On November 13, 2012

Names #1: Naming Elmo


I’d like to begin a short little blog series today for just a couple of weeks about an idea that I’ve been rolling around in my mind for the past couple of months.  It’s nothing earth shattering, basically the idea is that, buried in our DNA we think that our names matter…probably more then we are even aware of. We work hard to have a good name, we give each other nicknames (I have a college friend who we still call Bad Brad), sometimes we even go to such extremes as to legally change our names. We care about names. And I think we have good reasons to care, but maybe we haven’t even realized what those reasons are.

For some reason, the Book of Genesis cares a lot about Names and naming. In fact, in Genesis, a lot is tied to this. In fact, the Bible starts off by God creating with language, and then God names the very things he’s created. The dark He calls Night, and the Light he calls Day. And then God turns this whole naming project over to the man he named Adam. He let’s Adam and Eve name everything else. God makes it, they name it.

He let’s them partner in the creativity of what he is doing, He let’s them join in as co-artists.

I read a few years ago, about a Sociologist who focuses on creativity, he’s a guy named Gordon MacKenzie, and for years he would go into elementary schools and ask them the question, “Who here is an artist?” In the 1st grade, almost every hand would shoot up. By the 2nd and 3rd grades only about 50% of the students would raise their hands, and by the 5th and 6th grade there would be only one or two kids that would raise their hands. So this Sociologist came up with a theory that in our culture, we like to do what he called Creative Suppression. We are afraid to create because creating almost always involves an element of failure. And what’s worse, according to this sociologist, we pass that fear onto our kids.

Next month, Leslie and I are scheduled to have our next baby, and we are now thinking through names for this new little life. We are in the process of naming, and naming…especially a new little life is a very difficult task.  How do you give a little person a word that she or he will hear to describe them for the rest of their lives? You have to worry about what the name might rhyme with, or how it might impact their psychological development, or social life. Someone, somewhere once made the mistake of Gertrude, and  Leslie and I don’t want to repeat that.

But I’ve discovered that one of the more difficult things about being the parent of children isn’t naming them, but allowing them to name as well. Eden and Samuel both love naming anything they come into contact with, and if we let them they would name and re-name everything in the house. But we can only name so many things after Disney Princesses, and our Golden Retriever doesn’t want to be named Mr. Pickles.

And this is why Genesis matters I think, God trusts His creation to name His creation. He could do it better, but he gives them a chance, he makes space for them to create. Because what God wants, more than perfection, is partners.

I watched the documentary “Being Elmo” a while ago. It’s this great film about a guy named Kevin Clash. Kevin was a young African-American growing up in a working class family that lived in the projects of Baltimore. And Kevin found from an early age that he had a passion for puppets. When all his other peers were shooting ball in the street, Kevin was holed up in his house watching Captain Kangaroo and Sesame Street. Eventually Kevin went on to invent the character “Elmo” and everybody knows who Elmo is.

Routinely, when young children are dying, the Make-A-Wish foundation fly’s Kevin and Elmo to their hospital bed to help them say goodbye. These children could’ve asked the Wish foundation for anything as they were dying, but this was what they wanted, just to meet and hug Elmo one time before they die. And so Kevin does it. Because he says he thinks this is what Elmo would want to do.

But that’s a strange way of saying that, isn’t it?  Elmo is, after all, just a puppet. He’s not real. But for Kevin he’s more than real. He’s a creation, an idea that has come to life. And that idea…is his parents. For Kevin, Elmo is the embodiment of his mom and dad, how they believed in him when the other parents and kids didn’t understand. How they fought to scape up money for him to be able to go meet Jim Henson’s puppeteer Kermit Love. For Kevin, Elmo’s hook, the idea that he embodied was love. And so Elmo goes everywhere that kids need him.

But what was genius about this documentary, was how it showed Kevin developing into an artist.You get to see the way that he grew up and the risks and challenges that he faced as an artist. But the best part is when you get to see his parents

He said it all hinged on a single day. The day he decided to build his first puppet when he was just 8 years old. His parents were at work, and he didn’t have any of the materials that he needed, but he saw his dad’s coat hanging in the closet. It was his nice one, and was lined with fleece. And to Kevin, fleece looked a lot like the skin of a puppet.

So he cut it up, and spent the entire day making his first character. He was so lost in the excitement of creating that it didn’t dawn on his until after he was finished that he had just cut his dad’s good coat up. And so he put his newly created puppet on his parents dresser by his father’s freshly carved up coat, and then he ran and hid under his bed.

When his parents got home, Kevin was listening for what he was sure was about to be the worst punishment of his life, but when his dad finally came in the room he didn’t spank or scold him. Instead Kevin’s dad said 3 words that changed the course of his life. They were three words that made Kevin realize his parents believed in him.

His dad just walked into the room and said, “What’s his name?”

UPDATE: I wrote and scheduled this blog to be posted on Sunday, and have been away for a prayer retreat until now. I returned to the land of wifi and discovered the recent news about Kevin Clash (such bizarre timing!). This news is deeply sad, but I still believe the principle behind this story and post is true. Thanks for all the feedback making me aware of the recent developments. 

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  • Kevin Bridges

    Great post! After already making a big change to quit a sales job and go back to seminary with three children, Shelli and I were certainly finished with having and naming children, but “Surprise!” At 35 we found out we were having another baby that was not planned. It was a shock at first, but once acceptance came we named him appropriately “Nathan” from Nathaniel meaning “gift from God” and he is indeed!

  • mattdabbs

    Have you read Ken Robinson’s book “Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative”? It about intelligence, creativity, and the education system. He was the guy who did that really well known TED talk on youtube about how our education system breeds creativity out of education.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

     I haven’t read that book, but I’ve seen that TED talk, it was genius. Thanks for the recommendation Matt!

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Thanks Kevin! I’m very glad you guys were surprised with Nathan, he’s great! 

  • Brett Emerson

    The story was recanted. 

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Genesis or Elmo? :)

  • Gummybears