A story of recovery through the eyes of a teacher
Her name was Deana, and from the first moment she walked into my introductory Old Testament course, I saw the joy and story inscribed onto her face. She was older than her first-year classmates by a decade or two, so I had expected her to be more experienced at life than they. But I didn’t know just how many-layered her story was until she approached me one day, grief-stricken.
She was in recovery, two-and-a-half years clean from the drug and alcohol addictions that had started controlling her even while she was outwardly living as a Christian and serving in the church. On her new birthday, the “clean” date shared with her husband whom she had met on the street, God had announced his new work of re-creation.
But now, news had come that her friend from former days, street-named Bambi, had died from an overdose only three days after giving birth to a daughter. Deana was unable even to weep, frozen as she was within the question that tormented her: “Where is Bambi now?”
Searching for answers
My students and I ask each other many questions, exploring diverse answers in lively debate as we search our Bibles and commentaries and (for students literate in Hebrew!) our Hebrew grammars and dictionaries.
However, questions that arise out of the deepest places in the soul leave me feeling wretched, illiterate, and tongue-tied. I find myself crying out to hear something, anything, from God.
Perhaps the catalogue of theological language describing God as all-powerful and all-knowing should include all-imaginative! This time, God breathed his answer innovatively and imaginatively through the lyrics of some new songs written by my brother-in-law and his friend as they had been meditating on the biblical psalms and prophets:
You were there when life began
Spoken words became a man
Formed in love my every part
You caused the beating of my heart…
Looking to the heavens you’re there
And in the dark depths of despair
Even there your love will find me.
~from “Your love will find me
(Psalm 139)” by Steve Mitchinson and Brian Doerksen
I have longed to hold you in my arms
And take all of your fear away
I will take your filthy rags and make them clean
If you receive my love.
~from “Return to me – Song for
the bride (Isaiah 30:15)”
by Brian Doerksen
We had been asking “Where?” Instead, God responded to our more urgent but unvoiced “Who?” He responded by showing himself to be a person who seeks and finds us when we are lost, even when we don’t know for whom we’ve been searching our whole lives. He finds us, makes us clean, and and makes us his own.
Those who have been frozen in addictions often cannot cry for fear of the pain that will come. For tears thaw out long-frozen grief and regrets, and the pain that emerges from the melt can be overwhelming. But having the courage to weep may mark the beginning of healing and cleansing because it signifies a hope that someone might be listening.
Finally, Deana was able to weep.
Teacher-student relationship transformed
After this encounter, the categories of professor and student dissolved rapidly, transforming into a friendship shared also with our husbands, Greg and Doug. We pray together and serve together. But we also just “do life” together: sailing, barbequing wild salmon, conversing around a wood fire, or donning our Vancouver Canucks jerseys and cheering on our team.
Deana would tell you I’ve helped her through some dark and disorienting places during her ongoing recovery, but she has done the same for me. She forces me to be real because she refuses to pretend. She teaches me to love what is unlovely. And through her, I’ve learned that I’m in recovery, too.
When my friends and family first hear me speak the language of recovery (“I am eight weeks clean today!”) they’re startled. Dorothy? You? But, journeying with friends who are “clean-but-still-being-made-clean” has inspired me to bring to God – one by one – the things that control me and from which I need to be cleansed.
God’s work of re-creation
As I turned again to my academic research and writing, a “friend” familiar to me from my work on the Dead Sea Scrolls invited himself into the story. He was a Jewish teacher and songwriter who lived in the Judean desert a century or two before the time of Jesus, and he loved the Scriptures. He, too, had been meditating on the biblical psalms and prophets:
We are the clay, you are the potter.
For he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean…
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you;
I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
Responding to these Scriptures that worked so powerfully within him, this man was inspired to write some new worship songs that came to be cherished by his community. Here are some lines from a scroll of thanksgiving psalms preserved by the Qumran community in a cave above the shores of the Dead Sea and re-discovered by a Bedouin shepherd 2,000 years later:
I give thanks to you, O my God,
for You have dealt wonderfully with dust,
and You have worked so very powerfully with vessels of clay.
As for me, what am I?
(from Thanksgiving Psalms 19:6)
I am a creature of clay and of dust with a heart of stone…
Yet… you have engraved eternity on this heart of stone.
(from Thanksgiving Psalms 21:11–14)
These word pictures emphasize God’s ongoing work of re-creating his people, even while they remain dust and vessels of clay. But what speaks to me most deeply is how this faithful Jew didn’t claim to possess the “heart of flesh” promised in Ezekiel. Instead, he humbly confessed that his heart was still made of stone – a heart of stone upon which God had engraved eternity.
A challenge to the church
Centuries earlier, Ezekiel had been speaking to God’s not-yet-clean people in Babylonian exile promising that God would exchange their heart of stone for a heart of flesh. We, like the Jews of the Dead Sea Scrolls, understand the transformation that God desires to accomplish within individual human hearts. But how might the collective church-heart also be transformed from stone into flesh?
Deana completed her undergraduate degree and now thrives in her graduate studies at MB Biblical Seminary in Langley, B.C. She loves serving her church and community, and is a friend to those in prison and those still on the street.
Therefore, it was shocking to hear her recently say, “Church friendships aren’t real.” Strong words, these! In the early years of her recovery, she had discovered quickly that she was merely a project for some people she believed were her friends until, in Deana’s words, “I was something they were done with.”
Deana and Doug found the church a cozy home when their recovery was going well. People loved to celebrate their deliverance stories. But when they stuttered and faltered – with family problems, depression, or anxiety – or if they started to “use” again, the church struggled with how to respond.
They did find the church a welcoming home to which clean-again addicts might return from their homes in the alleys, parks, and hotel rooms. But, as Deana shared that day, what really communicates “you’re my friend” is when the living church – with a “heart of flesh” – goes to battle for a fallen friend, pursuing and seeking her in unfamiliar places, into the alleys and parks and hotel rooms where she might be.
And when we finally find her there, we look into her eyes with a heart that’s saying, “I’m just like you. I am clean and recovering from some things. But other things still control me and I want to be made clean, too. Will you come with me to Jesus?”
That is church friendship become real.
May God’s transformation of our church-heart drive us into the dark places to serve as Jesus’ hands and feet, his eyes and ears, his heart and voice. A clean and still-recovering people calling others into cleansing and recovery.
Seeking and finding those upon whose hearts God has engraved eternity.
—Dorothy M. Peters lives with her husband in Abbotsford, B.C., where they attend Highland Community (MB) Church. They have four children and four grandchildren. Dorothy is on religious studies faculty at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C.