The TV sitcom "Cheers," which ran weekly in the US for many years, will always be remembered for the catchphrase that described its setting, a popular Boston watering hole, as a place "where everybody knows your name." The phrase acknowledged how much it means to people to be called by name.
Think how you feel when you call your bank or credit card company and all they ask for is the last four digits of your social security number. Don't they care whether you have a name?
Religion writer Eugene Peterson once said that moving from personal names to abstract labels or graphs or statistics tends to cut us off from reality and diminishes our capacity to deal with what is best and at the center of our life ("Living the Message").
Mr. Peterson believes that at the center should be God, who knows us well. He says that God claims us as family and delights in recognizing everyone's individuality. "Each life," he wrote, "is a fresh canvas on which he uses lines and colors, shades and lights, textures and proportions that he has never used before."
This was hard to believe while I attended a strict British high school. Conformity was the rule. Anyone who stepped out of line was slapped down. Seniors weren't interested in our names. They used demeaning labels that could never be published here.
And things didn't get much better when I took my first job, where the accurate transmission of my social security number seemed more important than the reliability I brought to my tasks. Later, I found that the public image I was expected to present to clients was considered more important than the warmth of the relations I developed with them.
I wanted people to know my name and enjoy using it, especially for the bonding that was often a natural bonus. I wanted to get close, be recognized, made to feel at home with people - not out of conceit, but out of a concern for mutual enrichment.
A good friend with whom I often prayed over such matters suggested I might be helped by studying some of the references in the Bible to God as Shepherd. We began with this one from Jesus: "The shepherd walks right up to the gate. The gatekeeper opens the gate to him and the sheep recognize his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out" (John 10:2, 3, "The Message," Eugene Peterson).
That personal, individual touch is important. In the sheep pen, the shepherd functions as a gate, letting the sheep in and protecting them. And the Scripture goes on to point out that Jesus is the way to God's salvation. Not only do we receive safety and security from Him but a fuller and richer life (v. 10). This life is eternal, yet it begins immediately.
The intimacy of this relationship lifts it above all others. It includes instant recognition and instant communication and fellowship. There are no barriers. The individuality of each of us is encouraged, prized, celebrated, remembered.
God has "engraved [us] on the palms of [His] hands," says Isaiah (49:16, New International Version). God would never forget us, he adds, any more than a loving mother would forget her little child.
This shepherd connection was especially helpful to me. It didn't embarrass me to feel like a child - or a sheep. It freed me from worry, not from responsibility to get my life and my career in order, but from anxiety about the direction I needed to take. It anchored my thoughts and then calmed me so that I could more confidently try new things - be more adventurous.
In search of a more challenging job, I traveled overseas, surprising myself at times with my fearlessness. Within a week I had landed a job with a huge international organization with whom I remained associated for decades. Within days of joining the organization I had made close friends who wanted first to know my name - and what they could do to make me feel at home. I felt surrounded by a host of "junior shepherds," who, I felt, had been placed there by the Shepherd I had prayed to know better.
As I look back, it was as though God had pulled out a fresh canvas to create a unique life especially for me. He must have known my name. I certainly knew His, and felt I could call on Him at any time. I am eternally grateful for that.