Back home they call me Johnny. Whenever I am around the neighbors where I grew up on the farm, or my old Ithaca wrestling teammates, the use of that familiar diminutive touches something that warms my heart.
Dale Carnegie got it right, “…a person’s name is to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Every good salesperson knows this. Even though you know it is coming you cannot help but be affected when the car dealer or the real-estate agent puts a hand on your shoulder, smiles and says your name.
Names are about relationships, family, friends, home, what we all long for. The theme song at the beginning of the TV show, “Cheers,” may have had as much to do with its success as the comedy: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. And they’re always glad you came.”
Hearing your name and the way it is spoken makes a difference. It opens a door to the heart. Our youngest granddaughter started calling me Peeka when she was just a little past two. I couldn’t figure out why until my daughter said, “You know Dad,” as she covered her eyes with both hands and then opened them and said, “Peek-a-boo!” It was the game I played with Faye every time we were together and she loved it, so I became “Peeka.” It melts my heart to hear her say her special name for me.
Whenever I visited my mother in the nursing home in her latter days, as she crept closer to 100, she would take my hand, look at me for a while as if trying to establish which one of her four offspring I was, and then she would laugh and say, “Why Johnnnn!” She spoke to me like that in a dream just before she died and I expect that is the way she will greet me in heaven.
I memorized the resurrection story from John’s Gospel one Sunday so that I could tell it instead of reading it. I worked on the inflection of each word and phrase. When I came to the scene outside of the tomb where Mary faces Jesus, but does not recognize him, I got stuck. How would Jesus have said Mary’s name? What does it sound like when someone who loves you says your name?
Mary, in her grief, could not see clearly, something many of us have experienced at a time of tragic loss. Her mind could not register that Jesus was alive until she heard him speak her name: “Mary.” And in one shocking moment of recognition Mary knew Jesus was alive. What was it about the way Jesus said her name?
I repeated Mary’s name over and over again. “Mary... Mary... Mary....” I said my wife’s name, the names of our children, the names of my grandparents, the way I had heard Grandma say Grandpa’s name shortly after his death.
“James,” Grandma called him, “the boy I fell in love with.” Everybody else called him Archie. And there was something about the way she said his name, the way you say the name of someone you love deeply. I believe that is the way Jesus says each one of our names. And it is the way followers of Jesus learn to say the names of the people Jesus loves, that is to say every person in creation alive or dead, even those who call us hurtful names.
Saying everyone’s name in a loving way is not easy, especially those we call enemy and those we are tempted to hate. This is why we need the church, the communion of sinners who together, through worship, Bible study and prayer can rise above the temptations that no individual can resist alone.
Saying certain names with love has become a challenge in recent years as more and more transgender people are asking to be called by a new name that reflects their true identity. This is more than just a fad. It is not a new trend. It cannot be understood as a birth defect unless you believe that the Creator makes mistakes. And acknowledging this is not about being politically correct, though numerous politicians and TV preachers are using the issue to make political hay.
Transgender people have been among us in every age. Zachary Pullin writes in Native People’s Magazine that “Numerous terms in tribal languages identified third genders in their cultures that encompassed both masculine and feminine...”
“In early Native American society, those who identified as Two Spirited were respected as spiritual leaders within the tribe. They dressed in both men’s and women’s clothing, and they often served special Two Spirit roles such as storytellers, counselors, and healers,” according to Samantha Mesa-Miles of Indian Country Today. She adds: “Two Spirit traditions were threatened, though, when Europeans colonized the Americas. The notion of a third, fluid, male-and-female gender conflicted with the colonizers’ heterosexual views, and in 1879, the U.S. government removed thousands of Two Spirited people from their tribes. They were sent to live in an Indian boarding school.”
“In what is now Texas, the Spanish Cabeza de Vaca reported men who dressed and lived like women. Even Russian traders in the sub-arctic region documented gender diversity among Native communities in what is today Alaska. Despite Russian efforts to suppress third genders, the Chugach and Koniag celebrated those they called ‘two persons in one’ and considered them lucky. Linguistic registries show that indigenous peoples approached gender as a fluid affair before conquest and assimilation.” (Indigenous Sexualities: Resisting Conquest and Translation Manuela L. Picq and Josi Tikuna)
I remember when one of the athletic heroes of my young adulthood, Bruce Jenner, appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair in June of 2015 under his new name, Caitlyn Jenner. Suddenly this “man’s man” and Olympic decathlon gold medal winner, whose image and name appeared on the covers of magazines, billboards and Wheaties boxes for years, was claiming to be a woman — and asking to be called by a woman’s name. I wanted to resist along with most other manly men in America. I still do. And then I remember Jesus saying Mary’s name and I think, “How would Jesus say Caitlyn’s name?”
John Sumwalt is a retired pastor and the author of “Shining Moments: Visions of the Holy in Ordinary Lives.” Email: email@example.com.