Names are powerful, personal, emotional.
Don’t believe me? Think about how you feel when someone butchers your name.
It happens all the time. For some reason, it sticks in my brain, a memory from high school. I was at a music competition. Yes, I was in band in high school. You aren’t surprised are you? I was in AV club too. Anyway, I was at the competition, and they called my name, “Ricky, William Ricky.” Really? Rice may not be a common name, but it is a common word. But those with less familiar names, or names that aren’t as common in the predominant culture, experience this all the time.
It is inevitable and painful. Sometimes we laugh it off when it happens to us. Sometimes it feels like a slight. Sometimes it is more than that. Sometimes a misspelling, a mispronunciation, a misappropriation, a mixup can be painful.
Names are powerful in our biblical tradition. When God speaks someone’s name, something powerful happens. When God changes someone’s name, God changes the person.
The importance of names is reflected in our sacraments. In the United Methodist Book of Worship, in the instructions for the serving of communion, it is written,
Every effort should be made to make each person, and especially children, welcome at the table. It is particularly effective to look directly at the person being addressed, touch each person’s hand while giving the bread and cup, and if possible call each person by name.
To me, that moment of offering someone the bread and cup can be terrifying. After offering the Body of Christ for the hundredth time on a Sunday morning, it is completely possible to forget the name of someone you have known for years. I once called a close friend of mine by the wrong name as she knelt before to receive the bread. Something just misfired in my brain at the moment. She assured me later that I didn’t hurt her feelings, but I felt, for a moment, that I should have left my clergy credentials on the kneeling rail.
Some people have an amazing gift with names. They seem never to forget them and never get them wrong. Others of us struggle. Those that have a gift for names offer a great gift to others, simply by speaking their name.
I have been thinking a lot about names lately. We are creating new email accounts for all the clergy in the Rio Texas Annual Conference. Every precious name gets turned into a combination of the first letter of their first name plus all the letters of their last plus a little “@” and the name of the domain that holds the account. A seemingly simple task, yet not at all. A complex and sacred task. Names aren’t simple. We live in this great mashup of cultures. The practical definitions of “first name” and “last name” vary from culture to culture. Even within cultures, the use of first names and middle names and maiden names and married names varies.
In order to assign an email “alias” to each clergy member of the conference, I read over every name of every last clergy member. Some of them three or four times. I found it turning into a time of prayer. All of that power and meaning, all of culture and history. And with all the checking and double checking, I already know I got some wrong. I have already heard about a couple of them. For one, it was a mistake in our records. For another, it was a typo on a manual entry. When those colleagues reached out to tell me, my first impulse was to defend it as “just a mistake.” It was indeed a mistake, but it wasn’t just a mistake. I messed up their name. And, I will fix it. And, if it hurt a little bit, I will need to own that they have the right to be hurt. It may just be a typo on an email address but it is their name.
Working in communications and technology for the church allows me to live in a strange place – the place where the mundane meets the sacred. It is a fascinating and frightening place to live.