Sunday, January 31, 2010

2010 Circuit Assembly - Day Two

This time around, although we decided to arrive later than before, Zibiah and I still had to wait in the vehicle for a while until 8:00 AM rolled around. Naturally, I used the time mostly to read. When we got inside and reserved our row, I spent about half an hour further reading before setting my book aside and getting up to socialize. Now, I should note that socializing is not exactly playing to my strengths; a 'people person', I am not. But I did eventually find Mephibosheth, and he introduced me to his wife and sister, which whom I chatted for a while. They then finally introduced me to the newest family to move into the local JW congregation. They came from Minnesota, where there's no large assembly hall like the one here, so this was somewhat new. Ithamar, the husband, is a congregational elder, and he and his wife Meret have two teenage daughters. My most interesting conversation, however, was with Meret's mother Talya. Talya, you see, grew up in England and has been a Jehovah's Witness since she was eleven years old. And that's been since the time of World War II, which means that she's been a Jehovah's Witness for probably at least 65 years now - and that's a lot longer than anyone else I've ever met. I couldn't hear her very well because she's somewhat soft-spoken, but I could tell that she was enjoying our conversation. I think there was some muttering about Christendom in there, but I'm not sure; I know she'd said that her father turned to Jehovah's Witnesses after becoming disaffected with the Church of England. I got to hear about what it was like to be a Jehovah's Witness back in those days. For one, during the war they weren't allowed to receive packages from overseas, which meant that books couldn't be shipped from the United States; they'd have to print their own. But because of the needs of the war effort, their printing plant in Britain wasn't permitted to purchase new paper. Fortunately, just before the war, they'd bought plenty of paper in bulk. Initially, their door-to-door efforts there involved a "model study book" and a record with a brief talk by J. F. Rutherford. The first book they got to displace that a bit was Rutherford's Deliverance, and eventually they got a new set of four publications: Children; The Kingdom is at Hand; The Truth Will Make You Free; and something to the effect of New World. We chatted a bit about religion, too, and I asked her about Let God Be True since I was reading it. Those are only the highlights of the conversation, but it was longer and good, and I hope to have a chance to talk to her again sometime.

The assembly finally kicked off with song #42, "Assist Those Who Are Weak", based on Acts 20:35, as well as a prayer. The first talk was "Safeguard Your Spirituality by Examining the Scriptures Daily", delivered by 'Noam', whom I'd met the day before; the talk focused on using the daily devotional Examining the Scriptures Daily. (I doubt they'd refer to it as a "devotional" as used in contemporary evangelical parlance, but I've looked at it and that's essentially how it functions.) At one point during the talk, there was a little girl in the row in front of me who couldn't stop coughing, from the sounds of things; it actually sounded like she might be having some real trouble. Her parents, rather than considering that possibility, merely reprimanded her several times. Didn't seem to be a model of good parenting, not that I'd know much about that sort of thing.

Anyway, Noam started by pointing out how Jehovah's Witnesses are constantly being bombarded by Satan, who "controls the world, so he doesn't need to focus on them [i.e., the worldly people]". He also cited Ephesians 4:22 ("That YOU should put away the old personality which conforms to YOUR former course of conduct and which is being corrupted according to his deceptive desires") and then said that the faithful and discreet slave had published Examining the Scriptures Daily in order to safeguard JWs' spirituality. The text for the day was Psalm 34:8 ("Taste and see that Jehovah is good, O YOU people; happy is the able-bodied man that takes refuge in him"), and the comments were chiefly drawn from a 15 June 2008 article in The Watchtower called "Keep the Love You Had at First". Jehovah's Witnesses are to recall what attracted them from "false religion" to "Jehovah's organization", perhaps the importance of Jehovah's name or else the lack of torment (cf. Ecclesiastes 9). Whatever the case, "what convinced one person may be totally different from what convinced another". However, when the initial passion fades, Jehovah didn't change, and so the onus is entirely on the Witness, who may have changed or may be preoccupied. Noam asked whether they "take the time to meditate on new things that we've learned", or if their lives are marked by telltale signs like less study, less prayer, or decreased meeting attendance, or even - horror! - a noticable lack of zeal in the ministry compared to their original zeal. Noam cited James 1:22 ("However, become doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves with false reasoning") and Colossians 3:2 ("YOU slaves, be obedient in everything to those who are [your] masters in a fleshly sense, not with acts of eye-service, as men pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, with fear of Jehovah") before returning to the comments in Examining the Scriptures Daily, which essentially amounted to Jehovah sustaining the believer. Finally, Noam counseled the audience to "keep focusing on the speakers here" and the message they have, because this is "another provision from Jehovah" for their edification.

Noam's talk was followed by the day's symposium - I'm really starting to dislike these symposiums - called "Focus on Spiritual Activities". The first talk, delivered by a Witness whose name I don't even want to try to spell correctly (let's call him Br. Guipetti), focused on focusing on spiritual activities "As Single People", and he launched it off with 1 Corinthians 15:58 ("Consequently, my beloved brothers, become steadfast, unmovable, always having plenty to do in the work of the Lord, knowing that YOUR labor is not in vain in connection with [the] Lord"). Speaking of the tendency of marriage to make one "anxious for the things of the world", he cited 1 Corinthians 7:34 ("And he is divided. Further, the unmarried woman, and the virgin, is anxious for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in her body and in her spirit. However, the married woman is anxious for the things of the world, how she may gain the approval of her husband") to illustrate how martial status can impact one's role and focus. Matthew 19:11 ("He said to them: 'Not all men make room for the saying, but only those who have the gift'") was used to show that "singleness is a gift", and Br. Giupetti asked the single folks in the audience, "How well are you using this gift?" Pointing to the example of Paul, he explained that "Paul was unmarried, perhaps widowed [...] according to some scholarly opinion". One can take advantage of being single to devote greater time to study, reading, prayer, and meeting attendance, because single people have the freedom to do so. Some can even pioneer or attend international conventions. After all, "isn't having plenty of work to do [...] just one way to show Jehovah our appreciation"? Br. Giupetti made reference to a 14 April 2008 letter from the Governing Body that spoke of "personal Bible study" as being "not a suggestion" but rather "Jehovah's personal direction". Before the inevitable interview, Br. Giupetti cited Zephaniah 1:14 ("The great day of Jehovah is near. It is near, and there is a hurrying [of it] very much. The sound of the day of Jehovah is bitter. There a mighty man is letting out a cry").

The interview was with two single female Witnesses. The first said that thanks to her gift of singleness, she had been pioneering regularly for the past eight years. Three and a half years ago, she had the time to take a Spanish language class, and now she attends a Spanish-speaking congregation in the area, and since August 2009 had also been with a Spanish-speaking group at another congregation. Being single also gave her the time to research in order to "improve the quality of my comments". The other sister was also in her ninth year of pioneering. When she was 18, she'd made a vow not to date until she was 21, and had basically just kept going that way ever since. This allowed her to attend two international conventions, as well as work an English-speaking mission field in Puerto Rico, as well as work on some study projects to overcome her natural shyness. She finished by commenting that she had great "confidence in Jehovah's organization" because of its clear "unity". After the interview, Br. Giupetti cited 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 ("Moreover, this I say, brothers, the time left is reduced. Henceforth let those who have wives be as though they had none, and also those who weep be as those who do not weep, and those who rejoice as those who do not rejoice, and those who buy as those not possessing, and those making use of the world as those not making use of it to the full; for the scene of this world is changing") as a text that "certainly applies to you single ones", and then finished up with - what else? - another citation of 1 Corinthians 15:58.

The second talk in the symposium, delivered by one Br. Taylor, was how to focus on spiritual activities "As Married Couples". A successful marriage, he said, requires spirituality, even though the world ignores all of this. Ecclesiastes 4:12 ("And if somebody could overpower one alone, two together could make a stand against him. And a threefold cord cannot quickly be broken in two") shows this, because the third strand of any strong marriage is "Jehovah God", and this will provide the strength needed to safeguard spirituality. "Being busy in Jehovah's service" as a couple brings great joy. Romans 16:3-4 ("Give my greetings to Prisca and Aquila my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who have risked their own necks for my soul, to whom not only I but also all the congregations of the nations render thanks") gives a good example of this; Aquila is mentioned six times in the Scriptures, and never without his wife. The audience was told to keep their marriages strong through a focus on cultivating true spirituality. A spiritual husband watches over his wife's spirituality and prays with her daily, while a spiritual wife supports her husband's role in the congregation. (May I take this opportunity to mention how increasingly irritated I am with this sort of all-pervasive patriarchy-oriented complementarianism?) A "family worship program", for example, "draws us closer to each other and especially to Jehovah". We must "desire to do more in Jehovah's service", though making ourselves available in this way will involve sacrifice. Some couples were advised to consider moving to an "area where there's a greater need for Kingdom publishers", and Br. Taylor cited 1 Thessalonians 2:8 ("So, having a tender affection for YOU, we were well pleased to impart to YOU, not only the good news of God, but also our own souls, because YOU became beloved to us") to drive home his point about a willingness to exceed one's "spiritual comfort zone". Some couples may wish to "make themselves available for additional theocratic training". These are in fact "goals for all married couples to seriously consider, according to our circumstances". There followed interviews with two married couples, the first of which had been married for nine months; the husband was a new ministerial servant with aspirations of becoming an elder and a commitment to 50 hours of ministry each week, while the wife had quit her job on her husband's advice in order to remain a pioneer, and she had been exploring "alternative forms of witnessing" like "telephone witnessing". The second couple also had the wife as a pioneer, and the family keeps a small home that's just barely large enough to sustain their ministry, and they share all tasks in the home, in secular life, and in the ministry. The wife remarked that "we learn to rely on each other and not ourselves". After the interviews, Br. Taylor urged the audience to "purposefully think about goals" and to "reflect on Jehovah's blessings and the theocratic privileges that we've enjoyed together". After all, "set reasonable spiritual goals" and you'll be blessed, he said, referencing 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'"). Most importantly, he said, we must keep focus "as this system of things nears its end".

