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Posts Tagged ‘Death’

As many of you know, the days of this blog are numbered. I’ve exhausted all the options for cancer treatments and am now on a fairly (very?) short time table. I’m not really ill yet, just always tired. But I’m not tired of Bonhoeffer! Looks like my book (“Dietrich Bonhoeffer: a Biblical Appreciation”) should be in print by March. I am deeply indebted to John Matthews for his great encourage and extensive practical help.

At this particular stage in life, one’s thoughts return often to memories and often to some of the fundamental issues of life. Much on my mind recently has been Bonhoeffer’s poem called “Who Am I?”

Fellow prisoners looked at him and said he is a man of strength, poise, confidence, and faith. He looked at himself and saw a very different person.

“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.”

The answer, of course, is that both were true. As he said elsewhere in LPP, he could hold multiple emotions and perspectives simultaneously.

In the end, however, his questions about identity really didn’t matter much. We cannot establish our identity by cataloging our various personal qualities.

Remember  Moses asking the Lord, Who am I that I should have this Egypt assignment? And the Lord answered, I am with you. That’s the key!

“Who am I?” asked Bonhoeffer. “They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, you know me, O God. You know I am thine.” That’s the key!

So here I sit, having just experienced my last Christmas surrounded by a beautiful family, knowing that 99.9 per cent of my life is now nothing but memories. And the memories are covered with tears, most of joy, some of sorrow. The tears have been tucked away all along, awaiting this time when I cannot hold them back any longer.

One of those memories long cherished is of the time shortly after giving my life to the Lord in 1962. I “saw” Jesus standing about 20 feet before me with arms outstretched as if to welcome me. But I didn’t know how one walks toward a vision. So for 55 years I’ve wondered if someday I might find myself wrapped in his loving arms.

Somehow in the last few weeks I’ve discovered that my head is leaning hard against my Lord’s chest. And for the first time I’ve called him Daddy. And I’ve dared to say, from deep in my heart, I am a beloved child of the Lord. Until now, to claim to be anything but a servant was just too audacious for me.

And I can say with Bonhoeffer, Whoever I am, you know me O God; You know I am thine.”

And the rest is detail.

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Looking over some of the poetry of John Milton (1608-1674)  yesterday evening, I stumbled over one I hadn’t read in many years. It has no title or date so far as I know but obviously comes from near the end of his life.

The lines that grabbed my attention were:

I am old and blind; /Men point at me as smitten by God’s frown; /Afflicted and deserted of my kind; /Yet I am not cast down.

I am weak, yet strong; /I murmur not that I no longer see; /Poor, old and helpless, I the more belong, /Father supreme, to Thee.

John Donne (1572-1681), whose life barely overlapped with that of Milton, wrote a short poem which is both amusing (as a play on his own name) and yet profound. I’ve long found it a delight.

A Hymn To God The Father

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sin by which I have won
Others to sin? and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
Swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done,
I fear no more.

A good many years later Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) sat in prison and wrestled with the question of which was the real Dietrich, the frightened or the brave. He built his question into a poem but could not really answer the question. He concluded the poem, entitled “Who Am I?” with these solemn words:

Who am I? They mock me these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, you know me, O God. You know I am thine.

As I ruminate on those odd words from my doctor (“There are no more treatment options for your cancer”) I find a variety of Bible verses rise to the top of my consciousness for a few days, only to be supplanted soon by others. These past few days it has seemed  I can summarize what has been or at least has been intended as my life story: “Here am I, Lord.”

The rest is detail.

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My cancer has returned and is expected to be aggressive, which means I know I’m living in my own end times, my own eschaton. I have tried a bit of a thought experiment, trying to use my own situation to better imagine and identify with Bonhoeffer in prison. The circumstances, though, present too great a contrast. I’m home, not feeling too badly, and being cared for by a truly amazing wife.

Yes, like Bonhoeffer, I know the end is near but it is not unjust for me as it was for him. And I am 74, retired, thankful for a long and full life. He never reached 40. My life has been productive in minor ways (I’m glad to have had the privilege of helping people) but his life and his death were both productive in ways few of us will ever experience.

Nonetheless, I have “done my bit,” as the citizens of England used to say during WWII, doing their bit to contribute to the war effort.

Part of what makes Bonhoeffer so admirable is that he so effectively maintained his sense of the sovereignty of God, his trust in the Lordship of Jesus Christ, even when all the earthly evidence suggested that he was the victim of injustice. Injustice is the enemy of God and injustice seemed — to onlookers — to be dominating Bonhoeffer’s last years. Yet he chose to affirm in multiple ways that it was his Lord who reigned in his life. His was a faith deeper than appearances. He walked by faith, not by sight.

And God has been honoring him ever since.

 

 

 

 

 

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It was inevitable that the constant struggle against Nazi evils — made all the worse by the popularity of the Nazi regime in its first ten years — would wear down those who had recognized the  Hitler’s wickedness from the beginning.

Petty people, who define themselves by what they are against rather than what they are for, seem to thrive on conflict and confrontation. Those who are more mature and who know the good they are pursuing, find it to be a great strain when circumstances force them into the unnatural posture of opposition.

When matters are deeply serious and drearily prolonged, death itself becomes no longer an enemy but almost a temptation because it seems to promise relief and rest. “We can no longer hate Death so much; we have discovered something of kindness in his features and are almost reconciled to him. Deep down we seem to feel that we are his already and that each new day is a miracle.”

“Who stands firm?”, Bonhoeffer had asked earlier in After Ten Years. Only the one who stands “in faith and in relationship to God alone,” the one who knows and accepts that he “is called to obedient and responsible action.”

When death becomes a temptation, only a few will stand firm in their active resistance to evil. Bonhoeffer’s hope — and commitment — was that when death came, it would find him “completely engaged in the fullness of life, rather than by accident, suddenly, away from what really matters.”

Or, to put it in language John Wayne* would understand, he wants to die with his boots on.


  • For those outside the US, John Wayne was an film actor who became a symbol of the rugged individualism on which America prided itself in its first two centuries. the attractive ideal of the rugged individualist still lingers in American dreams, though the realities of modern life tie us together in so many and such complex ways that now all we have left is a wistful memory of the good ol’ days.

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