Buried deep in one of my stor•a•way boxes of sermon cassette tapes is a talk Chuck Colson gave in 1990. He recounts a phone conversation with a law partner from his pre-Watergate, pre-conversion days who invited him to leave Christian ministry and return to practicing law. “We’d love to have you if you ever decide to come back to the real world,” his former colleague offered.
Colson mused on how real this “real world” actually is. To illustrate, he told a story about being at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner when, as he tells it, “lights brightened the hallway; a phalanx of reporters stampeded to surround someone making his or her way slowly through the corridor. I assumed the president was coming.” The object of the media’s mania? Donald Trump and Marla Maples. Maples was the “other woman” in Trump’s split with his wife Ivana, and–despite the presence of senators, supreme court justices, and the president himself–her presence brought the event to a standstill.
This anecdote came to mind this week as I read an article in the New York Times Magazine that reported a similar Trump incident, now 25 years later. Following the first presidential debate this August, the author was in the post-debate “spin room” where candidates rarely appear when “a literal stampede was rumbling toward a far corner of the room, where Trump had crashed this assembly of polite company. I have seen many press scrums, but never like this. It was scary. People were tripping, falling and being shoved out of the way. Cameras were dropped… As the shouts and cries intensified, I found myself being drawn toward the bedlam.”
The “reality” on trial here is not Donald Trump himself but the political apple cart he is upsetting. In this week’s cover story for New York Magazine, Frank Rich writes, “What’s exhilarating, even joyous, about Trump has nothing to do with his alternatively rancid and nonsensical positions on policy. It’s that he’s exposing the phoniness of our politicians and the corruption of our political process by defying the protocols of the whole game.” Clearly the decision of who is elected president is consequential. Yet we can approach the process with such seriousness that we mistake the rehearsed earnestness and scheduled spontaneity for something real.
In his talk, Colson went on to share his experience of something actually real–his encounter with a death row inmate named Rusty Woomer. Five years earlier a Prison Fellowship volunteer found Woomer “lying on the concrete floor of his cell in a fetal position, covered with roaches. His body was still alive, but his spirit was dead.” Through the volunteer’s gospel witness and the Holy Spirit’s work, Rusty Woomer confessed his sins and experienced forgiveness and peace with God through his trust in Jesus Christ. When Colson met him, “his face was aglow with the love of Christ” though he was days away from execution.
This is reality–the death and resurrection of the incarnate Son of God. World events and political leaders matter for the short term. But in the grand scope, what will endure is the kingdom of God who existed before time, matter, and space did.
Underneath my copy of New York Magazine is a much different publication telling much different stories. The most recent issue of The Voice of the Martyrs gives accounts of courageous followers of Jesus in Iraq and Syria–Christians refusing to convert to Islam in the face of machine guns and drawn swords at ISIS checkpoints; the loss of all worldly possessions by those who will not renounce Christ; radical compassion shown to refugees across ethnic lines; and one young woman’s persistence in following Jesus despite repeated beatings from her own family.
If the summer of Trump has exposed phoniness in American politics, stories like these reveal the authenticity of a kingdom that will last forever. In that government there are no special interests, no behind-the-scenes players. Simply the glory of the eternal God who will reign over a new creation of harmony, plenty, and joy. This is a prospect that gives hope to a death-row inmate, courage to a persecuted people, and purpose to those searching for something real.