The third and final talk of the symposium, about focusing on spiritual activities "As Parents and Children", was delivered by Br. Birdman. Starting with a quotation from Deuteronomy 6:4-6 ("Listen, O Israel: Jehovah our God is one Jehovah. And you must love Jehovah your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your vital force. And these words that I am commanding you today must prove to be on your heart"), he exhorted his hearers to cultivate this sort of total love; verses 8-9 ("And you must tie them as a sign upon your hand, and they must serve as a frontlet band between your eyes; and you must write them upon the doorposts of your house and on your gates"), too, give "an idea of the focus that's needed", a focus that "identifies our homes as places where God's Word is respected and put to use". He advised to "develop good spiritual habits first" before having children". Citing Philippians 1:10 ("That YOU may make sure of the more important things, so that YOU may be flawless and not be stumbling others up to the day of Christ"), he counseled not to allow the "anxieties of life or worldly pursuits to distract" us from the goal. Children can easily see through parental hypocrisy, and it's vital to set a good spiritual example. In all settings, a family must be immersed in spiritual activities (cf. Deuteronomy 6:7 - "And you must inculcate them in your son and speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road and when you lie down and when you get up"), so that children can be encouraged to "pursue long-term spiritual goals". They then interrupted this talk to bring us a demonstration/scene/skit/whatever-you-call-it that portrayed a teenage JW girl having a conversation with her high-school guidance counselor (played by the girl's mother). The girl was portrayed as very academically strong, particularly in business classes, and so the guidance counselor had prepared some college application forms. Confronted by the girl's declaration that, rather than go to college, she planned to focus on a career in "the full-time ministry of Jehovah's Witnesses", the guidance counselor tried to persuade the girl that this course of action would be a waste of real talent, but the girl maintained that she had a good reason and held out until finally the guidance counselor gave up and backed off. After the demonstration, Br. Birdman said that Jehovah rewards "those earnestly seeking him", and then came yet another interview, this time with several parents who have "children who are doing well in the truth". (From the sounds of it, parents with children who apostasize would never be interviewed in this context; that'd be a bad role model for parenting, eh?) One single father, a ministerial servant who was separated from his non-JW wife talked about his struggles when his children are staying with her and are exposed to 'non-theocratic lifestyles and celebrations'. Then there was a couple from Maryland with two daughters, and they described the family worship night as a "blessing", citing Matthew 18:20 ("For where there are two or three gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst"). After the interviews, Br. Birdman cited Psalm 127:1-5 and said that an "active relationship with Jehovah" is, for one's children, vastly more important than more trivial things like good education, and that children must be "prepared, protected, and directed to spiritual success".

This concluded the symposium (finally!), and then we sang song #19, "God's Promise of Paradise", based on Luke 23:43 ("And he said to him, 'Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise'"), and then heard some announcements, which - just like yesterday - included Romans 1:12 and a plea for monetary donations at the contribution boxes. Another Jehovah's Witness then gave the financial report for the assembly. For the Kingdom Hall fund last year they'd set aside $100, and also $200 for the 'worldwide work', leaving them with a $1,087.66 deficit and an account balance of $3,588.70. This time around, they were donating $1000 to the worldwide work and $300 to the Kingdom Hall fund, and the leftover from the account would be $2,288.70. Their expenses for the assembly were projected at $15,834.93, and the contributions collected up to that time were only $9,849.35, so it was pretty clear that they'd need more. After this came the "Watchtower Summary", an annoying feature (delivered this time by one Br. Fritz) in which they basically just go through and summarize an article from The Watchtower, but somehow in a way that takes much longer than just reading the article word-for-word and also refrains from adding anything of substance that wasn't already there. Apart from mentioning that the article in question this time was "Displaying Good Manners as Ministers of God", from pp. 24-29 of the 15 November 2009 issue of The Watchtower, I'll refrain from comment. I scribbled a couple notes, but none of it is exceptionally interesting.

Nahath, the circuit overseer as you'll recall, then delivered a talk called "Giving Attention to the Needs of the Circuit", in which he began with the question, "What is paramount in your life?" Citing Ecclesiastes 3:1 ("For everything there is an appointed time, even a time for every affair under the heavens") and Philippians 1:9-10 ("And this is what I continue praying, that YOUR love may abound yet more and more with accurate knowledge and full discernment; that YOU may make sure of the more important things, so that YOU may be flawless and not be stumbling others up to the day of Christ"), he pointed to the need for discernment, and then he went to Psalm 40:8 ("To do your will, O my God, I have delighted, and your law is within my inward parts"), calling it a prophecy "applied to Christ Jesus", showing that for Christ, the will of God was paramount, and so it ought be for us. From early days and onward, Nahath said, there had been an increasing stress on a "personal share in witnessing". The 15 August 1922 issue of The Watchtower urges Jehovah's Witnesses (well, then they were the Bible Students) to participate in house-to-house witnessing; many, he said, initially felt that this was beneath their dignity, and so they gradually withdrew from Jehovah's organization. Then, in the 1950s, over 40% of Jehovah's Witnesses were still irregular in this, and so Nathan H. Knorr launched a training program, which increased the number of publishers by 100% and the number of Bible studies by 150%. Today, there are 7.3 million Kingdom publishers. In just the last year, this circuit alone had seen an average increase of 8.3 hours / month to 9.0 hours / month of service, and there were about 149 regular pioneers. The last year had similarly seen an increase from 717 Bible studies to 797 Bible studies, of which I suppose I'd be one. These are good trends for the circuit, Nahath said, but then he asked, "Why is the house-to-house work of vital importance?" The answer he offered was that "lives are at stake"; citing Malachi 1:11 ("'For from the sun's rising even to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place sacrificial smoke will be made, a presentation will be made to my name, even a clean gift; because my name will be great among the nations,' Jehovah of armies has said"), he said that most important of all tasks is praising God's name. Of the 2,115 publishers in the entire circuit, 215 are irregular, and these he urged to become regular like the other 1,900. Missing a month of service, after all, is the first step to inactivity. Phone witnessing is a useful tool, especially for those who have difficulty going house-to-house; but he gave the story of a chronically ill JW woman who would go with other JWs in a van, and she'd do a house and then retreat to the van and let the others handle a few while she'd recover energy to tackle another.

Nahath cited Colossians 4:17 ("Also, tell Archippus: 'Keep watching the ministry which you accepted in [the] Lord, that you fulfill it'"), saying that "if you're a dedicated Christian, then you too have accepted a ministry. But, he then gave some warnings, such as that associating with a disfellowshipped relative means that one puts family higher than God's will, and that accepting a job that would conflict with the extensive JW meeting times would be putting that job above God's will. Instead, Nahath praised those who quit their full-time jobs in order to pioneer. There came then an address to the "excellent young brothers" with "fine potential" in the circuit. Urging them not to put themselves or their family first, he cited 1 Timothy 3:1 ("That statement is faithful. If any man is reaching out for an office of overseer, he is desirous of a fine work"), calling such positions a "good thing to strive for". A Jehovah's Witness can be recommended as a potential ministerial servant in his late teens at the earliest, after he's been baptized a year; once in his late twenties, a ministerial servant can be recommended as a potential elder. Turning to 1 Timothy 4:12-13 ("Let no man ever look down on your youth. On the contrary, become an example to the faithful ones in speaking, in conduct, in love, in faith, in chasteness. While I am coming, continue applying yourself to public reading, to exhortation, to teaching"), Nahath told them, "You young brothers, Jehovah's organization has confidence in you", and that they shouldn't just let their older brothers have the lead forever. The next Scripture reference was 1 Corinthians 13:11 ("When I was a babe, I used to speak as a babe, to think as a babe, to reason as a babe; but now that I have become a man, I have done away with the [traits] of a babe"), and Nahath listed several kinds of childish behavior: unreliability, missing meetings, and vacationing during assemblies. He also referenced the 15 January 2010 issue of The Watchtower to reinforce the importance of not missing special visits or assemblies. As further advice, he counseled the young men to "dress like a minister when engaging in theocratic activities", which entails dress slacks, a tie, and perhaps a suit, and to pioneer right out of high school before even considering dating, which is risky for teens.

In John 21:17 ("He said to him for the third time: 'Simon son of John, do you have affection for me?' Peter became grieved that he said to him the third time: 'Do you have affection for me?' So he said to him: 'Lord, you know all things; you are aware that I have affection for you.' Jesus said to him: 'Feed my little sheep'"), Nahath found the point that "affection for Jesus, love for him, moves us to reach out". To the ladies, he said, "You wives, you can help your husbands" in several ways, such as praying, being exemplary wives, not putting extra demands on him, and making him look good. He also counseled everyone to pray for the young men in the congregation, and hearkening this time to Proverbs 20:29 ("The beauty of young men is their power, and the splendor of old men is their gray-headedness"), he again said that "Jehovah's organization, brothers, has confidence in you". This circuit, he claimed, is good with "responsiveness to counsel". "Momentous events are just ahead of us," he added. Joshua 6:2-5 ("And Jehovah went on to say to Joshua: 'See, I have given Jericho and its king, the valiant mighty men, into your hand. And all YOU men of war must march round the city, going round the city once. That is the way you should do for six days. And seven priests should carry seven rams' horns, before the Ark, and on the seventh day YOU should march round the city seven times and the priests should blow the horns. And it must occur that when they sound with the horn of the ram, when YOU hear the sound of the horn, all the people should sound a great war cry; and the wall of the city must fall down flat, and the people must go up, each one straight before him'") shows that it's "possible that there will be a similar expansion of our preaching activity ahead of us", and - in a familiar eisegetical move - Revelation 16:21 ("And a great hail with every stone about the weight of a talent descended out of heaven upon the men, and the men blasphemed God due to the plague of the hail, because the plague of it was unusually great") is seen as depicting the JW message as hail. Before the tribulation has run its course, he announced, "people will know that this is Jehovah taking action". Finally, his parting wisdom for the audience: put "Jehovah's will first", and only then "family, job, recreation, etc." Furthermore, "keep watching the ministry, particularly the house-to-house ministry, that we fulfill it." At that, the 1,162 people in attendance this morning rose to sing song #3, "God is Love", based on 1 John 4:7-8 ("Beloved ones, let us continue loving one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born from God and gains the knowledge of God. He that does not love has not come to know God, because God is love").

I had a great lunch with a few of my friends. Ham, as usual, was being very... energetic. And when he gets energetic, he's exceptionally entertaining (think ADHD plus crack...), though his wife has some trouble appreciating it. I, however, was at least chuckling through the entire meal. I spent the rest of the lunch break either reading or having conversations. Unfortunately, things did indeed resume at 1:30 PM, this time with song #48, "Daily Walking with Jehovah", based on Micah 6:8 ("He has told you, O earthling man, what is good. And what is Jehovah asking back from you but to exercise justice and to love kindness and to be modest in walking with your God?"), and then a prayer.

