Toys from Trash: Theology for the Rest of Us

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New Testament Reading—Acts 17: 22-29

This morning I would like for us to do a theological thought experiment.  We are going to test out Paul’s theology.  We are going to see if we can detect this God who is “not far from each one of us” and in whom “we live and move and have our being.” Before we apply this idea to our own lives, however, we’re first going to take a look at a case study I found for this morning.  I have for us the story of Arvind Gupta, a well-known science educator in India.  As I tell his story, I will occasionally ask questions for you to answer about whether you can see God moving in his life.  You don’t need to shout out your answers.  Just note them privately to yourself.

Gupta’s story begins in 1953 when he was born to parents who had never been to school. Gupta was nevertheless able to excel academically and make his way to a technological college in a city located in the North of India called Kanpur.  When he arrived there as a student, it was the seventies.  By his own account, this was a time of political upheaval that had released “a lot of social energy.”  This energy took a wide range of forms.  At the time, there were a few intellectuals at his school who “were sympathetic to” a militant communist movement known as the Naxalites.  According to Gupta, these intellectuals would endlessly discuss “class conflict” and seizing “state power” while they drank “umpteen cups of coffee.”  To Gupta, these intellectuals sounded empty and vain.  He would wonder why they weren’t doing anything about the plight of the servants who worked in their mess halls.  These servants would serve food “from early morning till late at night” and despite their hard work, their children were still not allowed admission into certain schools reserved for the privileged few.  By contrast, Gupta says that he and some of the other students “placed more faith in small positive action than empty rhetoric.”  They were the “doers.”  As such, they set out to teach the children of the mess servants themselves. We might pause at this point in the story to ask ourselves whether we can already see God moving in Gupta’s life.  Was God present when Gupta first began his life of service to the poor and disenfranchised of India?

When Gupta graduated from school, he went onto work for what is now the largest automobile company in India: Tata Motors.  After two years there, he came to the conclusion that he “was not born to make trucks.” Gupta was deeply influenced by the times, and an altruistic spirit pervaded the sciences in the 70s.  There was a belief in the science community of India that science should ideally serve a positive purpose for humanity, and if it couldn’t do that, then it at least it shouldn’t cause harm. Thus, some scientists decided to stop making bombs, while others went so far as to live by a defining slogan of the era that said, “Go to the people, live with them, love them, start from what they know, build on what they have.”  Another saying that Gupta quotes comes from an old Oxfam poster with a snippet of poetry that reads, “And somewhere there are engineers helping others fly faster than sound.  But, where are the engineers helping those who must live on the ground?”

Gupta took to heart such sentiments, and in 1978, he took a year off from work to join a program aimed at teaching science to children in the poor rural villages of India. Later, he would give up his job altogether to live and work in these villages.  In explaining his decision, he says that he was plagued by too many questions like “Why do the people who toil the hardest [and] do the most back breaking work, get paid the least?” For three years in the 80s, Gupta even felt compelled to work among union miners so that he might experience poverty and exploitation first hand.   He recalls that “many times the only meal” he had was “rice and salt” while his “bed was the union office floor.” Here we might pause to ask ourselves whether God was moving in Gupta’s life during this time.  Was God’s love present in his solidarity with the poor?  Was God at work in his developing consciousness of their plight?

Gupta’s life work would begin in the villages after he first left Tata Motors to teach science.  In the villages, there were not any labs.  The students learned by rote memorizing definitions and formulas that they would then spit out for their exams.  To improve this dismal learning environment, Gupta began to ask himself whether there was a way to use local materials at low to no cost as teaching aides.  He began to visit a local market bazaar in his search, and one day he had a breakthrough as he was inflating the tire of his bike.  He realized that he could combine pieces of the valve tube from his bike with matchsticks to make a homemade version of a popular science toy.  The tube pieces connect the matchsticks and allow one to build two and three-dimensional objects ranging from hexagons to complex molecular structures.

