Harold Babcock's Sermons

January 20, 2013

The Curse of Poverty

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January 20, 2013

“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr. 

This past week, Julie Parker Amery and I attended a “poverty awareness day” at the NewburyportCity Hall.  In response to a project of students at the River Valley Charter School, Poverty Awareness Day was proclaimed by Mayor Holladay as a way to annually bring awareness to the poverty that exists right here in our midst.  Speakers representing several local social service agencies and churches, including the Salvation Army, Best Foot Forward, Pennies for Poverty (now chaired by our own Michael Sandberg), Central Congregational Church, and the Pettengill House provided firsthand information about the extent of poverty here in the greater Newburyport area.

The work of these groups and many others in our area attests to the fact that while Newburyport may look like a pretty affluent community—and considering that a majority of folks here make more than $100,000 a year, it obviously is—nonetheless, at least a thousand folks among us find themselves in severe poverty, defined as having an income less than $18,000.  These individuals and families constitute an almost invisible component of our community.  But it’s even worse than that: more than 200 kids in our local schools are living in severe poverty, and many of those kids are homeless.

The statistics statewide are pretty shocking.  There are around 50,000 homeless students in Massachusetts.  Shelters around the state take in around 3200 individuals per night.  At the same time, around 2100 families also are seeking shelter.  On a recent Monday, 1600 families were being housed in motels around the state, including some right here in our own community.  Of the Pettengill House’s 2700 clients, 540 are homeless.

Poverty, according to a definition offered at the Poverty Awareness Day program, is defined as “the inability to participate in the activities of normal living.”  I’m going to guess that that definition even includes more than a few of us, either past or present.  It could include quite a few of us in the future if we become ill, go through a divorce, or encounter any number of other crisis situations.

City Councilor Ed Cameron, who works in the field of homelessness, used the metaphor of flying to describe the situation of many in our community.  Most Newburyport residents, he said, are “flying closer to 30,000 feet” and can afford a bit of turbulence in their lives, such as an illness or other crisis, because of the nature of their jobs and livelihoods.  But there are many who can’t afford to get sick or stay home with a sick child for even a day because they run the risk of not being able to pay their bills or of losing their jobs.  “When you’re cruising at low altitude,” Cameron said, “any turbulence can make you hit the ground.”

The causes of poverty in our area are various.  They include a lack of education, which is a key to getting out of poverty; the high cost of housing here and in surrounding communities; substance abuse and mental health issues; and domestic violence, which accounts for around 40% of homeless families.  For many folks right here in Newburyport, there is not enough money, no place to go, and no safety net of family or friends to help them over the rough patches that inevitably, unless we are incredibly fortunate, come to us all in this life.

Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we are celebrating today, was not only interested in combatting racism and achieving civil rights for people of color in our country.  Perhaps more radical than that was his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War and his work to alleviate poverty.  We shouldn’t forget that his Great March on Washington in 1963 was not only about freedom, but also about jobs.  As I reminded us in my sermon on King last year, King’s assignation in Memphis, Tennessee took place not in the context of a civil rights demonstration, but of King’s support for striking sanitation workers.  King wrote,

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age.  It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization. . . .  The time has come to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.

Early in the year in which he died, King wrote presciently that,

Most people who are poor in this country are working every day and that is not said enough.  They are working here in Washington and in all our cities.  Working in our hotels, they clean up our rooms. . . .  They work in our hospitals, they work in our homes. . . .  Most of them are working every day, working sometimes sixty hours a week, working full-time jobs and getting part-time incomes.  These are problems that are very real.

Unfortunately, very little has changed since then, and things may even be worse now than in 1968.

