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The Power of Symbol

  • The Power of Symbol

As many of you know, I am designing worship (with Musical Director, Mark Miller) for the General Conference of the United Methodist Church that starts April 23. The drawing you see here is by one of the artists working on this with us, Ted Lyddon Hatten. This incredibly provocative image draws us deeper into the theme of the conference, “A Future with Hope.” A strong central symbol can be a powerful element in a series of services. The image of a tree in the logo of the conference was the starting point for our design and it has provided a plethora of scriptural, poetic and visual ways to talk of our roots in Christ that give us hope in the midst of what feels barren at times. I recently wrote an article that will appear later this year in the journal “Liturgy” that is a kind of case study of General Conference worship and the issue of liturgy and reconciliation. In a highly-charged political context, my hope is that worship and its symbols will remind us of our unity, our common roots, even though we are diverse in many ways. Read on for more on the power of symbols (an excerpt from my article).

(an excerpt from “Between a Rock and Hard Place: Liturgy in the Fissures of Community” by Marcia McFee © 2008 Liturgical Conference, to be published.

“Complexity of meanings is a source of strength in ritual. The effectiveness of a symbol does not rely on everyone getting “it,” but rather a strong symbol is open enough to envelope many meanings brought by the diversity of ritual participants’ experience. As I began to design worship for this event, I knew that I needed a strong central symbol to weave across ten days and twenty-two worship services (including Eucharist at noon every day) that would be effective across international, cultural and theological “fissures.” The logo for the conference provided such an image: a tree. This image is rife with biblical correlatives that connect concretely to the idea of “A Future with Hope” (the theme of the conference). Trees and plants hold significance for peoples all around the world and no matter how theologically divided we may be, United Methodists in general agree on and care about sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry and nurturing the growth of all children. Here was a symbol common enough to inspire meaningful and somewhat similar connections between a diversity of people yet open enough to allow for a diversity of meanings to flourish based on context.

So I began “metaphoraging”–a term I use to talk about the creative process of engaging a symbol in the worship design process. Bible, thesaurus, commentaries, picture books, computer search engines, poetry and big sheets of paper to scribble on with colorful markers are my brainstorming companions. It the end, what arrived was an organic progression of verbal/visual images attached to biblical and theological concepts that serve to organize the flow of worship over the ten days. This “throwing together” is the translation of symbol [symbolein]. The power of symbol also resides in its role in “making real” the ineffable or abstract. Symbols act like transformers (think the electrical kind). Voltage too large and unmanageable is converted by transformers into something we can really use. Likewise, symbols are concrete images that help us grasp large and sometimes unwieldy concepts like “hope” in ways that bring meaning that can really make a difference for us. For instance, my metaphoraging yielded a title for the first daily worship called “The Opening.” The visual image here is the bursting open of a seed. While “A Future with Hope” can remain simply a nice idea in abstraction, to ask the question “what needs to break open in order for new growth to begin?” in liturgical words, images and actions is to make more real the painful process of birth and rebirth–a pain that the institutional church body is sometimes reluctant to embrace and experience. Our liturgy on this first morning asks God to “open us to Your possibilities, to Your surprises” and asks the community to pause and discern a willingness to listen–to each other and to the Spirit. Can all sides of our disagreeing factions open, listen and discover what else may be struggling to sprout up in our life together?”

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