I once lived in a place where I would occasionally drive by a Presbyterian Church that had a very large cross in its front yard made of charred wood. This was in West Central Illinois. The cross was very important to the congregation as it stood in the yard in front of their new church building. It had deep meaning and evoked profound emotions for the members of the congregation and other members of their broader community. They knew exactly what it meant, what it stood for, and why it helped them to remember a painful past in a restorative way. However, they were blind to the way this symbol of their life together might be perceived by people who were new to their community or who were from outside their community.

Perhaps you have realized that their previous building burned down. This cross was made of charred timbers that had been recovered from the site of the fire. The charred cross was, to them, a symbol of hope and of the resurrection of the life of their congregation. To almost anyone else in the United States a charred cross means something very different. It would never be seen as symbol of hope and new life but of something much more sinister and threatening and evil.

January 15 is a date that is very important to me and my family. We celebrate it every year and it has even sometimes been used as a combination or PIN code for various objects or accounts. No one in my family will ever forget that date. But it does not have this high level of importance for the same reason that it has become such an important date in so many peoples’ lives. When my fiancé and I chose that date for our wedding in 1977, we had two considerations in mind. We were moving to Louisville to start seminary a few weeks later; we needed to be married before we went. And, my best friend needed to be back at school in Oklahoma the following week and her dad suggested that it would be better to have the wedding before she went back so that he would not have to pay to fly her home. We did not know that it was Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday or that the Monday closest to that date would become a national holiday a few years later. The date has meaning for us for both reasons, of course, but people outside of our family do not have the same associations with it that we do.

The place where you worship is, I imagine, full of images that are meaningful to you. Some of them could be easily interpreted by any Christian who enters that space—a cross, an open Bible, a baptismal font, a cup and chalice. There are probably other objects and images that are not as universally understood. Perhaps there are even articles that have some kind of meaning for some people in your worshiping community that are not understood by everyone who gather there. For instance, when I worshiped at Hanover Park the first Sunday of the year, I was shown something that is very important to them—a set of flags from around the world. I would not have known without being told that they represent the countries from which members of their worshiping community have come. Now those flags have the same meaning for me as they do for the congregation.

We often take for granted the idea that “everyone” knows what our important touchstones mean. Maybe as you start this new year it would be a good time for you to examine your assumptions about your worship space and deepen everyone’s understanding of those important images that remind us who and whose we are.
Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago