By Matt Steel
10 February 2023
K.J. Ramsey knows suffering. Since childhood, she’s lived with a debilitating autoimmune disease. As the author, poet and therapist says on her website, “I can’t remember what it’s like to live a day without pain.” After a case of Covid ran amok in her compromised immune system, she now has seven diseases and health complications. At the still-tender age of 33, she’s taking ivig treatments and may need them till the day she dies.
K.J. also knows how beautiful and horrible the body of Christ on earth – the church – can be. She’s endured abuse from church leaders and members, yet she still follows Jesus.
I recently heard a podcast interview with K.J. about her latest book, The Book of Common Courage. She describes how fear can be a strength and an invitation to practice courage. The admonition to “fear not” that appears 365 times in the Bible isn’t a command against feeling fear, she says, because that would require us to become inhuman; and in certain forms, fear can protect us and lead us to appreciation and awe. K.J. believes it’s the invitation of fear that’s critical – what it asks us to move towards. In every case, no matter the source or kind of fear, the invitation is to draw closer to God. From this perspective, “fear not” isn’t a command to repress our feelings but a call to walk through fear with and towards God.
The Book of Common Courage is a collection of prayers, poems and blessings that unpack Psalm 23, where David tells how a Good Shepherd accompanies him even in “the valley of the shadow of death.” K.J. notes a powerful privilege given to us in that we – human beings – “get to name God.” I was walking while listening, and that statement stopped me in my actual tracks. Jeff McCord, one of the interviewers, interjects that this notion shouldn’t scare us. “Just consider how many names there are for God in the Bible,” he says. “Everybody’s been doing it – for a really long time!”
We get to name God. What a mind-blowing sentence! The job isn’t reserved for prophets, priests and dead authors. It didn’t end when the Council of Nicaea agreed on the 66 books we call the Bible. This project is ongoing. As He and we are eternal, the naming of God will never end. The notion of creatures naming their creator sounds unspeakably audacious. At the same time, if God not only permits us but also wants us to name Him and relishes such a personal and creative act, then we begin to see something remarkable about God’s nature and His heart. We see how a perfectly humble man who described himself only once, and briefly at that in the gospels: “I am gentle and lowly in heart” – who cared enough about a backwater wedding feast to transform water into wine so that the celebration wouldn’t be cut short – who wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus – could also be the Word that sparked the universe into being and holds all things together in Himself. We see how the universal God and the personal God are one.
There’s no right or wrong process for naming a story, whether it’s a movie, a novel or the story of your own life. By determining a working title at the beginning, you can sometimes find the containment and direction a story needs to take shape and find its bearings. More often, writers find titling first to be preemptive and distracting from the core job of storytelling. This is the usual order of operations when it comes to naming brands: strategy > narrative > name.
Some novelists won’t even sketch out a plot until they’ve named characters, places and artifacts. The name of a hero, their home or even (but rarely) entire languages can come first. Such was the arduous process J.R.R. Tolkien followed before Middle Earth sprang from his imagination.
As a philologist, Tolkien believed language holds the keys to culture and mythology. He created early versions of not one but two Elvish languages while suffering from “trench fever” (i.e., ptsd), during World War I. Imagine him in an overpopulated field hospital, in stained fatigues, reclining on a cot with a notebook. His writing hand shakes, but his forehead is untroubled as he conjugates verbs and composes syntax. That work took place decades before Frodo Baggins wriggled out of Tolkien’s pen, shouldered a pack, shut the door of Bag End behind him and followed Bilbo’s footsteps. Language came before the Great Rings were forged, before Elves, Dwarves and Men were born, before the Valar sang the world into being. First the words, then a world to house them, then characters to speak and sing and engrave them on enchanted doors and lost swords. Last came the gold-foiled titles that glisten on our shelves.
As a quiet boy spending long hours reading in my room, I’d come across gorgeous names, consult the pronunciation guide and say them out loud. Their music sounded strange and wild, hinting at some unsayable truth about each character or thing. Names like Knickabrick, Nirnaeth Arnoediad, Galadriel, Colum Cille, Vercingetorix, Myrddin Emrys, Lleu Llaw Gyffes. As a 43-year-old man, I make up silly characters with ridiculous accents for my kids. There’s Engelbert Thistlethwaite, the eccentric Oxford don and collector of PhDs. His bifocals often run afoul of his flared nostrils, and his resting face is the bucktoothed grimace you make when the milk’s gone sour. Across the pond in a shadowy Appalachian cove, there’s Cletus MacTasm, a rawhide lightning rod of a man and a brewer of moonshine. Since early childhood, Cletus has been stuck in a state of permanent elation, bewilderment and subsequent yelling on account of being weaned on white lightning.
