My Seven Epiphanies: The Annual Henry Lemon Sermon Given by Beth Conover
In Honor of Henry Lemon: Henry is considered to have been the first oncologist in Nebraska. He founded the UNMC Eppley Institute in 1961 (now celebrating its 50th year), and helped establish UNMC as a major cancer research and treatment center. He warned of the cancercausing effects of cigarette smoking in the mid 60’s, developed better methods of administering chemotherapy, and contributed to a program that improved the teaching of cancer in medical schools. Henry was already retired by the time I joined 1st Unitarian in the late 1980’s, but it was my pleasure to serve on several committees with him. I particularly remember his support of religious education in the church, long after his own children would have been the beneficiaries. Henry is survived by his widow, Dixie, a long time member of the church, and one of its pillars.
Sermon: Thank you to the religious service committee for inviting me to give this sermon. I had considered an academic exploration of a single topic important to me, but Megan Gustafson encouraged me to consider talking about what it has been like to be a life-long UU, and what made me “stay.” I call it “My 7 Epiphanies.” I was dedicated as a Universalist in 1956 in Wausau, Wisconsin. For many years after, that church epitomized for me what was desirable in a religious home…a warm stone church with ivy on the outside walls, stained glass windows, a father figure minister, and orange juice with graham crackers after Sunday School. They even had a choir that wore red velvet robes, and a nativity play at Christmas time (I played an angel and got to stand next to Mary). However, my father soon got a position teaching biology at UW-Oshkosh, and we moved to a town where there was not a Universalist church. This ushered in the era of “the fellowship.” By that time the Unitarians and Universalists had merged, and we were now “UU’s.” Fellowships are lay-lead from top to bottom. While I now see the freedom and flexibility that comes from being a fellowship, at the time all I could see was the burden. My father was perennially the president, and always had a key to the church in his pocket and a sermon in his brief case…just in case the speaker for the week did not show up. We met at the 7th Day Adventist Church since they hold services on Saturdays, and marveled over the huge baptismal tub in the front of the church. There was not an organ, and I was sometimes pressed into work as a pianist for the hymns or as flute player for music during the offertory. My strongest memories as an older child are of being different from my friends… 1
I belonged to a fellowship, not a church. We read Dr. Seuss in Sunday School, since we did not teach much from the Bible, and most of the UUA curricula did not yet exist. As an aside, Dr. Seuss was known to say, “None of my stories STARTED with a moral, but I am seditious as hell!”…if he wasn’t a UU…he should have been. Thanks, Sam, for reading those 2 stories which are just as relevant today as they were back then. In junior high we discussed Akenaten the sun god, and other stories from world religions. I was jealous of the fact that my friends got to go to confirmation on Saturdays with lots of kids their own age, while I was the only kid my age at the fellowship. My friends got to wear cute little jewelry crosses. Perhaps most importantly, they memorized what they were told to believe, while my beliefs were always a work in process. It was exhausting and rather embarrassing to never be quite sure what I believed. When I went off to college, I tried attending other churches. I wanted a reassuring and ‘easy’ belief system, but fortunately or unfortunately, other religions just didn’t make sense or work for me. So, I entered my era of multiple UU churches… In some cases I just visited, and never really got to know the congregation. In others I joined and became actively involved…usually because some lovely and interesting people showed interest in me and included me in their activities. At one point I even joined the UU church of the larger fellowship…an outpost for UU’s who are in a town where there is no church or fellowship…At this point I realized that I was a UU, for better or worse, regardless of what church I went to. But my religion had not really been tested by life’s events. Which leads me to my first real religious crisis: Epiphany #1…Why do bad things happen to good people? At that time I was a nursing student in Cleveland, Ohio at the University Hospital….taking care of lots of patients who were desperately ill. Nothing in my life had really prepared me for the terrible things that happened to people, some of whom were close to my age, and who certainly did not deserve to suffer or die. Some patients would talk to me about their pain, the unfairness of the situation, and their sense that God had forsaken them. It was not possible to be in this situation and not wonder about why these things happen to people…and my UU background did not allow me to consol myself and others with the belief that the suffering was all part of God’s plan, or that an afterlife would await those who died. It all came to a head during my surgical rotation…I came upon