Can I share something with you?
Over the course of the day--today--I have felt an overwhelming surge of love and hope for our beloved progressive and liberal church. I don't just mean my own, little tiny church in suburban Boston...but all of them. Those of you who know me know this state of being isn't in my nature for long, so bear with me...we are on untraveled ground...
I was talking to my intern, Tara Humphries this morning over Zoom. She--rightly--is not permitted by her seminary in Connecticut to travel to her internship site but she has been a wonder and support to us at the church nonetheless.
We were discussing how her time with us has changed...
...Oh how it has...
Like good church folks, we gave some thought to the division of the psalms into ones of Orientation, Disorientation, and Re-Oientation (a conversation made easier by having the same Hebrew Scripture professor...albeit 20 years apart) and about how the first part of the year was the first and now we are in the second. We also talked about the third phase, still unseen for the most part, when we reorient to the new world and sing songs of thanksgiving again, not for a return to the old ways, but the approach of the blessed and good new ways, informed by the old but honed through tragedy, fear, chaos and despair to suit the new just, peaceful, and healthy world we seek to build.
That image kept with me today as I picked my way around the eerie emptiness of my almost 200 year-old church building. It stuck with me as I stood before my computer for email after email and meeting after meeting with my back turned to the chaos of my living room that circumstance has morphed into a recording studio, virtual pulpit, and classroom for me as well as an office for an 8th grader and a college Freshman.
And as the day went on...
As I "talked" to my staff and congregants and colleagues planning whatever we think might work for Easter and for future church programming...
As we figured out how to be safe and together and how to do normal things in the "new normal"...
...I realized how lucky I am...
In spite of all the darkness around us...
I am fortunate at least in this one way...
I have realized that the church--the liberal and mainline church--will survive this time and emerge changed and reoriented. It will grow.
The new thing is happening now, you see, and we are finally off our asses.
We are doing it! We. Are. Ready. I can see it...and I never ever really thought I would...
Lets be clear. I never thought I would still be active in the professional ministry when the new thing appeared. I have done my best for mentees and anyone else who I thought might be the ones to see it. The old ways aren't working. We know that. I thought I knew, though, that it wasn't for me to see what came next...except maybe in a pew, supporting my pastor in retirement.
It was my lot--I thought--to pave the way, wading through dubious advice and programming promoted by men (almost all men, right?) too old for the skinny jeans and tight T-shirts they sported; people who wouldn't last a day as the leaders of my church. I knew my place temperamentally and generationally. I would hold the door open for others to walk through.
"John the Baptizer I am. Be ready.....all will be well in time..."
Will you look at us now? I see you my friends. When I get "home" from my virtual worship service and get a chance to breathe, I check in on you. Lots of shaky cams and bad lighting and sound that cuts in and out? Can't get the hang of visiting your people over the darkened tube of...well...what we used to call "the tube"? Yeah, me too. It is overwhelming.
Guess what, though? Seth Meyers and Jon Oliver? Their sound stinks too these days but they are still heard aren't they? When I see you on the screen I do not feel the need or urge to mock or laugh. I see you being strong and getting it done. I love, love, love what I see!
Don't be self-conscious. What I see are clergy and lay people putting it all out there for each other. DIY-ing with the best. Use that iPad or cell phone or whatever. Screw with your background or not. Duct tape that sheet or camera or poster to the wall. It is beautiful. You are inspiring. You--we--are getting it done with love, grace, and authenticity. I couldn't be more proud to be a church person today. I couldn't be more proud to be part of this great profession...
Do we have hard times ahead? Yeah we do. Are there reasons to be sad and lonely and frustrated? Yes...yes...yes. There is death and illness all around. We are struggling to be there when we cannot actually be physically there. It hurts, we are frustrated. Everyone is and with good reason.
Compounding this are failures of leadership that abound in government and elsewhere, including the church. Don't think I have forgotten the grand-standers jeopardizing their flocks by opening their buildings instead of learning something new! I live in the same disoriented and disorienting world you do.
Yeah, I see this hard time we are in. I am afraid, too. Still...I didn't think I would see the new church and now I see just a little bit and that makes me so so happy. I want to see more. Take the party where you can, right? That is Palm Sunday. That is Easter, too.
Tara took this picture of our coffee hour on Sunday and sent it to me. Each of those faces are of people I love. Some are recent faces, but many I have known for years. The other pictures are from among our congregation, figuring it out, taking chances on this new world even in the current chaos. Colleagues (and future colleagues) you are doing great. Church leaders, you are too.
Let's stick together and see this new day. As hard as the journey may be right now...deliverance will come.
Then Palms of Victory, I declare.
