Grief and Relief – the experience of making major life changes

May 9th, 2015

This is a followup to my last post Life changes – seminary, law practice and activism. The nutshell version of that post is that I’ve decided to (1) end my time in seminary earlier than expected (graduating with a graduate-level certificate in May ’16 instead of an MDiv in ’20), (2) end most of my legal practice (finishing old cases and then after that only doing one CO case at a time) and (3)pare back my activism, so that I can focus more energy on my home and personal life.

The last couple of weeks have been a strange time for me. I’m still emotionally working through my feelings about the changes I am making in the trajectory of my life, while at the same time working through some of the “unfinished business” of the chapter of my life that is ending.

Grief and relief are my primary emotions, but I’m also feeling anxiety, fear, and excitement (for the possibilities of the next chapter).

Most of the grief part of the equation is about my change in seminary plans. I had been enrolled 1/2 time in seminary over the last couple of years, moving rapidly towards completing an MDiv. I was taking a mix of online classes as well as hybrid classes (in which I would spend one week on campus to supplement online work). The classes were for the most part fascinating and engaging, and I loved my time on campus at AMBS (normally 2-3 times per year I would take the train to Elkhart, Indiana). The times were sometimes hard (especially towards the end of the week), but also savored the alone time and the bit of a break from my joyful (but sometimes challenging) life as a fairly new father.

But of course not all was rosy.

The pace of the classes was insanely challenging. Often the required readings were as much or more than I had in law school, but the difference being that I was reading about stuff that really mattered. It’s not to say that law “didn’t matter,” but in some ways it doesn’t in the same way that theology matters. And let’s be frank, the law is often not terribly inspiring.

In law school I could just do a quick and dirty skim of the readings to prepare for class discussion (or more accurately BS’ing) but this wasn’t possible for me in seminary. Seminary readings were different and took a lot more out of me emotionally. And so I continually struggled to keep up. It was simply impossible to do the quality of study that I wanted to do, while taking care of the other parts of my life.

And I’ve also realized that my studies in the MDiv program weren’t ideal for my situation. The program is mostly geared towards a very general approach to ministry, sort of an all-purpose degree which would provide some degree of education that would be relevant to almost any ministry setting. While I was able to pick a major (most recently it was peace studies), this still required a lot of coursework that wasn’t terribly pertinent to my current ministry setting. Seminary worked better for me in the classes in which I could double-up, finding ways to immediately apply my coursework into my ministry or activism, but it was impossible for me to do that in some of my other classes. (which is no fault to the instructor or the class, but rather is a matter of my life situation).

And yet, my time at AMBS has been hands-down the best educational experience of my life. I have had good classes before as an undergrad and in law school, but never did have the chance to be part of an educational community like AMBS, which was truly a community – a graduate school where the professors weren’t “Doctor Somebody” or “Professor Importantperson” but rather folks like Loren, Rachel, Andy, Allan, etc. And the students were an awesome group of people – both the full-timers but also the working ministers who took classes like I did. I feel really bad about not seeing these folks as much in the future.

It is really hard to give this up. I was looking forward to another 4 years or so of half-time study and a bunch of weeks on campus (2-3 weeks per year during my remaining studies). I even bought a bicycle to keep on campus in Elkhart, so I would be able to have a bike during my times on campus.

This is definitely something worth grieving.

But I also know that the choice I’m making is a good one. Being able to focus more on my family is a wonderful thing, and being able to finish my time at AMBS well (I plan to take the summer and fall off and then take Social Theory for Christian Peacemakers in the Spring of 2016 and then graduate with a certificate rather than the MDiv) will be a very good thing.

And it will be wonderful to be able to continue my education informally, at my own pace. Ideally I’m hoping to blend self-directed learning with community, by finding a way to have a real educational community at Joy. There are so many possibilities here and I’m excited about it.

I also know that part of my grief isn’t about the present moment, but rather about my choice 13 years ago… I remember well my feelings after completing my first semester of law school. I HATED law school. It was a miserable experience and I wanted out, but I didn’t want to disappoint family and friends and I didn’t want to waste the money I had already paid (and the debt I had incurred through the process).

I truly believed that I had no choice but to keep plodding on. I did find ways to make the experience more bearable – mostly by following the advice of the NLG’s Disorientation Handbook to “subvert the experience” of law school, but it would have much better if I had actually listened to the yearnings of my heart and went to seminary instead. I could have easily gone to seminary full-time in those days and it would have been the perfect time of my life to do it, ideally living on campus and getting the full experience. But I didn’t have the courage or self-confidence to go down that path, so I instead stayed with law school. I know good stuff came from that decision (mostly in the lives of some of my former clients) but it was a much harder and more miserable path than I could have been on.

