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Virginia Stem Owens

Naming God

How should we address him?

At night, when I get down on my knees beside my bed and lean my head on my folded hands in the posture of prayer I was taught as a child, there's always a moment's hesitation while I fumble for the first word to launch into the cosmos, a name that will find the infinite mystery I want my words to reach.

Doubtless my attention to the question of what to call God has been heightened by the violent clash between partisans from the world's three major monotheistic religions. Muslims call upon Allah, ideally, five times a day. The Qur'an lists the ninety-nine names of God, e. g., "He is Allah, the Creator, the Originator, the Fashioner, the Exalted in Might, the Wise." The name Allah itself is the Arabic transliteration of the Hebrew Eloah (cf. Elohim, one of God's names in the Hebrew scriptures) or Aramaic Elah, meaning "Mighty One" or "One Worthy of Praise." But the Qur'an also says that Allah has names that he keeps to himself, an option I find strangely appealing.

Jewish prayers most often address God as "King of the Universe." Rabbi Yochanan, who salvaged the Torah when Jerusalem was destroyed in ad 70, instructed his fellow exiles, "Any blessing which does not include mention of [God's] sovereignty is not a blessing." During my nightly hesitation over what to call God, I often envy Jews that substantial prescription. On the other hand, while it seems appropriate for an acclamation, it lacks the kind of intimacy my Christian ears seek in prayer.

So what are my choices? Do I address myself to Father? If so, should it be preceded with Our or My? Should I say Lord, perhaps with a prefatory Dear, like the greeting of a letter? What about Jesus, Holy Spirit, or just plain God? If I say Father, is it because I am a child, seeking comfort and certain assurance? Do I say Lord because I feel strong enough to approach as an adult, yet humble enough to acknowledge servanthood? Can I, this night, transcend the barriers of time to experience the personal presence of the resurrected Jesus, the one who has "borne our griefs and carried our sorrows"? Should I appeal to the Holy Spirit, feeling the need for firing up by that life-giving but elusive essence? Or do I take the easy way out and just say God, the generic term for whatever is infinitely bigger and better than I am?

Then there's Yahweh, that most open-ended of all divine names, written in Hebrew today using only the windy consonants Y or H. Perhaps the name that God revealed to Moses was chosen especially for its exhalation. It is the very breath of God breathed into our ears. By omitting the open vowels in the written name, the Jewish scribes signaled their readers that the name of God is too holy to have on their unclean lips. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the unspeakable name revealed to Moses is variously translated as "I am who I am" or "I will be who I will be" or even "I am becoming who I will become."

It has been left to the foolhardy Christians to stick in the vowels and dare to pronounce aloud, albeit with a certain awkwardness, the name Yahweh. Even so, we speak this name most often when reading aloud certain contemporary translations of Scripture or in a few praise songs.

But unless I want to spend all night dithering, eventually I have to get on with my prayer, hoping the Great Unpronounceable will understand my struggle. So I plunge in to address him.

The name I often plunge in with these days is Father. Father is what Jesus called God. In fact, the Aramaic word he actually used, "Abba," is more akin to our homely English equivalents—Daddy or Papa, simple two-syllable names ending in open vowels easy for toddlers to pronounce.

But why would someone such as myself, a 64-year-old grandmother, suddenly want a father? Maybe because a child is what I often feel like these days. Fearful and impotent, and in need of comfort. I'm not ashamed of slipping into the persona of child when I kneel there at my bedside. I want a Parent. I need a Parent. Someone who cares for me as unfailingly as the mother I lost two years ago.

As for my father, World War II kept me from meeting him until I was four years old. Unfortunately, this meant we never formed a close natural bond. Moreover, at 88, my father has become the child while I have taken on the role of parent in caring for him.

In some ways this blank spot in my psyche has been beneficial. Many women have trouble with God because they identify him with an oppressive earthly father. For them, patriarchal oppression is a problem. But calling God Father at this point in my life doesn't put my ideological nose out of joint. I don't spurn or suspect any fatherly consolation he's likely to offer. In fact, crawling into God's lap and going to sleep in his arms seems about the best ending to a day—or a life—I can imagine.

Still, to be honest, Father has to be a conscious choice. "Lord" is the mode of address that automatically springs unbidden to my lips. In my experience, it is also the name most often used among Christians to speak about the lump-sum Trinity.

Why is Lord so routinely spoken? After all, it is an archaic word, one we never use outside of a religious context unless we're British. Such a word doesn't fit in our contemporary culture, except in certain kinds of science fiction and fantasy (The Lord of the Rings, for example). Like Father, Lord puts us in a position of dependence. But Lord implies even more. Not only do I depend on this Great Unknowable for my very breath, but with that word I acknowledge a kind of feudal relationship in which I play peasant to his patron.

