All is suddenly quiet at the parsonage. My wife is off to work, Son #1 is off at college, Son #3 is having his first day of school. Son #2 is about to get some work done in preparation for his first day of classes next week. My plan is to have some coffee before the weather becomes inhumanely hot. Then I will settle in to the second day of catch-up on my third most pressing sabbatical project...Dungeons and Dragons world building.
You see, the youth groupers have been asking for a D&D (or more generically "role-playing") club for a long time and we--the pastoral staff--just haven't been able to find the time for the basic preparation necessary to get a solid, believable game going. Both I and my former intern (now sabbatical pastor) Shane Montoya have plenty of experience in this area. There is a story line to be developed, of course, and a dungeon or whatever seeded with badies. However, the story has to take place in context and that is where it becomes tricky.
A good game needs geography, politics, and religion. It needs characters with motivations and depth well past what is provided in a 90-minute action movie or even in the most well-developed fantasy video game. It needs a world at least as complex as a quality novel. In some ways (because the players can literally travel anywhere) it needs to have eternal potential for even greater complexity.
So that is what I am doing. I am building a world (part of one, actually). I have been doing this sort of thing since my very early teens. Back then, it was out of necessity. It may seem strange to my younger readers but Gen X (and older) nerds know the situation I was in. I was an early adopter of Dungeons and Dragons. I loved it. Even today I occasionally drag out my old Basic and Expert books just to experience a wave of happy nostalgia for a less complicated time. It was my refuge. It was my permission to dream. Still, there were a series of hurdles to clear before actually playing the game.
The problem, quite simply, was that D&D was the ultimate badge of awkwardness. Nerds are kind of cool now (okay..."geeks" are cool...whatever posers) because some of them now make money. Society says money is magic. Back in the Lord-of-the-Flies '80's, though, it took courage to spend a day rolling the dragon dice or discovering the inner workings of your Commodore 64.
Personally I wasn't so much brave as fatalistic. There was no way I was ever going to be the cool kid. I had bad skin, a bad haircut (until I stopped cutting it entirely), and I went to prep school where I loved the theater. Many of my nerdy friends, however, harbored dreams of acceptance and were fearful of what the game might do to their (frankly non-existent) cool points. Even today I know 45-year-old men (and some women) who I am certain played but who will deny it. It is their secret weakness. It is still their hidden curse.
Needless to say, back then it was hard to get a game together. Sometimes I would manage to get a ride to a game shop a few towns over and play with a group of kids I didn't know so well. The big draw was that the Dungeon Master wrote modules for Iron Crown Enterprises. No. I won't explain what that means. Either you understand or you don't. Most of the time, however, I had to badger my cowardly friends or indoctrinate my (much more willing) brothers in order to get a game in. This meant I was always the DM. I was the one who ran the game and did the extra work well before the others would arrive. I resented it at the time. I still do, actually.
Still, those hours spent on my own fantasizing about other imagined places has come in handy over the years. The various "pantheons" of gods and goddesses got me interested in actual religions. The vagaries of the always-inadequate alignment system got me interested in ethics (I mean, who ever actually believes that they are the evil ones?). The game play was a combination table-reading/improv (with a touch of randomness from the dice) that got my creative theater juices flowing. It also let me make something and share it. I cannot write a novel or a play, but I can create a place where novel-like stories can happen. This may not be "cool" in the middle and high school sense, but it certainly is cool in every other way.
Anyway, I have been making a new world. My old ones are rushed and inadequate. It is hard work, actually. To be believable, things need to connect in believable ways. For example, in an action movie the bad guy can always be crazy. In a game where most of the imagined population is rational, that doesn't work. Crazy-evil makes it hard to get followers, after all (don't yell "Trump" at me...please). If people are seeking power they are going to gravitate toward a rational power-seeker. A strongman, maybe, but not the cackling cartoon psychos that TV cops and superheroes take down on a regular basis. The questions one has to answer in the game world are the same sorts of questions we would ask about a culture in our world.
Interestingly, the questions I ask now are different from the ones I used to ask. Times have changed, haven't they?
