The Power of Naming

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Photo credit:  Photo by Camille Orgel on Unsplash

You cannot change what you will not name.

I do not know the origins of this quote, but I have full confidence in its truthfulness. The dysfunction of our individual lives and of our entire society becomes increasingly worse when we fail to acknowledge the pain that lies beneath the brokenness.

No one is exempt from struggle, hardship and pain. There’s no dishonor in having to deal with anger, grief and shame. But when you fail to properly name the forces that cause your inner pain, you wind up being controlled by them, held under their spell, and unable to influence your own future.

The power of naming isn’t only about escaping sin. Speaking the truth also involves naming the realities we live in so that we can honestly engage our world and our mission.

My mother worked for 30 years as the children’s minister of a large church in middle Tennessee. Here’s the interesting part. She was never called a minister. She could serve as the children’s minister as long as no one called her a minister. Children’s coordinator. Director of children’s ministry. Various titles, but never minister.

Do words matter? Is there power in naming something? And what happens when you fail to name the reality in which you live?

I preach for a church I love in Fresno, California. This church had a long, dark period where not everyone was willing to speak the truth about its ragamuffin nature: A string of fired ministers. Sexual impropriety among prominent leaders. Tragic deaths. The narrative of brokenness seemed obvious enough to me, but naming it as such wasn’t entirely popular with everyone.

Does the truth need to be spoken? Are you in the right when you name past wrongs? Does the pain of the past always need to brought out into the light?

Sometimes the pain of one’s existence becomes so great that you find it difficult to speak the truth. In “Death of a Salesman,” Biff bemoans the sad fact that “we never told the truth for ten minutes in this house.” What power is there in naming things as they really are?

Eve Ensler may not be a faith hero, but her campaign against violence to women has changed thousands of lives around the world. “I believe in the power and mystery of naming things,” she once said. Her campaign to speak the truth was deeply personal. Her father had violated her as a child in ways that no child should have to endure. Despite her deep pain—or perhaps because it was so deep—she had long been unable to tell the truth to her own mother. Then one day, she finally opened up:

“When I was finally able to sit with my mother and name the specific sexual and physical violence my father had perpetrated on me as a child, it was an impossible moment. It was the naming, the saying of what had actually happened in her presence that lifted my twenty-year depression. By remaining silent, I had muted my experience, denied it, pushed it down. This had flattened my entire life. I believe it was this moment of naming that allowed both my mother and I to eventually face our deepest demons and deceptions and become free.” (from an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, March 20, 2006)

I believe that one of the greatest problems in Churches of Christ today is our inability to tell the truth. We don’t want to name the sins of our past. Nor do are we willing to accurately name the realities in which we live. This failure to stop bearing false witness against God and against ourselves will continue to drive us into extinction.

In spite of this bleak picture, I believe in the power of naming. If enough brave congregations would start telling the truth about their decline, openly admit the sins of their past, and start properly naming things instead of playing word games, then I believe in God’s power to bring resurrection.

Your church can have a future. But that future starts with accurately naming the past. You must begin to tell the truth about who you are.

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