A couple weeks ago, when this all started, I wrote a FB post about unschooling. Really, that is what many parents are finding themselves having to do. "Homeschooling" is the term that I hear and see on FB, which evokes images of projects and curricula and parents having to work way outside their comfort zones. However, "unschooling" is what many of us are really doing. On a very basic level it just means letting go and letting the kids explore their interests.
Does it mean more screen time? Yeah, probably. Does it mean fewer minutes taken in the pursuit of targeted learning goals? Yep. However, it also means stepping back and letting your child find their own way to learning what they are actually interested in. It also means maintaining your own sanity, which your kids need more than learning shapes and colors or long division.
Here is the basic fact of why I am writing you this. Recently there have been a number of articles about how stressed parents are right now and I get it. I am a parent, too. Still, I feel like my experience might help you let go a bit...
So...my middle child unschooled. He is in college now and on the Dean's List. I am not bringing that up to say "look at my smart kid". Instead I bring it up to let you know that he didn't go to to a structured school for four (4) whole years during what would have been his high school years and he is just fine. He also took 4th grade off...yes 4th grade! He also found his friends during that time. So if that is what you are worried about, please don't be, at least not right away.
We are not talking about 5 years of social isolation. Your child--who is also gifted (as all children are)--will be OK during this period as well. I also taught in an unschooling "learning cooperative" while my son was on his adventure. I have spent quite a bit of time with the "feral children". I have kept in touch with many of them. They have all grown to be responsible curious, brilliant young adults.
So I have some advice for you. You can take it or leave it, but, please...give yourself a break, practice forgiveness, and understand that this freedom--even if it turns out to be lots of boredom and TV--is a gift for you and your child. Even if it seems super weird right now...
FROM YOUR FRIENDLY FORMER (AND CURRENT AGAIN) UNSCHOOL PARENT.
So I was getting my youngest ready for his "Coronavirus School" today and remember that yesterday during virtual coffee hour, there were some questions about how to keep our children learning during this time. For me, I am having to dust off my pedagogical skills of a few years ago when my middle son "unschooled" for high school and part of elementary school. For others, this is new territory so I thought I would just mention a few things that have helped me...
MAKE BOREDOM YOUR FRIEND: Every kid I know was ever so slightly delighted by the extra free time of the past couple weeks. However, over that time...they got bored. Our brains do this to us to make sure we don't stagnate and rot. As they get bored, they will seek out something to fill their time that is more nourishing than video games. They truly will.
LET THEM CHOOSE WHAT TO STUDY: Once they are thoroughly bored they will start looking around for things to do. The temptation as a parent is to be like "Hey! The learning targets for the school say you need to understand linear equations. Go do that!" Instead...ask them what they want to do. What they choose may not sound academic. Who cares? It will be if they delve deeply enough. An interest in crafting can become a dive into the history and use (or science or practical math) of that craft. An interest in baseball covers biology, history, sociology, math, fitness, English (some of the most beautiful prose in our language is devoted to the game), religion, race, class, and so much more. Let them pick and help them get excited.
My unschooled son learned about history by going for walks. After a while he became interested in the Civil War veterans in the local graveyard. He taught himself (yes with my help) how to research a topic. He took out regimental histories from the libraries here and in Boston. In the process he learned how to be a historian and became a expert in the regiments of what we now call Metrowest. When he got tired of that he got into YouTube and wrote and directed two movies and numerous comic sketches. You get the idea.
HELP THEM WHEN THEY ASK: They will come to you with problems. Wait for them or--if you see they are struggling-- check in on them, but it is their project. Often they just need a gentle push toward resources.
SET A TIME FRAME: This is the "structure" part of our unstructured "school". They need to know--particularly at first--that they are expected to work on whatever their project is for a set amount of time per day. This still doesn't need to be a fight. They are bored and you are helping them not be bored. Let them know you are just helping by giving them the space and accountability for what it is THEY (not you) want to do.
Also...it doesn't have to be that much time.
This is important, keep your agenda somewhere else. I know you may be worried about your child's future success. We are often told--in large and small ways--that this sort of free time will doom them to mediocrity. Oh the anxiety of parenting in normal times! Believe me, though, it won't. We are told that so we and they can jump through certain hoops at certain moments to fill a certain slot in the economic engine. Guess what? That engine is being rebuilt. We don't don't know what it will look like. So even if we perceive the goal of education being economic "success" (which is a pretty poor definition of educational goals in my opinion) there are no targets to shoot for. There are no slots to put the kid in for now.
Look, we are not talking about forever here. We are talking about giving their minds a workout so they are still awake and ready when they get back to school--whenever that will be. They will be better for it. If anything, my unschooled son was better prepared for his freshman year because he knew how to take ownership of his education and didn't need to be enculturated to the greater personal autonomy of college. A couple weeks or months of this same approach will help your child feel more confident, too.
