Saturday, March 24, 2012

Escape From Purgatory - Chasing Francis Series

There is no biblical support for the concept of purgatory, that is if by “purgatory” we mean some sort of halfway house between heaven and hell.

I am going to defend it nonetheless.  Dante was right; it is an undeniable spiritual reality.

In C. S. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce, dead people get on a bus and are given a tour of heaven, hell and purgatory. They are told to choose where they want to live after looking over the options. As it turns out, few of them end up choosing heaven. Most of them find purgatory, or even hell, more to their liking.

Lewis, a Protestant, wasn’t describing purgatory as a geographical reality. He was describing it as a spiritual state. Purgatory is the in-between place.  It is the not-quite-evil but not-yet-good place. It is the place where most of us prefer to live.

Lewis’s story, as he tells us in the preface, is not about the afterlife. He doesn’t know anything more about the afterlife than we do. What Lewis is taking about is this life. We are all on Lewis’s bus. We are constantly avoiding either sainthood or evil. We don’t want to enter the darkness, certainly, but we are not quite willing to abandon it either. 

We keep choosing the in-between place – purgatory.

People like purgatory.

So do churches.

We want our churches to be places of healing, grace, and redemption. We want them to be open to everyone, especially to those who are weary and lost.  But we also want them to be cool.
And prosperous.
And well connected.
And safe.
And ours.

We want our churches to stay in purgatory. Not too much grace. Not too much holiness. Not too much of too much. Just enough goodness to feel good. Just enough light to see, but not enough to see too much.

In Chasing Francis, the pastor, who has taken his church from nothing to great success, makes a turn one day, after which purgatory is no longer possible. Time has run out and he is thrust out of the gray place. He must choose from the other two opinions: from now on it must be either holiness or working a gig; either making a living or living a life. He must either become a conscious fake to keep the noses and nickels rolling in or risk the loss of nickels and noses to do what he believes is right.

Which will it be?

Italy! If there is any place to go when one is running from purgatory it is Italy.

But it is in Italy that he encounters Francis, a fellow preacher from long ago.  Francis knows the way from purgatory to heaven. But how steep his path seems to be!

Everyone loves Francis but who wants to be Francis?

He looks back and forth at his two opinions.

One on hand he sees Francis and his friends. They are teaching, serving, laughing but also suffering, hardly noticed by the powers of the world or the Church but not resenting the indifference of either, singing, painting, dancing, praying, and loving.

On the other he sees Elmer Gantry, Gregory Rasputin, Cardinal Richelieu, and all the other powerful and well-connected clerics of history who have made religion into a power base and a source of personal wealth.

Like so many church leaders, this pastor is uncertain, not quite ready, not yet able to leave the gray place to make a real choice.

Jesus told us once that there is a pearl in a field that is so precious that it is beyond all imagination. It can be ours when we are ready to go get it. But it will require us to sell all we possess to make it ours. We must become saints, in other words.

Of course, we Protestants are usually as nervous about saints as we are about purgatory.

“WE ARE ALL SAINTS!!!” we protest. Francis is no better than Uncle Bob.

Right. Surely we are all called to be saints. The king's little brats are all called to become nobles. But someone must still wipe their little royal behinds and teach them the alphabet. There is some distance between what they are called to be and what they are at the moment. What they are by blood and what they are by character can be quite different.

For now, the little characters can play and enjoy themselves. But time is ticking. There are choices ahead that will soon determine their destiny.  Some will become truly noble and enlighten the world with their acts of wisdom and courage. Most of them will play their entire lives, rolling around in purgatory. Others will become utter fakes, waving at the subjects from the balcony, speaking about glory and beauty. Then they will go into the palace and sit on golden chairs, thinking about whether it might be good to change the décor, even if they must use the part of the royal budget dedicated to schools and pensions.

Ever so often however, someone breaks out of purgatory and runs toward the light.

He is usually declared insane, naïve, idealistic and unstable.

After he dies, we call him a saint.

We make all sorts of stories, books and statues of him here in purgatory.

And every so often, another fool breaks ranks and runs for his life, clutching the most beautiful pearl.

1 comment:

the beam team said...

Stacy just finished Chasing Francis and I'm on page 50. Can't wait to talk about it. Loving the blogs