It’s clear that name changes are pretty common among, once you stop to think about it. Women often change their last names when they get married. People sometimes adopt new nicknames or drop old ones. Authors and actors and musicians often practice their craft under assumed names. People with traumatic family histories sometime decide to change their names. Adopted children are often given their new family’s name. Intimate friends, family members, or lovers may have pet names for each other.
I was in college the first time I knew someone who changed the first name she wanted to be called by. During my sophomore year a good friend named Cathy decided that she wanted to be named Cas (C-A-S). In a letter similar to many she wrote at the time, Cas explained her reasons for the change:
- She wanted to claim a name for herself as part of a self-initiation into adulthood and maturity and differentiating herself from family templates and expectations.
- She had come to understand herself as a lesbian, and thought of her name change as an important part of her personal coming out process.
Cas was a brilliant, thoughtful, and reflective person as well as a really good friend. So her reasoning was good enough for me: Cathy was now Cas. Done.
I suppose that experience in college is one of the reasons I don’t understand why some folks refuse to honor trans people who want to be called by new names. A name change signifies a change in identity, a way of saying where we are from, a change in self-understanding, and a way of claiming power over one’s personhood that doesn’t happen in any other way, really. New life has begun; new identity is named and space is made for it to emerge. It’s not a step taken lightly, given the challenges that can erupt; in my mind a consciously chosen name change should almost always be celebrated and honored.
The book of Ruth gives us a biblical example of someone choosing a new name. After the deaths of her husband and both of her sons, Naomi (with Ruth tagging along) returns to her home town after many years away. People recognize her and wonder at her arrival. “Is this Naomi?” Then, perhaps, they greeted her, with her old name, as if she were the same person who left. But Naomi responds that she is no longer Naomi (which means “pleasant”). She wants to be called Mara, to reflect her bitterness at the turns and tragedies of her life. Her self-understanding leads her to claim a new name, a name that reflects her personal reality. (A name that the male writer of Ruth promptly ignores).
Relatively few of us change our first names throughout our lives, but we do claim and shift identity in the ways we name and describe ourselves. How we identify and name our roles is exceedingly important: parent, grandparent, teacher, social worker, aunt, uncle, musician, gardener, athlete, cook, business owner. Naming the various roles we inhabit in our lives is a way to inscribe an identity. A book I recently read suggests that changing the way we name our identity is essential for navigating major life transitions. If we identify ourselves primarily in terms of our jobs, for example, naming our self-understanding in a new way is key to a satisfying retirement. Naomi offers a good example of changed lives prompting changed names. Her roles have shifted from wife to widow, from mother to childless, from one who trusted providence to one who feels bitter about life. She is no longer who she was, and she wants people to know that.
The bible also includes several instances of the Holy One changing peoples’ names. In today’s scripture Abram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah. This re-naming marks a distinct shift in the covenant relationship between God and Abram/Abraham. Their relationship has altered and the name change marks that. A name change such as this indicates a divine imprint upon someone’s life. Jacob becomes Israel. Simon becomes Peter. Saul becomes Paul. And so forth through the ages, when those who take holy orders in monastic traditions change their names and some other instances. God has made a claim upon a life and a name change indicates a shift in identity and commitment. Those of us who have not received a name change, or who have not felt impelled to do so, might pay attention to Jesus’s general appellations for his disciples: friends; followers; beloved; brothers and sisters.
And just as the Divine has names for us, we have many names for the Divine that we can use. Each name reveals an aspect of Holy Mystery—just as each name we attach to ourselves reveals an aspect of our lives. For example, in no particular order, I am sister, aunt, cousin, niece, pastor, preacher, listener, lover, partner, pray-er, poet, friend, advocate, and more. One or two aspects of my life don’t come close to the totality of who I am. That is exponentially more true of the infinite and eternal Holy. The names Lord and Father do not even begin to encompass the One. So to know many aspects of God better we need to expand our names. Possibilities are endless: Creator; Sustainer; Rock; Mother; Eternal One; Comforter; Source; Mystery; Lifespring; Merciful One; Gracious One; Abba; Founder of Love. Aspects of the Divine are endless; the names we use to describe God can be as well. And each name, each aspect of Being, broadens the ways we know God.
Why does any of this matter? After all, at the most basic level, isn’t a name just a way to distinguish one person from another? One thing from another thing? Yes. And much more.
Several weeks ago I read an article in an online magazine called Emergence that summarized a recent inquiry. The study found that people who know the names of bird species are more likely to care about the environment. Having a sense of the identity of robin, kildeer, titmouse, tern, wren, catbird, hawk and so forth makes a difference. I suspect that the same would be true of people who know names of trees or flowers or insects or, even, stones. Knowing a name makes other beings more real to us because they have a distinct identity. Knowing a name or receiving a name is the first step in relationships that can be deepened and that can enrich our lives. Knowing a name is a move toward empathy. And choosing a name we’re willing to carry everywhere (as opposed to a stage name, for example) helps us understand ourselves better, which helps us be more authentic in all our relationships.
We are known, we are shaped, we are known to others, and brought into relationship through our names. They carry with them identity, history, and sacred story. And just as God’s many names are precious to us, God’s names for us remind us of our own preciousness: we are children. We are the forgiven ones. We are beloved…all of us. May we carry that name with us always.
Scripture: Genesis 7: 1-16; Ruth 1: 19-21
~Rev. Ruth Moerdyk