What We Learned in 2019

Religious AF 2019 was wildly successful, exceeding our expectations. We had 70-80 people attend each of our four services at the Temple. The people who stopped by our daily Morning Prayer services, afternoon conversation time and contemplative services were eager to engage about their spiritual lives. Here are some initial thoughts on principles for Christian ministry to those outside the church.

Honor the culture you are in: We are Burners first! We love the ethos of Burning Man Amelie Eucharistand support its mission. We put up with the awful physical conditions because we find the Reign of God present in this temporary, wild and wacky community.  We are not venturing into this foreign culture in order to draw people out of it. Rather, for us, this place is home. Our existence as Burners gives us a common identity with other Burners. We as individuals as well as a camp have a deep respect to the ten principles. This respect allows for an immediate common understanding and in many ways adds credit to our camp’s mission.  One of the ways we honor our culture is through our liturgy that intentionally incorporates language and imagery found at Burning Man.

Serve, Don’t Sell: One of the ten principles of Burning Man is decommodification. There is an intentional effort to protect everything from the rampant commodification in the default world. At Burning Man, nothing is a commodity. There is no bartering. No quid-pro-quo. When you give a gift, you do so expecting to get nothing, to gain nothing. You can’t sell anything, not even Jesus or the Episcopal Church.

The principle of decommodification acts as a necessary guardrail in Christian ministry. When we serve people at Religious AF, we are there to welcome them, serve them, pray with them, and answer their questions. We are not there to show them how cool Jesus or the Episcopal Church are. We aren’t recruiting them, or asking them to join anything.

Be clear about identity and intentions: We are a Christain camp. We are clear about that in our camp principles and our services. We do not hide our Christian identity.

Hannah&Alex_Ash Wednesday

Be aware of triggering symbols: While we are an explicitly Christian camp, we are aware that certain aspects of Christian piety, iconography and theology have been used in harmful ways.  We are careful to limit Christian symbols and language, such as the latin cross or atonement language, that may pose a barrier to those wounded by the church.  Having the word “Fuck” in our name helps people feel like we may be different than Christians they have experienced in the past. Clearly, this wouldn’t work in every setting. The success of our name is dependent on its context within the culture of Burning Man.

Be non Judgemental: From our Purpose and Principles, “We offer hospitality, conversation, prayer and ritual to all who seek it: gay, trans, straight, high, sober, clothed, naked, polyamorous, monogamous, celibate, gracious and grumpy.” We have welcomed people in all of those categories, without flinching or wincing, because we believe all people are beloved children of God, deserving of love. This may be one of the most surprising aspects of our camp for outsiders. Christianity has been so closely identified as moral police that people are often pleasantly stunned by our acceptance of the freaky side of themselves that they may hide from others. We also demonstrate we are accepting through our appearance. Burners have an instant sense of belonging when they physically see the members of our camp because our individual campers reflect the same communities listed above!

Be a Caring, Safe Community: Group night shot

As a camp we intentionally work at being a caring community with clear boundaries and a process for handling conflict. We have a Community Covenant and honor everyone’s voice, in our camp as well as outside our camp. This sets a tone that is inviting to others. One way we create a safe space at the Burn is through our interactions with our one on one blessings. Before a blessing is given from one person to another consent must be established. Consent is one of the strongest Burning Man values and by simply asking the individual receiving the blessing “Do I have your consent to place hands on you?” you are reiterating the following actions are within a space of mutual understanding, love and trust.

Be Honest-Vulnerable-Authentic: We also have a mission to ourselves when attending Burning Man! This might sound similar to the ever quoted “self-care” message. However, it’s bigger than that. Members of our society are telling the world, “We need healing” by attending Burning Man, and seeing ordained members bringing this message is important. It shows a level of vulnerability that clergy have not been viewed as before. Each of our camp members are invited to bring their authentic selves with their own doubts and struggles into our conversations with others. Challenging ourselves to all go on this journey together meant we as a camp needed to create a space to make sure our own camp members had mental and physical health support. This support allows for campers to reflect on their own healing along with vowing to help heal our greater Burning Man community.

 

Do You Use Cannabis?

“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 .

— Brian Baker
After the 2017 Burn

Carren Sheldon Post Burn Sermon

This is the desert box. We need a little piece of the desert in our room, because so many important and wonderful things happened to the People of God in the desert.
We need to know what it is like.

 The desert is a dangerous place. The sand is always moving, so it is hard to know where you are. There is little water in the desert, so you can get thirsty. Almost nothing grows, so there is almost nothing to eat. People can die if food and water are not found. The wind blows the sand, and hits your skin and stings. In the daytime, the hot sun scorches your skin, at night it is very cold. People wear many layers of clothing to protect themselves from stinging sand, the scorching sun, and the cold night. 

The desert is a dangerous place. People don’t go into the desert unless they have to.

I went to the desert last week.
It was SO hard.
I like to think I’m pretty tough. But this was a whole ‘nother order of difficult.
(I said that last night, and 30% of the congregation came up afterward to say they love the Black Rock Desert, including the white outs! Go figure.)

Together with 8 people I don’t know, most of us first-timers, I went on a mission to share the love of God in Christ with people who have no idea that’s in any way relevant, at a Burning Man theme camp called Religious AF.

