By JA Motter
Last July, my 17-year-old son, Brandon, and I were blessed to attend Oxbridge 2011, the world’s premier C.S. Lewis event, hosted by the C.S. Lewis Foundation and held every third year in Oxford and Cambridge. This ten-day event featured an impressive cast of speakers, nearly all of whom are successful authors. This included:
- Walter Hooper (Trustee of the Lewis Estate and editor of many C.S. Lewis collections)
- Stan Mattson (founder of the C.S. Lewis Foundation)
- Os Guinness (social critic and author, The Call)
- Randy Alcorn (Heaven)
- Ken Blanchard (The One-Minute Manager)
- Sir John Polkinghorne (Cambridge physicist and author, Quantum Leap)
- Kalistos Ware (Bishop on the Island of Patmos)
- Vishal Mangalwadi (The Book That Made Your World)
- Mary Poplin (Finding Calcutta)
- Malcolm Guite (Cambridge poet and musician)
- Kevin Belmonte (William Wilberforce)
- Earl Palmer (The Humor of Jesus)
- Joseph Pearce (former IRA street fighter and author, Literary Converts)
- and Michael Ward (Oxford Chaplain and author, Planet Narnia)
These noted speakers did not just helicopter in for a few hours to deliver their address; most stayed the entire two weeks; thereby providing an opportunity to work with, pray with and get to know these wonderful people. For all in attendance, Oxbridge was spiritually illuminating. As for me, have I never witnessed the “Light of the Lord” reflecting off so many.
It was with much anticipation that I looked forward to meeting Chuck Colson, who was one of the main plenary speakers. Interestingly, one of Colson’s great friends, British author Jonathan Aitken, also spoke during Oxbridge. In 1993, Aitken published Nixon: A Life; a highly favorable biography on the rise, fall, and rebirth of Colson’s former boss. Aitken was one of the few biographers to whom Nixon granted interviews. Not surprisingly, Aitken met Colson in the course of his research, and they became good friends. As their lives played out, these two men would come to have much in common.
For years, I have been an ardent admirer of the writings of CS Lewis, not the least of which is his extraordinary masterpiece, Mere Christianity. In fact, the very reason I was looking forward to meeting Mr. Colson was to speak with him about his own personal experience with my favorite chapter from this book, entitled “The Great Sin.” Many people know that Chuck Colson experienced a mid-life conversion to Christianity which sparked a radical change in his life’s purpose—to teach Christian worldviews and later to establish the ministry, Prison Fellowship. However, few people know the role that the book, Mere Christianity, and specifically this one profound chapter on pride, had played in his life.
Colson was one of the few who came to be known as “all the president’s men” in the Nixon administration, but he held a position of marked influence. According to Colson, he and Nixon brought the worst out in each other. In Nixon’s biography, Aitken wrote, “Nixon and Colson could ‘hot’ one another up to the most feverish of bouts of plotting and scheming.” Colson later wrote: “Those who said that I fed the president’s dark instincts are only 50 percent correct, because 50 percent of the time he was feeding my darker instincts.” The paranoia shared by the two led to Colson drafting a 1971 memo that came to be called the President’s Enemies List–which contributed in no small way to the dysfunctional culture within the Nixon White House. On March 10, 1973, amidst the unfolding of the Watergate cover-up, Colson resigned his position at the White House. One year later, he was indicted for conspiring to cover up the Watergate burglary.
Only five months after resigning his government post, Colson made contact with Tom Phillips, the CEO at Raytheon and a newly-minted Christian. Colson went into this meeting with only one item on his agenda—to secure legal work for his firm. Tom Phillips had a different agenda in mind. He saw an entirely different “window of opportunity” in the meeting: a chance to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with someone he knew was in deep spiritual need.
Phillips began by reading some extracts to Colson taken from Mere Christianity and then asked if he could pray with him. The passages Phillips read from the book were taken from the chapter on pride entitled “The Great Sin.” This caught Colson’s attention and made him uncomfortable. At first, he dismissed Phillip’s faith as naïve, “pure Pollyanna.” Because he had always turned a deaf ear to anything that had to do with religion, Colson initially resisted the idea, but soon conceded to Phillips’ request to pray together, saying, “Sure—I guess I would—fine.”
