2014
04.28

I have had this blog post percolating for awhile in my head but today seems like a good day to write it. It will be long and meandering so it will probably only be of interest to close friends. That’s ok because this is my blog and I write it mostly for myself.

For those of you who know me, I’m a free-thinking Mennonite, drawn to the tradition’s emphasis on Jesus’ radical teachings on nonviolence and social justice. I’m also a seminary student and work part-time at my church in peace ministry.

But I also have lots of doubts about the Bible and orthodox Christianity, especially regarding the issue of atonement and hell. In fact, I should rephrase that. I don’t have doubts anymore, I just don’t believe that way. I do not think that God has an insatiable blood thirst to kill and torture sinners that is only quenched by a substitute human sacrifice of his own son.

I remain committed to my church and faith tradition because I believe in the power of community and Mennonite ethics (as I discussed in a previous blog post) but I have felt a longing for a spirituality that I have not found there (or in any other Christian tradition).

Explorations in Judaism

My wife and I have fallen in love with Jewish faith practice over the last couple of years (something she has written about on the website Kveller.com here and here). We love the tradition’s orientation of having most of the rituals and holidays centered on the family and home, but also we love the tradition’s embrace of free-thinking and even disagreement. We began our observance with Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) two years ago, then we started celebrating shabbat (sabbath) with joyful Friday-night shabbat dinners and at least an attempt to maintain our restfulness into Saturday. Then we started doing other holidays – Sukkot, Tu Bishvat, Haunakah, Passover, Purim, and Yom Kippur. We tried to be faithful to the traditions by reading heavily from a mix of Jewish authors, but also adapted some elements to our family’s context. And then we took it a bit further by adding a nightly singing of the Shema Yisrael to our bedtime routines. And I’m working on learning Hebrew.

We of course aren’t observant in every way. We haven’t made any attempt to do kashrut (kosher) and are taking a more liberal approach to some of the prayers. And we have adopted some services which are traditionally done in a synagogue for home observance. — But this is part of the tradition too. Many liberal Jews (especially from the Reform and Reconstructionist traditions) pick and choose those mitzvot that are life-affirming and meaningful to keep, while not following those mitvot that are not life affirming. I like to think of this as being creatively observant.

It has been a joy doing these things. There of course are moments of tension — times when I wonder if our borrowing of another culture’s faith practices is a kind of cultural misappropriation or not, and times when I wonder if we are just attracted to the exotic and different (rather than the mundane aspects of the Christian traditions we grew up in). But most of the time I feel clarity that these faith practices are in fact transforming me and that God is at work in this.

Spiritual practice brings physical transformation

A recent example of this transformation is going on as we speak. It began shortly before Passover. I told my wife that I was wanting to get serious about getting in shape and losing weight (I am diabetic so this is always a struggle), so she suggested that I begin my diet during passover, by keeping the traditional rules which forbid the eating of chametz (fermented grain products like bread and beer) during the 8 day passover festival. So I decided to do this. I quickly ended up turning this practice into a low-carb diet, in which I ate lots of meat, veggies and dairy but no carbs except those in veggies and those in Matzah (unleavened bread). I also started working out most days of the week.

And then a miraculous (at least in my eyes) thing happened. My yo-yo-ing blood sugar levels evened out. My moods stabilized. I became much less irritable and generally was just happier. Certainly the better diet was a part of it, but I think part of it was also that I was really committing to life-giving spiritual practices, and that this was doing very good things to me.

When Passover ended last week, my wife made another suggestion. Traditionally Jews Count the Omer, a 49 day time of expectancy and waiting for the Torah to come. Many observant Jews refrain from certain actions during this season (not listening to music, attending weddings, etc.) as a way of making this time sacred and a time of mourning for great losses. So my wife said that I should maybe just continue my diet as my way of counting the Omer.

I decided to do this (except that I’m now just eating a limited number of carbs per day — I’m shooting for no more than 80 grams per day, rather than avoiding chametz). I’m also trying to do the daily prayer for the season and maintaining my exercise routine. I make mistakes along the way (I had one bad day when I was depressed and broke down and ate a donut) but I am resolved to keep trying. Obviously this is about my physical health, but I also do believe that our bodies and souls are intertwined and that this will do good in other ways as well.

