”

I still find meaning in my Unitarian Universalist faith.  As I noted in my sermon last week, I still believe that it is a religion by which one can live.  It still holds before me the highest ideals and loftiest goals.  In a world too full of violence and hatred, it challenges me to remember “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”  Believe me, that is not always an easy principle to uphold.

In spite of all the rumors of its imminent demise, I still believe in the institution of the church.  I believe that face to face community is essential and that social media constitute a poor substitute.  If that makes me a bit of an anachronism, I plead guilty.  I’m 61, after all.  I’d rather have one real, in-the-flesh, face-to-face friend than a hundred Facebook “friends.”

In spite of an increasing anti-intellectualism in our society, I still believe in the value of education for education’s sake.  The “quest of truth” has never been so important as it is now, when every form of irresponsible idiocy and lie can be spread around the world at the push of a button, and taken as gospel truth by those too ignorant or too devious to know better.  Though too few seem willing to take it, I still believe strongly in personal responsibility.  Just because I can say something doesn’t mean I should.

The actress Sophia Loren once wrote that, “Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years; we grow old only by deserting our ideals.”

I guess my point is that holding on to ideals in a world as troubled as ours does not particularly strike me as a mark of great wisdom.  In this instance, however, I am happy to play the fool.  For as actor John Barrymore said, “A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.”

The fact is, of course, we have no choice about aging.  Wiser or not, we grow older and the days and the years accumulate.  Suddenly we realize that we are as old as our grandparents were when we were children.  In fact, we are grandparents!  How can that be?

In an essay entitled “Communities that Care,” Joseph Cardinal Bernardin wrote, “Each stage of life has its own limitations.  One of the secrets of living a happy and effective life is living as full a life as possible within those limitations.”  No one willingly accepts limitations.  But given them, what matters is what we do with, or within them.  I like to remember some words of Pablo Picasso: “It takes a long time to become young.”  Maybe there’s still hope, even for me.

One of the gifts of growing older which even I can appreciate is the capacity for greater honesty.  As an article on aging I once read put it, “On the whole, older persons tend to be more candid and open.  They are frank with one another and with those who serve them.  They are willing to talk about their own failures, finances, frustrations, and fears.  They look at life more realistically.”  If this honesty results sometimes in a kind of tactlessness, it at least has the advantage of letting you know where you stand.  I’d much rather know what someone is really thinking than wonder about it, and over the years I’ve had ample opportunity to find out from some of the elders I have known.  I hope that I, too, will feel freer to express my real feelings as I grow older.  Whether it be wise to do so or not, only time will tell.

Perhaps expressing the view of many younger folks, Shakespeare wrote, “As so by hour we ripe and ripe and then we rot and rot . . . and so goes the tale.”  Yeah, but what did he know?  As for me, I will try to take the advice of my favorite biblical author, the so-called “teacher” who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes: “Even those who live many years should rejoice in them all.”  He also said, “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do.”  That’s the part I really like.

It’s good advice, is it not?  May you go forth to do so, with my approval.  And may you be blessed in all the days of your lives, in your going out and in your returning.  May it be so, now and always.  Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock 

Reading: by Robert Terry Weston


September 16, 2012

A Religion to Live By

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September 16, 2012 

“There is nothing in all the world so important
as to be loyal to this faith
which has placed before us the loftiest ideals,
which has comforted us in sorrow,
strengthened us for noble duty
and made the world more beautiful.”
–Olympia Brown 

To be truly meaningful, a religion must provide values and ideals by which we can live our lives.  It must hold before us the highest and most worthy goals and the truest thought.  It must be practical, too, not only nourishing our souls and inspiring our minds, but offering realistic guidance and comfort in both good times and bad.  It must touch our hearts as well as our heads, our emotions as well as our intellects.  In short, it must be a religion that one can live by.

As a life-long Unitarian Universalist, I know that Unitarian Universalism can be such a religion.  Not only does it offer lofty goals for which we can strive, positive values to guide us on the path, and inspiring stories to encourage us, it also offers what the founder of American Universalism, John Murray, called “hope and courage” along the way.  It has been a source of comfort to many in times of difficulty and loss and tragedy and in the face of impending death.

I have witnessed the impact that our faith of freedom, reason, and tolerance has on young people, and the kind of character it produces.  I believe in the power of Unitarian Universalism to mold our youth into adults who approach life with a positive and caring attitude, a questioning and open mind, and a tolerant and accepting attitude toward others, especially those who may be different from ourselves.

