Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Jumbled Thoughts About Newtown

On Friday, many people watched in horror as the news came in fits & spurts from a small town in Connecticut... and we once again witnessed a tragedy inside a school - but this time the majority of the victims were 6 or 7 years old.

I've worked & prayed for a couple of days, trying to figure out how to write something that is both pastoral and profound; something that gives hope without denying the reality of the pain & grief & anger. So far, my attempts have been an abject failure.

It's not that I don't have things to say... it's that they are all jumbled in my head and end up spilling out in fragments & disconnected thoughts. I guess that's the way they'll have to come out today. Bear with me.


Our current information-soaked culture can fool us into thinking we know more than we do about situations like this. The ease with which I can pull up video reports and read newspaper stories combines with the relentless 24 hour news cycle and the need of TV networks and websites to create new content... and what all too often happens is that conjecture and opinion become conflated with facts in an attempt to explain, assess blame & assign meaning to a massacre like this.

The reality is that we don't know very much right now - and not just because the police are being careful about releasing information. It's important to remember the lessons of Columbine:
We have learned that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not goths. They weren’t loners. They weren’t in the “Trenchcoat Mafia.” They were not disaffected video gamers. They hadn’t been bullied. The supposed “enemies” on their list had already graduated a year earlier. They weren’t on anti-depressant medication. They didn’t target jocks, blacks or Christians.
They just wanted to kill. 

Two seemingly normal, well-scrubbed high school boys went to their school in a prosperous suburban subdivision with the goal to kill thousands. Their bombs didn’t work, so they proceeded to kill 13 classmates, and wound another 24. (from "The Answer is Evil" - referenced below)

So much of what we heard in the days following the 1999 attack on Columbine High School turned out to be speculation... and wrong. It's likely that some (or a great deal) of what we're hearing right now about motivations and upbringing regarding Newtown, CT, will turn out to be rumors & myths as well.


Our tendency is to want to fix things... to jump in and find a solution so that something like this can never happen again. We're already seeing this with calls for gun control and mental health reform in response to the tragedy.

I'm not particularly interested in debating either of these subjects - primarily because I think that focusing our energies on legal solutions in the immediate aftermath of a horrific event like what happened in Newtown has more to do with making ourselves feel better/safter/like we're doing something and less to do with what is really needed.

These discussions are important discussions... but when they are conducted under the white hot spotlight of the media circus while we are awash in grief, they tend to become polarized battles where individuals and groups lob verbal grenades at each other. And the shrapnel from those battles is most likely to injure the people most directly affected by the tragedy.

What is really needed? Mourning. The time for action will come - and yes, I understand that it can take a horrible situation like this to get legislators to accomplish meaningful reform - but we ignore the Biblical injunction to "mourn with those who mourn" at our own peril. Our rush to fix does not give us the space to grieve in meaningful ways... and we can make laws & policies based on rumors & myths.


Our tendency is to want to fix things... to jump in and find a solution to all of the pain & hurt & grief.

Wait a minute! That sentence sounds suspiciously like the beginning to the last entry...

Yes, yes it does. That's because we as followers of Jesus Christ suffer from the same tendencies as everyone else - a desire to fix things. Some of us get pulled into the debates about governmental solutions, but it's more likely that we Christians will want to fix the hurt we see in the faces of the family members by attempting to explain why this mass shooting happened... or use our words to nudge the grieving process along.

It's at moments like this that we need to pay attention to Job & his friends:
Now when Job’s three friends—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite—heard about all this adversity that had happened to him, each of them came from his home. They met together to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they looked from a distance, they could barely recognize him. They wept aloud, and each man tore his robe and threw dust into the air and on his head. Then they sat on the ground with him seven days and nights, but no one spoke a word to him because they saw that his suffering was very intense. (Job 2:11-13, HCSB)

These guys have the right idea... rather than jump into long-winded discussions about theodicy (the theology of evil) or give Job some quick-fix answers ("at least your kids are with God now"), they simply sit with him in silence. They are present.

Of course, the moment they start talking they downshift into saying one dumb thing after another - blame, philosophical discussion, theological musings, etc.

In the midst of the tragedy in Newtown, we need to work more at being present, of allowing people to mourn & grieve. And we need to work hard to keep our arms open to those in tears and our mouths closed unless God gives us words to speak.


A number of wise people have written about the tragedy... and while they don't all agree with each other, I'd suggest that you take the time to read what they have to say.

Joel J. Miller - The Face of the devil & the mercy of God 

In his book The Doors of the Sea, David Bentley Hart writes that we should see in the death of child, not “the face of God but the face of his enemy.” We believe in Providence, yes, but we should be free to say that evil had its way. In a letter to a couple who had lost their child, Basil the Great is upfront with this fact: “[S]uddenly, through the malice of the devil, all that happiness of home and that gladness of heart has been swept away. . . .”

James Emery White - The Answer is Evil 

It brings to mind Jean Bethke Elshtain’s experience on the first Sunday following the attacks of 9/11. She went to a Methodist church in Nashville. The minister, which she describes as having a kind of frozen smile on his face, said “I know it has been a terrible week.” Then, after a pause, he continued, “But that’s no reason for us to give up our personal dreams.” 
She thought, “Good grief! Shouldn’t you say something about what happened and how Christians are to think about it?” But then she realized that if one has lost the term evil from his or her theological vocabulary, then it is not easy to talk about such a thing.
I hope you will forgive my honesty, but I do not understand the shock. The grief I understand. The speechlessness, the staggering, the profound sorrow, the overwhelming sense of violation—these I understand. We are reeling from yet another assault of darkness. But our shock reveals something else altogether, something even more dangerous than armed violence.

I am describing a naiveté about the world that Christians, at least, should not be toying with.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Hypnotic Power of a Bug-Zapper & The Happiest Place on Earth (Classic)

This classic post is from 2007... and I repost it today with some slight edits in honor of our trip to Disneyland last week. (I'll write more about that delightful experience later.)
Mosquito #1: Larry, no! Don't look at the light!
Mosquito #2: [entranced] I-can't-help-it. It's-so-beautiful.
A Bug's Life
I know I've got Disneyland on the brain right now (we just got back from 4 days at DLR), but this post has been fermenting in the dark corners of my brain for nearly six months now. Blame Erwin McManus... it was an off-handed comment he made during the Ethos part of The Origins Experience. He suggested that different cultures have different icons that give us clues to the underlying values that permeate those cultures:
  • the English have Big Ben - a giant clock. Is it any wonder that order & consistency are highly valued in that society?
  • for Germany, Erwin suggested the iconic value of the automobile (Volkswagon, Mercedes Benz, Porsche)... and that leads easily into a culture that finds precision & attention to detail.
  • Brazil's icon is not an object but a celebration: Mardi Gras (Carnivale) - which fits a country where living life to the fullest & enjoying the party are deeply valued.
Then Erwin asked the question he'd been leading up to: "What are the metaphors of the culture that you are in?" And since the majority of us in the audience were from the U.S., he answered the question for us: "Mickey Mouse. Disneyland."

Of course, I was prepared at that point to hear your standard anti-Disney diatribe: [snob]"Just like Disney, Americans are shallow, interested in being lulled to political & moral sleep by a Pied Piper with promises of a fantasy world & happy endings."[/snob] But that wasn't where Erwin headed...
"Disneyland stands for the promise of imagination - that we can create something bigger & better & more amazing. It suggests that every one of us can live a heroic life." (This quote, btw, is paraphrased - this is what I can construct from my personal notes & my failing memory.)
 With that nugget burrowing into my head, I began reading Erwin's most recent book, Soul Cravings (you can read a chapter that particularly moved me, 'cuz I blogged about it earlier: Pathos [Entry 24]) His premise is that each person has three needs:
  • meaning - we want to know what we can know (truth) and what we can control (security)
  • intimacy - we want to experience community (acceptance) and love
  • destiny - we want to make a difference (success, signifigance)
Mix into a pile of books I received for my birthday on Disney & Disneyland...
...along with my already well-documented obsession with the Disney parks and you've got yourself the makings of a world-class philosophical/theological rant.

I'll try to spare you most of my musings, which are probably only interesting to me & a couple of other Disneyphiles... still, I've started down this road, so join me as I address the key question here.

Why is that so many of us are drawn to Disneyland like a moth to a flame? (Or, to borrow from A Bug's Life, a mosquito to a bug zapper?)

I've come to believe that it's because Disneyland, knowingly or unknowingly, taps into all three of these core desires (or cravings):
  • meaning - In the world of Disney (and by extension, Disneyland), there are heroes & villains. Rather than a world that seems to be sometimes painted in shades of grey, the park offers a place where visitors can see good triumph over evil.
  • intimacy - From encounters with characters to the special attention to guest relations that each Cast Member is trained in, the folks at Disneyland want you not only to enjoy the attractions but also to connect on a personal level. It's telling that none of their publicity materials (that I know of) advertise this as a great vacation for individuals - instead, they emphasize how experiencing the park together brings families & friends closer with the bond of shared memories.
  • destiny - The park is designed to involve you in adventure after adventure - whether it's flying through outer space (Star Tours, Space Mountain) or dealing with pirates (Pirates of the Carribean) or facing ghosts (the Haunted Mansion) or exploring the wilds of Africa & Asia (the Jungle Cruise). Challenging your fears, diving headlong into adventure... these kind of experiences touch base with your need to do something meaningful with our lives - to escape the monotony of our everyday slog.
I'm not suggesting that Walt Disney (or anyone else who's making the "big decisions" for the park) was/is a follower of Christ... or even that they sought to satisfy these cravings in a purposeful way. I'm simply suggesting that the appeal of Disneyland is not as simple as "it's clean & has wormed it's way into a definition of the American experience." (One clue to that being false: there are now 3 "Disneyland" parks outside of the U.S. - in Tokyo, Hong Kong & Paris.)


For those of you in the reading audience who need to hear me quote some Scripture right now so you won't brand Erwin (or me, by extension) as a Mickey-ears wearing heretic, how about John 14:6?:
  • destiny ("I am the way")
  • meaning ("the truth")
  • intimacy ("and the life")
Or how about 1 Corinthians 13:13, Colossians 1:5, 1 Thessalonians 1:3 & 5:8?
  • meaning ("faith" - what is really true?)
  • destiny ("hope" - where are really we headed?)
  • intimacy ("love" - will we really know & be known?)

A final thought about movies & amusement parks & well, church (maybe?):
"Don't write stuff & produce stuff about answers - don't do that," Winter said. "Write stuff & produce stuff that will stir up cravings inside of us, because that's the DNA that God's put inside of us. You stir that stuff up, and that's where [people] want to go to church. That's when they want to talk about the good news." Ralph Winter, producer of the X-Men series, quoted in The Hollywood Project by Alex Field

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Merry Holidays?! Happy Christmas!? (Classic)

And here's the Christmas classic from 2011... 

We all get "those emails" - you know, the ones where you are instructed to either pass the message on or forward it to five friends or whatever. (I've sounded off on this before here on the blog - go back to yesterday & read my post, Forward Christian Soldiers.)  

