I have been musing lately on the subject of names.
It started when DS told me one morning that he had recognised a comet from its picture. That’s right, he’d seen a picture of an unlabelled comet and knew its name. I was so impressed! (Not impressed enough to find out what the name was but, hey, impressed.) This was my son, a man who knows comets by name!
(‘Mum, I know the name of one comet. Not all the comets.’)
It got me thinking. Do comets have names before humans label them?
If you know the seven-day creation story in the bible you will know that it was man who gave names to the animals. God made the animals but he gave man the job of assigning names. And we – humans – love giving names to things – kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. It’s a big deal.
This week at the university I had two days of lab sessions with my summer school students. We all got together in the chemistry lab and we played with various chemicals and reactions. It’s a full-on, but very productive couple of days. One of the fun things about these days from my point of view is the chance to meet people that I have known all summer as a name, and see what they are really like.
One of my students has the name Thelma, but she goes by Pixie. Another is named Tiffany, but called TJ. That got me thinking as well. You see, for most people, they are given a name at birth. That is, before anyone knows anything about them, they are given the name that they have to live with all their lives. My kids’ names were chosen well before they were even conceived. (We’re so glad we only had a daughter and a son, we didn’t have any more names chosen.)
So the name you are given by your parents has nothing to do with your personality, your likes or dislikes, your educational status, your wealth, nothing. And yet, we judge people by their name. Somehow we assume that the name someone has been given will have something to do with who they are.
There are studies showing that (in the sciences at least) a decision on a resume with a female name will be different to the decision on the exact same resume given with a male name. That if a name on a resume is spelled interestingly Raychelle, for example, rather than Rachel, then the resume again will be treated differently. But it’s not poor Raychelle’s fault that her parents named her with the interesting spelling. And they probably did it with her best interests at heart.
I realised that I would have thought very differently about Pixie all semester if I had only known her as Thelma. That old-fashioned name gives a very different picture.
It says in the good book that God knows us by name. But which name?
I learned in last week’s sermon that Jesus gave Simon the nickname Petros (meaning little rock, pebble) but then he talked about him being Petra – a massive great boulder that he would build his church on. Jesus knew the whole of Simon Peter – the beginning of his life as the rowdy Simon who kept getting it wrong, but he also knew the Peter who would give the sermon that started the whole Christian church, and he knew that God would continue to build that church until now ~2000 years later.
DS suggested to me that God knows each of us by our Entish name. In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, there are Ents – walking trees. And the name that Ents give is not just a label, but the whole life story of the tree. The names can be very long, very very long – trees live a long time.
God isn’t worried by time. He is eternal. He lives outside of time. And I like to think that when he says he knows me, or an animal, or a comet for that matter, by name, he is talking about the Entish name. The whole life story.
Now, I happen to love the name I was given at birth, and I find it very interesting that a nickname has never stuck to me – I have always been Ruth. And Ruth means beloved, which is a lovely short name to have. But I feel very beloved when I think that God knows my whole name, and loves me anyway.
Let’s be aware of our unconscious bias and try not to judge anyone by their name or label.
And be encouraged – God knows you by name.