a patient on a gurney in the hallway, waiting for his surgery. He was alone and scared, and I stopped to talk with him. He spoke of his love for his family and how afraid he was that he would die and leave them. As it happened, I was scheduled to observe his case, so I accompanied him into the OR, holding his hand until he was put to sleep. He died during surgery, and I remember crying as I cleaned his body before it was taken to the morgue. I felt that my religion had only questions and not answers, and that was cold consolation at that moment. That night I went to the new members’ class that Shaker Heights Unitarian church was holding. The minister noticed that I looked upset, and afterwards asked me how I was doing. The story poured out, and he was obviously touched and concerned….and indicated that he did not always have answers to these things, either. He mentioned that there was a new book out, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Harold 2
Kushner, a rabbi whose son had a lethal genetic disease. The minister suggested that we could read it together, and discuss it weekly, along with anyone else in the congregation who was interested. We met for several months, and by the end of that time I had developed strong relationships in my new church, and a fledgling sense of how the Unitarian Universalist religion can support us in dealing with the unfair and bad things that happen in life. I have built on this over the years, and it is critical to my work as a genetic counselor, where I speak with patients every day who have had grievous things happen to them. Epiphany # 2… How does feminism fit into my beliefs and being a Unitarian Universalist? Not long after moving to Omaha and joining 1st Unitarian, I began attending a women’s class published by the UUA…”Cakes for the Queen of Heaven.” I have always been a feminist, and while I was aware that most of religion is male-dominated, it did not seem to affect me very much since UU churches are fairly enlightened. I did not know what I had been missing! The curriculum of “Cakes” (and the subsequently published “Rise Up and Call Her Name”) was stimulating, affirming, and enriched my spiritual life in so many ways. I did not realize how I had internalized the western male-oriented religious traditions and beliefs...that women have had a diminished role in Christianity and Judaism (although, at least there is the Madonna in Catholicism). Protestant denominations which I was most familiar with were virtually devoid of reference to women in their religious tradition. Whether it was exploring so-called primitive religions that worshiped the earth, ‘witches’ who were vilified as casting spells but were often just wise women who practiced healing and midwifery, prominent nuns, or Olympia Browne, one of the first female ministers in the United States and a Universalist….learning about women’s role in religion helped me expand my spirituality, and I felt a sense of belonging. I also made new friends, who were also on the same spiritual journey. Epiphany #3….What about science vs belief? As a scientist (and daughter of two scientists) it is easy to think that science has all the answers. To be honest, I have sometimes been rather condescending about people who have beliefs that guide their life, rather than scholarly consideration of facts. Well, I am hardly going to discard logic, but if there is one thing that I have learned over time, it is that science does not have all the answers. Sometimes science is wrong…genetics is a very humbling profession, and many things I learned in graduate school have been proven false. Smart people were just plain WRONG. In addition, there are some things that cannot be determined by science (like is there a God, what about afterlife?). So, belief may be as good a way as any to address these fundamental questions. When religion is centered completely on logic, it begins to feel a bit sterile. There is a joy in exploring spirituality and accepting that some things cannot be seen or proven. Epiphany # 4… Universalism is really cool. Most of my life I called myself a UU or Unitarian, and did not give much thought to the Universalist component…despite being ‘dedicated’ as a Universalist. Historically universalism referred to a belief in universal 3
salvation, where a loving god would not create a person knowing that that person would be destined for eternal damnation. This seemed self evident to me…but more recently it has been used to refer to people’s universal needs to answer the questions of life and death, explore spirituality, and receive comfort. A few years ago, Anita Jeck, a member of 2nd Unitarian, gave a guest sermon titled “Why I am a Universalist” and it struck a chord in me. She used the phrase, “Many paths up the same mountain” to describe people’s search for God and the answer to life’s questions, and since then I have often used it in describing my religious beliefs to others. In today’s fractured world, there is a great need for a religion which recognizes the commonalities among people and religions, rather than divides us. The Ware lecture at GA this year was given by Susan Armstrong on compassion and the presence of the Golden Rule in nearly all of the world religions. Tom