Saturday, August 1, 2009

An Evangelical Report from a JW District Convention - Day Two

These days, Jehovah's Witnesses have their district conventions for three days at a time: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Frequently the same convention center will be used weekend after weekend for different districts. I wasn't able to make it Friday due to an overriding engagement, but did manage to go today. Perhaps some of my readers got the invitation to their local district convention, with the theme "Keep on the Watch". That's the one.

Saturday morning at 6:10 PM, I saw a van pull up across the street from my house. My ride. Shem was driving, while Uriah rode shotgun. Behind them were Atarah (Uriah's wife) and 'Zibiah', Shem's mother. I climbed to the back of the van and started to read. I was working through the JW publication Knowledge That Leads to Everlasting Life. It used to be the main 'study aid' used with interested parties; that slot's now filled by What Does the Bible Really Teach?. I managed to get through chapters 4 and 5 on the way to the Sovereign Center. It was entertaining to listen to their banter, especially Uriah and Atarah. Most people, Christians and non-Christians, tend to see Jehovah's Witnesses as "weird", as though psychologically abnormal somehow. And it is true that some studies purport to establish that Jehovah's Witnesses have rates of mental illness that are, in a statistically significant way, higher than the population in general. (See here and here, but also here for a somewhat more skeptical analysis.) But as far as my experience goes, JWs are, as people, no different than the typical Christian near the fundamentalist end of the spectrum. They're real people, not just "cultists", as so often pejoratively labeled.

At any rate, after arriving at the Sovereign Center we had to wait a bit for the door to be opened, and subsequently while Uriah and Shem did some preparatory work, the rest of us waited in the ground-level hallway, as no one was to be let into the seating areas until 8:00 AM. So I spent the time continuing the read the Knowledge book (it's common in conversation for Jehovah's Witnesses to refer to their publications as "the such-and-such book", rather than by the full title), making considerable progress. I did the same after we obtained second-row seats near the stage; I managed to finish reading it before the program started. Not bad pacing, I must say! I got at this point to see Zibiah's other two sons, 'Japheth' and 'Ham'. (When I first met Uriah, Ham was his ministry partner. Never knew he was Shem's brother until this convention! Upon learning it, I could see a slight family resemblance, which surprised Atarah and Zibiah, who evidently disagreed.) I also learned about the two releases that had been announced the previous day. The first was a DVD called something like The Wonder of Creation, which essentially deals with the natural world as pointing to Jehovah's glory. The other announced release was a new songbook, which will be made available in January. I also got into a conversation with a JW named 'Zedekiah', who explained that he used to be a Seventh-Day Adventist but "came to the truth" (a favorite JW way of expressing their conversion) when he saw that JW publications are strictly Bible-based. Turning me to Genesis 40:8, wherein the New World Translation (NWT) has Joseph saying, "Do not interpretations belong to God?", he explained that all other churches interpret the Bible by human means, which is inherently going to result in man-made distortions; JWs, on the other hand, don't interpret the Bible at all. You can tell because instead of taking a passage and then explaining what it means, they make a statement and cite anywhere from two to five verses to substantiate it, thus letting Scripture itself do the talking. "Let the Bible interpret the Bible!", Zedekiah exclaimed. ...It took a lot of willpower not to start twitching at the utter wrongness of it all. Allow me to explain. Any text is interpreted in the act of reading. Saying that you don't interpret the text is essentially just another way of saying, "Please don't critically examine my interpretation." So interpretation is vital and is by no means inherently detrimental to the text's intrinsic meaning. (And yes, of course texts do have meaning within themselves by view of authorial intent, pace certain postmodern fantasies.) There is also no such thing as "the Bible interpreting the Bible", at least not in the sense he meant. Rather, the act of interpretation must not divorce itself from the context of the remainder of the Scriptures. As for the verse he cited, he ripped it from context quite obviously. Joseph was clearly talking about the authoritative interpretation of dreams, in a context in which the common assumption was that dreams can serve as coded messages from a deity. Being 'written' in a code of sorts, it was common for pagan priests to attempt to devise 'decoders', and thus we have surviving dream interpretation manuals from the ancient Near East. Joseph's point, however, was that, (1) since the 'language' was invented by mortals to decipher the messages, and (2) since the pagans weren't even getting the identity of the sender right, and (3) since the message in question was itself evidence that the pagan interpretative method was fatally flawed, then (4) a better method, if available, would be to resort to a specific interpretative 'key' provided by the message's sender--in short, establishing authorial intent through multiple communications, much like the Rosetta Stone. Joseph was offering [4], but definitely not making a general statement regarding the interpretation of sacred texts. Now, to be fair, the majority of what Zedekiah said would be fairly commonplace among fundamentalist Christians. That doesn't make it less ridiculous, but it at least makes it more understandable, perhaps.

Zedekiah then turned my attention to Genesis 28:12, the story of Jacob's ladder, which he interpreted... interestingly. But before I get into that, I'd like to note that the typical JW method of Bible study definitely leaves an impression on the way JWs converse. Zedekiah, for example, had me turn to each passage he mentioned and read the relevant verse aloud--much the same way Witnesses do when holding Bible studies with inquirers. I suppose that the purpose is so that the other party can him- or herself see what the text says, rather than attribute it to deception on the part of the JW. Of course, several assumptions are present--the inquirer is supposed to take the NWT at face value, and the 'plain meaning' of the text is supposed to be self-evident to all. And to someone with the requisite background knowledge, it frequently is--but it often isn't what JWs mean. Anyway, to Zedekiah, that verse means that God always maintains a single "open channel of communication" with his people, whether with the patriarchs, with Moses, with the later prophets, with Jesus and the apostles... or with Jehovah's Witnesses. That "open channel of communication" is specifically with and through the "faithful and discreet slave class". For those who don't know, that's the JW term for the "anointed" 144,000 Jehovah's Witnesses destined for heaven; the phrase is derived from their interpretation of Matthew 24:45 ("Who really is the faithful and discreet slave whom his master appointed over his domestics, to give them their food at the proper time?"--NWT). Anyway, this notion was evidently pivotal in his attraction to the JWs, because none of the other religions seemed to him to offer anything comparable. As an evangelical, I'd say that the Scriptures themselves are God's sufficient channel of communication with us. At any rate, Zedekiah somehow brought Genesis 1:26 into this somewhere, but I no longer have any idea how it fit, and I suspect I wasn't all that sure then either. But he also brought up Romans 12:2 ("And quit being fashioned after this system of things, but be transformed my making YOUR mind over, that YOU may prove to yourselves the good and acceptable and perfect will of God"--NWT), saying that this is what JW publications provide. But he also mentioned that yesterday a speaker had answered the question of whether or not JW publications are inspired with a "no", saying rather that the publications are fallible but ever-approaching the truth as the "light gets brighter". (This notion, akin to mainstream Christian concepts of progressive revelation, is rooted in their interpretation of Proverbs 4:18, "But the path of the righteous ones is like the bright light that is getting lighter and lighter until the day is firmly established"--NWT.) He noted that the new songbook is supposed to have updated lyrics to certain songs, in order to make it more doctrinally sound in accordance with the new light. I personally would be able to understand this position, if it weren't also for the fact that they regard these publications as God's direct provision through the faithful and discreet slave, and that JWs are not permitted to publicly dissent from their contents.

At 9:20 AM, music from the new songbook began to play, indicating that it was time for everybody to shut up and take their seats. Ten minutes later, we began by rising to sing song #195 ("This is Jehovah's Day", cf. Psalm 118:24) from the current songbook, Sing Praise to Jehovah. I find JW songs so interesting. The second verse was especially so:

Christ now in pow'r is here, and Armageddon's near.
Satan's old order will soon pass away.
Fearlessly preach the Word; God's message let be heard.
Help all the meek ones God's commandments to obey.

