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First Name Basis

Do not use Yahweh your God’s name as if it were of no significance (Exodus 20:7).

We call people we hardly know by their first name. That is a development of the late 20th century. Until the 1960’s, courtesy required using titles when addressing others, usually Mr. or Mrs. Even spouses used these titles – I remember my grandmother referring to her husband as Mr. Oden. This courtesy was required especially for those whom one respected; anyone older or in positions of authority were addressed with an honorific. Of course, this system of verbal deference supported status and power for some and not for others, especially in a racialized society. People of color were routinely called by their first name, regardless of their age, status or position. That’s one of the reasons titles have fallen out of use as we have sought greater equality among people.

Until recently, using someone’s personal name meant that one was on a “first name basis,” usually by invitation from another person. First names indicate friendship, close connection, even intimacy. That’s why Jews typically do not use God’s personal name, YHWH (pronounced Yahweh), as that implies a presumptuous familiarity that can lead to disregard for God’s authority and mystery. On the other hand, Christians typically do use God’s personal name (Jehovah, Yahweh), though are more likely to use descriptors (Lord, Mother, Father, etc). Christians tend to be comfortable being on a “first name basis” with God.

I’ve always struggled with names for God. Much of my struggle is intellectual. I know that God cannot be captured by any one name so I am suspicious of reducing God to one image or title. I want God’s mystery to be my first naming. Yet, I want close connection.

So, I wonder: what does it mean to be on a “first name basis” with God? What sort of relationship accompanies my use of God’s personal name? Does it lead me to presumptuous familiarity or loving humility? Do it convey that I take God for granted or that I seek close connection? Perhaps as importantly, when I use God’s personal name, what claims does this make on my life?

Do not use Yahweh your God’s name as if it were of no significance (Exodus 20:7).

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