My neighbor’s house is on the south side of the street, which means that, when I visit in the snowy months, I must ford a river of ice before navigating their slick walkway. Their Romanian-American warmth is worth the walk. It is past sundown on New Year’s, and I have walked carefully the stretch between our houses to bring a small gift. I am welcomed into the bright hallway by my friend. Her father-in-law is visiting from Romania, and walks around the corner, extending his hand.
“I am Constantine. It is very good for you to meet me.” His introduction delights me, and I reply in kind: “Constantine, I am Amy. It is very good for you to meet me too.” It is only much later, back at my own house, that I realize his transposition may have been a grammatical error, but it is too late. I have received his declaration and have offered my own: Here is my name; it is good for you to know me; my name is for you and it is good to be known.
This is not how it often goes. I know I am not the only one to hide behind apparently benign veneers of accomplishments or activities, shared interests or the lives of others. It is too often that I leave a conversation feeling slightly sour, realizing after the fact that I was groping for humanity—my own, or that of the other person, or both. Whenever I hide behind my activities or accomplishments, whether or not I am aware, I objectify myself. When this happens, I can’t help but treat the other as an object as well. If I apply a grammatical framework, if I were a part of speech, I would be classified as a noun. When I treat a person—myself or someone else—like a thing, I diminish humanity—all of it.
When I do this, I narrow my experience of and ability to recognize what it means to be human, and in so doing, I become less human, and less myself.
Shakespeare’s Juliet famously mused upon the importance of names as she considered the bad blood between her family and Romeo’s. In her youthful frustration, she declares that if it were up to her, she would do away with names, because, after all, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/by any other name would smell as sweet.”  It is true that names fall short of capturing the essence of a thing, but we cannot escape our impulse to name. Naming is part of the mandate given to humanity from the beginning, starting with Adam naming the animals. But the mandate was not just for the first human, it reaches to all humanity. My authority to name is part of what it means to be human. Am I willing to realize the power my words hold to invite someone else to live with greater or less humanity, and that my own humanity can not be untangled from this?
Names are tricky things. They obscure as often as they illuminate. After my parents learned they were expecting their first child (spoiler alert: that was me), they proceeded to call me Nathan for the entirety of my gestation, until my physiology at birth sent them scrambling for a different name. My mother loved the writings of the Irish missionary Amy Carmichael, so that became my given name. While this was the first time I was misnamed, it was not my last.
My identity was formed as the child of visible Christian leaders, in a narrow cross section of Evangelicalism. In this place, I was closely scrutinized and celebrated for my ability to perform. I learned not to be vulnerable because I needed to survive, to hold family secrets, to burnish my family’s identity. Autonomy was a liability, not a strength. I was a master of smoke and mirrors, eventually fooling not only those around me, but most of all, myself.
The name “Amy” means beloved, which carries with it being seen, treasured, delighted in. Because of people who loved me well, who would not accept the ways I treated myself as a noun, I have slowly been learning to hold the goodness of having limits, of being human, of being a woman. God knew that I needed a renaming, and gave it to me, but still, coming home to my new name—my belovedness has become the work of my life. I know that I am not alone.
This is not as simple as “sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me.” No.
The names we give and are given can approach and call out the essence of a thing as easily as it can mar it.
Names hurt as often as names heal. It has been in the vulnerability of real relationships, in places where people choose to see me as more than a commodity, where the damage of my noun-ification has begun to unwind. These dear ones have reflected what they see—both my glory and my shadow—and by doing this, they have welcomed my humanity, and invited me to do the same. Sometimes I run away, and yet I keep turning around, and returning. In my deepest parts, I want to know and be known, even when—especially when—it feels terrifying. And so I continue to show up, doing that work of learning to see and name what is real, both in myself, and in others.