Remember: this time is not a compromise. It is an opportunity and an asset. We need to think that way. We need to step back, take care of what we can, and allow our children to grow and learn in their own way as much as we can. Their homeschool is not your job. It is theirs. You are not their supervisor, you are their parent, and their mentor. Give yourself and them a break.
Here is a sermon I preached a couple of years ago about the foundations of this approach. My son's "school" was a community of liberated learners called "Bay State Learning Center". In the sermon I mention their couch, where children sit before they get up and get going to learn and study in the way they determine for themselves. You might want to check out their Facebook page if you want to learn more.
So Sunday is tomorrow and I, like most of my pastor friends, have had to become an expert on virtual church. Sadly, I am not sure that I have reached the "expert" level. For the most part, it is just me and a camera. We also got started late, which was my fault. I really wanted to have church in person and began climbing the ol' learning curve on Thursday. The lifeblood of a small church and a small church pastor is being together in 3D, able to look each other in the eye and talk over paper cups of bad coffee. Man, I miss that. Yet it hasn't even been a week.
This Sunday I pre-recorded a "sermon" and a "service". The whole arrangement is under 30 minutes. I am using the "premier" function so that--if I set it up right--I can sit and watch the sermon with my virtual congregation. There is a comment function that I plan to use for that purpose. Then to Zoom. As many of you know, that is a meeting app being re-purposed for pretty much everything by pretty much everybody. We are going to attempt a "virtual coffee hour". It is the part I am looking forward to. It could also be chaos. It is a first attempt. There will be more attempts in the future.
I hope it goes well. As I look at the service, I can see a dozen things that I could do differently and better if I had the time. This is a trying and weird period in church life It feels like each small congregation is its own tough rock in the midst of the storm. I hope that we weather it well.
Our hymn is "Michael Row the Boat Ashore." It fits with the Bible reading, which is about Jesus calming the storm. Here are the words to the hymn. When it is all over, maybe I will post an update here and a video of me and my son Eamon playing it, hoping that somewhere someone is singing.
If you would like to sing with us, the short and no doubt "not quite as good as it could be" service can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xkeY1iSCFMM. We are starting at 10am sharp. It is in Youtube's hands now
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
The river Jordan is chilly and cold, hallelujah!
Chills the body but not the soul, hallelujah!
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
The river Jordan is deep and wide, hallelujah!
Milk and honey on the other side, hallelujah!
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
Sister help to trim the sails, hallelujah!
Sister help to trim the sails, hallelujah!
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
Here I am innocently leading the congregation in O Come O Come Emmanuel, blissfully unaware of the homiletical debacle about to unfold...
Barring a number of early sermons where I wouldn't have known what a good sermon was (and would be forgiven for not knowing), I preached the worst sermon of my life yesterday. The theme was all about taking things more slowly, not getting overbooked, and being mindful of where we are in the moment. So, naturally, the wheels came off...
In its original form it was OK. This is a well-worn theme for Advent and it was meant to serve as a brief reflection between the "Sanctuary Lighting" ritual and our monthly communion service. For the first two thirds of the sermon, that is exactly what it was. However, as I turned from page 6 expecting page 7...I found...yup...page 9.
In that moment I had the sort of brief, out of body experience that happens during times of stress. I flashed to a post-game press conference where I was saying things like "well I guess my head just wasn't in the game". Commentators were doubting my future prospects in a career that once held so much promise. I envisioned the "spinning newspaper effect" popular in old black and white movies. Each paper carried the headline "Clerical Catastrophe! What Went Wrong!" I did, of course, put my head back in the game, but I took a long pause in my addled state and questioned my life choices.
When this happens one has a number of decisions to make. Some folks just barrel ahead with page 9 like nothing happened. Some start riffing in hopes that things will come around. Others freeze. The option I initially chose was to get my spare copy with a perfectly good page 7. However, I quickly discovered that it was lacking...page 8.
By this time I had told the congregation what was happening. I switched to the freestyle riffing option and wrapped with the closing reading from page 10, which was the end of my notes. Thankfully we had a brilliant violinist who played right after my "reflection" and--as so often happens--the music saved the service.
First, in case there are preachers reading this. Yes, I am a manuscript preacher and have been for 20 years. Before assuming that this is something that doesn't happen to outline or noteless preachers, think again. Each form has its challenges. We just just choose the risk that works for us. The key, of course, is to avoid what an old driving video called "The Final Factor." That is, the thing that ultimately makes you take your eye off the road.
However, I really don't want to get bogged down in the shop talk anyway. I want to talk about the response. This isn't about preachers. It is about the people we preach to and with each and every Sunday. Besides, there is grace in this story and a counter narrative for anyone concerned by the fact you can fall flat on your face in mid-career. It turns out, the sermon, thank God, isn't really about us after all.
