advent journal: what’s in a name


    I had a couple of errands to run before I went to work this morning, both related to my in-laws coming to visit this coming week. The first was to take our recliner to get the springs on the bottom reattached; for whatever reason, they had chosen to let go over the past couple of months. The second was to drop off my car at the mechanics for an oil change and check up so Ginger could drive it to Birmingham tomorrow (and back on Sunday) with her parents and Gracie, our long-distance Schnauzer, in tow.

    Melton’s Garage is a couple of blocks from our house. When I went inside to give the key, the woman behind the counter asked my name. “It’s a hyphenated name,” I began (as I have learned I need to do), “Brasher-Cunningham.” She began to write as I spelled the name out, except when I said, “Hyphen,” she put an apostrophe. I chose not to correct her. When I said my first name, Mr. Melton, who was sitting next to the counter in a motorized cart, said, “Milton, Melton – it’s almost the same,” and he smiled. Big. I thought about what I had taken with me from my morning reading as I left the house, which was Madeleine L’Engle talking about teaching and getting to know her students by name.

    A signature; a name; the very being of the person you talk to, the child you teach, is at stake. (15)

    I am the third person in my family to be named Milton, following my grandfather, whom I never met, and my father. I was in college before I met someone other than my relatives named Milton. I never had to share the name in school, so it felt both odd and special to me, which, in turn, made me feel a little odd and special. With a name like Milton, it’s not as though I could turn out to be a normal kid. I needed to be up to something.

    When we came to the States on furlough, I learned about Milton Berle and Milton the Monster; in college, one of our star football players was named Milton, but he went by Scooter instead. As someone born into Baptist life and a white family, I have noticed most of the other Miltons I have encountered have either been African-American or Jewish. Because the name was so tied to and limited within my family, it brought with it the weight of succession. As the oldest child and the namesake, part of who it helped me become is someone who is never quite sure he has measured up, and yet feels the freedom to risk rather easily. My name has shaped my self-image.

    Milton. That’s me.

    And who, exactly, am I? I am a group project, that’s for sure – or at least that’s a place to start. I am a fearless cook because, from the earliest time I showed interest in cooking, my mother would say, “You watched me do this the other day; you do it this time.” I don’t know how many times I have heard her say, “If you can read a recipe, you can cook.” I believed her, so the statement has proven to be true. I have an aversion to math because of Ms. Gibbs, my eleventh grade Algebra II teacher. I remember the day I raised my hand and asked a question. I don’t remember the question, but I do remember her response: “I don’t have time for stupid questions.” From that day on, even though I placed out of math on my ACT, I have been convinced I don’t know how to do it well.

    Chet Raymo shared this fascinating bit of information:

    The Greeks believed that the eye had a double role in vision. They believed that a pale light went out from the eye to the world and returned again to the eye as a traveler returns bearing gifts.

    In similar fashion, we learn to “see” ourselves by bouncing our self-images off of those around us, like a dolphin with sonar waves, to see what kind of response we get. Sometime, we get false readings. Sometimes we see new things. Either way, the circle – faint light sent out to see, and then returning full of images – continues; this is how we grow and learn, how we become more fully ourselves, regardless of age.

    Last night in the kitchen at Duke, Abel, my favorite coworker, asked me in his lilting Guatemalan accent, “Do you like to read?” When I said, yes, he asked what kind of books I liked. I have to admit, I flinched a bit with my answer. I answered that I read novels, which is true, but I didn’t say anything about theology or L’Engle and Raymo. I returned the question and he said, “I like books that talk about life. I am reading Rick Warren and he asks a great question: what is my place in this world?”

    One of the most amazing things about the Incarnation is that Jesus didn’t show up fully formed. He was born into being, like every other human, and left at the mercy of parents and relatives and teachers and random passers-by to be shown who he was, and who he could become. Sure, Mary and Joseph had some parental prompting, at least in the beginning, but I think about Jesus returning to Nazareth only to learn a prophet does better with folks who didn’t watch him grow up and I imagine his childhood was not easy for any of them. My brother used to talk about “the paradox of grace,” using Mary as an example. “Blessed are you among women,” said the angel (talk about shaping a self-image); “now let me tell you what you’re in for.”

    when I find myself in times of trouble
    mother Mary comes to me
    speaking words of wisdom
    “let it be”

    and in my hour of darkness,
    she is standing right in front of me
    speaking words of wisdom
    “let it be”

    Jesus healed fearlessly, the way I learned to cook, and he never went back to Nazareth, much like I never went back to Algebra after eleventh grade. The faint light from his eyes brought back an image of one acquainted with grief and full of love and grace. I have to wonder if, perhaps, it started with him asking Joseph one day, “How did I get my name?”


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