As someone who has worked on the front lines, so to speak, of this dilemma for thirty years, I can tell you that King spoke the truth.  Here at the First Religious Society, we are fortunate to have the use of invested funds in our endowment to aid people in need.  Of course, the kind of aid I am able to distribute on your behalf is only a bandaid, but sometimes even a bandaid is helpful.  I don’t think we should ever underestimate the value of a few dollars to someone who is completely broke.  Typical needs that I try to respond to using funds from our Swasey Fund include food, diapers, transportation, automobile expenses, insurance, prescriptions, Christmas gifts, holiday assistance, rent, utilities, medical expenses, and clothing.  I also work with many local agencies to provide assistance to persons in need, and sometimes make larger donations to local social service agencies to assist them in their work.

While a few of the people I see are merely passing through our community, most live here.  Some I see on a regular basis, and so have been able to learn a little about their lives.  There are retired grandparents who find themselves bringing up a grandchild, people caught in between social security benefits, folks who have lost their food stamps or are in the process of trying to get them, people who can’t get to work because their cars are broken down and they can’t afford to fix them, people whose health insurance, if they have any, doesn’t cover a certain kind of prescription.  There are people with obvious mental health issues, people with physical disabilities, victims of domestic abuse, folks who have lost their jobs, people who have missed paying a month’s rent and face eviction if they can’t come up with it.

Yes, there are a few people who are just taking advantage of us and an occasional congenital liar, but I have come to see that even those people really need help, even if they are mostly to blame for their own situations because of substance abuse or inability to hold a job.  A few I have had to say no to, but I always try to err on the side of goodness and mercy.

And while it may turn out to be true that “the poor you have always with you,” I try, on behalf of our religious community and our religious values, to be as helpful as I can to as many people as I can.  For as King also wrote, “Any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and women and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that can scar the soul, is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried.”  Occasionally, someone that we have helped actually manages to get back on his or her feet, and that is pretty darned gratifying.  It doesn’t happen as often as I wish, but the fact that it happens at all is a very hopeful sign.

On your behalf, I try to live up to the biblical injunction to welcome the stranger, to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner–even if the form of imprisonment is one that is only self-imposed by poor judgment or poor habits.  With some people, I do confess, it is difficult, because not everyone is likeable, and a few are even a little scary.

But if this isn’t the work of the church, then what is?

We are very fortunate to live in a community with so many wonderful social service agencies.  I try to work closely with as many of them as possible, because one of the unfortunate realities of my involvement in this work is that I really don’t have time to do the kind of case management that can be most helpful to the people I see in getting them back on their feet.  Most churches are simply not equipped to do that kind of work.  Working with other agencies that do, I can be more assured that our resources are being used in the best possible manner, and that my bandaids are more likely to have a long-term impact on the lives of those I meet and serve.

Those of you who help out with the Friendship Table at the Salvation Army or other meals programs know, from first hand observation, that there are many in our beautiful community who are living on the edge.  We should never underestimate the importance of activities like that, nor should we underestimate the importance of our collections for cause.  Giving money may not be as hands-on a way to help as some of us would like to see, but I can tell you that in an economic environment where every agency is struggling for every single penny in order to survive and continue its work, money is not insignificant, and may even make the difference between a source of help existing or not, and thus a person being saved or not.  Ninety percent of the assistance that the Salvation Army is able to give in our community comes from the donations of individuals like us and churches like ours.

King came to understand that the only solution to the economic inequalities that exist in our country would be what he called “a radical reconstruction of society itself.”  That reconstruction has still to be accomplished.  He wrote that,

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast between poverty and wealth.  With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the west investing large sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries and say: “This is not just. . . .”  A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling things is not just. . . .”  A nation that continues to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

As I noted in my sermon last year, the great challenge of our time is whether the current political stalemate can be overcome and progress finally made toward building a more just and equitable nation and world.  Personally, I would like to hear a lot less about the cost of our “entitlements,” and more about the need for generosity on the part of those of us who can afford it.

