Harold Babcock's Sermons

December 23, 2012

Time Out

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December 23, 2012

“Discard the myths and legends for what they are . . .
And what will remain?
With unimagined clarity
There will be experienced
An intermission
A quietness,
A stillness of the spirit.”
– G. M. Caple

Since the terrible events of last week, I have found myself thinking more often than usual about time and eternity.  Of course, there is the terrible irreversibility of time, at least insofar as we experience it.  We cannot go back to the day before, much as we cry out to do so.

But then there is the wonderful hope of eternity, in which all time, past and present, is ultimately contained and redeemed, and of which we occasionally catch a glimpse.  I find the thought of eternity comforting; not so much the passage of time.

In a recent and profound BostonGlobe column, writer and former Catholic priest James Carroll quotes the Latin poet Virgil’s line, “There are tears in things, and all things doomed to die touch the heart.”  How much more so when the things that are doomed to die, die before their time.  Where is the balm for our broken hearts?

Carroll goes on to say, “. . . the very awareness of mortality is what heightens a love of life while it lasts.”  He continues, “. . . the experience of the passage of time is universal.  The feelings of transcendence it calls forth naturally involve religion for many; for many others, these same feelings imply a different kind of sacredness, one rooted in this world.”  Whether we find it in religion or in the world, that sense of transcendence is real, if fleeting.

I have long believed that the great religious holidays, in every time and tradition, and the myths that they are based on (“myth” not in the sense of falsehood, but of a different kind of truth) are ways of getting at that elusive experience of transcendence.  These holidays take us out of time, at least momentarily, and give us a small taste of the eternal.  As Carroll wrote, “. . . the meaning of what we call ‘the holidays’ goes deeper than any one tradition, as we humans plunge more fully into what makes us human in the first place.”

One can love Christmas, or not.  But if, as G. M. Caple suggests, one “strips away all the accretions”: the commercialism, the busy-ness, the literalism, the tribalism, there is much in this holiday that is universal, and universally true.  There is the difficulty and uncertainty of birth, there is danger and betrayal, there is love and loyalty, there is the promise of what is divine in us humans coming to life, there is the embodiment of God.  There is hope, there is light in the darkest of times.

But we also know how the story ends.  The story does not have to be literally true to contain these truths, any more than War and Peace or any other great novel must be literally true in order to reflect the great paradoxes, the great triumph and tragedy of our shared humanity.

Perhaps the greatest of the biblical authors, the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes, captured these paradoxes best in the great “time for all seasons” passage: 

. . . a time to be born, and a time to die . . .
a time to kill, and a time to heal . . .
a time to mourn, and a time to dance . . .
a time to love, and a time to hate. . . .

It is not The Truth, but the universal truths that I look for in the Christmas holiday, not its claim of once-for-all-ness, but what is ever-and- always.  I want to experience eternity.  My late colleague Forrest Church once wrote [“Looking Forward to the Present”], 

Theologians who have written about time often divide it into two dimensions, the ephemeral or temporal, and the eternal.  Eternity is the depth dimension of time.  I know even less about eternity than I do about time, but there are moments when I lose all sense of time and taste eternity.  Eternity has nothing to do with past or future.  Past and future are on a horizontal axis, eternity on a vertical one.  Any given point of time can either be connected horizontally to that which has proceeded or will follow it, or to that which endures forever.

I don’t know about you, but I want to be in touch with that which endures forever.  I want the assurance that something does endure.  Myths such as the Christmas story are ways of putting us in touch with that.

It is not surprising, then, that the great mystics describe these kinds of experience as being outside of time.  In T. S. Eliot’s words, “At the still point of the turning world.”  In his great poem sequence, Four Quartets, he attempted to describe the paradox of being both within and without time.  Did he succeed?  Suffice it to say that the experience of eternity-in-the-now is universal enough that we must at least take the possibility seriously.