Foster sent a link to it via email, and if you have not listened to it, I would invite you to do so. Sam’s reading of “The Sneetches” earlier in this service was also in the same vein. Epiphany #5....No one is going to tell you the answers. To be a UU is to be on a lifelong and personal search for meaning. This was SO frustrating for me as a child and adolescent, and I despaired of ever being able to explain to myself, much less others, what I believe. I have become tolerant of the fact that I will never know all the answers. Most of the time I am proud of the fact that I ‘own’ my religious beliefs…that they have come over long periods of confusion, contemplation, search, and frustration. In fact, it has been the most difficult times that have lead to my greatest spiritual growth. When I was growing up, I remember hearing the phrase, “Revelation is ongoing,” as a way of differentiating UU’s from other religions. It did not make a lot of sense then, but part of that was because I did not realize how lucky I was to belong to a religion where the answers were always being explored, rather than being predetermined and a done deal. It is not the end result but the process that matters. By now I have become accustomed to tweaking my beliefs every now and then…sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. It may be a sermon (Kate’s talk on why people need to belong to groups and view those groups better than all others, or Ron’s recent sermon where he said, “the more we know, the more we know we need to know”), or something I read, or a conversation with another church member…these thoughts all get pondered and then discarded or added to the mix. Epiphany # 6….It isn’t the bricks and mortar that makes the UU religion important to me…although I find this church building to be particularly attractive…or even the religious views…it is the social community. There have been times when I was tempted to stop coming to church…sometimes when I did not particularly enjoy the minister, was annoyed with a particular aspect of church life, or felt that the church was demanding too much of my time in a desperately busy life. However, that was always balanced out by the friendships and personal kindnesses of other church members. I can recall Barb Ross coming over for an hour to hold David when he was a colicky baby and just never seemed to stop crying. What a gift! Her soothing presence made me feel that perhaps I would get through this. Many of the people I admire most in my life are church members…I am constantly inspired by them. 4
I am always reminded that the demands of this church are NOTHING compared to those of the fellowship I grew up in! This, despite my recent tenure on two challenging and time consuming committees…GTF and The Survey Squad. You do not know how lucky you are to have a minister, music directors and an organist, and funds for a RE director... Finally, it reminds me of how important it is to have groups like YRUU, which helps kids find a social home in the church, and the membership committee, which meets and greets, and helps adults feel welcomed into the church community. Conclusion: So that is my religious journey thus far. Unitarian Universalism has grown with me, starting as a religious background that I had just because my parents believed it and that was what I was used to. It has survived the most of challenges I have given it: 1) How does it help me deal with an unfair world where bad things happen? 2) How does it reconcile feminism and religion? 3) Are the answers to be found in both belief and science? 4) Universalism is still a relevant religion for today’s world! 5) WHY can’t anyone give me all the answers…do I ALWAYS have to do all the work for myself? Yes, Beth…learn to live with it, and be proud of your personal belief system. 6) It isn’t the building, or the jewelry (although I am wearing my ‘Tree of Life” pendant that my parents commissioned from an art professor, to make up for the fact that I did not have the little cross pendant that all my friends wore), or even the minister… Universalism and Unitarianism happens to resonate with my view of the world, but MOST IMPORTANTLY it is also a host to a lot of people I care for and who care for me…fellow travelers on the road to wherever we may go. 7) You will notice that I mentioned 7 epiphanies, and have only spoken on 6…well the 7th is yet to be….as they say, “Revelation is ongoing”!
INTRODUCTION TO CLOSING HYMN #52…In Sweet Fields of Autumn. I chose the two hymns today because I grew up with them and they are easy to sing. In a fellowship where you never know how many people will show up, you don’t want one of those creative hymns that have a difficult tempo or melody! This is my one of my parents’ favorite hymns…they preferred hymns about nature. It is a little early in the season, but fall IS coming….
LAST READING: As a baby boomer, I felt compelled to end with words from the Beatles…not that I ever quite understood the song, “I am a Walrus”…but I do get this stanza: “I am he As you are he As you are me And we are all together….” 5
Published on Aug 3, 2011
A sermon delivered by Beth Conover at First Unitarian Church of Omaha on July 31, 2011. In Honor of Henry Lemon: Henry is considered to hav...