Caged Eagles

IN JUNE 1944, WHILE WAITING TO BE EXECUTED in a Nazi prison cell, Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote some of the most soul searching poetry I’ve encountered.  The marching boots of certain death approached with each tick of the clock. In this condition of unimaginable anxiety, his words plunged with unmasked veracity into the freedom of truth.  In one poem called Who Am I? he wrote the following lines:

Am I really what others say about me? Or am I only what I know about 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.

Who am I? This man or that other? Am I then this man today and tomorrow another? Am I both all at once? An imposter to others, but to me a little more than a whining, despicable weakling? Does what is in me compare to a vanquished army, that flees in disorder before a battle already won?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, you know me O God. You know I am yours.[1]

As Bonhoeffer writes, he draws from his doubts, his fears, his cravings, and the wounds and scars carved in his soul. Every word invites us to look beyond his eyes into the truth of his inner man. He is a trembling, fallen creature creating from a posture of brokenness and humility … and yet his poetry grips me, challenges me and confronts me with a radical creative freedom. He is simultaneously a “canary in a coal mine” and a golden eagle navigating the blustery skies of freedom.

Touching the world around us and bringing hope to others is rooted in an intensely personal, soul-searching experience. For some, our freedom to soar in a free and active faith, to hear God’s voice and respond to the people and circumstances around us, is gasping for oxygen beneath our layers of persona and self-defense. Our freedom to enjoy the faith we were created to live is pinned down, like an eagle trapped in a cage.

Jesus said that truth will set us free. I believe he was drawing a connection between living in truth and our ability to engage the wider world with genuine creative freedom. He wasn’t only telling us not to tell lies. He was confronting the widespread human addiction to living a lie. Only the soul that is free to breathe can become a free flowing river of God’s creative work. That work in us requires an environment of truth.  Perhaps this is why confession is so important to God.  The Spirit simply doesn’t respond to play acting. He is repelled by the dense fog of made up reality. He calls us to unmask, to bare our souls to him, and live in the freedom of the question, “Who am I?” With our feet standing on the firm ground of truth, the CREATOR goes to work, setting us free to create. 

“Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.” — Psalm 51:6

[1] Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 239-40.

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