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When I was 4 years old, my preschool teacher asked our class at the prestigiously-named Snoopy School what we wanted to be when we grew up. It’s sort of weird to me that we would ask 4-year olds about their career plans, but whatever. I don’t remember many of the other kids’ responses – I’m assuming there were a lot of future fire fighters and doctors and maybe a few aspiring princesses. When it came time for me to share, I proudly announced my intention to be a chef on a tugboat.
I don’t exactly remember where I got this idea, nor do I recall how serious I was about it at the time, but nevertheless, my pre-school interest in becoming a harbor-based culinary technician still makes my family chuckle a few decades later.
As it turns out, I’m not much of a cook, and I don’t know the last time I’ve ever seen a tugboat. Nor do I know much about the current tugboat chef job market. What I do know this: my ability to predict what I want to be when I grow up hasn’t improved at all since I was 4-years old.
From chef-on-a-tugboat, my future plans morphed into fiction writing. I wanted to be the next J.R.R. Tolkien for awhile, then the next Jack Kerouac. I picked an undergrad based on its creative writing program, proceeded to not take a single writing class, and instead got an International Studies degree with a focus in the Middle East and North Africa…at which point I promptly wrote my senior thesis about Latin America. I then lived in the Middle East for awhile, trying to save the world, which pretty much worked and there haven’t been any issues there since.
That was a joke.
Anyway, I ended up in seminary with the intention of becoming a pastor and instead stumbled backwards into campus ministry. Now, people in churches ask me, “So, are you called to campus ministry?”, and I say “Yes,” but with the guilty self-knowledge that it wasn’t that long ago that I thought I was called to write the next great North American road novel, so I mean what the hell do I know.
Who am I, and what am I doing with my life? For a long time, we in the U.S. have been obsessed with this question. We ask pre-schoolers what they want to be when they grow up. We ask high schoolers what they want to study in college; we ask college students what their major is; and before you even graduate, we start asking whether you’ve found a job. That’s particularly true in DC, by the way, where “So, what do you do?” is the acceptable first question at parties and where we tend to be obsessed with people’s resumés. We’ve told U.S.American teenagers and young adults that you’re supposed to figure out who you are and what you want to do so that you can get good jobs, and frankly, we’ve been lying to you.
The complexities of the global economy, changing expectations about marriage & children, a shifting educational scene, and better understandings of human development, all have contributed to the dawning realization that a lot of 30-year olds – much less 18-year olds or 4-year olds – still feel pretty ambivalent about what they want to be when they grow up.
Which makes me wonder if we’ve been asking the wrong questions, or at least emphasizing the wrong aspect of these questions. We’ve asked: Who am I, and what am I doing with my life? When maybe, to paraphrase the Quaker educator Parker Palmer, it would make more sense to ask: Who am I becoming, and what is my life trying to do with me?
To put that another way: If Christians believe that humans are made in God’s image, that God breathes life and Spirit into us, that God loves us and knows us intimately – then maybe we should spend some time getting to know this God-given life we have before we rush to say what we’re going to do with the blessed thing.
Who am I and what am I doing with my life – I put these two questions together for a reason tonight, because while many of us feel the pressure to answer “What am I doing with my life?,” and to answer it now-now-NOW, it’s the “Who am I?” that seems the much more basic – and, I suspect, much scarier and more complex – of the two questions.
“Who am I?”
Tonight, we heard two biblical characters wrestling with that question –one a tad more literally than the other.
The story of Jacob wrestling with an angel…or is it God? Jacob himself? His estranged brother Esau? Just some dude? – someone – has become one of the most beloved in Jewish and Christian literature. The story lends itself to artistic interpretation and dramatic storytelling. Jacob has just sent his family, along with most of what he owns, ahead of him to meet his potentially-hostile twin brother, Esau. For some context, last time Jacob saw Esau, Esau sorta-kinda wanted to kill him. In fairness, Jacob had tricked Esau out of his birthright, which was sort of a jerk move. So Jacob is awake and all alone, in the middle of the night, wondering if tomorrow is the day his own brother finally gets around to offing him – and he suddenly finds himself wrestling with a stranger.
What jumps out at me about this old, old story tonight is that, beyond just a mythical wrestling match, this is a story about grappling with identity. Both Jacob and the mysterious stranger demand to know the others’ name. Jacob – who is by far the weaker of the two brothers, by the way – has a certain tenacity that allows him to hang in there with the stranger. Jacob demands what Jacob has always, perhaps inexplicably, demanded – a blessing.
