Since introduced to the writings of Dieterich Bonhoeffer, in college, I have been drawn to his writing. The first two books I read were Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship. Both books seemed to take the complexity of theology and make it comprehensible. As I continued my theological education, I began to be drawn in by the writings of Bonhoeffer, not only because of the clear and understandable approach but by the story of his life and how he changed his understanding and call through the experiences and life connections he made.
Foundational to his choice to join his family on a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler, was the time he spent in New York teaching at Union Theological Seminary and connecting with an African-American Church in Harlem. The church that he was at profoundly changed him and his understanding of community and justice.
By the time I was in seminary, I began to explore his letters and papers from prison. Again, you could see a change in the practical faith and Christian practice, but you could also see an unchanging identity as a person that was grounded in an identity within Christ, even among the doubts. To me this is exemplified in the poem “Who Am I” which shows the struggle of identity he is having, having been a prisoner in an unjust system, a man who is unable to be who he feels called to be and a child of God.
While this is about his time in prison, it speaks to the constant struggle that all people have between the multiple persona we have to put forward. While we are not in prison (though someone reading this might be, who knows) sometimes our lives can give off prison-like feelings. Moreover, we often find that we have to hold a different persona towards different people.
I learned this back when I was in seminary working as a chaplain at Marin General Hospital. I had been called in late one night to meet with a family of a young woman in her early sixties who had a mild heart attack. Unfortunately, because of her smoking her veins were not strong enough to do a catheterization, which did not leave many options for a recovery. When I met with the very Catholic family, they were incredibly appreciative of my presence, and when I left I told them that I would check back. The son thanked me and let me know that his uncle the bishop and aunt the nun would be arriving the next day, and they probably would not be needing the chaplain support anymore, but thanked me for the time I had given them.
That was a typical response, especially if the family already had a spiritual connection. However, when I had the ICU on the rounds the next day, I had a feeling like I should check in and just let them know I was thinking of them. By that time, the bishop had arrived along with his sister the nun. They were emotional, having just received news that there was less than a 10% chance of recovery. Then, to my surprise, they almost begged me to come in and sit with the family and pray with them.
It turns out that neither he, nor his sister felt they could be the “clergy” person. So for the first and only time in my life I was a Father, at least that is what they kept calling me as they reminisced, laughed, and cried through the mother’s last days. It was very interesting that when the time came, even though the Bishop performed the Sacrament of the Sick (aka the Last Rites) he asked me to do the other prayers.
As we sat waiting for the paperwork to be finished and the funeral home to come by, the Nun handed me a book, and said “I don’t know who taught you, but you definitely have a calling for care.” It turned out that not only had they been clergy, but also together they had written a book about the death and dying process. I was humbled.
The whole time I worked with that family I questioned what my role was, I asked what it was that God wanted me to do, and I explored within myself the greater call of presence beyond my “job.” At this point I prayed and took note of how God had used me even though I know I neither had the skill nor knowledge to do what I did, but could be effective though faith.
At any moment of my life, both in easy times and hard ones I think I would have a difficult time fully expressing who I am. Often I wonder who the authentic me might be, just as Bonhoeffer does in his poem. However, every time I let go and be the faithful person God calls me to be, I always seem to be amazed.
Ask who I am, and I would not be able to tell you many specifics, because that always seems to change, but one thing does not and will not change. The constant that keeps me both grounded and focused is the truth that I belong to God. Moreover, who I am to myself or to others is inconsequential to that which is who I am with God and how I let God work through me.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen