Saturday, August 31, 2013

I'm on a Budget, and I don't Clip Coupons . . .

I actually enjoy grocery shopping.  When I get really good food without spending a lot of money, I feel really clever, like I'm beating the system.  It's a great feeling.

I have spent hours reading the blogs of supermoms who share their secrets for saving money on groceries. I've browsed websites where you can print all kinds of coupons.  And after all that, I hardly ever clip or use coupons.  And I'm okay with that.

There are a few reasons why I don't clip coupons.  First of all, couponing in the Northwest is pretty much a wash.  We don't have double or triple coupon days - well, maybe Albertsons still does that, but we don't have Albertsons in our town.  And when I can only use three manufacturer's coupons per purchase, it kind of takes the fun out of the whole idea of coupons.

Secondly, coupons don't always give you the best deal.  Maybe our grocery stores (Safeway and Leprekon Harvest Foods) are just really expensive, but most of the time when I see a coupon I want to use, the discount is not as good as just shopping at Grocery Outlet.  And once in a while neither the coupons nor Grocery Outlet are as good as Walgreens' sales.  This week Safeway has milk on sale for 14 cents cheaper than the cheapest milk in town and eggs for 30 cents cheaper.  But tomorrow Walgreens will have milk on sale for 20 cents cheaper than the cheapest milk in town and eggs for 70 cents cheaper.

Thirdly and most importantly, most coupons are for stuff I don't buy.  I make most of our meals from scratch (or nearly scratch), I don't have a pet or a baby, and I make my own cleaning and laundry products.

Now, I do use some coupons.  Safeway's "Just for U" program lets you "clip" coupons online to your Safeway card, plus they offer personalized deals.  When I first joined Just for U, I did the majority of my shopping at Safeway and was saving 30-50% off Safeway's retail prices, which was awesome.  But after the first couple months, I stopped getting so many good deals, and since part of the personalized offers are supposed to be based on stuff I already was buying, I can only assume that Safeway realized they were losing money by giving me 30% off produce on top of the sales on apples, grapes, and tomatoes, so they just cut back on things like that.  So now I hardly ever shop at Safeway, but once in a while they'll do some really good sales so I have to keep checking every week.

Anyway, so in addition to Safeway, this is how my husband and I save money on groceries:

1) As I said before, I make a lot of stuff from scratch.  Generally, the more stuff you can make on your own, the more money you will save.  I'm sure there are exceptions.  Personally, I don't make my own cheese or buy sprouted wheat.  I figure I'll be doing well if I can whip up a batch of mayonnaise later this week.  But the things I choose to make rather than buy, do cost less than the store version.

2)  I plan meals.  This takes a little bit of time (not as much as you might think), but it saves even more time (not to mention money) at the grocery store.  I plan meals based on our schedule (because one of us has to have time to make the meals), current sales, and what we already have in our pantry.

3)  We make a list, and we stick to it.  This is probably the most important thing.  If you wing it at the grocery store, you will definitely buy stuff you don't need or will never eat (especially if you shop when you're hungry).  Or you may forget things that you do need.  But making a list is pretty pointless if you don't stick to it.  I have a bad habit of getting additional stuff that's not on the list, but it's usually just to meet the quota I need to get a punch in my punch card, or because there happens to be a great sale on something we already buy.  My husband is a great list shopper.

4)  We comparison shop - to an extent.  This is a no-brainer, but we go where prices are the best.  However, if getting the best price on a product means driving out of town (we don't have Costco in town), then forget it.  For our family of two, spending $30 on gas per trip plus an annual $50 membership is not worth the potential savings, especially considering that we don't have the space to store all the items we would have to buy in bulk in order to save money.  Now, I know some people who do make regular trips out of town, shop at Costco, and it seems to work for them.  You have to figure out what works for you.

5) We use cash.  "Cash" to us doesn't mean a debit card - it means actual physical bills.  We take a certain amount to the store, and what's left over is our allowance.  For me, personally, using cash is a really good incentive to be frugal because I can actually see how much I have left and how much I'm spending.  For both of us, the knowledge that splurging (buying extra stuff we don't need) means less allowance money, is great incentive to stick to the list.

Anyway, there are lots of ways to save money, whether it's on groceries, clothes, toiletries, utilities, or anything else.  Most of the money we spend is discretionary - that is, we have some say in how much we spend.  From time to time we evaluate our current spending plan and see if it's working.

What do you do to save money on groceries?

