Sunday, June 20, 2004

Am I Still a Believer?

I had a conversation in the kitchen at work the other day with one of our customer service reps. He had seen my presentation about Eberron at Wizards' Game Day a couple weeks ago and complemented me on it, so we're suddenly closer to a first-name basis, I guess. He said he'd heard I was a minister, or used to be. "Yeah, I used to be. I fled." That's my standard answer—sort of funny, deflecting the seriousness of the question. Yeah, there's this huge whole part of my life, from the time I got religion in college through three years of seminary and three more years as an ordained minister, and then I fled. Some people find that fascinating: a former minister now working at Wizards of the Coast writing Dungeons & Dragons books. It's a weird juxtaposition, sort of a living oxymoron, like a guy with a Ph.D. driving a garbage truck or something. Sure, it's curious. But those are not people that I'm particularly interested in talking with about the reasons I left ministry and the path that brought me where I am. Let them enjoy the living oxymoron and move on.
But this guy in customer service was coming at it from a different angle. "Are you still a believer?" he asked. He is, too—not a former minister, but a believer, a Christian, and someone who might want to go to seminary someday. See, now that's a whole different line of questioning. Unfortunately, I answered that with the same kind of ha-ha reply, something like "Yeah, more or less." And when Rich Baker showed up in the kitchen I quickly took the opportunity to mention something I'd been wanting to talk to him about. Not so much because I didn't want to talk about my spiritual path with a fellow believer, but because I didn't want to do that in the kitchen at work.

But man, that's not an easy conversation to have. Am I a believer? Hell, I don't know. I believe a lot of things—some of them fairly orthodox by the standards of twenty centuries of Christian theology, some of them much less so. Some of them I have pretty strong opinions about, maybe even convictions. Others I think I still believe but I haven't really tested them in a while to see if they're still actual beliefs or just lingering ideas. 

Example: My wife asked me a couple of weeks ago what I believe church is. My answer was something like this: I used to believe that church is a group of people called to live in the world as a colony of Heaven, a group patterned after the way relationships should be in God's new creation. I used to believe that church is a place where we celebrate the sacrament of Communion in anticipation of the great feast to which God will call us someday, gathered around a common table at which all are welcome to celebrate the grace that brings us together. Do I still believe that's what church is? I don't know. 

Those are pretty beliefs. That's a very attractive idea about what church is. But there's a big part of me that shakes my head sadly at the beliefs of a very na├»ve 20-year-old preaching his first sermon in his college church, talking about what he hoped church could be and what he dreamed his time in ministry would be about. There's a part of me that sheds bitter tears over my own experiences, and those of my friends, about what church actually is. The woman in my smaller church in Ohio who scowled at me from her pew every Sunday morning, shook her head as I preached, just never liked me and was glad to see me go. The Board of Ordained Ministry that heard my ambivalence about my sense of call and denied my wife her elder's ordination at the point in her life when she was most certain of her own call. The congregations who have shunned people for personal or dogmatic reasons, the well-meaning believers who still try to bar people from the Communion table, either as guests or as hosts. 

I haven't yet figured out how to relate my pretty beliefs to my bitter experience. I guess I haven't really taken the time to try. 

It's true, I fled ministry. With people who are closer friends, I'm willing to delve into some of the reasons I fled. Pretty much my standard answer has become that I'm just too much of an introvert to have been a successful minister. That is true, but it is only part of the whole truth. I am very much an introvert, and that did interfere with my success as a minister, and that makes me angry. I am angry that most of the ministers I know, and whose churches I visit now in an ongoing search for a new community to call home, are not like me, or at least they do not seem to be. They are very outgoing, dynamic people, able to negotiate awkward social situations and hospitals and funeral homes with ease, full of certainty and security and platitudes I never could believe. They are not mystics and contemplatives, and they are not introverts. 

I feel as though the deck was stacked against me from the beginning, like my Myers-Briggs profile indicated right off the bat that I would not be a successful minister. More importantly, I guess, I feel as though my ideas of church were just completely unrealistic, an impossible dream setting me up for failure and disappointment. I wanted ministry to be about spiritual growth and contemplation, I wanted church to be about experiencing the Reign of God in joyful anticipation, "a foretaste of the feast to come." It wasn't, and I fled the reality of what it was (which, in addition to the bitter things I already mentioned, included a great number of people who truly loved me and were very sad to see me go). And having fled the ministry that was not what I dreamed it would be, it seems that I also fled the dream of spiritual growth and contemplation, abandoned the hope of experiencing God's Reign in foretaste, and have resigned myself to accompanying my wife and son on an apparently never-ending quest to find a church where we can belong, feel at home, settle in and grow. 