Naming isn’t always fun and games, of course. To soberly name a thing is to honor it and understand what to make of it, whether you’re naming a child who’s the light of your life, a hard truth hiding in plain sight or a sickness that’s eating you alive.
In 2016, I was in the midst of depression and wrote an essay called “Reclaiming Power.” I was wrestling with how to name my own suffering and was coming to see I could never find perspective until I named each problem. Names, I wrote, are talismans. They carry a power that’s uncovered when written, unleashed when spoken. This is why ancient heroes rarely revealed their true names. To publish the hero’s name was to gain power over them.
By acknowledging I wasn’t merely feeling blue or going through a rough patch but in full-blown depression, I began a slow recovery. I named despair, that bleakest of feelings, and saw it for what it was: the inevitable result of extreme self absorption, of a heart that was broken and humiliated but not yet humble. As Ian Cron says, despair is a very grave sin, for it presumes to know how the story will end.
But my depression was not entirely self-inflicted. Abuse was also part of my story.
I worked with someone every day for several years who claimed to follow Jesus, but their actions told a different story. They bullied and abused many people, myself included. I’d done nothing to earn it besides standing up for colleagues and myself.
There were other depressing factors that weren’t matters of morality per sé but rather bad advice, bad thinking and living in a universe where calamities are unavoidable. I wonder if we feel most helpless when we can’t hold ourselves or other people morally accountable. I know it rings true for me. For all of us, to risk hope and to love – to have any desire at all – is to invite heartache and grief. Around the planet, dreams die every day, sometimes without the help of character flaws in the dreamers.
Many people suffer from large-t trauma. Warfare, terrorism, sexual assault, car crashes. All of us experience small-t trauma throughout our lives from job loss, cross-country moves, interpersonal conflict, money problems. Death, that most hideous of traumas, comes for all of us. It steals our lovers, parents, children, pets. We tend to give less credence to the death of relationships and dreams, but take it from someone who has encountered both kinds of death: the aftermath can be just as brutal. Subtle or seismic, all of it is pain and all of it deserves attention and healing. None of it deserves shame. Stack up enough “small” traumas in close succession, and the strongest person will break.
Large or small, no trauma should be dismissed or swept under the rug. A horde of mosquitoes brings no less danger than a charging lion. Death by a thousand cuts is still death.
Depression revisits me from time to time. It came back in new ways within the past year, and it was here in the past week. I’ll probably be vulnerable to depression for the rest of my life. I’m no different from the artists and craftspeople alive right now and through the centuries, whose sensitive and reflective nature is both an asset and a liability. I also believe depression will not have the last word. When it shows up, I’ve learned to ask what it wants and wait for the answer. But it has no right to call the shots. The power to call depression into the light and tell it what I need is mine. I’ve got its number. After each dark episode, my hope grows a little more muscular, a little more real. Immanuel, the God who is with me always – He shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome me because it will never overcome Him.
Naming was the first documented work. In the creation story of Genesis, God commissions Adam to name every creature. I love this part – emphasis mine: “And from the ground yhwh God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them.”
If God is omniscient, then of course he knows what Adam would call each creature. But he chooses to hang back, watch from the sidelines and admire the man at work. I picture God crouching quietly under the branches of a willow, eyes glued to the scene before him, waiting with bated breath to hear each new name.
The first namer was a man, but who first named God? Not Adam, as far as we know. Not Noah, Abraham or any other patriarch. The first person to name God was not an eminent ruler with enough sheep to carpet Canaan, nor were they even Hebrew. No. The first person who named God was a woman, a foreigner and an outcast: Hagar.
If you’ve read the book of Genesis, you might remember that though Abraham and Sarah were eventually known for their devotion to God, they weren’t exactly model citizens for much of their lives. They possessed great wealth and little faith. In fact, Abraham was often a timid pushover and Sarah could be a cynical shrew.
