Once or twice a year, I lead weekend women’s retreats. Although I’ve not met them beforehand, the women who attend know each other and most often go to the same church. One of our first activities together is a game I borrowed from a theater professor friend. I invite the group to set their chairs in a circle, and, one by one, to introduce themselves by saying: “I am (full name), daughter of (one parent’s full name).”
Sounds simple enough, right?
What never fails to surprise me, however, no matter how many times I do it, is how this quiet exercise completely transforms the tone of the weekend. It changes me, too. Moments earlier, I might have viewed the women as a blur of strangers or quickly summed each of them up (the one with the wacky sweatshirt, the elegant one wearing a silk scarf tied just so, the unsmiling one sitting alone), but they suddenly come into sharp focus as the beautiful, particular, valuable individuals they are—each deserving kindness and fighting her own secret battle, to echo that famous quote. My vision restored by the exercise, I regard each person as the protagonist of her own epic story. It’s a story worth telling and one that’s been steeped in God’s love.
This exercise transforms us into a small community. No longer random individuals thrown together for a weekend, we become more fully aware that we are all members of the body of Christ. We’re in this—this room, this retreat, this moment in history—together. Instead of being self-absorbed, we begin to be more interested in each other’s stories, growth, and points of pain. We see God’s face reflected in one another. This new awareness informs our times of prayer, our mealtime chatter, and the way we listen to one another.
Moments earlier, I might have viewed the women as a blur of strangers, but they suddenly come into sharp focus as beautiful, particular, valuable individuals.
After the name exercise, stories pour out of the women. Sometimes a person will disclose a trauma that she’s survived at the hand of the parent whose name she’s spoken. Others affectionately describe the person for whom they were named. Once a woman revealed that her father refused to say her name and called her only what he would have named the son he longed to have. Her pain was palpable.
Dr. Dan Allender, founder of the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, encourages Christians to listen to one another with “genuine curiosity” and “a complete absence of contempt.” The name game, somehow, opens us to this kind of listening.
We all long for connection, to be fully seen and specifically acknowledged for who we are. We want to believe that God knows us this way, too; and Scripture does assure us—over and over—that God does. Isaiah 43:1 reads: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine!” We’re not lumped together, lost in a blur of humanity or quickly summed up by our Creator, but gazed upon with love.
When I read the story of Jesus engaging with the man who’s known as “the rich young ruler,” I like to imagine that Christ’s voice was very tender. We’re told that He “felt a love” for the young man; you could say He looked on him with curiosity and an absence of contempt. Maybe Jesus even spoke this young man’s name. The young man says he desires eternal life and has kept all the commandments; Jesus tells him that he lacks just one thing. “Go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:17-22). As you know, he refuses and leaves, “saddened.”
I wonder if Christ’s instruction was even more nuanced and layered than just dissuading him from materialism. Perhaps Jesus knew that by asking this man to give his idols away, he’d have the opportunity (and perhaps even be compelled) to live in close relationship with others and to be part of a community of faith. No longer able to live independently, he’d be opened up to walk, literally, in Christ’s company and with Christ’s followers. But, sadly, the man didn’t have the faith or imagination to take this gamble. He went off alone, and now we remember him not by name but for his sadness and what he was unwilling to give away.
Perhaps Jesus knew that by asking this man to give his idols away, he’d have the opportunity to live in close relationship with others.
Too often, we can be like that today. I know I can. Maybe, like the rich young ruler, it’s not just my material wealth that I’m asked to give over to God, but my white-knuckling of my life and my sense of self. I lack the kind of childlike trust that we see in the disciples when they leave everything behind to follow Christ together. As an American, I’ve been constructed to set my own priorities, define what success means to me—and to go for it! When I simply view myself as an individual instead of being mindful that I am part of the body, and a necessary part, I find myself unhappy and isolated.
Fortunately, though, there are many moments when grace or grief or wisdom received from someone I trust crashes through my brittle ego and some of my warped loves spill out onto the floor. As I stoop to pick them up, I hold each one in the light, evaluate each souvenir of pride or unforgiveness or greed or distrust, and manage to discard one or two. I recenter and move back toward community.
Throughout His ministry, Jesus spoke about the proper ordering of our loves. When He sent His disciples out, He instructed them not even to pack a bag, but to rely on others for their needs. He knew that vulnerability to one another, a loose hold on our material possessions, and a commitment to service would ultimately bring us the most unity and joy. He said He came to bring us life, and life in abundance (John 10:10). And God’s economy is different from ours; this spiritual abundance doesn’t leave us protected and independent, but reliant on each other in service and love.
My hope for the church in a nation that prides itself on its independence and individualism is that we will keep moving toward more fully enjoying this abundant life together. And maybe you and I can start by closely listening to the echoes of meaning and humanity that reverberate when we invite others to share their names.