FROM FR. JAY SIDEBOTHAM +
Column dated March 15, 2021
Who am I? by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in “Letters & Papers from Prison”
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 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 expectations 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 contemptible 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!
What are you doing here?
I’ve been thinking about one of my favorite Bible stories. Elijah, great prophet of the Hebrew Scriptures, is coming off a dramatic victory, winning a public contest with opponents. Evil King Ahab and Queen-of-mean Jezebel aren’t pleased. They vow revenge. Elijah freaks. He heads out to the wilderness where he has a major pity party, thinking he’s all alone in the cause of righteousness. (Sound familiar, clergy?) He’s ready to give up. Ready to give up life actually. He heads to Mt. Horeb, the mountain where revelations of God’s presence happen. In that holy place, the voice of God comes to Elijah in the form of a question repeated a couple times: What are you doing here? Whenever this story comes up in church, I’m struck with its relevance. I listen for where lectors place the emphasis: WHAT are you doing here? What ARE you doing here? What are YOU doing here? What are you DOING here? What are you doing HERE? We could spend a lifetime answering the questions. (Read the whole story in I Kings 19.)
Lent offers time to ask those kinds of questions. It’s a season for self-examination, a process underscored by our year-long experience of Lent brought on by Covid-19. It’s given us all a chance to think about who we are and where we are and where we’re headed. What are we doing in the place where we find ourselves?
For me, in Lent, in Covid-tide, asking these questions has brought a sense of both gratitude and wistfulness, recognizing extraordinary blessings that have come my way which exist side by side with regret, resentment and rethinking of ways I have been spouse, child, parent, priest, citizen. All of this has raised the challenge of acceptance. Accepting where I’ve been, where I am, where I’m headed.
To navigate that, I believe I have been graced with four statements that help me in my reflection on life, statements that reflect confession and contentment. Here are the four:
- I am who I am
- I am what I am
- I am where I am
- I am why I am
Several things occur to me in response to these statements.
First, like looking in a mirror, these statements are an honest assessment of the current situation, where I find myself these days. The good and the bad are encompassed in that view of self (as reflected in the poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the column on the left, a poem written in prison, where he might have asked: “What am I doing here?”). There’s much for which to be grateful in terms of where I find myself, for sure. But there are also things that call for repentance. It’s a mix, just like life.
Second, thinking about who, what, where and why I am brings me back to a focus on grace. However the questions are answered, the bottom line is that I am part of God’s good and blessed creation, that I am held in the arms of a loving, liberating, life-giving God, and there is nothing that can separate me from that.
Take this season to ask these questions. Hear God speak to you as he did to Elijah as he asks: What are you doing here? Ask the question that Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked of himself in the poem: Who am I? Consider the stewardship question: What am I doing with what I’ve been given? And allow all this self-examination to take place in the context of a love that will not let you go.