At the same time, regret of the past isn’t a good driving force for future action. It would be a bad decision to decide to stay with the MDiv out of a desire to undo the past, when the circumstances of my life have changed.

And so in light of all of this, I’m feeling a mix of emotions. Relief that I won’t be quite as overwhelmed with responsibilities this summer and fall, and relief that I will still get a degree of sorts (technically a certificate isn’t a degree, but it is still something). And relief that the part of my life that is most important to me – my family, will benefit from this decision.

The other big changes in my life to come are less weighty. I had already been working on scaling back my law practice, so this just means that I will hold to the decision I’ve already made to take no new cases (except for one CO case at a time) and to wrap up all of my old cases. There is some degree of guilt about this decision but less grief. I feel guilty about future clients that I won’t be able to help and for the GI Rights/active duty war resistance movement that I would love to contribute to in a bigger way. But I also know that my heart moved away from legal work a long time ago. Having an activist focus fueled me for a long time, but there comes a point that too much of even a good thing, is still just too much. I will still do a little legal work (and a fair bit of activist work), but it will no longer be the defining force of my life.

So those are my thoughts for tonight. Now… back to work on one of the old cases that I want to finish well. I think this is a big part of making this transition, to doing this cases well and finding satisfaction in doing this.

Life changes – seminary, law practice and activism

May 3rd, 2015

I don’t know if all blog authors do this, but I know I mostly write for myself. Certainly having an audience is a part of the equation, but part of it is also just writing for my future self to look back on, and also sometimes to solidify the personal commitments that I am making.

So in that spirit, I want to share a bit about some of the changes happening in my life.

Positively I am trying to focus more on my life at home, spending more time and energy on my family, growing garden and staying healthy. And also focusing more of my energy and life on my church community. And I especially want to find as many excuses possible to incorporate riding my bicycle into my life.

Negatively, I am trying to cut back on those parts of my life that are zapping energy away from those most important priorities. Many of the things I am trying to cut back or out are good things, but too much of a good thing is still too much.

Some specific areas include…

1. Seminary – I have been studying half-time at AMBS in their MDiv Connect program (a mix of online classes and in-person short courses mixed with online programming), but it is just too much. I will only be taking one class this summer and then will take a leave of absence for the fall. After that I will decide if I want to stay in the MDiv program at a slower pace or whether I will instead graduate after the Spring ’16 semester with a Certificate (I will 37 hours at that point). This decision isn’t easy, but I think it may be for the best. I either need to find a way to do my seminary classes in a more sane and manageable way or I need to reach a good breaking point to end this season of my life (I of course won’t be ending my education either way, but the education would take a different direction if done in a more informal manner).

2. Law Practice – I’ve been trying to pare back my legal work since getting married 3+ years ago but haven’t done well at it. So I need to stick with it this time, wrapping up my older cases well, and then taking no new cases except for a limited number of conscientious objector claims.

3. Activism – Another tough area to cut, but I think I’m going to use the next few months to end some of my areas of activist involvement and then chose to focus my energy on just a very things that are dear to me and that are sustainable.

So, I’m writing this for me but also for those dear to me (friends and family), so hopefully you can help encourage me to stick to what I need to do.

Everything is awesome… at Genghis Grill #HealthKwest 2015

February 24th, 2015

Disclaimer: This post is part of my participation in the Genghis Grill Health Kwest Challenge. #Healthkwest #GenghisGrillAd It is a cross-post from

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Six Days in — time for a photo recap

February 14th, 2015

This was previously posted at:

Disclaimer: This post is part of my participation in the Genghis Grill Health Kwest Challenge.  #Healthkwest #GenghisGrillAd

I’m having a wonderful time so far in the Genghis Grill Health Kwest contest, but have been crazy busy keeping up with my diet, exercise and social media tasks for the contest (along with all of my regular work/school/family responsibilities), so I’m little tardy in blogging.

So, I thought what I do to catch up is tell the story with pictures!

Day 1 , Monday – Didn’t count calories, 1 hour exercise

I came into this day super-nervous. I have dieted so many times before and was worried about how I would do, but there’s a time to just plunge in and go for it.

So I did the weigh-in (302 pounds! yikes!) and then later that day got in my first bowl at Genghis Grill.

As you can see from the pictures, my wife brought roses for me to celebrate the occasion!


And here’s my first bowl. Super good!



