~ Symbols to Live By ~
“Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary…
O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
~ Psalm 96:6,9
Dear Members and Friends,
People need symbols to live by. Wedding rings, crosses, diplomas, trophies…We need things we can touch and see to remind us of life’s meaning and joys. At my mission station in Cameroon, long ago, we had a ten-acre lawn that spread luxuriantly between whitewashed buildings. Old-timers called our schoolyard “le tapis vert,” or “the green carpet.” Decorative lawns are rare in Africa, and people used to travel three miles from the nearest town just to walk on it and admire it. The lawn was planted back in a day when Presbyterian missions were funded by generous American industrialists. But by the 1990s, the money was long gone. It was now a huge financial burden to maintain a ten-acre lawn in a land of daily rainfall. Constant mowing seemed like a bad use of resources. We often lacked funds to pay our teachers. And so, the green carpet usually looked like a hayfield. One day an old alumnus of the school came to talk to me. He said, “Symbols give people hope. To you, the tapis vert is a wasteful holdover from the past. To us, it’s a reminder that Africa, too, can have order and beauty. It’s a symbol of Africa as it could be. Please…mow the lawn!” I can’t say that I succeeded at keeping up with the lawn, but I did learn a valuable lesson: People live by symbols. We look to them for meaning.
Symbols foster a sense of identity, too. The Kaufmann’s clock, the fountain at the Point, the Horne’s Christmas tree, which still appears each December, though the department store is long gone… When we see any of these local cultural icons, like the Steelers’ logo, our subconscious selves are reminded that we belong to something bigger. We belong to a longstanding community with traditions, and a past, and a future. We belong to a place with its success stories and its losses.
Down through the ages, the church has developed symbols, too. Some of these inspire; some provide comfort; and some nurture a sense of belonging. Presbyterians tend to use symbols sparingly; our faith ancestors felt that a love of symbols bordered on superstition. (Our church emerged in the late Middle Ages, when people attributed magical powers to holy relics and sacred objects.) But over the last century, a rich array of Christian symbols has returned to our churches. Today, most Presbyterian congregations use color to celebrate the seasons of the church year—purple for Lent, white for Easter, and so on. Most Presbyterian churches also use decorative cloths on the pulpit and communion table—called “paraments”—to display those seasonal colors and other symbols of the faith.
Shortly before her death, Joan Zakor became enthusiastic about my idea of introducing paraments to our worship space at Bower Hill Church. The Worship Committee proposed the idea to Session, who in turn asked elder Sarah Canon—a professional artist—to plan a full set of paraments for each season of the church year. We understood that any adornment in our sanctuary would need to be understated and consistent with the intentional simplicity of our décor. Sarah’s lovely designs were approved by Session, and elder Deb Boisvert is carrying out much of the actual handicraft of it all. The paraments are created in loving memory of Joan, and they are entirely paid for by anonymous donors.
My favorite will appear in a few weeks. It’s “The Tree of Life,” set on a green field, not unlike the tapis vert. Green is for “ordinary time,” the days between late May and late November—Pentecost and Advent. The color represents new life, spiritual growth, summer, harvest, plenty. Ordinary time is a season of stasis: those long, bright days through which each life sometimes drifts. The parament is embroidered with a simple tree with birds resting in its branches. The tree is nourished by deep roots, stretching down into clear blue waters below. Despite its simplicity, the biblical imagery is rich: Eden, the mustard seed, the birds of the air, the bearing of good fruit, baptism, the river of life, living waters.
What are some meaningful symbols in your life? How do you celebrate them? It is our hope that these new symbols of faith will enrich our worship and piety at Bower Hill Church.
In Christ’s Peace,