For Pam’s Birthday

milky way

In the midst of the chaos
and darkness in the world,
you are the light of this life of mine,
my True North,
my Guiding Star.

Yours is the hand
that leads me to adventure
and beyond,
yours the embrace
that comforts and sustains.

By some miracle,
we found each other,
two souls in a vast universe,
whose gravity changed
everything.

Your birth,
your life,
your heart and soul
are holy offerings to me,
and on this day,
I can give no greater gift
to celebrate
than all my heart.

© Penelope J. Stokes
December 2, 2017

 

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Requiem for Christianity

weeping angel
Christianity is dead. One version of it, anyway.

The nails are in the coffin. The box is being lowered into the ground. The funeral is under way. But the mourners—where are the mourners? Where are those who weep for this loss of faith?

This Christianity did not die a quiet death from natural causes. It did not succumb to the inevitable demise of old age, or the ravages of attrition, or even some predictable but lamentable disease. No, this version of the faith was murdered. Violently, with premeditation. Killed by its own leaders. Leaders with famous names, television shows, huge churches, and millions of followers . Leaders who ripped the heart out of their religion with bloody bare hands and posted the snuff film on social media.

The slow torture began years ago, with an ill-conceived and illicit union between conservative Christian leaders and a political party. A party whose guiding values lie in direct opposition to those of the Deity whose name is invoked. Waterboarded into submission through intimidation, lies, and misguided patriotism, its followers banded together to elect a national leader who embodies the very worst qualities of human existence:  narcissism, greed, spitefulness, and all-consuming self-interest.

This president—their president—has boasted openly about his domination of the weak and vulnerable. He has admitted to abusing women, using the nastiest, most deplorable, most demeaning language possible. He has cheated business partners out of money he owed them. He has exalted himself and used his positions of influence for self-aggrandizement. He has insulted international leaders and threatened nuclear warfare. He has opened the floodgates of racism, homophobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. He has tacitly condoned acts of violence against women, immigrants, blacks, Latinos, Muslims, gays, lesbians, transgender people. He has turned a blind eye to the abominations of the Ku Klux Klan, the alt-right, and the Neo-Nazi Party. He has shown disdain and contempt for the poor, the weak, the disabled, and the discouraged.

He is vile, vulgar, and violent. Nothing in his character or action suggests so much as a hint of compassion, tenderness, or concern for others. His henchmen systematically engage in murder by lack of health care, thievery by tax code, and the rape and plunder of millions of American dreams. This Egomaniac-in-Chief is the person whose values conservative Christian leaders embrace. And now, in a small state in the Deep South, those same leaders have signed their names to an affirmation for a candidate who, according to all evidence, is a sexual predator, a pedophile who excuses his actions and dismisses the accusations against him as unworthy of attention.

Make no mistake: I am not saying that all the followers of this movement are vile, vulgar, and violent, or that they are deliberately and consciously abandoning the precepts and principles of Jesus. Quite the opposite. I believe that many are well-meaning, good-hearted people who have been blinded by their devotion to a single issue, and by their reliance upon leaders who lie to them. They have been used, abused, and irreparably damaged by those entrusted with their care. Their so-called caregivers have abdicated to the seductions of money, power, sex, and fame. The shepherds have become wolves.

And so the question arises: Where is God in such a travesty? Where is the Jesus who said, “Follow me,” and proceeded to walk among the poor and the sick and the hurting and the outcast, to touch them and heal them and make their lives better? Where is the protection for widows and orphans and strangers among us? Where is the Messiah who taught that the last shall be first and the first last, and that the one who desires to lead must be the servant of all? Where is the One who washed feet and fed multitudes and taught care and compassion for the least of these?

I think I know where that Jesus is: In the dust among the hurting and outcast and disenfranchised. Nailed to a cross of the church’s own making. Out there in the darkness, mourning for a people who have turned their backs on Truth.

There are other brands of Christianity, of course. Christians who do the work of God without fanfare in the world. Christians who feed the hungry and care for the homeless and helpless. Christians who open their arms to embrace people whose looks or language or manner of loving is different. Christians who join hands with Jews and Buddhists and Muslims and Hindus and declare that there is one God, whose name is Love. Christians who know that being true to their faith has nothing to do with borders or nationalities or sexual identities or racial divides.

