Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Way I See It

Last night, Shari & I watched the documentary THE WAY I SEE IT, which is the story of Pete Souza, the official White House photographer for the Obama administration. He was also a White House photographer for the Reagan administration. 

Pete is known better now for his Instagram account where he posts pictures from the Obama administration in response to tweets from our current president... and the documentary spends some time showing how that developed. The film is filled with iconic still images of both President Reagan and President Obama, as well as contemporary news footage and more recent interviews that provide context for those images. 

Tears ran down on my face multiple times watching the film - and not because I wish that Barack Obama was President again. I didn't vote for him in 2008 or 2012 and disagreed with a number of policy choices he made. Some I've come to appreciate over time; others I still believe were unwise. But that's not why I teared up.

I was mourning the loss of having someone in the White House who understood their role as President was bigger than their personal grudges and their ability to bully people via Twitter. I was struck again by the obvious tenderness of Ronald Reagan towards Nancy and Barack Obama towards Michelle - and the equally obvious reciprocal nature of their love in return. And I was reminded again of how impactful it was that an African-American was not just a servant in the White House, but the leader of the free world. Regardless of your perspective on politics, that was an important step forward in fulfilling the promises of the Declaration of Independence.

Meanwhile, the current President just demanded that the Attorney General open an investigation of his political opponent like we were some kind of banana republic with a tinpot dictator in charge. The cognitive dissonance is deafening.

I'll be the first to admit that this documentary has a soft spot for President Obama and his family - I think it would be difficult to avoid if, like Pete Souza, you spend nearly 10 years (2 in the Senate and 8 in the White House) photographing them. 

I'd recommend you watch the film - it's about to be available on Peacock streaming. Draw your own conclusions. Maybe it will remind you of what we are missing right now.

Solo Gaming in the Time of Covid-19 (updated)

I started doing a lot of solo gaming when my oldest son (and chief gamer buddy) left for college in August 2019. Even with him home during this extended time of quarantine, I’ve still been playing solo games. And with him returning to campus back in August, the solo gaming has picked up again.

I know, I know – there are plenty of board game apps on iOS and Steam… and I own many of them. But there’s something really satisfying about physically playing a game: shuffling cards, moving pieces, seeing it all spread out in front of you. 

And, because I’m “that guy”, I crunched the numbers and found that 20%+ of my gaming this year was solo (compared to 6% last year). I expect that number to rise this fall.

So, what follows are my thoughts on a variety of solo games I’ve played over the last nine and a half months – ordered by number of solo plays in 2020. (Note: this is not necessarily how much I like a particular game for solo play – for example, I think Nemo’s War is a brilliant design but only played it twice this year… so far.)

Oh My Goods! (15 plays)

Solo play requires the Longsdale in Revolt expansion… but there are some clever things going on in this tricky little card game. I’m still looking for an affordable copy of the second expansion (which has more scenarios for solo play). Oh My Goods ranks up with Friday and Palm Island for the best games for solo play in small places (like hotel room desks).

NEOM (14 plays)

I love this multi-player game that mixes city-building and 7 Wonders-ish drafting… and the solo game manages to capture most of that feeling through the clever use of “packets” of tiles. I typically play 2-3 games of this at a shot… since once you’ve got it laid out, it’s easy to reset and try again. I’ve defaulted to play with all the tiles in, which offers more variety and some interesting decisions since you know that you can (sometimes) wait for the tile you need.

Marvel Champions: The Card Game (10 plays)

While Fantasy Flight struggled to get the hero and villain packs in the early part of the lockdown, that seems to have improved. I love the really straightforward design of the game and the way it captures the theme. I tend to play 2 heroes when playing solo – though the game is designed to play with a single hero. For those who’ve played other LCGs (Living Card Games), this is less complicated than any of the others… some would say “dumbed down”. (Sigh.) I find it the easiest to play and teach, due to clear card wording, distinctive superhero graphics, and card design that is relatively easy to read across the table.

Dice Settlers (9 plays)

I bought this from a friend (hi, Janna!) primarily for solo play – and while I’m still having to fiddle a bit with the scoring numbers to make the AI competitive, it actually flows really well as a “big” solo game. I was pleasantly surprised that it works well as a 2-3 player game too. I managed to find a copy of the Western Sea expansion – which really ups the variety and makes the solo game more compelling.

