How we label others and ourselves gives life and takes it away. Every day our naming of the people around us gives life and takes it away. Really? Really. I can still feel the impact of a highly musical friend who one day called me musical. No one had ever called me that. I didn't really play an instrument. I was no soloist. Yet what made this comment so remarkable was that I instantly felt known and loved. Why? Because I was being named in the way that always matters most: from the inside out.
The musicality of my life, fundamental and invisible as it is, has to do with my soul, not with instruments. It's about my way of being in the world, not about notes being played. The sheer, unexpected grace of being named "musical" stunned me. It's not the most important thing about me, but he "got me" in a way that noticed, validated, and appreciated something deeply true about me even though it is usually missed.
Being rightly named means being truly known. It changes our lives. Embedded in our words, and in our actions, are the names we give to and receive from others. Nods of recognition, glances of curiosity, looks of compassion, and signs of paying attention build one another up. "Hey bud," "good job," "I noticed …” "thank you," "join us" are little names that matter. When positive words and actions combine, such naming actually makes a life.
God created by naming: "Let there by light," and "let us make humankind in our image." In turn, the human beings named with unflinching instinct, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh." The first job God gives us is to name the creatures around us. Naming is about as primary to our being made in God's image as almost anything else we might … well, name. It carries with it our peculiar capacity for relationship, including our potential to not just see but actually perceive, acknowledge, and affirm personal identity and worth.
Love names us rightly. What need could be more primal? Yet right from the start our very capacity for rightly naming includes our freedom to misname. "Did God really say . . ." are words that rename God's intent, and reality cracks. "This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh" easily becomes "The woman you gave me."
Such misnaming reveals that things have changed and contributes to their changing further still. When "brother" becomes a mere label, there's no longer a reason to be his keeper. A tower holds aspirations of a name - privileged and proud. Misnaming misidentifies who we are and our relation to others. The tragic consequences are everywhere. Power can be measured by our capacity to give names that stick. Middle school teaches us this, if nothing else. If we carry the wrong name given us through some powerful voice at some vulnerable moment, we can be crippled.
Every time the church gathers in worship, we gather as those bearing names not our own: Inadequate. Rich. Failure. Together. Bad Parent. Fat. We can be deluded or oppressed by the naming and misnaming we experience and perpetrate on others. Suffering, individually and collectively, intensifies when it's wrongly named. Injustice wracks our world with the complex legacy of God's treasured creatures misnaming God, misnaming ourselves, and misnaming our neighbor. This abuse of power is our undoing.
Most years at our annual leadership retreat, I introduce new elders to everyone present. It's not a description of their activities or their work, but a more intimate and personal honoring of why I see them as treasured gifts. When I first did this, and new elders came up in tears afterwards expressing what my comments had meant to them, it was clear that naming matters more than I could have guessed. Over the years, some have said it was their personal highlight of being an elder; naming can give life.
Dalits ("Untouchables") in India are required by Hindu law to be given one name, and it must be derogatory: Ugly, Dung, Stupid. Imagine the transformation when they discover that in Jesus, God came as a dalit (itself an extraordinary shock of rightly, if unexpectedly, naming God), and that he has the power to rename them: Chosen. Holy. Beloved. "Behold, all things are new." Indeed.
As pastors and leaders, ours is a vocation of naming. By God's grace, our calling is to live into our own real names as we help others discover theirs so that in turn they can so live and name the people and the world around them that what has been lost is found, that those who are blind may see. When we live this way, we participate in "doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly before our God." What else is required by the One we name Lord?
Written By Dr. Lewis Akpogena