Sunday, February 22, 2015

Cottage Cheese or Wine Sauce?

 February 22, 2015

Dear Friends,

Those of us eligible for my birthday club often hear the old cliché that wine and cheese improve with age. The cliché is generally offered as hopeful comfort, a reassurance that the diminishment process that accompanies aging can result in improvement.

While cleaning out my refrigerator this week I found some evidence that sharply qualified that old cliché. Improvement?—well, maybe. It depends.

What I found while cleaning (embarrassed full disclosure) was a small container of cottage cheese that had been lost back behind the milk cartons for a significant period of time. When I opened it I discovered instantly that in this case the cliché must be revised to read: aging improves some—not all—cheese. Cottage cheese is NOT on the list of cheeses that improve.

The incident demonstrated that it is timely attention to cleaning the refrigerator rather than age that benefits cottage cheese. But beyond this house-keeping reality, I was reminded of the complex relationship that exists between any process and the substance with which the process interacts.  It’s the Which cheese? principle of life management.

Some recipes direct the chef to “reduce the remaining stock.”  This direction requires that the liquid be placed on a low flame, heated to simmer (not boil), then left uncovered to process until evaporation has reduced the volume of the liquid to the desired amount.

If the liquid being reduced is the wine-based sauce for coq au vin the smell during the process is wonderful, and the chicken dish that results is truly a culinary treasure. 

Now imagine with me that we try this same reduction process on a pan containing coffee left-over from breakfast. After only a short while, the acrid smell of over-brewed coffee makes the idea of drinking the stuff in the pan a taste nightmare for anyone, including the addicted coffee lover. 

Reduction is, obviously, a form of diminishment that decreases volume. However, the consequence of this process varies with the substance itself—very different results for reduction of wine sauce than reduction of left-over coffee.

I find this fact both comforting and instructive.

While I have little control over the diminishment process, I have a great deal to say about the substance of who I am. Perhaps this truth lies at the core of hallowing diminishments. 
I cannot evade the process of diminishment by denial, avoidance or manipulation of the appearance of reality. 

In profound contrast, I can influence the consequence of diminishment by determining who I am. I shape the results of process through the becoming that I choose.   

The issue isn’t simply a matter of process as such. The results of the time process, for example, depend on whether it’s cheddar or cottage cheese in the box.

Analogies are always limited, and inevitably break down in careful analysis. Because you readers are a thinking crowd, already you are protesting that cottage cheese cannot choose to become cheddar any more than a left-over pot of coffee can choose to change into wine sauce. You are correct, of course, but, considered closely, the limits of the analogy support the point I wish to make.

Who we are, unlike cheese, wine or coffee, is not composed of a fixed essence but of a becoming self. As a consequence, while in life we have little control of much of “the stuff” that happens to us, we can profoundly influence who it is that “the stuff” happens to.

For me, this is good news largely because I am confident I am not required to manage this becoming process alone.

Paul reassured the Philippian Christians that the good work that God had initiated in them remained God’s continuing concern, and that God himself would bring this work to successful completion. [Phil. 1:6]

I trust that you will not read the following “Hubbard Translation” as irreverent. 

I have been thinking joyfully this week [2 Cor. 5:17] “Because I am in Christ I have become wine sauce; the left-over coffee has been taken away. Therefore, the diminishment process by definition can  function as an enrichment because of who by God’s grace He has enabled me to become.”

See you next week, my wine-sauce friends,


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Sanctifying Change

February 15, 2015

Dear Friends,

Your responses have made a great point regarding diminishment. We know, somehow, intuitively, that diminishment is an inevitable part of the life cycle. We get that. 

However, knowing that, many of us continue to wonder how to live into and through the process. We understand two things: our choices cannot control the process, yet our choices profoundly influence the outcome.

Truth be known, I feel a bit professorish today—peace! Please don’t run for safety!—I have the impulse under control. But I am going to risk a bit of definitional muddling about in an effort to clear our thinking space.

From the outset, it is necessary to disentangle ourselves from the cultural presupposition that diminishment functions as a deconstruction process, and, therefore, serves as evidence for the meaningless random-driven reality in which we are logically driven to accept the insignificance of our lives.

Briefly—professorish impulse firmly denied—there are serious flaws in this reasoning. 

The omnipresent nature of change cannot be cited as evidence that change itself forms the ultimate reality.

Basic logic requires us to recognize that the very idea of “change” by definition can exist only in the cognitive context of its opposite, changelessness

Clear thinking confronts us with the difficult task of thinking paradox. Everything changes, but change is not everything. The task of searching for significance in the context of change requires us to grapple with paradox but it is not therefore a case study in foolishness. 

Change is much, but change is not all. There is the changeless unmoving context upon which paradoxically the spiraling patterns of change depend for their definitive existence. 

Diminishment is a form of change, of course. However, today I want to emphasize the underlying presupposition with which I want us to begin.

