As we remember Charles Colson on Wednesday at a National Cathedral service, I am reflecting on the great man and the honor I had to serve at his side for many years. Much is being written about our memories and experiences. Searching for the right description of my time with Chuck, I recalled an actual experience that I would guess only a few people could cite.
When Pat Robertson was running for president in 1988, CBN asked Chuck to spend a few weeks hosting the 700 Club, which he did, awkwardly (interviewing others was one of the few things he just did not do well. He answered the questions for them!) During these stretches, Chuck and a few of us colleagues stayed in an oceanside house. Chuck working with Ellen Santilli Vaughn and Kenneth Myers (Mars Hill) on Kingdoms in Conflict during those days. But the memorable highlight of those days was when we went body surfing in the Atlantic with Chuck on the Virginia beach a few steps from our door . There was a tropical depression far off shore and the waves were terrific; almost westcoast-like. We had a blast.
Working with Chuck was not unlike that experience. It was a wild ride, and indeed a rush to the senses. I’ve never tried to count the number of trips I made with Chuck during the six years I served as his senior aide and chief of staff, and six more as his director of public relations and senior vice president of corporate communications. During one of those years I recall counting out-of-town days and found that I’d been on the road 40% of the time. During those years, we would advance every trip that Chuck made; everywhere Chuck went to speak, I’d go twice–advancing the event and going there with Chuck. Journeys with Chuck were fast and furious, with every moment planned out and used wisely; advance trips made that possible.
I’m part of a small fraternity of young men who traveled with Chuck–young when we started, worn out when we stopped; it wasn’t the years it was the miles! I’m trying to recall them all: Dave Bovenizer, Mike Cromartie, Al Elliott, me, a young man from Atlanta (what was his name?), Will Nance, Todd Nelson, John Dawson, and others I don’t know since I’ve been out of the PF universe the last 15 years.
Much is being said and written about Chuck since his death a week ago. Not many people spent more time with Colson than I did, especially on the road; I walked with him and observed him on long trips, early mornings, late nights, tired, frustrated, energized, adulated, you name it. We all have stories of laughter and challenge, and exhaustion and admiration. What I remember most is Chuck Colson as a distinct character with immense character. The contours of this character:
Faithful: When I traveled with Chuck, we shared a room service breakfast most mornings, and a morning prayer. Regardless of whatever else Chuck prayed for each morning, he prayed that we might be faithful. Faithful not just in the pursuit of the mission God had put before us, but faithful to God and his will and direction in our lives. One reason Chuck leaves such an honored legacy is that he did remain faithful to his God, and he avoided the traps and temptations that were frequently put in his path.
Consistent: He was consistent in all aspects of his life and we saw it in the workplace in the constancy of effort, the repetition of positive habits, the attention to minute detail, and the withering focus on core programs and priorities. His pursuit of his dreams could be relentless, or at least it could seem that way as his staff. Although many sought to enlist Chuck in a variety of Christian causes (I know I did for my public relations clients after leaving Prison Fellowship), he remained focused, following the wise dictum of Christian fundraising pioneer Russ Reid: “Every need is not a call.”
Brilliant: In All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein admitted that Colson was perhaps the smartest of the Watergate characters, the “evil genius.” While Chuck was willing to apply his brilliance to accomplish political ends, and during his political career he had clearly not yet been tracked down by the hound of heaven, I’m convinced that he seemed “evil” only to political opponents. He was, on the other hand, brilliant, both before and after his conversion. For those of us charged with supporting and assisting Chuck, the fact that he had a photographic memory, literally, was a source of constant embarrassment. It served him well, however, in his endeavors and in ministry effectiveness.
