Monday, February 15, 2010

In the zone

The Transfiguration by Raphael

Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36 (37- 43)
******** United Church of Christ
February 14, 2010 – Transfiguration

On a silent retreat I once spent two unchecked hours cheering and whooping the crashing ocean waves as they slammed against the rocks near the grassy edge where I sat, the deep cups of water shining against the hot white of the sun, the crisp blue of the sky, splashing their coolness on my hair and clothes and skin.

In a hot dirty garbage dump in Mexico a little girl shared a piece of stringy cheese with me, her grimy hand extended toward me with such faith and innocence and openness. I still have the lump in my throat from swallowing that sweet surprising gift.

Most times when I sing, whether it’s a congregational hymn or I’m singing in a choir or with a group or I’m going solo, I feel a physical sensation, a shiver, a light switch going on, a power surge, down my side or up my back, sometimes to the top of my head. When I seem as though I can’t contain myself and I’m all charged up after the first hymn, it’s because I am!

Almost twenty years ago I went to the ordination of Diane, a classmate from seminary. Everyone was invited to come up for the ordination prayer and lay hands on Diane’s head and shoulders as she knelt before us. After we said “Amen”, I offered Diane my hand to help her up. Her face was shining, her eyes were ablaze and she nearly crushed my hand with the power, the force, the Spirit that was coursing through her.

All of these are experiences of what are called “thin places”, a term taken from Celtic spirituality signifying that the veil between the visible and the invisible is so sheer that we feel as though we are experiencing both worlds at once.

At the leadership workshop I attended recently, author Brian McLaren used another term for these experiences: temporary autonomous zones. The instigator of this idea, author Hakim Bey, defines them as “a socio-political tactic of creating temporary spaces that elude formal structures of control.” In essence, the status quo or the usual, customary rules we live by are temporarily on hold, giving chaos its freedom to trigger individual creativity. Some examples from Hakim’s book: Weird dancing in all-night computer-banking lobbies. Kidnap someone and make them happy. Bolt up brass commemorative plaques in places (public or private) where you have experienced a revelation. Go naked for a sign.

Hakim Bey writes that “the audience reaction or aesthetic-shock produced by [these experiences] ought to be at least as strong as the emotion of terror— powerful disgust… superstitious awe, sudden intuitive breakthrough….if it does not change someone's life…it fails.” [1]

But McLaren gives these temporary zones an even deeper spiritual purpose. These are ecstatic moments, spaces where grace and Spirit can happen, enfused with the power to change someone’s life. Remember the bumper sticker “Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty”? That’s a spiritual temporary autonomous zone, where the rules we normally live by don’t apply. Unless, of course, that is how we live.

Jesus was the Master of creating these temporary autonomous zones for others. Whenever he pulled a child on his lap, healed someone, included them in his circle, called them out from a crowd, forgave them of their sin, fed them from a few fish and some bread, saved new wine for last, Jesus was creating a temporary autonomous zone, a thin place where the visible and the invisible were made one. Jesus himself is an eternal autonomous zone, that Word made flesh, God with us, God’s amazing grace breaking into the expectations of what we think “Messiah” is.

This is what Peter, James and John experienced up on that mountain with Jesus transfigured before them. They were in a thin place, a temporary autonomous zone where the two worlds collided with such power that Jesus’ face was changed and his clothes became dazzling white.

In truth Jesus went naked for a sign. He revealed all of himself, his glory, his power, his death, his purpose on that mountain. In the company of Moses the Liberator and Elijah the Prophet, Jesus the Savior is illuminated. Later, on another mountain, the disciples would come to know that that glory came at a price.

As followers of Jesus we hunger after these experiences of glory, these thin places, these temporary autonomous zones that we might find our faces shining with God. And like Peter we wish we could wrap them up and take them with us, set up a shrine we could visit, keep the wild glory of God as a talisman against despair. But perhaps what we lack are the practices that keep us fluid between the visible and the invisible, that keep us in the zone.

We expect God to be the one to break in and surprise us, yet God is always with us, within us, permeating each and every speck of the ordinary with light. Where are our eyes tuned and fixed? Do we ever keen toward the music of the spheres on a daily basis? How often do we “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34: 8)? Surprise and risk can be fuel for faith, yet it is we who must be willing to be surprised or even surprising, we who must risk what we see for what we wish to see.

cartoon from
Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

Perhaps you do not realize it but you have already begun to make your own temporary autonomous zones. You could also call them interim autonomous zones. You have a new Board of Stewards, a year-long experiment to see if combining efforts of finance, trustees, stewardship and fundraising into one committee will be more effective. You’ve suspended your by-laws as they pertain to the length of time one serves on a committee so that folks would not be daunted by a three-year commitment but serve for one year and see how it goes. A wonderful handful of you have signed up for the preaching class and for the women’s retreat. And next Sunday is our Appreciative Inquiry congregational workshop.

But being in the zone is more than suspending the usual way of doing things for something risky or unknown. It requires practices of faith: Bible or book study, prayer and meditation, discussion, mission and ministry, inviting in the ‘other’, and gathering with others for worship and support. We can’t be in the zone if we aren’t ready to experience God and all that wild glory.

So this Lent I invite you to get reacquainted with a regular practice of faith but to give it a twist to keep you engaged. No time for prayer? Put a prayer book in your bathroom or office desk drawer or sign up for the UCC daily devotional at
. Is reading the Bible too daunting? Get a paperback copy of Eugene Peterson’s The Message, a contemporary paraphrase that reads like a novel. Or come to our Lenten study on the book of Jonah on Wednesday evenings during Lent. Looking for a regular mission opportunity? What kind of mission would you like to see happening here on a regular basis that you would like to participate in? As for inviting the ‘other’, why not begin with asking a friend to Easter service and then Holy Humor the Sunday after?

And to kick it all off, come to our Ash Wednesday service this week as if you were meeting God again for the first time. If you’re going to move into God’s neighborhood, that is, the kingdom of God, God’s autonomous zone, what do you need to leave behind in dust and ashes that God’s light might shine through you and transfigure your life?

Live in the zone. Devise a subversive plot for hope. Go naked for a sign. Be willing to reveal everything to God, for God has already revealed everything to us and continues that revelation in Jesus Christ, God’s Beloved and Chosen One. This Lenten season, let’s really listen to him. Amen.


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