A name is just a name; make it what you want

Sunday, May 27, 2012

What's in a name? I've had occasion to consider the question this week while watching professional basketball on TV. I rarely watch the pro game on television unless it is playoff time. When the NBA gets to the postseason, I try to catch as many games as possible. With a wry grin, I've been watching Ron Artest for the Los Angeles Lakers. (L.A. was eliminated this past week by a dominating Oklahoma City squad.) The source of my amusement is Artest, an oft-suspended and penalized player who these days is going by a nom de plume. He changed his name before the season to "Metta World Peace." More than a little ironic given the personal history.

There is a long history of legal name changes in our culture. In the '80s, a journeyman NBA player named Lloyd Free became "World B. Free." Honestly. In the '60s, Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali. Actors are well-known for cashing in their birth names. Marion Morrison became John Wayne. Joseph Levitch became Jerry Lewis. Caryn Johnson became Whoopi Goldberg. Authors sometimes assume pen names. Mary Anne Evans became George Eliot. Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain.

I have a knee-jerk and negative reaction to name changes like the aforementioned. Discarding a birth name seems a slap to ancestry, a dismissal of the family of origin. I carry my dad's surname, of course, but also his middle name. I'm honored to share this with my father.

Yet name changes are not foreign to the Bible. They happen with surprising frequency -- and always with compelling cause.

Abram and Sarai became Abraham and Sarah. Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah became Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the trio who were thrown in the fiery furnace and survived. Jacob became Israel. Saul became known as Paul. Simon became Peter. With every name change, a reason is clearly signaled. We'll look at just the last example cited. Jesus renamed Simon, calling him Cephas (Peter), which means "rock," because his faith was to be the rock on which the emerging church would one day be built. It is interesting to note that Jesus retreated to Peter's birth name only once. It happened after Peter's denial of Jesus following the Master's arrest. The "rock" lost his status briefly after this moment of weakness: "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Jesus asked. (John 21:17) But the name Peter was used thereafter. This fearful man, in the wake of Jesus' arrest, became the dynamic preacher of the book of Acts, whose preaching was so effective that 3,000 people came to faith as a result.

I am persuaded Jesus was sending Peter a message in John 21. The message may have been that he needed to earn his new name. Peter's brief retreat into denial of Jesus caused the Lord to backtrack to the disciple's original name of Simon. I suspect Peter got the message.

Our Jewish friends tell us that there is a name we are born with but there is also a name we earn. We don't need to seek legal action to take on this second moniker. If you are regarded as a friend by others, that's a name. Deemed trustworthy? That's a name, too. Courageous? Ditto.

What's in a name? Quite a bit, actually. Regardless of what name your parents gave you, what name has your life earned so far?

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Long is senior pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau.

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