How delightfully apocalyptic. It isn't very difficult to see where they stand on the matter. (For those unaware: JWs believe that Christ's 'second coming' occurred non-physically and invisibly in the year 1914, which began a five-year examination of the world's religions to determine which was most faithful to Christ's message. Naturally, JWs believe themselves to have been selected. This, then, is the era of the parousia, in which the signs of the end are in abundance, indicating that the end of the present order is just around the corner and will culminate in Armageddon.) We stayed standing for a corporate prayer ending, as always, with "In Jesus' name, Amen", just as is common in evangelical circles. After being directed to be seated, the first discourse began with a ten-minute talk titled "Examining God's Word Helps Us Keep Our Senses". The speaker began by noting that a healthy breakfast is crucial because it keeps a person on track for healthy choices throughout the day and also supplies energy for the day's tasks. In much the same way, a healthy spiritual breakfast is vital for spiritual health, and thus some routine of morning worship is important. Isaiah 50:4 was quoted ("The Sovereign Lord Jehovah himself has given me the tongue of the taught ones, that I may know how to answer the tired one with a word. He awakens morning by morning; he awakens my ear to hear like the taught ones"--NWT) as a messianic prophecy to the effect that Jesus himself practiced such a morning routine. The speaker likewise cited the 1994 edition of Examining the Scriptures Daily, which is essentially the standard JW daily devotional, to the same effect. Thus, the speaker contended, morning study is important, as shown also in a 1993 article from the Watchtower. I can't find it, but the Watchtower index does indicate a 1992 reference to rising early for study--see p. 29 of the 1 July 1992 issue of the Watchtower. Moving on, the speaker mentioned that morning study can produce "positive, upbuilding thoughts about the Kingdom"; he then cited James 5:7 ("Exercise patience, therefore, brothers, until the presence of the Lord. Look! The farmer keeps waiting for the precious fruit of the earth, exercising patience over it until he gets the early rain and the late rain"--NWT) and the related comments from that day's daily reading to the effect that we aren't to be impatient while waiting for the time of judgment. While the sign of the parousia, or the "presence of the Lord", was not yet evident in James' day, it is now, and so "the presence is not only here, but the climax is at hand". Thus, we can benefit by recalling the daily text and the comments on that text from the Watchtower.

Some reflections: first, just like in a 'Bible study', it's expected that everyone in the audience will flip through their Bibles every time the speaker references a verse, even if just in passing. Sometimes he'll even direct the audience to do so, explicitly repeating the chapter and verse reference. Furthermore, I don't know if I saw anyone in the audience who wasn't taking notes. That interests me. As for the specific talk itself, the initial part about morning worship/study/devotions was pretty well-crafted and unobjectionable. The later remarks about the parousia and the immanent judgment were, well, classic JW. And I'm no longer sure exactly how they were supposed to connect with the morning thing, other than that morning study is one way to help JWs keep alert and watchful for the end. Also, in keeping with the JW sense of uniformity as a high virtue, it shouldn't be surprising that there is exactly one 'devotional' for morning Bible study, and that everyone reads exactly the same verse on the same day, with the same comments uncritically swallowed by each and every person.

Anyway, next up was the morning symposium. A symposium, in a Jehovah's Witness district convention, is simply a collection of sequential talks dealing essentially with the same topic, and so all able to be grouped under one heading. (Actually, that could pretty much be a good description of the district convention as a whole... There's only so much you can milk out of each topic before you get ridiculously repetitive.) This symposium, consisting of five talks, was entitled "Help People to 'Awake from Sleep'". The first talk, delivered by one Brother Fresny Jr., was "Our Ministry: Why So Vital?" It began with an analogy regarding a "severe storm warning". Faced with a warning of a severe coming storm, no one would take a nap or go out to play. Rather, a sane person would take cover and perhaps alert friends and family so as to ensure their safety. For Jehovah's Witnesses, Armageddon is that approaching storm, yet mankind in general is asleep. The speaker at this point cited 1 Thessalonians 5:6 ("So then, let us not sleep on as the rest do, but let us stay awake and keep our senses"--NWT) and Romans 13:11 ("[Do] this, too, because YOU people know the season, that it is already the hour for YOU to awake from sleep, for now our salvation is nearer than at the time when we became believers"--NWT). Since salvation is near, the message of Jehovah's Witnesses is especially urgent. Thus, they must be fully awake in their ministry and watch for changing circumstances that can "chang[e] apathy into interest" in the hearts and minds of their hearers. The ministry is like a "rescue operation", since salvation rests, not with men or with human organizations, but rather with God's coming kingdom. The speaker then cited Acts 24:15 ("I have hope toward God, which hope these [men] themselves also entertain, that there is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous"--NWT), asking whether the assurance of such resurrection for even the unrighteous might excuse slackness in carrying out the preaching ministry. The answer was no, because all those who die in Armageddon will not be resurrected, and so today's ministry is especially vital because, with Armageddon so near, many to whom JWs preach now will, if they reject the message, die in that battle. The ministry is their "role in the outworking of God's purpose" as well as their own divine protection. At this point Br. Fresny carried out a brief interview with one Br. Newbanks, who shared the joy he has in his ministry and in reliance on God, and how it helps other brothers and sisters to be encouraged. The talk resumed with a remark that "people expect us to be knocking on their doors" and concluded on the note that "kingdom preaching is the most important work that's going on at this time".

Brother Fresny passed off the microphone to one Br. Eis for the talk "Be Observant in the Ministry". The second speaker began by quoting Mark 6:34 ("Well, on getting out, he saw a great crowd, but he was moved with pity for them, because they were as sheep without a shepherd. And he started to teach them many things"--NWT), noting that Jesus observed the unfortunate spiritual state of the crowd, took pity on them, and responded with teaching. With Jesus as our model, we too must be observant. Paul likewise can serve as a model, and the speaker pointed specifically to two chapters: Acts 17, wherein Paul preaches at the Areopagus in a manner suitable for his audience, and 1 Corinthians 9:22 ("To the weak I became weak, that I might gain the weak. I have become all things to people of all sorts, that I might by all means save some"--NWT), showing Paul's adaptation of his approach. Jehovah's Witnesses were encouraged to "avoid distractions" because "our attention should be focused on helping people to awake". Examples of potential distractions were given, such as conversation between themselves on the way to the door; cell phone use while in the ministry; and being accompanied by children in the door-to-door ministry. The speaker encouraged the audience to learn about people's concerns and interests through careful observation--paying attention, for example, to outward signs of religious persuasion (e.g., a cross, a mezuzah, or idols) and cultural customs (e.g., shoes lined up outside the door). Questions should be used to "get people to tell us why they need the kingdom". A demonstration was then performed depicting a bad example of a first-visit house call on a recently widowed woman, where the JW completely ignored what was going on in the woman's life and hence totally botched the encounter. There followed a better example of a good planning session, with the speaker drawing from it the lesson that JWs should plan for effective return visits by sharing reflections with their ministry partners and so deciding what to discuss at the next visit.

Brother Eis then passed off the microphone to one Br. Fields for the talk "Focus on Improving Your Skills". The third speaker began by noting that being awakened from a deep sleep is an unpleasant experience and that people prefer a "gentle approach". The same applies, he said, to spiritual things. After quoting Colossians 4:6 ("Let YOUR utterance be always with graciousness, seasoned with salt, so as to know how YOU ought to give an answer to each one"--NWT), the speaker offered four areas for potential improvement. The first, giving a mild response, he covered by citing Proverbs 21 and then showing a demonstration showing a person becoming hostile at the door because of being interrupted and the JW giving a mild response with an apology for the inconvenience. The idea is to dignify the other's feelings. The second point, responding to potential conversation stoppers, was illustrated with a demonstration of a JW approaching a person who protested that he already had his own religion. The JW mildly asked which one, and the person just repeated that he had his own religion, which I think gives the gist of the JW impression of adherents of other religions. The JW then turned the discussion to the current world condition, which Jehovah's Witnesses seem to think is the subject with which it's easiest to build common ground and work from there. The speaker noted that JWs can use pages 18 and 19 of the book Reasoning from the Scriptures to see model responses to that particular conversation stopper; the whole section on conversation stoppers covers pages 15-24. The third area was dealing with busy people, and again a demonstration was done in which, confronted with a very busy person, the JW offered to come back at a more convenient time, then quickly quoted Isaiah 25:8 ("He will certainly swallow up death forever, and the Sovereign Lord Jehovah will certainly wipe the tears from all faces. And the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for Jehovah himself has spoken [it]"--NWT) and asked a question regarding it. The speaker then noted the importance of using forethought so as to have verses at the ready to bring up. The fourth and final of these areas was using opportunities to share informally, and here the dramatization involved a married JW couple who are complimented on their relationship and thank the person and walk away. They then realize that they just passed up an opportunity, so they turn around, go back, and offer the person an article from the Watchtower on building strong relationships. The speaker concluded by noting the importance of being tactful, and then cited Colossians 4:17 ("Also tell Archippus: 'Keep watching the ministry which you accepted in [the] Lord, that you fulfill it.'"--NWT).

