Friday, February 15, 2013

Top 10 Ways to Get Hidden from My Social News Feeds

I love interacting with my social networking community. I absolutely hate hiding, unfriending, or unfollowing people. I probably should do it more, but I rarely do. If we're connected, I actually care what you think and experience. But we can all do things from time to time that are annoying and those who care about us most will take the time to let us know. With love, and in a spirit of restoration not condemnation. Right? So this is an attempt at that.

First, a helpful comparison. Think social networks as a metaphorical coffee shop that we all visit from time to time. Some of us come every day, some only once in a while. But every time we show up, we run into people we know. So we're generally on our best behavior, at least we should be. Most of the time, we're there on our way to something else, we don't plan to hang out. So try not to monopolize anyone's time. Take a minute to say hi, share a meaningful highlight about your life and be sure to ask about the other person too, then move on. If something I say bothers you, tell me, but don't stand up on a table yelling for 10 minutes. I might still be your friend, but I'm probably going to suggest you get down or just walk away and hope you come to your senses. And yes, I'd love to see a recent photo of your child or your pet, but not a seemingly endless collection limited only by the memory in your smart phone. Finally, if you are passionate about politics or your faith, great. I can be too, so by all means let's discuss it. BUT, please give others views the same respect. By the way, this also means you should take a breath and ask what others think too. Accept that honest people can disagree and remain friends — that's good. And if possible, let's see if we can find some common ground — our society needs more of that. There may not always be much, and differences matter too, but if we can find a little agreement it's easier to work through the differences peacefully. 
    So, with that metaphor in mind, here are the top 10 ways to get hidden from my social news feeds.
  1. Post continually one-sided political statements that polarize and antagonize your friends rather than engage them or seek common ground
  2. Post statements that defame the faith of other people.  That's just mean and doesn't advance anything, in fact it reduces people's respect of your opinion.
  3. Fail to fact-check unbelievable claims... that almost always prove to be misleading. It's irresponsible and spreads lies.
  4. Post passive-aggressive comments about unnamed people we both know. That's usually going to backfire, not to mention it's gossip and rude.
  5. Over share (e.g., post a whole bunch of things in quick succession.) Pace yourself! This is a conversation, not a monologue :)
  6. Only be negative
  7. Post a seemingly endless stream of photos of your children or your pet
  8. Post only things that other people say or create. Your friends want to see what YOU thinkdo and create. Participant in the world rather than simply observe and judge it. 
  9. Share aspects of your personal life that are better kept to yourself. Remember, a lot of people see this stuff and it will be visible for a VERY long time. 
  10. Post things you don't really believe just to get a response without making it clear that's your intention
See you online :)

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Organic Worship: The power of acoustic instruments in expressing the heart

I'm grateful to have the chance to participate in musical worship at many churches over the years.  The varied styles and personalities of each community have shaped my own range of artistic expression. As years have passed I've experienced dramatic changes too as musical styles have shifted perhaps even more in the church than outside it.  For the most part, I'm one who enjoys change, and from a musical perspective I'm thankful to have been born in this time.  The tools available for creating and sharing music have never been better or more accessible and people are using them to create more music than ever.  It's an exciting time to be a musician, and for the most part the changes have been positive.

There is one change I see playing out in churches that I find distressing though. It might seem minor, in fact for most it's probably going unnoticed.  But one by one, pianos are disappearing from sanctuaries.  New churches aren't buying them. Established churches are selling them. It's not without reason. Acoustic pianos are expensive, large, heavy, and require maintenance.  Furthermore, their electronic counterparts have gotten dramatically better over the years such that, in many environments, a good electric piano or keyboard may sound very much the same.  But here's where I'm gonna take a stand: they are NOT the same!  The differences aren't obvious, but I think they're important and come down to things far more elemental than the sound produced. I think the way the sound is produced actually matters far more than might at first be recognized.

I'm writing this as someone who has spent most of my life playing and recording with electronic instruments. The advances made are remarkable and have made it accessible for the average songwriter to compose and record for literally all the timbres of a symphony orchestra, and far beyond. That said, there is a connection that I feel playing an acoustic instruments that goes far beyond what I experience with electronics and I think that connection is not adequately acknowledged, and when it comes to worship I think it's particularly important.

