Kristen Paquette: To Be the Hands and the Feet of Jesus

As I prepare for Guatemala, I have been reflecting on my past experiences that have led me to be the Hands and Feet of Jesus. It is hard to believe that the trip is fast approaching. In the midst of excitement, I often feel anxious and I find myself in a panic. During the moments that panic sets in, God reminds me that He has equipped me with knowledge and the skills to go on this trip. These are the seeds that have been planted in my heart.

Recently, during a moment of panic, I realized that I have a heart of compassion and a heart that breaks for Guatemalans. Ever since I took a sociology course while I was attending college. Remember, this was 9 plus years ago and I still vividly remember watching a video in Developmental Sociology. The video captured children that were living on the street and as a method of survival they resorted to “huffing” any type of aerosol products they could get their hands on. After all these years, that image has always vividly remained in my memory. Then as time went on, my friends Scott and Amelia Moore adopted two handsome sons from Guatemala and started the nonprofit organization Athentikos. As I followed their posts about the I Am Art trips, something resonated within me.

I would of never thought my first overseas mission trip would include me teaching an art workshop to adolescent girls. I always imagined my first overseas mission trip would be to Sierra Leone, Africa with a medical team and during the trip I would be administering vaccines, conducting HIV testing, and working in the maternity clinic. Naturally this makes since. Right? I do have experience as a public health nurse and this is within my comfort level. Then God kindly reminds me that my preconceived ideas of my first overseas mission trip was my plan and not His. God really does has a sense of humor.

I also get reminded of the importance of art in my own life and how it has helped aid healing during the most difficult times. In the midst of anxiety and panic, God gently reminds me that art is a big part of my own life. From childhood until I graduated from College in 2006, I was a dancer and taught dance classes. Then as I started my career as a Registered Nurse I stopped dancing as a profession. However, I am all about impromptu dance parties (just saying). In 2008 my husband and I attended professional ballroom dance classes to prepare for our first dance at our wedding reception that we hoped would “wow” our guests. As a child I grew up in an art filled home. My mom taught me at an early age how to cross stitch. She was a “crafter” and often had a booth at craft shows. I remember watching her “craft” which stirred up my own interest. I would often get in trouble for raiding her craft room and leaving it a mess as I attempted to create my own masterpieces. As I grew older I learned to knit, scrapbook, make jewelry and sew. To be honest I find myself working with all kinds of art mediums. For me, the sky is the limit. I have realized that I resort to my art hobbies during times of joy such as making a baby blanket for a co-worker to celebrate a birth. During times of sadness I make items that remind me of a loved one that has passed away. Art is apart of who I am and God has reminded me that, “No Kristen, not every Guatemalan is an artisan and yes, you have the skills you need to teach them a art workshop.”

During my moments of fear and panic, God reminds me that I have a heart that breaks for adolescent girls and I especially love mentoring to middle schoolers. For the past year, I have helped out with youth ministry at my church. These middle schoolers have won over my heart. I have a small group of middle school girls I meet with every Sunday morning. I have learned a lot from them and they bless my heart each and every week. So of course this is another way God has gently reminded me. “Duh, Kristen. Yes, it makes perfect sense for you to go on a mission trip to Guatemala to work with adolescent girls.”

I am filled with so many emotions in regards to my upcoming trip. During my moments of panic and feeling of inadequacy, I am reminded of the moments that have already given me the skills and knowledge needed to go on this trip to Guatemala. I am so excited and I cannot wait to see what God has in store for the girls at Oasis Home and the I Am Art Mission Team. Please keep all of us in your thoughts and prayers as we prepare for this amazing journey where we get to be the Hands and Feet of Jesus.