The couple tries for decades to have children. After Abraham (then called Abram) and his household settle in Canaan, God comes to him in a vision, saying, “Fear not, Abram. I am your shield, your exceeding great reward.” Uncertain of what reward God has in mind, Abram responds, “O Lord yhwh, what will you give me, seeing that I go childless and he who shall be possessor of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And God says, “This man shall not be your heir, but he who shall come forth from your own loins shall be your heir. … Pray, look toward the heavens, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your seed be.”1
Ten years pass. The promised son hasn’t come, Abram is in his mid 80’s and Sarah (then called Sarai) is on the far side of menopause. Believing a child would never materialize, Sarai decides to take matters into her own hands. She gives her Egyptian servant, Hagar, as a concubine to Abram, hoping to produce a son and then claim the child as Abram’s heir. The author of Genesis doesn’t say Abram raped Hagar, but neither does she have a choice. At any rate, she soon conceives. Feeling somewhat vindicated, Hagar begins to look down on Sarai, and Sarai envies her fertility and newfound status. While Hagar is still pregnant, Sarai harasses and abuses her. Abram does nothing. Hagar takes off into the wilderness, expecting to fend for herself and her child or die trying.
An angel comes to Hagar, asking where she came from and where she’s going. “I am fleeing from the face of my mistress Sarai,” she replies. The angel bids Hagar to fight against her every instinct and return to Abram and Sarai, promising that Hagar’s son would be a strong and independent man – and the father of innumerable descendants. In her joy and relief, Hagar praises God, declaring, “You are El Roi” – ancient Hebrew for “God of seeing” or “God saw me.”
Several things are worth underlining here. A spurned and abused woman, a lowly servant, is alone in the wilderness. She’d fled in haste with few provisions. The semi-arid climate turns cold at night. Jackals and lions prowl the countryside and vipers lurk among dry grasses and rocky slopes. We don’t know if anyone comes looking for Hagar. It seems she’s rejected, abandoned, written off, given up for dead. Invisible to all but the One who made her – the One who sees. Abram came to her with force and dishonor. God comes to her with gentle questions and calls her the mother of a son who would never be subjugated. He had called Sarai the mother of multitudes, and through Isaac, the promise would come true; but the first mother of multitudes – that was Hagar. God sees her shame and calls it a crown.
Consider, now, the hardships in your life. How has God met you in the wilderness? Are you in a desolate place even now? This is the hand you’ve been dealt. What is the invitation? What does God want to create in and through your life, not despite but because of your suffering? How might He use your pain to bless other people?
The next time you’re alone, in a quiet room or on a walk, I invite you to hold these questions lightly in your mind. Consider who God is to you, who He’s been in your past and who He wants to become. Then, listen. What names bubble up in your mind?
The modern English “God” comes from the old Germanic “gott,” meaning good. The apostle John, who walked with Jesus on earth and had the gorgeous nerve to call himself “the one who Jesus loved,” went even further in a letter and said that God is love. So if Middle English monks had set Good aside in favor of Love – Lufu or Lēof to them – then perhaps today we would speak of lowercase-l love as well as capital-L love. We would be right to do so.
Me, I resonate deeply with El Roi. Being liked is nice. Respect is better. But being seen, known and understood – for me, it doesn’t get better. It’s how Love makes contact with me. I might also name Him Dark-Whistler, for He alone can lead us to joy when darkness seems inexorable. And I’d call him Origin, for He is the great Beginner. Maybe to you, He’s your Safest Place, Friend of Friends, King of the Poor, Heart of Beauty, Soul of Wisdom, Death-Destroyer, Forever Home.
It’s not enough to say He’s our foundation and the fulfillment of all our longing. I like how people in the West of Ireland describe someone they trust: He is the place I stand on the day when my feet are sore.
God waited in the garden to hear what Adam would call each animal. He waits, right now, to hear what you will call Him.
And who are you and I? Who are we truly? My parents called me Matthew – Gift of God in Hebrew. A good name, but temporary. If I knew my real and infinite name, I couldn’t say or write it. Words would fail.
Our true names are too beautiful for language twisted by death and sin. Each is a perfect language unto itself, a world of meaning. For if the One who made and sustains the universe loves human beings enough to die for us, putting the immeasurable worth of His life in the balance against ours, then He also prepares names of fathomless, flawless beauty for all who follow in His footsteps. Until we see Him on the far and final side of death, He keeps these names in reserve. And this is what it means to have our identity hidden in Christ. He holds and guards your utterly unique name until your race is finished. As He said in Revelation 2:17 to John, the one who Jesus loved, “To him who overcomes… I will give him a white stone, and upon the stone a new name written, which no one knows but he who receives it.”