And I got another one today.
I will be making a conscious effort to wish everyone a Merry Christmas this year ... My way of saying that I am celebrating the birth Of Jesus Christ. So I am asking my email buddies, if you agree with me, to please do the same. And if you'll pass this on to your email buddies, and so on... maybe we can prevent one more American tradition from being lost in the sea of "Political Correctness".
You may sit now, as I did, for a moment of stunned silence at this bit of ridiculousness. OK, silent time is over. Elton Trueblood once said:
“There are those places in ministry and theology that you must draw the line and fight and die; just don’t draw the lines in stupid places!”
Here are three reasons that the above email (and the philosophy behind it) are clearly one of those stupid places:
  1. Please, please, please... any time you are tempted to use the phrases "celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ" and "American tradition" in the same sentence, you should use some of that cutesy holiday-themed scotch tape to shut your mouth. The celebration of Christ's birth is NOT an American tradition - it's a Christian tradition... and being an American doesn't make you a Christian, any more than walking into McDonald's makes you a hamburger. (Credit to Keith Green for that analogy.)
  2. "Happy Holidays" is not a frontal attack on Christianity... it's an attempt by people (and businesses) to be inoffensive in a season in which there are two major religious holidays (one Christian & one Jewish), one cultural holiday (Kwanzaa), and New Years Day as well.
  3. A methodological problem: email forwards and Facebook status updates tend to go to people who already agree with you - meaning you've created feedback loop of people who become belligerent about the way they wish people "Merry Christmas" because they're sure that everyone who doesn't do the same is opposed to all that is good & right in the world.
I'm not telling you to stop saying "Merry Christmas" - in the words of Reggie McNeal, "Don't hear what I'm not saying." Go right ahead & wish people "Merry Christmas"... you are celebrating the birth of Christ in this season. The sincere hope of those who are followers of Jesus is that more people would discover that for themselves.

However, I do want to give you a few tips in how to fulfill the command of Scripture while you're spreading holiday cheer:
  1. Stop correcting salespeople who are obligated - in order to keep their job! - to say "Happy Holidays". It's not their fault. And arguing with them or chiding them is not going to bring anyone closer to embracing the true meaning of Christmas.
  2. When you say "Merry Christmas", make sure you sound like Bob Crachit rather than Ebenezer Scrooge. Seriously, there are some folks out there who spit the traditional greeting at people like it's a bullet aimed straight at their pitiful heathen hearts. If you can't wish someone "Merry Christmas" with a heart filled with Christlike love, then don't say anything at all.
  3. Remember that the (gosh, I hate this cliche) "reason for the season" is Jesus Christ... not the preservation of tradition or winning the "War on Christmas". The Incarnation is about God clearly & completely expressing His love for us - Immanuel means "God with us". When we are just working to accomplish a cultural agenda, we are communicating the exact opposite message... what we're saying is "if you don't accept my particular way of celebration & the theological beliefs that go along with it, I'll simply stuff it down your throat."
And, since I'm a pastor, a Scripture to prove my point:
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (Colossian 4:5-6, NIV)
BTW, Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Forward Christian Soldiers (Classic)

This post on one of my pet peeves originally appeared back in 2005... I've updated it a bit and posted it again as it goes nicely with tomorrow's Christmas-y blog post on a similar topic.

We all get the stuff - forwarded across e-mail from one friend to another or posted to our Facebook wall. Sometimes it's a touching story or a collection of inspirational pictures & sayings or a pithy sermon illustration. Sometimes it's heartwarming, other times just smarmy & irritating. 

 Unfortunately, way too many of these forwards end with a line or two that sounds something like this:

  • "Pass this message to 7 people except you and me. You will receive a miracle tomorrow. Don't ignore and God will bless you."
  • "If you're not ashamed of Jesus, forward this on to 10 other people."
  • "Ninety-nine percent of the people here will be AFRAID to repost this important message!"

(Those of you who've read a good bit of what I've written know what's about to happen. I'm gonna drag out my soapbox and climb up on top of it and commence to preaching.)

I just have to ask: what in the world do we think we are doing when we send stuff like this out!? Has spiritual encouragement become so impoverished in our world that we are forced to use emotional blackmail to get people to say nice things to each other?

Because what the "not ashamed of Jesus" line implies is that if I refuse to forward the e-mail, I am ashamed of Jesus. It has an element of pride in it - because, of course, the person who sent is obviously not ashamed.

Hogwash. If the test for being a devoted follower of Christ is whether I can hit the "reply to all" button on Outlook Express or click on a tiny animated thumb on Facebook, then faithfulness has been majorly devalued. In the classic illustration of the carrot & the stick (two ways to get a donkey to move), this is the "stick" methodology.

In the same vein, the promise of a miracle and/or blessing is just as big of a theological problem. This is the "carrot" approach to inspiring people to forward the e-mail... in other words, "send this on and you'll get paid off by God for your good behavior."

Now, God clearly promises to bless us and that we will experience miracles (things beyond natural explanation)... but nowhere in Scripture is that tied to chain mail. Nor is it a formula: "if A, then B". Saying it another way, "If I do this for God, He has to do that for me." We cannot obligate God to perform for us!

Yes, the Bible clearly says that if we ask anything in His name, He will do it. But take a close look at that passage:
I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. John 14:12-14 (NIV)

The purpose of giving us what we ask for Jesus to bring glory to the Father... not to make our lives easier or our health better or our bank account fatter. If those things happen, well & good! Give God thanks... but when we ask Jesus for things "in His name", we must not use his name like a magical incantation.

Let me draw that out a bit... when we view God as someone we can 'force' to do our bidding by our behavior, it's as if we turn the prayer, "Jesus, please heal my son" into "Abracadabra, heal my son!" And that's not any different than "God's gotta give me something good if I hit 'reply to all.'"

(OK, I'm climbing down off the soapbox now... sort of.)

Here's what I do. When I receive a forward with one of those lines or something similar on the bottom, I delete it. Nuke it. Zap it. Consign to Deleted Items Folder for all of eternity. And I do that regardless of the quality of the rest of the e-mail.

One last thought: seems kind of nutty that I've gone off like a Roman candle about this, doesn't it? I mean, it's "just e-mail."

