All posts by jmb

The last day before the Kwest Begins…

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

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

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

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

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.

Torah Blogging: Parsha Korach

A few weeks ago I committed myself to blogging about the weekly Torah portions for the coming year… but I didn’t get started with the actual blogging, in large part because I was being too perfectionistic about it.

And so for this week, I’m going to plunge ahead and acept the fact that this will not be the final or even a great word about this particular parsha, but will be a word, at least some provisional thoughts for where I’m at right now in considering this text.

And so let us begin…

The next Torah portion is a troubling one. Korach (or Korah depending on how you transliterate the Hebrew) is the account of a challenge to the power structure among the Hebrew people.

Korah (Hebrew for “bald”), a levite (but not of the priestly line of Aaron), joined with several from the tribe of Reuben and 250 others (described as “chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute”) launched their attack. The words they chose are provocative:

They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone to far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then did you raise yourself above the LORD’s congregation?” – Numbers 16:3 (JPS, 1999 version)

What happens next is predictable. Moses creates a divine test to see who is right, with the 250 followers of Korah offering fire and incense to the LORD and then Moses and Aaron did the same thing. When they do this, the presence of the LORD speaks, and shows who is holy (in this case Moses and Aaron) and then announces God’s intention to kill all of the Israelites (since the whole community is to be blamed for the sin of Korah and his follwers). Moses intercedes, so instead only the rebels are punished, in this case by some of the rebels being swallowed up by the earth (along with all of their property, wives and children!) and the remaining rebels being burnt alive.

The message of this text is clear. Rebellion against God’s established authority is always punished severely. And the message is reinforced by the commandment that the fire pans used by the rebels to offer their sacrifice be hammered down and made into a new plating for the altar (as a perpeptual reminder of what happens to rebels).

But of course the story isn’t over. This time the people of Israel themselves rise up against Moses & Aaron saying “You two have bought death upon the LORD’s people!” (Numbers 17:6) And so the LORD proceeds to send a plague on the people, killing 14,700 of them before Aaron is able to persuade the LORD to stop the slaughter by offering incense.

The remaining portion of the text is a further reinforcement of the message that Aaron’s family are to remain as the only priests and that no others can appear before the LORD in the temple.

Wow! What a text! Deeply, deeply troubling. To be frank, on the surface it seems to have a pretty vile message, that God is on the side of the powerful and that God is against those who stand up against injustice.

Considered in context, this message is slightly tempered by the remembrance in the previous torah portion of the crushing news that (after the bad reports of the 10 of the 12 spies) the current generation (except for Joshua and Caleb) will not enter the promised land, and would instead be cursed to remain as wanderers. And so arguably a change in leadership would likely mean the return of the Hebrew people to bondage back in Egypt (there were few options left since they had just been beaten badly in their attempt to invade Canaan).

Who knows really? I can’t help but see this story as an example of the messy interplay of power struggles. Moses and Aaron behaved liked tyrants sometimes (not always of course, but sometimes). Korah and his people made the theologically profound statement that “all of the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst,” and yet I have no doubt that he would have been a tyrant too if he had come to power, because power always corrupts. Likely he was a charismatic and dynamic leader (or else he wouldn’t have been able to create such a broad-base of power to challenge the Moses-Aaron leadership), and so the chance of him having the ability to become an abusive leader was high.

What is the take-home message of this text? Certainly I don’t think this story is literally true. I don’t think the Source-of-all-life is the kind of rash deity depicted here, who not only kills the rebels but “their wives, their children and their little ones.” (Numbers 16:27) Such a deity would not be worthy of worship but rather of rebellion.

Rather I think this story is a spiritualized version of an early power struggle among the Hebrew people. Later generations retold the story to reinforce the Mosaic power structure, but in their telling they actually put a powerful word in the mouths of the enemy in this story, “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst.”

What if this were true? The idea of being holy (kadush) is to be set apart. Obviously the whole community is by definition not set apart (because what would it be set apart from?) but maybe this idea of at least potential inner holiness is always present, and hence the idea of deep community leadership, rather than hierarchical leadership is present.

And so, maybe Korah is the hero of the story; Korah the “heretic” who ends up speaking a profound word of truth? It certainly makes me wonder.

Thoughts on the train – last day of our trip to Elkhart, Indiana

Hard to believe this is the last day of our trip. It has been an incredibly good time. Lots of good family time (and we all still like each other after 11 days of traveling together! Miracle of miracles!) and lots of good reflective time.

My class at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary? was particularly good. It was called “Performing the Faith” and was mix of performance theory with reflections on the practical application of the idea of performance and ritual in the context of the church.

