Stewardship of Symbol

I already knew the outcome, thanks to a passing glance at Facebook, but I watched the women’s World Cup final on DVR delay from beginning to end anyway. It was a great game, well played and exciting. Soccer is not my first choice for sports, but I’ve grown to appreciate the skill and stamina of its players, and, fair-weather fan that I am, I almost always show up for the final.

There has been much social media chatter this week over the way the Stars and Stripes were handled in the afterglow of World Cup victory. It was draped over jubilant shoulders, carried around upside down and right side up, dropped, dragged, and even accidentally stepped on – a nightmare for anyone serving in a military honor guard. Some people were outraged and offended. They questioned the team’s patriotism. My own mind flashed to images of Usain Bolt, the flamboyant track and field star of Jamaica who literally wraps himself in the flag as though it were some sort of cocoon as he makes his victory lap. I doubt that Jamaica, easy going as it is, has anything quite resembling the US Flag Code.

Symbols are important to us. How we handle them says something about their importance.   We’re offended when someone steps on the American flag or burns it. We take it as an insult to our nation; it cuts deeply into our American pride. Not all people have the same attitude toward their flag of state that we do. The British wear their flag as clothing and no one thinks anything of it. Just don’t say anything bad about the Queen. That’s one reason they hand out flags like candy to the victors at international competitions – not all nations have the same symbolic reverence for their flag as we do.

Symbols have context. The ritualized folding of the flag and solmen presentation to the next of kin at a military funeral is very moving even for those of us who have not served in the military. The joyous victory lap while waving the flag is a moment of national pride. USA! USA! USA!

Personally, I’m not much of a flag waver. I do put down my beer and place my hand over my heart during the national anthem at a ball game. I also sing it. A lot of people don’t. Some don’t even bother to get out of the Dodger dog line. I hang the flag on my house for national holidays, as I did on the Fourth of July. I forgot to take it in at night while the fireworks were going off, in violation of the US Flag Code. I didn’t mean anything unpatriotic by it; I just forgot it was out there.

As a symbol, the flag stands for something – the nation, liberty, justice, sacrifice, shared history and tradition, unity in diversity, e pluribus unum, fifty states, thirteen colonies. Symbols need to be expressed, their contents unpacked, or they become mere decorations, the city square Christmas tree. Pretty but signifying nothing.

Symbolic gestures have power. A crisp military salute, a hand placed over the heart, Colin Kaepernick’s knee, Megan Raponoe’s hands at the side, Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’ clenched, gloved fists are all powerful symbolic gestures that bring content to a particular context. They may inspire or enrage, and they can be costly to the one handling the symbol. They all mean something. If they didn’t, no one would care.

Think about the symbols in your life – in home, in community, in church – our flags, our icons, our actions. As Christians we deal with symbol all the time – the crucifix, the vessels for Communion, the pulpit, the altar, the font, the pachal candle, vestments and paraments.  We make symbolic gestures – we bow, make the sign of the cross, kneel, fold our hands, bend the knee. I bow whenever I enter a Christian church and before I enter in service before the altar. I extend my hands in blessing. I make the sign of the cross in invocation and benediction. These symbols and gestures speak about what we believe and what is important to us.

We are stewards, caretakers of our symbols, whether the symbols of our nation or the symbols of our faith. How we handle them teaches their content and expresses our reverence and love for what they stand for. Careless liturgics, careless handling of the flag, careless disregard for the national anthem, careless words and gestures in worship – these all speak volumes about what we believe and don’t believe. If we treat our symbols carelessly, they will lose their meaning, and become nothing more than empty decorations, like a crucifix hanging around the neck of an unbeliever.

Before we criticize the symbolic stewardship of others, we would do well to take stock and inventory of our own stewardship. How do we handle the symbols that are important to us? When someone makes a symbolic gesture, whether a clenched fist or the sign of the cross, before reacting, ask what it means. Symbols should mean something. Listen and learn what that symbol or gesture means to that person. It can be the beginning of a constructive conversation.

And be prepared to do the same, when someone asks you.