And here’s my wife Becky and my son Ty eating with me…




Then we ended the night by working out at the Lighthouse Gym in NW OKC.


Day 2, Tuesday – 2028 calories – 45 minutes exercise

Unfortunately I can’t eat all of my meals at Genghis Grill, so I’m working on improving my cooking skills to use more veggies. So here’s what I fixed for breakfast…



Then later in the day I met my co-workers from the Center for Conscience in Action, a non-profit peace and social justice organization I work with. Of course we ate GG.


And here’s my bowl…



Later that night I worked out with my family. I’m shooting for 40 minutes to an hour per day, doing a mix of interval training on the bike and weight training.

Day 3 – 2025 calories – 45 minutes exercise

This was a crazy good bowl…



Very busy day but still got in the workout thanks to my wife’s encouragement.

Day 4 – 1904 calories – 1 hour exercise

Thursday was a very busy day but I got in my bowl and my exericse.


Day 5 – 1826 calories – 45 minutes exercise

Friday was a gloriously good day. It started in the afternoon with an awesome bowl – this time made with the citrus ginger sauce!







And then that evening we had a glorious Valentine’s eve date!

Day 6 – Still counting

Today I took my family and my in-laws to GG for lunch. This afternoon I will be out driving the pedicab and hopefully burning off a lot of calories.




Day 1 – The Weigh in!

February 9th, 2015

This was originally posted at:

Disclaimer: This post is part of my participation in the Genghis Grill Health Kwest Challenge. #Ad

The Kwest is now officially underway as I did my first weigh in. Relatively painless but I didn’t like what the scale said (my home scale shows much lower —  of course I normally weigh after getting out of the shower in the morning so this must be a factor). But that is why I’m in this contest.

So here’s my checklist of tasks for the rest of today in Kwest for good health…

  • Eat a healthy bowl at Genghis Grill for supper
  • Get an hour of exercise in
  • Spend some time in prayer and meditation
  • Kiss my wife!
day1photo - James M Branum, Genghis Grill HealthKwest 2015

day1photo – James M Branum, Genghis Grill HealthKwest 2015

The last day before the Kwest Begins…

February 8th, 2015

This was previously posted at

Disclaimer: This post is part of my participation in the Genghis Grill Health Kwest Challenge. #Ad

Tomorrow is my first day of the Genghis Grill Health Kwest challenge. I will be doing the weigh in and of course eating my first bowl for the challenge at Genghis Grill.

I’ve been doing a lot of research on nutrition and exercise over the last few weeks to put together my plan of action. I’m sure I will have to tweak a lot along the way, but want to start well.

My first goal is to stay healthy through this contest. I’ve talked to my doctor (and will be meeting again later in the month for another checkup), but from what she has told me I can’t go wrong by eating lots of veggies, lean protein and getting lots of exercise. Carb-wise, I need to closely monitor those, ideally spreading them out through the day, and course monitoring my blood sugar (I’m diabetic) and make adjustments in food through out the day.

My second goal is to lose a lot of weight and win this contest. From what I can tell, past winners have an average of 4-7 pounds per week, so I’m shooting to lose a minimum of 4 pounds per week.

So based on my current weight, I need to eat 3400 calories per day to maintain my weight (FYI, I’m rounding these numbers for simplicity’s sake), which means to lose one pound of weight, I need to reduce my caloric intake by about 500 calories per day.

So to lose

  • 1 pound per week = Eat no more than 2900 calories per day (9 pounds total in Kwest)
  • 2 pounds per week = Eat no more than 2400 calories per day (18 pounds total)
  • 3 pounds per week = Eat no more than 1900 calories per day (27 pounds total)
  • 4 pounds per week = Eat no more than 1400 calories per day (36 pounds total)
  • 5 pounds per week = Eat no more than 900 calories per day (45 pounds total)

Obviously there is a problem here. Going from around 3500 calories per day to 900 calories per day would be disastrous for me both mentally and physically.  Does this mean winning is impossible?

No. I don’t think so.

The key to making this doable will be exercise, mostly in my case bicycling (both on my regular bike and on the pedicab). From what I can tell from several sources, I burn about 789 calories by riding my bicycle at a moderate pace (10-12 mph) for one hour! This is huge!!!

So, my plan (at least out of the gate) will be to shoot for 2100 calories per day but to ride at least one hour per day during the challenge. If I do this, my net calories (calories consumed minus extra calories burned through exercise) would be around 1400 calories per day, which would give me projected weight loss of four pounds per day. Then on days that I have time or energy to ride more, then I could either boost my calories (I may have to, to keep my blood sugar where it needs to be) or just speed up the weight loss.

