I think about names. Names can be pretty powerful stuff. Stuff that reveals to others who a person is . . . what a person is made of . . . the pure essence of understanding another. Names are supposed to mean something about us as individuals . . . about us as families. Names are pretty important; so, every-so-often, I think about names.
First, I guess I should explain my fascination with names. It all began with Moses. You know Moses . . . the guy in the Old Testament who was left by the Nile River by his mother when the Pharaoh had declared a decree against all the male babies born to the captive Israelites . . . the guy who was raised by Pharaoh’s family after Pharaoh’s daughter found him floating on the Nile River . . . the guy who flees Egypt after killing an Egyptian for beating on an Israelite . . . the guy who runs off to become a shepherd for his future father-in-law . . . and, the guy called upon by God to return to Egypt to free the Israelites—God’s people—from their bondage . . . the guy who leads the Israelites through the wilderness for forty years and never gets the opportunity to enter into the Promised Land of God despite being within spitting distance of it. You remember Moses.
Well, Moses was not stupid. He knew the power of names. When he encounters God one day at a burning bush he pushes God to the limit to give him information so that the people would believe that God had actually spoken to him. The information he wants from God is a name . . . what is God’s name? Moses understood the power of names and how they described the essence of the person or deity. A name gave another all the information that he or she needed to be known. So, Moses wanted God to give him a name that he could tell the people.
The only problem is that God was smarter than Moses. Finally God concedes to Moses and give him a name. God tells Moses that the name that God goes by is YHWH (or YahWeh). YHWH means “I am who I am.” That was God’s name . . . YHWH . . . I am who I am. Of course, this floors Moses . . . what in the world is that supposed to mean . . . I am who I am? Unfortunately for Moses, God did not pull any punches and laid it out there for Moses . . . God is who God is . . . God can be whatever God needs to be . . . God is God. YHWH says it all while saying nothing at all. Moses was floored when God trumps him with God’s name.
Names have power. Names tell us about people. Tells us characteristics about people. Tells us who they are. Gives us the essence of their identity. For example, take the name of Moses. Moses, in Hebrew (which he was), can mean “deliver” or to “draw out”. That was the role of Moses in the Exodus story. Moses was the one who would deliver God’s children to the Promised Land . . . he was the one who “drew out” the people of God from their captivity. Pretty impressive that his mother named him that without knowing what the future would hold for him. So, names have power to describe us to others.
The other day I had business at one of the schools near Crow Agency. Crow Agency is the main community of the Crow Reservation. I had to go to a nearby school and do hearing rescreens for the Montana Hearing Conservation Project. While there I was given a list of kids that I needed to test their hearing. Fifty-eight of the last names of these children were what many would classify as being “Native”. These names were wonderful . . . lyrical . . . beautiful in their description . . . and, revealing as they described the child and their family ancestry. To say the least, as I went down the list and met the kids, I was in awe of the power of their names . . . actually, I was jealous.
Jealous because they had these wonderful names. Names like: Otter Robe; Old Horn; Bad Moccasin; Elk Shoulder; Rides the Bear; Not Afraid; Old Coyote; Yellow Robe; Pretty on Top; Walks Over Ice; Pretty Weasel; Bear Cloud; Rides the Horse; Spotted Eagle; Takes Enemy; Hugs; Old Crow; and, Little Light. Of course, these were last names . . . for the most part their first names were pretty common. But those last names got the imagination going and stirred up a little jealousy on my part . . . I wanted a cool last name. A name that would explain to everyone who I am . . . that would share the essence of who I am. Keener just doesn’t seem to quite hack it when it comes the names of these Native American kids.
Keener means “a person who is extremely eager, zealous, or enthusiastic”. It also means a person who displays this eagerness, zeal, or enthusiasm with social inadequacy, sycophancy, or natural ability. I am pretty sure that this does not describe me. No one would ever vouch for me as being “eager, zealous, or enthusiastic.” That is not me. I am not the first to raise his hand in class . . . not the first to volunteer . . . not the first to lead an uprising. Nope . . . no one is going to describe with those words. But . . . and, this is a big but . . . there are a lot of folks would say that I am inadequate when it comes to social skills. On the end of the Urban Dictionary’s definition of “keener”—which they refer to a “keener” as in the same classification as a nerd, geek, brown-noser, or smarty pants—there are many would probably agree. This is not the way that I envision myself as a person . . . nor is it the way that I want people to think of me. I think my name is way off base.
