One of the lesser known exhibits in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., is a collection of Abraham Lincoln's personal effects from the night he was shot: a handkerchief embroidered "A. Lincoln," a pen knife, a spectacles case repaired with cotton string, a Confederate $5 bill, and a worn newspaper article praising Lincoln as one of the greatest statesmen of history — not a common opinion at the time. It seemed that even President Lincoln needed a tangible reminder of his worth.
I have a name for momentos such as that yellowed newspaper clipping in Lincoln's wallet: icons. My grandfather was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church, and I know that icons are not the graven images my Sunday school teacher implied. These pieces of art are visual aids, reminding worshipers of how God has intervened in the lives of his people. These pictures open a window into the presence of God.
The Bible is filled with icons. Noah had a rainbow. Abraham and Joshua had piles of stones. The nation of Israel hauled around the ark of the covenant, a chest full of icons: a jar of manna, the Ten Commandments, a budding shepherd's staff. Even Jesus gave us icons: a towel and a basin of water, a loaf of bread, a cup of wine. These tangible symbols help us focus on God's faithfulness and presence.
Over the past few years, my wife, Wendy, and I have pulled down objects from our attic, dusted them off, and started placing them around our home to remind us of God's faithfulness in our ministry.
One such icon is a hand-crafted banner created by the youth minister at our first church. It now hangs in my study. Whenever I sit at my desk to plan worship or prepare a sermon, it reminds me of my call to ministry. In brilliant colors, the theme of the church conference at which I was ordained stretches across the fabric: "Made Alive to Serve." A bronze plate at the bottom bears my name and the date of my ordination. As I view it, I remember that my privilege of being called a minister has a higher purpose.
There is a bud vase prominently displayed on a bookshelf. It was given to Wendy and me on the eve of our fifth wedding anniversary by a couple in the church we served at the time. Tightly wrapped within the flowerless vase was a letter of appreciation thanking us for our ministry in their lives and a crisp $100 bill. We didn't need to break the vase to remove the contents, but this unexpected token of our friends' affection seemed to us like the gift of the woman who broke a jar of expensive perfume to express her love to Jesus (Mark 14:3). It is a picture of God's extravagant love.
On another shelf sits a tarnished trophy, a relic from Bible camp when I was 12. But the trophy is not the icon. It's a golf ball I placed on top of it to remind me of my purpose in life.
A non-Christian neighbor, Marty, accepted my invitation to play in our church golf tournament. Because he won, he had to show up in church to collect his prize. After that, he and his family started attending regularly.
A series of crises in his life opened the way for me to lead Marty to Christ. He even asked if I would baptize him in a water hazard on our favorite golf course! That unique baptismal service and all the "Martys" who found Christ through that ministry are represented by that little ball in that tarnished trophy.
Here are a few questions to ask yourselves that may help you discover the symbolic lenses that will remind you how God has been at work in your life:
In the acclaimed movie, Mr. Holland's Opus, the retiring principal gave the popular band teacher a symbolic gift: a compass. She had treasured it for more than 30 years as a reminder that educators are called to be moral guides who also impart knowledge. Her compass was an icon. So are those objects in our lives that trigger significant memories and inspire vision.
What tangible symbols of mercy and blessing in your life are boxed away? Perhaps it is time to unwrap a few of them. They just might help you see God at work more clearly than ever.
I knew there was something special about Mister Rogers. We welcomed his values and demeanor in our home since our firstborn was old enough to toddle down Sesame Street.