D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

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Downward Mobility

  "Indeed, the one who was from the beginning with God and who was God revealed himself as a small, helpless child; as a refugee in Egypt; as an obedient adolescent and inconspicuous adult: as a penitent disciple of the Baptizer; as a preacher from Galilee, followed by some simple fishermen; as a man who ate with sinners and talked with strangers; as an outcast, a criminal, a threat to his people.  He moved from power to powerlessness, from greatness to smallness, from success to failure, from strength to weakness, from glory to ignominy.  The whole life of Jesus of Nazareth was a life in which all upward mobility was resisted…The divine way is indeed the downward way." – Henri Nouwen

Downward Mobility print from Port Jackson Press

Downward Mobility (noun): the movement of an individual, social group, or class to a lower status.

I really like the phrase "downward mobility". It is so subversive and yet so approachable at the same time. I am trying to withstand the pull of the empire to do more, buy more, to live in the relentless pursuit of the eternal now. But moving downwards, towards a life of sacrificial service, simplicity, and community is one of fits and starts--the path is never linear. I like the idea of it being a long journey, just a simple path of mobility, pointing me on the way I always knew I was supposed to be walking.

The internets are all ablaze right now with Christians arguing about what it means to be radical (or if that is even an important distinction). This argument to me feels tired, stale, full of justifications, and very distracting to what the real issues might be. Which are, of course, the same issues anyone has: pride, selfishness, greed. Nobody is exempt from these motivators, and we all best be honest about them from the get-go. For me, choosing to live a life of simplicity, in an urban low-income environment, is full of its own pitfalls. I can simultaneously feel so very proud of myself while drowning in loneliness; I have sky-high idealizations of community and celebration and come crashing to earth when we are all revealed to be human.  I really do what to be radical like Jesus, but I am also learning how radical the ever-present love of the Father is, how it loves no matter what we do, how there is no escaping.

I do think, however, there is something to be said in seeking to live a life of downward mobility. Do you remember the story of Jesus washing his disciple's feet, kneeling down in the posture of a servant? For so many years I thought this was just something he did, a lesson he taught us all, until suddenly this year I realized: that is actually why he came. He didn't set off to be kingly and radical and powerful and preach amazing sermons--he really came to be a servant, all the time. It really is the position we should most want to emulate, be pursuing with all of our strength. And servanthood, like beauty, will change the world.

I am interested in both the practical and esoteric aspects of this paradigm. What does it mean to practice going downwards? Once you start realizing that this is usually in opposition to whatever the rest of our culture is telling us (even in the church), there is a fantastic lightness in that discovery. The lies of upward mobility weigh heavy on the soul--that we are paramount to what we purchase, or what goods and services we bring to the table. Downward mobility is the opposite: we gradually learn to lay down all that has identified us as good or smart or productive and slowly take on the forms of a servant: how can I be a witness to what God is doing in others? How can I be free enough to see the kingdom come? How can I willingly place myself in a position of lowliness? How can I turn the tables on a world, a system, that is meant to enslave and crush and oppress? I can start by giving up power, by choosing to live a simple, quiet life, or become a refugee in a new land, or stake my tent in a community of outcasts--I can start by embracing the freedom that failure in the empire brings.

And it really is about freedom.

For some, downward mobility might mean changing your paradigm about who God likes to use (the weak things of the world). It might mean reading the scriptures different, approaching ministry in a new light, and it might mean making small, hard, gorgeous changes to your everyday life.

My own journey has been taxing and joyful, boring and ecstatic--like any good road trip. I've learned a lot about my own stumbling towards the divine, but I am desperate for news from others. How are you on the path of downward mobility? How does emulating Jesus change the mundane minutia of life? Where have you found joy? What questions does this bring up? I have so many questions I am near bursting. Can we ask them together?


For the next long while, I would like this space to be dedicated to the theme of downward mobility. I am opening it up for guest posts, and I would dearly love it if you would think about submitting. Either a practice you commit to, questions you have, or a theological musing--just share your thoughts on the movement towards a lower status. Whatever that means for you. I want to hear from artists, musicians, teachers, stay-at-home moms (and dads!), preachers, writers, thinkers, feelers--all of you wonderful people. No one is left out in this paradigm--we all have room to move downwards, don't we?

For posts, questions, concerns, and submissions, please e-mail me at dlmmcsweeneys@gmail.com.


I hope to write once a week about what I am learning/experiencing as well, starting off with a post this week. I am looking forward to hearing from you, and learning together.

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