So this new imagined world is built around a question I have had for some time. What would happen if you had a group of people who constantly talked about their god? What if they read his/her/its sacred texts and disagreed over their meaning but who tried to live their lives based on what they felt they knew about this god they cannot see? Was this person they follow a god? A prophet? A good (or bad) myth? A Metaphor? In role-playing games the gods are just knocking around, granting spell powers and so on. To have an absent one is a big deal.
Perhaps up to this point, things make sense. What if we took it a step further? What if at some point that "god" (or myth or metaphor or prophet) returned and started doing stuff? What if it refused to clear up doctrinal conflicts? Who among the believers (or suspecters) would be the most disappointed? Who would be happy?
Anyway, that is the starting point. Then there are questions of economics. What do these people do for work? Where do they live? There are questions of politics, too. How do they get on with other people from other more (in game) conventional faiths? What is the role of women? What about the LGBTQIA+ community? It's my world. I can make it how I want it. How are they organized from family, to work, to "church", to government? How are the people around them organized. That is how the world grows. There are a bazillion questions. It isn't ever finished and much of its development depends on gamers playing through and asking their questions. Still, a lot of groundwork needs doing before that player characters ever meet in the ubiquitous back-road inn.
Now, I know that many of the people who play the game probably won't notice the work that went into it. They shouldn't. The world should be lived-in and seamless. Besides, most of them will just want to kill monsters and rack up "points" like it is World of Warcraft. That is fine. However, I will know what is there, and a few players might even take an interest. You make a world to answer your own questions. You draw a map because you want to know what is behind (or under) the mountains. Others participate as they are willing or as they can.
I have to go soon so I will stop here. Shane is helping me with the game mechanics as I drift into story teller mode, so I have deadlines. No doubt you will hear more about this as time goes on.
Or...you could just show up for a game or two...
I just got back from dropping my eldest off at college. If you are part of the Eliot Church, then you know him. You also know that the period from the beginning of the college search through to the eventual move (at least temporarily) away from home is a period of great stress for everyone in the family. It is a bit strange now with one less person at the parsonage.
But that isn't really what I wanted to write to you about. I know that you are well aware of the fact of stress. I also know that you and your parents know that I and the church are here to help. We will do whatever we can to get you to wherever you dream of making a difference. I also know you are aware of the fact that the church community will still be there for your parents when you are away.
What I wanted to mention is something else. I want to point out something that as kids you may not have noticed but that you might as you get older and hang around Eliot Church. What I hope you notice (because it is true) is that this congregation loves you.
OK, imagine Thanksgiving Sunday--the first one after graduating high school--and you go to church with your parents (actually some former youth groupers show up on their own these days). You get there at the usual time--right before we start--and the deacon at the door says your name and gives you a hug. Then when you sit down, the old woman in front of you (who you may never remember ever talking to) turns around to pat your hand and welcome you back. I may have waved to you from the chancel. Other adults come to say "hi".
Then what happens? We do church. It is just like it has always been except there are some new faces and a few people who aren't there. Maybe--now that you are a college student--you fidget a bit less. The familiar hymns sound better. Hopefully, even the sermon makes some sense. Then it all starts again at the potluck. You look around for your high school friends but it takes a while to get to them. It's those darn old people. The pastors want to talk to you and see how you are doing. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of your time.
Please be patient with us. Whether you remember us all or not, we are the people who saw you crawl down the aisle as animals in the pageant. Since that time we have witnessed your development. We saw you reach the exalted heights of "Innkeeper". We saw you sing in the choir, or play in the Ukestra, or do readings. We even saw you when you held back. We saw you at the ski trip and the baseball game. Some folks taught your classes (we hope you remember us!). Others didn't, but they still noticed you. Your parents have kept us informed of your adventures.
I could go on. We remember when high school got busy and you couldn't make it. Some of you might feel even that you "dropped out" of church. It doesn't actually work that way. We still notice--and appreciate it--when you do make it. We are always happy to see you.
Of course, we also marveled at those of you who still kept (and keep) making time for us. We are psyched that there are so many of you who do! There is a great deal going on in your lives, yet here you are. We are so pleased to see you in our choir, on our committees, at our service and justice projects, our clubs, and our parties.