Drummers already know this. Anxious to control volume, many churches have tried to move drummers to electronics.  In most cases, they've tried and failed!  Why? Because hitting a plastic or rubber surface that sends an electronic signal to a microprocessor which synthesizes or reproduces a digital recording of a drum strike is not the same as hitting a drum head tightly stretched over a wooden hoop that reverberates and pushes air out the other side resulting in one of an infinite number of tones (and overtones) depending on where and how hard its struck!  It's an entirely different experience for the musician and for the listener.  The same is true of acoustic pianos. Rather than "playing a recording of individual notes," which is essentially what a modern electronic keyboard does, a pianist presses a key which triggers a felt hammer that strikes one or more strings tightly wound against a large wooden soundboard suspended in a cabinet, all of which resonate (vibrate) together in an infinite number of combinations depending on which keys are played and with what level of intensity. And all of this happens differently depending  on thousands of different variables in the wood, the manufacturing, the environmental conditions, etc. etc. etc.  And as anyone who plays acoustic instruments knows, no two are alike.  Becky, a pianist I met recently described the difference well:
"My emotions are hard to tie to electronic instruments because of the uniformity of each instrument created, thus, taking away character from each as an individual. Acoustic instruments, even if crafted carefully with the same exact materials, each one will sound uniquely different. No matter how great a keyboard is, it still has the ability to play a sound on it's own with the touch of a button. Yes, you still need a human to control it, however, human touch is basically obsolete." 
Beyond the mere physicality, I see something more going on here to.  God designed our physical world and called it good. The way acoustic instruments work is actually very close to that which God created. A piece of wood hollowed out by natural forces or even a bone can make a flute or a drum. Why? Because these materials have the ability to resonate, which essentially means to vibrate and create a tone. This works, again, because of the way God designed our physical world — it's a gift. Humans discovered this very early, and in keeping with the creative nature we were given, began to do artistic things with these tones. We began to make music.

The organic tones that come from instruments of natural materials is as unique and ripe with infinite possibilities. But rather than infinite possibilities, when we synthesize or sample these tones what we create are duplicates of them. This is one reason music start to sound the same from artist to artist, album to album, performance to performance.  In chasing after technical perfection, we've created "sameness." Not only does this become monotonous to the hearer, it is an important barrier to musical expression. Again, Becky continues:
"I definitely feel a change in the way I worship when I play a keyboard vs the piano. The keyboard is more complicated, which practically means "unpredictable," whereas with a piano, you know the sound you will get every single time you press down a key. There is instant gratification when playing a piano key in contrast to a keyboard where you have to rely on speakers, mixers, and ultimately a sound engineer. I can play a piano with emotion especially when given the chance to shut my brain down and let my emotions take over."
I understand all the practical reasons why pianos are becoming less common.  It's true that they are large ... so they can get in the way on stage.  They also have to be maintained ... so they're an expense. They also only make one sound — piano — whereas electronic keyboards make many sounds, some quite beautiful.  Ultimately, I'm not making a case that ALL churches need a piano, or that electronic keyboards have no place in worship. By no means.  Instead, I contend that acoustic pianos and electronic keyboards are different instruments each with strengths and weaknesses. Ideally, I'd make the case for both. So rather than replacing their acoustic pianos (or organs, for that matter), my plea to churches is to consider thinking of the keyboard as an addition rather than a replacement. The flexibility and range of a good electronic keyboard will not be matched by a any single acoustic instrument, but it won't match the unique expressive capabilities of an good acoustic instrument. They're just different.

Finally, I'll close with a story. Becky's church chose to sell their acoustic piano and replace it with an electric keyboard. I don't doubt they had good reasons for their decision, and the instrument they bought is among the best available.  But the connection a musician can feel to an acoustic instrument as an tool of worship is perfectly illustrated by her recollection of having it moved, "I cried when that piano was moved out of the sanctuary — and it was going to my house!"  That's right, considering the connection she felt to the instrument it's gratifying that she actually was able to be the one who bought it from them.  This isn't an isolated example.  Many musicians feel a strong emotional connection to their acoustic instruments, often naming them. If cared for, even the monetary value of a good acoustic instrument may appreciate as it ages too. I don't know anyone that ever cried when replacing an electronic keyboard. Instead, they're usually anxious to replace it with the new, improved model... usually released within a year of when they bought it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Song Story: "One Love," Creating Art with Purpose

This song story is not like the kind you'll usually read.  This story doesn't include a dark night of the soul followed by divine revelations he moves you to tears. There's no majestic scene inspiring spontaneous worship of God's majesty.  There's no lament turned to rejoicing. Those are all real and possible precursors to great songs, but this is a very different kind of story, but I've learned through it is no less important and worth sharing.