Well, here's something for you to chew on: I "went off" not because forwards are irritating but because the underlying theology is bad. This week, try and look carefully for the underlying theology of some things you take for granted in your life: what you watch on TV; a magazine article you're reading, a discussion you have around the water cooler at work. All part of that "taking thoughts captive" thing, right?


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Game Expansion Preview: Memoir '44 Equipment Pack

Many years ago, Jason Matthews (the co-designer of Twilight Struggle, Founding Fathers & 1960: Making of a President) called me a "closet toy soldier collector" based on my enjoyment of the Gamemaster series of games (Axis & Allies, Fortress America, etc.) and the Hasbro/Avalon Hill edition of History of the World. I was compelled to mention my addiction to Heroscape & my budding collection of Attacktix figures to support his accusation.

Well, for all the closet toy soldier collectors (like me!) out there, the folks at Days of Wonder have decided to throw you a bone. Well, actually, 185 bones. The newest Memoir '44 expansion set is called the Equipment Pack - and it's basically a pile of wonderful plastic pieces to spice up your Memoir '44 set.

There are some new vehicles:

  • Hobart's Funnies - complete with interchangeable accessories!
  • Screaming Meemies (with Smoke Shell capability)
  • Tank Destroyers
  • Kubelwagen (command cars)
As well as some new troops:
  • French infantry
  • Polish cavalry
  • Finnish ski troops
  • Italian artillery
In addition, there are a number of figures that replace certain badges (some with updated information cards):
  • special weapons assets like machine guns & mortars
  • Long Tom (Big Guns)
  • Landing Craft
  • Tank Destroyers
  • Snipers
And as a thoughtful addition for newer closet toy soldier collectors, the vehicles that were originally published with the Battle Map series:
  • Supply Trucks
  • Half Tracks
  • Long Range Patrol Cars ("jeeps")
  • Tiger tanks

While you can retrofit these nifty new pieces into earlier scenarios, the good folks at Days of Wonder thoughtfully have provided 11 new "regular" scenarios, 2 Breakthrough scenarios, 3 Overlord scenarios... and, for good measure, a way to combine two of the smaller scenarios into one large Overlord battle.

The appropriate new information cards are in the box (along with a set in French for those of you who "Parlez-vous français". There is a rulebook (in multiple languages) and a scenario book (similar in format to the last few expansions).

I was surprised to find no new terrain, badges or tokens in this set - but in many cases, that's exactly what these figures are replacing.

There are always two questions when dealing with Memoir '44 expansions that have to be answered:
  • Which expansions do I need to make this expansion playable?
    • The BGG entry has an extensive list (under the More Information tab) scenario by scenario, but if you'll need at least a base game & the Terrain Pack. A Winter/Desert board (or two) as well as Winter Wars & the Mediterranean Theater would be nice as well... and you'll wanted the Overlord & Breakthrough expansion for those scenarios. Finally, the Urban Combat deck from Battle Map #3 is used in one of the Overlord scenarios.
  • Is this expansion an essential part of my Memoir '44 collection?
    • I don't know that I'd use the word "essential" - but if you enjoy the high "toy factor" of Memoir '44, this adds some wonderful bits to the game along with some really nifty new rules & unit types. I'd feel sad if I didn't have it in my collection.
So far, I've played 3 of the one board scenarios and one of the Overlord scenarios (with a fifth scenario set up in my game room, waiting for my son & I!). The scenarios are not perfectly balanced but they have all been very enjoyable to play, even on the losing side. (Yes, I've lost 3 of the 4. Don't rub it in.)

This post was originally written in August of 2012 - but somehow missed getting published. My apologies both to Days of Wonder (who thoughtfully provided the review copy) and to my readers.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Google Me (Classic)

This is a very old aka pastor guy post (from 2005)... at the end, I've updated it a bit.

I decided to Google myself this morning. (For those who are not computer-savvy, Google is a very effective search engine that helps find websites that match the information you put into the system.) 

In this case, I typed in "mark jackson" pastor (the quotes make sure the search engine looks for occurrences of the whole phrase) and it spit out 614 results. 

I found ample evidence of my gaming obsession - not only stuff I've posted on the web but also mentions from friends. (There's even a reference to an internet radio show/podcast that I did late last year on a show called Geekspeak.) 

The website I put up when I was hunting for a church (and you guys here at NewLife were hunting for me) is still active. (Which is weird... but kind of cool.) There's even an article I was quoted in about the On Target Conference I attended back in February. (I remember being interviewed for the California Baptist state paper - though I don't remember saying one of the quotes attributed to me. Not that I disagree with what it says I said... I'm just not sure I said it to the reporter.) 

 Then, of course, there's the references to people who aren't me, but just share my name:
  • Mark Jackson, NBA star, who somehow got caught up in a turf war between the coach of the Knicks & the team chapel pastor
  • a playwright named Mark Jackson (though the reviews of his play call it "sprawling & unlikely")
  • any number of Pastor Mark Jackson's, including a couple of Dr. Mark Jackson's (man, that looks weird to see my name with a "Dr." in front of it)
  • a Lutheran youth ministry professor
  • some dead people (obituaries)
  • and at least one guy serving in our armed forces
Which brings me to the most interesting part of my search - there's a Mark Jackson who is, oddly enough, been convicted of bilking church members in Tennessee and California out of approximately $1.2 million dollars. (He's also up for charges in Georgia... you can read the article at Apologetics Index for more information.) Here's the random thoughts that went through my head when I found this guy:
  • boy, if I'd embezzled over $1 million bucks, we sure wouldn't need to do a capital campaign later this year
  • how weird is it that this guy bilked churches in the last two states I've lived in?
  • man, I hate the prosperity gospel - it's anti-biblical and it has a tendency to give people permission to do stupid things
  • what would it take in my life to turn me into a con man?
If you're looking for a grand point to all this, I'm not sure I have one. But I'll certainly give it a try... maybe the overwhelming "someone walked on my grave" feeling of finding this con artist sharing my name comes from the fact that I'm invested in taking care of Mark. I've spent nearly 41 years building a reputation & a persona, and I'm not interested in letting someone/anyone mess that up. Not even God. 

