What’s in a Name? An Ash Wednesday Meditation

by Rev. Terry Tripp, Co-Director CFDM

What’s in a Name?


In 1991 the best movie of the year was “Dances with Wolves”. You may remember this heroic film about a civil war hero who travels West to join a far out post in the Western Territory of the US. His loneliness creeps up on him over time and in a desperate attempt to make a connection with another living being, he tries to befriend the wild wolves in the area. This is when the nearest Native American Tribe first observes the soldier’s personality and quality that eventually draws both parties together in a life long commitment to one another. The soldier is there after named “Dances with Wolves”. In the Native American tradition, a name signifies a person’s personality, purpose, quality of character, or station in life. The name may be given early or later in life, perhaps changed over time to signify new tasks, or accomplishments. Do you remember looking up the meaning of names you picked out as possibilities for your expectant child? Did the meaning matter or were you satisfied with the sound of the chosen name? Do you know what your name means?

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet uses rich language to describe God and finds words that name God for his nature, character, acts of salvation and creation, and for his ultimate purpose for you and I. In a familiar text out of chapter 9, we read these names for God the Savior, the Messiah, the coming one: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. And then in chapter 40, Isaiah again uses rich language to describe a victorious Savior: the glory of the Lord revealed, his breath is upon the people, the Lord God comes with might, his arm rules for him, his reward is with him, he is a shepherd. Now in contrast, Isaiah 53 gives us names for our Lord Jesus that are less than majestic: a root out of dry ground, no form or majesty to look at, undesirable, despised and rejected, a man of suffering and acquainted with weakness, one from whom others hide their faces, held of no account, one who carries our diseases, stricken, struck down by God and afflicted, wounded for our sins, his bruises heal us, carrier of our sins. Are you attracted to this Lord or are you confused, or are you repelled?

It seems that God is always doing more than what seems to be happening at first glance. God loves to use the unexpected, to reverse our incomplete understanding of his mystery. God brings together in the story of Jesus, complete opposites. In fact, God seems to delight in using the opposite character quality of what might be expected in order to achieve the Lord’s purposes.

I experienced as a Pastor, in tangible ways, that God can bring wholeness and perspective through what would to the observer be unimaginable. One such relationship was companioning a young couple in their grief over the loss of their baby girl, just 19 weeks gestation. The mom was diagnosed with 3rd stage melanoma. At the same time it was  discovered that their long awaited baby girl had a congenital defect that put her survival post birth in question. Either the cancer or disease was going to snuff the life from their dreams for this long awaited child. This tender mother and father prepared to give birth to their daughter prematurely – and then held her in their hand until life seeped away – she was named Hope. Hope, their daughter, was going to be for them the hope from God that life will come from death.

As the names that Isaiah gives to our Lord centuries before his birth, capture God’s story of finding freedom in pain, at the same time that glory depicts sacrifice; the names that we live into can describe how loss can bring healing, absence can discover fullness. God’s story is reflected in our story every time we choose faith, hope and love, no matter what our circumstances are.

Lent is a time to reflect on how we are in the process of being healed from the inside out – being re-named for God’s purposes. In naming our fears, pain, rejections, hatred, betrayals, guilt, need for control, losses, … we have an opportunity to experience how the God who became all those things for us can change our name. We can discover anew who God is for us and who we are for God.

What’s in a name? Some might say everything, especially after reading the book of Isaiah. However you understand how to be in relationship with God, there is waiting a name that God gives you that describes who you are to Him right now – and, a name that you call God in this season of your life that describes how He is for you. Listen for those names; yours from God, and God’s from you. You might begin your prayer with questions: how do I experience God right now in my life? What in my life circumstances tells me that I need God and God desires me? And finally, if Lent is a time that we experience our mortality and therefore our great need for a Savior; what do I need to name in me that gets in the way of experiencing new life on Easter morning?

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