Why, God? I just don’t get it!

Communion Thoughts for 7/22/12

As I was preparing for these communion thoughts, I couldn’t help but reflect back over the events of this week and wonder how we humans got to be so broken.

First, on Wednesday night we discovered that Pastor’s office had been broken into. Several pieces of computer equipment were taken, but it appears the focus of the thief was on stealing his personal things, including a Christian flag that was handmade by his first wife and lay over her casket at her funeral. This was a personal crime – and I simply don’t understand why anyone would ever do such a thing.

Second, an event that’s been making headlines this week occurred in Aurora, CO after midnight Thursday night. Shortly after the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises began, a gunman dressed in black announced that he was “the Joker”, threw a canister of teargas into the theater audience, and then opened fire at the crowd, seeming to select his victims at random. 12 were killed and 58 were injured, including several toddlers and children. This horrific, random crime makes no sense. Clearly he was not in his right mind – but I still just don’t understand how anyone could do such a thing.

Of course, these are not the only incomprehensible things going on in the world. Suicide bombers in Syria and Palestine, bomb plots against the Pentagon, school shootings, never-ending wars, and even some places where governments can no longer protect their citizens from the horrors of organized crime. Turn on your TV or read the news – it’s everywhere. But that doesn’t make me understand it any better.

Why do people do these awful things to each other? I just don’t understand!

There are no easy answers. The simple answer to why people do awful things is “sin”, but that only makes my logical brain happy, leaving my heart uneasy. Even the psalmist, even JESUS, asked “why”. WHY, God? Why do people do these things? Why is there such evil in the world?

And that is a question to which we may never know the answer. Certainly we can say “sin”, or “the Devil”… but these answers do not necessarily quench our thirst for understanding, nor do they ease our uneasy hearts. We just want to understand.

In fact, we humans LOVE understanding and “figuring things out” – perhaps explaining the success of mysteries and thrillers – we just LOVE uncovering all the details and the clues that lead to the perpetrator’s arrest and JUSTICE! Open And Shut Case – the bad guy gets what he deserves – end of story.

But real life isn’t like Law & Order. Often times there is no law or order – only chaos and confusion. Real life is messy. Sometimes we are confused, and sometimes we find no answers. We just don’t know.

But God does.

God knows. Our God, who created the heavens and the earth, who knew us before we were born, who’s so big he holds the world in his hand and so small he can live in my heart – my God knows. And we can trust that he’s on our side. The bible tells us, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31) Apparently a lot of people… but the point is that God wins. I still might not understand how – looking at all the mess here on this earth – but it doesn’t matter, because if God indeed has the victory, then there’s no way my finite understanding could ever affect that.

So when something incomprehensible happens, whether it be in your life or in the news, remember that it’s okay to not understand. It’s okay to be confused, because our job is not to have all the answers. That’s God’s job. Our job is to love God and love our neighbor as best we can – even when nothing else makes sense, and even when we don’t understand our world or God’s actions.

As you come to God today, and this week, and always, don’t be afraid – God is here, for you. Ask him your questions. Bring him your confusion and your pain. Struggle. He can take it. And he will always meet you where you are, because he is on your side.

Pursuing What Matters.

DISCLAIMER: I don’t say any of this to be harsh or arrogant. I myself have been and will continue to be highly guilty of pursuing erroneous goal(s) — of not pursuing what matters. My point isn’t about “who is better than who”. My point here is about “what we ought to be doing”. I’m not talking about status, I’m talking about responsibility.

In sports we can see how senseless it is to pursue an erroneous goal.

Have you ever watched a soccer game when one of the little players got confused about what the goal of the game was? I’ve seen or heard stories about kids who habitually or occasionally pursued wrong goals:

  • Kicking the ball out of bounds as soon as possible,
  • Hogging the ball as long as possible,
  • Kicking the ball as far as possible,
  • Dribbling & kicking the wrong direction, scoring on the wrong team’s goal,
  • and so on.

In sports, we can see that no matter how good you feel about yourself when you achieve your funny erroneous goal, no matter how badly you long to achieve it, it’s not what you ought be pursuing. It’s not what should be be guiding your actions. Period.

Living real life with erroneous goals is similarly senseless. I believe that real value and real purpose exist. And so I believe real, worthy goals can exist. Unlike in sports, these goals doesn’t appear on a visible scoreboard. But that doesn’t make them non-real. P

The furthering of my well-being is an erroneous central goal.

A worthy goal is oriented toward what matters.

If I matter, everybody matters. Whatever (or Whoever) makes me matter also makes everyone else matter.

If people’s well-being matters, then my own well-being is approximately one six-billionth of what matters.

