Seeds of Change

Seeds are amazing. Henry David Thoreau, not usually known as a friend to orthodox belief, spoke truth about seeds: “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed.” A single tomato seed can grow into a single plant that will put on up to 200 fruit–tomatoes are fruit, by the way–each of which contains 150 or more seeds. A typical tomato plant might yield 40 pounds of edibles and 30,000 potential new plants. Plus the vines of the plant will grow huge, requiring some sort of support for the best production and health.

And that’s really nothing compared to the mustard seed. Jesus famously compares the kingdom of God to that seed:

He presented another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It’s the smallest of all the seeds, but when grown, it’s taller than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the sky come and nest in its branches.”–Matthew 13:31-32

I have to admit that, as one of the enlightened people who prefers mustard on his hot dogs, I was disappointed to learn that the mustard plant Jesus refers to here is not the one that French’s and others use to make that delightful yellow condiment. Instead, the plant referred to here is most likely the salvadora persica, the so-called toothbrush bush. These plants can grow as tall as 20 feet, which would certainly qualify it as “taller than the garden plants.” Its seed looks like dust.

Some proud academics, it seems, have discovered seeds that are actually smaller than Jesus’ mustard seed. Obviously this passage should said, “It’s the smallest of all the seeds, except for an orchid on a continent that you haven’t yet discovered and the size of which you won’t have the tools to measure for a couple thousand years.” Might it be that those who gleefully point out that the mustard seed is not actually the smallest of all the world’s seeds have missed the point? If so, then what is the point?

  • The kingdom of God starts out as a small thing, but it can grow into something really large.
  • The kingdom of God doesn’t look like much at the outset, but it can become something remarkable. (That’s really another way of saying the first item.)
  • The kingdom of God, when fully grown, will bless others–as in the birds of the sky who nest there.

But I am left with a question. Who who is the man who sowed this seed in his field? Does the man represent the person who has sought the kingdom of God, as in Matthew 6:33, or is it God Himself doing the planting? In the previous parable, the wheat and tares, the farmer was God. I’m not sure here, though, if we are being called to plant it in ourselves or if God is doing the planting.

What do you think?

Chicken or Egg?

I’m inventing a new word: sci-spaining. Just as man-splaining is the tedious explanation that women supposedly get when asking men certain questions, sci-splaining is the sort of condescending answer from self-proclaimed science experts. Google “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” and you’ll be treated to some very self-important sci-splaining. Think of it as WWDS: What would Dwight say?

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Without getting into a whole evolution/creation thing here, I’m going to insist that the sci-splaining answer to the question is not particularly satisfying. Anybody who has ever raised chickens knows that the sort of chickens that people raise today are not the precise varieties that might have gone on the S.S. Ark with Noah. The question might be “Which came first, the Rhode Island Red or the Rhode Island Red egg?” The answer is that the egg existed before the chicken variety.

If Dwight is correct and birds evolved from dinosaurs, then the question could be, “Which came first, the T-Rex or the T-Rex egg?” Ultimately, we need to regress back to the ultimate question:

Which came first, the first egg-born and egg-laying creature or the first egg?

That’s not quite as elegant a question as the one with the chicken, but it creates the same sort of logical bind. How did some creature way back in the murky depths of unrecorded ages gone by transition from “doesn’t lay eggs” to “does lay eggs”?

Did it happen in a single generation? My limited scientific mind would assume that it absolutely must make that transition in a single generation. After all, it wouldn’t do for a partially evolved egg to emerge in generation 1 since generation 2 would never get the chance to continue the work.

I had intended to take this post in a different direction, but once I encountered the sci-splaining, I had to follow this path. The sci-splainers sometimes have a lot of letters after their names. They tell us that there is an infinite number of parallel universes or that our minds are strictly materialistic, chemical operations. They have learned a good bit within their field of study, but then they assume they know everything about everything.

Frankly, I have no idea of whether the chicken or the egg came first, and I’m not at all ashamed to confess that. What I do know is what Psalm 104:5-6 tells me about what brought about that chicken and that egg:

He established the earth on its foundations;
it will never be shaken.
You covered it with the deep
as if it were a garment;
the water stood above the mountains.

Granted there’s no poultry in that verse, but the implication is clear.

Which came first–before the chicken, before the egg? It was God. That answer doesn’t make the sci-splainers happy, but I can live with that. After all, to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs.

Heal Thyself?

“The only thing flatter than the earth is an unvaccinated kid’s EKG.” So read the t-shirt of a young man I know. Oh these kids and their crazy shirts!

