Tag Archives: Expression

Order and Freedom

But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
1 Corinthians 14:40 (NIV)

Along my spiritual journey I have been a part of worship with many different traditions. I was raised in a very liturgical Methodist church, meaning that every part of the service was very structured around ancient traditions. There was a lot of repetition and it was largely the same service every week with minor differences to account for different seasons of the traditional church year. I get how repetitive religious practices lose all power of their metaphorical meaning when a) no one remembers why we’re doing it in the first place and b) there’s no Spirit connection between the repetitive words/actions and the spirits of those worshipping.

At the other end of the spectrum I spent some time in the Quaker tradition (also known as the Society of Friends) which developed out of reacting to all the liturgical structure of the traditional church. In a traditional Quaker service (even their anti-liturgy style becomes its own form of “tradition”) there is little or no structure. Everyone sits in a circle and is quiet (they call it “centering”) until someone feels moved by the Spirit to speak or to sing or to do whatever. Anyone can do so and can say pretty much whatever it is they want to say. The original intent was that everyone would wait for Holy Spirit to prompt them and to be loving and mindful of everyone else in the group. It’s a beautiful idea, but eventually things were so unstructured that there were problems with things in many Quaker churches becoming what would be described by some as a chaotic free-for-all.

I have come to understand that we as human beings like and need a certain amount of structure and order. I think this is part of us being made “in the image” of our Creator. If you stop to think about it, everything in creation has a certain detailed structure and order to it. This is the way God made it. Even the seemingly chaotic tangle of bare tree branches is actually an orderly visual fractal. At the same time, you can get so lost in the order that you, as we say, “lose the forest for the trees.” I’ve come to believe that corporate worship is another example of truth being found at the point of tension between the extremes.

Along my chapter-a-day journey through Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth, I find there is no doubt that their local gathering was rapidly moving along the disordered chaos side of the spectrum. Paul points this out multiple times. There had been a breakdown to the point that Paul even says their weekly gatherings to worship were doing “more harm than good” (11:17).

In context, I find today’s chapter to be about Paul trying to reestablish some order and structure to the chaos in Corinthian worship. He’s trying to pull them back from their chaotic free-for-alls. Paul hints that they’d come to resemble a pagan food orgy (11:20-22), and the chapter reads like an instruction manual for bring some semblance of structure and order to the Corinthian gatherings. He sums it up by saying “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.

This morning I’m thinking about differences, even in our human personalities. Some of us tend toward the side of “free spirit” in which we go with the flow. As such, it’s easy for us to get little accomplished and to create chaos around ourselves that becomes counterproductive. Some of us tend toward the side of detail and order. As such, it’s easy for us to major on the minors and to create rigidity that becomes counterproductive.

In the quiet this morning I once again find myself seeking balance: freedom with ordered structure; order with room for movement of Spirit and expression.

The Power of Expressing “Willingness”

not because you must, but because you are willing
1 Peter 5:2 (NIV)

My company measures service quality (e.g. “Your call may be monitored for quality assurance and training purposes“) and then we train and coach agents how to provide a better customer experience when talking on the phone or other mediums of communication.

I’ve always taught my clients that Rule #1 of Customer Service is “do the best you can with what you have” because every team member at every level of the organization is limited in some way. The problem is that we tend to get mired in the excuses and frustrations of what we can’t do instead of what we can. Front line agents may not be empowered to functionally do everything for the customer they would like to do, but they often underestimate the power they have to positively impact the customer experience simply by what they say and how they say it.

One of the most under utilized skills in customer service is expressing a willingness to help, to listen, to take responsibility, and to serve. In the business world we call it an “ownership statement.”

Here’s what I hear on about 95 percent of the calls I assess:

Customer: I have a question about my account.
Agent: Account number?

That’s an agent doing what they are obligated to do. But when you simply and consistently communicate a positive, willing attitude you improve the customer experience:

Customer: I have a question about my account.
Agent: Sure, Mr. Vander Well. I’ll be happy to help. May I have your account number, please?”

