-- The deaths of political icon Ted Kennedy and pop superstar Michael Jackson elicited heartfelt tributes as well as harsh critiques.
-- Likewise, the country's collective conscience was disturbed to learn about Tiger Woods' adultery.
-- Even the swine flu burst into public awareness, but despite dire predictions from the federal government and the United Nations, the epidemic did not rise to the severity of the seasonal flu viruses of 2008.
However, 2009 will not be remembered for the merely tantalizing, or sensational, or even for a deeply emotional moment, but for the promises of enduring hope and change ... and unfortunately for the frustrating realities of "more of the same."
Shortly into 2009, The "Miracle on the Hudson" gave the nation an emotional surge of hope when on Jan. 15 US Airways Captain Chesley Sullenberger piloted his powerless aircraft to an emergency landing on the river, saving the lives of all 155 onboard after losing both engines to bird strikes seconds after takeoff.
AN AMERICAN FIRST
The lifted national spirit was a fitting precursor to the historic inauguration of the first African American president of the United States which took place five days later. Hope was the word of the day or at least the politically correct response as liberals and conservatives alike wrote and spoke reverently of the promise in the Declaration of Independence fulfilled in Barack Obama: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Whatever the true feelings of the political pundits, when all was said and done, it seemed most Americans were sincerely moved by the symbolism of how far we have come in race relations in the U.S. represented in Obama's election by a white majority electorate.
FOREIGN AID OR GLOBAL OFFENSIVE?
However, the political peace was short-lived. Only three days later Obama overturned the Mexico City Policy, an executive order -- originally signed in 1984 and active under presidents Reagan, Bush the elder and "W" -- that previously prohibited U.S. family planning funds from going to foreign non-governmental organizations that perform abortions or "actively promote" abortion as a method of family planning in other countries.
The policy had not reduced funding for family planning, but only had restricted money from going to any group that included abortion as part of its "family planning" services. The policy also had allowed referrals for abortion in cases of rape, incest or where the mother's life would be endangered if the unborn child were carried to term and for treatments of injuries caused by legal or illegal abortions.
Obama supporters claimed the president's move will save women from injury and death due to "back alley" abortions. Critics countered that U.S. taxpayer funds will be used to promote human rights violations in countries with coercive abortion policies or forced sterilization programs.
Ironically, in the end, the policy change has the potential to result in the U.S. causing more deaths worldwide from "family planning" (increased abortions) than the number of deaths that have resulted from the simultaneous wars being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.
WAR & PEACE
Casualties in Iraq had declined considerably through the summer, but climbed again when U.S. troops began to pull back and be replaced by Iraqi forces in anticipation of a total withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2010. The surge in bombings in December will not delay the planned pullout, and as yet has not caused postponement of national elections scheduled for March. Only time will tell if the hard-earned peace will endure without a U.S. military presence and its promise of protection.
Meanwhile, 30,000 additional troops are headed to Afghanistan to combat increased terrorism by al-Qaida and the Taliban in that country and Pakistan. The extra forces are part of President Obama's revamped strategy for the region. But even with more boots on the ground, it might be too little too late to create security and then transfer responsibility to Afghanistan forces by the president's pullout date of July 2011.
On Dec. 7, the nation's highest-ranking military officer painted a bleak picture for 1,000 Marines at Camp Lejeune, telling them terrorism has surged in Afghanistan and casualties will rise next year as additional U.S. troops enter the fray.
"We are not winning, which means we are losing," said Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, adding, "the message traffic out there to recruits keeps getting better and more keep coming."
"That's why we need the 30,000 and particularly, and you are the lead on this, getting in there this year, over the next 12 months, almost in lightning bolt fashion."
The U.S. recession continued unabated despite bailouts for such financial sector giants as Goldman Sachs, as well as intervention for two of the Big Three automakers. Ford Motor Company was the lone automaker to decline Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) money, and it managed to emerge from the crisis without resorting to the same kind of bankruptcy protection invoked by General Motors and Chrysler.
Moreover, the economic stimulus package has yet to show promise of delivering on Obama's promise of 3.5 million jobs.
Unemployment jumped from 9.4 percent in September to 10.2 percent in October, marking only the second time since WWII that the rate has passed 10 percent. November saw it edge downward to 10 percent, but the outlook for the January 2010 report of December's rate is mixed, with many economists describing the state of the economy as a "jobless" recovery. Indeed, the actual joblessness in America is perhaps more severe than the official numbers claim.
Economists argue whether the number of people who have given up looking for work and thus not counted in the unemployment numbers has skewed the accuracy of the rate reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the severity of the situation can be seen in the precipitous drop in federal tax revenues. As of the end of the fiscal year in September, individual income tax receipts were down about 20 percent from the year before.
