Fire and Blood: A Fable in Seven Parts

Author’s note: Fables are not my strong suit. Nor is writing in the present tense. But sometimes breaking one’s mold is satisfying, and more than a little cathartic…

Part I

In all the world, there is none so graceful, so beautiful, or so powerful as the Phoenix.

The awe-inspiring bird of ancient myth soars high above his world, transcending even Time itself. He soars in, out, and through all the ages of men, carried aloft by wings be-feathered with incandescent flame. He turns his piercing eye toward the doings of mankind with open scorn, his plumed head un-bowed. Un-bowed… before man, beast, and even the Almighty Himself.

For who is greater than the Phoenix? He is the dragon-bird of the Heavens, the Watchman of the Ages.

Perhaps he had a beginning, or perhaps he never did. Perhaps someone plucked him from the pyre of his birth. Or perhaps he is simply timeless, without beginning and certainly incapable of ever coming to an end.

In his travels the Phoenix gazes often upon the mountain of the Almighty. He finds it in odd places sometimes, the mountain, and always unexpectedly. Sometimes it rises from the desert, overlooking the heathen hordes of the Middle East. Sometimes it appears on lush isles, surrounded by the resort cities of America, the modern Roman Empire. But always it seems to follow the glorious Phoenix, the mountain, and always the great dragon-bird turns and sails disdainfully away from it, flicking his crimson tail feathers in irritation.

For the Almighty is really just a crutch for the weak, is He not? His worshippers grovel at the feet of their deity, their praise mixed always with barely concealed terror. They are addicts to religion, those weak-minded mortals who must need cling to the idea of a Greater Being. But not so the Phoenix… The Phoenix has sailed through all the ages alone, dependant on none, and will continue to do so.

The immortal Phoenix has no need of either the Almighty or His mortal servants. Do they love their master, really… or do they simply desire release from the fear of death?

Either way, the Phoenix is his own being, an entity apart.

As the sun rises over Eden, hits its zenith over the half-built Sphinx, and sets behind the crumbling Mount Rushmore, the Phoenix flies effortlessly across the fluid eonic winds – ageless, changeless, and proud beyond all measure.

For who, in the end, can be greater than the Phoenix?

Part II

The mammoth trumpets loudly, calling out in anguish as golden claws tear into its hide.

Crimson wings beat about its head, forcing it to the earth in unwilling surrender. It thrashes like a fish, a massive hulk of struggling sinew, fur and tusk. Its piteous cries tear into the frigid Siberian air, mingling with the vicious snarling of the hungry Phoenix.

At last the great mammoth dies, as everything must in the end. It settles into the snow, spreading a scarlet stain upon the pristine white blanket.

The Phoenix throws his head up in triumph, his chilling victory scream piercing the still, frozen night as blood drips from his razor-sharp beak.

While the Phoenix hunts here often, he disdains to actually eat here… For what union can a creature of fire and flame have with the never-ending ice? Grasping his kill in his curved talons, the Phoenix takes wing toward another age, another place.

The Phoenix drops his prey atop a high, lonely mountain, one whose peak pierces the cloud barrier. Here mankind will hinder him not; here, he may continue to remain the stuff of mystery, of myth.

Of course, every boon has it price…

For where mankind is not, the celestial becomes more tangible. Here there be the guardians and warriors, the protectors and killers of mankind; they flock about the Phoenix curiously, cherubim, seraphim, and nephilim all. The winged, ethereal creatures – male and female both – flit about the Phoenix as he feeds, the ghost-like tendrils of their clothing just brushing the great dragon-bird, their touch as light as a whisper.  

It is not long before their presence becomes odious; the Phoenix rises from his gorging, his tearing of flesh and cracking of bones, and snaps angrily at the celestial minions who come too close. This is his prey, his kill, and he is determined that they should hinder him not.

They eye him but coolly, completely unbothered by the rage of the mythical Phoenix. He is merely legend, their indifference seems to say… But they are the sort that pre-dates even legend. As such, they are beyond even the Phoenix’s reproach and retribution. They are as numb to his attempts at rebuttal as Death was to the mammoth’s frantic trumpeting.

The Phoenix will later tell himself that he’d eaten enough, that he was about to leave anyway. He takes wing furiously, leaving his gory, dismembered meal to sully the mountain’s craggy peak, and leaves this hell of angelic torment.

He’d eaten enough… really, and truly, and the celestials mattered no. They had nothing whatsoever to do with his leaving.

Really.

Part III

The Almighty is an elusive thing, easy to see, easy to identify but hard to follow, and impossible to pin down.

The Phoenix resents Him mightily for this.

Sometimes the Almighty is obvious but distant, a shining form that tops of the mountains from which he views the entirety of His creation. It is then that the Phoenix resents Him the most, for He is untouchable then, unfathomable and omnipotent; His very presence seems to scorn the mighty Phoenix.

The Almighty, in His untouchable, all-powerful form. How the Phoenix hates Him!

Often the Almighty becomes Spirit, the sentient, changeless phantom. This form, also, the Phoenix dislikes. But he is not so afraid of Him then; he cannot see the Spirit of the Almighty, after all. But he can sense Him, and he finds him frightening nonetheless. The Spirit is separate from the God upon the mountains – but yet He is the same singular, sovereign entity that is the Almighty.

Some days, though, for brief, passing moments, the Almighty becomes simply… mortal. A perishable vessel of flesh. A man, much like any other.

The Phoenix cannot say why he even recognizes this incarnation of the Almighty, this Son of Man. Perhaps he can sense the Spirit within Him, or perhaps the tangible Almighty simply shines even more brightly upon Him.

The Son of Man, too – like the mountaintop Almighty, or the Spirit – is also the Almighty Himself, yet the Phoenix grasps this not. One thing, however, is certain; the Phoenix does not fear the Son of Man. He follows Him daily, floating effortlessly on astral winds, watching as the human Almighty does very human things with His time.

Some days the Son of Man works at mundane tasks, wielding hammer and saw as lustily as any carpenter. He sweats, bleeds, laughs and grunts like any other man intent on building the buildings that house his world.