Brother Fields passed off the podium to a fellow whose name I didn't quite catch for the talk "Don't Forget Your Relatives". This fourth speaker noted that we all desire for our relatives to ain salvation and said that Jehovah does as well. Examples of biblical figures who sought their families' salvation included Cornelius, Rahab, and others. Thus, JWs were encouraged to keep their enthusiasm even when rebuffed and to watch for changing circumstances in relatives' lives that might open them up to the message. Audience members were encouraged to improve their teaching methods, and then a demonstration was given, first of a bad example of a JW dealing poorly with his non-JW brother on the Christmas issue, and then of another bad example of a JW fearfully passing up an opportunity to discuss the current economic woes with a relative. The speaker then cited Romans 2:4 ("Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and long-suffering, because you do not know that the kindly [quality] of God is trying to lead you to repentance?"--NWT) before a demonstration of a good example of a conversation between a JW and an ill relative, in which the point was to just be kind, which the speaker noted can go a long way in preparation for witnessing. There followed two short interviews, first with a Br. Fritz whose wife converted before he did, such that the conversion stopped arguments and turned discussions civil. Br. Fritz also said that other religions just wanted donations, unlike Jehovah's Witnesses. Then Br. Waters, the second interviewee, said that his mother died of illness when he was 10 and his father died the same way when he was 16. He then went to live with his aunt and uncle, who were JWs, and there "came to the truth" because his relatives went out of their way to be inclusive of him. He'd previously become an agnostic in the wake of his family tragedy, but was attracted to the idea of living someday on a paradise earth. The speaker concluded by urging the audience to be patient, tactful, aware, kind, and persistent.

He then turned things over to Br. Rohrbaugh for the last of the five symposium talks, "Maintain Your Sense of Urgency", which began with a consideration of what makes a situation "urgent", using examples such as medical emergencies and mechanical errors. Urgent matters need immediate attention, he said, and the JW ministry is a matter of urgency. He cited 1 Timothy 4:16 ("Pay constant attention to yourself and to your teaching. Stay by these things, for by doing this you will save both yourself and those who listen to you"--NWT) and then Ezekiel 33 for the lessons that repentance requires a warning and that the watchman's own fate hangs in the balance. The ministry was portrayed as a "chance to show Jehovah how we really feel" about him. Rohrbaugh cited 2 Timothy 4:2 ("Preach the word, be at it urgently in favorable season, in troublesome season, reprove, reprimand, exhort, with all long-suffering and [art of] teaching"--NWT), noting that there was only a short time left. Revelation 14 was cited to show that JW ministry is assisted in the present day by angelic support, which highlights its importance and urgency. The audience was urged to keep things in perspective, because Satan's system is adept at exploiting our desires for something "new and shiny". The speaker cited 1 John 2:15-17 ("Do not be loving either the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him; because everything in the world--the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the showy display of one's means of life--does not originate with the Father, but originates with the world. Furthermore, the world is passing away and so is its desire, but he that does the will of God remains forever"--NWT), a JW mainstay, to the effect that the world has nothing to offer. There'll be, the speaker said, plenty of time to pursue personal interests once the new world arrives. The audience is not to become overwhelmed or intimidated because "Jehovah God and Jesus are 100% behind this work". The first Bible Students in the early 20th century weren't daunted by their small numbers, and so the same should go for today's Jehovah's Witnesses, who are much more numerous. Witnesses are to be personally spiritually alert and to let their approach to life be completely saturated by the realization that the end is near. The speaker cited Ephesians 5:15-16 ("So keep strict watch that how YOU walk is not as unwise but as wise [persons], buying out the opportune time for yourselves, because the days are wicked"--NWT). Deep personal study should be a mainstay of every JW's daily routine, and prayer, reading, and attendance at JW meetings are all vital--here the speaker cited Hebrews 10:24-25 ("And let us consider one another to incite to love and fine works, not forsaking the gathering of ourselves together, as some have the custom, but encouraging one another, and all the more so as YOU behold the day drawing near"--NWT). Since "the very end of the last days is almost upon us", we have to help others see. Referring then to the Olivet Discourse found in Matthew 24 and parallel passages in the other Synoptics (see Mark 13 and Luke 21), Br. Rohrbaugh said that the present day is the first time that all these signs are present "simultaneously and globally", and that consequently the "evidence is irrefutable". He cited 2 Timothy 3 and Revelation 6, and then remarked that the "evidence that has mounted up since 1914 is incontrovertible--the end of the system is upon us". Next, he cited some "recent reports" about current affairs. The first two were from the United Nations and dealt with climate change and the malnutrition explosion that now affects a sixth of the entire human race; the third was a World Health Organization report about swine flu. The speaker noted that people may awaken if someone knocks at their door. Citing 2 Peter 3:7 ("But by the same word the heavens and the earth that are now are stored up for fire and are being reserved to the day of judgment and of destruction of the ungodly men"--NWT), he said that the "great tribulation is not far off", and yet billions have little biblical knowledge, and of the remainder, millions have erroneous thoughts about the Bible, "especially those in Christendom's churches". In response to this, the speaker rejoiced to unveil a new Jehovah's Witness publication, a brochure called The Bible: What is Its Message?, geared towards those with little to no knowledge of the Bible and designed as a simple introduction to the overarching biblical narrative. It's littered, he said, with references to What Does the Bible Really Teach? for further information. The symposium concluded with an exhortation to make preaching a priority.

At this point, it was 10:50 AM and thus time to sing song #166 ("See Jehovah's Army", cf. Joel 2:7), which includes the following second verse:

See Jehovah's servants searching for the sheep,
Whom in Bab'lon's bondage the false shepherds keep.
These they try to rescue with repeated calls;
These they keep inviting to their Kingdom Halls.
When a sheep they get free, how they follow through
And persist in teaching truths both old and new.

Then came the announcements, which I'd expected would be important things but turned out to be routine directions about things like baby strollers, recycling, and first aid. Quite dull, and also curious was that they had us keep standing until the announcements were over. Why? I don't know. Maybe to help us pay attention or something, or maybe some kind of respect thing.