In this important work, the life and thought of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. still have an important role to play in speaking to the moral conscience of this brave new world in which we live, and reminding all of us, as he once said, that “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

May we always remember that, and may we always maintain a hopeful vision for the promised land of our dreams, not only for ourselves, but for all people, everywhere, and especially for those who need our help who are close at hand right here in our own community.  So may it be.  Amen. 

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Reading: From “The King We Ignore,” by Jonathan K. Cooper Wiele

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January 13, 2013

Downhill from Here

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January 13, 2013

“God give us
the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
the courage to change the things that should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
– Reinhold Niebuhr 

By a quirk in the way I visualize the calendar, January begins a long, steep, almost vertical descent toward spring and summer.  Summer, beginning around the end of May, levels out.  Beginning in September and up until the end of December, it’s a steep climb, not quite vertical, but rough going; thereafter, it’s all downhill until June.  Probably wishful thinking, given New England winters and weather.  However, it is true that the days are already lengthening!

And why does this matter, you ask?  As one of those people for whom the shortness of the days and the paucity of light is much more depressing than the winter’s cold, it gives the illusion that the light’s return is closer than it actually is.  Thus my title: downhill from here, implying not that things are about to fall apart– which they may well be–but that the sledding from here on out will be a lot smoother, even if it won’t.

There are a lot of metaphors for me in this visualization, but the one that has been most on my mind in recent days is the courage to be.  How do we find the courage to be in the dark times?  I hope not only by fooling ourselves, as my little calendar trick does for my light deprivation syndrome.  How do we get past the low times and the lonely times, the times of loss and pain and sorrow?  These will come to all of us, if we live long enough.  They must be endured: how do we find the strength to endure?

These post-holiday times can be especially hard on people, and though I don’t know if there are any statistics to back it up, it always seems to me that there is a spike in deaths at this particular time of the year.  This year has been no different, affecting both this congregation and my own family in the death of my aunt.  From this vantage point the winter can seem endless, the cold relentless, spring and summer and the return of light, both literal and figurative, a hopeless dream.  Loss hits hard at this time of year, and we may even wonder if it’s worth it to keep on keeping on.

I really believe that the calendar has a lot to do with this, though I can’t prove it.  I know that for myself, this is the time of year when the candle of hope burns dimmest, when courage begins to slip, when the cumulative effects of loss and sorrow seem to grow strongest.  It’s the time of year when I have to work hard at finding meaning, when all my accomplishments and goals begin to seem questionable, when creativity is at its lowest ebb.

Sixty-one years of experience have taught me, or should have by now, that “this too shall pass,” that my spirits will revive with the coming of spring, that everything will look differently in April than they do now, in deepest January.  But here, in the middle of it, whatever “it” is, it is easy to forget, and sometimes I falter in my conviction.

This is a good season in which to pray, and I mean this in no pious or even overtly religious sense.  Prayer, for me, is a conversation that I carry on with the universe.  It may or may not be in the traditional language of prayer, though I often find traditional prayers to be comforting.  The one that I included on your orders of service this morning is one of the most helpful, and it is no surprise that it has been adopted as the motto of many addiction recovery groups: 

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
courage to change the things that should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Another of my favorite traditional prayers is the “Lord’s Prayer,” ascribed to Jesus, though probably a compilation; especially its line, “thy will be done.”  This one-line prayer reminds me that I am not all powerful, that I am not God, and that there are many things over which I have absolutely no control whatsoever, most, in fact, life and death being the chief among them.

Two of my Transylvanian Unitarian friends who have died in recent years have given new luster to a tarnished gem, the twenty-third Psalm.  Both of them found great comfort in their final days in the line, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me,” a reminder that we are never alone, not even in our darkest times.

More often than not, however, my prayers take the form of an unrepeatable-in-this-context “shout out” to the universe.  Just letting it know that I’m still here, if you know what I mean.  It’s amazing how therapeutic that can sometimes be!

Do my prayers change anything?  Well, as someone has truthfully claimed, prayer doesn’t change things; but prayer changes us, and sometimes that makes it possible for us to change something that needs to be changed.

