Marlena Graves — The Way Up Is Down
Nathan: Marlena, tell me about your book.
Marlena: Yeah, I'm glad to talk about this -- _The Way Up Is Down_. I'd read through the gospels frequently, I should say, listen to them online before I go to bed at night, just to hopefully absorb the life of Jesus into my life, through listening and, my imagination and mind.
And I noticed that a lot of things stood out to me about Jesus.
First, that he could have been born in a palace, but he chose to be born poor, which I could identify with because I grew up very poor in my life. And also I was struck by how many times, as people say, he talked about the upside down kingdom: Many of the first will be last and the last shall be first, and the greatest person in the kingdom will be the servant of all.
How in the upper room where he bowed to wash the disciples feet and he says to those in the room, you don't know what I'm doing now, but later you will. And also Philippians chapter two, where, it talks about, the fancy word kenosis. He emptied himself so that he might be full of God.
And so my book basically is about what it would look like to empty ourselves of all that is not Christ so that we can be full of the grace of God and live that way. And, I think it seems to run contrary what we see in the broader Christian culture.
And I was so disillusioned with the witness of the church that I wanted to look at the life of Jesus and see and contrast it with how we seem to be collectively living. That said there's a many beautiful saints people that I've met, but I just feel like our witness is not that of Jesus.
Nathan: What does it look like to empty ourselves?
Marlena: Well, it can be a very difficult thing to do. I know you knew Dallas Willard, but I remember how he would always use the example of not having to have the last word in an argument or when someone put him down, it could be something, I don't want to say as simple as that, because that's difficult, not unleashing our anger on people that we could be justified in unleashing it at, we're in a time where, even, Christians use their words to hammer others, even justifiably so. Like sometimes people do and say things that are horrible and awful online and maybe in-person. And I could see, myself, easily just striking back or if you're attacked, you know, but Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:44 to love our enemies.
And so, I empty myself. We empty ourselves, have the right to strike back at people in interpersonal relationships. Of course I'm always careful to tell people that we don't tolerate abuse or allow ourselves to be abused. That's not what I mean, but, I think too in the racial kind of tensions that have continued since the founding of America.
Those of us that have privilege and it could be, you know, your racial status, like as a white person, or it could be wealth, Jesus emptied himself of that to serve other people. And that's what it looks like. And it would call for kind of some hard decisions. Like what are we going to do with our money?
I remember when I was younger, a teenager or in my early twenties, maybe it's because I didn't have a lot of money, but I could not fathom what Jesus was talking about when he said you will either serve God or money. I'm like, what does he mean? And over the years, that question has been answered.
I think that a lot of times the church bows to what money will do instead of doing what's right. You know, and I know it can be a hard decision because some pastors are put in positions, for example, I've I know pastors who've been told if you keep preaching this way or that way, I'm going to take my tithe and take it elsewhere, when they're preaching from scripture and Christian tradition and with the tithe goes, it could be a staff position, you know, depending how much money that person gives.
And I just think a lot of times in the church we've chosen to serve money instead of serve others. And that we can kick people that are down, even though I believe it's that Isaiah 42, where he says a bruised reed, he will not break. and it seems sometimes the church is guilty of breaking bruised reeds and hurting the people that Jesus made a beeline to. And those are some of the things I reflect upon in the book, especially that the last will be first.
One of my favorite things that I wrote about were the people with intellectual disabilities in my church.
just like Lazarus was at the rich man's gate, you know, asking for food and the rich man rendered Lazarus invisible. I think God sends us teachers, I call it--you know, people to teach us the way of Jesus. But at first we wouldn't think that there are teachers. It might be, again, people with intellectual disabilities, it might be the elderly, the poor, or it could be family members within our own household, that God has allowed to be in our life and our paths and we ignore them.
We can abuse them and denigrate them when they're the very people that God could use to teach us the way of Jesus. And so that's, again, how, you know, the last might be first. Like these people that I abuse or denigrated. Like CS Lewis talks about in the great divorce. I talk about us, Sarah Smith of Golders green.
She was poor on earth, but in a CS Lewis' rendition. She's a great queen. And I actually think that. Maybe on the last day or when kingdom comes, you know, the last will be first and we'll be in for a big surprise.
Nathan: There's a very personal piece in the book. I'm curious. How does your story fit into this narrative?
Marlena: Yeah, I could really identify with Jesus. I used to say, Lord, why did you make me poor? or did you allow me to be poor? I don't know all the theology behind it. Right. I can never ascertain that. And I don't think we have for millennia, but, I used to wonder why I was allowed to, if you want to use that language to suffer and, you know, I think about not having gifts on Christmas, not having Thanksgiving dinner.
I used to hate the holidays because of that. I'm just working cutting wood to earn gas money for my dad. And that allowed me to realize that Jesus said, well, I, you know, I didn't have somewhere to lay my head. And I was like, Oh, I can be in solidarity with Jesus in this way. He understands what I went through.
You know, I'm not in the same condition I was growing up. But I still suffer, I guess, what would you call it? Like the consequences of, I would say it's probably generational poverty, you know, no wealth passed on to .. . I don't know to give me some kind of, and my husband too, a cushion. So, everything we've had to pay, you know, by God's grace for ourselves.
I think that allows me maybe to see from the bottom up, maybe it's allowed me to see people, the people that the world neglects that have been such an example of Christ to me. And it might be the, the weight of glory where he talks about, people become such bright lights that you're almost tempted to bow down and worship them or such, you know, maybe hideous monsters.
And I have felt like this overwhelming sometimes. Uh, desire to curtsy, to people just cause I see the love of God and the love of Christ in them and see how they live in the every day. You know, saints every day saints. I just almost see light emanating from them.
And usually, I mean, They not even aware of it themselves. Um, and so I give thanks to God and I say, thank you, God, that you've graced me with your presence through these people. And so I'm really kind of fascinated with the Lord, just how he turns everything upside down and that he can relate to me and I can relate to him and his, at least from American standpoint, I'm not even going to compare myself to the rest of the world, but by American standards was poverty.
Nathan: I keep a notebook in my pocket at all times. And part of it's, cause I have some memory challenges, but part of is because I hear something or I have a thought and I just want to remember it. But the other day, I wrote there's a certain trauma to poverty an…