Ezbon delivered the assembly's "public address", this one being titled "Maintaining Spiritual Health in a Sick World". He started out by announcing that, with illness everywhere, "the world is ailing from head to toe", that "violence is everywhere, filling up jails", and that "this sick world is terminally near its end". After referencing Isaiah 1:4-6 ("Woe to the sinful nation, the people heavy with error, an evildoing seed, ruinous sons! They have left Jehovah, they have treated the Holy One of Israel with disrespect, they have turned backwards. Where else will YOU be struck still more, in that YOU add more revolt? The whole head is in a sick condition, and the whole heart is feeble. From the sole of the foot even to the head there is no sound spot in it. Wounds and bruises and fresh stripes--they have not been squeezed out or bound up, nor has there been a softening with oil") and vv. 16-17 ("Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the badness of YOUR dealings from in front of my eyes; cease to do bad. Learn to do good; search for justice; set right the oppressor; render judgment for the fatherless boy; plead the cause of the widow"), he said that there are plenty of sincere people out there who want to do good, but simply don't know how to live rightly until Jehovah's Witnesses bring them the truth. Jehovah's Witnesses are to resist the spirit of the world described in Ephesians 2:2 ("In which YOU at one time walked according to the system of things of this world, according to the ruler of the authority of the air, the spirit that now operates in the sons of disobedience"), where the air is the "dominant inclination of disobedience"; this dark spirit is weaker than God's spirit, but the former is more prevalent in this system of things. Poisons in the physical air can be detected by empirical means, but only those with God's spirit can detect spiritual poison in the spiritual air.

Ezbon urged Jehovah's Witnesses to avoid "inappropriate associations", "objectionable books", and pornography. Commenting on 2 Timothy 2:16-18 ("But shun empty speeches that violate what is holy; for they will advance to more and more ungodliness, and their word will spread like gangrene. Hymenaeus and Philetus are of that number. These very [men] have deviated from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already occurred; and they are subverting the faith of some"), he said that the "they" of the passage are "opposers, apostates, all of them". This sort of 'spiritual gangrene' must, he urged, be amputated. Regarding Hymenaeus and Philetus, Ezbon claimed that "it's unlikely that they were teaching that the resurrection had literally occurred", but instead were probably under the influence of Epicurean philosophy, and hence said that Christians had been metaphorically "resurrected to the highest quality of life" and hence should "enjoy" it. Returning to his earlier line of thought, he added that Jehovah's Witnesses should "amputate immediately" any "complaints" or "negative thoughts" that they might have.

He then remarked, "Don't let your Bible student think that we're a perfect people", because Jehovah's Witnesses are merely "Jehovah's people". People shouldn't wait to see the "clouds of Armageddon", because then "it's too late"--"the greatest conflagration in all history is coming"! Citing Romans 15:13 ("May the God who gives hope fill YOU with all joy and peace by YOUR believing, that YOU may abound in hope with power of holy spirit"), he said that we need "preventive medicine to make sure that we're standing firm and tall". Physically, we can "eat healthy, balanced meals", "get some exercise", and "get regular check-ups". He then said that "you and I need spiritual food more than they need physical food". On this note, people should read whether they like it or not, and he mentioned 1 Timothy 4:6 ("By giving these advices to the brothers you will be a fine minister of Christ Jesus, one nourished with the words of the faith and of the fine teaching which you have followed closely"). This is "not a matter of just getting knowledge", and he brought up the example of a brilliant Jesuit priest who memorized massive sections of the Bible but yet--oh alas!--"he stayed in Babylon the Great", and so his intelligence availed him nothing. Asking "Have we progressed spiritually?", he cited Hebrews 5:12 ("For, indeed, although YOU ought to be teachers in view of the time, YOU again need someone to teach YOU from the beginning the elementary things of the sacred pronouncements of God; and YOU have become such as need milk, not solid food") and said that "spiritual food helps us repair damage", "gives us strength", and "helps us to resist infection". Unfortunately, Proverbs 26:15 ("The lazy one has hidden his hand in the banquet bowl; he has become too weary to bring it back to his own mouth") shows how some can be right next to Jehovah's table and yet starve by refusing to partake. Fortunately for Jehovah's Witnesses, though - at least according to Ezbon - the "faithful steward" that stands in the "place of Christ" is the "greatest dietician ever" and gives the "earthly class" of Jehovah's Witnesses truly "organic food" at "just the right time".

Hebrews 6:1 ("For this reason, now that we have left the primary doctrine about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying a foundation again, namely, repentance from dead works, and faith toward God"), the next verse he discussed, gives "the primary foundation", several "elementary things", and Ezbon asked whether "you and I know" these basics, like "how many baptisms there are". By probing deeply, he assured the audience, "you'll get into the sacred secrets of God that are in the publications". The Theocratic Ministry School book says, as he quoted it, that the "quality and regularity of our reading habits" is important--"reading can lead to enjoyable study, research". Citing Jeremiah 33:3 ("Call to me, and I shall answer you and readily tell you great and incomprehensible things that you have not known"), Ezbon declared that "Jehovah through the slave class" has revealed many things to Jehovah's Witnesses, and urged them to keep up "regular attendance at all meetings, all ten meetings". Turning to 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"), he described it as the "standard by which all Christians are determined" and asked rhetorically, "Of all five weekly meetings, which is the most important one?" The answer? "The next one!" Finally, he prohibited Jehovah's Witnesses from even nibbling at the "table of demons", and said that subtracting "meetings, personal study, and field service" from spiritual life results in Wonderbread spirituality--there's just "not much left".

Going next to the image of regular exercise, Ezbon first said that a "sedentary lifestyle leads to physical ailment". Noting first of John 3:16 ("For God loved the world so much that he gave his only-begotten Son, in order that everyone exercising faith in him might not be destroyed but have everlasting life") that "people in Christendom" can often recite it well by heart, he said that the wonderful equation there is that "exercising faith equals everlasting life", but this is something involving effort, "not just having faith, professing faith". Commenting then on 1 Timothy 4:8 ("For bodily training is beneficial for a little; but godly devotion is beneficial for all things, as it holds promise of the life now and that which is to come"), he said that "the best way to hold onto the truth is to give it to others".

Finally turning to the image of regular check-ups, he cited 2 Corinthians 13:5 ("Keep testing whether YOU are in the faith, keep proving what YOU yourselves are. Or do YOU not recognize that Jesus Christ is in union with YOU? Unless YOU are disapproved") and said that "if we don't take a good treatment, we could have a spiritual breakdown". In this context, he made yet another reference to the familiar situation of a family member getting disfellowshipped, and then he cited Psalm 50:15 ("And call me in the day of distress. I shall rescue you, and you will glorify me"), Luke 11:13 ("Therefore, if YOU, although being wicked, know how to give good gifts to YOUR children, how much more so will the Father in heaven give holy spirit to those asking him!"), and an unspecified verse in James 5. What sort of treatment did he have in mind? Jehovah's Witnesses were advised to pray, search the Scriptures, do research (in Watchtower publications, of course; other research ist verboten!!!!), and seek help from the elders, who are "spiritual men" provided by Jehovah--"and we trust that arrangement, do we not?" Even the present circuit assembly was deemed such a check-up. We are to be "looking in the publications and God's Word for answers", and Jesus shows the real cure for all our ills in John 17:3 ("This means everlasting life, their taking in knowledge of you, the only true God, and of the one whom you sent forth, Jesus Christ"), which shows that the "knowledge of God's Word, applied properly, can gain everlasting life". Mentioning Matthew 5:3 ("Happy are those conscious of their spiritual need, since the kingdom of the heavens belongs to them") again, he noted that the Kingdom Interlinear renders the key phrase as "beggars for the spirit", and urged us to fulfill that role. The talk ended on the customary note that "Satan's system will be gone" very soon. All 1,143 in attendance this afternoon then rose for song #27, "Take Sides with Jehovah!", based on Exodus 32:26 ("Then Moses took his stand in the gate of the camp and said: 'Who is on Jehovah's side? To me!' And all the sons of Levi began gathering themselves to him"), which was followed by still more announcements.

After those announcements, Nahath stepped to the podium for the next talk, titled "More Than All Else, Safeguard Your Heart". He started off with the story of Sergei Grinkov, a young world-class athlete who died suddenly of a heart attack. Examiners found the telltale signs of heart trouble that could only be seen "beneath the surface". Advising the audience first to not let "personal concerns [...] weigh down our heart", he then cited Proverbs 4:23 ("More than all else that is to be guarded, safeguard your heart, for out of it are the sources of life") in support of his plea to "safeguard our figurative heart", which is the "sum total of the interior man". This heart is far more precious than the totality of everything else we own, and so we ought not to "expose it to even momentary danger". He went through a few more passages next, commenting on 1 Peter 3:4 ("But let it be the secret person of the heart in the incorruptible [apparel] of the quiet and mild spirit, which is of great value in the eyes of God") that the heart "is what Jehovah God sees, and that is what Jehovah examines" and on Proverbs 17:3 ("The refining pot is for silver and the furnace for gold, but Jehovah is the examiner of hearts") that, again, "Jehovah is an examiner of hearts". The next verse mentioned was 1 Chronicles 28:9 ("And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father and serve him with a complete heart and with a delightful soul; for all hearts Jehovah is searching, and every inclination of the thoughts he is discerning. If you search for him, he will let himself be found by you; but if you leave him, he will cast you off forever"), and Nahath said that "Jehovah sets a high standard for those who make it into his new world".

His next point was to distinguish three abnormal heart conditions: (1) that of a half-heart (cf. Psalm 119:113 - "The halfhearted ones I have hated, but your law I have loved"); (2) that of a double-heart (cf. Psalm 12:2 - "Untruth they keep speaking one to the other; with a smooth lip they keep speaking even with a double heart"); and (3) that of no heart at all (cf. Proverbs 17:16 - "Why is it that there is in the hand of a stupid one the price to acquire wisdom, when he has no heart?"). "Only a complete heart will please Jehovah", and so we wouldn't want God to see any of these three abnormalities in us. We can, fortunately, cultivate purity of heart through Daily Bible reading. Nahath listed four ways to safeguard a physical heart, each of which he proceeded to find applicable to spiritual situations: (1) good diet; (2) lack of overconfidence; (3) regular check-ups; and (4) exercise.

