What's in a Name?


But now, Leah and Rachel and Jacob, hear the word of YHWH— the One who created you ,the One who fashioned you, Israel: Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. ~ Isaiah 43:1

Like many woodpeckers, Melanerpes carolinus has red on it’s head. It is one of the most distinctive characteristics about the bird, but since the name Red-headed Woodpecker was already deservedly taken by a bird with a fully red-colored head, the bird was named Red-bellied Woodpecker. The red on the belly of this bird definitely exists, though even on a male in freshly molted plumage it is not among the last of the field marks to be noted, particularly because its belly is regularly too close to the trunk of a tree for it to be readily visible. I suppose that it shouldn’t be surprising that with thousands of birds requiring distinctive names that a few may be a bit off the mark.

Some of the names bear the history of error. There are much more reliable places to see a Cape May Warbler in Maine than in Cape May, New Jersey, and Connecticut Warblers are notoriously difficult to find in Connecticut. Both of these tiny migrants were named for the location where they were first recorded by ornithologists. Some species bear the names of famous naturalists; Wilson’s Snipe, Audubon’s Warbler, Bonaparte’s Gull. Using avian names to honor humans comes with risks. Recently, the American Ornithological Union decided it was unacceptable to have a bird named after a Confederate General, so the McCown’s Longspur is now the Thick-billed Longspur. When it comes to identifying birds, clearly the names that describe the appearance or behavior of the bird most accurately are most helpful. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has a yellow belly and sucks sap, perfect!

So what name most accurately describes you? Is it the one given to you at birth? Is it a nickname you have been given? Is it a title that you earned? Is it what your children or grandchildren call you? The origin story of the name of our religion is that people saw the actions of followers of the way of Jesus and said, “Look at those Christians, see how they love others.” May we all be worthy of bearing that name.

Prayer: Holy one whom we resist to name lest we take it in vain or limit who you truly are, we cautiously dare to ask you to call us by your name. Amen.

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