Thursday, May 17, 2018

Review: A Plastic Ocean (2016)

The world faces peril and needs heroes. It does not need the Avengers or some other superhero. Plastic spreads like an insidious virus over the planet. In the ocean, the waves, sunlight, and wind break plastics into smaller and smaller pieces. Then, the tiny pieces act as magnets for harmful chemicals. Tiny fish eat the bits of plastic and it moves up the food chain. 
A Plastic Ocean (Dir. Craig Leeson, 2016) introduces Craig Leeson and Tanya Streeter. The two hosts of this documentary take viewers on a world tour of the impact of plastic. It’s everywhere. And, it feels overwhelming. They showed how plastic works its way into the digestive systems of fish, birds, mammals, and humans. The negative impact is incredible.
Why? This is a question a bit beyond the scope of the documentary. They focus on the science. They provide ample evidence to support their argument that plastics are ruining the planet. In one scene, Craig Leeson visits a variety of restaurants around Austin, TX. He asks for packaging that does not contain plastic. As expected, the wage-workers are mostly unable to comply. There are a few exceptions. The video is a bit unfair to the workers who are just trying to do their job. His point is well-made. The reason there is so much plastic in the ocean is the lack of available alternatives. Hence, when everything we buy is wrapped in plastic, the plastic has to go somewhere. 
In Germany, through a combination of government intervention and enterprise, turning waste to energy is economically viable. On U.S. aircraft carriers, a Canadian company called PyroGenesis uses a plasma torch to turn waste to its base elements. The byproduct is inert and the waste generates the energy needed to power the torch. 
Watching these examples gave me hope. I started imagining a ship sifting through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to collect resources for some future plastic-hungry technology. Jürgen Moltmann said, “Faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience.” As I felt hopeful, my restlessness increased. Why can’t we get started?!? I do not know. 
Precious Plastic provides instructions for micro-plastic recycling plants. Think garage-sized. It is a network of plastic activists who fight to take plastic out of landfills (& oceans!!!) and recycle it for future use. A French company called Brikawooddesigned a Lego-style wood-brick house. Now, if we combine Precious Plastic and Brikawood, we get a plastic home. (Do you see where I am going?) Using 3D printing, making plastic bricks, waste plastic could solve homelessness. If this were successful, then there would be a new plastic-hungry business, and maybe there will be ships jockeying for space in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 
The documentary ends with the challenge to “Think reusable, not disposable” and “Refuse single-use plastics.” The first is easier than the second. We went to the grocery store this afternoon. We took our own bags with us. However, most of the products include plastic. In this review, I have not addressed the chemicals (e.g. BPA) that seep into food or beverages. The two final challenges are aspirational. When we begin demanding that stores provide plastic-free packaging options, they will exist. Stores respond to market demands.  
A Plastic Ocean was an inspirational and encouraging documentary. I recommend everyone watch it and think about all the plastic in our lives. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Significant Things

[This is from The Word--the weekly newseltter at University Baptist Church]
Last week, in this column, I asked, “What is the most important question in the world today?” The point of the question is to stimulate our thought. We can explore questions like these together. As we explore, we can invite other people to join the voyage of discovery with us.  
The church is a place of significant things. We come to church at important times of life. We come for weddings and funerals. We experience baptism and celebrations. And, if we open our hearts, we can find God at church.
So, what is the most important question? How can we transcend those significant events (i.e. baptism or funerals) and experience transformation? This is a quest for meaning and relevance. What means the most to the most people? What question challenges everyone? What question has universal implications?
Ecclesiastes 5:1 says, “To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools.” Richard Foster talks about this “sacrifice of fools” in Celebrating Discipline. He writes, “The sacrifice of fools is humanly initiated religious talk” (p. 99). Instead of making a sacrifice of fools, we can seek true faith in God. Instead of human-focused religion, we can look for transformation. Asking about important questions and significant things is part of the journey toward transformation.
We are blessed and cursed with activities. In the last four weeks, we have hosted an academic lecture series and held multiple Holy Week worship services. There was a family work day. The first pre-OIAM event went wonderfully at Community Bikes (and provided a witness for Christ in an unlikely place). We joined together for a world trade simulation to experience social (in)justice. Jubilate performed a homecoming concert, and we are only days from the 45th Jubilate Reunion Weekend!
Are all of these activities life-giving? Or, do we succumb to the temptation of organized religion? Do we veer dangerously close to a sacrifice of fools? The youth are planning an upcoming worship service and told me that they want something meaningful. I do too! Every week, worship should be meaningful and life-giving. Each activity should celebrate our risen savior and reflect God’s light in the world.
Let us continue exploring significant things. Let us create a safe place to pursue these important questions, other people will join us in our pursuit. Let us make an honest assessment of our activities. If we find one that is not life-giving or transformative, let us seek to recreate it or let it go. These are exciting times to join God’s work in Charlottesville! I cannot wait to see where God leads us!

