"And Then Suddenly" is a great podcast that looks at turning-point events in people's lives. When Anglea asked to interview me, I wrestled with which event to speak about: Laura inviting me to Burning Man, Pilar Tumulo inviting me into the world of Buddhism and Yoga, my friendship with Maggie and Linda that led me to LGBTQ activism, or the truly most significant - my relationship with Andrea that began when we were 15. I decided to talk about my conversion to Christianity which was foundational for everything that followed. The interview flowed into the LGBTQ activism that followed my ordination.
In May I partnered with Buddhist Brandy Davis and Yogi Liani Moore to lead a retreat on daily spiritual practice. For the retreat I compiled some of my favorite prayers. Here's the handout I created:
I had a great chat with Matt Sandoval about Camp Religious AF and Burning Man. Our conversation is episode 24 of the Practice Makes Presence podcast: https://www.practicemakespresence.com/blog/ep-24-religious-af-with-brian-baker
For 30 years I've struggled with maintaining a daily spiritual practice. I know how important it is to ground oneself in prayer and meditation. I just have a problem doing it and sticking with it. Over the years I have developed ways of praying, meditating, studying and doing yoga that I can fit into my daily busyness.
Now that I've left full-time church leadership, I've the time to work on some of my other passions, like leading retreats. I've asked two of my friends, Buddhist Brandy Davis and yogi/musician Liani Moore to join me in leading a retreat that can teach practical, simple ways of working spiritual practices into our scattered, busy lives. The retreat will include examples of prayers, mantras and chants you can take home with you. You can sign up here.
I have found Christmas and Easter to be the most difficult times to preach. There are, of course, the external factors: the intensity of the season and number of services, the many visitors who have not been a part of the ongoing preaching conversation, the heightened expectations. But for me, the challenge is more than this. There is so much meaning, so much mystery in these feasts it is overwhelming. It is one thing to preach on a facet of the gospel, or a single story, like the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It is another thing altogether to preach on the meaning of the resurrection in 15 minutes. There is also the challenge of preaching on the same topic year after year - wondering if I've said something too many times already.
After 12 years of ministry in the same congregation, last July I began a one-year-long position as an interim priest. I have enjoyed beginning a new preaching conversation with a congregation. It has been an opportunity to focus and restate my theology and use my best images, without wondering if I've said it all before. I felt this was particularly true with my Easter sermon. I felt like after 28 years of wrestling with it, I finally not only had something to say, but was able to say it well.
I first attended Burning Man in 2015 because my daughter asked me to go with her. I figured it would be interesting and fun. I didn’t realize it would become home for me. I found at Burning Man what I had been looking for in the church for over 25 years: a genuine, authentic, caring, creative, non-judgy community. I am now heading into my fifth Burn, and the 2nd year running a theme camp, Religious AF. Here are the five things I think makes Burning man special.
Burning Man is not a festival. It is rather a global community organized around these 10 principles. Burning Man is trying to be the kind of community that many of us wished we belonged to.
Civic Responsibility and Leave no Trace: We are a responsible, responsive caring community working together to steward our community and to meticulously care for the Playa.
Radical Inclusion and Self Expression: Everybody is welcome, and as long as your freak isn’t hurting others, you can get it on, whatever it is. Imagine a place where you can truly be yourself, or try on a creative persona. With no judgement.
Participation and Immediacy: No spectators. No tourists. You don’t have to participate in everything, but you need to have skin in the game. Be present. Give yourself to the experience. And be present in the moment.
Self-Reliance and communal effort: Come prepared to take care of yourself, to be responsible for your own experience, and join with others to create something magical.
Decomodification and Gifting: The secret sauce of Burning Man. It is a gift-giving (not bartering) economy. Everybody comes prepared to give and receive. It is a banquet of generosity and openness. And nothing is a commodity: no quid-pro-quo. No business cards. No branding. No hidden agendas behind gifts.
Burning man has a mind blowing, dizzying array of activities and fun. Almost anything you can imagine is being offered. And yet “Burning Man” the organization provides none of it. This is one significant difference from a festival. None of the entertainment is provided as part of the event. All of the fun comes from camps, which are simply groups of friends who say, “Wouldn’t it be fun if we . . .” And then work all year long to plan a camp that provides whatever it is they dreamed up, be it trapeze camp, or the Thunderdome with its gladiatorial battles, or MASH Camp with episodes of MASH all night long, or Friend or PHO, serving soup in the middle of the night, or . . . . There are around 1400 camps. 1400 groups of people working all year to provide a fun experience for others for free.
Burning Man is horrible. It is held on a desert- dry, alkali lakebed. It can be super-hot in the day and wicked-cold at night. But the worst is the dust – fine talcum like dust that goes everywhere, gets in everything and never leaves. Never. Every day there are white-out dust storms. You must have goggles. And a breathing mask. Nobody would choose to vacation there. And yet, it is one of the essential elements of Burning Man.