Delving into the first way to "safeguard our figurative heart", Nahath advised us to "control our thinking", in the sense of resisting corrupt thoughts. "Watch out for spiritual junk food, video Doritos", he cautioned; citing Ephesians 5:3 ("Let fornication and uncleanness of every sort or greediness not even be mentioned among YOU, just as it befits holy people"), he told Jehovah's Witnesses to "avoid entertainment that features these things", because "negative thinking is very hard on our heart". We need to focus on positive thoughts, even when demons seek to frustrate us with negativity about our "family upbringing" or having been "victims of ethnic hatred", because "wrong thinking" can lead to a "spiritual heart attack".

Second was the point about "avoid[ing] overconfidence". Nahath asserted that "some in the congregation may feel that, because they've been in the truth for a while, nothing can happen to them", and said that this could be especially dangerous for younger JWs who've been raised in the faith. After a reference to Proverbs 16:18 ("Pride is before a crash, and a haughty spirit before stumbling"), he said that some young believers with great promise, by "feeding on the poison of Satan's table", fall victim to "spiritual heart attacks" instead. Apart from cautioning against "courting unbelievers", he also advised not to pursue "unwholesome curiosity on the Internet", things such as pornography or contact with "those with whom we have no right to pursue a romantic interest". Addressing parents, he said that "family Bible study is such an essential defense", but that parents must also closely monitor their children's choices in friends and entertainment. After mentioning "congenital spiritual heart defects" and citing Proverbs 4:23 again, he said that when young people don't know how to live rightly, their parents should intervene, and that we may have to perform the "open heart surgery" of cutting out entertainment altogether, if necessity to prevent our families from being contaminated by the world.

The third tip Nahath offered was to "get it [i.e., the 'figurative heart'] examined from time to time". "We need to do the examination ourselves", he said, and then contrasted two biblical stories: David and Bathsheba on the one hand, and Joseph and the wife of Potiphar on the other. Like the latter story, Jehovah's Witnesses were directed to flee from "immoral temptation" because "sexual chemistry can be triggered when it's least expected". Similar cautions apply to "secular work" and "bad associations". Materialism is also a problem, and Nahath said that many Jehovah's Witnesses deceive themselves when they fail to apply the counsel of 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") to themselves. Citing James 1:22 ("However, become doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves with false reasoning"), Nahath urged the audience not to deceive themselves and instead to "avoid association" with anoyone, "inside or outside the congregation" who could be "a corrupting influence", and especially to avoid "association with disfellowshipped family members" or even those who have simply "drifted away". On this latter note, he drew a distinction between "drawing away" (cf. Hebrews 3:12 - "Beware, brothers, for fear there should ever develop in any one of YOU a wicked heart lacking faith by drawing away from the living God") and "drifting away" (cf. 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"). A "passive ignoring of counsel", he warned, can lead to a "wicked heart lacking faith".

Finally turning to the fourth point, that of "regular exercise", he advised us to "keep in good shape spiritually" through theocratic provisions like meeting attendance, field service, prayer, and good association, and recounted a story from the October 2009 issue of Awake! about a Jehovah's Witness woman with ALS who, despite having a weak "physical heart", nonetheless has an admirably "strong spiritual heart". Citing 1 Timothy 4:8 ("For bodily training is beneficial for a little; but godly devotion is beneficial for all things, as it holds promise of the life now and that which is to come"), Nahath spoke of the "promise of a life now as well as the life to come". This was followed by a recapitulation of what's really important--namely, "meetings, service, prayer, and good association"--and a directive to lay a solid foundation for the life to come.

Then, after another superfluous reference to the "faithful and discreet slave", it was time for Ezbon to deliver the final talk of the circuit assembly, "Reap Rich Blessings by Safeguarding Your Spirituality". First showing off an 1892 "five-dollar gold coin" in mint condition, he noted that it's probably worth vastly more than just five dollars now. The Bible, however, which is "the only book that tells us how to know Jehovah", is priceless, and in particular the New World Translation, which (according to Ezbon) is "not only modern, but accurate". Exhorting the audience to "come to appreciate and love Jehovah and his universal organization", he cited John 4:23-24 ("Nevertheless, the hour is coming, and it is now, when the true worshipers will worship the Father with spirit and truth, for, indeed, the Father is looking for suchlike ones to worship him. God is a Spirit, and those worshiping him must worship with spirit and truth") to the effect that "Jehovah can be reached" and in fact seeks those with a contrite heart.

Talking a bit about spirituality, Ezbon said that it both "allows us to have a relationship with Jehovah" and "allows us to develop spiritual maturity", which depends on our response to the working of God's spirit. We must "train like a gymnast" (cf. Hebrews 5:14 - "But solid food belongs to mature people, to those who through use have their perceptive powers trained to distinguish both right and wrong"), just as any baby must work to develop coordination. Any person is affected by either "God's spirit" or else "the spirit of the world". Jehovah's Witnesses must develop a particular attitude, so that it's "not a matter of 'I have to go to meetings or out in service', or even 'I'm supposed to', but 'I love to'". Citing Psalm 119:97 ("How I do love your law! All day long it is my concern") and 119:105 ("Your word is a lamp to my foot, and a light to my roadway"), which he ascribed to "young Hezekiah before he became a king", Ezbon asked us, regarding various issues such as dating, marriage, and association, "Do we look it up in the publications and see what the Bible says?" (How about looking it up in the Bible to see what the Bible says?) Ezbon declared that "spirituality protects us from wrongdoing", offering the example of Job. Ezbon also suggested, not only that "Elihu brought comfort to Job" (I don't know that Elihu's speech is especially comforting...), but also that the devil may have prompted Eliphaz. Spirituality also "protect[s us] from this dying world", helps us grow, and teaches us to value "Christ Jesus directing the slave class". Describing Acts 16:4-5 ("Now as they traveled on through the cities they would deliver to those there for observance the decrees that had been decided upon by the apostles and older men who were in Jerusalem. Therefore, indeed, the congregations continued to be made firm in the faith and to increase in number from day to day") as a letter from "the Governing Body", he summarized the lesson of Acts as being that "congregations that follow God's spirit", by following the slave class, will therefore grow in both strength and number.

At this point, Ezbon went into some interesting JW history stuff, kind of like happened near the end of the district convention. Saying that the "slave class protected us with neutrality with respect to World War I", he pointed to the 1932 Watchtower article "Neutrality", which he said was the first to "show the sanctity of blood". Rewinding a bit to 1904, he said that the first chapter of Studies in the Scriptures, Vol. VI, not only "refuted Darwinism" but even "refuted evolution completely", and that "nobody had done that" until the slave class showed the world the truth. (Uhh... I'd just like to point out that even if I were still a creationist, I'd likely regard the anti-evolution arguments of JW literature as being especially weak, and definitely not anything innovative or impressive.) In 1950, they produced a booklet called Evolution versus the New World, and 1967 and the following years saw later publications on the topic. (I fail to see the particular relevance of this to the talk...) Commenting on Daniel 12, Ezbon said that "those of the anointed would shine bright", and on Jude 17-21 that in "praying with holy spirit", we are "protected from the most wicked world that Satan has ever produced". (How many worlds has Satan produced?)

Finally, Ezbon launched into a general recap of some of the material from the assembly. Noting that Jehovah's Witnesses must keep a "simple eye", Ezbon said that the real opposite of "simple" isn't "complex" but rather "wicked" (cf. Matthew 6:22-23 - "The lamp of the body is the eye. If, then, your eye is simple, your whole body will be bright; but if your eye is wicked, your whole body will be dark. If in reality the light that is in you is darkness, how great that darkness is!"). He then made reference to the 1 September 2000 issue of The Watchtower, the 2006 special assembly with the theme "Keep Your Eye Simple", and page 181 of the book Keep Yourselves in God's Love, which exhorts the reader to "avoid burdening yourself". Ezbon asked the audience, "Even if you can afford something, can you afford the time to use it?" A simple life is better. He referred to this system's "four-step cycle": advertising, commercialism, consumerism, and overconsumption. Citing Hebrews 13:5 ("Let [YOUR] manner of life be free of the love of money, while YOU are content with the present things. For he has said: 'I will by no means leave you nor by any means forsake you'"), he asked whether we've learned yet to put "theocratic responsibilities" first, and advised the audience to "stay home for a weekend or two" in order to catch up on chores and making return visits in the door-to-door ministry.

Next came a tirade about higher education, which he said was "another area that confuses some of Jehovah's people". In the 1 November 1992 issue of The Watchtower, the Society never recommended higher education, but said that sometimes supplemental education could be useful. Ezbon said that we can attain 1 Timothy 6:8 ("So, having sustenance and covering, we shall be content with these things") without higher education. Talking of those young Jehovah's Witnesses who do make the mistake of going off to college, Ezbon said that there's an inevitable spiritual change; besides, Ezbon said, it doesn't make a huge difference, because forty to sixty percent of college graduates are unemployed anyway, and there are plenty of stories of people (esp. Jehovah's Witnesses) without college education rising above those with degrees in the workplace. (He told two such stories.) Rather than attend college, then, Ezbon urged young Jehovah's Witnesses to replace it with technical school and pioneering. Higher education is unnecessary, he concluded, and "Satan's system runs the world".

Citing Proverbs 24:12 ("In case you should say: 'Look! We did not know of this,' will not he himself that is making an estimate of hearts discern it, and he himself that is observing your soul know and certainly pay back to earthling man according to his activity?"), Ezbon affirmed that the "slave class is responsible to caution us, and they certainly have", to not "let anything distract us from the view that's right ahead of us". Over the past year, they've experienced a 4% increase in Bible studies and a "reawakening" of a number of inactive people. Speaking of a "growing field service", Ezbon suggested that Jehovah's Witnesses mention the Watchtower website to people. The reason is the problem of people "wanting to know about us, but not from us initially", and so to prevent that, Jehovah's Witnesses need to be the first to tell their story. He shared the brief narrative of a new student (that is, someone who recently started a JW Bible study) coming to a meeting, raising his hand, and declaring of the study book, "This book has the truth! There are many more like me out there; don't give up." Ezbon advised Jehovah's Witnesses to give out tracts when they can; "you do have the cure to cancer, and you do know the cure to AIDS and heart disease and death", so Jehovah's Witnesses should share it. "Why set limits on what your spirituality can do?" If a Jehovah's Witness doesn't have somebody to study with them, they were urged to get out there in the field and find one.