Yet sometimes the Son of Man pulls away, to pray, to connect with the Almighty upon His mountaintop – this Almighty who is also the Son of Man. Sometimes He wanders the known world with those He has chosen, His select followers. The Phoenix, if he would follow, is forced to fly far and wide, watching from a distance as the Son of Man spreads whatever news He carries to the far corners of His humble nation.

Sometimes the Phoenix lingers within the age of the Son of Man for a time, and sometimes he travels to another, leaving the Almighty-made-flesh to His own devices.

Today, however, the Phoenix is earthbound, watching lazily, preening his crimson feathers disdainfully as the Son of Man stands at the foot of a tall mountain, speaking quietly to his closest friends. The Phoenix cannot hear His words, nor does he care to. He is simply here to observe, to find some new reason to cast scorn upon God and Man both.

The Phoenix raises his plumed head, suddenly intrigued.

The Son of Man has risen above his followers, hands outspread, moving aloft as though pulled by unseen strings.

Now, thinks the Phoenix with macabre humor, Man has learned to fly?! Smiling with his hooked, cruel beak, the Phoenix lunges from beneath his shade tree.

Far, far above the awestruck assemblage, the Almighty shines from His mountain. The Son of Man sails toward Him, as though somehow drawn by the majesty of the Frightfully Eternal.

Determined suddenly not to be denied a privilege handed to a mortal – even a wholly Divine, Immortal Mortal – the Phoenix flies upward, determined to follow the Son of Man into whatever heaven might await Him atop the mountain.

And who truly knows what really waits at the top of the mountain of the Almighty? Only the Almighty Himself, and His Spirit… and the Son of Man.

But soon, the Phoenix vows silently to himself, he too will know.

Part IV

Straining more with each flap of his thunderous wings, the Phoenix rises higher and higher, following the Son of Man as He ascends toward the mountaintop.

Flames lick at the tips of his wings the beat at the chilly air, but the Phoenix worries not. These are not the flames that consume, but the flames that illuminate, that the world may see the Phoenix and stand in awe.

The Phoenix breaks through the clouds and then through the atmosphere, breaking into the Eternal Night as he struggles to overtake the Son of Man. The Son looks serenely down at the Phoenix, shaking his head a little. Silly bird, He seems to be saying. You cannot seize my world for yourself, any more than you can seize the wind

The Phoenix pays Him little heed. He merely redoubles his efforts, determined not to be outdone by anyone, divine or otherwise.

Still the Son of Man rises, moving past star and planet, through the Endless Nothing toward the mountaintop heaven.

The Phoenix begins to tremble more and more with each passing stroke of his wings. Tarnished feathers fall from his aching wings every now and again, drifting slowly toward the atmosphere, where they disappear in flashes of flame and puffs of smoke.

The Phoenix is slowly overtaken by a dawning realization, the sinking feeling that he might actually be able to die.

Still the Son of Man rises serenely, paying the Phoenix little mind.

The ageless beast continues his ascent, but with increasing sluggishness. He hangs his head low, his plume all but gone now, diminished feather by missing feather until it is no more.

One… last… flap, one last desperate plunge toward the Son of Man – who is all but out of sight.

The bedraggled tail feathers that once pointed toward the earth point suddenly skyward, and the Phoenix begins to fall.

He resists, of course, managing a feeble movement of his twitching wings every now and then. But to no avail; he has reached the end of his strength, and he is utterly spent. There is no help for him now… For who would bother to aid him who has scorned all?

The Phoenix hits the atmosphere with a rush of searing pain, and a sudden stab of fear. Like the returning space capsules of the modern age, the force of re-entering the firmament causes massive heat.

As his body begins to simmer and scorch, the Phoenix realizes that this is not the sort of flame that illuminates…

This is the sort of flame that consumes.

The Phoenix stares downward with bulging eyes. Gone is the stunned crowd who watched the Son of Man ascend into heaven; gone is the lush valley of earlier, the tree beneath which the Phoenix preened his once-lovely feathers.

The earth opens up slowly, a hungry maw of flaming fissures, cracks that scar the face of the earth like veins on a dying man.

The Phoenix plunges down, down, exhausted beyond recovery. He looks upward painfully; the Son of Man is far beyond his gaze.

Gone is the crowd, the followers of the Son.

There is no one to listen, no one to hear as the Phoenix crashes into a fissure and begins to burn.

Part V

The Phoenix lifts his head wearily; exhausted, he lets it fall. The flames in which it lands are unbearably painful, yet he lacks the strength to fly away.

His wings crack ominously as he rolls over; his crimson feathers burn one by one, curling away from his blistering flesh in withering clumps of smoldering ash.

So this, then, is Death. To burn yet not be consumed, to suffer and yet not die.

Squawking weakly, the Phoenix struggles to his knees. His golden claws melt and drip away, and his toes dig into the softened earth. Looking skyward with smoke-blurred eyes, the Phoenix looks skyward at the stars, toward the sky that was once his playground.

The Son of Man is up there somewhere, while he – the great Phoenix, the timeless demon-bird – wallows here, in the flames of his own making. All that he ever knew, all that he ever wanted although he’d taken it for granted, is up there… nearly within the grasp of his twisted talons.

So close… and so far that it may as well be on another planet. Life, liberty and all that is good are just out reach but within easy eyeshot, tormenting, mocking.

The Phoenix flops painfully toward a shadow at the edge of the fissure, dragging his broken wings painfully behind them. Maybe it is cooler here; maybe, he thinks, the fire is not quite so hot.

He curls up in the crack, covering his de-plumed head with his spindly, tattered wings. Gone is the glorious creature of ages both past and future; gone is the Watchman of the Ages. Only this tormented beast remains, worse off than any creature who ever perished beneath his grasp.

The Phoenix lays his head down. Groaning, his breath coming in short, ragged gasps.

He feels something beneath his head, something that shouldn’t be here, something that should not have survived the flames.

Ever curious even in his agony, the Phoenix blinks the smoke from his eyes and peers through the darkness.

A scroll. He’d lain his head upon a scroll, something perishable, a creation forged of parchment and ink. Something easily destroyed by flame and heat… yet here it is.

Bits of his burnt and melted feathers cling to the scroll as he unfurls it, his need for distraction overcoming even his pain.

