Sunday, 1 November 2015

Chasing Francis: A Book Review

Of all the books I’ve read over the past couple years, the one that has had the most profound effect on me is this one: Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim's Tale by Ian Morgan Cron. It is a historical/fiction that tells the tale of Chase Falson, a New England mega-church pastor who suddenly finds himself in the position of questioning his faith; his faith in God, his evangelicalism, and even the Bible itself. When his world and the church he was the founding pastor of began to unravel, the elders told him to take some time off and go away for a while. After calling his uncle Kenny, a former conservative Baptist who converted to Catholicism and then went on to become a Franciscan priest (an interesting journey to say the least), Chase takes him up on his invitation to go visit him in Italy for a while.

While in Italy, Kenny some other Franciscan Friars take Chase on a spiritual pilgrimage in which they retrace the steps of Saint Francis of Assisi. Though dead for over 800 years, Chase soon learns that the Middle Ages of Saint Francis was not that dissimilar to his own in that both were an age of transition and people were fed up with the old way of following Jesus. Francis lived in the gap between the Middle Ages and the pre-Renaissance, which was the early days of modernity; Chase lived in the gap between modernity and post-modernity. People from both eras felt anxiety from living in a rapidly changing society in which the church was progressively seen as having become irrelevant. Both were looking for fresh new and relevant ways to follow Jesus.

When I received this book as a Christmas present in 2013, I couldn’t put it down. Before I knew it, I had read it through twice; the second time with pen in hand, as I so often do, underlining and jotting notes in the margin. The book circulated to a few others to read and then found its way back to me for a recent third reading.

Why such an interest? I’m not Roman Catholic; while I once did, I no longer even call myself Evangelical; nor am I liberal in my theology. What spoke to me the loudest was that in many ways, the story of Chase Falson is also my story. No, I didn’t go on a spiritual pilgrimage to Italy, although as a youngster travelling with my family, I have been to that fascinating country. What spoke to me was that I too was once a senior pastor, albeit of a smaller church, who became disillusioned with the church and asked many similar questions. I too wondered if this was all there is, as evidenced by such early blog posts as If the Horse Dies, Has Hollywood Invaded the Church Service?, and Tithing: Is It Christian?. I think that what makes this book so important is that in today’s world, many are asking the same questions and leaving the church. The irony, though, is that in leaving the church most are not leaving Jesus. I remember reading of one person who suggested that people were “leaving to preserve their faith,” and in the process rediscovered it in a fresh and new way. That’s the story of Chase Falson, and that’s my story. Perhaps it’s yours too.

Regardless what church tradition we come from, there’s a part of Francis that we probably all can relate to. The author says, “Francis was a Catholic, an evangelical street preacher, a radical social activist, a contemplative who devoted hours to prayer, a mystic who had direct encounters with God, and someone who worshiped with all the enthusiasm and spontaneity of a Pentecostal.” In another place the author says, “In fact, Francis has been called the ‘first Protestant’ because of his reform from within the body of the church.

Another wonderful aspect of this book is the church history lessons woven between pilgrimage wanderings of Chase, Kenny, and the others. In some ways, parts of the book could be used as a tourist travel guide of the Italian countryside that once was home to Saint Francis. We read of chapels and famous churches, of picturesque landscapes and narrow cobblestone streets that haven’t changed much since Francis’ day. We read of gourmet foods, and that wonderful Italian coffee by which all others pale in comparison: espresso; but also of compassionate people feeding the poor in soup kitchens and delivering food into the back dirty alleys to those barely alive.

However, the one part of the story that probably had the greatest impact on me, and actually brought tears to my eyes, was a scene in a hospice for men dying of AIDS. Chase and Maggie (another character in the book) were being given a tour of the facility on what turned out to be “bath day.” While Maggie was visiting others, one of the volunteers enlisted Chase’s help with bathing what was left of a man by the name of Amadeo. After they lowered the skeletal Amadeo into the tub, and much to Chase’s shock, the volunteer handed Chase a rag and said, “Would you mind washing his genitals.” Recounting the event afterwards, Chase said to Maggie, “I think I became a Christian.” In the margin of my book, all I could write was, “WOW!” The concern for the dignity of the less fortunate and the sick and dying is a theme that runs throughout the book. It was the concern of Saint Francis of Assisi, and it remains the concern of the Franciscans who follow his ways today.

What does it mean to be a Christian? Whatever other baggage we attach to our particular slant of Christianity, is not being a Christian first and foremost caring for others with the love and compassion of Jesus? How often don’t the Gospels record Jesus as saying, “I have compassion for these people” (for example: Matthew 15:32)? Jesus also said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me. … Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25: 40,45; NIV). Has the modern church downplayed that part of Jesus’ message? I wonder sometimes. What does it mean to be a Christian? By the time Chase Falson returned home from his Italian pilgrimage to face the church he founded, he had a different answer to that question than he did before his crisis began.

Thomas Merton once said, “If the you of five years ago doesn’t consider the you of today a heretic, you are not growing spiritually.” I’ve seen that in my own life already; the “Me” of today I would definitely have called a heretic back in my seminary days. Having said that, I cannot help but think that God is once again preparing to move me in yet another direction in my own spiritual pilgrimage. What will that look like? I haven’t a clue, but I do believe that God’s word will always accomplish that for which He sent it (Isaiah 55:11). Who knows, maybe I too will adopt a few more Franciscan ways. As for Chase Falson, in the end, things didn’t turn out at the church as he hoped it would, but we’re left feeling that Chase had peace as he ventured out on the next chapter of his spiritual journey.

Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale” by Ian Morgan Cron. I enjoyed it immensely and highly recommend it. Peace and Blessings. “Grazie, Signore.”

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