Friday, August 30, 2013

Being More "Mere" Part 3: The Goodness of God

This is part 3 in my series on basic Christian doctrine.  I'm using Millard J. Erickson's book Introducing Christian Doctrine to outline God's attributes, not because I think it's the best book on earth but because its chapters on God's nature are very clearly laid out and easy to follow (and because I own the book so it's accessible).  This post discusses the moral traits of God, or God's goodness.
The Goodness of God

1.  Moral Purity - A lot of people use words like holiness, righteousness, and perfection interchangeably.  This is fine as far as it goes, but there are actually differences between these words.  Perfection, for our purposes, can actually fall into the category of life, from the last post - biblically, the word "perfect" means complete.  God is not a work in progress, like we are; He is not in the process of improving.  He is completely whole already.  Holiness is another oft-misunderstood word.  The word "holy" literally means "to cut off" - set apart, separate, different from.  God is not like us; God is not like anything or anyone. This is part of what we mean when we talk about the transcendence of God (see my last post), the concept that God is other.  Read the book of Isaiah starting around chapter 30.  Righteousness is the one that refers to pure moral rightness.  God does not sin, nor does he tempt anyone to sin (James 1:13). There is some debate among Christians whether God gets to arbitrarily define good and evil, or whether there is an external standard of good and evil that God merely adheres to.  Erickson suggests something of a compromise - that there is an objective, inherent reality of rightness and wrongness in existence, but that it is part of God's own essence rather than something external to him.  In my belief, this means God cannot do evil and call it good (like in Frost Nixon, when Nixon says an illegal act isn't illegal if it's the president who does it?  America disagreed).  Therefore, I think any doctrine of God which involves him doing something evil is probably a false or misinterpreted doctrine.  Just a suggestion.  Justice means two things; first that God always adheres to his righteous standards, and secondly, that he is the arbiter of justice, that is, he holds others accountable to his standards.

2. Integrity - This aspect relates to God's truthfulness.  That means that God is first of all genuine - he is a real, actual being, not a construct or make-believe concept.  The Bible calls our God the "true God" (cf. Joh 17:3, 1 Thessalonians 1:9, 1 John 5:20, Revelation 3:7, etc.).  No matter how great Christianity sounds, it's useless if it isn't true.  Beyond that, genuineness means that God doesn't merely seem to be the attributes that describe him; he actually is these things.  He's not putting up a front, embellishing his résumé, or showing only the best side of himself.  He is in every way exactly what he claims to be.  Another aspect of God's integrity is his veracity.  Veracity means that God doesn't lie (Titus 1:2).  Hebrews 6:18 says it is "impossible" for God to lie.  It's not just that God doesn't lie; he actually cannot because to do so would defy his nature.  "But I thought you said before that God can do anything?" you say.  Can God do something that is contrary to his character?  Lewis says this kind of question is nonsense, existing in the same category as "can God create a square triangle?"  He says that with God's omnipotence it is more correct to assert that God can do everything that is intrinsically possible - that is, everything that is consistent with his character.  Finally, integrity means that God is faithful.  In Erickson's words, "God is true [genuineness], he tells the truth [veracity], and he proves true [faithfulness]."  God keeps all his promises (1 Thessalonians 5:24); he never goes back on his word (Numbers 23:19).  Again and again Scripture calls us to trust in God's faithfulness, to believe that he will always keep his word, and to take comfort in this knowledge (Lamentations 3 is my favorite passage of Scripture for this reason).

3. Love - Many theologians believe that love is the most central attribute of God - that if you had to pick one word to describe him, this would have to be it.  In the classic novel The Hawk and the Dove by Penelope Wilcock, Father Peregrine points out that the Bible asserts "God is love" but never "God is justice" - there is a subtle but important difference between saying "God is loving" and "God is love," and between saying "God is just" and "God is justice."  The attribute of love is, I believe, central to the doctrine of the Trinity - and I know there are denominations of Christianity that don't affirm the Trinity, but if God is love, that means he has always been love, even before creation. Love always has an object, and divine love is inherently selfless (or so God tells us - cf. Romans 5:1-12 and 1 John 4).  So before Creation, whom did God love?  Only the Trinity can attempt to answer this question with any satisfaction:  the object of God the Father's love is the Son, and the object of the Son's love is the Father (John 14:31).  God has always existed in relationship, within the Trinity.  And I'm not saying you have to believe in the Trinity to be a true Christian (in my experience, many people who claim to believe in the Trinity, when asked to define the term, give the definition of what we now call "Oneness" doctrine).  The Trinity, like Oneness, is man's attempt to understand an incomprehensible God.  I just think the Trinity is probably the closest approximation to the real thing that we can currently think of.

