As far back as I can remember, people have told me that I’m a “nice person”. I’m not saying it of myself, this is what others tell me.
Almost equally as far back as I can remember, I have also known about the other side of the picture – that I have had life-long struggles with depression, holding grudges, attention-seeking, to introduce just a few of descriptors from the dark side. Those who know me well are not surprised. This week, I did some thinking about these labels after our mid-week Bible study.
One of my all-time favorite poems is by theologian and German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis in 1945 for opposing Hitler. Written while he was in prison at the end of his life, the poem is called “Who Am I?” Click on the link to read the whole poem. He notices two sides of himself: people tell him that he speaks freely and friendly and clearly, bearing the days of misfortune “equably, smilingly, proudly”, and yet inwardly he knows himself to be “restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,/ struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat…”
He struggles with the contradictions in the poem, wondering who he really is – the strong one or the weak one. Both at once? A hypocrite? A weakling?
Whenever I get someone telling me I’m nice, I sometimes start to protest and get cranky, knowing they are not seeing the whole picture. At times, I am convinced that the dark side is all there is. I have heard it often enough that I wonder who I truly am. With Bonhoeffer I ask, “Am I one person today and tomorrow another?”
At our Bible study this week, we looked at the story in the gospel of Mark about Jesus clearing the temple. He is being touted as a great hero and upcoming king, and yet he acts with seeming contradiction when he enters the temple of holiness (supposedly where he will rule) and loses it, throwing over the tables of commerce that have taken over the temple.
Like Bonhoeffer’s famous question, people wondered who this guy really was. A compassionate healer or an angry revolutionary? Those without power – children, the poor, the sick, the outcasts – loved him for his great compassion but of course, the powers that be thought he was the latter and began to plot to kill him. Jesus could have written his own “Who Am I?” poem.
We talked about why Jesus did it. While we don’t usually go around throwing tables over in revolutionary zeal, sometimes we may say no to the powers – signing a petition, going to a demonstration, buying fair trade coffee or chocolate, or even reading about an issue. We might do these things out of guilt, to be trendy… or out of a deeper motivation. Jesus did it because of his deep love of God and of prayer. He saw what the temple had become and it grieved him. His action came directly out of his relationship to God.
During our discussion, Paul made a small comment to me and I spent the next few days thinking it through. He said I have a naturally friendly temperament and I do nice things for others. But I sometimes forget to be aware of the source, which is God, not me. “You forget to connect it.”
It was a little riddle of a comment that got me thinking. I know all too well that I can do things for others because I want to be liked. In this way, acts of kindness become a compensation for my insecurity. But the Spirit was reminding me of that great question, “Who am I?” If insecurity and a desire to be liked are my deepest motivations, then I will become resentful and bitter, because insecurity is a bucket that never gets filled. This isn’t theory, it happens to me all the time.
Bonhoeffer ends his poem with a prayer. After wrestling with the two sides of himself, he throws up his hands and gives all the questions to God.
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!
This prayer heals my heart every time. Bonhoeffer moves from asking “Who am I?” to resting in “Whose” he is – a beloved son of God. Maybe acting in the world is about staying connected to God. Every good gift comes from God, says the Bible. My insecurities will probably always be with me, but when I live out of my deeper identity, acts of kindness become about giving what I have received so abundantly.
It was my birthday this week, and I was so struck all week by this abundance. I am so rich in friends who love me the way God does – unconditionally, warts and all. May we all be awake, living with awareness, every moment, of our place in the heart of God.