He reads the first few words aloud, mouthing the words with a smoke-blackened beak. In the beginning

‘In the beginning’, here at the end of all that is worthwhile, the end of all joy…

But he can sit out there, wallowing in the flames… or he can hide here in this crack that barely hides him, where even the flames lick inward every once in a moment, and read.

In the beginning…

Part VI

The Son of Man stands at the edge of the fissure, looking down upon the Phoenix.

The Phoenix looks up, knowing what he must do. He knows why the Son is here, and what he came to do. He knows for what purpose he has been given the scroll…

But such a loss of pride! Such a humiliation, to do what the Son expects of him!

The Phoenix groans as he looks around. He had once lived for his pride, valued it above all else. But now he knew better.

For as long as he clings to his pride… he will burn. It was not the Son of Man who threw him into this furnace, but he himself, and by virtue of his own pride, his own sin. And there was no help for him, by his own effort; he could only, by his own effort, do nothing but sit here and burn.

Giving in at last, the Phoenix raises his voice and cries out to the Son of Man, begging for mercy, for redemption. Screeching, he recants his pride and his rebellion; he wails out a raucous song of repentance and supplication.

As though He had been waiting for just such a cry, the Son of Man readily raises His arm.

His sleeve falls down His arm, revealing a gaping hole in his wrist. Blood pours from the wound, as though the wound is yet fresh, and deliberately un-bandaged. The Phoenix stares in disbelief, wondering what on earth this has to do with his cries for mercy.  

The blood gushes into the fissure like a flood, slowly beginning to fill it. The Phoenix thrashes about in alarm, frightened. He is burnt nearly beyond recognition, still in terrible agony… but what good is this blood going to do him?!

The blood pours in, filling the fissure, rising like a flood…

The Phoenix raises his beak above the rising tide, squawking in terror… But his cries are cut short by an abrupt gurgle. The blood covers even his head now, and there is utter silence.

There is only the Son of Man…

And the fissure full of blood, the sanguine pit that once held an eternally dying Phoenix.

Part VII

The Phoenix stands up, flexing his golden claws… claws that, moments ago, had been melted beyond recognition.

He raises his head slowly, the head once crushed in defeat, the head whose plume had been burned to ash. He clicks his once-scorched beak and surveys the dusky-gray sky above with piercing eyes, eyes undimmed by neither smoke nor tears.

He looks to his left, to his right as he spreads his wings. His crimson feathers gleam wonderfully even beneath the slate-colored dawn, and his shoulders and breath ripple with fluid strength and renewed resilience.

The Phoenix looks over his shoulders and eyes his tail, a glorious thing meant to flow behind him like a trail from a comet.

Awed by his new being, the Phoenix looks around. The blood soaks the fissure yet, the Pit that had once been his Hell. The Pit in which he burned and died a death of sorts, the Pit in which he lay feeble and wounded and tormented by Death that refused to become something final, and clean.

The blood boils yet, but only a little as the heat dies; already it is cooler here. The Phoenix cocks his head, listening to the dead leaves scattering in the breeze above. They make a rasping sound, pleasantly reminiscent of trees limbs, scratching gently on a windowpane on a cold, windy night.

Smiling, the Phoenix crouches a little, holding his wings behind him…

Shrieking like a resurrected banshee, the triumphant Watchman of the Ages lunges from the Pit, soaring toward the clouds in a geyser of color and flame… The sort of flame that glorifies, that illuminates; the flame that consumes is dead now, extinguished once and for all by the outpouring of blood.

Ah, the Blood…

Confused – suddenly unsure of himself – the Phoenix looks downward, gliding for a moment upon a convenient breeze.

The Son of Man stands by the edge of the fissure yet, watching the Phoenix circle the sky, His wrists bleeding yet. Yet the Son of Man seems unconcerned about this, as though He doesn’t mind bleeding. As though He was so eager to watch the flames die that the blood bothers Him not; He seems in no rush to seek a bandage, or healing.

The Phoenix looks up, peering beyond the veil of time…

He looks out across the courtyard, toward the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The great works of man, from Colossus to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon…

He stares across the golden bridge into the New Sodom, imagining it falling into the bay when the Father’s vengeance comes to the city at last…

He watches with growing hunger the migrating mammoth herds of Siberia, and the hustle and bustle of the glory that was once Rome…

And he suddenly realizes that none of it matters. Vanity, meaningless…

Empty.  

The Phoenix circles a little, and looks down upon the one thing in his life of arrogance, death, and re-birth that ever did matter.

Making his decision, the great dragon-bird abandons the skies that he once so loved, and plunges toward the earth.

The Son of Man raises his arms, smiling His gentle smile, as though He’d been waiting. His wrists bleed yet, but perhaps they must; perhaps there are other flames that need snuffed, other victims that need re-birth.

The Phoenix skids to the earth at the feet of the Son, bowing his head in a gesture never before known to him… And there he remains. He spreads his wings, lowering them humbly to the ground, waiting.

Come with me, the Phoenix seems to stay. Let me be your beast of burden; let me be that which bears through all time, to do the work which you came to do. Let me be that which carries you across the sky, in all your glory.

The Son of Man lays a gentle hand on the feathered head before Him, spilling a few more drops of blood as He does.

Let me do this for you, the Phoenix seems to say. Please, not because you need my help…

But because it would be my honor, for I love you.

FINIS

Don't Call ME a 'Human'!

I have a writer’s block.

Really, I do.

It’s this shoe-box that sits next to my writing desk. Normally I stack CD’s on it, so I can listen to music while I write. But if I wanted to, I could pick up that shoe-box and set it on the desk where my laptop normally sits. And then I couldn’t write there anymore, see? That shoe-box would totally block my ability to type.

Other’n that, I have NO idea what it means to have ‘writer’s block’.

To me, writing is like taking a dump. Or throwing up. Or sneezing, or maybe having sex. In all those situations, a physical urge has built up that requires release… and finding release is extremely satisfying. It’s not that I’m pursuing an obsession by writing for hours on end; rather, I’m purging an unknown ‘something’ that has been causing pressure to build up in my fragile little head.