At last, Ezbon reminded the audience that he was getting a new assignment to be a district overseer elsewhere, and so he gave a brief farewell speech, and also noted that there'd be an upcoming change in the caretakers for the assembly hall. Finally, the assembly proper concluded with song #34, "Living Up to Our Name", based on Isaiah 43:10-12 ("'YOU are my witnesses,' is the utterance of Jehovah, 'even my servant whom I have chosen, in order that YOU may know and have faith in me, and that YOU may understand that I am the same One. Before me there was no God formed, and after me there continued to be none. I--I am Jehovah, and besides me there is no savior'"). After everything wrapped up, it was time to play the waiting game again for a bit, I chatted with some of the other Jehovah's Witnesses. Two guys talked to me about higher education, sort of trying to make the Watchtower's anti-education stance seem more palatable by noting how many colleges are full of immorality these days. One of them also said how wonderful it is that 7.3 million Jehovah's Witnesses all receive the same talks and the same articles; I, on the other hand, find that a bit disturbing. I eventually spent some time talking to an attractive younger JW woman who was manning the contribution box by the exit; it was a nice conversation, but not exactly deep or anything. And finally, before I left, I chatted with a JW couple. The husband talked about how religion can be a force for good or a force for evil, while the wife shared some Bible study stories and urged me to have patience in the areas in which I'm unconvinced so far, because it's sure to become clear later. She told the story of one person she studied with who had a hard time accepting the JW ban on blood transfusions, but after they discussed the ransom sacrifice of Christ, the guy said it finally made sense.

Anyway, not terribly long after that, the last personnel were ready to leave the building, and so my party - myself, Uriah, Atarah, Shem, and Zibiah - made our way to the minivan and piled in. On the way back to college, I just barely managed to finish reading Let God Be True. And so ended a somewhat grueling weekend at a Jehovah's Witness circuit assembly.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

2010 Circuit Assembly - Day One

So I finally had a chance to attend a circuit assembly of Jehovah's Witnesses (the circuit in question is Pennsylvania Circuit 5; the convention was only 5B, since the assembly hall can't handle the entire circuit at once - 5A had their assembly the previous weekend). Having packed my things the night before, I'd hoped to wake up at, say, 6:00 or 6:20 AM. Well, as it turns out, I slept in a bit, and so I rushed around in a frenzy getting ready and then raced out the door and through the wintery cold to the college's chapel, where I sought refuge in the warmth. After maybe ten or fifteen minutes, a minivan pulled up out front containing Shem (driving), Uriah, and Atarah and Zibiah. I got in, and we were off on the fifteen-minute journey to the assembly hall.

When we arrived, it turned out that only essential personnel were allowed in the building before 8:00 AM, and so Zibiah and I had to return to the minivan to wait; Uriah, Shem, and Atarah would all be working in the coatroom the entire time. Uriah later explained that the rationale is to make sure that nobody gets a totally unfair advantage in saving seats, though in weather like today's, I'm not sure that saving seats is the worse of two evils. I spent the time reading, naturally - I'm working through Let God Be True, a JW study book originally published in 1946 but revised in 1952, which edition I have - until we were at last allowed in. Zibiah and I took over a section of seating to the far left of the auditorium-type room, and needless to say I spent some time milling around for a bit before returning to some reading. I had a full 100 minutes before the assembly activities would actually begin.

During that time, I first got to meet a few people while Uriah was at our seating area. (This would happen a fair bit, since I was the only male there without a suit, or at least a button-down shirt and possibly a tie; the best clothes I had for the weekend still had me a tad underdressed.) First were "Ze'ev" and his wife. His wife didn't stay long, but Ze'ev, Uriah, and I had some interesting conversations. Ze'ev is a pioneer, meaning that he devotes 70 hours each week to 'publishing' (essentially, JW evangelism), as well as a Theocratic Ministry School overseer, so I got to hear a bit about what being a TMS overseer involves. Essentially, Theocratic Ministry School, which is a training program for Jehovah's Witnesses to give talks and whatnot, involves about six of them each week delivering talks that they've been assigned, and then the overseer has to give comments and counsel on each. But, in case somebody misses, the overseer also has to be prepared to give all six of the talks, if necessary! So, naturally, it requires quite a bit of preparation. Somewhere in here, he also found an opportunity to cite Isaiah 54:13 ("And all your sons will be persons taught by Jehovah, and the peace of your sons will be abundant"). Ze'ev and Uriah (who had also been a TMS overseer at his own congregation for a time) had both been Jehovah's Witnesses since 1997. They discussed how long it takes their congregations to cover the territory they need to (Ze'ev's does it twice every 14 months, but Uriah's covers our territory once every 13 months, since there are fewer pioneers in the area), and Ze'ev also talked to me for a bit about how much he loves the book Jehovah's Witnesses: Proclaimers of God's Kingdom (the "Proclaimers book", for short), which he's in the process of studying for the first time now, and which I've already read. Uriah told Ze'ev how he read the Proclaimers book when he was still a Methodist in order to try to find things wrong with Jehovah's Witness history.

After I met a couple others, Uriah introduced me to an older Jehovah's Witness near the back of the auditorium. As it turns out, this fellow, 'Beriah', was the JW who had done the Bible study with Uriah before Uriah's conversion. That was an interesting meeting; Beriah was quite a nice, friendly fellow. I met a couple other people while Uriah took me on a tour of the assembly hall, after which I returned to my seat for more reading time. After some of that, I got to meet a couple of JWs closer to my age, including a 25-year-old guy I'll call 'Almog'. Almog asked me the standard set of questions. First, it's always what I do, and I answer that I'm a college student. Sometimes, they then ask where, so I answer, and invariably I'll be asked what I study there. When I say that I'm a student of religion and philosophy, they'll always say that it sounds fascinating, and then they'll usually ask me something like how I find it compares with what I learn from Jehovah's Witnesses, etc., etc. Anyway, Almog asked what truth I'd come away with so far in my Bible study with Uriah. The question sort of caught me by surprise and froze my brain for a moment, particularly since I wanted to give an answer that would be both true and inoffensive, so I said something to the effect of, "That there's one true God, Jehovah, and that salvation comes only through the sacrifice of Christ." This answer met with approval.

Eventually, it finally came time for things to get started, and I learned that the theme of this weekend's circuit assembly would be "Safeguard Your Spirituality". The songs would all be from the new songbook announced last year at the district convention, called Songs to Jehovah. Needless to say, I didn't have one, but a woman two rows back let me borrow a copy for the day. The first song was #53, "Working Together in Unity", based on Ephesians 4:3 ("Earnestly endeavoring to observe the oneness of spirit in the uniting bond of peace"), and was followed by a prayer.

The first talk, "Why Our Spirituality is Precious", was delivered by 'Ezbon', the district overseer, who was being reassigned following this assembly; they have periodic reassignment every three years, I believe. Ezbon started off by painting a mental image of walking a dog on a leash at the side of a mountain lake while a beautiful sunset is happening. The dog won't jerk back to watch the sunset, because the animal world isn't impressed by creation; animals can't appreciate the beauty of God's handiwork like we can. This capacity for spirituality is the key distinction between us and mere animals, although some humans dismiss spiritual things (and thereby, the implication seemed to go, diminish the distinction between themselves and animals). After citing Matthew 5:3 ("Happy are those conscious of their spiritual need, since the kingdom of the heavens belongs to them"), he commented that "happiness is contingent on being a spiritual person", and after quoting from the definition of "spiritual" he found in Webster's Dictionary, he talked about some ideas of spirituality found in other religions. For Protestants, he said, spirituality can be found in attending church, religious rallies and revivals, sometimes being "born again", and for some, speaking in tongues. For Catholics, the mass is spiritual. For Buddhists, meditation is spiritual, and for Hindus, "release from rebirth through self-denial" is spiritual. He then brought up the old practice of some (King Louis IX of France, Thomas More, and Thomas Becket were the ones he mentioned) who wore 'hair-shirts' in order to "subdue the unruly flesh".

After explaining that spiritism/spiritualism is not spirituality, he cited 1 Corinthians 2:13 ("These things we also speak, not with words taught by human wisdom, but with those taught by [the] spirit, as we combine spiritual [matters] with spiritual [words]"), saying that these are spiritual matters for the spiritual man. On the next verse ("But a physical man does not receive the things of the spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot get to know [them], for they are examined spiritually"), he commented that the "physical man is a poor judge; he only looks at spiritual things". Ezbon then cited verses 15-16 ("However, the spiritual man examines indeed all things, but he himself is not examined by any man. For 'who has come to know the mind of Jehovah, that he may instruct him?' But we do have the mind of Christ"), as well as Romans 15:5 ("Now may the God who supplies endurance and comfort grant YOU to have among yourselves the same mental attitude that Christ Jesus had"), before remarking that a spiritual person thinks and walks like Jesus. After posing the query of how to do so, he offered four points. The first was to read the Gospels, which would allow us to get to know Jesus' way of thinking; and "when we have his thinking or the mind of Christ", this will allow us to conform ourselves to his image. The second point was to be guided by God's spirit, which is the transforming power that will put us in a state of "resembling Christ Jesus". The third point was that "true spirituality and prayer go hand-in-hand", and Ezbon cited Matthew 26:36-44 (the disciples failing to stay awake in Gethsemane) and Luke 22:44 ("But getting into an agony he continued praying more earnestly; and his sweat became as drops of blood falling to the ground"). The fourth point was to have a "meaningful share in the preaching work". Ezbon made the point that healing is less important than preaching the Father's name. Summarizing, he said that we should read the Bible daily, have the fruit of the spirit, be men and women of prayer, and associate with those who preach God's word.

