(All scripture quotations are taken from The Severely Dramatized Gospel of Longish.)
When somebody meets you, what’s the first thing they ask? If you’re not me, it probably won’t be “Oh my gosh! Can I have your autograph?” But even us famous people are asked “What’s your name?” occasionally. After that, it’s generally “What do you do?” or “Where are you from?” Those questions are the basic building blocks for forming a mental portrait of other people. If you’re from up North, you probably won’t be interested in the latest Redskins game. If you’re a mechanic, you probably won’t be too interested in philosophy. But even though a name doesn’t tell us much anymore, it’s still one of the first things asked.
Why is that? Back in the day, it was because folk wanted to know who your pa and ma were. Before that, to what tribe or feudal lord you owed your allegiance. And way, way, back, in ancient
Jacob means deceiver. While not as bad as that old pain, Jabez, Deceiver’s a pretty rough name to slap on a kid, but Jacob lived up to it. Everybody knows about the Red Soup Scam, the Birthright Switch Caper, and the Favorite Goat Hoax. But with that last con, he realized he’d pulled the wool over his dad’s eyes one time too many. Jacob found himself on the run, in the wilderness. On the way, he had a vision, a brief brush with the eternal, but he was still asleep to the truth.
He found asylum, at last, in his uncle Laban’s house, but unbeknownst to Jacob, he’d just met his match. Laban was a wily old fox from way back, and he had the advantage. Jacob loved his daughter, Rachel. When Jacob had worked seven years for her hand in marriage, Laban gave him Leah instead. Either Jacob was blind, drunk, or the girls were twins, because he didn’t notice until the morning. For once, he was the deceived, rather than the deceiver.
He did get Rachel, but only for another seven years work. After all that, he took his wives and left, striking out on his own with the family and fortune he has amassed. That’s when things got interesting. Suddenly, he found out that his brother Esau was in the area. Jacob’s past had finally caught up with him, and it was time to face the music. He put it off, sending a gift in Esau’s direction just in case. He separated his entourage into two groups and sent them off in different directions, then headed out into the wilderness…again. But this time, he wouldn’t get away so easily.
Picture the scene. It is in the dark genesis of the morning. The sky is almost as black as the desolate plains. Jacob is alone, weary, stumbling aimlessly. And then, out of nowhere, a man barrels into him. The two slam to the hard ground. Jacob’s instincts kick in, and he starts fighting. The stranger punches him in the ribs; Jacob drives his elbow into the man’s gut.
Jacob will not give in. He will not let go.
“No,” Jacob groans. He knows that this is no man. “I’m not letting go till you bless me.”
Jacob freezes. What is my name? Who am I? he thinks. I am Esau. Mighty. Rich. I did this by my own hand. I just got what was mine by right. But for once in his life, Jacob tells the truth.
And God smiles. “You are no longer Jacob, but you shall be called
“Please. Tell me your name,” Jacob says.
The stranger shakes his head. “Why do you ask?” And then, as swiftly as he came, he is gone.
The fire of the sun trickles over the horizon, bathing the Earth in golden radiance.
The way of the Nazarene,That pain’s the path to blessing,
Naming a thing is a special, holy, and, dare I say it, almost magical ritual that we are called to. When I was really little, I would name my few dolls, and my many action figures. It was my little stamp of meaning. I gave them a name and I wrote their story, and I was wrapped up in the joy of being a creator. You know how your parents will say about that stray dog, “Don’t name it! Then you’ll get attached to it.” It’s true.
We, all of us, have a name that describes who we are. It doesn’t have to be the name we were given, but it is the one that holds our essence. Mine is probably Arrogant. Or possibly Sarcastic. Genius is probably a long shot. There are several others that I’m not about to admit, but that are probably true.
What’s your name? Who are you?
The good news is, we don’t have to be those things. One of my absolute favorite concepts in the Bible is renewal. “Behold, I am making all things new.” The idea that “even darkness must pass, and when the sun shines, it’ll shine out the clearer.”* There's something on the other side of the Grey Havens. On many dark days, it’s the only thing that gives me hope—that someday, this crazy mess will make sense. In Revelation, Jesus says that he will give us a new name, written on a white stone - the Old Testament judicial symbol meaning "not guilty". We can put away our old names. Ron Block, in his essay, “There’s Power in the Name”, points out that they’re not always bad. They can be Over-Achiever, or Athlete, or Harvard Graduate, and it’s usually harder to let go of those.
We have been given new names. Jesus covered our sins and gave us a new identity, a new person. We don’t have to be Jacob or Arrogant or Sarcastic, because that’s not our identity anymore. In our society, I hear a lot about finding out “who you really are.” Honestly? I couldn’t care less, because it’s not for me to decide. All I have to decide is what to do with the name I’m given. And if I do that, I’m daily becoming who I really am.
“Nothing ever seems to change
But miles away beneath the waves
Down below the dirt
Hotter than a flame
In the belly of the earth
He has given you a Name.”-Andrew Peterson “Mountains on the Ocean Floor”
Neo-Mayberry, Middle of Nowhere, America
*Samwise Gamgee, The Two Towers movie
*Samwise Gamgee, The Two Towers movie