I can’t remember if it actually happened to someone I know, but I’ve heard stories about parents who wanted to wait until after their baby was born to figure out what to name it. For some, finding the right name has as much to do with the baby’s personality (whatever that means for a 3-day-old blob) as with the family’s ancestry or the parents’ preference. Whatever the reason behind it, I’m sure some parents wait to see their child and then try to discern what to call it.
Other people are given names that they grow into. Growing up, I only knew one guy named “Hayden,” and he did a pretty good job of becoming the “Hayden” he was named to be. The same is true for Mickey and Kara and Ashley. Sometimes I meet someone in their adult years and, when hearing their name, think, “Yep, that’s the perfect name for this person. He really looks like a…”
In the bible, sometimes circumstances require that an individual change his or her name—Abram becomes Abraham, Jacob becomes Israel, Simon becomes Peter. Usually, those moments of change reflect a newfound closeness to God. Those three examples demonstrate how an individual’s life can so thoroughly change after an encounter with God that even their names change. This morning’s Old Testament lesson (Ruth 1:15-22) includes a name-change that I hadn’t remembered. After losing her husband and her two sons, Naomi returns to Bethlehem in the land of her ancestors and declares, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty.”
If you were to change your name based on your experience of God, what would you call yourself? I’ve never thought of that before, and I’m pretty sure it would take a rather vivid experience to inspire a name-change. What amazes me about this passage from Ruth is that Naomi changes her name (a fundamentally religious expression) in response to her bitter experience of God’s absence. Her new name, Mara, means bitter. And even though God must have seemed absent—or at least far from her needs and wants and wishes—she stays connected with God through the whole process. She doesn’t say, “God abandoned me. He no longer exists. He is dead to me.” Instead, she says, “The Lord has brought me back empty.”
If I changed my name in response to that sort of experience—loss of spouse, children, and any hope of financial independence—I would do so in order to escape. I’d want to disappear because the misery of a life that I had left would be something I’d rather hide from those who knew me. Naomi, though, stays connected—with God and with her community. She doesn’t run from her crisis. She changes her entire identity in response to it. That’s faith.