What’s in a Name?
(based on Genesis 17:1-7,15-16)
What’s in a name? Or more importantly, what identity are you going to claim?
Along with our birthdates, our name is often an important marker from which our personal story emerges. Most of us can share what our name means, or who we were named after, and can tell tales of how we have tried either to live into or distance ourselves from what our parents intended when they dubbed us.
I am told Kevin means, “pleasant” – either in personality or physical appearance – and I tell every Kevin I meet to claim both meanings! The definition of Porter I resonate with are the porters I used to see when we would travel by train. They were the helpful hosts who would assist us with luggage and make sure we were comfortable. So, with just a little massaging, I have claimed my identity to be a “kind servant” of God.
Of course, no matter what name we are given at birth, it is how we have lived that will determine how we will be remembered when our names are mentioned after we have departed this life.
Swedish chemist, engineer, inventor, and businessman, Alfred Nobel, was jolted into this realization when an obituary of his life was mistakenly published before he had died. Although he held well over 300 patents, the obituary noted he was most well-known for his role in inventing military explosives and earning much of his wealth in the production of armaments.
Knowing this would be his legacy gave Nobel the opportunity to try to change it. He left his considerable fortune to establish the Nobel Prize, with the most notable one – the Nobel Peace Prize – being awarded each December 10th, the anniversary of his death (and coincidentally my birthday).
The Old Testament passage for this week reminds us that, ultimately, the identity God has in mind for us is the one we need to embrace and fulfill. Abram and Sarai were in the later years of their lives and thought they knew their purpose and legacy. In a culture where progeny was one of the most significant measures of wealth and blessing, this elderly and childless couple had long-since come to terms with the disappointments and vulnerabilities of their lot.
But God’s intention for their lives was far greater than their lived experience to that point would have them to believe. God’s directive that they change their names from Abram (Noble Father) to Abraham (Father of Many) and from Sarai (Princess) to Sarah (Princess of Nations), is a dramatic example of the call God desires for each of us to define ourselves as God sees us, even as we struggle to see it ourselves.
We may not be called to change the name we were born with, but God does challenge each of us to look beyond the limitations we place on ourselves and others from our past. God invites us to dare to embrace our identity as children of God and to present ourselves to the world as the transformed vessels of blessing God intends us to be.
Particularly this Lenten season, which bookends a year of perspective, introspection, and reckoning that began last Lent, may we all be bold enough to allow our very selves to be changed by the loving grace, abundant mercy, and abiding presence of the God we know in Christ and to recognize our neighbors as siblings in Christ. In so doing, may our individual and communal legacy be changed into a generation of peace-makers where there once was discord, healers in the midst of suffering, and generous servants in a world in need.
In short, let us incarnate the identity of the Christ we claim to follow.