I have been at the Eliot Church for over 16 years and am the longest serving minister in it's 191 year history, We are friends in many respects and have shared much of our post-childhood "growing up" together, so mostly I expected some light joshing and sympathy, That is what I got. It was funny if you weren't the one stumbling around. Besides, teasing me about it made it clear that the disaster they had witnessed is not a weekly occurrence for them. I will still be starting the game next week.
However, I was also amazed by how hard people worked to get the sermon--truly a hot mess by the end--to still make sense! Pretty much everyone pointed out that I demonstrated the perils of the frantic season and the frustration that it can bring. Others felt--in the words of a note from my intern when I sat down to listen to the violinist--I had "embodied imperfection beautifully." The church, it seems, found meaning in my epic fail.
That isn't what I got out of it at all...except the imperfection part. What I got from it was a desperate attempt to make sense of my own argument in real time while hoping whatever word salad came out of my mouth would make sense to somebody. The great thing is, they did get something out of it. Even though I didn't help them much at all.
This is the great thing about people who come to worship. They bring their own sermons with them and when "the show" goes south, their hearts preach the sermon instead, with whatever they can disentangle from the chaotic resources they have been given. They know what they want to hear and accept that the obviously flawed worship leader will do their best to help and not hinder. Yes, there is the occasional curmudgeon who is hoping that the sermon will contain something they can get offended about, but for the vast majority, this is not the case, Everyone at worship is there in part to find meaning in their lives and they trust the community, the service, and its leaders enough that they are frequently able to find that meaning even when things aren't hanging together the way they should.
When we preachers fumble, the message gets through in spite of us, and I am grateful for my hard working church. I am grateful, too, for the Divine Spirit that connects us all together to form a loving, supportive community of seekers In a world that needs many more such communities than it currently has.
Now, I am not quite ready to post the whole sermon. I am not sure that the internet needs a permanent record of my failure. However, I thought I would share this clip--mostly of my cameraman--from the moment when it appeared to be on its way to fiasco.
I risked my life to bring you this picture from a local big box today...but I didn't buy anything!
It is Friday now. Thanksgiving--with its own rituals of excess--is behind us and I am looking forward to Advent. Today we will go shopping, but not in the way that you might think. No door busters for us! Instead we are buying from local retailers. We do this for a number of reasons. Some of them are fairly conceptual and life-styley. We want to support local businesses and the local economy, for example. Some are less so. My mother-in-law and the college boys are here for the weekend so we need to get out of the house. Since hiking is out for a number of reasons, patronizing used-book stores is a nice way to spend time together.
However, for me, there is also a general darkness to the day. I guess that is what I really wanted to mention. You can count me among the people who struggle not to get depressed during the holidays. The culturally enforced frivolity can be rough for many people. I am one of them. Like most folks, I try to keep with the breathtakingly saccharine "holiday spirit" but sometimes--frequently in fact--I fall short. Do you know what never snaps me out of my holiday blues? Perky people telling me to cheer up.
Another weight on the season is from all the commercial "requirements". For the last couple of decades, after all, there is a narrative that tells us it is actually unpatriotic to choose not to shop to excess. December, itself, has become a season where our financial stress is viewed as a worthy sacrifice to the nation. Anyway, when you combine that with the natural ups and downs of life, it is easy to see how what--in easier times--might be a minor emotional bump in the road cant escalate to an existential black hole.
From the outside looking in, it may appear to be a weird situation for a pastor. Of course...it isn't. Many of my colleagues are the same way. We aren't actually responsible for secular Christmas, We are responsible for the other one that starts later and then gets overwhelmed. That would be the season that is spiritual--whether it is religious or not--but that is also more gradual as it follows the rhythms of our human lives in relationship with the Earth. That relationship pre-dates any of the current winter festivals, yet exists within all of them. In addition, part of our job is to sit with other people's feelings. A lot of folks are struggling with the unsustainable nature of the next few weeks. We experience their emotions as well.
I don't think anyone at my congregation would be surprised to know this about me. After all, there is what the deacons sometimes (affectionately) refer to as the "Adam Hates Christmas" sermon that happens at some point each year. I don't hate Christmas (not all of it anyway) but I do feel like it is overblown for reasons that don't have much to do with the themes of light in the darkness and the power of the human spirit to prevail in hard times. I am not a "keep Christ in Christmas" kinda guy. I just want everyone to calm the heck down and pace themselves. I also want to pace myself and come out the other end of this time with my spirits intact, able to look back and tell myself that it was a good holiday season.
Anyway, here is a video of me tell people to calm down that I put up right before Thanksgiving. Good luck to you all this weekend. May however you greet the coming Advent be the way you want to greet it.
