“I hardly had a drink in years,” said a man from New Orleans who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. “But right after the hurricane hit, I started drinking again. Now, if I stop drinking, the pain becomes so great it is unbearable. I am scared because I don’t have any identity anymore.” He feels like everything that made him who he once was is now gone forever.
Life had been difficult enough already for many of the poorer residents of that city, but folks had their friendships, their old neighborhoods and hangouts, and the never-ending music. And even though the music returned, many neighborhoods became ghost towns, and those that went back found little left of their old life.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also a man who lost everything. Over the last 12 years of his life, the Nazis took away from him everything that gave him his identity. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian and author. In 1933, when Bonhoeffer was only 27, Hitler came to power. The Nazis took away Bonhoeffer’s German homeland, turning it into something unrecognizable. Bonhoeffer spoke out against Hitler, and was from then on under suspicion. His freedom to speak and move around was, from then on, severely restricted. For a few months, he escaped to the freedom and safety of the United States, but found he could not, in good conscience, stay there. He went back to join the church’s resistance to Hitler and, to teach in an underground seminary. When that seminary was discovered and closed, Bonhoeffer lost his place of ministry, but continued to do what he could. Finally, he was arrested and lost his freedom, spending the last two and a half years of his life in prison. There he was treated well at first. He was even brought books and papers by guards who liked him. But after a while, that too was taken away, and he had nothing left but his life– and even that was always under a cloud. He knew that at any time, the evidence that would lead to his execution may be discovered. That evidence was found, and he was hung in April of 1945 at the age of 39– thus, finally losing almost everything to the Nazis.
But there was one thing Bonhoeffer never lost, and that was his hope. His hope was in the faith he had in God, and in that he found his confidence and identity. And with that, he became a pillar of strength to all in the prison, even to many of the guards, who also had much to fear in that war and from the Nazis. Survivors of the prison camp spoke of his cheerfulness, his confidence, and his inner strength. And he got all of that from his faith which was nurtured and sustained by his daily reading of God’s Word.
In the last year of his life, Bonhoeffer wrote a poem entitled ‘Who Am I?’ which dealt with this very question of identity. He, like the man from New Orleans, was asking what is left of a person after everything is taken away. “Who am I?” he wrote. “They often tell me that I step from my cell calmly, cheerfully, firmly– like a squire from his country-house… Who am I? They often tell me that I talk to my guards freely and friendly and clearly, as though I am the one in command. Who am I? They also tell me that I bear the days of misfortune with confidence and even smiles, like one accustomed to winning.” But then he writes, “Am I really all that which other men tell of? Or am I only what I know of myself inside, restless and longing and sick, struggling and trembling with fear and with anger, weary of worry over loved ones, faint and doubtful even at my prayers…” And then he asks again, “Who am I? One or the other? One this day and the other the next? Am I both at once, or what?” Finally, he concludes the poem saying, “Who am I? These lonely questions of mine mock me. But whoever I am, you know, Oh God, I belong to you.”
In that last line is revealed the source of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s strength that inspired everyone around him. He knew he belonged to God. That was his faith, and his faith kept him strong. Even with everything else taken away, he still had God’s Word, which he first was able to read, and then when all books were taken away, was, until the end, kept safely in his memory. In his last letter home, just before Christmas of 1944, he wrote these words: “You must not think I am unhappy. What is happiness and unhappiness? It depends so little on circumstances; it depends really only on that which happens inside a person.” In his last spoken words, just before he was hung, he said: “This is the end for me, but it is also my beginning.”
In that last letter home, Bonhoeffer said a little more about his source of strength. He wrote, “In solitude, the soul develops powers which we can hardly know in everyday life. Therefore, I have not felt lonely or abandoned… Prayers and words from the Bible gain life and reality as never before. It becomes like a great invisible sphere in which one lives and in whose reality there is no doubt.” Bonhoeffer, like the man from New Orleans, had lost everything. But Bonhoffer was able to remain strong because his identity was in God’s Word, and that gave him a firm foundation that could withstand any storm.
The Bible is what gives us identity and strength and confidence and faith and hope, even if else is taken away; and, as we know, everything will one day be taken away. Even then, the Bible has a Word for us that goes far beyond all we know or have or attain in this brief life. When everything else is lost, like for Deitrich Bonhoffer, or the man in New Orleans, or a woman living her last days in the nursing home, no longer able to see or hear or feed herself, even when nothing else is left, this Word still speaks a word of hope and promise.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)
Isaiah 43:1-2a — But now, this is what the Lord says— he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
Romans 14:8 — If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.
John 20:30-31 — Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Isaiah 7:9b — If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.
Eternal God, the refuge of all your children,
in our weakness you are our strength,
in our darkness our light,
in our sorrow our comfort and peace.
May we always live in your presence,
and serve you in our daily lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
–St. Boniface (675?-754), “Apostle to the Germans”