Clashing Symbols


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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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Daniel 5:1-12, 1 John 5:1-12, Luke 4:38-44

Symbols are important to us. There are countless United States flags, from cheap plastic ones made overseas to quality domestic products purchased by our armed forces, but desecrating even one – while legal – is an affront to the millions of people who have served under it. “Desecrate” is generally reserved for the defilement of holy objects, and if any secular item rises to that criteria, it is the flag. Like other holy objects, the flag has rules for handling, display, and disposal.

The gold and silver temple fixtures of the captive Jews were locked away in Babylonian vaults. One day Belshazzar, successor to King Nebuchadnezzar, got drunk and had his servants retrieve them “and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them.” Capturing the vessels was one thing; desecrating them was another. A hand appeared and the terrified king watched it write mysterious words on the palace wall. He was desperate to know their meaning, so his queen reminded him of Daniel’s gifts for interpretation.

An attack on a symbol is an attack on an identity. It plucks the raw nerves of tribalism under our veneer of civilization. It spits in the eye of our existence. We know our nation is more than a pattern on cloth. We understand a printed Bible is mass produced for profit. The body of slain soldier is tragic but still just a body. Yet our enemies know desecrating any of these will incense us, possibly to recklessness.

Symbols can also be personal. That pair of soda-cap cufflinks Uncle Ted left to your cousin may seem silly to you, but they may symbolize a deep bond between parent and child.

When we deal with friends and enemies, let’s be sensitive to what symbols might mean. Let’s avoid mocking, exploiting, or desecrating things that aren’t important to us but have meaning for others. And when we are offended, let’s remember a symbol is never more important than what or who it represents; our defense of it should not betray it. Our symbol is the empty cross – but our savior is not there.

Comfort: Symbols, used properly, can be powerful and motivational.

Challenge: Symbols, used improperly, can be manipulative and dangerous.

Prayer: Gracious God, teach me to think critically about symbols and ideas, and to value them only as much as they glorify you. Amen.

Discussion: Read this article on flag etiquette. What do you think about the flag being incorporated into clothing?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group  or visit You’ll  have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!