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Every Name Has A Special Story

March 30, 2005


“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of death will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:17-18)

Amazing what you can learn in the first grade if you pay attention.

My son Josh was doing his homework earlier this week, answering some questions about a story he was reading called “John Henry and Jo Louis.” The story was about a little girl, Jo Louis, who got teased about her name. Her grandfather John Henry comes to visit her and tells her about the boxer Joe Louis and the joy and celebration in the borough of Harlem the night that he won the heavyweight title. By the time her grandfather leaves, Jo associates her name with joy and her race's pride and doesn't feel so bad about the teasing.

One of the questions that Josh had to answer had to do with teasing: “Why should children not make fun of each other's names?”, or something along those lines. Josh's answer was one of those moments that make parenthood such a joy. Kids shouldn't make fun of each other's names, he said, “because every name has a special story.”

You'd like to believe that, wouldn't you? I'm sure you do believe it about some people. Some people's names just beg for associations with special stories, don't they? Your son's or daughter's name, your husband's or wife's, the names of good friends or respected mentors, they all spark warm memories -- shared stories that make those names anything but ordinary. Some of us have children that bear then names of ancestors, strengthening the associations and making those names even more special. Most of us, probably, smile or laugh at just the mention of certain friend's name.

But then there are others: people whose names evoke just the opposite response in us. Those names fill us with dread or frustration or anger or even hatred. A statement like “every name has a special story” has to eventually include even the names of those people, and that's a little harder to imagine. And then there are some who to us are nameless: the homeless guy begging at an intersection, the immigrant family down the street, the strange old lady who walks her dog past your house every day, the folks living in the nursing home across town. We don't even know their names, and sometimes don't really want to know them. So we don't know the special stories attached to them.

But if “everyone's name has a special story,” then so do those names: names we don't know, names we wish we'd never heard. Those folks probably have, or had, parents who were proud of them, spouses who loved them, kids who depended on them, friends who confided in them. Even the worst of the worst among us, the most alien of the alien, the most despised and ignored and overlooked and forgotten of society have at least at some time had people who associated their names with special stories. Even those folks were important to someone, at sometime. Might very well still be. As much as we can, we need to take the time to learn some of those special stories and so learn to care about those people.

Because they matter to God. If nothing else, God knows their names, and is the author of all the special stories attached to their names. Just like your eyes sparkle when you think of the name of your child or your spouse or your best friend, so his eyes sparkle when their names cross his mind. Just like perhaps you like to imagine that he smiles when he thinks of you, realize that he smiles in the same way when he thinks of them. To God, every name has a special story. The special story of creation. The special story of the gospel. Every name of every human being that God has created is woven into those stories, even the names of those whose value you find it difficult to see.

Not only that, God is always creating new stories. Look what he did with a fisherman named Simon. Nothing special about him on the surface; he was an impetuous, uneducated, rough-hewn country boy with a Galilean drawl and the smell of fish in his clothes and skin and hair. He seemed to always misunderstand what Jesus said, and always seemed to say the wrong thing. But one day Jesus looked him square in the eye and said, “Simon, huh? I say you're name's Rock - just the kind of rock on which I can start something big!” And that was Simon's new story. You know him better as Peter - Rock - don't you? Sure, later he denied knowing Jesus. But that didn't change the story Jesus had rewritten for him with that name change. He did become the bedrock on which the church started, just like his Master knew he would.

Every name has a special story. God can take anyone, whatever their history, and bring about a special story in their lives and through their lives. Even those folks whose names you don't know. Even those folks whose names you might wish you didn't know.

And even you. Sometimes that's the hardest promise of all to believe: that your own name is special to God. Oh, maybe when you're sitting in church. Maybe when you're doing a good deed for someone. Maybe when you're reading your Bible, or praying. But what about when you've just said something in anger that you'd give anything to take back? What about while you're pouring another drink? What about while you're telling a lie? What about when you're opening up that website? Can you believe then that there's a special story attached to your name, too? Could that be true?

If it wasn't, I wouldn't be writing this. Our relationships with God rest, not on our shaky efforts at being good, but on the solid promise that to God, every name has a special story. It's the story of the cross. The story of God's love and Christ's obedience and the Holy Spirit's presence in us and among us. It's the story that God has a plan for us and that through Christ we can be a part of it.

It's not cheap grace. It doesn't give us license. But it does reassure us that God's default setting toward us is love and compassion and forgiveness. To God, every name has a special story - even those that won't be heard this side of heaven.

Every name has a special story. Why don't you begin finding out what yours is?

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