Kristi Bredeweg – Preparing for Casa Bernabe

I am about a week away from traveling to Guatemala with Athentikos for I AM ART Fall 2015. How did I get here? It’s already been a wild journey …

I was, sitting in my home church of Heritage CRC in Byron Center, Michigan. By the way, I am a charter member, which makes me: 1) boring, 2) blindly loyal, and/or 3) totally in love with my congregation and not wanting to leave. Pastor Joel VanDyke spoke to us in early May and mentioned this thing called “I Am Art” in Guatemala. I have been the “artist” at my church for over 23 years so that caught my attention. Perhaps there would be a place for a middle aged neurotic, artistic woman to go on this trip and use whatever God has gifted her with in reaching peoples of an entirely different culture. Painting? Tile murals? Set design for drama? Character roles in a play? Music? I’m comfortable in all areas. Many people came up to me after the service telling me I “need” to go. I told these people “I’ll think about it”, but I was busy. Right? We’re ALL busy. Is this my fearful excuse or is it legit?

More time went by in my ‘forgetful fear’ stage, and after 2 weeks, a good friend phones me and says she had been prompted to call me and urge me to go on this journey to Guatemala and use my gifts. Once again, fear takes over and this time it’s accompanied by an over-whelming sense of inadequacy. This is entirely foreign to me as I am about the least insecure, fearful, non-self confident person you’ll ever meet. I tell her I’d think about it and once again, I don’t take action. However, the opportunity lurks around in the back of my mind and I can’t shake it.

This has been, in the past, God’s way of getting my attention. I’ve learned to not let a lot of time pass when He does this, so I focus. As another few weeks go by, things start happening in my life that turn my attention to this trip, such as: my granddaughter asking me to learn Spanish, several art projects I am doing that involve international thinking, and imagining myself in scenarios that make me laugh out loud. Scenarios of being covered in paint with 20 kids who can’t understand what I’m saying! THAT’S funny! I guess when God allows Nebuchadnezzar to share his wall-writing experience with you, pay attention.

I sign up. I’m accepted. I pay my entrance fee. Yet, I am petrified.

Typically, I’m a daredevil and will try anything once or twice if it’s exciting! Why am I so afraid? I’ve always been the first-in-line kinda gal and I find myself even crying at times when I think about committing to this trip. I speak not one word of Spanish. The farthest “out-of-the-country” I’ve ever traveled is Canada and the Caribbean. I have a husband, 8 kids, seven grandkids, an overweight cat and a dog on Prozac for pity’s sake! They all need me here, right?

Suddenly I’m not so sure and I begin to entertain the idea of bridging a gap between my outlandish way of creating art and a dozen kids who can’t understand me! I again laugh out loud and begin to get a bit excited. Maybe part of the process can be in our resolution of a language barrier and how we’re all “one” with God understanding our hearts using the language of ‘art’.

At this point I download Duolingo at my team leaders request. It takes me four days to master “Mujer.” I begin to pray about mastering fear by giving it ALL to God; seriously giving it all. I think Christians do a great job of lip service when they say “I’ve given it all to God!” Not all. Perhaps most. For me at this juncture, it meant I’d enlist the support of some good friends in prayer, verbal encouragement, and take a good look at my finances.

Peculiar things started happening. I began talking to the Spanish family who just joined our church. Sketchy on my side, and they are gracious. I acquired several more clients and my bank account has a surplus. My friend tells me my passport picture is the “best she’s ever seen!” Okay. Okay. I’m also gently reminded of events in my life when I was forced to fall on my knees and simply let time play out. God’s timing. I have to just let go. Seriously, just like that. I did NOT pick up the fearful/inadequate thoughts again. I focused on not fretting! Overnight? No, but gradually EVERYTHING seemed to now be coated with a warm feeling of ease. I am no longer apprehensive when I talk about going on this trip. In fact, I’m so calm, I write a letter explaining my purpose and the Athentikos mission and am prepared to send it in early October to over 200 friends asking them to pray for me and my team. I’m geeked! Guess the “total surrender thing” works.

Probably the coolest thing that put me at ease was the formulation of my art project. At this point, I didn’t even know if my team leaders needed or wanted me to submit an idea. But if they did, the one that kept bouncing off my brain was one that had sprung from the death of my oldest child and the valley I had to walk through. I had shared it in several banners and projects for various areas of mine and other churches. Even a speaking engagement to a couple hundred people. I think I have something to share. God guide my mind….