So, maybe my reaction is not so much about my righteous indignation at a health & wealth "gospel" matchstick man. Maybe it's about my own fears of my precious life plan being altered... or of my carefully built facade crumbling under the weight of reality. 

I don't know... I'm going to have to think about this one a bit. What about you? What "important thing" are you scared God is going to take away? 
We must remember there are many more important things, many more important things . . . off hand, I can't think of what they are, but I'm sure there must be something.
Willie Wonka, from the film Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory
And now... back to 2012. A Google search today reveals a Pastor Mark Jackson (who is also the coach of the NBA Golden State Warriors) and the blackmail/sex scandal he got involved in - which simply goes to underline my point from 7 years ago. Sheesh.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Moral / Ethical / Legal (Classic)

This is yet another classic post about gaming AND following God from 2009. For the gamers out there, there is STILL not an "official" Race for the Galaxy app - though Keldon's AI is both wonderful and "blessed" by Rio Grande Games.

OK, this is going to start with semi-technical gaming stuff, but I promise I'll actually get to a spiritual point for the non-gamers out there if you'll just hang with me. (Yes, I'm talking to you, Mom & Liz.)
It's no surprise to anyone that I'm a big fan of Race for the Galaxy, a card game designed by Tom Lehmann that takes the role selection mechanic (you get to choose a particular special action each turn that you & all the other players get to do) and uses it to create a fast-moving game of interstellar exploration & development that plays well with 2-5 players... and even has a very nifty solitaire variant. Between face-to-face & solitaire games, I've played it over 100 times.
So I was pretty excited when I read a thread title on Boardgamegeek yesterday announcing an online version of the game. Well, that excitement quickly faded when I asked whether or not the developers of the online version had permission from the designer (Tom Lehmann) or the publisher (Rio Grande Games). 

Like I said, this is going to get technical for a minute. The law that governs the copying of games is, shall we say, "in flux." (Or, for the gamers in the audience, "in Fluxx." Thank you, good night - I'll be here all this week. Don't forget to tip your waitress!) The graphics of the game board, cards, and pieces are protected by copyright, as is the specific wording of the game's rules... but the mechanics are not. (Mechanics, in board game terms, are the ways that the game works - in Monopoly, the mechanics include rolling the dice & moving, purchasing or auctioning properties, collecting rents, improving properties, mortgaging, negotiating deals.)
So, if I choose to make a new version of, say, Uno (why, why, WHY would I do this?!), I might get away with it if I changed the card colors & design, called it "First & Goal" (which is what my unsuspecting players would be forced to yell when they got down to one card) and rewrote the rules. OTOH, if I kept their card design, called it "One" and essentially copied their rules, I'd be subject to some pretty swift legal attention.

2012 Note: when I wrote this, I had no idea that my good friend & game designer, Stephen Glenn, would publish a football game called 1st & Goal. Evidently I was in "gaming prophet" mode. It, by the way, bears NO resemblance to Uno.
So, the guys getting ready to unleash their homebrewed version of Race for the Galaxy online feel like since they're using new artwork (or at least trying to find new artwork) that they fall under the "fair use" doctrine of the copyright law. 

Legally, they may be right. (Like I said earlier, there's a lot of grey areas in copyright law... and the advent of the Internet and the easy publication of almost anything has made for a lot more grey.) But is it morally or ethically right?
In this specific situation, the designer has asked the individuals not to continue (which they have refused to do) and is, along with the publisher, attempting to negotiate to license the game officially to someone else. Seems pretty clear-cut to me: these guys are taking Tom's work and benefiting from it without him.
But the specifics aren't really the issue here... the question that has intrigued me is the differentiation between
  • what is legal?
  • what is ethical?
  • what is moral?
I'm in real danger of oversimplification here as I begin this discussion - actually, there's no question I'll be doing just that. Bear with me.

Legal refers to what is lawful - do the written rules of the society permit or prohibit a particular action? Ethical refers to what is right - how should an individual or group conduct themselves as a responsible member of a society? Moral refers to what is good - what is the best behavior in light of truth & the reality of evil?

I don't want to go rabbit-chasing, but you need to know that the previous paragraph would make some academic types crazier than Carrot Top on a bad hair day. Not everyone agrees that there is any qualitative difference between morality & ethics... and don't even get started about the theories about where moral/ethical norms come from. Anyway, just wanted you to know that the preceding is my personal attempt to define the three terms.

OK, an example, courtesy of a poster on blurtit.com - until 1863, slavery was legal in the United States. It was the law of the land that one man could own another man... but that did not make it ethical (right) or moral (good).

Another example, this time from the Old Testament - when Shadrach, Meschach & Abednego are "prompted" to worship the huge idol or face being burned alive, they had the choice to do what was morally good (honoring God) and ethically right (being true to what they believed)... or they could simply do the legal thing and grovel on their knees.

Yes, I realize that pirating a game with an online version & the slave trade are not the same thing - not even close. (It's also not the same as worshipping a 70 ft. idol - I figured most of you would understand that.) But it is a clear example of the principle I'm trying to get across - just because something is legally permissible doesn't make it ethically right or morally good.
"Everything is permissible"—but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others. (1 Corinthians 10:23-24, NIV)
So, what does all this mean for those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus? Again, this is just me typing here, but I think the Biblical standards are:
  • "the good of others" (see the verse above)
  • the honor of God
  • just because I can do something doesn't mean I should do something
When we're faced with difficult decisions, our tendency is to rely on the letter of the law, whether that is a particular interpretation of the Bible or the Federal case law. As believers in Christ, that simply isn't enough - we must let go of the permissible and instead grab on with both hands to what is right & true, what is pure & good.
Our work as God's servants gets validated—or not—in the details. People are watching us as we stay at our post, alertly, unswervingly . . . in hard times, tough times, bad times; when we're beaten up, jailed, and mobbed; working hard, working late, working without eating; with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; when we're telling the truth, and when God's showing his power; when we're doing our best setting things right; when we're praised, and when we're blamed; slandered, and honored; true to our word, though distrusted; ignored by the world, but recognized by God; terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handouts, yet enriching many; having nothing, having it all. (2 Corinthians 6:4-10, MSG)

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Religion & Politics: How To Get Tossed Out of a Gaming Group (Classic)

This post was originally written for Election Day four years ago... and I present it again with some edits because it still applies. BTW, If you haven't voted yet, what are you doing reading this blog?!