What resources do we turn to when “despair for the world grows in [us],” as Wendell Berry writes in a poem I shared with you last week?  It’s important that we have some.  One could say that it is our religious work to seek out those resources and to store them up for the inevitable hard times, for what the late Paul Carnes, a former president of the UUA, called the “many causes of despair which life inevitably brings to us all.”  It is one of the reasons we come to church.

In this context I think first of friends and family, of our church community, of our faith (in the sense of “trust” and not of beliefs), of our commitments and of our loves.  These are the greatest sources of courage, though there are many others: poetry, art, music, nature, and not least the example of others who have traveled the dark journey before us with hope and courage.

Following the recent terrible events in Newtown, CT, I happened to hear my friend, the writer and Maine Warden Service chaplain Kate Braestrup, being interviewed on NPR.  You may remember Kate from her visit here several years ago, or you may have read one of her books.  Kate was asked, “Where is God in the tragic and senseless events you witness?”

I found Kate’s response to be most comforting, perhaps not least because it comes straight out of our own Unitarian Universalist tradition.  She said that God is Love, and that divine love is manifested when friends, neighbors, and even strangers show up to help in the aftermath of tragic events.  We manifest divine love just by being present with people in their difficult and tragic times, even when there is nothing we can say.  For my friend Kate, God is the love that people bring by showing up to help and comfort those in need.  That works for me.

Franklin Roosevelt, on the eve of World War II, famously said that “we have nothing to fear by fear itself.”  He was right.  It’s especially true as we contemplate our own deaths or the death of someone we love.  My colleague Michael McGee has written, 

To be courageous about death, we must first recognize and accept that every one of us is fearful.  We are afraid that we will die, and our loved ones will die.  We are afraid that we will suffer and that we will not be ready when death comes.  And we are afraid of what comes after death—if anything. 

There is nothing wrong with being afraid of death, as long as we face those fears.  That is courage: the ability to face what we fear instead of denying it.

Let us never forget “how great a cloud of witnesses” we are surrounded by, those who by their examples have shown us the way to go, those who have faced their fears and overcome them, those who have shown up, our companions on life’s way, all those who by their presence, past or present, have made our lives bright and given us the will to go on.

Margaret Ames, a woman whose courageous shadow touched my childhood in Castine, Maine, having lost her husband and two college-aged sons in a terrible sailing accident, put together a collection of the readings that had been most helpful to her during her bereavement, entitled For Those New to Sorrow.  I turn to it often when I am feeling blue, always wondering how a particular reading or poem or prayer was helpful to her in her awful time of loss, and, indeed, throughout her life thereafter.  Readings take on new meaning when put in such a context.  Whatever my fears, whatever my problems, I know that there are those who have suffered more and overcome more than I will ever have to face.  And that knowledge gives me a least a few moments of comfort.  Sometimes, that is all it takes to get me back in the swing of things, and helps me to make it through another day, and to face the days still to come.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, 

Young people always think, if their own lamp has gone out, that the world is dark.  Then, after a while, they begin to look about them, and find there are innumerable lights—solid satisfactions that are always to be had—which have nothing to do with them or their life.  Friends and philosophers, and beautiful places and books and pictures—these are the indestructible joys forever.  If you learn to love those things when you are young, when you are older they will receive you, as the Bible says, into everlasting habitations.

Mostly, I have found this to be true in my own life.  But it is good to be reminded again.

My grandmother used to say that “as the days grow longer, the cold grows stronger.”  Be that as it may, and it spite of this January thaw, I look forward to the lengthening days.  I muster the courage to pass through the gray, dark days, with their losses and sorrow, and I look forward with hope to warmer and sunnier days to come, knowing that joy will return in time, as it always does, if I can only hang it there for a while.  For today, which is the only day of which I can be certain, I take comfort in some words of the scientist, Alexander Agassiz: 

. . . To live our lives as if they had been made for us, and live in hope, do the best we can, work hard, and have as many interests as we can in what is going on around us.

