(In the interest of full disclosure: The stimulus for this reflection came from a recent read of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's poem, Who Am I?. Also, from Paul's letter to the Romans.)
At a Men's retreat, another guy and I shared how we often seemed on the same wavelength in terms of how we viewed the world, our values, and the often-questioning nature of our faith. We agreed, too, that we were both very introspective, and that introspection can be both a blessing and a curse. It's good in that it provides insight into one's self. Introspection helps us determine whether our actions are rightly (or wrongly) motivated. But, too much introspection can result in navel-gazing and an almost perpetual sense of confusion: Who Am I? We agreed, though, if we erred, we appreciated that we erred on the side of too much introspection.
Recently, in our church, the sermon series has been on Romans, and most recently selections from Romans 7. This portion of scripture has always been one of my favorites. (Often quite confusingly, Paul speaks of not doing what he wants to do, and doing what he does not want to do.) It's a favorite not because its words lift me up or give comfort when down or hurting. If anything, the passages are upsetting — and stir up the painful aspects of introspection. Although, in the end, Paul's passage does give a way to deal with this internal conflict, I find comfort just knowing that Saint Paul wrestled with the same internal conflicts as I do. I think my introspective friend would find comfort, too, in some kinship with Paul's inner turmoil.
Readers may be familiar with Paul's words, but I will include them: (Rm 7:15-25, NRSV)
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the
very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer
I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is,
in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil
I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.
I know what it is I should do ... what I know love calls me to do. What God's law seems to call me to do. And I know what it is I really do want to do. BUT! I end up doing just the opposite! ... I do what it is I know I do not want to do. I know what things I shouldn't do, know how I really do not want to act. BUT! I do exactly what it is I do not want to do! ... I can't imagine any thinking person who has not experienced this inner turmoil. I do what it is I don't want to do, and I don't do what it is I want to do. As Paul says, "Wretched man that I am!"
Some examples come to mind. For some of these, the "I" refers to me, other times to someone I've heard, and some others of composites I can imagine confront someone. You can probably add you own, personal examples to these:
I love my children. I want my words and actions to bolster them, lift them up, enhance their self-esteem. But, under stress, I over-react to some mistake, some comment, and lash out verbally to one I love. I say or yell words that demean, that tear down. I end up often doing the very things that I do not want to do. And, there is no peace within me.
I dedicated myself to spend some time each day in prayer and meditation. I pledged to get up fifteen minutes earlier each day to have quiet time alone to sit with God. But, I've done it only twice this whole month. Pressing the snooze button comes too easily. Sorry, no time today. I don't do the very thing that it is I want to do. And, there is no peace within me.
A guy at my fitness center makes snide comments about racial minorities. Often tells jokes that makes light of immigrants. Today, I am going to speak up — in love, of course — and "call him" on his words. Today, I will stand up for others. ... But, I do not. I act like I don't hear. Just bite my lip. Rationalize that I shouldn't cause a stir here. I did NOT do what it is I knew I should do, what I really wanted to do. And, there is no peace within me.
As a pastor, I am appalled at the way an elected official says things about racial groups, and that he even promotes discriminatory policies. I am a man of God. I know that God says, "Let justice flow down like waters!" I know I should speak out. I know I must speak out — I want to speak what I am sure God would want me to say to my flock. But, I know, too, that many in my congregation voted for this official, and still support him. My congregation is divided politically. But, I still know what it is God would want me to say. Today's sermon is on a topic that has an ideal spot to address the issue. I have it circled in my notes. The time in the sermon comes ... I cover the circled words with my thumb. I do not say them. I know what a true pastor of God should say to the flock. I know the words I really want to say. But, I am silent. I pass on the opportunity. And, there is no peace within me.
My husband love football. I hate it, despise its violence. He is a good and caring husband, a loving father. He knows how I feel about football, so Sunday afternoons he usually goes to a friend's place to join others in watching the local team's games. I know I should respect his enjoyment. I know his going out is to prevent me from having to be around football. I want to smile, and say, "Have a good time, Dear. Hope your team wins. I'm going to go shopping. I'll be back about the time the game is over." That's what I want to say. But, I don't. "I guess today you'll be over at Fred's again for football. I hate that game. I'll still be here when you get home. Hope it doesn't go into overtime." I know what I want to do. I know how I want to treat my husband. But, I do just the opposite of what it is I really want to say and do. And, there is no peace within me.
