Power, emptiness & satisfaction

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In her new book The Way Up is Down, author Marlena Graves shares the example of Jesus, who “Though he was in the form of God… emptied himself” (Philippians 2:6-7).

In this conversation, Marlena and Joe talk about how all too often we do the opposite—trying to fill ourselves with power, money, comfort and lots of other thing. Often, despite all our striving, we find that we can never be satisfied. When we surrender those desires and instead allow God to fill us, we can find peace and satisfaction.

Marlena Graves, The Way Up is Down

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Get Your Spirit in Shape features conversations to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. Logo by Sara Schork, United Methodist Communications.

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This episode posted on July 24, 2020.

Transcript

Prologue

Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communication’s and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.

My guest today is Marlena Graves, a United Methodist lay person and an adjunct professor at Winebrenner Seminary in the areas of discipleship and spiritual formation. She’s recently released a good called The Way Up is Down: Becoming Yourself by Forgetting Yourself.

Marlena and I have this wonderful conversation that touches on the idea of emptying ourselves so that we can be filled by God. And we talk about prayer and how at times our inability to be satisfied with what we have can be such a barrier to allowing God to change and fulfill us. I think you’re really going to enjoy this conversation.

Conversation

Joe: Marlena, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.

Marlena Graves: Well, I’m glad to be here with you, Joe.

Joe: You have a new book out called The Way Up is Down. Tell me about your book.

Marlena: Prior to the 2016 election I was in some of those spaces that I’ve been in, more like evangelical and evangelical adjacent. That word is fraught with a lot of different things, because the United Methodists themselves are pretty evangelical and also care about justice. But I’m talking more about cultural evangelicalism. The kind of school that I went to wasn’t an evangelical institution, and basically I was very disappointed in how the witness that the American church has to the culture. Yes, evangelicals, but other people. I got the sense that people were selling out for power and money—some pastors, some leaders.

I used to listen to Christian radio when I was young, and many of the leaders that told me that character was so important seemed to sell it for a song and a dance, as long as they could have access to power. And like I said, I continued to be very upset about it.

I feel like our witness as a whole…and I have to be specific. I’m not talking about the black church or the Latino church, but the American church in general. It’s just a bad witness to our culture.

I know sometimes people feel like they’re being persecuted for their faith, but if you’re being persecuted because you’re not living like Jesus, people hold you to that.

I was myself disgusted—that’s kind of a strong word, but it’s the truth—about the anemic witness of the church, and felt like it’s on life support. So I said to myself, “Okay, Jesus, how do I think you might live if you were around now?”

I’m not saying anything new, but I was struck that Jesus did not seek after power or prestige. In fact, he said the greatest person in the Kingdom of God is going to be the servant of all. Many of the last shall be first and the first shall be last. He talks about that in the Upper Room when he serves and kneels and he washes the disciples’ feet, and he says to them, you don’t understand what I’m telling you now, but you’ll understand later.

Then in Philippians, Paul takes that and talks about how Jesus humbled himself and became like a servant. Although he had equality with God he didn’t use that to further himself here on the earth. He took the posture of a servant. The fancy Greek word for that is kenosis. He emptied himself of his rights. Jesus didn’t cling to his rights, so that he could serve us.

I think that’s the way we are to live as Christians. I’m not saying anything new, but I’m thinking that’s exactly the posture we have to take.

Jesus also said, You know like the Gentiles do, they lord it over other people, but not so with you. That’s not how it’s supposed to be with you. Sometimes people professionalize ministry, and it’s about numbers and how many people might attend your church. I understand you need money for tithes, but I don’t think you should sell your soul when you’re claiming to follow Jesus.

Joe: Tell me more about kenosis, this self-emptying. You put forth that this isn’t something that just Jesus does, but is an example for us as well, that we should be emptying of ourselves also. What do you mean by that?

Marlena: Yeah, I mean there’s particular, depending on whether you have a job or at home, whatever your situation in life is, it’s going to depend. Right?

So maybe for a CEO or a pastor of a church, or a deacon…(I know you’re a deacon.) …or a bishop it might look a little bit different, but Philippians chapter 2 it says to consider others above yourself. It’s not that you put yourself down, but kenosis or taking the servant posture, emptying yourself, means that we have to renounce our will for God’s will and treat others above ourselves. It goes back to the second commandment, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

Here’s a real easy example. If you’re having an argument with a family member or your spouse or, you know, wherever, at work—and Dallas Willard, another writer, talked about this—not having to have the last word, just giving them the punch.

