There they set, secretly waiting for their unsuspecting new owners, to come into the room for a celebration. It was a vase containing two dozen roses. I have seen better specimens of roses, but they would have to do. Is that not the situation in life so often? Whatever we have on hand in the moment has to do. Every day is not a perfect day. “Life has its ups and downs” goes the old saying. It is actually true.
I like celebrations whose sole purpose is to honor folks. And it is fun to add something that is unexpected. That is the purpose of the flowers. Since so much of my life is still centered around students, the honored people were all students. They have been in a special group that I teach.
I have come to know them very well. They are not my own kids, but they are the next best thing. I feel like they are “my own.” Of course, that is not literally true. I know they have their own parents. I know they have their own best friends. And they have a myriad of acquaintances with whom they associate. Professors probably come fairly far down the line of “important people” in their lives. But that’s as it should be.
I realize the flowers---the roses---which each student would receive at the end of the ceremony will not last very long. Roses do not have too much staying power after they are cut. Of course, they are beautiful. And in our society, roses are associated with love and care. They have become powerful symbols. And that’s exactly what I am counting on. I am hopeful the students will powerfully be spoken to with that symbol.
A symbol is something that is meant to convey meaning beyond itself. A good example is the American flag. On its literal level, the flag is nothing more than a piece of cloth with colors. In that sense it is nothing more than a big towel or a small bedspread! They are also pieces of cloth with color. But the flag is obviously more than that.
The flag becomes a symbol when it is invested with meaning. In that sense, the flag points beyond itself. It points to the founding of a nation. It points to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and all that makes up “America.” Americans are taught to “honor the flag.” When we go to a sporting event, it is not unusual to have the national anthem played. People stand. Hats are removed. People face the flag. They are symbolic, reverential acts that “honor” who we are as Americans. The flag, more than any other single symbol, says who we are.
Do I think one puny rose given at the end of a little ceremony is going to carry that kind of symbolic weight with the students? Of course not! In fact, there is a high risk they will not even see the rose as a symbol. It would be easy to dismiss as “a stupid flower” that will be discarded as soon as the student is out of sight. I would not be surprised to see a dumped rose in some waste can. But that’s ok. I would understand.
If I find a dumped rose, I will understand the flower either had no symbolic meaning or it had negative meaning. In either case the flower should be dumped! Let me explain. The students came to this celebration to round off a semester’s experience. I know full well it was their experience. I cannot dictate what kind of experience they have to have. So in some sense, we are celebrating my perception of the experience I hope they had. And the rose, I hope, symbolizes things like beauty, love, care and good wishes for even more.
If it symbolizes that deeper meaning, then that’s great. If there is no deeper experience after a semester together, the flower will have little or no symbolic power. It will have no purpose and should be dumped. There will be no flower power.
Then it hit me. As an analogy, I see this as God’s story, too. God has put us all in the world’s classroom, called “life.” God is like a professor. God teaches, offers lessons, and brings in outside teachers, like me, to help others learn spiritual lessons. But God cannot dictate how all the world’s students will learn.
Some of us are pretty good spiritual students. We are aware. We have learned to care. We love each other and our neighbors. The excellent students, like Mother Teresa, have even learned to love the enemy! But there are the world’s classroom bullies. Instead of loving, they make messes.
Let’s assume God throws a celebration today. We go into a room to gather with all our other spiritual classmates. We don’t notice the jar of roses on the table. But at the end of the ceremony, we are told to take a rose. Hopefully my rose becomes an apt symbol for the beauty, love, and care to which I am committed to keep doing in my world so long as I live. In fact, I realize that the literal flower is not the real deal. Maybe the point is for me---me as a real person---to be symbolically “a rose.” Maybe I am to be symbolically in the world---symbolizing God’s care, love and beauty. Will I have flower power?