I do what it is I do not want to do. I do not do what it is I want to do. Wretched man that I am!
Those who regularly read these Reflections know that I find meaning and inspiration in the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Although the German pastor and theologian is known mostly for his theological writing and his sermons, he also wrote a few poems. Though not his forte (one commentator said "Bonhoeffer was scarcely a first-rate poet"), they do give a glimpse to his inner being. I am not a lover of poetry. Somehow, I usually just don't "get" a poem. I always feel there is something lacking in me because I do not appreciate this style of written communication. But, when I read this one, Who Am I? the other day – probably the fifth time I've read it in my daily Bonhoeffer readings during meditation time, it really hit me. As Paul, in the Romans passage, experienced the inner turmoil described in this Reflection, I realized that Dietrich, too, experienced much the same thing.
Who Am I?Found in A Testament to Freedom p. 514. I also found a variation of this Bonhoeffer poem in a collection of his writings in prison. I can't tell whether what I cite here is different, or a portion of another poem, or an adaptation.
Am I really what others say about me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless, yearning and sick, like a bird in its cage,
struggling for the breath of life,
as though someone were choking my throat;
hungering for colors, for flowers, for the songs of birds,
thirsting for kind words and human closeness,
shaking with anger at capricious tyranny and the pettiest slurs,
bedeviled by anxiety, awaiting great events that might never occur,
fearfully powerless and worried for friends far away,
weary and empty in prayer, in thinking, in doing,
weak, and ready to take leave of it all.
Who am I? This man or that other?
Am I then this man today and tomorrow another?
Am I both all at once? An imposter to others,
but to me little more than a whining, despicable weakling?
Does what is in me compare to a vanquished army,
that flees in disorder before a battle already won?
Who am I? They mock me these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, you know me, O God. You know I am yours.
I feel myself, and perhaps even Paul, living in Bonhoeffer's poem. (My introspective friend probably would see himself in the poem, too,) Am I the good guy I think basically I am — or at least want to be? Or am I really my evil twin? Am I the fairly self-confident person I may portray to others? Or am I the afraid little boy who wakes at night fearing that he has no control over any aspect of life or of what he might say and do? Am I one who says the right things, but rarely ends up doing them? Am I an imposter to others, maybe even an imposter to God? Just who am I?
I'm not sure I have any deep meaning I want to offer in this Reflection; any message readers might take away. I hope, though, I may have struck a few notes regarding feelings readers have about themselves and any relationship to my sense of There is no peace within me.
If any of this does stimulate thought, maybe like I've been able to do, you might find comfort not only in the fact that St. Paul and Dietrich were probably in the same boat, but also find some comfort in what each gives as a summing up or final conclusion at the end of each of their of the passages.
Paul, in describing how being a slave to our sinful condition as humans, does end this sometimes-confusing passage by saying: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (And later in chapter 8): There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.
And in Who Am I? Bonhoeffer ends his wrestling about not knowing who he really is with this line: Whoever I am, you know me, O God. You know I am yours.
We may not always do what we want to do, and do exactly what it is we do not want to do. We may not know who we really are. But, through Christ, we are freed from the bondage of fear of God's wrath because we cannot keep the Divine One's law. And, God does know who we are. And, we can know and trust that we are God's.
One of my favorite hymns, which has spoken to me since my growing-up years, is Dear Master in Whose Life I see (See full lyrics and music in Resources below.) I've always thought it describes our yearning for a state where what we believe and what we do might grow to be more often the same. That we would not always live with the inner conflict Paul describes of us doing what we don't want to do, and not doing what we know we want to do. The hymn writer uses the word "Dream", which I choose to equate with what my beliefs tell me is the right thing to do. Even through these many decades, the second stanza still sticks in my mind:
Though what I dream and what I do
In my weak days are always two,
Help me, oppressed by things undone,
O Thou whose deeds and dreams were one!
May I grow to be more like Jesus. Grow to where what I do is consistent with what I believe and want to do. O Thou whose deeds and dreams were one! God, give me the grace to grow.