The following is a transcript of a Raised Catholic Podcast episode. To listen to the podcast, click here.
Today is episode 71: Raise a Banner
Hi friends. Have you noticed that in the last few years, quite a lot of us are identifying ourselves with banners, signs, and flags, not to mention slogans on hats and t-shirts? And maybe it was always so, but in the last week or so as I’ve been driving around, I’ve noticed much more than the usual bumper stickers on cars and local election placards stuck into lawns. There are whole household displays of HUGE flags for a certain political figure who holds no office nor appears on any ballot. I see yard signs that indicate lists of things that the people in that house believe, and disturbingly, there seems to be a new crop of signs and stickers that feature just three letters in two varieties – you probably know the letters I’m talking about, and what they stand for but if not I’ll just say it’s a broad, unspecific protest statement against a particular government leader and I’d say it’s unproductive at best.
Here in America, we’re pretty divided these days and again, that’s probably nothing new, but the current prevalence of banners that shout out our beliefs and affiliations may be a sign that we’ve crossed dangerously into new territory. We’re putting stakes in the ground and marking our territories. We’re huddled into our camps. We’re demonizing those who don’t think like us, and we are no longer listening, but shouting. These stark divides negatively affect how we live with each other in community, in schools and in other groups, and they follow us into the ways in which we practice our faith as well. If you were born and raised Catholic, you may see these divides and markings in the church and in religious media: traditional versus progressive, social justice-minded Catholics versus those who are more interested in liturgy, even pro-Pope Francis and anti-Pope Francis, which, yikes, that’s a whole other podcast, but friend, these divides are destructive. In each ‘camp’ on any given issue, you’ll find people who blame the ‘other side’ for the apparent demise of the Church in America, and we pour untold amounts of energy into that blame game. We’re waving our banners and we’re making our cases, on social media and with people who think like us, and we’re gathering them in, emboldening our cause and increasing our ranks in a battle we are fighting to win, frequently forgetting that ours is a faith that actually preaches sacrifice over winning, giving ourselves away over gain, pouring ourselves out and even dying to self. As a Church, our common symbol is a means of execution. Our leader was willingly mocked, tortured, and murdered. In the time of Jesus, there were no banners which proclaimed Him except for the one nailed to the head of the cross He hung from, and no one who actually walked with Jesus would have recognized Him as a “winner”.
As the prophet Isaiah said,
“…he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
I think it’s a natural human need to identify ourselves in groups to help create our identity, especially in what Fr. Richard Rohr calls the first half of life, and there’s no part of society that goes untouched by that need: sports, teams, school and work affiliations, charitable organizations and causes – all of these create a sense of belonging that is attractive to us, and an outward representation of that belonging just kind of makes sense to us, I know. But when it comes to faith, Jesus had some words to say about the external ‘show’ of our faith versus our interior practices.
He said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Oof, Jesus did not mince words, did he? It’s counter to our ego sometimes to work more on ‘who we are’ rather than ‘how we appear’, I know, but for those of us who profess to be Christians, it is the work of our lifetimes to do that. Waving a banner or a flag that professes our beliefs is cheap and easy – growing into our identity as Christians is hard and costly. There’s a quote by Maya Angelou I love. She said, “I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I think, ‘Already? You already got it?’” I love that. Angelou understood that a Christian life is a work in progress which is largely interior. Our works or actions are visible fruit of the work that’s being done from the inside out. And our flags or banners or signs – these sometimes reveal more about our interior lives and motivations than we think.
Today, let’s consider the bumper stickers on our cars, the signs stuck in our lawns or those banners and messages that we see out in the world every single day. I’d invite us to think today about what they say: yes, literally the words but also the meaning behind the message. Is it an expression of hate or of love, of declaration or of invitation, of encouragement or criticism, of inclusion or exclusion? What are the emotions you feel when you look at that sign or sticker and how do you think your brothers and sisters receive it? Is it a message that Jesus would proclaim? What’s the motivation to express that message, and what’s the fruit of it? A lot of questions, I know.
Here’s an example. I have a ’13.1’ magnet on my car that I ordered literally on the day I completed my first half marathon. I was proud, I’ll admit it. Though I’d like to finish another one in my lifetime, there are no guarantees that I’ll do it, and sometimes I feel guilty for keeping that magnet on there because honestly, it’s been a few years since I finished that race. I’m not what you’d call a habitual half-marathoner. But the reason it remains is because it’s a message meant for me: a much-needed reminder whenever I see it that I can do things that I once thought were impossible, and whether or not I’ll ever run that distance again, that is a message I need, so I’ll keep it for now.
Then there was the sign I noticed on the way to teach preschool music with a home daycare this week. It was a simple, hand-painted sign with a smiley face, and it read, ‘Love Thy Neighbor’. The fruit of the sign was an immediate smile from me and a better focus once I reached my destination to be a more present and loving teacher to the kiddos who were in front of me. So, a great sign and good fruit.
As St. Francis may or may not have said, ‘Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.’. The very best banner or flag or sign uses words that point us to positive feeling or action, because this is a hard world and the divides are stark – when we can, we should use our words to break down walls and help encourage each other, but at the end of the day, our words and banners ring hollow without action.
As a kid in a 1970s church basement, I remember singing the song ‘His banner over me is love’ along with the hand motions – if you were born and raised Catholic, maybe you have memories of that, too. I remember it for lots of reasons – it was the first interactive song I ever sang at church, the first time I remember seeing so many SMILING CATHOLICS, I remember thinking that was delightfully strange. But also, the idea that God made a protection and covering – a banner for me out of love – that was something that my eight-year old spirit responded to immediately and something I still carry with me today.
For we who profess to be Christians, our banner is love, period. Love that helps, love that saves, sacrificial and merciful love, love that is much bigger than ours, love of neighbor, love of enemy, and don’t forget love for ourselves, too. God is our banner and our protection, and our covering and God is love.
As we consider our banners and signs and flags, and discern our motivators and messages, may it be only love in the end, friends, because as it says in First Corinthians, love, along with faith and hope, are the only things that will endure. Past our opinions, our stances, and our politics. Past any identity or association or team or camp. Past the practice of faith and the Church itself in whatever form it exists in time. Past prophecies and tongues and all knowledge, as the scripture says. “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” So, let’s go show a waiting world what that looks like. What do you say, friends?
Thanks so much for being with me today. If you need me, you can find me on Instagram @kerrycampbellwrites or on my blog at mylittleepiphanies.com. Thanks for sharing, rating, reviewing, and subscribing to this podcast as all of that helps more people to find us and I truly appreciate that, so thanks. If you’d like to support Raised Catholic financially by throwing a few bucks my way, there’s a way for you to do that in the show notes, along with lots of resources about how to engage with this topic more deeply for yourself, so do check all of that out. For now, let’s pray together.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen:
God, help us to work on the inside of our cups so that everything we profess on the outside, in words either written or spoken, comes from a wellspring of grace that is You living in us. Let our words reflect the fruit of your Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control. And thank you, Lord that your steady banner over all of us is always love.
In the name of Jesus, we pray, amen.
Thanks so much for listening today, friend, and I’ll see you next time.