Expedition to Newdale (9 plays)

Another birthday present… and like Terraforming Mars, a multi-player game that works surprisingly well as a solo adventure. This is Oh My Goods: The Board Game… which is a very good thing. I’m about ½ way through the solo campaign and look forward to the new twists that are added each new scenario. (Note: my play of Oh My Goods fell off once I acquired Newdale – I think the board & the game structure are more sophisticated.)

Super-Skill Pinball: 4-Cade (9 plays)

I blogged about this earlier this spring at the Opinionated Gamers site… and Dale just posted a review as well. This is a really great roll’n’write design that was very enjoyable solo and multi-player. I think the best table is Dragonslayer, though Cyberhack is really close. (Note: I helped proofread the rules for this game prior to publication.)

Terraforming Mars (9 plays)

One of my birthday gifts this year was a copy of Terraforming Mars… and I quickly discovered a thriving community of folks on BGG who love this game as a solo exercise. I don’t own all the expansions… but I think the best solo configuration for me (so far) uses just Prelude. My win rate is about 50%, which seems right for this style of game.

Warp's Edge (7 plays)

The newest addition to my solo gaming quiver of games... and it's a good one. It's a bag-builder space combat game that is designed for solo play. So far, I do pretty well against the weaker motherships... but the higher rated ones turn me to space dust. I just wrote a review of Warp's Edge on the Opinionated Gamers website.

7 Wonders Duel (5 plays)

The nice folks at Repos Games created an interesting AI for solo play this spring… with five different “characters” for you to challenge. The structure reminded me a bit of the original analog Race for the Galaxy solo AIs in the way that they attacked the game system in particular ways that made it difficult for you to win. More of a solitaire puzzle in the 7 Wonders universe, but enjoyable.

Friday (5 plays)

Friedemann’s wacky deck-builder about keeping Robinson Crusoe alive is still one of the best 1 player games out there. I can’t recommend it highly enough. (It was on my Top 50 games list earlier this year.)

Cartographers: A Roll Player Tale (4 plays)

An incredibly pleasant flip’n’write game that works like a charm as a solo game… and will also work well as a “over Facetime/Zoom” game if you use the solo rules for monster attacks.The Skills mini-expansion adds another level of decision-making that works well. I’m glad the game is in my collection… and I’m looking forward to the Kickstarter for the stand-alone expansion (Cartographer: Heroes), which is going to also include new map sets!

Dungeon Alliance (4 plays)

For me, Dungeon Alliance solo with the Adventure Packs (a very creative expansion idea) is substantially more enjoyable than the still very good Mage Knight Board Game. For starters, it’s a four game campaign… and then there’s the mixture of characters and storyline that feel like you’ve been dropped into the middle of the story. 

Palm Island (4 plays) 

This is a weird little deck-builder[?] that I’m not sure entirely works… you hold your entire deck in your hand (17 cards) and flip and turn cards based on resources on the cards. It’s kind of fiddly and I’m not sure I know how to get a better score… yet I keep playing it.

The Pursuit of Happiness (4 plays)

I continue to adore this gamer-friendly version of The Game of Life… and the newest expansion arriving required me to pull it out and play both multi-player and solo. The solo mode is well-thought-out.. players must beat a particular long-term happiness score as well as complete 3 life goals – which can be challenging. (The new expansion and the various Kickstarter extras just continue to add content and variety to this robust system… the delight of creating a life story is a lot of fun.) You can read my original review here.

Seafall (4 plays)

I took advantage of an excellent Amazon sale to pick up a copy of Seafall to play through the game solo. It is NOT a solo game – but I’m playing all five provinces and just enjoying the chaos and the story. (Note: My boys and I were playtesters on the earliest versions of the Seafall prototype.)

It’s a Wonderful World (3 plays)

Another birthday present, another card-drafting game, another wise use of “packets” to make the drafting game work solo. The provided solo scenarios add challenge… I need to pull this one back out and try to conquer them.

Nemo’s War (3 plays)

The other solo game that was in my Top 50 games list… it manages to blend Euro mechanics and old-school wargame elements along with a compelling theme. On top of that, the various objectives change the game and how you play by just changing the scoring to reflect Nemo’s vision of a “better” world.