Jesus’s teaching, as recorded by his disciple Matthew, suggests that I do well to set my face in this direction. It reads:
“…Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” 
If I take the lens of naming and look at this teaching, how I name things: people, events, places—anything I give language to, will be held up to the Light. It will be seen, and I will answer for my words. The standard will be goodness—the Hebrew word Tov , which is generative, life-giving and expansive; Evil—Ra  in Hebrew—is whatever is opposed to life. I will be judged by the generativity or the diminishment of all the words I use, including the words I use to name myself. As I type these words, I feel myself crushed under the weight of this standard, so aware of how often I fall short. How do I find my way forward?
Moses’s encounter with God at Mount Horeb (later in the Story, called Mount Sinai), happened on the back side of the wilderness. Before the burning bush, Moses hears God out about what God is asking Moses to do. Moses then asks a couple of questions: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God answers his question not with an explanation of Moses’s qualifications, but with a figurative hand reaching out to rest on his shoulder:
“And God said, ‘I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.’”
God gently invites Moses to move his gaze from himself, back to God. Moses wanted the assurance of his qualifications, to have a quantifiable assurance that things will go well. He feels in control when he looks at himself as a measurable commodity, as a noun. Oh, how I can relate. Instead, God offers Moses relationship. By answering the question as God does, God reorients Moses’s gaze, offering no performance-based assurances. God offers God’s self.
Moses returns with another question that drills into God’s offer of presence. It’s as if he says, “Ok, God. You will be with me, and you’re the God of my ancestors, but…who are you, really?” The text reads, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What shall I say to them?”  God replies by naming God’s self to Moses. That naming is commonly translated into English as “I AM WHO I AM.” However, Biblical Hebrew is a language of eight to ten thousand words, as opposed to the 80-100 thousand in English, so every Hebrew word holds layers of meaning. This naming of God’s self is transliterated into our alphabet, Ahyay Asher Ahyay, and, with all the layers of meaning, literally means: I WAS-AM-WILL-BE THAT WHICH WAS WHERE I WAS-AM-WILL-BE. God’s name identifies God as a verb that ranges expansively through time in all directions. According to my friend Tara, God is the Verbiest Verb who has ever Verbed . So, if God names God’s self as a verb, what does my name mean in light of this?
Beloved. My name is meant to be dynamic but rooted, expansive but at rest. As I weigh my name, I look back at my story. How have I lived my name well? How have I not? Where do I still live as a noun? I have loved words since the beginning, savoring the rhythm and rhyme of language far beyond nursery rhymes, reading voraciously and wrestling, always wrestling with words and their layered meaning. And yet, writing is something I have run from. I know that I am not the only writer with a contentious relationship with the craft, one who bobs and weaves myself into a corner, bullied by the critical voices that step out of the shadows when I get down to work. Could it be that my discordant relationship with writing is really a reflection of the antagonistic relationship I have had with myself, and with a God whose verbing welcomes me to experience myself in the same way? Could the blank page be an invitation to encounter the verbiness of things: myself, God, and others? Could writing be a place I move out of my dark corner and into the expansiveness of verbing, moving toward Light, choosing to be seen?
Where there is light, there will be shadow.
These shaming voices come from some of my shadows, disproportionate dark figures that stand in front of the Light. If, instead of turning my back to these shadows, I acknowledge them, naming them, I diminish their power. This is not a small choice, and comes with a willingness to grieve losses, to enter places of pain and brokenness, but not letting shame have the final word. Living as a noun does violence to my soul. It does for all of us. When I turn, the voices don’t necessarily get quieter, but I accept an invitation to move further into relationship both with myself and with Someone infinitely larger than myself. I step into a Story with a narrative that is not mine to figure out.
When I write toward my self, focusing upon my perceived shortcomings, my missteps, my inadequacies, I am agreeing with the ways I have been poorly named. When I live as a noun, I grow to hate what I see, because looking for too long at my shadows gives me a false sense of what is real. In this place, I define myself by my output, my capacity, my perceived value, and when I do this, I can not help but invite others to do the same. I dehumanize myself and others; I do not live my true name well. In my small story, I fear success more than I fear failure, as if that were something I can control. And yet how I try. When I do not live my name well, I move away from wholeness, from abundance, from generativity, from Love.
