Social Justice

Boundary Waters Reflections

I am walking out of the Boundary Waters. The day has been windy and the heat level from the sun comes in just under blazing. Surprisingly, the BW Canoe Area  Wilderness is less humid than Iowa, so the heat isn’t too bad, especially as I pass into and out of little pockets of shade on the portage trail.

I am wearing a fancy walking sandal and the springy mud and springy sole of the shoe create a kind of soft carpet walk of the trail. It is very different from the hard clay and granite strewn mountain paths I grew up on. The only real footing decision I have to make is whether or not to plunge through sudden puddles or try to balance my way past on the marginally drier verge. The slow way wins out, and I settle into breathing and noticing.

The Boundary Waters is a good place for noticing. There are berries and flowers everywhere. Loons and tiny woodpeckers quietly slip in and out of sight, flickering past my awareness almost before I have a chance to see them there. A large turtle moseys into the canoe landing, just another rock until you notice that she is moving.

In terms of wilderness areas, this place seems more sympathetic to life than some.  Pillowy moss and gentle pools full of reeds meet tired feet, and most forms of life we encounter aren’t big on the poison, size, or pointy bits scale, mosquitos and biting flies being the exceptions. Even the spiders seem benign, and though I am sure that one encounters fierceness out here, on this occasion, we do a lot of floating, swimming, munching, and snoozing with just enough effort going into foraging wood and water to feel like we are roughing it.

I look down and see a cigarette butt on the ground. I feel a minor twinge of outrage and a deeper sense of sadness. I become guiltily aware of all the wrapped goodies I have packed in and wonder briefly whether any of them have slipped my mind. What will some crow make of the shiny insides of that granola bar wrapper I stuffed in a pocket while out fishing, and which a stray wind may have set loose when I wasn’t paying attention?

The sadness grows and swells: a bit of sorrow at the impact of my clunky feet on this fragile, beautiful place; a sense of loss at how far I live from gratitude and reliance, protected and sheltered as I am with all my electronic devices and the luxury of having packed in too much freeze-dried camp food.

I don’t know what I mean by this, but somewhere on the trail, about a third of the way across, I offer a promise out to the forest, to the ground beneath me, to the mosquitos and bees and wild strawberries: I will find a better balance. I will live into something that requires less resource, and I will ask less of my precious, fragile planet. I will be vigilant in my simplicity that it not become merely another expression of material wealth. I will choose life practices of celebration, reliance and sustenance over convenience and ease of use.

There is something else in my promise that I am not sure I understand. It is something about considering conservation of the wild by staying out of it. It is something about respecting the value of spaces like the Boundary Waters such that I question my right to exercise any kind of personal privilege in even visiting them; a sense of contrition at the burden my human preferences place on the world; the weight of conscience I feel for all the  plastic bags and fancy, lightweight gear that will never decompose that I brought in with me so I could complain about the food and lack of soft places to sleep.

As I am walking, I start to cry because I think of my friend Jeanne Robinson who died of cancer. She never walked here. She will never get to walk here. I am not sure why I am so blessed that I get to walk here, paddle here, contend with the wind, the rain, and the waves. I flashback on my experiment in fly fishing: the spotted sides of a great northern pike flaring up out of the dark water, a violent, vigorous thrash as it taste-tested my fly, only to decide not to commit, a descendent species in a genus that is 43 million years old.

I am stinky, damp, sunburned, and tired. I don’t want to go home.

*Featured Image By R27182818 at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Social Justice

The Rough Places Plain

One of this week’s Advent scriptures comes to us from Isaiah 40 verses 1-11:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

What do you think it means that the coming of Christ shall lift up the valleys? How do you imagine the hills and mountains being “made low?” How do you envision Jesus as the Savior who will level the uneven ground and smoothing out the rough patches?

Please leave your comments below and add to our collective understanding.

Abundant Life

What Are Our Storehouses For?

In the coming months, you will likely hear a lot about abundance and scarcity, luxury and lack. We, as a culture, are obsessed with these things. We are obsessed with who has what, who has not, and how each of them got there. We take investment courses and offer classes in our churches designed to help individual people reduce their debt. We drive our children towards careers that will make them economically successful, and we think in terms of profit and loss when it comes to our support of camps, campuses, Appalachia Service Project, McCurdy School, or the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference of the United Methodist Church. We tell ourselves stories about what we can and cannot afford and turn the power of our disdain upon those who can’t seem to find a way to get by.

