Gary Thomas in his book Seeking the Face of God (Thomas Nelson Publishers 1994) wrote: “Wise shopper clip coupons; wise Christians clip obituaries” (154). In fact, Gary said that that when “a contemporary saint” dies – someone “whose life faith and life has encouraged me” – he tries to consciously live with that person’s memory. He will post a quote from them or a picture of them on the wall in front of the desk where he works as a way of remembering the contribution that they have made to his thinking and living as a Christian. I do the same thing, only I pull their books from my library’s shelf and flip through them rereading my underlinings and highlightings, and remembering how they informed and inspired me. This morning when I got to my office, the first thing I did was to pull the books of Charles Colson from my bookshelf.
Chuck Colson died yesterday at the age of 80.
I own, have read, and have marked up four of Chuck Colson’s books – Born Again (1976), Life Sentence (1979), Loving God (1983), and The Body (1992). My copy of The Body is actually autographed by Chuck Colson. “Brother Doug,” it says, “God Bless you – Chuck Colson.” A friend of mine was involved in the publicity when Chuck Colson won the Templeton Prize in 1993 for having made “an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” My friend talked about Chuck Colson’s warmth, depth and authenticity when he was “up close and personal” with him, and my friend insisted on getting a copy of one of Colson’s books that I owned personally autographed for me. It’s a gesture that I appreciated then, but that I deeply cherish now that both Chuck Colson and my friend are with the Lord.
Jim Liske, the current CEO of Prison Fellowship, the ministry that Chuck Colson founded and led after his own time in prison, was interviewed by NPR for their report on his death. What he said about Chuck Colson, his friend and mentor, is exactly right –
Colson wrote many books starting with the memoir “Born Again.” And the Prison Fellowship now operates in more than a hundred countries. Its current CEO, Jim Liske, says Colson’s greatest legacy may be the power of his own story – “I think his legacy is that anyone can make that change and anyone can become an individual who has positive influence on our world – a transformation and a new life is possible.”
I came to appreciate Chuck Colson as a Christian thinker and author. He had a real gift for digesting big theological ideas and communicating their importance to a popular audience. He was an outspoken advocate for a Christian’s place in the public square where the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ needs to be “proposed” convincingly, consistently and unapologetically. He was an articulate defender of the social consequences of a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, especially to that part of the church that had become comfortable downplaying them. Chuck Colson surprised me with his leadership in and passionate advocacy of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” He proved to be an impressive ecumenist. But with Jim Liske, I believe that Chuck Colson’s “greatest legacy” will be “the power of his own story.”
We all say that we love the hymn “Amazing Grace.”
But do we really believe what the hymn “Amazing Grace” says?
Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.
Is “grace” really “amazing” to us?
Do we really believe that we need “saving”?
Do we really think that we were once “wretches”?
Were we once “lost”? Are we now “found”?
Were we once “blind”? Do we now “see”?
Jack Arrington liked to tell about a conference speaker he’d once heard who’d described “church work” as a matter of convincing “nice people to be nicer.” And that’s how we think about ourselves, as “nice people” who just need a little encouragement to be “nicer.” But that’s not the popular hymn’s point of view. No, its perspective on us is that we are a mess, and its take on the Gospel is that it’s a reclamation project.
When Jerry Cook’s church in Portland, Oregon, got some press for welcoming high profile sinners into its life, one Jerry’s ministerial peers called to scold him about it. “You know what you are?” this pastor asked Jerry. “You’re nothing but a bunch of garbage collectors.” And as Jerry thought about it, he had to agree!
That’s exactly what we are, garbage collectors. What were we before Jesus found us? Weren’t we all just garbage? Then Jesus finds us and recycles us. I mentioned this in church one Sunday and afterwards a man who owns a garbage collection agency came floating up the aisle, all excited. “That’s super,” he said. “Let me tell you something about garbage. There’s a landfill near here. For 10 years we used it as a place to dump trash and garbage. Know what’s there now? A beautiful park.” I’ve seen human garbage become beautiful too. I’ve seen the stench of sin turned into the fragrance of heaven. That’s our business.
And that’s Chuck Colson’s story. He was not a “nice” man. He was the director of dirty tricks for the Nixon Presidential reelection campaign in 1972. He famously said that he would walk over his grandmother for Dick Nixon. He went to prison for his part in the Watergate break-in and cover-up. And this “wretch” got “saved” by Jesus Christ.
Oh, we didn’t believe him at first. We were all skeptics when he stood on the steps of the Federal Courthouse during his trial and announced that he had been found by Jesus Christ and become a new creation. We said it was just another dirty trick, a public relations strategy designed to change our impressions of him. We thought that Chuck Colson was using Jesus Christ. What we didn’t understand was how Jesus Christ was planning on using Chuck Colson.
Jesus Christ used Chuck Colson to show us once again the power of the Gospel, how someone who was “dead in their trespasses and sins” can be “made alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5). Saved “by grace through faith” and not “as a result of works, that no one should boast,” Chuck Colson became God’s “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand” for him “to walk in” (Ephesians 2:10). Jesus Christ used Chuck Colson as one of His best billboards for the power of the Gospel. Over the past 40 years we have been allowed to see firsthand in Chuck Colson what Paul meant in Romans 6 when he wrote –
1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
This morning a stack of Chuck Colson’s books sit on my desk in front of me. I have already flipped through their pages and read my markings in them. I have remembered why I bought these books, and why I’ve kept these books. And to consciously live with his blessed memory in the coming days I’m planning to read them again, grateful for him and “amazed” by grace. DBS +