Most of us aren’t mystics, unfortunately.  But the great religious celebrations are meant to give us a little taste of the kind of experience of which the mystics write.  As G. M. Caple asked in the morning’s reading, what remains when we get to the heart of Christmas? 

With unimagined clarity,
There will be experienced
An intermission,
A quietness,
A stillness of the spirit,
A strange awareness
Of the infiltration of human life
By some divine essence.
Bringing with it
An indescribable peace
Which is at once the mystery
And the reality. . . .

God knows, we could all use a time-out from the terrible news of the last week.  As Eliot also wrote, “Mankind cannot bear too much reality.”  We need an “intermission,” a time-out from that awful reality, but even also from the usual “fret and fever” of our most ordinary days.  We long for those brief moments of refreshment, of renewal, of heightened awareness, and of peace, which the holidays occasionally bring.

Unitarian Universalist minister Richard Kelly once wrote that, 

All creation nestles within the crucible of time—a cup of hollowed strangeness, of passingness and duration, held perhaps in unknown hands. 

The washed light of time surrounds us with our sorrow and our exultation, for it brings us endless departure, and yet precious achievement, brings us glimpses of bright-flecked eternity. 

Restlessness stirs forever within the crucible, eternally creating and transforming, and thus holds both the problem and the answer to our lives.

It is those glimpses of “bright-flecked eternity” which I always look for in the holidays, this year more than most.

Howard Thurman, the great Black preacher and teacher, once called Christmas “the time of pause,” but how many of us do?  I guess that is what I am asking you all to do this morning: to make use of this holiday time to pause, to take a deep breath, to reflect on the joy that remains in spite of heartbreak and grief, to remember the good work that is being done and that remains to be done, to keep hope alive.  Take a time-out from your busy days, from the bad news, from all that makes for a heavy heart, and recall that there is still beauty and happiness in the world and especially in our own lives, if we will but take the time to listen and look.

John Q. Parkhurst has written, 

Let me possess myself,
Be calm in mind and quiet
In my heart.
Let me take the time
To watch the candle’s light;
And know it is the same
Vast silence of the silver stars.
Let me be of time dispossessed;
Stand at the birth and humbly
Say the name.
Let me in quiet, by the candle’s sight,
Be akin to stars and
Lost in time—
Be a disciple of Truth’s Eternal Light.

That truth is that in spite of pain and suffering, in spite of loss and grief, and in the face of unspeakable acts of violence and hatred, life and love ultimately prevail, and that as long as we do not give up hope, as long as we continue to struggle for the beautiful and good and true, they will always prevail, even as they have always prevailed in the past.  May each of us take the time in this holiday season to think upon these things, and may we discover that in doing so we have found a little of the peace of the eternal filling the cracks in our time-bound lives, and, even for just a moment, setting our souls free.  God bless you all.  Amen. 

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Reading: “The Essence,” by G. M. Caple; Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8


December 9, 2012

The Lights of Hanukkah

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December 9, 2012 

“Hanukkah affirms the universal truth
that the only effective answer to oppression is the intensified
positive assertion
of the principles and values which that oppression threatens.”
– Theodor H. Gaster 

As you might imagine, growing up in a small town in coastal Maine in the 1950s and 60s, I didn’t have a lot of exposure to other religions and cultures.  There were no Jews in Castine that I knew of (or at least, who were spoken of), and not even very many Roman Catholics.  Of course, there were no Blacks or Asians, either, only a few Italians, and certainly no Muslims.

All in all, we were a pretty homogeneous, Protestant and northern European bunch, and other than what I learned about other religions in my Unitarian Sunday school, I was pretty much oblivious about the multi-cultural-ism and religious diversity which existed even then in the United States.  When I started elementary school, we still recited the Lord’s Prayer along with the Pledge of Allegiance, and no one seemed to care.

The Jews that I knew about in Downeast Maine were mostly merchants, whose clothing, jewelry, and shoe stores we traded with on shopping trips to Bucksport, Bangor, or Ellsworth.  I may have been aware that there was a small synagogue in Bangor, about thirty-five miles away, but about Jewish people in general, and their religious practices in particular, I knew almost nothing.

