“You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.”
Don Draper (Jonn Hamm)
“Well, what if there is no tomorrow?”
Phil (Bill Murray)
Screenwriting teacher Robert McKee says that movies, “Favor the great saint, or the great sinner”— Chuck Colson was both. I had the good fortune 10-15 years ago to not only meet Colson but work with him on several occasions.
Colson died a couple of days ago at age 80. The LA Times said, “He was Richard Nixon’s ‘hatchet man,’ the president’s ‘evil genius,’ who by his own admission was ‘ruthless in getting things done’ in the Watergate years, when the things that he and others in the White House were getting done would become a national disgrace and send Colson to prison.”
It would be his time at the Maxwell Correction Facility in Alabama that would define his life. His Ivy League education at Brown, his Marine training, his law practice, and his rise to be the President of the United States’ right hand man were just a preface to watch a man fall from grace. (Kind of like that opening visual in the TV series Mad Men.)
“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul.”
But it was Colson’s very public fall that set up his life’s work. His religious awakening while in prison set up his founding Prison Fellowship Ministries. What the The New York Times called a “remarkable reveral.” While Colson also became a much in demand speaker and writer, Timothy M. Phelps in the LA Times wrote, “he apparently never amassed great personal wealth from his work. He took an annual salary of $113,000 from his prison groups and donated all royalties from his 30 books, substantial speaking fees, and the $1 million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion he was awarded in London in 1993 to his prison fellowship.”
Colson’s story was made into the film Born Again in 1978. That was back when “born again” became a bumper sticker catch phrase, around the time when “born again” became part of the Jimmy Carter campaign on his way to being elected to president in 1976.
Interestingly, it was not the time in the White House for either the Democrat Carter or the Republican Colson that will be their lasting legacies. After Carter left the White House he founded Habitat for Humanity, and after Colson left the White House (and prison) he founded Prison Fellowship—which operates in 1,367 prisons in the U.S. and has more that 200,000 inmates participating in its program.
“I used to look at life from the top looking down. In prison, you learn to look at life from the underside and you see people hurting and suffering and it has changed my whole perspective.”
One of the most memorable experiences of my life is going into the Lake County Correctional Institute in Florida and taking part in a Prison Fellowship weekend. I’ve never been around a group of people who sang deeply more than those men of faith. The Bible says, “Remember those in prison.” and that’s what became the redemptive life work of Colson the last 35 years of his life.
It’s no surprise that Colson found a connection to the movie Walk the Line. Back when that film was released back in 2005, Colson wrote;
Early in the new film Walk the Line, opening today, a twelve-year-old Johnny Cash is talking with his adored older brother Jack. Johnny asks how Jack is able to remember all the stories in the Bible. Jack, who wants to be a preacher, responds, “You can’t help people unless you can tell ’em the right stories.”
It’s a truth that the filmmakers clearly bore in mind as they made the movie. Walk the Line, a beautifully made film about Cash’s early years, is many stories in one: a story of sin, self-absorption, recklessness, grace, and redemption.
The Right Story
Which brings us back to those above quotes from Groundhog Day and Mad Men. The times I worked on the production side of Colson’s talks, the people he often quoted were the Nobel Prize writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn who spent time in the Russian Gulag, William Wiberforce who worked to end the slave trade in Britain, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer—the German Lutheran pastor who was arrested and executed related to his anti-Nazi views and actions.
Solzhenitsyn, Wilberforce, Bonheoffer and Colson were different kinds of mad men—reformers—ones that believed that there is a tomorrow. Because ultimatley if there is no tomorrow, then today doesn’t really matter.