When a Cussing Heroin Addict Shows Up at Church
One Sunday at a church I served as pastor, a woman named Ann showed up. From the start, it was clear that her life had been shredded up by hard living. Ann explained to our greeters that she was in recovery from a heroin addiction, to which the needle streaks and scars on her arms gave witness. She was barely thirty-days sober. The people at the rehab center had encouraged her to “add religion” to her life, because religious involvement tends to decrease the odds of a relapse.
On her way into the worship service, Ann dropped her two boys off at the nursery. When she returned after the service, a woman named Jane broke some bad news to her. During the service, Ann’s two boys had picked fights with several of the other children and broke several of the toys. Humbly, Jane said to Ann, “I’m so sorry to tell you all this, but I thought that as the boys’ mother, you would want to know.”
Impulsively, Ann responded by screaming, “SHIT!” in front of a hundred or so children and parents.
What happened next caused my heart to sink. First, silence. Next, an embarrassed, burning blush rising to Ann’s face. Then, Ann taking the “walk of shame” from the nursery and out the door, forlorn and beaten down—no doubt for the umpteenth time in her life—by the shame and regret and the familiar feeling of failure.
It would be easy for our church to recover from this nursery incident with Ann’s boys. But would Ann recover? Could Ann recover from the shame that she carried out the door—the shame of a junkie-mom who took a risk, went to church, and screamed an obscenity in front of all the children? Sadly, probably not.
But Jane had an idea. What if she could reassure Ann in the same way that the angel of the risen Jesus reassured the demoniac-prostitute Mary Magdalene and the coward-betrayer Peter? What if, roughly two thousand years after the fact, the resurrection story could be re-enacted with life-giving, shame-reversing, community-forming words delivered not by an angel, but this time by Jane, the nursery worker?
Jane sent a letter to Ann that read something like this:
It’s me, Jane, from the nursery at church on Sunday.
I’m writing first to let you know that all is well at church. No harm done! And the broken toys? No problem! We needed to replace so many of them anyway.
But what I really want to do, Ann, is thank you. Thank you for the way that you wore your heart on your sleeve on Sunday. That meant a lot to me, because I am often tempted to hide the messy things that agitate my heart. Thank you for being willing to be honest. Your courage to be honest got me thinking—what better place to be honest than church?! You reminded me that Jesus invites us all to come to him raw and real—and to do that together and never alone.
I hope to see you again. More than this, I hope we can become friends.
The next Sunday, Ann returned to church. Having limped out the door the previous Sunday, she returned with a spring in her step that said, “These are my people, and I want their God to be my God, too.”
And her people we became. And our God, the resurrected One, became her God, too. As her newfound faith grew over time, Ann would attest with a smile that she was a beautiful mess, a work in process toward her ultimate completion in Christ. Her presence in our community was so good for all of us.
And then, two years after cussing out loud in the nursery, Ann became the nursery director for the church.
There you go! A happily-ever-after story, right?
Yes and no.
Several years later, we received a call from the current pastor of that church. The message was short and heavy. Ann, having been many years sober, relapsed. Tragically, she died from a heroin overdose.
Ann reminds us that trusting in the resurrection is more than a mere intellectual endeavor. Without resurrection, there is no hope for Ann and there is no hope for us. If Christ is not risen, we are of all people the most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:19). If Christ is not risen, we are still in our sins. And yet, Christ IS risen. For Ann, this means that even though she fell asleep on a destructive high, she woke up in the arms of Jesus completely sober. Ann fell safe when she fell hard into the everlasting embrace of her resurrected Maker. From the first moment that she placed her trust in Jesus, Ann’s judgment day was moved from the future to the past. Even at her lowest and most shameful, self-loathing moment, Ann was fully secure and loved.
As Ravi Zacharias has said, “Jesus did not come to make bad people good or to make good people better, but to make dead people alive.”
For Mary Magdalene, Peter, Ann, and all who trust in the resurrected Jesus what remains is a future with no more death, mourning, crying, or pain (Revelation 21:1-7). It is a world where we will be like Jesus, because we will see him as he is (1 John 3:2).
After C.S. Lewis recognized Jesus in the Great Story behind every good story, he wrote a series of children’s books called The Chronicles of Narnia. The final book in the series paints a beautiful and compelling picture of what is to come.
In the following excerpt, Lewis imagines what it will be like for Christ’s family of sinner-saints on the first day of the life that is to come, which we call the resurrected life. Referring to the Christ-figure and lion, Aslan, Lewis reminds us that the highlight reel of even the very best earthbound stories will pale in comparison to our resurrected future. Take a deep breath, let your imagination be awakened by the words, and know that Jesus didn’t come up from the dead only for Mary Magdalene and Peter. He also came up from the dead for you.
