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Who Am I?

Once a month or so, a delightful young woman from our church hosts a seniors coffee hour on Thursday mornings in our church basement. She is here from Germany on a one year volunteer assignment, and these times that she organizes for some of our older and wiser saints have become a real highlight for me. We play games, sing songs, enjoy conversation, and, of course, we eat. What would a gathering at a Mennonite church be without food, after all?!

We also usually have a short devotional. This morning we were reflecting on questions of identity. How do we identify ourselves to others? Is our identity tied up in our work, our achievements, our relationships, our children? Do we see ourselves as having value and worth apart from how others see us? Are we secure in our identity as children of God, or are we always seeking to impress, to earn, to achieve, to distinguish, to stand up and stand out? Can we be honest about our insecurities, whether we are 25, 95, or anywhere in between?

Near the end of our time together today, we read a poem together called “Who Am I?” written by the great German theologian/pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is a well-known poem, written from a Nazi prison cell in Tegel shortly before his execution in 1945.

Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I would talk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear 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 know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my
yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation,
tossing 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.

This poem has been sitting on my desk for a few hours now. I have read it and reread it and then read it again. I remember being struck by these words when I studied Bonhoeffer a few years ago, but they hit me today as if brand new. It is a remarkable poem written by a remarkable man. While the author and the circumstances of this poem’s composition are utterly unique, I think these words touch all of us, even in far less calamitous times. They speak to me today, at any rate. Who am I? The person I wish I was? The person I want you to think that I am? The person I deceive myself into thinking that I am? The online identity I have carefully crafted and managed? Or, the person with fears and doubts and insecurities, and weaknesses too many to calibrate or number? Which one? This or the other?

Whether from a prison cell in wartime Germany or from the basement of a small Mennonite church on the Canadian prairies, Bonhoeffer’s answer is sure and reliable and life-giving.

Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God. I am thine.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks for sharing Ryan – if we’re honest, the poem is very true…

    Your description of the group reminded me of a church motto quoted in Murray’s Naked Anabapist – “no eating, no meeting.” Funny yes, but profound as well in the most simple of ways.

    February 3, 2012
    • Yes, I think so… And probably not just for Anabaptists—Naked, or otherwise :).

      February 4, 2012

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