In my “fourth life,” I find myself wanting to do more in the effort to develop a more precise use of words and their meanings. So today, I’d like to explore the difference between a “sign” and a “symbol.”
Let’s start with a symbol. I would guess that when you think of something as a symbol, it feels like it’s standing for something else. The old skull and crossbones stands for either a pirate or poison, although in recent times, whoever is in charge has attempted to use the “Mr. Yuck” symbol instead when we look at poison. They even have a little song that goes, “Mr. Yuck is green – Mr. Yuck is MEAN!” Apparently a green-faced, grimacing head is enough to symbolize something bad for you. For my sake, they could have used a simple lima bean to get that point across…
But we are awash in symbols – things that stand for other things – all over our world. Smoky Bear makes us remember to be careful with outdoor fires. Five intertwined rings helps us think about the Olympics. Last Sunday, we saw palm branches, helping us to recall the Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem. And, of course, the cross is the symbol for Christ’s resurrection.
I remember when I was in seminary, we had a beautiful Southern style large chapel on campus, which turned out to be where many young college women wanted to have their wedding ceremony. That was fine, but the rule was that however things were arranged in the chapel for the seasons of the church year, they would stay, and the wedding party would just have to work around them.
One time, during Lent, the worship folks managed to assemble a full-sized roughhewn, full-of-slivers cross that then stood inside the chancel area. It was pretty overwhelming. As one of the co-eds and her mother came to look at the chapel for the wedding in a couple of weeks, they were aghast that such an ugly thing would be part of the wedding. As they spoke with the head of the worship committee, they tried everything to get the cross taken down. Finally, the bride-to-be said, “I know it is a symbol and all that…” to which, the worship leader responded, “No – it’s not a symbol – it is a LITERAL cross!”
I wear a wedding ring that symbolizes Cheri’s and my covenant. Pictures of fireworks call us to the 4th of July; turkeys, to Thanksgiving, and of course, a manger and a star symbolizes Christmas. Dozens and dozens of things rise and fall as symbols in our lives. Two years ago, to see a face mask might help us think about a medical operation, or the hospital. Nowadays, we see CoVid. A barbershop pole has become a symbol, but centuries ago, the barber was also the surgeon, and strangely enough, after the operation, he would hang the soiled red rags on the pole to dry them, and to be used next time (not a lot of sterilization technique back then), so the white pole draped in red cloth symbolize the place where you could get a haircut, and maybe have you broken leg set after the horse kicked you.
Symbols stand for reality behind them. A remarkable part of our human mind is the ability to take a picture or form of something, and know it stands for something else. If you want a fun exercise, have you and a partner each take a sheet of paper, and give yourselves five minutes to write down all the symbols you possible can think of. No winners here – just a mind-expanding experiment.
So now, let’s move on to “signs.” The difference between a sign and a symbol, is that while a symbol stands for something behind it, a sign is created to point us to something beyond the sign, or to give us a hint of what is coming up. Traffic “signs” are installed to help us prepare for what is coming as we drive, whether that’s a one-way street, or a curved highway, or ice on the bridge. Yes, even words written on a piece of metal can be a sign for us – the ice is not the sign, but the word warns us of what’s is imminent. For a couple of years, as Cheri and I would drive to Grafton, there was a spot on the interstate that had a sign, “Bump.” We would always laugh when we came up to it, and I would do my best to hold Cheri in her seat as we drove, because when we got to the sign, there was a imperceptible tiny dip on the roadway. Driving the 120 miles, we frequently hit sometimes-jarring bumps that were never identified. For some reason, someone put that sign up, which without it, you’d never know there was any thing on the road. Also, just to be clear – what there was, was a tiny dip – not a bump. Some signs are not very helpful.
Signs like to believe they are pointing to something yet to come. There has been a eon’s old profession of a soothsayer, or seer, or fortune teller, who carries the reputation of being able to “see” the future, and to use all sorts of signs, from Tarot cards to chicken innards, to reading bumps on a head, or tea leaves in a cup, and therefore, help the person who had paid them good money to get a leg up on what’s going to happen – by reading the “signs.” Even in sheet music, the composer puts in numerous signs to prepare and direct the performer to make a change at points in the piece. Key changes, tempo changes, even codas and other things that send you back to the beginning, or launch you into another place in the music all use signs to get you to do what you need to do.
Of course, there are far more subtle signs. We sometimes read them on the face of someone we love and care about, signifying trouble ahead for the relationship. If you come home and find all your clothing tossed out on the lawn, that’s a pretty good sign that the near future doesn’t bode well… I remember, while applying for college, that opening a letter from a university required only reading the first two or three words, as a sign for my future. If it read, “We are pleased….” then I was in, and the rest was just fill in for what’s next. However, if the letter began, “We regret…” then there was not reason to read any more. The sign was clear.
One difference between the two words, is that a symbol is usually a fixed thing, and more static. My wedding ring is a symbol of the vows we shared. A sign, however, is more dynamic, and changing. It comes and goes, depending on what it is point toward. A dark cloudy day is perhaps a sign of rainy weather in the making, but the same sky can also become bright and blue as the winds blow the clouds away.
Think of the signs in your own life, either in the past or right now. Unless someone is totally clueless, you can read the signs that come into your life, and make a pretty good prediction of what’s ahead. Both of these words have come into existence as a way to describe the deeper, below the surface sense and understanding we already feel as humans. When we live intentionally (there it is), instead of just by accident, we are open to seeing the signs and symbols that have meaning, and inform us at a more profound level than just writing or talking about something.
Use that ability today, and let today be a more insightful and meaning-full experience.
Word for the day: trouvaille. Pronounced (with a French accent) true-VIE. Of course it is French is its origin. The word comes from the French trouver, which means “to find.” A trouvaille is a valuable or lucky discovery, like the time Cheri and I were walking along a rocky beach and she picked up a long, heavy gold necklace that had been pushed again a rock. Nice trouvaille! Of course, I would always say that the greatest trouvaille in history happened the day I met her. Can’t really top that discovery!
After 43 years of ministry, Randy Cross lived his "fourth life" and shared about retirement, living boldly and intentionally in our world. To be sure, there was some North Dakota thrown in.