What’s In A Name?
Sunday, September 18, 2016
Some of you will remember the movie October Sky which was released back in 1999. The movie is the true story of Homer Hickam who was raised in Coalwood, West Virginia as the son of the local coal mine foreman. The story traces the lives of Hickam and three childhood friends whose collective interest in science and the emerging rocket technology of the day would lead them to win the National Science Fair and to Homer becoming a NASA rocket scientist in real life.
What a lot of people don’t know is that October Sky is only one of three books that Hickam wrote that form a trilogy about his childhood. The other two books among the three are The Coalwood Way and Sky of Stone. I love those three stories and if you visit our home, you’ll find the three books stacked with Hickam’s other writing on their own dedicated shelf in our den.
In The Coalwood Way, Hickam tells the story of how he came to be named after his father who was Homer Hickam, Sr. When his father entered the hospital room, to meet his newborn son for the first time, Hickam’s mother, held up the newborn, who was actually their second male child, so that the baby boy’s father could see him and admire him. The senior Hickam studied his son and then remarked, “Elsie, that has got to be the ugliest baby I have ever seen in my life!” Elsie, without missing a beat replied, “well then, I know just what we will call him – Homer Hickam Jr.”
While they may not be as humorous, almost all of our names have a story behind them. They connect us to our parents or another relative. Sometimes, they are a way for our parents to honor a family friend or someone they admire. At still other times they are a way of linking a child to a favorite bible character, blessing them with a name that has a special meaning or that conveys an idea that is important to us.
Again, names are rarely given completely at random or without any thought. Instead, they almost always have some degree, if not a great degree, of significance behind them.
To say the least, throughout the scripture, the name of God and its significance can never, ever be underestimated. In fact, the more we get our minds around its significance the better off we will be. After all, how we approach God’s name has a profound affect on how we approach God. The Lord’s Prayer in general, and particularly our phrase for this morning which speaks of “hallowing the name of God” helps us tremendously in this regard.
This line in the prayer, “hallowed by thy name” fit perfectly into the theology of the disciples who Jesus was assisting as he gave them tips on praying. As you know, the disciples all came out of a Jewish heritage and that heritage had schooled them in a deep reverence for God’s name as a way of reverencing God. On the one hand, in the very beginning, when Moses encountered God and ask God to tell him His name, the name he is given is Yahweh which comes from the Hebrew verb “to be”. In other words, Moses was taught that God is the was who simply was and is. In other words, there is a mystery and otherness about God that the meaning of God’s name communicates in and of itself.
On the other hand, as you will likely remember, as time went on, the Jewish people developed such a reverence for this otherness of God that they would not even say God’s name as they read scripture. Instead, they would simply pause in silence when they came to the name of God. They would not utter the name verbally. Rather, they paused with respect. The God who simply was, was also too holy, unique, mysterious and too grand for a human to utter God’s name.
Therefore, when Jesus took the revolutionary step, as we discussed last week, of saying that we should begin our prayers by saying “abba father” which is to say by calling God something akin to “daddy” or “poppa” he wanted to balance this I think with reminding us that we are also to continue to hallow God’s name.
What I take from this and what I think we should all take from this is that while prayer is about developing a personal, intimate relationship with God the point, at the same time, is for us to also avoid adopting a flippant or casual approach to God.
This same idea exists with our own families today. When our parents are referred to as poppa, daddy, mom or momma and our grandparents as nana. grammy or pops the same basic thought is afoot. Sure, these are all ways of addressing our parents and grandparents in loving and less formal ways. At the same time, we are not calling them by their first names and we are not saying something disrespectful. Far from it. In fact, these special terms for them is a way of communicating our love and intimacy with them but also our respect for them.
This is the balance we are after as we pray. We are building an intimate relationship where we can call God daddy. But, we are also, clearly respectful, in awe and aware that we are addressing the holy, mysterious God who deserves and commands our attention and our reverence.
