Skip Navigation

Cross and Flame Declare Who We Are

By the Rev. Phil Blackwell
Conference Program Officer

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of preaching at The Living Well UMC in Gurnee, Illinois. It is a new congregation founded under the leadership of the Rev. David Newhouse and is located across the street from the entrance to Great America. (And you thought you had competition on Sunday mornings!) [Great America is the largest amusement park in the state – ed.]

That day the congregation was dedicating a huge Cross and Flame symbol, the logo of The United Methodist Church. It now hangs on the front of the church, which is a former hardware store in a shopping mall, and announces to all who The Living Well UMC is and what its members profess.

Who are we and what do we say with our Cross and Flame? The cross represents the presence of Christ; the flame represents the power of the Holy Spirit. Taken together, they depict the activity of God in our lives, what God does for us in Christ – what John Wesley called " justifying grace" – and what God does in us through the work of the Holy Spirit – what Wesley termed "sanctifying grace."

The cross has been the central image for Christianity for 2000 years, yet some today have removed it from the sanctuary: "Oh, we don’t want to put a cross here because it only depresses people. When people come to our church we want them to think about happy things like love, joy and peace."

How replacing the cross with a potted palm conjured up images of love, joy and peace, I do not know. They might just as well tack a smiley face to the altar and be done with it.

A Positive Image

For Christians who understand the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the cross is a positive image, not a discouraging one. It reminds us that through Christ, God has saved us in a way that we never could do for ourselves, no matter how hard we have tried. It portrays the love of God, the joy of having Jesus Christ in our hearts, and the peace that the

We United Methodists "cling to the old rugged cross" not because we are maudlin, but because we see in it the grace of God reflected through Christ’s self-giving love.

What do we say about the flame? We have to be careful here. We know that fire both destroys and refines. In recent years we have seen hundreds of churches and synagogues torched by arsonists, some right here in the Midwest. Many of us are old enough to have imprinted on our minds chilling images of sheet-draped bigots burning crosses in order to intimidate and humiliate. So, having a cross and flame together as our symbol requires some care in our interpretation of it.

We know that fire always has been evidence that God is present. The fire of creation separated the mountains from the seas. The burning bush beckoned Moses to lead an oppressed people through the wilderness to freedom. The fire of Pentecost undid the mayhem of Babel and resulted in the emergence of the Church.

This is the same fire that strangely warmed John Wesley’s heart. And, it is the fire of the Holy Spirit that is burning in our own souls and in the lives of our congregations calling us to live what our tradition identifies as "a holy life."

Christian Service to Others

For Methodists throughout history this fire has burned most brightly when it has resulted in Christian service to others. We have blazed a path of schools, hospitals, libraries, orphanages, soup kitchens, labor organizations, agricultural centers and social service agencies around the world, all done in Christ’s name.

With the cross and flame we say that, as United Methodists, we believe God saves us through Jesus Christ and empowers us with the Holy Spirit to make a difference in the world. That is what the symbol proclaims, and we are obliged to hold one another accountable for living this truly in our lives.

This article appeared in the August 20, 1999 Northern Illinois Reporter. Published with permission.

Cross and Flame Declare Who We Are – Revisited
By Mavis and the Rev. Al Streyffeller
United Methodist missionaries
Dakar, Senegal

"Take that cross down from outside your church building, or I will bulldoze the building to the ground." These were the words our neighborhood Islamic leader told leaders of the First UMC in Senegal.

Thus it was with great appreciation that we read the Rev. Phil Blackwell’s column in the August 20 United Methodist Reporter. For we ask the same pressing question in a 99% Muslim neighborhood in Dakar: "Who are we United Methodists and what do we say with our cross-and-flame symbol."

We entered the neighborhood three years ago, rented an apartment and established strong, loving relationships with local Muslim leaders, women’s groups and families. We entered in neighbor relationships with Muslims. We collaborated in ministries of service in the community.

Last year the new United Methodist Church rented a building across the street from our apartment. Literacy classes and health seminars for women were held in two of the rooms. Three rooms were used for fitness equipment; more than 100 young Senegalese per day used the fitness machines. Folks used the building for community meetings and gatherings.

The First UMC congregation was chartered in this building – the Rev. Debbie Fisher led a Northern Illinois Conference delegation for that event in May 1997 – and holds weekly worship services and Bible discussions there. The church was growing; Muslim neighbors came and prayed with us on Sundays and participated in church festivals with the congregation.

Then last May, Dr. Randolph Nugent, Deputy General Secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries, came to assess the ministry of Mission Senegal. He was impressed with our innovative evangelism using a fitness center, the work in the prison, the shelter for girls, the micro-enterprise and literacy work with women. He rejoiced that the First UMC had been gathered. He was concerned, however, about the absence of the United Methodist symbol on the building.

In immediate response, Al welded a steel cross, designed flames of copper and attached them to the outside of the building. The reaction was instantaneous. The chief imam, who lives down the block from us, said: "We appreciate your work with the women in literacy and health. We are grateful that you live with us and share our sufferings. We are grateful for the fitness center. You can pray and sing and preach about Jesus inside the building. You can put up crosses inside your building. We can see that you lead a pious Christian life and are in submission to God, and we are happy to have you live with us. We Muslim neighbors have even come to your church and to your home to pray with you, but, you cannot put that cross outside that building in my neighborhood. Take it down now, or I will bulldoze the building to the ground."

Who are we United Methodist Christians in Dakar, Senegal, and what does the Cross of Jesus mean?

In Jesus, God is passionately involved with the pain and suffering of all the people in Dakar, where the battle with sand, lack of water and grinding poverty are daily realities. Jesus’ death on the cross calls us to struggle for life in the midst of such negative forces; thus, God’s involvement in suffering keeps our feet in the sand, dust and grit in our teeth, and tears on our faces. This struggle for Life in Jesus is still being acted out, and we are not surprised when one Christian church in America wants to replace the cross with a potted palm in the sanctuary; or when one imam in Dakar wants to rid his neighborhood of the symbol of God’s costly love.

What would your church do? The UMC in Dakar took down the cross from the outside of the building; we acted out a "passing of the Peace" with the imam. We also moved the congregation into another rented building for we must be able to use the cross and flame to declare who we are. In this new neighborhood, the imam raises no objections to the display of the cross outside the building. The UMC is still growing. We are also continuing relationships in the first neighborhood.

We continue to be called by God to share in the abandonment, sweat and suffering of God’s struggle for life, compassion and righteousness through the Risen Jesus. Out of our own brokenness, we try to be faithful in our witness to God’s love and truth embodied in Jesus who offers all of us the Grace of God.

This article is from the Northern Illinois Reporter. Published with permission.