Recent comments by presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann have stirred up the discussion about gay marriage once again. While speaking to a group of high school…
Few books have been radically instrumental in changing my perspective of the Kingdom of God. Some caused me to think. Some caused me to ask questions. Some caused me to change opinions and some changed the course of my personal ministry as a whole. One in particular has accomplished all of these, and more surprising; that book happens to be fiction. I don’t read a lot of fiction and consequentially, I don’t write a lot of fiction. It’s difficult to write, takes more time and discipline and requires more patience than I posses. Reading fiction is just as difficult because when we give our selves and our time to fiction, we take on a huge responsibility. We can read fiction at face value, skimming through the pages, simply for the purpose of entertainment. Or we can allow ourselves to enter fiction, being taken deeper than the surface. We become part of the story, an observer that sees the details of every aspect. When we do this, we open ourselves up to the imagination, and sometimes the imagination is more powerful in spiritual transformation than reality itself.
So it is with Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale by Ian Morgan Cron. In reading the first few pages, I found myself transported into a new and unfamiliar story that was also far too real. The story is new, fresh and alive, but also very real and close to home. When introduced to the main character, Chase Falson, I met someone for the first time, but also felt as if I had known him for years. In many ways, Chase is diametrically different than I am; personally, emotionally and professionally. But I also found that Chase was me; a mirror that was reading back words and reflecting emotions that I have felt for many years.
Chase Falson is the lead pastor of the largest megachurch in New England, and the quintessential picture of evangelical success. He has jumped through every hoop, crossed every T and dotted every I. From the time he entered seminary, he accomplished everything that he set his mind to accomplish. From all reasonable perspectives, Chase has finally “arrived”. But the reader quickly realizes that his arrival does not entail a permanent stay, but a possible departure. Not a temporary departure that can be found in a refreshing retreat or sabbatical, but a departure from all that he knows and has been prepared for.
Frustrated and disenchanted with the modern church model and what he sees as transparent and empty, Chase begins to ask questions. He begins to feel more and more restless in his ministry, wondering if something more exists. Faith is diminishing for Chase and questions are outnumbering answers. The tipping point comes in the death of a nine-year old girl, daughter of a fragile thirty-five-year-old ex-con alcoholic who had recently gotten sober and become a follower of Christ. “So where’s God now? I gave my life to Christ, did everything you told me. How could he do this?” The words of a grieving mother push Chase to the brink of anything he has ever experienced emotionally, spiritually or ministerially. He buries a little girl and with her buries his preconceived ideas of what the Church was supposed to be.
The Sunday after the funeral, Chase reaches the point of no return admitting his doubts to his congregation. He lays himself bare, wounded and angry. Chase is no longer a minister, but one who desperately needs ministering for himself. His brokenness, frustrations and anger are laid before the church; the sacrifice of a pastor that has nothing left to give. As the congregation stands before him, Chase comes to the realization that he doesn’t have the answers they seek, because they are the same questions he is asking himself and of God. Chase wonders if he has ever actually had answers and if some questions simply have no answer. The past meets the present and for Chase, they no longer mesh. “Maybe we’re all fools.” And with those words, his pilgrimage begins.
Desperate for answers and forced by his elders into a leave of absence, Chase finds himself crossing the Atlantic to visit his uncle, a Franciscan priest. It is here, in Italy, that he encounters the teachings and philosophies of Francis of Assisi, rediscovering his faith from this spiritual leader that lived 800 years ago. Realizing that Francis faced many of the same radical cultural changes that we face today, Chase finds a refreshing perspective of what being a follower of Christ truly is, what the Church should be and what the Kingdom of God is really all about. In the transition from the middle ages to Modernity, Francis gives us wisdom as we find ourselves moving from the Modern era to the uncharted territory of the Postmodern.
In a way that very few other authors are capable of, Ian Morgan Cron tells a story that transcends the years since Francis lived. Revealing surprising parallels, he skillfully illustrates the problems that Francis faced in his day; a Church in the midst of a radical cultural, economic and societal shift. Realizing that the Church of today faces very similar issues, Cron paints a fictional picture that eerily resembles reality. For it is through this story that a great comfort is found in the old rather than the new. We feel encouragement in simplicity rather than the complex. We find that wisdom calls to us over hundreds of years and assures us that there is hope for the Church. And that hope is found in the liberating possibility that we can at least consider putting aside our endless pursuit of doing something new and different, and look at what has simply been laid before us. And that in itself could, ironically, be new and different.