Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Symbols of Meaning

A couple of weeks ago the pastor of a church we attended was speaking from 1 Corinthians 11 and the issue of proper male/female dress. I usually turn off on those messages because men spend way too much time talking about appropriate attire for females and say virtually nothing about proper apparel for males. As a teenager/young adult in the ‘60’s, I grew weary of all the messages on how men should look like men (not have long hair) and women looking like women (having a butch haircut). Then as a cross-cultural trainer in different countries it was tiresome to go to Russia and hear the Baptist and Pentecostals make women’s head-covering almost a salvation issue and in India the sign of a devotion to Christ was not wearing bangles, rings or makeup. The church spends so much time on non-salvation issues that it becomes a barrier in presenting the Gospel. I just react strongly to legalism.

But then the pastor made an interesting comment that peaked my thinking. He told the story about how that growing up his mother would never think about coming to church without a head covering and would never pray without pulling the long dupatta over her head. Though the congregation we were in that morning is urban and more Western in style, this young pastor seemed to lament that this symbol of humility, respect, has been lost. His final comment is what really grabbed my attention when he said, in effect, that the church lives in a cultural context where symbols of religion are common, and that only the Christian community live without symbols.

On the drive back to our home we passed the Sikh gurdwa and I observed women in their punjabi sawar dress, the men with their turbans; passing the Muslim mosque men wearing the kufi; the Hindu temple, women dressed in sarees and I thought how void the Christian community is of symbols.

I remember attending a Bakht Singh church many years ago and the feeling I had of worshipping Christ contextually. We removed our shoes at the door, sat on mats on the floor, women on one side, men on the other, the music sung in Hindi and English. With no overheads, no keyboards we clapped as we sang to the beat of a traditional drum.

The issue of contextualization is unpredictable. To the Western style church the symbols are indeed urbane with stylish cut hair, blue jeans and young men wearing chokers. But in the larger context of a country which share similar symbols, is it no wonder that our faith is seen a religion of foreigners? A follower of Jesus in this framework is not known by its symbols of community, but rather by its adoption of symbols of another kind. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to the outward signs -- icons which, like the Amish, make a statement of identification and maybe, in a positive way, if not separation perhaps community.