I know that some of you have been thinking, "Hey, I get to game on a regular basis with folks who put up with my foibles & quirks... I wonder if there's a good way to make sure they hate my guts & either boot my rear end out of the group and/or change meeting places & times so that I can never find them again?"

OK, maybe you haven't been thinking that - perhaps that's not really the most important question you're dealing with today. Then again, if you spent 10 minutes agonizing over the way the barista at Starbucks was gonna make your free "I voted" coffee - or if you're spending time on Ben & Jerry's website during work hours determining what flavor ice cream scoop you're gonna score with your "I voted" sticker... maybe the whole "how do I get kicked out of a game group?" question would be a step up.  

Either way, I'm planning to answer the question for you. In fact, I'm so concerned that you not overly tax your mental faculties (seeing as how many of you will spend tonight watching pundits & posers pontificate & predict - hopefully with less alliteration than I'm using), I've broken the way to get tossed into bullet points:
  • When you win a game, gloat.
  • When you lose a game, whine & accuse the other player of cheating.
That's it. A steady diet of this behavior will have you on the outs in no time - and if they choose not to kick you out, they'll secretly detest your presence. Trust me on this one.

So, how did this pithy bit of wisdom end up here? Come on, if you're reading this blog, you have enough sense to come in out of the rain & enough smarts to figure out a metaphor when it bites you on the hind end.

Tonight - or possibly later - a number of candidates & propositions are going to win or lose. Some of you will be victorious in a battles you've fought with your keyboards & your hearts... others of you will know the stale taste of defeat - and you've fought just as hard as those who win.

Regardless (or is that "irregardless"?), you have the opportunity tonight to respond with grace & dignity.
  • If your side/candidate wins, don't gloat.
  • If your side/candidate loses, don't whine. Don't accuse others of cheating without real & obvious cause... using an actual standard of proof, not "Rush said it" or "somebody posted this on Facebook."
I want to speak specifically to those who declare themselves as followers of Christ. We have a huge responsibility tonight - if we're gonna call ourselves "biblical Christians", then we better live like it when it comes to election results.
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (Colossians 4:5-6, NIV)
if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ. (1 Peter 3:15-16, NLT)
The most important thing today is not the election of a particular candidate - no one person will usher in the Kingdom of God. (Well, one will, but He's not running this year.) Nor is it the passing of a proposition - law can compel moral behavior but it has no power over the heart. It is far more important that the world around us see followers of Jesus living in the grace & power of Jesus Christ.

Yep, I started this mini-sermon by telling you how to get kicked out of a game group. That's the way I roll.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

#24: The Ares Project (Mark's 100 - 2012)

The Ares Project

Mark's Ranking
  • 2012: 24th
  • 2010: prior to publication
  • 2005: prior to publication
  • rank: 956
  • rating: 7.32
Print Status
  • in print
Why It's On The List
  • It's not an easy game to learn (there are some tricky interlocking systems), once you've got over the rules assimilation hump there's a fantastic game to explore. Players are asymmetrical factions in a war over a distant planet... any resemblance to the computer game Starcraft in play speed and/or theme is purely intentional.
Tips & Tricks:
  • It's going to take you 4-5 games to start to see the wide variety of ways you can use the various types of attacks to advance your progress in the game - hang with it! The "wow" factor the first time I figured out how to make a Raid turn the tide of battle was worth the price of admission.
  • The rules look worse than they are - follow the suggestion in there to play a "battle only" game so that the rest of the system doesn't overwhelm you.
  • Each faction has a distinctive feel & play style… but unlike Summoner Wars, the differences are so pronounced that each faction in The Ares Project has it’s own mini-rulebook. They produce & use power in different ways, have different units, modify those units with different kinds of cards… even create new units through various methods... please don't let that complexity keep you away from a tremendous game!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Bananarama (Classic)

This is is one of the earliest posts on the blog... and it's back because it makes me laugh & think at the same time.

Off the AP wire:  

Woman Pelts Robbery Suspect With Bananas  
Thu Mar 24, 5:13 PM ET 
By JAMES MacPHERSON, Associated Press Writer 

BISMARCK, N.D. - Crystal Senger stopped at a convenience store to buy pop and cigarettes, and she saw the clerk being choked in a robbery attempt. She ran to call for help. Then she started throwing bananas. 

Senger, 19, said she grew up playing organized baseball, and used those skills to pelt the suspect in the head with every banana she threw, from about 10 feet away. "I was seven-for-seven," Senger said in a telephone interview Thursday. "They were green bananas — not the ripe mushy ones — so they hurt." 

Senger said the suspect, who police said was intoxicated, was stunned from getting hit by the flying fruit. 

A 17-year-old was arrested after he bolted from the Devils Lake store and tripped over a piece of wood, after a short foot chase, Police Chief Bruce Kemmet said. The teen had no weapon and no money was taken from the store, Kemmet said. 

Police said the suspect, who was not identified because of his age, stood more than 6 feet tall, and weighed about 300 pounds. He allegedly entered the Holiday Station Store about 1 a.m. Tuesday. 