I had an unexpected take-away message from the class (which I should say is still going on, the online component continues for another month), namely that my calling is in large part to preach and teach. I love speaking but have held back from pursuing this seriously due to insecurity. But it is very clear that this is what I am most passionate about (and frankly is one of the parts of lawyering that I still enjoy, despite my jaded disenchantment with the professional generally).

I don’t know what the future holds for me. I love my church but we are full of good speakers. Our pastor delivers excellent thought provoking messages three times a month, which leaves 1-2 messages for others to speak. Our
other church members are also excellent speakers, who speak from the heart not only about matters of faith but about the practical implications of Jesus’ revolutionary nonviolent teachings RIGHT NOW (we are decidedly not a “pie in the sky by and by” kind of church). So I don’t want to take away from that by asking to speak more than I already do.

But I also can’t imagine leaving my church. It is a real family to me and has sustained me for a long time. Maybe there will be a time that I would need to serve elsewhere but now is not that time.

So I’m trying to think creatively. Maybe about finding a non-traditional venue to preach, maybe online or maybe on a time other than Sunday mornings.

Besides vocational stuff, I’m also thinking a lot about my family. We had a good time on this trip, despite the fact that we often didn’t get enough sleep and were having to navigate lots of minor challenging situations (i.e. the Chicago Union train station). I think this trip went well because we decided to craft our trip based on our preferences and not on anyone else’s expectations. We took the train (a glorious way to travel if you aren’t too time crunched) but rented a car when we got to Indiana. We spent our free time (for me mostly in the evenings and afternoons when class wasn’t in session, while my wife and son had extra time to explore when I was in class) doing little things that we enjoyed.

And so the highlights of the trip are small moments like the glorious food served family-style at Amish Acres in Nepanee, the Wakarusa “Dime” Candy store (no longer priced at a dime but still loads of fun), the Venturi pizza in Goshen and the little museums like the Comic and Superheroes museum, the Midwestern Museum of American Art and the NY Central Railroad museum (all in Elkhart), as well as the the Menno-Hof Museum in Shipshewana (my son was very insistent that he and Mamma go there early in the trip because “I want to learn how to be a Mennnonite today!), and of course the beautiful quilt gardens all over the region.

And that’s just the highlights… I still haven’t yet talked about other moments like the awesome (and cheap — only 99 cents!) authentic tacos from the Mexican grocery store north of the AMBS campus, and getting to have my family be at chapel when my class led worship on Friday. Oh and the wonderful stores in Shipshewana! Yoder’s Meat & Cheese, Yoder’s Hardware (which sells all kinds of kitschy awesomeness) and Yoder’s Department store — yes, apparently everything in Shipshewana is named after a Yoder or so it seems.

And we celebrated Shabbat! It was a simple affair in the student housing apartment we were staying at — little electric tea candles (easier to travel with), triscuits for the bread and a little bit of wine and juice (the juice came from the Mexican grocery store), but we still said the blessings and sung our songs together as a family.

There was just so much that happened, and yet all of these things were little, not big. There were no big amusement parks and nothing flashy. But it was right for us.

And so that is the other big lesson I’m taking away from this trip. Be true to yourself, but also to your family. I think that finding the right family rhythm is the key to happy travels, and I’m assuming happiness back home as well.

We have a couple more hours on this train (right now we are somewhere between Dallas and Fort Worth, TX), and then another train back to Oklahoma. I’m hoping I can carry this good feeling with me for the coming days. Life at home poses a different set of complications but I’m hoping I can keep coming back to this idea of a good rhythm to keep me going on the right path.

A year of Torah study

I’ve been giving some thought to the upcoming Jewish holiday of Shavuot (also known as the Feast of Weeks), which celebrates the giving of the Torah (Law) to the Hebrew people at Mt. Sinai.

There are several traditions of this holiday (such as eating dairy products, reading the book of Ruth, etc.) but the one that interests me the most is the tradition of studying Torah all night long.

As much I would love to study Torah all night long, I think maybe a more fruitful exercise would be to study through the Torah over the course of the coming year and then to blog about the experience. So, here’s my plan…

1. I will study the weekly Torah portions that are read by many Jews each week. I hope that in reading the text in the context that Jews read it, I will see it with new eyes.

2. I will translate some portion of the week’s text in Hebrew (even if only a verse or two) as a way to maintain my Hebrew skills.

3. I will read some of the Jewish commentaries on the week’s portion, both scholarly ones (like the JPS commentary) but also less scholarly ones (blogs and the like).

4. I will write some kind of response to the text on my blog.

5. I will express my thoughts on the text openly. If I have doubts about the text’s wisdom, I will say so. I will bring to the table both an attempt at an objective historical consideration of the text, but also will bring my interfaith/feminist/anti-oppression perspective to the text. And I will consider the devotional/spiritual aspects of the text as well.