I began to mess around in my studio with various forms of “fun-art-stuff” that I have done with kids for years. The things that make me smile are the ones I will move forward with as well as the pieces that came out of my personal tragedy.

As I share my early fears with my husband, he prays for me and we laugh at how things are answered in a timely manner. We laugh a lot! The months pass with very little contact from my team. I’m fretting again. Rats. Here I am, heading to a foreign country, eager and somewhat focused, and I have not had one iota of contact with one single soul going on this trip. It’s been weeks. Oh boy. Here comes my new neighbor Fear, closely followed by his brother Apprehension and cousin Inadequacy. I again concentrate on turning to timely-trust, as my husband and I have begun to call it.

Within days, my team leader David schedules an individual meeting with me on Google Hangout. As I’m not very computer literate, my old buddies knock on the door. However, David is so totally welcoming and accepting of my computer shortcomings that once again, the gang-of-fearful-three run and hide. David also promptly sends me a link and I log-on and we chat. He is going to be my friend! I already love him and his gifts. He lets me ask a zillion questions and I’m sure some of them were redundant and rather silly. He doesn’t laugh and repeats his answers as frequently as I repeat my questions. I find out I’m necessary and am encouraged to formulate a lesson art plan for the kids. In his chatting, he mentions areas where I know I’ll be able to help others on my team. Drama, music, sports and games. All things that encourage me and he didn’t even know he was doing that. God is a complete kinda guy and had this conversation all covered before it even took place. Nice!

My prayers have been primarily with my husband as I prepare for this journey. As we do a devotional time over coffee each morning, I Am Art has become our focus. I know my prayer warrior friends are also praying for me and all of us. I find myself repeating these very simple yet powerful words:

“My Father who knows me completely: help me to know You and discern Your will. My thoughts are racing and my plans are many. Set me on your lap and and open my ears to hear your gentle voice guiding me on the perfect path You’ve already chosen. Your will be done throughout the entire earth. Help me as I branch out in trust and faith. Thank you, my faithful God.”

And by the way, Soy una mujer!!!

Paul Lowder: An Honest Introduction

I’m spending the winter here in the ash
house on the edge of the crinkly sea.
Darling I don’t usually say darling but I
want you to have everything behind my
eyes. In the darkness your dark flashlight
points out the room’s troubles. I’ll never
have the really important ideas: I see
only by the light of my skin.

Post Moxie by Julia Story

My name is Paul Lowder, and I have been involved with Athentikos and the I Am Art initiative since the summer of 2014. I jumped aboard for several reasons:

  1. I was going nowhere in Los Angeles,
  2. I needed a positive, creative outlet, and
  3. I wanted to see the world.

To be plainly honest, my desires to travel to Guatemala and to help run an art camp for at-risk youth grew from a selfish desire. This isn’t to say that volunteering and service are not close to my heart. They are. And they were, in many regards, responsible for getting me involved with Athentikos. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I wanted to go because I wanted to go.

Athentikos’ mission, broadly put, is authenticity. I would like to be authentic with you about who I am, what I believe, and how I am going to be involved.

Who?

You know my name. I am 26 years old. I am a father and a husband. I studied Religion and the Arts (Writing) at Belmont University from 2008 to 2013. Yes, it took me 5 years to finish. I wish it had taken me longer. I’m not sure I’ve figured out how to operate in the real world yet. But if I’ve figured anything out, it’s that no one else has any real clue as to what is going on out here. I cannot decide if that is comforting or discouraging–depends on the day.

What?

Athentikos is a non-profit organization that operates from a Christian worldview. My worldview is less grounded, and I hesitate to identify with any sort of religious title. I know how picky some people can be about other people’s identification, so I want to speak plainly and honestly about all of this.