The harsh environment makes burning man a crucible. You have to carefully plan your excursion. You have to work to be there – to survive. Just showing up pushes you to be committed and have skin in the game. And while you are there, you will likely be pushed to your edge. Not only by the physical environment, but also by the stimulation. You may stay out all night because there are so many exciting, fun things to do and see. So you will be tired. You will likely lose your shit at least once. Even on your 10th burn, prepare to lose your shit. This pushes members of a camp, or community, or couple to care for one another in a particular way.
Because of the crucible nature of the Burn, it is in some ways more like a spiritual retreat than a party.
Stunning, breathtaking art. Everywhere you look, in the center of the Playa or out in the expansive Deep Playa. And Art Cars. The only vehicles allowed, except for those needed to help people with mobility challenges, are “Mutant Vehicles.” You might see a ship, or a fire breathing dragon, or any sort of fantastical, beautiful creature, or a huge bouncy house, drive around – and you can hop on. And then there is the artistry of people’s clothing. Art, creativity and beauty everywhere. In every direction. All the time.
The Temple. The Temple. The Temple
The Temple. It is the most popular place at Burning Man. Often there are more people at the Temple than anyplace else. It is a large, stunning building where people go to quietly express and leave their prayers, hopes, laments, regrets, rage. They write on the walls, create little altars, leave notes, poems, pictures, ashes, dog collars, wedding dresses. “’Dad,’ I miss saying that.” “I miss you. I love you. Always. You would be proud of me.” “Forgive me” “Fuck you men who raped me.” “I only pray each year the pain
gets lighter” “Hug them now” There are usually small groups of people sobbing or praying. Other walking quietly about, solemnly reading the walls. Everyone goes to the Temple. Many people go more than once: experiencing it over time as it fills with the love and pain of the human heart.
At the end of the week, on Saturday night the Man is burned. It is a huge party. Everybody gathers around and hoots and hollers as the man burns under a dizzying display of fireworks.
Sunday night is different. Sunday night the Temple is burned. Everyone gathers around. Except this time in complete silence. The evening begins with hushed conversation, which stops when the first fire is kindled. Everybody puts out their personal lights. Art Cars shut down. And then silence. Complete silence. Tens of thousands of people, in a huge circle, in complete silence, for an hour. Except for the sobs. Then at some point there is a howl. It begins at one point and travels until the entire circle is howling at the flame – a mournful wolf how. When it is over, as people are leaving, there are often some people still sobbing. Strangers stop and offer hugs or a passing touch or may just sit down in silent companionship. Watching the temple burn, while connected to the broken hearts of thousands of others, is perhaps the holiest experience I have ever had.
When I first became a Christian in the early 80's, I was taught that Jesus died on the cross to atone from our sinfulness and only those who accepted Jesus as their savior would be spared God's eternal wrath. The more I read scripture, prayed and worshiped, the greater the dissonance I experienced between this view of God and the God of love I saw in Jesus. For the past decades I have been wrestling with how to understand, and articulate, an alternative understanding of the Cross of Christ and its role in our salvation. This sermon uses the the Transfiguration story as a starting point for understanding the Crucifixion.
One of my great joys is speaking with students learning how to be yoga instructors. I believe we can change the world with the power of love. In fact, I believe that ultimately that's the only thing that will change the world for good. And yoga teachers can be a vehicle of that love. In this talk I offer practical strategies for living with more joy, hope and peace - strategies that are particularly important in this time when everything is bat-shit crazy. And I invite the students to join the work of loving the world into wholeness.
Last weekend Andrea and I attended my 35th West Point reunion. (Andrea's is next year.) It was a great time to connect with friends and "recharge our rings" with the camaraderie and values of West Point. One of the first events at our reunions is a memorial service for our fallen classmates. The service not only remembers our classmates who have died, but it also is an opportunity to reflect on where we are in our lives and as a class, and it can set the stage for the rest of the weekend. I was once again given the honor of planning, presiding and preaching at the memorial service.
Andrea recorded my remarks. There were a few glitches with her phone while recording, but she managed to get it all except for a few tiny gaps. Here's what I said:
I love taking pictures and usually I take a ton, but at this reunion I was focused on connecting with my classmates, so I didn't take very many. Here's a slide show of my pictures from this year's reunion:
(Click the top left of the slideshow to access the photo album.)
Some of my other West Point Albums:
Photos from my 30th reunion
As I prepare to leave Trinity Cathedral, I am teaching my last class, "The Gospel According to Brian." It is a summary of my understanding of Christianity and the teachings of Jesus. This theology has been shaped by my ministry at the Cathedral. It has also directed my teaching and preaching. I am not recording the four sessions in this series. However, much of this teaching is encapsulated in a two hour presentation I did for a class of students learning to be yoga instructors at Zuda Yoga Studio. Anne Marie Kramer, the owner of the studio, has asked me for years to teach her students about Jesus. It has been a gift for me to have to think deeply about my beliefs and how I would present them to people outside the church. Here's my most recent session: