Believing Our Own Press: Bonhoeffer, Duritz and PR departments

One of my favorite all-time songs, for those keeping score at home, is “Mr. Jones” by Counting Crows. You remember this song, I am sure. Adam Duritz, the writer and singer confesses:

When everybody loves me;

I’m just about as happy as I can be.

Who among us would argue?

The truth is that all of us long to be loved, valued, accepted and respected. We all spend our lives in pursuit of the smile of a friend, the embrace of a lover or the affirmation of our dad. No matter how rock-solid we want to appear to others, we have a basic need to give and, perhaps more importantly, to receive love. Some find this an easy path, others have to wait a little longer for love get a hold of them. Some seem to see their longings met in an instant and others will be ultimately and utterly disappointed in their quest. Admiration, acceptance, respect and love; some fight for these precious commodities and other die for them.

One place we all look for affirmation is in our chosen profession. Over the past half-decade, I have waited tables to make ends meet. Although I have always had other goals in mind, I cannot help but take my own job seriously. I really do feel significant and valued if a party requests to sit with me. On the other hand, when I am criticized for my failings as a waiter (which, no doubt, outweigh my strengths) I immediately become defensive. I want respect in my job. Sometimes it works out and other times I feel the sting of rejection, disrespect and indifference. These times make me appreciate those times I feel, well, more appreciated. At the end of the day, I want to be rise above and be recognized.

For pastors, writers, theologians, whatever, the same holds true for any speaking and writing venture we undertake. We can learn from the critiques we receive but it is the indifference of hearers and readers that seem to drive us to despair. That is why we grasp hold of the people who have the best things to say about us. We want a good “PR” team on our side, proclaiming to the world that what we are saying, writing and doing is a “cut above the rest.”

The real issue is that it is so easy, like my pastor, Tal, says, to “believe our own press.”

Have you ever believed your own press? Whether your PR department has been working overtime, generating kind words from everybody from boss to wife or somebody has been sleeping on the job, your inner-thoughts are probably a lot like mine. They are so fickle too. Weeks, months and even years of obscurity start to add up. The devil whispers in our ear God doesn’t care. Why would he? If he did, wouldn’t you be happy? And we believe the lie. Our PR department, it turns out, really sucks.

But then all of a sudden, like a ray of light, we hear an encouraging word. An “atta-boy” from the boss, an unexpected smile from a close friend or even an encouraging comment from a stranger and we suddenly discover our PR department has been lying to us all along. Maybe we have finally broken through our obscurity and reached the heart of God. Maybe, it turns out, he has really good reason for valuing, respecting and even loving us. Time to fire our PR department. Time to clean house.

As much as I love a clean room- and I do- it turns out there may be an even greater danger left by the void of a PR department in our hearts. It is at that point we will become our own press. My boss told me I’m doing a good job. You know something- he’s right! All of a sudden, we have become our own worst enemy once again. This time the devil can put us on cruise control.

Spiritual pride, it turns out, looks eerily similar to spiritual depression.

The question how do we navigate our path if the same danger lies in puffing ourselves up as in beating ourselves down? Are we going to give up the quest for love, acceptance, respect and affirmation we seem to be irreversibly seeking this whole time? If both extremes pose a danger, how do we navigate down the center? Do we beat ourselves up on even days and encourage ourselves on odd ones?

Well, as much as I love Adam Duritz’s poetry- and I do- it has been Dietrich Bonhoeffer who has been a more reliable voice to me over the years. As he sat awaiting his fate as a victim of the devil’s oppression in the form of Adolf Hitler, he reflected on his own identity. His fellow-prisoners were amazed at his resolve, his faith and his courage. One man said Bonhoeffer was the man who most clearly believed that God heard his prayers. He knew himself a bit better than that, though. He knew his insecurities. He knew his own faults. He knew that the prison sentence caused him great anxiety, even though the men surrounding him could not see it. Bonhoeffer wrote his famous and beautiful poem Who am I? at this time. See if the words speak to you as they speak to me.

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 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?

He knew himself all too well to believe his own press. The devil told him he was no good. He told himself that he had everything to commend himself to God. He knew that both were lies. He decided to listen to a more faithful and reliable voice than his own.

Who am I? They mock me those lonely questions of mine,

Whoever I am, you know me, O God. You know I am yours.[1]

The only way we will know acceptance is to walk the path of Christ, who was utterly rejected for us. This is a different kind of path. The true path to love and acceptance is through rejection and indifference. Our PR department will never tell us to walk this path. Our path oftentimes seems wrong but it is in these moments we hold onto simple words.

Who am I? O God, you know I am yours.


[1] Testament to Freedom, p. 514.

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