Names Matter

She looked tentative and uncertain, like she wasn’t sure she was in the right place.

Hell, I wasn’t certain I was either, to tell the truth, and I was allegedly the guy in charge.

I had just preached at the chapel service of the small homeless ministry I ran at the time, and the service was now over, and I was doing that sort of thing I do after I preach where I am already thinking about how I can retreat and hide and recharge, yet recognize that some folks need to metaphorically touch you after they heard you speak, often as a way of processing it.

“I’ve never been here before…” she starts. But I knew this. Anyone who watched her body language would have known. Besides, I knew why she was there. She had been part of a group of students who had volunteered with our meal program the day before, and had heard me talk about our little chapel service, and she was one of several people who had come to watch.

This often happened, and we never really knew what to do about it – we welcomed everyone, but it was always a bit weird knowing people were there to watch you work. There were times it felt like being in a zoo, only we were the attractions.

“But something just happened, and I want to talk about it.”

I encourage her to go on.

“All my life, I’ve prayed for those who were homeless. But today, y’all named people who were homeless. All my life, I have prayed for people who needed jobs. You named people who needed jobs. I’ve always prayed for people to be safe in the cold weather. You named people who sleep outside in the cold weather. It was the first time I have ever prayed for people who are poor by name.”

Names are sacred things. Names matter. Names contain magic. In the story in Exodus, when God sends Moses on a mission to free the slaves, Moses wants to know God’s name before he will do it. You can’t set off on a mission of that size just because some no-named bush that was failing at burning in the desert told you to.

The Jewish writer Martin Buber wrote about “I – it” relationships and “I – thou” relationships. In short, I-It relationships are relationships where the proper name of the persons involved do not matter. I do not need to know the name of my server in a restaurant to have a pleasant dining experience. Any competent server would work, and if one was out sick, another could fill in.

But there is a Chinese restaurant we like to go to not far from our house. It has a thriving takeout business, but few people eat in – so we do. In these pandemic times, it is a way for us to eat in a restaurant, and yet because the space is practically always empty, we feel very safe while we are there. Because of this, we get special attention and always tip well.

And the owner of the restaurant has a ten-year-old son named Lucas.

Lucas is big for his age. I would have put him at 12 or 13, and he looks like he would rather be playing video games, but his mom says he is her apprentice, and she stands by him as he takes the orders, and nudges him we he doesn’t say “Thank you”, and he brings the food out on shaky arms, but the whole time, you are just rooting for him.

If I went in there tomorrow and Lucas wasn’t there, I would ask about him. Lucas matters to me in the way the anonymous server in a place I am not known does not. I mean, I care about the no-named server in the abstract, but I care about Lukas specifically. Lukas and I have an “I-thou” relationship.

When we know names, it changes the dynamic completely. I once planned on cutting down a tree in the backyard of a house I owned until I learned the tree was an elm tree, and having learned about Dutch Elm disease, it felt sinful to cut down a tree that had thus far beaten the odds.

Somehow, knowing it was an elm made it different than knowing it was a tree. The specificity mattered. It having a name mattered. Because the tree was an elm, I knew things about it I didn’t know when it was just a tree. I knew it was a native, and part of the food system for the local habitat, and endangered, and however annoying, was worth protecting.

Because I knew its name.