One last part of the plan. 1/3 of my meals will be at Genghis Grill, so it is important that I am smart about what I eat there for my daily bowls. After a lot of searching, I found what I think is accurate nutritional information on most of the ingredients of Genghis Grill Bowls, the biggie being that this site provides the portion size for the ingredients (saying “Chicken is X number of calories” does me no good if I have no idea how much chicken is X number of calories).  The obvious change to the bowls to gain the most calorie savings will be to load them up high with veggies, to go easy on the meat (and maybe some days to go all veggies), dilute the sauces (either with garlic water or soy sauce — I have yet to find accurate information on the calorie counts for the sauces) and then go easy on the starches (or maybe even eliminate them some days).

The good news here is that if I allocate 1/3 of my calories for my GG bowl, then I can use up to 700 calories, which will be a very doable proposition while still eating very well.

So that’s my game plan.


Entries close tonight… now the waiting

January 27th, 2015

This post was originally posted at:

I’ve started this blog to tell my story – the story of how I will get in shape and hopefully make my life healthier, happier, and filled with more bicycling.

So, the spark for this is that I’m entering a contest by Genghis Grill (the awesome mongolian-style build-your-own stirfry place), in which 92 folks (one from each store) are competing for a chance to win $10,000.

Want to make bad eating habits ancient history? Health Kwest lets you dig in while watching the weight retreat. In its first four years, Health Kwest contestants lost almost 5,000 pounds by eating a different Genghis Grill bowl every day for 60 days.

Join alongside these intrepid leaders and build your own bowl from over 80 delicious, fresh and healthy ingredients and you could win $10,000 and a healthier lifestyle.

Certainly it would be awesome to win the $10,000 (I already know what I would do with the money – I would buy a top of the line Pedicab to drive in Oklahoma City), but even making the cut for the finals would be a wonderful thing, since it would mean that I would have 60 FREE wonderful healthy meals to jump start my weight loss and fitness plans.

The entries for the first round close tonight and I understand they are picking the finalists based on social media response, so please, please go to and post a message of support or share it on social media. Thanks!

An initial response to The Mennonite Quarterly Review’s discussion of John Howard Yoder

January 13th, 2015

Updated with some grammar/spelling fixes as well as some additional material (particularly in the conclusion) on 1-13-2015:

Today I bought the latest issue of The Mennonite Quarterly Review. Yes, this is THE issue, the one that gives in-depth discussion of the case of serial sexual abuser John Howard Yoder, and the issue of sexual misconduct in the church generally.

Before moving on, I should mention that a review of this issue can be found in The Mennonite magazine and the actual full issue (200+ pages) can be bought here.

This evening I ended up reading three of the articles in the issue. There is so much that I want and need to say, but for now I want to make a few comments while the pain of reading this is fresh.

First, Rachel Waltner Goossen’s article “‘Defanging the Beast': Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse” is a disturbing but very thoroughly researched account of the nature of Yoder’s history of abuse. While most of the Mennonite world has been aware in some way of this abuse, this article tells a great deal which had not previously come to light. Some of these key revelations include:

1. Yoder used his position of power and influence to coerce female students into sexual acts. (this was not just a matter of harassment, as it has been framed sometimes in the past)
2. Yoder created an environment at both AMBS and at Notre Dame that was hostile and dangerous to women.
3. Yoder actually exploited the female student-led campus feminist movement to pursue his agenda of abuse, often co-opting feminist language as part of his persuasive rhetoric.
4. Yoder abused women not only at his schools, but also at conferences and other settings, including overseas in multiple countries.
5. Contrary to the way that the story has been spun by the Mennonite Church over the years, Yoder never repented. At best he apologized for “misunderstanding” the desires/intentions of the women he was pursuing. Also his “restitution” that was supposed to help victims with the costs of counseling was a very small amount ($1000). And little if any of this money ever went to help those victimized by Yoder.
6. In 1995, Yoder actually sought to sever ties with the Mennonite Church (asking that his membership be transferred from his Mennonite congregation in Elkhart to a local Lutheran church. He made this request DURING the process of the discipline while his ministerial credentials were suspended. Yet the church chose to effectively ignore his request, presumably so that he could still be claimed as a celebrity Mennonite theologian. (Page 64-65)
7. Stanley Hauerwas (who previously urged Yoder to cooperate with the process of accountability before his conference – page 59) pressured the Indiana-Michigan conference to hurry up the process, so that Yoder could be fully restored to ministry (page 62). The conference agreed to do this by way of a public statement in 1996. The conference hoped Yoder would make a public statement of apology. He did not do this.
8. AMBS administrators knew about Yoder’s abuses for years (since at least the late 1970’s). While there were repeated attempts to reign in Yoder’s conduct, Yoder was not actually pressured to resign from AMBS until 1984.
9. Yoder continued to teach at Notre Dame after his resignation from AMBS. Yet he continued for some time to have a key to AMBS campus buildings and often was on campus.
10. Yoder was actually asked to come back and teach a guest class on campus in 1997, which he did in the fall.
11. Yoder died a few weeks after that class ended, but a week before his death, he wrote a letter to a woman seeking to engage in a “confidential conversation” about his issues. The language in the letter used the same rhetorical pattern as was seen in his previous sexual harassing communications to women in the 1970’s and 1980’s). – page 79
14. Mennonite Church USA Archives has a box of materials on Yoder’s case that is restricted from access until 2047. As far as we know, no one knows what is really in this box.

Beyond these revelations, I want to mention that I appreciate the author’s strong refutation of the idea that Yoder’s misconduct was fueled by the awkwardness of an un-diagnosed case of Aspergers’s Syndrome (page 77). As an aspergistic person myself, I appreciate this clarification.

The second article I read was Jamie Pitts’ “Anabaptist Re-Vision: On John Howard Yoder’s Misrecognized Sexual Politics.” I appreciated this article partially because I know Jamie (he was my professor in my Theology I class that I just completed) but also because he gave powerful expression to where I hope that the Mennonite academic world is, or at least, should be moving towards:

(In the last twenty years) few male Anabaptist-Mennonite theologians have allowed our vision to be significantly re-envisioned by feminism. John Howard Yoder . . . has remained the public face of Anabaptist-Mennonite theology during that time. His relationship to feminism is problematic, to say the least. Until recently, when new attention to the non-radicalness of Yoder’s personal life has forced the issue, male scholars of Yoder’s work, such as myself, have mostly avoided explicit, sustained reflection on feminist perspectives and concerns. . . Our vision must be revisited.

Lastly, I read Paul Martens and David Cramer’s article “By what criteria does a ‘Grand Noble Experiment’ fail? What the case of John Howard Yoder reveals about the Mennonite Church.” I began this article with a hopeful attitude, hoping that the authors might shed light on how Yoder’s ideas on experimenting with alternative ideals on sexual ethics were flawed from the start by his failure to engage frankly and honestly with those he was in a covenant relationship with (including his wife, the schools he taught at, and his church), as well as to explore the ways that Yoder failed to recognize his own power imbalance, as it relates to the women he pursued.

Instead, Martens and Cramer gave their readers something different, a terribly constructed attempt at comparing Yoder’s “experiment” with the efforts of conscience-led Mennonites of today to seek LGBTQ equality in our church. Certainly the authors gave lip service to some of the ways the two controversies are different, yet did not really get to the heart of the matter, leaving the comparison hanging in the air as if it were valid.

I strongly disagree. Yoder framed his sexual misconduct as a kind of “noble experiment,” but in reality it was something else. I think that Yoder could have ethically explored and even tried out some of his alternative ideas about sexuality and singleness, but only after doing the right thing, by either divorcing his wife or making a consensual agreement with her that they were going to have an open marriage. Instead Yoder wanted to “have his cake and eat it too.” And so he stayed married.

Yoder also abused his position of authority on campus and in the academic world, using his rhetoric of his “noble experiment” as his justification, but in practice keeping the “experiment” secret. His language of “experiment” was really just a justification for his pattern of abusive behavior towards women.

For LGBTQ individuals who are seeking to serve in ministry openly in the church, there is not the same kind secrecy involved. Rather these individuals are being called by congregations for service and then having their credentials considered by regional Mennonite conferences. One such case is Theda Good from First Mennonite Church in Denver. (discussion of her case is found beginning at page 186 of this article). Theda has not hidden her sexual orientation. Neither has our congregation or her conference. Rather Theda, her congregation and her conference are acting in obedience to their respective and collective consciences. Yes, I suppose one could frame this move as an “experiment” but this is not an insane double-talk secret style Yoderian experiment, rather it one that is open and done in the context of Christian community.

This applies as well to issues of marriage, and church membership. Advocates of LGBTQ equality (including myself) are very open about what we are about. Yes, this is in some ways a theological innovation but it is rooted in our views of scripture, our conscience, and our understanding of the call of Jesus to love our neighbor.