Citing Romans 8:5 ("For those who are in accord with the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those in accord with the spirit on the things of the spirit"), one of the key passages for the convention, he asked why there's so much emphasis on spirituality, and to answer that he turned to the other key passage, Jude 17-19 ("As for YOU, beloved ones, call to mind the sayings that have been previously spoken by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, how they used to say to YOU: 'In the last time there will be ridiculers, proceeding according to their own desires for ungodly things.' These are the ones that make separations, animalistic [men], not having spirituality") and then Romans 8:6 ("For the minding of the flesh means death, but the minding of the spirit means life and peace"). On the first, he talked about the "perverse, animalistic attitudes" that arise in the absence of true spirituality, and he made the peculiar comment that this can happen even within the congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses; the second he glossed with the remark that peace and good conscience are to be found in spirituality. After citing Matthew 5:3 yet again, he spoke of the blessings of having the mind of Christ. He talked about the diversity of Jehovah's people, noting (among other things) that some are highly educated and some are illiterate. (I'm curious how Ezbon understands "highly educated".) He also said that they are fed by Jehovah and his word, since "the slave class provides a delightful menu". Posing a question to the audience, he asked, "Are we at all of the meetings?" He then stressed that there are ten meetings that it is possible to attend, and said that the events in total cover the five regular meetings each week, as well as circuit assemblies, special days, district conventions, service meetings, and the memorial service. Stressing the joy of associating with one another, the tenor of his statement seemed to carry the implication that it's imperative to attend every single meeting possible. Among other blessings, he then mentioned the "forgiveness of sins through the ransom sacrifice" as well as freedom from "Babylon the Great"; at this point, he expressed an eagerness for Babylon the Great (i.e., 'Christendom' as well as Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.) to be utterly destroyed by God. The final blessing mentioned was that there are "deep" and "clear" JW publications. This roughly marked the end of his talk, though as is customary he gave a preview of the whole program (after explaining why song numbers weren't marked in the program bulletin; the reason, of course, was the new songbook), and finally cited Psalm 37:28 ("For Jehovah is a lover of justice, and he will not leave his loyal ones. To time indefinite they will certainly be guarded; but as for the offspring of the wicked ones, they will indeed by cut off") to the effect of safeguarding one's spirituality.

At this time, the Theocratic Ministry School began. Several Witnesses took their turn in doing... things. The first part was "Bible highlights", covering three chapters from Judges. The Jehovah's Witness delivering it first began with Judges 5:1 ("And on that day Deborah along with Barak the son of Abinoam broke out in song, saying"). He explained that this was a victory song of Israel over Canaan. He said that these songs were recorded for our benefit, and that we should take advantage of the opportunity to sing to Jehovah. Since the Governing Body had personally auditioned each new song, the new songbook truly constitutes "spiritual food", a term that appears to confer a quasi-inspired status upon whatever it describes. The next verse he discussed in a bit of depth, Judges 7:17 ("And he went on to say to them: 'YOU should learn from watching me, and that is how YOU should do. And when I am come to the edge of the camp, it must also occur that just as I shall do, so YOU will do'"), was the example of Gideon teaching an inexperienced army. The speaker made the comparison of these troops to modern-day Jehovah's Witnesses, who have "many new and inexperienced ones within the organization". More experienced Witnesses are to help them prepare an effective message for the territory. When introducing them to door-to-door publishing work, the more experienced JW should take the first few doors to give an example to follow and then let them try, and also never forget to offer positive reinforcement.

This is where a section of the audience, drawn from the speaking Witness's own congregation, gave their audience comments on the passage. From the sounds of their voices, they appeared to be reading. On 7:22, one person remarked to "trust in Jehovah for success". After somebody referenced 6:15, another went to 5:31 for the lesson that this was a prophetic battle pointing forward to Armageddon. Another used 5:8, urging everyone to be faithful to God's promise. Next was 6:12, with the lesson that Jehovah has confidence in us. The next person cited 7:3 and 7:7; the person discussed the ratios involved in a way that made painfully obvious that this was no extemporaneous comment, and then said that Jehovah delivers his people from their enemies. After that was 6:25, wherein we are not asked for "blind faith in some obscure deity", because Jehovah's Witnesses know the God whom they worship. The next person cited 7:5 as well as 1 Peter 5:8, and the person after that went to 5:20 to discuss help from God. After somebody went to 5:7, the next person used 6:37 to talk about seeking certainty of Jehovah's will through study of the Scriptures. The final example was 6:25-27, and the commenter said that discretion was important and that no needless offense should be given in the course of the ministry. This concluded the Bible highlights section, and a panel of overseers commented that the brief, prepared comments were quite effective. After this came a Bible reading by one Brother Jones of Judges 7:1-11; the overseer commented that the reading was accurate with a good pace, and that good gestures were used while emphasizing the right words.

Next in the Theocratic Ministry School, two female Witnesses did a scene portraying a section of Bible study in which one helps the other, playing an investigator, to see the proper (i.e., JW) interpretation of the harlot in Revelation. After reading Revelation 17:1 ("And one of the seven angels that had the seven bowls came and spoke with me, saying: 'Come, I will show you the judgment upon the great harlot who sits on many waters'"), they turned to questions 17 and 18 in the book and then looked over the Scriptures again, looking also at page 219 of the appendix. When the investigator just didn't see the 'obvious' truth of the JW way of reading the text, they looked at the broader context of Revelation 17:1-2 and 5, which speaks of a symbolic woman who is judged by Jehovah. Turning to verse 18 ("And the woman whom you saw means the great city that has a kingdom over the kings of the earth"), the Witness explained that she is an organization, or empire. The three global empires of Satan's dominion are the religious, political, and commercial empires, and so Revelation 17:2 ("With whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, whereas those who inhabit the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication") shows that Babylon the Great must be the sum total of false religion. How did she get there? Well, this passage shows that her fornication consists in alliances with the political empire; but this implies distinction, and so Babylon is not the political empire. But Revelation 18:15 ("The traveling merchants of these things, who became rich from her, will stand at a distance because of [their] fear of her torment and will weep and mourn") shows that the merchants mourn for her; but, as they are the commercial empire, Babylon is not that either. Hence, by a process of elimination, she is the "empire of false religion", as can be seen also in Revelation 18:23 ("And no light of a lamp will ever shine in you again, and no voice of a bridegroom and of a bride will ever be heard in you again; because your traveling merchants were the top-ranking men of the earth, for by your spiritistic practice all the nations were misled"). ...Does anybody out there find that line of argument convincing? Because I sure don't, and my presentation is more logically rigorous than it was in the actual scene. The 'investigator', however, saw the 'obvious' truth of it at last, and they were able to move onward. Just once, I'd like to see them show a skit in which the investigator gives real resistance to the teaching and poses counterarguments. At any rate, the overseers said that the scene was very well done, with a relaxed naturalness (which they said is a "quality new in our textbook") and a great use of questions and conversational ability. The overseer commended the sisters on good pace and timing as well as on correct application of Scripture (ha!).

The last portion of the Theocratic Ministry School was a presentation by one Br. Posey from pp. 170-171 of the book Reasoning from the Scriptures. He spoke of how puzzle pieces are hard to put together without some sort of instruction, and then asked, "Does anyone get out of the Bible hell?" Turning to the more fundamental question of "What is hell?", he distinguished between Sheol/Hades, which is the common, unconscious grave of all mankind, and Gehenna, the lake of fire that is eternal destruction and offers no hope. Citing first Acts 2:27, 31 ("Because you will not leave my soul in Hades, neither will you allow your loyal one to see corruption [...] He saw beforehand and spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that neither was he forsaken in Hades nor did his flesh see corruption"), the example of Jesus, Br. Posey said that there was no corruption of flesh in the grave for him; and, turning then to Revelation 20:13-14 ("And the sea gave up those dead in it, and death and Hades gave up those dead in them, and they were judged individually according to their deeds. And death and Hades were hurled into the lake of fire. This means the second death, the lake of fire"), he said that Hades is clearly not permanent, since the grave and death are cast into the lake of fire, but all in Jehovah's memory shall be brought back to life. (While offering certain correctives to a naive traditional view, this is no threat to a more nuanced, correct view of what the Bible says about the state of the dead and the afterlife.) The overseers had plenty of comments to the effect that Br. Posey had used a clear definition, good logic, and plenty of research in other Watchtower publications. (When a Jehovah's Witness says "research", they always mean seeing what else the Society publications have said on the subject; the notion of going to other sources - like, say, biblical scholarship or serious theology - is virtually unthinkable.) There was also praise for good audience contact and attention to accuracy. The overseer made a general comment that it's good to be wary of news reports so as not to disseminate unofficial information, which could be misleading and lead to a loss of credibility. Finally, we sang song #32, "Be Steadfast, Unmovable!", based on 1 Corinthians 15:58 ("Consequently, my beloved brothers, become steadfast, unmovable, always having plenty to do in the work of the Lord, knowing that YOUR labor is not in vain in connection with [the] Lord") and then heard the standard announcements.

The Theocratic Ministry School being at last concluded, Br. Rice delivered a talk called "How Pioneering Enhances Spirituality". Yes, that's right; another opportunity for the leadership to push everyone to become workaholics in the cause of God. He started off by talking about the importance of sunlight for one's well-being, and then said that pioneering has the same effect on one's spiritual well-being. Happiness comes to others through the good news that Jehovah's Witnesses share, after all. Br. Rice did concede that the "extent we share in the ministry will vary from person to person", but "today, lives are at stake". So, "how are you doing? Only you can answer that." He then launched into four blessings of pioneering. First, an increase in involvement in the field ministry will "rivet our attention on spiritual thoughts". The bulk of a pioneer's thoughts are focused on Jehovah, he said, since we must prepare carefully our presentation and question for each house. (Is that generally true, that most of a pioneer's thoughts are spiritual? I rather doubt it.) Second, pioneers are involved in a "spiritual rescue and search mission". Witnesses value people's lives, and so just as many are becoming involved in efforts in Haiti, so too Jehovah's Witnesses seek to call people from the broad road that leads to destruction to the narrow road that leads to life. The third blessing is schooling, since pioneers can attend the Pioneer Service School and the annual meeting of pioneers, to say nothing of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead. The fourth blessing is that pioneering allows one to "imitate the greatest missionary, Jesus Christ", who was always willing to take up another assignment from his Father. Likewise, a pioneer is willing to do anything to accomplish his ministry. All of these blessings produce many benefits to many people. After a few interviews with some pioneers in attendance, Br. Rice said that these are times of great stress, particularly economic, so what's the sensible course to take? He urged that "it is practical" to "make ministry our priority", even though the devil will continue to bring economic hardship upon Jehovah's Witnesses in order to dissuade them. However, Matthew 6:33 ("Keep on, then, seeking first the kingdom and his righteousness, and all these [other] things will be added to YOU") outlines the proper course of action.

