I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep, and my sheep know me — just as the Father knows me and I know the Father — and I lay down my life for the sheep (John 10:14-15).
He sat in my living room and called me "Jim."
He lives in my neighborhood, an older man who I stop and talk with every once in a while when I see him. We aren't close friends — more like acquaintances — but I thought he at least knew my name.
He came by this week and wanted to talk for a few minutes, so I invited him in and we sat down. And all through the conversation he called me "Jim." At first I thought maybe it was a figure of speech I'd never heard before, like a younger person might use "man" or "dude." But, no, it wasn't. He thought Jim was my name.
He's one of those people, too, who use your name often in a conversation: "So I just thought, Jim, that maybe I'd come by and talk to you, Jim, and then maybe we could go to the gym, Jim ...." Well, you get the idea. It's fine, as long as your name is Jim.
Mine isn't, so I got a little distracted, I admit. A lot of the time he was talking, calling me "Jim" all along, I was thinking more about how I could tell him my name wasn't Jim than about what he was saying. But every time he called me "Jim," and it must have been at least 20 times, correcting him got that much more awkward.
So I didn't say anything. When he asked for my phone number, though, I gave him a card with my name clearly printed on it. He promptly shoved it into his pocket without looking at it and headed for the front door.
"Good-bye, Jim," he said, smiling.
Later I returned a voice mail message that he left me. When he answered and I told him who I was, he didn't recognize me. (I should have said, "Hi, it's Jim.") Eventually, I got across who I was and he apologized for calling me by the wrong name. And, lest you get the wrong idea, it was never that big a deal anyway.
But it is nice when someone knows your name.
I have the feeling, though, that life has become more impersonal in the last half a century or so. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think knowing people by name means much less to us than it used to. How many of your neighbors do you know by name, for example? Do you know the names of your children's friends' parents? What about the names of the proprietors of the shops you frequent (assuming they aren't all subsidiaries of huge, multinational corporations)? Your insurance agent? The new people at church? (At our church, people seem to stay "new" for a decade or more.) There are lots of reasons for it: technology, the diversification of previously homogeneous neighborhoods, lack of time, distrust. It feels, at least, like we know fewer of the people in our lives by name than our parents did.
Maybe that's why the whole idea of God knowing me by name excites me. "I know you by name," he assured Moses. "I have summoned you by name, you are mine," he reassured his people through Isaiah. And then there's Jesus, assuring the people whom God has placed under his care and protection that they are much more to him than just one more frightened, confused face in the flock. "I know my sheep and my sheep know me" — Jesus chooses to have the same kind of intimate, knowing-and-known relationship with us as he has with the Father.
Whether or not anyone else knows your name, or cares to, God does.
But maybe it is hard for you to believe. Maybe there aren't too many people who care to know your name. Maybe you feel as though you go through life like a ghost, neither touching nor being touched. You didn't necessarily choose that life, but there it is all the same. Maybe you go for days, weeks, without hearing your name spoken with warmth, affection, or familiarity.
If that describes you, then please take note: God knows your name, and when he speaks it it's in a voice full of fondness, gentleness, and joy. He "commands his angels concerning you," and when he sends them to your side to minister to you, he speaks your name. His Spirit identifies you as his child. In Jesus, he came for you. Your name wasn't lost to him, those he came to save are not just a faceless mass of people. Your face and your name were in his mind on the cross.
"Why would God care about my name?" you ask. Well, it's not because you're such a prize. It's not because you have anything to offer him. It's not because you've been good lately ... or because you share with the poor ... or because you go to church regularly ... or even because you read things like this. That's the way it works in the world, of course: you have to do something, either positive or negative, to have your name remembered. But, that isn't how it works with God.
God knows your name simply because he can't forget you. It's not in his nature to forget his people. And even though there's no reason that the Creator of the universe should know our names, he does. He chooses to make and value us personally. And even if it seems to you that the negatives connected to your name are far more memorable than the positives, rest assured that God remembers your name with joy, love, and grace.
It seems to me, then, that we ought to value our own names as much as God does. We ought to recognize that, whatever the people around us may think of us, God knows our names and we mean the world to him. And we ought to guard our names with care, realizing how hurt and disappointed God must be to see our names, the names of the people his Son died to save, stained by sin, corruption, and baseness.
And it seems to me that we ought to value other names as much as God does. We should make an effort to learn the names of those around us, especially the least among us, and speak those names with reverence, gentleness, love, and care. If God knows and values them, then so should we — whoever they might be. It just might mean the world to someone that you took the time to know his or her name.
Take it from me — Jim.