Questions of Religious Identity

I have been thinking a lot lately about the issue of religious identity (see my previous blog post on my celebrating 10 years at Joy Mennonite Church). I feel very committed to my local congregation. It is faith community that is open to all and that has chosen to maintain its identity as being centered on a commitment to the nonviolent way of Jesus’ teachings. This is something that I can strongly affirm.

At the same time, I’m not sure that I’m a Christian, at least in the way it is often defined. Most people say that a Christian is someone who agrees with the historic creeds of the church and I don’t. I have too many issues with creeds, partly that I’m agnostic on the subjects of Jesus’ supposed virgin birth and resurrection, but also that the creeds pay no attention to the most important part of Jesus’ life: what he taught and how he lived. And most daming of all, I don’t believe that Jesus “died to save us from our sins.” Rather I believe Jesus allowed himself to be martyred (as others have in history) to show us how far one should go for one’s deepest beliefs.

In some ways I think would be more comfortable in the Jewish tradition (seeing Jesus as a great rabbi and teacher but not as a savior) but that leaves me with another problem. The Jewish conversion rituals are all very exclusivistic. So far every school of conversion that I’m aware of asks this question (with some variations in wording) of converts: “Do you renounce all beliefs you may once have held in any other religion?” (examples: here and here) This is not something I am comfortable with.

Does embracing Judaism mean that I have to forget the ethical (and arguably Jewish) teachings of the historic Jesus?

Does embracing Judaism mean that I have to renounce my understanding of the Buddha’s teachings on the way to end suffering?

Does embracing Judaism mean that I have to leave the spiritual community that has made my life so rich and full?

I don’t think so.

And so I will continue to feel more and more Jewish every day, and yet not really be Jewish. I’m praying that someday there might be a way possible for someone like me to find a universalist Jewish community of some kind to connect with. (or else that I am able to someday find that I have Jewish roots somewhere in my family tree) But I want to make this connection without severing the other God-given connections in my life.

Thank you for staying with me in this long and meandering read.

2014
04.22

Nathaniel Batchelder, Director of the OKC Peace House has written an op-ed in the latest issue of Oklahoma Peace Strategy Newsletter, which I believe merits a response.

First, though here is reprint of Batch’s op-ed:

About Earth Day & The Green Party

I love Earth Day. And I love the Green Party Platform, including serious planks for environmental sustainability and preservation of Nature. I understand that the Green Party advocates a week of activities around Earth Day, encouraged by Green Presidential Candidate Jill Stein and other leaders of the Green Party. The idea is to make the connection that serious Eco-Policies are inherent in the Green Party.

But, although I love the Green Party PLATFORM, I do not support the Green PARTY. I’ve opined for years that Green Party candidates could register and run as Democrats, not Independents, identifying themselves in the primaries as Green Democrats. The Greens I’ve suggested this to are almost universally offended or puzzled by my suggestion. I suggest they study the Tea Party movement.

Tea Party strategists knew NOT to start a new party, but to agitate within the Republican Party. Today, moderate Republicans are terrified of primary challenges by Tea Party candidates. The Tea Party has become the tail wagging the Republican dog. Not bad for a bunch of rabid extremist right-wing fundamentalists who don’t believe in science!

Meanwhile, Green Party Independent candidates typically draw less than 10% of the vote on election day, and the consequences are to hurt liberal candidates, thus inadvertently helping conservatives.

Had Ralph Nader run as a Green Democrat in the 2000 presidential primaries, George W. Bush would never have become president. Bush’s 8 years cost America $15 to $20 TRILLION, adding up his two unnecessary wars, the 2008 economic crash (because regulation under GWBush was absent from 2000 to 2008), and the huge bail-outs.

Then Nader ran for President again, as an Independent, in 2004 and 2008. Eeek. Politics is the art of the possible. I believe we must first defeat the worst. This would generate hope among potential candidates that victory might be possible.

