Friday, May 8, 2020

A Conversation with Marlena Graves, about her new book, THE WAY UP IS DOWN

Marlena Graves
Marlena Graves contemplates, writes and speaks about the eternal implications of our life in God. She is a lover of beauty (especially the beauty of her family, others and creation). She is a justice-seeker, trying to overcome evil with good. In addition, she seeks answers to these types of questions: What does abundant life look like (John 10:10)?  If God is good and we are his deeply beloved children and safe in his kingdom, how then should we live? She believes that spiritual formation and justice should never be separated. 

Marlena is the author of A BEAUTIFUL DISASTER. Her newest book is THE WAY UP IS DOWN.  

Towards the beginning of your book, you mention Mary (Jesus' Mom). You pose a very interesting question: "Could it be that Jesus learned the habit of voluntary self-emptying and renunciation of self-will by observing his mother?"  This is such a fresh impression of the influence Mary must have had as a Mom to Jesus. What do you think everyday life with Mary was like for Jesus?

That is a question, isn’t it? By the time we see Mary and Jesus at the wedding in Cana (John 2), she already knew he was no ordinary boy. I mean, the angel Gabriel told her as much when Gabriel announced his birth. But by the wedding at Cana, she knew from raising him in their household for thirty or so years, from experience, that he was extraordinary, both natural and supernatural. You’ve probably heard that scholars think Joseph died by the time Jesus’s ministry went public because Joseph isn’t mentioned after Jesus is twelve. And I have heard Eastern Orthodox priest Fr. Evan Armatas say that they think Joseph was quite old when he was betrothed to Mary. All that to say, I think she had a strong influence on him, a close connection with her son. After all, she raised him, accompanied him in ministry as momma and a disciple and was at his death on the cross and after he rose from the dead. I think Mother Mary influenced Jesus’s character and mannerisms and his way of life (and Joseph was an influence too). Jesus is fully God and fully human. In his humanity, Jesus had to have borne a resemblance to his mother in both his demeanor and physical appearance. In summary: I think Jesus looked up to his mother.

Later on, you make the point that “Back in the day when there was prayer in school, there was slavery, lynching, and the genocide of the indigenous too. Our abuse, torture, and killing of others betray our prayerlessness and lack of love for sister and brother. God would rather have our life of prayer manifest itself in love for our neighbors, which demonstrates our love for him, over perfunctory prayer in school any day... Any Christianity that justifies the hatred, mistreatment, or abuse of another is not the way of Jesus.” And then you mention praying for our enemies, as the solution to this dilemma. Why is this so important? And so very difficult!

Here's why. Those actively lynching or supporting systems that literally or metaphorically lynch, commit genocide, and those that keep their mouth shut when evil happens, act as my enemy and God’s enemy. Though they profess the name of Christ, they are hating, not loving, our neighbors. Anger arises in me over this. I have to watch that I don’t think or do the same things they do: commit murder against them in my heart because of what they have done or left undone to me or to others. What did Jesus say in Matthew 5:21-22?

 You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

 As has been repeated many a time, the oppressed have to be wary that they do not become oppressors. The hated cannot turn around and hate though they would be justified from a human perspective. Someone has to stop the cycle of hate and as a follower of Jesus, it falls upon me to do so. And anyhow, Jesus makes it clear that even unbelievers, the worst of them no less, are kind to those who are kind to them. What makes Christianity distinct is that we are to love our enemies and those who persecute us. We can only do that with the power of God at work in us. Why pray for our enemies and love them? Because it’s what Jesus did and commanded us to do (Matthew 5:44). It’s not easy at all and yet I do not want to turn into the very thing I despise. Besides, while I may not have those particular sins, I have plenty of other sins against God and neighbor. I just present differently. 

One of the most poignant points you make, among many, in THE WAY UP IS DOWN is this: “The posture of a servant is of one of bent knees. Washing soiled feet. It is a close-to-the-earth, face-to-the-ground posture. Vulnerable. It is only in this lowly position, a servant’s posture, that glory is revealed and that we have the possibility of glimpsing the grandeur and glory about us. We are able to truly see when we see the earth from below rather than from above.” Why is “bent knees, washing soiled feet, close-to-the-earth...” a position of vulnerability, so difficult? What keeps us from being vulnerable? What do you think Jesus was thinking and feeling when he was washing his followers' feet during the Last Supper?

Well, if we are in a vulnerable position, we can easily be hurt, right? It is dangerous. If we are literally washing feet like Jesus did we can be kicked in the groin, stomach, teeth, and the face. Shot in the back. Taken advantage of. People, even other professing Christians, do take advantage of the vulnerable and humble and servants. So, it’s hard to be vulnerable if we are concerned about physical and emotional safety. And we all are! I am talking about a general posture toward God and others, the posture Jesus had in Philippians 2.