It is possible to learn to hallow our diminishments—in effect, to sanctify change. 

It is my presupposition that diminishments can be hallowed because while change is real and shapes reality and my experience of it, nevertheless, change does not consist of all that is real.

The old hymn reflects both dimensions of the context in which we begin our search.
“Change and decay in all around I see.
O, thou who changest not, abide with me.”

Thinking with you today that the essential prerequisite to hallowing the diminishments of human existence consists, paradoxically, of connection with the eternal “I AM” in whom there is no shadow caused by turning. [James 1:17 ESV]

See you next week—less pedantic, I promise. 


Sunday, February 8, 2015

What Makes a "Good Loser"?

February 8, 2015 

Dear Friends,

Pendle Hill, the Quaker study center, published a paper by John Yungblut entitled “Hallowing Dimishments.”   A friend sent me a copy thinking I would be interested in Yungblut’s idea. I am, and I think that you will be as well.

I don’t imagine that you will like either the idea or the experience of diminishment, as such, and I do not intend to attempt to persuade you (or myself) to change this negative view of the process. Diminishment entails loss—complex loss at many levels—and is rarely the cause of celebration. The response to diminishment is more often grief—a gray creeping grief of resignation about the inevitable dark side of life and the reality of aging. 

Yungblut thinks, however, that diminishment, although remaining what it is [loss], provides a potential context for a unique stage of growth, spiritually, emotionally, cognitively. Yungblut argues, in effect, that the inevitable process of losing (diminishment) can become a door into valuable gain. This is an application, of course, of the idea Jesus taught when he said that losing life was an act by which life could be gained.

The belief system fostered by our culture fiercely rejects this idea, and, unless we are careful, will confuse and mislead us into setting some unwise life goals. From the cultural view, more, without exception, is better—more strength, more ability, more stuff, more beauty, more influence, and more power—more.  More—without exception—always more.

Of course, this point of view denies reality, and at its core forms a system of wishful thinking. In unavoidable reality, life—and work, and love itself—is a process of both gain and loss, of both having and going without, of both achieving and failing, of both flourishing and fading away, an experience of increase and decrease that lies beyond our control. We have choices, of course, that influence the increase and the decrease, but opting out of the process itself is not an option on life's menu.

The content of Yungblut’s paper (and the book of Ecclesiastes, as well) pivots around the challenge with which reality confronts us: we are born and we die, we laugh and we cry, we hate and we love, we build and we tear down. We must learn to live into and through this yin/yang process.

The culture, of course, recommends that we deny and disguise what we don’t like—cover the wrinkles with cosmetics, color the gray hair—buy more stuff even when there is less in the bank account—take performance-enhancing drugs when energy and strength grow less (being careful, of course, not to get caught officially while doing so.) 

None of us are immune to occasional temptation to try this denial approach to the diminishment issue. But most of us know that it is not that simple. When we are polishing our glasses, replacing the batteries in our hearing aids, paying (reluctantly) for a new crown on a broken tooth, we are not practicing denial—we are celebrating the capacity and the means to compensate for loss, and celebrate the technology that makes this way of managing loss possible.

Compensation is not a synonym for denial. In fact, the first step in compensating for loss requires that loss (deficit) be acknowledged, no matter the cost to pride. For example, recently the technology to aid the hearing impaired has been made remarkably more effective. However, this technology has little value for those who continue to insist that there is nothing wrong with their hearing—they DO NOT have a hearing loss. The problem stems from people’s failure to speak clearly—or loudly—enough.

However, most of you, along with me, have a different question: how do we “hallow” the diminishments? How do we live through the losses and the diminishments of life in a manner that permits us to grow in grace and wisdom? 

Is it possible to live into life’s inevitable emptying process in such a way that the resulting space becomes “hallowed”, i.e., set apart for special use? Is it possible that as the empty spaces grow that gain occurs simultaneously with the loss? If we do not have control of the emptying process, can we influence the consequence of diminishment?

Yungblut (and many others as well) believe that it is not only possible to do this, but that the responsibility to “hallow our diminishments” is one of the privileges and gifts of aging.

What do you think? 

What have you already learned about managing life’s lessening processes and the losses that result?

As a child, I was taught a value system that included the rule: Be a good loser. 

In this week’s blog (and—brace yourselves!!—perhaps in some following blogs as well) I want to think about “hallowing diminishments." Using my old childhood rule as the theme, I want to think with you how we can deal positively with the diminishment process--in other words, how we can learn to be good losers.

I do hope you are brave or patient enough—or both!—to think with me weekly.

Perhaps you will be motivated to work a bit on your own life plan. 

If your present life logo reads: Win. Never lose. Get more, I hope these blogs will help you review it. Frankly, I think that program leads to a bad end. Considering a different one may well be worth your time.

See you next week.