You know what today is, right?
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. A day we remember the way he lived. The way he taught us to love and to fight — and to love without fighting, but never to fight without loving. What a legacy he left.
And this year it occurs to me that his parents named him Martin Luther. No, I mean really think about it. The name rolls off our tongues now, we’ve said it and heard it so many times, but they hadn’t.
They thought it up: We’ll name our son a name of power, of poise, of promise . . .
A name that speaks of change.
And they did. It was his name before he stood up and declared that he had a dream, before Rosa Parks wouldn’t park it in the back of the bus, before he preached a sermon, got his doctorate, met the president, won the Nobel Peace Prize, or altered American history.
Before all that, his parents named him after the great, brave theologian, Martin Luther of Germany.
They named their son Reformer.
And so he was.
A name is powerful thing. And I don’t claim to know how it all works together, but I think MLK’s story is highly suggestive that a name can foretell the shaping of a destiny.
I have been called some names, too.
Some of them I have earned, while others have claimed me. Some of them have been objective and suitable, others unbalanced by the subjectivity of the observer. Some uttered in the raging fury of a hot moment, others sculpted carefully with artistic precision.
One name that I still trip over from time to time is woman — used in the worst sense of the word, as an insult. And although the word is true, the connotation with which it gained utterance is not me. I will not be swallowed by the gaping jaws of that identity.
And so I am. And I am not.
Perhaps MLK knew this, too. He knew racial slurs, he knew disrespect. He knew what it was like to be judged skin-deep. To be given a name that you are, but then again, that you are not. It might be the lot of every person to ever walk this sod. That we are, but we are not.
Although we don’t decide the words and labels that get thrown in our direction, we can decide whether or not to let them name us. To let them shape us.
And that’s why I’ve got it in big, bold strokes, covering the top third of the white board in my kitchen:
“What’s naming you?” Because I would be standing at the counter, doing something docile and benign, like chopping broccoli for dinner, and in would pop this thought. A memory, an imagination, a scenario. The innocence of broccoli has never been so deceiving. I would rewind and replay and rewind and replay. Then I would swim through the murky waters of assumption and land on how I believed I was perceived by others. From there, all that remained was to draw a neat little line at the bottom of the page, concluding which label they probably chose.
Before I knew it, I would be crying in the salad, naming myself with this tag.
A borrowed tag. A label surmised. A painful identity.
And all the while, He calls me one name. Longs for me, weeps for me, to receive the word that He sings through the laughter spilling from children’s lips and the intoxicating beauty of His earth, combed fine by the bleary January wind.
This was my name before I caught His scent or heard the Song. This is my name when it’s too hot inside my soul and it’s too hairy in this skin. This is my name when the world erupts in praise or screams in protest.
He simply names me Beloved.
And so I am.
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