One aspect of God's love is benevolence.  This means that God is concerned about the well-being of those he loves.  As I mentioned earlier, this divine love is inherently selfless - it is for our sake that God loves us (Deueteronomy 7:7-8), not because he needs us to fill some void in himself.  God's benevolent love is for all creation, not just for Christians; and his love is not just a feeling but moves him to action, so that he acts for the good of his creation (Matthew 5:45).  Another aspect of God's love is grace.  Grace means treating people not the way they deserve to be treated, but the way they need to be treated (cf. Psalm 103).  Parents don't love their children on the basis of what they deserve or don't deserve; they love them simply because they are.  Mercy is the third aspect of God's love.  It is closely tied to grace; another word for it is compassion.  God feels for us (Mark 1:41, Matthew 9:36, Matthew 14:14), and this feeling moves him to act on our behalf.  Finally, God is persistent.  Another word for this is long-suffering, or patient.  Another of my favorite passages in Scripture is 1 Peter 3, which talks about God waiting for us to repent, withholding judgment as long as possible.  God's heart is always for reconciliation.  He will always forgive (1 John 1:9), just as he instructed us always to forgive.

On another personal note, I think God's attributes have to be the starting point of our theology, and any conclusions we come to in our doctrine have to be consistent with our findings here.  If other doctrines call into question God's goodness or his greatness, I think we have to reexamine those doctrines.  As we move forward in this series, let's keep these traits in mind.  Next time we'll start going through Stott's book, Basic Christianity.

More in this series:

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Being More "Mere" Part 2 - The Greatness of God

So last week I started a series on the basic doctrines of the Christian faith, to focus on the common ground that Christians have rather than on the differences between denominations and traditions.  I'm going to use John Stott's book Basic Christianity as a reference, but for today I have to go into another text as well.  Basic Christianity begins with an examination of the person of Jesus Christ, but the context is apologetic - that is, to prove that Jesus' claims about himself were true.  It's a very good internal argument for the deity of Christ, but the purpose of this series is not apologetics, but a reaffirmation of agreed upon doctrine.

I think that an overview of theology needs to start with God.  That makes sense, right?  So I'm going to write about God's character, or to use the theological term, attributes.  Attributes are not descriptions of God's actions or  emotions; they are essential aspects of His nature, as much as being human is to our nature.  This also means that everything God says, thinks, does, or feels comes out of these attributes and is consistent with these attributes.  I'm going to base these next few posts on the textbook Introducing Christian Doctrine by Millard J. Erickson for this post, mostly because it was my theology book in high school so I happen to have it on hand, and also because I think the way it breaks down the attributes of God is very clear and systematic.  

I should note that depending on what church you go to, the "list" of God's attributes may not look exactly like this one, but basically this is what we all as Christians believe about God.  I'm not going to go verse-crazy with this, but I'll provide a few references if you want to look them up. 

Erickson divides God's attributes into two basic categories: greatness and goodness.  Greatness refers to God's divine power, while goodness refers to his personal or moral nature.  Today I'm going to focus on the former because I don't want this to be super incredibly long.  So without further ado - 

The Greatness of God

1. Spirituality - that is, God is Spirit (John 4:24).  He is not confined to a body as we are, and is therefore not subject to the limitations and restrictions associated with being a corporeal being.  The Bible often uses the word "invisible" to refer to the spirituality of God (John 1:18, 1 Timothy 1:17).  References to physical features of God - hands, feet, eyes, etc. - are not literal descriptions of what God looks like, but are anthropomorphisms.

2. Life - God is alive, full of life, the source of life.  God's personal name YHWH (Exodus 3:14) is most likely derived from the infinitive verb "to be."  One of the implications of this doctrine is that God was not created or caused by anything or anyone.  He has always been, and he will always be.  This is one of those concepts that will mess with your mind if you think about it very much.  Another implication of this is that God doesn't need us.  God doesn't lack anything or miss anything without us; he was perfectly complete on his own.  And that suggests that whatever motives God had for creating us were selfless rather than selfish - it wasn't for his own sake but for our sake that he made us.  Lewis says that if God does need us, it's because we need to be needed (Mere Christianity somewhere).

3.  Personality - meaning, God is a person.  Sometimes we forget this, especially when we start getting really deep in theological discussions. We start treating God like a concept, an idea, or a state of mind, rather than a personal being with thoughts and feelings.  This means that our relationship with him is, in many ways, a lot like the relationships we have with other people.  God's not a machine that we can program or control or coerce.  We can also know him personally, and know about him.  I'll come back to this in a bit.

4. Infinity - God has no limits and cannot be limited.  This refers to his omnipresence (without spatial or temporal limits, able to be present anywhere and everywhere, in any and every dimension, at any and every time - not only that, but he does not exist within time or space but outside them - another mind-boggling concept - because they are part of his creation), omniscience (He knows everything, not just in an encyclopedic way, but in an intimate, experiential way), and omnipotence (God's power is without limit; he is capable of doing anything he wants to do).  

5. Immutability - Erickson refers to this as "constancy."  God cannot, does not, will not change (Malachi 3:6).  Probably my favorite part of the book of James is where he writes that God "does not change like shifting shadows" (1:17).  This means what was true of God before creation is true now; what was true of God in the person of Jesus Christ was true of him in the Old Testament; what was true of him today was true of him in the garden of Eden.  This doesn't mean that God is like a statue, stagnant and unmoving, but that his nature doesn't change.  We don't have to worry that God will someday be limited, or no longer living, or no longer good.  His character will always be the same.

