I have taught in schools, seminaries, and churches all my adult life. My first job was as babysitter to my cousins, followed by nursery attendant at my church. My first job after college was teaching pre-school, where I was assigned immediately to the beleaguered three-year-old room. It was a jungle in there. I had the early shift, and on my first day, I was the only teacher in the room when I was introduced to “Danny.” (For obvious reasons, this is not his real name). His mother brought him in and announced: “This is Danny, he’ll be trouble.” The reader is probably as appalled at reading this as I was at hearing it in that moment, but what could I do?
As it happened, his mother was somewhat surprised when she collected Danny at the end of the day to discover that he had been no trouble at all. Starting on day two, however, Danny let me know that he was used to having things his way. By Thursday of the same week, I found myself on my knees, eyeball to eyeball with this same child, letting him know in no uncertain terms that he would not have things his way with me. I watched as his little body stiffened and his fists clenched. And then our breakthrough began to unfold.
“You want to hit me right now, don’t you?”
It was obvious Danny would like nothing more than to sock the teacher who had just quite firmly told him “You will not do that in this classroom ever again.” Given another moment of confrontation, he probably would have done just that. But the next thing I said caught him off guard.
“You wanted to hit me, but you didn’t. Good job.”
I do not think he had ever been praised for his self-control before, and after that day, I had no further problems with Danny. He brought his art projects to me and little treasures that he found on the playground (including worms, which he handled with tremendous gentleness). After I moved to another classroom, his new teachers sent him to me when he needed to cool off. With me, he was always in control of himself.
I learned something that year from Danny; people will live up to the names we give them. In the biblical world, to speak someone’s name was to have a sort of power over him or her. To know someone’s identity was, in some way, to be able to tap into their mystical reality. A name reflected and perhaps even predicted its bearer’s character and even his future. It was essential to have a good name. In modern Korea, there is a similar understanding; people rarely use names except in addressing very close friends and family. Everyone has a title; and friendly use of family titles like auntie and grandfather for those who would be of the right age to be related to the speaker in that way is common. Names, however, are too intimate. And can sometimes be dangerous. It is usually better to address colleagues as “senior” or “colleague,” and women are often addressed as “mother of” their oldest child, even among friends.
I remind myself of this power names have when I am speaking with the parents of my high school students. Often what I must convey to a parent is uncomfortable and difficult, for instance, if a teenager has been inappropriate in class or done poorly on a test. At the same time, every interaction is the opportunity to speak a new name over each of these students, and I make sure to share with each parent what is praiseworthy about their child. I may appreciate their daughter’s ability to remain relentlessly inquisitive and optimistic. Their son may be a humble learner and a natural leader amongst his peers. It is not enough to simply stop using the old names, which will still echo in the minds of these children and their parents; it is essential to speak a more sacred name over each of these students.
It is also helpful to remind ourselves of the names that God speaks over us in Genesis, when we are declared “good” and again, “very good.” God names us as his icons (“in the image of God” in the Septuagint “κατ’εἰκόνα θεοῦ,” Gen 1: 27), who have been given stewardship and authority over all creation. He names us as his creation, his people, and the sheep of his pasture (Psalm 100). He names us as immortals and children of the Most High (Psalm 82:6). When we see our sin, and our brokenness, when we fail to become what we truly are, he names us as redeemed and cleansed, “those who have come out of the great tribulation and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14).
As we emerge from our pandemic cocoons, the world—as well as our inner brokenness—will try to speak other names over us, the old names of our insecurities: isolation, mental illness, addiction, self-centeredness, and fear. It is essential to remember that it is the Lord who speaks a new name over us. The new name is one of wholeness and redemption, over which only he has authority, a name that cannot be held hostage to other powers that call out to us.
God tells this to the Church at Pergamum, where the Church itself had faced fear and isolation due to persecution and idolatry. To those who repent of their sins and to those who hold fast in suffering, to the one who overcomes, “I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone, which no one knows except him who receives it” (Revelation 2:17b). He will give us a new name, which cannot be corrupted by our brokenness. In fact, he has done so already, before we knew to ask.