I was aware of some low-level anti-Semitism which I suspect was still common to many small, rural places in the 1950s.

The fact is, hardly anyone that I knew probably knew anything at all about Jewish people or culture.  Even at a very young age, though, I felt uncomfortable with the occasional slurs about Jews, just as I did when I heard uninformed comments about Blacks and Asians.

So, needless to say, I didn’t notice any menorahs burning away in the nights during the holiday season when I was growing up, and I don’t know that I even heard of Hanukkah until many years later.  The dominant Christian culture prevailed everywhere in music, decoration, and public display, and no one seemed to question it, least of all a little kid with Christmas stars in his eyes.

Later on I attended a boarding school where I met a few Jewish kids, but, possibly with good reason, they never shared anything about their religion. Besides, they were almost all from Boston, and that was about as exotic a personal distinction as I could handle at the time.

It wasn’t until I entered BostonUniversity as a freshman in 1969 that I began to have many Jewish friends and to learn more about Jewish culture and religion.  Almost all of my close friends at BU, where over half of the student body was Jewish, were Jewish, though many were secular, non-practicing Jews who took strictures like Kosher with a grain of salt.  For the first time, I visited in Jewish homes, ate exotic Jewish foods like bagels, and learned about Jewish holidays.  Simultaneously, I was learning about history.

This experience had the effect of making me appreciate even more than before my Unitarian Universalist upbringing.  Blessedly, I had few preconceived notions about Jews or Judaism.  I was prepared to be open-minded toward my Jewish friends, and I never have had cause to regret it.

But it was a learning experience.  For the first time in my short life, I felt, in my friends’ homes, what it was like to be a cultural outsider.  The parents of the young Jewish women I hung around with, none too seriously, were not sure that they approved of me.

As I grew older and learned more about the world, read more literature by and about Jews, and eventually entered DivinitySchool to study about religion, I became more and more aware of the difficult and often tragic journey of world Jewry.

Today, of course, we are trying to assimilate the reality of a United States which is not only Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish, but a United States which has more Muslims than Episcopalians, where there are millions of Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains, and where it is not unusual to see turbaned Sikhs riding the subways of Puritan Boston.  Charlie on the MBTA indeed.  Not to mention literally hundreds of so-called “new religious movements” and folk religions and New Age spiritual practices which have arisen in the last thirty years.

Needless to say, this is not the world that Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he penned the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which became the basis for the constitutional separation of church and state, and which reads in part that, “. . . no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be forced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

Sometimes, however, the truth is stronger than fiction.  The fact is, the principle of the separation of church and state has never been more important in this country than it is today.  In spite of perennial attempts to tear down the “wall” of separation which the Constitution erected, we must realize now more than ever before how fortuitous that wall has been for the continuing development of the American experiment in democracy.  The ignorant or devious will still try to circumvent that wall by, for example, installing the Ten Commandments in public spaces, but thankfully there are still those who will see this as the sectarian subterfuge and bald-faced breach that it is.

(By the way, you may have read or noticed that our Jewish friends here in Newburyport have installed a Menorah in Brown Square this holiday season.  It will be very interesting to see what kind of a reaction that elicits.)

Only if one ignores the Native Americans who were here before the Spanish, the English, and the Dutch arrived on these shores can one make the claim that ours was ever a strictly “Christian” nation.  In fact, Jews  began arriving in liberal Rhode Island in the 17th century.  We may still accept the defining role, for better or worse, of Christianity in the development of our country, but we must never make claims for the precedence or dominance of any particular religious tradition or sect, body, or practice.  That is the glory of our Constitution, whether intentional on the founders’ part or not.  (God works in mysterious ways her wonders to perform.)  Our greatness is at least in part a result of our diversity, in my opinion, a large part.