Let's set some context. As an artist I know that there are times when inspiration just shows-up. I can't explain why it happens, exactly where it comes from, or certainly how to achieve it on demand. I can only acknowledge that when it occurs, its magical. You know it, and it's a gift to be thankful for.  But being an artist is more than waiting for inspiration, it also requires skill, practice, and the will to put these to work to say what needs to be said. This is that kind of story.

True art has to be an honest expression of our heart.  Most would readily agree with this. However, where I think we sometimes limit ourselves is in believing that this means ALL our artistic work has to originate in us. That is the pressure under which many of us ultimately buckle. The fact is, inspiration can come from everyone and everything around us. Something we read, something we hear, something we see or experience. Everything. What we do as artists in fact, is often less about developing ideas and more about interpreting them in ways that resonate with us and others in new ways. At its best, this kind of work often ends-up illuminating things that others might miss.

"One Love" originates in this place, outside my comfort-zone. Rather than coming without warning and seemingly out of pure inspiration, this song was an intentional work born out of need.  My home church was embarking on a deep exploration on the topic of Christian community, a coordinated six-week effort encompassing the Sunday messages and small group ministries. Naturally, we wanted our musical worship to draw people into the topic as well. Looking at the teaching materials planned, I didn't see  many obvious matches in the commercial music readily available. A few reasonable choices, but nothing that captured the essence of our theme directly. So, in response I set out to write a song for this topic specifically. At the time, this was a new way for me to approach songwriting. I'd written commercial instrumental tracks before, but had never been called to write lyrics "to-spec," so to speak. This would be a new challenge.

The approach I took was two-fold. First of all, I set out to get to know the study material that had been written for small groups in order to thoroughly understand the focus of the program. Next, I dove into the scripture referenced and related to the topic. This took some time for sure, but it was indispensable in developing a full understanding, and ultimately passion, for the topic and what it meant for our community. Since my goal was a song that could be used for multiple weeks, I wanted to write something that would highlight the theme broadly. In the end, passages from Matthew, Acts, Romans and Ephesians proved most influential.

I make no claim that this song is anything particularly special. But it was useful and effective in creating a musical connection to the topic. And as we know, songs are sticky. They are often what we take with us out of the service and into our week.  When the pastor teaching the series first heard the song in rehearsal his comment was, "that song puts in three minutes what it takes me an hour to say!"

Mission accomplished.

In reflecting on the process, I've realized that it's exactly the concept Jesus spoke about in Luke 6:45, "the mouth speaks what the heart is full of."  I was filling my heart in hopes of having something worth saying. Another way to see it perhaps, is giving the Spirit raw material to use within you.

Though initially born of intent and study, the actual process of writing was ultimately consistent with how I'd worked in the past. Words and music came simultaneously, and relatively quickly in first draft form. As often happens for me, the lyrics continued to evolve in the weeks that followed as I learned the song, rehearsed it, and used it live. (In fact, after not playing it for a couple of years I did it recently and STILL revised one line. Creative license ;)

I share this story to illustrate a point I think is very important for those of us who fancy ourselves artists. Inspiration sometimes just comes, and it's a beautiful experience when it happens. But that's not the only path to creativity. To practice art as a craft means developing skills and habits that create the fertile ground within us from which inspiration can germinate. It doesn't happen by accident. Perhaps most often, it's the result of intentional choices to learn and grow as people. After all, how else are we going to really even have something worth saying?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On coffeeshops, death, belief, and listening

I love coffee houses. Important conversations happen there. Sometimes you're a part of them, and sometimes you just overhear them. Now I don't intentionally eavesdrop, mind you, but sometimes you can't help it.  Today was one of those days, and the conversation I heard sparked thoughts I think are worth considering. So now, not only did I overhear a private conversation, but I'm sharing it over the Internet. Be careful what you say in coffee shops ;)

The context as best I could gather is this.... Someone has died after a relatively long illness. A memorial is being planned. The two people seated next to me are mutual friends of the deceased and have been given the responsibility of planning the remembrance.  Though acquaintances previously, I don't get the feeling they know each other very well, but they both were both very close with the man who died. Close enough, that they each had extensive conversations with him about what was coming after death.  One of these people was very open about her Christian faith and the importance of sharing it openly. The other referred to himself as irreligious and was openly not interested in faith and actually had an aversion to it.  Both were VERY passionate about their perspectives, to the point they had a very hard time communicated. There was a lot of awkward silence. Where this story gets interesting is in the fact they were each evidently told very different things by their dying friend about what HE believed... and within hours of each other.  Each of them, both speakers at the memorial, thought it was important that what the dying man said about his view of the afterlife be shared at his memorial... creating a natural conflict. This dominated their conversation over coffee.

