“Be Not Afraid!”
A homily delivered by The Reverend Dr. Timothy George at the Memorial Service for Charles W. Colson at Washington National Cathedral on May 16, 2012
Invocation: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the ancient book of Joshua we read: “Now after the death of Moses, the servant of the Lord, it came to pass that the Lord spake unto Joshua the son of Nun saying, ‘Moses my servant is dead: now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou, and all this people, unto the land which I do give to them, even to the children of Israel. . . . As I was with Moses, so I will be with thee: I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee. Be strong and of a good courage. Be thou strong and very courageous. Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.’” (Joshua 1:1-9, selected verses)
Charles Wendell Colson was once the youngest captain in the United States Marines, and, at his request, he was laid to rest several days ago at Quantico National Cemetery. He loved his country fiercely and served it well. But we are here today, in this the nation’s church, to celebrate the life of one who ended his days as a soldier in another army, the militia Christi, a battalion without bullets, soldiers of Christ, arrayed in truth, wielding weapons of faith, prayer, and love. To describe this change in the life of Chuck Colson requires us to use freighted words such as conversion, redemption, transformation.
Not that Chuck ever completely outgrew the Marines. There was an intensity and drivenness about him that could be formidable. He did not suffer fools gladly and he was not blessed with an overabundance of patience. Chuck loved to tell the story about a man who accosted him on a plane one day, pushing, shoving, jostling for a seat. Chuck said to him, “Fella, do you know who you’re messing with? I’m an ex-marine, an ex-con, and if I weren’t a Christian you’d be on the floor of this plane!” Then he presented the Gospel to him.
Chuck was not perfect, but he was forgiven. He never got over the wonder and surprise of having encountered Jesus Christ as a real person, a living reality; the one person in human history who passed through the gossamer veil of death and came back to tell us what was on the other side and how we should prepare for that journey by living every day in the light of eternity. Chuck’s autobiography, Born Again, tells the story of a man born in Boston on the wrong side of the tracks. He clawed his way up the ever-spiraling ladder of success until he reached the pinnacle of power as Special Counsel to the President of the United States.
But when his career was shattered in the wake of Watergate, he found himself in the position of another henchman, Thomas à Becket, who had done the bidding of King Henry II in the twelfth century. In a play about his life, Becket stands on stage, stripped of the insignia of his high office, and exclaims, “Oh, God, there must be more, there must be something more!”
Chuck Colson had such a moment in the summer of 1973. Sitting alone late one night in the driveway of his friend Tom Phillips, filled with guilt and despair, he burst into tears “crying so hard,” he later said, “it was like trying to swim underwater.” That night he prayed his first real prayer, “God, I don’t know how to find you. But I’m going to try. Somehow I want to give myself to you.” Take me, take me, take me, he repeated over and over.
And God did take Chuck Colson from that moment of surrender to a federal prison in Alabama, to the experience of baptism as a new believer in Christ, to the founding of Prison Fellowship, a wonderful ministry to prisoners and their families now chartered in 113 countries around the world. And God took Chuck to the side of Mary Kay Beard, a former inmate and bank robber who could boast of being on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. At our fundraisers, Chuck used to say that no one could ask for money like Mary Kay! Together with Chuck she founded a ministry called Angel Tree that has served some six million children of prisoners over the last three decades. Chuck never forgot that he served a Savior who had been crucified as a prisoner, one who knew what it was like to be stripped, sentenced, beaten, and mocked. He never forgot Jesus’ words: “I was in prison and you visited me.”
Chuck’s conversion was not only emotional, it was also intellectual and moral as well. “I could not sidestep,” he said, “the central question God had placed squarely before me. Was I to accept without reservation Jesus Christ as Lord of my life? It was like a gate before me. There was no way to walk around it. I would step through or I would remain outside. A ‘maybe’ or ‘I need more time’ was kidding myself. The phrase ‘accept Jesus Christ’ had sounded at first both pious and mystical, the language of the zealot, maybe black magic stuff. But the question was: did I believe what Jesus said? If I did, then I accepted. Not mystical or weird at all, and with no in-between ground left. Either I would believe or I would not – and believe it all or none of it.”
Of course, there have been and still are the critics. When Born Again was released, Chuck’s hometown newspaper, The Boston Globe, wrote: “If Colson can repent, there just has to be hope for everyone!” To which Chuck would be the first to say, Yes! that’s exactly the point. Hope for everyone, anyone. The invitation has gone out with your name on it. It says RSVP. There is no limit to this love of God. His grace and forgiveness reach to the least, the last, and the lost, which, at the end of the day, is all of us, each of us sooner or later, in one way or other.
