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FIRST-PERSON: Chuck Colson’s greatest legacy

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP) — Although I never had the opportunity to meet the late Charles “Chuck” Colson — the founder of Prison Fellowship and author of numerous books — he has had, and continues to have, a significant impact on my life.

I first became aware of Colson when he served as special counsel to President Richard Nixon. The year was 1972 and I had become interested in politics. Shortly thereafter, the Watergate scandal broke. I remember hearing news commentators refer to Colson as Nixon’s “hatchet man.”

I recall news accounts in 1974 of Colson pleading guilty to the charge of obstruction of justice for attempting to defame Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst whose release of documents that came to be known as the “Pentagon Papers” were particularly embarrassing to the Nixon Administration.

Colson received a sentence of one-to-three-years and was fined $5,000. He entered the Maxwell Federal Prison in Alabama on July 9, 1974. He was the first member of the Nixon administration to go to prison for his involvement in the Watergate scandal.

Fast-forward nine years to 1983 when I became re-acquainted with Colson. I had become a follower of Christ two years earlier. A friend, who was mentoring me in my faith at the time, recommended a book recently published and written by Colson. It was his second book — “Loving God” — and it followed his biography, “Born Again.”

In “Loving God,” Colson related stories about people living out their love for God. While the anecdotes were insightful and inspirational, the passages where Colson shared personal perspectives meant the most to me.

Two passages particular resonated with me. I still go back and re-read them in an effort to keep things in perspective.

In the first passage, Colson is reflecting on the evening he committed his life to Jesus Christ. Many people believe that he became a follower of Christ while in prison, but actually Colson gave his life to Christ before he was indicted. Concerning his experience of coming to faith in Christ, Colson wrote:

“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.

“That came about on a hot, sultry night in August, 1973. As the Watergate scandal was rocking the Nixon presidency and the nation, I — proud and self-assured on the outside, fearful and trembling within — visited with a close friend, Tom Philips, at his home.

“Philip’s was a successful business executive and client who, I had learned, had had some kind of religious experience. That evening Tom told me of his encounter with Jesus Christ, how his life had been dramatically changed. I listened intently. I had never heard anyone talk this way. Though something stirred within me, I kept my emotions in check, too proud to let him know how I felt inside.

“I left my friend that night, promising only to read a little book which he gave me, ‘Mere Christianity.’ But in his driveway that night, the dam burst. I could not drive the car; I was crying too hard, calling out to God with the first honest prayer of my life. I sat there alone for a long time — but not alone at all.

“From that day on, nothing about my life has been the same. It can never be again. I have given my life to Jesus Christ.”

In the second passage that I regularly re-read, Colson is reflecting on God’s use of his life. The setting is Easter morning and he is in a prison waiting to preach to inmates.

“As I sat on the platform, waiting my turn at the pulpit, my mind began to drift back in time … to scholarships and honors earned, cases argued and won, great decisions made from lofty government offices. My life had been the great American dream fulfilled.

“But all at once I realized that it was not my success God had used to enable me to help those in this prison, or in hundreds of others just like it. My life of success was not what made this morning so glorious — all my achievements meant nothing in God’s economy.

“No, the real legacy of my life was my biggest failure — that I was an ex-convict. My greatest humiliation — being sent to prison — was the beginning of God’s greatest use of my life; He chose the one thing in which I could not glory for His glory.

“Confronted with this staggering truth, I discovered in those few moments in the prison chapel that my world was turned upside down. I understood with a jolt that I had been looking at life backward. But now I could see: Only when I lost everything I thought made Chuck Colson a great guy had I found the true self God intended me to be and the true purpose of my life.

“It is not what we do that matters, but what a sovereign God chooses to do through us. God doesn’t want our success; He wants us. He doesn’t demand our achievements; He demands our obedience. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of paradox, where through the ugly defeat of a cross, a holy God is utterly glorified. Victory comes through defeat; healing through brokenness; finding self through losing self.”

Though I appreciate all the books Colson wrote, “Loving God” remains my favorite. That book’s passages impacted me when I first read them as a new follower of Christ 29 years ago. And they continue to influence me as I re-read them.

Though I never met Charles Colson in this life, he nevertheless impacted — and continues to impact — my life. Through his writing he helps to keep me focused on Christ, who makes my life worth living.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press, director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s office of public affairs, and editor of the Baptist Message www.baptistmessage.com, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Kelly Boggs