Stories

Story (part 2)

At eighteen years old, I had the world on a string. And I was gonna change that world. After all, I loved Jesus, and I had all the giftings and Bible training and connections to make me a huge influencer for his kingdom. I was going to be like one of my heroes—Amy Carmichael, Betty Stam, Elisabeth Elliot. And someday someone would write the story of my life, and my biography would sit on the shelf next to theirs.

Mm-hm. You’re embarrassed for me, aren’t you? I’m embarrassed too. I was that confident.

Then life happened. (Can I get a witness?)

I wasn’t even Twenty yet when depression blindsided me. Twenty-five had me Lamaze-breathing through panic attacks, and Thirty found me still single while my friends were popping out kids like theater popcorn.

I was like, “Um, did I take a wrong turn somewhere? ‘Cause this is not what I signed up for.”

Don’t get me wrong—my twenties were packed with goodness: great jobs, exciting travel, fruitful ministry, incredible friends. But I was just so shocked at how my life was turning out, how hard it was.

Compared to my original plans, life was looking a lot more like Les Misérables than Cinderella.

Then, in my mid-thirties, I met my dear husband, Eddie—just as my health began to unravel. Decades of little irritating symptoms were now exploding into chronic illness, insomnia, and physical pain. I put on a strong front and suffered silently. In the midst of various doctor appointments and new protocols, I pressed full-steam ahead, not wanting (nor knowing how) to slow down, to rest, to be okay with weakness.

Just 11 months after Eddie and I were married, we gave birth to a beautiful son. We quickly realized this precious babe had multiple health complications of his own (including periodic fever syndrome, asthma, severe intestinal issues, multiple food allergies, and a mysterious cocktail of immunodeficiency that doctors have not yet been able to diagnose to this day).

God had fulfilled my longings to be a wife and a mother, but I was riddled with pain and illness, and caring for a very sick little boy. Despite my large social circle, I felt intensely alone and isolated by our physical limitations. In the midst of this, we found ourselves suddenly unemployed; we grieved the death of several family members; and our apartment flooded, forcing us to move three times in eight months.

Some days were so dark I didn’t even want to live through them.

The rational side of me knew that people the world over were suffering far more than I, but there were moments in my pain where I felt like God’s hand was too heavy, like he had singled me out to ruin me.

But behind the scenes, miracles were happening.

God was continually gifting me these dark days and stealth sorrows to pry my little-kid fingers off my little-earth treasures—and to press me further into himself and his people. His heart was full of blessing and kindness toward me, wanting to…

exchange my anxious, people-pleasing heart for a joyful, lighthearted one;

teach me to love humility over success, compassion over being “right” or understood;

help me to feel how shadowy and short-lived this life is compared to the indestructible life of joy to come.

So, as I turned 40 years old, I was in this amazing place of new transformation, of looking back on four decades of life with such gratitude, realizing that God never stops pursuing us, never wearies of healing our broken places and setting us free. I was truly thankful for The Crushing of Colleen, because I saw such beauty coming out of it.

And that was a good thing, because another crushing was on its way.

Three years ago, at 41 years old—with a 6-year-old son, a 7-year-old marriage, and 8 years into chronic illness—our family suddenly experienced a month and a half of glorious health. Eddie and I were almost giddy as we started feeling the edges of relief and “normalcy.” (Whatever that is anyway, right?)

Then, one Sunday morning in the middle of The Summer of Health, I felt a hard, little pea-sized lump in my right breast as I showered. And I thought, No way. Not after all we’ve been through, Lord. This can’t be cancer, right?

But it was—and even while we waited for test results and an official diagnosis (it took 14 weeks), I sensed the Spirit making it clear to me that “This is a gift, Colleen.” (And he wasn’t talking about the fake new boobs coming my way.) And that pea-sized lump grew bigger than a golf ball in just a few months’ time, and we heard things like “aggressive” and “invasive” and “chemo.”

But, what felt like Too Much was really a gift in disguise. No, not just one gift; it was countless gifts, large and lavish. Even as I was being snatched bald-headed and pummeled by chemo and multiple surgeries, I was filling the pages of my journal and Bible with record of God’s nonstop kindness and power.

One of the sweetest gifts of this time was the love poured out on us by hundreds of people. For the first time in my life, I was forced to receive help of every kind without being able to “return the favor,” and it changed me. It was grace on parade. Where chronic illness had been lonely and isolating, cancer was a community project of love and mercy.

But no one could go to the depths of the misery with me, and so the greatest gift of all was God’s presence, his palpable nearness. Experiencing him so keenly made the cruelty of cancer feel sacred, even enviable. Thomas Watson put it this way:

How do afflictions make us happy? … They bring us nearer to God.  (All Things for Good, p.31)

And the psalmist Asaph said,

God’s nearness is my good.  (Psalm 73:28)

But crises don’t have the corner on the market of suffering; sometimes “afflictions” have come in the form of slow-dripping mundanity and world-weariness. There have been seasons in my life where the daily ritual of working with a difficult colleague, bearing up under financial pressures, or dealing with my own depravity has worn me skeletal. I love how Amy Carmichael put it:

The tests are always unexpected things, not great things that can be written up, but the common little rubs of life, silly little nothings, things you are ashamed of minding one scrap. Yet they can knock a strong man over and lay him very low.  (Candles in the Dark, p.2)

For 44 years, God has been using a million different moments and circumstances to write a story I never would have written myself. My own version would have been tidier, more glamorous, and quite pain-free. And it would have left me full of Self, bankrupt in spirit—and ultimately bored to death. I would have missed out on the highest happinesses and the greatest adventures of my life.

And for all the joyful transformation that has happened, I still need a lot of work—more than ever before. I’m still so broken. I often do what I shouldn’t do, and I don’t do what I should do (Romans 7:15-25). So the beautiful crushing continues through both the crises and the “little rubs of life,” making me run to Jesus on the daily, reminding me again and again that he is my greatest good and “my whole source of joy is in him” (Psalm 87:7).

A story is only as good as its author. And if its author is The Great Storyteller himself, well, then—it’s a story worth the living and the telling. My story is still in process, and so is yours, dear one. Today may we not despise the particular chapter being written in our lives. Let’s not skip over it but walk through it and say with the psalmist,

Come and see the wonders of God; his acts for humanity are awe-inspiring. He turned the sea into dry land, and they crossed the river on foot. … He keeps us alive and does not allow our foot to slip. For you, God, tested us; you refined us as silver is refined. … You placed burdens on our backs. You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us out to abundance. (Psalm 66:5-6,9-12)

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