A Single Mom’s Gift from God: An Interview With Emily Colson

Emily Colson, daughter of Prison Fellowship founder, Chuck Colson, shares how she found God’s blessing in the midst of trial as a single mom and mother of an autistic son.

Herb: Emily, it’s been wonderful to meet you and get to know you. You are a single mother with an autistic son named Max. Share with us a little about your life with Max.

Emily: Max is twenty-four. He’s this amazing guy – you’d like him Herb. He has a great sense of humor, and a lot of energy! We live life big. It’s not always easy, but he’s probably the best tour guide of life I could ever imagine.

When I was expecting Max 24 years ago, my life looked perfect. And then suddenly, it was not.

Life got very complicated. Max was not hitting any of the milestones that you would look for in a child’s development. And he didn’t sleep. There were so many unanswered questions. By the time he was eighteen months old, he took his first steps, which was a huge victory. He was going to walk! But because of the stress and strain, three days after Max walked, my husband “walked.” I went through a very painful divorce, and on the heels of divorce, Max was diagnosed with autism.

Herb: So you experienced two very traumatic events together.

Emily: Very much so. Yes. The hardest point came when Max was nine. Max’s autism was so huge and complicated that we could barely leave our house. We stopped going everywhere. We stopped going to church. Max couldn’t even make it through a day at school. I’d put Max in bed at the end of the day, and hope he would sleep for an hour. I was really lucky if I’d get two hours. I’d come downstairs and sit in a rocking chair and just stare at the wall. That was the only way I could create white noise in my life, to make it all stop.

It was in that most broken place that I began to wonder what that “abundant life” is that Jesus came for. I was not living abundantly in any sense of that word. I trusted God. But I could not imagine how He was going to get us out of the mess we were in. I held on to the one example I had seen right in front of my nose, which was what God had done in my own father’s life. God met my dad in his most broken place, when he was in the midst of the Watergate mess and went to prison. And from that, from my dad’s obedience in saying yes over and over again even in times when it was very difficult to say yes, God built Prison Fellowship Ministries. God used my dad’s brokenness, He even used his time in prison, to build something great. So I had that extraordinary example in front of me. And I knew God could do something in my life too.

So I made a decision to get up out of that rocking chair – we weren’t going to live that way anymore. And we began to go out. We had a lot of disasters. Some things aren’t funny until later!

I began to see how God was using Max in extraordinary ways. I’ve seen it in our church, how he’s touched lives. I’ve seen Max’s journey of faith, how he gave his life to Christ when he was 13 years old, and the extraordinary gift of watching my dad baptize Max. It’s been one surprise after another with this beautiful guy. I’m so glad I did not give up when life was really tough in that rocking chair. What we would have missed—what others would have missed. God had such a glorious plan. That plan has not included removing autism from Max, but it has included using us in the midst of that brokenness. And maybe that’s more astounding, that God can use us without “fixing” us first. What a comfort for all of us, because it means we don’t have to be perfect before God can use us.

Herb: What has your whole experience with Max taught you about love?

Emily: Well, Max is pretty lovable! I have to say. I was so in love with Max before that diagnosis ever came. So when that diagnosis of autism did come, it couldn’t touch the love I had for Max. Actually, I think it made it stronger. I knew that I would have to stand up for him; that I would stand up for him. I just held him that much closer, loved hithat much more.

There are times when, as a single mom for over twenty-two years, life gets pretty challenging. It’s not just autism; it’s a lot of things. There are times when, with every breath, I am breathing in and breathing out the words “die to self.” But maybe God wants us to be in that place, where we’re at the end of ourselves. He wants us to lean on his strength. Sometimes there is no other way to do it.

I watched Max teach my dad about love – selfless love. That was wonderful to witness. My dad already knew a lot about love. He knew about loving others, loving those who are imprisoned. When my dad was in prison, he looked at those other men and he knew he was exactly the same. He was not some big fancy White House guy. He was exactly the same. My dad’s understanding of love was quite apparent in his life.

But his grandson taught him something brand new. My dad couldn’t bring Max into his fast-paced world. He had to join into Max’s world instead. I suppose, in a sense, my dad had to die to self. Once my dad understood that, and got right down on the floor to play Legos with Max, and everything changed. When we would visit my dad in Florida, he would clear his schedule – no one could get my dad to clear his schedule. But Max did. We would go to the zoo, and the park and the appliance store—Max loves appliances! I saw my dad truly living out is understanding of the preciousness and sanctity of every human life.