So don’t tell me that those leaders, the ones who have abdicated their principles for the sake of personal gain or political power, represent a Christianity that reflects anything like the life that Jesus modeled. No one with a shred of conscience would have anything to do with such a religion. No one who has ever read the Bible and taken it seriously could believe that Jesus would affirm the values of these so-called Christian leaders.

No, there’s a new faith on the horizon. A religion of self-service rather than self-sacrifice, of loathing rather than loving, of hatred rather than helping.

And only one Bible verse applies:
“Jesus wept.”

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Why Words Matter, Part 1

typewriter

 

 

Words matter because, for better or worse, language is a mirror of the soul.

 

 

In Autumn of 1941, with the world at war, author Upton Sinclair wrote the following dedication to his novel, Dragon’s Teeth—a book that eventually won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943:

In tragic times like these, an elderly author has nothing to give but words. This collection of words is dedicated to the men and woman in many parts of the world who are giving their lives in the cause of freedom and human decency.

Sinclair’s crystalline sentiment strikes like a gong in my soul, vibrates in the very core of my being.

For most of my life I have felt that I have little to offer to the world except my words, and that offering has usually felt woefully inadequate, insufficient, as if words could never, never be enough.

I have a lot of friends who are social activists. Some are angry, strident people. Some are downright mean-spirited. Some, like peace activist David Lamott, are gentle, sensitive poets. Some, like my wife Pam, add to the Yes in the world with a quiet passion. Some are preachers. Some are organizers. Some work for systemic change, while others prefer the hands-on individual type of help: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the outcasts, and caring for the Least of These.

And what about me?
I write.

In her song, “The Work of Our Hands,” singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer declares,
“I make something barely there; music is little more than air. . .”
It’s an apt description for one who weaves syllables and guitar strings into a life’s work.

Unlike Newcomer, I don’t even have notes. Only letters, twenty-six of them, and a few assorted punctuation marks, to arrange and re-arrange into something substantial and meaningful and, God willing, life changing. At least for one life, even if it is only my own.

So I wonder–always, always I wonder:  Do words matter? Can they make a difference? Can they, in some invisible, inscrutable way, help to create a better, kinder, more welcoming world?

Well, yes and no.

Words do have power. Mightier than the sword, some have said. My own metaphor would come closer to fire—painstakingly kindled or carelessly dropped into dry tinder, a source of warmth and comfort or death and destruction, depending upon who wields the match.

Words matter, for words both reflect and inform the state of the human heart.
Words matter, for language is a mirror of the soul.
Words matter, because words generate light or darkness, blessing or curse.

If you see much of social media these days, you’ll quickly be convinced that there’s more cursing than blessing going on in the world. More negative energy than positive being pumped into the universe. More conflict than connection. More division than diversity.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Words can make a difference. Words can change the world, every bit as much as action.
Thoughtful words.
Compassionate words.
Words of peace and understanding and empathy.
Words of affirmation and acceptance.

Words like “Love.”
Like “Care.”
Like “Come.”

 

Tintagel

 

The sweetest word
upon the tongue
is
“Come.”

Come back to where
you once belonged,
back to those who
knew you,
loved you,
believed the best of you.

Row, if your ship has sailed,
Swim, if all your bridges have been burned,
Fly, if the chasm seems too wide or deep.
But come.

© Penelope J. Stokes

 

Upcoming:

Power, Patriarchy, and the Language of Dominance (Why Words Matter, Part 2)
God-Language and Imaging the Divine (Why Words Matter, Part 3)

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On God, Morality, & Priority

lightning3

I’ve waited a long time to write this post. I’ve waited through fires, floods, and earthquakes. I’ve waited through elections, inaugurations, and appointments. I’ve waited through white-hooded marches and murders and midnight tweets justifying all of the above.

I can wait no longer.

I don’t particularly like to make political observations in this blog. I prefer to play to my strengths—poetry, metaphor, connections, spiritual insights. But the world has turned political, especially the North American world, and I can no longer keep silent. My faith compels me to start turning over tables. What once was political has become a question of national morality. What once was a matter of minority opinion has now become the vocal and violent headline of everyday news. What once was priority has now become, at best,  a historical side note.