By Nathaniel Batchelder

I disagree with several points made by Batch, but primarily I object to this topic being considered by OPS Newsletter at all, because the Oklahoma Peace House is seen by our community as being the primary speaking point of the peace movement, and the peace movement is not, and should not, be a partisan thing.

When I think of my comrades in the cause of peace activism, both locally and nationally, I see a motley group of folks. Some of them are Democrats, some are Republicans (one of them, Ethan McChord, is running for Lt. Governor in Kansas), many are independent, a few are from third parties (including Greens, Libertarians and Socialists) and a decent number are anarchists who eschew all electoral politics.

We need all of these folks to engage in the cause of peace. Wars won’t end by electing one side or another. Lots of politicians will use the peace movement to gain political points but then do little to change the culture of militarism. Two recent examples come to mind — Nixon promised to end the war in Vietnam but instead secretly expanded the war to other countries, and Obama promised to end the war in Iraq while a the same time expanding the use of drone warfare against targets, both civilian and military. Change won’t came from the ballot box.

Ending war is hard-work. It requires deep organizing and sometimes even direct action to stop the machinery of death. In comparison, partisan politics is easier, but it frankly doesn’t work.

I respect the fact that Batch is an avid Democrat and he has the right to speak about his views on politics in other venues (or maybe even in the OPS Newsletter if he clearly states this is his opinion only and not the opinion of the OKC Peace house), but I don’t think that partisan advocacy should be done by the Peace House itself. Such advocacy is divisive and pushes potential peace activists away.

I think it is time for change at the Peace House, by embracing the idea that the peace movement is a diverse movement, with multiple political tendencies. I am sharing this message publicly in the hopes that supporters of the Peace House might voice their concern to the Peace House board.

If you share my concern, please send your thoughts on this subject to the Peace House using this web form.

Lastly, my criticism of the Peace House is rooted in my belief in its potential for powerful positive change. I care about this work too much to stay silent.

James M. Branum
(speaking only for myself)

P.S. This is a side point, but as a former Independent/Green Party state house candidate, I obviously disagree with Batch on the value of third party politics. I am one of the folks he spoke of, who was “offended” by his suggestion of running as Green Democrats, primarily because I see no reason to support a political party that doesn’t believe I should have the right to vote for the candidate of my choice in Presidential elections. I have voted for some Democrats (and Republicans and folks of other parties too) over the years, but I can’t support the Democratic Party as long as it refuses to take a stand for democracy through the enactment of reasonable and fair ballot access laws.

Also, Nader and the Green Party did not let Bush win in 2000. The false assumption is that all Nader voters would have otherwise been Gore voters, when in fact many would have been non-voters if they had not voted for Nader. See http://www.cagreens.org/alameda/city/0803myth/myth.html for more discussion on this myth.

2014
04.20

Today, Easter Sunday 2014, was a joyful day at Joy Mennonite Church, in that we welcomed 12 people as new members of our church.

Easter Sunday 2014 at Joy Mennonite Church

But today also was especially joyful for me, because I joined Joy Mennonite Church on Easter Sunday 2004 (ten years ago).

Other than my decision to marry my wife, joining Joy was one of the best decisions of my life. Much of who I am today is because of this church, so I wanted to reflect back a bit about why I chose to join Joy in the first place, but also what my experience in the JMC community has been like over the last ten years.

Ten Years ago

I first started attending Joy in November 2003. I was a very unhappy second year law student, but I was also a recently fired part-time minister.

A bit of background might be in order here – I grew up in the Churches of Christ (the legalistic, acapella-only music wing of the tradition) but began to question many of the core ideas of the tradition in late high school and early college. I earned a bachelor’s degree in Bible from a COC-affiliated theological college but continued to explore my faith, which led me to a faith walk that emphasized Jesus’ life and teachings (which in time led me towards Christian pacifism) but also the power of Christian community as illustrated by the accounts of the early church in the book of Acts. My desire for deeper community led me to being part of several charismatic-evangelical churches (Hope Chapel and then Hope in the City in Austin and late Shekinah Fellowship in Oklahoma City) but felt increasing discomfort with the growing practice of mixing patriotism and faith in the evangelical tradition. I finally wound up back in the COC, in the congregation I grew up in, Newcastle Heights Church of Christ, about the same time I was starting law school.