I am beyond livid that the authors that this comparison was a fair one to make and I don’t understand why the MQR thought this article was worth of inclusion.

That said, I am appreciative of one part of this article:

At this point, we hope it is clear that the claims that Yoder’s actions are little more than expressions of social awkwardness, Asperger’s Syndrome, or a mild case of autism, are only relevant – if they are relevant at all – in rationalizing Yoder’s awkward performance of experimental sexual relations… An appeal to these conditions simply cannot explain Yoder’s careful narrations of marital and non-marital relations or the larger framework within which they function. – (footnote 57, page 185)


I will be doing a lot of praying and thinking in the coming days, but my initial feelings about both the aftermath of Yoder’s abuse and the complete failure of the Mennonite Church’s denominational institutions to protect women for so many years leaves me feeling very, very disloyal to Mennonite Church USA. I’m glad that the light of truth is being shined in the dark places of the institutional church (and can personally testify to the ways that AMBS has changed — which I think now has a majority female student body). Yet, it is hard to feel very invested in an organization that has been, until very recently, painfully negligent.

And I will have to also admit my own culpability here. I argued just a few months ago that “it is possible to respect Yoder’s ideas and not respect his actions.” Now though that I’m questioning this. I don’t know if I can ever read Yoder again, or at least not without constantly hearing the internal inconsistency of this beliefs, as the great modern theologian of nonviolence was in fact a serial sexual abuser.

And I must admit that the article by Martens and Cramer doesn’t help matters much. Using the case of Yoder as an excuse to attack Theda Good and other advocates of LGBTQ equality is not appropriate and further solidifies my belief that church hierarchy all too often is willing to throw oppressed people under the bus for the sake of appearances. In Yoder’s day it was young female students. Today it is LGBTQ folks. I would rather the denominational structure die than see it continue to perpetuate oppression.

So those are my thoughts for tonight.

Actually I have a few more thoughts…

1. Given the serious nature of the contents of this issue of MQR, I think Mennonite Quarterly Review should consider publishing the entire issue for free online. It is too important to be buried in church and academic libraries.

2. Probably the statute of limitations is long past, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if one of the survivors of Yoder’s abuse could sue Mennonite Church USA and then subpoena the sealed box, described as “The John Howard Yoder Papers at the Mennonite Church USA Archives-Goshen, ‘Sexual Harassment Charges and Conference Discipline’ documents in box 240, restricted until 2047 (50 years after Yoder’s death)”?

3. As difficult and costly as it might be, Mennonite institutions need to be ready to make financial reparations to women victimized by Yoder. While I realize that budgets are strapped, the costs of the ongoing damage done by Yoder should not be the responsibility of those victimized by Yoder.

Thinking creatively — what if every congregation of MCUSA took up a special offering on a given Sunday to be given to a perpetual fund to provide funding for counseling and other needs of those who were abused by Yoder? Such a special offering could be taken at special services of lament for the collective sins of the Mennonite Church in covering up the sins of Yoder, as well as discussing the work still to be done to undoing gender-based oppression.

Becoming Jewish – a bi-religious journey

September 25th, 2014

Note: I edited the last portion of this post on September 26, 2014 to include links to the different books and resources I was citing.

I have been engaged in recent months with the self-study program for adoption (an alternate term used in lieu of “conversion”) by the Society of Humanistic Judaism.

As part of my final assignment, I have written an essay that explains my decision to become Jewish, while also maintaining my identity as a Mennonite. I have decided to share it here, because it is a pretty big step in my life (and today is Rosh Hoshanah – the Jewish New Year – so it feels like the right time to step into a new stage of life).

Here is my essay…

A Short Essay on why I want to be identified with Humanistic Judaism

by James M. Branum

I have struggled with writing this essay for several months. Every time I decided to sit down and write it, I would convince myself that I just needed to study more and that I didn’t really understand what to say to such a huge question: Why do I want to be a Jew? –- But as the Jewish calendar has been approaching the mile marker of another Rosh Hoshana, I decided that this was the time for me to make my commitment and move forward on the process of adoption into the Jewish community.

Rosh Hoshana is significant to me, partly because of the powerful symbolism of a fresh start with a new year, but also because it was Rosh Hoshana that was my first real introduction to Jewish ritual practices. My wife has written about our first Rosh Hoshana more eloquently than I can at, but in short I can say that the powerful connection between the anniversary of her cancer diagnosis and Rosh Hoshana falling at the same time, was one that we wanted to celebrate.

