Upside-Down-and-Backwards: Reflection and Challenge on Inauguration Day
January 21, 2021
by Autumn Dawn Galbreath, MD, MBA
My grandfather was a deeply gracious man. A Southern gentleman to the core and pastor of a large church, he was loving and compassionate toward everyone he met, and he was also uniquely talented at making each and every person with whom he interacted feel loved and heard. He truly cared, and he had an amazing ability to communicate the depth of that concern. In the 40 years I knew him, I never heard him raise his voice or speak a harsh word, with one dramatic exception. So it’s no surprise that the story of Granddaddy, hospitalized and delirious after major surgery, raising his voice at Gran has gone down in family lore. His agitation at her that day was so great, and so perplexing. He was intensely frustrated with her driving, despite the fact that he been in the hospital and nowhere near a car for days. He finally burst out, in his resonant Southern voice, “You insist on driving upside down and backwards just to irritate me!” Needless to say, it did not ease his distress when the entire family burst into laughter. But some things are just so funny you can’t control yourself.
It’s a light-hearted story about a medicated man whose elderly body had been through a lot that day and whose mind wasn’t running on its usual track. But where did he come up with the idea of upside-down-and-backwards anyway? Who is thinking, even in their delirium, about doing normal day-to-day activities upside-down-and-backwards?
My Granddaddy, in a different sort of a way, actually lived his entire life upside-down-and-backwards. He was upside-down-and-backwards because the Leader he was following was upside-down-and-backwards, too.
The more time I spend reading Jesus’ words and replaying His interactions with those around Him, the more I realize just what an upside-down-and-backwards life He led while He was here on Earth—starting with His genealogy, which includes women at a time when women were not a meaningful part of one’s birthright, and, more dramatically, which includes an incestuous woman, a prostitute, an immigrant and an adulteress, and culminates with an unwed teen mother (Matthew 1:3-18). And from there, His upside-down-and-backwards childhood finds Him a refugee in a foreign land, fleeing certain death at the hands of an evil king (Matthew 2:13-18), followed by a return to His homeland only to settle in the less-than-respected area of Nazareth (Matthew 2:22-23; John 1:46). His personal emcee was a guy wearing homemade camel’s hair clothing, eating bugs and really riling up the local authorities (Matthew 3). This all amounts to an upside-down-and-backwards start to a life’s work, if I’ve ever heard of one.
Then, just as Jesus is getting ready to begin His earthly ministry, Scripture gives us a glimpse into just how upside-down-and-backwards He really was. It wasn’t just His circumstances or His family. It was the very core of His being—His own values—that were the opposite of what the world around Him said they should be. In Matthew 4, Jesus is in the wilderness fasting for 40 days and 40 nights. Not surprisingly, Scripture says, “…he was hungry” (Matthew 4:2, NIV). And there, in His moment of human need, temptation comes. “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread,” Satan says in Matthew 4:3 (NIV). And Satan goes on to tempt Jesus twice more, to show His power over the angels and to succumb to a desire for earthly power. Jesus, despite His obvious physical hunger and despite the temptation to desire power and influence that must have been a part of His very human nature, rebukes Satan every time.
- “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4, ESV).
- Do not put the Lord your God to the test (Matthew 4:7).
- Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only (Matthew 4:10).
In Jesus’ upside-down-and-backwards life, earthly desires are secondary to the worship of and reliance on the Lord His God.
In calling His followers, He looks not for scholars, preachers or leaders who can establish a following among the people. He calls men away from their fishing nets (Matthew 4:19). He calls Matthew right out of his tax collector’s booth, to the Pharisee’s dismay (Matthew 9:9-13). He invites Himself to dine in the home of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector (Luke 19:1-9). He forgives the sins of a sinful woman as she weeps and anoints His feet (Luke 7:26-50). Jesus’ upside-down-and-backwards followers are the opposite of “Who’s Who In Ancient Israel” or the “Galilean Social Directory.” These are the down and out, the broken, the battered and the bruised. They are the ones without power and the ones with nothing to give. As Jesus Himself says to the Pharisees, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13, NIV).
And Jesus presses even further into His upside-down-and-backwards-ness. His life and His followers are the opposite of what the world would expect, so it should come as no surprise that His teachings, too, are contrary to human nature. But somehow we always manage to be surprised…even those of us who have known Jesus’ teachings since we were babes in a cradle. They always surprise us because they are so completely upside-down-and-backwards from everything that human nature and the world around us say they should be.
