A Father’s Legacy, A Son’s Autism, and the Power of Redemption: A Conversation with Emily Colson

Most people remember the late Chuck Colson as the White House “hatchet man” and convicted Watergate felon turned Evangelical Christian leader and and founder of Prison Fellowship and the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview.  Colson passed away on April 21 at the age of 80 after complications resulting from a brain hemorrhage, and I had the honor of attending his Memorial Service at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. on May 16.  Though the service was a somber occasion, it was also a celebration of the life and legacy of this great man whose personal testimony and prison ministry impacted countless lives for eternity.  Over 1,200 gathered for the memorial, including Democratic strategist Lanny Davis, Republican Senator Jim DeMint, Christian singer Steven Curtis Chapman, and evangelical author Joni Eareckson Tada.  The program featured speakers such as Dr. Timothy George, dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, and Chaplain Danny Croce, an ex-convict who was a leader in prison ministry after receiving a Colson Scholarship for ex-offenders.

Emily Colson shared a heartfelt tribute to her father during the Memorial Service. (Washington National Cathedral)

Emily Colson shared a heartfelt tribute to her father during the Memorial Service. (Washington National Cathedral)

But the most personal and moving reflection on Colson’s life came from his daughter, Emily Colson.

With passion and resolve, Emily, 53, talked about her dad’s conversion to Christianity and challenged others to follow his example and carry on his legacy.  “Today is a celebration of my father’s life but today is also about us, you and me,” she said. “What will we do in the shadow of such an extraordinary role model? There is work to be done.  I encourage you to continue the work God has begun through my father’s life. Do the right thing, seek the truth, defend the weak, live courageous lives.”

Chuck Colson made family a priority in his life. (Deborah Cull Photography)

“My father in his work changed people all over the world, and he also changed his family,” she said.  “He was fully present.  God first, family second, above all else.  That’s the mark of a great father and a great leader.”  Emily shared how her father would call her at least once a day to talk and always cleared his schedule to spend time with her son Max, who has autism.  “Perhaps for me, the greatest mark of my dad’s character has been his relationship with my son, Max,” she said.  “I encourage all of you who are fathers to understand the powerful impact you can have in your children’s lives.  Don’t miss it.”

However, Emily and her dad didn’t always share a close relationship characterized by sensitivity and trust. “When I was younger, my dad was a busy man and we were more distant,” she recalled in a recent interview with SixSeeds.  “It wasn’t until I was in my 20s – after I finished college – that our relationship really changed.  “My dad was in the hospital after surgery, critically ill, and I stayed in the room with him for 11 days and helped take care of him. It bonded us. God used that struggle to bring us close together.” Soon after, when Emily was the one facing difficult personal challenges, her dad was the one taking care of her.  “My dad helped me and encouraged me more than anyone else,” she said.  “He would call me every day, sometimes several times a day, wanting to know everything. It felt like a life-line.”

Emily Colson and her dad grew closer through the years.

Emily says a softness came over her father “when Christ began to rule in his heart,” and that God took their relationship to a whole new level that they didn’t know was possible.  “We both wanted that tenderness and closeness with each other, so when it happened, we were not going to let it go,” says Emily.  “God gave us everything we had lost and more.”  In the years that followed, Emily and her father grew even closer, writing together, speaking publicly together, and doing interviews together.  “It must have brought God great joy to see the joy we brought each other, and God has used our story to help others,” she said.  “I’ve heard from other women who had strained relationships with their fathers, and they have felt led to reach out to their dads after hearing our story.”

Committed to carrying on her father’s legacy, Emily spoke candidly to us about the lessons she has learned along the way.  “Above all, my dad taught me the power of Jesus Christ to change a life,” she said.  “It makes me want to know Jesus more – looking back at his life now, I can see that power at work in His life – I knew him before he became a Christian, and we all knew that his change was the real deal.  He was in ministry for 36 years, and truly demonstrated what it means to be a changed person.”

Emily Colson says her dad was a constant source of support and encouragement.

Emily said that her father also taught her about perseverance and showed her the importance of standing up for what you believe in.  “Dad had boundless energy, rarely took breaks, and demonstrated that being tired was not a reason to sit down,” she recalls.  “He handled even the most difficult circumstances with prayer and confidence.  Life is so full of setbacks and disappointments, and I watched my dad keep going through it all; always extending grace in the process.”

