Remembering the Legacy
About the Guest
We know some people by their exploits in the political and business world, and others by their radical stand for the gospel. This man, however, was known for all three. Professor Owen Strachan reflects on the life of Chuck Colson. Owen talks about Chuck Colson's love for prisoners,and his work with Prison Fellowship, which he founded.
Owen StrachanOwen Strachan is the President of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood. He is also an Associate Professor of Christian Theology and Director of the Center for Theological and Cultural Engagement at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Bethany, daughter of theologian Bruce Ware, and is the father of three children. Strachan is the author of twelve books, including The Colson Way (Thomas Nelson, 2015) and The Risky Gospel: Abandon Fear and B...more
Professor Owen Strachan reflects on the life of Chuck Colson. Owen talks about Chuck Colson’s love for prisoners, and his work with Prison Fellowship, which he founded.
Remembering the Legacy
Bob: Like the year 2016, 1972 was also a presidential election year. President Richard Nixon was running for reelection that year, and one of his most trusted advisors was Chuck Colson.
Chuck: I was one of the four or five people closest to the President. I really came up with a strategy for the 1972 campaign, which was a landslide victory for the President—historic landslide victory as a matter of fact. And he’s toasting me with all of the results coming in and talking about the fact that I’d made his presidency. So, I really had life made; and the next morning, I woke up feeling miserable. Here I am—and what’s it all about?
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, April 15th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. Forty-four years after that presidential election, and decades after the Watergate scandal, we’ll reflect today on the transformed life of Chuck Colson.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We are spending some time this week reflecting on a guy who was a—well, he—you consider him a friend; right?
Dennis: He became a very good friend. In fact, my last encounter with Chuck Colson was just a couple of months before his death. He spoke with our speaker team—the men and women who speak at the Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways. As you know, Bob, he came—not only spoke—but sat on a panel. We peppered him with questions about ministry. He was very gracious in answering those questions, and then, had another speaking assignment, I believe, on the east coast—
Dennis: —complained of not feeling well, sat down, and they rushed him to a hospital.
He died not long thereafter. It was interesting, Bob—we were supposed to spend a day together in South Florida, just hanging out and interacting, and letting him do a little mentoring of me.
Bob: You went to the memorial service.
Dennis: I did, and I’ll talk about that a little bit later in the broadcast.
I want to introduce our guest on the broadcast—Owen Strachan. Welcome back to the broadcast, Owen.
Owen: Thank you so much for having me back. I appreciate it.
Dennis: He’s written a book called The Colson Way: Loving Your Neighbor and Living with Faith in a Hostile World. That sounds like a relevant subtitle for today.
Owen, you are a seminary professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. You and your wife Bethany have three children—have been married since 2006.
You’ve written about Chuck and his conversion. I want to talk more about his ministry. What’s the story that you tell that occurred—was it in 1985, with a woman who was imprisoned, who had AIDS?
Owen: That’s right; yes. Chuck Colson, in the mid-80s, is visiting a prisoner. It’s what he does a ton throughout the course of his post-conversion life. He talks with those who are forgotten, and malformed, and basically, in many cases, have no hope. He offers them the very simple but powerful gospel of Jesus Christ.
So, in this one encounter, he meets this woman who has AIDS. He’s—
Dennis: Yes, I believe her name was Bessie Shipp.
Owen: That’s right—Bessie Shipp. And he is afraid, initially, to go into her cell and talk with her; but he thinks about how he had seen Mother Teresa on TV, the night prior, and how she was caring for all these very sick people. He is inspired to push through his fear and go into her cell. This is at a time—this is the ‘80s when people don’t know much about AIDS—they don’t know about its transmission / these sorts of things—they haven’t figured out all the stuff with the HIV.
So, it is a scary time in this respect.
But Colson goes in. He talks with Bessie, who is a convicted prisoner for minor crimes. He shares the gospel of grace with her. He asks her if she would like to respond; and she says, “Yes.” She gets saved on the spot. She is, then, released a little bit later after Colson encourages the governor or her state to release her from prison. She ends up testifying immediately to all those around her of the grace of God, and she ends up becoming very ill not long after.
In a hospital room, she requests, as her final request in life, that she be baptized. There are all sorts of tubes—it’s very hard. There are contraptions that are keeping her alive; and yet, she wants to be baptized. She is baptized; and just a few hours later, she dies. That’s just one small example of how the ministry of Chuck Colson touched so very many people—
—many of whom were in such terrible circumstances.
Dennis: You know, one of the reasons why we know the conversion was authentic was his audience. I remember hearing Chuck—I believe it was in the mid-90s—speak at a Campus Crusade for Christ®—it’s now known as Cru®—international convention in Fort Collins, Colorado. I was sitting up front—and I’ll never forget this—I looked up at him. I was hearing the story of his conversion and watching him hold up a Bible. I thought, “There stands the next Billy Graham.”
