We've been drifting through Purgatory for three years and it looks something like an airport terminal--a way-station with pleather chairs and tinny muzak piped in through overhead speakers, but not a place you'd like to stay permanently. Purgatory is also known as "Church Hunting".
Occasionally we hop on a departing flight with great expectations about our supposed destination. Our first flight was full of people shaking, weeping, calling out unintelligible phrases and a preacher who found the apocalypse in every verse he read. We got off that flight at the first lay-over.
Our next flight promised something more grounded, which was exactly what it was. We sat on the tarmac for hours and hours, going nowhere. These passengers clung to tradition with every passive, atrophied muscle in their bodies. Somber, dirge-like hymns were sung slowly and without emotion. Prayers were heavily layered with King James Scripture verses. The pilot preached a solemn and fearful sermon about the danger of the world, how worldliness was corrupting the church and how the Lord had convicted him that flying itself was worldly. For the sake of the Lord, he'd given up flying and was devoting himself to the sincere and undistracted study of the Word.
We walked back to the terminal.
While we'd been gone, a huge worship band had been set up in the terminal. There were lights, a state-of-the-art sound system, and to our surprise someone who referred to himself as a Pyrotechnic Specialist for Jesus. The worship set started with an ear-splitting explosion of fireworks shooting up from center stage. Three guys and a chesty young woman with green highlighted hair began gyrating around the stage and between songs gave us inspiring anecdotes of their personal lives.
"God is so awesome!" shouted one boy. “I aced my math test without stuyding!”
"Praise Him, guys. He's awesome!" said the other.
"I got a job interview!" gushed the girl.
"Awesome!" the boys chorused in unison.
We got on the very next available flight. It was a converted jumbo jet with stadium seating.
"You are so welcome here," announced a slim, blonde flight attendant. "And remember, you can accomplish anything you want! With God nothing is impossible! Ask and you shall receive! Please buckle your seat-belts."
It was a smooth take-off. Beautiful flight attendants brought us free drinks and hot, scented washcloths. Well-dressed people passed business-cards. A voter's guide was circulated through the cabin. Momentarily, the Captain made his entrance to rounding applause. He was a gifted orator and spoke without using notes or a Bible. Behind him, a large screen flashed fragments of verses and a toll-free number available for ordering his latest book.
The Captain told us that the only thing holding us back was our negative thoughts. We needed to learn how to think positively and the coffers of God would flow into our lives. The winner was inside, he said. All we needed to do was harness the Power for ourselves.
When the flight landed, we were asked to give as much (money) as we wanted God to give us and in exchange we each received little pins that said: "I am a Winner!"
We were a little weary after that last flight. We went off into a corner of the terminal and hunkered down over steaming cups of extra-black coffee. We hadn't expected it to be this hard. We consulted our travel guide, examined flight-routes, compared various destinations. Was it possible to make a permanent camp in a way-station? It was warm, there were coffee stands (and restrooms!) and you could get used to pleather chairs---at least they didn't stain!
We watched all the people boarding flights, people full of purpose and affiliation. They wore the easy smiles of belonging, carried briefcases of secured assurance. It was difficult not to be envious of their potlucks and Christian bumper stickers, their bake sales and prayer breakfasts. They had all this and then of course, they had God.
All we had was coffee and pleather chairs.
We sighed, gathered up our courage and decided to try one more flight. Maybe, just maybe....but probably not.
Comments from readers....
Joe S.: I was on a purgatory flight once myself. We were on Assembly Airlines, Salvation flight 777. We all entered the plane at the same time and sat down as the plane took off. Our tickets had been paid for by someone else, and the tickets promised a safe delivery to our destination, Heaven.
But the pilot, who cleared his throat often, kept saying stuff like, "You'd better all be good back there or some of you might just get thrown off the salvation plane." If someone began to make a ruckus his voice would crackle, "Stay in line or when the plane lands you might not be able to get off like everyone else--you might have to stay on the plane or make a return flight". When someone would mention that the tickets promised a safe arrival in heaven he would tell them they were reading the tickets incorrectly. There was a thick fog so we could not see out the windows.
A lot of the people on the plane began to get very fearful, and this caused many of them to make even more of a ruckus as they attempted to be "good" and not offend the pilot. Here they were, with all of their tickets paid for by someone else, guaranteed a safe arrival, and yet due to this pilot's voice none of them could relax or enjoy the flight. One passenger in particular kept looking at the "EXIT" door and would cringe in fear, thinking he might just be one of the ones who might get thrown off the plane because he had caused a ruckus earlier. Many prayed and prayed that they would be allowed to exit the flight once it landed and be "accounted worthy" to exit the airport.
Finally, one of the stewardesses in a quiet voice began to ask the passengers to exit the plane. Apparently it had never taken off. The pilot really didn't know how to fly the plane, and had no credentials to do so. We had all been sitting in fear on a blank tarmac. We were led to another plane called Grace flight 777, and it's expected to land very soon. The food is excellent, and the pilot has a calm encouraging voice, and asks often that we rejoice in the fact that someone else paid for the tickets, and our place was guaranteed by HIM. None of the passengers has any fear, and in fact, they are far kinder and gentler than they ever were before, and genuinely love one another. Perhaps they will be rewarded for this, but no one really seems to care. They are just so thankful to be on the flight, and to meet the one who paid for the tickets that nothing else much matters.
Marcia M. in Canada on the Assembly bulletin board: "Up here there are a number of good churches. Possibly "So Cal" is unique and different, hence the reason that many there are having a tough time finding Grace flight 777??" She added this comment on Oct 31, 2007: "After re-reading the article today, I can see that the church I attend is not allegorized. It could be that the condition of the churches in S. CA is radically different, as I am discovering from iMonk that the SBC is as well. I do not know how much has to do with my own perception of things."