I grew up in a Christian household and in the Church. I lived that life honestly and fully because it was the life set in front of me. I prayed the prayer. I prayed it again. I went to Christian athletic camps. I was baptized. I met with a small group every other Sunday from 7th grade until I graduated high school. I played in the youth group band. You get the idea. It wasn’t until I attended my Christian university that I began my departure (some would say descent) from the faith I was born into.

Now, I don’t want to make myself seem virtuous, enlightened, or anything like that. I don’t want to preach that this path is necessary for everyone or that I found a more real truth. I can only say that it was what I needed to do. The first step to self-discovery (in my case anyway) was complete abandonment.

“…if someone rejects religion in the name of the moral function of the human spirit, […] in the name of the cognitive function of the human spirit, […] in the name of the aesthetic function of the human spirit, he rejects religion in the name of religion. You cannot reject religion with ultimate seriousness, because ultimate seriousness, or the state of being ultimately concerned, is itself religion.”

Theology of CulturePaul Tillich

Isn’t it our parents’ wish for us to go out into the world and make our faith our own? Are we not taught to follow our heart? I believe we are. In doing this I stopped identify as a Christian. To this day, I remain with this un-identification. Yet I still find myself ultimately concerned with trying to live a compassionate life.

Some might be wondering; If you’re not a Christian, then what are you? A Buddhist? How do you coexist and help Athentikos in their mission that is largely Christian? How can we trust you?

No. I am not a Buddhist. Neither am I an Atheist. Or an Agnostic. Unfortunately, the answer to those questions are not going to be satisfying. They won’t resolve cleanly and nicely like a Hollywood movie or a best-selling novel. I believe life is far more complex and that language–despite being incredibly complex–is wholly inadequate for matters such as this. But in order to answer the question, I will say this:

My views on God are apophatic, which is just a fancy, theological/philosophical term meaning that I believe God is ineffable, which is just another fancy word for unspeakable and unsayable. In other words, Jehovah’s Witnesses rub me the wrong way. Ludwig Wittgenstein said it beautifully at the conclusion of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Some people tend to be troubled by this. Not all people, but some. Human beings like for things to be identified, for things to be delineated and organized. I am not exempt from this. I’m peculiar like the rest of us. My room is messy, but my food must be orderly on my plate. My clothes are often dirty and disheveled, but I am sure to keep my napkins folded symmetrically before, during, and after I use them. But the human condition, as I see it, is far more complex than simply checking a box that says “Christian” or “Muslim” or “Buddhist” or “Atheist.” I find great contentment and fulfillment in leaving that box unchecked.

“…Truth needs no label: it is neither Buddhist, Christian, Hindu nor Moslem. It is not the monopoly of anybody. Sectarian labels are a hinderance to the independent understanding of Truth, and they produce harmful prejudices in men’s minds.”

What the Buddha Taught

I enjoy quoting other people. I’m sure this is obvious by now, and like the Athentikos team, I love stories of all shapes and sizes. Walker Percy has a novel called The Moviegoer where the main character Binx Bolling is often pondering about God and questions about the universe. During an imaginary conversation, Binx is asked if he believes in God:

“I hesitate to answer, since all other Americans have settled the matter for themselves and to give such an answer would amount to setting myself a goal which everyone else has reached–and therefore raising a question in which no one has the slightest interest. Who wants to be dead last among one hundred and eighty million Americans? For, as everyone knows, the polls report that 98% of Americans believe in God and the remaining 2% are atheists and agnostics–which leaves not a single percentage point for a seeker.”

Throughout the novel, Binx is constantly challenged to define himself in relation to friends, family, sweet-hearts, and colleagues despite his urge to remain vague and open to possibility.

“What is the nature of the search? you ask. Really it is very simple; at least for a fellow like me. So simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”

What I desire more than anything else, is to live a fulfilled, compassionate life. This, I believe, is incredibly Christian. It’s also incredibly Buddhist and, believe it or not, Atheistic. It is through this compassion and a sense of what Tillich calls ultimate concern that I am able to coexist within Athentikos and their mission.