The world says, “Go out and get more. Be better. Be richer. Be more satisfied.”
Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3, NIV).
The world says, “You can have it all. You can be happy—and if you’re not, buy more X, Y or Z.”
Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4, NIV).
The world says, “Be the best. Don’t let anyone be better than you.”
Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5, NIV).
The world says, “Don’t let them get away with that. That wasn’t fair.”
Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9, NIV).
The world says, “Do not murder.”
Jesus says, “…anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22, NIV).
These are upside-down-and-backwards teachings. These are not the path to the top, nor does Jesus intend for them to be. Even as His disciples argue among themselves over which of them is the greatest, Jesus says, “If anyone would be first, he must be the last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35, ESV), and “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28, NIV). He doesn’t call us to be great or to gain power, riches and influence. He says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26, ESV).
These upside-down-and-backwards words and ways of Jesus are out of step with secular government. Does this mean Christians should not participate in secular government? Not at all! In fact, Jesus said, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17a, NIV), an instruction which I think encompasses a variety of civic duties, including paying taxes, voting and providing feedback to elected officials, among others. The problem for Christians today is the next part of Jesus’ exhortation: “…and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17b, NIV). Somehow in recent years, in our fervor to impact our country for good, we have gotten these two distinct parts of Jesus’ exhortation tangled up with one another. We have mixed up the temporal, earthly kingdom of Caesar with the eternal, heavenly kingdom of God, and we have allowed ourselves to become known for our alignments within the former more so than the latter.
My daughter attends a large university in the Northeast. She posted a political commentary from a Christian viewpoint to her social media recently, and a college friend commented that he appreciated the article because his lack of exposure to Christians in his life meant that he understood Christians as only supporting one political party, and he appreciated seeing that there are other political opinions among Christians. What a blatant example of Christians allowing ourselves to be aligned with Caesar, rather than with God. How must Jesus be grieved that His bride is known among the people as supporting someone (anyone) other than Him. We have done Christ and His upside-down-and-backwards kingdom a deep disservice and have damaged His reputation among those around us by allowing ourselves—His people—to become more synonymous with a political party and/or a political figure than with Him. This is exactly what He did not and would not do.
Jesus repeatedly refused to align Himself with secular kingdoms, to the disappointment of many. He refused to fight in Gethsemane when the soldiers came to arrest Him. He refused to answer for Himself when He stood before Pilate. He could have exerted power here on earth, but He didn’t. Why? Because His kingdom was not of this world. His upside-down-and-backwards kingdom was bigger and better and more incomprehensible than anything any government here can accomplish. And when we, as His followers, limit His kingdom to a political party or candidate, we wrong Him in several important ways:
- We wrong Him by putting our faith in man and man’s institutions, rather than in Christ, our Hope. Man and his institutions are sure to fail us in the end. Only Jesus can be our “…sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf…” (Hebrews 6:19-20, ESV). Over the years, as administrations have changed, I have heard Christians bemoan the state of the world, and never more than today in the world of social media echo chambers. I repeatedly see posts lamenting the “end of America” and exhorting others to prepare for various doomsday scenarios. The common denominator is fear of the incoming administration, fear of losing freedoms and fear of religious oppression. But if we are living in fear of an administration, where was our hope founded? Certainly not in Christ, who is greater than any human institution.
- We wrong Him by misrepresenting Him to others. No man or party can fully represent Christ’s concerns for people. The gospel is bigger than all human constructs. And when we conflate Christianity with one party or political leader, we communicate to our political adversaries that there is not room for them in the kingdom. This deeply grieves the heart of Christ, the shepherd who left the 99 to go after a single lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-14). We, as His representatives, do not have the right to besmirch His name by limiting His kingdom in ways that He does not.
- We wrong Him by living in a right-side-up kingdom, in which we judge success by political wins, rather than by love extended and souls served in the name of Christ. And even as we count our successes (laws passed, judges appointed, candidates elected), there are very real costs. There are people like my daughter’s friend—people who don’t know any Christians, but they know that Christians are people who “support X candidate” and they begin to close their hearts to the true gospel of Christ. There are people with different views on issues, for myriad reasons, who learn that Christians are people who think they are wrong, rather than that Christians are people who love them and want to know them.