At this time, Beriah took the stage to deliver the dedication talk to the baptismal candidates. (There would be 14 baptisms today, just as the previous assembly had seven, coming to a total of 21 baptisms for the circuit.) He started out by describing it as a serious but joyful day for them and then cited 1 Corinthians 3:6-7 ("I planted, Apollos watered, but God kept making [it] grow; so that neither is he that plants anything nor is he that waters, but God who makes [it] grow"), saying that "Jehovah has been responsible for the growth of truth within you". Baptism isn't the end of the work; the candidates must keep on the course of developing a "special relationship with Jehovah", and their career will now be as an "ordained minister of his". Jehovah is happy with their decision, but Satan is furious. First 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") shows that it is sensible to carry something to protect oneself from Satan, who wants to "devour your spirituality and take you back into his system of things"--so, keep your senses, or as the Kingdom Interlinear says, "be you sober, stay you awake". Be vigilant and put on the "complete suit of armor of God" against the "craft acts of the devil" (cf. Ephesians 6:11). Returning to 1 Peter 1:1 ("Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the temporary residents scattered about in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, to the ones chosen"), Beriah said that it was addressed to "baptized servants of Jehovah", and that the candidates, too, must remain alert; as verse 13 ("Hence brace up YOUR minds for activity, keep YOUR sense completely; set YOUR hope upon the undeserved kindness that is to be brought to YOU at the revelation of Jesus Christ") says, we must brace our minds for activity.

At this point came the familiar meditation on the five senses, which I remember from the district convention. First was hearing, and Beriah cited Deuteronomy 5:1 ("And Moses proceeded to call all Israel and to say to them: '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'"), talking about the "method of learning the truth". One must learn to be obedient to Jehovah, to Jesus, and to the 'faithful and discreet slave', which is God's channel of communication to us. The candidates should not, however, listen to false teachings, degrading music, or unclean humor - in other words, most modern entertainment. As for sight, we should fix ourselves on the Bible (Psalm 1:1-2 - "Happy is the man that has not walked in the counsel of the wicked ones, and in the way of sinners has not stood, and in the seat of ridiculers has not sat. But his delight is in the law of Jehovah, and in his law he reads in an undertone day and night") and "put yourselves in there" when it comes to Isaiah 65. He also cited Psalm 101:3 ("I shall not set in front of my eyes any good-for-nothing thing. The doing of those who fall away I have hated; it does not cling to me") and said to read the Bible daily and turn our eyes away from bad. When it comes to smell, he reminisced for a bit about his mother's apple pie and then said that, unlike a hot pie fresh from the oven, there's no need to wait when it comes to the "delightful odor of the truth", which "should make us stop and appreciate what it is". He stressed the importance of spreading the good news. Also, since our prayers are like incense to Jehovah, we should pray without ceasing. The fourth sense was taste, and of course there was a reference to Psalm 34:8 ("Taste and see that Jehovah is good, O YOU people; happy is the able-bodied man that takes refuge in him"). Beriah urged the candidates to learn about Jehovah. Jesus said that doing Jehovah's will was like food for him, and this subordination of hunger to ministry is the model for all Witnesses. "This is the food for life. We want to share it with as many as we can." The fifth sense, of course, was touch. "Don't touch the unclean things in this world," Beriah counseled, but rather keep a grip on the word of life (cf. Philippians 2:16 - "Keeping a tight grip on the word of life, that I may have cause for exultation in Christ's day, that I did not run in vain or work hard in vain"). "Use the Scriptures for your own benefit and to teach others as well." One must continue to be vigilant after baptism; after all, Jesus' temptation in the wilderness followed his baptism. Resist Satan's deception, because some even fall away from the truth shortly after baptism. Beriah went to 1 Peter 1:13-16 ("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. 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'") and said that we must be holy because Jehovah is holy and perfectly clean. "We work at it", but "it's a pleasant work". "Don't trust in your own abilities." At this time, Beriah had the baptismal candidates stand and answer two questions. The first was whether, on the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, they have repented from sin and dedicated themselves to do God's will. The second was whether they understand that this baptism and dedication will identify them as Jehovah's Witnesses in association with Jehovah's organization. Naturally, they all answered yes to both, so after a prayer and song #26, "Oh, Walk with God!", based on Micah 6:8 ("He has told you, O earthling man, what is good. And what is Jehovah asking back from you but to exercise justice and to love kindness and to be modest in walking with your God?"), all 1,184 people in attendance (minus the candidates) remained standing as the fourteen candidates filed out.

The baptisms were at the same time as lunch, which I ate with Zibiah, Ham, and Japheth, among some others. After I finished eating, I milled around for a while. First I got to catch up with Mephibosheth and meet his wife and sister; I also eventually got introduced to Noam, another Jehovah's Witness who will recur in the narrative. At 1:30 PM, we reassembled for song #47, "Declare the Good News", based on Revelation 14:6-7 ("And I saw another angel flying in midheaven, and he had everlasting good news to declare as glad tidings to those who dwell on the earth, and to every nation and tribe and tongue and people, saying in a loud voice: 'FEAR God and give him glory, because the hour of the judgment by him has arrived, and so worship the One who made the heaven and the earth and sea and fountains of waters'"). After that came a nebulous event titled "experiences" in the bulletin. One Br. Maltry urged the audience to "search for people everywhere", particularly those "deserving ones" who will listen to their message, and he spoke of "informal witnessing" as a supplement to the field work. To illustrate, he did interviews with two female Witnesses. The first, a sixteen-year-old girl, talked about how she brought her copy of What Does the Bible Really Teach? to class at her vocational school and placed it on her desk, and then answered plenty of questions that people asked her. A number of classmates were intrigued to learn more. The other sister has a family that considered religion as taboo for conversation, but when her sister-in-law was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she visited her and brought up the subject, citing Genesis 1:1 ("In [the] beginning God created the heavens and the earth"), Job 34:10 ("Therefore, YOU men of heart, listen to me. Far be it from the [true] God to act wickedly, and the Almighty to act unjustly!"), and the following paragraph from the "Bible Teach book":
In the meantime, how does Gd feel about what is going on in the world and in your life? Well, the Bible teaches that God is "a lover of justice." (Psalm 37:28) So he cares deeply about what is right and what is wrong. He hates all kinds of injustice. The Bible says that God "felt hurt at his heart" when badness filled the world in times past. (Genesis 6:5, 6) God has not changed. (Malachi 3:6) He still hates to see the suffering that is taking place worldwide. And God hates to see people suffer. "He cares for you," the Bible says.--1 Peter 5:7. (What Does the Bible Really Teach?, p. 11)
There was also an interview with a male Witness who invited his repairman to the memorial service; and as it turned out, the repairman had once studied with Jehovah's Witnesses but had let it go. When he went to the memorial service, he was very warmly embraced, and so resumed the study and was rapidly baptized.

After a reference to Haggai 2:11 ("This is what Jehovah of armies has said: 'Ask, please, the priests as to [the] law'"), it came time for the day's symposium, titled "Beware of Dangers to Your Spirituality". The first talk in the symposium, delivered by Br. Strong, was called "Why Be On the Alert?" Br. Strong started with the imagery of a soldier slacking off and relaxing; this lack of vigilance can lose lives in a time of war. We today are at war with an invisible foe, Satan, and hence must remain perpetually on the alert. He cited 1 Corinthians 2:16, contrasting the "physical man" and the "spiritual man", the latter of whom has acquired the mind of Christ. Thanks to God's Word, he said, we aren't blind to Satan's designs: various dangers like materialism, doubts, time-wasters, and ungodly entertainment. He also, curiously enough, took the time to warn the audience not to text one another with sexually "provocative information". He then offered five benefits of living a spiritual life. The first is "refreshment in Kingdom service", and he cited Matthew 11:29-30 ("Take my yoke upon YOU and learn from me, for I am mild-tempered and lowly in heart, and YOU will find refreshment for YOUR souls. For my yoke is kindly and my load is light"), pointing out that this is an exchange of a heavy load for a lighter load, not an addition to our pre-existing load. We now have "good news of good things to come". The second benefit is "not toiling for uncertain riches", as true Christians don't have to worry about such things. The third benefit is "being content with what we have", and thus being able to "spend more time with our family and our Christian companions". The fourth benefit is "experiencing the true joy of giving", as shown in Acts 20:35 ("I have exhibited to YOU in all things that by thus laboring YOU must assist those who are weak, and must bear in mind the words of the Lord Jesus, when he himself said, 'There is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving'"). Finally, the fifth benefit is "abounding in hope and having inner peace", since "Jesus will soon undo all the damage caused by Satan the Devil". Despite having all these benefits, we should avoid becoming overconfident. Citing 1 Corinthians 10:12 ("Consequently let him that thinks he is standing beware that he does not fall"), Br. Strong said that we must beware because sin is such a powerful force; even many of the heroes of faith were vulnerable. Needless to say, there came yet another reference to 1 Peter 5:8 to finish up that talk.

The second talk in the symposium, "Avoid Time-Consuming Distractions", delivered by a Witness whose name I doubt I can spell properly. Br. Gempar - so I'll try calling him - began by noting that 80% of traffic accidents result from what are so-called "minor distractions". We face insidious distraction designed by Satan himself to lure us away from God; the same tactics used in the first century are active today as well. Even mundane things of life can be a very real threat to our spirituality. First Corinthians 7:31 ("And those making use of the world as those not using it to the full; for the scene of this world is changing") shows that we mustn't let "poor use of the world" be the focus of our lives, and Br. Gempar used verse 35 ("But I am saying this for YOUR personal advantage, not that I may cast a noose upon YOU, but to move you to that which is becoming and that which means constant attendance upon the Lord without distraction") to exhort us to a constant focus on the Lord. There followed an interview with another of Jehovah's Witnesses about the rules he sets for his family. He regularly checks his children's e-mail accounts to make sure that they aren't using them for more than what's essential; he forbids them to text message; they only watch TV for select shows determined ahead of time; Internet use is carefully monitored, and they refuse to use time-wasting social networking sites like Facebook or Myspace; and the kids only get to play video games a little bit after they've prepared for meetings and done their homework. He said that while he trusts his kids, he distrusts the world, and that you just can't "leave [children] on their own to make decisions". After that interview, Br. Gempar said that another example of a distraction is trying to maintain a standard of living that we've already attained; if our income decreases, Luke 21:34 ("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") shows that we must allow our standard of living to ebb equally. We should be hesitant to seek extra hours at work, because this is a distraction from our important mission. He next interviewed a couple of female Witnesses, the first of whom had quit her full-time employment of four years as pressure mounted on her to compromise her meeting attendance, and the latter of whom stopped working after the company she'd worked for was sold and she was put out of a job. She cited 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'"). Commenting on this after the interview, Br. Gempar said that they had seen the "necessity to simplify their lifestyles so they could be zealous in Kingdom activities". He turned to Hebrews 9:14 ("How much more will the blood of the Christ, who through an everlasting spirit offered himself without blemish to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works that we may render sacred service to [the] living God?") for a discussion of "dead works", which - while not wrong in themselves - "don't produce any spiritual benefits" but instead can be just another escape from reality. As for uncontrollable distractions, such as health issues or injustice outside the congregation - or "even inside the congregation" - we must press on and realize that God's Kingdom will be the "only permanent solution to mankind's ills". Distractions, he said, can be divided into three categories: visual, cognitive, or manual. To resist these, the answer is to stick to a "consistent schedule of personal study and family worship". Finally, citing the ever-popular 1 Corinthians 15:58 again, he urged the audience to keep busy with meetings and ministry in order to avoid manual distractions.