Newcastle Height Church of Christ

During my first year of law school I was asked to serve as the congregation’s interim minister. This was a challenging experience, made especially difficult by the experience of being a full-time law student (and also experiencing significant depression), but I made the best of it. I focused my energy on preaching sermons that taught about the life and teachings of Jesus. By the end of my first year of service in the church, there began to be bubblings of tension in the congregation and finally a decision was made to hire another minister who had more of a heart for “evangelism” (a concept I increasingly struggled to believe in).

I was given another month of time to serve, but I ended up leaving the position earlier than planned as I had reached my breaking point. I couldn’t muster up the energy to keep preaching two times each week in that church. I needed to be in a church where I could be honest and frank about my faith journey.

Meeting Sadie Mast

Towards the end of my time at the COC, I met Sadie. I met her standing on a street corner protesting during the early days of the Iraq war. She and I talked for a long time about peace and faith. I expressed interest in her church and told her I wasn’t sure I was in the right place, but she told me that I should “grow where I was planted” and not leave. Still a connection was made and I was even invited to come speak at Joy as a guest speaker.

Sadie Mast at Death penalty protest

So, when a few months had passed and my time was ending at Newcastle, I wanted to go back to Joy. I was considering other churches but I felt a tug towards Joy so that’s where I began attending.

Becoming a Member

During my early days at Joy, the congregation was tiny. Most Sundays we had 8-12 people in attendance. There were very few children and no young adults (except for a college student in the area who started coming occasionally not long after I was a regular). But I liked the group nonetheless. They were accepting and friendly and encouraging to me in my faith journey. They also immediately let me serve, by letting me preach and lead singing occasionally.

Over the next few months I considered membership. Our pastor at the time, Moses (husband of Sadie), talked quite a bit with me about the decision. He explained that the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition took membership to be a very high thing and the choice was not to be made lightly. I read through the Mennonite Confession of Faith and did other reading in Anabaptist history, but primarily I learned about the Mennonites from Moses & Sadie.

Moses and Sadie Mast

One particular conversation stands out in my memory. We were eating at a cheap Chinese restaurant one Sunday after church, talking about the questions I had about the church. I told Moses that I didn’t think I believed in hell as a literal place anymore and asked him if that would be a problem? Moses’s answer was very reassuring: “I’m not sure I do either!”

And so on Easter Sunday 2004, I joined the church (along with Shirley Hughes, an elderly lady who has now passed on). I took the decision to join the church very seriously. I had been a part of many churches before but I knew something was different about my decision to join Joy.

Years of Growth

The next few years were tremendous days of growth for me. I began to live at the building of Joy Mennonite Church (we met and still meet in an old house in Northeast OKC. Our house has space for renters both upstairs and in a garage apartment) which introduced me into a deeper level of community. And I was given the chance (with a group of others in and out of the church) to form the Center for Conscience in Action, an organization that would be central in my activist life in the coming years.

2011-01-17 15.15.32

2011-01-17 15.17.00

During this time period Moses began to consider retiring as our pastor, so when the position opened, our congregation decided to hire two ministers, a pastor (who would do most of the pastoral and preaching work of the church) and a minister of peace & Justice (who would help to do some of the preaching, but also coordinate the congregation’s peace & social justice work). I stepped into the second role, while another member of our church, Norman (a former Baptist pastor), became our new pastor.

2008 Commissioning Service

2008 Commissioning service

The next three years of service were challenging. There were some early tensions between the methods of the new pastor and our congregation, but in time things got better. The new pastor and I often did not see eye-to-eye (he was theologically evangelical, while I was theologically universalist) but we had enough common ground to work ok together.

And our congregation started to grow. First it was through Mennonite college students and recent graduates who were moving to our area who wanted to maintain church involvement, but later it was from refugees from other faith traditions who were drawn to Anabaptist practices and our non-traditional church community. It was a good time.