Roll for Adventure (3 plays)

A recent co-op game from Kosmos with built-in expansions to increase the difficulty/change the puzzle. It’s a dice-driven push-your-luck game with a fantasy theme draped over it. I typically play solo with two random characters. (BTW, solo or multi-player, I like this game much better with 2-3 players/characters than with 4… it feels like the game plays you with four players.)

Roll Player (3 plays)

One of two “RPG character creation” board games from last year (the other is Call to Adventure)… but with the Monsters & Minions  expansion added in, Roll Player is the best choice for solo play. (In fact, I think this is one of the “required” expansions for multi-player play as well… it offers more variety and more options for players on their turn. Most importantly, it gives the game an ending via fighting the big boss that is much more satisfying than “hey, look – I built a character”.) The Fiends & Familiars expansion is also quite good.

Clank: A Deck-Building Adventure (2 plays)

Personal take: the Clank! In! Space! solo campaign on the app is more interesting than the one-off solo mode for Clank… but both are enjoyable. Then again, the Clank system is beloved in our house and I get plenty of chances to play multi-player.

Desolate (2 plays)

A print’n’play space survival game… the files are now free from PNP Arcade. It’s a lot of inkjet ink for a pretty straightforward solo game. I like it best with the two expansions thrown in – I think there’s more decision-making involved and it’s easier to set the difficulty level using the characters.

Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy (2 plays)

While I enjoy the multi-player game, I found both versions of the solo game (standard and The Testament) to be overly fiddly and not particularly interesting. 

Unbroken (2 plays)

Not related in any way to the excellent WWII biography… this fantasy survival game has nice production (for a solo game) and is in the same vein game-wise as the aforementioned Desolate: make decisions on what to face, press your luck, and try not to run out of supplies. It works… but I wonder if I’ll be played out on it after 5+ plays. (Note: I’ve only played it twice and haven’t brought it back to the table in 4+ months.)

51st State: Master Set (1 play)

As much as I love this game, I really detest the solo version – it pretty much kills what I like about the game. (That said, really looking forward to getting this back in rotation soon as a multi-player game.)

Call to Adventure (1 play)

The rules for solo and cooperative play feel rushed and tacked on – which is disappointing, as I really enjoy this character-building/story-telling game with multiple players.

Clank! In! Space! (1 play)

Started a new attempt at the solo campaign embedded in the app. (The multiple games and the special objectives make it a very interesting and challenging experience.)

Finished (1 play)

A solid solo design that other folks like a lot more than I do... one play per year is just about enough for me. (There is, if you're interested, a free app version of it out there.)

Fresco (1 play)

I made an unbelievably unsuccessful attempt to create an AI to play Fresco against. Lots of work but no fun to play. Youch.

Monster Lands (1 play)

The basic game is pretty fiddly… but I give it that for the fun it creates. The solo game is just fiddly, which is sad.

Nations: The Dice Game (1 play)

I’d rather play this with more players… but the solo game works well. If I didn’t have a number of better options (see above), this would hit the solo table more often.

Sauerbaum (1 play)

This is THE original co-op game… it actually won a special Spiel des Jahres recognition as a cooperative game back in 1988. The problem is that I never feel like I have much control of the game.

Star Wars: Outer Rim (1 play)

My oldest son and I both love playing this dive into the Star Wars universe – it’s a pick up & deliver game with copious thematic elements. The game comes with a solo AI card deck that works… but it isn’t a particularly compelling way to play. I’m not likely to solo this one again – but it will hit the table as a multi-player.

Under Falling Skies: A 9-Card Print-and-Play Game (1 play)

In anticipation of the CGE release of this game, I printed my own copy to get a feel for it. I like the ideas but am hoping that CGE will clean up the rules & graphics to make it easier to grok. (Historically, they’ve done a great job with stuff like that, so I’m excited to see the release later this year.)

Games I Own That Still Need to Come Out to (Solo) Play

  • Adrenaline (CGE published a solo variant)
  • Agricola with Farmers of the Moor
  • Hotshots
  • Sanctum (CGE published a solo variant)
  • Space Cadets: Away Missions
  • The 7th Continent
  • The Colonists


Thinking about buying and/or trading for some new games based on my post (and how long you’re likely to be practicing physical distancing)?

