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andrew rumsey
strangely warmed
By Andrew Rumsey
More strange warmings here
First name terms
February 2004

Preparing to register my infant son's name, I've been toying with the idea of slipping in an extra one, just to enlarge his palette of options, so to speak. Naturally, we've chosen a biblical name for our newborn, but just in case little Tiglath-Pileser III runs into a bit of mild schoolboy ribbing for this, it might be wise to add in an alternative or two.

Happily, the Rumsey family tree is bristling with worthy contenders, of which my clear favourite is Wyldbore – manful, dignified, and ever so slightly menacing.

Of course, associates of the original, Victorian Wyldbore will doubtless have had a dozen or so other titles and names to wade through before they reached this corker, and we can safely assume that only his near and dear ones would have had access to such nominal nether regions.

These days of relentless informality can make one quite nostalgic for a time when to give another your Christian name was to admit them across the threshold into a privilege of closeness. I confess to feeling vaguely violated when any Tom, Dick or Harry (forgive me, Messrs Tom, Dick or Harry), speaking to me about my gas bill from a Bombay call centre, presumes to address me by the same name whispered in private by my wife.

Wincingly unfashionable though they be, formalities and titles allow for appropriate levels of intimacy, offer the hallway before the bedroom. Once I have given you my name, I have nothing more to offer you – you have me.

It's an interesting point to consider in theology. When, transfixed by the burning bush, Moses is sent to Pharaoh, he asks, in effect, "Whom shall I say called?"

This was not his petrified approximation of an Egyptian Jeeves, but a penetrating question, for, to Israelites, a name revealed one's very essence. In Genesis, God had been known by various titles – God Most High, God Almighty and so on – which denoted aspects of his character. Here God uses for himself the enigmatic and awesome name I AM WHO I AM, usually translated in Hebrew as "Yahweh" and, in English scriptures, as "the LORD".

You can almost hear Moses murmuring, "Oh, ah... I see", for this stunning, sort-of-name both reveals and conceals, and hints at dimensions of being the nervy little fellow clutching his sandals is never going to grasp.

Only when we have heard Moses' heart hammering at his ribs can we also hear the pin drop in John's Gospel when, centuries later, Jesus uses this most sacred name of himself, and begin to understand why the Pharisees picked up stones to stone him.

Only then are we ready for the remarkable intimacy with the God of the New Testament – for the Christ who calls in for tea, and invites us to address Yahweh as young Wyldbore might address his fogeyish father. A Christ who, you feel, wouldn't be averse to felt-tipping his forename on a peely sticker should the occasion demand.

The implications of this behaviour sent the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews scurrying to his scrolls to revisit the language God's people had always used for intimacy with God – that of sacrificial worship – and write of now confidently "drawing near" to God, entering "the most holy place" and so on.

The journey from Yahweh to Christ Jesus is the story of scripture, of a divine devotion that dares to speak its name. As such it involves an almighty risk of vulnerability, that the name given will be bandied or abused. When God gives us his name, he gives us himself, and we have him; we can etch it on our hearts or nail it to a cross.

It's a commonplace to hear that name dropped like litter by the careless; what worries me rather is the way in which we believers can presume an easy familiarity with God without reckoning on its cost. When those day-glo wayside pulpits announce the name 'Jesus' in billion-point text I feel the same sense of slight violation, of a name unwittingly taken in vain.

This may be unnecessary and due only to the reactionary old buzzard in me that grows bigger and more buzzardly with each passing year. But I will still mutter, "That's Lord Jesus, if you don't mind," as I drive past (at a sober 25 miles per hour).

The same applies several times over in worship, of course, though it's probably best not to start on that. Suffice it to say that I'm perfectly happy to sing songs of the "Jesus, let me touch your face" variety, just as long as those purring such words remember that, before Christ, no one could even glimpse the almighty visage and live. Until then, a bit of respect is in order, I feel. Now then, down to the registry office...
strangely warmed
Strangely Warmed by Andrew Rumsey is now available as a book.
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