I’m glad I didn’t live in the Middle Ages. (Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.) One of the reasons is that, in an age before surnames, you could wind up being identified by such things as your occupation—Robert the Carpenter, Bonnie the Cook, Justin the Carver—which goes south if you switch jobs, or by some observable characteristic, some of which you might prefer folks not mention every time you turn around—Charles the Bald, Louis the Stammerer, Pepin the Short, Berthe au grand pied (translation: Big-Foot Bertha).
Now it might be okay if you were identified by a trait people respected or that wasn’t a negative. If you were Louis the Pious (Charles the Bald’s father) or Charles the Straightforward (son of Louis the Stammerer) or Charles the Great (Charlemagne), you had it made. You had something to live up to rather than live down.
What would your medieval name be if we still did named folks that way? Hopefully, it would be something you would feel comfortable with and not something serving as a constant disappointment or embarrassment.
Of course, in the Bible, most people did not have surnames, so we’re left with single name references, which works most of the time—Noah, Moses, Samson, David, Isaiah, Peter, Paul. Occasionally, though, we get some tack-on descriptors that give us some insight into the type of person some of our Biblical figures were. Jesus’ Twelve included James and John who are identified at least once as “Sons of Thunder.” (Mark 3:17) So that makes them James the Thunderer and John the Thunderer. Maybe that’s a compliment, maybe not. It certainly isn’t a compliment when we use the name today of “Doubting Thomas.” (A bum rap, I think.)
If I was to be known by my most obvious trait as a servant of Jesus, one of the best would be as an encourager. (I should only hope.) We have one of those in the book of Acts—Barnabas. He’s known as the Son of Encouragement. (In fact, his actual name was Joseph (Acts 4), but he was called “Barnabas,” which translates as “son of encouragement.” Not only was he known for encouraging his fellow Christians, that trait became his name, his spiritual nickname.
Last Sunday, I did the table talk for the communion service. You either remember that or you don’t. But I hit a note with at least one person, and he sent me an email this week saying so: “I wanted you to know how much I appreciated the thoughts you shared yesterday at the Lord's table. It was the encouragement and reminder and reassurance I needed and I was
grateful for it. Thanks for letting God use your words for His people.”
Now that’s the kind of email that will propel one a little further down the road. I was touched. Someone went out of his way to engage in a “barnabas” moment. He gave me an encouragement that I was not expecting, but one that meant so much.
Some ministries are hard and complicated and demanding. Being an encourager isn’t one of them. You say a few words to someone after Sunday morning services—thanks for that sermon; I appreciated your prayer; thanks for preparing communion; I’m so glad you’re here. You drop an email or a text. Maybe you put a little more into it, like the East Hill Encouragers, whose ministry is recycling greeting cards with fresh sentiments from the heart; paper hugs, if you will.
We’re all experiencing a difficult time right now and have been for months. We’re separated from one another which makes it more difficult to touch base and keep tabs. Still, each of us can be known as our own version of Barnabas—Joseph the Encourager—and express simple sentiments of love and support to our brothers and sisters.
I saw that brother who sent me the word of encouragement later this past week and told him how much I appreciated his words of kindness. He encouraged me, and I encouraged him back. That’s how we should look at it. Encouraging can be something we pay forward, backward, downward, and, most importantly, upward.