The New Yorker has a cartoon this the first week of a new decade that can be filed under “Le Plus Ca Change, le plus c’est l’meme chose’. It is the end of the day, one spouse is just getting home from the office, the other spouse is working from home on the computer. He looks up from his computer and says “I don’t understand it- no matter how much I drink coffee, play on my phone, refresh my e-mail, look up things on-line, go to the kitchen for snacks, message my friends, scroll through Twitter and play with the cats, I still can’t get any writing done.”
Better technology, same human character issues.
Against that backdrop, we have the outrageous promise of God, “Behold, I am doing a new thing! … I am making a way through the wilderness. I am creating steady streams through the wasteland (Isaiah 43:19).
I certainly hope so… At the end of 2019, I would guess that most of us worried about a low grade fatigue that we feel in our souls. There are a few things that we are ready to be done with, more than ready to be done with, from the headlines of our papers.
This year, we saw a continuation, probably an expansion of religious and ethnic violence in our country and around the world. We saw a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas that targeted Latinos, apparently designed to gin up anti-immigrant sentiment. Closer to home, Orthodox Jews were attacked in Jersey City, then at a Hannukah party outside New York City, and earlier in the year, a shooter opened fire at a synagogue in San Diego.
This is the year that we had another shooter in Christ Church, New Zealand that shot up people at two different mosques, creating a worrying concern that gun violence to incite division was becoming an international trend.
It was matched by a church bombing in Sri Lanka.
And we had a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio and another shooting in Virginia Beach that appeared to have even more random and irrational. Ditto a church shooting in Fort Worth last week that would have been much worse, except the ushers fired back at the assailant. Add that to the list of things that did not teach us about in Seminary that I would need to know. Who woulda thunk?
This was the year that “Plastic in the Ocean” became a thing. If you need an ugly image of our negative impact on the Garden Earth we call home, a dead whale full of plastic packaging did the trick.
It merely illustrated what we already know. The last 10 years have been the 10 hottest years since we started keeping statistics in 1850.
Hurricane Dorian flattened the Bahamas with winds of 125 miles an hour. We barely dodged real disaster on the east coast of the United States, but we are now accepting that apocalyptic scale storms are becoming the new normal.
2019 became the year that we were first subjected to the detailed abuses of Harvey Weinstein and Jefferey Epstein. The #MeToo movement got widespread social traction for the first time, reminding us that we have tolerated generations of intolerable sexual harassment and gender disparity.
This was the year that “Brexit” became something of a symbol of interminable political gridlock that seemed to paralyze the land that first gave birth to the ideas of democracy with the Magna Carta in 1215.
And we fared no better in the land of the oldest continuous democracy on earth as Washington came to a government shutdown in February, gridlocked over appropriating the wall, and ended the year with impeachment.
Nationally, our country has epidemic opioid crisis, as last year 69, 029 people died from overdoses of narcotics. Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy fearing that they would lose a proposed settlement to settle claims for $12 billion. It is estimated that they made $35 billion from the sale of a drug designed to be used only by terminal cancer patients at the very end of life.
We still have almost no treatment facilities in the whole country, but I’m glad to say that New Jersey is at least starting to establish them.
Internationally, there are some real concerns too.
Venezuela cratered in 2019 with the disastrous policies of Nicholas Maduro and Hugo Chavez before him. Some 4 million people have been estimated to have fled the country as economic refugees, about 12% of the population. And they left largely without anything.
This is the year that protests in Hong Kong broke out into the open. It feels like the residents there need a whole lot more support from those of us in the free world than they are getting.
And, the Middle East has no functioning government in Syria, Yemen, barely functional government in Iraq and Lebanon. The photo that summed up the anarchy of perpetual war there came from the paper this week. It featured a young man standing on top of the carcass of a military jeep in front of a decimated village in Yemen. Locusts were swarming all around him and he was trying to catch them and kill them in utter futility.
There is a lot we would like to toss out, if we could. A lot that we wish we had not seen like Sean Spicer, the former White House Press Secretary on Dancing with the Stars. What was that?
More seriously, it is appropriate to stop for a moment and to remember the genuine contributions to human well being that we lost this year as well, the people who made a significant impact on our lives.
The great novelist Toni Morrison died, the author of “Beloved” and another dozen novel’s that helped shape our national discussion on race.
I.M. Pei (pronounced Pay), who upgraded the Louvre in Paris and became one of the major trend setters in architecture in our lifetime.
Jessye Norman, the Soprano at the Metropolitan Opera.
Franco Zefferelli, the great Italian Movie Director that gave us the most marvelous rendition of “Romeo and Juliet” and several other works by Shakespeare.
We lost three sports legends that exemplified sportsmanship and leadership for a generation. Bart Starr, #15, the quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, John Havlicek, #17 for the Boston Celtics, and Frank Robinson, #20 for the Baltimore Orioles who not only hit 586 home runs but became the first African-American Manager in Major League Baseball- both grace and greatness.
