One common thought many people have about conversion is that a person who has undergone the experience is wholly different before and after. Surely this is true in the order of grace, in that a man goes from darkness into light, from sin into being made cleansed. Yet, the personality remains the same even if it becomes reordered and redirected, sometimes astonishingly so. Such was the case with Peter, and with Paul, with Augustine and more contemporaneously, with my good friend Chuck Colson who slipped into eternity Saturday, April 21, at 3:12 p.m.
I first came to know about Chuck Colson in the same way millions of others did: in the role he played as one of the “Watergate Seven” and described as President Nixon’s ”hard man,” willing to get done what needed to be done. Shortly after the events surrounding the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s, I heard of his conversion to the Christian faith and read his now classic journey in “Born Again.” Never did I think I would come to meet this man, much less to eventually count him as a colleague and good personal friend.
After Kris Mauren and I founded the Acton Institute 1990, I invited Chuck to come to Grand Rapids. He addressed our second annual dinner (the first dinner speaker was William F. Buckley, Jr. who died in 2008). I became instant friends with Chuck and with his lovely wife Patty. In taking the podium that evening in downtown Grand Rapids, Chuck expressed his amazement in words that I would hear him use many times over the years. He said that when he received my invitation he was intrigued by the idea of a Catholic priest starting up an institution in the midst of the Protestant Reformed “Vatican” of West Michigan. Some years later I had the great pleasure of inviting Chuck and Patty to visit the real Vatican and speak at a Church-sponsored conference there and meet Pope John Paul II.
Over the years Chuck and I shared many platforms and press conferences, vacations and dinners, and worked closely in causes near and dear to each of our hearts. One of the most memorable was to help with the launch of the Manhattan Declaration in defense of Life, Marriage and Religious Liberty.
Others will write extensive biographies of Chuck Colson delineating his numerous accomplishments, and deservedly so. I simply would like to express my admiration for a man whose witness to the reality of Jesus Christ and his redemptive power was an inspiration for me to be a better priest and a better Christian. The authenticity of Chuck Colson’s conversion and the integrity of his life were evident to any honest observer. One fact stands out, to my mind, namely that notwithstanding the profundity of Chuck’s spiritual transformation, the core of who he was remained and was purified and redirected. Chuck became God’s “hard man,” seeing to it that things got done that needed doing. Prison Fellowship is evidence of that, as is Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and the Manhattan Declaration – and the numerous other activities Chuck initiated, inspired or so generously supported over the years.
At one event Chuck began his remarks with some words he borrowed from the author of Amazing Grace, John Newton: “… I am a great sinner and Christ is a great savior.” And now, may that loving Savior receive into his eternal embrace the soul of that sinner he so cleansed and redeemed with so great a love. The world is a better place, and I am a better person, for the life of Chuck Colson.