Choosing A Name

November 8th, 2013

Name Denied

Jaleesa Martin wanted to name her son Messiah, but she and the father of her baby could not agree on a last name for their son. The two ended up at a child support hearing in Cocke County Chancery Court in Tennessee to find a solution. The magistrate, Lu Ann Ballew, ruled that the child’s name be Martin DeShawn McCullough. The new name included both parents’ names, but it omitted Messiah.

“The word ‘Messiah’ is a title, and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person––and that one person is Jesus Christ,” Ballew said.

“I was shocked,” Martin said. “I never intended on naming my son Messiah because it means God and I didn’t think a judge could make me change my baby’s name because of her religious beliefs.”

Martin has not been the only person surprised by Ballew’s ruling. “That’s silly. My name means Messiah,” said Christen Mandracchia of Norristown, Pennsylvania, when I interviewed her for this issue. Indeed, many common first names do derive from Christos, the Greek word for Messiah. The first name Christian, along with variants for both men and women such as Carsten, Kristina, Christine, and Christen, are popular first names in Europe and many English-speaking countries. All of these names come from the Medieval Latin name Christianus, meaning Christian. Similarly, the name Christopher comes from two Greek words, Christos (referring to Christ) and phero (meaning “to bear” or “to carry”). The name was used by early Christians “as a metaphorical name, expressing that they carried Christ in their hearts,” according to the website Behind the Name.

A month after Ballew ruled that Martin’s son could not be named Messiah, another Tennessee judge overturned her decision. Chancellor Telford E. Forgety Jr. said that the lower court decision was unconstitutional, as it violated the clause against the establishment of religion in the US Constitution. Forgety also said that the court was supposed to determine the last name of the baby, not his first name. In fact, both his parents agreed on his first name.

The baby’s name is now officially Messiah DeShawn McCullough, sharing his last name with his father.

“I’m just happy,” Martin said after Forgety’s ruling. “I really don’t have nothing to say. I’m just glad it’s over with.”

Choosing a Name: Peter’s Story

My wife Kathleen and I pondered names in the days before our son was born. We narrowed our choice of first names from dozens of possibilities down to two: Luke or Peter. We liked the name Luke because in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is clearly seen as loving the least, the last, and the lost, and we wanted our son to know that Jesus Christ loves him and for him to grow to be a man who freely shares Christ’s love with others.

Ultimately, we chose to name our newborn boy Peter in honor of Simon Peter, one of the Jesus’ first disciples. The biblical Peter dropped his fishing nets and boldly followed Jesus. He was the first to proclaim publicly that Jesus was the Messiah. And he was not only one of the Twelve, but he was also among the inner circle of Jesus’ most devoted disciples, along with James and John.

We were also attracted to the name Peter because after his denial of Jesus, he did not give in to despair. Instead, days later, Peter rushed to verify the news that Jesus’ tomb was empty. He was present in the upper room when the risen Christ appeared to the disciples. And during a post-Resurrection breakfast on the beach, Jesus forgave his brash friend (John 21:15-19) who went on to have a rock-solid faith.

We want our son to know that even if he fails miserably, all is not lost. Jesus Christ will offer him forgiveness no matter what. And we pray that he will be merciful to himself and others. That’s why we named him Peter.

Choosing a Name: Other Stories

As I was researching this article, I asked friends about the significance of their names. Esther Jacoby, of Hockessin, Delaware, told me, “My Korean-born parents gave me the Korean name Soonie, which is still used by a few elderly relatives. Since I was born in America, my grandfather, who was a United Methodist pastor in Washington, DC, chose the name Esther from the Bible, and that is the name on my birth certificate. It was nice having a name that nobody else in my neighborhood, school, or family had.” Years later, when Esther and her husband Dave considered starting a family, they talked about what names to give their future children. “Dave and I liked the girl’s name Kathleen, even though neither of us have Irish blood, and the boy’s name Daniel. We wanted names for our children that nobody else in our families had. When Katie was born, she got the name Kathleen, which means ‘pure.’ When I was pregnant the second time, we knew we would have only two children, so Baby #2 was going to be either Daniel or Danielle, which means ‘God is my judge.’ Both girls seem happy with their names.”

Chris Skinner and her daughter Johanna Lynch, of Dover, Delaware, shared an interesting intergenerational perspective. “My parents named me after my grandmother,” Chris said. “My mother’s family named all their firstborn after the maternal grandmother. I broke with tradition by naming Johanna after we saw the name in a baby book.” Johanna notes that she was “supposed to be named Caroline Rose after my grandmothers,” by family tradition. But instead, her parents discovered and liked the name Johanna, which means “gift from God,” according to the baby book they consulted. “Growing up I used to hate my name because it was different and people often mispronounced it,” Johanna said. “I could never find my name on those souvenir key chains or mugs because it was so different and uncommon. However, as I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to appreciate unique names because it’s nice not knowing another Johanna.”

Jonathan Baker, of The Villages, Florida, is a retired United Methodist pastor, and his father was also a United Methodist pastor. “My brother was named David after my father and great-grandfather, and I was named Jonathan hoping we would have a relationship like David and Jonathan in Scripture,” Baker said. Years later, Jonathan and his wife Donna longed for children. “We named our son Matthew, which means ‘gift of God.’ We adopted him after experiencing six miscarriages. We named our daughter Elizabeth Joy, choosing a name from Scripture.”

Kathryn Messer of Kenton, Delaware, was originally named Mary Kyle Tomlinson in honor of the pastor of the family’s Methodist church, Reverend Kyle Creggar, who was also her father’s best friend. “After awhile my parents decided they could not give me a boy’s name, and then changed my name to Mary Kathryn Tomlinson after my Aunt Kathryn, who was a favorite to everyone in the family. Until the day he died, Preacher Creggar called me Mary Kyle and I loved it.” Kathy, as I know her, said that she has “always had a number of names. Everyone from home in Virginia calls me Mary Kathryn or Kathryn. When I went to cheerleading camp in high school, my long name wouldn’t fit on the name tag, so the registrar said I was going to be Kathy Tomlinson. Hence at camp and college I was Kathy and it stuck. Very close friends and my godchildren call me Kap. When it comes to a name, I answer to all five! All have special meanings.”

Gina Small of Wilmington, Delaware, was born in a Roman Catholic family. “My dad told my mom he wanted to name me after Sister Regina, a nun who was instrumental in turning his life around when he was a boy. He often said if not for the nuns, and Sister Regina in particular, he probably would have ended up in jail.”

Our names, both the names given to us by our parents and the nicknames selected by our friends, are part of what differentiates us and makes us who we are. No matter what our names are, God loves us. In Isaiah 43:1, God says, “Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.” Each and every one of us can join the psalmist in proclaiming, “Lord, you have examined me. You know me” (Psalm 139:1).

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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