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
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.
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.
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.
I was honored to be among a great line up of speakers for TEDx in Klagenfurt Austria in June, 2017. They wanted a talk that expanded the talk I gave at Burning Man. The first five minutes of this talk are the same as that earlier talk, but then it develops differently.
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.
Xanthi Pinkerton of Trinity Cathedral created a video with my Burning Man Blessing and photos I took at Burning Man and Trinity Cathedral.
Burning Man makes the cover of The Living Church (with my photo!)
Here's the article:
Prior to going to Burning Man, I was featured in this article in the Sacramento Bee
As well as this TV news report:
I was invited to speak at the Sun Valley Wellness Festival. This was my second opportunity to speak at this remarkable event. Last year I spoke about Christian spirituality. I believe it was the time first someone was invited to speak about Jesus and Christianity at this festival. This year I spoke about my experiences at Burning Man. It great a great experience. Last year I spent much of the weekend visiting friends. This year, I stayed at the Inn and participated in the festival.
Saturday was MC Yogi and David Whyte. I had lunch with MC Yogi and his DJ Brandon. That night they had an amazing concert and we danced for hours. Sunday was my talk and Marianne Williamson. There were so many other great speakers, but I needed to work on my own talk. It was a very rich weekend.
Sun Valley Property News focused on the festival for their June issue and included an article on my talk using my own pictures. It's the first time my photos were published in a magazine.
The Wellness Festival folks published a couple of clips of my talk, including one of me blessing someone in the audience.