Those who know me know I’m a birder or, a term I heard lately, a “bird nerd”. I have all manner of bird feeders and baths in our small West End backyard. For most of the year, they attract many sparrows and squirrels, but also woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees. When the month of May comes, birders in Manitoba polish their binocular lenses because of the amazing bird migration passing through on its way to Canada’s boreal forest.
As both Lyle and I watched and listened in rapt attention these last weeks, I’ve noticed a curious tendency I have to want to name them. Though I
can identify some bird songs, when I hear one I don’t know, an inner itch begins. I have to find out what it is, and until I do, I become a detective.
I try to whistle the songs and perform them for any birding experts I meet. I record birds and email the file to my favorite birding store, the Preferred Perch, for the owner Sherry to listen to. She humors my requests and solves my mysteries. Once I know the name, I begin to study the bird, its habits, markings and any other details.
I’ve wondered about this obsessive need of mine to know. Is it a way of capturing mystery? An old yoga teacher of mine used to caution us about holding too tightly onto the names we give things. For example, naming an illness by diagnosing it can help us, but it can also begin to limit our imagination on our healing journey. There is always more of an element of mystery to things than we know.
I guess names give us a way of structuring and mapping the world in our minds. When my son Joel was little, naming the universe was the best part of being a mom. “That’s a tree.” “That’s a flower.” The name that gave him the most joy was “Lights!” As I named things, I felt the way the Creator must feel, opening the world to a mind filled with wonder. Like all parents, we also put a lot of thought into the choosing of his name, and like all kids, he went on to gain many nicknames from us and others. Moe Joe. Bud. Leoj (Joel spelled backwards). Many names for the same person.
The Bible has many names for God, but there is one that seems to trump them all. When Moses saw God in the burning bush he asked, “Who should I tell them I saw?” God gave him a most puzzling answer. The name (Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh), translated means something like: “I will be who I will be”. That’s no name! That’s a riddle! No wonder it has sparked endless study and discussion in the 3000 years that followed!
Aviva Zornberg, an Old Testament scholar, believes that God is being evasive on purpose in the answer to Moses. Somehow, Zornberg says, God is saying, “I’m not giving you a handle. You want a handle of some kind to hold on to, to say, “Now I’ve got him. That’s a name.” And God is not willing to allow himself to become in any way fetishized.”
Along with Moses, God answers us and asks us to be content with the name that is not a name. In the years that followed, Moses would go on to free his people from Egypt, the most oppressive land of slavery there was. No one thought they could get free from it. The word “Egypt” in Hebrew means “the narrow places” of one’s life. This God without a name was with the people as they escaped the narrow places. Zornberg translates the mystery name to mean that God says, “I will be [with them in this trouble] what I will be [with them in future narrow places].”
I guess I am so consumed with naming these days because I am in a state of waiting and watching. What is my future, after this leave of absence from work is finished? Like Moses, I want to know! I am impatient and my mind strains to understand. Like a many faceted jewel, I turn my life over and over in my hands, trying to name what I see.
Like Moses, God is asking me to be content with mystery and with whatever is becoming, and to trust that “all will be well” in due time. As I take a breath and let go of my striving, I recognize a name that is here already – gratitude. How grateful I am for the space these days have given me. I am reading, writing and resting more in a “being” mode than I have in such a long time.
Maybe I’m not the only one pondering the jewel of my life. Maybe God is doing the same thing, calling me by name. No doubt God is leading me out of the narrow places of my life.
God says, “Do not be afraid. I will set you free.
I have called you by name. You belong to me.” Isaiah 43:1