My family and I have lived in several diverse neighborhoods over the past twenty five years. In one of those neighborhoods I would often go into the backyard of my house and spend time praying. One day as I was talking to God, I turned my thoughts toward the neighbors around me. “Lord, I pray for my African neighbor, my geeky educated neighbor across the street, my agnostic lady neighbor, my lesbian neighbors down the way….” As I was praying, I was gently interrupted by God. “Why do you refer to your neighbors by race, gender, religion, and orientation… they are just your neighbors.”
One of the things that sets humans apart from the rest of creation is the ability to name. When God created Adam, he brought all the animals before him to see what he would call them. And Adam named each and every one of them. He even named the first female Eve (which means “woman”). Then sin entered the world. Ever since the Fall, people have had a knack for not only naming, but misnaming others. The ability to name is a power unique to humans. It can bring life or it can bring death, depending upon whether we name rightly or wrongly.
What God called me on in the backyard was the reality that I insisted on giving names to people which set them apart from me. My naming exposed my heart. I saw the people around me not so much as human beings created in the image of God as much as I saw them as impersonal beings, as objects which needed something. This happens in the church as much as anywhere. We see a depressed person, a sick person, an ornery person; we see needy people and insecure people. We look at the world around us and see children dying, sex-trafficking, and people without clean water. And then our misnaming comes: “Someone should do something for them.” In one succinct statement we have detached ourselves from others. We keep people at arm’s length through calling them the name “someone”, and ensure our inaction through saying that “something” should be done.
The only way to cease misnaming others is by moving in a deliberate relational direction into another’s life. Why is it that we call a group of people “those liberals” or “the ones on welfare” or “all those Hispanics”? Because we don’t know one person from the groups we name. We have never taken the time or effort to establish a relationship with one of “those people.” So, we stay in our holy huddle and kick our names out, hoping that one of those people will not infect our community or influence the way we like to do things.
Jesus died on the cross for people, all kinds of people. In God’s great mercy he gave us a new name and calls us children of God. We are no longer strangers and aliens, but are adopted into the family of God with loads of brothers and sisters who are both alike and different from us. And it is all good and right.
Church ministries need to get beyond heaping adjectives before the names of people. When we name people a certain way, we arrogantly believe we know what those people need. But when we see people as people, we will take the time to move in their direction and get to know them. We will seek to listen and let them describe their own needs and the needs of the people they interact with every day. Then, we will minister to them out of the context of relationship and not out of the context of distance. In the church we will listen to one another, take the time to ask questions, and help others based on our shared humanity.
Try and become conscious of the labels and names you are inwardly assigning to people you see, especially those who are in situations of need. Try changing the names you ascribe to them and see how it changes your perception of them. Have you ever been wrongly named by another? How did it affect you? Who is someone you have wrongly labeled? What do you think the impact of that naming has been?