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Thursday, January 12, 2012

No Cross at Church?

Today I received a Facebook message asking me why we don't have a cross at Westwinds. This question isn't a new one for me but I have heard it three times in the last month so I thought it appropriate to talk about on the ol' blog.

True. There is no permanent display of the traditional and easily recognizable American Christian cross at Westwinds. It's really not as much about an exclusion of this cross for us as much as it's about including other symbols and stories from a grand tradition and history. However, there are some things we have thought through in regard to this version of the cross that have kept us from making it a permanent symbol or fixture at Westwinds. You'll see us using the traditional American cross (which came from the Latin/Catholic tradition) from time to time. But not exclusively.

In our last large scale aesthetic at Westwinds (we change the look and feel of the gathering space frequently), the room was surrounded with symbols that tell the story of God and His people. The phoenix, the palm, the rose, the three nails, the quatrefoil, the Chi-Ro, the three nails, the torch, etc. are symbols we used recently and have used at various other times. Some other Christian symbols we’ve used can be found at websites like this one. We even included the scarab in a recent aesthetic. The scarab is a symbol that Egyptian Christians took from their ancestors who believed in reincarnation and turned it in to a symbol of Jesus’ resurrection. We're fond of symbols and metaphors that help us connect people to the greater story of Christian spirituality and our rich Christian history. We like the fun ones, odd ones, traditional ones, mysterious ones—they all are rich in story and history.

We appreciate how a symbol or piece of art can embody a story. So, instead of having one permanent symbol of a cross we've chosen to also celebrate other symbols that connect us to the greater story of God and his people. We certainly aren't afraid of a cross symbol but also realize the benefit in other symbols that point us to Jesus.

Sadly, in some ways, the Latin/Catholic/American cross has become void of its power as a symbol because it's so commonplace. When in fact, the cross was an instrument of brutal death and torture as much as it is a symbol of hope—all this gets lost in translation sometimes. It hangs around the necks of hip-hop stars and sweaty teenagers in dance clubs as if it in and of itself holds some power or, perhaps more accurately they think it looks good on a chiseled body and it matches their earrings. In the movies, the Latin cross is held up to scare evil vampires (not the pouty, emo, bedazzled ones) as if it is magic. But, Jesus is the way, truth, and life. Jesus only. The cross is what they hung him on.

With some, there is a debate about the cross because some traditions use it with Jesus on it (Catholic crucifix) and some without. I remember Baptist friends getting mad at Catholics “Jesus rose! He isn’t on the cross anymore!” As if to say . . . “Dummies!” And, I think to myself, “Really? We are really going to waste time on this battlefield?”

And so, we create another question in the cross debate . . . Which one? With Jesus or without? Latin? Byzantine? Slavonic? Greek? Maltese? Celtic? Roman? Crux? Baptismal? Should we use a more accurate depiction of the cross Jesus actually died on (that wasn’t so perfect and may have resembled more of a T shape)? Each has its own history. Some of them have yucky things associated with them. The Jerusalem Cross was displayed on soldiers and banners in the Crusades. For anyone with an Islamic faith or background, they see this as a battle symbol. The Swastika Cross was used in Christian architecture before the Nazi’s heisted it for their own purposes. The mere sight of it makes us angry today. And, even the Latin cross most recognized by American’s has its hang-ups for some. Good, bad, right, or wrong, some associate that cross with angry churches, molesting leaders, and politicians who wield a sword of power over the weak while summoning the name of Jesus.

I've often wondered what it would be like if I wore an electric-chair or guillotine necklace to spark conversation. It might be more effective for spiritual conversation. "Why are you wearing that chair? That's sick and weird, man!" And, I could say. "I know. it reminds me of Jesus. He was unjustly murdered on my behalf." It should be more than a fashion statement to us.

We get the positive side of the argument too. The cross can be a symbol of peace and comfort to Christians. It can identify a building as a place of Christians. It's sometimes strange for some Christians to come into a blank building and wonder, "Uh-oh, do they worship Jesus here?" "Is this a cult?" But, we know if they stay more than 5 minutes that question will be answered through song, prayer, our welcome, our media, our people, etc. We’re more concerned about the person who comes in without a Jesus background and the person who comes in beat-up and disenfranchised with church and religion. We hope the healthy, churched Christians can adjust soon enough without a cross—even if they enjoy it and miss it.

Finally, the Bible is silent on this issue. There is no mention of the cross in church aesthetic and/or architecture in the Bible. The new testament gives rules for worship in regard to conduct, frequency, leadership, physical demonstrations of worship, song, and the state of the heart but it doesn’t mention symbol or aesthetic. The closest examples we have from the Bible about aesthetic, symbol, and architecture pre-date the cross of Jesus. The Old Testament tabernacle (both the one that traveled through the desert and the more permanent temple) was rich in art, precious metals, choice wood, expensive fabric and candles but even so, that was a prescription for the Jewish place of worship predating Jesus. So, today we celebrate the fact that God gives us great freedom in creating space, using symbol and metaphor, crafting service orders, and choosing songs and scripture. We draw from our heritage and try new things all at the same time.

Bottom line, we want people to come to Westwinds and see the presence of Jesus in this place. We want to remove their hang-ups and invite them in to the story of Jesus. We want to answer their questions and ask them new ones. We want them to know Jesus exists inside the church and outside of it. He is active in the world, the media, the entertainment industry, the library, the Internet, and their neighbors. We want them to see him in unexpected places and recognize him in new ones. We want them to know Jesus and we don't want to limit him.

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