Burning Man and Everyday Evangelism

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“Do you use cannabis?” This is a question I have never been asked.

Except at Burning Man.

Burning Man has a gift-giving economy - not bartering, rather, gifts freely given and freely received. You might be riding your bike, then turn a corner and be greeted by someone in the street asking: “Do you want an omelet?” ”May I give you a massage? Even: “Hungry for a strap-on corn dog?”

The question is always part of a loving exchange, a request for connection, or communion.

As I was tearing down my camp after Burning Man 2017 a tall, thin, young white man with long blonde hair came by and asked if he could borrow my rake. We rake our campsites to make sure we aren’t leaving behind MOOP (Matter Out of Place). The rake sifts through the dusty dust and reveals tiny pieces of trash. I had forgotten my rake so I couldn’t help him, but we ended up having one of those chance conversations that make Burning Man so special.

He asked, “How will you be different when you go back to the Default World? How has this Burn impacted you?” I was moved by the depth and sincerity of his questions, and after answering them, I offered him my gift, the Burning Man Blessing.

“May I bless you?” He said yes.

I placed my hands on his shoulders, looked in his eyes and said, “The world now is too dangerous, and too beautiful, for anything but love.” Then I blessed his eyes, ears, mouth, hands and feet – kissing his feet. I placed my hand firmly on his chest and said, “And may your heart be so opened, so set on fire that your love, YOUR LOVE, changes everything.” His eyes welled with tears.

We hugged. He sobbed.

Then he asked me The Question,

“Do you use cannabis?”

“No,” I replied.

“That’s cool,” he said, “I had a gift for you, but that’s cool.”

I was taught by one of my first mentors to never refuse a gift, “If you refuse a gift, you refuse the giver.” But there are some gifts I can’t accept.

We parted ways. I tore down more of my camp and then took a break to explore more of the Playa – the dry alkalai lakebed that houses Burning Man.

Hours later when I was back at camp the man returned. He was eager to see me. He pointed to the banner on my shade structure bearing the name of my camp, Religious as Fuck, and asked,

“Is that true, are you religious?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact I am, I am a Christian.”

A big smile crossed his face as he exclaimed, “Wow, you just restored my faith in religion!”

And then he went on his way.

This man was eager to ask his question. I could tell he was hoping the answer was going to be yes . So many people have had bad experiences with religion, but haven’t given up hope—they yearn for the church to look like Jesus: loving, welcoming and compassionate. All it took was acceptance and a blessing.

Sometimes it is that simple .


This past week I was wondering what it looks like to pay homage. I understand conceptually what adoration toward God is about, but how can I talk about it in tangible, incarnational ways? How do we exercise the muscle of adoration, awe and homage?

The reason I was thinking about homage so much was because the Gospel reading for Sunday was the story of the Magi paying homage to the child-king (Matthew 2:1-12.) So I was in my office working on this sermon when a parishioner, Jean Wu, came to drop something off and asked, “Can I tell you a story?”

We sat down and she began:

“Every Christmas I go to the fortune cookie factory and buy a bag of fortune cookies to take to my local fire station.”

I was immediately distracted by what was the most important thing she could tell me. I thought, “Wait, there’s a fortune cookie factory??? In Sacramento!!!”

I pulled myself away from my wandering brain as she continued,

“I went to the fire station and knocked. The firefighters welcomed me in. I knew many of them because I have been doing this for years. I gave them the cookies. We chatted. Then I said, ‘We prayed for you today. At Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, we prayed for you.’ I then took out the bulletin and I read what we prayed for people who are unable to be with those they loved because they were working. After I read the prayer, they just stood there in silence for a long time. There were tears in their eyes. Then one of them spoke, ‘We can’t tell you how much that means to us. Thank you. Thank you.’ Then, when I was going to Trinity for the later service, I realized the parking attendant had been working all day and was away from her family. I told her the same thing. She said, ‘Wow! I mean . . . Wow! Thank you.”

I thanked Jean for her story and asked her if I could use it in a sermon sometime. She smiled and said yes. I didn’t realize that her story would be the perfect example of how we exercise the message of paying homage – of recognizing and acknowledging the people who are serving and blessing us every day.

Jean’s story is a perfect example of everyday evangelism – one Christian sharing Christ’s love with others. It is easy for me to do this at Burning Man, because everybody is giving gifts and sharing love. But Jean showed me what it looks like in the Default World. It is a great model of how we can live in a way that looks more like Jesus. Thank you Jean. Wow.