Writing is not a job. It is not a pursuit. Nor is it a hobby, or even a neurosis…

It’s a mental purge. Some people can contain their thoughts, neatly filing them away as they go about their daily lives…

And others cannot. There’s got to be a ‘data dump’, or our mental health begins to suffer. Some of us must eject our excess thoughts, foisting them desperately upon others.

Those who can contain their own thoughts are simply called ‘people’. Those who cannot are a different specie altogether…

They’re called ‘writers’.

If you’re a ‘person’, count yourself lucky; seriously, there is some stuff that you just don’t wanna understand! If you’re a writer, be well my friend…

Or at least, as well as someone like you – or I – can be!

Fashion Magazines: An Investigative Report

I love me some comic books!

I have around 4,000 in my possession, dating all the way back to the sixties. They’re filed in these stack-able plastic boxes, neatly lined up on one side of my hallway. Each box has a number on it, and I have this little notebook with an index of what’s in each numbered box. Every book is in its own plastic sleeve with a backer board in it, and the titles are separated by dividers with labeled tabs.

I am obsessive about how my comics are handled and arranged; even doctors filing medical records aren’t as fastidious as I am.

Which is why I think it’s weird that my wife leaves her fashion magazines lying all over the house. I mean, shouldn’t she take better care of them? Sometimes I even chuck a few just to whittle down the collection, and she doesn’t even notice. But yet she’s always looking at them, and every time we go somewhere she brings one just in case she has to sit and wait for something.

Now – like most men – I have definite ideas about what clothing I think looks good on a woman. And also like most men, I am more interested in how the clothing makes the woman look than the clothing itself…

Thus, I never really understood the fashion industry.

It’s not that I’m a complete barbarian when it comes to things women enjoy. Two of my favorite films are Kate Beckinsale’s Serendipity and Sandra Bullock’s While You Were Sleeping; I’m also a big fan of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond, all love stories. Of the novels, novellas, and shorts I’ve written, many are either outright love stories or have romantic sub-plots. I can dig that, I think, because romance is – at the end of the day – a unisex pursuit. Plus I find emotional interaction and drama very fun to write.

On the other hand, I do notice that none of my heroines tend to be fashion-istas; s’weird that I happened to marry one. Seriously.

So I decided to put on my journalist’s cap, and investigate why these magazines hold such fascination for my wife.

I picked up an issue of InStyle; the date under the UPC code said it’s from December of 2018, and the cover features Jennifer Lopez.

It’s very strange, the cover photo. Jennifer Lopez is wearing what appears to be a green curtain, and she’s obviously naked underneath ‘cuz you can see the side of one of her breasts, and her hip. She’s photo-shopped, too; you can tell because virtually all women (especially ones as ‘hippy’ as J-Lo) have these faded stretch marks from their hips widening at puberty, and J-Lo’s are nowhere in sight. Her naked hip just kinda looks like a balloon; maybe the photo-shop guy shouldn’t have fuzzed it so much that he took out her hip bone right along with her stretch-marks.

Why is Jennifer Lopez naked? Did the photographer corner her in her dressing room? And why the curtain? Did she yank it off the window in a panic? Inquiring minds wanna know!

So I opened the cover, expecting to find a table of contents. You know, like National Geographic or Newsweek would have.

Instead of a table of contents, there’s this picture of a pretty brunette holding a bottle. The bottom of the advertisement just says ‘Si’. Across the top it says ‘Georgio Armani’.

What’s ‘Si’? Is it a bourbon? It kinda looks like bourbon from the bottle it’s in, but the ad doesn’t say that. And who the hell is Georgio Armani, anyway? Is he the distiller? His signature is on the opposite page from the ad, kinda like Jim Beam’s signature appears in the whisky ads from my fishing magazines. What exactly is the pretty brunette trying to actually sell me here?!

Next is a jewelry ad; at least I know what they’re peddling. After that comes a two-page ad that simply says ‘Valentino’. There are four women in the ad… or at least, I think they’re women; they’re all a bit on the androgynous side. And who’s Valentino? Do he and Georgio Armani know each other?

The next two-page ad simply says ‘Michael Kors’, and features three very attractive women. Who’s Michael Kors? Is he a pimp? I mean, the picture shows two women in a car like they’re being dropped off, and another woman slipping her shoes back on like she just came out of a cheap motel. You’d figure if this Michael fella were running an ‘escort service’, he’d at least put his phone number on his ad. That’s just common sense.

Finally I said ‘the heck with it’, and flipped ahead to the table of contents… which began on page twenty-eight!!! It’s three pages long, the table, with an ad between each page.

Do you remember when ‘pop-up ads’ were the bane of every computer user’s existence? Thanks to ad blocking programs, they’re mostly a thing of the past. But I know where they all went…

Fashion mags!

So I flipped ahead to some of the feature articles, which is deucedly difficult to do because most of the pages aren’t numbered. (I suppose Georgio the Distiller and Michael the Pimp don’t like competing with page numbers for space.)

Most of the articles, it seemed, featured pictures of celebrities promising that their ‘go-to’ makeup and accessories will make a gal look just like them. Which sounds nice, except for that picture of Margot Robbie wearing a trash bag, and the one of Nina Bobrev (who?) wearing a Halloween costume that was clearly inspired by one of the Chick-Fil-A cows. The weird thing is, the articles didn’t even mention Hefty and Chick-Fil-A. Much like Michael the Pimp omitting his service’s phone number, that’s just sloppy marketing!

Then I ran into the article about Jennifer Lopez. She talks about her butt a lot, and she never does get around to explaining how she wound up wearing that curtain. (Somewhere in the studio, I’m betting there was a very annoyed interior decorator!)

Then I found this page that listed accessories for ‘the Do-Gooder’, whatever that means. At least the page clearly listed the items being sold, and their prices…

Three hundred and sixty dollars for a bathrobe?! Two hundred and seventy-five for a pair of canvas sneakers?! Three hundred for a braided bracelet with a plastic charm on it?!

What the hell?!

As I closed the magazine in horror, I noticed that the back cover featured an ad for Tiffany diamonds. At least they list their website, so you can find their products and stores. (Tiffany’s is, apparently, smarter than Michael the Pimp.)

I threw the magazine onto the floor, just next to the couch (I always put things back where I found them) and then I headed for the hallway…

It was time to go read Batman for a while.

