In August 2013, a desire to be purposeful in loving, coupled with some fresh thinking about church, brought a group of people who cherish Christian Science to an unusual venue: Black Rock City, Nevada, where the annual Burning Man art festival is held. There are many distinctive elements about this city and event. It is a global community of about 60,000 people who gather for one week in a temporary city created in the middle of stark desert. Everyone who comes is expected to give something. We came to wash feet.
We prayed thoughtfully and earnestly for ourselves and all those who would be coming, but we arrived with few outlined outcomes. We planned to gently embrace this city of lively seekers by seeing their spiritual worthiness as we washed dust from their feet. What a surprise that in doing so, we discovered we were in the middle of church! Being in this very unique environment led me to some new thinking on what constitutes Church. Here are a few ideas that came to me in that windswept space about Church pared down to its core essence.
Walls are entirely optional (but principles are essential). Our camp set-up consisted of a large white dome tent, a generous and lovely shade structure sheltering some chairs on a rug, and an improvised open-air kitchen set up between two vans. Our camp’s real “structure”, though, that which gave foundation and shape to our days, came from the definition of Church found in Science and Health where Mary Baker Eddy defines it as “the structure of Truth and Love” (p. 583).
About half way through the week, we noticed some passages from the Bible Lesson supplied a perfect set of “Bylaws” that gave specific guidance in our actions, starting with this simple instruction:
“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” (John 13:34)
When we were firmly committed to loving neighbors, we began to love each other more, even though we had widely differing styles. We began the week not knowing one another, being of different ages, having had different life-experiences, and bringing widely differing approaches to sharing our love of God and man. We did have opportunities to exercise patience and forgiveness! Yet, we came to love, appreciate, and trust one another. Practicing unconditional love bound us together.
There was room in this church for whatever gift people had to offer. We found there was not just one right way of washing feet. There was more than one opening question one might ask. There were many ways of meeting needs and nourishing hungry hearts. Each washer had a gift to give, and each gift was as unique as her own smile. The essence of our little community’s offering was a tangible sense of nonjudgmental, unconditional love, and everyone in our camp, regardless of where they were in their study and practice of Christian Science, was included in both the giving and receiving.
We shifted our focus from counting feet to counting blessings. At first, we wanted to know how many people we were serving, so we invited them to write their names on a sign. As our visitors began writing their thanks instead, we changed from trying to keep track of numbers to just letting the gratitude flow.
By the end of our week in the desert, we found we had all the elements of a full-service church. We had gathered for a Wednesday testimony meeting and held a lively open-air Sunday church service, with interested visitors at both. One day when we read the Bible Lesson out loud, we had a Sunday School-like discussion, including in our circle one of the teens who first joined us. Two short well-received Christian Science lectures and a simple “Reading Room” introduced many to Christian Science for the first time. We washed feet, offered comfort, hope, joy, purity, and Christian Science treatment when requested, as well as food and drink, even provided some Christian Science nursing care. Around fifty or so seekers took copies of Science and Health home with them from the desert, inspired by its astonishing message and promise.
I continue to watch and listen for Truth’s knocking and leading, pondering how I may apply more in my life what I saw in that unconventional church setting in the dusty desert. My directions thus far: love more, judge less. Include. Simplify. Wash feet. Feed. Keep thinking and listening. Heal. Love.