Tuesday, 8 December 2015

What's in a name? Lots!

I have called you by name - you are mine. Isaiah 43:1

Isn’t it wonderful when you succeed in making somebody happy? It’s even better when you do it without meaning to. This happened to me not long ago, and I went home feeling really good.

So what was this wonderful thing I did? The answer is short and simple: I called somebody by their name.

I didn’t have any official pastoral responsibility for Myfanwy; she is an elderly lady I have got to know through visiting in a local nursing home. I don’t think she gets all that many visitors, but she is always cheerful and determined to be positive about life. We have become friendly over the months and she appreciates a brief prayer after we have talked.

It was during one of those prayers that (with her permission) I prayed for her by name - whereupon she dissolved into tears: “Thank you so much! It’s so long since somebody called me by my proper name.” How sad is that!

Since moving into the home, some two or three years previously, Myfanwy has become known as “Fanna”. I don’t entirely blame the staff for that; most of them don’t speak English as their first language, and I can well imagine that some names  -  especially unusual Welsh ones  -  are a bit of a challenge.

And, to be fair, Myfanwy isn’t actually that bothered. Rather than complain, she has shrugged her shoulders, so to speak, and accepted “Fanna” as a fact of life. But her tearful response to me made clear that I had touched something deep down within her.

Which raises the question: how good are we at paying people the respect they are entitled to by addressing them properly?

Perhaps I have a particular feeling about this because of my own mother-in-law. She was an Armenian, her name Khatoun - “Kh” as in “loch” or “Bach”. As a young woman she married a British man and came to live in a small town in England. She was, I ought to say, quite kindly received by the locals, but they did struggle with her name, and eventually settled for “Kitty”. Which she hated (no disrespect to real Kittys, but it just isn’t her name). But, like Myfanwy, she learned to put up with it. It wasn’t worth making a fuss.

In her case I feel slightly less sympathetic towards the neighbours. Was Khatoun, even with that top-of-the-throat, back-of-the-mouth Kh, really so very difficult? Was it really too much trouble to make that minuscule effort for her sake? I find it hard to believe. Even “Hatoon”, though not perfect, would have at least been some sort of gesture. Perhaps they just felt embarrassed.

We all know how important names are in the Bible. They have clear meanings. Even though it is different for us today, they still have an emotional impact. Your name captures, somehow, the “you-ness” of you, your very identity.

I remember once being addressed as “Chris”, and even though it mattered not a scrap - it was just the understandable mistake of a kind person I hardly knew - I nonetheless felt, just for a split second, quite affronted: “Hey, my name’s Colin, if you don’t mind!”

This experience, combined with my mother-in-law’s, led me to try, every time I meet someone new, to give them their proper name. Not that I always succeed, of course.

God respects our names. “I have called you by name; you are mine” he says. Jesus thought names important enough to rename some of his disciples: Simon becomes Peter; James and John, no doubt humorously, are nicknamed Sons of Thunder. And there is that strange passage in Revelation 2:17 where the “overcoming” believer is promised “a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it”.

Names, in other words, are extremely personal things, which no doubt is why Myfanwy broke down on hearing hers that day. Certainly it can be overdone - cold-callers on the phone presuming on a friendship that doesn’t exist, politicians being over-matey with the broadcaster interviewing them.

But the fact remains that, in normal everyday life, to take the trouble to learn correctly, pronounce accurately and then use consistently somebody’s proper name is a way of saying, “You matter to me. You aren’t just an object in my life. You are a person, utterly unique and infinitely precious, and I want to treat you as such.”

Thank you, O God, that you see and know me as a person, unique and precious in your eyes. Please help me to treat others the way you have treated me. Amen.

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