And it’s interesting—and I want you to comment on this, if you would, Owen—he didn’t become a Billy Graham to the masses as we would expect Billy Graham to speak. He became the Billy Graham to the destitute, to the prisoner, to basically the social outcasts of our culture.
He reached into their lives with the love and forgiveness of Christ.
Owen: I think that’s beautifully said, and I think that is uniquely Colson’s story. When he is released from prison in 1975, he so easily could have made a ton of money—gone on the talk show circuit; and basically just made a career for himself; played a ton of golf; you know, done things / write with it—I guess not many people would have faulted him for doing that—they aren’t wrong to do, necessarily.
But what Colson did instead is—he went into these places of desperate prisoners. He encouraged them to come to eternal life in Jesus Christ. That’s what he does, basically, from 1975 until he dies in 2012. And that is what I think so many people found so compelling about Colson’s life—it’s that he didn’t pursue personal gain / he went to people who nobody was coming for. Chuck Colson—beyond just the Christian work that he did—really put prison reform on the map in this country.
Dennis: Oh, yes.
Owen: He wasn’t just impactful in a Christian sense. Recidivism—returning to prison over and over again—really became a mainstream issue in the 1980s and ‘90s in large part because of Chuck Colson—because he recognized that the rehabilitation of prisoners was absolutely necessary if American society was going to be strong.
Bob: I remember reading a quote—and I think it came from Spurgeon, but I think he was quoting John Angell James, a Puritan. This was in letters to his students, and he was talking about a pastor who had fallen from grace. The question was: “Can this pastor be restored to his ministry after he has sinned grievously?” And Spurgeon quoting John Angell James—said, “When his repentance is as notorious as his transgression was, then, that pastor is ready to be restored to ministry.”
And I’ve always thought, when I’ve heard that quote, “Chuck Colson’s repentance became more notorious than his transgression.”
Here was a guy who became better known in life for how he served Christ than for his sin in the Watergate era; and what a great testimony to the transformative power of the gospel.
Owen: Yes; and the fascinating thing is Chuck Colson ends up in prison—working in prisons that is—in part because of a dream he has that is based on a real-life encounter with a fellow inmate. Just before he is released, one of the men he got to know in prison says to him: “Colson, when you get out of here, you’re never coming back to us,”—in so many words—“You’re going to forget us, and that’s going to be the end of your association with prisoners.”
What more shockingly wrong words could be uttered? I don’t know because Colson, once he gets out, recognizes that he cannot minister to the broad American public. His call / his special call from God is to minister to inmates.
That’s what you were talking about, Dennis. He didn’t have the Billy Graham ministry, speaking in stadiums. He didn’t speak in Wembley Stadium / he didn’t speak in one massive venue after another. He went into prison cells and, primarily, he talked to one person at a time / two people at a time—small prison chapel, 40 people. Though he was a global celebrity, much of his life was taken up with the simple, humble work of gospel proclamation to just a very few people.
Bob: He did go into—I remember a prison in Louisiana that was a dark prison, and then, one in—it was Central or South America that he went into, where God was doing an amazing work in that prison.
Dennis: Yes, I think the one in Louisiana was Angola.
Owen: That’s exactly right.
Bob: That’s right.
Owen: He goes into Angola Prison. Angola is sometimes called the Alcatraz of the South. It’s known as a terrible facility that is fearsome to enter. And Colson breaks down the barriers as he so frequently did with these inmates—
—many of them were African American, to be frank. Colson was not sure if he was going to be able to connect with them, but he connected beautifully with them. They came to love him—these inmates, as a group—he visited them multiple times. He loved to go to Angola, which tells you something about his temperament. He liked to have the odds against him. He liked to have the wind in his face and minister in that kind of context. I see something Christ-like in him in that he was not scared of the world the devil would throw at him.
And you know what happens? When he dies in 2012, the inmates of Angola fashion a wooden coffin for him and send it to his ministry because they so loved him.
Dennis: That ministry still continues to this day. I’ve got a friend who is involved in that ministry from the outside. The gentleman, who gives leadership inside Angola Prison, is having a phenomenal spiritual impact—he is training disciples of Christ. You don’t think of prisoners being able to have ministry—
—they minister to each other and they can call out and they can minister to their families and to their children.
One thing I wanted you to comment on—how long was Chuck in prison?
Owen: Colson was in prison for just seven months. He was supposed to serve a sentence of three years, but it was shortened to seven months.
Dennis: So, even though he was only in prison for a short time, his life was wrecked by Watergate. What happened to his marriage and family during that time?
Owen: His family, to be frank, struggled while Watergate was happening in the early ‘70s into the mid-70s. His children were having difficulty finding their way during that period of his life. I mean, here is their father, who is being smashed in the press and is being sent to prison.
