Who am I? … Letting God assess my motives during Lent

Last night at the Ash Wednesday service of the First Presbyterian Church in Champaign, I sat pondering these two questions that appeared on the screen at the front of the sanctuary …

Do you have pure and sincere motives?”

Are you who and what you appear to be?”

This morning I realize that those two questions are in many ways the very heart and soul of one of my favorite poems ever … Who Am I? by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

If part of the purpose of Lent is to let the Lord see me as I am (and it is!), then this simple, elegant poem is a must for your Lenten reflections.

(Incidentally, Bonhoeffer penned this poem from his prison cell, where he was locked up for nearly two years after being accused of taking part in a plot to kill Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.  Just weeks before Germany was freed by the Allied forces, Bonhoeffer was executed at age 39 in the spring of 1945.)

Who Am I? by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As thought it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine! 

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