“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” Do you remember that one? Or how about this one? “I’m rubber you’re glue whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.”
Maybe you said those things to yourself growing up. Maybe you shouted them back at someone else. Maybe you taught them to your child as you looked at the pain on his face or the tears in her eyes. Here’s the irony. The fact that we know these sayings, use them, and teach them to our kids doesn’t negate but only highlights and points to the power of names and name calling.
Think about the many names you carry, whether good or bad, desired or unwanted, accurate or not. For some I am Fr. Marsh, Fr. Mike, or just plain Mike. I am Dad. I am Son. A dear friend calls me Brother and another, Mikey. And for one particular lady I am Baby Doll! Those aren’t, however, my only names. There are others. Sometimes I am Loser or Idiot. Other times I am known by names that should not be said here (or anywhere else for that matter).
Names are more than just a label. They have the power to create and the power to destroy. That’s why names and name changes are so significant. They can describe relationships, one’s qualities or characteristics, a destiny, or a change in direction.
We see that today when a woman and sometimes a man take the name of the one they are marrying. It signifies a change in status and relationship. Monks and nuns receive a new name when they take vows. Adopted children often take the last name of the parents, showing that they now belong and have a place in the family. All those signify becoming a different person and entering a new life.
Name changes are found throughout scripture and they are always significant. Abram is changed to Abraham. Sarai is changed to Sarah. These changes represent a new relationship with God and a calling to be the parents through whom the nations will be blessed. Simon became Peter, the rock on whom Christ will build his church. Saul, the persecutor of the church, became Paul, the apostle to the gentiles.
Despite all the names we carry and live with there is for each one of us another name. It is a secret name given and known only by God (Is. 62:2; Rev. 2:17). We discover and learn that name in the night of wrestling with all our other names. That’s what Jacob is doing (Genesis 32:22-31; Proper 24C). He is wrestling with himself, his demons, and ultimately with God.
The name “Jacob” means the supplanter, the usurper, heel grabber, trickster, or the deceiver. He has certainly lived up to his name. He came out of his mother’s womb grabbing at his twin brother’s heel. He finagled his brother Esau’s birthright for a bowl of soup. He deceived his blind father and stole the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau as the firstborn. Now he is a man on the run. He is running from an angry brother who wants to kill him. He is running from his past. Mostly though he is running from himself.
Maybe you know what that’s like. Maybe you’ve been there. Maybe that’s where you are today. At some time or another we all spend the night wrestling with our past, our words and actions, our identity, and the names that have shaped and defined us. Jacob’s name fits him well but God knows that is not his true name.
The man with whom Jacob is wrestling asks, “What is your name?” The man is not asking for information but for a confession. Jacob will never know who he can become until he first acknowledges who he is. In confessing his name Jacob offers himself into the hands of God. He cannot finagle, deceive, or steal his way this time. His confessing becomes his prevailing.
The Lord gives Jacob a new name, a new identity, and a new life. He is now Israel, the one who has striven with God and with humans and has prevailed. He is a new person. He is more authentically himself, the one God has always known him to be.
We all live with multiple names. Some names have been given us by others. Other names we have given ourselves. Some are life giving and nurturing. Others cut deep, leaving us wounded or dying. Names define us in the eyes of others and ourselves. But what about that other name? What about the name that defines us in the eyes of God? That is our truest name. It is the name we long to hear and to be called. It is the name God longs to tell us and to call us. It is the name that comes in the night wrestling.
Who are you? What is your name? What names do others call you? What names do you call yourself? What names do you cringe at hearing or can barely say? Unfaithful, unworthy, unloveable? Fraud, hypocrite, cheater? Alcoholic or addict? Divorced, widow, orphan, unwanted? Failure, lazy, stupid? Coward, weakling? Crazy, worthless, ugly? Abused or abuser? Defective, deficient, disappointing? Every one us could add to that list. We know our names well, too well, and we have trusted them for too long.
In the nighttime of wrestling God asks each one of us, “What is your name?” He does so with the promise to change our name, to make us a new person, and give us a new life. It’s a hard question we might rather avoid. It can leave us feeling scared, ashamed, and vulnerable. Dare to answer his question. Don’t keep quiet. Don’t back down. Don’t walk away. Hold on for the blessing. Speak the names you carry. Confess them. Shout them. Whisper them. Then listen and prevail. Listen for God to say, “You shall no longer be called that. That’s not who you are. You are Beloved Son. You are Beloved Daughter. You are Forgiven and Redeemed. You are Beautiful, Holy, Precious.” Then God speaks that one name that is known only to him, the name that is for your ears only, and says, “This is who you are. Become what you have heard.”