Somewhere along the line my name changed. I dimly recall my elementary school classmates calling me “Jacob.” It’s the name on my birth certificate and on all my official documents. When my mom was pregnant she had put it at the top of her boy-name list after thumbing through the Bible.
Around middle school somebody called me “Jake.” Then everybody started calling me “Jake.” I liked the name right away. But I felt a little awkward about it. As if it weren’t my real name.
Eventually, I started introducing myself as “Jake” and even putting “Jake Owensby” at the top of exams and homework assignments. The name had come to fit, somehow.
I don’t subscribe to the idea that our names point to our inner essence or reveal some deep truth about ourselves. It’s never occurred to me to say to someone, “You don’t look like a Melvin,” or “like a Barbara.”
And yet I recognize that the change in my name came at a time of profound change in my personal life. My mother had fled her abusive husband, my father. We traded a rural South Georgia address for one in metropolitan Atlanta. Instead of a not-so-hot public school, I found myself in a demanding parochial school.
I had been a misfit in a mostly homogeneous small town. A kid with a dreadful speech impediment and a divorced mother with a foreign accent. My new setting featured more diversity and offered acceptance and encouragement. I was edging my way from being ashamed of who I was to claiming myself as good. As worthy of respect. As lovable.
In retrospect I see that by claiming the name “Jake,” I was laying claim to my dignity. A dignity that is given to me not by any set of friends or teachers or coaches. But by the creator of all things. A dignity possessed by every human being despite their wealth or their poverty, their looks or their location on this planet, their race, creed, orientation, or hair style.
In the Baptismal Rite of the Episcopal Church, we promise to respect the dignity of every human being. We don’t promise to breathe or to eat when we’re hungry or to hang out with people we find attractive. That’s because we already do such things in a predictable way.
When we promise to respect the dignity of every human being, we tacitly admit that we frequently fail to do just that. Treating human beings like human beings is the perennial human struggle.
Jesus put it this way. Love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, recognize that you cannot separate your neighbor’s well-being from your own. And everybody is your neighbor.
Calling each other unflattering names. Allowing anyone to live in squalor or to go without food or medical care. Ignoring the lonely or shunning the stranger. Abandoning the weak or condemning the different. In these and thousands of other ways we all too routinely disrespect the dignity of others.
When Jesus taught us to love our neighbor, his point was not that we were supposed to follow some rule to get God’s approval. He was teaching us how to be our authentic selves. God already loves us. That makes us the beloved.
The question for us is how to love God in return. We love God back with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength by loving whoever God loves.
We claim our identity as the Beloved by loving. By loving everybody. No exceptions.
The story of Jesus’s baptism illustrates the point. Before Jesus begins his public ministry, John the Baptist dunks him in the River Jordan. When Jesus emerges from the water he hears God’s voice:
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22)
Jesus’s identity and his very existence are a response to God’s loving presence. As Meister Eckhart put it, “My existence depends on the nearness and the presence of God.” To his very marrow Jesus is the beloved. And so he loves without reserve. Without hesitation.
In solidarity with Jesus, we can hear precisely the same voice. Can experience the same loving presence. Be who we truly are. The beloved.
Whatever people may call us. Whatever the names on our birth certificates, our diplomas, or our book jackets, our name is God’s Beloved. Initially, we may feel awkward about it. As if it’s not our real name. But over time, it will begin to fit.
Looking for a book to study during Lent with a group or on your own? Check out this brief clip about my latest book A Resurrection Shaped Life. You can learn more or get a copy here: https://www.abingdonpress.com/ResurrectionShapedLife