The Names We Choose

Names change. Jacob to Israel. Saul to Paul. Michael King to Martin Luther King. Jorge Mario Bergoglio to Pope Francis. Robert Allen Zimmerman to Bob Dylan. Life change, shifting identities, media cache, Divine wrestling match -- all are perfectly acceptable reasons to change one's name. And why not? Shakespeare himself asked "What's in a name?" though the irony of the words falling from the lips of Juliet Capulet suggest rhyming couplets were all the rage in the 17th century. But would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?

Would the symbolism of the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday be the same if it was Michael King Jr.? Nike's "Like Mike" campaign would have had a whole new level of meaning. Then again, "Bo Knows" would be much different had it been they used his given name "Vincent Edward." Surely in some basement in Seattle there is a graphic designer has a black and white poster with a neon swoosh that says "Vinny Knows."

According to the newly elected pope, some suggested he take the name of Adrian to vicariously channel the reforming pontiff who wrangled with the first Protestants, while others suggested Clement, as a shot at the pope who so famously suppressed the Jesuits, the tradition from which Pope Francis hails. In the end, the newly elected pope chose Francis, after a colleague advised him to remember the poor. Francis of Assisi, the patron Saint of birds and nature, the one who heard the call to rebuild Christ's church, and yet allegedly disrobed publicly, communed with birds and furry woodland creatures, all while founding a monastic order which would revolutionize the church. No pressure, former Cardinal Bergoglio.

Most of us don't choose our names. Unless you're P.Diddy, then you get a new one every two years when you re-up your cellphone contract. The names choose us, or are chosen for us. My given name is John Coy Lyon III. My grandfather was called "Coy" most of his life by people who dearly loved him, though he didn't much care for it. On a grave marker in the foothills of North Georgia is the name "John Lyon," my fifth great grandfather, the founder of Refuge Baptist Church. Across the Ocean in a small church in rural England lies Sir John De Lyon, my 15th great grandfather, who fought in the second crusade.

I haven't started a church and I certainly haven't carried a sword in a crusade (though there was that time I called my Bible a "sword" and went to see Billy Graham). Truthfully I squirm a little bit when I think of the theology of my forefathers and while I'm sure the fore-mothers were a much more progressive lot, I am blissfully stuck with my name. And I think that's alright.

The problem with names is there is a great deal of pressure to live up to them. Don't get me wrong. I don't feel compelled to be exactly what my grandfather wanted me to be. I'm sure I would have been a terrible engineer and a really annoying deacon. I am confident though that I am becoming someone my grandfather wouldn't mind sharing a name with.

I wonder how Martin Luther feels about his 20th century boundary breaking namesake, or how St. Francis feels knowing that the leader of the faith has millions tweeting that we should remember the poor. I think there must be some joy knowing someone has found the image of God in themselves and in those who have gone before them. The names we choose for ourselves and our children are more than homages to past heroes or random selections from the Big Book of Baby Names. They convey expectations, not for writing the novel we always wished we had or making the varsity baseball team but for finding out what role you will play in this grand human experiment, who you will love and how you will serve. Maybe that's what the Creator had in mind when that wild-eyed Artist dreamed us up and called us "Beloved."