Glowing With Gnosis And Rubbish
we drank in the remains
of ruined buildings
and we sat in a cave or
wrecked houses on farms given back to the bank
listening to men who’d been raised
in ways that were lost
and we strained to make out
the use of their news
they were crazy or passed out
speed notched with a cross
they drank from the flask and the mouth
they came in and shook off the rain
inflamed and dismayed
calm and arcane
the least one seethed chanting whitman for hours
then wept at the dregs of the fire
foam formed at the edge of their lips
we drank and waited for something to drop
you and I looking and sifting
for signs written in wax
we were young we knew how to die
but not how to last
a small man who claimed he was blake raged
all night and probably he was
he had god in his sights
white crosses shone in our eyes or acid mandalic
in the ruins the men talked:
seraphic and broken
glowing with gnosis and rubbish
we sorted their mad sacred words
these dog-headed guides to the life after
and the life after that – Mark Conway, “In The Ruins”
In case you were curious, I am just really fascinated with the “discovery” of Gobleki Tepi in Turkey. I put “discovery” in quotes because the local sheep and goat herders knew about the stone outcroppings, figured they were old buildings, but since they had sheep and goats to take care of, didn’t pay all that much attention to them. When western archaeologists arrived and started digging, however, they discovered something much more than just “old buildings”. Whatever purpose the megaliths served, they pushed back by almost 5,000 years evidence of human settled habitation. Which, of course, begs the question of what happened in the intervening five millennia, when we start seeing cities popping up in Mesopotamia and China. Which begged question makes me all excited. I know we’ll never really know the answer to the question, unless we find other ruins of a similar nature, perhaps with writing that we can decypher.
In any event – yeah, this pretty much doubles the time-range of known human habitation building. Until Gobleki Tepi was unearthed, human settlement was pegged at between 3,000 and 4,000 BC, when hunter-gatherers discovered it was possible to plant their own seeds and grow their own food, making the constant traipsing after sustenance no longer necessary. Now, all that is out the window, not least because we have no idea what Gobleki Tepi was. It certainly wasn’t a village or town; there don’t seem to be habitable structures. The best guess is that it served some kind or religious or ritual function, between the actual shape of the whole structure – somewhat labyrinthine – and the presence of multiple, and distinct, stylized animals on the sides of the larger stone pillars.
For it’s time, I would venture that this may well have been among the more magnificent structures in the known world. Those who came here on pilgrimage, or for whatever other reasons, would probably have been in more than a bit of awe. Those who tended it, who kept its fires burning and the area around it clean, were more than likely held in high regard. No one is quite sure how long it sat there, serving whatever purpose it served. All anyone knows for sure is that it wasn’t buried by the sands of time. Someone deliberately buried it, as in shoveling dirt over and around the entire structure so that it disappeared completely. Whatever grandeur it might once have had now sat beneath the dirt, and would remain there for thousands of years.
The top photograph is the ruins of another religious structure. There are those on the Internet who would insist that responsibility for this ruin of a church lies at the feet of various “Others”: liberal Christians; poor African-Americans; politicians who abandoned our inner cities; steel mills that fled to places where labor was cheaper; the vice and crime of our inner cities; the list, as most say, is endless. Except, of course, that’s all nonsense. City UMC in Gary, IN is little different from Gobleki Tepi. It served its purpose, it lived out the natural course of its collective life, and like all things – it died. The building, a skeletal monument to what certainly seems to have been a thriving faith community, is filled with dust and rats and birds, and probably homeless who come inside its long-gone doors in the evenings, looking for a place out of the worst of the elements. Children have probably been conceived, and even born, among the destroyed pews and torn-up hymnals. No doubt a few folks have died there, the broken stained-glass images silent witnesses to their passing.
The middle photograph, Willow Creek Church in the Chicago suburbs, is the epitome of “success”. This is a church that has several worship services over the weekends; there are several ATMs throughout its multi-building campus so people can give using their credit cards or bank cards. There is little in the way of traditional Christian paraphernalia on what appears more like a theater stage than a church chancel. That’s OK, though, because the folks at Willow Creek insist all that Christian stuff – those crosses, those banners declaring the season of the church year, the candles and their significance – turns people off. When you enter Willow Creek, you are practically mobbed by people wanting your name, your address, your email address, how many kids you might have, what their ages might be. There’s a food court so right after worship you don’t have to go far for Sunday brunch. It is, in its gaudy, excessive ugliness, what far too many Christian Americans believe a successful church should be.
Except, of course, a generation or so ago, a successful church looked an awful lot like City UMC in Gary. A large building, the walls filled with stained glass depictions of Jesus, the Holy Spirit descending, stories from the Bible – all sorts of things. I bet that building rang with hymns of Glory every single Sunday. Something tells me that, at its height, not a single person standing within that church building would have imagined it would become what it is now – a ruin, not that different from Gobleki Tepi, except perhaps in age.
As I pass down this road to Jerusalem on my Lenten pilgrimage, the land around the road suddenly becomes flat – stretching past the horizon. What I see on all that land are churches, large and small, urban and rural, European, African, Indian, Chinese, American – and each and every one of them are a ruin. From Chartres Cathedral in France to the little country United Methodist Churches that dot the landscape between Rockford and the Mississippi River, they are husks, collapsing or collapsed, burned out or dredged out. I strain my ears, and all I hear is the scuttling of small animals, the occasional flap of wings of some birds. I’m saddened by this, and I wonder why I’m seeing what I’m seeing; what does any of this have to do with me carrying all my sins to the cross?
