Monthly Archives: July 2016

Do your work. Then let go.

SunflowerWell, it was a rather cynical morning at Trinity Episcopal Church in Bend, Oregon, at least as far as the readings are concerned.

The writer of Ecclesiastes concludes, when pondering “all the deeds that are done under the sun,” that “all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” He describes the futility of working with “wisdom and knowledge and skill” only to have everything he’s created “be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it.” As a result, he says, “I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun.”

The psalmist strikes a similar note: “For we see that the wise die also; like the dull and stupid they perish and leave their wealth to those who come after them.”

And in Luke, we have Jesus telling the story of the rich man whose land “produced abundantly,” so he had the problem of storing all that abundance. The rich man’s solution was to build bigger barns. He’d have sustenance to last the rest of his life, giving him the freedom to “relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” Problem solved.  And then God comes with these words: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

What to make of these musings on human futility?

I think this morning’s readings from Ecclesiastes, Psalm 49, and Luke’s gospel are asking us to examine just how attached we are to having things beyond our control turn out a certain way.

All three readings are telling us that our job as God’s children is to create what is ours to create, and then to set our creations free.

The readings are calling us to a human version of photosynthesis.

Like plants, our call is simply and purely to offer the gifts we have – our qualities and skills combined with our environment – to make what is uniquely ours to make. And then let go.

Trying to control what happens to the products of our labors is as silly as an oak tree saying “Oh, Hell no,” and then refusing to let go of its leaves and acorns.

Being attached to outcomes is as ludicrous as a sunflower saying “I won’t make sugar and oxygen from sunlight and air and water and soil unless I can get a guarantee that they will only be eaten by some deserving animal.”

Our job is to do our best with what we’ve been given. And then let go.

Our job is to humbly and diligently co-create with God. And then let go.

Our job is to be who we are and do what we can in this incredible world. And then let go.

Any other course of action is, indeed “vanity and a chasing after wind.”

Lectio Divina and Lectio Terrestris

Lectio Divina on the trail

Downed Tree on the Horse Lake Trail

What is Lectio Divina?

Lectio divina, literally “divine reading,” is a traditional method of contemplative prayer which commonly uses a sacred text as a starting point. Lectio divina springs from Jewish haggadah, a process of heart-centered interaction with scripture.  The 4th and 5th century Desert Mothers and Fathers seem to be the earliest practitioners of Christian lectio. The method was further refined by later monastic writers, primarily Benedict of Nursia in the 6th century and the 12th century Carthusian monk Guido II. In modern times, Lectio divina has made its way out of the cloister into the more public prayer lives of lay men and women.

Lectio divina is a simple method, composed of four “movements”: reading (lectio), reflection (meditatio), listening (oratio), and contemplation (contemplatio). Lectio is a process of moving from the surface meaning of the words, slowly going deeper and deeper into one’s own heart and the heart of God, which are one and the same, it seems.

Entire books have been written on lectio. (see, for example, Christine Valters Paintner’s Lectio Divina.) I’ve been using lectio by myself and with groups for some time now – not always with scripture. In fact, hardly ever with scripture. We use stories, poetry, memories, and natural objects such as sprigs of sage and pieces of our local volcanic rock. Birds are especially good lectio fodder, for me.

Lectio Terrestris

It’s this use of the natural world as a sacred text that I’m finding most profound these days. Belden Lane in his Backpacking with the Saints calls this sacred reading of the landscape “lectio terrestris.” The process is the same: simply noticing what’s around me (lectio), reflecting on what I notice and narrowing my focus (meditatio), listening to what the object of my reflection may be saying to me (oratio), and finally sitting with what I heard (contemplatio), which never fails to surprise.

A Personal Example of Lectio Terrestris

Here’s an example of my latest lectio terrestris experience. My husband and I were hiking into the Cascades last week, to one of our favorite high mountain lakes. We’d been anticipating the trip for months, looking forward to when the snow had melted enough for us to go back. However, before we were more than a mile up the trail, two things became apparent. The mosquitos were hellacious. And the winter’s heavy snow had brought down lots of trees. We were climbing over and crawling under logs every hundred yards, it seemed, for five miles, all the while swatting mosquitos and cursing. When we finally got to our lake, mercifully breezy and exposed enough that the mosquitos abated, I stuck my feet in the water, pulled out my journal, and proceeded to lectio. This is sort of what happened, in four movements.

