2 About Opal R&D [2012]

The Birth of “Opal Design Systems”

Why the Opal?

  • Gems of Observation
  • Diamonds,Opals , and Some Intriguing Differences
  • And … Some “So What’s” of the Differences

About Opal Design Systems –

Research and Development

The Birth of “Opal Design Systems”

Summary: Origin stories shape everything else in the life of a person or organization. I share my story of the spiritual DNA that grounded the beginning of the Opal Design Systems in two places on this website. This page,About Opal Design Systems, shares more general background about the opal and why I use it as the guiding metaphor for an intercultural ministry paradigm. The second half of my story appears on the page, Theory Behind Opal Design Systems. It describes some of the technical aspects of the sources and components I used in shaping the Opal Design Systems.

“Origin stories” are essential to understanding the “spiritual DNA” of characteristics in a new person, new team, new group, new organization. What gets fused into the beginnings of something new often governs its entire lifespan, for better or for worse. Here is a key scene in my storyline for what sparked the Opal Design Systems cultural curriculum project that I started personal studies for in 1991 and have worked on the writing of since 1995.

Once upon a time, a couple of church plants ago, I was in a church start-up that ended up with a really unusual combination of people. As best I could figure out at the time, it was a core group that contained representatives of just about every major “culture formation cluster” I could think of. It wasn’t like we had a couple of Goths and some Punks, plus a few Eco-Spirituals and Cultural Creatives. Or a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Or everybody being from different generations. Nor anything quite like that.

It wasn’t that easy to figure out. It wasn’t about the usual demographics that show up on census forms. But somehow, I intuitively knew that this collection of people from multiple cultures had the potential to be multicultural in a very different way from just being a gathering from different races or generations or vocations. There was … there was just something about the ways they processed life so differently from each other. And I sensed that if we could only integrate ourselves into one community around this as-yet undefined “something,” that would make us the most dynamic, intercultural group I’d ever been involved with!

Others felt a similar excitement. The Holy Spirit was moving. People you’d never expect to be drawn toward Jesus showed themselves to be on a trajectory toward Him. People you’d rarely if ever find as friends were connecting and journeying together. In short, people’s lives were being transformed. Something amazing was going on! Could this become the kind of broad-based, integrative learning community I’d longed for, for so long?

But then … something devastating went on, and the potential for such a welcoming, integrative, and transformative community gradually crumbled. Group by group, various clusters of individuals with similar cultural backgrounds left the church – and this all happened in a specific order that seemed significant. I didn’t understand at the time what was going on, or why. All I could do is be a bystander and watch the exodus. Finally, all who remained were those who most resonated with the theology and culture of the founding pastor. The diversity among the people was gone. The reserve of good will and hope had vanished. The potential had dissolved. I was grief-stricken and riddled with questions.

  • What went wrong? Why did that happen? And why did people leave in that particular order?
  • Was the quenching of a hopeful future inevitable, given the degrees of cultural difference among us? Or was it preventable? If so, how?
  • Could I have foreseen this coming? If so, what could I have said or done to bring a warning before it was too late? Or would that have made no difference, because of the founding pastor ultimately only cared about traditional ideas of leadership, community, and culture?
  • And how do all things work together for good? How can something constructive come out of something so destructive?

It took almost a year of in-depth processing to make enough sense of my observations and questions about the disintegration of this young church. Eventually, I felt resolved and free enough to move on to other things, although the Spirit had already led me out of that church plant.

Through my work of analysis and discernment, I realized the keys to both the potential and the demise of this group revolved around cultural dynamics. Also, somehow, issues of culture truly were more central in this situation than anything I had witnessed in any other organization. More specifically, it seemed that the interpersonal conflicts were based in how people learn differently and live their lives differently. In other words, it was about culturality not just personality. Also, this ministry meltdown became for me, in great part, about learning to discern how healthy versus toxic organizational development occurs, and what happens when leaders don’t respond to challenges about flawed spiritual DNA that causes harm.

Through a deep examination of the narrative storylines of what happened, I arrived at a theoretical approach to observing, analyzing, and interpreting culture. Eventually, I titled it the “Opal Systems,” and ultimately, 10 years later, the “Opal Design Systems.” All the major themes that come up in this cultural curriculum project were present in the DNA of that one church planting experience: psychology, culturology, futurology, ecology and organic systems, and design and development of organizational systems. Themes within that plotline also included synthesizing these disciplines into a practical, customized strategy for how to live a life of growth together and lead in transformation of the outside community. It came down to integrating the inside community from multicultural to intercultural, and thus providing a welcoming and transforming discipleship environment for others to join with.

I’ve become quite enamored of the opal, and that’s why a missional study group I facilitated from 2009-2010 used as its name Opallios – the Greek name for opal. I find opals to be a wonderful and integrative metaphor for a multicultural and multi-learning-style world, just as the diamond works well as a metaphor for a monocultural and singular-learning-style setting. In the next section, Why the Opal?, I share why I use the opal as an integrating metaphor.

