Thursday, April 12, 2012

Holiness Swaddled In The Simple: Chasing Francis

This past October I attended the STORY conference in Chicago. It was a hipster scene.

I felt a bit out of place.

But what I experienced there stuck with me at a primal level. It was more than a standard conference experience, partly due to the diversity of presenters and activities.There was a laser-like focus on the purpose of the gathering. STORY was about story, and every part of the two-day schedule was wrapped around the idea that story is paramount. It was the best investment of time and money in a conference that I’ve made in a decade.

(That’s saying a lot, because we drove a 15-passenger van 15 hours straight through from Virginia to Chicago. That's a serious investment of time.)

(By the way, the STORY2012 website is live. You can go this year. I recommend it.)

Anyway, from All Sons and Daughters’ singing (“I am set free / I am set free / It is for freedom that I am set free...”) to Ann Voskamp reading from her beautiful book to the jaw-dropping wonder of Kyle Cooper showing and telling his title sequence work to John Mark McMillan wailing “God’s Murdered Son”, we had some exquisite experiences.

But none was more powerful than Ian Morgan Cron. He sat on a stool. He told his story. He played a beautiful piece of music over us as a benediction. And I was profoundly moved; internally broken open, raw and vulnerable, connecting somehow with the deepest part of the story he shared.

Honestly, I remember very few of the specifics - no points or paradigm shifts. I simply remember being invited into a sacred, holy place, led by one who gave voice to the commonality of our brokenness.

We walked together into grace and redemption.

Into beauty.

I bought Cron’s memoir, Jesus, My Father, the CIA and Me then and there, and devoured it as soon as we returned home. I cried, connected with the sorrow of a life lived like most of us; points of pain, pinnacles of joy, a brilliant grace shining through it all that glows brightest in the looking back. It was a beautiful book, a well-written story, a true thing.

 I made note of this other book that he had written, his first: Chasing Francis, but assumed Francis was some sort of Father Timothy Kavanagh character like Jan Karon’s Mitford books (for which I have a soft spot). I ignored it.

Until this week.

I’ve been following Ian Cron on Twitter. Reminded by his 140-character missives of why I liked his memoir so much, I decided to read Chasing Francis as my Easter benediction; something to soak in as I worked out the muscles and joints of all that Easter celebrations require from church staff.

What immense joy.

The premise did not initially appeal to me - but that was out of my own ignorance. I know very little about early church fathers, including - and perhaps especially - the saints. The Francis in the title refers to St. Francis of Assisi, whom I connect with only because I have sung the words of his prayer in a choral setting:

Lord, make us instruments of Thy peace 
Where there is hatred, let us sow love; 
Where there is injury, pardon; 
Where there is doubt, faith; 
Where there is despair, hope; 
Where there is darkness, light; 
Where there is sadness, joy; 

O Divine Master, grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; 
to be understood as to understand; 
to be loved as to love. 
For it is in giving that we receive; 
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; 
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. 

The novel begins in a deceptively simple fashion; in the first few pages, you might think you’re reading some cheesy “Christian fiction” title designed to extract sanitized conflict and drama from contemporary church culture. It is all that - and more - but the sanitized conflict gives way to demonstrate the dark night of the soul, not just of the main character in the novel, but of the state of modern Christianity. Cron twists and molds a modern-day fable out of the raw humanity of characters who are quite familiar to any of us who live in the 21st century, but in particular to those who have encountered the best and worst of humankind within the contemporary evangelical church.

Early in the book, Cron places a line of dialogue that stopped me cold: 

“All ministry begins at the ragged edges of our own pain.” 

Chasing Francis tells the story of life as ministry, a long, ragged cord connecting centuries of pain turned to purpose for those seeking God. Over, around and through religion and church practices, Cron teaches and gently beckons the reader toward a deeper, richer perspective.

Art that is excellent - that honors God and inspires people - sings truth in a dynamic way. A beautiful, true painting; an authentic, transcendent piece of music - these things can be life-changing as you experience them. Some books are that way, too; you read and you are transported to a rare place, a setting apart from reality and yet completely real in your soul.

Cron writes, “True holiness is often swaddled in the simple”. This book is that rare, simple experience for me. Sacred and holy. And highly recommended.

I happen to have an extra copy of Chasing Francis, and I’d love for you to have it. Leave a comment (with an email contact) here on the blog if you’re interested. If there’s more than one, I’ll pull a name out of a hat on Saturday. 


eldrocmel said...

You have never had steered wrong on a reading recommendation!

annie said...

Sounds like a good book!

Jen said...

Now I want to read that book. And go to Story 2012. You make them both sound so appealing.