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What's in a Name?

As we enter the season of Advent, we hear about the hope that God’s people had for a

Messiah, one who would make all things new. The prophet Isaiah speaks of “a child born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful

Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” In Hebrew, each word and name is significant. Each name unfolds a piece of the identity of God’s chosen one.

Headshot of Rev. Canon Jane Gerdsen
The Rev. Canon Jane Gerdsen aka Rev. Jane

Names carry with them a way of being known and are a window into a person’s story.

My full name is Elizabeth Jane Gerdsen. I am named after my grandmother, my father’s mother, who died when he was a boy. As I have grown, I have developed a sense of connection to this woman I never met, who went to college and supposedly spoke five languages. She was a woman of great faith and a loving presence in my father’s life even after she died, a kind of ideal to live up to.

However, I have gone by my middle name, which means most of my life, I have been explaining my name to people – teachers, doctors, travel agents. It’s interesting to me how all names are both given and chosen. A kind of shared contract or agreement we make with one another. This name I have inherited is passed down from my family and yet I often feel like I am choosing over and over again to invite people to call me by the name I prefer.

"Honoring and respecting the names we choose for ourselves is a way of showing love and respect to one another."

Throughout Scripture, we hear about how important names are to our identity. A name identifies not only who we are but who we are becoming. I think of Jacob who wrestles with an angel – and then is forever after known as Israel. Or Saul who once he encounters the presence of Christ, becomes Paul who helps plant churches throughout the ancient world. These changes in name reflect a change in identity. Both in how other people know them and in how they know themselves. I know many of you, as I have gotten to know you, have a name or a nickname that you prefer people use. Honoring and respecting the names we choose for ourselves is a way of showing love and respect to one another.

I have been asked many times since I arrived here how I would like to be called. The church confers titles on its ordained ministers, and I know for many of you these titles are a sign of respect for the clergy. It is also a way to share with your children the role I hope to play in their lives, as one set apart by God to help teach and form our community in the way of Jesus.

So I have been thinking, not only about names, but about titles. As we might call someone Doctor or Professor, how should we refer to a member of the clergy? Some women clergy have accepted the tradition of the church to call priests Father, and so use the title of Mother. As my own two children are members of this congregation, I prefer to allow them to see me as their mother or mama. I know Pastor Nancy liked the title of Pastor, and it is a nice equalizer, between men and women clergy. I am happy if you all would like to call me Pastor Jane if that feels right to you. I also like Rev. Jane (I know it is not grammatically correct!) but it is the title I have used most of my time as a priest and it just feels most comfortable to me.

I know some people may be curious about the Canon in my title as well. A canon of the church was originally a way of designating clergy who were part of the cathedral chapter with a shared rule of life. (The Latin word “canonicus” means to be related to rule, so one who commits to a certain way of living). I was made an honorary canon at Christ Church Cathedral, the church I grew up in, while I was serving on the Bishop’s staff. Clergy are sometimes made a canon of the cathedral as an honor for dedicated service to a diocese. Mostly for me, it is a way of honoring where I came from and accepting my place in the family of the cathedral. I may from time to time be invited to serve at the cathedral for special services alongside the Rev. Canon George Hill, your founding priest, who is also an honorary canon at our cathedral.

So after sharing all about titles, I need to let you know my preferred title is Jane. This name is the name I was baptized into, and as Christians, our primary identity is through our baptism where we are marked as Christ’s own forever. I am first and foremost Jane and very comfortable with you honoring me by calling me by my baptized name, as I will call you by your baptized names. I will feel honored and respected if you call me Jane.

All names are both given and chosen... all of us have multiple ways we are known in this world – as a sister, mother, friend, or names we use in a professional setting.

All names are both given and chosen. I know you would like me to give you one final answer to this question of what name to use. But all of us have multiple ways we are known in this world – as a sister, mother, friend, or names we use in a professional setting. I desire to bring my whole self to this community, because for me ministry is more than a job, it is a calling. It requires multiple parts of my identity to be shared at different moments of our life together. There will be more formal moments and informal moments. I trust that together we will find the right ways to be together and we will come to know each other more deeply in the years ahead.

I wonder how we are known to each other and to God? I invite you to share your name stories with me and to spend some time reflecting on what names you use for God.

May this holy season be a time for all of us to draw close to God and to one another and to know one another by name.


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