My Firstborn Child

My firstborn child just celebrated his first month of life. A few days after his birth, my wife and I weren’t sure what that life would look like. In many ways we still don’t know.

My son Edan was born with a gap in his DNA. A very important gene called SMN1 is missing, giving him a rare genetic disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). A statewide newborn screening caught the anomaly, and five days after birth our doctor called us with the news. We had never heard of this disease before, yet both my wife and I were recessive carriers.

His little body doesn’t have what it needs to keep his motor neurons alive. A few years ago this would have meant that his expected life span would be somewhere shy of 20 years. 90% of people with SMA never walk and don’t live into adulthood, with 50-60% not expected to live past 2. Just a few years ago, our doctor’s advice would have been to cherish whatever time we had before Edan’s chest muscles would no longer have to power to make him breathe and he would die.

Today, because we live in one of only 6 states that are currently screening for this disease, getting this news means that as soon as possible after birth he was started on one of the most expensive drugs in the world. It’s being injected directly into his spine every 2 weeks via a spinal tap. It’s the first drug ever shown to be effective against SMA and was approved by the FDA less than 2 years ago.

Learning that your child has a rare genetic disease that you’ve never heard of before is an experience that I wouldn’t wish on anybody. It takes your healthy child and turns him into a ticking time bomb of grief. Each day I have to wonder, “Will this be the day he starts to weaken? Will this be the day the medicine doesn’t work and his motor neurons begin to die?” Doubt and fear are constant companions, because while getting him treatment has shrunk them, they will never completely go away. Hopes and dreams for the future are arrested. The future becomes horrifyingly uncertain.

I had dreamed of doing so much with him. I had dreamed of camping, hiking, and playing football. Now it will be a miracle if my son even walks.

In my darker moments my mind dwells on these things. Thankfully those moments don’t seem to last. He’s still a crazy cute and awesome little newborn boy who keeps me on my toes and my mind on the present. “Don’t worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will worry about itself. Today’s troubles are enough for today.” When I’m present in the present, the weight of this trouble doesn’t seem so heavy, and I can see the multitude of hopes and dreams that have not been arrested by disease.

One such dream is my dream of introducing my son to the wonders of tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons. This is one game that doesn’t depend on how mobile his body is, only how sharp his mind and how beautiful his imagination. I am thankful for a game that isn’t limited by physical ability. I’m thankful for a vehicle that invites him to imagine himself however he pleases, with or without disability and disease. I’m thankful for this game that gives him an arena where he will not be limited, perhaps the only such arena he will find in life.

It is a gift and a blessing.

A gifted custom onesie from the church lady who thought Dungeon Masters were Dragon Masters. Really, it’s awesome either way.

A Hard Left

Being a person of faith in Jesus Christ has given me a strong foundation in this difficult time, and believe it or not, I think being a Dungeon Master has too. I remember the first time my players really threw me for a loop. I had prepared a multi-layered mystery in the port town of Tarsis, complete with warring city factions and a graveyard that refused to keep its dead within its gates. I was already laying groundwork for the naval adventures that were going to come after that when the party of PCs surprised me by taking a hard left turn. They left the town as quickly as they had entered and struck off into the midst of a vast and unmapped forest.

In that moment I had to improvise. I had to set aside my plans for how things were going to go and be in the moment with my players. I had to listen to them and respond to them and help them discover what it was that they were looking for.

Having my son get this diagnosis is a lot like being the Dungeon Master for a party that takes a hard left when everything you had planned was to the right. I’ve had to set aside my plans for how things were going to go. I’ve had to find ways to just be in the moment with him and my wife. As he continues to grow I will need to listen to him and respond to him and help him discover whatever it is that he is looking for in life. It might be different than what I had in mind.

The skills that you hone when you are playing a game like Dungeons & Dragons have proven valuable to me time and time again. There is so much more to this beautiful game than meets the eye.

Pastors & Dragons: A D&D Retreat (2018)

Pastors & Dragons

In August of 2018, the Dungeon Master Pastor, Rev. Rory Philstrom, led other clergy and people of faith on a first-of-its-kind, 4-day, 3-night Dungeons & Dragons retreat. With a mixture of gaming, learning, and Sabbath rest, this retreat explored the connections between life, ministry, and the world’s greatest roleplaying game.

If you want to hear how it went – click here to read what the participants had to say.

The first retreat went so well that we’re doing it again! If you want to join us on our next Pastors & Dragons retreat click here. 

Pastors & Dragons: A D&D Retreat
Shire in the Woods, McGrath, Minnesota


This retreat was full!


Pastors & Dragons

ROLL INITIATIVE!

Each day afforded hours of Dungeons & Dragons play, with daily game sessions run by Rory, the Dungeon Master Pastor.

We engaged in a variety of play styles and explore all four tiers of play. People brought beloved PCs to the game or created new favorites. In addition, we explored the character creation process as modes of self-reflection and storytelling.

We also had opportunities for people to try their hands at the DM seat for the very first time, as we mined the art of Dungeon Mastering for lessons in how to lead a community, engage others, and foster a high invitation/high challenge environment.

GAIN EXPERIENCE.

Each day also featured time for plumbing the depths of the tabletop roleplaying genre for lessons in life, faith, and ministry.

