Adoption, Family History, Genesis 17:1-7 and 15-16, Lent 2B

Suppose God Named You

I’m not sure why God felt the need to give new names to Abram and Sarai. I sometimes wonder if it’s just that there were two sets of stories about them, with two sets of names, and someone clever made the difference in names a shift in names instead, and connected that difference to the change in circumstances that led to a new reality for Abraham and Sarah.

God remade their future. So I suppose it’s possible God named them for it.

This doesn’t begin to answer the question “What’s my excuse?” It’s almost comical how many names I’ve had. Marriage and divorce and return to my maiden name. Lather, rinse, repeat. But even before I had that “maiden” name, I had another one, the name given to me by my birth mother.

Martha is … Martha. Plain. Simple. Maybe she bakes, or is a competent needlewoman. You trust her with the silver, or to make sure the children stay out of trouble.

Surely she is neither dashing nor intriguing.

Read about her. Amazing.

Or she’s awful. I just read an article saying pastors shouldn’t make out-of-date cultural references, but honestly, growing up when and where I did, I couldn’t help hearing stories about Martha Mitchell, a “political prisoner” of Watergate. That voice, that hair, that name…yes, I was a Washingtonian political child, if not prisoner, and I hated sharing her name.


She was a Republican, to boot.

This isn’t really about me, of course, although it’s certainly true that in childhood I found my name dull. Someone once thought my name was Nancy, and that was probably the only time I preferred Martha over every other possibility in the world. Not that there’s anything wrong with being called Nancy. (Please, no letters to the author.) It’s just that every now and then I identify with my name, and that’s a relief.

But other times I wonder what it would have been like to go through life with a different name. This is probably the fantasy of most adopted children. What was my “real” name? Who gave it to me? What were those people like?

I’ve written about this before, I think. The name on my first birth certificate is Elizabeth, and in a strange set of coincidences, my adoptive mother was a former social worker and had been friends with the social worker named Elizabeth for whom my birth mother named me.

Tasha Tudor’s take on Martha (l.), The Secret Garden

Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to go through life as Elizabeth instead of Martha. They’re both Biblical names, and both those ancient gals had important proclamations to make.

They’re both names you might hear in a British novel, although Martha is surely more likely to be the housemaid than the lady of the manor.

Elizabeth, Lizzie, Libby, Betsy, Beth — they all sound pretty, don’t they? Elizabeth is one of those women who can manage anything. Lizzie is fun and funny, with a wit that sometimes makes you want to take a step back. Libby attracts attention whenever she walks down the street. Betsy wears a ponytail and climbs trees. Beth is kind and quiet and plays the piano sweetly, and everyone who takes the trouble to listen loves her.

Some of those impressions come from literature, and some from the memories of girls I knew growing up. Some of them come from the fun of a name that has so many possibilities. (Eliza, Liz, Libba, I could keep going…)

Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to be one of those girls.

I can flirt sarcastically like Elizabeth Bennet (and on those Jane Austen quizzes, I always come out as Lizzie), and I have moments of being as sweet as Beth March, sometimes, and I used to climb trees just like Betsy Ray.

But that’s not me.

I’m Martha.

That’s the name I was given, a family name, the middle name of a treasured grandmother who was a political and religious leader in my hometown.

And it affiliates me with the woman — hear that! the woman!!! — who made the Christological confession in John’s gospel, the woman who said out loud who Jesus really was.

It affiliates me, too, with her bluntness and bossiness and short temper. (See Luke’s version.)

That’s okay.

Suppose God named me?

Maybe it wasn’t family heritage that mattered, really.

Maybe that’s the name I needed to be fierce and fabulous for Jesus.

Suppose God named you?

(It’s a bit of a walk around the block, but I did start somewhere in the neighborhood of Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16.)

7 thoughts on “Suppose God Named You”

  1. That's funny how much we have in common. Okay, not the Washington DC political stuff, but I was also adopted. The name I was called when my parents got me was Ann. Not sure who gave me that name? The foster mother? My birth mother? I suspect someone from the Children's Home Society and not my birth mother, but who knows. But in my adoptive family, I acquired an older sister named Annette. You can see the problem. "Hello, this is our daughter Annette, our daughter Ann, and our son Anton…"So I became a Marcella Ruth. Ruth for my grandmother on one side and aunt on the other. Marcella because my parents just liked it maybe? There was a song with that name? I've heard both stories. There are still days when I don't feel like I have lived into my name of Marcella. I still feel more like a Marci. Will I ever feel like a Marcella?

  2. What a great piece. Made me think of the unusual circumstances of my naming…and how it came about because of one person walking into my mother's hospital room after she gave birth to me…

  3. I've always liked family names, maybe because I was named for a great-grandmother and a grandmother. My children have family, old-fashioned and Biblical names. However, my first grandchild has a new name, unrelated to either family. Different generations.. . .As I grow older, I like my given name–"Janet" though it is not a popular name these days. Few people call me that though and I probably wouldn't answer to it!

  4. I've never particularly cared for my name — Deborah, but called Debbie or even Debbie del (my middle name is del Carmen!) Partly I think because it was such a popular 50's name. In my 4th grade classroom there were SEVEN Debbies in all variations of the spellings! As an adult, I've mostly used Deb as my preferred label. Note about Nancy: When my sister #2 was born, my parents were going to call her Rosemary. I was in first grade at the time, and I apparently had a major hissy fit about not wanting a sister named Rosemary. My father asked me what name I did like, and I replied "Nancy." So believe it or not, she became Nancy Rosemary! It's funny we all perceive names differently. I could tell you a story about how my brother was named —- but not today!

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