Most Wednesday evenings I drive west; crossing the James from Buckingham into Fluvanna County, my little car crawls up the big hill and I coast into Fork Union. Wednesday is small group night. In some respects, it’s just ‘church night’. Cars litter the lots of most of the five or six churches I pass on the way.
People gather. Maybe they sing, maybe they hear preaching or teaching. Perhaps it’s prayer night.
For us, it’s a time to drink a cup of coffee, eat whatever snacks miraculously appear (top notch peanut butter cookies, left over from guests who stopped by; cupcakes from a weekend event; popcorn from the microwave) and catch up. There is a prescribed study – often with a short video teaching to prompt our dialogue. We separate into groups of six or seven to talk.
I’m always the outsider, even to the person who’s never come to our church before. In a small community, in a rural landscape, most everybody knows everybody else (and their mamas and daddies and grandparents). The nicknames fly around and everybody knows of whom they speak, but much of it is lost on me.
But I’m a witness, and it’s a glorious, beautiful thing. It reminds me of the solid, decent goodness of people who don’t need ‘small group’ to do life together. That reminder gives me hope, when the politics and the terrorists tilt me towards despair. I am more grateful than I could ever convey for what I witness, given a grace-filled window into the lives of the people of this community.
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Tonight, the discussion centered on identity. Opening questions revealed our names and their sources, along with nicknames. The best thing I heard tonight was about the child born into a family too busy to give him a proper name; he was the baby, so they just always called him ‘Babe’. When he went to school, apparently he realized that maybe he’d missed out on the name business – so he chose his own name, at the age of five.
If that just don’t beat all.
It was an anecdote, but the truth behind it was strong, in light of everything we discussed tonight. Generally, our given names are handed to us, but most of us go through life, if we’re truthful, naming ourselves. Whether the influence of friends and family or our own demons, it’s easy to find ourselves carrying a moniker that reflects a mere portion of who we are, while deflecting a deeper (and more important) reality.
I thought about this on the long drive home, about how my own life has had three specific seasons of external names that carried huge internal meaning. My given name – ‘Beth Case’ – represents my childhood and adolescence. I think of that name and I see the fourth grader with John Lennon glasses and ragged bangs, wearing a home-made red-pattered body suit with snaps in the crotch (my mom was AWESOME and I am not kidding!) This was the girl who was desperate for her teacher’s approval, the girl who learned that being smart and quick-witted and ‘So grown up for her age!’ could get a lot of mileage and extensive capital for one who needed to be affirmed. Beth Case was the girl who got excellent grades and loved being the accompanist for the choir and sacrificed every spring afternoon during all for years of high school for musical rehearsals.
That girl seems so very far away…and yet those things she did and valued are at the core of who I am today.
Another season brought another name; a marriage, a new involvement in a new kind of church – and babies. Five of them, in short order. ‘Beth Brawley’ was shorthand for mom, lots of kids, Christian, youth pastor’s wife, I-don’t-know-how-you-do-it, ‘godly wife’, piano player… I loved the alliteration and my ego loved the public part of being involved in church and being VERY visible, what with those five kids trailing behind me everywhere I went. I knew then that the identity I wore with that name opened doors; it defined me, and allowed me to rest on the laurels of everybody’s assumptions when it comes to being married to a man in ministry.
It was a busy season, and the discontent was buried far below the surface. Eventually, like most unrest, it rose and burst free and I was clueless as to how desperately far I had gotten from any true sense of self.
The marriage ended; I kept the name. I found that church work was calling me all along – not just the man I had married – and I forged ahead. My identity had unraveled and it began to be remade; but I kept the name. My kids were all Brawleys; we were a team, we were surviving together. My name defined me now as mother. Survivor. And there was something about the alliteration…it felt like me. It was solid; it was who I presented to the world.
Interestingly enough, until tonight’s discussion I’d never thought too deeply about how important that name was to me. But the sense of identity I forged post-divorce, on my own – it was wrapped around that name. And this is not such a good thing; there is no small amount of pride and ego in ‘who I was’.
I remarried in 2009. It took three years for me to legally, officially change my name from Brawley to Stoddard. And I can tell you now that it wasn’t that I was too busy (like I claimed) or an oversight (happens often in my world…)
There was something I didn’t want to let go of; something that had nothing to do with the marriage but everything to do with how I saw myself. It took a long time for me to relinquish that identity – or at least give up the idea of who I thought I was.
(Funny…I never wondered what my ex-husband thought about how long I clung to that name – his name…)
When I made the decision, went to the social security office, and then finalized it all at the DMV, it was no small thing. In fact, I will tell you that it was as big a covenant commitment for me to make that change as it was to commit to my marriage vows in 2009. Again, it had nothing to do with the marriage – new or old – and everything to do with me and how I identified myself.
My life. My choices. My passions. My vocation. My calling. My past.
My name now means something to me – not the German heritage of my husband’s genealogy, but all that was represented in the choice I made to claim it.
This marriage – a promise made with an understanding, finally, of what it means to commit; to love, respect and honor. My name means submission (and oh, the irony..but that’s another post).
This vocation – faith and trust that the local church can be the hope of the world when it’s working right, and that I was called as a child to serve in this way. My name means pastor.
This sense of self – the beautiful freedom that comes with age and experience and the gentle grace of redemption that says I am okay with who I am. My name means restored.
This maternal love that envelops five kids that are adults and almost-adults – I am not the apex of their lives (and they are not mine), but the field of love grows constant, deep and healthy all the way across. My name means home.
This study prompted so much more than I expected. I’m grateful for an hour in the car to process, and for the sweetness of open hearts and collective stories, welling up from memories – joys and sorrows, pain and healing. All this comes from a community of the best people I’ve ever known in my life, and I – Beth Stoddard – am overwhelmed by this grace.