Anyway, at 11:00 AM began the next talk, delivered by Brother Peace, entitled "Imitate Jesus' Example of Watchfulness". He began with a (purportedly) true story about a girl who was text messaging while crossing the street being struck and killed by a driver who was text messaging while driving. The point was to illustrate the importance of paying attention to what goes on around us. The purpose of the talk as a whole was to exhort the audience to follow Jesus as their model; but, the speaker asked, "How can we do this, since Jesus was perfect and possessed miraculous insight into the future?" Turning to Matthew 24:36 ("Concerning that day and hour nobody knows, neither the angels of the heavens nor the Son, but only the Father"--NWT), he argued that Jesus' knowledge was incomplete because "Jehovah had not divulged all the intimate details regarding that last day". He then cited Matthew 16:1-3 ("Here the Pharisees and Sadducees approached him and, to tempt him, they asked him to display to them a sign from heaven. In reply he said to them: '[[When evening falls YOU are accustomed to say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is fire-red'; and at morning, 'It will be wintry, rainy weather today, for the sky is fire-red, but gloomy-looking.' YOU know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but the signs of the times YOU cannot interpret.]]'"--NWT), noting that, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, those whom JWs teach have been misled and are "in the dark, intellectually". Just as Jesus recognized the imperative to take opportunities to preach and teach, so must Witnesses. The speaker then made three major points regarding Jesus as role model. The first was that Jesus kept an open line of communication to the Father through prayer. In Luke 22:39-44, we see that even in stress, Jesus recognized God's honor as more important than his own life; and in John 17, Jesus prayed for his followers. The second was that Jesus kept is mind on his work, as, for example, when he rebuked demons to quiet them, as they were a distraction. The third point was that Jesus completely trusted Jehovah during stressful times, as in the wilderness temptation narrative in Matthew 4, wherein Jesus relied not on his own strength but on the Father's through the Scriptures. As for us, then, the speaker asked several questions. Are our prayers rote, or fervent and heartfelt? Do we recognize the importance of the harvest in our prayers? Are we keeping our minds on our work? Matthew 28:19-20 ("Go therefore and make disciples of people of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy spirit, teaching them to observe all the things I have commanded YOU. And, look! I am with YOU all the days until the conclusion of the system of things"--NWT) shows that our task is to make disciples, not money, higher education, a name for ourselves, or a career. And, do we rely completely on Jehovah when tested? Brother Peace took a moment to interview Br. Davis, who said that prayer makes us stay awake, family worship is important, and Jehovah provides protection. The talk concluded with a note that while our physical eyes may grow dim, our spiritual eyes must not.

At 11:20 AM, Br. Peace handed things over to Br. Lee for the talk "Be Vigilant with a View to Prayers". The talk began with the statement that "there is absolutely no doubt that the end of this system of things is close at hand". Since the talk was based on 1 Peter 4:7 ("But the end of all things has drawn close. Be sound in mind, therefore, and be vigilant with a view to prayers"--NWT), he proceeded to say that Peter wrote this letter a few years before the Roman attack on Jerusalem in 66 C.E. There was a limited fulfillment of this promise in 70 C.E. with the fall of Jerusalem, but the full application pertains to the present day. He then pointed out four basic forms of prayer: praise, thanksgiving, petition, and supplication. From this he moved on to a litany of Scripture passages. Matthew 26:40-41 ("And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter: 'Could YOU men not so much as watch one hour with me? Keep on the watch and pray continually, that YOU may not enter into temptation. The spirit, of course, is eager, but the flesh is weak.'"--NWT), pointing out Peter's own experience at lacking vigilance and postulating it as a background to 1 Peter 4:7. Next came a cite of 1 Corinthians 10:12 ("Consequently let him that thinks he is standing beware that he does not fall"--NWT) and a reference to Peter's overconfidence in the gospels. Next came Nehemiah 2:4 ("In turn the king said to me: 'What is this that you are seeking to secure?' At once I prayed to the God of the heavens"--NWT) as a reference to praying before making decisions; Nehemiah 1:4 ("And it came about that, as soon as I heard these words, I sat down and began to weep and mourn for days, and I was continually fasting and praying before the God of the heavens"--NWT) as showing Nehemiah to be a man of continual prayer; and Daniel 6:10 ("But Daniel, as soon as he knew that the writing had been signed, entered into his house, and, the windows in his roof chamber being open for him toward Jerusalem, even three times in a day he was kneeling on his knees and praying and offering praise before his God, as he had been regularly doing prior to this"--NWT) as showing Daniel to be a persistent man of regular prayer. We are, said Br. Lee, to pray on behalf of others, as shown by Colossians 4:12 ("Epaphras, who is from among YOU, a slave of Christ Jesus, sends YOU his greetings, always exerting himself in YOUR behalf in [his] prayers, that YOU may finally stand complete and with firm conviction in all the will of God"--NWT) and its example of Epaphras. Witnesses should likewise pray for the "faithful and discreet slave class", the Governing Body, the local elders, the elderly in the congregation, the youths in the congregation, and others, often by name. At this juncture, there came a number of interviews with members of the Tacoma Creek Park congregation in Philadelphia. Seeing as how uninteresting the interviews were becoming, I took the opportunity to flee to the bathroom, and so missed pretty much all of this part. When it concluded, the audience was exhorted to never allow worldly distractions to distract from spending "alone time with Jehovah".

The next talk, "'Keep Your Senses' After Baptism", was delivered by a local JW, "Ehud". This talk was primarily addressed to the baptismal candidates, and I must say that Ehud was an exceptionally good speaker. He said that baptismal candidates would have to give verbal confirmation of their devotion to Jehovah, and he proceeded to apply Matthew 13:23 ("As for the one sown upon the fine soil, this is the one hearing the word and getting the sense of it, who really does bear fruit and produces, this one a hundredfold, that one sixty, the other thirty"--NWT) to them. Water baptism was referred to as a symbol of devotion. Baptism is not so much the end of something as the beginning of a special relationship with Jehovah; a baptized JW is "authoritatively appointed" as an "ordained minister". But the baptismal candidates were warned that Satan is watching their decision and is very displeased. To this end Ehud quoted from both 1 Peter 5:8-9 ("Keep YOUR senses, be watchful. YOUR adversary, the Devil, walks about like a roaring lion, seeking to devour [someone]. But take YOUR stand against him, solid in the faith, knowing that the same things in the way of sufferings are being accomplished in the entire association of YOUR brothers in the world"--NWT) and the JW book Keep Yourselves in God's Love:

To remain in God's love, we need to use the gift of speech as the Giver intended. Jehovah leaves no doubt about the kind of speech that pleases him. His Word says: 'Let a rotten saying not proceed out of your mouth, but whatever saying is good for building up as the need may be, that it may impart what is favorable to the hearers.' (Ephesians 4:29)" (Keep Yourselves in God's Love, p. 133, par. 3).

