What's in a Name?

This is a written adaptation of a message I gave to Awaken City Church, Knoxville on July 19, 2015.

If you spend enough time in churches or Christian culture, you are going to be familiar with some mainstay stories from the Bible: Noah’s ark, Jonah and the whale, Daniel in the lion’s den, Jesus walking on water followed shortly by Peter not nearly as successfully walking on water, etc. One of these very common stories involves three young men named Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. Those names will not mean much to most people, unfortunately.

When Babylon sacked Jerusalem at the beginning of the Babylonian exile, they carried away many of the noble young men of Judah. Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were four of these young men that had their families, their homes, their country and their very culture stolen from them.

Upon arrival in Babylon, they discovered that their captors were not finished: they were given new, Babylonian names. While this may appear to be just another example of the Babylonians demonstrating control over them, there was another purpose behind their new names. Daniel, whose name meant “God is my judge,” was given the name Belteshazzar, “favored by Bel.” Hananiah, “Gift of the Lord,” was named Shadrach, “Command of Aku.” Mishael, “Who is what God is?”, was named Meshach, “Who is what Aku is?”. Azariah, “God helps” or “God is my help,” was named Abed-nego, “Servant of Nabu” or “Servant of Nergal.”

All four of these boys’ names dedicated them to the God of their ancestors, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Their new names dedicated them to various Babylonian gods. The message was clear: “Our gods are now your gods.” But these four were secure in the identities that they had in God and refused to give in to them being overwritten. This refusal landed Daniel in a lion’s den and Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah in a furnace. Regardless of their surroundings, regardless of their circumstances, they held fast to their faith in God and in who they were in him.

Maybe it will now be easier to understand me when I say that my heart is grieved that they are remembered by the names that represented everything that they took a stand against. We teach Sunday school lessons and preach sermons about the faithfulness and boldness of “Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego” and how God protected them in the midst of their captivity. Many do not even realize that they had other names.

It is easy to say that I’m putting entirely too much emphasis on such a small section of their story, but I know what it’s like to be saddled with a name you never wanted, to struggle under the burden of an identity that you hate. Whereas everyone I’m in regular contact with now recognizes me as “Michael,” most of my blood relatives would still refer to me as “Joey.”

On May 16, 1986, I was born Joseph Edwin Wilkinson III. On May 9, 1988, a week before my second birthday and eight days before what would be my parent’s last anniversary, my father was arrested. He would later plead to three counts of “Lewd and lascivious conduct with a minor under 6 years of age.” Three counts. He had three children.

I didn’t have words for it at the time, but I can clearly remember feeling dirty as a young child. As I got a little older, I also began to feel like there was some kind of invisible wall preventing anyone from coming close to me. As I got older still, I realized that these two feelings were really one: I had been tainted, and anyone that was around me was in danger of being tainted, themselves.

Kids would be playing in a group only to disperse as I drew near. Sometimes, I would muster up the courage to ask why they wouldn’t play with me. In response: a turned head, a shrugged shoulder, some mumbled words akin to, “My parents say that you’re dangerous.” Sometimes, an adult would hear me ask and would reply in their place: “You know good and well why they shouldn’t be around you.” Once, someone I hadn’t met before stopped me to say, “If we were back in biblical days, we would just stone your whole family and be done with it.” I tried for years to fathom the depths of fear that would drive someone to say such an evil thing to a five-year-old, but I now believe that it is good that I can’t begin to understand.

My mother, sisters and I were made pariahs because of what my father had done. We were judged according to his evil actions. We were toxic; we were infected; we were vampires: bitten and now seeking to bite. I felt this judgment crushing me constantly. It stung every time someone would call me by name, whether it was for praise or punishment. It was another reminder that he defined me.

When I was ten, my mother sat me down and told me that she was going to change her last name to something Joe wouldn’t be able to track down. If he wanted visitation, he could petition the courts at his leisure. They would still know where to find us. Until then, we would be in hiding from him. The only question was whether or not I wanted to change my name, as well.

This was amazing news to me. Up until that conversation, I didn’t know that changing your name was even an option. I enthusiastically blurted out, “I want my name to be Michael.”

“So, Michael Joseph Garrett?”

“No, I don’t want his name to be any part of mine. Michael Caleb Garrett.” (Liam, my middle name, would come a bit later.)

I took a stand. I wasn’t going to be my father’s son. I wasn’t going to be anything like him, no matter what anyone else said. The problem was that I didn’t know how to properly distance myself from him.