A time of crisis

And then the crisis came: by way of a fire that hit the church’s garage (and my upstairs garage apartment). This fire, for reasons I still don’t understand, set in motion a bubbling-over of tensions which had been dormant in the church. Our pastor decided that I needed to leave the church (as well as some of the other younger members who dared to think for themselves) because we had bad theology and/or weren’t willing to live up to unspoken standards of behavior that he had set. The nitty gritty account of these days is too painful to write even today, but I can say that it was a testing point for our church, and one that we barely survived.

Finally I submitted my resignation to the church, believing that I could no longer be a part of the congregation in its present state, however, the congregation instead voted to not accept my resignation. Norman instead left the church and formed another Mennonite church in the area with some of our members.

The rift in our church was deep and painful and the wound might have been lethal, but thankfully God had another plan in mind. It began at Zach and Britney’s house, when they provided me and the other displaced tenants of Joy Mennonite a place to live temporarily.

After things got bad in our congregation, Zach and Britney continued to provide a place of support for us through the times of trial. And so when our church was left pastor-less, it was obvious to us that Zach should be our next pastor.

Zach Gleason preaching at Joy

And things have continued to evolve since then. Some folks have moved due to jobs and school needs, but others have joined us. We have grown in new areas of ministry, such as our gardens and our children’s programs, but also have deepened our involvement in other areas (most notably our music program). And I’m especially proud of the fact that our congregation has members who are actively engaged in the struggle against the Keystone XL Pipeline.

woetotherich

And even more recently our congregation has taken the stand of welcoming all to the table, including LGBT people. This was not an easy decision for our community to process through, but I’m very proud that we did it.

Our future is uncertain. We are a small church with a big mission. We don’t have enough resources and not that many people. And yet we keep going. I think the one thing we can count on is that we are not alone in this journey of doing our imperfect best to follow the difficult way of Jesus.

What Joy has meant to me

When I reflect on these last ten years, I have to think about what kind of person I might have become if I had not found Joy when I did. In 2004 I was discouraged and battered from my experience at the COC I grew up in. I was struggling to maintain my faith and didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere. I frankly do not know if I could have maintained my faith without Joy.

I am certain that I would not have had the life of activism that I have had (practicing law in support of war resisters and conscientious objectors for the last 7+ years) if it weren’t for Joy. Joy gave me the encouragement to go for it, to seek to be a lawyer in an area that few practice in. I did have support and encouragement from other sources (most notably from the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild) but the drive and inspiration to do the work came primarily from my church.

Most of my closest friends today come from my church. I’ve kept a few friends over the years from other times and places (and am very grateful for those friends), but it was my Joy friends who have provided me my primary place of belonging and connection, particularly during the last few years. These are folks who accept me and like me for who I am, quirks and all. That is a powerful thing.

2014-2

And it was Joy that prepared me for marriage and fatherhood. Partly it came from seeing the examples of married couples like Moses & Sadie (partners in activism and in life), but also from an unexpected source. Back in I think 2008, our then pastor Norman (yes, the same minister I later had conflict with) counseled me that I should get a dog as a way of treating my depression (to supplement the other things I was doing). At the time I thought my life was too busy to get a dog but he was insistent and finally gave me a dog! The experience of dog ownership for me (this was the famous but now-departed Sandy the Peace Dog for those who knew her) was a transformative thing. It did help me with my depression but it also cracked the door open for me to be more open to relationships and even parenthood. I can’t help but think that our old pastor and that dog helped me to be ready for marriage.

Sandy the Peace Dog

And frankly that dog also was a loyal companion for me during some dark days of struggle, times when I was taking on too much work for the cause of peace. I was burning out but as it sounds that dog kept me from giving up. Having her with me on the road for my cases was a wonderful thing.

Free Victor Agosto

And so I have a lot to be thankful for. I’m thankful for my Joy friends but especially for Moses and Sadie (who I now think of as my adopted grandparents) and for Zach and Britney (for pulling us together as a community when we most needed it).

And I’m grateful to be part of a church that is not scared of questions, that is ok with my doubts and my explorations of other faith traditions. It is this freedom that fundamentally keep me plugged into this creative faith community.

And I’m thankful for God who is always at work, even when we aren’t expecting it.