Monday, April 23, 2012

Chuck Colson: A Very Good Work

Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist and author of Half the Sky, posted on Facebook Saturday a short tribute to Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, who died at 80 April 21. What struck me is that Kristoff began the tribute with a disclaimer: "I know this will horrify some of you, but I had respect for Chuck Colson..." and then Kristoff describes the very good work Colson did in addressing the many problems in the prison system, including prison rape.

From the comments the columnist received, one would think Colson had been the devil incarnate, instead of a once-power-hungry human being who "sinned boldly," was convicted and imprisoned, and who, for the rest of his life, reflected the conversion and redemption that he claimed had saved him in prison.

Let me repeat that: Colson, for 40 years until his death, led a life of integrity, service, creativity, and commitment. He was not a hypocrite, a snake-charmer, an adulterer, unlike other "church-going" leaders we have seen take a fall in recent years; he was a sinner saved by grace who then served boldly.

He was "working out his salvation" for all the world to see--except that much of the Western world chooses to call evil, good and good, evil, especially when in disagreement with someone. The sophisticated world has trouble seeing good in Chuck Colson. The comments on Kristof's post were primarily shots at "evil" conservative politics, and the assertion that Colson's Watergate crimes and later political alliances were equally bad.

But evangelical Christians also had a problem with him in the mid '90s, because he dared to forge an alliance with Catholics. When the document, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" was published, 100 angry evangelical leaders denounced it, and Colson's ministry lost one million dollars in funding. Apparently, helping prisoners wasn't as important at that moment as sticking it to a perceived pal to Catholics. 

But, it was only for a while. The furor died down, and many came to see that Christians working together, regardless of denomination, is much more effective than ripping one another apart.

I did not know Chuck Colson personally, but I ran into him a few times while I was working for Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He was a long-time Board member. I remember being in awe--geek that I am--because he was the rock star of transformed lives. I had read several of his books, and had been given his book, Born Again, many years before by my father when I first became a Christian. I remember calling my dad excitedly that I had just been standing next to one of his heroes.

But a glimpse into Colson's character can be found in a 45-minute car ride with my husband who was driving him to the airport. He asked Tim about his work, his plans for ministry. He wanted to hear his opinion about the seminary. Then, he apologized as his phone rang. "I have to take this--my daughter's calling!" Tim could not help but overhear a loving exchange between a dad and a daughter. A few weeks later, my husband received a signed book from Colson's office. Colson had said he would like to send him one and wrote down Tim's address. This very busy man, with much on his mind and plate, remembered to send a book to someone he had just met.

Like Kristof, I have great respect for Colson--yes, for the prison ministry, but more for his ability to actualize God's promises: that as a child of God, you can be set free from sin and shame--and then move on to do great things.

I have counseled people who had great difficulty in believing they were truly forgiven for the past, who had not committed ugly crimes impacting an entire nation. It takes courage and faith to face those we have wronged, admit our wrongdoing, then lay that shame at the cross (see Colson's book I mentioned earlier, Born Again).  Of course, there are consequences to our actions: some wrongs can't be undone. But if Colson had wallowed in self-pity, or worse, so much good would not have been realized.

Kristof was pandering to his more liberal followers in his post, but he, like Chuck Colson, is at least willing to stick his neck out and acknowledge that a life transformed can help transform others--calling what is good to be good.

Chuck Colson photo courtesy of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Click here to read the Gordon-Conwell memorial to Colson.
Kristof photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images.


  1. Born Again sounds like a good book to read. I will check it out.

    Thank you for such an informative post. I enjoy hearing about lives redeemed by Christ. It's like a weight-loss program. The before and after picture. When someone walks into , or is dragged into, church you see their before picture. I get excited for them because I know their after picture is going to be amazing.

    It's people who don't understand God's power because they haven't allowed Him to change them and give them an after picture yet who tend to judge if others have really changed.

  2. Thank you, Katy. Born Again impacted my life and faith, and helped me to understand the power of God in conversion. Plus, it is a very good story, which I know you will appreciate :).

  3. Kerry...
    This an excellent and well thought out piece.
    I can remember when I was quite young, that my mother was lamenting how her younger brother had been judged. She said " "A person can do all these good things in life but when they do one bad thing, people sometimes write them off."
    So it was with my uncle, who was one of the most generous, giving and gentle persons that I knew. I just pray that, through the love of his family and true friends, that he knew he had not failed life.
    I read a book by Charles Colson " The Body" years ago and found it insightful and informative.
    A Book that his daughter Emily wrote and that Charles Colson contributed to, titled Max and Me, showed in the first pages ( that you can access on Amazon) what a loving father he had become, knowing that he had failed his children in so many ways. It speaks of his humility. It is a book I would recommend.
    Thanks for sharing another aspect of Charles Colson's life, up front and personal.

  4. wonderful post. i forgot you and Tim met Chuck Colson (if I knew) and that is so neat.