Harold Babcock's Sermons

November 18, 2012

Perpetual Thanksgiving

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November 18, 2012

“My thanksgiving is perpetual.”
– Henry David Thoreau

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures forever!
– Psalm 118


Thus the ancient Psalmist.  But the realist must ever ask, why?  Why give thanks?  Even the Psalmist wonders:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning?  [Psalm 22]

How do we give thanks in a world that is hurting, a world where there is so much brokenness and alienation, a world with so much pain and loss?

It is easy to become cynical.  As the late spiritual writer Henri Nouwen warned, cynicism is “the sickness of our time.”

But I confess that prolonged observation of the fickleness and perversity of the human heart can occasionally lead one in the direction of discouragement.  Human beings do not act the way that I, that we wish they would.  The world does not improve as quickly as we would like.  The heart disappoints.

I do not want to be cynical.  I would prefer to be always a bearer of the light.  But it is not always easy, and sometimes cynicism creeps in, unbeknownst, undetected until its subtle damage is done.  Sometimes I, like you, feel forsaken and alone, and it is hard to know where the next inspiration, the next influx of optimism and hope, will come from.  (This  happens, I find, more frequently in November.)

Despair is a companion who shows up when we least expect or want him.  Moments of joy are interrupted by craven thoughts: this is too good to be true; it can’t last; I’m going to pay for this.  Mortality creeps into our consciousness even when we are feeling most alive.

The Psalmist knew this reality, too:

O God, why do you cast us off?
Why does your anger smoke against
the sheep of you pasture?  [Psalm 74]

Sometimes we give thanks, and sometimes we cry out that we are forsaken.  Both experiences are real.  Cynicism, I suppose, has its place.  I am not immune.  But it is never my conscious intention to put on the loincloth and knapsack of cynicism.

In fact, I prefer hope and courage.  I almost always try to end my sermons on the note of hope and courage, at the risk of sometimes sounding Pollyanna-ish, because it is part of my positive faith to trust at least in the potential of love and goodness, both divine and human.  The fulfillment of our hopes may be closer than we dream.  I do believe that: I believe that things are not nearly as bad as they sometimes seem.

I still believe in the power of positive change.

Cynicism is a devious tempter.  It is most attractive and alluring.  It is all too easy to fall prey to its wiles, and to be seduced by its comfortable and often witty negativity.  But it is not my attitude of choice.

My attitude of choice is thankfulness.  Like the Psalmist, I struggle with this:

Truly God is good to the upright,
to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
my steps had well nigh slipped.  [Psalm 73]

I am not always satisfied with what I have or what I am.  Much as I want to savor what is, I sometimes find myself unable to do so, or unable to do so to the extent that I should.  I am conscious of my need for forgiveness on this score, conscious of my human incapacity for satisfaction in spite of all the good that is mine.  I am a restless seeker, and contentment does not come easily. 

For your name’s sake, Lord,
pardon my guilt, for it is great.  [Psalm 25]

Nonetheless, I do have moments, moments of thanksgiving for what is and for what has been, and I know that they are the most real moments, the most truthful moments, of my living.  There are the moments of recognition, as when the Psalmist cries, 

We give thanks to you, O God; we give thanks;
we call on your name and recount your
wondrous deeds.  [Psalm 75]

I speak not from the heights, but from the valley.  I speak of the attitude of thanks that I am occasionally, but not consistently, capable of giving.

Especially at this Thanksgiving time, it seems good and necessary to remember those people who have meant so much to us and who have taught us about life; to remember those who live with us now and make our lives, not only bearable, but joyful; to count our blessings, to say “thanks” for everything that has been, and is, and will be.

We needn’t do so naively, or with our eyes closed.  As Boston Globe columnist James Carroll has written, “On Thanksgiving we choose to pay more attention to the blessings of our lives than to the troubles.  The troubles remain, but for once we see them in proper context: the essential goodness of what is.”  We know, as the Psalmist knew, that we are not immune to suffering and mortality, and that in truth “we know not what a day shall bring forth,” but we choose to err on the side of gratitude.