I recently heard a man say, “Everybody’s got a right to their opinion.” Perhaps. But every opinion does not have the right to be publicized or normalized. Every opinion does not carry the same moral weight. Every opinion need not be validated. Every opinion should not bear the force of law.

This past week, there’s been a lot of buzz on Facebook and other social media sites about athletes taking a knee instead of standing “respectfully,” hands over hearts, to “honor the flag” during the National Anthem.

I’d like to suggest that the flag does not deserve honor, not in the blind, knee-jerk way that Patriotism with a Capital P would have us believe. The flag is a piece of cloth. What’s important about the flag is what it stands for—in the words of the old Superman series from my childhood, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”

What’s important about the flag is what it symbolizes: Thirteen disparate colonies, banding together as a Union. The United States, born in protest, an experiment in Democracy, where gradually, over the generations, slavery has given way to a dream of equality; women and African-Americans have won the right to vote; gays and lesbians have won the right to marry; and supposedly—supposedly—we have become One Nation out of Many.

How did this happen? Through protest, from beginning to end.

From the Tea Party through Abolition, Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Gay Rights, citizens of the United States of America have exercised their constitutional right to nonviolent protest of war and injustice and tyranny. We sit in. We lie down. We stand in the way. We sing songs. We take a knee. We refuse to move until those in power give us a voice.

This is our heritage as a nation. Not a flag, or a series of set-in-stone expectations of how one will respect and honor that flag. Not a president, or his incessant need for self-affirmation and bluster. Not a governmental majority that seems intent upon harming and destroying the weakest, poorest, and most vulnerable of its citizens. And certainly, certainly, not a country that tells its citizens (or its legislators) to sit down and shut up.

We have problems. Bigger problems than athletes who exercise their right to public protest. We’re on the precipice of a nuclear war because the president insists upon insulting foreign leaders in order to make himself feel powerful. We’ve just gone through some of the worst natural disasters in our nation’s history, one after the other, while governmental officials scoff at the science of climate change. Our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters languish without food or water or adequate shelter, having lost everything. Our neighbors in Mexico have endured devastating earthquakes. And instead of reaching a hand to help, our government spends its time trying desperately to wrench a modicum of health care from those who need it most.

What troubles and dismays me most about the current climate of racism, sexism, homophobia, misogyny, and general vileness in our culture is the way it is excused and rationalized in the name of God. The God I love and serve and worship has no traffic with racist principles, or prejudice against women, or bigotry, or violence, or meanness of any kind. God’s name is Love, and Love knows no limits.

But we’ve done this. We have.

We’ve created this god, this petty little deity exclusive to white nationalists, in our own image. Let’s face it: the God we’ve fashioned—that old white male Patriarch who sits high above it all and dispenses judgment—has little to do with the God of the Bible, or the God who dwells in our spirits. Immanuel, God-with-us is a loving Mother, a nurturing Father, an indwelling Spirit, a creative Source whose sole purpose is to bring us into unity with the Divine and with one another. This Spirit is an essence wholly comprised of light and love, in whom is no darkness at all. By whatever name we call that Spirit—Jehovah, Yahweh, El Shaddai, God, Goddess, Allah, Krishna—the glory and power of that Spirit lies in love, and in love alone.

So let’s stop talking about how awful it is that some athletes take the knee in protest against what’s going on in this country. Let’s admit that their courage shows profound respect for who we’re supposed to be as a nation, and awareness that we’re moving away from that goal rather than toward it. Let’s thank them, instead, for using that moment in the spotlight to focus our attention on what yet needs to be done. On the hatred and darkness that need to be dispelled. On the inequality that needs to be addressed. On the people who are starving and hurting and devastated and need our help. On the folks who are dying for lack of health care. On those who are like us, and those who are not, and on the diversity that once made this country great.

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We need each other. All races, all creeds, all religions, all genders, all sexual orientations. We need each other.

We’re running out of time.

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Villa of Dreams

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On the Pacific Coast of Ecuador, just north of Mantañita and Olón, lies a little fishing village called La Entrada. In Spanish, “The Entrance.”

An unlikely name for an unassuming Ecuadorian village. The entrance to what? 

We found out last week. It’s the portal to a world of dreams.

