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My husband and I are called by nicknames from our middle names. Needless to say, this can make for some confusing, if not frustrating, moments when legal documents are involved to prove that this is indeed the real me. However, the upside is I immediately know if it’s a salesperson on the phone if they ask for me by my first name. For if they knew me personally, they would be using my nickname.

I come from a family that loves nicknames, both as regular everyday names (Beth for Elisabeth) and as cherished expressions of love (baby, sweetheart). Nicknames also have a life of their own with me in that I have been known to refer to those drivers making poor choices on the road as “darling” or “dear.” Likewise, I am guilty of side-eye rolls and a clamped jaw towards those who call me “honey” while dismissing me as ignorant or unworthy of making a valid contribution to a conversation. (Yes, I’m working on my arrogance but I’ve still a LONG way to go towards gracious humility!)

Isn’t it fascinating that the same names can have multiple different meanings to different people? Differences in meanings arise from differences in relationship, location, time, understanding, emotions, and other variables. Differences don’t have to be large in proportion for their impact to be large in application. This principle is especially true in soil science where a soil’s name is literally comprised of pieces of words indicating the soil’s nature, location, age, and such.

A trained soil scientist can read a soil’s scientific name and immediately have a picture in her head of its landscape position, climate, parent material, age, soil texture, drainage, productivity, native vegetation, and…without a photograph of the soil in the sidebar on the page. Yet, someone who isn’t a soil scientist can read the same name and gain nothing because she doesn’t know the relationship between the name and its meaning.

For example, if I refer to a fine, mixed, mesic Typic Paleudalf, a trained soil scientists will get the picture in their heads of a well-drained, fertile, deep dark-colored soil having horizons with primarily silty soil textures, overlying a phosphatic limestone parent material usually found on an upland level topography in a moderately humid climate. Such a picture can then help facilitate good decision-making on best management practices for this soil type.  

Similarly, if I’m referring to a Maury silt loam, a soil scientist familiar with this soil type will get the same picture in her head as if I’d said a fine, mixed, mesic Typic Paleludalf because the Maury silt loam is a particular subset of this soil type. In my opinion, Maury silt loam is a nickname for fine, mixed, mesic Typic Paleudalfs soils.

In scientific soil nomenclature, each piece of a soil’s scientific name refers to a specific characteristic of that soil. Paleudalf, breaks down into pieces indicating the weathered (pale-) Alfisol soil order (-alf) found in a humid climate (-ud-). Likewise, Maury silt loam, often indicates the county where it was first formally classified or the person who first classified it along with its primary soil texture (silt loam). This common name nomenclature is similar to common names for birds, plants, and microbes.  

Remember how I emphasized earlier that trained soil scientists would immediately recognize the characteristics of a particular soil by reading its scientific name? Not all soil scientists automatically know the nomenclature system well enough to delineate between specific climates, topographical locations, and the like. Only soil scientists with extended training in soil taxonomy, a specialized subset of study within soil science. To other soil scientists, including those experts outstanding in their fields (pun intended!), these names could be unfamiliar. Unfamiliar in the sense they would be asking for someone on the phone by her first name because they didn’t know the person went by her nickname.

The choice to call someone by a particular name (Beth or Dr. Madison, sweetheart or ma’am, neighbor or professor) indicates the closeness and strength in relationship and thus, the knowledge and experience someone has of and with that person. Nomenclature choice is not reserved to soils or to people but also extends to God in the name(s) I choose to call Him because of the way I know Him (e.g., Father and Lord) or the way I need for Him to show Himself to me now (e.g., the strength of my heart and my portion forever, Psalm 73:26).

