Clashing Symbols

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Today’s readings (click to open in a new window):
Psalms 123; 146, Genesis 9:1-17, Hebrews 5:7-14, John 3:16-21


When the great flood ended, God made a covenant with Noah and his family never to drown the world again. He set his bow – the rainbow – in the sky to remind him of the covenant every time he gathered clouds. All who saw the rainbow were reminded of God’s promise not to destroy the world again.

Symbols are important to us. A simple image can evoke complex ideas, emotions, and memories. The most prominent Christian symbol is the cross. It reminds us of death and resurrection. It identifies fellow believers. It marks a spot where we can lay down our burdens. Like all effective symbols, it is easily recognized – two simple lines! – and is rich with meaning.

Corporations spend millions of dollars to develop recognizable logos that communicate the essence of their business and inspire loyalty. Who in America doesn’t immediately recognize the Golden Arches and what they stand for? We wear clothes with symbols to telegraph our status, cultural or counter-cultural affiliations, team loyalties, and peer groups. We exchange a lot of information in the shorthand of symbols.

How do we distinguish truly meaningful symbols from the visual noise bombarding us each day? Are religious symbols nothing more than a brand logo? Let’s consider the rainbow. It only appears in the rain, the very thing it is meant to protect us against. And what about the cross? It was an instrument of death, but it is now a symbol of new life. We revisit and ritualize these symbols because they are about transformation, and about movement from struggle to victory. The Nike swoosh can only aspire to such heights.

Let’s use our symbols wisely and appropriately. If the rainbow was in the sky 24/7, it wouldn’t be nearly as powerful. If we slap a Jesus fish or “John 3:16” on everything we own, its power to transport us to a deeper emotional or spiritual frame of mind is diluted, as is the message it sends to others. They are not like flags or team jerseys that define Team Jesus. The symbols of our faith should be like beacons inviting others home.

Comfort: The symbols of our faith can bring us comfort and help remind us of important things.

Challenge: Symbols can confuse or alienate people who don’t understand them. Be thoughtful about using them to welcome rather than to exclude.

Prayer: God of truth, help me to see beyond symbols to the truths behind them. Amen.

Discussion: What symbols are meaningful to you? Why?

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