Chipping Away at the Image in Us
Epithets can chip away at the image of God in us. Name-calling and identity theft are felonious offenses against divinity and humanity. Blasphemy. Those of us who have been victims of identity theft or have been disfigured by name-calling dare not engage in such nefarious activity. We too will be blameworthy whether the offense is committed in our hearts, spoken with our mouths, or written with our hands.
This makes sense of why Jesus told his audience that anyone who labeled another person “Raca,” or fool, was in danger of the fires of hell (Matt. 5:22). In the end, only God can identify a person’s condition and make a righteous judgment. God knows our names and uses his beloved community to help form our God-given identities. But in our twisted state, in our malformation, we would rather choose our own names and also mistakenly believe we can accurately name others. We strut about as if we are God.
What shall I say of the Romans themselves, who fortify their own empire with garrisons of their own legions, nor can extend the might of their kingdom beyond these nations? But Christ’s name is extending everywhere, believed everywhere, worshipped by all the above enumerated nations, reigning everywhere, adored everywhere, conferred equally everywhere upon all. No king, with Him, finds greater favor, no barbarian lesser joy; no dignities or pedigrees enjoy distinctions of merit; to all He is equal, to all King, to all Judge, to all God and Lord.
Hallowed or In Vain?
The Lord’s Prayer begins, “Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name” (Matthew 6:9). The term “hallowed” and the word “holy” comes from the same root word. It means “apart, or sanctified.” God’s name is thus hallowed. In other words, we’re not to mix up God’s name with anyone else’s name. We’re not to lump Him in with others or to toss His name out lightly. God’s names are hallowed. They are to be honored, respected, and treated with the reverence they deserve. For example, if the president of the United States or the governor of your state were to walk into a room, you wouldn’t address him or her by his or her first name. The position demands a certain level of recognition. You wouldn’t say, “Hey, Dude, what’s up?” You would place the title in front of the name and speak it with respect…
Taking God’s name in vain is the opposite of hallowing it. The word “vain” means “empty, or without meaning.” It describes something as having no substance or even having a detriment. It has to do with using God’s name in a way that’s inconsistent with His personhood. It involves stripping away the value that belongs to His name.
Losing Your Name
The most poignant and powerful time for me in the film 12 Years a Slave was not when the beatings took place or the general degradation meted out to the hero as a matter of course or even the general terror of his life.
No. It is very quiet, very matter of fact: our hero is told that he will be called by another name from now on. He will no longer be Solomon Northrup.
He is now ‘Platt’, the name of a runaway slave from Georgia.
The name of someone else.
He is frightened, confused, beaten and humiliated, and now he must answer to another name.
A name given to him by someone else, a name given, ultimately, by conquest, a name that was not his choice, not his wish, a name that would be tied to him like the ropes that bound him and which he could not shake, could not undo-a name that would define him forever.
He couldn’t change/couldn’t alter his reality.
At first he resists and demonstrates this by saying ‘Solomon’ when he is called ‘Platt, but gradually he comes to learn that if he does not do as he is told, does not come when his new name is called, does not work, nor eat, nor sleep, nor run or play his fiddle or do nothing at all when he is commanded to under his new name, then the consequences for him could be dire…fatal
In the end, he is freed because he does not forget his name.
His own name, the name he’d been born with, the name, I suspect, of his father, had been thrown away, just as blithely as you blow away leaves or throw something into the trash. It was to be banished, never heard of again.
As ‘Platt’ the slave who ran away, Solomon Northrup has no ability to change his situation.
He has no power.
In the end, he is freed because he does not forget his name.
The Meaning of a Name
The meaning of a name is not discovered through scholarly etymology or through meditative introspection. It is not validated by bureaucratic approval. And it certainly is not worked up through the vanity of public relations. The meaning of a name is not in the dictionary, not in the unconscious, not in the size of the lettering. It is in relationship—with God. It was the Jeremiah “to whom the word of the LORD came” who realized his authentic and eternal being. Naming is a way of hoping. We name a child after someone or some quality that we hope he or she will become—a saint, a hero, an admired ancestor.
Some parents name their children trivially after movie stars and millionaires. Harmless? Cute? But we do have a way of taking on the identities that are prescribed for us. Millions live out the superficial sham of the entertainer and the greedy exploitiveness of the millionaire because, in part, significant people in their lives cast them in a role or fantasized an illusion and failed to hope a human future for them.
When I take an infant into my arms at the baptismal font and ask the parents, “What is the Christian name of this child?” I am not only asking, “Who is this child I am holding?” but also, “What do you want this child to become? What are your visions for this life?” George Herbert knew the evocative power of naming when he instructed his fellow pastors in sixteenth-century England that at baptism they “admit no vain or idle names.
To Manifest the Meaning and Value God Gave It
Now, in the Bible a name … reveals the very essence of a thing, or rather its essence as God’s gift…. To name a thing is to manifest the meaning and value God gave it, to know it as coming from God and to know its place and function within the cosmos created by God. To name a thing, in other words, is to bless God for it and in it.