It takes faith and maturity to be thankful in the face of uncertainty, in the knowledge of past hurts and of personal failures, in the failures of those we love to live up to their commitments to us and to themselves, and in the reality of sickness and grief and loss.  Indeed, in a world where there is so much suffering, and so much need, our thankfulness must be tempered by that knowledge and that reality.  Our thankfulness must confront not only the complacency of our own lives, but of our society.

In spite of the sometimes awful realities of the world, I can think of no better theological attitude than that of thankfulness.  If we really believe, as we often claim, that life is a gift, then thankfulness is the only appropriate attitude we can take.  To give thanks can be dangerous, however.  To give thanks is to recognize that we are the receivers of gifts over which we have no control.  It is to admit that there is something greater than ourselves, that we owe thanks to the great mystery of creation out of which we have come.

It is good to give thanks to God,
to sing praises to your name
O Most High,
to declare your steadfast love in the morning
and your faithfulness by night. . . .
For thou, Lord, have made me glad by your work;
at the works of your hands I sing for joy.  [Psalm 92]

As a dear friend once wrote,

To give thanks is to create Grace.  In that it is a spiritual discipline.  ‘Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.’  We all want to trust, we need to trust; we must trust.  The world is not in our control, try though we will to make it so.  The art of thanksgiving paints a picture of reality and points saying, ‘This is given to me, this I did not make, this sustains me and brings joy into my life.’

True faithfulness rests not so much in our certainties, as in our courage to face uncertainty: 

Even though I walk through
the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil.  [Psalm 23]

If there were but one way in which I could choose to show my faith and to live out my religious convictions, it would be by being perpetually thankful.  For as Thoreau recognized, “It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite—only a sense of existence.  My breath is sweet to me.  O how I laugh when I think of my vague, indefinite riches.  No run on my bank can drain it, for my wealth is not possession, but enjoyment.”

As writer and social critic Marya Mannes once wrote,

The Good Life exists only when you stop wanting a better one.  It is the condition of savoring what is, rather than longing for what might be.  The itch for things—so brilliantly injected by those who make and sell them—is in effect a virus draining the soul of contentment.  A man never earns enough, a woman is never beautiful enough, clothes are never new enough, the food is never fancy enough.  There is a point at which salvation lies in stepping off the escalator, of saying, ‘Enough: what I have will do . . . what I make of it is up to me.’

May our thanksgiving be not simply at this time of year, nor even only in our own time, but always; not just for this life, but for Life; may it be perpetual, lest we forget to savor what is.

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures forever!  [Psalm 118]


– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock


November 11, 2012

Beyond Congregations?

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 3:07 pm

Hear the sermon

November 11, 2012

 “We have long defined ourselves as an association of congregations.
We need to think of ourselves as a religious movement.
The difference is potentially huge.”
– The Rev. Peter Morales, President, Unitarian Universalist Association

 For better or worse, I have reached the age where change is more often than not hard, and where I sometimes feel a kind of morbid relief that I will probably not be around to deal with the consequences of many of the changes I am encountering.

I am notoriously electronics un-savvy, fiercely resisting the smart-phone craze and holding on for dear life to my almost obsolete five-year-old cell phone, which I still frequently forget to carry.  (That phone does have a camera, which I have managed to use on a few occasions, but I still don’t know how to download the pictures on to my computer.)  I have never owned an i-pod, wouldn’t know how to download music if I had to, and still purchase CDs, which I am told will soon be obsolete.

I freely confess to being a Luddite in this and many other things.  For example, I still prefer printed books to electronic media, and I have even gone so far as to include a library in my new house.  What can I say?  I just like the look and feel of books.  And they remind me by their quiet presence, even when I can no longer remember their contents, that I have tried to broaden my horizons.

