What’s in a name? First grade is learning the meanings of our names. The idea started in British Columbia, Canada. There are a few places in North America farther from The Geneva School’s Early Childhood Campus than this remote section of the Canadian Rockies, but not many. This summer, a group of troubled teens agreed to challenge themselves: to leave everything they knew behind and head into the Canadian wilderness for ten days. Each came from widely differing backgrounds. Among them, there was a pastor’s daughter who had been deceived and lured into prostitution; another young teenager was trying to escape the vicious web of drug addiction; still another was so painfully frightened by life that she wanted only to peer around her mother’s shoulder like a shy four year old; and there was a beautiful young woman who looked in the mirror and saw not what the world saw, but ugliness, shame, and a life she believed was an unwanted mistake. Each brought with them emotional and spiritual baggage that far outweighed the small backpack they were allowed to bring on the adventure.
As the young couple, John and Stacy, who were to lead these young women prepared for the girls’ visit, they scouted trails and gathered supplies for camping: tents, kayaks, paddle boards, equipment, food, and water. They also prepared their hearts and minds for what they hoped would be a life changing time for their guests. They prayed fervently that by leaving behind the familiar trappings of busyness and comfort, these girls would be awed by creation and its Creator. Stacy asked for brief histories and pictures of each girl so that she could pray for them by name and with their image in mind. She hoped that by studying each face and knowing a little about their struggles and gifts she might feel a connection before they even met. As she prayed for each life, heart, and face, she had an idea. Each name she lifted in prayer was so beautiful. Each must have been chosen with great hope for a full, vibrant, joyful life. What did their names mean? In Bible times names were given after careful consideration of their meaning. God clearly chose certain names and even gave new names to identify and recognize renewed hearts and remarkable circumstances. God’s name itself is so holy, it can’t even be uttered nor limited to a single word. Names are significant. Stacy decided to look up the meaning of each girls’ name. At the very least, it would be fun and interesting to share the meanings with her new friends.
The ten days were cold, often rainy, and, as the girls later said, God showed up and showed off! These city girls slept in tents, cooked their meals over camp fires, took turns keeping the fire alive through the storms, and found a place where they could be still. As they took in the breathtaking views of snowcapped mountains, verdant meadows, deep crystal blue lakes, and mile high waterfalls, they felt appropriately small. They also realized that the very same Creator who formed each tiny blade of grass for His own glory and for their pleasure, loved each of them with no limits or boundaries. It was unfathomable, yet they glimpsed it and felt it take root in each battered, hurting heart.
On the ninth and final evening, Stacy shared with the girls that she had researched each of their names before she ever met them. She anticipated curiosity and perhaps even laughter as the girls learned the meanings of the names their parents had chosen almost twenty years before. What she couldn’t have known was that God was about to show up, and show off. As she went around the circle of girls gathered around their final campfire, she watched as the meaning of each name touched some precious, long neglected place in each heart. Tears began to flow as the girls realized that their names were symbols of their very identity in Christ, and appeared to be the root of every battle in their young lives. The young girl who had been seduced into selling her body learned that her name means “seen by Yahweh,” and that she is named after the holy place where Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac but was mercifully relieved of the cost of that obedience. It is the very same place where Solomon later built the temple that would honor the God of the universe. As they turned to 1 Corinthians 6:19, they could scarcely breathe as they read that her body is a temple to the Holy Spirit, and that Yahweh sees her and is merciful. She had felt beautiful and desired when she gave her body to men, and she now saw clearly through that lie. Her beauty and value was more real than she had ever imagined, and came from her identity in Christ alone. Then Stacy turned to the stunningly lovely face of the girl whose arms are a roadmap of her unbearable pain. In her despair, this beautiful girl had routinely taken a razor blade to the flesh on her arms. What had begun as secret, hidden attempts to relieve the pain of her self-loathing and doubt, soon had no shame or need to hide under protective clothing. The shock and disgust she pretended not to see on the faces of strangers who saw her arms only mirrored her own disgust and feelings of worthlessness. Not one inch of this young girl’s arms and shoulders were free of deep, raw, brutal trails of a razor, but on this night powerful words of truth poured over her like healing oil. She learned that her name means beauty, elegance, and a gift of God. The worthlessness and ugliness she imagined were lies from the very pit of Hell.
