Back to zero

There were Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every day of the week at the church I used to pastor. On three days, there were two meetings, for a total of ten per week. They pretty much owned our fellowship hall and we were good with that. In a culture where we think change is too hard, they were making one of the hardest changes there is. And succeeding.

TN53_sobriety_coin_270As a sign of success, AA members get sobriety tokens which mark how long it's been since their last drink. Many carry their tokens in their pockets as a reminder of how far they've come and how far they'd fall if they returned to their old patterns of drinking.

But there was a bar in town that did something truly evil: It offered AA members a free drink of their choice in exchange for their sobriety token.

Think about that for a moment. The bar's owners considered AA to be the enemy of their business, stealing customers away into sobriety. They preferred to have a larger customer base than to encourage people to live happy, healthy, whole lives after emerging from the devastation of alcoholism. As far as I'm concerned, that's pure evil.

And so, every now and then, someone would trade in their token for a drink. And with one free beverage, they'd be back to zero.

But it's not just alcoholics who tumble back to zero, is it? We all have areas in our lives where we struggle and where the slippery slope back to zero is an ever-present danger.

You've been doing so well not yelling at the kids today. But then the clock hits 7:45 a.m. and your son still doesn't have his shoes on, making everyone late for school and work. And in a second, you're back to zero.

You've paid off the minivan and have been saving money for that family vacation to Disneyland, but your daughter checks Instagram while driving and hits your neighbor's parked car. And now the vacation fund is back to zero.

You've stayed away from porn sites for five full months. For you, that's eons. But your numbers have been down at work, you and the wife haven't been seeing eye to eye, and you're on the road. Back to zero.

Your fitness routine had been paying off big time. Fat gone. Muscle on. But you weren't looking down when carrying too many things across the yard and you stepped into the hole the dog dug, badly spraining your ankle and ruining your workout. Back to zero.

Your parents insist you leave your iPhone behind just before the family heads out on a camping trip. You didn't get a chance to coerce a friend into maintaining your Snapchat streaks. Back to zero.

After all those student loans and college classes, you discover elementary school teacher just isn't you. Back to zero.

You've been killing it at the blackjack table. But then the house gets lucky too many times. Back to zero.

We love ladders. We love streaks. We love calendars and maps which show us how long we've done something and how far we've come. We love looking down from mountain tops and seeing the result of our hard hiking. But we absolutely hate it when the bottom falls out of our efforts and we end up nowhere and with nothing to show for it all.

Zero is no hero. Zero is for chumps in the dumps. Zero is for losers and snoozers and washed up boozers.

But zero is the place for new beginnings. Zero is the tumbler that makes us humbler. We all need a fall to rid us of our pride. We need a return to the base of the mountain to see a new way up, a new peak to attempt. We might even discover that what we want most isn't at the top of the ladder, but somewhere down on the group and off to the side.

Maybe yelling at the kids will reveal that good parenting won't result from stuffing your frustration, but from getting to the bottom of why you feel the need to be in control all the time.

Maybe giving your daughter hug after the minivan incident and planning a staycation will do more for your relationship than waiting in lines at Disneyland.

Maybe the porn stumble will get you to face your loneliness and start being honest and vulnerable with your wife and those guys at church you've been meaning to hang out with.

Maybe the pause in the fitness routine will help you realize how enslaved you are to the fantasy of having a perfect body and get you to exercise for health, not vanity.

Maybe the end of the Snapchat streaks will break the shackles social media have had on you.

Maybe a career reboot is exactly what you need and what will benefit the world most.

Maybe you just need to lose in order to give up on lady luck.

When we're zeroes, it's easier to hang out with other zeroes. And we're easier to be around, too. We're literally down to earth. No longer on our high horse. No longer at the head of the pack.

The Incarnation is Jesus intentionally choosing to be a zero. Is it any wonder the zeroes of his culture found him so approachable, so likable, so easy to listen to and be challenged by? Nothing he said or did came from above. It came from beside. He had everything, but he chose to be a zero.

Jesus said of his zero-hood: Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. [Matt. 8:20]

This is how St. Paul put it:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross! [Phil. 2:5-8]

Jesus zeroed himself. And in the process established a mindset for us to sink into.

The problem I find in the depths of me is I start smiling at myself and patting myself on the back whenever I'm scaling the heights in some part of my life. And instead of valuing others above myself (Phil. 2:3), I get rather full of myself.

I need a pin to pop me, to let out all of the hot air. I need to get back to zero.

I keep thinking I need a ladder to get up in life. I don't. God's got an elevator.

The same sort of thing that God did for Jesus in Phil. 2:9 ("God exalted him to the highest place") as a result of his choice to become a zero on our behalf is what God does for us as well:

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. [James 4:10]

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. [1 Peter 5:6]

It's to the smug, super-spiritual Corinthians that Paul writes these words:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are,so that no one may boast before him.It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God — that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” [1 Cor. 1:26-31]

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. [2 Cor. 4:7]

God has an affinity for zeroes.

Now, if only I'd finally learn to choose zero for myself instead of having to be brought back to zero ….