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Selfies and Solitude

Genesis 32.22-31

How many of you have taken a selfie today? How many of you have taken a selfie within the last week? Within the last month? How many of you think you know what a selfie is, but wouldn’t bet your life on it, and don’t think you’ve ever taken one before?

For those a little unsure on the definition, a selfie is basically a self-portrait. A picture that you take of yourself (hence the name). Now, back when I was a kid, it took a little more work to take a selfie. You had to put your 35mm camera on a tripod and then line up the picture, including where you were going to be in it. And then the camera had to have a self-timer, which you set and then ran over to get in the picture. But you couldn’t preview the picture because it was film, so you had to take another one or two or ten until you were sure you had a good one. And by then, the whole family that got drug into taking ten Christmas pictures hated the photographer and hated each other and hated Christmas.

But now, with phones, selfies are so much easier. You can set your camera phone to preview the picture as you are taking it, and make sure everything is lined up. There is even a thing called a selfie stick—a monopod designed to hold onto the phone while you are taking the picture so that your arm isn’t in it. Selfies are everywhere!

In fact, this generation has sometimes been called the “Selfie Generation.” It is usually not a compliment. There is the charge that young people in particular are so focused on themselves that all they do is take pictures of themselves. But I would suggest that maybe something a little deeper is going on here.

Who am I?

 I think when we take selfies, we are trying to answer that question. Who am I? I would suggest that selfies are part of the process of trying on identities. I am I fit person? Selfie at the gym. Am I an animal lover? Selfie with my dog. Am I a family-oriented person? Selfie on vacation with the fam. Am I an explorer? Selfie on the mountain. And I think that given the way that we can post these pictures and then gauge feedback from others—likes, comments, etc.—it becomes a way for us to seek the input of others as we try to answer this question.

Selfies take courage. Christine Valters Paintner, who wrote one of the primary texts of my sabbatical study, and one we studied together last Lent, writes about the spirituality of selfies:

“Self-portraits can bring up a lot of emotion….Most of us have issues with being seen, fully, by ourselves and by the world around us….Sitting with your sense of vulnerability and self-doubt, in a world that judges attractiveness based on very narrow parameters, is an act of courage.”

True? How many of us don’t like to take or see pictures of ourselves? Maybe we are still working through this question: Who am I?  Maybe we don’t like the answer. It doesn’t matter how old we are—most of us are answering this question in one way or another. Younger people tend to stack these questions: “Who am I…a single person or a married person? A parent or not?” “Who am I vocationally and what should my job be?” “Who am I…someone who lives in Lawrence or Kansas City or Denver or Australia?” But this question never really goes away? “Who am I now that I have this new job?” or “Who am I now that I have been let go from my job?” “Who am I now that the kids are out of the house?” “Who am I now that I am retired?” “Who am I now that my husband is gone? My wife has left me?” We talk about mid-life crises, but anytime that we are struggling with new questions of identity and purpose and vocation, we employ various methods to try on identities. And to be honest, taking a picture in front of a sports car and asking your friends on social media, “is this me?” is a lot cheaper than going out and buying one to satisfy your mid-life crisis. Selfies are one method to answer this life-long and often difficult question “Who am I?”

Let me offer that this question is at the heart of today’s Scripture passage. I think Jacob is asking the question of God, “who am I?” He is definitely at a point of crisis in his life. A reminder where we are in the story of Jacob. He was a twin, but born second. In a culture where being firstborn really matters, he always had to work to keep up with his older brother Esau. He tricked Esau into giving up his birthright and his father’s blessing, which enraged Esau so much that he threatened to kill him if he ever saw him again. So, Jacob left town in a hurry and went to work far from home for a man named Laban. He and Laban spent the next 14 years cheating each other. Laban made Jacob work longer than he planned for the hand of his daughter, and Jacob tricked Laban out of the best of his flock of sheep, and then he snuck out with both of his daughters in the middle of the night, and one of them stole a bunch of stuff on the way out. Jacob had spent most of his life living up to his identity as a deceiver. The name Jacob means “supplanter,” and most of his life he felt like he needed to supplant others, to fight his way to the top, to cheat anyone who got in his way, to sneak around in order to protect his own interests.

And by the time we get to this passage, Jacob is kind of stuck. He has run off from Laban, who came off after him in a murderous rage, and he was barely able to sweet-talk in to letting him live and his daughters go. Meanwhile, the only place he has to run is back to the land of his birth, where by the way, his brother Esau is still waiting in a murderous rage as soon as he crosses the river. He is stuck between angry Laban and angry Esau (or the desert or the ocean). He has run out of places to go, and he has run out of people who aren’t mad at him! Wherever he goes, he has managed to make people angry, to the point where it has kind of become his calling card. His identity. It’s all he knows how to be.

So by the time we get to today’s passage, Jacob sends all of his possessions and family across the river while he stays on this side of it. And then, like people who live their lives cheating and fighting to stay on top often do, Jacob finds himself alone. Just him and the sound of the rushing river. He sits down to ponder his life and what has gone wrong. He asks himself this question: “who am I?” And he starts to fall asleep.


