Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Pearls of a Great Price

I have never put much stock in the meaning of my name. I could never find name cards in those convenient store racks, or gas station key chains that sported the eight letters that made me, me. In the rare moment when some little trinket did bear my name, I immediately bought it, thrilled that someone, somewhere, had heard the name “Gretchen” before.

Both of my parents were teachers and so had eye-twitching associations with most kid names that only those who attempt to teach twenty-eight squirmy and irritable children all day long can have. My parents tell me I’m named after a family acquaintance. But they always include the caveat that neither of them had a student named Gretchen and they simply liked the sound of it. Most people are proud of the meaning of their monikers and to some extent live up to them, as if names hold latent powers over their bearers.

I love learning the meaning of names:

Joshua – “God rescues” 

Abigail – “Joy of her father”

Bethany – “Daughter of the Lord”

But my name? Well, it always kind-of struck me as funny and shallow. “A pearl.” No meaning that invokes power. No name that speaks of God’s love, compassion, or even judgment. Just a small, imperfectly-rounded, not quite white ball. Awesome.

It wasn’t until I was 26 that I started awakening to the meaning of my name and began to see God’s hand in the eight letters that define me.  God had been working with me on Matthew 7: 6’s challenge – “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” I too quickly spill “pearls” to anyone who’ll listen, anyone who’ll make me feel valued by sitting across the table and hearing my story. But God has been quietly whispering to my heart to guard what is precious and unique, and to save my innermost thoughts and feelings for Him… and for those who’ll protect and hold gingerly what I give them.

When I starting getting to know a guy in February of 2008, I wanted to douse him with all of the nuances, quirks, heart-wrenching moments, mountain-top experiences and adventures that make up me. But the recent Matthew 7:6 lesson gave me the restraint I needed to prevent the smothering process. I later explained to him that the Lord was teaching me to hold on to my pearls and to reveal them only as I felt the release - and the trust - to do so. Soon, “pearl” became a common term for us when we began sharing more personal things, or when we weren’t ready to divulge something the other person was asking about. It wasn’t until a few months into using this coined term that I re-remembered the meaning of my name. I was a pearl. I was a pearl that the Lord didn’t want to share with just anyone. Only with someone special who wouldn’t trample me underfoot. A man who would hold the precious parts of me with all the tenderness of someone who knew my value and unique qualities.

I happened across Joni Eareckson Tada’s devotional, Pearls of Great Price one day, ironically while I was out looking for devotionals with the same guy. “I think this is the one,” he said and handed me the gold, pearlescent-looking book. The first page stopped me dead in my tracks. What I read touched me so deeply and threw me headlong into a journey to finally embrace my God-given name—and my God-given meaning.

Pearls of Great Price – Joni Eareckson Tada

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls.
When he found one of great value,
he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
Matthew 13:45-46

“Dad Tada explained how a pearl is produced. A tiny bit of sand lodges in the flesh of an oyster and becomes an irritating intrusion. Unable to expel it, the oyster covers the particle with layer after layer of milky secretion until the irritation has become smooth, round, and acceptable. It also, inadvertently, becomes a precious gem.

“Some jewels may be made from rocks and crystals; other jewels might be mined out of the earth, but not so pearls. Unlike other gems, pearls are drawn from something that’s alive. Pearls are produced by a life that has overcome affliction, that has overcome suffering. Little wonder they are so valuable!

“Jesus is the Pearl of Great Price. He is unlike any other. Our Savior is the precious gem set apart from the rest. He lives in such a way that he overcame suffering and affliction… Jesus overcame the working of death. He is superior because his love poured forth from a life wounded by pain. He has become our example. And he has bound us with other believers who value his priceless friendship.

“I have experienced more than a few irritants in my life… But God continues to give layer after layer of life-transforming grace; he has made each irritation smooth and acceptable. All because of his help and hope. What was once an intrusion – debilitating pain – has become a precious gem… It is worth everything – absolutely everything – to be his friend.”

Months later, as I was reading The Shack I came across this passage as Jesus speaks to Mack, a man who has faced seemingly insurmountable loss.

“Well Mack, our final destiny is not the picture of Heaven that you have stuck in your head – you know, the image of pearly gates and streets of gold. Instead, it’s a new cleansing of this universe, so it will indeed look a lot like here.”

“Then what’s with the pearly gates and gold stuff?”

“That stuff, my brother,” Jesus began, lying back on the dock and closing his eyes against the warmth and brightness of the day, “Is the picture of me and the woman I’m in love with.”

Mack looked at him to see if he was joking, but it was obvious he wasn’t.

“It is a picture of my bride, the Church: individuals who together form a spiritual city with a living river flowing through the middle, and on both shores trees growing with fruit that will heal the hurt and sorrows of the nations. And this city is always open, and each gate into it is made of a single pearl…” He opened one eye and looked at Mack. “That would be me!” He saw Mack’s question and explained, “Pearls, Mack. The only precious stone made by pain, suffering and – finally – death.”

Starting day one of life, it seems as if I was meant to experience suffering and affliction in a deeper way than most of my friends. It feels that way to me at least. For years I asked “why?” as I looked around at friends who’s lives had been handed to them on silver platters. I so clearly remember my junior high youth pastor’s wife telling me, after I had revealed yet another painful trial I was experiencing, “The Lord must be preparing you for something huge in your life.” I lived in fear of what that might mean until the Lord released me from it ten years later in the jungles of Fiji. It was quite the journey – one that I’m still on, I might add – to realize how much the Lord must love me to allow me to go through such sorrow, bringing me closer to Him. As I continue to learn about pearls – my precious namesake – I more eagerly embrace my moniker, my value, my story.

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