Regarding Sugar Gliders…

I suspect that sugar gliders are about to explode onto the American pet market in a really big way.

Why?

Because the upcoming motion picture Dr. Dolittle (starring Robert Downey Jr.) has a sugar glider in it. Much like the Harry Potter films led to a rise in the trafficking of black-market owls, Dr. Dolittle will more than likely draw attention to what is, at the moment, still a fairly rare pet.

I have two sugar gliders, both male. They’re four years old, and while their names are officially Bela and Boris, they go by many, many monikers: The booger-brats, the fuzz-butts, Opey and Dopey, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, Thing One and Thing Two, Dumb and Dumber…

Sugar gliders are basically flying squirrels. Actual flying squirrels are rodents, with a lifespan of two to four years; sugar gliders are marsupials, with a lifespan (in captivity) of twelve to fifteen years. Sugar gliders are considered exotic animals, and are not legal in all areas (or they may require special permits to posses).

Sugar gliders make great pets. They’re inquisitive, playful, and – being ‘colony animals’ – are capable of bonding with human beings. That having been said…

One must be aware that taking care of them can be very challenging, and they should not be acquired lightly!!!

For starters, sugar gliders are omnivores… which basically means they’ll eat anything you put in front of them! But just because they will eat anything you put in front of them doesn’t mean they should. The dangers of an unbalanced diet include hind-leg paralysis, extreme lethargy, and aggression. While there are some decent commercial kibbles and vitamins available, they should still be supplemented with fresh treats. There are also tried-and-true diets which use fresh fruits, vegetables, and chicken as a base. But my point is this: Strict attention must be paid to what gliders are eating! They’re not hamsters; you can’t just throw kibble into their bowl and call it a day.

Second of all – and this is most important – one must remember that sugar gliders are basically wild animals, and they take time and patience to socialize!  It can take months of slow, careful training to bring gliders to the point at which they can be easily handled and will interact willingly with humans. It’s often one step forward and two steps back, and no two gliders will be the same. One may bond fairly well, while another may always be a bit stand-offish… and during the socialization process, you are going to get bitten once in a while.

At the end of the day, you get what you get.

Also, sugar gliders require a long-term commitment! One should never purchase a single glider; they are social animals, and in extreme cases they could get so lonely that they self-mutilate. And since sugar gliders are nocturnal, they need a buddy to play with at night while you’re sleeping.

I also recommend buying another pair of gliders before one’s first pair gets too old. (And yes, introducing the two pairs is another long process.) Why? Because a glider whose buddy has just passed may become so distraught that he’ll hurt himself before you can replace the one that died. Simply put: Given the overlap in life spans, you’re gonna have sugar gliders around for a long, long time.

Gliders should never be left out unsupervised. Thus, the kind thing to do is make sure that they have a massive cage, big enough to run around and jump in, with exercise wheels and things to climb on.  It requires a fair amount of space to keep the little guys happy.

Furthermore, gliders have some quirks about which one must be aware. One is this: They can be very, very noisy if they want to! Mine are generally pretty quiet, except when I stay up late and then go to bed while they’re still up playing. I think what runs through their heads goes something like this: Uh-oh, Daddy jumped out of the tree! Must be an owl’s after him. Quick! Start barking so he can find his way back home!

A sugar glider’s bark carries a quarter of a mile. Trust me, there’s no sleeping through it!

Gliders are lovable and fun pets. I certainly recommend them, but only if one is committed to properly caring for them! One must be thorough in researching what they need, and yes… I’ve only scratched the surface here today.

I hope Dr. Dolittle doesn’t cause an uptick in frivolously-purchased, poorly-cared-for gliders. I take comfort from the fact that they are very expensive, which kinda weeds out the ‘impulse purchasers’. Unfortunately, you can buy them from a dodgy, unlicensed breeder for a couple of hundred (American) dollars apiece.  But a licensed, reputable breeder (one who has the males neutered) will charge up to five or six hundred for a glider. Also, a reputable breeder will insist on selling a proper cage along with the gliders. (Gliders can sustain damage to their feet, or even get zinc poisoning from the wrong cage.)

So there you have it: Sugar Gliders. About the coolest little guys going, in my book…

IF you take proper care of them!

Coming Soon…

I started to post a short story from the archives tonight…

But as I pored over the tale, carefully checking every word, I decided to give it another day or two.

This was the first short that I wrote after I got married, when the paradigm difference between Male and Female first smacked me upside my rock-hard head. That was when I first learned what it meant to truly love another person despite the fact that she didn’t make a LICK of sense to me! (Note to the ladies: That concept works both ways…)

I composed that short by framing my befuddled marital musings within the literary genre that I love best: Horror. Monsters fascinate us because – in an exaggerated form – we inevitably see ourselves buried within their angst-ridden stories.

‘Renewing Forever’ is the working title.

You’ll get the story when it’s polished and ready…

And not a moment before then!

Regarding Joy… and also Ren n' Stimpy: A Sermon

The following is a transcript of a sermon delivered to the local Church of Christ over the summer of 2014.

When I was pondering the topic of Today’s sermon, I texted Lee and asked him what he thought I should do. His response was, ‘why don’t you preach about ‘the joy of salvation?’

Now this presents a bit of a problem for me. Generally, preaching about joy and God’s love someone else’s job, not mine.

The reason I’ve never been that adept at preaching about love and joy and sunshine is because I am a product of my environment.  See, in the South, talking about joy isn’t the preacher’s job; it’s the choir’s job. We southern folk kinda do this ‘good cop’, ‘bad cop’ thing that’s designed to keep you spiritually off-kilter. The service opens with rousing songs about ‘glory land’ and ‘the blessed shores of Canaan’ and the ‘chariot that’s coming for to carry me home’. And just when you feel all hyped up about heaven … the choir sits down. And when they do, up comes this black-clad ghoul of man and he drones on and on about hell, and damnation. And just when you’re so scared that you’re about ready to wet the pew, up comes the choir again. I got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in …

You dig?

And I’m assured that this how it’s supposed to work, since this is the ‘authorized New Testament pattern of worship’ that the Lord’s Restoration Church rediscovered in the 1950’s.

