Names are very peculiar. When people ask, “Who are you?” Our first response is likely our name. Yet, our names actually reveal very little about who we are to someone who does not know us. It is much more descriptive to name our profession, our education, our relationships, our likes and dislikes. Names in themselves do not describe us and yet they carry with them the burden and the power of total representation.
I was not born with the name Lebak. In May of 2004, I drove to the Circuit Court in Joliet, Illinois, to officially change my surname. That morning six or seven cases that were called before mine, all requesting name changes. There was a woman asking to reclaim her birth name, a woman who wished to change her son’s last name to her own, and a man who decided that he wanted his middle name to be Green Lantern.
According to State Civil Procedure, “Any person who desires to assume another name may file a petition in the circuit court praying for that relief. If it appears to the court that there is no reason why the prayer should not be granted, the court may direct that the name of that person be changed in accordance with the prayer in that petition.” I wish that all prayer responses were that simple.
Names in our religious and mythical history have often served as an indication of an individual’s character, function, or destiny. In the Bible, only God and men were given the authority to name: the father named his children and slaves, Adam named his wife and all the animals. Biblical names often suggested the traits of the child, like Esau for hairy. Some were drawn from the names of animals or plants like Deborah which means bee or Hadassah which means myrtle. Sometimes a biblical name was ascribed before a person’s birth, to indicate some special destiny. Today, most Americans no longer connect the roots of our names to Biblical stories, nor do we necessarily think of occupations or our destiny when we hear family names such as Baker, Hunter, Abbott, or Gardner.
The morning of my court date for my name change, the judge called my case number. It was all very simple, really. He asked for my driver’s license and proof that I had paid the fee. The judge looked at the documents and then looked at me.
“So, is Lebak your maiden name?”
“No sir,” I answered.
He stared at me perplexed. “So, you just picked this one out of the air?”
“Something like that, sir,” I responded.
Actually, I had put a lot of thought and prayer into Lebak. I discovered the word while reading Prayers of the Cosmos by Neil Douglas Klotz, which includes poetic translations of the Beatitudes, The Lords Prayer and certain sayings of Jesus. Lebak is the word in Aramiac for heart in “You will love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength. Lebak literally jumped off the page. In Aramaic, Lebak means heart, the center of one’s life, compassion, and audacity. I want to be reminded every time I say or sign my name what is at the center of my life. I want to be reminded to be compassionate, to validate my emotional experience, reminded of the impact that I can have with my life, of the blessing that I can be. I may even be described as audacious on occasion. Lebak was fitting.
Abram’s name changed to Abraham when he formed a covenant with God. His wife Sarai later became Sarah. New Muslims consider the changing of their name to be a mark in their lives between one stage (before Islam) and another (after Islam). There I stood in court about to graduate from seminary. The judge raised a single eyebrow and said, “Well, ok then,” He stamped the paperwork and called the next case. I left the courtroom with a sort of Las Vegas Honeymoon/Deer-in-headlights look. It had been so much more uneventful than I had expected: no raising of the right hand, no swearing to go by this name until death do I part, no parting of the clouds in the sky or the earth beneath my feet. But something inside me shifted.
To distinguish ourselves and to join together, we say our names. May our names, given or chosen, each time that we utter them, serve as a prayer, a reminder, to look at how we are presenting ourselves to the world.