Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What’s in a name?

In the lead up to the birth of our son Nathan, the subject of names became an important one for us. We wanted to be sure that we gave him a good name. We’d actually had a names list going well before Nathan came along, one that followed some general guidelines about what to avoid.
Make sure that the name when taken together doesn’t form a phrase or word. This can be tricky when your family name is a common verb. While Noah was never on our list, you never want to give a kid a name that sounds like he “No-a read!” The same thing goes for initials. While Thomas always had top spot in the list of middle names, Oliver (a family name) was a bit further down and one Elaine’s sister really liked. But again you don’t really want to give your son the initials N. O. Read.
But unfortunate naming decisions aside, names are important. Indeed in the world Bible they are incredibly important. At significant points in the faith journeys of key people they are given new names. Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah; Jacob becomes Israel; Simon becomes Peter. The names of several of the prophets suggest that they deliberately chose names to suit their calling from God. The great Hebrew prophet from the book of Kings who worked tirelessly to oppose foreign gods in Israel is known to us by the name Elijah. The full Hebrew of this name is El-i-yahu, or “Yahweh is (my) God.”
My parents took great care in choosing my name when I was born. They chose to avoid family names and picked Biblical names with meanings they found significant. This was in part due to the difficult childhoods they had both had. They wanted to give me a clean slate, a name that belonged only to me. The name they settled on was John Timothy, one that is full of spiritual and theological meaning.
John comes from the Hebrew name Yohanan, which means “Yahweh is gracious.” Timothy is a Greek name meaning “He who honours God.” I only really began to reflect on my name after I had gone through my struggles of faith in my early 20s, and was in the process of studying to become a minister. One thing I know about myself is that I work very hard to live up to my own standards, and that I can be very hard on myself. I give grace to others, but rarely to myself.
As Protestant Christian I believe that we are saved and reconciled to God by his grace alone, it’s a free gift and we do not have to earn it. We are then called to respond to this grace by living lives that honour God. But as much as I have always believed this intellectually, I have found it difficult live out of. So often I live my life as if I have to earn God’s love, and make myself acceptable to him. Yet from the very start, my parents gave me a name to remind me that it’s the other way around. Grace comes first. Only then do we work to honour him out of gratitude and the freedom that God’s grace gives us. Grace comes first. John, and then Timothy.
So as our son’s birth approached I thought very carefully about the short list of names we had drawn up, and especially the leading candidate: Nathan Thomas. Nathan is another Hebrew name, which simply means “He has given”, or more simply put “Gift.” It is at the root of other Hebrew names like Jonathan (Yahweh’s gift) and Nathaniel (Gift of God).
We simply liked the simplicity of the name by itself, but as I thought about it I realized that standing on its own the name Nathan asks a question: “If your life is a gift then who is the giver?” For Elaine and I there is only one answer to that question, but such an open ended question is one that many other children of Nathan’s generation will be asking as they grow up in a culture that is no longer defined by the religious institutions of the Christian faith.
Thomas for me was a family name of some significance. It belonged to my great-grandfather Thomas Oliver Nixon, who was one of the few nurturing influences in my dad’s early life (Thomas is also one of my dad’s middle names). But I was also drawn to it because of the Thomas we meet in the Gospel of John. Thomas has been characterized as a doubter, yet people often forget that in the end he makes the most profound statement of faith in the gospel when he sees Jesus risen for himself, saying: “My Lord and my God!”
I have struggled with faith and with trusting God, and only came to trust him as a result of the profound spiritual experiences he gave me. I had to experience in order to trust. Nathan has been born into a time and place where faith is difficult, an age when people more than anything want to directly experience God for themselves rather than to hear about him from others. It is my prayer that God will make himself known to our son, so that he too can struggle and come to a solid faith that can endure in these times.
Thomas as a name also has a specific meaning, and one that is particularly significant for my wife Elaine. Thomas comes from the Aramaic language spoken by Jesus and his disciples, and means “Twin.” If you want to know why this is significant you’ll need to speak to her, but it certainly cinched Thomas as a middle name when she told me.
When he was finally born it was clear that our little boy is a Nathan Thomas. I pray that his names may be as helpful to him as mine have been for me.

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