Yet, that is what I have to deal with. And, over the years, people have run with it. The greatest pun play on my last name growing up was, “Keener Weiner”. Or the tiresome, “Who you keener than?” That was when people would accept the fact that “Keener” was really my last name . . . others thought it was a nickname. There is nothing cool about being named “Keener”. As a kid there were days l longed for a different last name . . . something cool . . . something like the names of those Native American kids I met.
I guess I should be thankful that my first name is a little cooler when it comes to meaning. “John” is a biblical name derived from Hebrew that means “the grace or mercy of the Lord.” One description of the names states that those who are named “John” have a deep inner desire for a stable, loving family or community, and a need to work with others and to be appreciated. That is pretty cool . . . I guess. Yet, at the same time, “John” is a another name for a toilet . . . a crapper. The truth is that I was named after my father. I will admit that there are parts of me that are regular old chips off the block that was my father . . . some good, some bad . . . but, none the less indicators of who I am. There was really nothing special about being named “John”. I still caught all of the toilet jokes . . . still got all the “Dear John letters” . . . and, put up with the “John-boy” references. Not quite the same as Knows Gun or bear Cloud or Little Light.
Same goes for my middle name . . . Martin. Shoot for the first fifteen years of my life I couldn’t even spell my middle name correctly . . . kept spelling it “Martian” . . . yeah, I was a strange kid growing up. Turns out, when looking up its meaning, that I was probably pretty close to its meaning when I couldn’t spell it right. Martin means, in English, “warrior of Mars”. In Spanish it means “warring”. Same with the American meaning. People with this name have a deep inner desire to use their abilities in leadership, and to have personal independence. They would rather focus on large, important issues, and delegate the details. They are creative and excellent at expressing themselves. They are drawn to the arts, and often enjoy life immensely. Like attention. Enjoy careers that put themselves in the limelight. Tend to get involved in many different activities, and are sometimes reckless with both their energies and with money.
I have to admit that Martin has points where it fits. Yet, Martin does not strike fear in people; nor does it render itself to easy interpretation. The only “warrior from Mars” I am even aware of is Marvin the Martian from Warner Brother’s Looney Tunes cartoons. I am not green. I am not from outer space. And, I am far from being a warrior.
Nothing about my name is impressive . . . John Martin Keener. Sounds like some geeky religious person . . . hey, that is what some people truly think I am since I am a minister. This is getting scary. Hitting close to home. Yet, it still is not some cool name that describes me without a whole lot of thinking. I really want a cool Native American name that would let people know the essence of me without having to scour the Internet or pulling out the Oxford English Dictionary. I want a name that people get a visual image that describes me. “Keener” just does not hack it . . . geek, nerd, brown-noser, or smarty pants.
If I could choose my own name, what would it be?
Well, I imagine would say something along the lines of “Old Balding Man” . . . that is descriptive of me since I am getting old and am folicly challenged. I have been called “Four Eyes” because I wear glasses, but a more accurate name might be “Four Eyes to the Third Power” since I wear trifocals. Some would probably vote for the name of “Smart Ass” since I like to kid so much. Others might cast a vote for “Spreads in the Middle” as everything seems to have gone south on my body. I imagine that as I get older there will be those who might refer to me as “Breaking Wind”. I guess if I asked some of my Native American friends they would probably tell me that “Silly White Man” would fit.
That is the problem. Names mean something. Surprisingly . . . with dumb luck or karma . . . most of our names fit us as individuals. When I look at the names of all of my children, the wife and I are amazed at how much the names we chose for our children fit them. Shoot, despite not wanting to admit it, even the names that I have fit me to a certain extent . . . whether I can spell them or not. If someone was to take the time and actually look up my name I can picture them shaking their heads, saying, “Yeah, I can see that.” And, they should know.
My name might not be cool . . . but, it does describe me to a point. My name might not be as powerful as other names . . . but, that is the name people know me by. My name might not sound as cool as other names . . . but it is my name. I have taken a lifetime to learn how to spell it and I am used to it by now. That’s how God knows me . . . at least it is how I hope God knows me . . . and, that is good enough for me. Oh, sure, there will be those moments when I wish I had been named something else; but in the end, I am John Martin Keener . . . “grace of God” . . . “warrior from Mars” . . . and, somewhat “eager, enthusiastic, and zealous”. What more could I be known for? There’s power in that name . . . at least, there will be when I find it. If it worked for Moses, it can work for me.