The 5 Things That Make Burning Man Special

image from 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.

The Principles

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.

The Camps DSC_0356

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.

It sucks

image from 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.

image from 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.

The Art

Burning Man Art

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

image from

image from 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.

image from 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.

The Temple.

image from

Religious AF - Coming out to the Episcopal Church

After our second Burning Man as a camp (Religious AF) in 2019, I decided to share what was going on with the wider Episcopal Church. I met with the Dean of my seminary in Virginia and with his permission spoke with the students.  I also contacted the organizers of the Episcopal "Rooted in Jesus" conference that included a track in evangelism and starting new religious communities. They asked me to give a 20x20 presentation: 20 slides for 20 seconds each. It was my first opportunity to share what was happening with Religious as Fuck with the wider church. The format was a challenge since I first needed to explain what Burning Man was, which is hard to do in a few minutes.  The talk was well received but it was one of a string of presentations so there wasn't any chance for discussion or follow up. 

There were several folks who were inspired by what they heard and were eager to camp with us. Then COVID hit and Burning Man went virtual for two years. I am now getting energized for 2022 and am picking up where I left off in early 2020. Here's the presentation:  

Tips in Time of Pandemic

Brandy Davis and I have begun a series of online classes through Just Be Yoga Studio in Danville & Walnut Creek, CA. In our first class I offered a brief outline of some strategies that may be helpful at this time. I realize that this pandemic is hitting everyone differently and no list of suggestions will work for everybody. Whatever you are dealing with in our global shitstorm, I hope something here will help.

Honor the Grief

This pandemic sucks.

Everyone has lost something. I have lost my Son’s graduation from West Point, travelling to see friends and family, and leading my camp at Burning Man – which has become a huge part of my life. I know there are people who have lost so much more.  Everyone’s loss is important. According to David Kessler, co-author of On Grief and Grieving, there is no value in comparing levels of loss, “The most important loss is yours.” We each have our own significant losses.

We are experiencing loss on a global scale – everyone is traumatized. We need to be honest about our loss and understand that we are weighed down by grief. The spiritual language of lament can be helpful – praying our pain, sadness, and despair. There is even room in lament for raging at God. “Why O Lord . . .?” While lament does not eliminate the cause of our suffering, it does help us move forward. Naming and lamenting our loss can create space for something on the other side of the loss.

Put fear in its place

We are facing dangerous and scary threats that are real. Front line workers are facing the very real danger of not only their own deaths but of infecting family members. I know people who are immunocompromised for whom a simple errand feels like going to war. We need to take this pandemic seriously. This is no time to push the real danger aside. Perhaps now more than ever we need to take our fears seriously.

And yet. . .

Fear can also be debilitating. It grows beyond its helpful purpose and constricts our hearts. Our world can close in on itself as fear run amok crucifies the better angels of our nature.

Here’s how that debilitating fear works. Something happens that is a real cause for concern. We find a mole that is misshapen, for example. Our fear pushes us to do the right thing: make an appointment with our doctor. At the same time our imagination kicks in. We convince ourselves that the mole is a malignant cancer that must be fatal. That fiction plants itself in our brain as if it were a present reality. In an instant we believe we are dying, and part of us lives as if that fiction were true.

It helps to know this about ourselves: when faced with a threat we often overestimate the likelihood the bad thing will happen, and we catastrophize, turning the bad thing into a calamity that will destroy us. We then live as if our life was already destroyed. Our capacity for creativity begins to shrink. Our compassion dries up. Once I learned this about myself, I saw it happening again and again.

It helps to know that the calamity you are projecting isn’t real. It isn’t even likely. So don’t let it own you.

But what if . . .

Sometimes the bad thing we fear happens. The mole is cancerous. We lose our job. Someone we love dies.

Often when this happens our resilience kicks in. We find resources within ourselves we never knew existed. Surprising allies appear and we realize we aren’t alone. The situation that we thought would end us turns out to be a catalyst to something new.

Again and again in my work as a priest I have been with people who have experienced unendurable loss, like the death of a young child. In the moment it felt like there was to future, no way to move forward. While the pain of the loss never completely went away, there was always some kind of unexpected new life on the other side. As Anne Lamott says, “If it feels like a bad ending, it’s not the end.”

I’ve seen this happen on the personal level, I believe it happens on a societal level as well. We have faced horrible times as the human family. Probably the worst on a global scale was WWI and the Influenza Pandemic in the early 1900’s. A more recent example is the fight against racism in our country. We have confronted horrible hatred and violence. At times it must have felt like we would not survive. While it may be hard to see, I believe Dr. King was right – the ark of the moral universe is bending toward justice.

This is not the worst time people have faced crisis, injustice, and horrible government. Sadly it isn’t the last time. It just happens to be our time. It won’t be easy, but this is not the end of the world. I believe that even through this, love will prevail.