A final note on God's greatness is the tension between transcendence and immanence.  Transcendence means that God is beyond us, above us, unknown and unknowable to us (Jeremiah 55:8-9, Isaiah 6:1-5).  Think about this: the only reason we know anything about God's existence is because God has revealed himself to us.  God has revealed himself to us in nature, in Scripture, in the Holy Spirit, and most of all by coming to earth in the person of Jesus Christ.  So while he is transcendent, God is also immanent.  He is with us (Isaiah 7:14); he works in and among us. My husband Justin wrote a great blog post a few days ago on God's nature, and I loved what he had to say on this subject:

"This vastness is so incomprehensible to man that even with the Bible we've only begun to understand a pinprick of the vastness of God.  There's always gonna be more to explore. [. . .] Despite all this vastness, we are not Deists, we believe God is Here, and Now, interacting with us, guiding us, ultimately loving us and wanting a relationship.  He is beautiful because He makes Himself knowable, and explorable, even now . . . while God is knowable, he is not fully known and never will be."

Tomorrow I'll look at the second half of God's attributes - his personal or moral characteristics, if you will.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Resolution: Paperless - Update

At the beginning of the year, I shared my New Year's resolution of reducing the amount of paper I use.  I'm probably long overdue for an update.

So this is what I've done so far.

1.  I got rid of papers I've been saving.  I wrote about this in my earlier post.  Basically I went through every piece of paper I saved from 8th grade through college (because yes, I did save stuff from 8th grade).  I scanned the relatively few important documents I wanted to save (which wasn't very much from high school - sadly, I lost most of the notes from my Theology classes, which is ironic because those were the first things I transcribed to my computer, years ago - I'll come back to this).  I recycled everything else.

2.  I no longer keep receipts.  Well, that's not entirely true.  I used to keep the receipt for every nickel I spent, even if I went to Starbucks with a gift card.  I filed them and kept them, seriously.  Then I started doing my tax returns myself instead of having my dad do them, and I realized that there is no point in keeping personal receipts unless it's for something I might return.  So now I scan receipts that I will need for taxes - anything related to my car, business, medical expenses, etc. - and recycle or throw the paper copies (yes, I admit to throwing away paper and I'm sorry), along with receipts for groceries and other personal expenses.

3.  I back up what I don't want to lose!  When you back up files on your computer, you need to back up your back up.  When I had my first laptop (ah, youth!), I loaded it with documents - my writing, journaling, poetry, notes from theology class, etc.  Then my hard drive got corrupted and I lost everything.  And that's the end of the story.  Much like Strong Bad, my approach to backing up my files was along the lines of "Is that a real thing I have to do?"  This was because my original backup was a 3.5" floppy disk, and then I got a computer that didn't have a floppy drive.  So now I use Google Drive and Dropbox, which are both free programs that will automatically sync your files online.  You really should back up your files in two locations, preferably an Internet folder and an external hard drive (or flash drive, or what have you).  I put my personal and work files in Drive and keep Dropbox for my dance company files.

The notion of going paper-less (not paperless, just less paper) has actually expanded beyond my original intentions.  I've found there are a lot of ways I can cut down on how much paper I use, and I've adopted some of them:

4.  I no longer buy disposable cleaning wipes.  I don't have a baby or a small child, so this wasn't a huge deal, but I used to clean EVERYTHING with Clorox disinfecting wipes.  They are just so easy!  But they do create a lot of waste, and the cost adds up.  Now I use washable Handi-wipes and T-shirt rags with my homemade cleaners, which last a lot longer and are much less expensive (try $2 for 2 pounds of baking soda).

5.  I cut back on paper towels.  This one is much harder for me.  Paper towels are really convenient for everything from cleaning up messes to microwaving bacon, but have you looked at how much they cost?!  To me, that's more outrageous than the amount of waste they generate.  Anyway, I am looking forward to creating my own NON-paper towel roll in the near future, mostly because they can be really cute!  There are lots of tutorials on how to make your own reusable non-paper towel rolls - here's one.

There are lots of ways to cut back on paper in the home; these are just a few.

Are you trying to reduce waste or use less paper?  If so, what are you doing?

Being More "Mere" Part 1: Introduction

MY DEAR WORMWOOD,The real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that it is merely Christian. They all have individual interests, of course, but the bond remains mere Christianity. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call "Christianity And". You know - Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. 
 (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter XXV)  

At my husband's suggestion, I'm going to do a few blog posts that are on more serious topics than dinner recipes and seasonal decorating projects.  I've decided to do a series on the latter half of John Stott's book Basic Christianity.  

