Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What's in a Name?

Recently Coca-Cola® unleashed an ingenious media campaign in which they printed people’s names on the labels of Coke® bottles and invited people to “Share a Coke® with …..”  Not only were people searching for their own names, but they were purchasing bottles for their friends.  Some people were initially disappointed as unique names were unlikely to be printed, but Coca-Cola® came through yet again, allowing you to send a virtual custom Coke® to all of your friends, and placing special machines in various locations that would allow you to buy a custom printed bottle.  As my name was the most popular name for girls in the year I was born, I never had to worry about not finding personalized items with my name on them when I was a child.  But I did have to worry about what the teacher would decide to call me as there were always at least three Jennifers in my classroom each year.

Our names are important.  They give us our first sense of identity; they show our belonging.  As people come to know us, they give us nicknames to show their connection to us or to reveal something of our character.  As we grow, we are said to “make a name for ourselves”.  We build our reputation based on how we show who we are to others.  They know us by our name and by the choices we make.  Proverbs 22:1 says, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.”

When I worked with youth, one of my favorite Bible study activities was to look at the significance of names in the Bible.  Names are given to explain family connections or to describe traits (such as “hairy” or “red” Esau and “cheater” Jacob).  Many of the names show connection to God.  I love the stories of when God changes someone’s name to show a pivotal event has taken place: Jacob wrestles with God and becomes Israel; Saul hears God’s voice on the Damascus road and becomes Paul.  After looking up the meaning of various biblical names, we would then turn to our own names.  I would ask if the students knew the story of their names.  Some would share about being named after a relative or a favorite character in a book or TV show.  Many did not know the meaning or story of their name.

I was consumed with the thought of names during both of my pregnancies.  I kept lists that were frequently updated, with vetoes or additions from my husband.  We went through hundreds of names in baby name books.  With our names being John and Jenny, I wanted something unique, but not too difficult or obscure.  I wanted something that would suit them, but how would we know when we had not yet met them?  In the end, it was my husband that suggested the names we chose for our children, Brady and Maryn.  I love the sound of them and their symmetry.  We played around with spellings and variations of them, and I checked to make sure they were not on any of those most popular baby name lists.  Brady’s middle name was a family name on both sides and his first name was a character’s name on a TV show that John and I watched together when we were dating.  But Maryn’s name was completely unique (so much so that it has caused a great deal of confusion with pronunciation and spelling. Oops.)  It wasn’t until they were out of babyhood that we looked up the meaning of their names.  Brady means “spirited” which is so very appropriate, and Maryn means “by the sea”, which is fitting for her love of vacations and the beach trip we like to take to celebrate their spring birthdays.

The closing part of my Bible study lesson was to reflect upon the meaning of the name “Christian”.  What does it mean when we claim this name?  What does it mean to be a follower of Christ?  Unfortunately, it has become a name that carries a lot of negative meanings for many in our world these days.  When you say Christian, the image that comes to mind for many is a hypocritical, small-minded judge.  We are known not by our love, as the song says, but by the ways we have excluded others.  Baptist churches I have been a part of have had a similar struggle, particularly in this part of the state where "Baptist" brings to mind Liberty University, whose leaders have had a history of saying inflammatory and hurtful things in the name of God and religion.  Do we keep the name "Baptist" as part of our identity, knowing that it will turn many people away?  Do we try and redeem it?  Do we let it go and start something new?

I think this is the struggle that the Church is facing as well.  What it has come to be and to mean no longer connects with a large percentage of our population.  While we have continued to operate business as usual for far too many years, people are leaving the doors and not returning, seeing the Church as irrelevent.  I am serving a generation of students that were never part of the Church and see no reason to join in now.  Ecclesia (Greek: ἐκκλησία ekklēsia), translated "church", is also congregation, a group of people.  It was the name given to political gatherings in Greece.  So what makes us distinct?  So what are we doing to find our unique God-given identity?  What is our mission?

I don't have any claim to the answers, but perhaps we go back to this:

"We are one in the Spirit"
Author: Peter Scholtes

1. We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

2. We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand,
We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand,
And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land.

3. We will work with each other, we will work side by side,
We will work with each other, we will work side by side,
And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride.

4. All praise to the Father, from whom all things come,
And all praise to Christ Jesus, his only Son,
And all praise to the Spirit, who makes us one.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


Sometimes it seems like too much, that we'll be crushed by the continual barrage of bad news, buried by the losses and grief that life hurls at us.  There are too many images of pain, of violence, of senseless brutality.  This world of sound bites and reactions and noise won't let us rest.  Perhaps we've forgotten how to, or are afraid of the dreams that haunt us.

