I’ve been trying to find a way to express what Dan Stults meant to me since I learned of his passing early last week. I wish I could tell him these things myself, but I missed my chance. I hope he knew, at least a little, what a difference he made in my life. I am an atheist, but I catch myself wishing I had a God to rage against, to pin the blame on for taking someone so young and so dedicated to changing the world. But I don’t have a God, neither the loving one Dan believed in or the angry one I knew growing up, so I have to make sense of the nonsensical on my own.
I met Dan when he and Jenny began attending the church I grew up in. Both Dan and Jenny immediately became very involved in church activities, especially with the youth group, which was mostly composed of sheltered, naïve homeschooled teens. Dan was the leader of the Junior High Boys Bible Study, but he made an unforgettable impression on all of us in the youth group because he loved, valued and challenged us.
Everything about Dan rocked the boat at our ultra-conservative church: His long hair, tattoos, and piercings were unforgivable enough, but he combined those with a willingness to stand up for the outcasts, and show, not just tell, the leaders that their dogma was stifling. He was as unacceptable to our church as the Jesus he loved would have been, had that Jesus happened to have wandered into a service at Community Church of the Valley in the early 2000s.
Dan once told me that of all the kids in the youth group, I was his favourite. I don’t know why, because I was a notoriously difficult teen. I had never been anyone’s favourite anything. Dan made me believe that I, a deeply depressed, angry, suicidal, self-harming teenager was a valuable person, worthy of being the favourite of the coolest person I had ever met.
Dan often engaged in long theological discussions with me, particularly about Calvinism. We both hated that unforgiving doctrine, but he believed it was a false teaching, while I believed that it was the only true interpretation of the Bible. That was a debate we never resolved.
At a youth group event, Dan let me lead a Bible Study for the other teens—including the boys. This was unheard of at our church, where adult women were not even allowed to teach teenage boys because it was believed that women should not hold any sort of authority over men—even when those “men” were still going through puberty. I’m sure Dan faced backlash for this, but he did it anyway.
In a church that preached that women must submit, could not lead, and were not even trusted to have intellectual discussions about the Bible, Dan told me that I and my female peers mattered. Our opinions mattered. When girls were praised for meekness, for gentleness, for submission, Dan praised me for my independence, passion, and my unquenchable yearning for truth.
I am lying on the floor of the church nursery; the floor is cool concrete, covered only by a thin layer of rough, industrial carpet that prickles my skin. I’m sprawled out like a petulant child—and really, what’s the difference between a whiny toddler and an over-tired 13-year-old? I hadn’t slept at all the night before and I was exhausted. We had had a church sleepover that Dan and Jenny had coordinated and supervised for the youth group, the first of its kind in our church (one of the many firsts Dan gave that uptight congregation). Now in the early afternoon of the day after, all the other kids had been picked up by their parents and I and my two brothers were the only ones remaining. The room was a mess, and there was no one else to clean up.
“It’s not fair that we have to clean up other people’s messes,” I was insisting.
“Sometimes we have to do things that aren’t fair in order to help others,” Jenny patiently explained.
More grumbled protests followed, but I grudgingly joined the clean-up efforts, feeling somewhat foolish for my outburst. Dan cocked his head slightly to one side and looked at me.
“What?” I said, expecting a rebuke for my childish behavior.
“You know what your problem is, Megan?” He asked, rhetorically.
I certainly had more than one problem, and I dreaded to know what this man who had always made me feel worthy really thought of me.
“Your problem,” he continued with a smile, “is that you have an overdeveloped sense of Justice.”
Where others would have only seen the poor behavior, Dan saw a strength that needed to be honed.
That phrase, “an overdeveloped sense of justice” stuck with me. It helped me to begin to understand myself when I was little more than a bundle of tumultuous impulses.
Dan taught me so much about myself and about life. Long after I left the church and divorced myself from all religion, I still kept in contact with Dan. I know it hurt him that I didn’t believe, but I could not (and cannot) reconcile the God of the Bible with the ideals of truth, justice, mercy and love that Dan held dear. But, despite an irreconcilable difference in the foundations of our individual beliefs, we always shared those same ideals. Ideals he lived by passionately, ideals that I hope to better exhibit in my own life.
I do not believe there is a God—angry or loving—directing the cacophonous opera of our lives. A God who let one of the best people I’ve ever known suffer and die far too young. Instead, I embrace the chaos, and vow that the kindness, justice, and mercy Dan showed me will be carried on.
I will always remember you, Dan.