By Rev. Phyllis L. Hubbell
Northwest Community Unitarian Church
September 15, 2002
In the late 1500s, Robert Fulghum writes, a craftsman named Hans Ludwig Babblinger lived in a town called Ulm in the Bavarian Alps. Babblinger was a maker of artificial limbs, a good one. But though his skills gave many people back their lives, Babblinger hoped to accomplish something loftier. Babblinger wanted to fly. Babblinger worked at night in his workshop, trying different materials and different designs. Finally, he created a pair of wings that he thought would work. Up he and his friends trotted with his new wings to the foothills of the Alps. Luck was with him. This was an area where upcurrents were plentiful. Babblinger took off from the top of a hill. More than 300 years before the Wright brothers, Babblinger soared safely to the ground. In front of witnesses! Amazing!
In 1594, the king decided to visit Ulm. The city leaders wanted to impress him so they asked Babblinger to repeat his performance. But they requested some place more convenient to the king. This time, Babblinger chose the bluffs of the Danube. Updrafts and downdrafts weren’t part of the vocabulary of the time. Babblinger had no idea that the conditions here were dramatically different from those he had found up in the hills. This time he headed straight into the Danube.
Fulghum does not tell us the extent of Babblinger’s physical injuries from his fall. Evidently, he made it to church a few Sundays later. There the Bishop of Ulm singled out Babblinger by name and pronounced, "‘MAN WAS NOT MEANT TO FLY.’"
Babblinger was so humiliated that he slunk home, never to be seen in public again. He died not long after "[w]ith his wings and dreams and heart broken."
Author Rachel Remen tells us that her grandmother, who had lived through hard times, used to keep her icebox crammed full of food. Once in awhile, an unwary child would open the icebox door too suddenly. An egg would escape from some cranny and fall and crack on the floor. "Ah," Granny would exclaim, "today, we make sponge cake." There was no sponge cake for Babblinger.
Most of our lives are filled with cracked eggs and bodies broken in the Danube. Hardly a day goes by in which I do not fail somehow. My husband and I have been learning American Sign Language. We quickly learned the ASL sign for wrong, as in "Phyllis wrong," "John wrong." Which of us here has not at some time failed in some major way? Failed publicly, dramatically, painfully, sometimes because of our own faults, sometimes because the universe intervened.
Our failures are legion. They are small ones—we get a grade lower than we had hoped. We make unguarded comments in the presence of an open mike, two months before a presidential election. Or they are huge. We lose a job with a spouse and small children dependent on our income; we break our vows in a hundred different ways and our spouse asks for a divorce; we get drunk and hit a pedestrian. And if we lived in Cincinnati, this morning’s Houston Chronicle reports that our divorce and DUI records would available to our neighbors on the internet.
We all face failure. Where is there grace when our hopes collapse along with our ego? I often speak with people who believe that somehow such events are part of a cosmic plan that will unfold if only they have patience and trust. On the other hand, are those people who are convinced that such events are part of the chaos of existence. They just happen. We need to accept them and move on. Religion is irrelevant. My view is that neither of these theories is true.
Where is God when we need Her? Or it? Or even Him? Well, of course, the question we first have to ask is a very Unitarian Universalist question, what does the word God mean to us? The Jewish religion forbids the use of the word God for very good reasons. By putting a name on the holy in life, we think we can describe it. It is a mistake to think that the word God means the same thing to all of us. The concept of God has changed radically over the centuries. Even among contemporaries, it differs. Most liberal religious thinkers today no longer believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present superGod. They reject the idea of a grand, invisible puppet master who can abort the laws of nature on a whim, who plans slavery, genocide, and nuclear warfare to test and refine our characters. They reject a capricious master who answers just a few favored prayers out of the many who beg for miracle healings.
I do not believe that if the source of being has a plan, it includes forcing the man of my dreams to find someone he prefers so that I will become a better person. No, if there is anything akin to a cosmic plan, it seems more likely to be about laws that seem to operate in nature in the apparent presence of a random universe. It is about a bias toward existence and form; complexity and innovation; and perhaps on this tiny planet earth, towards justice and compassion, life and love.