Or, I think about Jesus when he went before Pilot. He could have just nailed him. But he was like, “Okay, this is God’s will.” And not all of us obviously are in Jesus’ position, but we are called to die to ourselves so that God’s life might be at work in us.

That’s the thrust of my book. If we have our self-will…. And when I say self-will I don’t mean that your personality can’t shine, that you can’t be who God’s called you to be. Self-will is like when you’re just hell-bent on getting your own way and you don’t want to go God’s way because it doesn’t line up with what you want.

Here’s another example: When people at work sabotage you. I mean, that’s happened in my life. People sabotage because they could be jealous or whatever reason, even if you weren’t in the wrong. Do you retaliate against them? Do you give them what they deserve? Jesus talks about justice in Scripture. He says, ‘Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.’ And we just want to sock it to them.

Now, my natural tendency would be, I’m going to get you back because you’ve hurt me really badly, or you’ve hurt people that I love. This is not theoretical. I’m talking about, like, people like my husband and I and other friends, like, people sinned against us.

There was a takeover of the institution where we used to work. They just did everything to get rid of the people that they didn’t want, and it caused real harm. People lost their jobs. Some of the children of the professors and other people were like, Well, if that’s how Christians are I don’t want to be a Christian. So it hurt their spirits. Physically people get sick.

It took me several years to not act out of anger with things I had against them, to publicly humiliate and hurt the wrong doers. I had to pray. I really wanted to get them back but the Lord said to me—I sensed him saying to me—vengeance is mine. It’s what the Scripture speaks about.

Also I’m careful…. I think this has to do with our culture, too, today. I think justice is important, and seeking justice is important, but at the same time I don’t want to become an oppressor like the people who oppressed me.

So that’s what I mean by setting your rights aside. Maybe in a court of law or you know by human standards…. they definitely deserved a certain kind of retaliation. But that doesn’t mean we’re not assertive. That doesn’t mean we get abused. But I’m saying it’s in how we react to other people.

God’s way is higher than my natural inclinations to get back at people, or to…. I’ll give a final example of setting your rights aside.

I’m thinking about family members—and you don’t have to have children for this to be the case. But if you just want to climb the corporate ladder or the church ladder and you run over your peers, resort to human ways of being, tooth and nail to just get whatever position you want whether it’s in the church or it’s in someone’s eyes, in a family member’s eyes. You can manipulate instead of putting others above yourselves, like your peers.

One of the ways that I see this a lot of times go badly in the church is people preach the gospel of Jesus, but they treat their peers [poorly]. And in some churches, parishioners hate each other, or the staff members hate each other. I’m like, How is that the way of Jesus? Because someone may have gotten a raise or a position or doing something, or you’re just jealous of the attention they get. So that’s kind of practical ways that we can lay aside our rights and trust God that even though we might not get paid in this world for laying down our lives…. We might not get any accolades or Nobel Peace Prizes for saintlihood. But God sees it. But that’s how Jesus was. He laid down his life for us. And he tells us to do the same thing in Philippians, chapter 2.

Joe: One of the ways you talk about us being able to do that for ourselves is through prayer. And I like one of the descriptions you have of prayer. I’m going to quote you for a second here. In the book, you talk about prayer as “beholding God” and “gazing.” Can you talk about prayer a little bit more along those lines? What do you mean by that? That seems different than the way we often think of prayer.

Marlena: I start the chapter saying back in the day when there was prayer in school, there was lynching and the genocide of the indigenous people, too. Because a lot of people say, I’d love to go back to the days when there was prayer in school. I’m not against praying in school, but it struck me that when there was prayer in school, there were also Jim Crow laws and even before that, lynchings and segregation of schools, and Native Americans are still…. Unbelievable the way our nation has treated people while there was prayer in school. So, in my mind, prayer in school didn’t really effect great change in our society. I’m not saying that individuals didn’t prayer. But for some people it was perfunctory. It was just like that’s something I do, or I don’t do. I’m not even saying that written prayers aren’t effective. But it depends on a person’s heart, right?

God would rather have us love our neighbor any day than have prayer in school. So, if we love our neighbors but there’s no prayer in school, that’s effectively the outcome of prayer. The outcome of prayer is that we’re supposed to be more Christ-like and more have God’s heart, and that will be manifest in the way we treat other people.

So that’s the reason why I start at the prayer—that we ultimately have to be the answers to our prayer. I think in John or James, if you see someone in need and say, Be at peace, brother or sister, God bless you. I’ll pray for you. But you don’t give them anything to eat. What’s that? So that’s kind of the framework of that chapter.