That is my hope for myself and for each of us, and I am confident that if we take that advice, if we show up for one another, if we care for each other and hang in there, if we trust in “the roses waiting beneath the deep-piled snow,” it’s all downhill from here.  So may it be.  Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Readings: from “Living Lovingly in a Culture of Fear,” by Margaret R. Miles; a poem by Dawn Markova; “New Beginnings” by A. R. Howe.

January 6, 2013

Epiphanies

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January 6, 2013 

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
 – Gerard Manley Hopkins 

I don’t know about you, but I live for those special moments of heightened awareness in which what is seems more than what is; moments, often fleeting, when we seem to be in touch with something greater than ourselves; moments of excruciating beauty, of what I call transcendence, when common objects, scenes, or people take on a luster, an aura, that we did not know they possessed; when mundane and everyday surroundings seem suddenly charged with meaning and significance.

Often these moments take place when we least expect them, the sacred breaking-in, surprising us who were un-expectant, giving us a glimpse of something which is beyond us, and yet in the world.  These are the moments of epiphany, when the transcendent becomes present to us in the common and the visible, when the sacred becomes accessible, when we sense if only momentarily that we are not isolated, but connected; that we are, to borrow Emerson’s phrase, “part and particle of all we behold”; moments when we dare to hope that the world is orderly and sensible and meaningful.

An epiphany, according to one definition, is “an outward and visible sign of inward spiritual grace.”  An epiphany is the thing, occurrence, or act which points us toward transcendence.  It is a manifestation; it shows us the way.  It points us beyond itself to something else, something more significant.  It is not a hallucination, because it is something that takes place in the real and the concrete.

We need to be reminded, as the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins so eloquently reminds us, that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

What brought epiphanies to mind is that in the Christian calendar, today is the feast of Epiphany, which celebrates the manifestation of the divine nature of Jesus to the Magi.  It also happens to be Sabrina’s and my 34th wedding anniversary, and that in itself is an epiphany for me.

But epiphanies are around us all the time, if we have eyes to see, ears to hear, and minds to understand.  Perhaps the reason that epiphanies catch us off guard is that we are too busy—too distracted, too anxious, too oblivious—to remember that the world is charged with divine grandeur.  We are too involved with our mundane cares and worries to pay attention as we should.  And so, in Hopkins’s words, “It will flame out” when we least expect it; but thank God it does!

Ever since the Transcendentalists of the mid-nineteenth century, our Unitarian Universalist tradition has counseled us to look for the sacred, to look for God, in the world as it is.  “These motions everywhere in nature must surely be the circulations of God,” wrote Thoreau.  “The flowing sail, the running stream, the waving tree, the roving wind—whence else their infinite health and freedom?”  This worship of the natural world is a significant strand of our religious heritage.  We are taught to look for divinity, for God, everywhere we go.

And yet, I fear we do not take this counsel to heart as we should.  Our seeing is so often superficial, and I suppose that is why we are usually surprised by the sacred when it leaps out at us from the ordinary and the everyday.  Even when it does, we are usually at a loss to explain what has happened to us.  We know that something exceptional has taken place, we feel that it has, but we are unable to give a rational explanation of it.

Great literature is filled with epiphanies.  James Joyce, the great Irish novelist, famously referred to his short stories as “epiphanies,” meant to offer us little revelations, moments when everything changes forever.  Such a moment occurs near the end of Joyce’s great short story “The Dead,” when the central character, Gabriel, discovers that his beloved wife has had a lover before him, a young man who may literally have died for love.  But the epiphanic moment occurs when Gabriel grasps the inseparability of the living from the dead, perhaps symbolized by the snow which, Gabriel thinks, “is general all over Ireland,” falling “upon all the living and the dead,” including on the grave of his wife’s dead lover.  Great literature does not attempt to explain or to rationalize: rather it attempts to show us, to make us feel, to point us beyond.

