blackrockcity_yearround sectional graphic

A PASTOR ON THE PLAYA?

Why I Go To Burning Man
by Randy Bohlender


I've noticed a thread on the e-playa recently...one where people are swapping stories about what they tell non-burners about Burning Man. Part of the discussion has centered on trying to explain why we go to the Burn. I've faced this question more than my share of times. To a certain extent, I fit the mold. I'm an adventurer. I love travel. I have an auxiliary hole in my head from which dangles the obligatory gold hoop. At first glance, I meld into the Burning Man crowd quite well. Still, if my college graduating class would have had the foresight to vote, I would have probably been voted "Least Likely to Burn".

It's not my appearance that makes me an unlikely burner, it's my paradigm. Prepare your hearts for a shock, gang. I'm a born-again Christian. Even stranger (or some would say even worse), I'm a pastor...have been for years. I've made it my life, and will continue to do so.

2002 was my second trip to Burning Man. Back in 2000, acting on what we would call prompting from God, a team of five of us brought 5,000 bottles of water to give away. It was our way of making a prophetic declaration of what God wants to do in people's lives; bring water to the dry places. We were wonderfully received - burners are great hosts. It was more than a fluke that Renee Roberts was shooting footage for her documentary Gifting It...we spent a good hour on the playa discussing giving, altruism and art. This year, I returned with a larger camp...five people became twelve, one vehicle became three, and five thousand bottles of water became ten thousand. We spent the week gifting water to fellow burners, as our practical demonstration of the love of God. A few folks differed with our philosophy, but none argued about the practicality of the gift, and all were grateful receivers. We became Burners and lived among friends for the week.

As we talked with passing Burners and word got out that "the Christians" were camped at the corner of 225 & Forecastle, we were frequently approached by pleasant people with an innocent question: "Why are you guys here?" It was never asked in anger...just curiosity. People honestly wondered why we would choose to spend so much effort and resources to give to a group that, at least on the surface, seemed to be proudly at odds with much of what the church has stood for down over the years. Our standard answer was "to show you God loves you in a practical way!" Driving the 2200 miles home, covered in dust, I asked myself the same question, and came to the following greater conclusions.

I go to Burning Man because the playa puts me in my place.

I spend entirely too much time in boxes. I have a ranch style, suburban box, where I keep my family and most of my stuff. I have a small, German-made box with wheels where I keep most of my CD's and spend a lot of time on the phone. I have another box where I keep coworkers. In those boxes, I am someone. I have the power to change the climate. I can manipulate the auditory environment. I crown myself king of my boxes, and when my boxes wear out, I will get new ones. The playa is the ultimate out of the box experience. In our boxes, we are in total control. On the playa, we are at the mercy of God (some would say the universe, but remember...I've got a paradigm).

It's on the playa that I realize my finiteness. Only when I'm on the vast expanse...so flat that I can see a storm coming, feel it engulf me, and watch it pass...that I realize that life happens to me much more than I happen to it. For all of the control that I think I exert, it's all on the micro level....where I live, Mac or PC, whether or not to supersize.

The greater matters - disappointment, elation, health, danger, death and the like - race towards me like a playa storm. I can anticipate and prepare, but cannot stop them. On the playa I find my place, and it's not the place of a player who influences a game, but more like the ball itself. The playa makes me yearn to know the coach. It makes my need for God much more evident. I need Him whenever I get out of my box.

Historically, God has chosen the desert as a backdrop when He wanted to strip the peripherals away. He sent John the Baptist as a man burning in the desert, rejecting the traditional luxuries he would have known as a priest's son in favor of a minimal existence and maximum impact . The ancient seer Isaiah prophesied of "a voice calling out in the desert. " As the crowds are drawn to the playa, the crowds were drawn to the desert of Judea to see a man burn, and those who heard his words and took them to heart found new life represented in the ritual of baptism. The 2002 Burning Man theme of life on water couldn't have been more appropriate for John, who knew that the man who left his sins in the water rose alive like never before.

The Spirit of God drew Jesus into the desert for a time of proving and returned Him to the masses full of power. It was in the desert that He faced his own nemesis and discovered the strength held only by those who know self control and God-reliance. Scripturally speaking, time in the desert was never wasted. God draws me to the desert to remind me of who I am, of how little influence I have apart from His plan, and the power He holds over all of us. The playa puts me in my place.

I go to Burning Man because creativity points to a Creator.