Yet I've never been in such a relationship. Our word "boss" is about as close as we commonly come to Lord, but the ties between employer and employee in our capitalist democracy are not nearly so close or strong as those between Lord and liegeman. So should I call God Boss? It would be our own Americanized way of acknowledging God's sovereignty, or at least his right to be in control.

But Boss carries its own baggage, not all of it good. There's a whiff of irony, even sarcasm about the name. Boss means, "Okay, you're in charge here. Do it your way. Just don't blame me when it doesn't work out." Calling God Boss shuffles all the responsibility for my flaws to him. Which I'm already all too tempted to do.

So I'm back to Lord. Even though it isn't native to our times or tongues, it leaps unbidden to our praying lips. It's the name which most of us have heard most frequently, both in and out of prayer, whether talking to or about God. Because Lord, either in lower- or all uppercase letters, stands in for several Hebrew divine monikers, it appears more often in Scripture than any other name. We often use Lord in offhand colloquial expressions such as, "The good Lord willing and the creek don't rise." We take our troubles "to the Lord in prayer." And I use such exclamatory phrases as "Good Lord" with no hesitation whereas I would shrink from using God in the same mode.

One synonym for Lord is Master. This hits me on a deeper level. Slaves have masters. Trained animals have masters. Disciples of whatever craft or discipline have masters. Much more than Lord, calling on my Master puts me in a place I know instantly and instinctively. My personal history connects with that name as it must for anyone who grew up in the segregated South. The history of the slave-master relationship sets up internal seismic shock waves.

I recognize instantly the tone of the Syro-Phoenician woman's retort to Jesus when he turns aside her request to heal her child: "even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table." She is abasing herself by acknowledging, bitterly perhaps, her despised position while also acknowledging his power. Jesus himself often names the most powerful character in his parables "the master." Sometimes this is a kindly figure; at other times the master in the parable can seem arbitrary and capricious. In other places in the New Testament, master refers to a slaveowner, and not just metaphorically. Several of the pastoral letters admonish both slaves and masters to treat one another well. Master is also what his disciples often called Jesus.

Yet Master is not a name one hears addressed to anyone often these days. Nor, despite its emotional freight, do I call upon it often. Its demands scare me. Whether we're talking about slaves or wild animals or students or disciples, obeying seems to be the operative ingredient in the relationship.

But when his disciples call Jesus Master, they are not groveling before him. They use the Greek word for teacher (didaskalos) to address him. They are showing him the respect due a teacher by recognizing his superiority of knowledge or skill. Those fascinated with God, whatever manifestation of faith they find themselves in, have historically called their spiritual teacher Master. Who better to call Master than Jesus?

I have an elderly cousin who sometimes addresses her prayers directly to Jesus, adding the shockingly familiar accolade, "You're just so precious!" This woman has been throughout her long life a better Christian than I'll ever be, yet I cringe when she says it, picturing her tweaking Jesus' cheek.

On the other end of the spectrum, I once heard a radio preacher claim that we are not to pray to Jesus but rather, following his divine example, we should address our prayers to his father in heaven. I wonder what that preacher has to say about the Kyrie, one of the church's oldest prayers. Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.

Which brings me to the way the names Jesus and Christ are frequently linked. Christ, of course, is the translated equivalent of Messiah. Or at least it started out that way. Children, however, often take it for his last name. And scholars debate the nuances, some suggesting that Jesus was only his earthly name and Christ his heavenly designation.

I rarely open up my heart with Jesus' name—no doubt a sad loss to my spiritual life. Of such seemingly minor distractions are stumbling blocks compounded, a fact that should make us all wary of our words. There is more than one way to take the Lord's name in vain.

As for the generic term, god, talk about God can get by with that designation, but addressing God directly seems to require something more. Prayer bonds us to God with a peculiar intimacy. It is what brings us to the point of actually needing to name this Person in whose image we are made.

If God is no more than concept or, as some theologians like to say, construct, then there is little point in naming him. One does not cry out to a concept or a construct. One may respect or admire it, even preach about it or advertise it, trying to attract converts to its cause. But one does not expect an answer if one were to address it or try to communicate with it. Only a person can do that. Calling God's name in the expectation or maybe just the hope that he hears, the supplicant recognizes God, if only fleetingly or even unwittingly, as a person, a person who can respond.

Getting that initial address right seems important to me, not because I imagine I can really capture this source of all being in a verbal container. But the name I call to God with determines the guise in which I come to this task, duty, privilege of prayer. In naming God, I am in some way—far beyond my incomplete understanding—determining my own identity. Naming God ends up defining not him, but me.

Virginia Stem Owens lives and writes in Texas. Her book And the Trees Clap Their Hands: Faith, Perception, and the New Physics was recently reissued by Wipf & Stock.

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