Burner Podcast

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After the 2017 Burn, Arash Afshar, the producer of Burner Podcast was passing through Sacramento.  In 2015 he invited me to be interviewed, but he only does them in person and he lives in SoCal. It was a treat to get to talk with him.  You can listen to the interview here.


TEDx Black Rock City (Burning Man) Talk

             Seeing Through the Eyes of Love

 

This talk was given at Burning Man's 2016 TEDx event. The event was scheduled to run from 8pm to midnight. Because of technical challenges, my talk, the closing talk of the evening, took place at 2am. I had enough coffee in me to fuel an entire camp. I am grateful for the volunteers who faced many challenges to pull off such a great event in the middle of nowhere.


What is Prayer?

In April I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on prayer and meditation at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts. As part of the preparation I wrote a brief description of my understanding of prayer:

Prayer is an intentional act of connecting with God in a way that both changes us – gradually decreases the hold of the ego and helps us see God in the world – and connects us more closely with God and other humans. 
 
Prayer is not, in my understanding, trying to convince a reluctant God to do something God isn’t already doing. God is always speaking to the better angels of our nature. God is always pouring God’s love and grace into our lives and calling us join God in loving the world into wholeness. We need to tune our antenna so we can receive this grace and love. We need to change the way we see the world so we understand how deeply we are connected to God and one another. Prayer is a vehicle for this. Prayer is not asking for little red wagons; God doesn’t give little red wagons. God is always giving us God’s spirit.  God gives life, and hope and peace and calls us to care and support one another.
 
That said, I also believe that prayer for healing is efficacious. Not because we are convincing God to do something (heal someone) that God isn’t already doing. Rather there is some mysterious way the energy of our prayer contributes to the energy of healing. And praying for other people is an act of solidarity, where we enter into the suffering of others. And in some way my engineer brain cannot fathom, that matters.
 
For me, meditation is a form of prayer in which we rest in the presence of God. It is a practice of turning from our distracted, monkey mind, to the quiet presence of God. While it may contain words, such as a mantra, the purpose of the words is to call the self back into a state of resting in God.  Meditation is a particular contemplative quiet form of prayer which has the goal of resting in the quiet presence of God beneath words or thoughts.

How Christ Reconciles us to God and Ourselves

We were created for a joy that comes from living in holy communion with God and one another.

We don't live in Joy because we are paralyzed by fear, judgement, insecurity, addictions and general bone-headedness.

Jesus came to fix that, to show us the way back to Joy, to reconcile us to God and one another.

But how? How does Christ reconcile us?  In Lent of 2017, the clergy of Trinity Cathedral explored the Episcopal Baptismal Covenant in a series of five sermons. The third sermon was on the question, "Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ." I used the opportunity to preach a sermon on the good news of the Crucifixion and then teach a class on a broader understanding of how God is in Christ reconciling us.  Here is the sermon and the class:

  

 

 

  


What I Believe

Shortly after falling in love with Jesus when I was 19, I was confronted with an understanding about Christianity that I had trouble accepting: namely the notion that God would condemn to eternal torture those who were not followers of Jesus. The idea that Jesus came to save his followers, and only his followers, from eternal torment seemed to be the only way, in my more evangelical upbringing, that I was to understand the "good news" of God in Christ.  My experience, on the other hand, was of God who loved me even while I was in the midst of rebelling against God.  Part of why I went to seminary was to figure out if I could be a Christian: did I have to believe that Christ died on the cross to satisfy God's wrath so those who accepted Jesus would be saved from the eternal torture at the hand of God?  Or was there a place in the church for a God who loved the world in the same way I had experienced God's love for me. I was ready to give my life to a spiritual path, and I needed to make sure Christianity was the right path for me.

In seminary I learned that this one model of understanding Christ - substitutionary  atonement - was only one of many; and was not a central or essential belief for Episcopalians.  That launched me on a quest of understanding what the good news of God in Christ was, for me. In what way does Jesus save us, or reconcile us to God? What is the central message of Jesus?  My articulation of this good news has evolved over my 36 year journey as a Christian. Here's what I think now:

  • God is love. God's only judgement is mercy.
  • All humans are beloved children of God, created for love, deserving of love, and capable of love.
  • All humans are created to live in holy communion with God, all other humans and all of creation: Jesus called this state of holy communion "the Kingdom of Heaven"
  • We are all paralyzed by fear, judgement, insecurities, addictions and a way of thinking that pits me against you, us against them. This paralysis is called sin. Sin leads to division. Division is the work of the devil (root word = divide.)
  • God's response to this paralysis is not wrath but heartbreak.
  • God was in Christ reconciling the world to God: Jesus came to reconcile us, to reconnect us to God and one another (aka heaven) by leading us out of this paralysis of fear, judgement and dualistic thinking (aka sin.)  Connection and reconciliation is the work of God.
  • We are called in some mystical way to become Jesus, to embody God's spirit and love, and join Jesus in sacrificially loving the world into wholeness.