So put fear in its place. Let it motivate you to right action. Do everything you can to care for yourself and those around you. Make prudent choices. But don’t listen to the lie that this pandemic will destroy you.  

See disruption as an opportunity

While plenty of social upheaval has happened in my almost 60 years of life, I think this is the biggest, most widespread social disruption I have ever seen.  In the U.S. almost everybody has shifted their way of living. Disruption does a couple of things.

First, it allows us to see our world and our lives with fresh eyes. Routine can dull our critical senses. We stop noticing cracks in the system. Until the system is disrupted and we begin to question our priorities and choices. At the same time cracks we have papered over in our workplaces or relationships become clear again. “Is this really working.” New possibilities emerge, “What about . . . ?” This happens at the individual level (job, partner, friendships) as well as socially/politically (healthcare, leadership.)

 Second, it creates room for change. Normally change is hard, if not impossible. We have our routines that create stability. In some ways we all conspire to keep the status quo in place. But now there is no status quo. Things are shattered. Hopefully this will be the biggest disruption in my lifetime, which means it is the biggest opportunity for us a society, and for us as individuals to change things.

What are you noticing that isn’t working in your vocational or home life? What do you need to let go of or change? What patterns of behavior has this pandemic forced upon you that might help in the future?

What isn’t working for us as a society? Keep in mind, this monumental societal disruption is happening in the context of a series of other disruptions: Black Lives Matter, Me Too and the divisiveness of the Trump Era to name a few. Many people – namely people with all the privileges – for whom it was easy to believe things were generally ok, were already having their eyes opened to how really-not-ok our world is for too many others. Now the house of cards is falling quickly.

While it may feel overwhelming to consider right now, these next years may be the best opportunity you have to make positive changes. It is scary and it will be hard, but we will get through this and can even be better on the other side.

Be gentle toward yourself and everybody else

In “normal times” I find it helpful to give people the benefit of the doubt. I truly believe that everybody on the planet is doing their best given the baggage and trauma they are carrying around. Everyone is doing their best – even if their best is really shitty.

We are not in normal times. We are all struggling with grief, loss, fear, uncertainty and disruption. The situation we are in is overwhelming for everybody. So it is even more important to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Including yourself. If all you can do one day is sit on the couch and watch Netflix, let it be. We will all have different ways of coping. This is a good time to let your judgy inner critic go on sabbatical.

If you have the energy, do something purposeful.

If you aren't a first responder exhausted from saving the world, it helps to do something that matters. But if you can’t right now, remember # 5 and watch another episode of Schitt's Creek. The time will come for you to step up. It just may not be now.

Holy Week Under Quarantine Message

Here's what I wrote for the April newsletter of Christ Church, Elizabethtown, KY a few days before Palm Sunday:

We are entering our fourth week of social distancing. I must admit when we were first encouraged to stay at home I had a kind of “snow day” sensation – as if school was canceled and I was getting away with something. I like change and while I was concerned and anxious, there was an excitement to it. I had things to do to prepare, like shopping for supplies, and new things to learn, like Facebook Live. I knew that newness wouldn’t last. And it didn’t.

The reality of our situation is settling in. I find myself missing human contact, missing my kids and my friends in California and elsewhere more than usual. My living space, which I love, is feeling confining. And there is something more, something a little under the surface. I think it’s grief. I feel like we are in the midst of some kind of shift and that this moment will be somewhat like 9/11 – a time that universally marks a before and an after. Remember when we could fly without out so much security – when we could meet people at their gates? I don’t know quite what we will lose, but it will be something.

My feeling of grief is connected to the anxiety I have felt over our political and social climate change these past four years. As our political and social rhetoric has devolved into vitriol and name calling, we have lost a civility, a sense of community. Perhaps we can regain the civility we have had, but perhaps not. Into an already strained civic system our pandemic rages. And now we can’t touch, or even be close to one another. I have a sense that we have lost, or are losing something precious. I can’t really see it or name it clearly. What will life after the pandemic be like? In a year, how will we complete the sentence, “Remember when we used to . . . ?” I don’t know; the uncertainty is unnerving.

It is times like these when our faith is critical. Not a Pollyanna faith that everything will be unicorns and rainbows, but a gritty faith born from a bloody cross and carried by heroes who have weathered storms more perilous than ours. This won’t be easy. There will be blood. Pain. Despair. And in all things, in all of this, God will be present loving us and sustaining us, and in the end, resurrecting us. We don’t know what our future holds, but we do know that our future is held in the hands of God’s love and providence. God will take the pain and anxiety of this present moment and use it to create something new. God always has, and always will. There will be life, new life, on the other side of this pandemic.

