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When Up is Down, and Down is Up

CrossOver reflection for Week 33 • Beginning July 21, 2019
We Make the Road by Walking, Chapter 46

Nancy Tam Davis

A small group of us, clergy and laity, talked about chapter 46 of Brian McLaren’s book We Make the Road by Walking. The Spirit of Service, what does that mean? The author draws our attention to a concept of verticality. Up is better than down.

Our culture promotes the idea that it is good to climb to the top or die trying. We assign both power and privilege to those at the top with high salaries, deference, corner windows, and close parking spots. We believe they have a broader vision, more wisdom and must be smarter than the rest of us. We assume they deserve the privilege they have. 

Some of our religious teachings share that same view. As children, we think of God as being up in the clouds. Heaven is above us. We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. Up is better than where we are now. Then the New Testament throws us a curve ball by encouraging those who are ‘up’ to be in service to those who are ‘down.’ Jesus modeled that by washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. In that sense, I understand McLaren’s point. He tells us that the Spirit draws us down, to serve those who have less and need more. We engage in service because we can, because we have the resources to do so, because God calls us to be in service humbly. The way up is by going down.

Our group examined this concept; we struggled with it. How can we avoid the sense of superiority when we feel we are going down? We still come home every night to our very ‘up’ and comfortable homes. The concept of going down as the path to salvation (but only for a humble visit), was not working for us. 

Instead, we saw a horizontal plane. When we are in service to one another, we are moving out and across divisions into difference. We are called to the edges and to the marginalized. We try to widen the circle, so no one is left out. We are all children of God. It is not God who puts us on different vertical planes, but our culture relying on status and class to make the system work. It reminds me of those old song lyrics from God Bless the Child; “Them that’s got shall get, Them that’s not shall lose, So the Bible said…”

Many years ago, I managed a community center in the poorest section of the county, the catchment area outside Ft. Lewis which was never designed for year-round living. The houses were old cabins on the east side of American Lake. Many of the people who lived there were the unofficial wives and children of the lower-ranking military who could not get access to base housing or any military services. Too many times, the active duty person eventually forgot they had families there at all. 

I was not raised in the church and I also had very disparaging views of Christmas. Ironically one of my responsibilities was to organize the Christmas basket-giving. We filled the community room with rows of tables holding food, a variety of gift items and Christmas decorations. Volunteers arrived, formed teams of three, gathered their assignments (i.e. single-parent family of 4, boy 2, girl 5, boy 6), and set about preparing the “baskets” for them.

I remember one seemingly unlikely team. Pardon my language but this is also how the individuals described themselves. This team was comprised of the town drunk, the retired (aged out) prostitute and the town rich lady complete with diamond-studded rings. This was a small community, nearly everyone knew everyone and the roles they served. This team worked for hours, filling many baskets. I would peek in to see how things were going and they were having fun. Lots of laughter, lots of careful consideration and huddling. At the end of the day, they sat together on a side bench, exhausted, still laughing and hugging one another in a sense of accomplishment. Good work was done that day—together. 

They were not going down to serve, they were reaching out, going out to the edges of the community to make sure everyone had a holiday. A couple of those team members were probably qualified to receive a basket. But that day, it was not about them. It was all about what they could do for others. Yes, they would go home that night, but their thoughts were with the families that received baskets and what fun it was to work together for the community. They also received that day.

A subtheme of this story is about me. That day was the beginning of my turn-around about Christmas. I began to get it.

Finally, McLaren speaks of falling through the trap door. When you go down, far enough, you reach and fall through the trap door… into God. What does it mean to fall into God? Our small group spoke of images of death, loss of ego, trust, and faith. Soon our group was drawn to a similar phrase; falling into love. Twenty-five years earlier, four people in that Community Center fell in love that day. Some with the idea of meaningful work together, some with a deep love for their community. And for me… I fell into God that day. I fell into love, into hope, and into God.

Nancy Tam Davis serves as the Conference Lay Leader for the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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