At the risk of getting unto trouble by implicating persons I admire and respect, I'm getting a little tired of the divisiveness I've seen growing within the Christian Church.  By divisiveness I don't mean the existence of different denominations; I'm actually okay with that.  I mean the current trend of taking sides on a variety of doctrinal issues and then each side lining up to shoot barbs at the other side.  And it's not that the issues they talk about aren't important - gender roles, sexual morality, the nature of man, theories about the atonement - these are all really big deals, and we should talk about them.  But I'm not happy that we're talking about only these issues, and more specifically, I'm not happy with the way people talk about them.  If you've been around any of these topics, you know what I'm talking about.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, you might want to keep it that way.

I opened with a quote from The Screwtape Letters, a fascinating and disturbing novel in which the elder demon Screwtape advises his protégé Wormwood on the proper way to tempt his charge, a human being who has become - much to Screwtape's horror - a Christian.  Screwtape argues that Wormwood can neutralize Christians by separating them into different factions, allowing their faith to become no more than a platform for their true cause.  As long as believers are merely Christian - that is, as long as the most central aspect of our faith is Christ Himself, not some other issue (no matter how important or trivial) - the Church remains a force that the very gates of hell cannot overcome.  But if anything else takes Christ's place as the Most Important Thing, our faith ceases to be the gospel that has the power to transform our hearts, our lives, and our world.

So it's not that other issues are not worth discussing; it's just that they can't become the core of our faith - and when they become so important that it leads to the kind of bickering I've seen too much of lately, I think we need to take a step back . . . and maybe reexamine what it is that we have in common rather than focusing solely on what divides us.

You probably wonder why I'm not going to go through Mere Christianity since I've been referring to Lewis this whole time.  That's a great book, but it's also very long, and I think most of the people who will read this blog are already familiar with it.  Stott's book is more concise and therefore easier to use for my purposes.  It's a short (about 100 pages) summary of what the Christian faith is at its core and why it's reasonable to believe it.  I'm writing this in an attempt to find and reaffirm the common ground that is shared among all Christians, to give us more to talk about than just what divides us.  At the end of the day,  "There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4:4-6 NIV), and we should remember that.

I admit I've participated in a lot of the debates in the past, and I'm sure I will again in the future.  But for now, I think I personally need to let that go.  I want to get past the "us versus them" mentality and be more merely Christian.  This series, like this blog, is largely personal, a way for me to document my own process and growth.  If you're in the same place as me, feel free to follow along and comment.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Stepping into the World of Essential Oils

Disclaimer: this post is going to be somewhat critical of doTerra and of multi-level marketing companies in general.  The intent is not to give offense, but to process through my own research, as well as to point out the importance of doing one's homework.  Never before in history has information been so readily available to the general public.  With the Internet, it is so easy to research and learn about any topic, and yet most of us are content to believe whatever we hear without checking the facts.  Often we ourselves even contribute to the spread of misinformation, not because we are trying to deceive anyone, but because we just assume what we've been told is the truth - sometimes it isn't.

I have been wanting to start using essential oils (mostly for cleaning and air freshener) for some time now.  I knew very little about them, but the idea of using fewer synthetic chemicals in my home was appealing to me.  So naturally, I was very excited to be invited to a doTerra class.

It's called a "class" because there's a textbook, and you learn things about specific oils (their properties, common uses, etc.), but if you've ever been to a Mary Kay or Pampered Chef party (or Tupperware party, to be more original) the structure is basically the same.  You learn about the products, you hear lots of testimonials, you try some samples, and then you order.  Along with the ordering process, you can opt to become a consultant so that you can make a little money selling the products yourself.

I was very intrigued, but I couldn't afford to buy anything at the time.  I went home determined to save my money to buy a kit, but I also thought it would be a good idea to do some research on essential oils in general, and doTerra specifically, before purchasing anything.  I mean, if I'm going to plunk down $30 per 5-15 mL bottle, plus a $35 membership fee (which is waived if you opt for one of the kits - they start around $150), I want to know what it is I'm getting, and whether there are alternatives out there of equal quality, for less money.  I'm glad I did this, because so far my research has been very eye-opening.

The first thing I found out is that every company claims to sell the highest quality essential oils available.  Obviously, every company (no matter what they sell) is going to say as much as they can legally get away with - and in some cases, more than they can legally get away with - to convince people to buy their product.  These statements are claims; they are not facts.  Facts can be used to substantiate or invalidate those claims.

So how can we know whether a company's claims are true?

doTerra is quick to answer with the phrase "Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade."  They claim theirs are the only products that have earned this designation because they are rigorously tested for purity and potency, and only the products that meet their exceptionally high standards are labeled CPTG and sold under the doTerra label.  No other company has CPTG oils; therefore doTerra's products are unquestionably the best.

