Friday, March 09, 2007

What's In A Name?

Over the past year I have been reflecting deeply on what names really mean. Three years ago I tried to get my daughter to keep our last name as her middle name when she married. Of course, she and my wife laughed themselves sick at the suggestion which - truthfully - was made with tongue firmly planted in cheek. But, that got me thinking about names, about belonging, about labels, and about the way that the purpose and usefulness of names seems to be always evolving.

When we were born, our parents picked our names. I assume that they, like me, chose names for their kids based on something, some principle, or some feeling that made one name stick out. Some parents try to instill a sense of history, or legacy in the name they pick which accounts for the ocassional "Hilton Jameson Smyth Lonniger III" that you sometimes hear when they call roll in gym class. Other parents, I am sure, pick a name that carries the ring or sound that they associate with a certain personality type, or strength of character. So, we get all the names for girls that end in "i" because Mom thought it was perky, or the uber-manly names like Garth or Horst that Dad thought sounded strong. Either way, the name was a projection of what the parent hoped the child would be. In the case of naming a child, the name usually is a projection of what the parents hope their kid will eventually become. If you want him to run for Senate at some point, you don't name your son Kim.

Things are much different when the person or thing carrying a name gets to pick it themselves. For example, businesses don't let their customers name them. Rather, they pick a name that projects what they want the customer to think they are. The name becomes the first advertisement. And companies not uncommonly change their names from time to time in order to more efficiently project themselves in the marketplace.

So, in both the case of the parent naming the child, and of the business naming itself, there is no certainty that the name willl actually end up truly describing reality. Whether your name is given to you, or you pick it yourself, there is no way to make sure that the name is telling us the truth about you. Bottom line, names aren't trustworthy in most cases. Not all Trixies are dim-witted anymore than all Garths are courageous. Christian Science is neither, and the same is true for Grape Nuts. Names don't make it so.

What has become clear is that a name has little if any power to shape a person or company. But, what is true is that a person or company can "shape" their name so that, in the minds of others, the name becomes a fountain of positive impressions. So, where am I going with this?

We just recently spent about a year changing the name of our church. Over that time we talked, and prayed, and argued, and reflected, and stopped, and started, and spent hours trying to figure out just why names exist, what their purpose is, and how a name could possibly become an adequate picture of who we are as a called out people of God who are amazingly unified despite our great diversity. Some are old and some are young. Some appreciate the nobility of history, and others think Bono might be the greatest statesman of all time. Some prefer quiet, others can't concentrate without inserting an IPod, and opening IChat, while texting the world. How could any name ever hope to encompass all of our diversity and complexity under one banner? Given that we didn't think a 12 word name would fit on the sign, we had to go a different direction.

And so we learned the lesson that began this post. Names actually aren't trustworthy descriptions, and hardly anyone today thinks they are. Rather, they are simply designations that allow people and companies and churches and everything else to be differentiated from one another. We also learned that names can become fountains of good impressions, but only as those who "wear" them act in a way that others appreciate. When we put all this together, we decided to find a name that was not easily misunderstood by those who considered names to be "descriptions of character", and yet, could still be "shaped" in a beneficial way by us. So, we are now known as Northpoint Evangelical Free Church.

Most have no idea what "evangelical" means, and if they think they do, its most often negative, as in some wacko right-wing political group. That's too bad really, because the word comes out of the Reformation and has a great history, and a strong, necessary message for today. That's why we've kept it even though for those outside our church family, we'll probably just use Northpoint in casual conversation. "Free' is even worse in terms of people understanding it, but we're keeping it because its not bad to be just a little ornery sometimes. Anyway, with Northpoint, we believe we can "shape" it the way we want to. We are pointing away from ourselves, pointing to Jesus, the "true north" of our lives. We'll see how this all works out.

One more thing on names. There is one place where names are trustworthy as descriptions of character, and that is in the case of Almighty God. Throughout the Bible, God describes His character by means of His Name. And unlike all other "named" entities in this world, God never changes, so His Names are a relevant and reliable source of knowledge about Him. Once again, in the midst of shifting sands and a changing world, we have the gift of an immutable God. Praise Him!

David W. Hegg


At 6:55 PM , Blogger Abby said...

Very interesting, Dad. Today I started our Pilgrim's Progress study with my students, and we had a discussion on the meanings of names as well. And while I may not have the "Hegg" on my driver's license anymore, I think it's pretty obvious where I came from. I love you.


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