I remember when answering machines were cutting edge technology.  I didn’t like them then, and I don’t really like them now.  I never did learn how to retrieve my messages remotely.  I resisted using e-mail as long as I possibly could, and I regret the amount of time I now spend on it.  (I admit that I do enjoy surfing the -net, and I confess that quite often I do make purchases there.  Perhaps ironically, Amazon.com is one of my favorite stops.)

But thinking back, those pre-answering machine, pre-computer, pre-cell phone days sometimes seem like bliss.  How did we possibly get along?  Somehow, miraculously, we did.  And I fear that much of what has been lost in the information technology age is the face-to-face, even voice-to- voice contact that used to be the relational norm.  While I am able to appreciate the convenience and speed of e-mail and internet connections, I am still not convinced that it is really for the best.

Try sending someone you know a hand-written note and see what kind of a response you get; you may be pleasantly surprised.  (I told you I am a Luddite.)

Now comes a recent proposal from Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales entitled “Congregations and Beyond,” suggesting that congregational life may be reaching a watershed.  [I urge you to read it online at www.uua.org. for an unbiased view.  Search “congregations and beyond.”]  It’s a little hard to accept that the thing you have committed your life to may be becoming obsolete.

In a nutshell, Peter’s thesis is that “congregations cannot be the only way we [Unitarian Universalists] connect with people.  We have always seen ourselves as a faith,” Peter writes, “as part of an international religious movement.”  The proposal, which calls for a change to the UUA Bylaws,  “recognizes that the nature of congregations and religious life is changing.”  As Peter writes in the quotation I have included on your orders of service, “We have long defined ourselves as an association of congregations. We need to think of ourselves as a movement.  The difference is potentially huge.”

As another UU colleague has written, 

I think the handwriting is on the wall . . . lots and lots of people . . . and more and more people . . . are going to pursue their spiritual growth without the benefit of membership in a congregation.  If we don’t find ways to serve them and help them feel connected to us, then we get smaller and smaller. . . .  

That doesn’t mean we have to give up the category of membership, only that we quit worshipping it and start expanding our categories of significant ways we serve people’s religious growth.  What matters is not how many members a church has.  What matters is how many people they are serving, and how much. . . .

Yes, but.  While I understand that congregations would still be part of the mix of Unitarian Universalism under the “Congregations and Beyond” proposal, and while I accept the notion that Unitarian Universalism is in a real sense a “movement” beyond the traditional idea of a local congregation—otherwise, why all the effort I have personally expended on international UU religious work in recent years?—I still feel a sense of loss that, in some way, congregations no longer seem to be “enough.” Are we on the slippery slope to a brave new world where even in the church, technology will ultimately replace face-to-face contact?  Only consider how far we have already slid down that slope.

After all, I entered the ministry in order to serve congregations of real, flesh and blood people.  And while I believe that it is possible to be “religious” without being part of one, I also believe that something is lost, both personally and societally, when we fail in the effort to build effective communities where face-to-face contact is not only possible, but encouraged and impossible to avoid.  And I wonder if the “service only” model is enough if detached from real, brick-and-mortar, face-to-face religious institutions?  I am not so sanguine that the “movement” idea is enough to bring people together to do the work that congregations have traditionally done.  And what of the cherished goal of building a “beloved community”?

The notion of “community ministry,” as opposed to “parish” ministry, has been around in our movement for at least as long as I have been in the ministry.  I am grateful for the many ministers who serve our Unitarian Universalist “movement” as hospital, military, and prison chaplains, as leaders of social service agencies, and as teachers.  I get the idea that we are more than just congregations.

But I still worry that detaching our “movement” too much from our congregations may be throwing out the clichéd baby with the bath water.

And I am not so convinced that, lacking a congregational tie-that-binds, all those folks who claim to be Unitarian Universalists but who never darken our doors will be any more supportive of Unitarian Universalism than they presently are.  Which is to say, not very, though I would be happy to be proven wrong.

