Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Power of a Name

We were walking fast, eager to cradle steaming mugs of black coffee in our cold hands. It would have been easy to overlook her, a small figure hunched over against the wall and under the weight of the world. She looked old, but I doubt she is as old as she looks. The harshness of a world faced alone has a way of aging you, I think. She mumbled something about needing money for a cup of coffee. My friend and I walk right past her, but we glance at each other with the same plan in mind. Bringing this woman a cup of coffee seems the right thing to do when we are already intent on sipping our own. My friend splashes milk in the steaming paper cup and grabs packets of sugar in case the hunched-over-lady has a sweet tooth like mine. We push back through the crowd and extend the cup to her, a small offering when everything you own and all your hopes and dreams sit in a pack on the cold ground next to you. My mind spins with the questions. What good is a cup of coffee when you have no roof over your head and no light at the end of the tunnel that is your life? Who can really help this lady whose back is--both literally and figuratively--against a wall? There is a nudging deep inside my heart: Ask her what her name is. 

My dad was good at names. Or maybe it was more that he worked to be good at names. Every summer, he pored over yearbooks to learn the faces and corresponding names of the dozens of students who would fill the seats in his classroom come August. He would sit in bed at night and thumb through the pages of those yearbooks with one eye closed, the face he always made when he was concentrating intently on painting new information across the canvas of his memory. I could never guess how many hours of his life were dedicated to this task of knowing names and faces. It was always the same in public. We could hardly sit down in a restaurant before my dad would ask the waiter his question, the same one he asked every single time we dined out: "What is your name?" My dad took great care in the knowing of people, and he showed me the value in learning names. When you know someone's name, you can't just relegate them to the masses. Names whisper of stories, of hands held and hearts broken, of dreams fulfilled and longings still deep inside. Names mean something, and when you take time to learn a name, you acknowledge that the face and person behind that name mean something too. 

"What is your name?" I ask her. I guess my dad's practiced habit bled into my heart and mind at some point. "Michelle," she answers, and the rest pours out with it. She talks about getting out of prison four days earlier, and about her children (two sets of twins!) living several hours away. I can't attest to the truth of what she told us, but I can tell you that her face was painted on the canvas of my memory that day and her person gained color on the pages of my heart. Michelle. I think that's what she said. I whisper a prayer for her, that she would find life in the communion of knowing and being known by a God who also places great value in the knowing of names. I can only attempt to follow my dad's example of tattooing names on both heart and mind, but I have come to know a God who carves names (your name! my name!) into the very hands that cup the weight of our broken humanity. What intimacy! To be known--by name--by the God of the universe, to have your name carved into the hands of the same One. And to think that we have the ability to extend this same kind of intimacy to the broken world we inhabit. I do not do it perfectly, that is for sure, but I want to be a Name-Learner, to speak to people by name and hopefully point them to One who has their names carved not just in memory but in flesh as well.

"See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands..." Isaiah 49:16