There is so much power in simply communicating a positive, willing spirit. And it goes so much further than customer service business transactions. This is what Peter was getting at in this morning’s chapter when he told the leaders among Jesus’ followers to carry out their responsibilities “not out of obligation but because you are willing.” I can improve how I relate with my friends, family, and loved ones simply by learning to consistently communicate willingness:

Friend: Hey Tom, are you available to help me move a piano?
Me: Happy to help. When do you need me to be there?

Wendy: Tom? Will you carry the laundry to the laundry room?
Me: You got it, my love. Laundry Man is on his way.

Madison: Dad? Can you get me a new insurance card?
Me: I’d love to, sweetie. Let me call our agent and arrange it.

I know it sounds simple because it is. We can positively impact every one of our interpersonal relationship experiences by simply and consistently communicating a little positive willingness. And, my experience is that “what goes around, comes around.” Give a little positive willingness and you just might find that “it will be given unto you.”

I’m going to focus on expressing willingness with every opportunity I’m given today. Will you join me?

Express Yourself

The Lord said to me, “Take a large scroll and write on it with an ordinary pen: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.” So I called in Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah as reliable witnesses for me. Then I made love to the prophetess,and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the Lord said to me, “Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. For before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria.”
Isaiah 8:1-4 (NIV)

The world of the ancient Hebrew prophets was a whacky place in which everything in their lives was fair game for being living metaphors of their spiritual messages. Marrying a prostitute, walking around the city naked strapped to an ox yoke, and building a city out of Legos in the middle of the city square in order to lay siege to it are among a few of the rather bizarre word pictures God had them act out.

The poor sons of Isaiah had the enjoyable distinction of being born to be given names from their father’s prophetic work. And, I have to believe it likely got them ridiculed and beat up on the ancient playgrounds of Jerusalem:

  • She’ar-Ya’shuv meant “a remnant shall return” which foreshadows the people of Judah who were taken into captivity in Babylon, and the remnant who returned to restore the temple (as told by Nehemiah).
  • Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz meant “spoil quickly, rush to the plunder” which foreshadowed the impending attack and plunder of King Ahaz’s enemies by the Assyrians.

While S-Ya and the Baz-man may have names that seem very strange to us today, the act of layering names of our children with meaning is not new. Taylor and Madison both have middle names that reference women in my family, one on my mother’s side and the other on my dad’s. While Madison is not named for the street I grew up on, I love the added layer of meaning it has for me. It is quite common to give children names layered with meaning by naming them after role-models, inspirational figures, Biblical characters, and etc.

We all do things metaphorically. We layer things with meaning. Metaphor is God’s language. It’s God’s modus-operandi in communicating. Made in God’s image, we all inherently do it. We express ourselves (who we are, and what we believe/think) in what we wear, drive, hang on our walls, do with our time, and post on social media. The prophets simply pushed the envelope. Prompted by God, they were more intentional and more creative with their metaphors.

This morning I’m thinking once again about how I wordlessly express myself, both unconsciously and intentionally. I am no ancient prophet, but it seems to me I have an opportunity, perhaps even an obligation, to be mindful and intentional in all the ways I express myself.

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Edifice Complex

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King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, sixty cubits high and six cubits wide,and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.

Then the herald loudly proclaimed, “Nations and peoples of every language, this is what you are commanded to do: As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.”
Daniel 3:1, 4-6 (NIV)

When I was a kid growing up in Des Moines the tallest building on the skyline of our city was the Ruan building. “In rust we trust,” was the phrase I heard muttered by locals back in the day, inspired by the rusted steel skyscraper. Then, The Principal company built their even taller marble and glass skyscraper at 801 Grand. I will never forget that, as the new Principal building was completed, Mr. Ruan held a press conference to announce plans for a new building that would be even taller (it never happened). I believe that’s what is colloquially referred to as an “edifice complex.”

Last night I kicked off a Wednesday night class in which we’re exploring how God uses metaphor (something that represents something else without using “like” or “as”) to effectively express Himself and communicate Truth. We are also pushing into how we express ourselves metaphorically and how we can use metaphor to become better communicators. My assignment to the class in this first week was to look for metaphors in our daily life and bring one example back to class to share. One of my class-mates asked me for an example.

