God, by any other name

How well do you know the Lord’s Prayer?  If you’ve found your way here, I’d be willing to bet you’ve at least heard it, if you don’t know it by heart:

Our Father in Heaven,
Hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come;
Your will be done
On earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us today our daily bread
And forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial
And deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours,
Now and forever.
Amen.

In the last few weeks, my confirmands and I have been exploring this prayer, taking it slowly, line by line, to see what Jesus was getting at when he told us to pray this way (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4).  This morning, we discussed the second line: “Hallowed be your name.”  Think about it for a minute.  What do we really mean when we say this?  One thing I asked my students to consider was this: why don’t we say “Hallowed is your name”?  Why don’t we say that God’s name is holy in the same way that we say “Her sweater is green” or “That tree is tall”?

It’s a glorious question of God and grammar!  This sentence isn’t trying to describe God’s name at all.  The “be” in this phrase is actually acting in a command form — the all but extinct subjunctive case of English — implying a sentiment something like “May your name be hallowed.”  We’re not simply describing God’s name as holy, but willing it to be holy.  This implies action; it implies that the things that we say — and do — can have an effect on the holiness of God’s name.

This sounds kind of strange.  How can we add holiness to something we already see as holy?  First, we have to recognize the distinction being made between God and God’s name.  In the Lord’s Prayer, we don’t pray that God be hallowed, but that God’s name be hallowed.  We can’t change God.  God is, as God’s name suggests — “I am who I am” — and nothing we will ever do could change God or make God any more holy than God already is.  God’s name, however, is a different story.

Names can take on a life of their own, and certainly carry their own meaning.  In Exodus 3:13-15, Moses asks God’s name so that he can go back to the Israelites and tell them exactly who he was talking to out there in the wilderness.  God tells him to say that “I am” sent him, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God’s emphasis on Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is rooted in relationship.  “I am who I am” may not have carried a great deal of weight with the ancient Israelites, but they could immediately make connections with the mention of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  We use names to communicate the reality of something in terms that are readily understood, to establish a relationship.  Some examples I used with my confirmands were:  Nike, Barack Obama, Mother Theresa, and the Huskers, among others.  Names help us to make associations and to relate things in our lives together and make sense of them.

This begs the question:  What associations do we make with the name of God?  And, more to the point, what associations do our actions lead others to make, and are they things that hallow God’s name?  That’s the heart of this reflection.

I think of this in the wake of the Boston bombing, which my students and I also discussed.  We talked about some of the atrocities of history committed in God’s name — the Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, 9/11, and others — how it is possible to lessen the holiness of God’s name in the eyes of the world by the terrible things we do in God’s name (heck, this is reflected in the 2nd commandment — “Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain”).  Especially in the wake of the Boston tragedy, I see little “aftershock tragedies” in the infuriatingly racist comments casually made against people of color and Muslims in particular — divisive, hateful attitudes that tear us down and tear us apart when we need most to be together and to build each other up.  These are not Christian ways to be, and they do not give glory to God’s name or reflect who God is.

I love that quote from Fred Rogers that’s been floating around:  “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”  This is where God’s name is glorified, where God’s name is hallowed!  It’s in the people who rush in to help when everyone else is running in the other direction, in the people who do not flinch from helping others.  It doesn’t even have to be under such dramatic circumstances, and often isn’t.  It’s in the day-to-day way that we treat each other as decent human beings, worthy of respect and love, that God’s name is hallowed.  When we embody Christ’s love for the world, God’s name is hallowed.

But we must act.  God is not passive — even God’s name tells us that — and Jesus teaches us to pray in this active way about sanctifying God’s name.  It isn’t enough to not do terrible things in God’s name.  It isn’t enough to just say “God’s name be holy,” “Hallowed be your name.”  We must actively push back against the darkness that engulfs our world and show the world that there is light!  Glorious light!  We are bearers of God’s name, heralds of God’s kingdom, and it is our job, our divine calling, to bring little flashes of that kingdom to a world in desperate need of illumination.  We are called to make God’s name holy so that the world will come to know the one who has sent us — the one who loves all of us and is love.

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