My college Shakespeare professor, Tony Herbold, a fairly devout Catholic (his PhD dissertation had been on the great Catholic apologist, G. K. Chesterton), and a man very interested in religion, first introduced me to the concept of epiphany.  In a poem originally entitled “Design,” but later retitled “Epiphany,” he tries to capture a natural epiphany in his everyday world:

I walked a world
That held its rhythm,
Designs not to be traced
And harmonies unheard,
That melody of things
We lose because we do.

The crust of snow
Yielded and would not.
The sun came prismed
Through ice-wrapped twigs.
But what they held they held.

So I walked the fields,
Fields without tracery
Or light
Or song,
Mostly gray.

Crossing a bridge,
I heard the whir,
T
hen the cry of geese.
Out of the gray
I found their flight.
South by south,
Spaced and smooth
They sped.

There, where they left my sight,
The gray was haze.

The poem is about an epiphany: the sudden, significance-laden appearance of those geese.  But the poem is an epiphany, too, pointing us to something beyond the mere appearance of some geese which is described.  And yet, as rational explanation of what actually happened, the poem fails; indeed, the poet fails to explain it: “There, where they left my sight,/ The gray was haze.”  We know only that something significant happened, and perhaps that is the closest we can come to an explanation.

Emerson, too, could only describe a similar experience, in one of my favorite passages from his writings: “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration.  I am glad almost to the brink of fear.”  Explanation fails, or perhaps there is no explanation.

Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things” points, like the others, but doesn’t explain:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I awake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief.  I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.  For a time
I rest in grace of the world, and am free.

With its biblical echo of “still water,” the poem becomes a kind of modern twenty-third Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil.”

Part of our problem is that we want to be able to explain everything rationally, and epiphanies, by their nature, are inexplicable.  They show us something which is beyond explanation, something which, nevertheless, we desperately need and long for.

Unitarian Universalism is peculiarly a religion of rational discourse.  Words are important to us.  But the spirit craves more; it craves something which words can only point to.  Our emphasis on words, in conjunction with the Enlightenment’s emphasis on rationalism, has led us down a narrow path as far as religious experience is concerned.  We need to learn to see and to feel as well as to hear and explain.  That we still can experience moments of epiphany is a positive sign: it means that we have not totally lost the ability to experience the sacred in the everyday and ordinary.  It still occasionally catches us off guard.  The question is, I suppose, can we teach ourselves to be more aware, more of what the Buddhists call mindful?  Can we make ourselves more open to the possibility of epiphany?  That would be a New Year’s resolution worthy of our best efforts!

In his poem “How to See Deer,” my late friend the poet Philip Booth writes about learning to see in the figurative, and not just the literal sense: learning to see below the surface, into the heart of things, and perhaps beyond:

Forget roadside crossings.
Go nowhere with guns.
Go elsewhere your own way,

lonely and wanting.
Or stay and be early:
next to deep woods     

inhabit old orchards.
All clearings promise.
Sunrise is good 

and fog before sun.
Expect nothing always;
find your luck slowly.
Wait out the windfall.
Take your good time
to learn to read ferns;

make like a turtle:
downhill toward slow water.
Instructed by heron,

drink the pure silence.
Be compassed by wind.
If you quiver like aspen

trust your quick nature:
let your ear teach you
which way to listen.

You’ve come to assume
protective color: now
colors reform to

new shapes in your eye.
You’ve learned by now
to wait without waiting:

as if it were dusk
look into light falling:
in deep relief

things even out.  Be
careless of nothing.  See
what you see.

Philip’s poem could just as well be a monastic prescription for the search for God.

