The Naming of Things

I love God’s creatures. I plot vacations around seeing as many of them in his wild world as I can. I’ve gone to ends of the world, so it seems, to view orcas, sloths, and moose where they live. Last month, I actually did drive to nearly the end of Canada, partly to see a giant gannet colony.

Because we could, and I would.

But there are two animals that do not hold a secure place in my heart. Spider and wasps.

This will be important.

Last summer, a spider spun a web in our dining room window. This meant I had to see him at every meal. I sat across from that window. Like the accident we can’t turn away from, I couldn’t help but look him, stalking around in our window sill, taking up an entire corner.

This was a big spider. I named him Aragog. And this is when I started to like him. At least, I started to have a strange proprietary affection for him. He was named. He was our spider. He was still big and ugly. He still gave me creepy shivers when he moved unexpectedly. He still hung out where I had to simultaneously eat food and see him. But he was Aragog. And I was oddly sad when winter claimed him.

For it’s in the naming of things that we draw them closer. One can have ten grandchildren but only one Rose or Elliot. McHenry isn’t a random suburb but the identity of the town where I spent my childhood. That small rectangle on the wall is no longer a painting; it’s Mona Lisa.

When we name things, we give them specificity. We infuse them with meaning beyond the simple letters of the name. We create a bond that we really don’t understand but we feel, sculpted between ourselves and those things.

Aragog was a member of a species I hated and feared. Until I gave him a name.

This will be very important.

In was in the days after one of the shootings of a black young man—I don’t even know which one anymore. Names and faces and tragedies have become so common in our newsfeeds that we rarely can differentiate, thus granting them the namelessness that makes all of it so easy to pass over. On one of those days a friend, who has an adopted black child, wrote these words:

“One of the things I have found out over the last couple of years is that some of our closest friends have treated Eli so kindly and like anyone else because they knew him. And then one day, we realized if they didn’t know him, and he was just another black man, their view of him would be much different.”

He has a name (though I didn’t use the real one). That name makes all the difference for her friends. it shouldn’t. But it does.

Names in the Bible are immensely important. God gives people names because of what they’ve done, or more often, what they can do and what God will do with them. He christens one Peter, the Rock, though he’d hardly been steadfast to that point. He changes one from a man wishing to overthrow his brother (Jacob) to a wrestler with God, themes that would certainly define Israel’s erratic history.

He gives another boy (Ishmael) the promise of his name—God hears. He surprises Naomi with the reality of her name—lovable, delight—when she feels so much less.

God appears to agree that names give meaning. Faces, eyes, and voices from a person we identify drip with belief that we will hear, we will listen, we will respond. Because we know them by name.

There is so much hatred and fear surrounding us, regardless of how well insulated we believe we might be. The hating of “other” is what people do, it seems, to the exclusion of much else these days.

But what if instead we chose to name?

If anyone, the people of God should be able to name. We should be able to imitate the One who looked the blind in the eye, took the unclean by the hand, and offered the broken Peter a name of unbreakableness.

If we knew the name of our brother, could we still hate or fear him? I don’t mean know a name like we know someone’s caption in a news story. That’s knowing a label, not a name. We easily substitute another label when that’s the extent of our knowing: liberal, republican, ungrateful black man, Muslim, bigot, shrill feminist, druggie, redneck. The switching of the labels is a shell game to keep us from having to know.

Jesus doesn’t do that. Jesus touches. He hears. He bends down. He repeatedly implores the ones who hate him most to come back and be his brothers. He is the father running down the road, and you know he is calling and crying his son’s name all the time his robes are flapping in the wind and his feet are flying. Over and over.

You know he is.

I’m going to try to join God in the naming of things. When I see news stories of people I disagree with, or even deeply despise what they value, I’m going to give them names. I’m going to imagine their names on the lips of their mothers, sisters, and children. I’m going to think about how they might toss their daughters in the air or scrimp and save to buy their dads a Father’s Day present. I’m going to let them be human. I’m going to let them be the image of God.

Eli’s friends know his name, but they don’t know his fears and hopes as a young black man. I hope his mama is able to break through and help them know those things. I hope we all are able to do that for ourselves.

Naming a spider seemed like such a small, silly thing. But when you offer something a name, you offer it value in a suddenly vulnerable heart.

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