The Puritan Congregationalists who came to these shores in the 1600s, and from whom we are descended, believed that religion was best conducted in small gatherings they called “congregations.” They believed in the idea that face-to-face contact was an essential part of the religious life; in fact, they believed that this form of church structure and governance was divinely inspired, and they believed that our human responsibility was to help each other along the way of life, as amply proven by the many early congregational covenants which call for church members to “walk with one another in mutual love and support.”

The Puritans, in fact, wouldn’t approve of a congregation as large as ours, believing that there was a critical number—somewhere around 80 to 100 or thereabouts, they thought–beyond which folks couldn’t know one another well enough to carry on the work of “mutual edification” and, in some instances, mutual correction, which the religious life demands of us.  When a church got too big, it was time to gather another, which, in fact, is how our own congregation began its historical journey from “First Parish of Newbury” to “Third Parish of Newbury” to “First Religious Society in Newburyport.”  (Consider this notion in light of the idea of Facebook “friending.”  Just a thought.)

I understand Peter’s and the UUA’s frustration with membership decline and money shortages.  I understand their frustration that many who claim to be with us are not members of our congregations and never will be.  I share their frustration that our efforts on behalf of building a fairer world, because of our diminutive denominational size, too often go unnoticed and underfunded (though I would argue those efforts are far more important than we may sometimes give them credit for being).  I share their hopes for an expanded and re-invigorated Unitarian Universalism based on the idea that “our core values appeal to far more people than are attracted to (or likely to be attracted to) our congregations.”

But I almost feel that the unspoken message here is that while people like our values, they just don’t or won’t like us, and that bothers me, not because I think we are perfect or even always likable, but because I know that our hearts are mostly in the right place and I know the importance, in spite of its old-fashioned-ness, of religious community.

I worry, despite the reassurance in Peter’s proposal that congregations “will remain the base” in the transition to a “movement” model of connection, that diverting already stretched resources from our congregations will spell the death knell of the local congregations which have always been the defining model of what and, more important, of who we are.  And as someone to whom real places have always been precious, I regret the possibility that more and more of them will be lost in favor of an amorphous kind of gathering “space,” a kind of “cyber” congregation which, frankly, I don’t completely understand and don’t particularly like the sound of.  I worry that as our congregations are replaced by I’m-not-quite-sure-what, Unitarian Universalism may become even more irrelevant than some folks claim it is already becoming.

Like I said at the outset, one gets to the point in life where it can be a relief to know that you probably won’t have to personally deal with the consequences of many of the changes happening around you.

Today we are welcoming new members into the fellowship of our congregation.  I still believe it is a profoundly important act, because I still believe, and will always believe, that in Garrison Keillor’s words, we desperately need places “where people love us, and will be glad to see our faces.”  I personally hope that there will always be actual places where we can meet face-to-face, in all of our beautiful and flawed reality.

Unitarian Universalism is, I believe, more than just an idea or a set of values to which one gives assent.  In misunderstanding that reality may lie the seed of many failed ministries to actual communities of living, breathing human beings.  Rather, Unitarian Universalism is a container for our humanity, a place to commit to and to live out our highest aspirations and to realize our most cherished dreams.  When it is no longer that, when it is simply a disembodied philosophy no matter how attractive, no matter how right, no matter how true, it will have lost its interest for me, because there are plenty of other places I can go for that.

It is good to be together, in this particular time and place, in this particular faith, and with these particular people, as we strive to do the work of building a better world and a better life for those who travel the dark journey with us.

That, to me, is the real meaning of membership, and that to me still holds an irreplaceable value not just within our congregation, but in our world.  To our newest members, and to those who shall come after them, I say welcome.  May you find this place, in all of its particularities, and even in all of its peculiarities, to be as meaningful as I have found it to be.  May it always have an important place in your lives, as you will always have an important place in ours.  So may it be.  Amen.