Lots of people thought we were being ironic.
A few heckled as they rode by on bikes:
“Good luck with your sky wizard”
and “There is no God.”
(A campmate responded, “We love God.”)
Some people came into our living room and visited for a while,
before it dawned on them that we were serious.
“Wait?! You’re religious for real?!”
(How I felt finding out that some people love white outs.)

In this day and age, people think that “religious” means “intolerant”, “unkind”, “proselytizing”, “judging”.

One of the first people we met was Rabbit. His camp makes
pinhole cameras and develops the film,
old school: in a dark room.
Same way we do religion
old school: with sacraments, & the Bible.

Tho’ not one of us—who call ourselves Religious AF—
brought an actual Bible.
(We have bible apps which don’t work without cell signal.)

Rabbit said he was glad we were there,
though it was too bad we weren’t “allowed” to do things.
I think he meant dancing and drinking,

So many of our neighbors don’t know that Christians,
even old school Christians, do all the things.
If I’d had a Bible, I might have read today’s reading from
the Song of Solomon; or today’s Gospel:
nothing outside us defiles us, only what’s in our hearts.

Incarnate passion, Celebration! Art! Bread! Wine! Dancing:
All holy!
God has created us with love, for love.
How have we not shared that message?

Despite the dismay that people, nice, thinking people,
believe in God and Jesus,
more people came to our camp every day.
to pray, to ask questions, seeking sanctuary, and silence.
I think some came because something had scared them.
And we also went out to adventure among them!

We went into the desert with our ancient Christian traditions.
Jesus used common, every day metaphors
which ordinary people understood, but
we don’t have so many shepherds and oil lamps,
and so our ancient language and symbols have become
a kind of secret code separating us and them,
instead of uniting us as one in God’s love.

I guess that wouldn’t matter if the people weren’t seeking God –
but they ARE – they just don’t have language for it.

People often speak of Burning Man as a place of hedonism:
but it’s too hard for hedonists.
The Four Seasons is for hedonists, not the Nevada desert.

Burning Man is more a place of abandon:
abandonment of old assumptions and identities, for
for celebrating impermanence, Creation, and creativity.
For 2-thousand years, Christians have gone to the desert
to be tested and refined.

All the Abrahamic traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,
are grounded in the same stories of a people, our people,
finding God as they faced hardship in the desert.

Burning Man is difficult by design.
At the entrance gate: they make you lie down in the dust.
Dust gets into everything
What does our tradition say about dust?
We blessed ashes, and offered them with Ash Wednesday words:
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return”
words as meaningful in the desert as they are here.
Maybe more.

70-thousand people live cheek by jowl for nine days a year:
with no cell service, no wi-fi,
nothing bought or sold but coffee and ice.
Everything else a gift.

They create community, and amazing works of art –
and then they give it all up,
leaving no trace,
holding the transformation written on their hearts.

That seems very Christian to me.
Resurrection is not about dying and getting our old lives back.
None of Jesus’ closest friends recognized the Risen Christ.
Resurrection is about the powerlessness of death to
overcome God’s Creation:
about God’s call for us not to cling to things of this world –
but to let it go, and accept the gift of new life in Christ.

How can we, as Christians, abandon the things of this world,
and transform our ancient traditions in ways that seekers comprehend –
and to be transformed by seekers showing us
new meaning in God’s teaching?

What do sin and salvation really mean? For us. Here. Now.
I’ve been translating these things in my mind for years,
but it’s hard to articulate them for people who aren’t
fluent in religious language!
Godly Play is all about teaching the art of religious language:
Gestures, movements, liturgical actions, words, silence.
These languages connect us with companions grappling
with the existential questions every human being must face:
Who am I? Where did I come from? Am I alone?
What am I supposed to do?  What is death?

Some people use the language of pilgrimage –
old school to Rome, the Camino, Sinai, or Mecca,
new school at Burning Man:
the journey is a great blessing.

For four years, Brian Baker has been giving a blessing
as his gift at Burning Man.
I have seen the people who scoff at religion begin to cry: as he puts his hands on their shoulders, looks in their eyes and says:

The world NOW is too dangerous and too beautiful
 for anything but LOVE.
I bless your eyes that you may see God in everyone you meet,
your ears that you may always hear the cries of the poor,
your lips that you may speak nothing but the truth with love,
your hands that everything you give and receive will be a sacrament.
and your feet that may run to those who need you,
your heart, that it may be so opened, so set on fire that your love, YOUR LOVE changes…everything.

Purpose and Principles

Religious AF offers, open, non-judgmental, non-commodified Christian spiritual hospitality, prayer and conversation to all burners. We are a place of spiritual healing and safety.

Principles:

We are explicitly Christian. Our rituals, scripture, and prayer come from the Christian tradition.

We respect the value and validity of other spiritual paths.

We offer hospitality, conversation, prayer and ritual to all who seek it: gay, trans, straight, high, sober, clothed, naked, polyamorous, monogamous, celibate, gracious and grumpy.

Decommodification: we are not at Burning Man to sell Christianity, Jesus, the Church, or our camp. We are here to freely offer blessing, prayer, ritual and hospitality.

We are sensitive to the ways toxic Christianity has harmed people. We are careful in using triggering symbols, such as the Latin cross, or a predominance of male-centric language for God and humans.

We come to Burning Man because we experience God here. The generosity, openness, mutual support, creativity and playfulness is, in many ways, how we envision God’s dream for all of humanity.