So after three years of talking, we finally managed to run a pilot for our dinner vespers service. The reasons it took so long have primarily to do with allocation of resources. In principle we all thought it was a good idea. There really wasn't much in the way of resistance from any "old guard" that we hear about in clergy groups. It was simply that we had other priorities so it would come up, we would get excited, and we would put it away as something else demanded our attention. That is the challenge for a small church. As we become increasingly counter-cultural, the dominant culture makes it harder for us to innovate. Institutions and activities that promote reflection and down-time are more frequently seen in a negative light. Church is one of those institutions,.
The church Worship Committee took the lead on this and many of them were there last night. We have been calling it "dinner church" but it is quite possible we have been using the wrong name. I have found that church growth people are among the more doctrinaire when it comes to labeling. We have a "Pub Theology" group that almost certainly doesn't fit the accepted definition. So we settled on "Dinner Folk Vespers" because all three words have specific meaning in our context. "Dinner" is...well...dinner. "Folk" in our context means non-professional musicians leading the music on stringed instruments. We have a long tradition of that. For us "Vespers" just means worship at night.
The service was pretty basic. There was 20 minutes of structured worship, then about 20 or 30 minutes of structured conversation over dinner. We took the Maundy Thursday Communion Vespers service and then deconstructed it. The subsequently rebuilt service kept a number of the aspects of the old one. The "Invitation" and prayers of Confession and Thanksgiving were straight out of various communion materials that we have used in the past. We added a couple of poems that made use of table imagery; "Perhaps the World Ends Here" by Joy Harjo and "At Home" by Kate Barnes. Lee Manuel and I provided music and Tara Humphries, our ministerial intern, took care of much of the worship leading, set up, and general coordination that we needed to get things done. I gave the prayer. The reading was Luke 14:15-24.
We also had a couple of guiding questions based on the table image and also on the concept of God's steadfast love that appeared in a number of places in the service and, of course, will be part of what we talk about on Sunday as part of our Thanksgiving service. These questions were discussed while we ate.
It really was fun--or at least I thought so--and we will do it again. The format was conceived as a different form of communion. The meal had an intention to it. We did not "potluck" but instead made specific food requests so that the food "matched" and we weren't overwhelmed by a large number of diverse items or leftovers. That way the service was more "worship" than "social" which enabled us to engage in a different way than we are often able to.
It is probably worth noting that while we did not spend the whole meal answering the questions, beginning with the questions affected how the rest of the meal conversation proceeded afterward. It was a good conversation all around--at least at my table--and a nice break in a busy and stressful week. That said, some people mentioned that the questions and the format in which we presented them felt too structured. We need to look at that for next time. The challenge is finding a way to continue addressing the ideas from worship while at the table...at least for a little while.
The entire service took two hours, including clean up (but not set up!). It was a good first try that, I think, over time, will get better as we get used to the format and streamline some things. Logistics, in particular were tricky. In addition to the clunky question format, the two dinner tables were pretty far way from each other. We will need to think about how to remedy that in the future as well.
Still, in all it was worthwhile. What we are learning at Eliot is the same thing everyone is learning everywhere. Weekends are super-busy now as well. If we want to meet as a community of faith. We need to learn to be flexible and responsive to the world we live in. The challenge now is to grow with our sophomore effort.
Here are a couple of videos. The first is of the one hymn we sang; "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos" (also called "Deportee") which is, unfortunately, still very relevant today. I have a whole post abut the song, which you can read here.
This final one is a portion of the service, itself. It may only actually be interesting to wonky church nerds but we to need each other to share sometimes. We had technical difficulties for the first 5 minutes so the Harjo reading is missing and it opened about halfway through the Barnes reading. It ends as we prepare for dinner...
I looked at the blog while prepping for the Burbania Posts Advent Calendar and noticed that I have been completely silent for almost 11 months. There are reasons of course. I have been on quite an adventure since I wrote here last. I haven't moved or changed jobs, but there have been plenty of peaks and valleys. There have been moments that have appeared to be both. I have been busy with my family and my ministry.
As I look back it is self-evident that this silent year has been a big one for me. I traveled more than I have in the past. I have pushed my self more. I took on a few new challenges in my ministry. What I did not do was post about it here. If you are interested in any of that you will find plenty of information in "Wednesday Words" (my vlog) or on the sermon page. Those need updating as well but they aren't quite so bad. I do want to write here more, though, and so I am. Sometimes writing and reading conveys more complexity than would otherwise be possible.
My big learning during my BP silence is simple. The fact is, over the last year or so I have figured out how much effort goes into keeping a small church alive and thriving. Maybe it is because I am down to only one kid at home and have less to distract me, but this year I have felt the energy that it takes to do this job more keenly than I have in the past. This is true in the energy I draw from it in worship and study and elsewhere. However, I am also aware of how tired I can actually be at the end of the day. Of course, at the end of the day I am still thinking about the congregation.