I believe that it does this not in spite of our different personal theological perspectives, but because of them.  As Parisa Parsa wrote in the morning’s reading, “The strength and power of our Unitarian Universalist churches is hardly known in a world that desperately needs to know this [a church in which there are different theological perspectives] is not just possible, but alive in practice.”  Echoing Transylvanian Unitarianism’s 16th century founder, Frances David, she reminds us that “we need not think alike to love alike.”

The world is sinking beneath the weight of its certainties: of black and white, either-or thinking, of intolerance for difference and ambiguity, of superstition and ignorance, and Unitarian Universalism offers a clear alternative.

With deep roots in the Judeo-Christian heritage and the Protestant Reformation as well as the Enlightenment period, Unitarian Universalism affirms the supreme value of loving our neighbors as ourselves and of practicing the Golden Rule.  It reverences Jesus as a great prophet and teacher, though not as God.  It also reverences prophets and teachers from other religious and secular traditions.  It searches out the truth whenever and wherever it may be found, and it is willing to change based on what it discovers.  And it recognizes that each of us contains a spark of the divine which makes us all sons and daughters of God.

Unitarian Universalism accepts the reality that ours is ultimately a world of paradox and ambiguity.  Certainties change and grow and diminish.  Even absolutes seldom are.  Change is inevitable in the universe in which we live, and we believe that our religion must also change and grow to meet the needs and the realities of the times in which we live.

I love and continue to be inspired by our Unitarian Universalist history of challenge and dissent.  Following the lead of Jesus and other great religious leaders through the ages, Unitarian Universalists and their forerunners have often challenged the status quo.  In the Reformation times we challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and its priesthood on issues such as who should read and interpret the Bible and in what language and whether people should be persecuted and worse for having different views on the nature of God or the person of Jesus or on the meaning of the sacrament of Baptism.

People like the Spaniard Michael Servetus argued that the Trinity was not a biblical doctrine and that Jesus never claimed to be God, and paid the ultimate price with their lives.

During the Enlightenment period we argued for the use of reason in in religion and for a broad tolerance of different religious ideas, arguing as did England’s John Milton, “. . .Whoever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter”?  As believers in a “congregational” form of church governance where the people are free to form their own churches and to choose their own ministers, we left the safety of Europe’s civilized shores to come to the wilderness of North America in order to be able to practice our faith freely and without the restrictions imposed by the state.

During the 19th century, as separate Unitarian and Universalist denominations, we took strong stands on social issues ranging from slavery to prison reform to care for the mentally ill to world peace to women’s rights.  We understood, as Unitarian Universalist theologian and ethicist James Luther Adams would later put it, that “a purely spiritual religion is a purely spurious religion.”

In the 20th century, ministers and congregants participated in the movement for women’s suffrage, in protests against the McCarthyism of the 1950s, for the Civil Rights of African Americans, and against the war in Vietnam, and in more recent times we have been in the forefront of advocating for women’s reproductive choice and of welcoming gay, lesbian, and transgendered people not only into our churches but into our ministry, and we have been strong advocates for the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry.

Our current concerns include the persecution of religious minorities and the just and merciful treatment of immigrants both legal and illegal.

Along the way, we also took part in the religious and literary revival that was New England Transcendentalism, which posited that revelation is not limited to the Bible or to a particular religious teacher or even to a particular religion, but that religious truths can be directly intuited, or discovered in the natural world, that all religions contain truth as well as error, and that each one of us can have a personal and unmediated relationship with the divine.

Theologically, we have demonstrated that a uniformity of belief is not necessary to the maintenance of religious community.  We have shown time and again that one does not necessarily need a belief in God or in hell in order to be good.  The sky has not fallen on us because we affirmed the doctrine of universal salvation, or, as my colleague Parisa Parsa put it, “the Universalist gospel that we are all loved more than we know, and share the same destiny.”   We have shown that theists and atheists and Christians and others can worship together in the same place and at the same time.  Indeed, one could argue that it is the True Believers of this world who constitute its clearest and most present danger.

It is when I remember this that I, like my colleague Parisa, “catch fire with the need for Unitarian Universalism’s message of hope and healing for the world.”  Our Unitarian Universalist Purposes and Principles, which are found in the front pages of your hymnbooks, offer but one perspective on the beliefs and values of Unitarian Universalists, but are not to be taken as a creed.  Rather, they are a statement of where we stand at this moment in history.  Like us, they are always a work in progress, and the work of living into them is never done.  They constitute not so much a body of belief as a set of values by which to orient and live our lives.

