Jesus was walking across the barren landscape, carrying a cross. I shouted to my friends, "Look, it's Jesus! Let's get a picture of him."
The three of us started walking across the desert toward Jesus, but he turned away, walking further into the nothingness. I hastened my pace and left my friends behind.
When I finally caught up to him, I said, "Hi, my name is Simon, and the Romans sent me to carry your cross." I hoped he'd get the reference. He did. Relieved, he handed me his cross, saying, "Oh, thank you. It's not too heavy, is it?"
I walked and talked with Jesus, and I told him my real name. "My friends and I created an art installation in honor of one of your saints, Simeon Stylites. We'd love to show it to you."
Jesus stopped. He looked me in the eyes and said, "Are you Phil Wyman?"
Jesus teared up. He said, "I've been looking for you. I was lost and couldn't find you."
Okay, that's weird, I thought. Jesus was lost, and now he's found. How often does that happen?
But this was Burning Man. And anything can happen at Burning Man.
Hedonism and Spiritual Searching
Burning Man is a late-summer festival held annually in the bleak Nevada desert north of Reno. Fifty thousand people gather on the barren alkali lakebed called Black Rock Playa to camp, party, create art, and burn things—big things—culminating in the immolation of a large effigy, the source of the festival's title. During the week it exists, it is Nevada's fourth largest city.
Touting the dual values of radical self-reliance and radical self-expression, Burning Man is a notoriously hedonistic event. There are some naked people, but not as many as the urban myths suggest. There are campsites that are adult playgrounds for a variety of sexual activities. Burning Man has drugs and an excess of free alcohol. By night the event becomes a series of large raves and dance parties, with walls of woofers and tweeters thumping and squealing until dawn. It might be expected that even angels would fear to tread the dust of this nomadic adult party. But art and hedonism are not the only things one finds at Burning Man.
For many, Burning Man is a spiritual pursuit, about finding a countercultural, nonmonetary way to live. You cannot buy or sell things at Burning Man. "Gifting" is the prime value, and most Burners bring enough supplies and gifts to give a great deal away to others—art, food, skills, and crafts. At our camp, espresso was being gifted, and when the espresso machine broke down, a 70-ish "Mr. Fix-It" gave us the gift of repairing it.
That wild combination of hedonism, art, and spiritual pursuit is what dragged me and four adventurous friends to Burning Man late in the summer of 2011. We wanted to see if Jesus was there. Like missionaries to an aboriginal culture, we were hunting for hints of the witness of God's Spirit in the midst of it all. If it is true that "where sin abounds, grace does much more abound," it seemed that Burning Man would be on fire with great grace. Opportunities for sharing the gospel could be limitless.
I wondered why Christianity had not typically embedded itself into these festivals, why we weren't among the leaders of new cultural developments and wildly creative thought. Certainly God is wildly creative—enough to find his way into human hearts in other cultures around the world. But at these festivals, and in the newly developing cultures of postmodernity, there seem to be so few people of Jesus. Yet, as the five of us would discover, we were not alone. We camped with about 40 Christians from all over the country, with the common goal of outreach. And at least two other Christian-themed camps were under way at the festival.
Witches and Other Developing Cultures
Since beginning pastoral work at a small California church 26 years ago, I've always sought unique opportunities to share the gospel, envisioning newly developing American cultures as part of the mission field. I brought that vision with me when I moved to Salem, Massachusetts—"Witch City USA"—which half a million people visit for the activities formed around Halloween, the history of the 1692 trials, and modern-day witchcraft. Every October since 1999, our church has been one of the city's most active organizations. We seek to be the hands and feet of Jesus among these visitors, and our Burning Man outreach is an extension of this approach.
I see Burning Man as a developing festival culture in American society. Like the children of Israel, who gathered for holy days like Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles, millions of people throng to festivals such as Burning Man, the Rainbow Gatherings, and Mind Body Spirit. Such events are imbued with a hedonistic party culture, but they often foster a search for deeper spirituality. That spirituality is typically not Christian—it's not specifically or predominantly anything. Rather, it's at root the search for meaning. Like the Jews running out to the desert to see John the Baptist, these spiritual seekers run to festivals and find new crazed prophets.
But I believe these "developing cultures" cannot run far before finding that God is running with them, embedding hints of the gospel into the DNA of their own creative momentum. Discovering the hidden work of God in their midst is like discovering a reluctant prophet of the living God.
I found the grace of God in Burning Man's "gifting" principle. I found the heart of Martin Luther's "priesthood of all believers" in its emphasis on interactivity and encouragement for every person to create. I saw my Creator God in the innovative art being erected on the playa. I saw a call to a primitive simplicity in the location of the event: the barren desert, a wilderness.
Like a missionary among unreached people groups, I trusted that God was already at work. The Jesus who has adeptly embedded his presence into the myths and histories of cultures around the world is also at work in newly developing ones. He is not surprised to find 50,000 people running around the desert acting crazy, burning massive art installations. He was there 25 years ago, when they first burned a small wooden man on the beach in San Francisco.
And he preceded us to Burning Man last year. It was as if he had been walking the playa for years, lost and invisible to the eyes of the church, yet hoping we would find him. In finding him, it seemed that all we needed to do was offer people an opportunity to search for Christ themselves—to hear his voice, to sense his gentle urgings, and to see his handiwork laid out on the desert canvas.
So we decided to create something that would allow people to "listen for the voice of the Spirit" without our mediating the process, and we believed God would show up. Or at least we hoped and prayed he would.
