“…The society in which we live suggests in countless ways that the way to go is up. Making it to the top, entering the limelight, breaking the record – that’s what draws attention, gets us on the front page of the newspaper, and offers us the rewards of money and fame. The way of Jesus is radically different. It is the way not of upward mobility but of downward mobility. It is going to the bottom, staying behind the sets, and choosing the last place! Why is the way of Jesus worth choosing? Because it is the way to the Kingdom, the way Jesus took, and the way that brings everlasting life.” – Henri Nouwen
It’s been a while since I’ve written about Down We Go, but it’s one of my favorite projects and before I go on break for summer, I wanted to say something about it yet again. In this current political climate, it’s been on my mind a lot lately, especially as followers of Jesus of all shapes and sizes.
A life of descent and downward mobility doesn’t make any sense in the world’s eyes (and often the church’s), but it’s where all the juice is.
In Down We Go I talk about how the 12 steps and the Beatitudes are a core foundation for a way of moving in the world (not just for self-identified addicts) and transformational community always comes from pain, honesty, struggle, and heart-work (not head knowledge).
And all of that isn’t popular. It’s just not.
I will always remember a few years ago when I heard about a new church called “Ascent.” Just for fun, I did a little Google experiment to see if there were any churches called “Descent.” The answer was no (other than an Orthodox church in a big old beautiful building called “The Descent of the Holy Spirit”).
I’m not dissing Ascent at all because like so many other churches, it’s probably helping a lot of people find God and hope.
But let’s also be honest, on the whole, people don’t want to go to “Descent” church.
We humans are drawn to ascent and most churches have adopted that desire; it’s why so much focus is typically placed on security, bigger, better, stronger, faster, more-put-together, upward mobility, rising up, separate.
No one wants to be on the losing team; we want to be on the winning one.
Except, when we look at the story of Jesus and his first followers, they’re definitely not “winning” in the way we think of it.
In fact, it’s just the opposite.
To me, the wildest (and one of the saddest) parts about church culture is that it has become the opposite of the kind of life Jesus points us to.
The current political climate and the divide in Christianity right now points to it even more.
Jesus says that to find our lives, we have to lose them.
That the first will be last and the last will be first.
That the losers are actually the winners.
That the messy, complicated ways of love win over the technicalities of the law.
That the way of humility and sacrifice (not pride and protection) lead to life.
I think one of the reasons the church has become so broken is because it has replicated the idea of offering people what they want instead of what they really need.
We want ascent, but we need descent.
The prosperity gospel is one of the fastest growing messages in Third World countries, growing by leaps and bounds because it taps into the idea that with enough spiritual belief and effort, we can somehow make it to the top of the heap (or at least give a lot of our money to the person at the top of the heap who will remind us how good, faithful, and trusting-in-God we are). Mega-churches are built on inspirational upwardly mobile messages that strike a chord in hearts but let people stay safely protected from the muck and mire of “those people.” And goodness gracious, the current US political landscape is one of the greatest examples of the power of “ascent” we’ve seen in a long time.
Downward mobility is not popular and never has been.
The tug “up” and “away from” is so strong.
I feel it all of the time, too–longing for a smoother road, an easier path, a little more this or a little more that.
These are all things I often want.
But what I really need is to be deeply known and to deeply know others. To be loved and to love others. To use the short time I have here on this earth to intersect with real people with real problems in need of real hope. To admit my need for God, for healing, for hope. To use what I have on behalf of others. To remember that Jesus’ called us to the weirdest, wildest, doesn’t-make-sense-in-the-world’s-eyes kind of living.
I’m pretty sad at the state of the church overall, but I also get glimpses of hope because I see that there are more and more men and women who are willing to look like losers and are creatively cultivating a life of descent in community despite the costs.
Most of them don’t have fancy websites.
Most of them don’t have good funding.
Most of them aren’t filled with the pretty and the popular and the put together.
Most of them don’t have structures that look like other organizations’ structures.
Most of them aren’t “quickly multiplying.”
Most of them are weird and small and don’t make “sense.”
In a world clamoring for ascent, may we vote with our feet and bravely make our way down.
The path is worn with pain and honesty and human struggle, but I’m more convinced than ever, it’s going the right direction.