As Unitarian Universalists, we have a strong commitment to the value of religious community.  We believe that it is in community that we have the greatest possibility to grow to our full stature as human beings.  It is here at church that we learn how to live with others and to bear with them in all their beauty and homeliness and fallibility and glory.  It is in community that we learn the lessons of kindness and the value of working together in the pursuit of common goals, of creating a more just and equitable society and, perhaps just as importantly, the necessity of comforting one another in the face of life’s inevitable disappointments and failures and sorrows and of sharing one another’s joys and triumphs.  It is in community that we stand the greatest chance of effecting the change we so desperately want to see.

We believe in the value of joining together as diverse families and friends and of providing a safe and loving environment in which all our children as well as ourselves can grow and be accepted and become the better people that we long to be.  We believe in education rather than indoctrination.  We are not afraid to teach our children that there are more ways than one to be religious.  We want them to learn and to sing, but we also want them to be able to make informed and healthy choices about their bodies, and so our view of morality includes the responsibility to provide a strong, values-based, comprehensive sex education in a safe and healthy environment.  In other words, we want our children to have a religion that they can stay alive by, as well as live by.

In my thirty years as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I have stood by individuals and families in times of unimaginable tragedy and sorrow: a teenager killed in an automobile accident, a four-year-old burned to death in a fire, suicides, misalliances, aged persons suffering the torments of the damned, a young mother diagnosed with cancer.  At such times, most people are not satisfied to hear that such events are God’s will or that their loved ones are safe with God.  They want to know why: why them, why their loved ones, why suffering if there is a loving God.  They want to know that their lives and the lives of their loved ones mean and have meant and will continue to mean something.  They want to know that their love still matters and that it transcends death.  Whether or not they believe or hope in an afterlife, they want a religion that they can live by.  They want a religion that meets them where they are and that doesn’t offer them simple and easy answers which insult their intelligence.

I know that Unitarian Universalism is such a religion.  I know that Unitarian Universalism is a religion to live by through all the vicissitudes of life.  I have seen it afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.  As Olympia Brown urged in the responsive reading, so I urge you: “Stand by this faith.  Work for it and sacrifice for it.  There is nothing in all the world so important as to be loyal to this faith which has placed before us the loftiest ideals, which has comforted us in sorrow, strengthened us for noble duty and made the world more beautiful.”

Ultimately, it should be the goal of any religion worthy of the name to make the world more beautiful.  In a world which daily breaks our heart, in a world where terrible things are done in the name of religion, what greater challenge, and what greater goal, can there be for religious people to work toward?

Let us go forth committed to the challenge “to create a world more fair, with all her people one,” living our faith in acts of kindness and generosity, comforting one another in sorrow, celebrating with each other in times of joy, always striving for our ideals, but never losing sight of our need to become more human.  May it be so.  Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Reading: from “Letting our Life Shine,” by the Rev. Parisa Parsa, minister of the First Parish UU Church in Milton, MA

September 9, 2012

Living in the Moments

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September 9, 2012


“In the moments we will not forget the hours, nor in the hours the years,
nor in the years the complete stature of our lives. . . .”
–Max Eastman 

Welcome back to church!  Welcome back to this place we love so well, to this place of both memory and hope, that is, to this place where past and future “merge and flow as one.”  Welcome back from wherever your summer journeys have taken you, and from whatever successes or challenges, whatever joys and sadnesses you’ve encountered along the way.  It is good to be together.  It is good to see each other’s faces, and to offer each other the support of our presence and our love.

The idea for this morning’s sermon is simple.  It is one that came to me during one of my summer journeys.  It’s the idea that life is lived not in some giant sweep, or in some seamless continuum, but simply in the moments.  Individual moments that accumulate over years of our living.  Moments both remembered and forgotten, both joyful and sad.  Moments which, when added together, make up the substance of our lives, the substance of Life itself.

We can’t, for better and worse, remember everything that happens to us.  What stands out when we look back over our lives are moments: moments when we were fully awake and when we lived in the present;  moments when we were profoundly moved; moments, sometimes, which we did not realize at the time were precious, but which, mysteriously and thankfully, have stayed in our memory until we could grasp their significance, sometimes years after the fact.

What if we could live every moment for the not-to-be-repeated gift that it is, if we really could be fully awake in each and every one of them?  I try, whenever I remember to: there are moments when I make a conscious effort to be fully awake to whatever it is that I am feeling and experiencing, moments when I try to remind myself that this is one of those once-only moments, and when I try to live as fully into it as I can.  But it’s not possible, I think, to be fully present all the time.  “Mankind,” as T. S. Eliot once accurately wrote, “cannot bear too much reality.”