Despite everything I’ve said about religion and Christianity, I do not hate it nor do I think that those who believe it are fools with their heads in the sand. Sure, there are Christians who have forgotten compassion just as there are Buddhists who have forgotten. There are bad Atheists and good ones. And amongst all of them, there are some people who transcend social identities and come down to earth. That’s a funny picture, isn’t it? Transcend to come down. Transcend the self in order to truly come down to earth and be a compassionate servant to others. I would describe Scott and Amelia Moore in this way, and I long to help Athentikos grow and spread.

Now What?

This summer I am reading a few books about the old desert fathers and mothers. Specifically, I am going through Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers in preparation for the upcoming I Am Art camp in Guatemala. The book is incredibly short, but packed with wisdom (as it is with many of Nouwen’s works). It is split into three main parts: Solitude, Silence, and Prayer. These three attributes of the spiritual life intrigue me. They are difficult to obtain in this modern world, but I believe it’s possible and worth working toward. I am also reading Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality by Alan Jones and Theology of Culture by Paul Tillich.

Aside from simply reading these texts, I plan on putting together a few written responses in the context of the Athentikos trips this fall.

Finally, if anything I’ve said has sparked some interest or at the very least a feeling, feel free to contact me directly at this address – plowder@athentikos.com

“Though it may alienate your family,
And blur the lines of your identity,
Let go of what you know,
And honor what exists.
Son, that’s what bearing witness is.
Daughter, that’s what bearing witness is.”

Bearing Witness by David Bazan

Gratitude – Tina Beede

I heard it would happen. That feeling of uncomfortable gratitude that comes from fundraising for a cause that means something to you. It’s been a jam-packed month of finishing summer, planning for my new year of preschool, getting my own kids ready for their new year (middle school and 3rd grade – how did that happen?), and then starting the fast-paced routine of getting acquainted and feeling the excitement of the new school year ahead.

In the middle of all that, I reached my fundraising goal for my trip in November. I actually exceeded it! When I logged in and saw that my goal had been met, I immediately had butterflies of joy, relief, and this overwhelming humility. Close to forty people helped me get there. Forty of you generously gave money, and a sea of others have asked me about the trip, prayed for me, encouraged me, and shared their own stories of mission work that shifted the focus of their life.

The Athentikos team has been so encouraging and have been giving us a lot to consider and think about in preparation for our trip. We’ve had a few Google Hangout meetings to introduce us to each other, help us ask questions, and hear more about what to expect at the Oasis Home. I am still unsure about the logistics of my kids’ schedule meshing with David’s. I’m also still unsure what exactly I’ll be teaching these sweet girls once I get to Guatemala, but I have no doubt it will work out. The closer November gets, the more I’m feeling this underlying feeling of something big happening. I can’t put my finger on it, but it feels like the start of something different and exciting.

I’m a big fan of opening myself up to relationships and have learned (more than once) that when things get hard or uncomfortable or unpredictable, the people engaged in your life want to help. They want to be part of your story to help ease the burden and influence you in a positive way. I’ve learned to ask for what I need. It’s not easy for me, but I do ask when I know I must. Along with asking, I’ve learned that “no” is a fine answer to receive so it doesn’t offend or keep me from asking someone else, or at another time. And I’ve learned to cut people some slack. We aren’t created to do it all for everyone all the time. And because I have a hard time not being able to do it all for everyone all the time, I’ve learned to trust that people are cutting me some slack too. I’ll be reminding myself of this before I set off in November–the day after Thanksgiving–for a week and a half, right before Christmas.

Enjoy some pictures of an art-day fundraiser my sis-in-law hosted. Isn’t amazing what a few canvases, lots of fun paint, creative kids, and generous families can produce? It was a really fun day filled with faces I love and in just four hours, the kids and their parents donated $300!

Building a Desert in a City

In grade school an English teacher taught me that a desert has only one ‘s’ and dessert has two because people want more than one dessert but no one wants the desert. My school teacher didn’t mean anything significant by this. It was only a joke to teach us grammar, but it’s interesting to note society’s natural aversion to the desert, a place that is historically rich with spiritual transformation. With Henri Nouwen as my guide, I begin my journey in the way of the heart of the desert fathers and mothers with solitude.

