The Way Up Is Down by Marlena Graves

What They Way Up Is Down Is About

I suppose there are many people who, in their writing, suppose themselves to be following in the footsteps of Eugene Peterson. They think that they are turning things around and looking at them from a fresh angle, and in this way are helping their readers to become their truest and best selves. They may be thinking deeply about God and Scripture, but that doesn’t mean that they are thinking well. After all, one doesn’t wind up on best-seller lists by trying to think well about the subject of one’s book. Too much for what passes as Christian literature these days is alarmingly devoid of the mind of Christ.

In her book The Way Up Is Down, Marlena Graves stands firmly in the line and legacy of Eugene Peterson. Her book reads like a deep reflection on this great line from Peterson’s The Jesus Way: “To follow Jesus means that we can’t separate what Jesus is saying from what Jesus is doing and the way that he is doing it.” Graves, in other words, is pointing us in the direction of true discipleship. The way of Jesus — the way of resurrection and glory — is the way of self-emptying, of lowliness, of humility.

Emptiness comes before fullness. …In acknowledging and admitting our emptiness, being poor in spirit and contrite in heart, in taking the posture of a servant, we too can become open to realizing God’s strength and power in us and in the kingdom. When we are full of ourselves or other things, we obstruct God’s grace.
-Marlena Graves, The Way Up Is Down, p. 10

Steeped in the Church mothers and fathers of both East and West, Graves offers us a vision for the journey of discipleship that is connected to those who have gone before us. We are not trailblazers. We are not forging a new path like the pioneers of the past who headed out over the Appalachian mountains in search of new land. The Way Up is a journey with others, and as Graves so beautifully attests through the stories of her own life, those others are not always precious to the world. But they are precious to God. And invaluable to us, their travelling companions.

It is these people, often overlooked by the world and the Church, who provide so many of the poignant lessons in The Way Up Is Down. Whether it is her own children, the “misfits” in her prayer group, or her exceedingly generous friends, Marlena lets the people in her life lead her in the way of Jesus. She teaches us to resist the temptation to look at the distant superstars for direction. Don’t seek out the best-selling authors or the mega-church pastors when you can sit at the feet of the person with Down Syndrome in your own congregation. The way up is down. “Behold the humility of God.”

What I Learned from The Way Up Is Down

Don’t be lulled to sleep by the unassuming nature of the book’s title or the way I’ve described the content so far. Graves is a prophet, and the prophetic words leap like fire from the pages. She opens her chapter on prayer with this blazing volley: “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.” She’s right, of course. And it’s time the Church started listening to her prophets because her prophets are absolutely over it.

I especially appreciated Graves’ chapter on repentance. “Repentance is a life-and-death matter. Repentance is the pathway to Christ, the kingdom.” It’s also not something that we comfortably call others to while ignoring ourselves. The hate I see in the world is the same hate that lives within me. I love this line for our social discourse today: “My part in repentance is to stop the mental caricatures and dehumanization. The misrepresentations. Distortions.” No society, no church, can exist for long when each person thinks only the best of themselves and always the worst of their enemies.

In repentance I turn my face back and lock eyes with Jesus. I stop looking at myself and others. My life then moves in the direction of my gaze. Toward Jesus. I leave the far country to run headlong into God’s embrace. Home. I make my way toward wholeness by absorbing all that is good, true, and beautiful. It is only in beholding the face of Christ — doing whatever it takes to consciously keep my eyes on Jesus (see Hebrews 12:1-2)–that I know who I am, where I am, and whose I am. Jesus’ face, his presence, is home. It’s only in beholding the face of Christ that I enter deeper into reality.
-Marlena Graves, The Way Up Is Down, p. 51-52

On a personal note, I resonated deeply with the frustration Graves writes about in the chapter, Cradled in the Heart of God. Her circumstances and sense of calling do not fit. She looks at others and sees them pursuing their callings, doing exactly what God has called them to do — the very same thing she so strongly believes God has called her to do. But she is limited by her context and circumstances. I have felt, and continue to feel, this way often. I am planted in ground that is ill-suited to my flourishing. Yet here I am, planted by God, growing and sustained only by his grace. If nothing else, I am grateful to hear another express my frustrations in her own words.

My Recommendation

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that Marlena’s husband is an old friend of mine from high school. I was turned onto her book by his posts on Facebook, but he did not ask me to read it or review it. If I hadn’t liked it or found it worthy, frankly I would not have even bothered to review it here. (Mostly because I would have stopped reading well before the end.) But The Way Up Is Down is a worthy book, and I highly recommend it to all my Christ-following friends. When it seems like we can’t even count on our Christian publishers to put out books that are orthodox any longer, Marlena Graves has given us a faithful guide in the self-emptying, humble, lowly way of Jesus.

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