This claim is misleading because the CPTG logo is a registered trademark, and the owner of the trademark is doTerra (scroll down to the bottom of the last page I linked, or look at the screenshot below).  No other company's essential oils can be called CPTG in the same way that no other company's essential oils can be called doTerra.  The truth is, there are no certified essential oils.  Unlike many other certifications, such as the USDA Organic seal, there is no organization that regulates or tests all essential oils and certifies the ones that meet the grade.  This is not to say that doTerra's products are not as good as they claim, or that they are not really tested for purity; it just means the CPTG stamp is no indicator of doTerra's quality relative to other companies' products.

There are, however, certified organic essential oils.  The USDA and NOP regulations concerning organic products are strict and clearly laid out, and several companies are accredited by these organizations to certify, among other things, essential oils.  Here are a few I found in a quick Internet search:

Midwest Organic Services Association
Organic Certifiers
Bay State Organic Certifiers

Interestingly, doTerra does not offer any certified organic essential oils, while many other companies do.  They claim their products are free of pesticides and basically the same quality as certified organic oils, but they simply don't go through the certification process, because varying standards make it difficult to obtain certification for all their oils.  However, many essential oil companies offer organic as well as non-organic oils, and a few offer certified organic oils only.

The second thing I learned about essential oils, or EOs for short, is that there are two very important factors for determining the quality of an essential oil: purity and potency.  

Purity means that the bottled product is 100% essential oil, with no fillers, additives, or bases - nothing added, nothing taken away.  In other words, pure means undiluted, containing only one ingredient.  "Pure" does not mean safe, nontoxic, organic, or hypoallergenic.  I put that in bold because it will become important later.  Many companies claim their oils are "100% Pure," but that really doesn't mean anything. Peppermint extract, the kind you get at the grocery store, says "100% Pure" right on the bottle and it's 90% alcohol (turn the bottle over and read the ingredients).  

Potency refers to the strength of the oil.  EOs are highly concentrated substances, often requiring hundreds of plants to yield a few milliliters.  The idea is that more potent an oil is, the more of its beneficial qualities you receive when you use it. EOs tend to be the most potent when they are harvested from their indigenous environments; many EO companies import a large number of their oils because they are not indigenous to the US.  Good essential oils are extremely potent, concentrated and in quantities that do not occur in nature.  This fact is also very important to remember later so it is also in bold.

So if there are no industry regulations on essential oils, how do you know if a company's claims to purity and potency are true?  The only way is to get documentation, and some EO companies will provide you with such upon request.  To be more specific, you should look for GC-MS (gas chromatography -  mass spectrometry) reports for each batch of oils, which refer to the quality testing done on the products, as well as MSDS (material safety data sheets), which include instructions on the safe usage of the products.  doTerra claims to do GC-MS testing, among other tests, but I don't think there's a way to obtain the documenation for them.  That doesn't mean they're lying about what testing they do; it just means other companies, which do provide that information, are more transparent.

At the doTerra class, I was told by the consultant that doTerra owns or controls about 80% of the world's essential oil, either in owning the land or in purchasing more oil than the company uses.  I was told that the oil doTerra purchases that does not meet its quality standards is sold to other EO companies, which sell them at a lower price.  As far as my research can determine, nothing about this claim is true.  doTerra's own website affirms that doTerra does not own any farms and only purchases high quality oils - if the oils are low quality, doTerra doesn't purchase them.  Now, I don't know if they purchase apparently high quality oils, test them, find them inferior, and then sell them to other companies - that's certainly possible.  That means it's important that the essential oil company you choose is upfront about exactly where they purchase their oils.

The next thing I learned is that you should not ingest essential oils unless directed to do so by a licensed aromatherapist who has an insurance policy that covers internal use of essential oils.  doTerra confidently asserts that their oils are safe to consume, and their website, consultants, and member magazine all encourage daily consumption.  They claim that because their oils are the purest available, they are safe to ingest.  However, the issue is not purity but potency.  Think about it: we consume impurities all the time (ever drunk from a drinking fountain?).  Our bodies are pretty good at flushing them out, although we should certainly do what we can do avoid them when possible.  However, consuming any edible thing in a large enough quantity can be not only dangerous, but potentially fatal.  A glass of red wine is great for your heart; several gallons will kill you.  You can overdose on just about anything, but most of the substances we consume are in small enough amounts that we're not in danger.

Remember what I said about how good essential oils are extremely potent?  doTerra claims that its es
sential oils are the highest quality possible, which means they should be the most potent possible.  Shouldn't that mean they are the most dangerous to consume?  Essential oils are so highly concentrated that even one or two drops could overload your system.  This doesn't mean everyone who consumes EOs is going to be poisoned or die.  I mean, you can take strychnine without being fatally poisoned if you take a small enough dose (it used to be an ingredient in certain medications).  There have been reports of poisoning and even fatalities as a result of ingesting EOs - rare, to be sure, but very real.  Consuming EOs without the approval of a licensed aromatherapist is like taking prescription drugs without the approval of a medical doctor.  It may or may not kill you, but it's not a good idea.