That is what it takes, after all. Church people know the difficult environment we try to work in. I don't mean that the congregation, itself, is difficult! For over 16 years I have found my particular faith community to be a blessing. Instead I mean the environment that we as a congregation (or more generally as congregations) face together. I could make an attempt at enumerating the challenges but you know what I am talking about. If you don't then you can look it up...but be careful. Everyone knows the problem in its generalities but we do love to argue about the particulars...
Anyway, that is what I have for today. Basically it is an excuse. A healthy church requires a great deal of time and energy and I would rather work for the church than anything else. I will try to post more--Advent is coming right up!--but today please say prayer for our churches, our dedicated lay people and our staff. If you are not a church person you may need us more than you know. If you ARE a church person, you have my thanks and my prayers, just like every day.
So it is that time of year once again. The annoying time when people pledge their current baby-steps to self-realization. A part of me doesn't really believe in resolutions because a part of me doesn't believe that the stroke of midnight tonight is anything other than the changing of another arbitrarily measured day.
However, a part of me really does believe in resolutions, or at least the practice of it if not the timing. After all, I do believe in setting yourself a code to live by. As a clergy person there are whole books about expectations concerning my behavior. More generally, my job has a lot to do with finding ways to apply scripture to daily life. It is also not just my job, is it? It is life for human beings trying to walk a path of faith and/or of hope.
Also, ever since I was a little kid, I experimented with personal oaths and codes. Back then a lot of them sounded like they came from the Paladin section of the D&D Players Handbook. Now? Well...they still kinda probably do...
Anyway, I am updating (or applying) that code--I guess--as I always try to do at New Years and Lent. Do I fall short? Yep. Every. Single. Time. But I do believe that being a good person in God's Creation necessitates mindfulness. So--contextually couched in four decades of the study of scripture and the PHB--here is my resolution work-in-progress for the year. There will be a Lenten tune-up as implied...
A Cloud O' Resolutions 2019
If I am blessed to see another year after this, I want to be able look back at the time between then and now and say:
I have learned more Spanish
I was almost always at 10,000 steps
I have eaten less and enjoyed it more
I drank less alcohol but more water and Moxie
I gamed all the games I wanted to game
I preached the sermons that needed preaching
I did my best
I played the music and enjoyed it even when I messed it up
I have edited so much video...
...and am now a YouTube celebrity to 12 people
I have practiced love
I have practiced forgiveness at least when I have failed to practice love
So, not very deep, huh? What did you expect? That is the point. It is a practice and practices are like that. Depth comes with repetition. Anyway, that is my nerdy work-list for the year. Good luck on yours!
I realized that I had made an awkward mistake in my Advent calendar planning. I was so busy updating the “Ukulele Buyer’s Guide” that I forgot to answer the holiday-gift questions I am most asked these days, “What do I get for the D&D player?.” Well...that is a good question, my friend.
As many of you already know, I am a big fan of roleplaying games (RPG’s) as a tool for recreation and self-discovery. When I started playing in my pre-teens it was the only real “team” I was on that didn’t see me as a burden. So I learned about cooperation and teamwork. Later (once I was firmly ensconced as a theater kid and member of the “Worst Cross-Country Team in Maine”) it still served as an outlet for creativity. My theater skills came in handy at the table. So did math but I prefer to think about the theater skills. In short, it was part of being social and learning about other people. It was also fun.
However, what was most important throughout that whole time (and up to today when I am able to get some sort of game going) was the ability to imagine another world. I have written and preached about this. Frequently the way we grow as a society and as individuals is to try on different ways of being. In the game you can be evil or good or just out for your own gain. You can see what it is like to be the sort of person you would never want to be. Alternately, you can practice being the person you want to become. All of this is done in the context of shared storytelling and myth-making. It is actually a pretty spiritual experience whether you are playing a divine caster or not.
Anyway, that is my way of being supportive of the RPG players in your life. Back in the bad old ‘80’s even calm, rational parents-who-should-know-better would worry a bit that their kids were turning to Satan by rolling those dice and there is still a lingering whiff of societal condemnation. I mean, now it is more likely to be considered vaguely nerdy more than threatening. I think that probably has to do simply with the fact that it is hard to make an adult controlled youth program out of it like you can with soccer or baseball.
The game is good and fine. It does all the things that other youth activities to do. Also, it is not just a youth activity! You can play it as an adult with other adults. Trust me. The most active game I am currently playing is entirely made up of clergy. Everyone needs to get out of their own crap every once in a while and imagine being somewhere else.
Definition of Terms:
Okay, let's get back to the purpose of this magnum opus, namely answering those questions you might have about what to get for the tabletop gamer in your life. The first thing that you need to know is that when we say “Dungeons & Dragons” to non-gamers we are using it as shorthand. The fact is, we may not actually be playing Dungeons and Dragons at all!