6. I will seek to engage with others in thoughtful dialogue about the text but I will do my best to avoid pointless arguments.

So that’s the plan. Shavuot starts on sunset of June 3 and runs until sundown on June 5, so I will start with next week’s Torah portion. Stay tuned…

My outline of Biblical Hebrew grammar

Biblical Hebrew Outline (PDF download), Keyed to Basics of Biblical Hebrew, 2nd edition by Gary Pratico & Miles Van Pelt

A bit of explanation: I am a seminary student but previously was a law student (I graduated from law school in 2005 and have been an attorney since 2006). Much of the experience of law school and seminary is dissimilar, but one element is the same — the need to comprehend, remember, organize and apply large amounts of information.

A common study technique in law school is the preparation of “outlines,” normally about 20-30 pages for student-written outlines, or between 200-300 pages for commercial outlines (sold by companies to help law students prepare for exams), as well as some unusual forms (I often condensed longer outlines down to 2 pages, and sometimes even 1 page as a method of studying). Since Biblical Hebrew has been an incredibly difficult subject for me, I decided to use the outline technique to prepare for my Hebrew final (which fortunately was open book, allowing us to use our textbook and lexicon, which meant the most important thing to do in preparation was to be able to quickly find relevant information in the textbook on the fly, which is why this outline is keyed to our textbook.)

As for coverage, I think I did a decent job of outline the first half of the class (all of the grammar besides verbs) but it is much weaker in the second half of the outline. In the future (for my own learning) I will probably rewrite this section. But for those interested, I’m sharing the outline anyway incomplete as it is. Use at your own risk.

Gauging interest in an interfaith Jewish study and worship group (a chavurah)

My wife and I are thinking about starting a monthly gathering that would meet to engage in informal Jewish study and worship here in the OKC Metro. The group would be interfaith in nature (with all being welcome to share of their understandings of the divine) but with the focus being on Jewish faith practices such as celebrating Shabbat (Sabbath) and holidays, as well as learning more about Jewish history and culture, all in the context of an informal, family-friendly home gathering.

This gathering would be modeled after the Jewish Chavurah movement (Hebrew: חבורה) which means “fellowship” or “friendship”) which sprung up during the 1960’s as an alternative to traditional synagogue services. Chavurot (plural of Chavorah) are traditionally lay-led and egalitarian in nature… or to say it another way, everyone is a participant and leadership is shared.

This is a lively and rich movement. It includes small fellowship groups that are sponsored by a larger synaoguge, but also include many independent Chavurot such as the Longmont, CO Shabbat Group, NefeshSoul in Phoenix, Tikkun Olam Chavorah in Germantown, PA and HaMakom Shalom in Germantown, MD

There is a lot more that could be said about this movement (actually I will provide two more links: Joys of Chavurah (AKA The Jewish Party thing) from and the National Havurah Committee Resources page for those who want to learn more), but maybe it is best to just say that it is time to try it out and see for ourselves what this kind of informal community would be like instead of just reading about it.

So, the community might start with some of these activities…

1. Shabbat suppers – The group would gather for dinner at one of our homes. We would light the candles and say the shabbat prayers together, and then eat a long lazy meal together (with of course wine and challah bread) while sharing about lives and the ways we attempt to connect with God in the context of our lives.
2. Torah Study – We might meet to read and discuss the Torah portion of the week.
3. Hebrew Study – This would not be learning to read and speak Hebrew fluently, but rather a kind of introduction to Hebrew, a “Hebrew for the rest of us” (quoting from a book title of the same name) in which I would teach participants how to recognize the Hebrew characters and vowel markings, how to pronounce Hebrew, and some of the basics of Hebrew grammar, so that participants could use some of the standard Hebrew language tools to study the Hebrew scriptures.
4. Service – We might choose together to do a service project of some kind together.
5. Holiday gatherings – There are so many wonderful Jewish holidays we can observe together in an informal way. Sukhot (the feast of booths) and Purim would be both very fun holidays to do together.

As far as who can participate, the meetings would be open to anyone who is interested in learning or engaging with Jewish practices. Certainly participants are welcome to discuss connections between Jewish practices and their own beliefs in appropriate ways, but this would not be an appropriate occasion for seeking converts.

And of course this group would be focused on Jewish practices, but is not intended to require any kind of doctrinal conformity. I expect (and hope) that we will have participants come with a variety of theological beliefs (including those who are agnostic).

Anyway that is my not-so-short explanation of what we have in mind. I’m now curious who might be interested in joining us on a trial basis, maybe starting with a Friday night supper sometime in May or June. If you are interested in participating, please email or text me (405-494-0562). Also please let me know what things you would be most interested in (shabbat meals, holiday celebrations, study, etc.).