10 May 2014
Fourth Sunday in Easter, Year A
“The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”
While at the University of Georgia I took a philosophy course in Aesthetics. During one of our many wandering conversations we happened upon the question of names and their connection to our being. The professor asked the class whether they thought they would be a different person if they had been given, at birth, a different name; in other words: did their name have an overwriting effect on who they were as people? The class unanimously answered “yes.”
Now this surprised me – and it still does. In the post-modern world – and particularly in a post-modern university system – little hope is placed on language, much less on names. Language is seen as always amorphous, always changing to fit the needs of the culture or the individual speaker. A stable language – one which does not change – is understood as dead. Language and names are seen as accidents – accidents in the sense that there is no perceived connection between a thing and its name: a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. If I call the moon ‘Moon’ and the Japanese call it ‘tsuki’ and others ‘Luna’, the actual spinning sphere of grey sand is not changed in the least. And while I may, for instance, like the word ‘tree’ more than ‘arbor’ or ‘ki’, this is merely a personal matter of internal poetry, and bears little affect on those wooden growing things with leafy canopies.
And so it is, too, with our names. Jesus says we are called by name, and surely we have many. Perhaps it is silly to ask whether God calls me by the name Tim or Timothy, but what of my wife, who four years ago became a Hannon and was no longer an Alcuri? Is her being changed from joining a new family? And after graduating from the U of O I can now put little letters after my name; am I now a new person? And when he becomes a father a man has a new name in his son; and does this change him? And if I were to go on a journey long and hard, and if I were to forget even my own name – would I no longer be me? And by what name would Christ call for me, so weary and sorrowed for that gate?
But, perhaps, we have it backwards. Perhaps I am to ask not by what we are being called – what name is upon Christ’s lips when he looks to bring us to the fold – but that how we are called is a reflection of our name. In the Bible as a whole people are often named or renamed for an action – Peter the rock, Isaac laughter. Such names are puns upon the situation of their birth or rebirth, and their life becomes an allegory for their name, a living out of the fact of their beginning.
But these are names and people whose lives are lived and set down for us – they have lived and died and their names have come to fullness; we consider their names and, to some extent, hear them as a whole. But what of us – we who are still in the midst of things, who strain to hear God’s voice and hope that his Word is for us? Our lives are still being lived, our story not yet complete.
This past week Helene and I have been discerning where to go for seminary; to General in New York City or to Sewanee in Tennessee. General is in the cultural capital of the world – bustling, yes, but bustling with culture and life that cannot sleep for its strength. Students there spoke to me of plays and museums, the crossroads of the world, and so too of the ever-present need of caring for those whose hope is fading. Sewanee, on the other hand, is deep in the mountains and forests of Tennessee, the life of the natural world nurturing and holding the spirit. Students there spoke of the beauty of the seasons, community in the long moments of life, good study even if it is far from the needy of city life. I could not decide between them, even after visiting, and so began a week of thought, quiet conversation between me and my wife, and advice from almost everyone we knew, from my students to Bishop Hanley. We made lists until reasons were coming out of our ears. But as we grew more unsure people began to simply say ‘follow your heart.’ But how is one to do that when anxiety and frustration of the unknown cloud the mind? What is the heart in all this mess, and how do I listen to it – how do I hear what is being said?
And so, this past Thursday, tired and worn out, with a pile of grading that was only growing taller in my unsurity, I sat down at my desk and looked out into the world. Outside the trees were full and green, and between their gently shifting branches I could see the heavy shapes of mountains beneath rain-darkening clouds. Seeing them my thoughts fell to Japan and walking trails through the misty mountains, hearing temple bells echoing among the pine; I thought of the forest around my parent’s home in NJ, of how in winter the tall, reaching branches would clack and click in the cold breeze; or how in summer they grew so thick with leaves that it was easy to imagine they went on forever. In these moments, thinking of these moments, my soul would not always soar, but instead rest upon a hope that was not my own, a sense of good and right not internal to me. My choice was not merely in me and in a list of good and bad but in Christ’s Incarnation in and through the world – and importantly my interaction, my sight and my listening to and of it.
For the name by which Christ calls us is not like other names – it is not given in finality but revealed and frown through a life shared with the Spirit in this world. Our names begin as a seed – the breath of life by which God gives us presence in the world – and in every seed there is innate the image of the tree, the hint and promise of a fullness that reaches far into the sky and deep into the earth. Our name is its entire life – not merely the seed nor the sapling nor the aged tree in the prime of its growth – but all of it together as one and so too in each separate moment of its life. The sense of a name, the hearing of a call – the knowledge of it, the hope in it – is not immediately apparent in a single moment of discernment. For our call is not a single naming but a participation in the growth of our name by the light and waters of that one True Name. God’s voice weaves in and our of the moments of time and our lives, sometimes speaking loudly, other times softly, and at others pausing in silence to gather breath to breathe upon us his Word. Our names are a story, and as His Word we must live both loudly and softly, speaking and listening in the fullness of a moment and holding to the humble patience of a drawn breath. This is our life, this is how we live in the image of Christ and this, indeed, is our name. It is like all good things a hearty and healthy mystery, but a double mystery in that we are, somehow, stumblingly and confusedly, living out that mystery in our lives. We are the great Mystery of our Names.
Tolkien, in Lord of the Rings, gives this sentiment to Treebeard, a living, breathing tree of the forest, when he writes: “I am not going to tell you my name…For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time saying anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.”