The Power of Names
Starbucks and MacDonald's are going to duke it out over coffee. Apparently, MacDonald's is testing the installation of gourmet coffee bars is some of their stores and installing their own barristas to staff them. For those who are not Starbucks aficionados, a “barrista” is the person who takes your coffee order and prepares it exactly to your liking. If you have real status in the status coffee-drinking world, your barrista knows you by name and can begin your special brew when you walk in the store.
Makes me think of the well-loved TV show, Cheers, a bar in Boston where “everybody knows your name.” There really is something comforting about walking in a place where your name is known and where you know everyone else’s name. Our names are very personal, and to have someone use it properly usually means a connection of some sort.
Names are very important to us. When my husband and I married, nearly 10 years ago, we had a long discussion about names. Most women do take their husband’s name upon marriage, and I had done so at my first one. But after the devastation of divorce and the necessity to rebuild my life, I took back my birth name as a way of recognizing my own re-birth through a time of great darkness. I wasn’t all that eager to lose it again. I suggested to my husband that he take my name. When he received that suggestion with something akin to horror (and I think it opened his own eyes to the power of our names), we agreed that we would just keep our names as they were. I’m so used to us going by different names now that I don’t think about it much, but every once in a while I realize that people who know both of us professionally have no idea that the two of us are married to each other.
I have an earned doctorate, and when someone wants to use my most formal title, I am addressed as “Dr. Thomas.” Those who know me as a pastor but don’t know about the doctorate would use “Rev. Thomas” for the formal title. Many people at the church call me “Dr. Christy” which is nice way of using the more informal first name with the hard-earned title that goes with it. Every once in a while, someone will refer to me as Mrs. Thomas. That one really throws me. Because Mrs. Thomas is my mother. Not me. Really, I am NOT Mrs. Thomas.
I’ve always gone by “Christy” as my given name, but my actual birth certificate name is “Mary Christine.” I remember always having to correct teachers on the first day of school when they called the roll the first day by saying “Mary Thomas.” No one ever called me “Mary” and I simply don’t respond to the name, so I would try to listen carefully through the alphabet until they came to me and I would say, “I go by Christy.”
So what is it about our names that when used well, bring a sense of connection, and when used less well, seem discordant or even extremely uncomfortable? Even when they are misspelled, it can be bothersome. “Christy,” for example, can be spelled: Christi, Christie, Kristy, Kristie, Krysti, Chrysti, and probably another half-dozen ways I’ve not yet seen. And not one of these identically pronounced names is really mine. I find myself asking more about the power of knowing names when I’m at a point in my life when I’m having more and more trouble remembering them.
I know that when this life is over and I see God face-to-face, I want to hear my name pronounced as one of those who has been given the gift of eternal life and the joy of real intimacy with God. I want God to look at me and say, “Christy, you are my beloved daughter. Come in, come in, my dear one.” It may be that we all have that longing, and that our name represents our very being, the core of our soul. When it is misused, even inadvertently, something is violated. And when a name is misused intentionally, as when people are teased about their names—something that so often happens in childhood, the wound goes deep.
I don’t know of any way to use other people’s names flawlessly, or to remember them well. However, I am aware that at least making an effort to learn and use them is a way of showing to others that they are valued. Assigning a number to someone works to dehumanize them. Calling them tenderly by their names reminds them that they are precious in the site of God. It’s worth the effort.