Fourthly, I learned that most essential oils should be diluted when used on the skin.  Again, here doTerra differs from the consensus of respected experts in the field of aromatherapy by recommending the use of neat (undiluted) essential oils.  There are a few that can safely be used on skin, but most should be diluted in what's called a "carrier oil" (such as coconut or grapeseed oil, although there are many others).  The recommendations I've seen generally are 1-5% essential oil.  Also, greater caution should be used in applying EOs to the skin of children.  In my experience, children are a bit more sensitive to external stimuli in many forms (sunlight, temperature, spiciness, etc.), not just EOs.  Traditional medications are prescribed in smaller doses for children than adults; logically, the same goes for EOs.  Remember, "purity" does not mean hypoallergenic - it means you're putting an undiluted, highly concentrated, extremely potent substance directly on your skin.  It's just wisest to take precautions.

Finally, I learned that multi-level marketing drives up costs.  Multi-level marketing, or MLM, is a company structure in which consumers can become low-level management by selling the product they also purchase.  Avon, Mary Kay, Thirty-One, Youg Living, Pampered Chef, doTerra, and many other companies are MLM companies.  You have the executives at the top of the ladder, and below them are multiple layers of people who sell doTerra to other people, who in turn sell it to others.  The higher up on the ladder you get, the greater your discount on the product - this creates incentive to sell to others.  There are lots of bonuses and freebies built into the system for added incentive.  However, all these levels drive up the overall cost of the product because that is a lot of salaries you are paying for when you buy your product.  This doesn't make the product bad, and it doesn't mean you shouldn't buy it - but if you wonder why the product is so expensive, well, now you know.

After all I've read and all I've now written, do I think doTerra is bad or that people shouldn't order from them?  Not necessarily.  I'm sure their products are good quality - in fact, if you're active in some kind of athletic field, it might be worth it to you to get your oils from doTerra simply because their "Deep Blue" rub is so good - it's like IcyHot, but it actually works.  So far I haven't found a product like it from any other EO company, although I'm going to try to see if a blend of the essential oils they used, added to lotion, will work.  Anyway, I am just not convinced doTerra is the best company, or that their quality is worth the price tag, at least for me.

I am still a novice when it comes to essential oils, and I will continue to research before I start using them. If you want to learn more about essential oils, if you're looking for a company and really want to do your homework, or if you already use essential oils, a number of bloggers and websites have done far more thorough research than I have.  Here are the main ones I found helpful:

Whole New Mom (part 1 of a 7-part series)
Granola Living
Crunchy Betty

Burlap Summer Wreath

I make a lot of wreaths . . .  But I wanted something for summer that I could put up after the 4th of July, and I've been wanting to try a burlap wreath, so there you go.

So, the key factor here is that I had virtually no idea how you're supposed to make a burlap wreath.  I don't know if I did mine the "right" way or not, but I like how it turned out so I guess that's all that matters.

Here is what I started with:

I should start writing the cost of each item and taking a picture of that because I can't remember exactly how much these were.  I know the burlap was the more expensive item, $5 or $6, and I think the wreath frame was under $3.  I got both in Walmart in the same aisle as flowers and wreath supplies.

To loop the burlap, I just went through every other space.  I think maybe you're supposed to loop the burlap through the innermost and outermost slots to get bigger loops, but like I said, I really don't know.

Each time I looped the burlap through the slots, I adjusted the material to make it loopy.

Then I alternated which slots I went through  (that is, if I went over-under-over-under on one pass, I went under-over-under-over right next to it).

Again, after pulling the burlap through, I fluffed it up.

I ended up doing three "rows" of burlap for each section of the wreath (counting the space between the cross pieces as a section).

Then I just kept going, not really sure if I was going to like the result or not (I think the loops are supposed to be bigger and fluffier than what I did), until I ended up with this:

There was only a little bit of burlap left so I tied it into a huge bow and made that the top of the wreath.

This is how mine looked up close.

Finally, I went to the Dollar Tree and bought five bunches of flowers.  I love the dark centers of the daisies. 

I just stuck the flowers right into the burlap.  Eventually I will probably hot glue them to make them more permanent.

I think it's pretty good for not knowing what I was doing!    I'll leave it up until it's time to change to fall decor . . . such a bittersweet thought.  Summer has gone by way too fast!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

To be or not to be (careful)

I spent a lot of time online during what I call the Golden Age of Message Boards.  You know, before Facebook went public, long after Myspace was decidedly uncool, and shortly before texting became a global phenomenon?  A few years ago, message boarding was how people from anywhere around the world could communicate about any given subject, serious or trivial, for any length of time.  On the message board I frequented, most of the heavy traffic discussions were of the headier sort - theology, philosophy, ethics, politics (the latter of which I mostly stayed away from).  I learned a lot about other people's beliefs, I became more certain of my own, and some of mine even changed as a direct result of the conversations I had with people way more intelligent or educated than myself.