If you’re new to solo gaming, I’d suggest Cartographers, Super-Skill Pinball, and Friday. For those with a bit more gaming under their belts, I’d go with Nemo’s War, Terraforming Mars, Expedition to Newdale (board game version of Oh My Goods), and NEOM. 

This post is based on a blog post I wrote for my personal blog back in April 2020... and a subsequent version of that post published on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Nibbling on the Hand That Has Fed Me (My Musings on Hasbro & the HeroQuest reprint)

I have to come to realize that many of the things I write about board gaming now start with a decent chunk of personal history. This opinion piece (from, no surprise, an Opinionated Gamer) is no exception.

Some of that I credit to how long I’ve been in the hobby: 
And some of that I credit to just being old. Well, older. OK, old.

A Stroll Down Memory Lane

In the 1980s, my friends and I just about played the print off the cards of a set of Talisman… and suffered mightily at the hands of fate through multiple games of Dungeonquest. Games Workshop became my post-RPG go-to company for over-the-top fantasy and sci-fi gaming during that period… great artwork, buckets of dice, cool minis, ridiculously long playing times that only worked for folks without a significant other – in other words, right in my wheelhouse during my college and seminary years. (In fairness, while two different versions of Talisman have been in my collection and subsequently sold, my copy of Dungeonquest [complete with Heroes & Catacombs expansions] still is a regularly played game at the House of Jackson.)

As I continued on in this wonderful hobby of ours, I came back around to wanting more fantasy themed adventuring (dungeon or otherwise) games in my collection and on the gaming table. Fellow Opinionated Gamer Frank “Moo” Branham was my “advance scout”, shooting me emails about things he knew I would love. (I distinctly remember him instructing me to go directly to my nearest Wal-Mart with $40 cash in hand and pick up a copy of Heroscape – “do not pass go, do not collect $200.”) 2004 was the beginning of a beautiful (and expensive) relationship with Heroscape… including playtesting some of the expansions for the Heroscape system. (Yes, Hasbro was the hand that fed me Heroscape terrain & swag, including a really cool Heroscape T-shirt that is literally falling apart but still hanging in my closet.)

A number of great new takes on fantasy adventuring board gaming have appeared in the last 20 years:

  • Prophecy (2003) was one of the earliest Vlaada Chv├ítil designs and is a reimagined (and drastically improved) take on Talisman. (This was, no surprise, another Frank Branham recommendation.)
  • Return of the Heroes (2004) was another angle on the same genre, this time with a modular board. (Note: the base game & first expansion were released in English, but the two expansions that were released only in German took the world in some really creative directions.)
  • Dungeons & Dragons cooperative board game series (beginning 2010) started with Castle Ravenloft and has since added 6 more games to the series. Based on the newest iteration of the D&D RPG rules and classic settings/characters, these are cooperative games with a wide variety of scenarios.
  • Catacombs (first edition 2010, third edition 2015, playmat version 2019) – I once described this as “Carabande/Pitchcar + Descent 1.0 – 3 hours = Catacombs”… that’s still a pretty good description. This is the first of the highly thematic flicking combat games, set in a fantasy universe.
  • Mage Knight Board Game (2011) is yet another Vlaada design, this time taking adventuring into an intricate and puzzle-filled quest. Although it uses some clix figures, the heart of the game is a deck-building/hand-management system.
  • Descent: Journeys in the Dark (first edition 2004, rebooted in 2012, and something new coming in 2021…) – a sprawling dungeon crawl game with a plethora of expansions, plastic minis, and a really great app-driven way to play cooperatively. 
  • Runebound (first edition 2004, second edition 2005, third edition 2015) – set in the same world as Descent (FFG’s Terrinoth), I like the 3rd edition the best. And, yes, you flip “pogs” for combat.
  • Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure (2016) used deck-building and a clever “noise-making” (clank) mechanism to create a dungeon romp/race that has been popular with almost everyone I’ve introduced it to.
  • Dungeon Alliance (2018) uses deck-building (similar to Mage Knight), but focuses on dungeon crawl and combat. With the full set of expansions, this is an amazingly deep and story-filled fantasy adventure.
And that’s just some of the games that are in my collection – there are numerous others out there that some of you may want to tout in the comments section. (For example, I haven’t played Gloomhaven – which in some circles means I’ve lost my gamer mojo that I’ve so carefully curated over the years. I have actually played Too Many Bones – which I enjoyed but would need to be back in college and without a significant other again to have the time to really enjoy.)