Over the last several weeks, I have been treated to groups in two of my Composition II classes leading discussions on the issue of the anti-vaccination movement. I didn’t assign the topic. Instead, two different groups in completely separate classes came to it on their own, presenting on it a week apart.

flat earth-anti vaxSince that came up, it seems as if the topic, especially as connected with the recent measles outbreak, has been breaking out everywhere. Just today, I saw an article showing that this year’s measles numbers are the highest since the disease was considered eliminated back in 2000.

I could take this topic and run with it in the direction of the hubris of science in declaring a disease eliminated. Instead, I’d like to consider the question of whether a Christian can, in good conscience, be numbered among the anti-vax forces.

Several years ago Justin Smith, a pediatrician, wrote a pro-vaccination article for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. In that piece, he presented three reasons why parents should vaccinate their kids. Number two caught my eye: Christians should vaccinate because we love our neighbors.

In this situation, we need to remember that we are our brother’s keeper (Gen 4:9). Choosing not to vaccinate and to hide in the herd of everyone else who is puts others unnecessarily at risk and, as we have seen these past few weeks, does not work. Vaccination is pro-life and pro-neighbor because it serves the public good.

The Christian Science movement, now mostly a quaint relic on the scrap heap of religious history, famously rejected most medical treatment, opting instead for prayer and positive thinking. Certainly the Christian Science adherents reached their skepticism toward medical treatment from a different direction than do modern anti-vaxxers, but the result is largely the same.

Is it possible that vaccinations hurt people? Yes. In fact, it is pretty well established that some people are hurt by vaccinations just as some people are injured by automobile seat belts. The statistics, though, make it clear that the dangers of vaccinations and seatbelts are negligible compared to the benefits. That, of course, is small comfort if your kid happens to get sick as the result of a vaccination, but where is the comfort to the unvaccinated person who dies from measles?

Christians take enough grief these days as science deniers, homophobes, haters, and purveyors of intolerance. We need a better rationale than the unfounded opinions of a few Internet pundits to add to our list of pariah qualifications.

Why Health Headlines Seem Unbalanced

scaleAn article on U.S. News plays on a prurient movie and some fairly common sense dietary advice to fill a writer’s assignment. The author, Janet Helm, doesn’t give us the full fifty shades of grey when it comes to nutrition but stops (mercifully perhaps) at five. The basic premise is this:

People frequently speak about food in absolutes – this food is bad, or this diet is best. Well, it’s not that simple: Nutrition is not always so black or white.

I probably sound a bit dismissive of Ms. Helm’s comments, but that really isn’t the case. She is, after all a well trained dietician, a credential that inclines me to consider her innocent until proven guilty.

Why is she able to write an article that basically says “moderation in everything” and have it seem worthy of publication? I’d suggest that there are three reasons for that, and they get to the heart of our intelligent handling of health advice.

1. Extremes scream.

Which article are you more apt to read? Which TV news teaser are you more apt to wait through the commercials to watch? “Nutritionists say a balanced diet is important” or “If you eat Fettuccine Alfredo, make sure your cardiologist is on call.” This last pronouncement was perhaps the most absurd statement ever made by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

In a communications environment cluttered with all sorts of noise and competing stimuli, it’s understandable that people feel the need to scream. Unfortunately, that screaming sometimes means sending the wrong message.

2. You can’t sell moderation.

Everybody has a message to sell, but many have a product. Frankly, unless you are the American Produce Aisle Trade Group, you’re almost certainly not selling moderation and good sense. Instead, you’re selling this supplement or that diet pill. You’re declaring beef as “what’s for dinner” or pronouncing pork as “the other white meat.” “Got milk?”

Everybody is selling something, and most of them cannot make money by suggesting that the potential sales be split up among half a dozen providers. There’s just no money in moderation.

3. Health writers just don’t get it.

Finally we have to recognize that health writers, especially journalists knocking out stories on deadline, often got to the health beat not because of their high level of interest in nutrition or their scientific acumen but because they drew the short straw. “Gee, boss, I can choose between the White House, covering the war, or doing the health news? Give me the veggies!”

Many journalists do not understand science well enough. Some of them simply cannot read a scientific study well enough to actually understand what it says. They’ll read that consuming butter leads to an increased chance of developing cuticle cancer and not recognize that a small increase of a tiny probability is not nearly as significant as breathless statements make it sound.

I can’t say much good about the other shades of grey, but I have to applaud Janet Helms’ willingness to recognize that moderation in eating is something we need more.

