What’s in a name

Several years ago I traveled to China on behalf of the Bible League, a ministry I worked for at the time. The trip was an opportunity for 34 Western Christians to:

  1. become familiar with the Bible League’s ministry,
  2. enlarge our understanding of the worldwide Church, and
  3. provide Chinese Christians with Chinese Bibles, which are in short supply throughout China.

In addition, I served as a reporter on the trip, taking notes and writing reports that could be shared with donors, so they could see both the need for and the results of their financial support.

It was a wonderful trip. When I read my trip report even now, years later, I laugh and cry and feel the weight of the suitcases all over again.


A powerful part of this trip was the 36-hour train ride from Beijing to Hong Kong. Riding the rails for 36 hours gives you plenty of time to socialize with fellow passengers, and we took advantage of the opportunity to communicate as best we could. I had a Chinese-English translator book that helped us carry on conversations consisting of basic facts like, “I have one brother” and “I live in Guangzhou.” It was interesting to communicate without words, to simply point at characters in order to convey meaning.

We did have one Chinese-speaking man in our group (one of the tour leaders). I’m sure he was overwhelmed with our team’s various requests for translation help, but he was very gracious throughout. You could see his compassion and earnestness in all his interactions. Most of the conversations he was having were about the Bible, and Jesus, and Buddha, and the meaning of life. I listened in on one exchange with a young woman who had received a Chinese New Testament from someone in the group. He pointed out a number of significant verses, and she read them thoughtfully and asked some penetrating questions: “How do you worship this God?” “How do you pray, and when?” I don’t know if she made any religious decisions during that train ride, but I did notice she was still reading that New Testament a long while later.

I heard later that one of the conversations our translator had was with a man who did then decide to become a Christian. It is common practice in China for a new convert to choose a new, Christian name to signify his new life. The translator asked this new convert what Christian name he might choose. The man wasn’t sure. He mentioned he would be the first Christian in his family and in his village. So the translator suggested Peter as his Christian name, Peter being one of Christ’s first followers and “the Rock” of the Christian church. The man agreed, and he was christened Peter. It was only then that we learned he had a very common surname in China: Pan. So somewhere in China today is a church leader named Peter Pan!


I consider it an honor to be in the same Christian family as people like Peter Pan. If you read last week’s blog, you know I’ve spent the week wondering what small things I can do to “take it up a notch” in terms of my faith. But for Peter Pan, his very decision to become a Christian is an act of faith braver than anything I’ll ever do. He likely suffered ridicule, beatings, fines, job loss, and/or discrimination when he returned home and revealed his new faith. Maybe he was run out of town. Maybe he was killed. Maybe he ended up renouncing his faith. I don’t know. But I admire him for being willing to risk it all for a God he met on a train, in the pages of a Book given to him by a stranger who became a brother.

Perhaps Peter is the perfect name for this new Christian. After all, Peter is the disciple who impulsively braved the waves and walked on water (Matthew 14:22ff), who drew a sword to defend his Lord (John 18:10), who recognized early that Jesus was worth following (John 6:68). Peter is a model of the kind of “notched-up” faith I want for his namesake, Peter Pan. And for myself.

But he’s also a model of the kind of failing faith I’m more often guilty of. The faith that got Peter out of the boat quickly melted when he saw the waves. And perhaps it was fear rather than faith that prompted him to draw his sword. And though he pledged Jesus his loyalty, Peter is just as famous for his three denials when the going got tough. Peter’s faith story is a mixture of glory and failure.

Just like mine.

In the end, it’s not the size or intensity of my faith that matters, but the One in whom I place it. And I thank God for that.

“Not to us, O Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.” Psalm 115:1