Of all the tributes that have been written about Chuck in recent days, the one that touched me most deeply was by Mr. Lanny Davis, who served as Special Counsel to President Clinton, the same title Chuck Colson had in his work at the White House with President Nixon. Mr. Davis described his meeting with Chuck several years ago at a dinner before the National Prayer Breakfast. They greeted one another, and Chuck said to Mr. Davis, “I’ve wanted for a very long time to say something to you: I am sorry, may God forgive me.” “I looked at him, stunned,” Mr. Davis wrote. Chuck continued, “You know, I’m the guy who put you on the enemies list – that was wrong, please forgive me.” Mr. Davis said, “I looked into his eyes and I felt a strange and deep peace. It was eerie. I also saw a profound goodness and spirituality. My eyes teared up. ‘Of course I forgive you, Mr. Colson.’” Mr. Davis then asked for Chuck’s forgiveness, as years before he himself had spoken with hatred about Chuck. Immediately, Chuck hugged him. “I learned an important lesson that night,” Lanny Davis said. “I vowed that I would never use the word ‘hate’ about people in politics with whom I disagreed.”
Over the years, Chuck came to see the close connection between the despair he witnessed within the prisons and the “culture of death” in society on the outside. He knew that genuine reform had to embrace the family, the community, and the church as well as the state. He came to see that the work he had done, and continued to do, in the prisons would ultimately fail unless it was undergirded by a robust Christian worldview, an understanding of what it is we believe and how it applies to our lives.
This perspective was reinforced by the three great intellectual heroes to whom Chuck turned again and again. William Wilberforce, the young member of Parliament who devoted his life to the abolition of the slave trade. And Abraham Kuyper, the Reformed theologian and prime minister of the Netherlands whom Chuck quoted, I believe, more than anyone else. Kuyper said: “There is not one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine, that belongs to me!’”1 And there was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a champion of faith and conscience in one of the darkest moments of human history. Bonhoeffer, who preached a gospel of costly grace and who, in 1937, wrote “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Chuck Colson was a Baptist but he had a passion for Christian unity that reached far beyond his own denomination. In the early nineteen nineties, Chuck and his close friend, the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, brought together a group known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together – not a mere coalition but a fellowship of earnest Evangelicals and faithful Catholics who recognized that beyond all the differences that continued to separate us, we shared a fundamental unity as brothers and sisters in Christ, a vision for reconciliation that continues still.
This same impulse was behind the 2009 Manhattan Declaration, which began as a statement and has now become a movement of more than half a million Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox believers all committed to the three most pressing, and increasingly contested moral issues of our time: the sanctity of life for every single person including the elderly, the weak, and the pre-born, each of whom is made in the image of God (imago Dei) and is worthy of our respect and protection; the historic institution of marriage, not for the sake of traditionalism but for the flourishing of families and the nurture of children, an institution Cardinal Timothy Dolan has called the cornerstone of society; and religious freedom, not only for Christians, but for all persons everywhere, and for religious institutions as well as for individuals, for synagogues, mosques, temples and churches and the work they do on behalf of the common good in education and benevolence. Chuck believed in these things, and he stood for them with courage, charity and civility.
For those who thought that this was just the old political Colson in a new disguise, he reminded them that while citizens in a representative democracy such as ours have a special responsibility, the fundamental issue is not political but spiritual. What Chuck advocated was a chastened form of civic virtue based on the fact that Christians hold a dual citizenship, one in this world, and the other, as St. Paul said, in heaven. With St. Augustine, Chuck wanted us to avoid two mistakes that Christians have often made and that still tempt us today.
One is the lure of utopianism, the mistake of thinking that we can produce a human society that will solve our problems and bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. This was the basic error of both liberalism and Marxism in the nineteenth century. But the other error is equally disastrous: cynicism. This happens when we become so jaded by the evil around us that we are tempted to give up on this world altogether, to retreat into our own self-contained circle of contentment, which can be either a pious holy huddle or a secular skeptics club. How are we to avoid such reactions?
Perhaps Francis of Assisi can help us here. One day after his conversion to Christ when he was riding back to Assisi, he saw a leper on the road. He reached out to embrace the leper and actually gave him a kiss. It was the kiss of peace. In that moment when he embraced this filthy diseased outcast, Francis said that he was overcome by a dual sensation. On the one hand, he was nauseated. He wanted to throw up. On the other hand, he was permeated with a sense of sweetness (suavitas) and well-being, and both sensations were in that one embrace.
