The Difference A Century Makes

Last evening, Janet and I watched an episode of the Ken Burns’ documentary Baseball which focused on Babe Ruth and the singular, unparalleled impact he has had on the game. One small factoid really jumped out at me: George Ruth (his given name) was born into a poor family in Baltimore in 1895, the oldest of nine children. Of the family’s subsequent eight children, seven did not survive infancy. How amazing and even miraculous that George lived to become arguably the greatest baseball player ever.

Today I was reading a World Vision annual update regarding our For Every Child initiative.  The report included the story of Rose Mukarukundo, a Rwandan woman and single mother who fled that nation’s tragic genocide in 1994 and then married.  Buried in the middle of the story was the sentence, “Four of her five children died as infants, and eventually Rose’s husband abandoned her.”

How similar those stories are, separated mainly by geography and one century.  There was one other point of separation: my focus, which had shifted from the surviving child to the unspeakable heartache of a mother who has lost nearly every child she bore.  Parenthetically, in our country it has become popular to say “No parent should have to bury their child” which—while true and empathetic—also speaks to our expectations of zero child mortality, a reflection of the incredible change in our reality over the past century.

Another part of this same report focused on malaria, the #1 child killer in much of Africa.  Malaria.  It seems so intractable and so pervasive in these countries, but completely absurd when imagined as a fearsome killer in America.  Yet, until roughly 100 years ago, malaria was a major scourge in the Western hemisphere too, including the U.S., particularly the southern states.

Totally “unfixable” in Africa*, yet long ago totally “fixed” in America.

What a difference 100 years makes.

And yet, how many of us can tolerate such a long view and be faithful to do what we can do now in order to achieve results that simply will not be accomplished in our own lifetime?  We have this vague sense that this would be poor stewardship, because we won’t “be there” to witness the final declaration of victory… that on the day of my death God will somehow hold me accountable to the final result of my efforts or prayers or donations, so I’d better stick to problems that will be “dead” before I am.

As I’ve noted previously, when I started in this work 30 years ago, over 45,000 children were estimated to be dying every day of preventable causes. Today that number has been reduced by half.  Taken over the long view, the progress is stunning.  At the same time, it’s impossible to truly comprehend the vast numbers of children who still died needlessly each day over this same 30 years.  The glass is both half full and half empty.  But it’s certainly not stagnant, even if the change appears so sluggish and arduous that many people throw their hands up with impatience that “nothing is changing.”  Some days the same thoughts creep into my head, days when my shoulders and chin sag and a sigh escapes involuntarily.

At times like that I’m comforted with a beautiful prayer-poem usually attributed to Salvadoran Bishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating Mass in a cancer hospital in San Salvador…

It helps now and then to step back and take a long view; the Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything,

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Rose’s story of unimaginable grief as a mother is tragic.  Yet the fact that the equivalent tragedy occurred in Babe Ruth’s family only 100 years earlier gives me great hope for the future of places like Rwanda.  One hundred years from now, there will still be plenty of current social ills everywhere, crusaders aplenty for programs ministering mercy and justice appropriate to that era.

Yet the infant mortality rate in urban Baltimore today is but a tiny fraction of the 77% that George Ruth’s mother endured.  One hundred years from now, may that be the case in Rwanda, and Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, and in all of God’s world.  Our offspring’s offspring may not be ready then to declare that God’s Kingdom has fully come, but may we then be in that great cloud of witnesses testifying that, compared to the way things were during our watch, God’s will is being more fully done on earth, as it is in heaven.

May, 2012

* Actually, major progress is happening regarding malaria deaths, thanks to a major scale-up in malaria programs over the past decade in Africa.  A recent study, “estimates that 842,800 child deaths have been prevented across 43 malaria- endemic countries in Africa, compared to year 2000. The impact in 2010 is estimated to be biggest, with a 24.4% decrease in malaria- caused child deaths, compared to a scenario of no scale-up of prevention interventions beyond 2000 coverage levels.”

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