Wendy and I are in the final weeks of watching our house being completed, and yesterday I spent an inordinate amount of time contemplating knobs. We had to pick out the drawer and cabinet pulls for every room in the house. Talk about much ado about nothing. It was not an enjoyable process for me. Nevertheless, as I considered the endless options and how we were ever going to decide, I came back to some guiding principles that have emerged as we have designed our new residence.

“Clean, simple lines” is the phrase that always comes to my mind. From the start we have wanted our house to have a peaceful yet beautiful simplicity that invites people in to rest, to dine, to drink, to converse, and to comfortably be. So, I found myself looking for knobs that were simple, with clean lines and yet beautiful in their simplicity. That’s metaphor. The knobs we chose are an expression of the environment we desire our home to be. If we had chosen solid gold decorative knobs encrusted with gems and inlaid painted ceramic highlights we would have been expressing something much different with our choice.

nebuchadnezzars statueThose knobs came to mind again this morning as I read about Nebuchadnezzar’s great statue. How fascinating that in just the previous chapter King Neb has a dream about a statue and Daniel interprets that God is eventually going to replace Neb’s kingdoms with other kingdoms culminating in an eternal one. Now, the king builds a real statue and tells everyone to worship it. Why? Because he can. The statue of his dream and its interpretation rattled his pride, ego, and false sense of power and security. He responds by creating his own statue and making everyone bow and worship it in order to shore up the cracks in his fragile ego. The statue on the plain of Dura expresses is his own version of an edifice complex and becomes a metaphor expressing both his ego, power, as well as his fear and insecurity.

Today, I’m thinking about the edifice that Wendy and I are building out on the edge of town. I’m praying that it will express what we have talked about and intended all along: invitation, warmth, beauty, cozy hospitality, creativity, peace, and love.

The Gift of Music

itunes captureThese are the men David put in charge of the music in the house of the Lord after the ark came to rest there. They ministered with music before the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, until Solomon built the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. They performed their duties according to the regulations laid down for them. 1 Chronicles 6:31-32 (NIV)

I have studied and taught on the subject of creativity for many years. I’m a huge fan of the arts across the entire of breadth of ways people choose to express themselves. God’s Message says that through Jesus all things were made, and that we were made in the image of the creator. To create and express oneself creatively is to be Christ-like.

I have explored a host of creative mediums over the years. I like trying new things when they strike my fancy. Acting, singing, song writing, play writing, fiction writing, poetry, painting, pottery, writing, guitar, bass, piano, and drums just to name a few. I may not be particularly gifted or good at most of them, but I find it interesting how each one works and how one medium of creative expression differs from other mediums.

I do find it interesting, however, that music clearly holds a special place in God’s heart. Today as we read through the family tree of the tribe of Levi, who were responsible for the temple and worship, we find that there is an entire branch of that tribe whose sole responsibility was music in temple worship.

Music has a special way of affecting our thoughts, our moods, and our emotions. When King Saul was having some sort of mental health episode, it was David and his harp that had a medicinal effect. My iTunes and Spotify playlists are largely broken down by the types of music for different situations and moods. I have quiet music for my morning conversations with God. I have hard driving, intense music for working out. I have feel good music for lifting my spirit in the drab hours of the afternoon. I have cool jazz for rainy days. I have baroque music for when I need to concentrate at work or study. I have hours of easy listening music for the background of dinner conversations.

Today, I’m simply thankful for music and appreciative of our Creator for this gift of expression that is such an integral part of both life and worship.

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A Lesson in Asaph’s Unique Lyric Style

But as for me, I will always proclaim what God has done;
Psalm 75:9a (NLT)

If jazz is playing in the background and I hear Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet, I know it. If an electric guitar solo is being played by Carlos Santana, I can tell it’s him. Walk into an art museum and I can tell you immediately the Picasso from the Matisse and the Rothko from the Miro. Ernest Hemingway’s voice as a writer is so distinctive that there’s an annual contest to see who can best parody him, and Woody Allen used Hemingway’s own words to humorously establish the character in his movie Midnight in Paris [see video]. Artists, musicians, and writers have distinctive styles that mark their work. God is an artist, and making us in His image He gave us the gift of being able to express ourselves uniquely. Just as each of our DNA is unique, so our creative expressions (when we honestly express ourselves) is unique.