- We wrong Him by tainting His gospel with our many human-isms (racism, classism, denomination-ism, nationalism…), however unintended or unconscious they may be. Each of us has prejudices, blind spots and biases; in fact, it’s impossible to be human without them. Our failure to extend unconditional love and unconditional evangel is part of what differentiates our humanity from God’s sovereignty. We are limited—in perspective, in insight, in scope—where He is unlimited. And our human limits bring with them prejudices, usually toward those who are different from us, toward those who we don’t understand. But where human nature turns away from the “other” and flocks toward the “same,” Jesus reached out to the “other” every single time. He touched the leper (Matthew 8:3). He dined with the tax collector (Luke 5:29). He let the sinful woman (presumably a prostitute) wash his feet with her tears as she sobbed in repentance (Luke 7:36-50). He healed the servant of an enemy soldier (Luke 7:1-10). When choosing routes, He headed right through enemy territory and straight to a multiply-divorced adulteress who was shunned by her own people so He could offer His gospel of living water to her (John 4:4-26). Scriptures never tell of Jesus sheltering Himself with same-ness except on those occasions when He retreated with His closest friends to rest and pray before heading out into the crowds again. When we allow our -isms, whatever they may be, and their political affiliations, to intertwine with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we mar the name of that gospel. We communicate to a watching world that Jesus didn’t really die for group X or group Y. And, are we not then walking in the way of the Pharisees, of whom Jesus cautioned: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see…” (Matthew 23:2-5, NIV). To those religious people themselves, Jesus went on to say, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:27-28, NIV).
- We wrong Him by violating what Jesus Himself said was the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:35-40). In an exchange with a teacher of the law, Jesus instructed that inheriting eternal life consists of two commandments: “…‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Luke 10:25-28, NIV). Thinking he would complicate things for Jesus, the teacher of the law went on to ask, “Who is my neighbor?” to which Jesus answered with the well-known story of the Good Samaritan. Having heard the story since preschool Sunday school classes, the word “Samaritan” sounds very familiar, and even positive, to many of us. When I hear “Samaritan,” I think of a nice man on a donkey on Mrs. Garrity’s flannel board at Backyard Bible School. He looked very much like my dad, except he was riding a donkey and wearing some robes and sandals instead of my dad’s usual jeans and western shirt. But when the teacher of the law heard “Samaritan,” he didn’t think of his dad or even of a nice man. He thought of something very bad. Imagine the person you have met with whom you have the least in common and with whom you disagree the most, and that gives you an idea. His mental picture of a Samaritan was someone very, very different from him—and very, very bad. And yet, in Jesus’ story, that same Samaritan man, despite his differences and despite the prejudice, was the neighbor. Tell me that isn’t upside-down-and-backwards! Once again, Jesus’ kingdom is a kingdom where the gospel cuts across differences and “other” becomes “same” through Christ. While it is inherently human to flock to those who are the same, when we do this, and especially when we let it become a defining characteristic of our communities, we violate Christ’s specific commandment and we become the priest or the Levite in the Good Samaritan story—the religious men who were too busy with religion to get their hands dirty doing the actual work of God.
As I finalize this article, the sun is rising on the morning of Joe Biden’s inauguration day. I know many Christians who are anxious about the upcoming four years, about proposed policy changes and their potential impacts on many aspects of life in this country. I, however, am hopeful, not because I support Mr. Biden or his policy plans, but because the unholy union between Christ’s people and the secular government of an earthly power has been disrupted and we have a fresh, new opportunity to begin to follow Christ anew. We have the chance to start again and do this the way Christ Himself instructed us. We can walk in this world, but not be of this world, just as He did (John 17:14-16). We can engage in the upside-down-and-backwards life that is being a Christ-follower on earth, living temporarily here as representatives of our Lord while yearning for and awaiting our eternal and ultimate home. Imagine what America can look like in four years if everyone who professes Christ as Lord begins to actually do the things He did: reach out to those in need; seek out the “other;” love the Lord with all our hearts, souls and minds; love others and expend just as much energy on their needs as we do on our own; and reject our own -isms in favor of God’s love for the prodigal. If each of us purposes now to spend the next four years focusing on these things, to which we are directly called by Christ, what kind of impact might we have on this country? And, more importantly, what kind of impact might we make for eternity? Because eternity ultimately matters. Ultimately, America will pass away with the rest of the earth and all created things. Why are we spending our time and energy on temporal things when we are surrounded by souls created for eternity? Souls whom God has instructed us to love and to whom God has instructed us to preach the good news?
Let’s make this inauguration day, regardless of how we feel about the person or the policies, as the day we repurpose our energies as Christ-followers. Let’s begin anew to carry the good news in the way Christ requires of us to our towns, states, country and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).