My friend and mentor Charles Stephen, retired minister of the Unitarian Church of Lincoln, Nebraska, once wrote that, 

The question is not: should religion and politics mix.  They do mix; there is no question about it.  How could it be otherwise?  The difficult issue is how much mixture—it is how to keep the religious zealots at bay—it is how to maintain a pluralistic, tolerant, and secular society when political leaders tend to blur the line between religion and government, when some political leaders wrap themselves in religious garments.

Blessedly, and somewhat surprisingly given Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, there was less of this in the recent election cycle than in previous ones.

Some still maintain that a crèche or even a Christmas tree on public property is no big deal, that it doesn’t “mean” anything, but is only a “holiday display” which should therefore not offend anyone.  But as we know, symbols are important.  (It will be interesting to see if there is a backlash to the Menorah in Brown Square.  Even if one argues that a Christmas tree is not a specifically Christian symbol, which of course it isn’t, it is nonetheless true, as Rabbi Avi Poupko recently said to his clergy colleagues, that we only put trees up at Christmas-time.)

I have been pleasantly gratified that the bridge over the Charles River between Boston and Charlestown named after the Jewish Leonard Zakim is almost universally called the “ZakimBridge,” in spite of the compromise at the time of its naming that added “Bunker Hill” to the name.  This to appease the bigots who claimed at the time that “there are no Jews in Charlestown.”  A small victory over the powers of darkness.

I believe it is extremely important that we recognize our cultural and religious diversity.  The time for Christian hegemony is past.  When I see the Hanukkah lights, I am reminded of this, reminded of the roots of this holiday in what Theodor Gaster calls “the first serious attempt in history to proclaim and champion the principle of religio-cultural diversity. . . .  Hanukkah affirms,” he continues, “the universal truth that the only effective answer to oppression is the intensified positive assertion of the principles and values which that oppression threatens.”

Hanukkah, we are reminded, is not about the freedom to be like everyone else; it is about the freedom to be different, different in a world which still prefers the familiarity of sameness.  The Hanukkah lights remind me to remember this truth, uncomfortable though it may sometimes be, unsettling as a new and different image or perspective on the world may make us feel.  The Hanukkah lights can be for all of us, in all our myriad ways of being, as Gaster wonderfully says, “a brave light in a naughty world,” calling us to a spiritual revival and appreciation of whatever it is that makes our own religious practice unique and precious.

As Michael Strassfeld writes, 

By lighting the menorah, we ignite the flame in our souls, the spark that cannot be extinguished, that will burn not for eight days but for eternity.  We place the menorah in our windows to be visible to those passing by, just as our inner light must shine against . . . evil and indifference and must kindle the spirits of our fellow humans.

May we all experience something of that renewal in this holiday season, and throughout the whole year, and may it lead us to a new and deeper appreciation of all that makes our country the diverse and wonderful place that it is, or at least as it has the potential to be.  Happy Hanukkah!  Amen.


– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Reading: from Festivals of the Jewish Year, by Theodor H. Gaster

December 2, 2012

The Gift of Presence

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December 2, 2012 

“Your children need your presence more than your presents.”
– The Rev. Jesse Jackson, from our Wayside Pulpit

 Recently I returned from my minister’s study group which meets at the Old Wayside Inn in Sudbury.  This group has now been in existence for sixteen years.  We currently have eleven members, about half of whom are original, and we meet twice a year to discuss a topic of interest chosen by consensus of the group.  Our usual modus operandi is to read and discuss one work of non-fiction and one of fiction.  Other readings are optional.  We also commonly watch a movie related to the theme.  The high point of our gatherings is the sharing of brief reflection papers on the theme of our meeting.  These are usually highly personal and often deeply moving.  The remainder of our time together is given over to worship, rest, conversation both formal and informal, long walks, time for meditation, and discussion about church matters.  This group has become my closest group of UU ministerial colleagues and friends, and now includes our friend Frank Clarkson, minister in Haverhill and our former student minister.