But that’s why I’ve never been good at preaching about joy; because I was always the preacher, and never a part of the choir. But be that as it may, Lee presented me with a bit of challenge, so here we go: ‘The Joy of Salvation’. But before we dive into the topic, let’s have a word of prayer…

What does it mean to have the ‘joy of salvation’?

For starters, that statement is so archaic that it’s pretty well lost any meaning. A dear friend of mine who leads a church in North Carolina says that language is like a pair of underwear. When it’s new, it’s stretchy and it’s comfortable and it fits well. But when it gets old, it sags and it’s uncomfortable and it just doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. The English language is like that, particularly in a religious context.

For instance, how many of us use the following words outside of a religious context: ‘Faith’, ‘repent’, ‘baptize’, or ‘communion’? We don’t, and consequently a lot of us are kind of fuzzy as to what those words actually mean. If we were to replace those words with ‘trust’, ‘reform’, ‘immerse’, and ‘memorial’, things would probably make a lot more sense to a lot more people.

The phrase ‘the joy of salvation’ has been bandied about so much that few of us stop to think about what it means. So let’s break this down: What is salvation?

The Greek word for ‘salvation’ is soteria, a word that means ‘rescue’ or ‘safety’. It’s related to the word soter, which means a deliverer or ‘savior’. I bring that up because ‘savior’ is another one of those pesky ‘underwear’ words that no one really understands anymore.

To receive salvation is to be rescued. But rescued from what? In order to understand that, we actually to leave this awkward ‘joy’ topic for a moment and revisit a topic with which I’m much more familiar: Hell.

I’ve done lengthier sermons on this before, but I’m gonna put it in a nutshell today: Turn with me, if you would, to Mark chapter 9, starting in verse 42:

“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched —44 where

         ‘ Their worm does not die

         And the fire is not quenched.’

45     And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched —46 where

         ‘ Their worm does not die

         And the fire is not quenched.’

47     And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire —48 where

         ‘ Their worm does not die

         And the fire is not quenched.’

“For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt.

Notice that Jesus uses the phrase about worms and fire three times. What he’s referring to is the ancient-world habit of throwing all of their garbage outside of the city walls and burning it. This cosmic landfill that Jesus calls Hell is so awful that the fire never goes out because it’s never finished burning up all the garbage. And the worms don’t die because they have an endless food supply of sin and awfulness.

Damnation is the opposite of salvation. We have all sinned, and we know this instinctively. We cannot stand before Almighty God stained with that sin; we know this instinctively as well. And we can’t offer ourselves as atonement for our sins because we’d be a flawed sacrifice because we’ve sinned. Without a third-party soter, or deliverer, we’re only fit for the great cosmic landfill.

With said deliverer, we receive soteria, or ‘rescue’. Let’s look at it another way: Turn with me to Colossians 2, starting in verse 8:

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ,12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

That phrase ‘record of debt’ is interesting. In Greek it’s cheriographon to dogma, literally the ‘writing of law’. Some translations say ‘written charge’, or ‘handwriting of ordinances’. After a fairly exhaustive study, the best translation I can think of for ‘record of debt’ is ‘arrest warrant’. In the Greco-Roman world, if somebody brought you a cheriographon to dogma, you’re in trouble and somebody wants to talk to you … more’n likely a magistrate.

What Paul meant by saying that Jesus cancels the ‘written charge’ is this:  in Christian Baptism you get a free pass, spiritually speaking. No one’s coming after you anymore.

Lemme tell you a story. When I was around eighteen or nineteen, I got into a lot of trouble. Nothing terrible, mind you, certainly nothing worthy of any weird registry or anything like that … just the usual string of silly mistakes that a lot of young men fall into.

Eventually, my buddies and I attracted the notice of the Camden County Sheriff’s Department in North Carolina. The only thing that saved my bacon was that I lived in Virginia; it’s very difficult to investigate someone when they live in the next state over … but several of my Carolinian friends did end up getting busted.

For years, every time I went to North Carolina I was looking over my shoulder. Is today the day I find out that they actually do have a warrant out for me? Is today the day that they get me? That’s not a good feeling!

But in America, virtually all offenses except for murder and certain types of abuse have a statute of limitations on them. In other words, if oh-so-many years go by after a crime and the police have yet to find sufficient evidence to file a charge, they have to drop it. They can’t make you look over your shoulder forever.

By the time I hit my mid-twenties, the statute of limitations had expired on everything I’d been involved in. Let me tell you, I have never felt freer in my life! I felt like this huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I’d messed up, for sure, and I deserved at least some sort of consequences, but it wasn’t gonna happen. I was off the hook: the legal system had given me soteria: Salvation.

So that’s what salvation means, in the Biblical sense. We earned ourselves a place in the great cosmic dumpster fire, and we had an outstanding arrest warrant. But Christ canceled the warrant with His death, and receiving his salvation by faith in baptism keeps any more arrest warrants from being filed. 

But I said that today’s topic was ‘the joy of salvation’, yes? The ‘salvation’ part of that phrase is fairly elementary, but for a ‘doom n’ gloom’ guy like me the ‘joy’ part is harder to figure out.

Let’s look at some passages of scripture where the word ‘joy’ is actually used. I always place a great deal on context, so I will tell you up front: These passages of scripture are completely unconnected. We’re just looking for uses of the word ‘joy’.

1 Chronicles 15:16: David also commanded the chiefs of the Levites to appoint their brothers as the singers who should play loudly on musical instruments, on harps and lyres and cymbals, to raise sounds of joy.

That passage is from the Old Testament, originally rendered in Hebrew.  I can’t make heads or tails of Hebrew and I’m too dumb to try. So what I did is I went to the Greek version of the Old Testament, the version that was actually quoted by Christ and His Apostles. The Greek rendering of the word ‘joy’ there is euphrosune. The word has a distinctly emotional connotation, and it actually is the root of the English word ‘euphoria’.

Let me see if I can give you an illustration of what euphrosune actually means. Y’all remember a cartoon from the nineties called Ren and Stimpy? If you’re my age you watched it when you were little. If you’re an old crisper like Lee, your kids watched it. Anyway, Ren was a Chihuahua, and Stimpy was cat. And whenever something would excite Stimpy, he’d dance this goofy little jig and he’d sing ‘happy happy/ joy joy/ happy happy/ joy joy …’ That’s euphrosune: A euphoric mental state that leads to outbursts of goofiness.