Engagement topics included:

  • Creating Complex Imaginations and the Art of Empathetic Practice
  • Facing Personal Fears on the Fantasy Tabletop
  • Self-Reflection through the Player Character
  • The Purpose and Use of Apocalypse
  • Storytelling
  • Managing Group Dynamics
  • Fostering Collaborative Improvisation and Collective Exploration

TAKE A LONG REST.

At Shire in the Woods, the natural surroundings provided a rejuvenating backdrop to finally get the rest that is so hard to find in our day-to-day lives. Located 18 miles east of northern Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota, the retreat center is tucked away at the heart of the Solana State Forest and has the Soo Line South Trail running right alongside it.

Some relaxed with a good book indoors while others took a stroll in the surrounding woods. There was more gaming, a labyrinth, a nearby swimming hole, a rose garden, a labyrinth, a beaver pond, a frog and turtle pond, tree swings and hammocks.

There were many amazing options for some real life exploration and rest, and enough time in the schedule to take full advantage of it all.

THE OCTAGON

octagon-thumb-15
The Octagon was a unique structure and a great home base for our retreat.

Imagine Better: Christians SHOULD Play D&D (Part 3)

To wrap up this little trio of posts (here’s Part 1 and Part 2), I wanted to think about a little more than just the question, “Can I, as a Christian, play D&D?” I want to talk about, “As a Christian, should I play D&D?” I have a hunch that playing Dungeons & Dragons, and other role-playing games like it, can actually enhance a Christian’s ability to take part in God’s mission to the world.

First, let’s talk about God’s mission. I reject an understanding of Christian mission whose primary goal is converting “non-believers” into “believers”. Instead I believe the Church’s mission is to represent the Reign of God, emphasizing verses like Matthew 10:7, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near,’” and Luke 4:18, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” Being a citizen of God’s Kingdom frees me to love, care, and advocate for the poor, sick, outcast, and oppressed. This is the second part of that definition of a Christian that I was talking about earlier, “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant to all, subject to all.”

I think playing Dungeons & Dragons enhances my capacity to love and care for my neighbor. Specifically, playing role-playing games like D&D helps me to better imagine my neighbor.

D&D is already being used by psychotherapists to teach the skill of empathy to autistic children.♠ But as recent events in our country have shown, we all need a lesson.

Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man (and coincidentally my wife’s high school classmate), was shot multiple times by a police officer while sitting in his car after being pulled over for a broken taillight. He was shot as he reached into his back pocket to get his driver’s license, because the officer imagined that he was reaching for a gun.

That officer, like many in the United States, had a horribly sick imagination about what black men were like. He could only weakly imagine this black man as the stereotype of black men: criminal, violent, a thug. It didn’t matter that Philando Castile didn’t have a criminal record. It didn’t matter that he worked at a public school where he memorized the names of all 500 kids and their respective food allergies. It didn’t matter who Philando actually was, because the officer’s anemic imagination pictured him as something else: a threat.

The day after Philando was killed, people gathered in Dallas, TX to protest. They were protesting the killing of Philando Castile and that of Alton Sterling and those of Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, and the long line of other Black people and people of color who have lost their lives – for no reason – at the hands of our criminal justice system. As those people marched, law enforcement was there with them, protecting their right to peaceably assemble.

Then Micah Johnson, a 25-year-old black man, decided that that protest would be a good opportunity. He used that opportunity to ambush the law enforcement, shooting to kill as many white police officers as he could. He killed five. He did this because his imagination was sick and he imagined that killing white police officers would help solve his problems. He lacked the complexity of imagination to see that those individuals were anything more to the world than the uniforms they were wearing and the color of their skin.

Our inability to imagine our neighbors with empathy and complexity stands in the way of reconciliation. We need to do better. We need to add complexity to our imaginations about who somebody might be or what somebody’s life might be like. It’s impossible for us to fully know all the people in this world, but it is possible for us to imagine the worlds myriad people with more empathy and with a complexity that goes beyond assumptions and stereotypes.

D&D exercises our imaginations. When we step into the shoes of a hero, the game challenges us to think and act according to personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws that aren’t necessarily our own. By playing at being somebody else, our capacity to imagine better those who are different from us improves. As the DM, I’m challenged to imagine how a whole hoard of creatures and people might act. This type of play actively challenges me to expand my mind and think about a wide variety of people and their motives and goals and values.

This past Sunday, I read the story of the Good Samaritan in my churches. I preached about how Jesus uses this story to get the lawyer (and us) to think about our neighbors with more complexity. Yes, the Samaritans might be the people with whom we don’t want to mix. Yes, the Samaritans just refused to offer hospitality to Jesus. But still Jesus uses a Samaritan to be the hero of his story, to be the shining example of the love for one’s neighbor.

When we play Dungeons & Dragons, we try to think about how dwarves, elves, humans, gnomes, half-orcs, and any number of the other host of races and creatures might get along and go about righting the world’s wrongs together. This play has the power to prepare us to imagine our own real world neighbors better. And at least for me, it gives me an example of how a people who are so different from one another might band together to make the world a better place.

I think we desperately need more of this sort of complex imagination, and I believe that D&D gives everyone, including Christians, a way to exercise that very thing.


♠ DR. Rafael Boccamazzo on D&D and Autism http://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/dr-raffael-boccamazzo-dd-and-autism

Empathic Features and Absorption in Fantasy Role-Playing. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26675155