Even if someone mattered more than everyone else, there is only a one in six-billion chance of that someone being me.

So acting as if I matter more than others is utterly erroneous. The furthering of my own well-being is a very erroneous central goal for life.

The furthering of my own well-being is, however, a fully valid sub-goal. If my central goal is doing what’s best for everyone, then I must look after my own needs as well as others’, because I can’t help others if I’m dead. Selflessness is a poor substitute for unselfishness.

  • True selflessness would mean that I never attended to my own needs,
  • whereas true unselfishness would mean that I never attended to my own needs any more than what I can fairly discern as being ultimately best for everyone.

In other words,

  • Selfishness treats my own betterment as the central goal.
  • Selflessness treats others’ betterment as the central goal.
  • Unselfishness treats betterment in general as the central goal, and treats my betterment and others’ betterment as complementary sub-goals.

My actions reflect my goals. When a prepubescent soccer player develops a ball-hogging habit that doesn’t lend itself very well to winning the game, it’s because she’s focusing on the wrong goals. When I, as a middle class person in a wealthy country, develop a comfortable picket-fence lifestyle whose costliness hamstrings my ability to contribute to the bettering of humanity, it is because I am pursuing my own betterment as my central goal rather than as a supporting sub-goal to the central goal of the betterment of persons.

(Note that by “persons” I do not exclude God. My own view is that God has personhood, and is the “Whoever” that makes us matter, specifically, by loving us. The writing above sounds a bit like secular utilitarianism/humanitarianism, but in fact, it aligns nicely with the Westminster Chatechism: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”. Good for God, good for humans. Well-being in the deep spiritual sense.)

~95% of us over-focus on the goal of improving our own well-being.

We are too selfish. No one will ever reach the “perfect” balance-point between serving their self and serving others, and the question of “how much is too much” will never have a solid answer. But let’s be real; most of us know which side we err on: we are too selfish.

Human nature, whether because of evolution or original sin or both, is very selfish. Natural selection tends to allows only you to to be altruistic toward your blood relatives or people that can pay you back, because any gene that doesn’t ultimately favor itself — that doesn’t favor its own propagation — disappears from the gene pool. So unsurprisingly, most of us focus more on ourselves than is good for everyone. For now, I’m saying that’s 95% of us.

~90% of us should work on sacrificing more.

You’ll notice the 5% gap; that’s the people who err so slightly on the side of selfishness that there’s no way to know it. Those people aren’t perfect people — any one of them could have some other catastrophic, tragic flaw. It’s just that they don’t have any way of figuring out whether to sacrifice more or less. I’ll draw a picture:

Unless I have strong, strong reason to believe I’m in the tiny margin of people who are too sacrificial / ascetic / giving / minimalistic / etc., or in the almost as tiny margin of people who would have a hard time knowing which way they’re erring, then I should probably assume that my selfish, status-and-advantage-seeking human nature has got the best of me and landed me in the purple, and I’ve got some simplifying & sacrificing to do. That is, of course, assuming that everyone matters.

It’s really tough to justify leveraging my privileged position in this world primarily for my own benefit when doing so disproportionately hurts others. Why?

Because my own benefit only matters if human benefit matters. Which means that suffering large declines to others’ well being in return for small improvements to my own is simply a bad trade. There’s nothing to be said for it. It’s like ball-hogging and taking pot-shots on a soccer field, preventing ~3 of your teammates from scoring, just so you can score 1 more goal for yourself. It’s silly. It’s senseless and indefensible. It’s harmful and damaging and sad. And I do it too. I’m in the purple bar on the graph. I’m in Purple-Bar-Aholics Anonymous.

“Hello, my name is Daniel Schulz-Jackson, and I’m a purple-bar-aholic”.

At the end of the day I have to conclude that everyone — not just certain people with “a heart for service” — EVERYONE is called to act as if everybody matters, to act with the central goal of “Good” rather than “good for me”. Figuring out how can be difficult, but the difficulty is no excuse to abandon the attempt.

12 Things I’ve Always Wondered About Processed Foods

Hey all! We’ve been out-of-state for the last month or so, visiting family and friends, but now that we’re back (and it’s summer) I finally have time to tackle a project that has been on my mind for the last few months: reading our food labels.

It sounds really silly, but a few months ago I began to wonder more about what, exactly, I eat. I did some investigation — checked out Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food from the library and read some highly informative blogs — and realized that (a) I really DON’T know what I’m eating, and (b) there are some really bad things out there I could be putting in my body. So today I decided to go on an expedition and find out what is lurking in our cupboards. The following details the highlights of that expedition, as well as some of the questions I asked along the way.