That’s one definition for the word ‘joy’. Joy can be a hyper-excited state of mind, a state of mind that is not so much logical as it is instinctual. Think of King David stripping down to his skivvies and dancing like a loon in 2 Samuel 6. That’s euphrosune joy.      

Now let’s look at 1 Chronicles 16: 27: Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and joy are in his place. The word joy there is the Greek kaukhema.  That word can be either positive or negative, depending on the context.  It can mean to ‘boast’, or it can mean to ‘glory’. Let’s look at another use of the same word to get a better idea of what it means. Let’s go to Romans 2:17: But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God…

The word for ‘boast’ there is kauchaomai, the same word used in 1 Chronicles 16;27, albeit in a slightly different tense.

Basically, to take ‘joy’ in something could mean to give credit to that something. Whether you are boasting or glorying, you are giving the credit to someone else.        

So to have joy could mean to be euphoric, or it could mean to simply pass along the credit for something. Now let’s look at Romans 12:12: Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.

The word ‘rejoice’ there is chairo, which means to be cheerfully happy. Not euphoric, mind you. You’re not dancing around going happy happy/ joy joy. You’re just … content.

These passages I’ve chosen were chosen at random, but there is one letter in the New Testament that is known as the ‘joy epistle’. It’s Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, and it’s a letter that was so powerful that it was plagiarized almost in its entirety by Polycarp decades later, and re-circulated from there.

The context of Philippians is … well, Paul was in the slammer, chained to a wall. This context is given to us in Philippians 1:3-13: I thank my God in all my remembrance of you,4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy,5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.7 It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.8 For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

12               I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel,13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.

Now you notice in some of the examples I’ve given you regarding the word ‘joy’, I just gave you the definition of the Greek word. But here’s the thing about scripture. God will never leave you hanging an entire point of doctrine based on a single word. For instance, the word ‘baptize’ means ‘immerse’. Inarguable point. But for those who question this, scripture tells us that Phillip took the Ethiopian into the water. That John baptized in the Jordan because there was much water there. Sometimes if you wanna know what a word means in scripture, you don’t just look up the word in the concordance. You read a story, and it’s less likely that you’re gonna make a doctrinal mistake that way.

So let’s take a good, hard look at Paul’s story, shall we? We’ll be starting in Philippians 1:18: Yes, and I will rejoice,19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance,20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith,26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

27               Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I had and now hear that I still have.

            So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy,2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

12               Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

14               Do all things without grumbling or questioning,15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world,16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.

Let me give you a reality check here. Paul was IN JAIL!!! The only letters we have of Paul’s are the ones that the Holy Spirit allowed to transcend time and decay, the ones that were divinely capable of changing lives. But who are we kidding?! Paul was really good friends with Priscilla and Aquila. And I’ll bet you my next paycheck that at least once they got a letter like this: ‘Dear Priscilla and Aquila. Yep, they caught me again. I was preaching at the temple, and the centurion beat me half to death with the butt of his sword. Yeah, it kinda hurt. Anyway, I only lost two teeth this time. They got me chained up now. I was asleep when they threw my bread under the door, so the rats ate it all. My cellmate’s crazy. I thought he had a demon so I tried to cast it out, but it looks like he’s just crazy after all. Anyway, miss you guys. Best Regards, Paul.’

Philippians was written not from the point of euphrosune joy. Paul was not dancing around his cell. Honestly, I doubt that it was even written from a perspective of chairo joy; I’m not sure how cheerful you can be when you’re fighting with the rats for your dinner. Paul was not euphoric, and I seriously doubt that he was cheerful.

And Philippians gives us a whole new spin on the words ‘joy’ and ‘rejoice’.  One of my favorite books ever, one that I’ve read a dozen times over, is Lewis Carroll’s Alice through the Looking Glass. The book just has this madcap genius to it that never gets old. I remember this one passage in which Alice is having a conversation with a gnat, of all things, and the gnat asks her this: ‘what sort of insects do you rejoice in?’ To which Alice replies, ‘I don’t rejoice in insects at all, because I’m rather afraid of them …’

And in this exchange Lewis Carroll gives us a similar definition for ‘rejoicing’ that Paul does. To rejoice in something is to move toward it, and to cling to it no matter what. Alice didn’t rejoice in insects because she ran away from them, but Paul rejoiced in his salvation because he ran toward it. Paul actually admits to having suicidal thoughts in Philippians, but Christ is the one thing he held onto, no matter what.

And I think that’s the last and most important definition of ‘joy’: What you find joy in is the thing that you turn to when everything else has failed you. You don’t have to be euphoric. You don’t have to be cheerful. Jeremiah was ‘the weeping prophet’. Jesus was ‘the man of sorrows’. Your eternal salvation is not determined by your mood, and thank God for that!

If anyone would know that, it’s me. I’ve been suicidal. I’ve had alcohol issues. I’ve cheated death on several occasions. I’ve been divorced, and psychologically unstable at a number of times in my life. I’m not euphoric. I ain’t always cheerful, either. But at the end of the day, God has still graced me with the ability to look toward Him for comfort. I look at my past and I see ruin. I look at America’s future and I see martial law, economic collapse, and death. (I’m not trying to spark a political debate here, mind you. I’m just saying that’s how I see it.) It takes all of my will to look past the bleak future I see in this life, so that I can embrace the afterlife beyond … but I can nevertheless do it. And that ability is one of the very definitions of ‘joy’.

Some things in Christianity are inarguable, and changeless. You wanna be a Christian? You have to believe that Jesus Christ is the manifestation of God in the Flesh. You have to be willing to move past the sins of your past. You have to be immersed in water to wash away your sinful state, and you have to do your best to live as a Christian. Those rules are changeless, ageless, and not subject to debate. You either accept them or you live outside of Christ. It’s that simple.

But not everything’s that way. Some things in our faith are subject to interpretation, to individual understanding and practice. When we use the phrase ‘the joy of salvation’, the word ‘salvation’ is an inarguable point. We were sentenced to hell, and Christ saved us from it. Pretty simple.

