The Words We Use

I hate it when I am asked to perform a specific piece, but just “without the swear words.” I have a hard time coping with that. Usually, I offer to perform a different piece or even write a new piece for the specific event. If I really, really believe in the cause and the poem they want is really, really
relevant to the cause, I might perform an amended version. I hate doing that.

In my youth, I was an extremely judgmental person. I joke about my protestant nun phase, but at the time there was nothing funny about it. Other kids and some adults avoided me because I uncompromisingly expected everyone to follow my weird little brand of strict religious practice, and considered anyone who failed to do so a depraved human being. I wish I was exaggerating.

Some more contact with the outside world had started to soften my outlook, and I started dating the man who would become my husband. He was honest with me about his lifestyle, which did not fit into my code of conduct, but also guarded his behavior so as not to overly offend me. His friends from college, I realize now, also were very careful when I was around. Although it did not feel like it at the time, since they were so far outside of what I considered acceptable. When I prayed on how to handle this new and frightening situation, I felt that God challenged me to listen closely to what
these people were really saying. I started using the profanity that used to shut me down as a reminder to pay close attention to the meaning of the whole sentence. This practice helped me become a kinder, wiser, and more loving person.

In the end, I have a very positive relationship with profanity. Its presence in my life has been almost entirely good. On the other side of things, the deliberate and uncompromising absence of the seven dirty words has meant anger, meanness, bitterness, and isolation to me. So when someone asks me if I would do what I am doing without the curse words, it’s easy for me to hear them asking me to lose the freedom I have found, to go back to being a person I don’t like, to reject people who might love me given the chance.

Thankfully, I can learn to listen even better. I can listen to what people are actually saying, and I hope that I will learn to listen to the heart behind the words too. I can hear people who want my poetry at their event or in their publication saying that they believe in what I do. I can hear people who want to modify my poems saying that they want more people to experience and appreciate my work. Even if I won’t or can’t agree to amend my work, I don’t have to be a person who reacts against people because of the words they use.


I will stand in the center of your love
In the eye of your storm
Your power
Your movement
Your destruction
Your creation
rushing all around me
blinding every other view

I will stand in your center
in the quiet peace of you
wrapped in the swirling chaos of you
You are my sole perspective
Seeing only your gaze
down the howling valley of your storm

I will stand so I am in you
surrounded by you
covered by you
supported by you
Gazed on by you

I will stand in the eye of your storm
because I am the apple of your eye
I am made to live
In the center of your love

Getting Closer

I was driving at night, over a bridge in the dark, and at the other side of the river, I saw a large white diamond shape. It was dim, but I could tell that it was diamond shaped and that it was lighter than its surroundings. I thought it must be a funky-shaped billboard. But I remembered there is a church with a large diamond-shaped window, and that might be what it is. Or it might be something completely different, and I can’t tell. On this side of the bridge I couldn’t see if it was a piece of cardboard or a grand cathedral or some mystical third option. But I knew there was something there, and I knew it was getting closer.

Where Beauty is…

The cute husband reads a blog called Not the Religious Type, and frequently tells me about what’s going on there. This morning he told me two things about the blog. First, the main author is out of town and asking for guest blogs. Second, there’s a series going on about evangelism (and how people our age really hate that word). He suggested that I post something about my birthday art festival.

My first thought was that if anyone who went to the festival read the blog, they might be offended at the idea that the whole thing was a masked evangelism project. My second thought was, my birthday art festival was in no way a masked evangelism project. It is true that many artists described or spoke about God and his influence in their lives, myself included. It is true that there were some people present who would not call themselves Christian. It is completely untrue that either of these elements were part of the planning or purpose of the event. I spread my invitation net very wide, because I wanted a ton of people to be there, but I devoted no effort to making sure non-church-going people attended. The artists I asked to participate were asked because of their talent, not their religious views. The idea of setting up an art festival in order to evangelize offends me. It’s dishonest, and I suspect that it would result in some very low quality art.

That said, I do believe that art attracts people to God. I think God is in beauty, and so when you’re around a lot of beauty, you’re around a lot of God. The mistake that I see made quite often, is that Christians use art as an excuse to talk about God, rather than letting him speak for himself in what has been created. After thinking on it, I came up with four elements that go into planning the kind of event I love, where God is known through the beauty of creation.

First, appreciate creativity. The most important thing I do to bring artists together is to notice all the artists who are around me. I try to press into their creative expressions to truly appreciate what is there. It is too easy for artsy people to get snobby, to look at art in order to criticize while failing to appreciate. There is a magic that happens inside me when I start looking at art with an eye for what is beautiful and profound about it.

Second, invite and encourage. Because I am an artist, I understand that inviting an artist to do their thing at a public event is mutually beneficial. Knowing this has made bold enough to invite artists who intimidate me. I also invite people who don’t know they’re artists yet. I try to be honest with them about what I appreciate in their creations, I encourage them to come and share their work, and I reassure them that the environment in nurturing and accepting. I make the environment that way with step one. I spread my invitations to artists as widely as possible, trying to tap into the intentional appreciation of creativity in all its forms. Also, if someone offers to do something at a creativity night (or an awesome birthday festival), I always say yes. Practicing that has helped me widen the scope of what I consider art, and has brought some phenomenal new forms into my life.