In one such discussion, the subject of heresy came up, and I'll never forget what one friend said: "Heresy is a conversation ender."  It's like what debate enthusiasts now call the "Hitler fallacy" - when one side of the debate makes a reference to Hitler or Nazism, the debate is over because the other side realizes that rather than trying to prove their point, they now have to prove they don't support world domination and genocide.  There are certain words or statements that, once you bring them up, end the possibility of all future discussion.  "Heresy" is one of those words.  When you call someone a heretic, or label the belief they are defending heresy, you are saying there is no way you can respect or even listen to what they say.  At that point, why keep talking?

Fortunately, very few people use the word "heresy" in the conversations I participate in or silently follow (one of the things I learned from message boarding, actually, was the value of occasionally not participating), which is encouraging because it shows the Church has made some progress in getting along with its minority members in the last 500 years or so.  But I do see a phrase emerging in its place, for when one person wants to let another person know that what they believe is either heretical or very close to it, but doesn't want to come right out and say so.  It's the phrase "be careful."

I see this when somebody defends a belief that is outside evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity.  I see it with nontraditional systems that seek to do away with established hierarchies or limitations.  And I especially see it with comments ending in question marks, to the effect of "What if the traditional model of church, or the mainstream interpretation of this Bible passage, or the popular doctrine of this subject, isn't the correct one?" - "Be careful."

Why is it apparently dangerous if a person asks questions about their faith, and why does it freak others out to the point that they caution them against doing so?  I grew up in a home that criticized other religions for prohibiting critical thinking and questioning the faith, but if that's not allowed within the Church, how do we differ from a cult?

What is going to happen to a person who gives up the current popular doctrine in favor of one that was commonly held in the early church?  They may discover a deeper, more contextually appropriate understanding of Scripture that has been lost to modern readers.

What is so bad about a person trying to understand Paul's statement "In Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free" in a contemporary setting?  Two hundred years ago, a lot of people probably told abolitionists to "be careful" lest they upset the God-ordained institution of slavery.  A lot of people probably said the same thing to suffragettes and civil rights activists in the 20th century.

Don't get me wrong; I think we should be careful about many things.  We should give careful thought to how we use our resources (Haggai 1), we should be careful not to do good for the sake of our reputation (Matthew 6:1), we should be careful to do what is right (Romans 12:17), we should be careful how we build the Church (1 Corinthians 3:10), we should be careful not to make others stumble simply by exercising the freedom we have in Christ (1 Corinthians 8:9), we should be careful not to become prideful and thus fall into sin (1 Corinthians 10:12), we should be careful to live wisely and make the most of our time (Ephesians 5:15), we must be careful about falling into unbelief or disobedience (Hebrews 4:1), and yes, we must be careful of teachers and teachings that may lead us to hypocrisy or unbelief (Matthew 16:6).  In other words, we shouldn't let any part of our life be thoughtless; we have to pay attention to what we think, who we believe, and what we choose to do about it.

But here's the catch: that is exactly what a lot of these "unorthodox" people are doing.  Having grown up in the Church, having been told from early childhood what to believe and how to think, they - or I guess I should say "we" - have decided that is not a careful way to live.  We are reexamining our faith in order to make it stronger, more biblical, and more central to our lives.  This involves questions.  This involves branching out to different traditions, some old and some new.  This may involve reaching conclusions that are different from what we were originally taught.  And believe me - it's just as scary for us as it is for the people watching us do it.  So yes, actually, we are being careful in how we go about it.

I started writing this post with the intention of concluding that "be careful" is just as much a conversation ender as the Hitler fallacy or the heresy card.  Now I'm thinking, it's not so much that it's a bad thing to say, but it's not very useful.  Consider the following scene from my favorite TV show, The Big Bang Theory.

Sheldon is searching for a cricket in the shaft of the apartment's broken elevator (long story - two long stories, actually).  Raj, watching from above, shouts down to him, " Be careful!"  Sheldon replies candidly, "If I were not being careful, your telling me to be careful would not make me careful."

We have good intentions when we tell people to be careful, but what are we really saying?  Do we mean "you are bordering on heresy here and need to stop pursuing this line of thought?"  Because not only is that a discussion-stopper, it might actually be you who is wrong.  Or do we simply mean "be careful in your exploration to thoughtfully examine what you read or hear, and to study the Bible and pray over what you are discovering?"  Because the person you're saying it to might already be doing that.  More importantly, maybe the person you should be saying it to is yourself.  "Be careful" - I think we should all take these words to heart.