The idea of God lives on for theologians and for most people of the world. For many, this is not the God of our ancestors, but the source of this miraculous and still unfolding universe. This God is the very ground of our being, the source from which we spring. Although science helps us understand the miracles, we still stand in awe of secrets of existence, the magnitude of the universe, the power of love, the gifts of beauty and music. We search for names to call these miracles. For many of us, "God" comes closest to expressing the inexpressible.
So where is this idea of God when failure comes? I do not believe that something in this universe intentionally causes these little and grand failures. But what I call God is present when we fall. Rabbi Kushner says that God cries with us. I would put it somewhat differently. God, or maybe Godness, is all around us, reminding us of the eternal. My Dad sometimes says that it helps him to think that in a million years, what seems to him now to be a disaster will be long forgotten. That may be chilly comfort, yet how often do we think that because we have cracked an egg, we are disgraced? Every one of us is incredible. The very fact that we can breathe is a triumph. With the cracked egg, my goodness, we can make sponge cake, scramble eggs, feed the dog. But there is more. God is what I call that amazing voice inside us, waiting for us to be still and find the strength and wisdom inside. Some miracle inside us causes us to dream big dreams, risk failure, fail, and try again. Babblinger fell, but only with time do we realize what he achieved. Think of the courage and the vision it took to jump off that first hill. The skill he used to make wings that could work, given some future person’s brilliant work to understand downdrafts. Are not some of our seeming failures in fact steps forward? Steps motivated by what I might call part of the God within us? God is the compassion inside us, the tears we cry for Babblinger—who came so close and lost so much.
Are not other failures, magnificent failures? Last week on September 11, about ten of my fellow church members in Baltimore joined others in carrying signs calling for “Peace” all up and down Charles Street, a major street that runs through Baltimore. It was a gentle witness. It didn’t blame anyone. It just asked everyone to work for peace.
The organizers hoped to have people holding signs all the way from the waterfront to the Beltway, maybe five miles. But while I saw clusters of people near colleges and churches, many blocks had no-one. The protest didn’t bring out enough people to make the massive witness the organizers had hoped for. No-one could say that the witness brought us a hair closer to peace. Yet, maybe we made someone stop and think. Perhaps the next witness will be larger. The people who work for peace and justice do so with the knowledge that peace may not come in their lifetimes. Justice may not ever be won. But they continue toiling anyway. Surely, the holy resides in their perseverance.
What about those not-so-glorious failures? Those in our personal lives. The ones where we fall short, succumb to temptation, hurt the ones we love the best, prey on the weak. Where is God there? John Newton captained a slave ship. You’ve heard about the slave ships. The middle passage. The millions of slaves who died on the way across to a life of slavery. The countless women raped. How many of us, with all our weaknesses, fail as badly as that? Where was God when John Newton was at work? Surely, the holy did not plan that misery. If it did, we must raise our fists like Job and cry out against God. What I call God is that still small voice that Elijah heard. Not the wind. Not the earthquake. Not the fire. Just a still small voice. Waiting. Waiting. Working on Newton’s heart. Changing his life. Pouring words into his head that would bring comfort to millions.
Something is always at work on our hearts. Call it conscience. Call it God. Something is always engaged with our failings, calling us to change, offering us forgiveness, offering us a new life— offering us sponge cake. One thing that struck me as I heard the story of the sponge cake, was that the grandmother’s floor was so clean that she could rescue that egg, turn the little girl’s mistake into grace. My floor is never that clean. Even when I have just cleaned it. But when we prepare ourselves for grace it is so much easier. When we practice right living—when we are kind every day, when we study in the evening, when we give thanks all day long—then we are more ready to see the grace that may lie waiting in those cracked eggs. Not that we would have thrown them on the floor. Not that we are glad they are cracked. But that we may see the gifts—hard-won gifts—in that mess we have made.
Some amazing grace exists in our lives that gives us wings when everyone around us thinks we are crazy. Some amazing grace exists in this universe that offers joy when we are engulfed in tears. Some amazing grace exists inside us that changes our shame into compassion; our disgrace into humility. May we find that grace. May it fill us with hope. May it fill us with joy.