Step Zero

Story: Two Monks and a Woman 

Homily – for the New Year: Step Zero (co-written by Kristen Psaki) 

Here’s what I’ve always wondered, about that story.  When the older monk asks the younger monk that question, about why he was still carrying the woman, did the younger monk roll his eyes?

I have two adolescents in my home, so I know an eye-roll worthy moment when I hear one. I mean, the younger monk was simply trying to follow the rules, do what he’d been taught was right….how condescending could the older monk be…I put her down…why are you still carrying her?!

I wonder especially about that question because it’s a question I’m really familiar with.  And I know how it can feel. When you’re trying your best to be conscientious, and intentional.  And then a voice says: Why are you still carrying – whatever….worries, regrets, habits that you know aren’t helpful….

Most of the time though, it’s my voice asking the question. Of myself.  And believe me, I roll my eyes at myself when I ask it.  

But behind that eye roll, there’s actually a lot of confusion, and even shame.  Because sometimes I don’t really know why I haven’t been able to put down those things that aren’t serving me, or helping me to live the life that I know I want to live.  

Anne Lamott, a writer who has written a lot addiction and working the 12 Steps of recovery, talks about a step she calls Step Zero.  It’s the step that is required before you can do Step One, which is about admitting you are powerless over your drinking….

“Before that, you have to arrive at Step Zero, where you wake up one morning, sick and tired, and say to yourself, ‘this has GOT to stop.’”

Before we’re able to actually take the first step of change, the step where we put down the thing that we’ve been carrying, we have to make the decision to really put it down, and mean it.  We have to be ready to say: this has GOT to stop.  

Which usually means, breathing through that shame, and stepping instead into our worthiness of being loved just as we are.  Even when we’re feeling powerless. Especially then.

My spiritual director used to ask me a question that is actually not that different from the monk’s – and I only occasionally rolled my eyes at her.  

She’d ask: what’s right about…working too much? For example.  

What’s right about being a perfectionist?

Or holding on to that relationship that’s causing you pain….?

What’s right about still holding on to whatever it is you wish you could let go of?

What works about it?

Because there’s usually a reason why you haven’t let it go, or put it down.  

And that reason doesn’t just go away on its own, without being tended to and acknowledged.  

UU Theologian Thandeka tells the story of being notoriously bad at packing appropriately for the weather when she’d travel.  She’d abring way too many winter-type clothes, or not enough, and then spend the whole time freezing, or boiling. There was a kind of disconnect between her thinking, and her own experiences, where she wasn’t really listening to her own body, her lived experiences, and then planning accordingly.  

So on one trip (where it was 75 degrees and she had a suitcase of winter clothes), she decided to carry with her a small stone in her hand, the whole time, even when she slept.  It was a way to pay attention to her body, and to her lived-in experience.

After a couple days, she started to feel an overwhelming sense of physical sadness. Not depression, or shame or guilt.  Just sad.

As she writes “Extravagant eating, drinking, shopping, gallivanting, even reading had dulled my awareness of myself. I resolved to hold on to the emotional sadness I now felt.  I was now in a state of mourning, letting go of what i had already lost.”

What happened was that the more she honored that sadness, the more over time she was able to put it down.  But it took really listening to it, and the need it represented – the need for greater connection, a deeper sense of community and care in her life – before she could really get to that Step Zero, where real change could be possible.  

We all have these things that we have been carrying that we wish we could set down.  

Things that are asking us to tend to them, to listen.  To pay attention to our bodies, and to our lived-in experiences. What feeling is there?  And what else?  

As we feel our bodies, we have the chance to listen for those things that we are ready to set down. Things that bring up that voice that says: “This has GOT to stop.” 

Those things that would make it really hard for us to move forward on the journey we’d like to take in this new year.  Habits we’ve been holding on to.  Feelings. Stories about yourself, or about our life, or about others, or the world.  

Maybe something about which we’ve asked ourselves, or others have asked us:

why are you still carrying that?  

Listen for the need, the longing that is there.  Honor that, even as you seek to let go of the thing that is no longer serving the path you want to take.  

And as we move into this new year, let us begin again, in freedom, and in love.

About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of 19 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (13) and Josef (11) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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