The Rules

What I decided to do was sort the contents of our cupboards into three piles:

1. I know what all the ingredients are!

2. I don’t know one or two of the ingredients and I need to do a little research.

3. There are so many weird ingredients that I can’t believe I ate this!

Once I finished sorting everything (it didn’t take too long, since we’d been gone a month and I needed to go grocery shopping anyway), I had 3 piles of roughly equal size. The first was comprised mostly of fruit and whole grains (like brown rice, quinoa, etc.). The second contained an assortment of cans that had few ingredients, but at least one I didn’t know about, and also lots of baking supplies (like “enriched flour” and baking powder). The third group had all sorts of stuff in it, from BBQ sauce to sunflower seeds, but every one of them had a paragraph of strange ingredients (yes, even sunflower seeds!).  The label that shocked me the most was a container of bread crumbs. Sounds simple, right? Dried-up bread? Wrong! Check out the ingredients list: Thiamin mononitrate? Diglycerides? Calcium carbonate? I just wanted some dried-up bread, not a whole chemistry lab! I basically decided to give away or dispose of Pile #3, because I don’t think food should be that complicated. Pile #1 I put back in the cupboard — I already know what it is, and I’m happy to eat it! But Pile #2 left me with a lot of research to do…

 The Questions

There were a lot of items in Pile #2 that didn’t seem terribly menacing (i.e. they only had one strange ingredient), but that still didn’t help me know whether to put it in the cupboard or the bye-bye pile, so I decided to learn some things! Here are the questions I wrote down from my “investigation” pile.

1. What is “enriched” flour? How is it different from not-enriched flour?

Enriched flour is flour in which most of the natural vitamins and minerals have been extracted. This is done in order to give bread a finer texture and increase shelf life. When the bran and the germ (the parts of the wheat that contain fiber and nutrients) are removed, your body absorbs wheat differently. Instead of being a slow process that gives you steady bursts of energy, your body breaks down enriched flour more quickly, which typically raises blood sugar more quickly as well. This excess blood sugar has to be metabolized by the liver, and if there’s an excess of sugar, your body will store some of it as fat. Read that again: your body STORES IT AS FAT. All this and you’re not even getting close to the amount of nutrients that whole grains contain. In other words, enriched flour sounds healthy but isn’t so healthy after all. (Jodi Davis at A Healthier Michigan)

The author goes on to add that “if it doesn’t say “whole,” then it’s the same stuff.” So out goes my enriched flour — and in comes my whole wheat flour!

2. What is the deal with different kinds of oils? Are some better than others?

In order to understand the different oils, it’s important to understand the different types of fats. I don’t really have time or space to go into that here (although my biochemistry major husband did an excellent job of explaining), so here’s what we’re gonna do. For all you scientists, check out this awesome sciencey article. For everyone else, read this pretty good explanation and list of oils to avoid and use (also see below). I will be posting a follow-up post on this sometime soon, complete with chemistry, but I will speak in English major language! =)

Here’s what it all boils down to.

Oils to avoid: Vegetable Oil, Organic Vegetable Oil, Soybean Oil, Corn Oil, Canola Oil, Organic Canola Oil, Grape Seed Oil, Hydrogenated Oils, Margarine, and any oil that is labeled as refined, hydrogenated, or partially-hydrogenated.

Oils to put in your cupboard: Coconut Oil, Raw or Cultured Butter, Olive Oil, Red Palm Oil, Sesame Oil, and Flaxseed Oil.

In my cupboard: coconut oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, butter.

3. What is xanthan gum?

Ok. This one was actually somewhat complicated. According to several websites, xanthan gum is a sugar that is added to foods to keep them together — like gluten-free baked goods, or sauces that have to stay preserved without separating. Apparently it can also be taken in higher doses for use as a laxative (?).

Here’s my conclusion: It sounds like xanthan gum isn’t horrible for me to eat… but it doesn’t sound like it’s particularly nutritive either. So I’m going to try to avoid it when I can.

In the fridge: Thai chili sauce (with xanthan gum)… but that’s it, since I can find awesome salsa without.

4. What is pectin?

Pectin is another thickening agent, but it is used mostly just for jellies and jams. It does occur naturally in a lot of fruits, but some types of fruit require additional pectin (that has probably been extracted and isolated from other fruits) in order to be successfully preserved for longer periods of time. Apparently it also works as a digestive regulator. (Read a little background here.)

The verdict: Again, it sounds like this is not horrible — but I don’ t necessarily want to eat a bunch. Avoid when possible, because I’d rather eat it where it occurs naturally than where someone has sucked it out of another fruit and added it to a “fruit product”.

In the fridge: Nothing so far. BUT I am resolved to investigate further.

