Spiritual nourishment in the desert
The annual Burning Man festival in northern Nevada attracts all kinds of people: artists, musicians, atheists, and the religious, Wall Street executives and the self-employed. What unites the community is a commitment to free-spirited “radical self-expression,” which manifests itself in fantastic costumes and creative vehicles resembling parade floats. During the week, the gathering becomes the fourth-largest city in the state as tens of thousands of people and structures appear in the desert, vanishing a week later as attendees leave no trace they were ever there.
Although the structures vanish, attendees say their experiences at the festival stick with them. And for some, this year’s Burning Man experience included a new element: Christian Science lectures, delivered in venues devoted to spiritual healing.
Christian Science lecturer Tom McElroy traveled to the festival with three other Christian Scientists—Michael Morgan, Nate Frederick, and Julian Schwartz. Tom delivered two lectures titled “The real you—no limitations,” in both indoor and open-air venues (for more on this, see “Seekers unite at a ‘Burning Man’ festival,” Christian Science Sentinel, November 5, 2012). You can also watch a video of one of the lectures at christianscience.com/lectures/the-real-you. The idea for holding the lecture event came from Susanna Kerber, a Christian Scientist who’d attended Burning Man for years, and was supported prayerfully and financially by Christian Science churches and church members in California, Oregon, and elsewhere.
What was it like sharing Christian Science at Burning Man? How was it different from doing a lecture in a more traditional venue? The four attendees and Susanna share their experience:
How did the idea for a Christian Science lecture at Burning Man come about?
Susanna: I had been going to Burning Man since 2000; I really wanted to meet people who were interested in being good to one another. In 2006 when I came back into Christian Science as an adult, I felt God was gently but firmly guiding me to share it in whatever way I could. Each year I went to Burning Man, I would end up giving away my copy of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy and a copy of The Christian Science Journal during the week. Then one day the following year, I woke up with what felt like a command: “Go set up a Christian Science Reading Room.” Julian found a way to get a box of copies of Science and Health sent out for the temporary Reading Room, and this helped set up the relationship to work together on a lecture for the coming year.
Julian: The novelty of the event seemed to cause some obstacles in certain ways. But it was very rewarding to witness divine Love dissolve them and turn any opposition into enthusiastic support.
Tom: We submitted applications to speak at some of the venues at Burning Man, and one venue called Red Lightning had a real openness to the idea. So we loaded up a van with gear and trekked out to Black Rock City, this dry lake bed with frequent sand storms. We had a six-man tent, and we created a lean-to with some tarps that we strung together; we had a little backpacking stove for our cooking—it was truly camping!
The Red Lightning camp was established around the theme of spiritual fraternity. I gave two lectures there, one indoors and one in the open air. We felt very guided to be where we were, to give the lectures where we gave them. Our tent was not too far from the venue where the lectures were held, and there seemed to be a lot of folks around there—even those who were there by themselves—who really seemed to have come with a spiritual mind-set, seeking something.
Once you were there, did you find it was easy to share Christian Science?
Tom: Sometimes the term “sharing Christian Science” has a bit of baggage. We weren’t trying to share “our” thing, since the ideas of Christian Science are universal and not denominational. So it really didn’t seem difficult to just say, “This is what we’re up to.” We were just focused on giving.
Michael: The whole time we were acting from the standpoint that people are naturally receptive, that these spiritual ideas are in their hearts. So it became an opportunity to show up and connect with these brothers and sisters—allies, really. I was able to put together packets of quotes from the Bible and Mary Baker Eddy’s writings and so often it was like I was giving out boxes of chocolates. We were going into a space where healers already were; they were just looking for inspiration.
We were acting from the standpoint that people are naturally receptive, that these spiritual ideas are in their hearts. So it became an opportunity to show up and connect with these brothers and sisters—allies, really.
Nate: Burning Man has a participatory culture, and you’re expected to bring something to share. We brought some extra food, but I think our main thing was bringing Christian Science, the Science of Love, and our experiences demonstrating that in our lives. We felt so deeply about it, and we knew it was a gift that was incredibly meaningful. At one point a girl told me she was an eye doctor and was interested in looking at eyes from a spiritual perspective. I told her about Christian Science and after a great conversation gave her a copy of Science and Health. [Editor’s Note: Mary Baker Eddy defines eyes in Science and Health on page 586 as: “Spiritual discernment,—not material but mental.”] She was just beaming. She said, “I’m going to read this whole book; this is exactly what I’m interested in.”
Julian: Going out to announce the lecture was a great opportunity to become really sober and clear about our motives for sharing Christian Science. At first I felt too much like a salesman trying to offer the latest ideology. But I quickly realized that divine Love is something so desirable that everyone already has a natural yearning for it. My thinking changed from trying to spread the message to simply praying, “God, I followed Your call and I’m here. Whoever is searching for what I have to share, let them find it.” People would approach me out of nowhere, literally in the middle of the dessert, and the conversation would naturally drift toward spiritual healing.
Can you talk about the Christian Science lectures themselves?
Tom: Both lectures were really well received. They also gave us an anchor for discussing what had brought us there—as we would walk around and get into conversations, many people would bring up spirituality. And we’d say, “We’re going to be giving a talk on that kind of thing later, if you’re interested.” The first lecture started out with just a handful of people and grew to about 40 by the time it was done. The second was in a smaller teepee-type structure, and we ended up with about 10 or 12 there.
Julian: The outdoor lecture was a great way to introduce the ideas of divine Science to new people since the audience was able to simply bop in and out. Many who showed up early for the following event got the chance to listen in and take away new ideas. The second lecture was indoors and it was smaller, but had a completely different quality of thought. Each person was there with a specific focus and some even shared that their attendance at the lecture was a direct answer to their prayer. The audience was not just interested in experiencing spiritual healing; they also wanted to extend and grow in their own healing practice.
Tom: And in a way, it was like the lecture activity was going on the whole time. You can’t take ten steps at Burning Man without getting engaged in a conversation, and we just had so many opportunities to talk with people. We brought about 100 copies of Science and Health, and we gave away every single copy.
Did you find that the lectures had a sort of ripple effect in terms of inspiration and healing extending beyond Burning Man itself?
Nate: When we left Burning Man, we were all excited about sharing “a cup of cold water in Christ’s name” [see Science and Health, p. 570] and not fearing the consequences, but enjoying them. We had been really focused on just knowing that this truth that we love—that everyone is made in the image and likeness of God—is written on everyone’s heart. So we continued to have one conversation after another about Christian Science. Everyone seemed to be yearning for it. Our cup was running over for sure.
Susanna: People have been coming up to me and saying how much they’ve been enjoying the video of the lecture. They just think it’s perfect and so helpful. And it was done with the spirit of connecting with people.
Julian: This experience wasn’t a ripple; it was a shockwave. At our first stop driving home from Burning Man a wonderful lady started expounding on Genesis 1 to us. She emphasized that we are God’s children and that everything was made good.
Michael: The video of the lecture captures an atmosphere that is so big. A movement that represents a collective determination to see spiritual progress. That’s something that is still influencing my thought and expanding my horizons about what Church can be.