What’s in a Name?
What’s in a name? The history of the human race is in names. Our objective friends do not understand that, since they move in a world of objects which can be counted and numbered. They reduce the great names of the past to dust and ashes. This they call scientific history. But the whole meaning of history is in the proof that there have lived people before the present time whom it is important to meet…
The name is the state of speech in which we do not speak of people or things or values, but in which we speak to people, things, and values. . . . The name is the right address of a person under which he or she will respond. The original meaning of language was this very fact that it could be used to make people respond.”
What is Your Name?
In the introduction to Tim Chester’s Book Truth We Can Touch, Sinclair Ferguson shares a conversation he had with a doctoral student from the Far East:
I knew him as “Timothy.” But one day, when I felt I had come to know him well enough, I asked him, “Timothy, what’s your real name?” He smiled and said, “Timothy.” I smiled back, knowing he would see that I wasn’t convinced this was the whole truth! “Come on, tell me, what is your real name?” Again, he replied, “Timothy.” So, I tried a different maneuver. “What is the name your parents registered for you?” This time he responded with his native Asian name. Despite feeling we were in the endgame of a little chess match and that somehow, he had a secret move up his sleeve, I said, “So that’s your real name!” “No,” he said—and then theologically checkmated me! “Timothy is my real name. That’s the name I was given when I was baptized.”
Timothy taught me a great lesson that day. The name you were given at your baptism is even more important than the name by which your birth was registered…
The conversation left me wondering if Timothy was in the minority of Christians—someone who understood his baptism well enough for it to have an ongoing significance for him every day of his life.
A Person’s Reaction Determines Their Power
If a man knows precisely what he can do to you or what epithet he can hurl against you in order to make you lose your temper, your equilibrium, then he can always keep you under subjection. It is a man’s reaction to things that determines their ability to exercise power over him.
Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, Beacon Press, 1978.
A Son of the Resurrection
Dr. Joseph Hartounian, a former professor at McCormick Theological Seminary, came to America from Armenia. One day a well-meaning friend said to him, “Your name is difficult to pronounce and difficult to spell–it could hurt your professional career.
Why don’t you change your name to Harwood or Harwell or something like that?” Dr. Hartounian asked, “What do those names mean?” His friend said, “Well, nothing. They’re just easier to remember.” Dr. Hartounian said, “In Armenia, when my grandfather was baptized, they named him Hartounian which means ‘Resurrection.’ I am Joseph Hartounian and I will be a son of Resurrection all my days.”
Winner and Loser Lane
Back in 1958, a baby boy was born into the Lane family. The father, a man named Robert, chose to name his boy Winner. How could the young man fell to succeed with a name like Winner Lane?
Several years passed and the Lanes had another son. For unknown reasons (this is a true story), Robert named this boy Loser. How tragic to doom the boys future prospects with the name Loser Lane. How many counseling sessions did it take to undo that?
Of course, all the family’s friends thought they knew how the two boys’ lives would unfold. But contrary to all expectations. Looser Lane succeeded. He graduated from college and later became a sergeant with the NYPD, shield number 2762. Nowadays, no one feels comfortable calling him Loser. His colleagues simply refer to him as Lou.
And what of the brother with the can’t-miss name? The most noteworthy achievement of Winner Lane is the sheer of his criminal record. Inmate number OOR28Q7 has nearly three dozen arrests for burglary domestic violence, trespassing. Resisting arrest, and other mayhem.1 Sometimes things are not as they first seem.
Your Name is?
Have you noticed how difficult it is to remember someone’s name when you meet them? Within seconds of a person telling me his name, I’ve forgotten what he said. I may have even repeated it to myself. “Great to meet you, Garrett.” Seconds later, Wait, what was his name again? How in the world does that happen?
When our emotions rise, our ability to think rationally declines. When we are learning someone’s name upon introduction, we are naturally more nervous and anxious because of the social context. When our nervousness rises, our cognitive ability to do something as simple as remembering the word “Garrett” declines. Emotions are such a powerful force for us, which is why we must learn to stay in the balcony when we’re in the middle of tense situations.
We Need to Hear Our Names
In his wonderful book Run with Horses, Eugene Peterson reminds us of many of the ways in which modern life de-personalizes and degrades us. We become a number and not a name. We are valued for what we do not who we are. This little excerpt is a powerful reminder that our worth and value come from God’s children, given names of significance that, in part, shape our identities.
If I am frequently and authoritatively treated impersonally, I begin to think of myself the same way. I consider myself in terms of how I fit into the statistical norms; I evaluate myself in terms of my usefulness; I assess my worth in response to how much others want me or don’t want me. In the process of going along with such procedures I find myself defined by a label, squeezed into a role, functioning at the level of my social security number.
It requires assertive, lifelong effort to keep our names in front…No one can assess my significance by looking at the work that I do. No one can determine my worth by deciding the salary they will pay me. No one can know what is going on in my mind by examining my school transcripts. No one can know me by measuring me or weighing me or analyzing me. Call my name.