Intimate and Affectionate

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17 – The 2nd Sunday of Lent – for March 4, 2012

“I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of people will come from her.” (Genesis 17:16)

And thus the Lord appeared to Abram and gave him a different name: the man from Ur of the Chaldees became Abraham.

This same Lord instructed the newly named Abraham to rename his wife Sarai: the woman married to the man from Ur of the Chaldees became Sarah.

Important stuff, eh?

Abram means “the father is high” (and, all Biblical literalism considered, I doubt that carries any modern connotations about recreational drug use). Sarai, as you likely know, means “princess” (or “noble woman”) which is probably easier to brag about than “the father is high.” But that’s just me. I’m a bit vain about my name—Lawrence—because it’s derived from laurel. In ancient times, a laurel wreath was often placed on the head of a king or queen. Royalty. The Big Cheese. So, when you think of me, even if you use my friendly nickname Larry, please crown me with at least one metaphoric crown.

According to the writers of Genesis, the Lord made the Abram-to-Abraham and Sarai-to-Sarah name switch and, ta-da, for all the generations following these revered “parents” of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths will be known as (wait, wait) . . . “the father is high” and “princess.”

Hmmm? Is this Biblical sleight-of-hand?

In Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” the old king of the title bemoans:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Are Abraham and Sarah’s swell new names mostly a “sound and fury” that “signify nothing?” merely a ruse to amuse?

Perhaps. If I were entering a classroom today, or preaching on Sunday, I’d consider skipping the Lord’s name-game in Genesis and focus on the more serious content. Along with adding a third syllable to Abram/Abraham and switching vowels in Sarai/Sarah (in the English versions), the Lord creates a covenant with the sojourner from Ur. This. Is. A. Big. Deal. The covenant is teachable, preachable, and absolutely essential in the formation of faith long ago and right now. So if I faced eager students or a pew-full of bright-eyed congregants, I’d want to wow ‘em with God’s vow. Mr. Father-Is-High will become the “ancestor of a multitude of nations!” And what does Mr. F-I-H have to do in return for global dominance? Nothing. Well, almost nothing. The Lord God Almighty orders Abraham to become the desert version of Edward Scissorhands—since the Holy/human promise will be fulfilled with a snip of the male foreskin. Ouch! Whether or not Abraham is the sharpest knife in the drawer, it’s best if he wields one to get the covenant underway.

And yet I do wonder about those names that remain the same.

There’s something endearing about God dubbing “the ancestor of a multitude of nations” with a nickname. It seems intimate and affectionate. Names do matter.

What does your name mean? Where does it come from? What about your nicknames? What do you like about your name history? If you can’t stand your name, why is that? What do you call your lover or best friend when it’s only the two of you together? If you hear your name called in a crowd of people, your head turns. Who wants or needs or seeks . . . me?

A couple I’d married contacted me to share the name they planned for their second child. They knew, early in the pregnancy, that another

Cradling a namesake...Patten Grace

girl was on the way. Her name would be: Patten Grace. Whoa. A child named after, amazingly, my last name. I understand a smidgen of why they chose to name their daughter after me. Patten’s parents are a same-gender couple and there have been times when I’ve provided them with support and encouragement. We’ve prayed, talked and struggled together about how others perceive their relationship. I’ve been in awe of their love . . . but not everyone in our divisive, divided culture agrees with my view. I’ve been humbled to be a tiny part of their support system, their “extended family.” I believe Patten will be raised by parents who understand the covenant of love as a joyous blessing.

I told them about my name. One part of my story is a true fact.  Like Patten, I’m named after the pastor who married my parents. During World War II, a Methodist chaplain at an Army Air Corp base in Merced, California invited my parents to vow, “I do.” They promised to name their first son after him: Lawrence. Therefore, when you call my name, an intimate and affectionate vow from generations ago is honored.

One part of my story is a fabricated fact. I believe—and I may be the only one to believe this—my last name is derived from the word, “Paten.” One “T,” not two “Ts.” Paten is a name for the plate holding bread for communion. When Eucharist is served, a chalice contains the blood of Christ and the body broken for you rests on a paten. Am I correct? Does “Patten” and “paten” mean the same? I don’t know. I like that they might be synonyms, though I could be completely wrong about the overlapping origin of the word(s). However, this is my name story, it’s my way to help you understand me. And so, I believe when you call my name, an intimate and affectionate promise about a meal symbolizing Jesus the Christ’s call to be a forgiving/forgiven community is honored. (And frankly, I’d rather be described as a plate cradling nourishment than a royal dude with a leafy crown.)

A syllable is added. One vowel is traded out for another.

After the holy hoopla, the names still meant the same. And yet not. Abraham and Sarah were born again and named anew by a God who desired for them to tell a story about blessings that would be told and retold, lived out and lived within.

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2 Comments

  1. Yes, names are important, although I suspect if you asked two or three different audiences, you would get two or three different answers. If you asked my mother’s generation or thereabouts, they would probably suggest that your name says something about where you came from. Based on that reasoning, I have no idea where my Scottish based name connected with my Austria-Hungary / Pennsylvania Dutch background, except that it was near the end of WW II, and Germanic names were probably not that popular. Well, it could be worse. I could have ended up with a French name. Of course, if you are Catholic of that generation, you will have two middle names, like my father, who was Alexander Paul Thomas Marold. Thomas, I think, was based on the name of St. Thomas, the apostle. Didn’t work for him, but he must have passed that philological inclination on to me without realizing it.
    If you ask college educated people of my generation, especially if they happened to take a course in 20th century philosophy, they may start reciting Wittgenstein, and say that personal names are all used in pretty much the same way, and are the best example of the denoting quality of names, as a given name, in principle, refers to a single person.
    If you ask modern kids, you will probably get the preference to ascribe a name to oneself, sort of like self-baptism. The name may be a mystery to others, but it is really meaningful to oneself (I simply do not understand the popularity of canine based names of rap artists.)
    If the audience is modern Foucault / Derrida inspired literary types, there is a chance they will say that the meaning of a name changes every time it is used. I don’t talk to many of them…much.

    1. Thanks Bruce. I agree with you about “different” name perceptions and reactions. But, however we perceive names, I suspect each person has a boatload of stories about where their name came from, or why a particular nickname emerged…

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