Either I copied down the citation wrong on that last one, or I'm fuzzy on the direct relevance here. Anyway, the candidates were told that "you can withstand any and all attempts from this lion" by keeping their sense and being watchful--or, as the Kingdom Interlinear has it, "be you sober; stay you awake". I didn't think it was possible to find more awkward renderings that in the New World Translation, but I guess I was wrong. The next cite was Ephesians 6:11 ("Put on the complete suit of armor from God that YOU may be able to stand firm against the machinations of the Devil"--NWT), and Ehud emphasized that the plural indicates Satan's diverse tactics. Baptism, however, is a form of protection against the devil. First Peter 1:13 ("Hence brace up YOUR minds for activity, keep YOUR senses completely; set YOUR hope upon the undeserved kindness that is to be brought to YOU at the revelation of Jesus Christ"--NWT) shows the importance of using one's senses wisely. Here's where the talk veered into a Scriptural discussion of the five senses. First came hearing, with Deuteronomy 5:1 ("Hear, O Israel, the regulations and the judicial decisions that I am speaking in YOUR ears today, and YOU must learn them and be careful to do them"--NWT) with respect to the link between hearing and obedience, and Hebrews 2:1 ("That is why it is necessary for us to pay more than the usual attention to the things heard by us, that we may never drift away"--NWT) with respect to the importance of paying attention. The exhortation to "never drift away" was taken as urging Witnesses to keep up active participation in all meetings, ministries, and activities, with the example used of a captain who allows his ship to drift off course, resulting in a shipwreck. Jehovah's Witnesses are to hear God's commands, but are commanded to not listen to certain things, like false teaching, dirty jokes, and degrading music. Citing John 10:5 ("A stranger they will by no means follow but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers"--NWT), he told a story about a shepherd challenged by a stranger that the sheep follow the shepherd's clothes, and so the two swap garments and the sheep still follow their shepherd's voice. Next, the audience was exhorted to have "20/20 spiritual vision" by reading God's Word daily and focusing on spiritual matters. Psalm 101:3a ("I shall not set in front of my eyes any good-for-nothing thing"--NWT) was cited in this connection. Turning to the third sense, smell, Ehud described the Bible as a "bouquet of 66 lovely-smelling books" that are the "fragrance of life", and then cited 2 Corinthians 2:14 ("But thanks be to God who always leads us in a triumphal procession in company with the Christ and makes the odor of the knowledge of him perceptible through us in every place!"--NWT). For taste, he cited Psalm 34:8 ("Taste and see that Jehovah is good, O YOU people; happy is the able-bodied man that takes refuge in him"--NWT) and urged the audience that, when facing trials, they should never let their taste for Jehovah, his organization, or his people to become bitter or sour. This he followed with a proverb: "If God gave you teeth, he will give you something to bite." Thus, JWs should invite others unreservedly to God's spiritual banquet. Finally, as for touch, Ehud cited 2 Corinthians 6:17 (" ' 'Therefore get out from them, and separate yourselves,' says Jehovah, 'and quit touching any unclean thing' '; ' 'and I will take YOU in.' ' "--NWT), telling the audience to use their touch to cling to God's Word (cf. 2 Timothy 3:17). The baptismal candidates were to beware of Satan's temptations so as not to fall away. After all, perhaps apostates are simply people who went back to their old ways and thus were entrapped, "so don't go back to anything that could bring your God's disapproval". After citing 1 Peter 1:14-16 ("As obedient children, quit being fashioned according to the desires YOU formerly had in YOUR ignorance, but, in accord with the Holy One who called YOU, do YOU also become holy yourselves in all [YOUR] conduct, because it is written: 'YOU must be holy, because I am holy'"--NWT), Ehud said that "trusting in your own abilities is only going to get you so far". Asking the baptismal candidates to stand, they were asked to answer two questions. The first was whether they had repented and dedicated themselves to God, and the other was something like whether they were prepared to be one of Jehovah's Witnesses, loyal to his organization. After answering both in the affirmative, Ehud said to them that "you are qualified for baptism as ordained ministers of Jehovah God", concluding the talk.

Then we all rose to sing song #13 ("Christian Dedication", cf. Exodus 39:30), which didn't seem to contain anything objectionable or noteworthy. The baptismal candidates departed to the back, and it was finally break-time. We learned that at that juncture, there were 5,653 in attendance. I didn't have a great view of the baptisms as I ate what passed for my lunch (bag of chips, a cookie, and a grape Shem offered me in the hallway where he was stationed as a volunteer), but I later learned that 34 were performed in total, 16 being woman and the other 18 being men. I got a bit of reading done in the JW book Mankind's Search for God and took a walk around the middle level of the Sovereign Center, finally ending up outside for some fresh air. Had a nice conversation with two Witnesses closer to my age from New Jersey, 'Aquila' and 'Priscilla'.

The format of the afternoon was much the same as the morning. Music started playing at 1:35 PM, with 1:50 PM seeing the first talk, "Appreciate Those 'Keeping Watch Over Your Souls'". First, though, we sang song #106 ("Let's Watch How We Walk", cf. Ephesians 5:15), with this as the second verse:

Let's watch what we preach and watch what we teach,
Encourage meek ones to take their stand.
By our Bible study with them,
Giving them a helping hand.
Yes, watch what we preach and watch what we teach,
And thus help meek ones to take their stand.

As for the first afternoon talk, Br. Newton began by saying that other world religions today are characterized by a lack of appreciation. Citing James 1:16-17 ("Do not be misled, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect present is from above, for it comes down from the Father of the [celestial] lights, and with him there is not a variation of the turning of the shadow"--NWT), he said that God's good gifts must be appreciated, for God gives to supply our physical and spiritual needs alike. He then offered an interpretation of Ephesians 4:8 ("Wherefore he says: 'When he ascended on high he carried away captives; he gave gifts [in] men.'"--NWT) to the effect that these gifts in men are Jehovah's Witnesses' fellow congregants, especially elders. Elders are appointed by holy spirit based on their track record of good conduct and are good examples of loving Jehovah, and so as Hebrews 13:7 ("Remember those who are taking the lead among YOU, who have spoken the word of God to YOU, and as YOU contemplate how [their] conduct turns out imitate [their] faith"--NWT) says, the elders should be imitated. The "worldwide Christian organization today is God's household"--meaning, of course, Jehovah's Witnesses, not that darn apostate Christendom that God eagerly anticipates destroying--and spiritual food is obtained through local meetings. The elders ensure that spiritual food from the faithful and discreet slave is dispensed correctly. Elders are also very involved in the ministry, since they ensure that territory is properly covered and that arrangements are for the benefit of the greatest good. They handle many "theocratic assignments" and follow the model of Jesus in serving others.

Br. Newton then cited Hebrews 13:17 ("Be obedient to those who are taking the lead among YOU and be submissive, for they are keeping watch over YOUR souls as those who will render an account; that they may do this with joy and not with sighing, for this would be damaging to YOU"--NWT) and said that the shepherds are willing to put their lives on the line for the 'sheep'. He gave the example of Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:30 ("Because on account of the Lord's work he came quite near to death, exposing his soul to danger, that he might fully make up for YOUR not being here to render private service to me"--NWT). Diligent overseers are busy day and night helping the congregation. At this point Br. Newton interviewed a congregation elder who cited Isaiah 43:2 ("In case you should pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not flood over you. In case you should walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, neither will the flame itself singe you"--NWT). After saying that the elders keep the congregation free from contamination by sin through keeping watch and giving counsel, there came a brief demonstration involving an elder counseling a parent over the child's unruly behavior. The parent was initially incensed but, in mid-rant at the audience, gradually came to realize the wisdom of the elder's intrusion. Br. Newton then asked how Witnesses can show appreciation for their elders, with the advice to consult elders for help when needed; to develop respect for elders (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, NWT--"Now we request YOU, brothers, to have regard for those who are working hard among YOU and presiding over YOU in [the] Lord and admonishing YOU; and to give them more than extraordinary consideration in love because of their work"); to defend elders from criticism; to discuss the elders' virtues rather than their faults, however glaring; to cooperate with the elders' directions; to view assignments given by the elders as privileges; and to pray for the elders, since the "elders indeed are gifts consisting in men". Finally, citing 1 Corinthians 3:21-23 ("Hence let no one be boasting in men; for all things belong to YOU, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things now here or things to come, all things belong to YOU; in turn YOU belong to Christ; Christ, in turn, belongs to God"--NWT), he concluded with the message that the elders belong to all Jehovah's Witnesses.

That talk lasted until 2:10 PM, at which began an hour-long symposium of five talks on the subject, "Watch Out for Satan's Traps!" Each talk focused on a particular 'trap' in Satan's arsenal. The first of these talks, delivered by Br. Thomasson, was entitled "The Fire". Beginning by noting that knowledge is essential for a successful life, he said that Jehovah is the ultimate source of knowledge and that "Jehovah has more knowledge than anyone". The speaker turned the audience to 2 Timothy 2:26 ("They may come back to their proper senses out from the snare of the Devil, seeing that they have been caught alive by him for the will of that one"--NWT) to note that Satan sets traps to catch the unwary. Br. Thomasson ran through three basic aspects of a trap: it must be hidden, it must have a trigger, and it must seize victims suddenly. The same goes for Satan's traps. And just as hunters sometimes flush out hidden animals by setting a field on fire, so fire is one of Satan's traps to drive our brothers and sisters out. This set the stage for a demonstration of two JW women, one of whom spoke well of another sister and the other of whom spread slanderous gossip. The point was, as illustrated by the speaker's reference to James 3:6, 8 ("Well, the tongue is a fire. The tongue is constituted a world of unrighteousness among our members, for it spots up all the body and sets the wheel of natural life aflame and it is set aflame by Gehenna. . . . But the tongue, not one of mankind can get it tamed. An unruly injurious thing, it is full of death-dealing poison"--NWT), gossip and negative speech are this fire. Thus, to prevent the fire from raging out of control, we need to control out speech. Br. Thomasson then cited Matthew 12:34 ("Offspring of vipers, how can YOU speak good things, when YOU are wicked? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks"--NWT) to the effect that we aren't to make negative assumptions about others' motives, and then Job 1:8-11 ("And Jehovah went on to say to Satan: 'Have you set your heart upon my servant Job, that there is no one like him in the earth, a man blameless and upright, fearing God and turning aside from bad?' At that Satan answered Jehovah and said: 'Is it for nothing that Job has feared God? Have not you yourself put up a hedge about him and about his house and about everything that he has all around? The work of his hands you have blessed, and his livestock itself has spread abroad in the earth. But, for a change, thrust out your hand, please, and touch everything he has [and see] whether he will not curse you to your very face.'"--NWT; isn't it nice that Satan's polite enough to say please?) to the effect that Satan is critical and negative, while God is uplifting and positive. Isn't that sweet? Next the speaker made reference to 1 Peter 2:23 ("When he was being reviled, he did not go reviling in return. When he was suffering, he did not go threatening, but kept on committing himself to the one who judges righteously"--NWT), noting that Jesus controlled his speech; so, too, must we avoid negative feelings and words.