"It's pretty simple. The guy walked into the store and said something to the effect of "Give me what I want,"' Kemmet said. 

"He threw me around like I was nothing," said store clerk Ed Bingham, "and I weigh 220 pounds." Bingham said the suspect kicked and punched him for what "felt like forever." 

Bingham, 43, said he pushed a button that alerted the store's security company. 

"When I walked in the store, I saw Ed in a choke hold, yelling for help and gasping for air," Senger said. "There was blood everywhere." 

She ran out and told her friend to call 911 on her cell phone. "She was in shock, so I had to do it," Senger said. 

Senger said she came back in the store and "screamed at the top of my lungs at him to stop." When she was sure the suspect was unarmed, she began bombarding him with bananas. 

Senger said the basket of bananas was the closest thing she could find. "If there would have been cans of soup on the counter, I would have thrown those at him," she said. 
Man, you can't make up stuff like that. I'd love to see the in-store security camera footage of the scene. And I'm betting that Isaac would sign Ms. Senger up for our softball team in a heartbeat.

But you've probably guessed that I'm telling you this story in order to make a point. (I always have a point, right? Well, most of the time.) 

Here's the point: Ms. Senger saw a situation that demanded action (the robbery) and decided to act. In fact, she was willing to use anything she could find to make a difference... in her case, green bananas. (We'll have to check with Bruce, our local expert on all things "police-y", but I'm guessing he didn't receive any training on how to foil a convenience store holdup with produce.)

Our God works the same way
Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world's eyes, or powerful, or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God deliberately chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose those who are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important, so that no one can ever boast in the presence of God. 1st Corinthians 1:26-29 (New Living Translation)  
Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don't see many of "the brightest and the best" among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn't it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these "nobodies" to expose the hollow pretensions of the "somebodies"? That makes it quite clear that none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God. Everything that we have--right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start--comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. That's why we have the saying, "If you're going to blow a horn, blow a trumpet for God." 1st Corinthians 1:26-31 (The Message)  
Basically, we're bananas. Or cans of soup. Or 6 month old packages of pastries. Or whatever. We're the "foolish things", the "powerless things", the "nobodies". 

Now, I'll bet I'm not the only person reading this who doesn't like the sound of being a "nobody". I've spend most of my life trying to be "somebody", to garner a little pile of fame, recognition & success. But the thrust of the passage in 1st Corinthians makes it clear that it isn't the scrapings & shavings of power & honor that we've swept into our corner that makes us valuable to God. It's the fact that Jesus loves us so much He uses us to change the world. 

In other words, it's not what you throw (bananas or soup cans), it's who's throwing it (an ex-baseball player). 

In other words, it's not what you throw (the foolish, the powerless, the nobodies), it's who's throwing it (Jesus Christ). 

Take a minute right now and let that sink in - no matter what you've managed to accomplish, or how your life has crumbled & collapsed... you are being pitched into the game of life by the One the book of Hebrews calls "the author & perfector of our faith." You're a green banana upside the head of the Enemy... enjoy!  

This article originally appeared in the 4/5/05 edition of "the Grapevine", the e-newsletter of NewLife Community Church.

#25: Pandemic


Mark's Ranking
  • 2012: 25th
  • 2010: 27th
  • 2005:prior to publication
  • rank: 46
  • rating: 7.61
Print Status
  • in print
Why It's On The List
  • A brilliantly constructed cooperative game with nail-biting tension - are we going to be able to save the world from the viruses or not?
Tips & Tricks:
  • You must watch ALL of the timers - the one you're most likely to forget is the draw deck.
  • When you're teaching Pandemic, work extra hard not to "run" the game - let players make mistakes, learn, and enjoy this great game experience. If you really want to play the game with extra control, play it solitaire.
  • Do go out & purchase the On the Brink expansion - not only does it offer some fun new ways to play (Mutant Strain, Virulent Outbreak, new roles & new special help cards), but it also has the very cool petri dish holders for the pieces.
  • I'm not a big fan of the Bio-Terrorist variant in the expansion in which one player is working against everyone else.
  • While I can't share details, I have played a prototype of a second expansion set. 
  • There's also a LARP game that's been run at a few gaming conventions - again, I haven't got to play it myself but I love the idea!
  • Pandemic has a more "family with kids" friendly cousin, Forbidden Island... here's the review I wrote of it for my blog.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Tim & Rob & Kristen & Me

I've spent the month of October preaching about marriage... and I'm not done yet. We've talked about:
  • not giving up (statistically, unhappiness in marriage now doesn't mean you'll be unhappy later)
  • biblical submission (which starts not with figuring out "who's in charge?" but with submitting to Christ)
  • being best friends (living out the 35+ "one another" commands toward each other)
  • speaking the truth in love (letting your spouse speak into your life)
In the next couple of weeks, I'll speak about:
  • the dangers of "keeping score"
  • the difference between consumer & covenant marriage (with a big tip o'the hat to Tim Keller for so succinctly writing/teaching on this)
Speaking of Tim Keller, a particular passage in his book, The Meaning of Marriage, has been nibbling at the edge of my brain since I read it... and while it's unlikely it'll make it into one of the upcoming sermons, I thought it would be worth sharing with you guys.
One of the most widely held beliefs in our culture today is that romantic love is all important in order to have a full life but that it almost never lasts. A second, related belief is that marriage should be based on romantic love. Taken together, these convictions lead to the conclusion that marriage & romance are essentially incompatible, that is it cruel to commit people to lifelong connection after the inevitable fading of romantic joy. 
I see the same thing Tim Keller sees - a culture that worships romantic love (just take a look at the public obsession with Rob Pattinson & Kristen Stewart) but is convinced that it will burn out and/or blow away. (Again, Rob & Kristen are worth referencing.)

Note: for those of you who live under a pop-culture rock, these two are the leads for the Twilight series of films whose off-screen relationship has been tabloid fodder for years. If you're older (than me, I guess), think Richard Burton & Elizabeth Taylor times ten.