Like many people, I can imagine a desert. I’ve been in the vastness. It’s a place so empty that one can begin to feel and touch the nothingness. It’s no wonder the ancient mothers and fathers of Christianity (and many others of all sorts of religious backgrounds) sought refuge in the solitude of the desert. But that was long ago and not all people are called to the monastic life. How can I find the desert again: in Nashville, in Los Angeles, in Guatemala City?

First, like many great teachers, Nouwen must unpack this word solitude and explain the common misconceptions created by the modern world. To grasp what something is, it’s best to start with what it is not. Solitude is not:

  • A right to privacy
  • A place of therapy
  • A confirmation of self

Solitude is struggle. In solitude Nouwen talks about “getting rid of his scaffolding” and reducing his self (or ego) to nothing. “It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something.” My life is busy and filled with responsibilities. I try to entertain myself. When I enter into solitude, it must resemble letting go. This is the struggle. Since infancy, we are taught to control. We are taught to hold on. Solitude is an unnatural setting for a human being, but I might argue that it only appears to be unnatural due to our estrangement from ourselves. Solitude, from this point of view, might be the most natural thing that a human being can do. Yet, despite knowing this, I will always try “…to run from the dark abyss of my nothingness and restore my false self in all its vainglory.”

This is not easy and it takes deliberate practice. The culture in which one is born greatly affects one’s identity of self. Living in a capitalist society that over values materialism and consumerism, one gains a sense of self that reflects those ideals. And those ideals are fruitless and fleeting. “Whether I am a pianist, a businessman or a minister, what matters is how I am perceived by my world. If being busy is a good thing, then I must be busy. If having money is a sign of real freedom, then I must claim my money. If knowing many people proves my importance, I will have to make the necessary contacts. The compulsion manifests itself in the lurking fear of failing and the steady urge to prevent this by gathering more of the same–more work, more money, more friends.” This inevitably leads to what Nouwen describes as the two main enemies of the spiritual life: anger and greed.

So how do I persevere? How can I overcome anger and greed? Nouwen would simply say, begin with solitude. In embracing solitude, my nothingness, I can truly express compassion. Putting all doctrines and beliefs aside, there is one thing that everyone at Athentikos wants to bring to the youth of Guatemala: compassion. Our greatest service this fall will be shown through genuine compassion and love. And while those are wonderful words that most everyone can get behind and support, it’s much more difficult to enact.

“…In order to be of service to others we have to die to them. […] To die to our neighbors means to stop judging them, to stop evaluating them, and thus to become free to be compassionate. Compassion can never coexist with judgement because judgement creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other.” Solitude, as Nouwen has described it, is this act of dying. It is a practical and concrete practice that can be easily incorporated into a daily routine. “In solitude we realize that nothing human is alien to us, that the roots of all conflict, war, injustice, cruelty, hatred, jealousy, and envy are deeply anchored in our own heart.”

In an attempt to breakdown all of this theological and philosophical jargon, I want to simplify these concepts into two words: let go. I have to tell myself this everyday and often more than once. It becomes what the desert monks might call a mantra or a prayer. Not everyone has access to a desert but true solitude is not restricted by place. Letting go can (and should) happen anywhere, but it needs to happen deliberately. Here are some good first steps:

  • Establish a mantra; find a few words that resonate your nothingness. This can be anything (let go, a short Bible verse, a repetitive prayer, or your own name).
  • Repeat this mantra several times a day. When you wake up, tell yourself to let go. When you eat lunch, tell yourself. When your boss yells at you, tell yourself. Over time, you won’t have to tell yourself as much. You will instead begin to let go. The words will sink into your heart and will speak through your entire body and life, not only through your mouth or mind.
  • Find some quiet space each day. As I said earlier, solitude is not limited to a place, but taking the time to physically separate yourself from your daily routine can be incredibly powerful and helpful in your spiritual growth.

