What’s in a Name?

Sunday School starts back up next week.  The start of a new year always causes me a little angst.  Partly, because I know that I will walk in to a room of nearly 30 kids, some of whom I’ve had in my class for years, some of whom will be there for the first time, and I won’t know the names of most of them.  I’m bad like that.

I used to work for South Carolina’s United States Senator, Fritz Hollings, a great man and a masterful politician.  Senator Hollings never forgot a name.  Ever.  And people loved him for it.  That he was able to call them by name made them feel incredibly special even if they didn’t care much for his politics.

Names are powerful.  Sometimes they can make us feel important (or maybe just old) — who can forget that first time someone younger calls us “Mr.” or “Mrs.”?  But names can also make us feel small — like when we’re kids and our parents call out our full names:  “James Benjamin Alexander, come here!”  Uh oh!  Sometimes names can make us feel bad or just plain hurt.  Kids learn this early — “doo-doo head” and “dummy” in the early days and then “geek”, “goober” or maybe “dumbass” later on.  Faggot. Asshole.  Liar.  Words can hurt.

Sometimes names describe us:  When I was younger, I was given the nickname “Friendly”.  Today, most folks who know me well just call me “Ben”.  People younger than me or who don’t know me as well might call me “Mr. Alexander” — suggesting a distance between us or at least a lack of familiarity.  And then there’s the extreme:  If I get a phone call from someone wanting to speak with “James B. Alexander”, I don’t generally return the call.

Names also define the nature of relationships and tell what we know about people.  The guy we used to call by first name becomes “Judge” or “Your Honor” when he’s wearing a black robe; the man or woman wearing a white coat might be called “Dr. Smith or Dr. Jones”; my school teachers remain Mrs. Cavan, Mrs. Carter and Mr. Byrd — and not Betty, Barbara or Robin.  Some names define the really special relationships.  Names like “sweatheart”, “sissy” or “honey”.  Or, my favorite name, “daddy”.  Hearing those names let’s us know that all is well with those very special relationships.

The names we give God have that same power — the power to tell others what we know about God, to describe the uniqueness of our relationship with God, and to let everyone know that all is well with that very personal relationship.  And God has many names.  No, really.  There are literally hundreds and hundreds of names for God in the bible.  (Here, this will get you started:  http://www.smilegodlovesyou.org/names.html).  Names that describe what others have come to know about God through experience.  Names like Yaweh.  Emmanuel.  Living Water.  Refuge.  Day Spring.  Fortress.

When I pray, I usually mindlessly revert back to the names for God that I learned as a child:  Heavenly Father, Lord, Merciful God.  But these names really have little meaning for me now and, to some extent, they may even hinder my relationship with God as they tend to refer to the authoritative God and, to be honest, I’m not so good with authority.  They certainly don’t reflect the uniqueness of the relationship I have with God or the totality of what I know about God.  I have experienced God, at one point or another, as a Teacher, a Counselor, a Life Line, and, to some extent, a Savior.  Someday, I want to be able to say that I have experienced God, and know God, as my Comforter, my Clarity, my Friend. My Abba.  And to feel comfortable calling Him by those names.

My goal for this new year in Sunday School is to learn the names of all the kids in the class.  I want to call them by name so that they will feel important and special.  But more importantly, I hope that together, we will learn new names for our God as we experience God together.

So, I’m curious.  By what name have you come to know God and does calling God by that name help you remember the uniqueness of that experience or that relationship?


5 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Pingback: What’s In a Name (the Sunday School Version) | skepticallydevout

  2. Below are notes from the Sunday School lesson on which the post What’s In A Name was based:

    Q: Did anyone watch any of the football games yesterday?

    Q: Somebody give me examples of really good football team names:

    Nittany Lions
    Coker College Cobras
    Q: What makes those good college team names?

    Q: What are some really lame college football team names?

    Horned Frogs
    Blue Hose
    Fighting Artichokes (Scottsdale Community College)
    Banana Slugs (UC – Santa Cruz)
    Fighting Camels (Campbell)
    Q: Why do these team names seem so lame?

    Not brave
    Not fierce/intimidating
    Q: Does anyone know the most popular baby names the year you were born (1997ish)?

    Q: Does anyone know what the most popular baby names are for this year?

    Q: Does anyone know someone who is really good at remembering names?

    Q: How do they do that?

    Q: How does it make you feel when someone remembers your name? Why is that?

