Letters from Prison, IX: God Carves the Rotten Wood and Rides the Lame Horse
Therefore God has given him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, and every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord. —Philippians 2:10
A Sermon on Maundy Thursday
“For Christ Jesus, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross.”
Apparently God chooses to work most frequently not through the love of power, but through the power of love. In Luther’s stark but apt words, “God carves the rotten wood, and rides the lame horse.”
That is, God’s power is made perfect in weakness, as Paul puts it elsewhere. God forswears the strong and the able to work instead with the defenseless and the unassuming, and we know God best in that baby born to a stable, who grew up to befriend the friendless and to love the unlovable and to grace the ungraceful, this one who died the death of a slave on Golgotha, that skull-shaped heap of rocks with the ugly name.
It is most definitely not the way of the world. We of course highly esteem the one who can claw his way to the top, the one whose trajectory is not U-shaped, but step-shaped, marching ever higher till he towers over the masses. We are enamored of power and talent and fame.
When Bill Clinton was President he took a trip to Bangladesh, and one stop on his itinerary was supposed to be an impoverished little village where he was to hear the troubles of the people, but at the last minute the President’s security detail decided the risks were too great and they canceled that visit.
On the morning of the scheduled visit, a young farmer named Osman Ghani walked seven miles to catch a glimpse of the American President. Mr. Ghani said with passion, “Bill Clinton is the most important man in the world. It would have been the most memorable event in my life to see this great man. The reporter then asked him what would have to serve instead as the most memorable event in his life, and he thought about that for a moment, and looked at the villagers gathered around them as if they would naturally share his sentiment, and said, with certainty, “For me, the most memorable event in my life was the day I walked seven miles and almost saw Bill Clinton.”
From highest to lowest, from richest to poorest, that is the way of the world. And perhaps that is natural and right and good. There is nothing inherently virtuous about poverty and failure.
But when days are dark, or when we are afraid, or feel like a failure, it might be helpful to remember that God carves the rotten wood, and rides the lame horse. God doesn’t know what to do with a perfect, richly-grained block of mahogany. God doesn’t want to ride Secretariat or Smarty Jones.
So if you feel as if you have hit rock bottom, if you have plummeted to one of life’s nadirs, if you have been in the Valley of the Shadow of Despair for what seems like forever, just remember that God carves the rotten wood, and rides the lame horse. Just remember that life’s trajectory is U-shaped or V-shaped, and God goes with us down to the nethermost, even when it seems as if, like Jesus himself, we have descended into hell.
I don’t know what that means in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Brussels this sad Holy Week. In a way it seems almost shabby to try to find some meaning in that obscenity. Primo Levi was a devout Jew before he experienced the holocaust, but after he survived Auschwitz—barely—he dropped his Jewish faith, because, he said, any faith which tries to explain the murder of six million people is senseless and cheap.
Still, that is our faith. On May 6, 1944, a 15-year-old boy jumped down from a cattle car and entered the gates of Auschwitz, with his father and mother and younger sister. Then, he says, he heard the eight words that would change his life forever: “Men to the left, women to the right.” It was the last time he would ever see his mother and sister.
He goes a little further into the camp and there is another division. Wearing a ridiculous golden monocle and holding a conductor’s baton as if he were Ricardo Muti, Joseph Mengele, the infamous Nazi Angel of Death, stands at the center of a human herd pointing this way and that: Sick and weak to the left, strong and able to the right.
New Trier kids will know that the 15-year-old boy’s name was Eliezer, because they have read his books and heard him speak. Eliezer was at Auschwitz for 18 months. Two older sisters survived the war with him; his mother, father, and younger sister did not.
He would not talk about his experiences for ten years. Then in the late 1950’s he wrote a slender little book of about 100 pages. It was called Night, and it is a Letter from Prison, first written in French. On this side of the Atlantic, it was rejected by 15 publishers before a small New York firm offered him a token advance of $100. Reviews were great, but sales were terrible. The first print run was 3,000 copies; it took them three years to sell out, a thousand copies a year.
Then it caught on. By 2006, it had sold seven million copies. Then Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club, and sold him another three or four million. Eliezer’s little book spent the next 80 weeks on The New York Times Bestseller list.
Every Good Friday I think of the most famous passage from Dr. Wiesel’s story, about the day the POW’s watched the hanging of three fellow prisoners. Two of them die quickly, but the third is just a child; his body is too light to break his neck; it takes him 30 minutes to suffocate to death. Someone behind Eliezer asks, in despair and of no one in particular: “Where is God?” And a voice inside Eliezer answers “Where is God? Here he is—hanging from these gallows.”
I don’t know what Dr. Wiesel meant by that. Probably he meant that God died that day on those gallows with that innocent child. That’s what Primo Levi would have said: at Auschwitz, the Nazis succeeded in killing the God of Jews and Christians. After Auschwitz, God is dead, literally dead.
Maybe that’s what Eliezer meant. But every Good Friday, I hear something else in Dr. Wiesel’s story. Maybe he didn’t even know the truth he was speaking: that the God who had once been hanged on a gallows himself was watching there that day with that innocent child.
God carves the rotten wood and rides the lame horse. “For Christ Jesus, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross.”
God has reached the absolute nadir of existence. You cannot go any lower than Golgotha. As the ancient creed puts it, “he descended into hell.”
We will live with that truth for three days, and then we will witness the ascent back to glory. “Therefore God has given him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, and every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Quoted by Martin Marty in Varieties of Unbelief (New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1964), p. 222.
Barry Bearak, “Big Day Spoiled for Bangladesh Villagers,” The New York Times, March 21, 2000.
Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs (New York: Knopf, 1995), pp. 82-83.
Rachel Donadio, “The Story of Night,” The New York Times, January 20, 2008.
Elie Wiesel, Night, trans. Stella Rodway (Northvale, NJ: Aronson, 1985), p.71-72.