Saturday, March 22, 2008

An Easter Parable

I had my own experience with resurrection during my chaplaincy on the oncology floor. One Thursday, I went to visit an elderly man, Mr. F., who was suffering with advanced cancer. I introduced myself as the chaplain and asked him if he wanted to talk. He told me NO! that he was an atheist and that he had nothing to say to me. I told him that I was a Unitarian Universalist and that a lot of us are atheists – and asked him if he just want someone to talk to…I ended up staying for more than an hour, listening to the long story of his life, his joys and his sorrows, how he had once loved belonging to a church but gave it up over a disagreement with something that had happened there, how he missed it sometimes, how he was no longer in touch with his ex-wife or their son, how he really had only one person in the world who still cared about him.

When he became tired, I knew better than to ask him to pray with me; but I said a silent prayer as I left him, that he would rest more easily and know that someone cared. He said I could come back. I looked forward to hearing more about his life, for more time to offer him human connection and to be blessed by his life stories. The next day he was sleeping when I came by…and then it was my weekend off. He died that Sunday alone.

Three days later, one of the nurses told me there was a note for me on the staff bulletin board. I picked it up – it was a carefully folded piece of plain paper. On the outside it simply said, “For Deborah Haffner.” On the inside fold, in shaky handwriting, it said, “Oh Lord, I believe. Help throw my unbelief.” It was signed Fred F.

It was a note from a dead person. Where it had been those three days was and is a complete mystery. My co-chaplain, a Greek Orthodox priest, said to me, “How wonderful Debra, you brought him back to his faith.”
I didn’t find that comforting or think it was that simple. Where had the note been for three days, hidden in a tomb? What had he wanted to say to me? My colleague told me that the verse was from the Book of Mark. A father brings his child who is tormented to Jesus to be healed; Jesus tells him “all things can be done for the one who believes.” The man answers, desperate I think for the healing, willing to say anything to get Jesus’ help for his child: “I believe. Help my unbelief.”

I think it was Mr. F’s way of reaching back to the faith he loved hours before his death, hoping that his faith was greater than his atheism in his last hours. But, I think in his own way, he was also saying thank you, thank you for the human connection that he so needed before he died. That note hangs in my office today, as a reminder of how faith is lived, one person, one moment, one day at a time.

And that’s ultimately what I think Easter is really about. We all have the possibility of resurrection, of rebirth. We can move from struggle to hope, from despair to rebirth, from crucifixion to resurrection. We can roll away our rocks, and find ourselves anew. We can and we must, for we have no other way to create the life that is waiting for us to live, despite the struggles, despite the suffering.
Mr. F. reminds me to this day that we must be grateful, grateful down to our bones, for the gift of THIS day -- to believe against all odds, that we too will rise again.

And so may it be.


Anonymous said...

That's a wonderful story! Happy Easter!

Terri said...

Beautiful Story! Thanks for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this beautiful story.

in peace,

KarenE said...

As ever, this story reminds me that we are all in this world together, that people can affect people positively everyday, and that kindness is essential to being human. Thank you for all you do.


Jeanine Byers said...

Thank you for this post!

So there are UUs who are athiests? I've always thought that athiests didn't go to church.

I appreciate what you said about Easter and resurrection. My beliefs have shifted in the past few years and I no longer believe in substitutionary atonement.

So this Easter, I wondered what to celebrate, not even sure what I believed about Jesus' death and resurrection. I still don't know.

But it helped to think about applying the concept in general to our own lives, as you did.


Rachel said...

Thanks for sharing this intriguing story. I am preparing a sermon (my first to preach in a UU congregaion) on "belief", and this story has my mind spinning. What is belief? What is unbelief? hmmm...

Debra W. Haffner said...

Happy Easter to all of you! And yes, Healing Coach, there are many Unitarian Universalists who don't believe in God (or gods for that matter.) We are a non creedal religion -- there are deists, theists, atheists, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus,and so on who consider themselves UU's and worship with us. For more about Unitarian Universalism, see