Finally, two public servants in government that exemplified leadership in season and out: Paul Volker at the Federal Reserve who guided us steadily through tumultuous change. And Representative Elijah Cummings who represented Baltimore in the United States Congress. He lived his whole life on the same block and he answered his door if you came to raise your concern. It can be done.
You can leave the world a better place for having been here and they all inspire us to do just that, no matter how difficult the world is.
There are things we need to leave behind socially, no question. But there is no legitimate cause for despair about our world.
It is important to zoom out as well and try to get a glimpse of the bigger picture. We have significant positive trends that we are living through as well.[i]
Every single day, it is estimated that 325,000 get electricity for the very first time. More than 200,000 get piped water for the first time. And, even more astonishing, this year 650,000 people went on-line for the very first time, each and every day.
If you are wondering if that is a significant percentage of the world population, the answer is ‘yes, it is.’
When I was born, a majority of the world’s population was illiterate and had always been illiterate. When I was born, a majority of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty and had always lived in extreme poverty.
This last decade, like the decade before it, has seen more than 170,000 people move out of extreme poverty each and every day. More than 245,000 started earning more than $10/day each and every day. Today, our best estimates are that less than 10% of the population live in extreme poverty, down from 60% when I was born.[ii]
We are living through the most rapid decline in world wide poverty in the history of the human race.
Today, it is estimated that nearly 90% of the population of the world is literate, the highest rate at anytime in our history as a species. That statistic alone doesn’t really capture the significance of education in our world because it has been most impactful educating girls, contributing to longer term trends towards gender equality which we know helps create stable families and stable communities everywhere.
Famine continues to decline in frequency. So are diseases that have plagued us for millenia like leprosy, polio, malaria, tuberculosis, measles, polio and heart disease.
Child mortality is at an all time low and it is half what it was two decades ago. It is hard to remember this but more than 50% of children died before 1900.
All these extra people, lead many of us to still worry about the future with the increased population and it is a very real concern.
But as [iii] Matt Ridley points out, the author of “The Rational Optimist”, 1st world nations are actually decreasing their rate of consumption consistently, not only as a percentage, but in absolute terms in many cases as well.
MIT scientist, Andrew MacAfee has been describing how efficiency continues to spur this trend in ways that you don’t think about since our phones have the computing power of a room full of equipment from the 70’s. Now we use them in stead of a camera, radio, flashlight, compass, calendar, watch, CD player, newspaper, games, etc…
It is an amazing compression in the past 30 years.
As worrisome as we can become about certain negative trends, Max Rosner, the Economist at Oxford University who runs the website “Our World in Data” says this. If you could choose which year to be born into of all the years in human history and you could only pick the year; in other words, you could be born either gender, 1st world or 3rd world, any race, into any religious home- all random. You would unquestionably choose to be born right now.”
Sometimes when you zoom out, you realize that even a whole bunch of our gripes are actually a privilege to be able to articulate. They reflect our rising sense of expectation as the general tide of prosperity continues to climb steadily.
And you? How are you in your soul?
Are you positive and optimistic? Are you concerned, worried? Are you battle with a low grade depression that just won’t seem to leave?
In the past couple weeks, you’ve been back to see your people, to remember where you came from. You can see yourself changing. You have very different needs now than you did ten years ago. You know you need to make some changes in yourself, for yourself.
You know that you are outgrowing some things from the past. You are outgrowing some people from the past.
You are a work in progress. And you should be spiritually positive because in the bigger trend, God loves you. God wants to bloom you. God wants you to rise as Maya Angelou used to say. God hopes that you will shine forth the awesome power that is resident inside you.
What is holding you back? What do you need to let go?
For some of us, you just wish you could grab all the trash in our lives, wad it up into a ball, and toss that crap away. It may be a list with just two or three things on it, but they are big for you personally and God wants you to be free.
St. Paul said, “let us lay aside every vice, every impediment, every thing that holds us back and weighs us down so that we might run the race of our lives that is set before us” (Hebrews 11). We are going to end this service with a moment of quiet reflection on the New Year.
You have a sheet of paper in front of you. Make a list of what you would like to burn up. Get specific, get real for a moment. There is something about writing it down, about saying it out loud to ourselves.
Mark is going to play. You reflect for a moment. You write. And when you are done, I’m going to invite you to wad that sucker up into a tight ball. We are going to take them outside together to the front patio of the church.
We have a fire pit out there. A holy incinerator for the crap you need to let go of this year, whatever it is that you need to move beyond, so you can get to a better place. God says, “Behold, I am doing a new thing! I will make a way for you too, through the wilderness. Forget the crap from the past. I will make a steady stream for you from the wasteland of the past. Can you not see the bigger picture?”
[i] What follows comes largely from Nicholas Kristoff’s op ed in the New York Times, “This Has Been the Best Year Ever” (December 28, 2019).
[ii] Matt Ridley, “Weve Just had the best Decade in Human History”, The Spectator.