Our camp consisted of two teams - an advance team that piloted the stuff out from Cincinnati, arriving Sunday, and a fly-in team who joined us mid week. While the newbies who arrived first acclimated by mid week, we all enjoyed watching the fly-in team's reaction to things we'd grown accustom to. Thursday evening, the fly-in newbies were still buzzing. They'd endured 24 hours of airplanes, rental vehicles, desert roads, and the amazing first-glance of Burning Man. My friend, Robbie, turned around to see the huge harvest moon rising behind The Man. Keep in mind that he'd spent the day looking at whale-buses and lily pads that weren't really there. After staring at the moon for a moment, Robbie asked "Is that the moon or is that something somebody's doing?" I laughed manically; not because it was silly, but because it was plausible. Only at Burning Man could one consider that it really wasn't the moon...that perhaps someone had fabricated it. After all, isn't everything fabricated by someone? From hand painted, fish shaped bicycles built lovingly in people's basements to large scale installations taking a crew of fifty all week to assembe, everything points toward the inner part of man that says "I can make something special...".

What is it within the heart of a man or woman that leads them to create? Why must we augment our reality with our depictions of it? That thing that has driven us to scratch the outline of a wooly mammoth on the wall of a cave, that has pushed us to build pyramids, paint pictures, and build flamethrowers...it is evidence of an aesthetic drive that prohibits us from leaving well enough alone. The animal kingdom has no such compulsions. Never in history has a yak shown interest in sculpture or a chicken so much has strewn straw in a intentional pattern. Why is mankind so different? What is it that is stamped upon our spirit that causes every culture in the world to spawn painters, poets, and sculptors? Inuit or Slav, Semite or Anglo, one cannot find a culture in the world with no appreciation for artistic expression. Theologians would call it 'the image of God'.

The story of Genesis describes the Spirit of God as brooding over the chaos of a preconceived cosmos, and He acted on it. He said "I can do better," and He did. His artwork incorporated elements of color, shape, texture, sound, force, and life itself. Then, from the elements He created, He created a composite, and blew life into it. It became him, and He was in him. Since that day, he has been driven to create just as He did, and so we create...because on our spirit resides a Creative Force.

I go to Burning Man because gifting looks a lot like God's idea.

Giving was a part of our group's ethos long before Renee Roberts released Gifting It. Our church is known locally as the church that gives away Cokes at intersections, gives free newspapers in city parks, and goes door to door in residential areas to wash cars free of charge. We do it as a demonstration of God's love that will make sense to people...a solo on a pipe organ might be hard to relate to, but a clean car in the driveway is something that people find intensely practical.

Our church was founded in the early eighties by Steve Sjogren. Early on, he felt impressed that rather than build a traditional 'come and see' church, he should build a 'go and do' church. A 'come and see' church is based on programs that bring people into the building. Christmas pageants...puppet shows...concerts...none of these activities are inherently bad, just geared for those who are already on the inside track. A 'go and do' church draws people out of their own four walls and into the community. A 'go and do' church brings value to a community by bringing the best of faith to the faithless who need it the most. Just as God has always been the consummate artist, so has He served as an example of 'go and do'. Jesus was constantly moving among the people, doing things like giving people sight and providing the extra wine for a wedding celebration. His message was not merely "the Kingdom is coming", but "The Kingdom is here." He valued action. Jesus was God, going and doing.

It doesn't surprise me that gifting is taking an increasingly high profile at Burning Man. In a large concentration of seekers - people aware of their own spiritual journey - it only makes sense to me that the image of God that has been stamped on humans from the beginning of time would manifest itself, and that in the act of receiving, some would find more than the gift itself.

Wednesday morning, as the last of the rave goers stumbled back towards their camps on the outskirts of the ring, we stood giving away bottles of water. Behind us loomed our camp, complete with a large sculpture we called "En Gedi". En Gedi depicted a huge boulder with a spring flowing from the top. The name En Gedi refers to an actual place in the mid east - the oasis in the desert where David hid from Saul. The name is also referred to in the prophetic writings of Ezekiel as the headwaters of God. Our En Gedi featured a beautiful angel on top, bowing low before a golden throne.

A young guy wandered into our camp for some water, and found himself resting in the shade, trying to build up his strength for the final walk back to his tent. After hearing the explanation of our artwork, he asked "Who sits on the throne?"

I told him "God sits on the throne."

The guy glanced up and grinned back at me, "I don't see Him!"

I asked "Where'd you get the bottle of water?"

For a moment, time stood still as he stared at God as represented by the free gift in his hand. He took a swig, looked back up to the throne and quietly said "Thanks, God."

I go to Burning Man because the church has spent too many years at the trailing edge of society.