 

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Villa de los Sueños, the place is called. Villa of Dreams. A four-story retreat on the rocky outskirts of La Entrada, overlooking the ocean. A beautiful bed and breakfast where every room has a terrace overlooking the sea. But it’s much more than that. It’s a haven, a place of peace, where you can see visions in the clouds and hear the music of your soul in the waves endlessly rocking against the shore. 

IMG_4756

 

A place where Choco the lab brings offerings of rocks and tennis balls and escorts you on your walks along the beach. A place where the villa’s hosts, Marsha and Shell, create an ambiance of hospitality that welcomes and heals and morphs into friendship when you’re looking the other way. A magical place, aptly named.

 

IMG_4638Life beats us up sometimes, rushes us, digs a rut we can’t seem to get out of. We fail to recall, in those moments, the dreams we once had, the way we wanted to live, the passion and purpose that make us who we are. We lose sight of the truth that life is about the journey, not the destination.

We forget ourselves. We forget each other. Sometimes we need to pause, and let ourselves remember.

La Entrada. . .
The entrance
to a place of dreams,
where the rhythms of wind and surf
recalibrate the beating
of my heart,
slow my pulse,
remind me that I am part
of everything—
water and sand,
sun and cloud and rock,
laughter, tears, and visions
that stretch to the curved horizon,
and beyond.

 
Here, now
my soul is rekindled.
I remember
love and passion,
hope, tranquility,
and the promise of bright tomorrows.
Here, tonight,
in this Villa of Dreams,
with the crash of waves echoing
in my ears,
I take your hand
and find myself again.

© 2017 Penelope J. Stokes

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http://www.villadelossuenosecuador.com

 

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The End Is Where We Start From

Gates of Heaven

In “Little Gidding” from The Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot writes:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. 

Today marks the end of the year. Some might say it’s the end of an era.  Others might even go so far as to speculate that we’re looking down a long dark tunnel to the end of Life as We Know It.

Perhaps.

But maybe, just maybe, it’s also the opportunity for a new beginning. A do-over. A chance to start again.

The end is where we start from.

God knows we need a fresh start. For many people, the year 2016 has represented one long slide toward the oblivion of anything remotely resembling humanity. It’s been a year marked by mean-spirited ugliness, if not downright hatred.  It’s been a year of divisiveness and dualism, of us and them, of vulgarity and general nastiness, spewed across the Internet without remorse, all in the name of “telling it like it is.” It’s been a year which brought to the surface a simmering brew of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and general outrage that has been only thinly veiled from sight in the past eight years.

This past year has called out the worst in a lot of us. But perhaps it can serve to call out the best as well.

This one thing I know:  The government is not going to save us. Any government. The church is not going to save us. Any church. It’s up to us, individually, to begin to funnel life and light back into the world. It’s up to us to bring loving energy to bear in a world that seems intent upon its own destruction. It’s up to us to live in grace and gratitude, to share what we have, to take responsibility for our own state of mind and heart, and for the welfare of those who have less than we do. It’s up to us to reflect the Divine Image into the world, to carry that holy spark into dark places. It’s up to us to resist the hatred and malice, the entitlement and patriarchy. It’s up to us to model inclusivity and humility, hope and justice. It’s up to us to be the Incarnation we seek.

There is no one else. We are God’s hands and feet. We are God’s heart.

It’s up to us.

 

New Year’s Eve, 2016

Blessed are those who know
that the end and the beginning
are one,
who stand at the Still Point
and wait.

Blessed are those who know
that the seeds of our destiny
ride on our first wailing breath,
and a universe is opened
at our final exhalation.

Blessed are those who suspect
that death
is a myth,
and birth
is no real beginning,
only the seamless
liminal space
where world
touches world
and souls move
across an unseen threshold.

Blessed are those who know
that there is no starting point
and no great finish,
no winners or losers,
no fear or despair,
only one blazing hope;
only the now
of love and longing,
only the space between the stars
where hearts reach out
across a vast, void chaos.

Blessed are those who know,
and who let themselves be known,
for there are many paths,
in truth,
and all of them
lead home.

