This week at lectionary group I attend with several of the South Whidbey clergy we were discussing the central importance of religious symbols. What is the deeper significance of the cross, most particularly, in Christian practice? What does it mean when churches display the cross so centrally - Catholics with a crucifix where Jesus is still on the cross, Protestants with a bare cross emphasizing a resurrected Jesus? And what does it mean for all those folks who wear their crosses as pendants or lapel pins? And what does the cross mean to those who have born persecution under it?
Each church or person will need to answer these questions themselves, but it raises the issue how seriously most Christians take this most serious religious symbol. (And it must be noted, how seriously do other religions also understand their most sacred and beloved symbols?) Does the cross truly motivate the heart and practice of Christians, that is, that the Christian faith is defined primarily by sacrificial love. And I would add that from my peace and justice perspective, if you have the courage to express your Christian faith in an inclusive, counter-culture, courageous witness of compassion and justice - especially for the marginalized and forgotten - you pay a price for that witness. The cross, from this perspective, is a very serious and dangerous symbol to display, wear, and live by. Or as some have defined it, the cross symbolizes where the vertical sense of faith meets the horizontal witness to life and all the complexity that represents. I kind of like that representation.
But over the years I have often wished Quakers had some better way of encapsulating and symbolizing our faith. (The dove just doesn't do it. We may have to concede, however, that maybe the Broadrim hat on the historically innocuous Quaker in the oat box unfortunately does do it for too many people). The UUs try to address this by often incorporating the symbols of the many faiths in their displays. But our mystical bend, and our generous effort to respect individual explorations of how to express what we hold as our personal faith ("What can you say?"), make it very difficult to identify that one symbol that would identify us a distinct. So we are left with our particular witness and - I'd like to believe, clear and perhaps even powerful witness - which is that we primarily "let our lives speak." When we or others speak of the Quaker faith it is most often about what we have witnessed or done historically, as in "Quakers witness for peace and justice..."
This is a good thing, I hope you would agree.
But always supporting our lives of significant and faithful social and historical witness are lives that seek to ground ourselves in deep spiritual presence and awareness - in silent group worship, personal prayer, meditation, deep listening, attentiveness to leadings, for example. In this case our symbol might simply be the circle of bowed heads, attentive hearts and active imaginations - however that might be expressed! I will let you see if you can find a better symbol. In the meantime, continue to "let your life speak" with the spiritual integrity, compassion and courage that symbolizes what I believe is truly the essence of our living Quaker faith.