 – The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

From “Congregations and Beyond,” by Peter Morales; from a minister’s column in “The Parishioner,” newsletter of the First Parish of Bedford, MA, UU, by John Gibbons

November 4, 2012

Decisions at the End of Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 2:24 pm

Hear the sermon

November 4, 2002

“Assisting people to leave this life requires strong judgment and long experience to avoid its misuse.
It is always a clinical decision, not an ethical, legal, or religious decision,
despite the importance of those aspects in getting there.”
– Francis D. Moore, MD

 Next week there will be at least one ballot question, #2, of a challenging ethical nature: “Prescribing Medication to End Life.”  In my sermon this morning I will examine this question, about which I have given much thought over the years, and my ambivalence about it, with the understanding that to give it the full attention it deserves would take a lot more time than we have together in this brief period.

In summary, the proposed law 

would allow a physician licensed in Massachusetts to prescribe medication, at a terminally ill patient’s request, to end that patient’s life.  To qualify, a patient would have to be an adult resident who 1) is medically determined to be mentally capable of making and communicating health care decisions; 2) has been diagnosed by attending and consulting physicians as having an incurable, irreversible disease that will, within reasonable medical judgment, cause death within six months; and 3) voluntarily expresses a wish to die and has made an informed decision.  The proposed law states that the patient would ingest the medicine in order to cause death in a humane and dignified manner.

Whatever your leaning, consider for a moment all of the presuppositions in this statement and ask yourselves, whether they can ever be fully met?  I personally have my doubts.

As a minister, I have been privileged to be present at the moment of death of several parishioners.  I was also present at the moment of death of my father.  A few of those deaths were quiet and peaceful.  Some were not.  But all of them contained lessons for life and living.

I have listened without an adequate answer as elderly people have asked why they continue to live though all quality of life has been lost, and they now wish to die.  I am also convinced that several of my former parishioners willed themselves to die rather than continue to live what for them had become a meaningless life.

Julia was an eighty-seven year old parishioner of mine in Minnesota, who for many years had suffered from a painful and debilitating form of arthritis.  Along with the terrible pain usually associated with arthritis, Julia had lost her eyesight so as not to able to read, her favorite pastime.  In spite of this, she managed for a long time to live a meaningful and tolerable life.  However, after suffering a fall at her home, Julia was hospitalized and became steadily weaker.  On the morning of her death, Julia told me, “I’m old enough to die now—oh, I’m not morbid, but life isn’t too damned enjoyable when you can’t do anything.”  That night I was called back to the hospital, where Julia had fallen into a deep coma, and I was present at her bedside when she died a peaceful death.

What of those who wish to die, but can’t?  What of those suffering intolerable pain, either physical or mental?  These are not simple questions.  I don’t have the answers.

As long ago as 1988 the UUA General Assembly passed a resolution entitled “The Right to Die with Dignity,” which among other things affirmed “the right to self-determination in dying, and the release from civil or criminal penalties of those who, under proper safeguards, act to honor the right of terminally ill patients to select the time of their own deaths.”

The resolution recognized the potential for abuse by “advocate[ing] safeguards against abuse by those who would hasten death contrary to an individual’s desires. . . .”

Such resolutions are guidelines only; no one is required to accept them in order to be a good Unitarian Universalist.  This resolution does suggest, however, that for a majority of UUs in that time and place, the idea of assisted suicide, if carried out with appropriate safeguards, is acceptable.

My grandfather for whom I am named was a physician for over forty years in rural Maine.  I would be shocked if he did not help many patients out of life by the judicious and compassionate use of painkillers, as was suggested by the morning’s reading by Dr. Francis Moore.  Because of the long term, intimate relationships my grandfather developed with most of his patients, I am certain that he would have been in a good, if not the best, position to make an end-of-life decision regarding his patients’ prospects and desires.

