What Is Your Name?

by Lin Story-Bunce, Genesis 32. 22-32

When Caryanne and I learned we were pregnant for the first time, we immediately started thinking of possible names. Because we both have names that connect us to our families, gifting our son with a name that ties him to his larger family story felt important. We also want our children to feel deeply a part to the larger faith story, so finding a way to connect his name in that way was a priority, too. It took time, but we eventually settled on the name Loukas Campbell. The name Loukas is often given as a way of honoring Luke the evangelist and gospel-writer. The gospel of Luke is our favorite of the four gospels. It reflects for both of us what we find so significant about the Christian faith – Christ’s attention to and concern for the poor and the oppressed. The gospel of Luke is the only gospel that includes the parable of the Good Samaritan, Mary’s Magnificat, and the reading from Isaiah to proclaim God’s good news to the poor as quoted in Luke 4. Spelling Loukas in this way, also connects Loukas to my grandmother, Betty Lou Bunce, the only of my grandparents he will never meet.

Campbell is rich with my family history. Campbell Univeristy is the place where my parents, his Grandma Nit and Gdaddy first met. Campbell Law School is where his my dad began his journey as an attorney. On Campbell’s campus is where my mom spent her childhood. In Campbell’s science building is where my grandfather taught Chemistry for 45+ years. In Campbell classrooms, my Grandma Jung instructed students in the School of Education through art and song. And for four years I represented the Fighting Camels on the Campbell University soccer field. Though a small school, Campbell University has had a significant influence on our family – and for that reason, Campbell (as name and school) holds a very special meaning in our hearts.

The act of naming a child is different family to family. There are so many naming traditions from cultures and communities around the world. Children are named for relatives who are deceased as a way of carrying on a legacy. Children are gifted names that are intended to guide the development, path and personality of that life. Children are blessed with names that reflect how or when a child was born into the world.

In one Australian tribe, the midwife calls out the names of the baby’s living relatives, and the name that is called when the placenta is delivered is the name the child will receive.

In some Hindu traditions families hold a naming ceremony during which a priest or an astronomer chooses the first letter of the child’s name based on the date and time of their birth, as well as the alignment of the stars and planets. In some communities, the naming ceremony is performed by the paternal aunt who chooses a name for the child and whispers it into his or her ears, before announcing it to the family.

In some Native American traditions, the parents choose the name of a deceased loved one, called an “atiq” or “soul name,” a few days after the baby is born. Only then is the child considered a complete person. Some also believe a newborn will stop crying once the correct name has been chosen.

In the Greek tradition, a son takes as his first name the first name of his paternal grandfather and takes as his middle name the first name of his father. The idea being that when he introduces himself, one would immediately know to what family this child belongs. 

James shared with me a few rituals still practiced in Liberia. The Kru tribe does not name a baby until 7 days after birth making sure the baby will live before giving a name. Other tribal groups allow naming to be done only by grand parents. Some traditions choose names for the meaning – for example, James’s middle name is Himie, which means “everybody’s child!” 

When Isaac and Rebekah name Esau and Jacob, it is just after the twins are born. They name Esau first since he is oldest. Because he was covered with red hair, his name means “hairy” or “rough”. Jacob is right on Esau’s heels – literally – hanging on to Esau’s foot with his hand, so his name, “Jacob”, could mean “follow behind” or “heel” – but could also mean “cunning” and “trickster.” Often in stories, names are intended to disclose something about one’s character, and Jacob spends all of his childhood and most of his young adulthood living fully into his name. By the time we get to the part of Jacob’s story we are reading today, we have seen Jacob con, cheat, deceive, and manipulate almost every member of his family and then run off when the tension was about to explode into full conflict. 

He tricks his own brother out of his birthright and then cheats him out of his father’s blessing. He steals away with his father-in-laws flock and manipulates his family into leaving with him in the secret of night. Even here, as he fears his tricks have caught up to him and he is sure to face the wrath of his brother’s vengeance he is sending ahead gifts of appeasement and hiding away his family and wealth.

