On Saturday, April 21, Charles Wendell Colson died. On Wednesday of this week, I attended his memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
I hope you know who I am talking about. He rose from the streets of Boston to the heights of political power as Nixon’s chief counsel. He then went to prison in the aftermath of Watergate. But a strange thing happened along the way to prison: Chuck Colson became a follower of Christ. The next 40 years of his life would be spent as one of the world’s most pivotal Christian leaders as well as influential champions for prison ministry. His books sold in the millions, and his influence ran far and wide. As he wrote in Loving God, “I had surely known the heights and depths of life: from power, wealth, prestige, and an office next to the president of the United States to the confining walls of a dreary prison. But along the way I had made the most important discovery anyone can make.”
I haven’t written about Chuck’s death before now for personal reasons. First, I was on a speaking tour in England when the news came my way. But more importantly, there was much for me to process.
Chuck was far more than an acquaintance. He was a dear friend and mentor, and we went through much together.
We first met as a result of his gracious enthusiasm for my book, Serious Times. From that came correspondence, and then some shared conferencing and speaking. Then he was among those who reached out to me to become the president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (he was on the board), a role I eventually accepted.
Chuck and I forged a fast and intimate relationship as we strategized together to extend not only the Great Commission, but the cultural commission inherent within it. We would spend hours talking about bringing a Christian worldview to bear on all of life and culture. We shared the same passion that to change the world, we had to change the church; and to change the church, we had to change its leaders.
Our relationship was not always smooth.
My time as seminary president immediately was faced with budget deficits, faculty opposition, frustration over governance issues, and a board that had the same vocabulary for its vision, but not always the same dictionary. Chuck and I stood shoulder-to-shoulder through it all. He was my staunchest advocate.
But then, due to some significant disagreements about where it was best for me to establish my residency (I felt strongly that I needed to stay in Charlotte, which was already the location of its second largest and fastest-growing GCTS campus; many on the board wanted me to relocate to Massachusetts), I felt compelled to resign and return to my previous role as a pastor. The reasons are not important to divulge; suffice it to say that moving to Boston would not, I was convinced, have been wise.
When I resigned, Chuck was unhappy with me. Actually, that is putting it mildly. We were close enough that he could, and did, read me the riot act. Those who knew him know that he remained every bit the Marine he had been in his youth, and still carried some of the residue of his Nixon hatchet-man days (While in the White House, he once wrote in an internal memo, “I would walk over my grandmother for Richard Nixon.”). Few people could be more blunt, direct and forceful than Chuck.
In his defense, he was more personally hurt by my resignation than most people realized – more than even I did at the time. He felt that a part of his legacy and hopes were tied up with me and that role. When I resigned, despite several phone calls and meetings trying to convince me not to, he felt a strong sense of loss and kingdom setback. It wasn’t, of course, true. The role was important, but not decisive. What was certain is that I wasn’t that important. Regardless, that is how he felt at the time. For my part, I felt frustrated that he didn’t see the larger picture of my life (and my family’s life), and how strongly I felt about making my best investment through the local church. As much as Chuck understood the centrality of the local church, he never granted her the culture-making role I felt Scripture cast and that had captivated my heart.
He later apologized for his reaction, particularly for his words and emotions on the day I announced my decision, and we reconciled fully. While a Marine, Chuck was a tender-hearted follower of Christ who was easily moved by the Holy Spirit. He still wished that I had stayed on as president of Gordon-Conwell, but admitted he understood my reasons and allowed for the possibility of our joint dreams and passions being carried out through the local church I led, and that good and important things could come of the writing and speaking God continued to afford my life.
In truth, there were things we both could have handled better.
That is already more than I have ever written on my Gordon-Conwell saga, and obviously leaves out many, many things. The point is that to the end of his days, Chuck was a good and close friend. We respected each other, were loyal to each other, and were joined at the hip in our convictions and passions and aims.
All to say, I loved Chuck Colson, and I am a better man for our time together.
And I will miss him very much.
We all will.
He stood for biblical truth in a day that seems more concerned with being accepted by culture than prophetically confronting it with a wisdom and compelling apologetic and influence.
He was relentless in reminding us younger leaders to surround ourselves with counsel and accountability, and he fleshed it out by finishing well without scandal throughout his days as a Christian statesman.
As bold and confident as he appeared, he was a large-hearted man with a truly humble spirit, transparently forged in prison as only prison can. With every controversial stand on various social issues, he gained respect and credibility by spending time in the prisons from which he came, witnessing to inmates with relentless compassion.
Those of us invited to his memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington wore buttons that held some of Chuck’s lasting words to us all:
“Remain at your posts and do your duty."
He certainly did.
And his legacy with my life is that I will always aim to do the same. Maybe not at the post he envisioned for me, or even the post I might envision for myself – his own life was a testament that such things are difficult to forecast -- but always answering the call to duty that brought us together.
James Emery White
Charles Colson, Loving God.
On Chuck’s life, see Jonathan Aitken, Charles W. Colson: A Life Redeemed.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.