called by name

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I woke up to the litany of names. Maybe you did, too.

Every year on this day they wind around me as I sip my morning cup of tea, greeting another sunny September day like that bright one we pause to remember (can it be eleven years ago now?). I listen to the litany. Names read by loved ones, a simple, solemn recitation. Just enough pause to let the sounds and syllables sink in before the next name begins.

Names that sound foreign and names that sound familiar. Janitors and bankers and moms and firemen. People who rushed in and people who tried to get out.

All of them gone. All of them loved.

The only thing I treasure about this awful anniversary is that honoring each name is our way to remember.

. . .

We’ve been church shopping for months.

I hate to admit it, because I dislike a consumerist mindset when it comes to faith communities: what can I get here? what can you give me? But our recent move landed us smack in the middle of four different parishes, all equal distance from our house. So we have to decide where will be home.

Each one draws us for a different reason: a great school, a beautiful worship space, a vibrant liturgical life, a warm community. The choice is hard, but we long to settle in – to stop slipping in and out of pews unknown, to cease the Sunday hop from church to church.

But one parish has something that none of the others have.

Before you walk into the sanctuary, you stop at a wooden table with markers and nametags in a wicker basket. The small sign above reads: We are all called by name through baptism. Babies and adults alike slap the sticker on our shirt. When we wind our way to the front for communion, the minister glances at our nametag with a smile and proclaims our name before offering the Body of Christ. The children are blessed the same – by name, with a soft hand laid on their heads.

Every time it gives me goosebumps. The power of being called by name.

I think we found our home.

. . .

I dropped him off at preschool again this morning. I mentally crossed fingers and toes that we’d have another day like last Thursday, the one day he didn’t cry when I left. But I wasn’t sure. He’s a cautious soul, my firstborn.

We held hands tightly as we crossed the parking lot to the front door. Parents and preschoolers all around us did the same. But one little boy, carried in his mother’s arms, squirmed to the side and pointed with delight at my son.

“There’s S!” he exclaimed with a broad smile.

His mother turned. “Is that your buddy?” she asked. The boy just grinned. My son smiled right back, though he said nothing in return.

He didn’t cry today. (Though I teared up as I drove away.)

The power of being called by name.

I think he’s home.

what name do you give God?

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My son’s favorite is Ancient One. Mine is (no surprise) Mother. But on frazzled days I remind myself of Source of Peace.

Sandy Eisenberg Sasso’s lovely book In God’s Name has become a recent naptime favorite. Strangely my young son is smitten with the most ancient of God’s names. Every time we reach the page that describes how “the grandfather whose hair was white with the years called God Ancient One,” the boy with blond curls squirms happily in my lap. It’s a mystery why this name has captured his attention, but he can’t get it out of his head: he delights at its reading and asks all day long about its spelling. He wants to know everything about Ancient One.

I’ve loved this children’s book ever since it fell into my pregnant lap (literally) as I rummaged through cast-offs at a kids’ consignment sale. The illustrations are bright and charming, and the fable that describes how each person names God out of their own life is even more beautiful. At the end of the story everyone gathers around a lake that is God’s mirror and proclaims their different names for God all at once, a joyful sound reflecting the unity-in-diversity at the heart of God’s self.

In an era when our churches seem as polarized as our political parties, I can’t help but wonder at the relevance of this book’s message. Far from a wishy-washy relativism, the truth it gently preaches is important to remember: my understanding and image of God were formed by my upbringing, education and experiences of church. So they aren’t necessarily shared by others who share my faith.

As we each seek to approach the unknowable mystery of God, we name aspects of the divine that speak to us. Hopefully we can also open our hearts to others’ journeys towards the same God, no matter how foreign they may first seem. I can learn from your name for God, just as you can learn from mine.

Quite often I ponder this question of how we image God as it relates to parenting. Developmental psychologists and faith formation experts agree that parents influence a child’s first image of God. It’s only natural that as we begin to wonder about a Being greater than ourselves, we look through the lens of the dominant figures of love, power and authority in our lives.

I want to help my children see God as loving, compassionate, forgiving and just. So when I lose my temper and yell too loud, the startled look in their eyes reminds me that the way I mother matters not only to their emotional and intellectual development, but their spiritual growth as well. (Hence my need to sit at the feet of God who is Source of Peace!)

And when I soothe their cries, teach them patiently or laugh long and hard with them, I pray they are picking up small pieces of the best of what a parent’s love can be – and what it reveals of the God they may come to know as Father or Mother.

Different names for God have been important throughout the changing seasons of my life. When I was younger, Christ as companion captured my heart. As I learned about pneumatology in graduate school, God as Spirit opened my mind. After becoming a parent, God as Mother has taken on a powerful new depth of meaning.

As In God’s Name reminds me, there is no single name for God. Even Scripture is bursting with different images: God as potter, builder, midwife, gardener, servant and redeemer. Today it is “Ancient One” that mysteriously captures my child’s heart. Who knows what names and images will shape him as he grows?

What names for God speak to you today? What names have been important in the past?