Names and Wonder

My garden has never been the same since the drought of three years ago. The flowers wilted and the rose bushes died and, although we’ve had a flood of rain since, I’ve never got around to replanting them.

One surprising survivor is a cluster of storm lilies that comes up every time there’s a sunshower. A soft blend of translucent cream and lilac, they are—unfortunately—rarely there more than a day. They epitomise to me the wonder of life in all its transience, fragility and beauty.

I have a serious addiction to wonder. It’s probably the reason I’ve never outgrown that child-like asking of, ‘Why?’ Sooner or later, that is the question which leads to a moment of spellbound awe. CS Lewis admitted to the pursuit of joy; for me, it’s wonder.

It was Martin Luther who said, ‘If you truly understood a grain of wheat, you would die of wonder.’ Often I think much the same about names. They are like grains of wheat planted at the beginning of our lives, so full of potential to summon us into our calling that we’d die of wonder if we truly understood the good works God planned before the beginning of time for each one of us to do.

However, mostly we settle for less. We let the breath of the Spirit pass us by and become disappointed when we remain unfulfilled. ‘Nashamah’ is a Hebrew word for breath, wind, or spirit. It first occurs in Genesis 2:7— ‘And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.’

Perhaps because ‘shem’ for name is embedded in ‘nashamah’, Jewish rabbis consider that the way God breathes life into our souls is by whispering our names to us. It is the act of naming that gives life. That divine spark is part of His own name: the Word made flesh gives us a word that tells us both what we are to be called and what our calling is.

Everyone who has a name is therefore entrusted with immense power. Most people are influenced by Shakespeare’s statement that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Even if they believe that the meaning of names is important, they act as if they are mere labels, not a power beyond imagining which we can use for good or ill.

The more I come to understand about names, the more I am stunned by their prophetic nature. The concept is rarely found in literature outside fantasy novels. (One of the reasons I’m so fond of fantasy.) But it’s a huge theme in Scripture.

Moses, for instance, was given an Egyptian name by Pharaoh’s daughter. It meant drawn through the water. However it also meant deliverer in Hebrew. So, should it be a surprise he was the one chosen to deliver the people of Israel through the rolled-back waters of the Sea?

The names throughout Scripture often show a deep congruence between the name of the person and his or her destiny. Not always, of course. Some people chose to turn their backs on the destiny God had spoken into their names. One of the reasons it’s so hard to see the alignment between a person’s name and their destiny, even in Scripture, is that over long periods of time meanings change subtly.

For instance, take a name like Deborah. Look up almost any book today and you’ll find its meaning as bee. Trace its history and it’s quite different. Starting with bees, we need to recognise their intimate association with honey. Honey in Scripture is closely identified on more than one occasion with God’s word. Psalm 19:10 NAS says of His words: They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.

Over thousands of years, the association of bee with honey and honey with word has resulted in a considerable shift in meaning for Deborah. Its original Hebrew root is ‘dabar’, word.

The Biblical Deborah was a judge — she pronounced words of judgment. A speaker — she uttered profound and influential words. A singer — she raised her voice in word and song. A prophet — she declared the word of the Lord. Just about every aspect of the meaning of ‘dabar’ (to speak, declare, converse, command, promise, warn, threaten, sing, to lead away, put to flight) can be found in the story of Deborah. These meanings tell you so much more about what Deborahs are called to in life than bee. And this is true for so many other names too.

My observation, however, is that many people are blocked off from their calling in life. They just miss out on jobs they’ve been promised; they lose their position to someone less qualified and less experienced; they’re trapped in places they’d love to get out of; their ideas are stolen by people who take the credit for them and use them to advance their own careers. For many years I noted how many people seemed to struggle with the meaning of their own name as it defined the calling on their lives. It was only when I felt I was able to answer the question of why so many people fail to achieve their destiny I felt I could write God’s Poetry.

It’s not a book of poems. God’s Poetry is about the call residing within what we are called; it also examines why we don’t come into our destinies. I am delighted to be able to announce the winners of the competition for a copy of the second edition. I was going to take out a hat to choose the winners but it was a no-brainer in the end. There were the same number of entrants as prizes.

So congratulations to Julieann, Janet, Lynne, Paula, Charles, Alison, Asta, Maria, Susan, Dale, Jo and Richard!


19 Comments

  1. Annie, thank you! This is wonderful. Actually, I’d forgotten that I’d entered the contest, and have been thinking of ordering the book.

    Today, I went searching for a link to something good from another writer to post to my front page. I noticed this new post and decided on it. Then, having copied an image of the book from Amazon, I returned here to read through the post. I guess I do things a bit backwards, however…isn’t this kind of amazing?)

    Thank you again! I enjoyed this post. With a prayer that you and all your readers walk with the Lord, and discover and accept their calling,

    Maria

  2. Judy Rogers

    Annie,
    You are amazing. Such an inspiration!
    JUDY

  3. Doris Stutley

    Very interesting, Anne. ‘Doris’ was a sea nymph in Greek legend and I always wished my parents had given me a biblical name rather than a name from another ‘god’.

    • Hi Doris,

      There are ups and downs, positives and negatives, to all names. People are inclined to be complacent about biblical names – such as my own, Anne, which comes from Hannah. However, in its westernised form, it is much more close in sound to the names of various dark mother goddesses across Europe.

  4. Charles Fivaz

    Thank you, Annie, for the gift, and for this inspiring post. I’d love to know if you’ve ever researched my name (or would be inclined to do so)? When I get to read your new edition of “God’s Poetry” hopefully I’d be inspired to have another go at it myself. Though it seems to me that one does really need the gifted skills and knowledge you have in teasing out the meaning of a name (if your first edition of “God’s Poetry” is anything to go by!)

