Hundreds of mourners rode chartered buses Wednesday morning from Prison Fellowship headquarters in Lansdowne, Virginia, to Chuck Colson's memorial service at the parking impoverished National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Along the way, they crossed the Roosevelt Bridge and drove past the famous Watergate complex, which gave its name to the scandal that brought down the Nixon administration and sent Chuck Colson on the road to responsibility and repentance.

Though the mainstream press was full of Watergate references following Chuck's April 21 death, the scandal was mere backdrop to the more important and lasting parts of his life celebrated at Wednesday's memorial.

Daughter Emily Colson was the first to speak about Chuck. She was glad she was old enough, she said, to know her father before he became a Christian. "A softness came over him," she said, and after he became a new creation, "he loved his family differently." Though he was a very busy man, in their regular phone calls "he would be fully present" to her.  That, she said, was "the mark of a great father."

But perhaps the ultimate mark of his greatness was his relationship with Max, his autistic grandson. For Max, the busy Colson—always in hyperdrive—would clear his schedule and again be fully present.

Chuck was a defender of the weak, said Emily.

He was a friend of sinners, and like his Savior, ate with them, said prison chaplain Danny Croce. Every Easter Colson preached the Good News at some prison. And every Easter he made a point of eating with the prisoners as well.

That compulsion to be a friend of sinners was also illustrated in a St. Francis moment related by homilist Timothy George later in the memorial service. Like Francis, who broke taboos by giving a leper on the road a kiss of peace, Colson—on a preaching mission in a squalid prison camp in India—left the platform, ignoring the warnings of his hosts, and touched these untouchables, shaking hands with every one of them he could reach to help them feel loved and human again. In Jesus Christ, Colson explained, there are no untouchables.

Croce, founder of New Hope Correctional Ministry, told of how one donor was so impressed by Colson's work with inmates that he anted up a million dollars to honor Chuck. What would Chuck want? A statue? A building? No, Chuck wanted to be memorialized in changed lives, and that through education for ex-offenders. Which is how the Colson Scholarship Program at Wheaton College came about, and how Danny Croce got a leg up on the next phase of his life.

Article continues below

Defender of the weak, hugger of lepers, friend of sinners, and Christian intellectual. Colson was "so intellectual it was scary," said Danny Croce. Colson's conversion was not only emotional, but moral and intellectual as well, said Timothy George. Colson knew that the prison work to which he devoted himself would fail if it were not undergirded by a robust Christian worldview. For Colson, that meant learning from three great Christian intellectuals who were also people of action: William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Abraham Kuyper, whom he quoted most often: "There is not one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine, that belongs to me!' " Because of Christ's exclusive claims, for Chuck Colson believing in Christ was all or not at all.

Timothy George may have compared Colson to saints—to Francis of Assisi and then to Thomas Becket, who played Colson to Henry II's Nixon until conscience and Christ turned him around—but George also made sure we knew that all was not sweetness.

There was an intensity and drivenness about him that could be formidable. He did not suffer fools gladly and he was not blessed with an overabundance of patience. Chuck loved to tell the story about a man who accosted him on a plane one day, pushing, shoving, jostling for a seat. Chuck said to him, "Fella, do you know who you're messing with? I'm an ex-marine, an ex-con, and if I weren't a Christian you'd be on the floor of this plane!" Then he presented the gospel to him.

During the closing hymn of Chuck Colson's memorial service, one tiny pipe high in the cathedral's organ chambers began to sound and wouldn't stop. (We organists call this a cipher.) It was annoying, but the organist played anyway—played Eugene Gigout's formidable Grand Choeur Dialogué, shaming that cipher into insignificance.

That was what God did with Chuck's life. His part in Richard Nixon's hubris-filled hamartia has not disappeared from history or public memory. But the grand music God went on to play in Chuck's life has made that errant note of no account.

Related Elsewhere:

More articles on Colson, his death, and his legacy include:

Chuck Colson and the Conscience of a Hatchet-Man | What's behind the snarky obituaries and media retrospectives infuriating many Christians. (April 23, 2012)
Article continues below
Evangelical Leader Chuck Colson Dead at 80| The infamous convicted Nixon adviser became famous for prison reform, evangelical-Catholic dialogue, and his Christian worldview.
Remembering Charles Colson, a Man Transformed| The real story of how "Nixon's hatchet man" ended up in, out, and back in prison (and the White House), shaping a movement in the process. Jonathan Aitken
Q & A: Karl Rove on Colson| President Bush's deputy chief of staff explains the former Nixon adviser's widespread impact. Interview by Sarah Pulliam Bailey
The Legacy of Prisoner 23226| After leaving prison, Charles Colson became one of America's most significant social reformers (July 9, 2001)

Colson was a regular columnist for Christianity Today from 1985 until his death.