But then I started thinking more. What is prayer? Some people feel very like a legalistic thing. I have to pray a half an hour a day or an hour day or 4 hours a day. I think there’s many ways to prayer, and that’s where I think, the eastern and western traditions back me up. I’m like, is there anyone else who thinks about this this way? It’s not just me, right? Because I’m not saying anything new.

But it talks in Hebrews, keep your eyes on Christ, the author of your faith. So, I teach spiritual formation as an adjunct professor to seminarians, people going to school to be pastors or lay leaders, and I use this illustration.

If I’m in the room and I guess we’ll use Jesus being in the room, no matter where I walk in the room I have to keep my eyes on Christ. So I might look at him from different angles. I might be on this side or that side, from the top or bottom, wherever. I can’t turn my face away from God because when I turn my face away from Christ, God’s way, then I get disoriented. It ruins everything else. So, if I’m gazing at God the way we gaze at someone we love, I have to put myself… Prayer is a way of putting myself in a position of gazing upon God.

Now let me bring it down to the nuts and bolts. I go outside in nature, in silence and solitude. Some people who are really wonderful musicians and they like to sing, or to put on worship music. And other people like to build things, you know. Eric Little said, “When I run I feel his glory.”

Joe: Oh, right. Yeah.

Marlena: That was his way of setting his gaze on God.

So, when I say gazing, I talk about the eyes of our soul. But it could be literally looking at an icon or a crucifix or going into a cathedral, or your church sanctuary. It could be any of those things. It really depends on the person. And in addition to what the church has said, like, pray during Lent, and read these prayers and suggestions that are given. But prayer is keeping our eyes on God and doing whatever it takes to do that. Sometimes you use words; sometimes you don’t.

Joe: One of the themes in your book, and I think you’re touching on it now, that really struck me... I laugh about this because I read your book and saw “Hamilton” days apart. And so, one of the things that keeps coming up to me is I kept hearing this line from “Hamilton,” “I will never be satisfied.” “He will never be satisfied.” I get the sense that that’s something that you wrestled with as well, and something that you see in us. We’re always longing for the thing we don’t have.

Marlena: Yeah, you know, you think you’ve learned this lesson and then something else happens. You want something. And I think it’s different for each one of us, right? I think I talked about that earlier. It kind of really depends on your personality, what your longings and it’s not wrong to long. But it depends what importance you give that. I think that wars are waged by people to try to get what they don’t have, right? And so it could be countries. It could be, again with family members. I’m thinking about our closest neighbors. It could be our actual neighbors.

But what do we do when we don’t get what we want? We can become very discontent and make other people miserable. I’ve done that, and I talk a little bit about that in book where I …. Oh, God, I feel like you’ve promised me something, and I don’t see it anywhere. So how do we act when we don’t get what we want?

None of us is perfect. I talk about that in the book, where I was under a lot of stress from outside stress and things going on with family members, financial stress, and then my own longings and one day I just kind of just blew up at my husband, and I was not godly at all. Do you know? I just let my own…. I didn’t do what I was talking about in the book, right? I just let him have it, right? That’s a weak area. I’m not going to pretend I’m a saint. Even the most godly people, they’re going to blow up. Maybe not to you, but internally and with those closest to them. But hopefully that occurs less and less the more we come to Christ.

This not having what I want, this lack of contentment, is affecting my behavior and how love other people. So I think we have to surrender that.

In Job 13:15 (I don’t quote this in the book, but I think I did in my first book.) …but “Though he slay me, I will trust him.” Like, God, I’ve got to have this. It’s something good. I don’t understand why. And I think we should be honest with God about how we feel, and even honest with trusted others, sharing those longings. But there has to come to a point, if we don’t see it coming or manifesting itself, we can’t understand why, that we have to surrender that. And that’s very, very hard because there’s no guarantee that we will get it. Sometimes we do, but we can make an idol out of the things that we don’t have.

Joe: Can we talk about that more? It’s not on my list of things to ask you. But I want to talk a little bit more about that Job quote, because our understanding of prayer and blessedness seems kind of at times the opposite of that. Right? I mean, if I’m faithful these good things will happen. Not, ‘though he slay me I will still be faithful.’ Can you share a little bit about that? This is something I’m personally…this is something I’ve been personally wrestling with, just the way we understand blessedness or the way we understand prayer or God’s favor. Help me out with that.

Marlena: Yeah, I mean, it’s not my favorite thing in the world—not my favorite thing at all. But here are a few examples.