By now, I’m guessing you’re wondering when I’m actually going to say something about the new version of HeroQuest. I”m getting there, I promise. I just felt like I needed to establish my fantasy bona fides before I wrote the next paragraph.

I Have Never Played HeroQuest

So how did I never end up playing HeroQuest – originally released in 1989… or or Advanced HeroQuest, for that matter? How could someone with that much playing time in fantasy board game worlds have missed out on this classic?

We’ll make this a multiple choice question:
  • I was a seminary student with limited cash resources.
  • I was deeply in love with the young woman who would become my wife in June of 1990.
  • I had already plunked down some major cash to buy Space Hulk and the expansions
  • The base game was from Milton Bradley, which had done some nice work with the Gamemaster series, but otherwise was still publishing mostly mass market schlock.
  • All of the above

(For those of you who are serious GW fans, Warhammer Quest doesn’t figure into this… it wasn’t released until 1995 and by that point the German game invasion had begun in earnest.)

As you probably guessed, the correct answer is E.

Nibbling Rather Than Biting

With my lack of actual time with HeroQuest, I don’t feel like I’m qualified to savage Hasbro or Avalon Hill for the decision to reprint a classic game… but I still have some thoughts based on my decades of experience in the hobby.

I think the best way to do this is to divvy it up into specific concerns that I have.

What’s My Motivation?

I love theater – and was even a theater major for a portion of my college career. “What’s my motivation?” is an acting cliche. But, in the case of Heroquest, it’s worth thinking about.

I wrote a fellow OG writer this last week that it felt like Hasbro had seen the success of Restoration Games with rebooting/reimagining older games – particularly Return to Dark Tower – and saw visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads. 

There is nothing wrong with a profit motive – that how companies succeed and how we get more games. But when the primary motivation is money (in the words of Pink Floyd, “it’s a gas”), creativity and innovation can easily suffer.

New & Improved?

It’s obvious that the team at Hasbro has re-glossed the artwork, updated the miniatures, changed the box shape (from the old GW coffin box that doesn’t fit today’s modern lifestyle), and generally dusted everything off. They’re also adding new campaign material – including bringing back one of the gurus of fantasy adventure game design, Stephen Baker, who had a big part in Heroscape, Battleball, and Battle Masters as well as one of the weirdest Frank-recommended games in my collection, Die Schlacht der Dinosaurier (translated: “The Battle of the Dinosaur Riders”)

But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of work to move the game forward… it’s more like you took HeroQuest to a hot rod shop and gave it racing stripes and replaced the floor mats. I’m happy to be proven wrong here.

Reprint Vs. Reimagine

This may sound overly simplistic, but there’s a marked difference between reprinting a game with cosmetic changes and re-imagining a game to keep what’s worthwhile and let the bits that haven’t aged well go peacefully off into the sunset.

While Restoration Games has proven to be the go-to company for this kind of work, they aren’t the only ones doing it. Fantasy Flight Games did a splendid re-imagine of Wiz-War that is, frankly, a MUCH better game than the original (no matter how beloved it is). They also did a sweet re-thinking of the Gamemaster classic Fortress America. (Both of these were shepherded by the creative genius of designer Kevin Wilson.)

Even Hasbro has allowed their design team to do interesting things to their classic games – Rob Daviau (now a key player with Restoration Games) managed to get a version of Monopoly with victory points published (Monopoly: Tropical Tycoon) and stretched the boundaries of what Risk could be with a variety of games… among them Risk: Balance of Power (two-player Risk), Risk: Black Ops (proof of concept for shortening Risk and adding deeper strategic/tactical decisions), and Risk Legacy (which was the very first legacy game published).

Not every reboot works, though. As an example, Hasbro’s “Heroscape: the Gathering” (combining elements of Heroscape with the theme and card play of M:tG) is pretty uninspired, despite the excellent pedigree.

What Hasbro is doing (from all accounts) is a reprint. I wish they were doing so much more. It might even convince me to pony up the nearly $200 it would take get all the goodies.