©2016 Penelope J. Stokes

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Gratitude in Action

img_0396This is Thanksgiving week. Our favorite holiday. On Thursday afternoon, my partner Pam and I will gather with friends who have become family for us–expats, Ecuadorians, people from all over the globe. We’ll share a meal, a bit of wine, and probably a lot of laughter. We’ll marvel over the miraculous “coincidences” that have brought us together from half a world apart. We’ll undoubtedly talk about things we’re thankful for. And the opportunity to live in Ecuador will be high on that list.

Since we moved to South America a little over a year ago, Pam and I have experienced things we never would have known in the States.

We’ve learned, for example, that even though mañana literally means “tomorrow,” what it really means is, “Not today.” We’ve learned to be patient waiting in line. We’ve learned that gringo is not a derogatory word, at least not in Ecuador. We’ve learned that being an immigrant in a foreign land carries with it a lot of challenges.

In our adopted country, however, being part of an ethnic and racial minority is not the frightening, angst-laden experience it can often be in the United States. We feel welcome here. We feel safe. We have found the Ecuadorian people, in general, to be gentle and welcoming, genuinely kind, and muy tranquilo.

Here in Cuenca we walk instead of drive, and so we speak to our neighbors on the street. We greet each other with smiles. We pause on our walks around the barrio to say, “Buenos dias. ¿Cómo está?” We sit in the park and watch the children play. It’s a slower life, mostly, a more peaceful life–at least when we remember to let it be. A life to be thankful for.

Ecuadorians, of course, don’t celebrate American Thanksgiving, but they do have a phrase for it:  Día de Acción de Gracias. The day of gratitude in action.

Active gratefulness. It’s a concept worth considering.

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God of all graciousness,
God of all gifts,
teach me to live
thankfulness in action.

Let me be grateful
not in words only,
for words can be hollow
and hurtful
and false
as well as empowering,
faithful,
and true.

Let me bring to the Thanksgiving table
all that is in me
of love and longing,
passion and purpose,
creativity and consolation.

Let me know the truth,
even when I would turn
a blind eye
to the mirror of self-awareness,
for nothing is now hidden
that will not be revealed,
and despite myself,
I yearn
for authenticity.

God of all graciousness,
God of all gifts,
let me leap into gratitude
like a cliff diver seeking the wind,
hope-filled, trusting,
and unafraid.

©2016 by Penelope J. Stokes

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No Ordinary Time

Light in cloudsYesterday was Pentecost Sunday—the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit. The day when the Spirit’s fire and wind blew through the closed doors where the disciples trembled in fear, and empowered them to get up, get out, and move on. To embrace their own resurrection and be transformed, and in so doing, transform the world around them.

The liturgical color for Pentecost is red—the color of celebration, yes, but also perhaps a signal to stop, to wait, to be still, to breathe in the Spirit. Immediately after Pentecost comes the command to “Go.”

It’s Monday morning. We move into Ordinary Time—the “long green season,” that seemingly endless time of the church year that leads us from Pentecost back to Advent, back to the beginning of the cycle, back to the place of Incarnation. Sometimes it feels as if we’ll never get there.

Whatever our sacred story, whatever faith we hold, it’s a metaphor worth considering, especially in a world where so many of our days seem…well, ordinary. Ordinary Time is where the Spirit continues to move—sometimes silently, invisibly, sometimes with obvious power and purpose. We can’t figure out where the Wind comes from or where it’s going, but somehow, miraculously, in the ordinariness of life, we are (or can be) resurrected, filled, transformed, empowered.

My good friend and former pastor, Joe, is fond of saying, “How do we know God is with us? We know because we will be led to places we never intended to go.”

This is no ordinary time. The Spirit, by whatever name we call Her, is moving among us. Pause for a moment and feel her breath on your face. Listen for her Voice in the wind. Feel her touch like the brush of a feather, like tongues of fire, like new insights opening inside a dream.

She is here, waiting. Waiting for us to notice, and be filled.

 

12743933_567325366776946_747183996046465529_n[1]Pentecost, Yes

Spirit Mother,
who hovered over the abyss
and birthed from the dark waters,
everything that is,
seen and unseen,
move unseen among us now
and raise us to new creation.

Spirit Mother,
who gathered us under her wings
like a hen with chicks,
nurturing, warming,
protecting
and loving,
love us now
with the glory of your presence.