I always try to look back to Jesus. I’m like, okay. One time, not in my household family, but I remember I was sitting on a retreat and I said to the Lord, “I feel like I have dysfunctional stuff in my family.” I was really upset about something that was going on. And the Lord’s like, Well, my family was dysfunctional and is dysfunctional. His family called him crazy. And they thought, you’re going out trying to be Messiah, do something. No one that has these aspirations remains in hiding; they go public. Whether you understand them as brothers or cousins, whatever, the family members were like, He’s out of his mind. He thinks he’s the Messiah. And so his own family at one point, didn’t trust that he was who he said he was. I was really touched…. I mean, that was during a time of prayer. Just hearing God, you know, my spirit sensing him saying, my family’s dysfunctional, too. In fact they still are today.

I was really touched that Jesus can identify with us. That’s where I go. When you say, ‘though he slay me.’

Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, I call it the worst night of his life, when he’s like, Please take this cup from me. For whatever reason, I don’t know if it was the physical pain that he was anxious for heal. I’m sure some of that was it. The spiritual agony, the emotional agony that he knew what was coming at that point. He said, Take this cup from me. I think back to myself, even Jesus said, Take this cup from me, as a human being. But then he says, Not my will but yours be done.

So when I’m going through stuff like this, Joe, it’s not sadomasochistic theology. I’m not saying to harm yourself or put yourself in harm’s way. Please don’t do that, if you’re listening. Life is hard enough. Disappointment, sadness. Horrible things will come your way. You don’t need to hurt yourself or other people, right? It’s just going to come as being a human being. And disappointment, like I said.

So I look to Christ. Okay, Jesus is gone through that. Then look through church history, the apostles, like, they were all crucified or hurt in some way. Then I think about Christians in other countries they don’t have the riches that we do here in the United States or the West because of corruption. Not that they don’t have wealth. They have wealth. So the material wealth, actually gold and other corrupt governments extract that. I think about brothers and sisters throughout the world who are still faithful. Even as I’m talking to you now. They don’t have this media or technology. And I don’t know, in the village, in the highlands of the Andes or the Himalayas in a village where they have no technology, but they’re being faithful to Christ, but they still have to worry about what they’re gonna eat, disease, protection. You know, I think about the locust swarm in parts of Africa that we don’t have right now. And they’re as faithful as can be. They’re just trying to survive.

Even though I don’t understand evil and disappointment, that’s what helps me put it in perspective, not that my suffering is any less because suffering is everyone’s own. I’m not diminishing suffering here in the West or other places. But that’s how I kind of dea…. I’m like, Well, I’m not the only one going through this, and yes, I would like this answer to prayer, but the Father, through the Spirit and however the Trinity works, Jesus still had to hang on the cross and die on the cross and rise. And I’m like, Well, he didn’t get out of it. And there’s something that I’m not gonna get out of, right? unless Jesus comes back.

So that’s how I kind of think about it. And coping with unanswered prayer, I think it’s very difficult, and can’t be done alone. And it needs to be shared with trusted others.

The final thing I’ll say on this is that…. I did talk about it in my first book. I always go back to Mark chapter 2 where the four friends lower the paralytic through the roof. Sometimes I’m one of the four friends lowering a friend. I cut a hole in the roof, and I actually think about, through prayer, I lower people to Jesus, to the throne of grace, and kind of merge two scriptures there. And sometimes I’m the paralytic and I need four friends to have faith and lower me down. And I kind of think of prayer in that way, too.

Sometimes I’m so upset and so…life is so hard that I don’t have faith. I don’t have strength. I need to call my pastors. Or, you know, I call other people and say, please pray for me. I call it calling 9-1-1. You know, I need to call 9-1-1 because I’m in bad condition and I need help.

Joe: Well, shifting gears a little bit, one of the things that…in your book that I was impressed with is the breadth of things that…the breadth of people that you quote from. From the desert mothers and fathers, all the way to contemporary people. And it made me want to ask you, what do you read or what is devotion time like? How do you have that kind of breadth in your background?

Marlena: I was introduced to the church fathers and mothers in seminary. I went to Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, New York. We read the primary sources. We didn’t just read about them, we read what they wrote. I was like, Oh my word, there’s people that think like me. They were here like 1800 years ago—however many years, depending on which ones you’re reading. I felt like a kinship with them. I think I kind of have like a desert monastic way about me. That’s my personality.

