My dear friend Delia recently invited me to come share my faith story with the small house church she is part of here in the West End called Little Flowers. I pared my talk down for the blog.
Late in 2014, a book from 1958 on the parables of Jesus called The Waiting Father came recommended and I found a used copy online. Making my way through each of the 16 chapters has been a slow and steady feast, each of them a sermon on one of Jesus’ parables.
I’d come to the parable about the talents. You might know the story, where the master is going away and asks his servants to invest 10 “talents” (the local currency) while he’s away. Some versions call them pounds and one just calls them money. Several servants invest the money wisely while the last servant hides his away, fearful of his master’s hard and cruel reputation.
What were those pounds all about? I think I’ve always assumed it was the assignment God gave us to do on earth. The keeners will get it right and do the assignment correctly, but maybe some of us will procrastinate and do nothing, scared of getting it wrong or messing up in some way. In any case, it never sounded much like fun to me.
The author helpfully wrote that it’s not about any to-do list or assignment, rather, the pound is actually our name. I’m Lydia Helga, but it’s not the literal name Jesus had in mind. Scripture says each one of us also received a name from God. Besides our biological, flesh and blood birth, we’re born in the Spirit. Our pound, the currency we are to invest in this world, is the name God gives us. The author says, “We are not nameless little people. We are children who are known and loved. And this name, the name we bear as children of God, this is the pound.”
So I want to talk about the name God gave me, and my deepest hope is that you’ll hear your own name too.
Psalm 139 is my “life Psalm” that I adopted years ago, and it expresses well this identity of being known and loved. Here’s a few verses:
Lord, you have examined me.
You know me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
You study my traveling and resting.
You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord,
that you don’t already know completely.
You surround me—front and back.
You put your hand on me…
Where could I go to get away from your spirit?
Where could I go to escape your presence?
If I went up to heaven, you would be there.
If I went down to the grave, you would be there too!
I was born into a Mennonite family in North Kildonan, the youngest of 4 girls. They say your first memory is telling, and mine is a happy one. I’m lying on the bed with my sisters, just 1 1/2 years old. Our feet are up against the slanted ceiling on the second floor, and we’re laughing. Another snapshot of myself is seeing myself with my family at Caddy Lake as a toddler, so happy to be in nature, and happy in my place in a loving family.
These two memories seem close to the name God gave me. I think I was holding my “pound” pretty tightly; knowing myself as a child of God who is known and loved.
As I grew older, I began to forget my true name. It’s a pretty common twist in the plot of anyone’s life. We start to layer up our hearts, and who we really are, like so many layers of an onion. In the parable, one of the servants takes the pound he was given, thinks the master is cruel and wraps it carefully in a handkerchief and pockets it.
If I look carefully over my life, I took my name and did just that. A shadow crossed my family’s life when my oldest sister died of leukemia when I was 7. It’s not unlike the grief that many families experience in one way or another, and for me it was a life-changer. Amid the free floating but rarely expressed grief of our household, I buried my own thoughts, feelings and deeper identity.
I know now that God saw our broken hearts, and was crying along with us, but at the time I don’t think I knew that darker emotions had a place in the Kingdom we heard about in Sunday’s sermons. And so, I took matters into my own hands and became eager to win everyone’s favor. I formed a habit which has given me much trouble in my adult life – I became a people pleaser. On the outside I was a good kid, but there was a deep restlessness. My God given name was hiding in a handkerchief in my pocket.
I remember when I got to grade 7, I found a friend who seemed to have the same trouble as me. We didn’t know how to be ourselves, so we developed this code. “Be Yourself,” we told each other. Or we shortened it to B.Y. But what did it mean? I could never put my finger on who exactly I even was anymore. What did it mean to be myself? I could never pull it off, and I sure didn’t feel any of the peace the Bible talked about.
My pound couldn’t have been too buried in my pocket though, because I kept hearing my true name. It wasn’t that I was being such a good listener, instead I think the Good Shepherd was utterly faithful, creative and relentless in calling me despite my game of hide-n-seek.
So I heard God call in different places… at summer bible camp in the singing and the Bible stories that seemed new there; through youth leaders at church who accepted and prayed for this geeky teenager who wrote bad poetry; through my school, MBCI, which gave me friends and teachers who modeled Christ’s love. I heard my name often as a writer, and still do.
As an adult, God has used our small house church to call my name. Paul, our pastor, has helped myself and so many hear our true name. There’s a story in the Bible about finding a treasure in the field, which you’re so happy to find you’ll do anything to keep it. It’s the old name wrapped in the handkerchief.
Being known and loved is not always a comfortable experience though. Those parts of ourselves we think of as ugly are exposed, and quicker than a blink we forget the other half of the name — that we are loved warts and all. Like the Psalmist says, nothing, especially not the ugly bits, can keep God’s love away from us. Sometimes we hear comforting words about God’s unconditional love, but sometimes the words are more like a surgeon’s scalpel of what we need to give up to follow faithfully. When we know we are soaking in God’s love, it’s easier to trust the Surgeon.
As we heal, we begin to see that everyone else has this God-given name as well; our neighbor, our colleague at work, the cashier at Safeway, those we disagree with and even our enemies — all bear the royal name. We can look at everyone with completely new eyes when we realize this.
We all go into hiding so routinely. Sometimes I invest the pound I have, at other times a faithful soul gives one to me. It’s an ongoing marketplace in God’s economy, this giving of coins that helps us remember who we are.
Years ago, Paul shared an old sermon with me from 1737 by a guy named Thomas Boston which has been a huge help over the years in correcting my view of God. Boston’s wife lived with paralyzing depression and he himself had what some think were chronic kidney stones.
The sermon was called “Crook in the Lot,” and Boston wrote about our lives like a big lot of wood. There are many straight pieces of wood in the piles, but there’s also these crooked, gnarled pieces of wood, all the ugly pieces. You’d think God would want the straightest, best pieces to work with, the pieces with the best grain. But somehow, Thomas Boston preaches, God is like a ragpicker and looks at the crookedest piece of wood in the lot, picks it up, smiles and says, “This is the piece I can use the best.” God turns that crooked piece over and over in his loving hands, considering the beauty that can be made from its crookedness. This beautiful picture has changed my idea of God.
Lately, I’ve been turning my pound over and over in my hand like a treasure, and ideas for investment seem infinite. A smile to a stranger, a door opened for a struggling mom, a joke shared with a student, a carefully written email, a blogpost, a prayer for my enemy in the stillness of the morning — all of these are investments. I have them to give away because I was given so many to begin with. In some kind of crazy math equation, every time I give my pound away, I keep getting 10 back. I feel like the luckiest person alive with all this wealth. And if by some choice I bury it again, I know God won’t quit calling my name, unearthing that treasure.