I remember when the Viet Nam Memorial went up in Washington, D.C. Block after block of gray, polished granite forming a long wall of names, Viet Nam names. Most of us didn’t understand. We thought it was just a list of names. But then, one summer Peter and I visited the memorial. We saw people walking slowly along the columns, reading. There was a woman who went up and put her finger on a name and then she held up a child and put the child’s hand on the name. There was a man in an old Army jacket standing by the wall, silent, staring. There were flowers and pictures and teddy bears and letters at the bottom. And I read some of those names and I didn’t know a single one of them, but tears came. Don’t call it a list. It’s not a list. Names connect us. They connect us to one another and to our history.
And so, when Moses asks God for God’s name, he is asking for a connection, for relationship and history. He needs to be connected to God and to God’s faithfulness over history because God is asking him to do something impossible and he needs all the help he can get. Lead the slaves out of Egypt? Just put down our bricks and shovels and walk out from under the nose of the mighty Pharaoh of Egypt? Oh sure.
So who do I say sent me, God? I could use a little authority here to back me up.
So God gives a name. And quite a name it is. God says,
I am who I am, or
I will be (who) I will be, or
I will cause to be what I will cause to be,
or – and this option is probably closest to the Hebrew –
I will be who I am, I am who I will be.
It is one of the most puzzled over verses in the whole Hebrew Bible. You cannot translate it exactly.
Which may be a good thing. A name like that will not let you put God in a box. A name
like that makes you stop and wonder, and think, and remember. It says:
• I will be God for you. Not just present, not just standing around watching, but for
you, with and for you at all times and all places (3:12, 4:12, 15).
• You can count on me to be God, and that means faithful, forever.
• You cannot contain me with a word.
And it means, as giving a name to another always does – I want a relationship with you, intimacy. That’s why there is a measure of discomfort in a restaurant when the server comes up and says, “Hi! My name is Brendan and I’ll be your server tonight.” The appropriate response is, “Nice to meet you, Brendan. I’m Heather and this is Peter….” When you offer your name, you offer yourself. This is why we greet people at church. This is why we wear name tags.
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “I love being a student of yours and using your materials to study Bible passages and to develop my own ideas. The children stories are wonderful. Thank you for all you do for so many of us.”
A user-friendly resource for busy pastors!
A name like that will not let you assume that you know all there is to know about God. The theme of 2006 Missions Conference catches the sense of the unpredictability of God. It says: Mission and the Untamed God. Come, pray…be surprised by God!
In Marilynn Robinson’s beautiful novel, Gilead, the aging preacher writes to his young son, “There are certain attributes our faith assigns to God: omniscience, omnipotence, justice and grace. We human beings have such a slight acquaintance with power and knowledge, so little conception of justice, and so slight a capacity for grace, that the workings of these great attributes together is a mystery we cannot hope to penetrate” (p. 150).
And yet, we try to name it, we must name God because names connect us. Jesus used a name for God – Abba, Father. A beautiful name, and meaningful for many who have used it for a lifetime. But the words we use have unique meanings for each of us depending upon our own experience and perspective. I heard an interview with a lobster fisherman from Maine who was one in a long line of lobster fishermen. They ate lobster day in and day out, year after year. They had a name for lobster I had never heard before. They called it, cockroach of the sea.
Our names reflect our own experience. The same word may be beautiful for one and terrible for another. For those whose experience of a father is neglectful, or abusive, or missing, “Father God” hinders rather than helps them to know and love God.
And if “Father” is the only name we use, how many other aspects, surprises of God, might we miss. One word could never be enough for God who is the word and was the word and is more than the word. I have many more than one name for my husband: Peter, Honey, O Brave One (for when we go backpacking), 0 Darling (when I need something).
How do we speak of God, speak to God who cannot be contained in words? We could start with, “I AM,” God’s own self-revealing name. And then by remembering that God expresses herself through a variety of images without being identical to them. Is God rock? In some ways. Is God fortress? In some ways? Is God light? In some ways.
Is God “shepherd,” “homemaker” and “father?” Jesus said each of these was something like God. Each name says in its own way – God loves you in your lostness, but none says all that can be said about God. God is personality, but God is not a human person. God is masculine and feminine but God is not male or female. God is more loving than a father or mother, closer than a sister or brother. God exceeds all humans in love, mercy, kindness, faithfulness.
The first time I heard God named Mother, it sounded strange indeed. But years later, the idea of God as mother helped me know a gentleness, a tenderness, a forgiveness of God that I had never known before.
What is your name God? Many names. Bring them, pray them…
And, May the church at prayer recall that no single, holy name –
but the truth behind them all – is the God whom we proclaim. — Thomas H. Troeger
COPYRIGHT 2006, Dr. Heather Entrekin. Used by permission.