Vitamins–No Shortcuts

Vitamins and SupplementsI’ll proclaim my bias right here. I have never been a dietary supplement kind of guy. I’d prefer not to get my nutrition in a pill. Still, it is pretty clear why people would want to opt for the convenience of the supplement. After all, why labor through all of that chewing to get your B vitamins or beta-keratin when you can down it in an easy-to-swallow capsule?

A recent study presented at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting suggests that excessive vitamin doses–the sort of doses you’re only likely to get by swallowing pills–are a negative influence on our health. Dr. Tim Byers presented his findings:

“We are not sure why this is happening at the molecular level but evidence shows that people who take more dietary supplements than needed tend to have a higher risk of developing cancer,” explains Byers, associate director for cancer prevention and control at the CU Cancer Center.

Some specific findings of the study showed bad results in the form of increased incidence of cancer from excess vitamin E, folic acid, and beta-keratin. This shouldn’t come as a tremendous surprise to us. God gave us a multitude of nourishing foods, foods that will, if eaten wisely, will provide all of the vitamins and minerals our bodies need and more. What fools we humans are to think we can effectively short-cut that process in the form of a pill.

I was never a “Flintstones Kid” when growing up. After reading this study, perhaps I should thank my mother for not jumping onto that bandwagon.

Good Diet Advice?

movie_snacksA recent article in the New York Times provides seven “simple rules for healthy eating. As I read these rules, I’m struck by how sensible they seem, but then I’m also struck by how the “common sense” of 2015 that underlies these rules might have seemed senseless a few years ago. Take, for example the brave new world attitude toward two of the bogeymen of diets past:

Things like salt and fat aren’t the enemy. They are often necessary in the preparation of tasty, satisfying food. The key here is moderation. Use what you need. Seasoning is often what makes vegetables taste good. Don’t be afraid of them, but don’t go crazy with them either.

As appetizing (sorry) as I find these guidelines, I wonder if the author Dr. Aaron Carroll, isn’t just lending his credentials to the prevailing winds of public opinion. In fact, this scientist admits pretty frankly that his ideas are not terribly scientific.

These suggestions are also not supported by the scientific weight of rigorous randomized controlled trials, because little in nutrition is.

If this is true, as it apparently is–after all, would a doctor lie?–then why are the pronouncements of doctors, nutritionists, or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to be taken seriously? Why should we think of a diet rich in pizza and cheesecake as being inferior to one full of whole grains and organic veggies? Why should we take this non-scientific advice more seriously than we take the dietary codes of the Old Testament? The answer: It just seems right. I’m sorry, but that’s pretty feeble science.

I have to admit that reading over Dr. Carroll’s ideas, I feel as if he gives good advice. I feel that, but I won’t be a bit surprised when the winds of opinion shift in ten years and decide that Wonder Bread was actually what we should have been eating all along.

 

Be (Less) Salt of the Earth

A spilled salt shakerIn Matthew 5:13, Jesus admonishes us to be the salt of the earth. It’s a metaphor, but why would Jesus make a positive metaphor out of such a wicked substance. After all, as anyone who pays attention to the scientific brilliance of TV newscast health reports, salt is a silent killer. Before long, Morton will be joining American Tobacco in a walk of shame for contributing to the long, slow demise of American health.

But not so fast, scientists are increasingly saying. A study in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that not only are the government’s recommendations for salt intake unnecessarily low but a too-low intake of salt can actually be a health risk. An article in the Washington Post presents the matter in some detail.

“The current [salt] guidelines are based on almost nothing,” said [Dr. Suzanne] Oparil, a distinguished professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Some people really want to hang onto this belief system on salt. But they are ignoring the evidence.”

How could something as simple as salt stymie scientists for so long? The answer is that, despite the dietary claims that are made for all kinds of foods, actually substantiating how eating influences human health is notoriously difficult.

Not being a chemist, a physician, a nutritionist, or anything else likely to get me a guest appearance on Dr. Oz, what am I to do? I have a host of established scientists on one side saying the salt will kill me, while a host of scientists on the other side, perhaps less established but possessing more recent studies, say that too little salt is a problem. I’m stuck in the middle, hand paralyzed over the salt shaker.

This dilemma is yet another underscore for something I’ve long believed: Christian life is better than non-Christian life. As a believer, I’d love to live a long and healthy life, but I recognize that my hope is not ultimately tied up with the findings of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. I can respect the way in which science lurches along testing provisional truths and moving from hypothesis to hypothesis, but I know that I can depend on the unmoving truth of the Word become flesh. The insight from the Holy Spirit, while not quite as specific as a recommended daily intake of sodium, will provide the guidance that I truly need.

While the nutritionists furiously rage together and the people imagine a vain thing, I’m going to focus on being the salt of the earth. Pass the salt, please.