Back in my early elementary school years, one of my biggest fears was that someone would discover my middle name. Nobody but my family knew it. And it was also all their fault. My middle name is “Gustav,” a Swedish name passed down from my paternal grandfather and my own father. I had feared that I would end up being nicknamed “Gus,” the archetypal “dumb Swede.” The prospect of being called a derogatory name because of my middle name was a considerable source of childhood anxiety, and so this was one of my greatest childhood secrets. That is, until one day, along about age nine, I discovered that I shared my middle name with the king of Sweden : Gustav! [i] That revelation was immediately transforming. I suddenly thought: maybe I am of royal blood! I probably am! I simultaneously went from being deeply embarrassed about my middle name, to becoming almost unbearable because of it. I made sure that everyone knew my middle name. It’s as if my discovery gave me a new identity. Because there is power in a name.
Often times there is great care taken in the naming of a newborn child. The child’s given name or names may be a sign of the continuation of a family’s heritage, or the given name or names may be a sign of a family’s wanting to start anew, signified in the birth of this child. The child’s name may express identity or hope or gratitude, or through the name, the parents may seek to bestow dignity or particular significance on the child’s birth. Sometimes names demarcate a family’s time. – One of my nephews has a middle name “Taif,” which is a Saudi Arabian name, because this nephew was born while his father (my brother) was working in the Persian Gulf . As children grow up, they often will take on new, imaginary names, and with the names, new exploratory identities. I remember one summer, as a young camper far away from home, telling all my new cabin buddies that they should call me “Butch” because I was tough. (Hard, perhaps, to imagine….) It worked pretty well for a week at camp, but my new sought-after identity was ground to dust, I recall, when I returned home and had to face my baby brother. He certainly didn’t know me as “Butch”; he was still struggling to simply pronounce my name “Curtis” or “Curt,” which he could not pronounce. He ended up calling me what he could pronounce, which was “Durt.” “Hi Durt!” he was always saying, which hardly suited someone of royal lineage.
As children grow up, they will name their belongings, and they shall possess everything they name. And in a short while, children – this has probably been true for many of us here – children will suffer the wound of being called a name. Maybe it’s taunting them with their given name which has been twisted into something cruel or comical sounding; maybe it’s a name which jeers at some physical trait the child bears; maybe the name mocks the child’s ethnic or religious heritage; maybe the name is a sign of others’ jealousy. Or, on the other hand, the child might be given a endearing nickname, perhaps a diminutive, as a token of affection. (I recently received an email letter from an older acquaintance named ‘Edgar,’ who is a wise and much-respected person of great stature. His email address is “edgarito” (little Edgar), which is how he was affectionately known as a child. Very endearing.
In the political world that surrounds us, great intention and ceremony is often given to naming parks and benches and fountains, buildings and bypasses, highways and tollbooths, economic programs and military campaigns. Universities name their endowed academic chairs. Fundraisers name their benefactors in annual reports and wall plaques. Books are dedicated in the name of those dear to the author. In the corporate world, the greatest imagination and care is taken in naming new products, like perfumes or medications or detergents or cars or toys. The name needs to both fit the product and yet also form its image. I’m remembering a couple of years ago having the occasion to see the marvelous rose garden on the terraces overlooking the city of Portland, Oregon. The sight and scent of acres of cultivated roses was magnificent. And yet an additional occasion of delight came in discovering the specific names that various horticulturalists had given to each individual family of roses. Charming, sometimes rather enchanting names for roses! We look around us to see and say that everything important has a name. And in the name and naming is the power of identity or identification, whether it be the name of a person or a place or a creature or thing.
It is equally true in the Bible. There seems to be a preoccupation with names and naming. In the creation account in the Book of Genesis, Adam is given a name, and the legend goes that he named most everything else in sight – everything from animals to children – because in naming, things and people are set apart. Our name is what uniquely distinguishes us from others; however our name also unites us to others insofar as others will call us by name and therefore can know us and have a certain claim on us.
In our scriptures, especially in the Psalms, there is a frequent reverencing of the Name of God. In the Psalm appointed for today, Psalm 8, we hear, “O Lord our Governor, how exalted is your Name in all the world!” In Psalm 31 we hear, “For the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.” Psalm 145 begins: “I will exalt you, O God my King, and bless your Name for ever and ever.” It’s a curious phrase – to bless God’s Name or to praise God’s Name or to petition God, for the sake of God’s Name. How dare we have such intimate access to God as to lay claim on God’s Name? So great and awesome was this God that God’s ways were unknowable, God’s power unpredictable, God’s distance unfathomable, God’s rage uncontrollable, God’s face unseeable, God’s hands untouchable, God’s Name, unknowable and unspeakable.
And yet, this God, Creator of all, who is otherwise beyond our grasp, takes on face and form in a child of Bethlehem. This, I would say, is how the Christ story enlarges and embraces the naming of God. This very God is re-presented in our world, born just like we are, with hands and a heart and eyes, with desires and expectations and fears… and given a name: Jesus. A name which both identifies him – that is, sets him apart from us – and meanwhile joins him to us.
Do you know the experience of having an interested friend or colleague tell you, “When you have your meeting, when you talk with so and so, go ahead and use my name”? In the world of business or diplomacy, we call this a referral. In the political world, we can call this a lobbying effort. In the world of friendship, we can call this a welcomed connection. In the world of our prayer, we call this an intercession or supplication. Some days I think our best prayer to the God whom Jesus named “Father,” our best plea or best praise, is simply to “namedrop” to use the name that God has finally shared with us: namely, Jesus, which means, literally, “Yahweh saves.”
I don’t know what you do as you navigate your way through the day w when you have minutes of in-between time. Maybe it’s while you’re waiting for a red traffic light to change. Maybe it’s while you’re waiting for an appointment, or sitting on a plane waiting for a take-off. Maybe it’s while you are “on hold” on the telephone. Maybe it’s during the wee hours of the night when you find yourself sleepless, yet again. Maybe it’s while you walk from this place to the next, wait for the water to boil, the coffee to brew, the mail to arrive, the news to come. Those moments can be vacuous, and you may find yourself prone to obsess over all kinds of distractions or anxieties. Especially during these moments of space, you might find it inviting to breathe the name of Jesus: to breathe in the name of Jesus; to breathe out the name of Jesus. You might even find it inviting to pray the ancient “Jesus Prayer” as you breathe:
Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of the Living God:
Have mercy upon me . [ii]
It’s to take full advantage of the access and intimacy and power that having someone’s name gives us. You have Jesus’ name, who is intent on saving you from whatever it is that just kills you. You have Jesus’ name. Use it. Breathe the name of Jesus as you make your way through the day. Breathe the name of Jesus for yourself and for others, even for those outside our own circle of faith, Buddhists and Muslims among them, who also know that name and welcome that name. Jesus will live up to his name for you. Breathe the name, use the name “ Jesus,” because there is power and identification in claiming and using and sharing a name. Go ahead and use it: the name of Jesus: Jesus… Jesus… Jesus…..
[i] HM King Carl XVI Gustaf.
[ii] The Jesus Prayer, noted in The Way of the Pilgrim, dating from the 1850s in Irkutsk, Russia: “…The continuous interior Prayer of Jesus is a constant uninterrupted calling upon the divine Name of Jesus with the lips, in the spirit, in the heart; while forming a mental picture of his constant presence, and imploring his grace, during every occupation, at all times, in all places, even during sleep. The appeal is couched in these terms: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’”
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