Joan Hansen Funeral Sermon

August 26, 2023
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

When I was young – somewhere in my late 20s – I became friends with an elderly lady at church. She was crippled in a wheel chair, her hands twisted with arthritis. And one day, as we sat having a coffee together, she said, “And to think, I used to be a ballet dancer.”

I was blown away. I had no idea. All I knew of her was this latest form in which I’d met her. It transformed the way I saw people, especially the elderly, this stark insistence that every person’s story is beautiful – if not in the details, certainly in the worthiness of a whole life lived – a full life, a long life, a complex life. Every elderly person began as a child, in a home, with a family, trying to make sense themselves and the world they inhabit. They’ve each been a teenager, learning what it means to be embodied, what it means to desire and to be desired, what it means to become a contributing member of the broader community. They’ve each stepped into adulthood, weaving their way – for the first time – through work and relationships and raising children. And as they’ve each aged, they’ve encountered the shock of their own body’s betrayal.

Everyone has a story. And with it, an inherent dignity, of this life lived.

And so it is, of course, with Joan.

She was raised in the Olympia area, but moved around a lot, growing up over the years. Her father was a carpenter and loved his family, but wasn’t necessarily the greatest of bread winners. Quitting time came early each day. So it was her mother who worked a clerical job to keep the family afloat. Her older brother, Doug, left for the Navy when she was still young, leaving Joan as an only child for much of her childhood.

She was lively and outgoing, not one to be drawn into the fear of her family’s financial instability. She played basketball on her high school team, and later joined a softball team as part of a bank league.

In 1959 – her senior year of high school – she was Queen of the Tumwater Fire Department and road proudly in several parades that year.

After that she went to business school and got a job working for the legislature. She married fairly young and settled in Queen Anne in 1962, during the World’s Fair. So think of Joan the next time you see the Space Needle.

And Joan became mother to Greg, Pam, and Traci. A wonderful mother. Pam writes,

“What most people might not remember, is that from the time I was born, my Mom was an amazing seamstress. In pre-school and Kindergarten, she’d make us matching outfits: pantsuits, Christmas dresses, skirts. As I got older, throughout my school years, I was always too short for the cool clothes. So Mom would basically remake my clothes so they would fit. Otherwise, I would have had to shop in the little girls’ department as a high schooler! Then my senior prom came. I saw a dress I could not live without. But no one had my size. So Mom just made it herself – without a pattern even! And she added extra fluff and flare. (It was the 80’s, after all. The puffier, the better!) Then came my wedding day. Not only did she make my bridesmaids’ dresses, she embellished my own gown with even more pearls and sequins.  Even on the day of the wedding, I have a picture of me in my wedding gown. And there’s my Mom, with two other ladies, sewing on the last few pearls.

“I looked up to my mom so much and all the creative things she could do. She always inspired me to be a good person and to leave people better than you found them. Even as a little girl, all I ever hoped for was to be as good a Mom as my Mom was for me.”

Traci’s memories are in the same spirit:

“My mom was an incredible person with so much love and so much kindness for everyone she met.  She gave me so many gifts in life. She taught me what it means to be a good mom. She was strong and courageous in so many ways I am not, especially her perseverance through all the health issues she endured: breast cancer, heart disease, and the final stages of Parkinson’s. She showed by example what it means to give grace. She was kind and a truly good person.

“She volunteered: at the University of Washington Hospital Heart Transplant Unit and as a chaperone for the Miss Northshore Pageant.

“She loved to camp: at Ocean Shores and twice with me at Girl Scout Camp.

“She made holidays beautiful, making each one feel special with all of her table decorations.

“And, of course, she loved her family – especially her grandchildren – buying them gifts and making fun things so everyone felt special. She took care of Brayden and Ella when and Joe and I had to work. And I knew they were being cared for unconditionally. If they had it their way, her headstone would say, ‘Best Grits and Chicken Nugget Maker!’ She was a really great grandma.”

