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What’s in a Name

Perhaps you have never heard of Irena Sendler. She kept names. Names were important to her. She died two weeks ago today.

Yesterday evening, as a beautiful spring day was drawing to a close, my brother Gary, my nephew Caleb and i took a short walk through a hardwood bottom behind my house, Caleb, newly graduated from Auburn University with a degree in wildlife science, is a catalog of things that grow in the forest. It’s enjoyable and impressive to walk the woods with him, and to quiz him about Latin names of what most of us would simply call “a tree.”

We came upon one plant that we didn’t recognize, a plant about 2 feet tall with a cluster of small white blooms on top of the stem. The three of us examined it closely in hopes 1) that its identity would become clear to us or 2) that we could remember enough detail about it to find it in one of my field guides at the house. The cluster of blooms was about 3 inches wide with individual flowers about a quarter to half inch across, flowers of symmetrical petals with purple centers. The leaves on the stem, Caleb observed, grow in a pattern called “decussate.” (i had to look it up too.)

None of us could name the plant, nor find it in or field guides.

This morning, i walked back to the bottom and found 2 other of the same plant. And i’ve a hunch that, each time i return to that section of the woods, i will pay special attention to them, as though they are new eccentric neighbors.

Maybe it’s just me, but the pleasure of a walk in the woods is greatly enhanced by knowing the names and properties of the trees, flowers, and birds that inhabit the area. The generalized “forest” comes when i know that its residents are uniquely designed, capable of distinction, and intended to perpetuate their kind. Sawtooth oak, tulip poplar, white oak, river birch, sourwood, ironwood, beech… Those names, and the unique characteristics that each implies, communicate so much more than “tree” and i find myself, each time i take a stroll, wanting to know more about this locale in which i live.

“Everything is a Fingerprint” comes to mind.

There is a certain godliness in knowing and wanting to know names. Of the stars, in all their billions, scripture teaches that God “calls them each by name.” (Ps.147:4) And what of all those long lists and Old Testament genealogies that seem so pointless and unfamiliar, not to mention difficult to pronounce. There must be some good reason that they are imposed upon us by the writers of Scripture. Maybe we’re supposed to deduce something about the importance of names. Eugene Peterson observes that,

“The personal name is the seed that germinates and grows into the personal story. In this way, story as a way of speech quietly insists that all truth is personal and relational. God deals with persons, named persons, not numbers or abstractions or goals or plans. Language at is best and purest turns on naming and names.

Names are important.

They save us from the swamps of undifferentiated generality. They protect us from the arid wastelands of abstraction. A name is a lifejacket that keeps us afloat in the ocean of anonymity.” Leap Over the Wall, p. 24, 104.

It is one thing to ‘love’ Africa or to care about ‘people.’ It is altogether different to love an individual with a name, a street address, a shoe size. Wendell Berry, with typical eloquence, makes the point this way:

“No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one’s partiality.” Art of the Commonplace, p. 118.

In other words, we demonstrate our love of the whole, wide world by loving the ones nearest to us, the ones whose names we do know or should know. It rather begs the question, doesn’t it? Can i ‘love the world’ or ‘care about people’ or ‘walk the Jesus way’ if i don’t know or care to know the name of the lady at the local convenience store where i regularly buy my gasoline, or the bank teller where i transact business each week, or the man who puts the mail in my box each day at the post office? Seems highly unlikely.

Names matter.

Maybe you’re wondering about her name. Irena Sendler.

The field guide description of her might read: “98 years old, barely 5 feet tall, resident of Warsaw, Poland; doughboy face, twinkling eyes. Died in 1944 and in 2008.”

Irena Sendler was a Catholic Social worker during WWII and member of the Polish resistance in Warsaw, home to the most infamous Jewish ghetto that the Nazis maintained during the Holocaust years. Irena Sendler would enter the ghetto and, in flagrant but cautious violation of the law, took much-needed food and medicine to the Jewish people. When trains began to deport the Jewish people to concentration camps, Mrs. Sendler began to smuggle the children out of the ghetto however she could – in toolboxes, suitcases, coffins, bags, anything to save the children.

When she got the children out of the ghetto, Mrs. Sendler would change the names of the children since conspicuously Jewish ones – Stein, Moskowitz, Levi – would mean re-arrest and probable execution.

Names are important.

But to make sure that the children would know their real identities and be reunited with their families after the war, she would write their real and their fictitious names on pieces of paper, put them in glass jar, bury them in a neighbor’s garden, and continue her work.

In 1943, Irena Sendler was arrested by the Nazis and questioned about her suspected aid to the Jewish people. She refused to turn over the names of the children. The Nazis broke her arms and legs. She still refused to talk. She was sentenced to die, but still remained steadfast in her silence. Her execution was only averted by payment of a bribe to a German soldier by other members of the Resistence.

The executioner entered on Nazi records that Irena Sendler had been executed in 1944.

By war’s end, Mrs. Sendler and her friends had 2500 names in the garden, children they had saved one at a time.

Many years later, in 1979, she was honored by the Pope, at which time she presented him with a small paper card that she had carried during the war. It read, “Jesus, I trust in Thee.”

Names matter.

A few nights ago, at a senior banquet for high school students and their parents, i shared the story of Irena Sendler and suggested that, in a sense, we each carry a jar through life, one that we get to fill with names – or not – as we have opportunity to help, encourage, sacrifice for and bless others. i ask myself, not for self-congratulation or sake of comparison, but merely to examine how i am spending my days, whose names are in my jar? How safe and cared for are they in my possession? Am i doing my part to know my neighborhood, and to love those in it? Do i call others by name?

I’m soon to be home for 6 weeks during which time i hope, Lord willing, to finish a new recording of songs, write some new ones, eat tomatoes off the vine (on white bread with mayonnaise), and go to sleep at the same time every night.

January through May have been 5 months of memorable work and pleasant life in the community. Thank you for the part you’ve played in making it possible.

That plant? The one with the cluster of flowers on the top?

White milkweed (Asclepias variegata)

Called by name,



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