Every Wednesday afternoon, as the bells chime two from the tower of Central Lutheran Church, a group of pastors sits down in the library to pray, to read together, to discuss the scripture texts for Sunday. A couple of weeks ago, something really great happened. How it was related to that Sunday’s texts, I cannot remember. But something in the conversation spurred one pastor to speak the beginning lines of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous poem, Who Am I? As one person after another chimed in with lines from the recesses of their memories, like corn popping around the room, we roughly recited this stunning poem in its entirety. I was struck by two things in that moment. One was the richness of this Lutheran history that we share. The other was the deep resonance of questions about identity across humanity. Something in that poem, Who Am I?, resonated in such a way that eight pastors sitting in a room, eight people of different ages from different places, had committed lines from that work to their memories. I think this question – who am I? – resonates with us perhaps now more than ever. In a world where we are creating and recreating ourselves with more frequency and greater ease than ever before, where teenagers and young adults especially can feel more like personal brand managers than real, genuine people, Bonhoeffer’s question strikes right at the heart. I know that I talk about identity a lot. That’s because I think it is important. But rather than harp on it here, I want to leave you with Bonhoeffer’s own poem.
*Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident who was executed near the end of the Second World War for his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He wrote this poem from prison.
Who Am I?
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
equally, 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 to-day and to-morrow 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, 0 God, I am Thine!
Whatever our lives may be, at the root of who we are is the truth of whose we are – God’s own beloved children. Grace and peace to you this June.