In a world, where reverence is gone and where people use God’s name in careless, callous and outright despicable ways, this daily reminder of both our intimate relationship with God and at the same time our need to adhere to and maintain a reverence for God is a helpful reminder and a needed corrective. It without question refreshes our memory on what it looks like for us to approach God and think about God in the best of ways.
There is something else though that is also interesting about this phrase in the Lord’s Prayer that has honestly been a big question mark for scholars for a long, long time. The question is whether or not this phrase is to be seen in the past tense or more in the future tense. In other words, are we simply being called to affirm the sacredness of God’s name as an already proven reality or are we through praying this phrase committing ourselves to honoring God’s name as holy as we move forward?
Of course, I think the answer is that it is both. It is an affirmation that God is holy, but, a way of saying that we will keep this holiness in front of us as we move through each new day.
Now, this sounds more like good, philosophical, mental gymnastics than anything else. But, in reality, there is a deep, abiding practical truth at work here. After all, living in a way that exhibits a reverence for the name of God isn’t simply about how we care for God’s name in our speech, it is also connected to how we live out God’s ways. If God is the holy one who is separate and like no other, then as God’s children, who want to live in light of who God is, we are committing ourselves to living different and set apart lives too.
One of the great honors for me over the last couple of years has been the chance to serve on our Alumni Council at Duke Divinity School where I did my seminar work. Twice a year, in the late Summer and in the Winter, our council spends time back on campus in Durham to meet with school officials and to offer our support and insights as graduate of the school who are also now practitioners in the field of ministry.
One of the things that we do every time we meet is to have a student panel. General speaking, the panel consists of three current students at Duke Divinity. They share with us about their background, what they hope to do with their degree, what their favorite classes have been and which professors have impacted them the most.
When they talk about favorite professors, they almost always do so with a great degree of reverence and admiration. In other words, they speak of them in a way that suggests a high, high degree of respect and regard.
What fascinates me is that it is not uncommon for their favorite teachers to be the same favorite teachers of those of us on the committee. We loved them too when they were our teachers as well. Likewise, we also hold them in high, high regard. But, for those of us of who have this deep respect as alumni for favorite teachers, we are able to share that we not only can express our appreciation and reverence through what we say about them – we can also point out that we have honored them by allowing their classroom lessons and ideas to affect our lives, our career decisions and our ministry priorities. Our current students pay their respect with the currency of their words; yet as alumni, we have and continue to pay our respect with the currency of our lives and decisions.
This is the deeper sense that prayer and prayers of reverence for God’s holiness and otherness call us to embrace. Again, it is not done just in our careful use of God’s name, rather it is also done in allowing our reverence for God to challenge us to live out the otherness and set apartness of God in our daily affairs.
This weekend, the Capital Theater is playing the movie Greater. It is the story of former University of Arkansas athlete Brandon Burlesworth. Burlesworth, who was a devout Christian, inspired so many people during his college days because he was so different – his work ethic, his kindness, his integrity simply distanced him from everyone else. He worshipped a holy, set aside God who called him to embody the same uniqueness.
You see as believers today, we are called to pray daily that we will revere God name but that God will also empower us to embody this reverence God’s name with our lives. Both are equally needed in our world today.
The other day, I noted the headline of an article in a secular magazine entitle, “Dealing With The Six Words A Christian Should Never Want to Hear”. I found that title so intriguing that I opened the article and began to read. The seven words that the title referred to were actually the six words of a statement. This was the statement or the six words that none of us should want to hear…”I Didn’t Know You’re A Christian!”…”I Didn’t Know Your A Christian”. (Dealing With The Six Words A Christian Should Never Want to Hear by Jason Foster, 9.8.2016, The Huffington Post)
Maybe we have always held the name of God in high regard. Maybe we have always taken good care with the holiness of God’s name. But, if God’s otherness is not evident in the obvious transformed and clearly different nature of our lives, have we really honored and hallowed God’s name as we should. If no one would pick us out as a believer based on our behavior have we truly honored God and God’s name?
This must be a matter of daily prayer. Lord, help me to honor your name with my lips and also with my life. Amen.