As [the resurrected Aslan] spoke, He no longer looked at them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily-ever-after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures…had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
There it is. A happily-ever-after story that is also an echo of the ultimate, truest Happily-Ever-After Story. The myth that is also a fact.
Let’s remember for ourselves and go tell someone else this Story.
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Great blog! Thanks so much.
Oh Scott. I so remember. Such a beautiful woman and dedicated mother. Such a sweet faith, turning her life over to Jesus. Her crystal blue eyes that invited one into her life. So happy and carefree in the midst of her demons. Simple trust in Jesus. I can still hear her laugh. Still hard to believe such a bright light is gone from us.
Thank you, Scott. This is beautiful.
Pam, so good to hear from you! I pray you and Mark and the kids are well? We remember our Oak Hills days with such fondness…and you are so much a part of that. Much love, SS
Thank you for this. My son, Matthew died from an accidental overdose in 2006. He was a believer who hated his weakness and was able to enjoy some times of sobriety before his death. This Sunday we will remember him on his 38th birthday and long for the day we will see him again.
Dear Deb, I am so very sorry about Matthew and your loss. I pray Jesus will hold you close and bring continued comfort and reassurance that Jesus will make everything new. Much love, SS
Oh, Scott, this hit a tender place for me. I’ve seen time and again the devastating effects of addiction but take heart in the hope of eternity. There is no circumstance too difficult and no sin too great to be beyond the grace and redemption of God.
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart…” Ecclesiastes 3:11
Tammy, we’re cheering you on as you spend your life in the midst of treasured souls on the mend from addiction. You are the hands and feet of Christ!!
I am so thankful to have a written out version of this, after having sent an email to one of your staff members, describing a sermon I had seen or heard by either you or Russ. That sermon (which contained the story of Ann) had meant so much to me but I could not find it anywhere! Jordan proceeded to ask you and Russ, and you remembered right off and had her send me the link to listen to. Thank you so much for that; and for this wonderfully encouraging blog entry.
I’m very sad for her children. That they had to live and endure through that. I hope they have faith and hope.
Beautiful post Scott! I deeply admire Jane’s faith and courage to risk relationship with Ann. Its this type of Christ-centered love and courage that destroys shame and builds the family of God. Though loving our brothers and sisters who are in the throes of drug addiction requires immense wisdom, patience, and kindness, your story reminds us that we must first start with grace.
LOVE it. I have a story myself. My second husband and I have found ourselves in a mainly black congregation where we feel free of judgement. We both had to leave abusive marriages (before we met) and each faced the all to common judgement from the church.
God bless Ann and Jane and you all. Your church family is greatly blessed by authenticity.
You can see more of my story at:
Grace and peace to you, Charlotte. May Jesus “make all things new” in your story of redemption.
Great story. Glory be to GOD. Amen. I found it sad, but it has truth. Jesus is the truth, the way and the life.
Oh, the darkness of heroin. My son is serving time for this now. While he is there, he is safe. But the road is hard, so many know this. He gets out soon. My extreme is sadness on one end and trust in God on the other. Fear rides between them like a zip line. Thank you for the story today. That sweet girl has a momma whose heart is broken. Let’s all remember the silent hurting people.
I am so sorry to hear this, Teresa. May Christ’s healing power meet your son in a transformative way.
Beautiful. Thank you sharing. Compelling….
Thank you Scott for sharing such a compelling story . I live in Crystal River Florida and attend Seven Rivers Presbyterian church and a sister Church Nature Coast Church in Homosassa. I too ike,so many of us from a broken family and have a daughter who is now 31 years old and has struggled with addiction since she was a teenager. I have adopted her oldest son, Connor he lives with my wife and I.. Her addiction has taken her through alot of winding roads , a tremendous amount of up and downs and the anguish sadness and pain it’s put our family through has been very difficult, she is now in her 11th month of sobriety in a christian-based faith-based women shelter in Umatilla Florida, it is her second stint since getting out of state prison in Texas in June of 16. She relapsed terribly left the program she was in February of 17.. she left for a month and one day at church I received a all while at Seven Rivers, she was at a bus station in Austin Texas she wouldn’t show me her face but she told me to buy her a one way ticket back to Citrus County. I did and I picked her up 36 hours later north of Ocala so bloody and beaten in her armsfrom needles that she look Nearly Dead. This story touches my heart and I hope and pray that my daughter’s life being that she’s given it to Christ will have a better outcome in years to come. Ravi is right Jesus did not come to make bad people good or to make good people better, but to make dead people alive, thanks for the share..
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My wife has been truly struggling with loving a woman to Jesus, whom continues to abuse. So hard to remove all expectations of response and keep loving, yet fearing involvement in tragedy.
Do not want to turn her away from Jesus because we can no longer keep contact.
God loves all, I am still waiting on Him. I know he will prevail. Be blessed.