Gone is the myth that only Mary Poppins-type people whose lives have been “practically perfect in every way” are able to speak with credibility in Mormondom. Reading Colleen Harrison’s books and knowing her personally have helped dispel the myth for me. I had spent a good portion of my life seeking the elusive “ideal,” chafing under the heavy load of perfectionism, and wondering why my version of “gospel living” left me exhausted more than fulfilled. Colleen’s book He Did Deliver Me from Bondage (serialized by Meridian last year) helped point me to the Christ-centered answers I needed. More recently, her book A Voice from the Fire, a compilation of personal essays about her life, strengthened my understanding of how God teaches each of us from our own tailor-made set of trials. The challenges Colleen told of left me breathless, amazed at Christ’s grace to see her through, and grateful for the assurance of that grace in my own life.
How Times Have Changed!
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I was going to glance through A Voice from the Fire again to pull a couple of salient quotes, but like the first time, when I started reading I couldn’t quit. Her essays are not arranged sequentially like chapters; each one stands on its own and lends itself to a separate deeply personal and thought-provoking read. There are no bridges between the essays to connect them. Still, it is nearly impossible to not want to plunge into a second or third since the candidness of Colleen’s style is so refreshing and enlightening at the same time. Colleen’s literary gifts show in her vivid descriptions that read like fine fiction. Her portrayals of a faithful Latter-day Saint woman’s efforts to “do it all” make me feel as if I am living the moments she describes along with her. Her unqualified honesty and ability to invite the reader into her life and her thoughts are almost startling.
I remember so well the days when most women in the Church – parading the banner of idealism – had the unspoken goal to keep others from knowing their foibles or seeing their warts. I remember wanting my young children to be seen only at their best and squirming if anyone dropped in at my home at a moment of ordinary bedlam. In the “olden days” we would rarely talk about family problems, or trauma, depression, or personal or family failures; never about addiction, abuse, or tragic death.
Colleen has been blessed with the inspiration to speak of all these things in a voice that is both honest and firmly grounded in faith in God and in the Restored Gospel. Through all her trials, her trust in Christ and in His church hold firm. When you read her story, this seems like a miracle in itself. With great clarity and deep feeling Colleen seeks to share with others the sure witness that has led her through life in these last days.
Is it any wonder, then, that Colleen’s candid, yet uplifting spilling of every color of paint from the canvas of her life onto the written page holds me spell-bound? She says, “Exquisite pain becomes exquisite joy when Truth is loved and spoken in plainness and humility.” She digs and questions, interrogates church culture and human foibles – not in others, but in herself – and finds answers in likening the scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon, unto her own life’s challenges.
In admitting her own frantic need for her family to appear perfect and behave perfectly, Colleen writes in her essay, “God, Popeye and Me,” “Every time I thought I had my “picture” perfect, some of the paint started to run. Down in the trenches, I was losing my grip on the memory of those exemplary teachers who encouraged me with their examples and prophetic quotes. Where were they at three in the morning when one child is throwing up, another has an earache, and you’ve just found pornography under your fourteen-year-old son’s mattress? Moments like these taught me that borrowed light doesn’t last long in the trenches.” By the end of this essay, though, Colleen has come to realize that like God (the great I Am) and like Popeye (I yam what I yam), her deepening sense of who and what she is will remain constant through the challenges.
A Difficult Life Journey Becomes a Quest
Colleen, raised in an alcoholic home with more severe abuse than anyone else I have known personally, joined the Church, married young (a convert raised in a similarly dysfunctional home), and bore twelve children in a period of seventeen years. Thus, while trying to leave the “wicked traditions” (the example of her own parents) behind and to behave and look like an “all together” LDS woman, Colleen developed an eating disorder, became obsessed with performing all her “roles” perfectly, and drove herself and her family with a merciless work-ethic. Although the combination almost killed her, it started her on a quest for answers, a quest for truth, a quest for identity – and eventually brought her to the point of total surrender to the Lord.
On page 124 is Colleen’s poem called “Lost and Found” that summarizes, to me, the most important message of her book.
Lift me high
Above Thy head,
My willful heart
Then lay me
Thy shoulders, tenderly.