Another reason related to the first is, lack of control. In that posture, we have little control. Furthermore, it’s hard for us to trust our good God with our lives and relinquish control when we fear and are uncertain of our futures or the goodwill of others. God’s ways are often counterintuitive. And what’s more, many of us have been taken advantage of or hurt one too many times to let down our guard.

 A third reason is, in all honesty, who wants to be a servant? We like to call the shots in our own lives and elsewhere. Why would we give up calling the shots all of the time? We can only do that if we trust God enough to lower ourselves and let him call the shots.

You know, little kids trust until they have reason not to. That is why Jesus says we have to become like little children, and born again, to enter the kingdom of God. We have to become little children who fully trust our good God. We have to be born again yet again when we have adopted death-dealing ways of living and being. And God is worthy of trust even if it takes us a lifetime to learn that. When we have been hurt or abused by those who profess His name, it’ understandable if we have a hard time trusting even good people. But God is loving and patient and kind. He doesn’t fault us. He knows what we have been through and deals gently with us.

Why is it vulnerability so hard? Because it requires a whole lot of trust to believe God knows what he is talking about and that we know less. I actually believe the only way we can live a Philippians 2 life, the self-sacrificing way of Jesus, the way of serving by our own free will and by giving up our rights (not being forced into slavery or servitude), is if we believe that God is good and good to us in particular. We can only agree to be the servant of all if we trust God and believe he has our, and other people’s welfare, in mind. Jesus could do it because he fully trusted the Father even if in his humanity he didn’t understand all that was happening.

What was Jesus thinking and feeling at the Last Supper? I think he knew that actions are powerful, that the disciples wouldn’t forget the mental picture they snapped of the God of the universe bending down and washing their feet. A picture is worth a thousand words or so they say, so he wanted to make sure he seared the lesson into their memories by demonstrating what he meant instead of just talking about it. That’s how it always works anyway: actions speak louder than words. Jesus even says in John 13:7, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” When Jesus ascended into heaven and they later recalled his washing their feet, they began to understand. And we will too the more we meditate on it.

I don’t want anyone to think I am saying being vulnerable, a servant, and self-sacrificing means remain and endure all sorts of abuse. On the contrary, please seek help. That is the most loving thing you can do for yourself and others. God does not condone abuse. I don’t either.

Here's something else that you wrote, which is both beautiful and terrifying: “I worry about us as a church when we ignore and bad mouth the immigrant, undocumented or not, the refugee, the poor, the physically or mentally sick, the elderly, disabled, imprisoned, and other vulnerable and marginalized people, including children…Ignoring also entails supporting and voting for bad laws, that is, unjust laws that worsen their plight. I really do worry when we railroad the very people Jesus made a beeline for.”  Any further thoughts on this dilemma?

I believe many of us who profess to follow Christ are guilty of anti-Christ behavior. And for that we will be judged as individuals, as churches, and as a nation if we do not repent. I hope more of us come to realize it. Look throughout Scripture and see this is true. 

You make a connection between memento mori (remembering that we will all die), and Kairos (Greek for the right, critical or opportune moment).  Could you expand a bit on the importance of this connection? Maybe memento mori and kairos-living results in this observation you make in your book.  In terms of a primary goal of Christian life: “I don’t want anything else. Not when it comes to possessions. All I want to do is be able to pay my bills and not live paycheck to paycheck. There are very few things I want or need.” Is this a secret to being content? Especially as the way the apostle Paul describes it?

I wrote this book before the pandemic struck. The pandemic functions as memento mori: it forces us to consider our death. When we are convinced life is fleeting, that we are not guaranteed another day, then it puts life in perspective. The unimportant and superfluous, the vanity, recedes into the background. The vital stands in bold relief. Practicing memento mori, that is, remembering our death, helps us prioritize what is important. It helps us to see reality better. We see life is brimming with God’s presence and goodness while acknowledging and experiencing the evil. We are able to see the many beautiful moments, important moments, everyday moments, for what they are more often instead of taking them for granted. This life is a gift and we only have so much of it.

As far as contentment goes it is true that the less we are possessed by our possessions and ambitions, the more we can be possessed by God, and the better we will see.

Towards the end of THE WAY UP IS DOWN, you reference James 5:16-18 concerning the effective prayer of a righteous person. “James connects a holy life, a righteous life, with powerful and effective prayer. We can’t miss or dismiss the connection between holiness and a powerful presence (and effective prayer!)… I am not talking about people who claim to be holy but people who are so much like Jesus that they take our breath away.”  Didn't Jesus say something about the least becoming the greatest?

That’s right! Holy lives are powerful and effective—including the prayers of those who are righteous. I call attention to what I have discussed before, here on your blog: right living and right action are connected.  That is righteousness and justice. Just look up the range of meaning of the two words ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice.’

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