5. Why do canned tomatoes (and some other fruits) have citric acid added to them? Don’t they already have acid in the tomatoes themselves?

Apparently, although fruits like tomatoes and pineapple already contain natural acid, additional citric acid or ascorbic acid is often added as a preservative and, according to this website, is supposed to make sure the canned items retain their color and texture.

I’m starting to notice a theme here… added chemicals = make the food prettier and tastier for a very long time. So the point is really about convenience and companies being able to crank stuff out and put it on a shelf for a long time, or you being able to keep it in your pantry for a long time.

Verdict: Yet again, probably won’t kill me, but especially since I already deal with acid reflux, why ingest more acid than I need to?

6. What is tomato paste?

Ok, thanks to this excellent explanation by cookthink, I finally understand what tomato paste IS! I am truly feeling my cooking ignorance here, because I never realized before that “spaghetti sauce” and “tomato paste” are really just cooked-down tomatoes. Wow. I feel dumb. Or maybe it’s just that I’m so used to this stuff coming in a can or a tube that I never actually stopped to wonder how a person might make it. Well, now I know!

7. What is meant by “natural flavors”? What sorts of added flavors are good or bad?

For a more detailed answer to this question, read this excellent Q&A article on this very topic. Here’s my summary: Basically all “natural” means is that it was made in a laboratory but with NATURAL starting materials… so it’s often the exact same flavor molecule as artificial flavors, just more expensive to make. Good to know.

8. What are baking soda and baking powder made of?

Baking soda is an acid salt made by combining an acid and a base. It can be found naturally — mined, in fact — but most baking soda is human-made. (For more info, read here!) Looks like the process may have some environmental side effects (which is another kettle of fish), but it doesn’t appear to put anything weird into my body.

Baking powder is basically made of baking soda and cream of tartar… and in many cases, also contains aluminum! But apparently it’s also rather easy to make your own, seeing as baking soda and cream of tartar are probably both things I’d have in my cupboard anyway.

Into the cupboard: Baking soda and cream of tartar!

SIDE NOTE: If you’re curious (as I was) how people baked things before chemical leaveners were invented, check out this highly informative thread of comments on the subject.

9. What is corn starch? What is corn meal? (And what’s the difference?)

Corn starch is essentially ground-up corn where all of the kernel except the endosperm (the white part in the middle) has been removed. It’s very fine and is often used as a thickening agent. Based on my previous grain research, it doesn’t seem that corn starch is actively bad for you… just that it has no nutrients (the nutritious parts of the kernel having been removed). So as long as I’m not eating entire baked goods made of cornstarch, a little bit probably won’t hurt me. (Also, cornstarch can be used to make Oobleck! Check it out!)

Corn meal, on the other hand, is coarsely-ground corn. Like flour, it comes in “enriched” and non-enriched varieties. It does NOT make Oobleck… but I bet it makes really yummy cornbread!

Into the cupboard: Whole corn meal, bag o’ cornstarch… but use in moderation.

10. What is soy lecithin?

According to this article, soy lecithin is an emulsifier (a thing that keeps other things together) that’s extracted from soybeans. It also says that it can be used as a dietary supplement. Interesting!

Well, again, I’m not gonna bake a cake outta this stuff, but a bit here and there isn’t gonna kill me. So I’ll keep my dark chocolate… but eat in moderation. (Which I should probably do anyway, considering it’s chocolate!)

11. What is evaporated cane juice?

Apparently evaporated cane juice is actually “a healthy alternative to refined sugar“. Who knew?

12. Is it bad to have extra vitamins and things added to food?

It seems like there are a few cases where adding a nutrient into the flour or something like that was helpful in fighting some widespread disease. But it seems that usually people add in vitamins just to replace the ones they accidentally killed by processing the food in the first place! It also seems that once one food producer starts adding a certain vitamin, then EVERYBODY does it and before you know it you’re actually getting an overdose of vitamins or justifying poor eating habits because “well, at least my Sugary Fruit Ring Cereal has VITAMIN C!!!”

Conclusion: The best way to eat healthily — and get the appropriate intake of vitamins, etc. — is just to eat naturally healthy food! No amount of added “health benefits” is going to make Cheetos a good food choice. In the same vein, you can’t ruin a good carrot. So, while I will be making a few compromises (e.g. keeping my Thai chili sauce and dark chocolate), I think I will mostly put my food-energy towards simply eating things that are good for me. Because really, if I’m consuming huge quantities of ice cream and chocolate, I have bigger problems than how much xanthan gum I ingested in the process. Eating is not about the legalism of the new fad diet OR the organic chemical-counter — it’s about enjoying the food and about having a healthy, energized body. Plain and simple.