The church--particularly a small church like ours--is a kind of family. We have always seen you as a part of that family. We keep a place for you. When you return to fill that place, it brings us joy. Next year, and for a number of years after, there will be a lot of you moving on. We know that is part of the drill. I hope that wherever you go, you remember us fondly. I will remember you and so will all those other people whose lives you touched and who touched yours.
OK, that's enough of that. If you aren't in college yet, then I expect to see you soon. I am working on a curriculum for Sunday school that I hope you will breathe some life into (it is just words now). I have a D&D world pretty much ready for you to test out. As always we have the rest of the stuff too so welcome back! If you are in college, we look forward to welcoming you back whenever you can get away. We will be missing you until we see you again.
Faith and Hope,
So today is the first official day of my sabbatical. I have already been working on various projects but in the next week or so, things will be kicking into a higher gear. Over the last few weeks, there have been some changes to the plan. My "Folk Project" will need to take a back seat to some more pressing material. In fact, a theme has emerged that runs through most of the other projects and, naturally, this is something that I intend to follow.
I am enclosing here the outline of my work for the next few months. They are roughly in the order they will be addressed. Of course, there will be some overlap as well.
Teaching: Some of you are aware that I have a son who is "homeschooled". The term--while it makes sense from a legal perspective--is a bit misleading. Most homeschoolers do NOT spend their days sitting around the kitchen table. They are highly social and are involved in programs outside the home on a daily basis. Many times they have a great deal of control over what and how they learn. It can be complicated, but for a certain kind of kid who is willing to take ownership of their education, a well-conducted homeschool plan is just the best darn thing.
Among other activities, my son attends a school that subscribes to a "self directed learning" model. It has teachers and advisers who help the student plan out their year. Various courses are offered by the teachers, volunteers, and interns based on the interests of the student body. This is where I come in. I will be teaching two course at the school this fall. One is Public Speaking and the other is Nature and Spirituality. I know a bit about both subjects and expect to learn more.
I am looking forward to this. I am curious how it will go. While I have done some teaching with children in this age group (10-19), it has been mostly in a church context. Of course, there is a great deal of similarity between a Sunday School model and what happens at this school, so it won't be entirely unfamiliar. Still, it is good practice and a lot more "face time" than what I am used to. Each class meets formally once a week and then I will be available as a "mentor" at other times. Thanks to this time commitment, it is the first on my list.
Church Curriculum: I have written about this before. We are transitioning our Sunday School to a "one-room" model with a series of "units". Each unit will lead to some kind of project or presentation in church. I am responsible for writing all but one of these.
My former intern (now sabbatical pastor) will be writing the second unit on Advent. I have already written the first unit, which is about women in the church. This means that the next one I am concerned with (a social justice unit with a focus on LGBTQIA+ issues) will need to be ready some time in November so the teachers and I can go over it before it's January start date.
Obviously, the teaching I will do at the school will influence how I go about these curricula at church. In both cases there is a "project" element. Also, they both work on a student-centered discussion model. A great deal will depend on their willingness to be engaged and our ability to engage them. I am actually moving a little slower in this area right now because I think that my perspective may change after doing some teaching.
Dungeons and Dragons Club: Yeah, there is this. I am well into the development of a world for my player characters to explore. I have been a Dungeon Master for many a year, starting way back in my teens when being a nerd wasn't so cool. Perhaps that is why I am still a bit surprised by the level of initial interest from the kids. It is a great thing! I am very pleased.
My goal is to have enough material ready for a first meeting near the end of September. At that point we will make characters and perhaps run through a couple of short battles or scenarios to see if everyone gets the game mechanics. It would also be good to see who actually shows up so we can plan for either one or two groups. I will probably also need a rotating cast of "assistant DM's" to keep things rolling...
OK... I assume you see the theme, right? All of these activities will apply most directly toward the church's religious education program. RE has been an interest of mine ever since my first paid gig as "Co-Youth Group Director" for the middle schoolers at the UU church in Evanston, Illinois. In my current capacity I don't have as much time to do get into it as much as I would like. I am hoping that using my sabbatical time to get the prep work done will make me a better pastor to the kids and their parents. We shall see...
What this does mean is that the who Folk Project must be the last of my concerns. I haven't given up on it entirely. However, the spirit does seem to be moving me in a different direction right now...