Thursday, October 13, 2011

What's in a name?

What does it mean to pray in Jesus’ name asked the leader of our Sunday morning discussion group. Is it necessary to say these precise words for the prayer to be effective? What about when one is asked to prayer in a multifaith situation as I had been asked to do the following week? There were varied responses.

We would not expect a Muslim to say a prayer in the name of Allah at a public function, said one person. In such events it might be better to be more generic even though some Christians think it is important to say the words “in the name of Jesus” at the end of every prayer, or it loses power. To such people the right words are a form of doctrinal correctness. Yet expecting people to say the "right" words can easily become a shibboleth, a way of judging the speaker. The language in a prayer or sermon becomes a test of the speaker’s authenticity. If you don't say the politically correct names for Deity you're off my radar.

So what’s in a name, any name? To know somebody’s name is to know the person. We may talk to people we meet on a plane, in a discount store aisle, or at coffee in the church basement, but until we know that person’s name, we feel we don’t actually know him or her. To know a person’s name breaks down an invisible barrier to communication.

For an unnamed infant to be known only as “Baby” for weeks is an insult. Even a pet has a name. When we give a baby a name, we give him or her life, an identity, or, according to some African cultures, the life of relatedness. To live without a name would be severe handicap. People would have to keep saying, “Hey, you there, with the blue shirt,” or “You with the heavy beard.” That, then would eventually become a name, as it did for the Anabaptist George Blaurock.

I used to think it was funny the way my Russia-born relatives born played the “name game,” climbing up and down the family tree with the agility of a monkey until they had located a relative on a particular branch. Every one of my mother’s eleven brothers and sisters, male or female, included “Franz” as their second name. Before she was married my Mother was Anna Franz Janzen. Stating her name brought in the whole clan sired by Franz. Naming father Franz invoked his presence.

In Old Testament times a name was the expression of the nature or identity of a person. A vital connection existed between the name and the essence of the person. To know someone’s name was to perceive and, to some degree, enter into the life story of the bearer of the name.

So when that essence or identity changed, the person’s name also changed. Jacob the Deceiver became Israel; Sarai, the scoffer, became Sarah, the woman in whom God’s promises became true.

So back to my original question. What does it mean to pray in Jesus’ name? To merely say the words may be an attempt to manipulate God through a kind of religious magic, like uttering “abracadabra” over a top hat and expecting a rabbit to jump out or the money we’ve been waiting for to arrive by special delivery.

The best illustration I can think of to explain what it means to pray in Jesus’ name comes from my growing-up years in the Slavic community of Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan. Many local immigrants to this area were illiterate. When they had a check to cash, they came to my father’s store where I watched Dad endorse the check with the man’s name. The man would then pencil an “X” under his name and Dad would write “His mark” below that and sign it with his own name as one who could speak accurately as to the identity of that person. Dad's signature was as good as the person’s to whom the check had been made out. He was acting in that man’s name, on his behalf. His signature stated boldly, “I know this man.”

J.B. Phillips in Your God Is Too Small wrote that we tend to give God many names, such as Managing Director, Puppeteer, Magician, Resident Policeman. Over the years I think our names for God have changed to the giver of Money Purse, Power Dispenser, Success Insurer, and Security Provider--in short, God's name has become the means to the good life.

We do not name God. God has a name through which he wants to reveal himself to us. It is important to know the true name of God before we speak in his name.

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