At this point 7 million jobs would have to be created to reverse the losses of the current crisis and another 100,000 new jobs added per month to account for workers just entering the labor force.
HEALTH CARE MALIGNANCY
First the House and then the Senate passed health care legislation intended to "fix" the nation's health care system, some say is broken because of lack of coverage for 35 million Americans and 10 million illegal immigrants, and because of skyrocketing costs that strain family budgets and imperil the viability of small and large businesses alike. While a public option (government-run program) seems no longer a hill to die on in the current legislative battle, certainly for some politicians and activists, a state-run program like that of Canada or Cuba seems to be the end game to ensure equality in what they feel is a health right.
Others counter that 85 percent of Americans are satisfied with their coverage and the needed fixes are: to enroll the 15 million uninsured who are eligible in programs like State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), Medicare and Medicaid; to create incentives to draw into private insurance plans about 15 million uninsured young adults who currently opt out largely because they feel health insurance is an unneeded expense; to pass tort reform to reduce costs from extra tests ordered by doctors to protect against malpractice suits; to provide portability as a means to address denial for pre-existing conditions when workers have to switch insurers due to job changes; and to address the illegal immigrant situation separately through a combination of paths to citizenship and enforcement of immigration laws.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the debate has not been the different possibilities for reform, but the lack of integrity and the corrupted values that have been exposed.
Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu showed her initial "holdout" of her vote had little to do with her need to consider details (some still not written) of the plan and everything to do with the estimated $300 million inserted as a set aside for Louisiana by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in his proposed bill (Landrieu subsequently hosted a New Orleans fundraiser for the embattled Reid who faces the very real threat of an ouster by voters in his native Nevada). Even pro-life stalwart Sen. Ben Nelson from Nebraska compromised his stance against pro-abortion language in the bill in order to secure $100 million in set asides for his state.
Whatever personal capital Landrieu and Nelson obtained might be lost in 2012 when both face fallout from angry electorates that overwhelmingly (about two-thirds in both states) oppose the proposed health care reform. The so-called "Louisiana Purchase" and "Nebraska Kickback" are pretty good evidence of politics as usual despite a wholesale change in the House, Senate and White House that transpired in 2006 in combination with 2008.
During December, world representatives convened in Copenhagen to craft a global warming treaty amid a growing controversy about hacked e-mails published on the Internet incriminating scientists at the United Kingdom's University of East Anglia's Climate Research Center which is ground zero for those who claim manmade greenhouse gases are causing global warming. The e-mails, which date back as far as 13 years, appear to show scientists withholding data which disputes their global warming theories. One of the exchanges mentions a "trick" to "hide the decline" in global temperatures.
CRC scientists claim statements have been taken out of context. Skeptics counter that the e-mails reveal a systematic effort to squelch data which shows there is no global warming and that man is not the culprit of climate change.
The Copenhagen conference ended with an official accord crafted basically by the U.S., Brazil, South Africa, India and China -- that although passed by the larger body was less than agreeable with Britain which usually is a strong U.S. ally. Like the health care debate in the U.S., "progress" in negotiations came with a price -- a $100 billion a year fund "to address the climate change needs of developing countries."
Even as the conference concluded, another scandal broke when Russian scientists declared that the Hadley Center for Climate Change at the British Meteorological Office in Exeter, Devon, England, had tampered with Russian temperature data. This latest revelation is particularly damaging to advocates of manmade global warming theories, because the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) depend on Hadley for the Russian data. Manmade global warming theorists had pointed to NOAA and NASA as "independent" sources to verify the work done by East Anglia's Climate Research Center (which is at the center of a fraud controversy). The corrupted Russian temperature data has contaminated all four research centers' work.
RELIGION IN THE NEWS
A couple of events spoke strongly to devotees and detractors in 2009.
Calvinists feted the 500th anniversary of John Calvin's birthday and the systematic theology that bears his name, while non-Calvinists used the occasion to point out his personal flaws and question Calvinists' interpretations of Scripture. Likewise the 400th anniversary of the "first" Baptist church in Europe created a theological stir among Anabaptists ("freewill"), Particular Baptists (Calvinists) and successionists ("first century" Baptists who see their heritage linking directly to the time of the Apostles), each claiming the "birthright" of Baptists.
The popularity of these different positions changes from generation to generation, in large part rising and falling in relation to the cycle of leadership (and the reflection of their respective beliefs) in seminaries and religious institutions.
However, there was an event of more lasting consequence for the larger Christian body in 2009 -- the formation of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Conservative members have been battling leaders in the Episcopal Church to stop the ordination of practicing homosexuals, and the denomination has suffered a number of losses the past several years with the defections of around 400 individual churches and at least one entire diocese, all of which aligned with the Anglican Communion through conservative bishops in Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Uganda and Kenya. The establishment of an alternative body to represent North American Anglicans signals a crippling injury to the Episcopal Church and not just sporadic hemorrhaging like past years.