Inevitably, one of the possible topics for study which comes up in our discussions is depression.  It has become a bit of a joke for us to say that depression is just too depressing a topic for us to take up.  But it is, of course, no joke.  We often talk about those inevitable times in our lives when we seem to lose our sense of calling, our sense of meaning and purpose.  We describe those times variously as “being off the path,” or “caught in a maze,” or “lost in the darkness.”

Indeed, there is not a single member of our group who has not suffered from depression, often severe, at one time or another.  Several members of the group use or have used medication to help them deal with the effects of their depression.

But we often also talk about the ways in which those “dark” times of uncertainty and depression and despair, those times of confusion and of feeling lost, can actually turn out to be the richest source of meaning and growth and inspiration for the continuation of our work as ministers.  The 15th century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross referred to such times as “the dark nights of the soul.”  They were an inescapable passage on the mystical journey to union with the Divine.  The dark night remains a helpful and ultimately hopeful metaphor for those lost times in our lives when nothing seems certain.

In the midst of the dark night, we often feel that all hope is gone.  Yet it seems that it is in enduring these desert times of the spirit that we often find new direction, new insight, and even a new or renewed purpose in life.  Indeed, it is a question whether such fallow times might even be necessary.  (At the same time, it is important to recognize how debilitating those times can be, and how, sometimes, it is important that we seek help in dealing with them.)  Is it possible that such times are potentially opportunities for growth?

The Christian holiday of Advent is, like Lent, a penitential time in the church year.  It is a time of waiting, and of expectation.  It is a time for entering the darkness, both the literal darkness of the lengthening night, and the figurative darkness that precedes the return of clarity and direction.  Advent is a recognition of the importance of those fallow times when we must simply sit and wait.  It is a recognition and an acceptance of the reality and necessity of the dark times in our lives.  Only by passing through such times can we again reach the light and find new meaning and hope to continue on the journey of life.

If we can endure the dark times—and sometimes that means seeking the help we need to get through them—we may find that our lives are richer, deeper, and more precious than ever we could have expected.

These thoughts recur to me as I once again seek a way to find deeper meaning and purpose in this holiday season, and particularly in this pre-Christmas Advent time.  Could this be a season of opportunity for spiritual growth?  And what if we were to act in such a way that it could be such, not only for us, but for all those whose lives we touch?

It seems appropriate, then, in this time of waiting, that we rethink the meaning of the holiday.  In a time when commercialism threatens to overwhelm and submerge the deeper lessons of the season, I would have us think about gifts—more specifically, about the most important gift.

I have been blessed with much good fortune.  My Christmases have always been rich in material gifts, sometimes embarrassingly so.  I have never known a Christmas without presents, because my family has always been materially well-off-enough to provide for a bountiful Christmas.

But my Christmases have also been rich with spiritual gifts, and my memories of Christmas are mostly good ones.  Not all of us can say that, for we know that Christmas can be one of the most stressful times of the year, and Christmas memories are not always happy ones.  We’re supposed to be happy this time of year, but not everyone is, or has reason to be.

Some of us are suffering loss or bereavement, made worse by a first Christmas alone; some of us are sick; some of us are lonely, a loneliness made worse by the many images of family and togetherness that prevail at this time of year.  And yes, some of us are depressed.  Christmas can intensify the loneliness, the hurt, and the tension in relationships already at the breaking point.

At this time of year, many of us are also searching for that perfect gift for a loved one, and this can cause much stress as well.  We sometimes find ourselves spending beyond our means.  Perhaps, like me, you find resonance in the old Merle Haggard song: “If we make it through December, everything’s going to be alright, I know.”

Gifts and gift-giving have become a big—some would say too big—part of our celebration of the Christmas holiday.  And that adds a lot of financial strain to an already emotionally stressful time.  Sometimes we really can’t afford to live up to societal and family expectations about gift-giving at this time of year.

