Tom Phillips led my Dad, Chuck Colson, to the Lord in 1973. And yesterday, Tom went to be with Jesus.
Those of you who know about Tom Phillips probably know him from that incredible scene in my Dad’s first book, “Born Again.” It happened in the midst of the Watergate crisis. While on vacation in New England, my dad sought out Tom, his friend and associate. There was something different about Tom, a peace my dad desperately needed. They sat together on Tom’s screen porch, and Tom, in his humble, persistent way, asked Dad how he was doing. As my dad began to pour out his heart to Tom, Tom shared how he – a successful businessman who seemed to have everything – realized he had nothing without Jesus Christ. Tom shared with my dad his story of attending a Billy Graham crusade, and giving his life to Christ.
And then Tom read from C. S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity” about the great sin of pride. My dad was cut to the heart. Tom offered to pray with my dad, but he declined. Dad thanked Tom for the evening, and headed to his car parked in Tom’s driveway. Here is that passage from “Born Again”:
“Outside in the darkness, the iron grip I’d kept on my emotions began to relax. Tears welled up in my eyes as I groped in the darkness for the right key to start my car. Angrily I brushed them away and started the engine. ‘What kind of weakness is this?’ I said to nobody . . .
“As I drove out of Tom’s driveway, the tears were flowing uncontrollably . . . I pulled to the side off the road not more than a hundred yards from the entrance to Tom’s driveway . . .
“With my face cupped in my hands . . . I forgot about machismo, about pretenses, about fears of being weak. And as I did, I began to experience a wonderful feeling of being released . . .
“And then I prayed my first real prayer, ‘God, I don’t know how to find You, but I’m going to try! I’m not much the way I am now, but somehow I want to give myself to You.’ I didn’t know how to say more, so I repeated over and over the words: Take me.”
When I heard the news that Tom had died, I had to catch my breath. But almost immediately a smile came to my face as I thought about his reunion with Dad in the presence of our Savior. And about the hundreds of thousands of men and women who came to know Jesus because Tom shared his faith with my Dad.
This past summer I felt a sense of urgency to talk with Tom. I knew he was 94, and there was something I needed to say to him. I called and left a message, hoping he would be up for a visit. Several weeks went by with no response. And then sure enough, Tom called to tell me he would be thrilled to see me, and invited me to his home.
The night before my visit, I re-read the chapter in Born Again about my dad’s visit that fateful night. As I pulled up to Tom’s home, which is just around the corner from the very house where my Dad talked with him some 45 years ago, my emotions were raw. A nurse came out to greet me, and waved me into the kitchen door. “Tom has been so excited about your visit,” she said. “He wanted to be sure this lunch was special.”
Tom was just as gracious and gentle as I had remembered, welcoming me into his home. We sat around his kitchen table, enjoying food and conversation. And then I pulled out a manila envelope. “Tom, I brought you a gift,” I said as I fought back tears. “This is nothing, and this is everything.” I could barely speak past the lump in my throat. “Tom, I want to thank you,” I began. “You were obedient to Christ and shared your faith with my dad. And because of that, thousands of lives were changed. But, Tom, this is personal. My life was changed too.”
My tears were now uncontrollable. One of the caregivers brought me a box of tissues. “When my dad gave his life to Christ, it gave me my dad back…maybe for the first time.” I stumbled over my words, trying to convey how my relationship with my dad radically changed. “And then, Tom, I gave my life to Christ. And then…” I paused, and opened the manila envelope to hand him a photograph of my father baptizing my son Max. “…And then, my son gave his life to Christ.” Tom smiled at the photo. Across the top of the photograph I had written “Thank you Tom”, and along the bottom, my son, in his beautiful looping handwriting had written, “Love Max.”
Afterward Tom invited me into his mahogany paneled study. The walls were covered with books on business and history and Christianity. An entire shelf was devoted to books my dad had written. There beside that shelf was Tom’s copy of Mere Christianity. Tom pointed to his large-type Bible on his desk and smiled, “It’s still the best book I’ve ever read.”
I told Tom how my Dad used to say that Tom had never witnessed to anyone before he witnessed to my Dad. I asked him if that were so—had he shared the Gospel with others before? Being the quiet, humble man he was, Tom just shrugged and said, “a little.”
And then Tom told me something that amazed me. Tom had told no one about Dad’s visit that evening. It wasn’t until “Born Again” was published that people knew. But that was Tom. He didn’t want credit. The credit belonged to God alone. And he was more than content with that.
We said our goodbyes and I headed for the car. Something struck me as I drove off: the remarkable peace about Tom. Here he was, 94, obviously in frail health; his beloved wife, Gert had passed a year before, and yet he exuded peace. It was the same peace that drew my dad to Tom. It was the peace of Christ.
Before I headed back home, I drove around the corner to Tom’s old house and parked my car in the street. I just needed to be there. This was the very driveway where my dad, some 45 years ago, through tears, had surrendered to Christ.
Tom has entered into the presence of The Lord. And he has certainly heard, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
Emily Colson is a member of the Board of Directors of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview and author of the book “Dancing with Max”
Image: Gordon College, Stillpoint