On a first-name basis

Every fall — or should I say, every fall that isn’t under a pandemic — I go through a similar ritual with the new crop of graduate students that come into my courses. The students hail from widely different backgrounds, and one of the questions they wrestle with, but don’t always voice, is how to address me and their other professors. Are they supposed to use our titles, like “Doctor” or “Professor”? Or can they call us by our first names?

I was raised in a Chinese-American context, so was taught to address adults with proper respect. Friends of my parents were all to be called “Uncle” and “Auntie.” My wife was also raised in a similar culture, where the social hierarchy between the generations was taken for granted. Neither of us would ever have presumed to call our professors by their first names. We would never even have asked, any more than we would have asked for a temporary suspension of gravity. But that was then, and this is now.

Moreover, our school is also located in California, which has its own culture, and I was born and raised here. In our academic program, we also like to think of our students as future colleagues, so work at maintaining a collegial and family-like atmosphere. I am therefore quite comfortable having students call me by my first name, and I tell them so.

I know from experience, though, how this might go against the grain of their cultural training. Thus, I tell them, “Feel free to call me ‘Cameron,’ because that is, after all, my name. But I’m not insisting that you call me that, especially if you know your mother would hit you if she found out.” All I ask of them is that whatever they call me, it has to be accurate. Thus, I get the gamut, from “Dr. Lee” or “Professor Lee,” to “Dr. Cameron,” to just plain “Cameron.” One student, who felt comfortable with me right away, called me “Cam” from the beginning — to my amusement and the horror of some of her classmates.

So, here’s the question: how do we address God? Our language may be formal or familiar. We may even pray differently depending on whether anyone else is listening. But what does our language imply about the relationship?

. . .

Psalm 6, as we’ve seen, is a prayer for healing in the face of what seems like a life-threatening illness. The final verses of the psalm declare with gratitude and confidence that “the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping. The LORD has heard my supplication; the LORD accepts my prayer” (vss. 8b-9, NRSV).

The opening verses of the psalm address God similarly:

Please, LORD,
    don’t punish me when you are angry;
    don’t discipline me when you are furious.
Have mercy on me, LORD,
    because I’m frail.
Heal me, LORD,
    because my bones are shaking in terror!
My whole body is completely terrified!
        But you, LORD! How long will this last?
Come back to me, LORD! Deliver me!
(Ps 6:1-4a, CEB)

In English translations of Scripture, the word “LORD” in all capitals signifies the personal and holy name of God, which devout Jews would refuse to say out loud. If they were to read the psalm aloud, they would use the title Adonai instead, which English translations render as “Lord” (not in all uppercase letters).

In many psalms, the name of God, if used at all, will be sprinkled throughout the poem, or combined with other names and titles for God. Psalm 6 is a bit unusual. The personal name of God is used a full eight times in only ten verses: five times here at the beginning, to appeal to God directly, then three more times at the end to say that God has indeed heard the psalmist’s plea.

LORD, please don’t punish me.

LORD, have mercy on me.

LORD, heal me!

LORD, how long?

LORD, come back!

Frankly, it sounds a bit like sanctified name-dropping. It would, after all, sound incredibly strange in English to use someone’s name that often in a personal communication; the other person would probably feel manipulated.

But here, I think it tells something about the psalmist’s relationship to God. The plea is deeply personal, without the need to stand on ceremony, without the fear of violating social convention. The tone is intimate and trusting, and the psalmist is confident that whatever happens, God will hear. God will listen. God will pay attention.

May we have the same confidence, the same trust, in the God who already knows what we suffer.