For example, if someone asks me where I grew up, I will frequently answer “Maine”. However, I do that because most people haven't been to Maine and certainly haven't been to the part I am from. If they turn out to have a connection there, I will start to narrow it down. I will say “the Lewiston area, but I went to college at the University of Maine in Orono.” If they still seem to know what I am talking about, I tell them I grew up in Lisbon Falls.
What usually happens, though, is that I get a blank stare and the person starts to rattle on about Bar Harbor, Freeport, or the Sunday River ski resort. So here is the first and perhaps most important thing to know about buying things for a tabletop gamer: Dungeons & Dragons is the Bar Harbor and Sunday River ski resort of tabletop games. It is the one everybody knows and if they have visited RPGs just once in their lives, this is the one they have played.
However, the situation is much more complicated than that. while people might make a different count, there are at least seven distinct rulesets for Dungeons & Dragons alone. Also, D&D is just one company (owned by Hasbro through their subsidiary Wizards of the Coast who make the Magic the Gathering card game)! Many people play other games, like Warhammer, Pathfinder, or Starfinder, or even things you can't find at the Barnes & Noble. That clergy game I mentioned uses a set of rules called ”RISUS” that takes up four pages of paper and is free. All of this is to say that it is a complicated market and that if you don't know what you are doing, it is best to stick with some generalities. I am talking about gift certificates here.
So, What I am going to do is suggest a few items that are universally appealing and then a couple of web pages for the purpose of safe gift certificate giving so they can order from the system they actually use. Also, gift certificates at any of these web pages might the way to go if your gamer is particularly finicky.
Here are some things that are of general use for the most part. Everyone needs a good set of dragon dice. They usually come in sets of seven and consist of one 20-sided die, one 12-sided die, two ten-sided dice, one 8-sided die, a six-sided die (“the normal kind”) and a 4-sided die. They probably already have a set if they play and certain systems don't use these dice. However no one minds nice dice in the RPG world so I might suggest something special.
The best basic purveyor of dice is Chessex. I have POUNDS of their dice as dice have a tendency to roll into corners and run away. They are also good for the basic extras like dice mats (to keep your dice from escaping) and dice towers (for fun rolling).
If you want to go in big, there are metal dice. I do NOT recommend stone dice for anyone who is going to actually use them to play. Metal is better and they are Metal if you catch my drift. They look cool and they feel great. I have a metal D20 (runs around $7-$9) and I actually feel a bit strange when rolling something else now. The easiest way to get them is through Easy Roller Dice. For other fancy kinds you can check out some of the more general pages I will list in the next section.
Top of the line for those accessories you can get cheaper (but way less cool) at Chessex is Wyrmwood Gaming. They have all the stuff you need in rare woods and gemstones (see above about the stone dice, I always fear chipping)
Dice bags are also good gifts. There are basic ones that come with the standard set but cool ones are cooler than basic ones. Google searches will reveal an Etsy empire of dice bags. Chainmail bags are a current thing as are bags made to look like cute versions of iconic monsters.
Also, if your gamer is identifying as such in public, then there may be some fun clothing options as well. However it's good to check how they feel about that sort of thing. These can be obtained at the publisher web pages and third party sites. Finally, A little bit of conversation might indicate whether they enjoy watching live stream tabletop games on Twitch or YouTube. Channels such as Geek and Sundry, Critical Role, Penny Arcade, and Web DM (there's seem to be Patreon only) all sell funky products--including t-shirts--that contain the usual in-jokes that form the social capital of we nerdy types.
Also worthy of note: Penny Arcade runs PAX, which is a gaming convention that features both video and tabletop games. They come to Boston--"PAX East"--so tix might be appreciated by some.
Easily the two most dominant games are Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder/Starfinder. I love them both. If you know that one of these is what they play (and that they play the current edition), Then perhaps a gift certificate directly from the publisher would be your best bet. They can then pick the thing that they are looking for.
These pages are also useful for miniatures. I am not qualified to discuss them since the last time I used miniatures seriously they were made of lead. That was a long time ago...
If your gamer is more adventurous however, then I have one recommendation. You should get them a gift certificate to DriveThruRPG. This is the page used by most third party and smaller designers. If you are into things like RISUS or the new “old school” games based on clunkier but endearing RPG rule sets, this is the place to go. It is what I use for fun stuff It contains things like modules and one-shots made by semi-pros and very specific scenarios that a game master might just find themselves in need of an hour or two before a session. Much of their stuff is in PDF form but there are hard copies of many things and you can always wear out your printer if you are old like me.
One note, there is always the risk that the thing at Drive Thru isn't as good as you wished it was. That is the risk. The reward is making it better.
The Gift of Tabletop online:
If you are old like me, then you remember the bad old days when it was hard to get a game going because people thought we would all get lost in the sewers after failing to raise a demon. It is still hard. As I alluded earlier. This is not a hobby that responds well to "leagues". The groups are usually best kept around 4-6 people and it is still not something that lots of people are into in a public way.