Bare in mind the man evidently had expressed great distress about his impending death. He was not at peace with it.  This prompted each friend to share their beliefs with him. One shared a very traditional Christian view and stressed the importance of repentance and belief in Jesus, the other admitted complete  uncertainly but nonetheless communicated confidence that the outcome would be good.  The irony is that though they spoke with the same dying man within hours of each other and within days of his death, they were each told what they wanted to hear.  One heard the man confess his faith in Christ and pray for salvation. He then expressed peace, knowing he'd be going to Heaven.  The other delighted in how is friend agreed he was completely agnostic about the future, didn't really believe in a god, but expected whatever came next would be good because he'd "pretty much been a good person."  Both were anxious to use the memorial as an opportunity to share the "truth" the the man "believed" about the afterlife.  Regrettably, they each had a very different account of what that was, and the only one who could actually confirm the truth either way was now experiencing it first-hand, one way or the other.

Obviously, I have no way of knowing what the man actually believed.  But the tragic reality that struck me from this exchange is that neither do either of his close friends.  The man was very likely not completely honest about his beliefs with at least one, and possibly both of his friends.  This was their last conversation. It's sad it couldn't have been more transparent.

Why this is the outcome I cannot know, but given my witness of the two friends, I have a theory.  Both were very passionate about their convictions, divisively so.  The Christian was belittling of the agnostic man and insisted on referring to him as "pagan," a label he didn't embrace.  The agnostic clearly looked down on the Christian as forcing her beliefs on others and not sufficiently intellectual. Honestly, I could see how both were guilty as charged.  In fact, I believe the reality is the dying man quite likely simply told each what he thought they wanted to hear in order to escape the conversation, be at peace with his friends, and maybe make THEM feel a little better.  The result of course is that he likely received little comfort from either of them. Their final gift to him might very well have been confusion.  This I find tragic.

So what is there to learn from this?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.  What I take from it is that while it's important to be willing and able to share our faith, it's critical that we be equally if not better prepared to be listeners. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

THE DIVINE WORK OF ART: Cultivating Your Creative Life

EDITOR'S NOTE: This week we welcome singer/songwriter Staci Frenes as a guest blogger. Staci is a singer/songwriter whose music has been heard nationally on CCM radio, major TV networks, and in feature films. She tours nationally, singing, speaking and leading worship, and has released six CDs on her own label, Longshot Records. Join me in welcoming Staci to
—Cam Sobalvarro

As a little girl I used to love to watch my Grandmother, a professional seamstress, alter and sew for the women in my hometown of Grand Forks, North Dakota. Women came to her from all around, from all walks of life. She tailored their pantsuits, hemmed their dresses, sewed their prom dresses, Easter outfits, and even their wedding gowns. And she did all of this with the precision, professionalism and panache of an artist, leaving her imprint on every piece that left her little shop. She was the first portrait I had of a working artist. I wore the outfits she made me with the proud and delightful sense that they were one-of-a-kind, and made just for me, lovingly by my Nana. She gave herself to me—to all of us--in those pieces she sewed, and we felt richer for her gifts of beauty.

Two generations later, I too find myself a “working artist”; my tools are a guitar, a piano, and the melodies and words that I try and harness into songs. Songs are the language I speak, the thoughts I think, the way I receive and give back to the world around me. In each one I know that like my Nana, I leave an imprint of myself and hope those who hear them feel richer for their beauty.

I believe each of us is a “working artist”—like Nana at her sewing machine or me sitting down to the piano. We need to know how we are uniquely gifted and what our tools are, and we need to be ever connected to the Holy Spirit who breathes into us the secrets of the heart and mind of God. I believe this creative life looks not so much like a list of accomplishments or failures, but the pouring of our very selves--heart and soul--into the life we’ve been given.

As each of us lives out our creative calling, we reflect God’s glory and thus point a hurting world to Him. We fulfill our deepest purpose when we share our unique expressions of God’s love, bringing wholeness and completeness to both ourselves and to others. That’s the unique and beautiful divine work that art does in those of us who create it, and in those who experience it.

The other work of art, though, is our investment into our creative life. It involves uncovering our distinct areas of giftedness, developing and nurturing them with passion and discipline, and then investing them back into the lives of others, as seeds into the fields with which we’ve been entrusted.