The next speaker in the symposium, whose name I can't quite read from my notes, delivered a talk titled "The Pit". He began by describing how Native Americans used to use deep pits to ensnare prey, making them easy to kill once trapped. Dangerous situations and schemes, he said, are like these pits--particularly sexual immorality and adultery, as he noted after citing Proverbs 23:27 ("For a prostitute is a deep pit and a foreign woman is a narrow well"--NWT) and Proverbs 22:14 ("The mouth of a strange woman is a deep pit. The one denounced by Jehovah will fall into it"--NWT). From the latter passage, he also drew the notion that persuasive speech by evildoers is a pit. At this point came a demonstration featuring workplace seduction of a married man by a female co-worker, though in fact the 'seduction' essentially just involved a quick bite to eat and no more. After this, the speaker referenced 1 Peter 5:9 ("But take YOUR stand against him, solid in the faith, knowing that the same things in the way of sufferings are being accomplished in the entire association of YOUR brothers in the world"--NWT) and urged that married Christians must avoid the pit of adultery. To this end, he gave several points of advice. First, one must strengthen one's commitment to marriage and hold it sacred. Hebrews 12:16 ("That there may be no fornicator nor anyone not appreciating sacred things, like Esau, who in exchange for one meal gave away his rights as firstborn"--NWT) was cited as a negative example. The speaker also referenced page 21 in the 1 November 2008 issue of the Watchtower, but I can't recall which specific statement there was cited. The second tip was to avoid flirting. As Jeremiah 17:9 ("The heart is more treacherous than anything else and is desperate. Who can know it?"--NWT) indicates, the heart is eager to betray a person's trust. Thus, there must be no immodesty, and it's a good idea for a married person to decorate his/her workspace with photos of his/her family. At this juncture he referenced 1 Timothy 5:2 ([Regard...] "Older women as mothers, younger women as sisters with all chasteness"--NWT). The third tip was to meditate on the damaging consequences of fornication. To this end he cited Malachi 2:13-14 ("And this is the second thing that YOU people do, [this resulting in] covering with tears the altar of Jehovah, with weeping and sighing, so that there is no more a turning toward the gift offering or a taking of pleasure [in anything] from YOUR hand. And YOU have said, 'On what account?' On this account, that Jehovah himself has borne witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you yourself have dealt treacherously, although she is your partner and the wife of your covenant"--NWT) and urged the audience to make a solemn pledge not to view pornography. The fourth point was to contemplate the benefits of maintaining chaste conduct, and then the fifth point, referencing back to Malachi 2:14 again with a focus on the partnership in covenant idea, is to spend time with one's mate in close friendship. Loyalty is absolutely paramount (cf. Genesis 39:9, NWT--"There is no one greater in this house than I am, and he has no withheld from me anything at all except you, because you are his wife. So how could I commit this great badness and actually sin against God?"), as is a "devoted personal relationship to Jehovah God". Note how the common evangelical parlance of a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" has been adapted by Jehovah's Witnesses here. Interesting.

The third of the five symposium talks, "The Snare", was delivered by one Brother Thomas. He opened the talk by clearly identifying the snare: peer pressure. When an animal is caught in a snare, control is utterly lost to the hunter, and the same occurs with us in Satan's snare. Next came a series of biblical references. First was Proverbs 13:20 ("He that is walking with wise persons will become wise, but he that is having dealings with the stupid ones will fare badly"--NWT), highlighting the importance of choosing one's company wisely. The second and third citations, Luke 23:23 ("At this they began to be urgent, with loud voices, demanding that he be impaled; and their voices began to win out"--NWT) and Matthew 26:74-75 ("Then he started to curse and swear: 'I do not know the man!' And immediately a cock crowed. And Peter called to mind the saying Jesus spoke, namely: 'Before a cock crows, you will disown me three times.' And he went outside and wept bitterly"--NWT), to show how Pilate and Peter both succumbed to peer pressure. The fourth Scripture reference was Proverbs 29:25 ("Trembling at men is what lays a snare, but he that is trusting in Jehovah will be protected"--NWT), which sort of encapsulated the basic message of the talk. This was followed by a demonstrating of three schoolgirls, one of whom was a Jehovah's Witness and the other two of whom were attempting to persuade the first to date a handsome boy in their class. Br. Thomas exhorted the audience to prepare for peer pressure before it occurs and get a handle on how to respond, with reference to Colossians 4:6 ("Let YOUR utterance be always with graciousness, seasoned with salt, so as to know how YOU ought to give an answer to each one"--NWT). Next came a second part to the first demonstration, in which the first girl and her parents sit down and use a method from a Jehovah's Witness publication (Questions Young People Ask--and Answers That Work, either vol. 2 or 2nd edition--whatever it is, I don't have access to it) to figure out how best to handle the issue. Br. Thomas then said that fear of man can stifle our ability to do God's will and referenced Proverbs 22:3 ("Shrewd is the one that has seen the calamity and proceeds to conceal himself, but the inexperienced have passed along and must suffer the penalty"--NWT). The talk concluded with three points: (1) choose friends carefully; (2) listening to one's parents helps one resist peer pressure; and (3) a relationship with God gives strength.

The fourth talk, delivered by Brother Brown, dealt with "The Trap That Chokes". He began by describing how a hunter might use a noose to trap prey, and that shrewd animals will avoid going through it head-first. Then came a demonstration about a Jehovah's Witness who is--horror of horrors!--asked to work some overtime. Evil employer! Anyway, the trap is materialism. Br. Brown cited Matthew 13:22 ("As for the one sown among the thorns, this is the one hearing the word, but the anxiety of this system of things and the deceptive power of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful"--NWT), urging the audience not to give in to material wealth, which can choke. The next Scripture reference was to 1 Timothy 6:9 ("However, those who are determined to be rich fall into temptation and a snare and many senseless and hurtful desires, which plunge men into destruction and ruin"--NWT). We are, he said, to be determined to gain spiritually rather than materially, and the point was punctuated with a brief interview with another JW, who referenced Malachi 3:10 ("'Bring all the tenth parts into the storehouse, that there may come to be food in my house; and test me out, please, in this respect,' Jehovah of armies has said, 'whether I shall not open to YOU people the floodgates of the heavens and actually empty out upon YOU a blessing until there is no more want.'"--NWT). Thus, we should not be careless in resting on uncertain riches, but should rather rely on God (cf. 1 Timothy 6:17, NWT--"Give orders to those who are rich in the present system of things not to be high-minded, and to rest their hope, not on uncertain riches, but on God, furnishes us all things richly for our enjoyment") and should "run the race of life with endurance".