Each of the ten girls received the balm of seeing their identity in Christ in the name chosen for them so long ago. The painfully shy and fearful girl who could barely peek from around her mother’s shoulder learned her name means, “she will see.” One who doubted both her beauty and her worth found out that her name means “fair” both in appearance and in judgment. The evening was life changing. Their struggles and battles weren’t over, but the lies they’d clung to had been bathed in the light of Truth and had lost some of their power. The girls had to leave that Canadian mountaintop the next day. The valleys and shadows were waiting; but each had been given a gift they could cling to forever. The story of that night would be passed on and celebrated even in a dot on the map of Central Florida, a continent away from that mountain in British Columbia.
As The Geneva School first grade teachers prepared for this new school year, we eagerly received class lists and began to pray for each child and family the names represented. This summer the faculty was given the assignment to think through the activities of the first days of school, and try to see them anew. The challenge was to reevaluate a practice and breathe fresh air into it by adding, omitting, or changing parts of it. Were the ends being best accomplished by the current means or was there a better way? First grade traditionally begins the year celebrating that we are children of the King. Each child has value and significance because he or she is a son or daughter of the King of Kings. As we looked at the names of our new students, we thought of that night in Canada and decided to explore the meaning of each first grader’s name. Hearts began to pound as we recognized that not only were we enhancing a current practice, but that it perfectly meshed with the focus of the yearlong Chapel lessons, the Names of God. Each week Mrs. Heinsch shares a new name of God from the Bible. She teaches that He is too big, too holy to be contained in one name. The children learn there are more than 700 names for God in the Bible, and they learn dozens of them through the year: Elohim, strong Creator; El Emeth, God of Truth; Jehovah Jireh, the Lord will provide; Abba, Father. We’ve been teaching that there is power in His name for years, but never that God’s purpose could be seen in the name of a six year old. One idea led to another, and soon a whole new curriculum was created based on Isaiah 49:16: Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.
Before the children stepped foot in their new first grade cottages, the teachers researched their names, and called each child’s parents to find out why that name had been chosen. The teachers delighted in hearing the stories and tapping into the hearts and lives of each family. The stories were as varied and unique as each child. Some names were chosen to honor a beloved family member, or in memory of a special place. Others simply sounded appropriately beautiful and mellifluous for their exquisite newborn son or daughter. Still others were carefully researched for their meaning and origin. In every case, the names were chosen with love, tenderness, and hopeful anticipation of a meaningful life. The first grade team realized there was value in sharing the meaning of each name with the class. Would we be able to see our student’s identity in Christ in the meaning of each name as the year unfolded? Perhaps the students themselves would begin to see untapped passion in the one whose name means “the fiery one”, or recognize the innate kindness of the child whose name means “noble, kind.”
Each morning we begin our day in first grade with our Bible lesson. The children learn a song or hymn, practice Scripture memorization, and listen to God’s word and message in His wonderful stories. This year our classes also stop and lean in as a classmate is in held in the arms of his teacher and recognized. We share the meaning of the name specially chosen for him. Sometimes that leads to laughter, but they are giggles of delight, not mocking. We tell the story of how his parents joyfully selected that perfect name. We recognize that God knew his name even before he was born; even before his parents did! We discuss what it means that his name is engraved on the very palm of God’s hand. We talk about how painful it would be, to both that child and to God, for anyone to take that carefully chosen name and twist it for teasing or unkindness. Knowing that parents will also delight in each unique name story and meaning, we are also featuring a boy and girl in our weekly first grade Florida Flash. Will our precious six year old charges remember each meaning and story? Probably not. Have the seeds of recognizing each other’s value in Christ been sown? We trust with eyes of faith that they have. The addition of our Isaiah 49:16 curriculum has brought great joy and depth to the start of our year in the First Grade Cottages. We are far from a campfire in the majestic heights of the Canadian Rockies, but God is no less present and no less eager to cover us with the balm of His perfect love and purpose. What’s in a name? Our first graders are learning it’s much more than the letters they write at the top of every paper. The Lord of Hosts has engraved it on His palm. Hallelujah!