This is where our text picks up. Jacob is traveling home for the first time since he stole his brother’s blessing. Esau has received word that Jacob is coming and has made arrangements to meet before he gets into Canaan. Jacob divides up his wealth, sends his family and flock across the river ahead of him and then makes camp alone to keep watch for Esau. 

That night, Jacob finds himself in a full-on wrestling match with a mysterious figure of a person. The story literally says that “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” It is hard at first to know who or what this figure might be – has Esau attacked Jacob in the dark of night? – is this a figurative story in which Jacob wrestles with himself, with his conscience, with his fear of Esau? Is this an angel, a divine presence, or God’s very self? Whoever or whatever this presence is, Jacob is determined, strong and unrelenting in his fight – and in a surprising turn, the figure asks Jacob for his name. In this moment, we hear echoes of Jacob’s past. On the day that Jacob steals his brother’s blessing, he disguises himself as Esau. His father, dying, blind and feeble, wants to be sure he is talking to the right son. So three times Isaac asks of Jacob, which son are you – and all three times, with everything to gain and only his soul to lose, Jacob answers him with a name that is not his own, “I am your son, Esau.”

But here, Jacob is on the run. He fears his trickster plans and the vengeance of his brother are closing on him quickly. He is fully involved in what feels like a fight for his very life and he is holding tight with all he has to save himself – and in doing so hopefully to save those he loves. He is refusing to let go when the stranger asks his name. In a last ditch effort to save himself (his soul) at the expense of possibly losing everything – Jacob gives his name – “My name is Jacob.” And the figure is revealed as God. 

This is a strange exchange. There are a couple places in the bible where God engages in dialogue around God’s name: Moses asks God, “when the people ask who sent me, what name will I tell them?” And just after this scene, Jacob in return asks for God’s name – but God never answers directly. Jewish tradition holds that God’s name is too sacred and intimate to be fully know or spoken by people. To ask God’s name is an extension of intimacy that is believed to be too much – and yet here God’ extends intimately toward Jacob making the most vulnerable moment of Jacob’s encounter with the divine – not the all-night, blood-drawing, hip-breaking fight to the death – but what was even more vulnerable than staring into his own mortality, was looking God in the face and exposing himself fully and completely. “My name is Jacob” is not simply an admission – that one sentence is an open confession of all that Jacob has done up to that point. I am Jacob … the one who stole from and cheated my brother. I am the Jacob who deceived my father for inheritance. I am the Jacob who hustled my father-in-law out of wealth. I am the Jacob who even to this night has been looking for the easy way out. I am Jacob the con, the trickster, hustler.

To allow oneself to be known so completely is absolutely terrifying! 

Brenee Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate School of Social Work. She has dedicated the last twenty years of research to work around shame and vulnerability. As a society, we protect ourselves with perfectionism, judgment, exhaustion as a status symbol, productivity as self-worth, needing to look or be cool, shaping ourselves by what other people think, our obsessive need to out-perform, proving our self-worth, searching for certainty – all in an effort to keep everyone else seeing our screw-ups, our imperfections, our fear. In many ways vulnerability is seen as weak – but Brown argues that vulnerability is rooted in courage. Vulnerability is about the willingness to see our lives and be seen in our lives. It is the means through which we are able to receive and experience redemption. Giving voice to who we are – all of who we are – creates possibility to learn and grow. It opens our souls to grace and renewal. 

This kind of vulnerability is what makes it possible for people with addiction to move into and through the steps of recovery. 

This kind of vulnerability allows those who have lived through unspeakable trauma to move toward healing without carrying the burden of shame. 

This kind of vulnerability lays a foundation for deep level of personal and communal accountability it is going to take for us to begin dismantling the racist systems of our society and our own racist bias – so that we can better understand what it means to create antiracist systems that serve all people fully and fairly.

This kind of vulnerability creates space for repentance, forgiveness and transformation. 

