Power Of Symbols · Uncategorized

Pope Francis and the Power of a Gesture

In the image “seen round the world”—in today’s parlance, “gone viral”– Pope Francis has commanded a brief moment from our hyperkinetic attention spans. But I suspect that “moment” will last a long time.

You’ve seen it, haven’t you? The photo of the Pope holding and kissing the head of a man ravaged by an incurable disease.

Pope Francis touches a deformed man.
Pope Francis touches a sick man after a general audience on 11/6/13 (Huff Post 11/6/13)

I remember another image of another Pope, John Paul II, at a meeting with then Polish Leader General Jaruzelski.

Jaruzelski was reading a prepared message while the Pope stood a few feet away, head slightly lowered, hands folded, listening intently.  The camera panned downward, and the narrator had to make sure we noticed.  The Polish leader’s knees were shaking.

As well they should have.

We would discover later they were shaking for good reason.  We often look at the political implications, because that Pope is widely credited with helping to end Communism in his beloved Poland and many other countries.  But I also wonder if the Polish leader wasn’t also quaking at the presence of God.

As well he should have.

Now, decades later, Pope Francis was the presence of God for another man.  But there was no quaking, no distance in this gesture, this kiss.

One man brought the presence of God to a leader, shaking political institutions and changing the world.  Another brought the presence of God to a diseased man, changing his world, and ours.

No matter your religious persuasion, that’s the power of a gesture.

Power Of Symbols · Uncategorized

The Power Of A Gesture

Gesture:  A movement of a part of the body to express ideas or emotions.

A friend holds my hand, a mother kisses her young adult daughter (in public, no less) after a long absence, and for my dog loving friends, a paw is raised or a face is licked.  “Small” gestures can be powerful symbols of a bigger idea.

Then sometimes, for lack of a gesture, a kingdom—a relationship—is lost.

I want to talk about a bold gesture that was a call to change.

I enjoy contributing to the discussion during my church’s Sunday School class.  Once I expressed my worry about a potential issue with personal implications.  The teacher addressed the group with wise words, then suddenly looked in my direction, raised her left hand, and pointed at me across the room.  “Lora Zill, God has you in the palm of His hand.”

I was struck silent.  It was the finger of God to me.

My generation was taught that pointing is rude. The teacher could have just spoken that to me privately.  But then that gesture would’ve been lost, the finger wouldn’t have been raised to represent to me and others in the class the call of God to trust.

When I’m tempted to worry, I see that pointing finger.  I took it as God, and I think, the teacher meant it, without judgment, just a call to a different attitude. God has me (and you) in the palm of His hand.

So I’m thinking about the power of a gesture. Sometimes the “smallest” act is an extension of grace that can change a life.

Power Of Symbols · Spiritual Places · Uncategorized

Spiritual Places: A Fall Chestnut In My Pocket

I have a chestnut in my jeans pocket. I will transfer it to whatever I wear tomorrow. When I put my hand in my pocket (a habit) the chestnut reminds me to pray.

I know. You’re thinking, a chestnut?

My friend Marge and I gathered chestnuts under her trees one morning and a poem came to mind, Luci Shaw’s “To A Winter Chestnut: Five Haiku.”  Shaw shows her friendship with Madeleine L’Engle by using the image of a chestnut: ….you/ride my pocket–Christ’s coal for/my five cold fingers.”   

Chestnuts for eating, or a reminder for prayer!
Chestnuts for eating, or a reminder for prayer!

Friends are “Christ’s coal” to me. When I’m lost, wandering, and casting about for a landing place, they give warmth and safety. They accept me and give me the space to find my way.

This past summer was not a kind one. I had lost, or given up, major places in my identity. I was edgy, anxious, and needy. I didn’t like myself much. Two friends asked, “What can we do for you?” I said, “Laugh at me and laugh with me.”  They did, over a long weekend carved out of busy professional lives. They gave me a gift. They reminded me of who I am.

So I carry this chestnut in their honor, and for others with good hearts, who show up in times of trouble.

Remember “Christ’s coal.” I do. You’re in a spiritual place, this chestnut riding my pocket, warming my cold fingers.

Power Of Symbols · Spiritual Places · Uncategorized

Choosing “Yes”: Flight 93

In 2006 I was driving on Route 30 west towards Pittsburgh when I passed through a tiny town and saw a tiny sign at an intersection.  It read:

Flight 93




I turned left.  The country roads twisted and turned, up little hills and down, through woods and fields, as is their habit in southwestern Pennsylvania. I passed homes with American flags on poles or hanging from door frames.

Then I saw a clearing of many acres, with parked cars, a couple of job johnnies, and a little hut. I parked and drew a deep breath. I was choked up before I even opened the door.

Next to the hut was a tall expanse of chicken wire mounted on poles.  It was covered with tributes and memorabilia: signed volleyball jerseys, firefighter uniforms, stuffed animals, baseball caps, flowers, flags, candles, ribbons, and rosaries. Many signatures and words of thanks covered a piece of plywood. There were so many pieces it took a long time to look at them all.

Part of Flight 93 Temporary Memorial
Part of Flight 93 Temporary Memorial

The hut was empty except for a counter with a book containing clippings and pictures. (I think someone was there to answer questions.) It also had a box, index cards and pencils. You were invited to share your thoughts that would be added to the permanent memorial.

I walked outside to think about it.  Several hundred feet away, where the plane had come down, stood an American flag, stretched out, not dependent on wind.  The simplicity and dignity was almost overwhelming.

I walked back into the hut and picked up a pencil.  This is what I wrote:

                        Who knows what an ordinary person will be called to do on an ordinary day?

                        Maybe it will be my turn tomorrow.  Thank you.

Maybe I won’t be called to storm a cockpit. But my choice will be the same: to say yes after counting the cost.

Power Of Symbols · Uncategorized

When A Symbol Isn’t Enough: The Empty Nest

A Little Help Needed With This Empty Nest
A Little Help Needed With This Empty Nest

I’m hunting for another symbol besides “empty nest” to describe this part of my life after my kids have grown and left home.

I’m a single parent, and single parenting via divorce means I exposed my son and daughter to trauma they didn’t bargain on. Honestly, after we moved I doubt they thought of their new digs as a place of comfort. It meant their lives had been uprooted and irrevocably changed.

Even after we got ourselves together, more or less, and I tried to give them a stable home, I never thought I was creating a “nest.” I was just trying to survive. I didn’t receive all that much nurturing, so the “nest” image wasn’t working for anybody in my house. (But the three of us have turned out pretty well, so something did.)

Perhaps Jesus helped us understand the “nest” as a symbol of protection when he said about Jerusalem, “How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings….” (Matt. 23:37 NKJV). You could say I was creating an emotional “nest,” but that doesn’t do it either. I wasn’t a parent who tried to protect her kids from the world; I thrust them out into it as much as I could.

But that image works for plenty of parents to describe their feelings when children leave home. Symbols carry emotional weight; that’s why they have staying power in our language and imaginations. But I wonder sometimes if we get so locked into a meaning we don’t realize when it may be inadequate.

I need a new symbol. Any ideas?