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Of Horses, Carts and Symbols

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The many different flavors of Christianity have varied, even if the variations are relatively nuanced, views of what a church building is all about.  But I think all would agree that the building is symbolic in some fashion.  Whether it is the center-of-everything, larger-than-life churches of old European cities or the campuses of today’s megachurch, they symbolize, at least in the minds of its membership, what Christianity is in their life.

Some years ago I was in Westminster Abbey in London.  It is an extraordinary place, and despite its iconic status, it is still an active house of worship.  While walking around inside, one of thousands of tourists, the priests continued their business.  Each hour a priest would take to the pulpit and lead prayer.  When I was there, I stopped my tour of the building to join the priest in that prayer.   I was appalled at the throng of tourists.  The crowd never quieted. I was pushed and shoved about for daring to stand still when the massive mob wanted to continue to discover the next famous tomb.

In 1991 I visited Leningrad in the Soviet Union.  Moving through the heart of that city one continually passes Kazan Cathedral.  I was never permitted near it.  When I returned to St. Petersburg in 2005, I found out why.  It was an active house of worship, and had been in the Soviet days as well.  When I entered I was immediately approached by a nun who politely asked me to respect the faith of the congregants by remaining quiet and not taking any pictures.  The line to  kneel and pray in front of the central icon of the church was quite long.

Westminster Abbey has clearly lost its religious symbolism to the greater public.  Kazan Cathedral served as a bulwark symbol even against Soviet onslaught.  Symbols are only symbolic when we attach meaning to them and work diligently to reinforce that meaning and to educate others about that meaning.  On their own they are meaningless.  Therefore, symbols are followers, not leaders.  Their meaning must exist and be real before they can symbolize it.  Yet in this video-driven, internet age, we seem to think establishing a symbol is enough.  Thus the First Lady thought a hashtag would change something, but the girls that are still alive are still in captivity.  Symbols are the cart, not the horse.

I grow weary of “symbolic change.”

You hear that phrase a lot, “symbolic change.”  We cannot really change something, so we try and change the symbols as if that is accomplishing something.  Nothing has changed other than the people that want the change feel like they have accomplished something.  Bathroom laws do nothing to address that fact that there are some very confused and hurting people in the world.  Modifying currency does nothing to change the racial attitude of a single individual.  It is not that either of these things are wrong, it is simply that they accomplish nothing expect perhaps make their proponents feel like they have accomplished something.

In the opening poetry of Ecclesiastes, the writer, presumably Solomon, tells us:

 I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.  And I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven. It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with.  I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.  What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted. [emphasis added]

Yet in the third chapter of that same book, we learn, “ He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.”

The work that matters is God’s work and it is not our place to know precisely what God is up to.  So, how are we to respond?  I would suggest there are two things we should do in response.

First, we should just chill out.  In evangospeak we might say, “Let go and let God.”  It, whatever it is, is not up to us, it is up to God.  Faith matters more than action.  But that leads to the second thing.  Faith also brings us closer to God. and as we grow closer to Him, we will have a better idea of what He is up to – never perfect, but better – and of then we act out of our faith – not our vision, our faith.  Our vision can be clouded with our own desire, but our faith leads us towards the master planner.

It’s true that God gave us symbols.  From the Ark of the Covenant to the Sacrament of the Eucharist God has instructed us to have and do things that remind us of Him and our relationship with Him.  But He also reminds us that He is the point; that we should not confuse the symbol with what it symbolizes.  God wants the cart following the horse, not the other way around.

If we want real change, pursue real change.  The next generation can figure out how to symbolize it.


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