“Dancing with Max is a real life story of grace and second chances and fresh starts in spite of life’s hardest problems.” (Deborah Cull Photography)

Mr. Colson’s example and advice has proven valuable for Emily, who has faced tremendous personal challenges over the years.  Her son Max is 21 years old, and she has been a single mom since he was just 18 months old.  “There is probably a moment every single day when I say to myself, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’  But there are also moments every day when I say, ‘Boy, I would never trade this for anything else,’” she shared.   Her experiences motivated her to write a book with her father, titled, “Dancing with Max: A Mother and Son Who Broke Free,” where she shares her personal battles and heartbreak as a single mother whose only child has autism.  “Our book is not a fairy tale with a magical ending,” she said.  “It’s a real life story of grace and second chances and fresh starts in spite of life’s hardest problems.”

As Emily shared her story with us and reflected on her first Father’s Day without her dad, I asked her five questions about her family experience.

RM:  What have you found most rewarding about being part of the Colson family?  Most challenging?

EC:  The most rewarding aspect is hearing about all of the great ministry initiatives taking place at the ministries God established through my dad:  Prison Fellowship, which serves and equips the Church to fulfill the Great Commission among prisoners and their families, as well as the Colson Center, which helps equip Christians to live out a Christian worldview.  My dad’s vision was that these two ministries would bring God’s peace and truth to a broken world in desperate need. Witnessing my dad’s passion to serve has been an inspiration, and the ministry updates are always so exciting!

The most challenging aspect is meeting individuals who cannot get over Watergate. I usually come away feeling sorry for them, because they do not see the beauty that God brought from it and they don’t understand my dad’s Christian conversion and ministry.

Oddly enough, Boston, my home, was the only place where my dad could walk down the street and not be recognized!

RM:  What is one thing you think people would be surprised to learn about your dad?  Maybe something people got wrong about him?

EC:  My dad had a wonderful sense of humor – in his desk, there was a manila envelope filled with stories that made him laugh.  He loved the absurdity of life and was tickled by the odd things of everyday living.

Also, my dad loved questions. He never shied away from people who questioned him or disagreed with his position, and never became defensive. He was a wonderful listener and welcomed different perspectives. Opposition simply inspired him to dig deeper into seeking the truth.

RM:  Can you share insights on Mr. Colson’s role as a grandfather to your son Max?

“What my dad did for Max is a picture of what God does for us,” said Emily Colson.

EC:  My dad was such a champion – a defender – in the way he always stood up for my son Max.  He talked about how precious Max is and the need to embrace people with autism, and he wanted people to recognize that all individuals are made in the image of God and dearly loved by Him.  What my dad did for Max is a picture of what God does for us – God is our advocate; He is our biggest voice.

My dad made me stand taller as a parent; his encouragement gave me confidence in my role as Max’s mom, and that has allowed me to encourage others… it has a “spilling over” effect.  Family members of autistic children often feel out-of-place and isolated, so when someone opens life’s door a little wider, it changes everything.

My dad and Max had a very precious relationship, one that grew over the years. Max simply adored his grandfather, and treasured time with him. In the end, Max taught my dad about selfless love. While it wasn’t an easy lesson to learn, I know my dad was very grateful.

RM:  What encouragement can you offer parents of autistic children or single parents based on your own experience?

EC: Max has taught me so much about myself, about other people, about selfless love. The struggles of autism teach me what it means to “die to self” as the Bible encourages. Not that I have arrived there by any means, but it is important to learn how to set aside our own interests for the good of another. This is a journey I never would have signed up for, but it’s been filled with lessons I would never want to trade. Max is a gift. These children are a gift.

“This is a journey I never would have signed up for, but it’s been filled with lessons I would never want to trade,” said Emily Colson. (Deborah Cull Photography)

I have seen God shining through my son’s life – the way Max brings out joy and beauty in others is incredible. As parents we have to go forward, even when things don’t make sense, and we must watch for the beauty and for God’s hand in our lives. We can only do this with God’s help. And fortunately, God is bigger than autism.  This knowledge enables me to face the future with confidence, no matter what challenges lie ahead.

RM:  What advice can you give families facing challenging dynamics similar to yours?

EC:  My dad had this great expression that always made me smile: “Knees down, chin up!”  I want to urge people in my position – please, do not give up – we must finish the race being obedient to what God has called us to do.  God has so many surprises in store for us if we will just be faithful and persevere.  Finally, as I always say to Max, “We aren’t shooting for perfect; we are aiming for joy!”

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A version of this column was featured in The Christian Post.

Also check out, “Shared Mission, Eternal Purpose: Lessons from the Perfect Father-Son Relationship” on The Salt Shaker.


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