How long, O Lord?

They say it's getting worse all the time, but I can't be sure.  I only know what I've experienced, a growing awareness that pulls back the curtain to reveal that things are not always like they seemed, or like we had hoped.  But we have known brokenness for ages.  We have felt the separation that sin has created, turning us against one another, building walls of hatred and segregation.

What are we to do in a world that appears to be coming unhinged?  What can we do?

I think the first thing is to admit that we are all a little broken.  My pain may look different than yours but we all hurting.  In the beginning we were created whole and beautiful.  Maybe we have allowed the world to wreck us a bit, but our scars don't have to destroy us entirely.  Some of the strongest, most resilient people I know are those that carry the most crushing stories within their battered bodies.  But they are still standing; they carry an unlikely hope.  Rumi said that our wounds are how the light gets in.  Sometimes we are able to see that light, and sometimes we have to rely on others to shine a light for us.  Sometimes we can be that light to a dark world.

So shine bright, my friends, when you can, and I will try to shine the light for you when it's too hard for you to do.  Let's share our stories and realize that we are not alone in the darkness.  Let's listen for once to what really matters.  Not to the angry voices shouting the loudest, but to those still, small voices within us that remind us that we are loved, we are okay, and that it won't always be this way.  Let us work together when we feel strong enough to sift through the rubble around us and start building bridges instead of fences.  Perhaps we'll get to know our neighbors as we work together and make peace when we realize that we're not so different after all.

May we carry hope within us and hang on to the truth that what we see is not always reality.  May we make room for the mystery of God that surprises us with healing and resurrection.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014


He cried when they took the old couch away.  I moved to hug and comfort him, but he pushed me away in anger.  "This is your fault!  You know I don't like change.  I liked the old couch and you bought a new one on purpose!"  The reasoning and logic of an 8-year-old is not always sound, but his heart is true.  Never mind that the springs were broken on our old furniture from years of bouncing children and many forts.  Never mind that brand new furniture was on the way.  The old held the crumbs from many movie night snacks and the memories of us snuggled together reading books.  It is the furniture that has always been in this house.  I know that it is so much more than an old worn couch, and in the quiet moments after the anger has given away to sadness, I get it.

It's so hard growing up.  I forget that in all the silliness of their play, in how each day seems so carefree, full of wonder and possibility for them from my perspective.  But I'm an outsider.  I've made my way through childhood and have arrived at adulthood.  It all seems so simple looking back, watching them.  I have forgotten how time seemed to stretch impossibly through childhood and everything I wanted was always "later", days or years away, out of my reach.  I have forgotten how it felt to have so little control and say in life, that everyone made decisions for me, about me, that I was supposed to just accept and "get over it".

He likes to remind us how he hates change, and there has been so much recently.  He moved from the fun of first grade, where he excelled and was cherished by his teacher, to second grade, where each day was a struggle, the workload grew exponentially, and he was just a face in the crowd.  Our beloved pastor at church resigned, the only pastor and church he remembers.  Over the past few years, I began working longer hours at a new job that I love, and daddy became the primary caregiver at home.  We lost our dog of ten years.  But if you ask Brady, he will tell you that "It all started when Maryn was born."  Ah yes.

I remember being ready to go to the hospital to have our girl and being suddenly struck with such guilt and fear over what we were about to do to our small son's life.  He was only two, and had been the center of our world.  He had no idea what was about to change and had not asked for his life to be so radically shifted.  After her birth, I asked that he not be brought to meet her until the next day.  I was still reeling from a dramatic delivery and didn't want him to have to see me in the state I was in.  I honestly was struggling to come to terms with the changes already evident in our lives.  It was my first night away from him; the first night of our family of four.

It was the biggest change we had ever faced.  It was tough and painful and redemptive and beautiful.  It was lots of tears, long days and nights, and John sleeping on the floor with Brady for months while I slept with Maryn in my arms.  It was dying to our selfishness each day and realizing it was not about us (sometimes begrudingly); it was wondering if we would ever find our way back.  We still have those hopeless days, but not nearly as often.  The thing about change is that it changes us.  It's not just our circumstances, but our selves that are transformed.  Sometimes, like Brady, we mourn those old losses, the familiar bits that we want to cling to.  But if we are willing to surrender, something much more beautiful finds room to grow.