I had been heavily invested in my school’s annual musicals. Each year, I tried out and got a major role. I loved the performance. I loved the singing. I was good. Then I learned that Joe had been involved in church choirs. At eleven years old, I swore that I would never sing another song for the rest of my life.

Anything he was, I could not be. Anything I was going to be must be something he was not.

It turned out that non-custodial, felonious parents still had the right to veto a name change. It also required him to know what the name was, regardless of his decision. Because this revelation would defeat the purpose of changing our names, in the first place, I would have to wait until I was eighteen to legally change it. Until then, I decided that I would just refuse to answer to anything but my new, self-chosen name.

I thought that a new name would solve my problems, but in many ways, it made them worse. Any place that had to have my legal name on file required another explanation. I dreaded every first day in a class, the wait for the W names to be reached, the looks of confusion and derision when I would raise my hand and say, “Actually, I go by Michael.” Even worse was when they would get curious. I could have told them the truth, which would’ve also probably taught them to not ask their students questions that they didn’t definitely know the answer to. But that would reveal who and what my father was and what that made me. Most of the time, I would give some freshly engineered, lame excuse that made me seem more like a petulant brat or a typically rebellious adolescent. As much as I didn’t care for someone having those images of me, they were endlessly better than the alternative.

The first time I answered the question completely honestly was on May 17th, 2004, the day after my eighteenth birthday. I explained to the judge that I had been going by my name for eight years, that I didn’t want a name that would liken me to a pedophile, that I wanted to start my own legacy. The sound of her gavel banging down rang through the courtroom and nearly brought me to tears.

I was Michael Caleb Liam Garrett.

On May 17th, 2010, I was celebrating my sixth name day, as I have come to call it. That day, I was told that Joe had died the previous December from cancer. I had a vague understanding that it was normal for someone to feel a deep sense of being lost when they lose a parent. What I couldn’t understand was why I felt the same. Why should I feel lost when he never gave me any direction?

Because he had. As I prayed and sought God for direction and clarity in the next few months, I realized something that I should have long before. When I was a young child, I had been defined by who my father was, what he had done and the name he burdened me with. When I got older, I only shifted the burden instead of shirking it. Instead of being a mirror image, I accepted being a shadow.

Anything he was, I could not be. Anything I was going to be must be something he was not. But my identity still relied on him. He was still the foundation. With that foundation gone, I had nowhere to stand, and I was falling apart.

The enemy is not very creative. His most effective means are often perversions of what he’s seen God do. Sealing a new identity with a name is a perfect example.

God reached out to Abram when he was an old man without even the hope of a blood-heir. His name meant, “High Father,” which must have seemed like a cruel irony. But God promised him that he would have more descendants than the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on a beach. He named him Abraham, “Father of Many,” and made it true.

Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, had swindled his brother for his birthright and tricked their blind father to receive the first-born’s blessing. His very name meant supplanter, usurper, back-stabber, traitor. But God named him Israel, “Prince of God.” His very identity was tied to the idea that he could only get ahead by being underhanded, by taking what was not his. God changed his identity to someone who had no need, for he was already the son and heir of the kingdom of Heaven.

When I was fifteen, I became very interested in the meanings of names, which is what eventually led me to look up Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. I was curious about my own name, so I looked it up. Michael: “Who is like God?” Caleb: “Faithful and bold.” Liam: “Determined guardian” or “stout shield.” Garrett: “To watch.” Together, my name made a rhetorical question followed by elaboration: “Who is like God? A faithful, bold and determined guardian that watches over us.”

A few months after I had begun going by Michael, my mother sat me back down and asked me why I had chosen that name. I told her the truth: that I just liked the name Michael. She told me that she had wanted to name me Michael as soon as she discovered I would be a boy, but that she knew that it wasn't going to happen.

As I sought God after learning of my earthly father’s death, he brought all of this back to my mind. The sense that I had was, “Your name was a reminder of who and what your father was. Your new name is a reminder of who and what I am. That is who and what you are: a reminder. Tell your stories. Be who I made you to be.”

So here’s a simple reminder, for anyone who might need it:

You do not have to be defined by what people have said to or about you.

You do not have to be defined by what you have done in the past.

You definitely don’t have to be defined by what others have done to you.

No matter how other people see you, no matter how you see yourself, God looks upon you with love. All of his followers are adopted as his sons and daughters (2 Corinthians 6:18, Romans 8:14). Have you been living as a slave to who others say you are or as a citizen of the kingdom of Heaven, beloved child of the Most High God?

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