Last month began my 10-month fellowship with Luther Seminary’s “Seeds Project,” and just a little over a week ago I got my first in-person cohort experience. We are 16 beloved and diverse people from a broad range of racial and ethnic identities, geographic contexts, denominational affiliations, theological beliefs, and life experiences.
The ministry work that we are doing is equally broad and wonderful. Being a part of this cohort might be the first time in my life that I’ve ever had ‘imposter syndrome’! My cohort fellows are doing some really cool, amazing, and important work.
Part of the focus of this program is addressing the adaptive challenges of our modern day ministry landscape. We can all see that the church is facing great upheaval and cultural shifts right now. During our recent retreat last month, I marveled at how the classic institutions and patterns of “The Church” can change and are changing to meet people today, and also how the core of loving Jesus is still the same and holds all of us together.
This is a fun thing to be a part of and I’m excited for what this year has in store.
Here on the Dungeon Master Pastor website my tagline is that this is “Where following Jesus and fighting dragons meet.” Fighting dragons at the Dungeons and Dragons table helps people to learn that the challenges are possible to overcome, but following Jesus is what helps me know that that’s not just a fantasy. Following Jesus has taught me that the challenges in our life are real, and that they can be overcome through faith.
Four years ago when my son was born he was diagnosed on the newborn screening with a disease called spinal muscular atrophy. It’s a devastating disease, one that treatments were just coming out for and were still experimental. In some ways the treatments my son received still are experimental and it remains unknown how long they will work to keep this disease at bay. SMA is a disease that that takes lives and threatened to take the life of my son.
In addition to that, in recent years a close family member of mine became overwhelmed by the stress of life and developed a severe bipolar disorder. Over the last few years, they have been hospitalized half a dozen times, up for months at a time.
It has been an extremely challenging time in my family’s life, but through my faith I know that it is also possible to overcome these challenges and get through this hard stuff. Not only that, but faith gives me an understanding that circumstances like these are not judgment. They are not a reason to lose hope. Instead, faith gives me the very hope I need to persevere and not lose myself in the midst of all this.
My faith in Jesus has really carried me through and shown me that yes, the real life dragons – those like disease and mental illness – you can overcome them. You can face the challenges and come out on the other side with your spirit and soul intact. And not only can you face them and endure them, but you can discover immense beauty and joy in life at the same time.
I have a theology of joy and a love for play. Often in the seriousness of everything that faces us in life, we can lose sight of freedom, joy, and fun. But the joy of Jesus shows me that yes, there is a way to hold onto the seriousness of the world’s problems, but also to do that without forgetting that we are ultimately liberated and set free through Christ from ever being defined by them.
In Dungeons & Dragons the characters wield enormous power. That’s part of the fun of the game: trying to blow stuff up with an arcane fireball, healing a wounded party member with a divine prayer, tapping into your primal passions with a barbaric rage, or becoming one with the night with an out of this world stealth roll. Each class, even most subclasses, find their abilities flavored by what sort of power they access and how they access it.
Ancestors, Reckless Abandon, Anger, Storms, Beast Spirits, Religious Fervor
Gods of Magic, Life, Death, Creation, The Grave, Knowledge, Light, Nature, Tempest, Trickery, and War
The Natural World
Physical Strength & Skill
Inner Strength, The Four Elements, Shadows, Sunlight
A Personal Code and Devotion
Mastery of Relationships with Beasts for Friendship or Destruction
Disregard of the Rules, Knowledge of the Weaknesses of Others
Inborn Power from Divinity, Dragons, Shadows, Storms, or Chaos
Pact with Someone or Something Powerful
Knowledge, Study, and Understanding
These are just broad brushstrokes of the different sorts of power that can be wielded by Player Characters in D&D. They flavor the roleplay of the game and flavor the mechanics. A great way to change how a character is played is to just think about where they get their power and how they access that power. It’s also a great way to homebrew new class options, just take a standard class and change the traditional power source. How about a Druid that draws power through their relationship with machines? Or a Barbarian who rages for the sake of justice for the oppressed? Or a Warlock who makes a pact with their subconscious? Or a Cleric who serves the god of wealth?
In considering the power sources of the characters in our RPGs, I think our eyes have the potential to be opened to real life sources of power, ability, and strength. The world abounds with power. We are surrounded by it every day. Power comes from a lot of different places, and it is used for a lot of different purposes. Where we draw power and how we use power have a lot of impact on how we live our lives and the effect we have on the lives of others around us. Clarifying the sources of power that we use in our lies and identifying both our pathways to them and how we use them can be helpful for personal growth and for avoiding some major pitfalls.