Unfortunately, these kinds of relationships are increasingly rare, and in the meantime we have become much less trusting in general, and less trusting of the medical profession in particular.  We have also become more litigious, resulting in physicians being less willing to risk any appearance of wrong-doing.  Yes, there was an aspect of paternalism in the old doctor-patient relationship.  In my heart, though, I still believe that a physician’s judgment, in the context of a trusting doctor-patient relationship, is the best safeguard in making difficult end-of-life decisions.  As Dr. Moore writes, “Assisting people to leave this life requires strong judgment and long experience to avoid its misuse.”

When Dr. Moore wrote his article in Harvard Magazine 18 years ago [from which the morning’s reading was taken], I suspect he would have been surprised that Question 2 has taken so long to appear on the ballot.  I am pretty sure that he would approve of the spirit if not the letter of the ballot question, as do I.  But as he warned in 1995, the responsibility “to help patients safely and painlessly out of this life” is “tricky.  It is dangerous,” he said at the time.   As he concluded his article, “We need it and people are ready for it.  It will relieve more suffering than did the discovery of anesthesia . . .”  But he also warned, “It will probably not be as simple as assisted suicide.  Nor morphine by the clock.  Nor pulling the plug, because for most patients . . . there is nothing to pull.  It must involve legal safeguards.  It will involve the family, so long as they can be trusted.”

In the several countries and states which have adopted so-called “assisted suicide” initiatives, there has been no blatant evidence either of abuse or, perhaps more surprisingly, of many people actually taking advantage of the freedom to intentionally end their lives.  What people seem to appreciate is the control that they feel knowing that when things get to what they consider an intolerable point, they may have an out.  Interestingly, the option for assisted dying is considered by far more people than actually take it.

I can’t tell you how you should vote on this challenging ballot question.  As you may have gathered from the foregoing, I believe that ending life in this manner, either one’s own or assisting with another’s, is a matter for the individual conscience.  Let me be clear that I do not believe that suicide, at the end of life or at any other time, is a sin, though I do believe that it almost always and inevitably has unintended and sometimes awful consequences for those left behind, and that while those consequences may be less in the case of a terminally ill person suffering intolerable pain choosing to end her life, they should not be underestimated.

I confess to more than a little sympathy for those who argue that death can actually be a vehicle for spiritual awakening.  I have observed on many occasions dying persons coming to a new appreciation not only for their own lives and families and friends, but for Life itself.  People sometimes change for the better in the face of their own deaths.  The Zen Buddhist Ram Dass has written, 

We recognize that life is primarily a vehicle for spiritual awakening, and thus dying, being a part of living, must also fulfill that function.  We are exploring the ways in which dying serves the process of spiritual awakening for both the person dying and those in attendance.  Under optimum conditions, the experience of dying is potentially the most significant opportunity for awakening in a lifetime.

There was a hymn in one of our previous hymnbooks which spoke to this possibility:                  

Since I have felt the sense of death,
Since I have borne its dread and fear,
Oh how my life has grown more dear
Since I have felt the sense of death.
Sorrows are good and cares are small,
Since I have known the loss of all.

Since I have felt the sense of death,
Since I have looked on blackest night,
My inmost brain is fierce with light
Since I have felt the sense of death.
Oh dark that made my eyes to see!
Oh death, that gave my life to me!

Not only is dying potentially an opportunity for our own spiritual awakening, it is also an opportunity for those around the dying to be spiritually transformed.  Even suffering and its endurance have lessons to teach to the rest of us, hard lessons which may help us to live out our lives with a greater appreciation for their giftedness and, more important, to grow in our capacity for compassion.  Should we deny our families and friends that opportunity?  Is it really our “right” to do so?  Dying can also sometimes provide a final opportunity for reconciliation and for saying the love we may have felt but not often enough expressed.

It was for these reasons, I think, that my recently deceased colleague Forrest Church, having been diagnosed with a terminal illness, spoke about the importance of passing “the death test,” because he understood that in dying well he would be passing on valuable lessons to those left behind.  He passed.