Not only do we have the faith that God is with us, and will bring us to new life on the other side, we know that times such as these provide us with opportunities to love. Every crisis, every tragedy is an opportunity to love. We see it already in the ways people are connecting with one another in creative ways, in the ways people are giving sacrificially to support health care workers and isolated neighbors. There will be manifold ways for us to love one another in the weeks and months to come. We get to exercise our capacity to love, and doing so helps create the new, resurrected world that will emerge on the other side of this crisis.

This time is scary but we are not powerless. We can love. And we can pray the prayers of the church, prayers that are designed to give us hope. We are entering Holy Week – a week of intense prayers where we enter deeply into the pain and suffering of our Lord, Jesus Christ – pain and suffering that lead to profound despair, as we see from Jesus’ words from the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me.” But as the story plays out we see that Jesus was never forsaken by God. The pain of the cross led to new, rich, and abundant life. Jesus was transformed into something new and glorious in the Risen Christ. It is our belief that the transformation from death to new resurrected life is not a one-time event limited to Jesus. Rather the cross and resurrection of Jesus happened to show us that that is how God operates. God creates new and abundant life out of experiences that feel like death. It is what God does.

Our Paschal faith is defiant in the face of tragedy. This pandemic will be difficult, and we may feel forsaken for a season, but we are not forlorn. God’s will be done.

I invite you to enter as deeply as you can into the prayers of the church. We can’t meet as usual this Holy Week, but perhaps that isn’t all bad. Rather than going through the usual motions, our circumstances push us into a place that might be closer to the trauma and pain experienced by Jesus and the disciples. Rather than see our social distancing as an impediment to our worship, perhaps the disruption and fear of our present moment is an invitation to enter more deeply and authentically into the Paschal Mystery where pain and struggle, with God’s presence and grace, are transformed into new life.

Please join me in observing a holy Holy Week. In the coming days I will be planning Holy Week services that can be viewed online as well as sharing prayers and readings you can use on your own at home.                    






Morning Prayer at Burning Man

IMG_4157At 10am every morning campers and guests would gather in our chapel for Morning Prayer and Bible Study.  It was a time for us to connect with one another and center ourselves before the adventures of the day, or perhaps after the adventures of the night. Prior to the Burn we created a Prayer Book with readings based on the 10 Principles and rites for Morning Prayer and our various Temple services. One of my favorite prayers was one we prayed daily in the morning. I use it now as part of my default world morning prayer.

Leader  Eternal Spirit who sees and loves those who often are unseen and unloved by others,
We lift up to you all those who may be carrying heavy loads; 
those who have brought their losses and emptiness to the playa;
those held down by addiction or threatened by violence;
those who suffer in mind and body; 
those who feel unloved and unwelcome.  

May they find in us your hospitality, with no agenda of our own  except to welcome and listen, offering a cool breeze on a hot day.  

You are the God who is simple, direct, clear with us and for us. You have committed yourself to us. You have said Yes to us in creation, Yes to us in our birth, Yes to us in our baptism, Yes to us in our awakening this day. But we are not like you. We say “perhaps, maybe, I can’t.”  *

People  In your mercy you call us again.  Today you called and we said Yes. Because we are like you: loving and creative. We claim our Yes today in this place:  hot, exposed, uncontrolled, and not of our own making. We claim our Yes because today we are committed to Jesus’ command to love you, love ourselves, and love our neighbors. We claim the weird, ordinary, and unmet parts of ourselves saying Yes to you today because we are religious as fuck,  we are your church, and we are not giving up. In your mercy and helping one another, hear our prayer: we say Yes. Amen. 

Isn't that a great prayer!  I love how it names the brokenness that people bring to the Playa and also reflects the open, agenda-free, healing hospitality offered by the playa that we want to embody in our camp. I also adore the, "because we are religious as fuck" line. Whenever we would get to that part of the prayer, there was always a laugh of surprise. Beneath the light shock of it was a proclamation: we are a people of love and hope, no matter what. And we aren't giving up. 

The Prayer Book  was created by Alex Leach, Patty Jenkins, Michelle Booth and Tom Gartin. This prayer was written by Patty. The paragraph with the * was inspired in part by the prayer "Yes" printed in Walter Brueggemann's Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth.


My Burning Man Blessing

Burning Man is has a gifting economy. Everything is a gift, freely given. Camps offer experiences as free gifts, and people offer all kinds of things. For my first Burn in 2015 I created a blessing that I could offer strangers. I needed it to have integrity and reflect me, who I was as a priest on the Playa, but also be readily received by as many people as possible, inclduing those who had been wounded by toxic Christianity. Here it is:


The world now
is too dangerous
and too beautiful
for anything but love.

I bless your eyes be so you see God in everyone.
I bless your ears, so you hear the cry of the poor.
I bless your lips so you speak nothing but the truth with love.
I bless your hands so that everything you give
   and everything you receive,
   is a sacrament,
I bless your feet so you run to those who need you.