Recently, as I was engaging in my own personal study, I ran across descriptions of some real life power sources for a life of faith and devotion to God. The descriptions came from the writings of Simeon the New Theologian who was alive and doing his thing exactly 1000 years ago. Simeon talks about three paths by which a soul can be lifted. Each path is a different way of paying attention and a different way of accessing spiritual power.
The first way I call the Way of the Gut. The bowels are the ancient seat of human emotion and passion. When the ancient Greeks and Hebrews got fired up about something, or were so touched by something that it had an immediate emotional impact on them, they had a gut reaction. When they were moved by something, they were literally saying they were having a bowel movement. No matter where you think of emotion having a home in your body, accessing power from the passions is something we see a lot. People get spun up into an emotional fervor and then all of that energy and power is directed towards something. At best, that something is directing the power of affection and emotion and love towards God. At worst? Well, wars have been fought over less.
The second way is the Way of the Mind. The mind, as you might expect, is the place for rational conscious thought. Power in the Way of the Mind comes from analyzing, studying, examining, learning, and understanding. As a way of lifting the soul, the rational mind can delve into the mysteries of God and faith and develop systems and structures of understanding. This is the power we see wielded by theologians and religious scholars. Of course, the power of the mind can also be applied towards all manner of things.
Then there’s the third way, the Way of the Heart. Here’s where Simeon the New Theologian sees the most profound pathway to spiritual power. The heart here isn’t the emotional organ that we commonly think of it as today (that role was already covered by the gut). Instead, the heart here is understood as a spiritual organ. It’s the location of our spirits perhaps, the location of our unconscious subconscious selves. It’s where all of our secret prejudices lie (that’s what Jesus says anyway in Matthew 15:19). It’s also where we love. I don’t mean the flighty sort of love that’s idealized in Rom-Coms, but the deep real love that’s about realizing that lover and beloved are parts of the same whole. The Way of the Heart is accessed through contemplation, and being open to God in a mystical way. It is truly a still more excellent way.
These three pathways are just a few real life resources for human power and ability. Each has a home within the body, each could be understood as a sort of “inner power”, each can be seen as a pathway to accessing the spiritual power of God (who is the source of anything and everything that is truly power),and yet each is very very different. I haven’t even touched on how power comes from sources beyond our bodies, but it most certainly does. Although, if you’re out of touch with your own power it’s doubtful how well or how fruitfully you can access sources of power beyond yourself. Without being able to access inner power, interactions with outside powers like wealth, fame, technology, and even relationships with others are more likely to turn demonic (in that they control you and reduce your capacity to live more fully into yourself) or idolatrous (in that they require sacrifices of yourself without granting much at all in return).
Great power isn’t something that just exists inside the world of a tabletop RPG. Each person has the capacity to wield enormous power to affect and alter the course of the world. As Galadriel says in the movies, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” How we access and use that power can change the way our stories (in game and real life) are told?
In my last post I talked about Lasting Direction, Higher Purpose, Real Risk, Unexpected Reward. These four marks help to identify an epic life. (“The 4 Marks of an Epic Life”) As the “Dungeon Master Pastor” it should come as no surprise that I channel this into my life of faith.
For me, epic living is what following Jesus is all about. The life of a disciple has all four marks. Each one can be seen in the Bible in places where Jesus talks about what following him will be like.
Direction: The disciple’s lasting direction is the direction of the eternal Jesus.
Matthew 4:18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Purpose: The disciple’s higher purpose is fulfill the great commission of Jesus.
Matthew 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
Risk: The disciple, like Jesus, risks the real threat of the cross in following Jesus.
Matthew 16:24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Reward: The disciple, like Jesus, is rewarded a gift so unexpected it’s terrifying – resurrection from death.
Mark 16:6 But the young man said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
I feel like these are the most basic of things in the Christian faith, and yet more often than not we Christians lead lives that could hardly be called “epic”. The promise of comfort and safety often seem to trump any the higher purpose of the Gospel. People live in predictable patterns taking predictable risks for predictable rewards.
Epic living comes from doing more than the predictable. It comes from truly following Jesus, striving to live the purposeful life of a disciple, risking safety and comfort, only to be surprised when the Kingdom of God suddenly shows up, as if out of nowhere.
