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?