Biblical marriage offers so much more than this. It's not devoid of passion or romance - for those who question that, your homework assignment is to read Song of Songs. In addition to those wonderful gifts of God, it is anchored in the love of Christ - a love the Bible in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 describes in this way:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
And it's not cruel to commit people to a lifetime of that kind of marriage... is it?

#26: Showmanager (Mark's 100 - 2012)


Mark's Ranking
  • 2012: 26th
  • 2010: 31st
  • 2005: 6th
  • appeared on all three lists
  • rank: 444
  • rating: 7.20
Print Status
  • in print
Why It's On The List
  • A wonderful card-drafting game that whips along at a breakneck pace and offers a consistently enjoyable gaming experience as the players cast (and miscast) theater productions.
Tips & Tricks:
  • You don't have to be a card counter to do well - but it is good to know what "9" cards are remaining in each show.
  • You do not have enough money - so you're going to have to accept that one of your four shows is going to be, well, a flop.
  • Use your flop show to borrow money - a common tactic is put on a flop, put it in the lowest point value city & then take the maximum amount of money out of the show.
  • While I'm very glad there is a reprint available, I do want to note that the two included variants are not necessary to enjoy the game.
  • Thankfully, the inferior version of the game (Atlantic Star) is out of print. 
  • Showmanager scales really well for 3-6 players... I'm least fond of 4 but it still works well.
  • Here's what I wrote about Showmanager for The One Hundred.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Nines 2012: Highlights

Last week, I spent 12 or so hours locked in my office listening to a dizzying array of speakers via Leadership Network's online conference The Nines... and, as usual, some of those folks absolutely blasted me with their wisdom & insight into ministry.

This year's overarching topic was "Too Hot To Handle" - and The Nines certainly delivered. What follows is a series of quotes from the presenters that manage to lodge in my brain... many of them I Tweeted during the event.

Moral Failure 
  • "Everything you say must be true, but everything true does not need to be said." (Craig Groeschel)
  • "Grace is doing the most loving thing." (Pete Briscoe)
  • "Their current failure doesn't diminish their past successes in ministry; but their ministry does not diminish their current failure." (Brad Powell)
  • "Forgiveness & restoration are two different things." (Matt Williams)
  • "The thing that kills organizations is not the original sin; it's the cover-up." (Rich Nathan)
Rogue Staff
  • "Say the hard things before it's hard to say things." (Brian Tome)
  • "90% of all leaders are sitting on a conversation that you know you need to have." (Michael Fletcher)
  • "A leader forfeits his leadership when he fails to make the tough calls." (Bryan Carter)
  • "A toxic culture will eat vision for lunch." (Sam Chand)
Social Justice
  • "Christ's example: do good works wherever He preached." (Krish Kandiah)
  • "God was at work before you came... look for His leading." (Dave Gibbons)
  • "We need to ask ourselves, 'If our church ceased to exist would our community notice?'" (Dave Ferguson)
  • "'To preach or to serve?' It's not an either-or question any more than the question 'to live or to breathe?'" (Dan Ohlerking)
Rapid Growth
  • "The biggest issues are not space or buildings as much as the personal issues the leaders face. Manage your own house well!" (Scott Williams)
  • "Systems are like underwear - they need to be changed often." (ND Strupler)
Elder Boards
  • "You want your board to actually like meeting together." (Larry Osborne)
  • "Do not give away your power easily; it is difficult to get back." (Sebastian Van Wessem)
  • "Without clearly defined roles, the elders will default back to their individual personalities." (Jim Powell)
  • "Boards are not a problem by design; they only become a problem when the wrong people sit on the board." (Steve Stroope)
  • "Elders bring baggage with the 'seed of evil' into the leadership circle... scared, scarred, confused or ignorant describe the four most common types of baggage." (Mike Bonem)
  • A great conversation to have with your elders: "A year from now, how are you going to keep score?" (Scott Wilson)
Kill A Church Program
  • "That room doesn't belong to your Sunday School class - we're not going to get into a hostage negotiation." (Mark Driscoll)
  • "Productive growth may initially look like shrinkage." (Eric Geiger)
  • "Things that matter the most must not be at the mercy of those things which matter the least." (Eric Geiger)
  • "Weak leaders struggle with killing programs because attendance equates to success to them." (Scott Lehr)
  • "If you want fans - start a Facebook page, if you want disciples - preach the Gospel." (Scott Lehr)
  • "Five options: combine, contributize, cascade, cage, cut..." (Will Mancini)
  • "Programs have a life cycle... they can outlive their productivity." (Brian Bloye)
  •  "Every pastor need to know how much disappointment of others he can handle." (Bruce Wesley)
Grab Bag
  • "Oftentimes, wives of men in ministry are spiritual widows." (Matt Carter)
  • "You are the most spiritually influential man in many people's lives... are the most spiritually influential man in your wife's life?" (Matt Carter)
  •  "God is an artist. He will never lead you to copy someone else." (Ken Shigematsu)
  • "Our weaknesses are the most powerful path for connecting to Christ & to others." (Chip Sweeney)
  • "You can spend a lot of time listening [to social media]... don't waste your time & give away your personal peace!" (David McGee) 
  • "Your calling has nothing to do with your position." (Jorge Molina)
  • "Are you more concerned about the success of your spiritual children than about your own success?" (Neil Cole)
  • "Change is not criticism." (Laurie Beshore)
  • "Love the mission more than your opportunity to advance the mission." (Aaron Brockett)
  • "It is here at the foot of the cross that we shrink to our one true size." (John Stott quoted by Aaron Brockett)
  • "Truth without love is brutality, and love without truth is hypocrisy." (Warren Wiersbe quoted by Daniel Fusco)
  • "Giving should be a time of celebration, not a reaction of desperation." (Chris Elrod)