One of the things I love about D&D is that it gives players an opportunity to be epic. Sometimes life can be mundane and meaningless, but epic life… that’s a horse of a different color. What’s different about life when it’s lived epically, you ask? Here are my 4 marks of an epic life:
1. Epic living has lasting direction. There is movement and progression. An epic life doesn’t stand still. I mean, imagine playing a role playing game where you just sat there. It’s not much fun is it? Furthermore, this direction is one that lasts. It’s possible to live a frantic life pulled in many directions, different every day, but that’s hardly epic. It’s more just plain exhausting.
2. Epic living has higher purpose. An epic life participates in something greater than itself. In Dungeons & Dragons player characters are often caught up quests and circumstances that go beyond themselves: slaying a nasty marauding dragon to save the town, restoring the worship of a lost God, fighting in a massive war to protect the homeland from an invading army.
3. Epic living has real risks. An epic life forgoes safety and comfort for the sake of direction and purpose. In D&D your character Gina the Fighter is much more likely to survive to a ripe old age if she doesn’t venture into the lair of the big nasty giant. The game isn’t very fun for the players or the DM if the characters just bulldoze their way through every monster. Their decisions should have consequences. If they make bad decisions, the risk that their character would die has to be real.
4. Epic living has unexpected rewards. An epic life is rewarded in unforeseen ways. A life’s purpose might include the seeking of a certain reward: say Gina the Fighter has the purpose of acquiring wealth, which leads her to take the risk of entering the giant’s lair in search of his hoard of gold. But having striven for that purpose, Gina also wins an unexpected reward: she returns to the village where she’s surprised by the villagers who now praise her as GINA THE GIANT SLAYER and elect her mayor of the village. She might also find that through this experience she has new unexpected courage to face even larger foes.
Direction, Purpose, Risk, Reward. These four marks help to identify an epic life.
Now there are many different ways that an epic life might be pursued. The direction, purpose, risk, and reward for one person is likely going to look very different from that of another. But there are equally many ways to retreat from epic living. In my experience, comfort and safety often seem to trump any sense of a higher purpose. We live in predictable patterns taking predictable risks for predictable rewards. Maybe that sort of life works for some people, but for me that sounds like the downright doldrums.
D&D is being used today to teach people all sorts of things. Some teachers incorporate it into their classroom to help kids learn math. Some psychologists use it to help teach social skills and empathy to autistic children. Others have found that playing D&D helps people to unlock their creativity and improvisational skills. I think this game can be used to teach us to recognize and to live a more epic life.
There are a lot of people out there who talk about using a role playing game in this sort of a way. One of the best for me was Dan Harmon when he was interviewed on the Dungeons & Dragons podcast.
What is it about fantasy worlds and stories that makes them so compelling? Why is the Star Wars universe so interesting? Why is the Hyrule of the Zelda games so captivating? Or the Krynn of Dragonlance? Or the Hogwarts of Harry Potter? What is it about this fantastic worlds and the stories in them that sucks me in and so many others like me?
In these worlds there is great purpose. People often have a specific and known purpose. Let’s look at the Legend of Zelda: there’s the happy mask salesman, the bug collector, the bomb salesman, the princess, the hero – things are clear. Everybody has their role, even Ganondorf.
There is clarity.
Evil is evil. Good is good. There is great clarity in these mythic worlds of fancy. The Jedi are good. The Sith are evil. Harry is the one who survived. Takhisis is irredeemably evil. Link is incorruptibly good. The differences are stark. Purpose and clarity make these worlds epic.
Real life so often lacks purpose and clarity.
Life in the real world is a much more complex thing. Prophecies aren’t spoken about our lives (at least I haven’t heard any about mine). People aren’t necessarily pure good or pure evil. In the end it all seems so meaningless.
Cancer. Car accidents. School shootings. Meaningless. Our little achievements and the acquiring of small comforts. Meaningless. I didn’t get that job. I did get that one. Meaningless. The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes would say, “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.”
I want my life to have purpose and clarity.
I want to live a life that’s epic. I want to live a life that’s purposeful and clear. But I would rather not associate with people who find that clarity in saying that some people are purely good and others are purely evil. Can you live an epic life without condemning people who are different from you?
In Dungeons & Dragons, you play a character who lives an epic life. Prophecies are spoken. There are big bads that need to be taught a lesson. There is experience to be acquired and levels to be gained. I wonder if playing D&D can teach us anything about living epically? There are people using the game to help others learn math or social skills. Could the game also be used to help us live lives of purpose and clarity? I wonder if answering that question can help us both play better and live better?