  1. Lectio: What I notice is lots of downed logs, many mosquitoes, high wispy clouds in a blue blue sky, warm sun on this rock, and my feet in the cool water.
  2. Meditatio: I’m going to focus on the logs, because that feels right. I feel a tug there.
  3. Oratio: I hear the downed trees saying that dead things fall on the path and create obstacles. They’ll slow me down and divert me. They don’t need to stop me. Being stopped by something that used to be alive but is now dead and in my way isn’t necessarily a given. I can choose if I’m going to be stopped. I can figure out a way around the obstacle.
  4. Contemplatio: So… what are the dead things that I’m letting stop me? Old armor, needing to be right, wanting to be perfect and always adept, either/or binary thinking, self-criticism, fear, and my stories about my personal history…. I can choose differently.

I saw those downed trees differently on the way back.

Lectio always surprises me. Always.

Horse Lake

Horse Lake in the Three Sisters Wilderness, Oregon


The Myth of Closure

“The Myth of Closure” is an essay written by psychologist Pauline Boss and her friend Donna Carnes about “ambiguous loss” and our belief that everything should have a resolution. (Dr. Boss was interviewed by Krista Tippett in On Being, accessed here.)

Ambiguous losses are those losses that aren’t clear cut – there’s often no body to bury.

Perhaps our loved one just disappeared and it’s possible they might actually be alive somewhere, as in 9/11, a tsunami, a kidnapping, or a death at sea.

Another type of ambiguous loss is when the person we love is actually still present in their body but removed from relationship with us. Examples of this type are mental illness, including addiction and PTSD, dementia, and injuries. The person as we knew them is gone, but there’s no clear cut avenue for mourning, and our grief may go on for decades before actual death.

Dr. Boss suggests, also, that many losses are in fact more ambiguous than we give them credit for being. Losses such as divorce, moving, and kids growing up are all potentially ambiguous.

Boss believes that, especially with ambiguous loss, being able to hold paradox is key to healing.

Thinking about ambiguous loss in a binary way – they’re either here or they’re not – requires some level of denial and untruth. The only true statement is a dialectic. It holds opposing ideas at the same time: They’re here AND they’re not here. “They’re probably dead, but maybe not.”

Boss believes that our Western intolerance for not knowing and lack of resolution is problematic for acceptance and healing. What she calls our “mastery orientation” is very uncomfortable with “losses that are minus facts.” The wide-spread and mistaken beliefs that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief apply to those left behind, they’re linear, and that people should be at some point done grieving are examples of that mastery orientation and discomfort with lack of resolution.

In human relationships “closure is a myth,” says Dr. Boss, and a growing number of mental health professionals agree.

There’s no such thing as closure for people suffering ambiguous loss. There’s also no such thing as closure for people dealing with clear uncomplicated grief. What there is, is paradox: She’s dead, I feel sad, and I’m okay.

Expecting closure and resolution in fact impede grief. Feeling sad is okay, for a long time and perhaps forever. We can live with grief. We’re okay.

Dr. Boss’s cowriter, Diana Carnes, knows about ambiguous loss first hand. Her husband, Jim Gray, went sailing out of San Francisco Bay one day in 2007 and hasn’t been seen since. Here’s a poem she wrote about ambiguous loss:

“Walk On.”

“You walk on still beside me, eyes shadowed in dusk. You’re the lingering question at each day’s end. I have to laugh at how open-ended you remain, still with me after all these years of being lost. I carry you like my own personal time machine, as I put on my lipstick, smile, and head out to the party.”

I’ve found this idea of holding paradox very helpful.

I can feel something inside me relax when I’m able to drop the either/ors about the events and people in my life that I grieve.

It’s normal to feel sad about loss, whether clear or ambiguous. It’s human to grieve for a long time, maybe for the rest of our lives. We can grieve and still be happy, when we drop the need to have clear resolution and closure.