Our sermon series this fall looks at the way God uses trials to build trust in Him. As we learn about the lives of Jonah, Joseph and Job from scripture, we’ve also asked a number of Westsiders to share their stories. We can see God at work in them, redeeming the sorrows and suffering of ordinary people in our community for his glory and our good. By sharing these stories with you, we hope to encourage you to seek the Lord in the midst of the trials you may encounter in your life.
For the past two years I have watched my best friends go through one of the biggest trials that I can imagine. It affected every aspect of daily life for them and their two boys. Most of you know Marc as our worship director—that guy on stage in the Levi’s 519 extreme skinnies who plays the guitar and leads us in song every week. Some of you might recognize Chars as his wife, the Mom of those two rambunctious blonde boys, or as the lady who has to lay on the floor in the balcony on Sunday mornings. But to me the Willertons are family.
I mean, ok, we’re not actually related. But they are the type of friends where you can walk through the front door without knocking, or drop in for dinner unannounced, or ask to host your real brother for a week in their spare room, or call for a ride to the hospital at 2 a.m. (that last example is just hypothetical). Their home is a refuge for me and for many others. Walking alongside them through this season has been hard for me too, because it hurts to watch the people you love suffer.
So when we sat down to plan out the blog series for Trial and Trust, I asked if I could write their story. Because God has already used it to bless me and teach me through my friends’ faithful example of walking in obedience to Him. I hope that it blesses and encourages you too. But mostly my prayer is that in telling it, you will see the amazing love of our Father, who is near to the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds, and who is faithful to complete every good work that he begins in us. To him be the glory.
In late November 2016, Chars was at a friend’s house when she felt something pull in her back. “At first I ignored it,” she remembers, “but the pain got steadily worse and a few days later it was so bad I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t get up from my bed for much longer than it took to use the washroom.”
After a few weeks of constant pain, despite doctors and therapists being unable to diagnose exactly what was wrong, Chars began to show small signs of improvement. But as soon as she started to move more, or tried to resume normal life again, her muscles would flare up and she’d be back to the couch.
“In the beginning, my mentality was: we have to just get through this until she’s better,” Marc remembers. “I had to pick up all of the work at home, and it was a busy time at Westside leading up to Christmas. There were extra rehearsals and so much going on. But I thought I could push through until her back healed. It was like limping along with a huge weight on your shoulders, but you think you can make out a finish line way off in the distance.”
A new normal
After Christmas, Chars and the boys stayed in Winnipeg with Marc’s parents so that she could rest and have help caring for the boys. The separation was hard on their marriage, the boys and Marc’s parents. After two months apart, with little progress, they made the tough decision to come back to Vancouver and figure life out here.
Over the course of the next year Chars continued to see different therapists and doctors. “The general consensus is that my two pregnancies put stress and strain on my body that predisposed it to an injury like this,” she explains. “When it got hurt it didn’t recover because everything else in my body was weak from overcompensating.” There wasn’t much she could do but continue to rest and get regular massage and physio treatment.
Chars’ injury affected every aspect of her life. She couldn’t stand or sit for longer than a few minutes at a time, so she had to eat meals, spend time with her kids or visit with friends laying down on the couch. Leaving the house was difficult because she couldn’t walk or drive anywhere. Even when Marc drove she had to lie down in the back seat or sometimes the trunk.
Before her injury, Chars had taken care of nearly everything at home. She’s a great cook and baker, and took a lot of pride in keeping a clean house and putting food on the table for her family and friends. But now she couldn’t do any of that and the burden fell on Marc—who was already working a full time job.
“I was forced to relinquish so many of my duties as a mother and they were taken over by multiple people.” Chars remembers, “We had to learn to let go and sacrifice a lot of things. We wanted to have another baby and couldn’t. I got offered my dream job and had to turn it down because I wasn’t able to work.”
Lots of friends (and even a few strangers) stepped in to take turns helping out with laundry, cleaning, cooking and child care. They had to get used to a new normal day-to-day life that included scheduling help, turning down events, and getting used to other people’s cooking and cleaning. If Marc was at work or worship rehearsal, someone had to be at home to help Chars. Worship team members joked that Marc should add a “Willerton Child Care” position to the band schedule each week.
“When I was home I was doing everything,” Marc remembers, “dressing and bathing the boys, feeding everyone, all of the cleaning. I was really up and down. One minute I’d feel strong to serve them and the next minute I would be filled with exasperation and anger.”
An army of helpers
“Every time I set foot out of the house we had to have child care.” Marc says, “so that took its toll on the boys as well.” At the time, Oliver and Elliot were about to turn three and one. Elliot was just learning how to walk, and Chars couldn’t lift him.