Pillars of the Saints
Like others at the festival, we devoted ourselves to building a large art installation—one of more than 300 built on the playa that week. Ours would be something of a sociological experiment. We were looking for people who were hoping to hear something—a still, small voice, perhaps.
I found some friends to help me—Hope Deifell, Dennis Huxley, Scott Veatch, and Matt Bender—and we built something we called Pillars of the Saints. It was an interactive meditation project based on the life of Simeon Stylites, the 5th-century Christian desert father and ascetic mystic. Simeon lived on a pillar for 39 years, seeking God and sharing wisdom with the multitudes who sought him out. Even popes asked for his advice, and Simeon's work started a small movement of "pillar saints."
It took us four days to build the installation: three pillars 10 to 12 feet tall and three blank walls with a flame altar in front of each. Each of the elements—the pillars, the walls, and the flame altars—had its own purpose.
Tens of thousands of people began arriving at the festival. At first slowly, then in droves, Burners began to visit the Pillars of the Saints. Standing at the altar flame, we would say, "This is not an art installation. It is merely a blank canvas for the art. Your experience, and the things you write on the walls, will become the art."
At the flame altar, Burners were instructed to write on a piece of magician's flash paper words describing things that hindered them from hearing the voice of the Spirit. They tossed the paper into the fire and watched it suddenly flash and disappear. They gasped. They cried. They often stood at the altar a long time, considering necessary changes to their lives. This was the beginning point in the process of hearing from God.
The pillars were designed for people to climb up from the inside, step out onto the top, and close a trap door behind them. Alone atop the pillars, they would "listen for the voice of the Spirit" while looking out over the desert. They were encouraged to remain on the pillars until they heard something. Some sat for a few minutes, some for hours. Some cried. Some laughed. Some sat silently and seriously. Some lifted their voices and their hands to the heavens.
Many people had spiritual encounters upon the pillars.
When they were done, they would climb down and write upon the walls, giving public expression to what they had heard. Some of the writings were founded in pantheistic New Age perspectives, others appeared to be driven by personal struggles or pop philosophies. But many of them evidenced the true God's influence.
A Voice in the Wilderness
A week later, toward the end of the festival, the walls were filled with scores of simple, graceful, and intensely personal expressions. Sayings covered the walls like holy graffiti:
Why do people hurt others only to hurt themselves?
You can stop an invasion of armies, but you cannot stop an idea whose time has come.
It's no good measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.
Let go of everything you know and all will be revealed.
Joy is a community that loves. Love heals.
Discipline is Freedom. Laughter is Medicine.
And darkness has no tickets for this event.
To find God one must forgive.
The truth will find you.
On the first day of the event, a man named Daniel came down from the pillars in tears. "This," he said, waving at the Burning Man city, "is not what my life is about any more. It's time for me to move on with my life and make some changes." Dennis told Daniel the meaning of his name: "Beloved of God." Hope prayed with Daniel for some time, and both she and Dennis hugged him before he wandered off into the desert.
A young woman wrote with her fingers in water letters upon a black tablet we provided during the hot days. The word me evaporated into nothing. I asked her what significance it held. "I've got some changes to make," she said, adding that she knew she was the one who was in the way, hindering the voice of God from speaking into her life.
These are just two of hundreds of meaningful interactions we experienced at Burning Man. People cried for joy. People thanked us profusely. People returned daily to find peace. People sat upon the pillars each morning to watch the sun rise.
We prayed with people. We spoke blessings over them. We encouraged them to make a habit of listening to God, and we shared the crazy story of a 5th-century saint who sat on a pillar like these before us for 39 years.
The Spirit of God rode in the winds above the pillars and helped people inch their way toward eternity. They surrendered their struggles and their addictions. They reached out with open arms to the heavens. They discovered peace they had been seeking. These are the things we saw, and the things they shared with us.
Not everyone thought our project was special. A couple people laughed at the concept. One blogger later wrote that we "had it wrong," and that he believed God did not care about prayers or poetry and did not speak in words, except to say "yes" or "no." Some of our guests wanted to climb and jump around instead of meditate. And a few just wanted to smooch. But most of the time, the mood was respectful and peaceful.
At the end of the week, we burned our art project. Flames from the pillars shot out the trap doors at the top, reaching 35 feet into the night sky. They looked like a set of monstrous Trinitarian candles. The words of those who listened for the voice of the Spirit and had written on our walls burned and rose in the smoke to heaven, but some of those words had already reached heaven before they went up in smoke.
A Last Word from Jesus
It was the middle of the week when the man dressed like Jesus arrived. We learned that his name was Bert Flaming; he was a Christ follower and a bookseller from Canada. Flaming had seen a video about our project before coming to Burning Man and wanted to find us, but we found him instead. He spent about an hour with us. He meditated upon the pillars and wrote this on our walls:
I love you. Be kind to one another, especially to people who hate you. I'll help you, and when you can't do this, I'll forgive you.
Jesus was already at Burning Man. We found him there, and like our friend, the Canadian Jesus, he was looking for us all along.
Editor's Note: At this year's Burning Man in late August, Wyman and his team are building a yurt and a large interactive theremin (an eerie electronic instrument that is played without being touched). Wyman says it will "highlight the capacity of individuals to connect with God," and that "it is the attempt to find God that carries a sense of holiness, not the perfection with which we accomplish that connection."
Phil Wyman pastors the Gathering, a small, independent church in Salem, Massachusetts. He blogs at squarenomore.blogspot.com.
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