The word ‘joy’ is not so concrete. Some of us will be euphoric. Some of us will be content. Some of us will keep our pointing finger straight up, making sure that Jesus gets the credit for everything that we do.

And some of us will be like me, hanging onto hope by our fingernails, trusting in Heaven when our entire future on this world looks like a living hell. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how you define the word joy, because scripture itself defines it fifty ways from Sunday.

Define the ‘joy’ however you will, and then live for it! Take joy in your salvation, however you understand the phrase.

That’ll be it from me, unless anyone has an accusation of heresy. (Someone? Anyone?  Gonna get me one of those someday …)

Regarding Dungeons & Dragons…

I eye the cave opening calmly, half-expecting that my heart might start pounding…

But it won’t start pounding, my heart, and it never will. I died decades ago, and I am grateful that my companions waited for nightfall before sallying forth. They need me, as do I them; I am their leader. The Undead make for rather unnerving leaders, to be sure, but on positive side of things…

We don’t go down easily. Men such as I have already survived death; everything else is just a trifle.

One of my fellow adventurers falls into step behind me, visibly trembling. “My lord?” he ventures. “Are you sure we should be doing this?”

“I am,” I reply calmly, “but only because you three are with me.” I smile, motioning to the heavily-armed Dwarf and Elf archer also following my lead. “And if not for you, my shifty brother-in-arms, the locks would not be picked and the traps would never be sprung. I would never face the Under-Dark without you, my dear friend.”

The mewling thief obviously draws courage from my words. “Let’s DO this, then!” he cries, raising his dagger aloft.

Even I am afraid as we enter the cave, knowing what we face. Before us lie the endless caverns of the Under-Dark – home to the Mind Flayers, and the fanatical warriors who serve the Dark Goddess Lolth. Our quest will be marked with violence, blood, and perhaps even death…

But before we enter, I need more Doritos. And Surge, LOTS of Surge to drink! I mean, hell, we’ve been at this quest for twelve hours already…

Ah, Dungeons and Dragons. The most demonized game of the nineteen-eighties, constantly railed against by legions of hysterical mothers. A game scorned by jocks and cheerleaders as a pastime for ‘nerds’, the favorite hobby of social misfits the world over.

It changed my life.

As someone once pointed out, how to play D&D is difficult to explain but remarkably easy to demonstrate. The iconic fantasy role-playing game is one-third game play, one-third acting, and one-third storytelling. With the simple purchase of the Players Handbook and the Monster Manual, endless numbers of table-top adventurers can imagine their way through endless numbers of breathtaking adventures.

My preferred role was always that of Dungeon Master.

From my throne behind the DM screen, I was ever tasked with the sacred responsibility of creating entire worlds; I was the puppet master for countless monsters and non-player characters. Over time, I learned to read the responses of my players, to ‘bounce off’ of their actions, using their shared input to make my imagined worlds increasingly more vivid.

Some would say that’s a waste of time, but I never saw it that way.

There is a camaraderie shared among role-players that non-players simply do not understand, and never will. Only players can sit down together at McDonald’s and say something like ‘You remember that time you tried to club that red dragon over the head? Didn’t like that, did he? You’re lucky that your stolen armor saved you from his fire breath, so he only bit off your leg. By the way, Stumpy… can you pass the salt? Thanks.”

Role-players bond through collectively exploring a uniquely human vulnerability: Imagination. It takes closeness to engage in a shared fantasy. Only true friends can do it, and every stranger who joins in quickly becomes a friend. There is something cathartic about diving into a group tale with one’s comrades, and thus by delving into fantasy reality becomes easier to bear.

Outsiders see role-players as social misfits, but honestly? I was always of the opposite opinion.

The current world sees organized sports as the premiere way of nurturing ‘social interaction’. But sports can only ever teach conformity, and meek submission to a group mentality. Sports teach people to give unquestioned obedience, to blindly follow the crowd while ignoring their own individual creativity. Sports create sheep, nothing more and nothing less.

Role-playing games, however, teach the same thing that music and theater programs always have: How to engage in a collective enterprise while still maintaining one’s own identity and creative focus. Role-playing games encourage cooperation without ever scrapping the notion of fierce individualism, of devotion to one’s own ideals and preferences.

Within this context, I developed several strengths that serve me well to this day.

The first was my ability as a writer. I would eventually go on from role-playing to publishing novels and composing sermons.  The second was my ability as a speaker; not only could I compose sermons, I could deliver them in an engaging fashion. The third was my ability as a teacher, particularly in a religious setting. I can read the people in my Bible class like an open book, and both prod them into speaking while also learning from them… all in real time. There’s no need for me to hide behind FaceBook comments; I know how to actively spur group discussions on a face-to face level. (Side note: One of the creators of D&D was a Christian as well. Faith is faith and fantasy is fantasy, but a wise man knows how to learn from one in order to influence the other.)

It is extremely gratifying to me that D&D remains alive and well to this day. While I have enjoyed other games such as Hackmaster and Werewolf: The Apocalypse, D&D will forever remain the standard-bearer. When Magic: The Gathering debuted in my teens, I was afraid that it would overshadow and end the reign of D&D. But alas, such has not happened. Card-based games are fun (Munchkin is a favorite of mine), but they lack the drama and the raw originality of book-based gaming.

Dungeons and Dragons was a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky when my friends Eric, Rocky, and Danny first taught me how to play. You know what? D&D is still a lightning bolt to me. We’ve all moved on from the Second Edition, to the Third Edition, and then on from there. The rules have made adjustments over the years, writers and artists have changed, and the books have become more expensive. The dice have become fancier and more varied in appearance. Movies based on the game have been produced and screened, and the D&D mythos originally inspired by Tolkien went on to inspire George R. R. Martin. (At least, I think it did. You’ll have to ask Martin to be sure.)

But at the end of the day? For all its changes and accomplishments, Dungeons and Dragons remains what it has always been: A means for friends to gather around a table for the purpose of sharing a common tale, a tale in which EVERYONE has a voice and a part to play. Perhaps the memories those stories create might be artificial in nature…

Or perhaps they are even more real than the dreary, humdrum ‘lives’ that we live…

And that’s why we keep coming back to the table, again and again.