thinking theology

Archive for January, 2017

Name Brand


“What’s your name,’ Coraline asked the cat. ‘Look, I’m Coraline. Okay?’

‘Cats don’t have names,’ it said.

‘No?’ said Coraline.

‘No,’ said the cat. ‘Now you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.”

Neil Gaiman, Coraline

When my brother was born, my parents could not make up their minds about what to call him. Finally, after one more question about his name, my father said. “Ezekiel, but we will call him Zeke.” My brother’s baptismal name was not Ezekiel, but somehow the name persisted. One neighbour inquired about the name because he heard it as, “Nozeke.” You can imagine why. In later years, my brother used “Zeke” as his stage name for various venues. When my children were born, they called him “Uncle Buggy” because one of them couldn’t say his real name. I like to think that now, in his maturity, he has finally been able to claim his true name.

As admission to a religious order, in baptismal ceremonies, a person is given a name. In earlier times, we were told that our baptismal name is the one by which we would be known at the pearly gate. I sometimes wonder if a lurking superstition kept me from changing my burdensome name.

In John 1:42, we read this passage: Andrew brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).     Simon — Shimon in Hebrew, Petros in Greek, and Cephas in Aramaic — all mean rock. Shimon would have been his formal name, perhaps at the synagogue; Petros is what he would later be called by the church; but, in this one intimate moment, and never again in the gospels, Jesus calls Peter, Cephas.

Brene Brown says that our spiritual and emotional health depends on knowing that at the core of our being we are worthy, enough in our essence. I like to think that as Jesus takes Peter’s hand, he is saying to him, “I see your essential self and it is good. Many things will happen that will cause you to doubt this, but I will always love you and call you by this true name.”

As the cat says to Coraline, we don’t know who we are. Maybe the discovery of that lies in letting ourselves be known to God at least and trusting that we are worthy because we are all chips off the original star of life, beauty and love. All of us carry this shard of holiness at our core, so all of us can allow ourselves to be known. No matter how much we disappoint ourselves or others, the shard itself is immutable. No matter what the world may call us, we have a true name and we will be known and trusted by the Holy One. Whenever Peter finds himself in a dilemma, it is when he has doubted his own worthiness, the way in which he was received and given responsibility by the one who knew him best and loved him into eternity.

Like the man in the ditch in the good samaritan story, like the woman at the well, like the many people Jesus healed, we need to be prepared to let ourselves be known, to let Jesus take our hand and remind us that we are worthy, that with him we share responsibility for compassion and peace making. With him we share in the promise of life in the Spirit forever.

And Now I See

In this season of Epiphany, the phrase, “The light has come upon me!” echoes in my soul.

We tell the story of a star blessing a humble place, of scholarly astrologers being led by a star, of a deep understanding beyond words that falls over the earth.

In the stories about Jesus’ birth, we hear how lowly shepherds and the angel choirs of heaven joined in a celestial song, of how the wise and the humble are equally compelled by the light.

As we hear again the story of those astrologers, probably not Jews, who come from afar to relearn the simplicity of life, we may open ourselves to the possibility that the divine is truly everywhere, waiting for revelation, waiting to be seen, waiting to be embraced. In the hymn of praise that begins the gospel of John, we read that the light that is eternal is incarnate from the beginning and cannot be overwhelmed.

Epiphany is a special time for all of us, but priests are particularly privileged at this time: as we share the light of laughter and hope with shut-ins, with little children who pay an often infrequent visit to church, with parents receiving a new baby, with the transfer of light for the dying. In all these ways, we are witnesses to a light that has the power to come upon us with new understanding to renew hope and trust in the essential goodness of life, despite the forecasts of doom.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the light of epiphany is that it is inclusive. It requires no special skills or learning to be witnessed. There are no theological doctrines at work, no creeds, no rules, no boundaries. The light is as cosmic as the stars and as simple as a newborn, as wise as scholars and as humble as shepherds.

In this season, we remember that the good news is not ours to possess but to offer in concrete acts of love and in a determined hope and joy that stands against all the despair, greed and pessimisms that the world can throw at it. We may able to dim the lights of our houses. We may even be able to cover our skies with smog, but beyond all that the stars shine brightly. Our human grasping for power is temporal, limited. The light of the ages, the light of the divine, can be ignored but not destroyed.

Epiphany calls us to resist everything that draws us away from faith in the goodness that lies embedded in life. It reminds us that we are the messengers of another way, a way of compassion and welcome, of generosity and forgiveness, of open hands and open hearts. May the light of Christ rise within the church and may all who share the hope of the light, be greeted as co-workers and allies in making the world more loving. As we share this hope, may we with these others heal the world, heal our people, heal the earth.