    You talk about “the call residing within what we are called”. And in a previous post you mentioned Os Guinness, which lead me to reading a very interesting book by him entitled “The Call”. In it he refers briefly to the connection between naming and calling by citing Rev 3:17 where Jesus promised “a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.”

    Guinness quotes from a sermon George Macdonald wrote about this passage, saying, “the true name is one which expresses the character, the nature, the meaning of the person who bears it. It is the man’s own symbol – his soul’s picture, in a word – the sign which belongs to him and no one else.”

    But then Macdonald adds a new angle to it: the dimension of mystery, and its unfolding in time: “It is only when the man has become his name that God gives him the stone with the name upon it, for then first can he understand what his name signifies. It is the blossom, the perfection, the completeness, that determines the name: and God foresees that from the first because He made it so: but the tree of the soul, before its blossom comes, cannot understand what blossom it is to bear and could not know what the word meant, which, in representing its own unarrived completeness, named itself.”

    Wow and wonder! And woe is me in trying to understand my own name before I’ve arrived at completeness!

    Charles

    • Hi Charles

      I remain uncertain about the meaning of Charles. Generally it’s given as the same as Karl, man. Lately, however, I’ve begun to wonder if it is like Gil which currently means boy but used to mean servant and before that prisoner and before that hostage. Originally hostages, as pledges of honour, were highly esteemed and well-treated but over time that changed until they became little more than prisoners. You can see the progression of debasement in the name as the centuries passed.

      I’m by no means sure, but I think it’s very possible Charles might be at the end of a similar road. What’s at the beginning of the road is not entirely clear.

      Fivaz, I’m convinced, is related to the five sacred trees of Ireland. One each in the “five quarters” of Hibernia. (Yep, the Irish can’t count!) Those “five quarters” remind me so much of the deep themes of your book, Heartland, with its central imagery that’s so evocative of a “world navel”. In their mythic sense, ash trees have just such overtones.

      In fact, your references to the “tree of the soul” harks back to the thoughts I first had when reading Heartland: that although there are no trees in the four farms that dominate any of them, the final symbolic image of Hannah is really as the “Trees of trees”.

      Thanks for the reminding me of Guinness and MacDonald. The name of this blog Fire of Roses is, at least in the first instance, to honour MacDonald’s exquisite imagery of healing in his children’s fantasies.

  5. That is so cool! Must say I love the new cover.Do you want me to change what is on my blog and put this cover up as well or instead of the original?

  6. That last comment was from Dale, Annie

  7. “Jewish rabbis consider that the way God breathes life into our souls is by whispering our names to us” WOW now that is an awesome thought!
    It reminds me of Zephaniah 3:17, ‘He will rejoice over you with joy; He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing.’

  8. My copy arrived today – thank you so much Annie!

    I loved it when you so kindly explained to me just some of the deeper meaning behind “Janet”. Baby name books say it means “gift of God” which is a very pleasing meaning I feel. But when you explained about Janet coming from Janus, the roman god of beginnings and transitions (gates, doors, doorways, endings and time) … which is how January got it’s name … and guess when I was born!

    And my middle name? Dawn … another sign of beginnings hey??

    • Hi Janet

      Most baby names books derive Janet from John. Certainly its long association with John influences its meaning. (This idea that a name can have its meaning affected by association is not, of course, the view of any linguist, philologist or etymologist when they are looking for the root and how it is derived.)

      However there are clear examples in Scripture of this. In God’s Poetry, the example I give is that of Jericho which was traditionally associated with the Jordan in the phrase ‘Jordan of Jericho’. Jordan means to fall down.

      However, an association is not as powerful as the root meaning. Which I believe, in the case of names like Janet starting with Jan- to be Janus. I think the loss of this is due to the process of sanitisation most names undergo over time. People like the name but don’t like the meaning: the classic example of this is Katherine.

      The Romans liked the name but not the meaning, so they changed it to pure. Thus for me, Katherine doesn’t actually mean pure, it just has a (very) long association with it.

  9. Dear Anne,

    I have just been handed your books.. The Winging Word.. The Listening Land.. The Singing Silence.

    I hardly have the words to tell you how.. no.. nothing I could say would even approach the excitement I felt when I read them and I’m afraid the only thing even close to it would be to say that “i was excited in my guts” Not even gut.. which would perhaps be more acceptable .. no, it has to be the plural.. guts it is!!!

    So I finally tracked you down to this website and have faithfully printed off all your posts… delicious.. and as i was sorting through them i saw .. well .. the name jumped from the page .. your teaching about Deborah… how the name had come to mean ‘bee’ which i have always hated and hoped that too did not have a sting in my tail. Word… word!!!! Can you believe it.. again.. i cannot express my wonder at knowing that. Perhaps if i sigh..

    Thank you for your words….

  10. Dear Anne
    Just finish reading your book ” God’s Poetry” was given to me by a friend to read as we are involved in a ministry about identity and destiny, and finding the meaning of the participants names are a big part of the ministry in praying through with them and imparting God’s true identity to them. After reading your book I have sooo many questions and concerns that we might be treading on dangerous ground and be in error. Do you have a email where I could get hold of you?
    I am adding the international website to this message if you want to check it out?

    Abundant Blessings
    Marietjie from South Africa
    Director of Family Foundations International in South Africa

    • Hi Marietjie
      I have edited your comment to leave out your email address as I’m sure you get quite enough spam. I have also contacted you directly.
      Grace and peace
      Annie

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