In addition, people are super-busy! So even if they think gaming is cool and fun it is hard to get a group together. Fortunately technology has helped with that. Easily the most active groups I am in play online on a web page called Roll20. To set up a membership is free (if you are a player and not the Game Master) but a membership for that GM might be appreciated. There are also virtual books and adventure paths that work only on the platform that cost money.
It may not be ideal to meet virtually but it really beats not playing. I am thinking about cracking open this option for my church group. We have met only once this year and even though we live just a few miles apart, it is hard to get together in person. Sitting down at the computer after work and homework are done may make a lot of sense. For adult groups it is almost a necessity these days. It cuts down travel and chitchat so people can get in and out of the game and then on to whatever else they are up to with no fuss.
Incidentally, I am on Roll20 and would love to get a game going if anyone is interested.....just let me know!
Long ago, back when Burbania Posts was on blogspot, I wrote a series guiding the reader through the process of finding and purchasing a ukulele for someone they love during the Christmas season. Back then, they were all the rage. Wherever two or more hipsters gathered, you could find three ukes. I had learned how to play right before the “big boom” and had started a ukulele orchestra at the church. The band grew and expanded into other instruments. Today its former members are in other bands but still play in church when they (we) can.
In fact, this is the season of the Carol Sing. This past Sunday our ukes accompanied a hymn in church and no doubt will be pulled out for other events as well.
That said, things have calmed down a bit for the most part. The market has moved on to other things. The people in the ukulele band that weren't in their 40s are mostly in college now. However, ukuleles are still fun and still worth checking out if you have a folk musician--or a budding folk musician-- in the family. Unlike many instruments, they do not feel intimidating. They are also portable in a way that many are not. If you can still find a good one that is relatively inexpensive, you can still feel comfortable bringing it wherever you go, just like a real Folkie.
Therefore, I will link once again to those original columns but there are some updates I would like to add...
Unfortunately, they cost more than they used to. The flip side is that quality has improved substantially. This is true for certain accessories as well. That said, they are still cheaper than a guitar and much less expensive than many other stringed instruments. The brands in the original posts are for the most part still going strong. Kala, in particular, has a solid entry-level collection. However, I still firmly believe that the biggest bang for your buck comes from the Magic Fluke Company. My go-to ukulele has been a concert size Fluke for years. If you are comfortable with non-traditional materials and appearance, I highly recommend them.
Actually, my opinion on strings has not changed. A good set of strings is the most important thing you can do to improve the sound of your ukulele. One thing that has changed, however, is the proliferation of varieties. They fall basically into two separate groups; the mellow ones and the jangly ones. For mellow, almost "classical" sounding strings, it is worth checking out Aquila Nylguts that are sized for your particular ukulele (ukulele sizes are covered in the original posts). These days you can find them frequently already on the model. Still, it may be worth getting new ones. There are other Nylgut makers and those are also fine.
Fluorocarbon strings are the jangly kind. if you are looking for the classic ukulele sound, these are the ones to get. I would recommend Martin strings ( again, sized for your Uke). There is actually a great deal of variation. Right now, for example, I am using fluorocarbons on my smaller wooden ukuleles and Martin Premium "polygut" strings on my Fluke. Martin actually developed these in consultation with Aquila as an attempt to combine the best qualities of the mellow and the jangle. I find the Premiums to be a bit brighter than nylguts, Each note in a chord feels a trifle more distinct and single notes cut through in a group more easily. They also have a different feel They are less slick to the touch.
Of course, my experience may be subjective...like a shamrock shake tasting like mint. If you buy your first set of strings from either Martin or Aquila, you will be more than fine. Then you can try others to get the sound you want.
When I first posted I wasn't that keen on ordering online. I am still not. However, if you're looking for something more than the standard, online it will have to be. Do your research. A simple Google search usually will suffice. Then order from the company if possible or a reputable distributor. Here are links to the company's I have mentioned in this article.
Here is my fave uke company's web page: Magic Fluke USA
Also, Fluke-guy's brother-in-law is a ukulele deity (Jumpin' Jim Beloff). His page is probably the best place for ukulele-themed stocking stuffers, books (he writes them), straps, strings, etc... Flea Market Music.
Both of the above companies are based in Massachusetts so buy local when you can! :-)
If you want a more traditional looking uke that won't crush your wallet, check out these guys: Kala Brand Music
And the Martin Page...because it is pretty
Finally, the two articles that will make this one make more sense:
So You Want to Buy An Ukulele for XMas Part 1
So You Want to Buy an Ukulele for XMas Part 2
Well that is it for me! Happy Advent and happy uking!
FYI, this is a Makala "Dolphin" ukulele ($50 new) with basic Martin flourocarbon strings ($5). It may not be all you want but it is all you need for a good ukulele time. :-)