Ending our lives intentionally won’t necessarily change this, but it might.

When he was around seventy and I was around eight, my grandfather suffered a debilitating stroke.  He would live for another fifteen years—incapacitated years which must have been torture to that energetic and brilliant and successful physician, surgeon, and outdoorsman.  Perhaps it would have been better if he had died immediately—I suspect he must have felt that way–but had he, I would not have had the incredible gift of my grandfather’s love and example and fortitude in the face of adversity as a guide for my own young and later life.

So here’s part of my dilemma, and perhaps it is yours as well.  I hate seeing this issue politicized, as it must now inevitably be.  I hate to see it becoming the subject of a theological debate which I know from long experience will never be resolved in the public square.  I would prefer that it was left to the discretion of a physician and patient in the context of a trusting relationship and not made subject to a lot of legal strictures.  No more than in my bedroom do I want the government and the legal system intruding into what should be a personal and private decision.

And what if passage of this ballot initiative actually makes it harder for your physician to help you end your life?  What if those presuppositions I mentioned earlier can never be adequately met?

Another part of my dilemma, and this one is more complicated, is that I personally am uncomfortable taking on the role traditionally ascribed to God.  We in the modern West can control much (though as the recent storm should teach us, not nearly as much as we think).  We can control when and whether to have children, and how many, as just one example, something unthinkable just a few generations ago, and, I would argue, a mostly good thing.

But the reality is that such control can bring with it a terrible and crushing responsibility and sometimes terrible consequences.  We are left with the burden of our decisions.  And the illusion of control we don’t have makes it very difficult for some of us to let go when the time comes.  Do I really want to control the time of my own death?  It feels a bit arrogant to me, and I personally am not sure that I do.

No one, of course, can predict how one will feel in the extremity, but this is how I feel today.

With the advent of improved palliative care and with the increasing availability of hospice care, with increased sensitivity in the medical community to the negative consequences of maintaining life at any cost and beyond a reasonable expectation of quality, there should be no reason for anyone to suffer intolerable pain at the end of life.  Dying will inevitably be fraught with tremendous anguish, even if it comes as a relief.  For me, the questions surrounding assisted suicide will always be a source of ambivalence. As my British Unitarian colleague Celia Midgely wrote when confronted with a similar resolution among her co-religionists, most of whom wholeheartedly support the idea of assisted suicide, 

I am very concerned about the old and the sick and the disabled, who are vulnerable and may feel open to pressure and abuse and feel that they are in the way.  There’s a worrying slippery slope here and I am not persuaded about safeguards. 

I am also concerned more fundamentally about the insidious flavor of eugenics here and the slide into a Brave New World.  We are all, as Richard Gilbert puts it, ‘more human than otherwise and we are our brothers and sisters keepers.’ 

So, lastly, what we should be calling for is better funded and more compassionate treatment of the old, the sick and the dying and those who are severely incapacitated.

While I may affirm your right to terminate your life by voting yes on Question 2, I cannot do so without these reservations.  I am not sure that legalizing a process for assisted suicide will make much of a difference in the long run, may be a distraction from the real issues of funding for care at the end of life, and could potentially make it more difficult for caring physicians to do what I suspect they have always done by drawing increased attention from those for whom speeding the end of life will always be a crime and a sin.

The late Paul Carnes, former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, on learning of his own terminal diagnosis, wrote, 

We are the beings who die, but who, in dying, can defy death with courage and, standing at the edge of the abyss, affirm those things which really give us life: friendship, honor, a desire for justice, indignation, love, dignity, family, friends, country, humankind.

May we, even in the presence of death, ever affirm the gifts of Life.  May we live our lives fully to the end, whenever and however that shall be.  Amen. 

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Reading: from “Prolonging Life, Permitting Life to End,” by Francis D. Moore in Harvard Magazine, July-August 1995

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