He Knows My Name
A guest essay by Lindsey Crittenden, author of the newly released book The Water Will Hold You; A Skeptic Learns to Pray (New York: Harmony Books, 2007). Lindsey currently lives in San Francisco, where she teaches writing and is at work on a novel and new short stories. She's an active member of All Saints' San Francisco and participates in Education for Ministry at Grace Cathedral.
For Sunday September 30, 2007
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
Jeremiah 32:1–3a, 6–15 or Amos 6:1a, 4–7
Psalm 91:1–6, 14–16 or Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6–19
Growing up, I was the only “Lindsey” I knew. Back in the 1960s, there weren’t many of us. Not like now, when the name is all over tabloids and college campuses. Twenty years ago, when those latter-day Lindsays and Lindseys were toddlers, their mothers would call to them in the grocery store and I’d invariably turn around. Until then, I’d never heard my name used for another. It was an odd feeling.
I wanted to be “Lisa” or ‘Julie” or “Stephanie.” I liked “Kim.” I wanted to fit in. But still, I took a secret pleasure in my name — just as I did in my big ears and my crooked nose (“it has character,” one friend’s mother told me) and my beanpole height. They may not have been the keys to junior-high popularity, but they made me me. Like my name. The sound of it in another’s voice carried familiarity, intimacy even. When I walked in the door after school every afternoon and called out “I’m home!” my mother, who was usually in the basement, sorting our laundry or the linen napkins, called back, “Hi, Linds.” That’s how I knew I was home. To this day, when someone calls me Linds, I know I’ve made a friend — unless I don’t much like the person, and then I bristle. How dare they? There is intimacy in naming, and in being named.
In kindergarten, I had a crush on a boy named Blake. He had a mop of dark brown hair, big brown eyes, and a quiet manner, moody and mysterious — even for a five-year-old. I was moody and quiet too, so my infatuation probably came from the thrill of finding another of my species. One night as my parents discussed possible names for my new sibling, not yet born, I piped up with “Blake.” They looked at one another. They grinned. And that was it.
The fact that I’d named my baby brother doesn’t explain everything about our relationship, but it’s a good start. From the beginning, I felt he was mine. I was invested in him. Naming carried responsibility as well as intimacy, and that responsibility shaped my entire life — in joy and pride (no big sister bragged more about her precocious little brother than I bragged about mine) and, later, as he spiraled into addiction, in heartbreak and anger. When he was 26, my brother was shot in the head after stealing a vial of crack. By the time I got to the side of his hospital bed, leaning my forehead into his chest, I needed to say only one word. In the moment when I called him by name, everything that had ever passed between us — every instance of companionship, of intimacy, of secrets and betrayals and hurt and the strongest love I’ve ever known — flooded us both. I felt completely, utterly known — and so did he. I can’t explain it logically, but I don’t need to.
A few months after my brother’s death, I was driving. I heard on the radio, for the first time, a recording of Lucinda Williams singing “Sweet Old World”(1992). I started crying so hard I had to pull over. In the song, the singer asks questions to someone who has committed suicide — “Didn’t you think anyone loved you?” — and mentions all those good things in this “sweet old world,” those things that the dead person no longer feels: the touch of fingertips, a sweet and gentle kiss, and — what made me pull over — “someone calling your name.”
Jesus as the good shepherd calls to his flock again and again by name. When Mary Magdalene stands alone at the tomb weeping, she mistakes the risen Christ for the gardener — and then he calls her by name. When he says, “Mary!” she knows who he is. I love John’s telling of this story: Mary’s bravery in staying after the others leave, and especially the intimacy in that moment where Jesus calls her by name. I wasn’t thinking about Jesus in the moment when I pulled over on the side of the road — I didn’t even call myself a Christian then — but I knew the power of what it meant to be called by name.
Psalm 91 promises protection and deliverance, “refuge and stronghold” (verse 2), relief from fear. Whatever the scholarship about when this was written, about the references to the temple; whatever the interpretation of the promise as literal or figurative, as future or past, the message seems clear: “He shall deliver you from the snare of the hunter. . . . you shall find refuge under his wings. . . . You shall not be afraid.”
These are the kinds of promises that stymied me when I returned to the church as an adult. I’d been an English major; I’d been to grad school. I was well practiced in analyzing every word, in parsing every phrase. The promises like those made in Psalm 91 felt lofty, unrealistic. Who are you to say I won’t be afraid? I am afraid! I had a rebuttal for every line. I read the words and they felt distant, impersonal even. The skeptic in me wondered Why? The verses offered a lot of assurances but not much explanation, and I wasn’t ready to trust in assurances I couldn’t prove.
And then I turned the page:
“Because he is bound to me in love, therefore will I deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my Name” (verse 14).
The first six verses suddenly snapped into focus. I could hear the words of solace and promise in a way I hadn’t been able to before. “Because he knows my Name” had opened my ears, just as Jesus’ finger opens the ear of the deaf man.
The importance of naming falls throughout scripture, girding our faith. Adam names the animals. The Israelites in the desert name places for the events that mark their journey. Yet naming is the first step — an important one, but not the whole story. Naming grants intimacy, OK, but then what? My tears at Lucinda Williams’ aching song had to do, in part, with how angry I was — I named you! I loved you! How could you go and get yourself killed! Mary doesn’t just recognize the risen Christ when He speaks her name; she goes back and tells the other disciples, she stands up to their doubts.
Think, too, of the annunciation. Rainer Maria Rilke has a poem, from his Das Marienleben, in which the angel Gabriel approaches the teenaged Mary with his strange message. In the poem, Rilke focuses on the moment before the angel speaks, the moment of meeting:
He looked, and she looked up at him, their looks so merged in one. . .
Just she and he — see, this arouses fear.
That intimacy, that moment of spiritual revelation and of awe — of fear — seems a kind of naming. Both the angel and the girl feel it — the moment is so charged, so electric that sparks might as well be flying — and we feel it, too, in witnessing through the poem and through the gospel. But then what? Gabriel sings out what he’s come to tell her, and she accepts it. Not without a few questions, but still. They plunge forward. How might we do the same?
Before my brother came along, I had longed for a playmate, a cohort, a confidante. Kindergarten-crush Blake seemed like me — moody and quiet, mysterious — but my little brother Blake belonged to me. We were nothing alike in terms of personality — I was the bookish and responsible one; he was the popular and charming rebel — but that didn’t matter. Once I named him, there was no going back. And heartbreak and all, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Each of us is an only child, waiting to be called into intimacy by the shepherd who knows our name. That intimacy isn’t easy, or painless — but what a gift, to hear our name in the myriad ways God calls us, and then to plunge ahead.