For me, those seeds include the songs God gives me to share with others. In fact, I’m getting ready to record a brand new album called Everything You Love Comes Alive, and many of the songs I’ve written for it touch on these same themes around The Divine Work of Art. My deepest prayer and hope is that this new music will stir up passion in the hearts of all who hear it to pursue and invest in their own creative lives, and into the lives of others. This is my 8th independent studio album, and I’m excited to offer folks the opportunity to join with me in the process of helping give it life! I’d be honored and grateful if you partnered with us in this new creative endeavor. Here’s the video and a link to the project on Kickstarer where you can help make it happen!

View on

Friday, January 20, 2012

Guest Blogging at Provoketive

I'm published this week in an article at Provoketive Magazine. Come by to read my thoughts on the groundswell of debate following Justin Brieley's recent interview of Mark Driscoll for the podcast, “Unbelievable.” I think there's more at stake than the issues themselves.

Back to blogging here next week.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Top 10 Book Recommendations for 2012

AKA, my top 10 reading list of 2011

Let's be clear, this is the top-10 books I read in 2011 and has nothing to do with when they were published. Some are new, some are not, but all were influential in my formation in 2011.

Before I continue, let me share a little of why I read, because it strikes at the heart of what motivates me to choose one book over another, and certainly why a book makes it to this list. Many people read books that will strengthen the beliefs they already have. They know they're right and want mostly to bolster their position. Or perhaps the opposite, they know they have doubts that make them feel uncomfortable and so they want confirmation of the opinions they find most aspirational. I suspect this later reason is more common than most would admit. More and more, I find books that simply confirm what I already know to be either boring or frustrating. Boring, when they don't push me to deeper places, frustrating when they're so spot-on I wish I'd written them! What I find most interesting though, is books that challenge me to think in new ways. Sometimes this leads me to pick books by authors that I'm pretty sure I'll disagree with. I might do this because I respect the person, but not necessarily the opinion, and am curious how they get there. Or I might do this in order to challenge myself to fully understand a position different from my own in order to have better dialog with people who hold that view. I have always found that understanding the beliefs of people I disagree with is helpful in building my own beliefs. It's also often surprisingly helpful in how it helps establish empathy I wouldn't otherwise have. This is something I think is sorely missing from a lot of public discourse in general.

A brief confession. When I started writing this, I expected it to be a relatively short entry, one I'd publish in a single blog. Surprise! It's anything but short. Each entry could practically stand on it's own, so that's how I'm presenting it. I'll show the top ten list here, but to really get the full review on the books that interest you, you'll have to click to the next page on each review.

So without further blather, here's my top-10!

1. The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible
by Scot McKnight
Scot McKnight is a highly recognized theologian with noted specialties in the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. Despite his academic orientation and credentials, The Blue Parakeet is highly...
Continue reading...

2. The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles
by Steven Pressfield
I'll be honest, this blog would probably not exist were it not for this book. I finished it and immediately resolved to start writing more seriously, or at least more frequently. If you or anyone close to you is an artist at any level...
Continue reading...

3. Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love
by Mark Scandrette
Much of the process of growing spiritually and becoming an effective follower of Christ involves adjusting the way we think, what we believe, and the ideas that motivate our actions. Since this happens inwardly...
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4. They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generationsby Dan Kimball
As one who loves the church, this title was a little hard to face at first. The last thing I'm interested is reading yet another book that takes aim at "organized religion" or Christianity (not that we don't sometimes make ourselves an easy target...
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5. Dangerous Wonder
Michael Yaconelli
There is a danger in studying the Bible and theology. I've heard seminary graduates joke about how they lost their faith in the process. That's no joke, and none of us are immune. While I love learning "about" God...
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6. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate
by John H. Walton
I came to faith as a young adult deeply steeped in evolution theory. In fact, my love of natural science had taken me further down this path than most. Fortunately I came to faith in a church community that...
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7. Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith
by Rob Bell
So this has been quite a year for Rob Bell, and it's the first year I've read anything he's written. So I am living proof that any press is good press. This is Rob's first book, but it's not the first book...
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8. Think: The life of the mind and the Love of God
by John Piper
To be honest, this is probably not a book I would have read on my own, but it set the them of a study series I helped lead over the summer for a young adult ministry I'm involved with. As it turns out...
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9. Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith
by Shane Hipps
There are few authors that would get me to read their book simply by their background, but that's exactly what happened with Shane Hipps. Once I found out he started his career working in marketing and advertising...
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10. Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived
by Rob Bell
Finally, in at number ten, the ever-controversial, "Love Wins." Honestly, I had to laugh when I put this on my list, had it not been for the meteoric rise of this book on the wave of criticism that preceded it, I'm quite sure...
Continue reading...

So that's the line-up for 2011.  I hope you can find something here that might pique your interest to read this year.  So do you have any recommendations for me?