Note: This is a special essay in memory of Chuck Colson, not the usual “fragment.”
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The first time I was invited to preach at “Trenton State” (the max-security New Jersey State Prison in Trenton), I was asked if I would tell the story of my broken neck and how God shaped and provided for me through the experience. So I prepared a twenty-minute sermon and arrived early Sunday and went through the security process to enter the large room where the services were held before the inmates arrived. I sat with the chaplain and shook the inmates’ hands as they entered (it was, essentially, a “black church” with some of those traditions).
Some of the inmates came because their lives had been transformed by the power of the gospel; some came to get out of their cells. Those who were serious about spiritual things sat up front, near the pulpit. The rest sat at the back — hulking, tattooed men serving twenty-to-life, looking angry or sullen. The chaplain told me, “You have 45 minutes for the sermon.” But I only prepared a twenty-minute sermon, I told him. “Well, we can’t let the inmates mill around; we have to use the whole time. So…well, just keep talking!”
Right before the service started, after everyone was seated, the ushers took the pulpit from the front of the room to the back, and told everyone to turn around their chairs. This only seemed to make the inmates at the back angrier; they’d been duped. Now they’d be right in front of the pulpit — and now I’d be right in front of them, right in front of the most indifferent and the most hostile, giving a twenty-minute sermon for forty-five minutes.
So I started telling my story and reflecting on it. And you know what? It was really great. The congregation was essentially pentecostal; they shouted out Bible verses or phrases or even single words, and those served as seeds of insight that I could unfold. I followed where the Spirit led, and it was beautiful and astonishing how it all wove together. I had been asked to give an altar call at the end of the sermon, so after about forty minutes I invited any inmates who wished to give their lives to service to God to come to the front and speak with the chaplain and the deacons. I don’t remember how many there were — but a handful responded. What God had created within those four walls was a thriving and growing congregation. I could not help but think of Thomas Merton’s phrase (in his autobiography, The Seven-Storey Mountain) upon entering the monastic life. As the gate was locked behind him, he was “enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom.” Some men found within the walls of that prison a greater freedom than they had ever known — freedom not to travel as they pleased, but freedom from the bondage of sin, freedom from addictions and manipulations and the terror and guilt of unredeemed sin. Freedom to be who God made them to be.
If prison ministry taught me anything, it’s that there is a profound, unique and undeniable transformative power in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I saw men whose stories of suffering and sin were devastating and horrifying, with lives and souls transformed, dancing and singing for all their might in praise to their creator-savior. Men who were not only redeemed and repented but refined and matured.
Chuck Colson, I believe, understood this. He had sinned on a massive scale. He was brought from the loftiest of heights to the most profound depths. And in the midst of his humiliation, he found a community of believers who had nowhere else to go but to the gospel. When I think of Chuck Colson’s legacy, I will think of a living parable of how Christ’s grace redeems even those the world called unredeemable. I will think of a man who found his vocation in the pit. And I will think of a congregation in Trenton, New Jersey, and countless others like it scattered around the nation and around the world, inspired by a man who found his calling — and his new freedom — behind bars.