Chuck Colson knew that both reactions were critical to our faith. If all we experience is nausea, we will become cynics. We will give up on the world and turn away from it in despair. But if all we have is sweetness, then our faith will amount to little more that sentimental fluff, what Schopenhauer called an “unscrupulous optimism that leads us nowhere but to vanity.” Genuine faith and true ministry take place on the thin edge between nausea and sweetness.
Chuck Colson often experienced that thin edge. Once while visiting Trivandrum, India, he was taken to a camp with more than a thousand inmates, most of them “untouchables.” Caged in squalid holes, with no toilets or running water, they were totally dehumanized, treated as outcasts. Speaking through a Hindi translator, Chuck shared his own testimony of grace and forgiveness. After the closing prayer, acting against the advice he had been given, he jumped down from the platform and ran to touch the men before him. Later, he wrote about this event: “Suddenly, like a flight of birds, men rose to their feet and circled around me. I shook every hand I could. Most of the men just reached and touched; they were desperate to ‘touch,’ to know that the love God offers is real.” Later, they went back to their grim cells. But that night, through the witness of Chuck Colson, they had received some good news: in Jesus Christ there are no untouchables. All of us bear that message whenever we walk the thin edge of costly discipleship.
John Calvin was right when he warned against extravagant speculation in the mystery of death. There is much we do not know. And this is a good occasion for each of us to think about our own deaths, for death waits for each of us around the next corner, or the next. John Donne spoke of the democracy of the dead. Mortality is egalitarian. It comes equally to each of us, and when it comes, it makes us all equal.2 Today we mourn with Chuck’s beloved Patty, the Colson family, and countless citizens across our land and around the world who have lost a great friend, champion, leader, and world Christian statesman. But we do not grieve as those who have no hope, for as St. Paul has reminded us, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
It has been said that this life is a chasm of light suspended between two eternities of darkness. But the Gospel Chuck Colson believed and proclaimed tells a different story: this life is the real shadowland, and often a vale of tears, suspended between two eternities of light. We come into this world, each of us, from the hands of the invisible God who dwells in light inaccessible. And, we leave this world, trusting in Jesus Christ, to go into what the African American preacher calls the land of “no more,” no more sorrow, no more crying, no more pain or death, no more crime or violence, no more prison and no more night, for we go into that land beyond the shadows where we shall have no need of candles, nor light of the sun, for the Lord God will give light to all those gathered around his throne and that of the Lamb.
And in the meantime? How now shall we live?
One of Chuck’s last books was titled The Good Life. And it closes with these words: “The good life? A life worth living? Indeed. But the good life is possible only if we live in expectation that life will end as richly as we lived it, if we laugh off the maggots and affirm that these bones shall live in the resurrection. Live each day as if it were the best of days and the last of days. And when the last of days comes, live it as the best of days.”
And who will take the place of Chuck Colson? Earlier this year I visited the grave of the great evangelist D.L. Moody who died in 1899 in Northfield, Massachusetts. At that time, everyone was saying, who can fill the shoes of the great D.L. Moody? There seemed no one on the horizon who commanded the respect and loyalty that Moody had. It’s quite depressing to read the religious press of those days. But unbeknownst to anyone on earth at the time, a little baby named John was about to be born to Sir Arnold Stott and his wife Lily. About the same time, another little boy named Billy entered the Graham family in Charlotte. A few years later, Pastor and Sister King in Atlanta celebrated the birth of baby Martin. And in 1931, in a hardscrabble section of Boston, a baby named Charlie Colson arrived.
Today the servant of God named Chuck Colson is dead, and the Lord is saying to us as he said to Joshua and the children of Israel long ago: as I was with Chuck, so I will be with you. Be not afraid! I will not fail you, nor forsake you. Be strong and of a good courage. Be not afraid! Be not dismayed. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
Let us pray: Oh, God, whose days are without end and whose mercies cannot be numbered: Make us, we beseech thee, deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of life. Remind us of the wonderful promise of our Lord Jesus Christ who said: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. We praise thee that through his atoning death on the cross, and his glorious resurrection, Jesus has opened wide the gates of eternal life to all who believe.
Today we give thanks for thy servant Charles Wendell Colson, for his steadfastness in faith, obedience to thy Word, and love for thy Church, for his gracious smile, loving touch, and contagious confidence in Jesus Christ his only comfort in life and death, and ours as well. We say farewell in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection, until we meet again in that blessed land of “no more”, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost now and forevermore. Amen.
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and Chairman of the Board of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.
1. Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.
2. This point was made by the Rev. Billy Graham at the funeral of Richard M. Nixon on April 27, 1994 at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California.