The empty living room echoes without the furniture and rug as we wait for the replacements to arrive.  Maryn is thrilled, running laps around the room at any opportunity, laughing at the sound she creates.  Brady stays away glowering for much of the day.  But when it was time to wind down before bedtime, they brought their bean bag chairs in and watched a movie together, side by side. Their laughter filled the room.

Sometimes change is like that.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Size Matters

Back to school shopping is always a chaotic endeavor, but especially these days when my kids demand to pick out their own clothes and supplies.  Usually we do a scouting trip where they can show me what they like as I prefer to return on my own and shop at my leisure.  This time I went armed with photos of their picks, but as I went back through the store, I had to improvise.  The "shorts" that my six year old had picked out turned out to be a tight denim mini skirt, and I had doubts that the skinny jeans she wanted would fit her.  I sighed in frustration, knowing she would be disappointed and wondered to myself whether this ridiculous skinny jean fad will ever end.

While I have been grateful in past years for "slim fit" adjustable waistline pants for my small children, it's a little jarring this go round as it's the first time that slim fit doesn't fit.  The kids are a perfectly healthy size and weight, but it's impossible not to notice the change.  I try so hard not to obsess about size, but it is hardwired in me, and reinforced with a culture that emphasizes a certain look.  In sorting through the dozen pant options for my girl, I couldn't find many in her favorite store that weren't slim fit or skinny, and the scant options were not the trendy ones displayed on the mannequins.

And again, let me remind you that she's only six years old.  It starts early.

We've had to think about size since our first child was born.  Our boy weighed in at under five pounds and was slow to eat and put on weight.  We counted every ounce of breastmilk and formula he received for months, waking him every two hours to eat through the night and day.  He was weighed and re-weighed and each ounce seemed to be the measure of my success or failure.  "Failure to thrive" gets pretty personal when you're breastfeeding.  He wasn't even ON the growth chart for years, and even when he grew stronger and healthier, he remained the smallest in his class.  It has only been in the past year, since he turned eight, that he has finally reached the clothes size corresponding to his age, and is catching up in height with his peers.

We were envious of the chubby-thighed babies of our friends when feeding our tiny son and keeping him healthy had been such a full-time battle for the first year of his life.  It was a relief when our daughter was born weighing almost seven pounds and was pronounced slightly above average in size.  Now ages eight and six, our children are healthy eaters and they are growing well mentally and physically.  But with a history of obesity, diabetes, and heart conditions on both sides of the family, I want to instill within them healthy habits without it becoming a source of anxiety and shame.  I see them mindlessly eating when they are bored or immersed in screen time, and I realize I need to set a better example.

I have struggled with my weight for years and have watched the shame that my mom carries about her weight.  In middle school I was teased for being chubby, and I responded with a diet that slimmed me down, earning me the nickname "little Jenny" from one of my high school teachers, along with more acceptance and confidence.  But it was a battle I never completely won, and the negative voices remain in my head.  My weight goes up and down with my level of stress and lack of self-care and exercise.  I don't want my kids to have that struggle (either internally or externally), and I certainly don't want to be the one that puts the idea in their mind that they are not enough as they are.  They hop on the scale now with pride to see how big they are; I hop on with the opposite goal in mind.

We are a culture obsessed with numbers and measurement.  We want to know how much money we can save as we shop sales.  Meanwhile, we MEGAsize our drinks and our waistlines with unhealthy (but cheap) food.  We try to squeeze into skinny jeans because the number on the label is more important for our acceptance by others than our comfort with ourselves.  I remember Maryn tearfully trying to squeeze her feet into too small shoes last year, telling me that she would rather look good and be in pain than wear ugly but comfortable shoes that she didn't like.  I measure myself differently, but it is not without pain.  I anxiously await my school grades so that I can see where I stand.  It is where I found my value and motivation in childhood and that internal standard of judgment and anxiety remains, even though my current grades are pass/fail.  We are always measuring ourselves based on some standard, comparing ourselves to others or to society's expectations.

Churches have bought into this, too.  We count our attendance, mourn the decrease, and have visions of megachurches while Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, a little child.

We seem to have lost all sense of what really counts.

We measure ourselves against yardsticks and scales when God reminds us that the true measure of a person is in their heart, in how they love.  God provides the ultimate model by knowing us intimately and accepting and loving us as we are.  I wonder what it would be like if I truly embraced my favorite scripture as my measuring stick:

Psalm 139
1O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
3You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
4Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
5You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
7Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
8If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”
12even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
13For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
15My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
17How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
18I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.

May we be known and loved completely, realizing that we are fearfully and wonderfully made just as we are in God's abundant presence.