Tom Phillips remembers praying these words that day: “Open Chuck’s heart and show him the light and the way.” Colson would later admit that he felt the movement of God’s Spirit within his soul as Phillips prayed, but that could not bring himself in those fleeting moments to surrender to Christ. However, later that night, as he sat alone in his car in Phillips driveway he realized he resist the lure, and no matter how much he would have preferred, he could not rationalize this away. As he later reported: “Outside in the dark, the iron grip I’d kept on my emotions began to relax. Tears welled up in my eyes . . . and suddenly I knew I had to go back into the house and pray with Tom.” Since Phillips had already retired for the evening, Colson drove home. But there, as he gripped the wheel of his car in front of his own house he wept privately and offered his own prayer. Climbing into bed that evening, he told his wife Patty that he had undergone a conversion experience, although he confessed that he did not understand it. A few months later Chuck Colson was convicted of perjury and was consquently interned for seven months.
When Jonathan Aitken wrote his book about Nixon, he was a Conservative Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom, where he had served for 24 years. A few years later Aitken would rise to become the Minister of Defense on the British Cabinet. Like Colson, he had reached the apex of government; but as with Colson, his life soon came crashing to the ground. In 1999, Aitken committed a minor mistake in his testimony before Parliament. The British press and his political opponents piled on him with a vengeance. Months later, Jonathan Aitken was convicted and sentenced to prison for perjury. Like Colson, he served only seven months, but it was an exceedingly stressful time, for Aiken had the inglorious distinction of being the first major British leader to be imprisoned in more than 500 years.
In his address at Oxbridge, Jonathan Aitken spoke with reverence for his friend; for in his time of tribulation, it was Chuck Colson who traveled to England to provide Aitken with valuable legal counsel and, more importantly, emotional support—for Colson knew full well the pain Aitken was suffering. He also spoke of his internment with surprising humor. He recounted how the British media had stalked him incessantly until the day of his actual confinement. There he encountered a prison clerk tasked with registering the new arrival. Oddly enough, this clerk seemed wholly unaware of Aiken’s identity or background. Without looking up, the clerk perfunctorily asked the new prisoner: “Does anyone know that you are here?” Aitken paused and said wryly: “Well, I suspect that nearly everyone in England knows I’m here.” Unmoved, this clerk no doubt thought the newly incarcerated felon to be just another in the endless stream of egotistical felons to flow past his desk.
Once ensconced in his new quarters, Aitken’s fellow prisoners soon realized he had an expertise in the law. They came to him for counsel. They asked him to write letters to the parole board on their behalf, for many of his “pen pals” were illiterate. One day Aiken reached out to an inmate to give testimony to his faith. This hardened man was so moved that he soon assembled a “Big House” Bible study group. Not surprisingly, these spiritual neophytes asked Aiken to lead the group in their daily devotional study. Aitken reflected on how all Bible study groups are, in varying degrees, comprised of sinners. But, on the first day, as Aitken looked around at the faces in his circle of new friends, there staring back at him were murderers, rapists, bank robbers and embezzlers—fallen men, perhaps more fallen than most, but still in need of the forgiving grace of Christ. Here too, there was a parallel with Colson’s own work. In light of Colson’s own work with prison ministries. In this, these two men shared a most unique bond.
Sadly, Brandon and I did not get to meet Chuck Colson last July, for only days before his arrival he was forced to cancel his plans due to illness. Ironically, it was not his illness, but rather his wife Patty’s illness, that prevented his appearance. No one at Oxbridge would have believed it possible that less than a year later it would be Chuck Colson whose unanticipated passing Christians all around the world would be mourning.
In the chapel at Keeble College, where Brand and I lived while in Oxford, there hangs a famous painting by Holman Hunt, who founded the Pre-Raphaelite movement in art in 1848. It is called “The Light of the World.”
Truly, it is this “Light of our World” that illuminates—and as I have said, this light had shone in large measure throughout Oxbridge. If we are blessed, each of us in our own way will see the light and reflect it onto others. Somehow, years ago, this light was reflected onto Tom Phillips, who in turn reflected it onto Chuck Colson, and from Colson to Jonathan Aitken. By any measure, Chuck Colson reflected the “Light of the World” onto countless people, including prisoners who might otherwise find little light in their darkened cells.
As we celebrate the life of Chuck Colson, we must be mindful of the source of this light. It is as C.S. Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce:
“The Glory flows into everyone, and back from everyone:
like light and mirrors. But the Light’s the thing.”