Moses’s name means “drawn from water,” which is descriptive, because of how his story of being welcomed into Pharaoh’s family began. But the prominence with which water plays a part of his exodus story is striking: he flees his princely life in Egypt and is welcomed into Jethro’s community at the edge of a well in Midian; he wades into the Red Sea, commanding it to part; he strikes a rock twice, the second time, instead of speaking to it, as he was instructed. Each time water is mentioned in Moses’s story, we see him living his name—sometimes well, sometimes poorly. And as I read this ancient text, I see that Moses’s name is not only for himself, but for others . He chose to live in a Story that was much bigger than what he understood, and now his name is also for me, and anyone who wants to move from slavery to promise.
Because of Jesus’s life, no longer do I need to look outside of myself to find God. I am given His Spirit to live out my life in and with, invited to make my home in this mystical place, and welcome His Spirit to live out God’s life in me. This is a movement toward uniqueness, not away from it. My narrow, self-focused story gets swallowed up in a Story where the cross makes eucatastrophe possible. On the days when this feels anything but true, my work is to continue to turn, to wrestle, to ask those who see me better than I see myself to fight for me and to remind me of my true name. While the voices of condemnation may not go away, if I am willing to work to see these shadows for what they really are, and to name them, I take their power. I wield my authority to name; I exercise my humanity. They regain their true size, and, if the power of “The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you,”  I don’t have to muster my own power to verb. I can venture unselfconsciously into the expansive world of words I have loved almost since I was born. Things I have named for myself can become a doorway of naming for others.
It is only by being myself that I can choose to give myself away.
In Constantine—which means “constant”—I meet the consistent invitation to move out of my prison of self-focus and encounter God in the face of a stranger. With Constantine, I am invited to remember my name. It is good for him to know me, just as it is good for me to know him, because, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “Christ plays in ten thousand places,/Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/To the Father through the features of men’s faces.” When I realize I’ve lost sight of the Verbiest Verb Who Has Ever Verbed, God’s hand is also on my shoulder, welcoming me once again to lift my gaze. In this place, I am living in a never ending invitation to turn and catch the eye of that active, expansive One who knows what it’s like to be limited by humanity, who went to the cross to drink the cup of my shame. When I forget who I am, living from the places I let myself be misnamed, I have nothing more (and nothing less) to do than turn my eyes to a face dancing with delight because of me, eyes that hold compassion for my struggle, my grief, my pain. I receive again the open invitation to make my home in Love, and as I live my name, invite others to do the same.
 Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2
 Matthew 12: 34-37 NRSV
 Exodus 3:11-14 NIV
 I am grateful to have participated in Rabbinic Scripture Circles for the past two years, led by Tara Owens, of Anam Cara Ministries. I am indebted to our study community for many of these insights.
 With gratitude to Tara Owens of Anam Cara Ministries.
 Romans 8:11 NLT
Featured image is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her kind permission for Cultivating.
Amy Malskeit is a lover of words and stories and people. She holds an undergraduate degree in English and Spanish, a secondary English teaching credential, and an MA in creative writing with an emphasis in poetry from Lancaster University in Northwest England. Her years teaching middle and high school gave her a love for middle grade and young adult literature, and the awkward awesome that being a young adult means. She is a mother of two who plants her garden and makes her home in the foothills southwest of Denver with her best friend, Kevin. She loves the water, and feels most at home when she is near the Pacific Ocean. She reads broadly, and is passionate about exploring big questions and small moments through her poetry, essays, and stories.
Thank you Amy, for a good article.
@Jenny, you’re welcome, and thank you. May it welcome you into a newly generous place of living your name.
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