We United Methodists are a bunch of scardy-cats right now (I know, I know, I’m repeating myself, but it bears repeating). We are terrified that the vision I had above is about to come to pass; that a once great and large and even socially and politically powerful part of the Body of Christ will slip to oblivion. Some blame lack of focus on doctrine. Others blame liberals. Some blame conservatives. There are always the gays, of course, and the poor, who have to be propped up by the wealthy, and for what? Who gets anything out of that set-up? We are terrified that our giving is going down; we are terrified of our arguing amongst ourselves; we are terrified, indeed, that we are terrified. There seems to be every indication that City UMC in Gary is the icon of our not-too-distant future as a denomination.
I have to admit that, (a), I’m not that scared we’re going anywhere anytime soon; (b) our current troubles are nothing compared to what we’ve faced in the past over slavery and Civil Rights for African-Americans; (c) the message and method of John Wesley still has much to teach all of us, which will continue to feed the river of Methodist and Methodist-related churches for generations to come. Yet, there is no shortage of fear-mongering out there, and I must admit I have gone from anger to frustration to amusement to resignation about it. So many voices clamoring to be heard: Listen to me, do what I say, read my book, read this book I recommend, remember how important prayer/doctrine/justice/love/the sacraments/preaching/Scriptural holiness are and we shall be saved. It can be both overwhelming and bewildering. And, let’s be honest – here I am, yet another voice, adding not so much harmony as more noise to the din. To whom is a faithful but confused United Methodist Christian to turn in these times of trouble?
The silence of the ruins around me, hundreds of buildings with not a lick of praise or prayer or confession or doctrine or teaching, and I feel not fear, but peace. If I wandered those ruins, I wouldn’t feel fear. If there are such things as ghosts, I believe those I would encounter would be friendly if saddened by what has become of their once-beautiful space for those filled with the Holy Spirit to come and sing and pray and hear the word and declare their faith. I continue down the road, the walls of Jerusalem gleaming in the distance, and I know that these ruins do not represent failure at all.
They are monuments to the success of the work of people called Methodist. Do we really want to be so tied to space or place, to time and tide and cultural/historical moment that we allow ourselves to become blind to the need to change? These buildings are collapsed, empty, decrepit, even dangerous; that, however, does not mean the United Methodist Church is. Those who once worshiped in these wrecks have moved on with the times. Perhaps they’ve joined another United Methodist congregation elsewhere; perhaps they’ve moved to a different denomination. Perhaps, as the times have changed so drastically, they have left behind the faith of their mothers and grandfathers, seeing and hearing in the words and actions of the Church nothing but babble, squabbling, and nothing worth their time and effort. If this last is the case, they are no less loved by God, no less of infinite importance, no less in need of hearing the simple message that God loves them. Which is why, as I wrote above, I don’t see the United Methodist Church going anywhere anytime soon. We have work to do. The many social and cultural and religious changes all around us don’t fill me with despair. They remind me not only that we have work to do; they remind me that even if the worst fears of some among us come true and the United Methodist Church becomes like Gobleki Tepi, that, too, is OK.
Gobleki Tepi served an important function, whatever it might have been, for who knows how long. Decades? Centuries? Maybe just a matter of a few years? In any case, at some point, those who once thought it a necessary part of the social and cultural life of upper Mesopotamia found it to be useless, or even dangerous, and destroyed it, perhaps long after it had been abandoned even by those who kept its fires burning. Should humanity survive our various and multiple self-inflicted threats to our existence, and in seven or eight thousand years archaeologists discover a bunch of old structures in what was once the middle of nowhere, and wonder what the hell they meant; if the reason for this is that whatever religious paths humanity takes, for whatever historical reasons Christianity has faded from the world, and perhaps even human memory, that will make God’s love no less real. It will make Jesus’s sacrifice no less efficacious. It will make the Holy Spirit no less that which keeps humanity alive, loving, working to bring life to our world so bent on self-destruction. Should we not survive, God will still exist, and all of God’s acts will still have the meaning and significance they always have had.
So, I guess I carry two things from this section of my Lenten Journey. First, don’t read me because I have any answers, or solutions, or plans, for the future of the United Methodist Church. I don’t, and those who insist they do are mostly annoying when I pay any attention to them at all. Second, I’m carrying the fears of my fellow United Methodists to the cross because that is what we do: we bring the pain and fear and anger of our fellow-Christians before God in Christ, so they can be taken up in to the Divine Life, blessed, and made Holy by being raised from the many dead spaces through which I continue to travel. Don’t be afraid of pictures of empty, ruined churches. That’s just time and tide doing what it does. Remember, ours is not a faith in buildings or people or plans or even the Bible or Doctrine. Ours is a faith in the living God, revealed to us as the Father, in the Son, through the Holy Spirit, an ever-loving Trinity that always was, is now, and always shall be. The way to that faith, though, goes down this road filled with reminders that everything dies; it lies down this road, on which I carry the load of my own many dark sins. It lies down this road on which I carry the fears of my fellow Christians.
This road goes to the foot of a cross-tree, upon which hangs a broken, bleeding, dying man, in front of whom I will lay all this down and hope beyond hope that it, along with all the other sins and brokenness around us will die with him, dragged to the place of the dead, then raised to new life three days later. That is all I can do. It is all any of us can do.