Rose-Colored Glasses of Memory

Since this is primarily a reprint of a game that fetches ridiculous prices on the secondhand market (I personally sold a couple of expansions I lucked into for big dollars back 10-15 years ago), it seems like one of the key selling points is nostalgia. 

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that… again, it’s ok for a company to make money. But it seems a wasted opportunity to simply give grownups the chance to buy what they couldn’t afford when they were 30 years younger. 

Why Crowdfund?

This is the one point where I’m actually on Hasbro’s side – the price point of this particular item and the need to make the release go viral means that crowdfunding is probably the safest and most cost-effective way to accomplish both of those goals. And that’s especially true when you’re using your own crowdfunding platform.

We’ll Always Have Board Games

Look, it doesn’t take much to see that my opinions don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Hasbro has (as of October 20, 2020) already had $2.4 million in pledges for their reprint of HeroQuest… which means it will be published. But I still think there are issues… issues that they can potentially mitigate. And I got to tell you some stories, which is always fun.

Well, here at last, dear friends, at the bottom of the page comes the end of our meandering article. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.

Note: as noted in the opinion piece above, I have playtested games for a variety of different companies, including both Hasbro and Restoration Games, and have received board games and gaming swag in return.

I also flat out stole lines from the film “Casablanca” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in order to write this article.

This diatribe/rant/musing/whatever was originally published on the Opinionated Gamers website, which all right-thinking board game fans should check on a daily basis.

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

My Top 50 Games (from early 2020) - The Summary

If I was really industrious, I'd turn this into a series of blog posts... but it's much, much easier to just point you at my Pinterest board where all 50 of my mini-reviews for my top 50 games are linked.

Honestly, I'd rather be playing these games!

Thursday, October 01, 2020

Political Advice for Evangelical Leaders

“I also would have steered clear of politics. I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back I know I sometimes cros­sed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.” 

Billy Graham, interview with Christianity Today, 2011

(speaking about Jerry Falwell, Sr.) "I told him to preach the Gospel. That’s our calling. I want to preserve the purity of the Gospel and the freedom of religion in America. I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. Liberals organized in the ’60s, and conservatives certainly have a right to organize in the ’80s, but it would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it."

Billy Graham, interview with Parade, 1981

(speaking about the Moral Majority)
"It would be unfortunate if people got the impression all evangelists belong to that group. The majority do not. I don’t wish to be identified with them. I’m for morality. But morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak out with such authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists can’t be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle to preach to all people, right and left. I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future."

Billy Graham, interview with Parade, 1981

“If I had to do it over again, I would also avoid any semblance of involvement in partisan politics. An evangelist is called to do one thing, and one thing only: to proclaim the Gospel. Becoming involved in strictly political issues or partisan politics dilutes the evangelist’s impact and compromises his message.”

Billy Graham, from his autobiography Just As I Am, 1997

Friday, September 18, 2020

Dolly, Clive & Paul (Thoughts on Happiness)

I make a point to appreciate all the little things in my life. I go out and smell the air after a good, hard rain. I re-read passages from my favorite books. I hold the little treasures that somebody special gave me. These small actions help remind me that there are so many great, glorious pieces of good in the world.

Dolly Parton

The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with out friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.

C.S. Lewis

It has been a great joy to me that after all this time you have shown such interest in my welfare. I don’t mean that you had forgotten me, but up till now you had no opportunity of expressing your concern. Nor do I mean that I have been in actual need, for I have learned to be content, whatever the circumstances may be. I know now how to live when things are difficult and I know how to live when things are prosperous. In general and in particular I have learned the secret of facing either poverty or plenty. I am ready for anything through the strength of the one who lives within me.

Philippians 4:10-14 (PHILLIPS)

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Classic: Fred, Lionel & Erwin: The "Royal Wedding" Syndrome

This classic blog post seems especially applicable here in 2020... so I wanted to make it more visible (and do some slight editing).

I want to add a warning to the beginning of this post... more than usual for me, this is a William Faulkner-esque stream of consciousness kind of mash-up. You may not catch all the references (that's OK) but try and follow the thread of my idea(s). If you can't, it's not your fault but mine.

First, you need to watch this video.

The Secret of the Ceiling Dance by bluebird1111

For those of you who are children of the 80's - no, Lionel Ritchie was not the first performer to be "Dancin' on the Ceiling."

