He dances with atheists

He was a dancer, a logger, a German immigrant, poet, music lover, gardener, husband and father, and mellowed hippie.

We had been building relationship with Hans and his wife, Flavia, for nearly three years; through multiple dance classes and Friday evening dance forays at a local bar/club. He was your typical gruff, old school German man but with a genuine sensitivity and kindness about him. His days, however, were numbered.

It is always surprising to me how a sickness and disease like cancer can cripple the strongest of men.

It began with his withdrawal from the dance floor. With increasing pain and discomfort in his extremities, he continued to come to support his wife, coach on occasion, enjoy the music, and be around his friends. He not only understood dance as an art form in itself but like all art forms, an expression of the journey of the soul, an essential part of community, and a window into the human longing.

He continued to take part as often as he felt able. His wife would tell the true story, however: “It’s cancer, likely,” she would say. “ We thought it was just blood clots in his legs that was causing the pain but no, its cancer.”

We saw less and less of Hans but, aware of his illness, many in the community gathered around and offered support. It was here that an ache in my heart was exposed.

We spend so much of our days living among the pre-believers. It is here, and in times of trial we see such kindness, generosity, and human triumph reverberate through community.

Granted, being image bearers, we, as humans are capable of exuding great acts of compassion and kindness resulting from that which God has deposited and longs to see come forth through Jesus. Nonetheless, we seem continuously bombarded by “acts in honour of the indomitable human spirit.”

Here is where my ache is exposed… a deep longing to see the beauty and power of the risen Christ be set apart from all else and completely win out in every circumstance. This is the catalyst for our work, here, in Nelson, to deeply embed ourselves into the lives of the pre-Christian. We then try to live out the life of Jesus and hope deeply for any opportunity to present Him in and through our regular, day-to-day, interactions.

We so long to grow as a faith community that does not extend out into the community and then retract back into the safety and comfort of predictable Christian relationships and community. Rather, we see it as the church’s responsibility to accept the Father’s invitation to make Jesus known through authentic, loving relationships and power encounters, and yes, to add to the numbers of those who worship the Son.

But, back to Hans… I hadn’t seen either Flavia or Hans for quite sometime.

It was outside a local bookstore in our little shopping mall that things, apparently, shifted.

“Flavia! It’s so nice to see you,” I exclaimed as I gazed into a pair of frightened, tired eyes. “Tell me, how is Hans?”

“Well, not good. He spends most of his time at home and in bed. The doctors don’t know exactly where the cancer started but he defiantly has it.”

Now, this couple was aware that I am a pastor, for Hans typically greeted me with a cordial “Reverend” when we met at the bar each Friday night for dancing. So I thought, maybe, I could be of some “professional” assistance. Here comes the lame part. I told her how sorry I was and them blurted out with “If there is anything we can do to serve you, please don’t hesitate to call. Here, take my card.”

She then mentioned something about not being religious but how much she appreciated my concern. As I walked away, I was thinking that had to be the lamest response I could have ever had in response to someone like Flavia: “Here, take my card?”

Seriously, was that the best I could come up with? “Take my card?”

Fortunately, though, the story doesn’t end here although, it likely could have if it were up to my unwittingly cavalier responses to people’s predicaments.

Then, several months later, I received a call from a close friend of Hans and Flavia, notifying us that Hans had died, at home, in his bed.

We grieved with many other friends but then wondered why we received a phone call and not simply a Facebook message.

“Dan”, a friend of theirs said to me over the phone, “Hans and Flavia decided that they would like you to officiate the celebration of life service.”

I felt profoundly honoured that a couple who had lived and were so well known in the Nelson area would ask me, of all people, to officiate.

“Certainly, in all their years, they must have known at least one Christian or pastor who had some sort of impact on their lives,” I thought. The friend continued explaining the circumstances.

Apparently, my conversation with Flavia in the mall that fateful day had an incredible impact on them both. Moreover, they claimed that there was just something about me (gotta be Jesus). Apparently, before Hans’ passing, he and Flavia sat together on their bed and settled their affairs.

In that conversation, Flavia asked, “Whom do you want to do the funeral?” With a laugh, Hans exclaimed “Well, Daniel!” Hence, the phone call.

Now, the challenge was going to be officiating a funeral for a spiritual atheist. There was a condition to me handling the funeral; given the fact that both Hans and Flavia were expressed atheists, I was not to “go overboard on the God thing.” They had too many bad experiences with long-winded and insensitive ministers at other funerals that they certainly didn’t want a repeat.

At first I was offended that someone would ever ask such a thing then, the Holy Spirit opened my eyes to the opportunity. I could continue to love and serve this couple, our common friends and their family without being a long-winded, insensitive minister.

I’m pretty sure I could, anyway.

I met with Flavia and two of her close friends for dinner to plan the funeral. It was there that I began to present a gracious, loving, and merciful Jesus. Through the entire evening I was keenly aware that Jesus dined with us.

Tears flowed freely. Poems were read. Jesus came close.

The day of the funeral arrived. We had to drive a fair way out-of-town, and take a small ferry ride, to get to the very small country hall. I tried to convince myself that being so small, the hall could not fit more than 50 people. I was a little off. As I entered the hall through the main, rear doors, it was standing room only with well over 200 people present.

The humidity level was high as condensation formed on the windows adding to the sullen atmosphere of the room. Now, this was a unique crowd for me. The room was filled with familiar faces. Many of these people we had either met and had some sort of connection with or whom we had deeper, growing connections with; all, to the best of my knowledge were pre-believers, agnostics, atheists, spiritualists, and New Agers.

As I looked out over the audience and began the service I saw the hurting, broken, downtrodden, seeking, angry, frustrated, and the sick. Those, who through years of living were wearing the scars of broken relationships, sickness, and unfulfilled longings.

I knew that I had to face these people again and I didn’t have the “luxury” to extend and retract.

I talked of: a loving Father who desperately longs for us to come near; the pain of life and the peace of God; death and the fear of death; and the healing and comfort of God. I presented the God of the Bible through the equity that God had allowed us to build with this group.

They knew that I was not only speaking from the heart but that I deeply and genuinely loved them. This was a first for me, presenting Jesus to a large group of pre-Christians many of whom were likely “anti- Christian,” when so much groundwork had been laid before hand.

It was here; in this secular space that we shared a human experience and that the mercy of a loving God came close and was clearly set apart from all other voices.

Daniel Snell
Nelson, B.C.

~ by blueporch on December 9, 2012.

One Response to “He dances with atheists”

  1. The temptation to shove our way through with our theology comes from fear. Reducing our words or the sharpness of our words comes from faith. Thanks for sharing this experience.

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