Some time in the middle of the night, a man shows up and starts to wrestle with Jacob. As the story unfolds, it is clear that there is a divine identity to this wrestler, but a lot of ambiguity as to exactly who it is. Is it an angel? Is it actually God? Perhaps God incarnate…Martin Luther believed that this was Jesus! Whomever it is, it is clear to Jacob that he is wrestling with the Divine. The wrestling match goes on all night, and neither Jacob nor his attacker seem to gain the upper hand. Eventually, the sun is starting to come up, and this Divine wrestler proposes a truce. And the terms of our truce are relevant to the question of the day.

Because I would suggest that at least a portion of the wrestling match that took place on the banks of the Jabbok was an internal one. There was a battle for who Jacob would be. I suggest that part of what was happening here is that a man who has been a supplanter, a contender, now finds himself contending with God over who he will be. What his identity will become. Stuck between Laban and Esau, those who he has overcome, he meets a God who will not be overcome. I would offer that God could easily defeat Jacob, because…it’s God. But there is in this experience a teaching. A redeeming. A blessing. A giving of a new identity.

Which is exactly what happens here in this truce at dawn. The Divine wrestler gives Jacob a blessing, and a new name. No longer will he be Jacob the supplanter. Now he will be Israel: “One who strives with God.” For the rest of his life, Jacob continues on this struggle. He humbles himself and makes up with Esau, and tells him he’ll be right behind him, but lies and goes the other direction. He makes peace with God at Bethel, but still seems like he is struggling to figure out who he is as a father. The internal wrestling never really ends for any of us, including for Jacob. And the limp that he left this encounter with was a reminder of his wrestling, a reminder that it is never quite over.

But let me point out something that seems important from this passage in particular. Jacob, at least in part, figured out who he was because he took time in solitude with God. There is nothing wrong with answering this question in community.  Asking friends, talking to mentors, even the ever-present selfie are all valid and good ways to answer this question. But look at Scripture over and again. Moses alone at the burning bush. Gideon alone in the winepress. Mary alone with the angel Gabriel. Jesus alone on the mountainside or in the garden. Those who struggle with this question of identity and purpose and calling, find the answers they seek in solitude with God. Questioning. Struggling. Even wrestling with God over who they are and who they are called to be. Jacob became Israel because he sat alone by the banks of the Jabbok.

And look how it happened. Again and again in Scripture, God gives people new names, new identities new callings. And again and again, they respond to God in the same way. They turn this question—Who am I?—into this declaration: Here am I. Isaiah. Samuel. Ananias. Moses. Even Jacob in the chapter before this one. At some level, all of these people found an answer to this sentence by offering this sentence. And waiting to see what God did next. And every time the results were amazing.

I would offer the same invitation to us today. Are we ready to sit by the banks of the Jabbok? To be silent in solitude? To ask, seek, knock, even wrestle the answer out of God?

I put my money where my mouth is on this one. For two weeks of my sabbatical, I spent the majority of my time in solitude in a cabin in Colorado. I sent my family across the river and sat alone by the water’s edge and listened. I wasn’t completely isolated; I would drive into town to hike another mountain or three, then grab lunch and some groceries, and head back to the cabin. But that is where I spent the majority of my time. There I read. Prayed. Sat by the fire. Took pictures. Took naps. Woke up in the middle of the night to watch meteor showers.

Now, I didn’t ever wake up to find a man in my cabin whom I wrestled with until dawn. But I spent some time wrestling with God. With myself. With my thoughts. With my sins. And I cannot say that God gave me a new name, but I did feel blessed. I felt God’s presence in the silence. I knew that I was never alone.

In fact, while I was there, I fell into a pattern of prayer. It is based on this Biblical declaration of faith. Some of you may recognize it…it is a variation of a prayer that I shared a couple of years ago during a Lenten prayer series. So here is a simple prayer that you can offer in the mornings. In the solitude of your thoughts, even before you get out of bed.

Here am I in this body.

It is kind of a mindfulness prayer. A way to assess the aching joints and sore muscles, but also a way to be thankful for the body that God gives us. And recognize that it is with this body that we will be faithful to God. It is the only one that we have.

Here I am in God’s presence.

This is a recognition that in this moment and in this body, we are not alone. Whether we are in a cabin in the woods, or in our own beds at home and the alarm is blaring and we didn’t sleep well, we are not alone. God is there with us. God is present. Which leads us to a third statement…

Here am I in this place.

God is present here. In my bedroom. Or when I’m finally dressed and ready for a moment of solitude and silence, whether that is at the kitchen table or the car ride to work or the window looking out on the birdfeeder or the cubicle while my computer is booting up. Here am I…in this place. And this place matters because it is in God’s presence. Many of you heard at my presentation that I take six photo prayers throughout the day, following the ancient practice of the daily hours. This is the moment where I often take my first prayer photo, “Prime.” It is my first recognition that whether it is the sun peeking through the window or the colorful shampoo bottle on the counter, I open my eyes to the beauty and energy around me. God is present here.

Here am I in God’s story.

This is where I take time to open the day in Scripture reading. Whether it is Lamentations or Luke, seeing myself as a part of God’s story is crucial to how I see my day. You don’t have to be reading the Bible all the way through like I am, but maybe you read a Psalm or just a few verses a day. Pause to listen to God’s story and place yourself in it.

Here am I.


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