Light Side of a Dark Narrative

by Lindsay Callaway

Most of us would agree that the narrative we envision for our lives is not always the one that gets written. Last year, Desiring God posted an article by Paul Maxwell titled, “When Your Twenties Are Darker than You Expected." Lindsay never imagined that she would be identifying with a narrative darker than she expected.

I had just gotten married the summer before, and my husband, Adam, and I moved to a different state for his job. He was pursuing ministry after spending a year and a half of his post-college years in the business world, and I was going to be his newly graduated, Bible degree-holding, ministry wife.

Marriage felt natural to me, and moving to a new city promised adventure and opportunity to “cleave to one another” in an isolated context. But moving to a new city, starting a new job, attending a new church—everything we were told in premarital counseling (short of getting a dog) not to do the first year of marriage—exposed where I had rooted my identity a little too deeply.

Soon after our move, the reality of unemployment reared its ugly head. After several interviews, disappointing news, a short stint at a hair salon and 100 resumés later, I landed a job as a doctor's assistant in a chiropractic office. The doctor hired me because he had heard of Wheaton College, not because I knew a tibia from a fibula.

Plus, I had just come from working as a ministry associate at College Church with refugees and immigrants, being poured into by staff and encouraged to leverage my gifts for the cause of the foreign born. Now, working in a secular environment in which I had no training or interest, I quickly experienced frustration and felt unfulfilled in my work. But at a painstakingly slow pace, I began to learn that ministry did not have to be professional in order for it to honor God.

I learned this by literally bending over dry and brittle feet, administering treatments to aching muscles and tired bodies, all evoking images of Jesus in John 13. When my position evolved into directing a weight management program, I began to minister to men and women who would weep over the emotional and spiritual baggage they attached to their weight and self-image. Then came this humbling realization—much of my value as a Christian had been tied up in the work I was doing in the name of Christ, rather than simply resting in my value found in the person of Christ.

Finding Christ at work didn’t make my job any easier, but it helped me find purpose while I was there.

That year also marked the first time in many years that I didn't actively participate in ministry. It proved to be an important time of re‐evaluating priorities. I was used to listing off an impressive list of church-involvement, but at this new church, I was a nobody.

Replying to my email in which I outlined fustrations and despondency, a college professor suggested I treat the season as incubation. “This is where you find narrative in the world,” he replied. As my narrative began to yield gaps and inconsistencies as the plot twisted and turned, I wondered if my ministry work had become more about me and what people saw me doing than about Christ and his work in and through me.

The year came to a close, and Adam and I began to think and pray about our next steps. It became clear that vocational ministry was the calling on my husband's life, and we returned to Illinois to attend divinity school.

We were glad to reconnect with friends and family, but we began to frustrate each other with conflicting accounts of our year away. He returned with an experience that affirmed a life calling; I struggled to recount a positive memory. The best advice we received to facilitate closure from that year was this: Allow yourselves to have different narratives.

It sounded simple. But we were so preoccupied with letting our own version of the story dominate the narrative, that it ceased to acknowledge our joint experience. When we started to give each other the space to speak of the year candidly, we actually felt more freedom to extend grace to the other person’s perspective: he, in being more willing to acknowledge my struggles; and me, more open to the confirmation he received from it. 

Returning to Wheaton and College Church was comforting and off-putting at the same time. I didn’t feel like the same person who left. I was a little more broken. A little more jaded. A little more suspicious. The narrative I had cultivated in my first year of marriage was a little darker than I expected. 

But that doesn’t change anything about the God that I serve. Unlike my narrative, his narrative doesn’t change, nor does his character. In fact, where his grand narrative becomes the most dark and bleak is exactly where the most light breaks in. That is the hope we cling to in the bleakness. That is the true light in the true darkness. That is our ultimate narrative. And thankfully, we know how it ends.