As a child, I went to church in the fifties, which is only interesting when you realize that I wasn't born until 1967. It wasn't that the actual decade was that of the fifties...just that the church never left it. The music, the style, the attitudes all screamed of an age that I did not know anywhere else other than within those four walls. Although I grew up in a devout Christian family, it was often difficult to take what we were living within the walls of that church on Sunday and make them fit into the culture where we lived the rest of the week.

Because of it's unwillingness to embrace the present, let alone the future, the church has shown itself to be irrelevant to my generation. As a result, when people need help, they rarely turn to the church, even though helping people is what the church is all about. It's not that there's an animosity towards the church; just an ambivalence.

While Burners often take an element of pride in being 'out of the norm", I think they do themselves a great disservice when they fail to realize that they are dragging culture their direction. We may or may not see a national trend of green hair or public nudity, but I do believe that our culture is moving towards the mores of Burning Man. It is the Petri dish of postmodernism...and what is growing on the playa will spread like crazy throughout our world. I want a church that will be there, so I go to Burning Man to grow in my knowledge of the future.

I've learned much in the 2 years I've been associated with Burning Man. Some of it may surprise you. For example:

  • While I have a deep seated sense of right and wrong, Burners aren't interested in it. My sense of values cannot be forced upon people. All I have to offer is life and experience...and if I can show them life, they may be interested in my values.
  • Given a choice of A, B, or C, most Burners will pick D (all of the above). Creative people refuse to be pigeonholed into given answers. They value the journey of discovery as much as the arrival at fact.

In these two characteristics, I find truths that the church must understand in order to be relevant to post-moderns. First, that people cannot be argued into a system of faith, only drawn in by what they see in others. This is why the Bible tells us that people are drawn to God by His kindness. Second, that if Christianity is going to appeal to people of the future, then the church has to make room for people in process.

I go to Burning Man because I want the church of the future to learn lessons that can only be learned when one goes to where the future is headed.

Finally, I go because I have something to offer.

It didn't take me long to acquire the burner's innate disdain towards spectators. Consuming social capital while contributing nothing to the greater good of the whole, they are societal parasites. We received an incredible variety of things on the playa. Our neighbors made us homemade ice cream. A flamenco guitar player named Tao favored us with a song. Three hilarious young men located somewhere above 255 entertained us with a tag team story telling session that remains so vivid an experience that I laugh out loud when they appear on our video tape. It seems everyone had something to offer, and my 'something to offer' is what brings me the Black Rock City. My gift, though taking the form of a bottle of water, is really much more than that. I come to present hope...a bite sized morsel of grace that people can take home to chew on for themselves.

Towards the end of the week, one young man approached me and said "can you confirm a couple of rumors I've been hearing? "

"Sure" I said.

"Word on the playa is that you guys are all from a church."

The way he said 'church' led me to believe he probably didn't believe the rumor. "Yep," I said, "We are."

His eyes grew wide. "And I also heard that you are a pastor."

"Again, confirmed."

He then moved in for the kill. "And I heard you came out here to convert us all."

I looked both ways as if to see if we were being spied on, leaned forward and asked "Do you own your own home?"

He seemed a little stunned. "Yeah. Bought it last year."

"How long did you look for a house?" I continued.

This line of questioning was not what he expected. "I don't know - maybe six months."

I smiled. "Okay, so it took you six months to find a place to live. That's not unusual. Some people look for a year or more and no wonder...it's a huge decision. If it seems normal to look for a house that long, don't you think it would be arrogant for us to anticipate that you would make a major religious paradigm shift out here in the desert in just one or two short conversations?"

"Uh, yea" he said. By this time, he was more puzzled than he had been when he walked in.

"We're not so arrogant as to expect that you're going to change everything about what you believe just because we told you...but we do think that if you walk away from this experience thinking a little differently about God or the people who claim to serve Him, that's a good thing. Drink our water. Hang out. Be our friend. Then go home and make your own decision about the God that motivates us."

I go to Burning Man because I have something to offer...a fresh perspective of an old institution. An image of the church rising from the ashes of hypocrisy to prove itself relevant to the age...an image of a church made of servants, in the model of Jesus, caring for people and loving God.

And that's why I go to the Burn.

Randy Bohlender is the Director of Small Things at Vineyard Community Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he lives with his wonderful wife Kelsey and three sons, Jackson, Grayson and Zion. He enjoys his ambigous title, playing with his children, and worrying the members of his homeowners association. He can be reached at bohlender(at)cincyvineyard(dot)com.

about this photo