No offense to Mr. "Running With the Night" (a good Lionel song, btw, as opposed to the utter inanity of "Say You, Say Me"), but Fred's a lot more graceful than you are.

This amazing effect was accomplished by building a set inside a huge wheel - then gluing or nailing down every piece of furniture & decoration on the set so that it wouldn't move when it was rotated. Pretty impressive stuff, eh?!

Second, you need to read this definition from
The Very Best of British:
Momentarily - As you come into land at an American airport and the announcement says that you will be landing momentarily, look around to see if anyone is sniggering. That will be the Brits! I never did figure out why they say this. Momentarily to us means that something will only happen for an instant - a very short space of time. So if the plane lands momentarily will there be enough time for anyone to get off? Weird!
In a similar vein, I once told 4 year old Collin (my now 15 year old son) that I needed to break him of a bad habit that he had. Tears welled up in his eyes as he said, "Dad, don't break me." Now you're properly prepared for the rest of this post.

I was studying & reading yesterday for my message/talk/sermon (pick your favorite - "long-winded diatribe" is NOT one of the choices) and began searching for an
Erwin McManus quote. Thanks to the joys of Googling, I not only managed to uncover some great quotes, I also found a group of individuals who are very angry with Erwin and have spend an amazing amount of time writing about it.

Now, I'm a part of the online community of boardgame players/collectors, so I've seen obsessive behavior before - the "Eurosnoot vs Ameritrash" argument (don't ask - it's just as stupid as it sounds) chewed up great swaths of bandwidth & emotional energy while generating more heat than light. The Erwin haters, my friends, are some pretty obsessed folks... they'd fit nicely into a discussion of whether Go or Chess is the "deeper" game.

I'm not going to get into a detailed analysis of their problems with Erwin (a pastor & writer who I admire deeply) - that's not really the point today. I will suggest, however, that there are two possible syndromes that explain this behavior:
  1. The "Royal Wedding" Syndrome - lots of folks want their Christianity and/or religion tied up in neat little packages with no rough edges and no sense of mystery. They want everything nailed or glued down so that no matter what happens, they know the rules. These are the folks who deeply love conferences with printed notebooks filled with outlines & sermons with subjects like "7 Easy Steps to a Great Marriage." These same people are flustered (and maybe even a bit angry) at God for not specifically speaking to every potential hot button issue in Scriptures... and since He didn't, they'll do it for Him and pull out proof texts to bolster their point. Erwin, with his artist/philosopher background, is never going to speak their language.
  2. The "British English/American English" Syndrome - speaking of language, the fact that Erwin & the folks at his church (Mosaic) are willing to use terminology not often heard in church to describe Biblical truths is like waving a red cape in front of a bull. Erwin says: "The greatest enemy to the movement of Jesus Christ is Christianity." What I hear is "Christianity as a religious institution has stifled & attempted to channel the power of Jesus Christ in order to reach worldly objectives. Erwin wants to send people back to power & grace & love of Jesus Christ." What they hear is "Erwin wants people to not be Christians but 'spiritual people' who believe anything & everything."
Combine those two impulses with Erwin's love of confounding expectations with his speaking/teaching & you've got the recipe for obsessive website building & the same lovely behavior that Stephen faced in Acts 7:57-58 (NLT):
Then they put their hands over their ears and began shouting. They rushed at him and dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.
I'm not suggesting that anyone is headed to Erwin's house for a drive-by stoning... just that the same kind of "stick my fingers in my ears & attack" tendency seems to be present here.

Now, I'm not finished yet. It's one thing when folks have "Royal Wedding" Syndrome over an author. It's another thing when they do it with their lives.

I'm convinced that many of us (and I include myself here) want for everything in our lives to be nailed down solid... so that when life sends us spinning, we can dance on the ceiling without a care. Nothing will be broken, nothing will change... and when our life rights itself, when it returns to "normal", everything will be exactly where we put it.

But an unexpected death or being laid off or your daughter getting pregnant or the onset of depression or a hundred other things quickly end that illusion. When the room of your life begins to turn, nothing stays still. Things crash to the floor and you're reduced to hanging on for dear life. No magical dancing through a wonderland secured by roofing nails & wood glue for you.

