Monday, August 28, 2023

The Names We Are Given

Funny, the titles we take on.

For the last twenty months, I'd been all in caring for Dad. I'd tested him for COVID, conferred with doctors, rushed him to the hospital. I'd sat in emergency rooms, conferred with doctors. I’ve managed home aide schedules and long term health insurance billing. I'd been a conduit of information to family and friends. I'd facilitated outings and visits. I'd cooked and organized and transported, bathed and cleaned up after toileting accidents, all of it, front of mind. The unifying label for all of that, as least as it’s now defined in our culture: Caregiver.

But as of pretty much exactly one week ago, I am no longer that.

I mean, sure, I’m caring for Mom, but that seems to mostly involve negotiating the byzantine American governmental and corporate death bureaucracies and making arrangements, so I’m more her Personal Executive Concierge.

Caregiving is for the time being is not an active label, no longer something that directly defines my day to day actions. That's done, or rather, that time is complete. That propensity is always going to be a part of my identity, and there are other seasons where I’ll take it on again.

All of us have elements of our identities that we consider definitional, which is an overly fancy way of saying that they shape our understanding of ourselves. We are a student. We are a teacher. We are a long haul trucker or an electrician or a contractor. We are an actor, or a writer, or a gardener. We’re a wife or a husband.

Those roles become like our names, something that defines us not just for others, but for ourselves. They are the word for who we are.

Names and meaning have wandered a bit from that way of defining us in the modern era. Generally speaking, we don’t tend much to the meaning of the name we’ve been given, or to our family names. That our last name might be Smith or Fisher, Gardener or Farmer, Carpenter or Taylor, Weaver or Wheeler? That doesn’t mean that’s what we do, not anymore. It’s less a definition and just a sound in our ears now. My wife’s family name, for example, rises from the book of Exodus. Mosheh, which means “From the Water,” the name given to that little Jewish baby found in a river. Outside of that blessedly short season when swim-team was seemingly all we did all the time, it doesn’t meaningfully define my family.

Jesus explores naming and identity in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, and the meaning of the names and the labels that can be applied to define our expectations of others and ourselves.

Who is the Son of Man, Jesus asks his disciples, illuminating a title that occurs thirty times in the Gospels and Epistles. It’s a challenging question, and an equally challenging title. In the Greek used in Matthew, that title is ho huios tou anthropou, a Greek translation of the Hebrew phrase ben adam.

We tend to associate the title with power and glory, which is kinda peculiar, because it means exactly the opposite. A ben adam is nothing more and nothing less than a human being, which is mostly how that term was understood. The prophet Ezekiel, for instance, uses that term ninety three times, and it always just means “human being.” That’s certainly a compliment, generally speaking, even given the rather deep flaws we human beings carry within us. In Yiddish and in the German from which that language was derived, being a human being is being a “mensch,” which is a way of saying a person is a good egg, that they really are who they are, that they are genuine and trustworthy.

Where it’s used in Matthew and elsewhere in the Gospels, Son of Man means something a little different. Not “a human being,” but “The Human Being.   “Who do people think is The Human Being,” Jesus asks, and the disciples reply with a series of answers that would have been common in first century Judah and Galilee.

“And who am I,” he asks, laying that question out on the table.

It’s Simon, son of Jonah, who answers: “You are the Meschiach, the Christ, the Anointed one. You are Son of the living God.” He is commended for his successful answer, and Jesus calls him Rock, or Petros, the foundation on which the church will stand. Again, a name with meaning, a name that speaks to the role and place of a person, that defines their place in the world.

What is it that defines us? What is our true name, the name that isn’t either a fleeting thing or an empty sound?

One of the great strengths of faith is that the claims of faith over us aren’t simply for a single season. When we take on the title “disciple” or “Christian” or “follower of Jesus, and understand our every action as being defined by the teachings of the Nazarene, that form of self understanding doesn’t change season to season. Whether we are son or father, mother or daughter, that commitment remains. If we are studying, working, or in a season of rest, that commitment remains. We remain committed to his path of grace and mercy, or love that transcends every season, to a Name that is Above All other Names.

When the world shakes and shifts, and we find ourselves suddenly in a different place than we were, with former roles and relationships changed or gone, we can easily lose our sense of who we are. We can lose all sense of purpose, or all sense of who we are. That can leave us struggling, constantly seeking something that gives life meaning, chasing after one chimera after another.

Being grounded in our True Name means that we remain on solid ground throughout all of the shifts and storms of life. It also lets us hold on to that which has come before, to find that unbreakable connection between who we have been and who we were, to see our whole self as part of something that both defines us and remains forever beyond us.

Whoever we might be right now, that commitment shapes and holds us fast.