Cursed by a Name
“The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give” (Is. 62:2).
Without using Google, tell me what you know about the illustrious lives and careers of Chris Burgess and Adam Keefe. What about Bob Hamelin? You might know something about him if you followed the Kansas City Royals in the ’90s. If you were a Rockies fan in the early 2000s, you probably remember Garrett Atkins for a few tantalizingly explosive seasons at Coors Field. Otherwise, these names might as well be randomly chosen from a phone book. But, if you grew up in my hometown during certain windows of time at the end of the 20th century, these names would evoke hushed tones and rumors of otherworldly feats. These weren’t just the best athletes in our hometown; they were freaks of nature. We envisioned them holding up the Larry O’Brien Trophy or slipping on a World Series ring and giving a shout out to the “949” where it all began. These names still hold echoes of praise and promise to those of us who remember, but all of the “can’t miss” superstars from my hometown, essentially “missed.” None brought a championship home, and all were eventually cut from their professional teams. They missed according to the lofty expectations we gave them and expected them to fulfill.
In reading the memoirs of numerous ex-professional athletes, one thing becomes clear: for good or ill, the name on your jersey will hang around your neck for your entire life. This is most certainly true for more than professional athletes, but given the public nature of their lives and the measurable expectations we have for them, their examples can be all the more striking.
One of the first hometown heroes from my little corner of Southern California was the wonderfully and ironically named Mike Champion. In his early years, no name could have been more fitting for the young phenom. Of course, I wonder how funny or ironic it was to have his name “Champion” on his last, big league pink slip after only playing a year and a half for the lackluster San Diego Padres of the late ’70s. I’ve wondered how Champion feels with his name hanging around his neck like an albatross and maybe even mocking him in his darkest moments.
Whether your name is ever cheered or booed in public stadiums, it can still carry an unbearable personal weight. It can be your key to college acceptance or the reason your loan is denied on sight. The growth of Ancestry websites and DNA testing kits reveal our national obsession with tracing our names and family trees. I have found as both a personal genealogy hound and professional historian that the long arc of human development and achievement bends either helplessly inward or tends towards more mischief than virtue. As much as we’d like our names to reveal our true royal blood or aristocratic lineage, how much more often do we discover hidden secrets, illegitimate children or simply the guilt of having drifted apart from loved ones.
Renaming is an essential part of the Christian experience, as it has been for most every religion. Your name is your ticket in, the reason you’re left out, and sometimes the only thing you’ll get from your parents. The earliest Christians practiced renaming at Baptism to distinguish themselves from those named after pagan gods or irreligious rulers. The early church professed that to be called a Christian and to be Baptized necessitates a radical change. In fact, it works change. When we name or rename ourselves through Baptism, we are buried into the death and resurrection of Jesus (Col. 2:12).
In Genesis 32, the Angel of the Lord changed Jacob’s name from a curse (it meant ‘usurper’) to a blessing in Israel (literally ‘the one who strives with God’). He did so to change the very identity of the people of God from those who would try and usurp divine power into those who would contend and rule with God. Here, the would-be enemies of God become the friends of God. All family trees and genealogies reveal awkward knots and twists. But through the root of Jesse, and the line of Israel, came Jesus to offer us a new name. He changed Simon’s name, to ‘the Rock,’ Petros or Peter, not because of his worthiness, but on the basis of a promise.
The promise to Jacob, to Israel, to Peter and all of the Saints is a regrafting into the family line established in the opening chapters of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke. We are renamed and need not live up to the expectation of anyone except our Father in heaven who has already told us that in Christ, we have been adopted as sons and daughters in whom He is well pleased.