So, it was a tough time for the Colson family; but Colson was in the midst of developing a strong marriage to his wife Patty and that continued over the years. I was told, for example, what he would always do, just before the plane took off when he was on one of his many ministry trips—
—is that he would call Patty, who he called Happy / that was his name for her—and he would tell her very quickly that he loved her, hang up, and that would be that. But he was very closely connected with his family.
In fact, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, he begins to really draw closer to his family and find much joy in his grandchildren, for example. He had an autistic grandson, Max. He really found out how he could connect with Max and built a strong relationship with him. So, that’s another thread in Colson’s life—is his embracing of his family over the years.
Bob: And we think about his work with Prison Fellowship and how he established that ministry, but I also think the defining post-conversion work of Chuck Colson was around worldview. Many listeners—
Bob: —heard him, day in and day out, on his Breakpoint radio feature. He had a desire to see the Christian mind reformed around a biblical understanding of the world, and the culture, and how every aspect of life is under the authority of God’s Word.
Owen: That’s exactly right. Chuck Colson doesn’t have barely any training in Christian doctrine and Christian worldview thinking. So, one of his staffers—a man named Michael Cromartie—helps him engage some major thinkers, both from Colson’s present and from the past. R.C. Sproul, for example, is used to give Colson a massive view of God—training him that God is not this tiny, little thing you believe / this small idea but as this all-of-life worldview.
Dennis: He was not only a minister to the prisoners, but he was also an apologist.
One of the things that you write about in your book is how Angel Tree was birthed as a ministry of Prison Fellowship. That’s a great story. Share it with our audience.
Owen: A woman named Mary Kay Beard is in prison at the same time Colson is—actually, in the mid-‘70s.
This is a woman who was from a very hard background. She had been abused by various men in her life. One of the father figures in her life had broken her ribs, for example, at one point when he punched her. So, this is a woman who has a terrible early life. She ends up being a part of the Bonnie and Clyde of Alabama in the early 1970s, robbing banks / holding a shotgun as she does so. This is a woman who—
Owen: —she’s a tough customer; okay?
Dennis: Getting the picture.
Owen: That’s right. And she is saved in prison through some ministry. She’s reading the Bible—friends are introducing her to it. So, she gets converted. Well, she doesn’t really know what to do as a young Christian, but she begins to see fellow inmates struggling to connect with their children. This is something we don’t often think about. The children of inmates—they suffer, too, massively, because their parents are in prison.
Over a period of time, Mary Kay Beard discovers that she can reconnect prisoners with their children by enabling them to give gifts to their kids. And these gifts are not big gifts. Initially, she helps inmates give things like toothpaste to their kids—pens when their children visit. But this program snowballs—in the mid-‘80s, Chuck Colson learns of it; and eventually, Angel Tree is formed—and Colson and Mary Kay Beard are working together.
Angel Tree is this program that enables prisoners to, again, give gifts to their children and enable them to maintain strong ties with them while they are in prison. This program has led to conversions. It’s led to children being served and ministered to. It’s really one of the most beautiful aspects of Colson’s life and of Prison Fellowship’s ministry. George W. Bush, for example, famously, while he was President, would give out gifts as part of Angel Tree every holiday season. It’s really one of the ways that Colson shows that you can be salt and light / you can be an agent of mercy in unexpected ways.
Dennis: And you can keep the family together.
Dennis: You know, one of the things you may not know, Owen, is that probably—in no small measure of influence—Colson influenced FamilyLife to ultimately take the Stepping Up® video series—A Call to Courageous Manhood—into prisons.
Dennis: And I never dreamed I would ever be in a prison, but I was a part of the first graduation of about 95 guys who had been through all 10 weeks of this video series. I determined—after a phone call to a guy who had come to faith in prison, who encouraged me—he said: “Make sure you shake every hand. Make sure you look them in the eye. Give them a good word. These are the outcasts. They feel ashamed. Speak into their lives,” which I’m sure Colson did. I never went there with him—I wish I had.
But it was one of the greatest privileges of my life—
—to walk into this prison, and to see these men, and to hear them stand up and share—one guy said: “I’m grateful that I’m here in prison because it was in prison I found out how to be God’s man. I had no idea on the street. I was lost.” That’s a part of why he ended up in prison.
Bob: Well, in fact, if our listeners have not seen the video that was shot of that graduation in prison, they can go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click the links and see that video. It really is worth taking five minutes to watch that.
Dennis: It really is.
Owen, I’ve been saving this to show you near the end of the broadcast. I have an unusual habit. I keep a memorial program in the front of my Bible. The one I’ve been keeping is a picture of Chuck Colson that they passed out at the Washington Cathedral when Barbara and I attended the summary of Chuck’s life. Then, on the back, I’ve got notes that I take at each of these memorial services, just to be reminded of who the person is.