And so we read up on Rosh Hoshana and celebrated it in a simple way at home. The experience meant a lot to us, particularly since it was a moment of deep connection for us as a fairly new family unit (my wife and I married nine months previous, which meant that I was also a newly minted step-dad to a tjen six-year old).

The experience was so powerful that we decided to start celebrating other Jewish holidays, especially Shabbat. We decided early on that we would give ourselves permission to adopt those practices that were life-affirming and helpful and discard those practices that felt dry, lifeless or just not helpful to us in our context, and so we started with Shabbat suppers on Friday nights. Later on we added other holidays, our favorites being Sukkot (yes, I did build a shack in the backyard where we ate some meals), Haunakah, and Purim. In all of these holidays, we did this with a spirit of playfulness, seeking to make these times joyful for us but also kid-friendly.

During this time the issue of identity started to pop up. We had read some books and resources on the Jewish holidays that tried to “christianize” the holidays with new meanings, but this just didn’t feel right to us. While we were willing to pick and choose specific practices we engaged in, we didn’t feel it was appropriate to try to give the practices we were doing a new meaning.

At the same, my wife and I were (and still are) active in a small very open-minded urban Mennonite church, and I am a part-time seminary student (through the distance learning program of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary). We love the community we are a part of, many of whom I work alongside on a regular basis in peace and social justice activism. I couldn’t imagine leaving that community, but thankfully this group does not seem to be threatened by us having a bi-religious identity. In fact we are known as a church that is ok with agnostic members who are stirred by the ethical teachings of Jesus, even if they are not sure if they believe in God.

My son also picked up on the issue. One day he came from school, asking his mom “Are we Joes?” We then asked him what he meant, and he said, “you know, the people that Esther saved on Purim. One of the kids at school asked me, and I didn’t know.” In this moment, it was clear to me that my son was frankly gaining more from our home observance of Judaism than he was from the experience of going to church. (again my wife has written about this incident much more eloquently than I did here. )

And then finally there was the issue of cultural misappropriation. One of my close friends expressed concern about this, in that he thought it was inappropriate and even offensive for a Christian to adopt Jewish spiritual practices. At first I was offended by the question, but in time I came to see that he had a point. There is a big difference between choosing to adopt another culture’s practices and actively joining another community and becoming a part of.

In light of this, I decided that I wanted to find a way to be Jewish without abandoning my current community. This led me to a process of reading and study, as well as reaching out to different Jewish communities, both locally and online. It quickly became clear to me that for almost all Jewish communities, that it would be unacceptable for me to retain my ties to the Mennonite Church while also adopting Judaism. Some communities were somewhat ok with interfaith families participating in their worship, but it was also very clear that the delineation between who is a Jew, and who is not a Jew, was pretty ironclad. This hostility (while understandable give the long history of anti-semitism in many parts of Christendom), still felt pretty hurtful, especially given the fact many Jews do in fact practice more than one religion (my favorite being Sylvia Boorstein, a Buddhist teacher and author who is also a practicing Jew). I did not want to choose to being either/or.

Some friends suggested that the obvious solution was to affiliate with a Messianic Jewish community, but this was not a real possibility for me, as I am not “christian” enough in my theology for them. –- In short, I waver between agnosticism, deism and Unitarian theism. I also see Jesus as a great ethical teacher and prophet, but not as a substitute blood sacrifice to appease an angry God (which is the primary concern of so-called Messianic Judaism).

I of course also considered the possibility of just self-identifying as a Jew and leaving it at that, but I felt that this would also be disrespectful to the value of community and cultural identity of Judaism. To try to keep some kind of connection, I participated in online worship services of several Jewish communities, but I still felt a sense of distance. I wanted to know that I was a real Jew, and not just a curious outsider.

From my explorations, I narrowed my consideration to the Jewish Universalists of Sim Shalom and the Society for Humanistic Judaism, both of whom were welcoming of individuals who identified with more than one religious identity. The SHJ was in the end the best fit, because of its humanistic orientation.

I probably am more “religious” than most other members of the SHJ (i.e. I pray) but I find common ground with the humanistic approach that focuses the individual’s and community’s attention on the human-centered values that we hold in common.

So going back to the original question – I want to be a Jew, because I want to participate in the ritual life, culture, history and traditions of Judaism, as a participant, not as an observer.

And I want to be a Humanistic Jew, because I think that Judaism only makes sense through the lens of universal human values, that affirms those parts of the tradition that good and life affirming and discards those parts (such as homophobia, genocide, patriarchy, etc.) that are not.

