Image of God, XI: #selfiewithGod
O Lord, you have searched me and known me. —Psalm 139: 1
Today brings us another installment in the Image of God sermon series. We’ve explored our enduring faith tradition’s claim that all people are created with a divine spark we are to see, regardless of ethnicity or gender and family or stranger. Today, I want to consider seeing the image of God within ourselves. What influences the choices we make in living out the possibilities of our lives.
Prayer for Illumination
God of all truth, who can stand before you? We judge by outward appearances, but you examine our hearts. We see what is on the surface, but you discern beauty deep within. In these ancient words of scripture, point us to your eternal truth and love that in hearing we may believe and in believing, live to your glory. Amen.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and
settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Smartphone manufacturer, Samsung, estimates each person will take 25,000 selfies in a lifetime. Sounds crazy. The social media site, Instagram reports that each second, 1,000 selfies are posted. That means by the end of this worship service, almost 3 million selfies will be added to our digital universe.
I could not find a reliable list of the most popular selfies given the volume and social media sites. Selfies are now counted by genre— #dangerousselfie, #selfiegonewrong, #selfiewithanimals, and #selfietakenbyanimals.
A macaque’s selfie gained world-wide popularity, which resulted in a court case. The owner of the camera fought for the rights to the image, claiming the monkey cannot own it, and is his property since he taught the monkey the skills to pose.
Five years ago, the word “selfie” had become so ubiquitous the Oxford English Dictionary proclaimed it the “2013 word of the year.” Art critic Jerry Salz defines selfie this way:
“A fast self-portrait, made with a smartphone’s camera and immediately distributed and inscribed into a network, (a selfie) is an instant visual communication of where we are, what we are doing, who we think we are, and who we think is watching.”
As an aside, although I am exploiting the phenomenon of the selfie, I realize some of you may never take a selfie. So exchange “selfie” with self-portrait, posed portrait, autobiography, memoir, family photo album, or any of the myriad ways we record and share who we are. The selfie is one of many medias for self-expression and self-exploration.
A selfie is a convenient way to say, “I am here” and “my life matters.” They are a picture of our possibilities, perhaps more meaningful to us than a birth certificate.
Selfies reveal our human nature. Through them, we explore our individuality. We also create relationships with others.
Theologian Craig Detweiler believes there is value in mining an Ancient Roman myth of an extraordinarily beautiful young man named, Narcissus, to understand one aspect of selfies.
While walking in the woods, the nymph Echo saw him and immediately fell in love. Unfortunately, Echo had been stripped of her ability to speak and could repeat fragments of what she has already heard.
Aware of her presence, Narcissus asks, “Who’s there?” Echo responds, “Who’s there.” Taking a risk for love, she steps out with arms wide open, vulnerable, and unguarded.
At that moment, Narcissus yells, “Hands off! May I die before I give you power over me” as a relationship requires surrendering his power. In many ways, he is correct. To be in a relationship with another person could remove him from being the center of his universe.
Rejected, Echo retreats into a cave, her bones fade, and she became only a thin voice of her former self. Being overlooked and ignored, heard but unseen, is a devastating curse.
After the God of Revenge, Nemesis, learns of this tragedy, he decides to punish him.
Narcissus became thirsty. Reaching towards a glassy pool of water, he fell in love with the reflected image of himself. Wanting more than just to drink, he reaches into the water to hug himself. The author comments, “O foolish boy, why vainly seek to clasp a fleeting image? That which you behold is but the shadow of a reflected form and has no substance of its own.”
When he realized he could not attain the object of his love, loneliness and despair set in. Seeing nothing beyond the fleeting image of himself, he takes his own life.
If the myth of Narcissus were written today, rather than a glassy pool, he might find delight in posing for and posting selfies, pursue accolades measured in likes and retweets on social media. If the image were not perfect, he could use an app on his smartphone to photoshop or enhance it to ensure appeal. For Narcissus, social media would not be the vehicle to create and enhance relationships but merely a resource to magnify his image.
Narcissus would constantly curate his selfies to his liking, ignore intimate encounters, as he did with Echo, and since he cannot risk sharing attention or reveal flaws, it would lead to the same tragic demise for those he ignores and himself.
It is a myth, but it is also true. Myths endure because of their stories convey truths about human behavior.