In recent years it has become more and more evident that the earth is an organism, that it is a closed system, and that we are inextricably a part of it, a part of the whole, part of the “interdependent web of all existence,” as our Unitarian Universalist Purposes and Principles put it.  Yet, experientially, we still seem mostly to feel that we are separate, individual, and isolated.  Often we feel alienated.  We enter relationships, we have families, we build communities and participate in them, to help us overcome that sense of isolation and alienation.  We may know intellectually that we are “a part of the main,” as the poet John Donne recognized long ago in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” but too seldom do we truly “rest in the grace of the world,” as Wendell Berry describes.

I believe that epiphanies are signs, accessible to all, like seeing deer or geese; that they are pointers or benchmarks of our participation in that whole of which we are only slowly becoming aware.  An epiphany is a manifestation of wholeness, of what, in traditional language, we humans have called the divine or God.  As such, an epiphany makes us experientially aware—whether we are seeing or reading or hearing—of the wholeness that is there always.  We become, if ever so briefly, connected; we know that we are not alone, and that knowledge of our connectedness alleviates our anxiousness, our fear, and our loneliness.

We try to institutionalize that first-hand knowledge of the “more” of life in communities like this church, and occasionally the divine is manifest here, wonder of wonders!  We experience the transcendent in this place, in small acts of kindness and gentleness and greeting, in times of sharing our joy and grief, perhaps even in words spoken from this pulpit.  Our attempts are often feeble, but occasionally they succeed, and we are stunned by the knowledge that what has been said is more than what has been said; that what is seen is more than what has been seen; that what is heard is more than what has been heard.

Author Annie Dillard relates the following story in her book, Holy the Firm.  “There is one church here, so I go to it,” she writes from an island in Puget Sound. 

On Sunday mornings I quit the house and wander down the hill to the white frame church in the firs.  On a big Sunday there might be twenty of us there; often I am the only person under sixty, and feel as though I’m on an archeological tour of Soviet Russia.  The members are of mixed denominations; the minister is a Congregationalist, and wears a white shirt.  The man knows God.  Once, in the middle of a long prayer of intercession for the whole world—for the gift of wisdom to its leaders, for hope and mercy to the grieving and the pained, succor to the oppressed, and god’s grace to all—in the middle of this he stopped, and burst out, “Lord, we bring your these same petitions every week!”  After a shocked pause, he continued reading the prayer.  Because of this, I like him very much.  “Good morning!” he says after the first hymn and invocation, startling me witless every time, and we all shout back, “Good morning!” 

The church women all bring flowers for the altar; they haul in arrangements as big as hedges, of wayside herbs in season, and flowers from their gardens, huge bunches of foliage and blossoms as tall as I am, in vases the size of tubs, and the altar still looks empty, irredeemably linoleum, and beige.  We had a wretched singer once, a guest from a Canadian congregation, a hulking blond girl with chopped hair and big shoulders, who wore tinted spectacles and a long lacy dress, and sang, grinning, to faltering accompaniment, an entirely secular song about mountains.  Nothing could have been more apparent than that God loved this girl; nothing could more surely convince me of God’s unending mercy than the continued existence on earth of the church. 

The higher Christian churches—where, if anywhere, I belong—come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God.  I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without getting killed.  In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten the danger.  If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked.  But in the low churches you expect it any minute.  This is the beginning of wisdom.

The epiphanies are what keep us going; they are the proof we need that our efforts are not hopeless, that what we see is not necessarily all that there is, or shall be; that we are on the right track, and that we ought to keep on keeping on.

Moreover, epiphanies are reminders that the world is charged with the grandeur of God, that the sacred is accessible, that life is more than we are sometimes able to see that it is, that life is a gift.

In this new year, I have hopes for all of you, hopes based not only on faith, but on experience, that you too may occasionally catch glimpses of the divine, be it in a flock of geese, or in a deer which catches you off guard, or be it in the most common and ordinary moment of your days, in the laugh of a child, or in the face of the one you love.  May it be thus for every one of us.  Amen.

 

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Reading: “God’s Grandeur,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

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