    Q: How are those who are generally good at remembering names regarded? Are they well liked? Why?

    Q: Have you ever had a famous person call you by name?

    Q: How did that make you feel?

    Q: Does anyone know someone (or are you that person) that is really bad at remembering names?

    Q: How does it make you feel if you meet someone several times and they never remember your name?

    Q: Does anyone have a nickname that your parents call you?

    Q: Does anyone have a nickname given to them by their friends?

    Q: How did you get those nicknames?

    Q: Wouldn’t it seem a little creepy if I called you by a nickname that your father or mother or best friend gave you? Aren’t some nicknames unique and reserved for certain people or special relationships?

    Q: What are some names that are used as insults?

    Doo doo head (little kids)
    Q: Why is it that names like that hurt? How is it that even little kids know the power of hurtful names?

    Kernel of truth?
    Goes to who we are or what we think of ourselves
    Tells us what people think of us
    Q: What are some names that define the nature of special relationships between two people?

    Judge/Your Honor
    Mr. Smith
    Dr. Jones
    Q: Turn to Psalms 91 v. 1-12

    Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.[a]
    2 I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
    my God, in whom I trust.”
    3 Surely he will save you
    from the fowler’s snare
    and from the deadly pestilence.
    4 He will cover you with his feathers,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
    5 You will not fear the terror of night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
    6 nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
    nor the plague that destroys at midday.
    7 A thousand may fall at your side,
    ten thousand at your right hand,
    but it will not come near you.
    8 You will only observe with your eyes
    and see the punishment of the wicked.

    9 If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,”
    and you make the Most High your dwelling,
    10 no harm will overtake you,
    no disaster will come near your tent.
    11 For he will command his angels concerning you
    to guard you in all your ways;
    12 they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.

    Q: What names of God do you hear?

    Most High
    My Refuge
    My Fortress
    Q: When you pray, what names do you use to address God?

    Heavenly Father
    Q: How might using just those names be unnecessarily limiting our relationship with God?

    Q: Can you see how in some cases using just those names might actually be an impediment for some people?

    someone who has or had an absent father, authoritarian father or abusive father might find that addressing God in just paternal terms to be counter productive
    Q: How many names of God are there in the Bible?

    Q: Why are there so many names for God in the Bible?

    Because names are based on how people have experienced God and everyone experiences Him differently and God has interacted with his people in many, many ways!
    Q: How have you experienced God?

    Q: If you have experience God in a certain way (Comforter, Protector, Provider, Counselor) consider calling God by that name.

    Q: Using names that reflect the character of God or reflect certain experiences we have had with God help us develop an intimacy with God in the same way that nicknames and pet names given to us by family and special friends do.

    Q: That’s what I hope we are able to do this year — learn each others names and learn different names for God based on our unique interactions with Him this year.

    Closing Prayer: Teacher, thank you for the opportunity to be in your presence and to learn at your feet. Help us to experience you in multiple ways this year and give us the honor of calling you by name based on those unique experiences. Amen.

  3. Similarly, from Upper Room Daily Reflections, my devotion for today:

    Today’s Reflection

    WHAT WE CALL God is important; it is anchored to our emotions, even though we may be unaware of that. The fact that some people become upset at hearing God addressed in unfamiliar ways demonstrates the emotional ties to names for God. While calling God father reveals something of the relationship God wants with us, others might understand that relationship better by calling God mother. The isue is not the word we use for God but what image of God enables us to know God’s love, approach God gladly, and feel that we are warmly welcomed.

    Some people grew up in churches or traditions that named or described God more often as a judge than as a loving parent. Bible verses such as “Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, or he will be angry and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled” (Psalm 2:11) evoke uncomfortable emotional memories. God has been painted too often as an avenger surrounded by eternal fire. Jesus’ model prayer invites us to look at God differently, to discover that no matter what we have experienced — the best and the worst — the relationship God offers is far richer, deeper, and more healing than we have ever had with any person. Whatever we need to call God in order to enter fully into that relationship, Jesus would no doubt approve of.

    – Mary Lou Redding
    The Lord’s Prayer

    From pages 22-23 of The Lord’s Prayer: Jesus Teaches Us How to Pray by Mary Lou Redding. Copyright © 2011 by Mary Lou Redding. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Upper Room Books. http://bookstore.upperroom.org/ Learn more about or purchase this book.

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