The fifth talk in the symposium, delivered by Brother Singleton, dealt with "The Trap That Crushes", and began with a story of a hunter rigging up a trap that crushed a grizzly bear with a giant log from the sky. Sounded pretty cool, actually. This trap, he said, was inordinate guilt. He cited Psalm 38:3-5 and v. 8 ("There is no sound spot in my flesh because of your denunciation. There is no peace in my bones on account of my sin. For my own errors have passed over my head; like a heavy load they are too heavy for me. My wounds have become stinky, they have festered, because of my foolishness. . . . I have grown numb and become crushed to an extreme degree; I have roared due to the groaning of my heart"--NWT), saying that the devil wants us to think that we're beyond the reach of Jehovah's mercy--but we never are. If one succumbs to serious sins, one should take appropriate action to restore one's relationship with Jehovah. He cited James 5:14-16 ("Is there anyone sick among YOU? Let him call the older men of the congregation to [him], and let them pray over him, greasing [him] with oil in the name of Jehovah. And the prayer of faith will make the indisposed one well, and Jehovah will raise him up. Also, if he has committed sins, it will be forgiven him. Therefore openly confess YOUR sins to one another and pray for one another, that YOU may get healed. A righteous man's supplication, when it is at work, has much force"--NWT) and explained that inordinate guilt consists in excessive guilt, even over sins that have already been forgiven. He then cited Isaiah 1:18 ("'Come, now, YOU people, and let us set matters straight between us,' says Jehovah. 'Though the sins of YOU people should prove to be as scarlet, they will be made white just like snow; though they should be red like crimson cloth, they will become even like wool.'"--NWT), noting that God's forgiveness cancels all debt. A repentant sinner is truly free of any mark or shame. "If we believe that our errors are too vast for the ransom to cover," he said, "we have fallen victim to Satan's lies." Our good works are not insignificant, he added, referencing Romans 8:38-39 ("For I am convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor governments nor things now here nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor any other creation will be able to separate us from God's love that is in Christ Jesus our Lord"--NWT) and then Proverbs 24:16 ("For the righteous one may fall even seven times, and he will certainly get up; but the wicked ones will be made to stumble by calamity"--NWT), emphasizing the need for those who've fallen to get up. Citing the example of David, Br. Singleton said that even "murderers and apostates" can be forgiven. Citing 2 Corinthians 2:11 ("That we may not be overreached by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his designs"--NWT) to emphasize the importance of keeping watchful, he then gave two tips as to how to do so: pray regularly, and engage in personal study of God's Word and "Bible-based study aids", meaning the publications of Jehovah's Witnesses. The symposium more or less ended on the note that "Jehovah loves you and he wants you to succeed, he wants you to be happy".

That brings us to 3:10 PM, when the next talk began--yes, quite a lot of talks!--entitled "Until I Expire I Shall Not Take Away My Integrity!" I didn't catch the last name of the fellow delivering the talk, but he started by quoting Job 2:4-5 ("But Satan answered Jehovah and said: 'Skin in behalf of skin, and everything that a man has he will give in behalf of his soul. For a change, thrust out your hand, please, and touch as far as his bone and his flesh [and see] whether he will not curse you to your very face.'"--NWT). He said that "Satan was the first integrity-breaker" in his rebellion and that Adam and Eve "failed to maintain integrity and thus sided with Satan". He queried, "Can imperfect humans maintain unbreakable integrity?" and answered with a resounding "Yes!" based on Hebrews 11; he said that the "great cloud of witnesses" did so. He next cited Job 27:5 ("It is unthinkable on my part that I should declare YOU men righteous! Until I expire I shall not take away my integrity from myself!"--NWT), the verse from which the talk derived its title. "Reading the Bible is more enjoyable when we engage all our senses," he remarked, and so after asking three questions for consideration, we listened to an audio drama drawn from Job 1:1--2:10. Those three questions were, (1) What is involved in maintaining integrity?; (2) Does our integrity matter to God?; and (3) What's the link between appreciation and integrity? After the drama, he cited Luke 21:34-36 ("But pay attention to yourselves that YOUR hearts never become weighed down with overeating and heavy drinking and anxieties of life, and suddenly that day be instantly upon YOU as a snare. For it will come in upon all those dwelling upon the face of the earth. Keep awake, then, all the time making supplication that YOU may succeed in escaping all these things that are destined to occur, and in standing before the Son of man"--NWT) and said that we're to choose the course of integrity without being distracted. We must keep aware to avoid mistakes and "resolve to maintain integrity, come whatever may". From Job, we learn that "Satan cannot break our integrity unless we allow him to do so". With regard to the second question, the speaker noted how please Jehovah was with Job and so affirmed that God cares about our integrity, referencing Proverbs 27:11 ("Be wise, my son, and make my heart rejoice, that I may make a reply to him that is taunting me"--NWT). As for the third question, Job appreciated all that God had given him, and this love generated his integrity.

We next heard another audio drama, this one of Daniel 6:1-28. The same three questions were answered drawing on Daniel's experience. For the first, Daniel was punished for doing the right thing and yet was not deterred. The speaker referenced 1 Corinthians 10:13 ("No temptation has taken YOU except what is common to men. But God is faithful, and he will not let YOU be tempted beyond what YOU can bear, but along with the temptation he will also make the way out in order for YOU to be able to endure it"--NWT). For the second question, the speaker noted that Daniel's faith endeared him to Jehovah and that we too can endear ourselves to God by facing trials faithfully. And regarding the third question, Daniel claimed Jehovah as "my own God" in verse 22, showing a sense of personal attachment developed through years of integrity and loyalty. In connection with this point, the speaker cited Hebrews 6:10-11, 19 ("For God is not unrighteous so as to forget YOUR work and the love YOU showed for his name, in that YOU have ministered to the holy ones and continue ministering. But we desire each one of YOU to show the same industriousness so as to have the full assurance of the hope down to the end . . . This [hope] we have as an anchor for the soul, both sure and firm, and it enters in within the curtain"--NWT). Finally, the speaker said that Jesus was the greatest keeper of integrity, and that Job, Daniel, and Jesus all had hope in the resurrection.

At 3:55 PM, everyone rose to sing song #160 ("Walking in Integrity", cf. Psalm 26:1) and remained standing for another installment of dull, obvious announcements. After re-seating ourselves, a Bethel speaker whose name I didn't quite catch began the second-to-last talk of the day, "Do Not Look 'at the Things Behind'". Citing Ezekiel 1:12 ("And they would go each one straight forward. To wherever the spirit would incline to go, they would go. They would not turn as they went"--NWT), he stated that people face forward rather than backward when driving. Turning next to Proverbs 4:25 ("As for your eyes, straight ahead they should look, yes, your own beaming eyes should gaze straight in front of you"--NWT), he said that we should look forward, and that "Jehovah's organization is blazing a path, clearing a path for us". Two verses later, Proverbs 4:27 ("Do not incline to the right hand or to the left. Remove your foot from what is bad"--NWT) indicates how we should stay focused on what lies ahead. Luke 9:62 ("Jesus said to him: 'No man that has put his hand to a plow and looks at the things behind is well fitted for the kingdom of God.'"--NWT) was cited next, with the speaker observing that a plowman who looks back makes crooked, ineffective furrows. "Looking behind could make us stop serving Jehovah," he said. Next he had us consider the wife of Lot, asking, "How many here today will look back and become a pillar of salt, as it were, when Jehovah destroys this system?" After that he offered some thoughts as to what we might look back. First were the "good ol' days", as did the Israelites in the wilderness who complained to Moses. He asked, "Were things better for you back in Egypt?" The speaker then quoted Ecclesiastes 7:10 ("Do not say: 'Why has it happened that the former days proved to be better than these?' for it is not due to wisdom that you have asked about this"--NWT) and urged the audience to think about the good new days. The next thing to which one might look back consisted in "what could have been", as in opportunities missed by becoming a Jehovah's Witness. And the third was regret over the past. The speaker noted that the Israelites in the Babylonian captivity had four annual feasts of mourning but stopped these once the exile ended because there was no longer a reason to mourn. He told the audience to throw away the burden of guilt.