President Barack Obama said that income inequality is the “defining challenge of our time.”  In his TED talk, How Economic Inequality Harms Societies, public health researcher Richard Wilkinson claims that the wider the gap between the richest people and the poorest people in any given group, the more instability there will be in society. More violent crime. Higher infant death rates. More women dying giving birth to children. More children giving birth to children. Lower math and literacy scores among children. Overall life expectancy. It even shows up in intangibles such as trust and social mobility, satisfying relationships and how much bullying someone will experience in her lifetime.

And that is simply the difference in income between the poorest and the wealthiest within a group, not the amount of money (land, investment capital, etc.) that either the poorest or the richest have. In many instances, poorer nations have better social health than wealthier nations. The wider the difference, the less healthy the society is, if Mr. Wilkinson’s data and interpretation are accurate. [I highly suggest that you click the link above and invest the time to watch his TED talk.]

United Methodists like to trace our family tree back to people who believed that Salvation is not just for each individual soul, but is also the gift of Jesus for the whole world; it is an idea that the Good News is made visible where social ills begin to fade. Historically, those ills have included unjust work conditions (including subsistence wages, unregulated work hours and the use of children in the workforce), intemperance (the abuse of alcohol, specifically) and games of chance (gambling, cards, and casinos).

I believe that as your churches spend more time with MissionInsite data via the Healthy Church Initiative and as individuals challenge themselves to truly look at the social conditions which surround them, those social ills, along with many others, will become readily visible. To test Mr. Wilkinson’s theory, how wide is the gap between those with too little and those with too much in your town, neighborhood or county?

So, what does this mean for the Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church? I think it means that we need to look a little bit sideways at the mission and vision of our church. Are we a church obsessed with economic success? Are we focused on our profit margins, investment returns and the self-sufficiency of our ministries? Are we collecting and hoarding  resources? Are we building bigger barns and burying our talent under six feet of topsoil and a crop of King Corn?

Or, like Joseph, is the United Methodist Church in Iowa bringing God’s abundance into storehouses so that it will be ready to give away to those wiped out by famine and flood? Are we bringing together all that we have so we can share it back out to the world around us in a more just and kindly manner? Are we leveraging the power of our government to level the opportunity gaps around us? Are we ourselves living sacrificially in an understanding that by having less others can have more? Are we using our money power to lift up those in need, to rebuild that which has been destroyed, and to invest in a more equal society such that it may be accounted a glory to our God?

I believe that the Church’s storehouses are meant to be perpetually empty. The only reason resources come in is so that they can go back out again.  We succeed when we spend more than we have to clothe, feed, educate, visit, empower, liberate, and heal. Christ’s economy is a budget perpetually in the red.  So, affluent churches, affluent Christians, affluent people: what are our storehouses for?

Social Justice

Laugh a Little

Last week I attended a mediation skills training led by Rev. Richard Blackburn of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center.  During one of the sessions, we were given a picture that describes the movement from consensus to division between individuals or within a group of people. Richard was describing how communication starts to break down and how the minds of people gradually move from a state of creative problem-solving into a state of self-preservation as tension rises. Then he said something interesting. He said that a group’s ability to play-to laugh at itself or to step back from an issue and note its humorous dimensions-is key for him to understand the intensity of the conflict.

Rev. Dr. Elaine Heath has said that the first sign that a survivor of sexual abuse is starting to heal is the return of the capacity to play. It is a sign that a person is moving out of a state of constant terror into an easier way of being in the world. The ability to play is a serious indicator of health and wholeness.

When we are full of rage and anger, terror and fear, we lose our ability to play. Grief, trauma, ongoing anxiety, and feeling like we have no power over a given situation are all common things which can ramp up reactions to difficult problems. They are experiences and feelings which can push us into a state of intense anger or chronic terror. They can give us eyes which only see issues and not people. They can give us minds which imagine a world where right and wrong are simply and sharply defined. They can turn our hearts into instruments of stone and wood.

In 2008, I attended part of General Conference in Dallas/Fort Worth. At the end of each of the long days of watching and listening to delegates wrangle issues on the conference center floor, my husband, friends and I would spend an hour or two unwinding by watching The Daily Show or The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. At the time, I kept thinking how awesome it would be to have a United Methodist version of one of these shows: a daily rundown and laugh-in at our own expense. It seemed then, and seems to me now, that we could really use a bit more humor in these times; that, especially as it comes to the issues we care about, we have somehow lost our capacity for play.

In Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, the main character says, “I’ve found out why people laugh. They laugh because it hurts so much . . . because it’s the only thing that’ll make it stop hurting.” If you and your community are really hurting right now, if the anxiety level is high, if you are uncertain and worried and not really sure how things will ever turn out all right, I invite you to create some play dates. Start telling some jokes. Host a Holy Humor Sunday, or schedule an all church talent show. Cue up Revenge of the Pink Panther or go to a local night club for an evening of cathartic hilarity. Rent a block of tickets for the big name comedy show coming to town and get a passel of faith family to come along.

Communities who can find a way to laugh together can find ways to work together. People who can laugh together can find ways to love better. Because, living can hurt a lot, and if we don’t find creative and loving ways to make that hurting stop, it is all too easy to turn on each other.

*Today, I write this knowing that one thing I hear over and over from United Methodists in Iowa is that we do not seem to be sitting down together to have serious and important conversations about the issues that matter the most to us. We are feeling silenced, unheard, attacked, belittled, and cast aside. We are afraid that our pew neighbor, our pastor, our District Superintendent, our Bishop, our parents, our children, or our friends will stop loving us if they ever learn who we really are. For some, there is the conviction that there are people within the church who actively seek to do us harm. We are talking in fearful and angry tones, while projecting an image of irreconcilable differences onto the screen of our United Methodist Church.

So, I ask, is there still capacity in our system for play? Do we have room for jokes and pokes? Do we have the ability to look at our own agendas and desires with enough humility to find some humor there? If the answer is no, maybe now would be a good time to invite Rev. Blackburn to Iowa.*


Conversations, New People, Poverty, Social Action, Social Justice, Solidarity, Transforming the World, Under 18, Wellness, Women

Social Justice Church

Ann Truss
Ann Truss

A few months back, I participated in a panel discussion about social concerns, young adults, and the church. I was not asked to participate because I am an expert in social concerns, generational sociology, or the United Methodist Church. I was asked because I roughly embody the category of young adult, I am a participant in the church, and I really only stick around because the UMC claims to be a social justice church.

Now, social justice is a term with a lot of baggage. It has entire histories, theologies, doctrines and social movements behind it. Some people are comfortable claiming certain forms of social justice advocacy as the primary goal of Jesus, while others are sure that it is code for the “forced redistribution of wealth with a hostility toward individual property rights, under the guise of charity and/or justice.” What’s more, the cause wars in the church have been going on for so long, there is little to no room for different issues to come to light, much less an opportunity to regroup and consider whether we need to define a new set of solutions. Rather, new Christians, on entering the church, are asked to choose sides in conflicts that may well have no real meaning for many of them.

All of which is to say that, in the church, the contest between historical social ideas has become the point of action. Any conversation about social justice seems to be stuck in a repeating loop of name-calling, stereotyping and the painful backbiting which arises when we have been wounded-as though the most important thing we can do with social justice is to define it, and either claim or reject that definition for ourselves and our fifteen closest friends.

Social justice in the church, then, becomes a fixed category of dead and dying social ideas by which we can group people. It becomes a stagnating pool of “us” and “them” statements, with opposing teams of Christians whose energy is directed towards definitively winning the argument so that they no longer have to wrestle with a Christ whose Way is anything but safe and simple.

When social justice becomes a definition instead of an awareness and relationship, the church becomes a museum instead of a community. As long as the church continues to let media outlets and political campaigns define its relationship with those in its town earning less than $11,170 a year, rather than opening its Bible, its doors, its heart and its treasure store to respond, no one will believe it actually cares about the poor. While the church spends its energy proof texting its justification, Exhale creates a a texting space to “show that it [is] possible to have an honest, thoughtful, nuanced conversation about abortion that [isn’t] polarizing and inflammatory. “*

The people of my peer group do not have either the patience or the time for social transformation which is merely a mental exercise practiced within the bounds of safe stances, ritualized actions, and appropriate topics. We are hungry for an opportunity to transform our world into the kind of place we want our children to inherit. A church stepping boldly out to lead that kind of work is a church we want to work alongside. It might even be the church we want to be a part of.

And if your church simply does not want to do that, that’s fine. We’re finding other partners for the journey.