Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. Most of us know that children’s expression, so often used when hurtful words are hurled in childish ways. Most of us have probably used it at one time or another. And most of us also know it’s not true.
Words do hurt. We have felt their sting. Batter a child with negative words frequently enough – you’re stupid, you’re clumsy, you’re lazy, you’re worthless – and before long that child will start acting as if those words are true. Not only will the child’s feelings be hurt today; her potential for a full, satisfying life tomorrow will be hurt as well, diminished in real ways. Name calling has even led some to end their lives.
Words can also heal us and make us whole. They have power to make us more than we are. Build up a child with positive words often enough – you’re smart, you’re strong, you’re creative, you’re capable. – and before you know it the child will start acting as if those words are true. Words feed self-image, and they do a lot to make us who we are.
That’s especially true of names. Naming someone gives an identity to that person. Take Jacob, for example. He was given his name at birth because it said something about his relationship with his older brother Esau. But after one fearful night years later when he wrestled with a mysterious assailant at the river Jabbok, he was given a new name, Israel, literally “God-wrestler,” because it held a meaning about his relationship with God. He had struggled with God and prevailed (Gen. 32:22-28).
Following the long Exile in Babylon, the nation Israel was given a new name. “No more will anyone call you Rejected,” Isaiah proclaimed. “You’ll be called My Delight” (Isa. 62:4 The Message). Their new experience and new relationship with God was represented in a new name.
Since our baptism, you and I have been given a new name that conveys a meaning about our new relationship with God. Now we are called Christian, after our new life in Christ. And because that name has such profound meaning, we need to be careful not to take it lightly or in vain.
We’re not Christian because of a ritual someone performed with water when we were infants; if we’re Christian it’s because we’ve had a life-changing experience with God in which a new creation was born (2 Cor. 5:17). Claiming the name Christian means we embrace our new identity as a people “chosen by God . . . to be a holy people, God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference he made for [us]” (1 Pet. 2:9 The Message).
But somewhere along the way, to borrow Barbara Brown Taylor’s words, the church “decided to be nice instead of holy.” We dialed back the power of our new name and settled for the comfort of cushioned pews and safe sermons – even I’m tempted to do that – and courteous conversation.
Today I’m afraid we too often prefer the stroking of our ego more than the stoking of our passion for holy justice, focusing more on adding members to our membership rolls and dollars to our budget than on the plight of the homeless who sleep within easy driving distance, or children who spend their days and nights hungry, or neighbors who have little or no health care. Somewhere along the way, worship became entertainment, for which we pony up an offering, rather than a bold act of radical insurrection for which we sacrifice our lives.
Yet power has not gone out of us entirely. However dimly, the light of Christ still shines (John 1:5). Our hearts are still stirred by the music of choir and orchestra on Christmas Eve, and we’re grateful for the ministries of those who brought it to us. Despite our self-serving tendencies, there is within us a generosity that moves us to reach out in love to our neighbors through ministries at Gateway-Longview, Seneca Street, Habitat for Humanity, Beechwood, and elsewhere.
A dedicated, faithful cadre of members still contributes countless hours and untold amounts of energy to assure the ongoing operation of the church. And all of this is underwritten by rank-and-file members and friends through generous financial offerings. You do these things not for thanks and praise but because by God’s grace it’s in your nature to do them.
St. Peter wrote to all of us who bear the name of Christ: “But you are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference he made for you – from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted” (1 Pet. 2:9-10 The Message). But do we know our power? Do we embrace it with gratitude and vigor as we face the challenges of life that meet us every day? Or do we fear our power, as Marianne Williamson supposed? In her book Return to Love she wrote:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.
“Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
God has called us by name, and the power of that name still is ours. Even if in earthen vessels, the vision still burns within and among us. We still struggle, in the words of Aldous Huxley, “Cherishingly to tend and feed and fan / That inward fire, [that] small precarious flame,” knowing that even a dimly burning wick [God] will not quench” (Isa. 42:3).