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The Way Up Is Down, Becoming Yourself by Forgetting Yourself by Marlena Graves, IVP, 2020. Available HERE.

This newly released book (July 14) caught my attention because the general theme is the same as my own book, but it has a totally different approach and writing style. The 20th century was taken by storm by a focus on the self: self-empowerment, self-esteem, self-fulfillment. We’ve become trapped by ourselves. Essential features of Christianity, such as humility and servanthood, have been neglected, even abandoned, leading to a weak and powerless Christianity. Marlena Graves’ book is a much needed one, that I heartily recommend to you.

The book combines personal stories from the author’s life, thoughtful contemplation of biblical passages, along with interaction with those from the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Graves is not Eastern Orthodox, but highlights current and ancient wisdom from this tradition that speaks powerfully, especially to those of us from an evangelical, Protestant background. We can become spiritually malnourished when we only listen to those from within our own denomination or corner of Christianity.

We can be blind to our self-focused approach to life. Each chapter has challenging content to heighten our awareness of our sin and lack of humility in various areas of life, but also encouraging us to look to Christ and His profound path of humility for us and for our salvation. Marlena Graves is bold, saying things that need to be said, but in no way comes across as judgmental or browbeating – just the opposite actually! She is bold yet gentle at the same time. I think this is because she is so authentic, sincere, and honest about her own sin and shortcomings that you are simply encouraged to join her on the paradoxical path of Christian living where the way up is down. We are sinners on this road together.

Graves’ ethnicity is Puerto Rican. She was raised in poverty in the US, and her background allows her to see and perceive things that those of us raised in a position of privilege can fail to see. She has overcome obstacles, and both her and her husband have advanced educational degrees, yet their life remains humble and simple. She isn’t just writing about a way to live, but is actually living it.

The book points us to marginalized folks  – immigrants, refugees, the disabled, the homeless, farm workers, those shut away in nursing homes, other vulnerable folks – and how much we can learn from them, as well as heightening our awareness of injustices they can suffer while we look away or simply forget they exist. Graves has worked for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. It is from the twitter feed of Marlena Graves that I became more aware of those who pick the crops that end up for sale at our local grocery and on our table. It is backbreaking work, often in excessively hot weather, for low pay. I’ve seen video clips of these folks, and I could not do this work for more than 30 minutes to an hour, let alone for an entire day, and day after day!

I recommend this book to you, and will end by sharing excerpts from it. I’ll share more challenging ones. Remember the way up, is down! In another place, Graves says the ladder of Christian success is inverted…

“Back in the day when there was prayer in school, there was slavery, lynching, and the genocide of the indigenous too…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.” (page 29-30)

“I seldom think of myself as pharisaical. But who does? We are blind to our own sins and like to think we are unbiased, righteous judges when it comes to the sins of others. But there at the YMCA [an experience she shared] my thoughts revealed wickedly pharisaic tendencies lodged inside my heart…I came face-to-face with reality, with myself….The Lord was like ‘Marlena, why don’t you deal with the log in your own eye instead of pointing out the speck of sawdust in his?’ ….Walking around with a log in my eye? I’m definitely dangerous and function as a menace to society.” (page 47)

– I really liked that visual, taking Matthew 7 literally, and thinking of an actual log sticking out of my eye!

“The need, my need, for repentance isn’t theoretical, or a notion conjured up by an institutional church to shame us and keep us guilt-ridden under its thumb. The need to repent is not a false narrative that needs to be deconstructed. Whether we are an individual, family group, organization, church, or nation, it does no good to ignore our sins or dismiss the notion of sin as antiquated, outdated, and out of step with the modern world. John the Baptist is still calling out to us, to me, ‘Repent…for the Kingdom of Heaven is near!’ (Matthew 3:2). Repentance is a life-and-death matter. Repentance is the pathway to Christ, the kingdom.” (page 50, bold added)

Lest you think this sounds too hard and heavy, she also emphasizes that:
“we are not to be unhealthily obsessed with our sins, rehearsing them to ourselves day and night and tumbling into despair” (page 53, bold added)
“awareness is the first step toward freedom.” (page 54)
“When I meet him, I have a hunch Jesus will welcome me, eyes full of joy and cheer, singing my name.” (page 65)

“Jesus did the work of a servant because no one else wanted to do it. God himself showed us that he is not too great to humble himself. Behold divine humiliation, the love of God! … Once more I think of Charles de Foucauld’s words: ‘Jesus has so diligently searched for the lowest place that it would be very difficult for anyone to tear it from him.'” (page 145)

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