The process by which some of the moments rise into our consciousness remains a mystery to me, but I am grateful for it.  And I am reminded again that “religion” has at its core the idea of “reconnecting.”  We human beings are religious whether we know it or not, for we have this ability, often unconscious, to make connections, to weave the moments into something resembling a whole fabric, and to try to make meaning of it.

Sometimes the meaning is not immediately clear, and sometimes it takes years to understand and to feel what we feel.  Some of the moments we will never understand, except we know that they move us deeply.  For me, a big part of religion is helping me to make those connections and helping me to understand and appreciate what I have experienced.  It’s a process, one in which I revisit the moments of my life, those that for some reason I can remember, the good as well as the bad, and try to make sense out of them.

Why does this moment matter?  What about all the other moments, the hours and days and weeks and even months, that I have completely forgotten? Why do some moments stand out?  What is it that the moments are trying to tell us?  I want to leave open in my life at least the possibility that it all somehow makes sense, that there is perhaps more to life than meets the eye.  I am a minister, after all!

Sabrina and I were talking about all this on a recent visit to Minnesota, where I had my first church, where our first child was born, and where we still have dear friends.  We only lived there for three years, but there are many moments which remain vivid in our memories and which have had a profound impact on our lives.

Others—most of the others, in fact—we have completely forgotten.  Hanska, Minnesota is not a very big place.  We were driving on roads we must have traveled before, but which we had no recollection of.  “What did we really do most of the time?” Sabrina asked.

I think the only answer I can give is that we lived.  We lived in the moments.  Ordinary moments, a few of which the sacred shone through.  Moments of frustration or pleasure or disappointment or boredom, moments which are mostly forgotten now, but a few of which have influenced how we have lived our lives since then, the decisions that we have made, the successes we have had, the people we have known and loved.

There were such moments on this summer’s pilgrimage to Transylvania to visit our partner church, moments during which I was fully awake, when I told myself, “You will remember this moment.  You will remember these particular people and this particular time and place.  These feelings will remain.  Most of this trip you will forget, but this you will remember.”  Such moments enrich our lives.  They become part of us, part of who we are becoming.

Years later we look back, and we remember those moments.  As for the rest, we will forget, and we will say, “What did we really do on that trip?”

Author Annie Dillard has written, “Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time.  I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down, splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors spreading, at dawn fast over the mountains split.  I wake in a god.  I wake in arms holding my quilt, holding me as best they can inside my quilt.”

The reality is that the religious work of living our lives is never finished.  It is, in a very real sense, our vocation.  We may never, in St. Paul’s famous words, “understand completely,” but we can sometimes understand in part.   This should not stop us from trying to understand, or stop us from trying to live fully into all our moments.

My retired colleague, Richard Gilbert, writes in a prayer that “life is always unfinished business”: 

In the midst of the whirling day,
In the hectic rush to be doing,
In the frantic pace of life,
Pause here for a moment.
Catch your breath;
Relax your body;
Loosen your grip on life.
Consider that our lives are always unfinished business.
Imagine that the picture of our being is never complete;
Allow yourself to be a work in progress.
Do not hurry to mold the masterpiece;
Do not rush to finish the picture;
Do not be impatient to complete the drawing.
From beckoning birth to dawning death we are in process,
And always there is more to be done.
Do not let the incompleteness weigh on your spirit;
Do not despair that imperfection marks your every day;
Do not fear that we are still in the making.
Let us instead be grateful that the world is still to be created.
Let us give thanks that we can be more than we are;
Let us celebrate the power of the incomplete;
For life is always unfinished business.

It’s good advice.

And so my message to you this morning is to live in the moments that are given to you.  If you are meant to remember them, you will.  It’s up to you to try to make sense of them.  But don’t be in any hurry.  When it’s time, they will make sense, or perhaps they never will.  Accept that you remember them for a reason, that they mean something even if you don’t know why.  Cherish your moments, for, in a very real sense, they are your life.

I think this is the meaning of the little quotation I included on your orders of service this morning, at least in so far as I understand it at all: “In the moments we will not forget the hours, nor in the hours the years, nor in the years the complete stature of our lives. . . .”  It is good to be brought together again in this special moment.  Let us be thankful for it, and for all the moments still to come.  So may it be.  Amen. 

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

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