Friday, December 24, 2010

What's in a name?

As I talked with people at church Sunday morning before the service started, I was approached by someone who had known me for a long time.  We shook hands and he expressed how good it was to see me again (when I'm away at school I don't attend my home church.  I'm only there a couple Sundays total during the school year).  We made small talk for awhile and then he said "I hear you're called Joy now." (He, like most people at my home church, have known me only by the name my parents gave me, Joellen)  I explained to him that I had been called Joy ever since I left for college and that it was really only people at home who still called me Joellen. He smiled, winked at me and told me it fit me.
The exchange reminded me of something I had been thinking on for a few weeks. Names.  What is in a name?
In Old Testament class we had to learn a lot of names and people kept changing their names or having their names changed by G-d  and other people lived into their names providing irony of sorts.  What follows is a non-comprehensive list of some examples.
Names changed
Abram (exalted father) had his name changed to Abraham (father of many) when he made a covenant with G-d (Gen. 17:5).
Jacob's name was changed to Israel after he wrestled with G-d (Gen 32:28).
Naomi (pleasant) changed her name to Mara (bitter) after her husband and sons died (Ruth 1:20... this didn't really catch on though)
Saul's name was changed to Paul sometime after his experience on the Damascus road (Acts 13:13 is the first time I see him being called Paul...I know it's a NT reference, but it fits where I want to go with this post)
Living into names
Malachi's name meant "my messenger" and provides some irony of sorts in Malachi 3:1, which our English translations render "I will send my messenger").
Ruth means "faithful friend" and fits Ruth perfectly, especially when she professes her faithfulness in Ruth 1:16-17.

Names mean something, especially names that are changed.  A name is a reflection of some essence of a person. In sign language, when someone is given a sign name, it often reflects something about them (not always, mine is very simple, given to me by an interpreter in the special education room after she had known me for about 30 seconds).  I have a friend named Bruce.  His sign name reflects the fact that he is wheelchair bound.  One of my sisters is really into horses.  Her sign name is a combination of her initial letter and the sign for horse.  I have a friend who has the gift of healing.  His name is a combination of his initial letter and the sign "to heal".   All their names reflect some essence of them, just like Abraham means "father of  many" and Malachi means "my messenger".
With both Abraham and Malachi, the name itself came before the meaning came into fulfillment.  Abraham was Abraham long before he was the father of any, let alone many.  I think the same is true of my name.  There was no angelic messenger or voice from heaven that changed my name.  It was a process. Initially, it was changed to "Joy" (or something very similar) in Africa because the children couldn't say "Joellen".  When I cam back from Africa it morphed into "Joyellen" and then it went back and forth between the three for some time, until I left for college.  That is when I became "Joy" for good, at least most the time.
Coincidently (or maybe not so coincidently) my journey to being able to live in true joy followed a similar path.  It wasn't something that happened all at once, but slowly, over time, step by step I learned to live in true joy.  And now, I can (at least most the time) agree when people say my name fits me.  I might not always be happy.  Sometimes I'm sad, frustrated, hurting, angry and a million other things, but nothing will ever take my joy away.  Besides, with a name like Joy...well, let's just say that if there is a pun to be made on my name or a song to be sung about joy, I've probably heard it and smile every time I hear it again.  And while we're on the subject of names, my journey to Joy/joy happened, in part, in Pella, which means "city of refuge".  Fitting, yes?

And some song lyrics to close this post out ( got really long.  I have lots of thoughts on names).  This song was sung in church about a month ago.  I scribbled the lyrics down into my journal while it was being sung, so have some grace if the words aren't quite right.
"I will change your name.
You shall no longer be called
wounded, outcast, lonely or afraid.
I will change your name.
Your new name shall be
confidence, joyfulness, overcoming one,
faithfulness, friend of G-d, one who seeks my face"
In the Old Testament reference above, it wasn't usually the people who changed their names.  G-d changed their names and their lives.  G-d did the same with me.  He gave me a new name and a new joy. All glory, honor, and praise be to Him!

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