It has been eight years since I fled ministry and Ohio. I've lived in Madison, in Berkeley, and now around Seattle, and still have not found a church I'm happy in. I guess that I'm still looking for a church that is a colony of Heaven, a community gathered to celebrate the feast of anticipation. 

Am I still a believer? I guess the real answer to that question varies from day to day, in direct correlation with how much hope I still have of ever finding that church. As I think more deeply about it, however, I realize that I am still convinced I will find it someday. Perhaps not a community called to be a colony of Heaven, perhaps not a community gathered to celebrate the feast in anticipation, but the actual feast in the realized Reign of God. I guess I've never been exactly sure what form that feast will take or what the Kingdom of Heaven really is, but I know that the promise is at the heart of what I do believe, the invitation still tugs at my soul and draws me back toward the life of the spirit. 

One of the things that reassures me in more doubtful times that I actually am still a Christian is that I frequently listen to Christian music. (That is easily a topic for a whole other long post.) Anyway, a playlist that frequently gets played from my iPod is this one [link will open the iTunes music store]—all about that invitation, that promise, and the home that awaits us. In these songs, I feel that tug at my soul, I hear the promise that God will not always be a distant and alien Presence whose voice as often comes from the whirlwind as in sheer silence, but will someday be, as God sometimes is even now, as close as my heartbeat, right at hand to wipe the tears from my eyes. 

I guess I am still a believer, and I'm frankly a little startled to realize how much I do still cling to that promise in the depths of my heart. Yes. Yes, I am.

Summer convention update


On Tuesday I take off for Origins in hot and moist Columbus, Ohio. I've got to say, I love summer on the West Coast. In general, even when it's hot as blazes here (as it was during my D&D game yesterday, at least inside the house) it's not particularly humid. Heading back eastward for summer conventions always makes me realize afresh how much difference humidity makes. 

Anyway, that's not what this update is about. So if you're in Columbus next week, make sure to look for me in the Wizards booth. I'll be nominally supervising the volunteers running the D&D and miniatures demos, but my primary purpose there is to talk to as many people as humanly possible about Eberron. We're not doing any seminars, so it's all about the one-on-one evangelism. I'm hoping to have a slideshow running in the booth with art (concept and final) and key points, a copy of the book with me at all times, and lots of energy to talk about how cool the setting is. :) Which means getting over this tonsillitis...

I am also going to GenCon Indianapolis in August. There I'll be participating in seminars as well as staffing the booth, including one seminar all about Eberron. I'll post my seminar schedule when I know it.

I'll try to post some news from Origins when I get back.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Eberron campaign session #6

Today was the sixth session of my (still relatively new) Eberron campaign. We started in January and have been playing monthly, the third Saturday of every month. The players are David Noonan, Andy Collins, Gwendolyn Kestrel, Jesse Decker, Stephen Schubert, and Cameron Curtis. It's been a change for me, from playing every week and with a different group, but it's been quite fun so far. Playing monthly means longer sessions when we do play, and it means that in most weeks I have more time to be with my family. (It's just the week leading up to our monthly session, when I'm doing too much last-minute prep work, that maybe I have less time with my family...)

So the campaign began in January with the adventure that will see print in DUNGEON next month, "The Queen with Burning Eyes." It's a classic sort of dungeon delve, with the weird twist that all the rooms are constructed from miniatures terrain tiles. For that matter, in the published version of the adventure, I suggested miniatures to use for every encounter. 

After playing through that adventure, the characters traveled to the city of Sharn, where they hooked up with a professor at Morgrave University for an expedition to Xen'drik. (One of the items they recovered in the first adventure turned out to be a key to a vault somewhere in Xen'drik, and in a later confrontation with the Emerald Claw necromancer Demise they recovered a second key to the same vault.) They fought some sahuagin in the strait of Shargon's Teeth, encountered some incompetent Emerald Claw agents in Stormreach, and sailed near the location of the Lost Vault they sought. 