God chose specific nomenclature to show Himself to specific people at specific times. His name choice, I Am _______, indicated important truths He wanted to impress upon the people with whom He was speaking. He told Abraham He was his shield; Moses that He was the God of his fathers; and Joshua that He was with him. Similarly, Hagar, David, and others chose specific nomenclature to recognize God and address certain features of His character through names as El Roi, the God who sees me (Genesis 16:13). These names were rich in meaning to both parties in the relationship as they indicated trust for: expectations of promises to be kept and fulfilled; deliverance in seemingly impossible circumstances; and provision for now and an unknown future. The names themselves were pictures in the minds of the people pointing them to the Christ who was to come – the Messiah, Jesus our Savior.

Yet most Israelite people didn’t recognize Jesus as their Messiah because the picture in their heads wasn’t that of a baby born in a stable to a young mother and a carpenter. The disciples’ expectations didn’t include a humble servant who washed feet, dined with tax collectors, or talked with lepers and sinful women. When confronted with the truth of whoever has seen Me has seen the Father (John 14:9b), these same disciples were still unbelieving because the picture in front of them of Emmanuel, God with us, didn’t line up with their chosen names for Him of Rabbi or Lord reflecting lack of a deeper, intimate knowledge and relationship with Him as the One True God. I wonder if these words that Jesus spoke to the disciples in John 14 went over their heads like reading a list of scientific soil names to a group of toddlers? The disciples were untrained to recognize the truth of Christ before the Resurrection and thus, couldn’t recognize Jesus to be the same God Who introduced Himself as the I Am to their forefathers. 

Today, with unlimited readily available Bible study resources, I often think I am as untrained as the disciples at recognizing Jesus at work in my everyday world. I have one ear listening for the trumpet call of Christ’s return with the other ear ignoring the cries of those neighbors, students, family members who need love. My eyes scan the heavens for glimpses of the glory to come while are blind to injustice, apathy, and discontent rampant in my world and heart. My lips sing of God’s power while my mind is running numbers and scenarios to try and figure out how to purchase yet another thing that will rust, decay, and fade away.

As C.S. Lewis would say, I am “far too easily satisfied” with my containable, frame-able picture of Jesus than trying to know and understand who He truly is – the One Who was, Who is, and Who is to come, the Almighty (Revelation 4:8) and the image of the invisible God…in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:15-17). The same One Who spoke creation into being with thousands of types of soils, animals, plants, microorganisms and people is this same Jesus Who sees me here, now just like He did with Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Hagar, David, and all who called out His Name in years past.

Even though I may call out His Name in prayer, my own constrained expectations of His power to be at work in my life and others’ lives keeps me from taking a death-grip on the mustard seed faith that moves mountains.

Yet Jesus doesn’t reject me in my unbelief. He doesn’t tell me to go and get more training and try again. He tells me to come and learn from Him and there, find rest, strength, peace, joy, and hope in Him, the One who is above all names (see Matthew 11:28-30). And when I come, He doesn’t call out my sins by name; He puts an end to them. He doesn’t just say my name; He calls me beloved. He tells me that my name is engraved on the palms of His hands (see Isaiah 49:16) and written in His book of eternal life (see Revelation 13:8) forever. These truths far exceed even what I dare try and picture in my mind as gloriously good!

If that wasn’t enough, He tells me that one day He will mark me with His Name – “I’ll make each conqueror a pillar in the sanctuary of my God, a permanent position of honor. Then I’ll write names on you, the pillars: the Name of my God, the Name of God’s City—the new Jerusalem coming down out of Heaven—and my new Name” (Revelation 3:12, MSG).

And for this soil scientist mired in the clay of the now and not yet, the very thought of that day is beyond what words can name, much less define…


Book excerpt from Good Ground, Volume 1 published by Northeastern Baptist Press in May 2022. Used by permission.

Beth Madison

Beth Madison, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Science, School of Adult and Professional Studies, Union University, Jackson, TN

One Comment

  • John Piletz says:

    Thanks for sharing. I was mulling over something that Einstein said, which is that coincidence is God’s way of being anonymous. Just an added thought that perhaps in there are times and circumstances when He prefers that the recipient not even know his name is attached to a gift.