Burning Man

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.

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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 blessed 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,

YOUR LOVE,

changes . . .

everything.

 

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.

2016

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.

 

2017

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.

2018

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

OR

LRM_20191115_114344

 

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. 

 


The 5 Things That Make Burning Man Special

image from www.flickr.comI 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 www.flickr.comBurning 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 www.flickr.comThe 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 www.flickr.com



image from www.flickr.comThe 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 www.flickr.comSunday 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 www.flickr.com


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.