Before I go, I have one word of warning and it comes from personal experience. I have let go many times, but mostly in the wrong way. I turned my solitude into escapism, clouding myself in entitlement and the illusion of compassion and virtue. This, at least for me, is too easy to do. Our greatest and most deeply seeded vices appear to us as virtues. To think our demons conquered is to submit to their will. Solitude should lead me to my lack of virtue, to my nothingness, my humanity.

We owe it to ourselves and to everyone else to build a desert in a city.

The Sound of the Rain Needs No Translation

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Between November 10th and November 15th, I taught a creative writing and painting workshop at Athentikos’ I Am Art camp in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Several artists from the United States banded together, left the comfort of their homes and family, and journeyed into the heart of Zone 18, an area of Guatemala City riddled with violence, poverty, and oppression.

In my creative writing workshop, we explored the relationship between writing and prayer. There is an obvious connection in which both are expressive, a relationship between a speaker/writer and a listener/reader. Prayer can often be thought of as a letter. Above all else, writing, like prayer, is a form of communication. And to truly communicate, one must not only speak or write, one must also listen.

This side of prayer and writing is often overlooked, because when we think about prayer and writing we think about words, content, message. Even when we listen, we imagine or think in words. The words will often get in the way of listening. I don’t know how many times I’ve forgotten something my wife told me get at the store.

“You don’t listen to me,” she says.

“I just forgot. I heard you. I’m sorry.”

Hearing and listening are two separate entities. When we write, we may hear the world around us but never truly listen to it. This, I believe, is what separates great writers from good writers. Listening goes beyond the ears and into the heart. Listening transcends words and language. The sound of rain needs no translation.

Contemporary poetry aims to listen. It accepts the flaws of humankind and of language, and learns to dance and sing amidst it all. It is the music underneath and beyond. I was hesitant about doing a creative writing workshop for the Guatemalan youth due to their age and the language barrier, but I was pleasantly surprised by their enthusiasm and interest; everything fell into place.

On the first day, I was dealing with a fever. I took my class out into the forest behind the main complex and asked them to sit in silence and to listen for something that they would normally overlook or disregard as unimportant. My illness played a significant role in this decision, but it was the perfect way to begin. Writing arises first from true silence, from sitting within the world. Goethe says that “poetry is a secular gospel.” Religious groups, especially Christians, shy away from this word: secular.  But the secular and the sacred go hand-in-hand. They cannot be separated.

“[Religion] makes itself the ultimate and despises the secular realm. It makes its myths and doctrines, its rites and laws into ultimates and persecutes those who do not subject themselves to it. … This is the reason for a passionate reaction of the secular world against religion, a reaction which has tragic consequences for the secular realm itself. For the religious and the secular realm are in the same predicament. Neither of them should be in separation from the other, and both should realize that their very existence as separated is an emergency, that both of them are rooted in the experience of ultimate concern.”

Theology of Culture, Paul Tillich

This idea of opposites-in-harmony has been on my mind over the past few months. I’ve been criticized by family and friends for taking an apophatic stance on God and religion, because people tend to prefer answers and clarity, shying away from the abstract and the obscure. But clarity and obscurity need each other, just as the light needs the darkness. Where else could it shine into?

I do not want to say that we brought light into the darkness of Zone 18. The light was already there. Children are the sparks that will shine through any darkness. What was our purpose being there? If nothing else, to bring kindling, to fan the flames, to ignite another spark.

“Put ragged clothes upon your back and sleep upon the ground,
And tell police about your rights as they drag you down,
And ask them as they lead you to some deserted door,
Yes, I know you’re set for fightin’, but what are you fightin’ for?

But the hardest thing I’ll ask you, if you will only try
Is take your children by their hands and look into their eyes
And there you’ll see the answer you should have seen before
If you’ll win the wars at home, there’ll be no fighting anymore.”

What Are You Fighting For? by Phil Ochs

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