Journeying into the jungle of Xen'drik, they encountered a harpy who informed them that Tzaryan Rrac of Darguun sought the same treasure as they did, and claimed it for his own. They dispatched both the harpy and a batch of gnolls working for the Darguun warlord with ease, and made their way to the enormous steps of the Lost Vault. The drow guards there proved ill-equipped to withstand the PCs' assault, and the remaining denizens of the Vault—an owlbear, a pair of ogres, a drow wizard with some Abyssal eviscerator allies, a water elemental, and even an erinyes—all fell before their might. They emerged from the Vault with a horde of lost treasure, including a glowing iron rod that Professor Karrna seemed particularly interested in bringing back to Sharn.

Upon emerging from the Vault, a black dragon intercepted the characters, spouting off cryptic remarks like, "The world is not ready for that which you bear," and, "If I perish, so do many, but you will be stopped." They defeated the dragon, then faced still more minions of Tzaryan Rrac: orcs, another ogre, and a displacer beast. It seems they have found the treasure that both the Emerald Claw and Tzaryan Rrac are desperate to claim. But what do the mysterious dragons of Eberron have to do with it? 

So today they made their return trip as far as Stormreach. We started the day off with a bang, since I got my first Giants of Legend miniatures this week: a bulette. The fight went pretty well, considering that the characters were only 4th level—they would all have survived had it not been for the critical hit it got on Gwen's wizard, killing him outright. Gwen went off to make another character, while the others proceeded, fighting a trio of werewolves (who seemed to really hate Andy's shifter, even going so far as to call him a "mudblood," though I can't believe I used that word in a D&D game, and one of them taking two attacks of opportunity from other characters in order to go attack Andy). Then they returned to where they had left the launch from the ship they came in on.

Near the launch, they were attacked by a group of lizardfolk—5 ordinary lizardfolk and one rogue (the GoL mini). That was a pretty easy fight, but the pair of sea cats out on the water was tougher—especially since one of them was just attacking the boat. It turned out to be pretty exciting to see Andy's shifter hanging on to the edge of the larger ship while Professor Karrna tried to climb up him from the launch before the sea cats pulled it down under the water. All while the pirates up on the deck, who had captured their ship, were shooting scorching rays and crossbows all over the place. The pirate warmage died pretty quickly, his quasit ally fled the scene (after his cause fearmade Cam's warforged run like heck), and the pirates fell in short order... especially once the fear wore off. Gwen's new character had been working (rather unwillingly) with the pirates, but aided the PCs from the start of that encounter.

Back in Stormreach, lots of shopping took place, and the artificer made a lot of stuff, and we closed off the day with one more fight against the Emerald Claw. This time it was a party of four enemy agents: a cleric of the Blood of Vol, a barbarian/fighter (Axe Sister mini), a Daring Rogue, and a kalashtar wizard (with a striking resemblance to an elf of Evermeet). They went down pretty quickly, too, to my chagrin. 

So that was the session. Here's a rundown of the players and characters:
Dave: Madivh, an Aerenal elf monk
Andy: Kalar, a shifter ranger/psychic warrior
Gwen: (originally) Te, a changeling wizard
(now) Phenn, a changeling cleric/transmuter (heading toward mystic theurge)
Jesse: Crael, a halfling (House Jorasco) druid, and Fergus, his dog
Steve: Jeb, a human artificer
Cam: Stratos, a warforged barbarian/fighter

Thursday, June 10, 2004

The new aquela.com

I think that the sheer size of my web site, with its different sections and somewhat Byzantine organization, has been an obstacle to my updating it with any regularity. Updating it has become a chore, and I have no time in my life for chores. For that reason, I've decided to try this change to a blog format. In theory, this will both encourage and help me to update more frequently, without having to make a big production out of every update.

I'm sick today, home from work and tinkering around with this iBlog software demo. I started feeling just really tired about noonish yesterday, and got progressively worse as the day went on. By the time I got home a little after six, I had a fever over 100°, and I just went to bed. I thought seriously about throwing up around 8. By midnight, the fever had passed. I still feel pretty out of it, hence the whole being home thing, but I'm sure glad I don't feel as bad as I did yesterday.

It's bad timing: I've got a deadline tomorrow, for the d20 Modern book I've been working on. So I'm planning to keep working at home today, in between what I hope will be frequent naps. I haven't eaten since lunch yesterday... hm... am I up for it? 

Next week I start a period of serving on the development team, looking at a core D&D book and an Eberron supplement. Speaking of Eberron--it's showing up in various places now. The first place I heard of it being on sale was in Finland, then Germany. Anyone got it in the U.S. yet? I'm very excited about its release.