Psalms 73-78 are a grouping of songs penned by Asaph. As I read through the lyrics of Psalm 75 the phrase in the line above struck me: “But as for me….” That sounds a lot like what I read the past two mornings.

  • But as for me, it is good to be near God.” Ps 73:28
  • But you, O God, are my king from of old.” Ps 74:12
  • But as for me, I will always proclaim what God has done.” Ps 75:9a

As with all artists, Asaph had developed a personal style. He likes to set up a scene with his lyrics and then drive a stake in the ground establishing his faith in contrast to all that he sees around him. It’s effective. It causes me to think about my own personal faith and my belief system in contrast to the world around me. Where do I place my own personal stake in the ground?

  • I see a lot of brokenness, but I believe God redeems broken things.
  • I see a lot that I don’t understand, but I believe God is telling a story that will someday be complete and all will come into context.
  • I see many who give up on the faith journey, but I am going to press on.
  • I observe many self-proclaimed believers who differentiate themselves by what they piously and religiously don’t do, but I want to differentiate myself by being loving, gracious, and forgiving.

The Healthy Act of Human Expression

The Scream by artist Edvard Munch. Lithography...
The Scream by artist Edvard Munch. Lithography, 1895. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How long, O God, will you allow our enemies to insult you?
Will you let them dishonor your name forever?
Psalm 74:10 (NLT)

The lyrics of this song of Asaph were written during a period of history when his country had been besieged and destroyed. The prophet Jeremiah is commonly attributed to have described the conditions of the same event in his own lyric poem we now know as Lamentations. The city of Jerusalem and Solomon’s wondrous temple were destroyed. Women and children were slaughtered. Many were enslaved (like Daniel) and taken back to Babylon. Those unfortunate few who were left in the desolation of the city were literally starving. The rich bartered their family treasures and heirlooms for a loaf of bread. The poor who had no other means were reduced to cannibalism. It was not a pretty sight.

Tragic circumstances and events are part of living in a fallen world. The news of late has been of tornadoes that killed small children when an elementary school was hit, of religious zealots publicly hacking a man to death on the street, and unspeakable horrors inflicted on human beings on both sides of armed conflict in Syria and in multiple conflicts in Africa. I listen to those who argue that the human condition is continuing to evolve and get better, who believe that there is increasing good in mankind. Then I read the world headlines and find continuous evidence that humanity, despite technological and societal advances is (as the Talking Heads put it) “the same as it ever was.”

We could debate this question over a pint or two. The truth remains that we will all face various levels of tragedy in our respective life journeys. We all have questions for God. There is something in us, as children made in the likeness of our Creator, to express ourselves creatively and metaphorically. Asaph and Jeremiah picked up their styluses and wrote songs and poems to try and express the unanswerable questions that plagued their souls at the incomprehensible horrors they witnessed. Art, in all of its many forms, heals.

Today I am reminded that creative expression is a prescription for my spiritual and mental health. I will experience and witness tragedy. The question is not “Will it happen?” but “What will I do with it when it happens?” I can stuff it and cover it over until it begins to eat me away from the inside out in unhealthy ways, or I can get my questions and emotions out into the light of day where they can be acknowledged and lose their destructive power. Asaph wrote a blues song. Jeremiah wrote a lyric poem. Edward Munch painted “The Scream.” Eugene O’Neill wrote the play A Long Day’s Journey into Night. These are examples most everyone knows. But most expressions are not public expressions. I myself have written pages and pages of words and lyric thoughts no one will ever read. They are not for public consumption. But, I wrote them. I wrote them to get out my questions, to make my case, to express my anger, sadness, doubts, pain, frustration, hopelessness, and to scream at God. I transmitted them from my mind and soul through my pen and onto the page.

What have you done with your own tragedies?