My dad and Max were greatly blessed by becoming best friends. But something else happened. Because my dad and Max and I spent so much time together, it gave me special time with my dad. I felt like I experienced all the things I lost out on as a kid growing up. My parents divorced when I was very young. But in a sweet way I got that time back. And our relationship as father and daughter grew because of it.

Herb: If you’re a single mom with a special needs child—and I didn’t realize how many there are out there—and she’s reading this, what would you say to her? What words of encouragement would you give to her?

Emily: I know there are a lot of them out there. And some of those moms aren’t even single, yet they’re struggling with the weight of the world on their shoulders too. There’s a lot of pressure because we want to figure out how to fix the struggle. There’s a lot of pressure to help others understand who our kids are. There’s a desperate desire for somebody else to just understand. Oftentimes I meet other parents of kids with autism and we start the conversation right in the middle, because we just get each other. I think that’s such a deep desire – to have someone understand our lives a little bit more.

I would tell that mom what my dear friend, Peppermint Patty, said to me when Max was four years old. She said, “God works through these children. Max is a gift. These children are a gift.” I’ve seen that truth over and over. There are times that are really difficult. But we have to persevere, because it matters. We can honor God in the tiniest things, in the lowliest jobs that no one else knows about. It matters how we love those the world mistakenly believes are not valuable. We are building God’s kingdom one inch at a time. And we can’t give up. Because God uses our brokenness and God uses our vulnerability to accomplish great and beautiful things. It’s worth it. Our kids are worth it.

Herb: Do you feel like the church in general has served single moms with special needs kids well?

Emily: I think that often times the church doesn’t necessarily know we exist. They know some of us exist. But far too often, our families cannot make it across the threshold. And so, when you and I are driving to church and we’re focused on the road and we’re focused on getting there on time, we’re most likely passing homes where there is a family affected by special needs. Often those homes have a single mom raising that family. And we are passing by them by as we drive, completely unaware that they are looking out the window, longing for somebody to stop, longing for somebody to know they’re there, longing for the church to reach out to them, longing to be able to walk across that threshold and be part of the church.

Herb: As far as you personally, how have you seen the church serve you?

Emily: I’m really thankful that we have a success story to share. When Max was younger, we were home for five years, unable to go to church. I thought that was just my story. I had no idea at that time that it was many, many other people’s story too. We had stopped going everywhere, so the church just became one of the casualties. But it was the casualty that broke my heart.

We went back to church one day because I couldn’t stand it any more. But we didn’t show up for the service. We went after the service, for the coffee hour. While we were there someone asked Max to help stack some of the chairs, and that changed everything. Max began to serve on the “grunt crew” with all the other guys. It was a great fit. And people got to know and love Max.

We did that for six years. We called it “backwards church.” A few years ago Max started in as a greeter as well. That was another perfect fit. He loves it! And the great thing is that everybody walking through the doors of the church gets to know Max. He doesn’t just shake everybody’s hand. Max jumps up and down, leaping. That has changed the culture of our church tremendously. I watch people come into the church, and when they meet Max it’s like their armor falls of. It reminds us of how we are so loved by God, exactly as we are. And it reminds us of the joy of being in church. We forget what a great privilege and joy it is to come together as the body of Christ. And then you meet Max, and you can’t help but catch the enthusiasm.

And several of the deacons have now stepped in to partner with Max as he greets and serves in the church. That’s been one of the most amazing gifts! Deep bonds of friendship have been built. Lives have changed, and not just Max’s life. And I can actually sit in the sanctuary and listen to the sermon. I can’t tell you how much that means to me, or how much I need that.

Herb: So kids with special needs really do have something to offer churches?

Emily: Oh, there’s so much. We just don’t realize it. Sometimes we are working so hard to make our churches perfect that we forget that the people who are sitting there aren’t. Having someone like Max in the congregation is such an opportunity for the church to be led by the Holy Spirit, led by God. And not led by our manmade idea of sitting neatly and tidily in little rows and then walking out and not living the Christian life. I think the Christian life is messy and bumpy and complicated. And when we open the doors to people with special needs, we are simply living out that truth. It reminds us that we are all loved by God exactly as we are, and that everyone has a gift to bring to the Body. It also reminds us of God’s power to make all of our brokenness beautiful.

Herb: Emily, I want to thank you so much for the opportunity to get to know you and hear your story. Thank you for being willing to share it with me and my readers. It’s so important for the church to hear this.


February 22, 2015

Pembroke, Massachusetts

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