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What's in a name?

- Before you start writing, Richard, just calm down. - I am calm. I’m extremely calm. - You don’t look calm. You look agitated. - I am agitated, but I’m also calm. Thing is, this subject is one of my pet peeves, so it’s upsetting. - Fine. So focus your thoughts and don’t rant. Please don’t rant. - Okay, no ranting. Just clear, intelligible thoughts. - You’re ready. Off you go. - I can do this. Now find me a good editor, because I’ll need one.

What’s in a name? Don’t get me started on this, because I may throw my computer across the room. Why is this subject one close to my heart? Because names matter to me. As you read, you’ll understand why.

Let’s start with the Bible.

Names in the Bible are immensely important. They are indicators of identity and destiny. Entire books have been written on God’s name – indeed, the many names that God uses in Scripture. Yahweh is perhaps the best known. I am who I am. The Jews didn’t use the vowels, so represented it as YHWH, making pronunciation hard to establish. Later, fearing they might violate Leviticus’ injunction regarding the misuse of God’s name, they simply opted for Ha-Shem – the name. What is the meaning of God’s revealed name? It has been discussed for centuries, but perhaps could be summed up as ‘The God who is present for his people, faithful to them to save, deliver, help, redeem and provide for them.’

Names are important elsewhere. Abram becomes Abraham. Jacob becomes Israel. Joshua, who enters the promised land, is a name meaning “The Lord saves.” Translated from the Hebrew into Greek, it is rendered Jesus. So effectively the same name. Yeshua (Joshua/Jesus) Christ (Christos) therefore means, “The Lord saves, the anointed one.” Or perhaps we could say, “The promised one of God, anointed, who saves his people.” That’s quite a title, and quite a claim.

What about us? I accept that we live in a culture in which names do not have the same importance. However . . . and it’s a big however . . .

Names are still extremely important, whether our culture acknowledges this truth or not. Why?

  1. Names are deeply personal. They are one of the primary means we have of making us feel human. That’s why it’s a crime to deny a person a name. In Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, human beings are produced in test tubes. There are very few names. Instead, most people are assigned letters – alpha, beta, gamma, delta. It’s a way of dehumanising the population and controlling it. Then there’s Nazi Germany, who stamped a number into the arms of its concentration camp prisoners. When you’re just a number, you’re being treated as less than human.

  2. A gift. For the most part, our names are given to us by our parents. They are a gift, whatever their meaning or the awareness of meaning our parents may have. They are the words that, over time, become our most important means of self-identification. That’s one of the reasons why names feel so precious to us. They enable us to say, “That’s me!” And that statement gives us the ability to state, “I matter.” Those two are intimately linked.

  3. Names are powerful. Why? Because words are intrinsically powerful. In the world of words, there are few with the same power as a name. That’s why bullies tease the weak by mocking their names. They know (often unconsciously) that our names matter greatly to us, so by misusing a name, they have the power to hurt us.

What does all of this mean to us as leaders with a church full of names?

  1. Remembering names matters. A lot. But not just remembering. Spelling is also important. Here I must confess the reason for that dialogue above. My mother (now passed) was Norwegian. Her name was Anne-Lise. That’s an ‘e’ at the end, not an ‘a.’ When she got married and moved to England, no one spelled it correctly. It just didn’t seem to matter to anyone. So, she just gave up explaining it. My daughter’s name is Madeleine. Not Madeline. Madeleine. Not Maddie or Mads. Madeleine. We gave her that name because we love it. She’s precious to us as Madeleine. Please don’t be cavalier with names. They matter a lot.

  2. So, when you write a card to someone in your church, please check the spelling of their name. They were given that name by their parents (probably.) It’s the way they self-identify and when you carelessly mis-spell it, you demonstrate a lack of care and attention that has the ability to hurt people.

  3. Second, don’t use diminutives unless the person gives you permission. If I say my name’s Billy, then call me Billy. But don’t walk up to a Bill, and call him Billy. It may be the name he hates the most. A bully may have used that name you just chose, and every use of it stings.

  4. If you can’t remember a name, apologise and make sure you acknowledge your limitations. “I’m so sorry, I seem to have forgotten your name” is fine when offered honestly and humbly. Don’t guess.

  5. In his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, he lists ten behaviours that can help a person become successful. Third on his list (I think) is “Use the name of the person you just met.” “So, Bob, tell me about your family” indicates two things. First, I was listening when you introduced yourself. Second, I desire to make a connection. It’s a valuable means of saying, “you are important to me right now. I’m listening to you.” Indeed, it is a way to say, “You are not just a body, you have a name. You are Bob and you matter.” That’s how powerful names are.

Let’s be honest, some of us are good at this; some are not. But don’t make excuses. Today, make the effort to do better. Consciously work hard at remembering names and use them to show you care for people. When you meet Elizabeth (not Beth or Betty) Kaitlyn (starts with a ‘k’) or David (never Dave) in church, remember their names are a gift to them. They may also have a family significance that is extremely important to them, (something I haven’t mentioned.) Don’t be sloppy. Check the spelling.

Many Asian people have given up expecting Westerners to use their names properly, so they choose Western names. Why not make the extra effort to remember their given, Asian name, the one their parents gave them? You will bless them greatly in doing so.

Because names are precious. They make us feel human. And God, who is zealous for his name, values us each by name. We are NOT just numbers. We have names.

And he knows us each by our name, because we matter to him.

He loves us.


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