(Elijah) asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors”…Suddenly an angel touched him and said “get up and eat…otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
--1 Kings 19:4-5, 7
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
Having now entered into the second half of the Lenten trek, it is not uncommon to find our spirits to be a bit haggard from the journey. Do you recall the commitment you made to God and to yourself back on Ash Wednesday? Admittedly, the wilderness is a place filled with distractions (and selective memory).
Personally, even when I do manage to stay attuned to my spiritual disciplines, I still find that I am pulled in multiple directions. Would you agree? Some days we are sitting with Elijah in the cave at Mt. Horeb, consumed with fear and the misperception of our own incompetence. Other days we would be better off to take a long look into the mirror that Paul holds before us in the Word, and to humbly receive that reflection for what it is.
Making a ‘sane assessment’ of ourselves is difficult work; experience tells us that none of us can do it very well on our own. We all need to reach out for the input of others at some point in time. “Do not be wise in your own eyes” says the Proverb (3:7). When we engage the community, however, there is the potential for both encouragement and accountability. This is the Church at its faithful best. With our acceptance letter already in hand, we come to celebrate the idea that holiness requires the whole.
At a time of intense isolation and personal vulnerability, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reached out to his loved ones with what has since become a well-treasured collection of correspondence. I was struck this week by the following poem of his, which he sent to his parents. Despite the tremendous injustice of his reality, this mature, brilliant theologian never completely resolved his own self-doubt. Likewise, he never stopped trying to be ‘good enough’ in the sight of others—even from his prison cell.
Who am I? They often tell me
I step out from my cell
calm and cheerful and poised,
like a squire from his manor.
Who am I? They often tell me
I speak with my guards
freely, friendly and clear,
as though I were the one in charge.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bear days of calamity
serenely, smiling and proud,
like one accustomed to victory.
Am I really what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless, yearning, sick, like a caged bird,
struggling for life breath, as if I were being strangled,
starving for colors, for flowers, for birdsong,
thirsting for kind words, human closeness,
shaking with rage at power lust and pettiest insult,
tossed about, waiting for great things to happen,
helplessly for friends so far away,
too tired and empty to pray, to think, to work,
weary and ready to take my leave of it all?
Who am I? This one or the other?
Am I this one today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? Before others a hypocrite
and in my own eyes a pitiful, whimpering weakling?
Or is what remains in me like a defeated army,
Fleeing in disarray from victory already won?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest me; I God, I am thine.
(translation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 8: Letters and Papers From Prison)
As human beings, we spend much of our lives trying to solidify the inner bounds of an authentic self. No doubt this can be exhausting work. Thus, I am grateful for Bonhoeffer’s confession here, for I believe that there is still a gap between perception and reality that only Grace can fill.
In these days of preparation for Easter, I pray that you and I would find rest in this blessed conclusion—that we too belong to God—no matter what the other voices may be saying (either from within or without).
God of grace, might the assurance of your love become for us the very peace that passes our understanding. AMEN.