Why the Opal?

Summary: The metaphor of an opal comes to mind in relation to analyzing cultures, perhaps because of my own backstory in jewelry, my love of colors, and multiculturalism. (And yes, they do somehow all fit together!) This section shares some of that jewelry background, as well as a few technical aspects of opals and why I think they capture the realities of a postmodern world better than do diamonds, which are often used as a metaphor in the modernist world.

Gems of Observation

My father was a watchmaker and a jeweler.  After World War II, he used the G.I. Bill to get training at the watchmaking school in Elgin, Illinois. When I was young, I sometimes got to observe my Dad at work, manipulating all those teeny-tiny tools with precision while wearing a “loop” magnifier lens atop his glasses. It was fascinating – but you had to stay quiet as possible so as not to disturb the delicate work being done!

And so, I’ve always been intrigued by old-fashioned mechanical watches and clocks, as well as by all kinds of precious and semi-precious gems and the metals for their settings.  I saw a lot of them over the years. For instance, I’ve seen some diamonds where the flat tabletop part was almost as big as a dime! And occasionally, Dad would have a marquis (football-shaped) diamond, or a rare yellow or pink diamond. (Actually, my favorites for diamonds are those in the brown color range, maybe because they remind me of coffee and chocolate?)

One of my favorite memories is of Dad showing us special-order diamonds. He had a sort of ritual he did when he brought them out.  First he’d set down a small piece of black velvet on the table top, and gingerly brush off any dust.  Then he’d reach into his suitcoat pocket, pull out a tiny manila envelope, and open its flap.  He’d tweak out the inner tissue-paper wrap, and carefully undo it.  Obviously, it wasn’t that the gem was fragile.  It’s just that there’s no reason to rush the joyful experience of seeing a really great diamond!  With the tissue opened, he’d slant the edge of the paper onto the velvet and tap gently until the gem came tumbling out.  He’d flip the diamond with the tabletop part upward, and center it on the black background with a pair of special jeweler’s tweezers – a kind with long, thin tongs.

That was our cue.  Everyone would lean inward to catch a glance of the glints of light that reflected off the mirror-like surfaces of the side facets.  Sooner or later, you’d see each person turn this way or that, sort of bouncing around like bobble-head dolls in slow motion, searching for that one just-right position where you could catch the best view of the diamond’s brilliance.


Ahh, yes!  It doesn’t matter how often you’ve seen gorgeous diamonds before.  There’s simply something magnetic about its majestic beauty that draws you into those brilliant flashes of rainbow-sliced light!  Not a bad destiny for a little chunk of coal that’s endured tons and tons of pressure during its lifespan.

My father didn’t have quite the same routine for other precious or semi-precious stones like emeralds, rubies,  sapphires, opals, or garnets.  We’d still get to see them, but he’d display them in a way that made sense for their unique qualities.  Usually these gemstones were already mounted into ring settings, so he’d pull the ring out of his tray full of samples, and have someone wear it.  Naturally, the person modeling the ring would turn it this way and that, so all could see this creation from multiple angles.

Diamonds,Opals , and Some Intriguing Differences

Seeing a high-quality opal just wasn’t the same as seeing a similarly special diamond, but I found it equally fascinating.  And in fact, I’ve come to like the complexity of opals far more than the clarity of diamonds.  I find the natural contrasts between the two different stones to hold a lot of analogies for the way things are now in the world, versus the way they used to be. Let me share some of those – but first, I’ll need to give a bit of technical background so those comparisons make sense.

Diamonds have a cubic crystalline structure made out of carbon.  That means a solid-state network of molecules creates the sturdy structure of diamonds.  It’s as if layer after layer of the same cube shapes stacks upon each other in a pattern that creates crystals.


As best I can illustrate it, think of this as if you had a bucket full of six-sided ice cubes that were just thrown into it any which way. In a perfect world, if you jiggled the ice bucket back and forth, eventually the ice would fall into a uniform pattern with all the cubes lined up side by side, end to end, row upon row, layer upon layer. That settling out is similar to what a lump of coal goes through on its way to becoming a diamond, only the tons of constant pressure caused by the earth above it push the carbon molecules into alignment, turning it from black coal to a clear diamond. Any flaws are places where the carbon doesn’t fully compact and so a black spot shows in the structure, or there is a crack or weak point.



In fact, this compacted structure is what makes diamond the hardest mineral on earth. It is anywhere from 10 to 150 times harder than versions of the next hardest mineral, corundum (an aluminum compound that rubies and sapphires are formed from). Diamonds are generally faceted (cut at angles) in various patterns and the facets are then polished to be like tiny mirrors that reflect light. That’s the way to maximize their strengths as a gemstone. Usually, the more faces a diamond has, the more “brilliance” it gives in flashing back reflected light. Also, trace elements may give the diamond a distinct color instead of it being clear. Even then, faceting and polishing still bring out a lively, multicolored sparkle.