Gupta soon began developing more and more toys from the scraps of society that could be used to teach children science while also bringing joy into their lives.  For example, by using a battery, two safety pins, some copper coil, and two magnets, he was able to make a motor that teaches children about electricity and magnetism.  Such inventive and educational toys play a critical role in a society in which a lot of children come from families that can’t afford toys like Legos.

Gupta’s work has evolved and expanded over the years.  Today, he has a website entitled “Toys from Trash.”  It has over 250 films of 1 to 2 minutes in length that demonstrate how to make toys from materials that are normally considered ordinary junk.  The website breaks the toys into different categories like “Pumps from the Dump,” “Tipping Toppling Toys,” and “Fun with Pressure.”  We might pause and ask ourselves at this point whether God was moving in Gupta’s life when he created all of these toys?  Was Gupta’s creativity being channeled toward godly ends as countless children found new ways to experience joy and learning?

Gupta has made it his life’s mission to spread effective teaching aides and techniques in impoverished rural and urban areas.    He has conducted workshops in over 1,500 schools and institutions.  He has given presentations on over 128 TV programs.  Frequently, he appears under the name the “Green Guru.”  He has also published 18 science books for children with titles like “Aha! Activities” and “Science from Scrap,” He has additionally translated 120 books into Hindi.  This includes classics like “The Little Mermaid” and “The Giving Tree” as well as lesser known books like “How Do Flies Walk Upside Down” and “Do Whales Have Belly Buttons?”  With the advent of the internet, he has been able to reach an even greater audience.  In a country with 1.2 billion people that has no public libraries and where books are expensive, he has put his books and some of those he has translated online so that they can be accessed for free.  At the same time, his YouTube videos have been translated into 13 different languages.  They have an average of 3,000 viewers each day.

For his work, Gupta has used the analogy of fertile soil in a barren land.  In an educational terrain that is harsh and threatening to young seeds that will wilt without good soil, he believes his job is “to create a fistful of soil” regardless of circumstances or the humbleness of the task.  We might pause here and ask ourselves whether God is moving in Gupta’s life as he channels his abundant and seemingly tireless energy into doing whatever he can to further the development of healthy minds and curious intellects.  Is God present in the dynamism of his convictions, in his deep sense of purpose as he seeks to better the lives of millions of children?

Gupta has developed a whole philosophy for teaching science.  He believes it is “an insane notion” that “the more expensive the education, the better it is.”  He believes that “there is nothing more effective than using humble material for explaining scientific concepts to kids because they can relate to it.”  The traditional approach in many schools is far less accessible.  People end up dreading science because they “can’t comprehend what these heavy sounding words and concepts really stand for.”  One of Gupta’s goals is to demystify science and to make sure it is not too perplexing nor too boring.  Ultimately, for him science isn’t about wearing a white coat and working in a lab with lots of hardware.  It’s about having a particular viewpoint.  It is about taking a certain “critical angle” in how one sees things.  It’s about observing and detecting patterns in the world.

Perhaps, Gupta’s approach to science is a metaphor for what I think is a great approach to how churches can think and talk about God.  Talking about God doesn’t need to be something that’s either perplexing or boring.  Theology doesn’t need to be a subject that induces fear and dread.  Instead, it can be fun and exciting.  It can be a means of thrilling development and exploration for oneself and one’s community. Gupta observes that after every workshop in which he presents his toys there is a “gleam” in the eyes of the children.  Shouldn’t talk about God have a similar effect?

Talking about God also shouldn’t require a PhD.  It should be something that all of us can do by drawing upon observations of our own lives.  Not all of us are Gupta-level geniuses, but all of us have probably experienced God through service to others, through acts of solidarity with those less fortunate then ourselves, through consciousness raising about oppression, and through creatively using our resources and talents for the good of our families and communities.  Probably, all of us have additionally experienced a calling from God in which our convictions and our sense of purpose lead us to gladly act on behalf of the greater good.  If we but look at our lives from the right viewpoint, from a certain angle, we can see the same God that Paul saw.  We can see the God who is “not far from each one of us,” the God in whom “we live and move and have our being.”  With the right viewpoint, what once might have looked like the ordinary junk of our daily lives may soon look like spiritual treasures.  Amen.

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