Traci especially remembers when Joan had her cardiac stents put in and she became a patient at the cardiac rehab place where Traci worked:

“It was fun having her there and to see her improvements. After she finished her time with rehab, she took the exercises she learned there and developed an exercise class at St. John’s – taking a difficult situation and turning it into something enjoyable and fun.

“My mom gave me the gift of knowing what’s important in life,” she went on to say, “family and friends and making every minute count when you are with them. And she gave me the gift of knowing the presence of God in my life.

“My mom was great at many things: being a wife, a sister, an amazing grandma, a friend, an artist, a Christian. But most of all she was a really Great MOM and I will miss her forever.”

And in 1977 this great mom welcomed a new parent into the lives of her children. It began at a camping trip on Mt. Rainier with her church. Joan and her three kids were hiking. It was hot and humid. The deer flies were biting. And Pam, just eight-years-old, began hyperventilating. And along came Del (part of the same church group, but as yet unknown to Joan and her family), who gallantly carried Pam back down to the camp for rest and shade.

That evening, Joan – an experienced camper, who actually had all the necessary utensils – began to make dinner for everyone. Single-dad Del was impressed. “Do you always take care of everyone that way?” he queried. And so the courting began.

They sang together in the church choir. They visited each other’s homes, had long phone calls, and kept camping, with all five kids together – their little pup tents, all in a row.

When the time came, Del brought two pieces of jewelry carving wax and asked Joan: Would she like to make their wedding rings together? And so they did. She, happily carving a beautiful design for his ring, while he carved hers. They cast the wax models with gold they bought together in downtown Seattle. And they have worn these rings proudly and lovingly these many years – carving their way together through all the chances and changes of this life – beginning with the delicate work of merging two families together, a vocation to which Joan fully gave herself. They bought a home which would be new to all of them, a home in which Joan now became homemaker, mother of five, and wife.

Over the years she’d also take on a variety of jobs, most memorably as a silk floral designer for customers at the Seattle Bon Marche, a job that continued to expand over the years.

And it was this “always creating” spirit in Joan that became a central feature of her partnership with Del. They created together: set designs for the variety shows at school and church, their chainsaw sculpture business, the Visual Arts Team here at St. John’s. As the years went by and Joan’s Parkinson’s increased, Del’s hands did much of the work, but he always deferred to Joan’s good design sense. “If it gets by her, it’s good to go!” he’d often say.

She lived her last five years at Peninsula Retirement Independent Living, which – especially through COVID – became her final community. And so it is most fitting that so many of you would be here today to remember and honor Joan.

I’m struck, too, by the fittingness of that large butterfly on the altar cloth. Joan loved butterflies. In fact, her wedding cake was shaped as a butterfly. Butterflies are beautiful, of course – little portable flowers flitting through the garden. But they’re also an extraordinary symbol of transformation. When a caterpillar weaves its cocoon around itself, that caterpillar completely dissolves within that protective web. There’s nothing recognizable left to see. But something of its essence survives, a clump of cells that were there all along. And from those cells is rebuilt this new creature, this totally reimagined form, now beautiful in ways totally unrecognizable from what came before. And yet, still one with what came before.

And this is our hope for Joan, and for all who have died before her, and for all of us who will follow her same path: to the grave. And beyond.

For so we hope in Christ, that just as he emerged from the tomb – familiar but changed – so shall we all. “For to your faithful, O Lord, life is changed, not ended.” This is how God has chosen to fashion this world. It is a dynamic world – never static, but always changing, always becoming. Nothing of God’s creating or love can ever be lost, but rather is mingled with all the rest of creation to become and become life again. And mystery though it may be, in the glory of God’s creating and redeeming, each life – each Image of God – carries on eternally, in dignity and honor, God’s beloved forever.

This is our celebration today, for Joan. She has known God’s love. She has shown us God’s love. And she will rise again, this same – but changed – child of God’s love.