 


Trinity Cathedral Rule of Life

Trinity Cathedral Rule of Life

 

How do you stay grounded in your faith? How do you keep your heart open and loving? How to you abide in hope? How do we, as a community of faith, join Christ in loving the world into wholeness? In times of personal struggle, or national strife, it can be difficult to draw from the well of spiritual strength found in our faith. For centuries Christians have adopted spiritual practices that promise, over time, to ground us in the love of God making us resilient and loving. This Rule of Life offers a set of four practices that grow out of the promises of the Baptismal Covenant. It is our belief that adopting these practices will, over time, transform our hearts and our lives. They are offered for a season, with the hope that they may become long-term habits.

The Commitments

  1. Connect Daily: Commit to daily spiritual practice 

In the beginning there was nothing. God created all the wonders of the universe: the multitude of stars and planets, the array of plants and animals, and the mass diversity of humankind. God created it all, and nothing is apart from this creativity and love. Everything is Holy and blessed. It is our practice of disconnect and individual numbing that causes us to act apart from this reality. In a chaotic world, daily spiritual practices call us to intentionally return to the source, to God’s love and God’s call.

The Practice:  Commit to daily spiritual practice whether it is for one minute, or sixty – practice daily.

  1. Stay Loving: Respect the dignity of every human being

Every person is a beloved child of God, deserving of and capable of love. Too often we deny this basic goodness in ourselves and others. In judgement, we distance, demonize and diminish the dignity of other people. We also turn this judgmental eye onto ourselves.  In contrast Jesus lived a life of forgiveness and reconciliation. He tells us to love others as we love ourselves, to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us.  

It is difficult to stay loving when confronted by cruelty, violence, arrogance, and selfishness. There is a strong temptation to respond in kind. Jesus calls us to a higher way: to not let the cruelty of others rob us of our ability to love. Jesus modeled this when he asked God to forgive the very people who were killing him. While we may not have the spiritual strength of Jesus, we can strive to keep our hearts loving as we strive for justice in the world.

The practice: Pay attention to your thoughts and when you start berating yourself, or denying the dignity of others, redirect your thinking. Perhaps say a short prayer or mantra, such as “every person is a beloved child of God,” or “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Do not participate in conversations that demonize others. Pray for people you dislike or who threaten you.

  1. Practice Community: Worship and study together

Shortly after Jesus’ death, his followers found themselves called to live radically different lives than that of the dominant culture. Called to recognize all as beloved children of God, to cross human boundaries, befriend outcasts, and challenge oppressive powers in the way of Jesus, many fell short. They realized the need for specific practices that would give them stamina and ground them in faith and courage. Some found these practices in community, setting aside regular and specific times for eating, studying, worshipping, and praying together. Others sought silence and time apart. All found a need to return to the source of all life, and reconnect.

In two thousand years, this need has not changed. In a divisive and chaotic world, we too need practices which nurture the source of life within us. Practicing community, Jesus’ followers founded a faith which unexpectedly spread beyond boundaries in a hostile world. Their simple practices of community - sharing stories, listening deeply, eating together, sharing resources, and praying together – formed their lives, and strengthened their hearts. Whether it is to commit to weekly worship, and/or one weekly group learning activity, in this Lenten season, we invite you too to enter into the practice of community.

The practice: Commit to weekly worship and one weekly group learning opportunity.

  1. Do Justice: Strive for justice and peace in the world

We live in a beautiful and broken world. Believing as we do in the unity of God’s love, harm that affects any of our brothers and sisters is harm that affects us all. No matter who we are, or where we are in our spiritual journey, God calls us to be agents for justice, healing, and hope. The good news is that we have already begun. In our baptismal covenant, we promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven. And we have the words of the prophet Micah ringing in our ears: that what God requires of us is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).

When we turn our hearts to issues of injustice, suffering, and unrest, we engage in work that we cannot do alone. Thus, we open ourselves to being used and changed by God in ways that we can neither control nor predict. In this, lies hope for us and for the world.

The practice: Stay present and actively grapple with current events.  Commit to one justice area and regular action. Share your experience in conversations with members of the church.