In writing this essay I commit myself to the ongoing journey of living a Jewish life, understanding that it will often be messy and complicated. I acknowledge that my journey will be even more complicated than most, in that I am choosing to be connected to two spiritual/cultural communities, but I believe that this is part of what it means to be human. All of us have to spend our lives bridging cultural differences. As hard as it might be, this process can be a good and life-affirming one.

A list of some of the readings I did in my process of self-study
note: Some of these books I studied in detail, others were more of a quick read, and some I am still working my way through (most notably A Provocative People).

Torah Blogging: Parsha Chukat

June 23rd, 2014

This blog post is cross posted at

Summary of the text: This parsha (torah portion) is one of the stranger ones of the Torah. Chapter 19 gives a discussion of the ritual of the Red Heifer, which involves the ritual killing of a purely red cow that is then burned, with the ashes being used afterwards for a variety of purification rituals, most notably the cleansing rituals one must perform after having come in contact with a corpse.

Chapter 20 moves back into the narrative with an account of the people grumbling, Moshe (Moses) striking the rock, and then God punishing Moshe and Aaron for speaking in a way that did not affirm God’s “sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people.” The punishment was severe: Moshe and Aaron would not be allowed to enter the promised land with their people.

The chapter then continues to a discussion of interactions between the Hebrew wanderers and their distant kin the Edomites (in short the Edomites do not show their kin hospitality), and then to the death of Aaron at Mount Hor.

Chapter 21 continues the narrative in telling of a set of battles between the Hebrews and the Canaanite king of Arad. The Hebrews were victorious but the people were becoming restless. Before long God sent “seraph serpents” into the camp to bite and kill the people until Moshe prays to the LORD, who then instructs Moshe to lift up a copper seraph snake on a pole, which magically would heal any of the snakebit dying people who looked upon the snake. (yes, this part is getting really weird).

The people of Israel continued in their wanderings and engaged with more battles against their neighbors, until finally they made their way (in 22:1) to camp on the “steppes of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho.”

My reflections: This passage is strange and to me reflects some of the early pre-Jewish roots of Judaism, which includes the use of a copper serpent (which suspiciously like a kind of idol to me) to bring healing and the strange rituals involving the ashes of the red heifer (more discussion on some of the archetypal origins of the Red Heifer story can be found on the Velveteen Rabbi commentary on this parsha).

The question might be asked, what do the ancient stories mean to us today? Surely we are not supposed to kill red heifers to use for healing rituals (since that ritual is tied to the “tent of meeting” and later the temple), but I wonder if maybe there is a place for some kind of physical representation of cleansing.

We all have moments when we encounter death. Most of us don’t encounter corpses very often (with the exception of combat veterans and those who have survived terrible traumas — and of course doctors and morticians), but we all do encounter points of seeing death and decay, either literally or figuratively. Frankly every time we watch the evening news, every time we step outside of our comfort zone and go to comfort those experiencing trauma, we touch a little bit of death. And so maybe we need a bit of that “water of lustration” (talked about in this parsha) to cleanse our hearts and souls too. I’m not sure what the answer is (and I really am not advocating that we make copper serpents to gaze at or start killing red heifers), but I do think that our physical human bodies often need tangible experiences to remind us of the inner healing that God can bring.

Another key theme in this passage is the issue of hospitality. Israel encountered several of its neighbors in this passage (and even some kinfolks), but none of these neighbors let the Israelites pass peacably through their lands. Later on these old stories were used as justification by later generations for genocidal acts by the Israelites against these people, but at this moment in time these stories speak of the tragedy of hospitality that is not extended.

And finally there is the death of Aaron (and the prophesied death of Moshe to come). On the surface of it, God’s punishment of Aaron and Moses seems supremely harsh (after all these heroes led the people to liberation), but on further thought I wonder if these stories were in fact not the whole story? Maybe Aaron died of old age, and then Moses in turn died. Both died too soon, before they entered the land as a free people. And so maybe these stories sprung up to explain away the shame of these two great liberators not reaching the promised land.

Or maybe the story is true, and like Dr. Martin Luther King did in his final sermon (“I’ve been to the Mountaintop”), Aaron Moshe knew that their deaths were coming but that the mission of liberation would continue. Who knows really? The possibilities are so interesting to think about though.

For myself, I find comfort in knowing that even great leaders are human, that they die just like all of us do. We all might be a little bit divine (after all, we are made in the image of God), we all all will die. Even Aaron and Moshe died and so will we. We can remember and honor our heroes but we shouldn’t worship them either. And we need to remember that the struggle for justice can go on without them.