Third, censor as little as possible. Artists hate censorship for a reason. It cripples our expression, requires us to falsify our experiences, and it puts arbitrary rules above the beauty of creation. I resist censorship if only because the art is better when it is uncensored. There is a built-in safety net there too, because if it is okay to say fuck, it is also okay to include a full gospel message in your poem. No one can argue that it’s offensive or inappropriate if the event is uncensored. The only reason I ever ask artists to censor their work is if there are children present. Even then, I usually offer a specific period that is family friendly, so artists with potentially offensive material can still express themselves freely after that period is over.

Fourth and finally, trust God. I am a Christian, and so I believe that God created everything that is. I believe that when I create, I am revealing part of his image within me. I believe that when something is beautiful, God is in it. So God was in Judah’s mathematical depiction of heaven, God was in Amy’s lovely seasonal metaphor for love, God was in a dark chocolate and berry cake, God was in little kids scribbling with crayons on a blank white wall, God was in Kevin’s sad and hilarious short story, and God was in Jen singing Lady Ga Ga. I trust God to show up in everything that’s good, I trust that God showing up will make it better, and I believe that people who see and experience God in beauty and art will fall in love.

Emotional Leadership

I have always been an emotional person. This has very rarely seemed like a good thing. I cry too much, I get too angry, I laugh too loud in movie theaters. But a few years ago at a Vineyard conference, I heard God whisper in my ear that he made me this way and he likes me this way. The tears and the laughter are real, intentional.

At the time I was leading a prayer ministry with all the solidity and permanence of a sand castle. And not those cool, professionally sculpted sand castles, either. My propensity to cry when moved by something felt like a giant liability. When I officially started coordinating the Sunday morning prayer team, I was warned to “hold it together,” so the congregants could feel confident that upper leadership were strong, stable people. While I don’t agree with that premise, the advice was not unwarranted. I had once totally lost it while teaching a prayer class and was left to snuffle awkwardly through my notes. And too often when praying for an individual, far too much of my energy was focused on not crying. That ministry fizzled until I left it and I have no idea what state it’s in today.

About a year ago I started leading a women’s open share group at Celebrate Recovery. This is a group where women come together and everyone can say anything they want for five minutes. No one is allowed to say anything in response without permission from the woman doing the sharing. It’s magical. While leading that group, I became pregnant after trying for a year, and lost the baby a week later. I couldn’t stop crying. I would calmly, even cheerfully read the rules for open share, listen intently to the other women, and then unashamedly bawl through my five minutes. That felt good, like open share is supposed to feel good. I could be as angry, grief-stricken, and irrational as I truly was and the women would listen and refuse to judge or fix me.

Almost all the women in my open share group decided to get into a 12-step group (where a closed group of people actually work through the 12 steps, as opposed to just sharing). It seemed natural for me to lead that 12-step group. For the first time in my life I heard not one but three people say, “I’m so glad that you’re going to be leading my group.” In the 12-steps, of which we have completed five, I’ve continued to be honest and vulnerable with my group, and the group has continued to prosper. I’ve seen more wonderful, positive, life-changing God stuff happening in that group that I’ve seen in any other ministry I’ve led. I thought only special people got to do that stuff. And I honestly think that a big part of the success and the main reason I’m comfortable leading at this level is that my emotionality and my leadership are no longer at odds. They are helping each other.

As it turns out, people feel more comfortable with an authentic, open, honest leader who is dealing with real stuff in their lives, than with a totally-okay-all-the-time leader. Or at least they are in Celebrate Recovery. What’s more, I think I’m a much better leader this way. This way, I spend no energy trying to put a choke-chain on my emotions. The things I do well – structure, follow-up, organization, prayer, all function better when I know it’s okay to cry. I am more trustworthy, more honest, less judgmental, a better leader when I can say, “I’m really angry right now.” And I am a hell of a lot happier when I can laugh and joke and be ecstatically happy without worrying that I won’t be taken seriously. This may seem obvious to some and sheer folly to others, but this is my hard-won conclusion.

Women’s Creativity Night

Women’s Creativity Night is my pet project and one of my very favorite things in the world.  This all started with a couple of friends coming over to crochet and scrapbook, but it has grown into much more.  Now I invite artists to come and perform or show visual work, and women come to get inspired and wowed.  I’m very broad in my definition of what’s considered creative.  We’ve had poets, authors, actresses, comedians, opera singers, belly dancers, and a darn good knitter.  It is always an amazing time, and this last one was no exception.  If you missed it, I took pictures and videos to help you enter into the experience, and maybe inspire you to attend the next one or hold one of your own.

First we just hang out, chat, and get to know each other if we don’t already.  I put together a beautiful snack table (really it is, I’m not just bragging), make coffee, and just let all these fantastic women sit near each other.  That’s when the magic happens.

After we’re all comfortable (i.e. when I start thinking “there’s never going to be a nice pause to announce that we’re shifting to performances!”), I announce that we’re going to shift gears into showing off some of our work.  Performance artists (like myself), will perform, and visual artists will present their work and talk about their process some.  It’s always a different crowd and there are always a few surprised, but here’s a taste of what we had this time around.

Paintings by Cara Mills Bennett
Jewelry and dark room photography by Angel Wohler
Tee shirt art by Sara Kelly
Sketch art by Sara Kelly
Crocheted trivets by Rena Rasmussen

I particularly love the part where my whole house is decked out in women’s art and everyone’s enjoying this eclectic gathering of beauty and creativity.  And of course, I will add a spoken word piece that I performed at the event.  I would include one by the fantastic Kiesha Lamb as well, but she was a little sick at the event and requested that I not publicize the video.  You’ll just have to take my word for it, it was awesome.