MY MEMORIES OF CHUCK COLSON
Charles “Chuck” Colson, the Christian apologist, commentator, thinker, and humanitarian, went home to heaven this past week. He was 80, the same age as my dad was at his death three years ago.
Over the last 20 years I had several meaningful encounters with Chuck. The first was in the media. I remember his pensive, maybe anxious, visage during the Watergate hearings; the frenetic bee line through the phalanx of reporters, cameras (the big clunky, film-type), and police officers as he was hustled inside stone buildings. I was only 15, but I knew this guy was in trouble–and was trouble. Back then I was a budding (mostly pretentious) leftist activist. (My first foray into street activism was an anti-Vietnam war demonstration in Southern Ontario, Canada, where I had vowed to escape to had the draft continued past my eighteenth birthday!) In any case, Colson, as a first-rate political hack for “Tricky Dick” Nixon, was to me, “the establishment enemy.”
Then, he and I experienced radical, life-, soul-, and mind-transforming spiritual conversions at about the same time. In entirely different places, under entirely different circumstances, at vastly different stages of life, and with no knowledge of the other’s Isaiah-in-the-temple epiphany, we each for the first time beheld a Holy God, confessed we were sinners, begged God’s forgiveness in Christ, and pledged our lives to the Savior’s service. I would testify to my being “born again” mostly to my friends, select family members, and to a tiny circle of long-haired, guitar-strumming, bell-bottom-jeaned counterculture kids meeting in a little country church at the edge of a cornfield. The greatest price I paid for my witness was disapproval by my liberal, non-religious Jewish parents and playful mockery by my psuedo-hippie friends. Chuck would share his dramatic metanoia in a block-buster best-selling book, Born Again, and face scorn, derision, denunciation, and, because of his own confession and need for penance, a frightening federal prison term after admitting guilt for the Watergate crimes.
These correlations in our two lives, orchestrated by the same Providential and salvific hand, would set us each on life trajectories that would inevitably bring us across one another’s paths.
The first time was on an airplane some 20 years ago while on an early preaching tour. As I boarded, I made my normal walk of shame through first class en route to a cheap seat in coach.I passed by Chuck who was seated in about the third row, behind a newspaper. When I spied him, I thought, maybe I can sneak up into the rare air at the front of the plane, and thank him for the influence he had already had in my Christian formation, and even in my philosophy of ministry. I had read “Born Again,” his autobiographical testimony of Christian faith. As a young, newly ordained minister, I had also spent many weekends in his “virtual company” by way of a documentary film that I clumsily dragged from church to church, mounting it’s giant real of 16 millimeter celluloid onto a behemoth of projector that barely fit in my car’s trunk. (This was 1976–before portable video tape, let alone digital media!) It was a promotional piece for the ministry I was then working with, Teen Challenge, and Chuck helped make our case that Christian conversion was the most powerful addiction-buster and life-changer. But Chuck was much more than a promoter; he was evidence God still changed Sauls into St. Pauls.
Eventually I settled for asking a flight attendant to deliver a humble note to Chuck scrawled on the back of my business card. A minute after the attendant took it away saying, “I’ll try,” Chuck was standing at the end of my row asking if he could take the empty seat next to me. We had a wonderful chat until our initial decent required him to return to his assigned first class seat. I would never forget his kindness in surrendering his comfort to engage in conversation with a stranger.
As the years went on, I had more encounters with Chuck. I would also get to know Doug Coe, the man who led Chuck to Christ at the height–or should I say nadir–of the Watergate debacle. Doug shared with me parts of the story that never made it into print. After my own stints in prison for pro-life work in the 1990s, I often thought of Chuck and what he did for the kinds of men I shared cells with by founding Prison Fellowship and working for penal reform.
In the late 1990s, I sat with Chuck in the US Senate gallery prayerfully observing the historic vote on a federal ban of partial birth abortion. If I remember right, it was the day a baby cried out in the chamber as Rick Santorum thunderously denounced the barbaric practice as “murder.” Chuck whispered to me, “Finally, the truth is told.”
A highlight for me was recently hosting Chuck at our Faith and Action ministry center on the Hill. My friend and Washington representative for Focus on the Family, Tim Geoglein (who shares office space in our building), arranged for the then intrepid 79-year old to crash in our guest room in between a ferocious itinerary of back-to-back meetings in the congressional buildings across the street. At a US Capitol event that evening, Chuck made his way over to me to thank me for the nap!
It was only in the last few months as I began my doctoral research on American evangelicals and our theology of church and state (or lack therefore), that I really discovered what a brilliant, insightful, and substantive lay theologian and apologist Chuck was for all of us. As one of my colleagues said, he truly was the Paul of our day. (I’ll add he was just as much an Augustine for our day.) While not a “trained” theologian, he none-the-less filled a serious lacuna in solid, biblical, intellectually rigorous, and morally courageous theology for the church’s encounter with the political powers.
I had planned in my dissertation to only allude to Chuck’s contribution in this field, but I’m taking another look at his rich legacy. There’s more there than I’ve ever appreciated, and I suspect that goes for a lot of my colleagues.
Too bad a person’s genius often goes under appreciated until they’re gone. I guess that’s true of nearly all the greats among us. Perhaps it proves just how great Chuck Colson was–and will remain.
God bless the life and legacy of Charles Colson.