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Pause and See Christ This Holy Week

Jesus stepped away from the crowds. He took time to reflect and pray. His time in solitude gave him the space to recharge and prepare for what is next. Each one of us goes through seasons in life. We have busy times. We have slow times. We have intense periods, and there are peace-filled days. The ebb and flow of life is unique to each person. So, there is no one-size-fits-all spirituality.
Jesus responded to his situation. From the Bible, we know about his prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. But, we do not know how he prayed earlier in the week. Did he struggle? Did he experience stress about the swelling tide of public frustration with the Roman oppressors? How did he see his role in public discourse leading up to Passover?
According to Mark 13:32-33, Jesus says, “But about the day or hour no one knows… Beware. Keep alert. For you do not know when the time will come.” He admits a lack of clairvoyance. Yet, he remains attuned to God’s leading. The events of the week unfold. Judas betrays Jesus. The rest of his disciples desert him. He faces abuse and a mock trial alone. And, he dies on a cross alone.
Was he surprised? Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps he knew that his path would lead to death. He foretold his death in Mark 10:33. Perhaps he knew he would die for what he taught, but he might not have known when. Maybe he knew exactly what was going to happen when. We cannot truly know the mind of Christ. Only God knows.
We can, however, pause and see Christ. We can follow his journey. We can feel the pang of betrayal when Judas misunderstands everything and accepts the silver. We can listen in on the joy of Jesus and his closest friends having Seder together. Was there a child present to ask the traditional question, “Why is this night different?” Later that evening, we can experience the loneliness of Jesus in Gethsemane.
Mark 14-15 takes us on this journey. Let us pause this week. Turn off the news. Forget the latest sporting victory or tragedy. Step away from social media. Take a break from work. Open the Bible. Read carefully the events of Holy Week. Do not jump ahead to Mark 16. Save it for Sunday. 
Holy Week can be difficult. Going through it with Jesus makes Easter a richer experience.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Reflections from the Early Church: Athanasius

People called Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373) the “Father of Orthodoxy” in his lifetime. As contemporary Christians, we can learn much from these parents of the early church. They lived in the second and third centuries and faced different questions than we do today. But, the lessons they taught and the way they responded to heresies helped shape the faith we have today.
The First Council of Nicaea (325) required the Bishop of Alexandria to set the date of Easter each year. They did this through Festal Letters. As Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius wrote many such letters. These letters provided the opportunity to make a theological argument. Today, we can read them as devotions and find encouragement for our faith journeys.
In Athanasius’ nineteenth letter (347) he encourages his readers to hold frequent conversations with “our Master.” This invokes Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “Pray always.” Athanasius adds a metaphor.
For the world is like the sea to us… “This is the great and wide sea, there go the ships; the Leviathan, which You have created to play therein” [Psalm 104:26]. We float on this sea, as with the wind, through our own free-will, for each directs their course according to their will, and either, under the pilotage of the Word, one enters into rest, or, laid hold on by pleasure, one suffers shipwreck, and is in peril by storm. For as in the ocean there are storms and waves, so in the world there are many afflictions and trials.
Before moving to another metaphor, he summarizes his point. Those who favor temporal things cannot stand up to difficulties. Other metaphors make a similar point (e.g. building a house on sand). Regardless of the metaphor, we can grow in faith when we hold frequent conversations with God and put our emphasis on eternal matters. Ancient voices can offer wonderful modern lessons.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

What is a ‘Lecture Series’?

In the fall of 2017, a generous donor gave money for University Baptist to create an academic lecture series. We decided to name the series after the beloved former pastor Dick Myers. Now, the inaugural Richard E. Myers Lecture Series is only a few weeks away. And, recently, I learned that some people do not know what an academic ‘lecture series’ is.
 An academic ‘lecture series’ is an event at which a scholar presents some new research. In this case, Prof. Paul Fiddes and his wife Marion will travel from Oxford, United Kingdom to Charlottesville and spend March 18-23 here. He will deliver three lectures about his research on Shakespeare and religion. The title of his series is “The Play’s the Thing: Shakespeare & Religion.”
The lectures will begin at 5:00 PM on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, March 20-22. The lectures have the following titles:
March 20: A Midsummer Night’s Dream & Seeing with the Eyes of Love
March 21: King Lear & Taking Death Seriously
March 22: The Tempest & the Risks of Forgiveness
After a brief introduction, Prof. Fiddes will speak for approximately 50-60 minutes. Then, he will field questions for about 30 minutes. We will enjoy conversation during a reception with hors-d'oeuvres after the lecture. This will be an opportunity to talk more informally about what we just heard.
After Prof. Fiddes returns to Oxford, he will likely incorporate our questions into his project. Then, University of Virginia Press will publish the series of lectures as a book. This is a unique opportunity to hear a world-class theologian present his latest research.
So, who is our first lecturer? Prof. Fiddes holds the title of Professor of Systematic Theology in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford. He is Director of Research at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, where he was Principal from 1989 to 2007. He researches modern systematic theology; theology and literature; the impact of late-modern continental philosophy on literary theory and theology; and theology of culture. He is the author or editor of more than 25 books and the author of more than 115 articles and book chapters. His most recent book is Seeing the World and Knowing God. Hebrew Wisdom and Christian Doctrine in a Late-Modern Context (Oxford University Press, 2013). 
In 2017, Prof. Fiddes wrote his first work of fiction A Unicorn Dies: A Novel of Mystery and Ideas. University Baptist is honored to host a launch of this book on Wednesday, March 21, at 11:00 AM. Prof. Fiddes and I will each deliver short addresses.
We are blessed to have the chance to gather with such a great thinker and hear where his research is going. Invite your friends, neighbors, colleagues, and anyone else who might be interested in Shakespeare and religion. If you would like a poster, please contact the church office. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask me.