Looking Back/Looking Forward

December 31st, 2011

A New Beginning

Welcome to January and to 2012. The word January is taken from the Roman god of gates and doors, Janus, who is perhaps best known for his two-faced head: One face looks forward, the other looks backward. Janus was worshiped at times of harvest, marriage, birth, and other beginnings. It is no wonder that we start our year in January.

Looking back, it is easy to find both highs and lows from 2011. January 1 is Epiphany Sunday, the day that recalls the visit of the magi to the baby Jesus. We are reminded on this day to search for light in the midst of darkness, to find hope in the midst of despair, and to find peace and comfort amid times of trouble.

As we begin 2012, we look back to see where God has been active in our lives and look forward to the coming year certain of God’s promise never to abandon us.

Making News in 2011

One of the biggest news events was the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11. The 9.0-magnitude earthquake was devastating. Parts of Japan’s main island shifted not inches, but feet. A 30-foot wave struck next, sweeping as far as six miles inland. The world watched in horror as the waves devastated communities and as the Fukushima nuclear reactors faced the threat of meltdown. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) immediately sprang into action, partnering with the United Church of Christ in Japan to funnel financial aid and resources. Donations and assistance continue today.

The Japanese earthquake and tsunami, however, were not the top news stories of the year. That distinction, according to the search engine Yahoo!, belongs to the Casey Anthony trial. Two-year-old Caylee Anthony was found dead about a quarter of a mile from her home near Orlando, Florida. The ensuing trial of her mother, Casey, captivated the nation, promoted by more than 600 media representatives who covered the trial. In the end, the verdict—Casey Anthony was only convicted of lying to police—sent shock waves.

The death of Osama bin Laden was announced to the world on May 1. The search for the notorious terrorist leader was finally over.When President Obama made the announcement from the White House that evening, 1,397 soldiers had died in Afghanistan, and another 4,779 in Iraq. Many more have died since. United Methodists struggled with how to react to the news of bin Laden’s death. The Reverend Andy James, pastor of Tuttle United Methodist Church in Oklahoma, summed up the dilemma when he posted on his Facebook page,“President announces that OBL is killed one week before I start a sermon series on forgiveness. A poignant, unexpected turn.”

Other top news stories of 2011 included the death of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, the rise of democratic movements across Arab countries, the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Some Hellos

In 2011, the world said hello to Siri, the iPhone’s new digital assistant feature, and Siri said hello right back. Smartphones and social media assisted the Arab Spring. One Egyptian activist tweeted, “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.” Book five of the series A Song of Ice and Fire was released,with sales of 300,000 in one day. HBO produced a series titled after the first book of the series, A Game of Thrones, which received 13 Emmy nominations. Americans were also captivated by the game Angry Birds and thousands of other apps that provided distractions and entertainment. Americans also said hello to low 30-year fixed-rate mortgages, even while the housing crisis continued.

“We are the 99 percent” became a familiar chant when thousands of people took to the streets and makeshift campgrounds as the Occupy Wall Street movement spread across the United States. Their talking points included, “We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. . . . We are working long hours for little pay and no rights if we’re working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything.”

For the Reverend James K. Karpen, pastor of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Manhattan, the Occupy movement has raised some important questions. “Questions about wealth and poverty,” Karpen told United Methodist News Service. “Questions about the way the economy is structured––who benefits from that, and who is hurt by that.” According to Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the Occupy movement was challenging the “tenets of capitalism” and seeking “a demand for corporate social responsibility.” Winkler said, “In our ‘Social Principles,’we claim all economic systems are under the judgment of God.”

Some Goodbyes

The US Space Shuttle program, Oprah Winfrey’s TV show, and the Harry Potter films all ended in 2011. Borders went bankrupt and closed all their stores, driving another nail in the coffin of brick-and-mortar bookstores across the country. The United States also said adieu to several politicians whose bad behavior knew no party lines: Anthony Weiner tweeted suggestive photos of himself; Arnold Schwarzenegger admitted to fathering a child with his housekeeper; and, most recently, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain could not seem to distance himself from sexual harassment charges and allegations of affairs.

Apple’s Steve Jobs died on October 5, just one day after preorders for his company’s iPhone 4S set records. Other notable deaths in 2011 include Harry Morgan, Sherman Potter on M*A*S*H; Bil Keane, cartoonist of The Family Circus; boxing great Joe Frazier; 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney; former First Lady Betty Ford; Peter “Columbo” Falk; Clarence Clemons, the E-Street Band’s saxophone player; Jack Kevorkian; Elizabeth Taylor; and Jane Russell. Arch West, the inventor of Doritos, also died at age 97. When his ashes were buried with that of his wife, Charlotte, his daughter said, “We’re going to let everyone toss in a Dorito.”

Inspiring Moments

In the aftermath of a storm, there was light. On May 22, an F-5 tornado, with winds in excess of 200 mph, struck Joplin, Missouri. More than 150 people perished, making it the deadliest tornado since record-keeping began in 1950. During the storm, Lola Castillo saw the light of nearby St. James United Methodist Church. The sky darkened. Violent gusts ripped her cell phone from her hand. Still, Castillo focused on the light from within the church and pinned her faith to that sanctuary in Joplin. “I knew I would be OK because I was by the church,” she said days after the storm. Within hours, an outpouring of support began to come to Joplin, fueled by social networking and calls for help. UMCOR was quickly on the scene, offering the help and resources of thousands of United Methodists. “Our ability to reach and connect quickly almost anywhere in the United States is a unique thing to our denomination and is so powerful,” said Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR’s director.

Another inspiring story of 2011 happened almost one year ago today. US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was greeting constituents at a grocery store in Tucson, Arizona, on January 8, 2011. She was shot in the head at point-blank range. Six others, including a nine-year-old girl, died. Giffords survived, and her recovery captured the nation’s attention. In November 2011, Giffords spoke publicly for the first time, saying she needs to get better before returning to work full-time.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia and a United Methodist, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with two other women, on October 7. Sirleaf was given the honor for her work to enhance women’s rights in Africa. She became Africa’s first female president in 2005 and immediately set out to improve conditions for women. She began by introducing free schooling for first- through sixth-graders, which increased girls’ attendance by 40 percent. She introduced a tough rape law in a country where up to 75 percent of women have experienced this horror. In her acceptance speech, Sirleaf pointed to the future saying,“With such a distinction comes great responsibility. History will judge us not by what we say in this moment in time, but by what we do next to lift the lives of our countrymen and women. It will judge us by the legacy we leave behind for generations to come.”

Gratitude and Hope

As we reflect upon many of the major events of 2011, it may be challenging to experience gratitude and hope. Our hope lies beyond our own feelings, however. Christians rely upon God’s grace in good times as well as in bad times. Whatever happens in the year ahead, we trust that God’s light will continue to shine upon us.


This article is part of FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs. The complete study guide accompanying this article can be purchased here.

About the Author

Erik Alsgaard

Erik Alsgaard is managing editor in the Ministry of Communications for the Baltimore-Washington Conference.  read more…
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