“It was a trial for me physically, and for our marriage” Chars explains, “but it was also a trial for our boys. They suffered too, and that was hard to watch as their Mom. Not being able to lift Elliot was heartbreaking. It made me feel like I wasn’t a Mom anymore.”
At the same time, God used their suffering to raise up a community around them. “We’ve built so many deep friendships from having people in our home everyday. Our kids have a small army of people who are invested in their lives and love them. It’s an incredible gift, and it wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t injured.”
“There was never a time when we were stuck.” Marc marvels, “sometimes people that we didn’t even know would offer to help. Someone messaged me one day saying, ‘There’s a guy in my CG who wants experience in child care, can I give him your number?’”
“It’s been amazing to see how being in such great need and having others give of themselves to meet those needs built up the family of God around us. There are so many people who just walk right in our front door now and we’re like, ‘Oh cool, Sarah’s here’ or the boys will run out to meet them and yell ‘HI GRACIN!’ Marc laughs, “it’s so great.”
An invitation to rest
Throughout this whole journey, God had more for Chars than simply meeting her needs and healing her physically. He graciously began to show her the places where she needed to trust him more and rest in him.
“About a year into my injury I felt the Lord pressing me that I had been doing nothing but physically resting and yet I’d never felt so exhausted,” Chars says, “That’s when He opened my eyes to the depths of my lack of trust and my inability to rest in him.”
“I never questioned God’s hand in my injury, but it did take me a year to be able to rest in the Lord despite my injury.” Over the last year since that revelation, the Lord has taught Chars and she’s grown in the discipline of being still before him.
One of the verses that God has brought her back to over and over again is Proverbs 3:5-8:
Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.
It will be healing to your flesh
and refreshment to your bones.
“Everyone knows the beginning of that passage, but I was struck by the second part. I needed to give up being wise in my own eyes. Only fearing the Lord and trusting his ways and not my own would bring true healing to my flesh and refreshment to my bones.”
This revelation brought fruit not only to Chars’ relationship with God but in her role as a wife and mother. “I’m able to recognize more quickly now if I’m holding things too tightly. I’m constantly practising leaving my cares at the feet of the Lord.”
A Higher Calling
As the months dragged on, Marc continued to work full time as the worship director at Westside and shoulder most of the duties at home. He’d alternate between trying to suck it up—to be strong to serve his family—and getting angry at the situation. But doing it all in his own strength brought him to a breaking point.
“Eventually I bottomed out. It got to a point where every time I came through the front door of our house, I was angry. I viewed everyone in my house as a huge obstacle to what I felt I was entitled to: rest, a clean house, a bit of time for myself. I’ve never been in a situation before where all I wanted to do was leave.”
One night Marc finally spilled out everything he’d been bottling up to Chars. “I kind of vomited out everything that I was angry and frustrated about. My heart was full of accusation towards her and I hadn’t even realized it.” He pauses, because it’s tough to talk about, “I think I even said the words: ‘I’m done. I’ve had enough.’”
But the Lord was gracious and showed Marc—even in the midst of his anger and the strength of his emotions—that leaving was not the answer. “Underneath everything, I knew that seeking the escape I craved would actually mean destruction. It would destroy my wife and kids, but it would destroy me too.”
This revelation brought Marc to repentance. “You know how you can do good acts out of your own effort? Just force yourself to do the right thing? Well, God used this to show me where the end of that was. He showed me my own inability to truly do good out of my own strength. In the centre of my being I want to be served, honoured and praised. But he showed me that I can find my satisfaction in knowing him and loving and serving others as he loved me.”
“God has been breaking me of a lot of things lately. He’s shown me that my highest calling is not building a ministry with ‘cool music’; a catalogue of songs; a platform for myself or even for Westside. My highest calling as a follower of Jesus is to love and serve the body of Christ as he has loved me.”
“I know God has done a miracle,” Marc says, “I still have hard days and moments, but I feel a renewed strength and joy in setting myself aside. When I do that I experience the presence of Jesus. That’s been a huge shift in me.”
“Looking back, the suffering was a blessing,” he adds. “Coming to the end of myself was God’s grace. It sounds like it was awful, but honestly it was refining. There were a lot of things in us and in our marriage that would have continued to go unspoken or undealt with if this hadn’t happened. You refine gold in a fire.”
Slowly moving forward
Two years into this journey, both Marc and Chars are adamant that they are still works in progress. Over the past few months Chars has made significant progress and been able to take on more and more at home. She no longer needs help whenever Marc is out of the house.
“But I don’t want to tell this story and have it sound like we’ve arrived and everything is fine now. I’m still in pain, I still have a long ways to go. I still battle anxiety and fear. It’s not like we have everything thing figured out,” she pauses. “But this is where God has brought us so far.”
Sarah Miller is a writer, musician, introvert and sports fan. She plays piano and sings on the worship team, leads a community group and has been attending Westside since the (almost) beginning.