The giving of gifts at Christmas goes back to the gospel of Matthew’s account of the three Magi bringing gifts to the infant Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

More interesting is the account of the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.  There we learn that the first to arrive at the scene of the birth were not kings, but poor Jewish folk: simple shepherds.  The shepherds bring no gifts except themselves and their wonder at the birth.

Luke is also the author who reports Mary as saying in the “Magnificat,” “He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has fill the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”  Luke also shortens Matthew’s version of the beatitude from “Blessed are the poor in spirit” to “Blessed are you poor.”

Obviously, for the author of Luke wealth—the ability to bring gifts—is not important; indeed, wealth would appear to be a hindrance rather than a help: the rich are “sent away empty.”

And so it is the poor shepherds who are first at the stable, bringing nothing but themselves: their presence, not their presents.

Herein is an important message which we ought to take to heart, not only at Christmas time, but at all times.  What is the most important gift?  Is it material or spiritual?

In his writings, spiritual writer Henri Nouwen speaks of “our precious gift of care.”  His biographer, Jurjen Beumer, writes, “According to him, the word ‘care’ comes from the Gothic ‘kara,’ which means ‘to grieve, to experience sorrow, to cry out with.’”  Nouwen himself wrote that, “The friend who cares make it clear that whatever happens in the external world, being present to each other is what really matters.”

My experience in the ministry and in life has shown me that often the most important gift we bring is ourselves, our presence, our being there.  This is true in seasons of sorrow as well as in seasons of joy.  It is especially true during the dark nights of the soul, but it is also true in the times when the path lies clear and bright before us.  We want someone to share the journey with us.

When someone is ill or has suffered a loss, people will sometimes complain that they “don’t know what to say.”  As Nouwen puts it, “[W]e must first recognize that we stand with empty hands at the side of someone who is seriously ill or dying, or who is undergoing great suffering.”  What is important, again, is your presence, your being there, not anything you might say.

For what can one say in the face of grief or depression?  Certainly, we can offer our sympathy, for we too are mortal; we too have suffered or will suffer; no one in this life is immune to sadness and loss.  But always we can bring our presence; we can be there with those who suffer; we can join them in solidarity, because we share their humanity.

So too at the holiday.  What is important is not the material gifts we bring, pleasant as these may be to give and to receive.  What’s important during the holiday season is our presence with those we love.  And I don’t mean our presence somewhere in the house, or in the recliner in front of the TV, or on our smart phones.  I mean really being present, listening to and hearing what our loved ones have to say, and sharing ourselves generously.

It is this sharing of ourselves which is, I am convinced, the greatest gift of all.  For as Charles Gaines wrote in the morning’s readings,

Those who give what is precious in themselves will always be blessed.  Our thoughts, our time, our space, our sympathy, our concern, our encouragement, our hope; such small lights, but how they sparkle and lighten what is otherwise so dark a world.  And whether or not it is clear to you, count yourself as one of these lights as you give the most precious gift you can to others: simple moments in time that gather into good memories of your presence.  Moments when you affirm the greatest gift of all; life, itself.

We shall all encounter the dark times in life, the fallow times when the seed of ourselves lies waiting for the return of the light, when the path is lost and the ways seems impossibly long and difficult, and the goal is obscured to our vision.  Let us believe that the dark night times are gifts in themselves, opportunities to learn more about ourselves, to see our way more clearly, to rediscover hope and to recognize more surely than ever our shared humanity.

And let those times, like this Advent season, be times when we accept the precious presence of those others who are simply there to travel the dark journey with us; times when we, too, stand ready to share the precious gift of ourselves.

Remember the shepherds, who had nothing to offer except themselves, but who came anyway.

In my darkest times, in my times of wandering and uncertainty and of waiting the return of the light, I have tried to keep that spirit of expectancy which we celebrate during the Advent season.  Always it has been the presence of people who loved and cared for me that got me through.  Though you may not believe it, you are the most important gift.  Remember that, and God bless.  Amen. 

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Reading: from Hope and Courage Along the Way, by Charles Gaines

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