Original: Chuck was an opinion leader who, rather than wait for the talking points to be distributed, developed original and constructive positions that informed Christians and defended historic Christian faith in the marketplace of ideas. Although considered one of the leaders of the “Christian right,” Chuck was often out of step with these leaders, or really often several steps ahead. During my time working with Chuck, he bucked conventional evangelical practice and worked with Lutheran-turned-Catholic thinker and priest Richard John Neuhaus (I wonder what those two are cooking up in the heavenlies) to draft the Evangelicals and Catholics Together documents, that not only indentified areas of social co-belligerence, but also areas of theological agreement. This document was welcomed by many and, as you can imagine, roundly criticized by the most doctrinaire. Chuck didn’t really care (although it hurt him that some very close friends ended friendships over his position), because he relished his role of afflicting the comforted and causing his brethren to think.
Wise: At a particularly rough time in my life, when I’d been falsely accused of wrongdoing and it was making a big impact on my life, Chuck arranged for us to have some time together (appropriately at the airport). I moaned about how people were making claims about me that were not true, and it was ruining my life, and it was just not fair. Chuck looked at me with that penetrating look, and reminded me that many people had told lies about him during the Watergate period, and these lies were printed on the front page of The Washington Post and hundreds of other papers around the world. Friends had betrayed him and he’d ended up serving time in prison. His life, and that of many of the key figures in the Nixon White House, had been upended. Chuck gave me this advice: “You remember meeting Haldeman and Erlichman (I’d had a chance to meet them at a Watergate symposium of sorts at Hofstra University where Chuck and the others spoke). They were never able to forgive and they allowed the injustice and betrayal to eat away at their souls. They amounted to nothing after Watergate days as a result. Don’t allow that to happen. Look forward; looking back only to learn and to forgive, but not to condemn. Don’t allow bitterness to erode your heart and soul.” He was the model for what he was teaching, and these words and the way he exemplified them were undoubtedly the most important lessons Chuck ever taught me.
Funny: And yes, Colson was a character, wickedly funny, and a brutal practical joker. When I wasn’t a target—such as when he locked me in the airplane bathroom or hid my shoes as I went through the prison metal detector, I was sometimes enlisted to participate in the pranks. One of my favorites was a time when our wonderful PF area director in North Carolina (I think), David Haley—himself a jokester—asked Chuck to videotape a greeting that David would play to the gathered guests at a large upcoming fundraising dinner. When I took this request to Chuck, he agreed. But there was that certain mischievous look in his eyes. Here’s what we did: Chuck sat before the camera and completed a flawless taped greeting in one take, the usual. Except he began the tape: ‘I want to thank you, Prison Fellowship friends, for your support of our work and for your support of my dear friend Bob Haley.’ Yes, he purposely used the wrong name, Bob—not David—several times in the greeting. Chuck then did a second tape, just as flawlessly, using the correct name. The instruction to me: send the first tape to David and wait a day or so, or until we hear a gasp from North Carolina, and then send the correct tape. It wasn’t very long before I got a call from national director Myles Fish, David’s supervisor, who said David called him in a panic. I played along briefly and then let Myles in on the prank. I sent the correct tape to David, who had a successful event, and to this day won’t admit that he’d been had by Chuck Colson.
Kind: Finally, for all of his ex-Marine, hatchet man tendencies and reputation, Chuck was actually a remarkably tender person, kind to the people who he served with, those he served, and the many who crossed his path; and attentive to his family. His heart showed the most when his friends and colleagues, and those he loved, faced misfortune. A man who was in constant, sometimes crazy, demand, he always had time for the wounded one in the herd. People have reflected on his care and concern for his devoted wife, Patty. I observed so much of that. And also for his children. I remember one stretch of time when our travel schedule was very heavy, Chuck’s daughter Emily was going through a difficult time. As we flew from city to city, day after day, and week after week, Chuck called Emily every day to get an update and to encourage her. I should point out that this was before there were cell phones (I know, I know, aging myself). When we’d get off a plane, he’d make a bee line for a pay phone. This was the consistent pattern for months. There was nothing more important.
That’s the Chuck Colson I knew. The friend we memorialize this week. The Christian who led us and whose primary legacy is a more culturally engaged and a more loving church. We are so much richer as a people because he was born again, served a life sentence serving others, and, yes, showed us how to love God.