THE SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION
There were some significant sidebars in Southern Baptist life in 2009, including a series of wakeup calls about prostate cancer and a referendum of sorts at the SBC annual meeting about a non-SBC pastor.
-- SBC President Johnny Hunt, pastor of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., announced Nov. 23 he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and will undergo initial treatment in January. Hunt was the third SBC leader this year to disclose a prostate cancer diagnosis, following O.S. Hawkins in August and Jack Graham in June. Hawkins is president of GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. Graham, a former SBC president, is pastor of the Dallas-area Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano.
-- Five of 31 motions in Louisville directly or indirectly related to the controversial Mark Driscoll, a pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Wash., and founder of the Acts 29 church planting network which allows only for Reformed (Calvinist) beliefs. The motions addressed the sale of his books; entity use of him as a speaker; and SBC employees' relationships with him -- because Driscoll is "known for publicly exhibiting unregenerate behavior ... such as cursing and sexual vulgarity, immorality" and he promotes "consumption" and "production of alcohol."
However, the biggest story line leading up to the June convention was the Great Commission Resurgence Declaration, a statement of 10 axioms unveiled by Hunt, but which was based on 12 axioms developed by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Danny Akin.
There was support and controversy.
Akin's statement called state conventions "bloated and inefficient bureaucracies with red tape a mile long" and also raised the specter of changing how Cooperative Program giving was defined, asking whether the giving channel "fairly and accurately reflects the gifts many Southern Baptist churches are making to the work of our denomination."
Hunt's declaration did not mention Akin's question about the CP, and his response to input from around the convention was to soften language about state conventions when he crafted his final version of the declaration.
In the end, the declaration was not offered for a vote, but messengers overwhelmingly approved a motion by R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, that authorized Hunt to appoint a task force to study how Southern Baptists can work "more faithfully and effectively together in serving Christ through the Great Commission," with Mohler saying the task force was "not an effort to reinvent the Southern Baptist Convention."
The GCRTF has held a number of meetings already and has announced it will release a report in February to the SBC Executive Committee.
News about the GCRTF was crowded off the front pages of state papers only by a succession of news about changes in leadership at the North American Mission Board, the International Mission Board and the Executive Committee.
In August Geoff Hammond, then president of NAMB, resigned under pressure from trustees only three months after being described by the trustee chairman as having "a steady, efficient and effective hand," and having "consistently sounded the clarion call that North America is a mission field" and leading NAMB "with a Christ-like attitude that I have had the privilege to witness firsthand." Trustees elected Hammond to his post in March 2007. NAMB has a 2010 budget of $126 million to support its mission work in the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
In September Jerry Rankin, IMB president since 1993, announced his intention to retire July 31, 2010. The IMB has a 2010 budget of $317.6 million to support its mission work overseas.
Later in the month SBC Executive Committee President Morris H. Chapman announced he would retire Sept. 30, 2010. Chapman served as SBC president for two terms before taking leadership of the SBC EC in 1992. The Executive Committee has a $6 million budget to support its ministry assignments and administers $3.14 million for SBC expenses such as conducting the annual meeting and the work of standing committees and special committees.
All three entities have formed search committees to identify a new chief executive for each of their respective ministries.
There are some easy "picks" when guessing what possible story lines might develop in 2010:
-- Every year there seems to be another public figure, whether politician, sports legend or television talk show host, who hasn't learned the horrible lessons from the previous year's scandal makers.
-- Technology is expanding so rapidly that scientific breakthroughs like finding water on the moon are a possibility every year.
-- The fervor of jihadists guarantees headlines about some sort of terrorism for 2010.
-- Politicking will be at a peak with a likely spirited grab by Republicans for seats in the U.S. House and Senate ... and an equally determined defense by Democrats.
But what Americans will be looking for in the new year are headlines that indicate real progress toward or actual achievement of the promises of hope and change they anticipated in 2009 -- economic improvement; peace at home and improving security in Afghanistan and Iraq; integrity and high character from public officials ... to name a few.
Likewise, evangelicals will be looking for promising signs, but hopefully not so much of the world -- although a good economy would aid Christians and non-Christians alike. Instead, these times should remind believers that true hope is anchored in Jesus Christ.
Southern Baptists will be anticipating details about proposed changes from the GCR Task Force, and waiting expectantly for the names of who will be leading three of their most important institutions. But perhaps even more so, they will be looking for continuity ... in the cooperation that has long defined the work and the fellowship of the churches who ARE the Southern Baptist Convention.
Will Hall is executive editor of Baptist Press.
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