And these things were said about him—“Defend the weak,” “Live courageous lives,” “Do your duty,” “There is work to be done,”—he said. “He was a friend of sinners and even ate with them,”—that brought a chuckle from the crowd.
Then, at the bottom, there is a reminder of how great a transformation occurred in Chuck Colson’s life and how he was radically changed by Jesus. He said, “I was boarding an airplane, and a fellow passenger was pushing, shoving, and was rude.” Colson said, “Fella, I’m an ex-Marine and ex-con; and if I wasn’t a Christian, you’d be on the floor!” [Laughter] And then, he shared Christ with him. [Laughter] I love that story because that was Chuck Colson’s heart.
Owen: That was Chuck Colson as I understand him from my research. He lived life to the full. He wasn’t perfect / he had a rough edge. Eric Metaxas said to me that he was Donald Rumsfeld as a Christian. So, you know, even after becoming a believer, he had hard edges. He didn’t get everything right, but he was fundamentally fearless. He lived life, full-tilt, to the glory of God.
You know, one quick story to close—at the end of his life, Colson was called to the White House—this was 2008 to receive the Presidential Citizen’s Medal. This is the second highest civilian honor in America. He receives this medal, and he gets a little pin in this ceremony. When I visited Prison Fellowship Headquarters in Virginia, I saw this little pin sitting in this glass case. I asked why it was there and what it meant. I was told that it was the Presidential Citizen’s Medal.
And here is how I would close my thoughts on Colson. I would say that, when he was standing there in the White House—I’m guessing that his life was replaying before his eyes.
He’s thinking about his spectacular rise to prominence. Then, he’s thinking about his still more spectacular fall. Then, he’s thinking, I think, about how God has called him back to the White House / the site of his undoing—
Owen: —the site of his public humiliation—
Owen: —and yet, God has lifted him up once more. That’s a picture of how God’s grace worked in Colson’s life, and that’s a picture of how God’s grace can work in our lives today.
Dennis: And Chuck was a great guy. I really think you’ve done a great job of capturing the essence of his life; and I think, in Christian families today, there is a tremendous need to read great biographies of men and women of faith—those who stood strong for Christ and represented him extremely well. Chuck Colson was an ambassador for the King of kings and the Lord of lords. You’ve done a great job on his book.
I hope you’ll come back and join us again sometime.
Owen: Thank you.
Bob: Well, and I’m sitting here, thinking about the generation—that you say, “Chuck Colson,” and they’ll say, “Who’s that?”—
Bob: —that’s who you’ve written this book for—so that people could understand this was a man who God used powerfully in our country in the lives of many people—certainly, in the lives of prisoners /convicts all across the country—through Prison Fellowship, which he founded. I’d just encourage you: “If you’ve not heard of Chuck Colson, you ought to pick up a copy of Owen Strachan’s book, The Colson Way, and read about him. And if you were touched by his legacy, I think you’ll appreciate this book as well.
We’ve got The Colson Way in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order it online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can call to order at 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com; the toll-free number is 1-800-358-6329.
That’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, it’s interesting that we’ve been talking today about Chuck Colson, who worked for Richard Nixon, who grew up in Whittier, California. The reason that all ties together is because we have some friends—out in Whittier / Cliff and Laura Schmidt—who are celebrating, today, their 28th wedding anniversary. They listen to FamilyLife Today on KKLA. They’ve been to the Weekend to Remember a couple of times, and 28 years of marriage under their belt. “Congratulations!” to the Schmidts.
At FamilyLife, what we do is all geared to try to help you have more anniversaries and to have each one be sweeter than the last one—that’s our goal. We want to provide practical biblical help and hope for your marriage and your family so that your marriage really does get better every year.
And we appreciate those of you who partner with us in this effort—those of you who support the ministry financially.
We’re listener-supported. All that we do happens because folks, like you, make donations; and we’re grateful for that.
In fact, if you can help with a donation today, we’d like to express our gratitude by sending you Barbara Rainey’s brand-new book, which is called Letters to My Daughters: The Art of Being a Wife. That’s our gift to you when you go online and make a donation at FamilyLifeToday.com; or when you call 1-800-358-6329 / 1-800-FL-TODAY to make a donation over the phone; or you can mail your donation to FamilyLife Today at PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR; our zip code is 72223.
And with that, we’re done for this week. Hope you and your family are able to worship together in your local church this weekend.
And I hope you can be back with us on Monday when we’re going to talk about what it’s like to be 15 years old, or 14, or—you know, the middle teen years. Those can be tough years.
You probably remember—or maybe, you don’t remember much anymore—but you’re trying to figure out: “What am I good at? How do I get people to like me? Who am I?”— all of the identity issues. We’re going to explore that on Monday. We’ll share with you a new resource we’ve developed to help parents help their kids through those years. Hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with some help from Mark Ramey, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. See you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas. Help for today. Hope for tomorrow.
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