Next the speaker gave some examples of those who didn't "look behind". First was an elderly JW couple from the east who gave up everything to embark on a traveling ministry in the northwest. He cited Hebrews 11:15 ("And yet, if they had indeed kept remembering that [place] from which they had gone forth, they would have had opportunity to return"--NWT), citing the story of Abraham's exodus from Ur as precedent. The next example was Moses choosing poverty with God's people over prestige in Egypt (cf. Hebrews 11:26, NWT--"Because he esteemed the reproach of the Christ as riches greater than the treasures of Egypt; for he looked intently toward the payment of the reward"). The third example was Jesus enduring the "torture stake" for our sake (cf. Hebrews 12:2, NWT--"As we look intently at the Chief Agent and Perfecter of our faith, Jesus. For the joy that was set before him he endured a torture stake, despising shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God").

For those who don't know, Jehovah's Witnesses are very adamant in believing that Jesus died on a pole without a cross beam. They call this a "torture stake" rather than a "cross", and the act is "impaling" rather than "crucifixion". They consider the cross to be a pagan symbol, obviously unsuited for the death of the Son of God. Look at any depiction of the 'impaling' in a JW publication, and you'll see Jesus' wrists crossed above his head and pierced by a single nail. This, of course, flatly contradicts John 20:25 ("Consequently the other disciples would say to him: 'We have seen the Lord!' But he said to them: 'Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails and stick my finger into the print of the nails and stick my hand into his side, I certainly will not believe"--NWT), in which the plural is very explicit. And no, Jehovah's Witnesses do not have any good answer to this. I've checked.

Anyway, the fourth example was Paul, who had reason to regret his murderous past. The speaker made reference to Romans 7, as well as Philippians 3:8 ("Why, for that matter, I do indeed consider all things to be loss on account of the excelling value of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord. On account of him I have taken the loss of all things and I consider them as a lot of refuse, that I may gain Christ"--NWT) and later verses in the same chapter about looking forward and pressing onward. The speaker then asked whether any good can come from thinking about "what we could have been in Satan's system", with the obvious intended answer being in the negative. Citing Revelation 21:4 ("And he will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be any more. The former things have passed away"--NWT) with respect to the bright future ahead of us, he then turned us to Isaiah 65:17 ("For here I am creating new heavens and a new earth; and the former things will not be called to mind, neither will they come up into the heart"--NWT) and said that, since "you left Sodom, you left Ur, you left Egypt", Jehovah's Witnesses should look forward.

The final talk of the day, again by a Witness whose last name I didn't catch, was "Learn Watchfulness from Jesus' Apostles". He began by talking about Jesus' need for solitude to pray in Gethsemane, and how the disciples failed to keep watch. Acts, he said, is the story of how they learned from their mistakes. The speaker chose to run through four lessons that Witnesses can learn from the first-century Christians. First is to keep watchful despite certain incorrect expectations on occasion. To this effect, he had the audience turn to Acts 1:6 ("When, now, they had assembled, they went asking him: 'Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?'"--NWT), asserting that the question rests on two erroneous assumptions by the disciples: (1) that the kingdom would be restored to fleshly Israel, and (2) that it would start ruling right away. Verse 7 ("He said to them: 'It does not belong to YOU to get knowledge of the times or seasons which the Father has placed in his own jurisdiction'"--NWT) corrects the second assumption, whereas the first would be corrected by Pentecost, and so Jesus had no need to address it. Verse 8 ("But YOU will receive power when the holy spirit arrives upon YOU, and YOU will be witnesses of me both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the most distant part of the earth.'"--NWT) indicates that the disciples' task is a "responsibility to bear witness about Jesus". Thus, the apostles humbly accepted correction and got to work; they were spiritually alert; and they were charged with a task. So, too, must Jehovah's Witnesses keep busy in that very same work. The second lesson was to be watchful for direction as to where to preach. For this the speaker began with Acts 16:6 ("Moreover, they went through Phrygia and the country of Galatia, because they were forbidden by the holy spirit to speak the word in the [district of] Asia"--NWT), noting that Paul was forbidden by holy spirit to preach in Asia and that Jesus wanted to guide Paul in a different direction. Verse 7 ("Further, when getting down to Mysia they made efforts to go into Bithynia, but the spirit of Jesus did not permit them"--NWT) shows yet another case of prevention, whereas verses 8-10 ("So they passed Mysia by and came down to Troas. And during the night a vision appeared to Paul: a certain Macedonian man was standing and entreating him and saying: 'Step over into Macedonia and help us.' Now as soon as he had seen the vision, we sought to go forth into Macedonia, drawing the conclusion that God had summoned us to declare the good news to them"--NWT) show Paul and his band receiving their direction. The speaker noted that intervention was only ever made once some form of action was taken, and so Jesus may direct our ministry, but only if we're already moving.

The third lesson was to be "vigilant with a view to prayers", for which Acts 12 was the key chapter. Verse 4 ("And laying hold of him, he put him in prison, turning him over to four shifts of four soldiers each to guard him, as he intended to produce him for the people after the passover"--NWT) highlights Herod's careful precautions, whereas verse 5 ("Consequently Peter was being kept in the prison; but prayer to God for him was being carried on intensely by the congregation"--NWT) shows the prayerful intervention of his allies. Thus, we are to pray for fellow believers, even mentioning them by name, especially in times of trial. The chapter proceeds to narrate Peter being freed by an angel, and the speaker said that Jehovah has limitless power to rescue his servants. And while in this life not all who are persecuted and imprisoned for preaching the good news will be freed, Jehovah will soon free millions from the ultimate prison: death. The fourth lesson was to keep bearing thorough witness despite obstacles, and Acts 28 served as the basis. In verse 23 ("They now arranged for a day with him, and they came in greater numbers to him in his lodging place. And he explained the matter to them by bearing thorough witness concerning the kingdom of God and by using persuasion with them concerning Jesus from both the law of Moses and the Prophets, from morning till evening"--NWT), Paul explains the gospel effectively for four reasons: (1) he focuses on God's kingdom; (2) he appeals to listeners with persuasion; (3) he reasons from the Scriptures; and (4) he has a selfless attitude. Despite this, in verse 24 ("And some began to believe the things he said; others would not believe"--NWT), still some hold out. Still, verses 30-31 ("So he remained for an entire two years in his own hired house, and he would kindly receive all those who came in to him, preaching the kingdom of God to them and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with the greatest freeness of speech, without hindrance"--NWT) end the book with Paul persisting in his ministry. Paul was not free to witness from house to house, but he managed to carry on his work in other ways.

At this point, the speaker was very pleased to announce a new publication, the one about which I'd heard rumors. And they were true! Jehovah's Witnesses now have a 224-page companion to Acts entitled "Bearing Thorough Witness" About God's Kingdom. The first chapter is an overview, and the next eight sections of several chapters each cover different portions of Acts, although the book is--regrettably--not a verse-by-verse commentary. It opens with a "warm letter from the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses" and includes plenty of boxes with helpful material. The crowd seemed quite delighted. At this juncture we learned that there were now 5,720 people in attendance, and all of us rose to sing song #107 ("Sing Jehovah's Praise with Courage", cf. 2 Chronicles 20:21), which includes the following second verse:

Let us sing Jehovah's praise with courage
And give warning loud for all to hear,
For our King will soon destroy the wicked.
False religion's end is very near.

By the way, may I just remark that many Witness songs are waaaay too chipper in tone for their contents? After a closing prayer, I spent quite some time with Zibiah to obtain our own copies of the new book; at conventions, they make sure that each person in attendance can get one or two, but the lines are sometimes pretty ridiculous. After I finally did, we departed, though it may have taken half an hour or more to even get out of the parking garage. Rather than read, I opted to simply relax on the ride back home. It was, after all, quite a long day!

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