Instead, he gets a question:
“What’s your name?”
Who are you?
“Jacob,” he responds.
The name in Hebrew is “Ya’aqob,” and it’s related to the word for “heel.” Jacob was born clutching at the heel of his brother Esau. His whole life, when asked for his name, he had responded, “I grasp at the heel.” I try to usurp. To supplant. His whole life, he had been
defined – and had defined himself – by his attempt to get ahead of his twin brother and any other rival that got in his way.
And the angel says, “No. You’re not Jacob. Not Ya’aqob. Not one who graps at the heel, who usurps. You are Israel. The one who wrestles with God. You wrestle. You strive. You struggle. And somehow, you prevail.”
Before it became the name of a people, and certainly long before it was associated with a modern nation state (which has its own issues of sibling rivalry), the word Israel was a reframing of a personal story – from “I supplant, I usurp, I grasp,” to “I wrestle. I strive.”
“Who are you? What’s your name?” Jacob asks.
The stranger doesn’t answer.
The stranger, it seems, isn’t as stuck in their own identity issues as Jacob is.
The stranger just finally offers a blessing.
It is the newly-minted Israel who interprets this for us, saying, “I have seen God face-to-face.”
Maybe God is whatever it is in the universe that isn’t as caught up in its own stuff as we often are.
Of course, if we make the seemingly absurd claim – and Christianity, whatever the modern period has tried to do with it, is based on some absurd claims – that God can be encountered in a flesh-and-blood human, a human who takes on all the mess and ambiguity of human existence, then it bears asking: did Jesus struggle with his own identity issues?
In tonight’s passage from Mark’s gospel, Jesus poses his disciples with one of those pesky questions he’s prone to asking: “Who do people say I am?”
Why does Jesus ask this? Is it a rhetorical device, designed only to flush out Peter’s proclamation of Jesus’ Messiah-ship? Or, just maybe, is Jesus wrestling with his own stranger-in-the-night, his own questions about who he is and what it is that he’s supposed to be doing with his life?
Christians, of course, have tended to view Peter’s response – “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God” – as the correct answer to Jesus’ query. Good work, Peter. But in Mark’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t respond with, “Right on, Peter. I’m Christ! You got it.” Instead, Jesus says, “Don’t tell anyone you said that” – which seems weird, until we read on and realize that while Jesus is convinced that he’s in for some rough times, what Peter means by “You’re the Messiah” is more like “You’re gonna be great, Jesus, don’t you worry about it.”
But right away, we get another story, and another answer to Jesus’ question – “Who do you say I am?” Only this time, the answer comes out of a cloud, not out of Peter’s mouth. And it says: “This is my beloved child.”
Peter thinks Jesus is the Messiah – by which he means, someone who will victoriously kick out the conquering Romans and bring about a new, glorious day for the nation. Peter thinks Jesus is great because of what Jesus is going to do. God just tells Jesus that he’s loved.
Jacob spent his whole life telling himself and others that he was a supplanter, a usurper, defined by what he had done.
A stranger, wrestling him in the night, tells him: “You’ve already wrestled. And you’ve prevailed. Cease your striving for a moment. Be blessed.”
Jacob is starting to think he’s crap because of what he’s done.
God wants Jacob to know that he’s blessed.
Like Peter, we tend to think of identity as being about we can accomplish. Like Jacob, we tend to think – at least secretly, alone at night, wrestling with the stranger that is our own thoughts – that what we have done and accomplished doesn’t add up to much, after all.
And I believe that God’s voice – concealed sometimes by a cloud, by a stranger’s face, by the dark, lonely hours of the night – is speaking to us, saying:
“Who you are is beloved.”
“Who you are is blessed.”
“Cease your striving for a moment, and receive.”
Who are we, and what are we doing with our lives? In one sense, the questions are unanswerable. We are endlessly changing and evolving, endlessly becoming, endlessly mysterious even to ourselves.
And yet, for 2,000 years, the Christian tradition has made a faith claim that in and amongst all of that change and mystery and confusion, God’s voice can be discerned, reminding us that we are loved and called by our true names. Discovering what that means for our lives is no simple ask. No online quiz, no choice of college major, no late night prayer – and certainly no pastor and no sermon—can offer us a final answer. But what our faith does offer is a set of practices – of prayer, worship, communion, and community – to quiet us down, to still some of our anxieties and ceaseless strivings, so that we can get to know our own selves as loved and created by God.
Maybe then we can discover who we are created to be, and what our God-given life wants us to do with it.