As I've been mulling this over, I realized that I'm trusting the adhesives & the hardware to hold my life together - my plans, my nest egg, my house, my possessions, my job - rather than trusting Jesus with all of that stuff... and with me. I want those things to get locked in place because I think that I can hold onto them when trouble starts.

I'm not suggesting that you live in your car or pull a St. Francis & strip yourself naked. I am suggesting that trusting in any of this stuff is foolish - because it doesn't have the strength to support you when life gets rough.

The challenge is (to quote the Southern-fried rock band, 38 Special) to "hold on loosely." And we can do that because Jesus promises to "hold on tightly" to us.
Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you."
Take a look at that passage (Hebrews 13:5-6) in the Amplified Version... talk about making the point clear!
He [God] Himself has said, I will not in any way fail you nor give you up nor leave you without support. [I will] not, [I will] not, [I will] not in any degree leave you helpless nor forsake nor let [you] down (relax My hold on you)! [Assuredly not!] So we take comfort and are encouraged and confidently and boldly say, The Lord is my Helper; I will not be seized with alarm [I will not fear or dread or be terrified].
One last question for thought: what if the stuff in our lives getting moved around and/or broken is a good thing? 

Friday, September 11, 2020

Three Mountains... and the Echo Chambers We Live In

Three things to get out of the way as I start: 
  1. The picture here is of the Three Sisters in Alberta, Canada... and has very little to do with the rest of this post. I just think it's pretty. And it has three mountains.
  2. Anything I'm about to say about Jean Piaget and educational psychology must be filtered through the fact that I took my last Ed Psych course in seminary back in 1988. 
  3. Okay... two things.
Over the years, I've often referred to the Three Mountain Problem (one of Piaget's more famous experiments) in my speaking and teaching as a pastor. Over the last couple of weeks, I've been mulling over how it applies to the way so many folks interact with journalism, conspiracy theories, and the never-ending torrent of memes and hot takes that is social media.

The Three Mountain Problem is pretty simple... simple enough that Wikipedia does a rather nice job of explaining it:

Piaget's aim in the Three Mountain Problem was to investigate egocentrism in children's thinking. The original setup for the task was:

The child is seated at a table where a model of three mountains is presented in front. The mountains were of different sizes, and they had different identifiers (one mountain had snow; one had a red cross on top; one had a hut on top). The child was allowed to do a 360 surveillance of the model. Upon having a good look at the model, a doll is placed at different vantage points relative to the child, and the child is shown 10 photographs. The child is to select which of the 10 photographs best reflects the doll's view. Children of different ages were tested using this task to determine the age at which children begin to 'decenter,' or take the perspective of others.
For a long time, I've used this experiment as an example to talk about emotional maturity in counseling people (especially premarital counseling for couples). I believe that one of the keys to healthy relationships (romantic or not) is the ability to see life from other people's perspective - whether or not you agree with them. The ability to listen and understand a different viewpoint than your own increases your empathy, widens your knowledge of the world, and builds meaningful connections.

On the other hand, the inability to see the perspective of others is a major roadblock to growth and change in any kind of relationship... or group. Many of us have attended work meetings with a key leader who couldn't hear anyone else's constructive input due to the siren call of his own particular understanding of the situation. We've witnessed politicians talking past each other, entrenched in their narrow definition of terms and relevant data. 

Which brings me to my point - how much harder is it for us to 'decenter', to take in different perspectives, viewpoints, and opinions, when we have a crowd of people standing behind us, whispering (or shouting) in our ear that our take is the only correct one?

This is the curse of the media echo chambers that we live in unless we strive desperately to bridge the gaps. Our circle of friends on social media are likely to watch the same news outlets, read the same websites, forward the same memes... and that means our attempts to understand why someone believes/votes/supports/thinks something different is exponentially more difficult.

'Decentering' - listening to others with respect and an attempt to understand - does not mean you have to change your mind. But it does mean that you follow the Biblical prescription:
Let everyone be quick to hear [be a careful, thoughtful listener], slow to speak [a speaker of carefully chosen words and], slow to anger [patient, reflective, forgiving]... 

James 1:19 (AMP)

I'll write more later on how I think this directly impacts evangelism and discipleship for followers of Christ - but I took that out of this post in order to focus on the echo chamber application.