Diamond, © Igor Kaliuzhnyi / F0T0LIA #8994049

Diamond, © Igor Kaliuzhnyi / F0T0LIA #8994049

Meanwhile, opals are pretty much the opposite of diamonds. They do not have a crystalline structure. Actually, opals are made of compacted molecules of silicon dioxide – the same compound as in glass – plus water. That means they are in a “vitreous” (i.e., liquid) state.  If you’ve ever been in a very old house with its original glass windows, you’ll notice they look sort of shimmery and uneven.  That’s because glass is actually a very slow-moving liquid compound.  (Which is something I didn’t know until I stayed with my friends, the Thames family in Dallas, and they pointed out the waviness in the original glass windows of their 1920s-era home.)


The opal’s not-so-stable internal structure and its water content also contribute to making it far more fragile than a diamond. So opals generally are cut to create a flat bottom and the rest polished smooth into a round-topped “cabochon” rather than cut and polished with flat facets and “table top” as are diamonds. If you try to facet an opal, it’s likely to break, if not completely shatter. And since the water can evaporate and the jewel become brittle, it’s recommended that opals be soaked occasionally to keep the water content at the appropriate level.

So, if you can’t facet an opal and polish the flat surfaces into tiny mirrors, why does the opal still have such brilliant play of colors and light? The best way I’ve found so far to illustrate it is this: It’s like an opal is a conglomeration of clusters of microscopic glass beads, immersed in a water-filled glass aquarium. Beads of similar size tend to cluster together, and as the light hits these clusters of specific-sized spheres, it diffracts (bends) around them in characteristic ways.  Each color patch is characteristic for the specific size of glass beads in that molecule cluster. The light shows up as violet to blue for the small spheres, green to yellow for medium-sized spheres, and orange to red for the larger spheres.  Mix and match clusters of different sized glass beads, and you get a more vibrant interplay of colors.


But the noble opal is also “context sensitive.”  View it from another angle, and the colorization will change in this or that patch, right before your eyes – creating that sort of shimmering rainbow iridescence that’s so distinctive that it’s been given its own term: opalescence.  It is fiery and bold in its own eye-teasing way, just as the lightning-flash brilliance of a diamond catches our eye in a different way.

Mexican Opals, © Mexgems / F0T0LIA #4220029

Mexican Opals, © Mexgems / F0T0LIA #4220029

Which to prefer when each has its own appeal?  To me, this internal diversity of the opal and the resulting play of colors is much more “cool” than the diamond, where every facet is designed to be uniform, and the glints of light are splashy, but kind of all look the same to me.  And that realization is where I began to shift from the physical realities inherent in opals versus diamonds, to the spiritual analogies therein.

And … Some “So What’s” of the Differences

Over the years, I’ve heard a number of illustrations for theology around the idea that God is like a diamond who has perfect character that reflects outward, or that we are like diamonds who reflect God’s glory.  But, over time, I’ve come to appreciate the opal as better capturing the essence of the theological concepts of God’s character and our reflections in His image.  The diamond is far more uniform; the opal has greater diversity.  Diamonds come in many colors of the spectrum, from blacks (yes, really!) and browns, to beige and yellows, to pinks and blues.  But each kind is translucent (clear).  Meanwhile, the background colors for opals typically range from milky white to grey, blue-grey, and near-black.  But those many patches of foreground colors shine like micro-neon lights, regardless of their backdrop.  Maybe it’s just me, but the complexity in opals says more about God’s character and our “multifaceted” reflections of Him than does the clarity in diamonds.

Also, I think there is a metaphor to explore between diamonds as representing the traditional/modernist mindset, and the opal as the holistic/”emerging era” mindset. The modern has been about precise lines, hard edges, and overall uniformity. Meanwhile, the emerging era is more about irregular patches, interconnecting boundaries, and overall diversity.

And the fact that the opal’s spheres are made of the same substance, regardless of size, draws me to opals as a spiritual metaphor for disciples and cultures.  To me, the different scales of the same substance (glass) represent the concept of fractals; there is a discernible pattern or process at work here underneath what looks like chaos. Specifically, the patterns that apply to the smallest of spheres also apply to the largest – light bends through them in particular ways, even when the results come out as different colors. So, it’s the same though different. There is both continuity and discontinuity, stability and change.  Ah-ha!  A paradox!  Which makes the opal quite friendly toward the world as it’s unfolding … don’t you think?

Similarly, even in the midst of our diversity as disciples, where it may appear there is no bond of commonalities, there is indeed.  We have humanity as common ground, even when we may differ in gender, race, learning styles, etc.

Okay, so perhaps I overstretched the analogy at this point. But a little confusion now can be helpful for a lot of learning later. And the opal will pop up multiple times during our explorations of the Opal Design Systems and its components, so we’ll have a chance to revisit this again.

Meanwhile, speaking of components, for an “executive summary” of the components in this training series, see The Theory Behind Opal Design Systems. That page offers a more technical overview of the five components in the Opal Design Systems: theoretical model, assessment tools, training system, simulation games, and immersion learning opportunities.