Name calling

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. Most of us know that children’s expression, 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 know it’s not true.

Words do hurt us. 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 diminished in real ways. Name calling has even led some to suicide.

Words can also heal us and make us whole. They have power to make us more than we are. Bolster 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 and create a better life for us in the future.

That’s especially true of names. Naming someone imparts an identity to that person. Take Jacob, for example. He was given his name at birth because it meant 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 ford of the river Jabbok, he was given a new name, Israel, literally “God-wrestler,” because it conveyed a meaning about his relationship with God. He had struggled with God and prevailed (Gen. 32:22-28).

Following their long Exile in Babylon, the nation Israel was given a new name. “You shall no more be termed Forsaken,” Isaiah wrote, “and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you” (Isa. 62:4). Israel’s 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 says something about our new relationship with God. Now we’re called Christian. And because that name has such profound meaning, we need to be careful not to take it, or give it to our children, lightly or in vain.

We’re not Christian because someone poured water on us and said some special words when we were infants; we’re Christian because we are a brand-new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), a brand-new expression of God in the world. As St. Peter wrote, “you are . . . God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9). Claiming the name Christian means we embrace our new identity as a people chosen by God for God’s holy purpose.

But somewhere along the way, the church “decided to be nice instead of holy” (Barbara Brown Taylor). We settled for the comfort of climate-controlled buildings, safe sermons, and courteous conversation.

We chose the stroking of our ego more than the stoking of our passion for a holy justice, focusing more on adding people to our membership rolls and dollars to our budget than on the plight of the homeless whom we pass on our way to church, or children who spend their days and nights hungry, or neighbors who have little or no health care, or brothers and sisters whose lives are deprived of peace by our unconscious racism and comfortable White privilege. Our worship became self-medicating entertainment rather than an act of prophetic, radical insurrection against the powers of the world.

Yet the power has not gone out of us entirely. However dimly, the light of Christ still shines unquenched in the darkness (John 1:5). Our souls are still stirred by the message of the music of choir and orchestra that filled our hearts on Easter Day. Generosity still wells up within us as a congregation and moves us to reach out in love to our neighbors through ministries such as the Burrito Project and the Caribbean Children’s Foundation and elsewhere.

It moves us individually to dedicate uncounted hours to offer practical help for daily living to our neighbors and a vital Christian education ministry to our children, to contribute untold hours of time and amounts of energy to assure the ongoing operation and vitality of the church, and to support all of it by generous financial offerings. These things are done not for thanks and praise but because by God’s grace it’s in your nature to do them. The power of the name still rests upon us. The vision still burns within us, and though much of our power as children of God may remain unrecognized and unlived, we still struggle, in the words of Aldous Huxley, “Cherishingly to tend and feed and fan / That inward fire” that makes us who we are and identifies us to the world around us. ▪

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