Sermon Ideas For Isaiah 62:1-5 Part 5
Several years I ago I was preparing to lead a workshop with a colleague of mine. After we finished organizing the material we were going to present, we turned our attention to other details. We discussed how we might introduce ourselves. We also discussed how we might provide an opportunity for the participants in the workshop to be introduced to us and to each other, since a good deal of the workshop would involve discussion in small groups.
I confessed to my colleague that I was not very good at thinking up "ice-breaker" exercises. My colleague, on the other hand, was an experienced trainer and had lots of ideas. I was a little skeptical of the one she proposed for this particular workshop. Its beauty was that it was very simple and could be done fairly quickly. My skepticism, though I did not know it until later, was based on a personal prejudice.
The exercise involved each person in the workshop saying their name, then, something unusual about their name, then, what they would like to be called by each other during the workshop. My skeptical assumption was that most people, including me, would not be able to think of anything interesting or unusual about their names and, thus, would find the exercise more frustrating than helpful.
Fortunately, I trusted my colleague's experience and went along with her proposal. The results surprised me. Most of the workshop participants seemed to love this exercise. Almost everyone had some kind of story to tell about their name and the only problem with the exercise was keeping people to the three minute limit we gave them for sharing it. I have since used this same exercise at least seven or eight times with the same result.
This experience made me aware of something about myself I had never thought about before. The fact was that I knew little about my own name except that it was also my father's name and, therefore, had a "Junior" attached to it. I remember that when I was a child, I hated being called, "Wally, Junior," especially by my younger siblings. Beyond that, I had never been especially curious about the origins of my first, middle or last names.
After discovering how unusual I was in this regard, I became curious about my lack of curiosity and apparent lack of attachment to my names. This trail led me to the unsettling conclusion that I had not yet finished with my conflicts with my father and my refusal to identify with him too closely. My name, I realized, carried more emotional freight than I had acknowledged since leaving home and leaving off the "Junior." It symbolized a relationship on which I still had work to do.
In the Bible, there are many examples of the significance of names and the act of naming. In ancient times, perhaps even more than today, names were believed to belong to the essence of a person. To call someone by name was an intimate act. To attack someone's name was to attack that person. A person's name conveyed essential information about the person: lineage, vocation, social status and the claims others have upon him or her. To be called by one's own full name was a sign of respect. To be given a categorical name as we often do today with "the homeless," "teenage super-predators," "the under-class," "Generation X-ers," etc., was and is a form of dehumanization and exile.
It is not surprising that when Isaiah predicted the coming restoration of Jerusalem, he predicted that she would be called by new names. This theme appears frequently in the Bible. For a new name can both symbolize and help bring about a radical transformation in the status and essence of a person or group.
This transformation can occur from outside in, as when Jesus renames Peter and relates to him in ways that bring out and re-sculpt the rock in him. Such transformation can also move from inside out as when a person changes their own name in order to express a fundamental reorganization or reorientation of their core sense of identity.
Calling someone or some group a new name is serious business. When we call someone "friend" we inevitably relate more to the qualities about them we like than those we do not. This not only affects our perception of the person, it affects their essence by reinforcing some aspects of their core identity more than others. When we call someone "enemy", we inevitably relate to them in ways that bring out the hostile and oppositional aspects of their nature more than others. When we call someone "strange," we elicit and reinforce their differentness. The more someone is called by a certain name, the more their core sense of self is influenced by it. We should take great care in the names we help give to others.
We should also take great care in the names we give ourselves. If we call ourselves "victim" too often, our way of being in the world will be affected by this self-categorization in ways that can increase the possibilities of our being victimized further. Calling ourselves "crazy," "stupid," "selfish," "worthless," "loser" and so on, can have the same effects.
When, on the other hand, we begin to call ourselves names like "survivor," "beautiful," "giver" and "blessed," it is often a sign that healing and restoration have begun. As a psychotherapist and pastor I have learned to pay close attention to the names I give to my clients and to the names they give to themselves.