It is this kind of vulnerability, Brenee says, that is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experience. 

My friend, Mary, shared this story on FB this week. 

She says – 

Around noon, there was a series of super loud knocks at my front door. I opened the door to a masked man who I didn’t recognize immediately. And then I saw his eyes and realized it was our friend, T, who I hadn’t seen for more than a year. The girls and I had been missing him and, more recently, had been worried about his health. 

T’s life hasn’t been easy — he has a record and had been without steady employment and housing for periods of time. Seven years ago, he knocked on our door to see if he could mow our lawn for some food or cash. If I’m honest, he did a truly lousy job. But he kept coming back and he kept getting better at it. The girls and I saw him weekly or monthly or every few months depending on the season and whether he was working other jobs. 

Over time, we became friends and would swap stories and share a meal or lemonade. And we’d sit and talk about life–the joys, and the challenges. When my marriage collapsed, T offered kindness and also challenged me to pull it together. And when his life would go off track, I did the same.

When he had a job, he would check in every once in awhile to let me know he was doing ok. And then he disappeared for a long time and I was afraid we had lost him for good.

Back to the this morning…T was brimming with excitement as he handed me an envelope. His voice kinda quivered as he said “it’s an invitation to my wedding — I’m getting married and I have a steady job and my life is so GOOD!” His lovely fiancee joined us on the porch, and the girls came out to see both of them and to celebrate.

Then I cried. T has come so far with so much stacked against him, and now he’s moving to a new, brighter chapter. He looked so alive and so happy and so peaceful, unlike any other time I’ve seen him. It is all good.

Our friendship is one that has endured over seven years of ups and downs, death and resurrection. What started with a stranger knocking at the door evolved into trust and care and mutual respect.

Vulnerability is the only way we truly engage in meaningful relationships with one another and it changes us fundamentally – right down to our names. These two went from being “Mary” and “T” to “Friend,” “Brother,” “Sister,” “Family.”

When Jacob confessed his name to God, he did not receive the judgement or punishment he feared or perhaps even deserved. Instead, he was met with divine grace. He received a new name, “Israel,” – a name that connected him to the fuller God story happening around and even through him – through which he could see himself more fully and graciously – a name gifted to him through the redemption and love of God. 

Jacob’s story is our story, too. This story is an invitation for each one of us to stand humbly and vulnerably in the presence of God and to know the grace that meets us there. It is not an escape from our consequences. Jacob’s injured hip and limp serve to remind him of this encounter with God and his life before. As my friend, Rydell, once reminded me – we don’t get to live life with a pencil and eraser. We can’t just erase the things we wish weren’t there. Instead, we live with sharpies in hand so we can see the places we’ve had to mark through, adjust, edit, start over. It makes us more honest, more humble – and reminds us that we are human. The story of Jacob does not let us forget that we are never outside the reach of God’s extravagant love – it calls us to see ourselves honestly in a way that we might be changed, redeemed and renewed by God’s grace – and it begs us to know more fully our connection to the God story happening around us and even through us – in soul and body and name. 

If you ask my oldest his name, he will tell you without hesitation, Loukas Campbell Story Bunce. That is the name we chose for him. That is the name that he shares with a great-grandmother he will only know through family stories. That is the name that ties him to my favorite writer of the Jesus story. That is the name rooted in a long family history in the small town of Buies Creek, NC. That is the name we wrote on his Kindergarten registration, the name his friends call him on the playground, and the name I say in full when at my wits end. 

But when we tuck him in at night, though he is our Loukas, the name we repeat to him with his prayers is Beloved

Beloved was gifted to him long before we knew we had a little one to name.

Beloved is the blessing I hope he clings to when he is at his worst and when he is at his best.

Beloved reminds him he is never outside the reach of God’s extravagant love.

Beloved calls him to see honestly the ways he is still being shaped by God’s ever-present grace.

Beloved connects him undeniably to the fuller God story happening around and through him. As it does for us all. 

Beloved  is his name – and it is your name, too.