With wise and open hands, Marlena Graves writes with an unwillingness to tie her musings into thick knots or impose a confining theme upon her new book, The Way Up Is Down: Becoming Yourself by Forgetting Yourself. Deep calls to deep throughout, prompted by an opening that resembles a duet between God and Graves.
Rather than a tipsy, out-past-midnight karaoke take on “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” the initial pages sound like Paul McCartney crooning, “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better / A little better all the time”—only to have John Lennon counter, “It can’t get no worse.” Here, Graves plays the Walrus, pouring out her complaints with the honesty of the psalmists.
“I take my permission to speak freely to God from the Bible,” she writes. “I spend my days and nights telling him what I think—prayers, praises, laments, disgusts with evangelical and national politics, depressions, dreams, and inside jokes.”
Singing back, God never drowns out Graves’s laments. Instead, the almighty tunes her to his key, drawing her close with soul music until the two meet in the overtones just outside harmony.
Finding Satisfaction Through Surrender
Taking a more mystical approach, she chronicles the momentum of the Holy Spirit let loose. At times both breathtaking and barely perceptible, she discerns the Spirit’s work in lessons learned through heartbreak and the stirred lives of humble souls.
Each real-life proverb points like arrows in the same direction. In surrender, we find satisfaction. As our souls are reupholstered, we will approach people and places often left for dead with the good news of cosmic overhaul.
Dispelling the notion that holiness is either ingrained or achieved, Graves creates a more complicated—and infinitely more gratifying—sketch. Identifying herself with Jesus, Job, and the persistent widow, she serves as a real-life proxy for readers “who’ve had God plead the Fifth on them.” These naked rhythms of give-and-take, silence and crescendo, never alienate, but pull Graves into the present tense of presence.
“On my own, I fall apart. And yet even the waiting room of my life remains God-haunted,” she writes. “Really, what I am is God-intoxicated, a staggering drunk.”
This God-intoxication and a willingness to broker treaties between honest emotion and true reality reveal Graves as a puertorriqueña Eugene Peterson. Grounded in a God greater than herself, she sifts the deeper soil of discipleship.
All wide eyes and waking limbs, she describes the process of unburdening herself before God. This is no hollow exercise, an emptying for empty’s sake; at the end of herself, Graves finds the beginning of divine exchange.
“God is intent on making me more real, a less-distorted image of him. As I become more like him, I become more human,” she writes.
Graves’s preoccupation with selflessness never rests in one dimension. Vertical communion, the transposition of Christlikeness onto her likeness, always expresses itself horizontally. She is infatuated with a savior who grew up “at the bottom of society’s pecking order,” then rose again, shaming the wise and spiritually prospering the otherwise marginal.
“If I am to be like Jesus, a saint, I am going to have to walk away from what this world calls status and make the downward descent into kingdom status,” she writes. “You are too. It’s the steep drop up.”
A beautiful reflexivity animates the Christian’s way in the world. Gazing at other people, we see the face of God. Locking eyes with Jesus, we turn back to view the Beatitudes alive in men and women. There are more blessed people than not, Graves concludes. She sees saints everywhere.
Looking up, out, and within introduces radical mercy into our encounters with others. We recognize the Lazaruses in our lives as “God’s messengers” and shining souls. Carrying holier-than-thou baggage through life robs us of these stranger mercies and, as Graves argues, warps our social policies. Active, collective sins of omission damn us as those who never knew Jesus or, at least, have resisted the deeper effects of his grace. She connects these dots in searing fashion:
“We deport them. Herd them onto reservations. Put their children in cages. Erect makeshift concentration camps. Make sure they can’t live in our neighborhoods. Unjustly incarcerate them in droves. Fail to visit them in nursing homes. Let them rot in underfunded and undercared for schools. Or in mental hospitals. Or in group homes. Dismiss their point of view and ignore their cries. We shun them. We murder them. We abort them.”
Really seeing up as down, loss as gain, our own planks and before the specks of others, instigates holy revolution. Imagine a world in which the last are first, the banquet table is set for the most unlikely guests, and Christians “become all flame as we surrender to God who is light of the world and in whom there is no darkness at all. We do not become God. No, but more like him. Bright lights.”
Graves sees this reality on approach—and it changes the way she lives, moves, and breathes within a world still groaning. She is ready to give, ready to die. She multiplies wonder rather than keeping a ledger of credits and debits. She makes promises she knows only God can keep.
Like a pair of glasses able to take in the full spectrum of ultraviolet light, The Way Up is Down offers readers a glimpse of this world too. Once observed, you can’t unsee it. You won’t want to.
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