And may your heart be so opened,
so set on fire
that your love,


changes . . .



It was amazing to be in an environment where I could go up to a stranger and ask, "can I bless you?" and they would expectantly say "yes." They of course never knew if it was something funny or deep - at Burning Man anything could be considered a "blessing." And I mean anything.  After getting consent to touch them, I would put my hands on their shoulders, look in their eyes, take a breath and say, "The world now . . ." After the opening line, their countenance would change. They would prepare themselves to receive something important. I would touch next to their eyes, ears, lips, and hands, then stoop down and kiss their feet. For the last line I would put my thumb on their sternum and press hard. It was always a moving exchange.

I did it a fair amount my first year, but not as much as I thought I would. Each exchange took more energy than I had anticipated. I needed time to reset. I also learned that there were times that were more appropriate, when people would be more open. Sunrise was good. Evening, when people were getting ready to party for the night, was not. 


Burning Man Sermons

After each Burn I get the opportunity to bring some of the Burning Man world alive for my congregation. Here are the sermons I preached after my first few Burns.


2015, the sermon that started it all.

I left the 2015 Burn early, on Saturday, so I could get back to church for Sunday. Which meant I prepared this sermon while riding back to Sacramento, dusty and dirty, on my motorcycle. I basically told stories of my experience. The sermon immediately went viral among burners because they now had something they could show their mothers that explained why they went. The popularity of the sermon made it possible for me to connect with other Episcopalians and to connect with the wider Burning Man community. (I'm embarrassed by the length of the sermon. Normally I preach for 15-20 minutes. But I had so much to say. And the people seemed to not mind. That set a pattern for all of my post Burning Man sermons.)


Welcome Home – A Reflection on Burning Man from Trinity Cathedral on Vimeo.


In 2015 I left on Saturday, before the burning of the Man Saturday night and the burning of the Temple on Sunday night. This sermon reflects more deeply on the power of the Temple as well as our first Eucharist at Burning Man. I'm sorry this sermon is out of focus.


Return From Burning Man II, Sermon 9/11/16 from Trinity Cathedral on Vimeo.



In year 3, I set up a prototype Camp Religious AF. It was a camp of one. This sermon tells the story of that fledgling attempt. It also has my favorite opening line for a sermon: "Do you use cannabis."


Religious AF, Sermon 9/10/17 from Trinity Cathedral on Vimeo.


In the summer of 2018 I moved to L.A. and became the Interim Rector at St. Ambrose Church in Claremont. I hadn't yet dialed in the video recording equipment, so this is an audio sermon recorded on my phone. This sermon reflects on the first year of our camp, Religious As Fuck.

Audio Link:

Sermon 180923 post Burning Man


Holy Shit! All these people!: Religious AF's 1st Temple Eucharist (2019)

BDSM Safety - Basics of Kinky Play
Sparkling Disco Party
Building an Off Grid House
Starcraft Tournament
Lingerie Beer-Tea Party
Reiki Energy and Sound Healing




Above are just some of the activities listed for noon on Tuesday at Burning Man. We had four Temple services. Tuesday was our first. We were expecting 15 or so people to come to the service. With all that goes on, and the difficulty of communicating events and getting anywhere on time, 15 is a really good turnout. It was what we had the previous year - our first year as a camp.

2018 Tuesday temple eucharist
Opening Eucharist in 2018



IMG_2304This year we had over 70. We didn't plan for that many. The service was structured like a regular Sunday service with readings, sermon, prayers and communion. Except we added a time after the prayers for people to come forward for individual prayers and a blessing. That made sense when we were expecting 15 people and not all would come forward. But we had over 70. And they all came forward. And lingered. They wanted real prayer. Real blessing. No drive by platitudes. There were tears. And hugs.

It was terrible. While the Holy Spirit was all over it, I was an anxious mess. It was taking way too long. We were in the heat of the day with no seating, and this part of the service, which was supposed to be short was going on, and on, and on, and on. 

Nobody left. Nobody got their blessing and walked away. They all stayed. And were present to each other.

During this prayer/blessing time, we were singing a Taize chant. Over and over and over again. My sister, Michelle, who was helping to lead the chant realize we hadn't planned music to cover a long period of time. That's when Lauren appeared. She was a recently baptized, Episcopal, professional opera singer and virgin Burner who was thrilled to learn we were having the service.   She asked Michelle if she could join her, and then she stepped up. It was spectacular. Lauren became an active part of all of our services and would come to the chapel at our camp to practice and warm up for performances. 

When the blessing part was over, we went straight into the communion service.  At the transition to communion, everybody stayed. And after the Great Thanksgiving, people came up for communion and then stayed for the final blessing. 

Photo Aug 27  12 47 57 PMIt was a breathtaking start to a rich and full week of worship, prayer, blessing and conversation. And things just got better as the week progressed.