Saturday, March 16, 2013

Asking “Who am I?” With Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It seems like pretty much every Christian loves Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (Although maybe not quite as much as we love C.S. Lewis.)

And why not? He wrote some great (and short) books on Christian living, he had insightful thoughts on spiritual disciplines that he actually put into practice, and he joined a conspiracy to kill Hitler. Pretty much the coolest theologian ever.

I also love Bonhoeffer, and his writing, and his 90-year-old grandmother who I want to be like when I’m old. But sometimes, while reading books like A Celebration of Discipline, where Bonhoeffer is quoted all over the place as the expert on meditation and prayer and Scripture reading, I feel a little intimidated.

I could never be like him. I am weak. I spend my time worrying about things that don’t matter. I want to want to love God, but I’m a few steps removed from a deep relationship with him by my own selfishness. There are days when I feel close, when I feel brave enough to love God and people, when I get my priorities right. But not every day, not with the consistency I imagine people like Bonhoeffer had.

So, when I read a biography of Bonhoeffer last semester, one of the most surprising things it told me was that, for most of his life, Bonhoeffer struggled with depression.

Really? I remember thinking when I got to that part. But he spent so much time in prayer. How could he…?

How could he not be everything that his pristine image in other Christian devotional classics make him seem to be? How could he have a weakness? How could he be like me?

That’s when I realized the misconception I had about people we hold up as heroes of faith. When we put theologians and saints up on marble pedestals, we forget that they were people. From far away, they look perfect, but we have to pay for that perfection with distance.
And we also have to accept a lie, because none of these people actually were perfect. There were times when they were afraid, didn’t know the right answers, and couldn’t quite feel what they knew they believed. Maybe there were even times when, like John the Baptist they asked, “Are you the one, or should we look for someone else?”
Our heroes can only inspire us in our own unspectacular, day-to-day faith journey when we know that they live in the same broken world we do, with the same crushed dreams, nagging doubts, and frustrations about their own sinfulness.

So, with that in mind, here is my favorite quotation from Bonhoeffer, a poem written during his time in prison. Read this, and when you read, picture a lonely man genuinely struggling with his identity. See if you recognize yourself. I did.

Who Am I? by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
Like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectation of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!

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