Ever since then I’ve just read Catholics, protestants, United Methodists. I read Reuben Job’s Prayers for Ministers and Other Servants. I listen to Ancient Faith Radio, which is Eastern Orthodox… priests, people. It’s online. I just read what the spiritual…I’ll call ‘em modern day spiritual fathers and mothers. Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestants. Because I noticed the church is so much bigger than my own corner of it. And I am enriched by traditions other than my own. And that has kept my faith sometimes because you could be upset at your own tradition and be like, Oh my gosh, they’re driving me crazy. So we remember that the church is bigger than just our tradition, and that treasure of spirituality is there for us. Sometimes we don’t even know it exists. I didn’t, but now I do. And I’m better for it.

Joe: Yeah, I just think it’s one of those untapped wells at times of spiritual fruit as those desert mothers or fathers, people that we may have never heard of before, but to be able to find some of those that wrote. Yeah, you said 1800 years ago and we can find some pretty accessible translations sometimes to be able to share what they wrote.

Finally, I want to ask you about this group that you mentioned at your congregation, Maumee United Methodist Church in Ohio. This Awesome God group you use as an illustration. Can you tell me about them?

Marlena: Yeah, its genesis has nothing to do with me. But our current associate pastor, Pastor Joanie Schilling, her sister Lynn, who I talk about in chapter 5 of my book, is intellectually disabled. And when they were younger, they were trying to look for churches for Lynn, a place where she would feel welcome, and the United Methodists are the ones that embraced Lynn, and Joanie. So that’s why Pastor Joanie decided to be United Methodist. She was in another denomination.

When she came to our church—I don’t know, it’s probably been close to 20 years she’s been at our church—but she wanted something for Lynn and other persons that have disabilities at our church so they’re not just on the periphery or out there, but they’re really integrated to the church, part of us. They’re one of us.

So she started a group. And they themselves came up with the name Awesome God Group. And I think it’s probably named after Rich Mullins song “Our God is an Awesome God.” So we have a Sunday School class called The Awesome God Sunday School Class. The disability community and services use our church a lot for like proms for people with disabilities. They have a prom in May usually, where people come and have a dance. It’s a whole big community up there held at our church. We volunteer for it, our church.

We can have a tendency to look at people with disability…or people that are just different in some way—it could be mental disability—as different, and us as superior. But that’s not the case in our church. They participate in the life of our church, like reading Scripture, ushering, vacation Bible school. And we know them on a first name basis and we love them.

My husband said when we first started going to our church, I used to work with our church. He said, I think that’s what makes this church so warm and friendly and welcoming, is because he thinks that is just in the fabric of the church with the Awesome God group. My life is made better for it, and I’m glad that Pastor Joanie and Lynn and the others had a vision for that because I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It’s so beautiful. And I think it’s the way the Kingdom of God is supposed to be.

Joe: And the final question I ask every guest of Get Your Spirit in Shape, is how do you keep your spirit in shape?

Marlena: Yeah. I thought about that. And goodness… Probably a couple… I’ll say three things. And I mentioned one, nature walks. I’m in nature a lot. I sit outside in the front yard a lot with the trees and whatever.

Then also confession. I talk about that in my book. I call people if I’m struggling with something, whatever. It could be that I’m just messed up inside. I just need perspective. Whenever I’m struggling I call trusted others. I mentioned my pastor Russ, our head pastor, Pastor Joanie, and also other friends, local and throughout the United States and the world.

The other thing that I do is I read a lot. But sometimes I think I just need to listen. So, I listen to Scripture on audio, listen to it, or Ancient Faith Radio. I mentioned Eastern Orthodox or Daily Office or something audio. So before I go to bed, or if I’m walking then that’s the way I keep in shape.

Joe: It’s funny that listening gives you a different perspective, doesn’t it? It seems to me like reading Scripture a lot of times you get in that study mode. At least I do. And listening, it’s just a different way of processing the very same stories, the very same words.

Marlena: Yes. Absolutely. I think it’s important.

Joe: Well, Marlena, thank you so much for being our guest today and having this conversation with me. I have deeply appreciated it.

Marlena: Oh, me, too. Thank you, Joe. Blessings to you in your ministry.

Epilogue

Joe: That was Marlena Graves. She’s a member of the Maumee United Methodist Church in Maumee, Ohio. And she’s also the author of a new book called The Way Up is Down: Becoming Yourself by Forgetting Yourself. To learn more about Marlena or to order her book, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for the episode page of this conversation. There you’ll find links to Marlena’s webpage and a place where you can order her book. Also on that page is my email address so that you can send me your thoughts about get Get Your Spirit in Shape and if you have any guest suggestions.

Thank you for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.