Spirit Mother,
who breathes like a mighty wind
through the closed doors
of our ordinary lives,
break us out of staleness,
fling wide the shutters of our souls
and send us forth
to be and to become.

We are all flawed and fickle,
we are all wounded healers,
we are all half finished,
but by grace,
Spirit Mother,
we are yours.

© 2016 Penelope J. Stokes

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Ecuador Weeps….

Ecuador Weeps

 

16 Abril, 2016
6:58 p.m.

An earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter Scale strikes the northern coast of Ecuador, leaving hundreds dead, thousands more injured, and countless numbers buried under the debris.

 

Cry from the Rubble

Ayúdame…
Ayúdame…

Can anyone hear me?
Can anyone help?

The world has shrunk to
heat and choking dust,
this tiny pocket of blackness,
this concrete coffin.

I cannot feel my legs,
but with one hand
I reach and touch
a waxwork arm,
putrid, unmoving,
stinking of death
and decomposition.

¿Dónde está mi familia?
Where are my wife,
my daughter,
my baby son?
Has the terremoto
taken them,
or are they searching,
frantic?

I try to speak,
but no words come.
I close my eyes to pray.
It makes no difference.
Dark is dark.
Above, I hear the distant sound
of voices.

Ayúdame…

© 2016 Penelope J. Stokes

 

The beautiful people of Ecuador are suffering. Over 400 dead and thousands injured or still missing. Roads to the coast are destroyed, making it difficult for aid to get to some of the villages. Many of those who survived the earthquake are now dying in the streets for lack of water, food, or medical attention.

If you can help, please consider giving a donation through the Hearts of Gold Foundation: http://heartsofgoldfoundation.org/ Hearts of Gold is a very reputable, very solid 501c3 nonprofit here in our adopted home of Cuenca, Ecuador. Click on the “Earthquake Relief” button at the top, or type “Earthquake Relief” in the search box. You can donate by credit card or bank draft.

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The Holy In-Between

003I’ve long been fascinated with the concept of liminal time—those thresholds in life, the portals that usher us from one stage of growth and awareness into another. My word for the year, in fact, is Thresholds: metaphors of birth and rebirth, sleep and waking, change, transition, transformation.

 

In my experience, Ash Wednesday is such a time, a potent moment of transition that leads us into the darkness of Lent.

A lot of people don’t like Lent, I know. It’s seen as a bleak forty days in the wilderness, a long mea culpa, complete with hair shirt and fasting, beating the breast, and bemoaning our sinful state. But I don’t see it that way at all.

I see Lent as an opportunity to learn from the darkness. To pause and listen to the sounds of the desert at night, to see new stars and hear the night birds calling. Not to give something up, but to take something in—new truths, new practices, new insights.

Most of us don’t care much for the in-between time. We’d rather be here or there, then or now, not hovering somewhere in limbo. We prefer light to darkness, answers to questions, open doors to mysterious veils that sway on the breath of the Unknown.

And yet, if we think about it, the span of our lives is carried out in liminal spaces. We are always on the verge of something, transitioning between Who We Are and Who We’re Called to Be. We are ever in the cycle between darkness and light, and no matter how fervently we shut our eyes and pray for the dawn to come, night must run its full course.

So perhaps a better approach to Lent would be to step fearlessly into the darkness, to breathe the night air and feel out the path, one step at a time. To take with us, into whatever dawn may come, the blessing and trust that can only be garnered in the dark. To walk by faith, and not by sight.

In the space between Here
and Out There
lies the infinite, dizzying
fear of the Fall,

the dark Abyss
of Unknowing
that threatens my need
for Control.

In the time between Now
and Then
lies the looming, unanswerable
question of Tomorrow,

the myth of Certainty,
the sweet deceptive fairy tale
that promises berries without thorns
and a future without heartbreak.

Always, always, the liminal time,
teetering on thresholds,
pausing at portals,
testing every sill and doorstep,
holding my breath at dawn,
exhaling at dusk.

Teach me, Great Spirit of the Holy In-Between,
to trust the darkness,
to trust your keeping,
to pry open my fingers,
cup my palms,
and receive
the blessing of the night.

©Penelope J. Stokes

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