Let the blood of the stripes
Thou didst bear for me
Soak my garments
Through and through, –
For Lord of Mercy,
I have no hope
When the World Falls Down Around You
The fabric of Colleen’s life had begun to unravel as the dysfunction in their home – in spite of their rigid adherence to outward gospel guidelines – became evident in the poor choices of several of her teenagers. But during these years, Colleen used the early morning hours to draw close to the Lord and find the Book of Mormon affirmations to the Twelve-Step program that saved her from her food addiction and taught her the spiritual principles that saved her sanity. (These findings she recorded in He Did Deliver Me from Bondage.)
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She was going to need all the strength she could muster to face the next few years.
The tragic alcohol-related death of her oldest daughter shook the whole family and is vividly and poignantly recorded in her essay “Train Up a Child.” Not many years later Colleen found the strength to end her abusive marriage. Her essay “Divorce – Act of Sin or Act of Repentance” gives a rare and sorely needed fuller perspective of this hard and painful subject. Two grandchildren born out of wedlock and given up for adoption increased her pain.
I resonate to the feeling in her voice: “Fire changes things. Absolutely, molecularly. Writing under fire does the same thing. I share with you in these essays, snapshots in words – glimpses into the reality of one woman.”
The Upward Path
Through her many trials, Colleen learned to put her relationship with God first in her life and to come to Him for the guidance and ability to get through each day, each hour. I am awed at the high paths He has led her to walk in the past twenty years, empowering her to totally change her perfectionistic, authoritarian parenting style, attain two university degrees, and be the instrument to create a Book of Mormon based Twelve-Step study program that has revolutionized how LDS Family Services and church members involved deal with addiction. For more than ten years, He Did Deliver Me from Bondage has served as the primary study guide for thousands of participants in the Family Services Addiction Recovery Program meetings that are conducted by service missionary couples especially called for this purpose.
After eight years on her own, Colleen was led to marry Phil Harrison, a widower who supports her completely in her life of testimony and teaching and is actually a “graduate” of the Twelve-Step program himself. Her Spirit-filled writing continues to bless many lives. She recently played a key part in the completion of her husband’s book Clean Hands, Pure Heart, which is currently being serialized by Meridian.
Whatever It Takes Is Worth It
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Colleen would be the first to assure us that she is still beset by all the challenges common to mortality, and has to continue to seek the Lord every new day and hour, in order to retain the serenity and sanity His presence insures. I have found, in my friendship with her that the persona and voice in this intriguing book, are 100% genuine. In my conversations with her I have been tutored by the Spirit because of her humility and example of one whose heart has truly been changed, whose life has been transformed, one who understands on a deep personal basis what it means to be rescued by the love and mercy of Christ. Her gratitude to Him and love for Him spills over into everything she does.
When I think of Colleen I am reminded of Alma 5:14-15: “And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received him image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts? Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body?”
Referring to these scripture verses, Rod W. Jeppsen, in his book Lord, I Believe; Help Thou Mine Unbelief said, “Clearly the important question is “What have we become in the process of going through trials? Alma did not ask what trials we endured to receive His image in our countenances. Nor did he ask what experiences we had that brought a mighty change in our hearts. Does it make any difference what trial we have if the end results are accomplished? If we become what God wants us to become, does it matter which trial got us to that point?” (p. 155)
And so, my conclusion: “The Authority of Experience” – the subtitle of Colleen’s book, in her case denotes credibility indeed, because she has allowed her experience to bring her to Christ. Her story is a powerful beacon of the truth that our purpose on this planet is not to attempt a life so perfect that we do not need The Savior’s atonement (an impossible goal anyway), but to use all our difficult experiences as prods to move us closer to Him, as catalysts for the mighty change, as motivation to surrender to Christ’s guidance, as evidence that only through Him can we become clean and worthy to enter back into our Heavenly Father’s presence.
Note: to order Colleen Harrison’s books Voice from the Fire and He Did Deliver Me from Bondage or Darla Isackson’s booklet To Be a Mother: the Agonies and the Ecstasies, visit www.rosehavenpublishing.com .