But, we know of other possibilities within our human nature. Our faith tradition teaches and reminds us of higher, universal truths: God created the world in which we live and God created humankind in God’s own image. God blesses the diversity of humankind and God calls us “very good” for the ways we reflect God’s image.
Psalm 139 reflects the understanding that our lives are enclosed in this divine reality. God knits us within our mothers’ wombs. God knows our thoughts before we can even put words to grasp these ideas. God is within every fiber of our being. We are never autonomous.
With humility the psalmist sighs, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.”
The psalmist knows there is no place, the highest mountain, the furthest sea, or even the grave to escape God.
Finally, in God’s care, there is no need to be afraid of the darkness in life, the deep valleys of pain or despair or loss.
The psalmist is never free from God, but rather embraces the possibilities inherit in reflecting God. The psalmist could gaze at the same glassy pool as Narcissus and see an image God loves. The psalmist would also marvel at God’s presence swirling in the water and know the water is God’s creation. The psalmist would not be threatened by but delight another person’s desire for a relationship.
God and self are inextricably together. Perhaps this psalmist wrote the first #selfiewithGod.
Selfies present us with a choice. What do we see when we see ourselves? Narcissus’ life was limited to his capacity. The possibilities for the psalmist are endless when imagined by God.
In some ways this is an unfair comparison since Narcissus is merely a character trait we all may fall prey to whereas the psalmist was as human as you and me. What we are exploring is the way to live into the possibilities of our lives.
Narcissus would brag to others through his selfies. The psalmist would be humbled by God’s divine imprint and presence in an image.
Narcissus would photoshop any flaw, fearing shame.
The psalmist knows shame is optional in a world when God’s grace abounds. We are created to be human, renewed by God.
Narcissus would be chasing the moment, addicted to the pleasure of affirmation. The psalmist willingly reflects on how to live as God desires when seeing the long-arc of a collection of portraits.
Narcissus constantly seeks mountain top experiences to maintain the euphoria. The psalmist is patient to receive divine encounters; aware they are not manufactured and often arise when vulnerable.
Hailey Wait is an 18-year-old student with 15,000 people who would follow her posts on Instagram. She was considered an influencer with such a following. When she developed acne, she raided the make-up aisle at Walgreens for cover-up, which over time, aggravated her skin, making it worse.
After seven months of trying to hide her condition or editing the photos, she stopped. “I realized that my appearance wasn’t the thing that made me who I am…which minimized the importance I put on the spots on my face.”
Some would have considered what she did next as suicide on social media: she posted photos of her clean skin—smiles and blemishes.
She received a few taunts at first. But rather than abandon her, the opposite happened as thousands of teens began sharing messages of their own struggles with acne and affirmed their beauty. As of yesterday, Hailey Wait had 161,000 followers.
The paradox of selfies is that they may threaten our souls and psyches with narcissism, doubt or alienation; destroying what God created. Or, the selfie can reveal an image of our divine creatureliness and over time the collection of selfies, if candidly examined, reveal the depth and breadth of God’s “good” creation.
Seeing our self as a #selfiewithGod, reminds us of the possibilities God seeks for us.
Prayer for reflection:
God, you know us better than we know ourselves. You know our thoughts, our weaknesses, and our possibilities. You know our hearts and love us still. Inspire us to imagine how our lives are bound in you.
“Monkey selfie photographer says he's broke: 'I'm thinking of dog walking,'” The Guardian, accessed June 28, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/12/monkey-selfie-macaque-copyright-court-david-slater.
Jerry Saltz, “Art at Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie,” New York Magazine, February 3, 2014, accessed June 20, 2018, http://www.vulture.com/2014/01/history-of-the-selfie.html.
Craig Detweiler, Selfies: Searching for the Image of God in a Digital Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2018), 35–36 and “The Myth of Narcissus,” Greek Myths & Greek Mythology, accessed June 28, 2018, https://www.greekmyths-greekmythology.com/narcissus-myth-echo/. I am indebted to Detweiler’s Selfie to prompt reflection about the dangers and benefits of the selfie craze.
Andrea Cheng, “Yes, It’s Acne, but Some Are Cool With It” The New York Times, May 31, 2018. When the article was published at the end of May, the article reported 151,000 followers. One month later, Instagram reports 161,000, https://www.instagram.com/pigss/?hl=en.