The symposium's third talk ("Protect Yourself Against Erosion of Your Spirituality") was delivered by Ehud, an engaging speaker from the local congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses. Needless to say, with his good voice and keen wit, he always delivers one of the better talks at these sorts of things. Ehud started out by noting that while computer-animation rats like Stuart Little and Ratatouille are cute, real rats are nasty, disgusting creatures, and definitely not cute. "Satan the Rat," he said, "is out to destroy our spirituality by subtle distractions." He pointed out that the words "erode" and "rodent" come from a common etymological root, and that a rodent will, by gnawing, "slowly consume the object of its desire". He asked the audience whether our "spiritual footing [is] subject to erosion", and gave some telltale signs, such as a loss of desire to study the Bible and a loss of a sense of urgency. "We live in, arguably, the most affluent nation on this earth", but are we jealous of "the so-called good life"? Ehud said that the impact of the entertainment industry has been to effectively idolize Sodom and Gomorrah, and that even the news media focuses disproportionately on sex and violence these days. This, he said, is no more morally acceptable than it is in the film industry. Citing Isaiah 5:20 ("Woe to those who are saying that good is bad and bad is good, those who are putting darkness for light and light for darkness, those who are putting bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!"), he urged not to let our moral faculties be eroded. Asking, "Is your congregation perfect?", the natural answer was, "Not yet." So, then, beware having negative feelings about situations in the congregation, because "do you have all the facts? Probably not." These days, Christians are "victimized by treacherous apostasy", as in the case of Judas recorded in Luke 22:3-6 ("But Satan entered into Judas, the one called Iscariot, who was numbered among the twelve; and he went off and talked with the chief priests and [temple] captains about the effective way to betray him to them. Well, they rejoiced and agreed to give him silver money. So he consented, and he began to seek a good opportunity to betray him to them without a crowd around"). Negativity crumbled Judas' spiritual foundation. Other dangers include bad associations, unwholesome entertainment, and the abuse of alcohol. Ehud paused to allow for a mini-scene featuring a family on a couch watching TV and asking why they're bothering to watch such filth; they expressed a sense of shame over having missed their circuit overseer's visit because of a scheduled vacation, and they offer some musings on the "materialism" that leads them to miss meetings for the sake of overtime. When that was done, Ehud resumed by saying that just as soil on a slope is held in place by deep-rooted plants, so too our spiritual roots must run deep. There is "nothing cute or cuddly about Satan the Rat", and so he exhorted: "Stand firm; take courage. Jehovah our God can protect us."

The concluding talk of the symposium, "Fight to Counteract Permissiveness", was delivered by Br. Maury, who began by noting that "mankind is under assault by epidemics", and spiritual sickness is even more prevalent. Its key symptom, he said, is permissiveness/tolerance. This attitude leads to lawless conduct, as shown in Galatians 6:7-8 ("Do not be misled: God is not one to be mocked. For whatever a man is sowing, this he will also reap; because he who is sowing with a view to his flesh will reap corruption from his flesh, but he who is sowing with a view to the spirit will reap everlasting life from the spirit"). Numbers 25 shows that some twenty-four thousand "die at Jehovah's own hand" after committing fornication and idolatry. God is not permissive, but Satan undermines faith with permissiveness and leads the world astray from belief in moral truth. This sets the stage for a little scene of two elders discussing how to help their congregation avoid permissiveness. They mention among various evils alcohol, social networking websites, and "Internet pornography". Permissive thinking was used by Satan in the Garden of Eden, they say, and they cite several passages, including Isaiah 5:20 (again) and 1 Kings 11:3-4 ("And he came to have seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives gradually inclined his heart. And it came about in the time of Solomon's growing old that his wives themselves had inclined his heart to follow other gods; and his heart did not prove to be complete with Jehovah his God like the heart of David his father"), where Solomon ignores Jehovah's counsel and as a result his wives "gradually plied his heart to serve other gods". There's a danger in having sympathy with those who indulge in these things; rather, following 1 Corinthians 10:31, we ought to "do all things for God's glory". Resuming, Br. Maury asked, "How do you view those who have no interest in serving God?" The answer was that one can't associate with them and not be affected adversely (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:12). Then came an interview with a 17-year-old JW girl who said that at school she was pressure to date but resisted because "dating right now was just not what I had as my goal right now". There were some references to the second chapter of the JW publication Young People Ask, as well as Galatians 6:7 and 1 Corinthians 10:21 ("YOU cannot be drinking the cup of Jehovah and the cup of demons; YOU cannot be partaking of 'the table of Jehovah' and the table of demons"), and it was noted that other kids at her school endured "emotional pain and immorality" because they didn't follow the obviously righteous course that she did. When Br. Maury resumed his monologue, he accused modern entertainment of being filled with "demonic propaganda" and asked the audience whether we were tempted to view or hear programs that accept things that God hates. Asking what restrictions our families place on television and Internet use, he cited Romans 13:11-14 ("[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. The night is well along; the day has drawn near. Let us therefore put off the works belonging to darkness and let us put on the weapons of the light. As in the daytime let us walk decently, not in revelries and drunken bouts, not in illicit intercourse and loose conduct, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not be planning ahead for the desires of the flesh") and Ephesians 6:11-13 ("Put on the complete suit of armor from God that YOU may be able to stand firm against the machinations of the Devil; because we have a wrestling, not against blood and flesh, but against the governments, against the authorities, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the wicked spirit forces in the heavenly places. On this account take up the complete suit of armor from God, that YOU may be able to resist in the wicked day and, after YOU have done all things thoroughly, to stand firm"), saying that "permissiveness is a 'deficiency of firmness'", referencing the dictionary. Making four points in summary of the symposium, he urged the audience to (1) be on the lookout for dangers to their spirituality, (2) avoid time-consuming distractions, (3) protect against erosion of their faith, and (4) "fight to counteract this world's permissive spirit". After citing Romans 1:27 ("And likewise even the males left the natural use of the female and became violently inflamed in their lust toward one another, males with males, working what is obscene and receiving in themselves the full recompense, which was due for their error"), he ended the symposium by exhorting his hearers to be "determined to be spiritually vigilant".

After song #21 ("Happy, the Merciful!", from Matthew 5:7) and some announcements that included a quote from Romans 1:12 ("Or, rather, that there may be an interchange of encouragement among YOU, by each one through the other's faith, both YOURS and mine") and a guilt-trip to donate money - you know, the sort of guilt-trip that Jehovah's Witnesses pride themselves on never using - it was time for the circuit overseer, 'Nahath', to deliver yet another talk, this one titled "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ". Nahath started out by saying that uniforms are required in some contexts, like certain jobs or schools; in some cases, it's even illegal to wear a certain uniform when you're not part of the group in question (e.g., impersonating a police officer). But Jehovah's Witnesses, too, have a uniform, and their uniform, Nahath said, is none other than Jesus Christ. The relevant passage of Scripture, of course, was Romans 13:14, cited previously. As Nahath explained, "we strive to imitate the qualities and actions of our Lord Jesus", and hence must wear this uniform at all times. Citing Romans 13:11-13 he noted the urgency of wearing this Christian uniform. Actions are evidence of our genuineness, and so the final judgment will depend to a large extent on our "fine works". We are to be mannerly like Jesus. Galatians 3:27 ("For all of YOU who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ") shows that we're to be identified with Christ by wearing this uniform, and one issue of the Watchtower was quoted as saying that this is the "work of a lifetime". Imitating Jesus' example and disposition requires knowing the manner of his thinking and imitating his "work ethic in spiritual things". Secular goods must not be put first, and nor are Jehovah's Witnesses to pick and choose what they want to follow, the way that many "nominal Christians" do. "Satan", however, "is always waging war with Christians" to prevent them from putting on the Lord Jesus, because this uniform includes us in an organization that will protect us through the great tribulation. Thus, we must not remove the uniform, not even when faced with persecution or temptation; we need to follow the example of Jesus in 1 Peter 2:18-21 ("Let house servants be in subjection to [their] owners with all [due] fear, not only to the good and reasonable, but also to those hard to please. For if someone, because of conscience toward God, bears up under grievous things and suffers unjustly, this is an agreeable thing. For what merit is there in it if, when YOU are sinning and being slapped, YOU endure it? But if, when YOU are doing good and YOU suffer, YOU endure it, this is a thing agreeable with God"). We're to bear up when a friend in the congregation offends us, and "follow Jesus' footsteps closely". Nahath had us imagine trying to follow perfectly in somebody's set of footprints on the beach. It'd be difficult because of the distinctive ways of walking that people have. To follow perfectly in someone's footsteps, you need to conform your way of walking to theirs, as we must to Christ's. Rather than give in to daily distractions, we're to focus on the footsteps and keep the proper pace--in other words, don't "run ahead of the faithful and discreet slave", and don't "lag behind their directions", as in the case of recent alterations in JW meeting structure. (Notice how Jesus just got switched out for the Governing Body, which acts as the visible representative of the 'faithful and discreet slave class', by the way.) In other words, "keep pace with Jehovah's organization". We need to develop an ear for true and direct counsel and then apply it. Elders and pioneers should have some share in the Sunday door-to-door service, which Jehovah's Witnesses have been doing since 1927. This is a much better use of time than, e.g., lunch; someone who does publishing work with their spare time is being much more Christ-like than someone who partakes of things like food instead; Nahath cited Psalm 119:60 ("I hurried up, and I did not delay to keep your commandments").

Nahath went on to say that the "whole family needs to fight" against intruders into their home, these intruders being Satan and the world. We're to "be in fighting mode" (cf. Jude 3 - "Beloved ones, though I was making every effort to write YOU about the salvation we hold in common, I found it necessary to write YOU to exhort YOU to put up a hard fight for the faith that was once for all time delivered to the holy ones"). Referencing 1 Peter 4:1 ("Therefore since Christ suffered in the flesh, YOU too arm yourselves with the same mental disposition; because the person that has suffered in the flesh has desisted from sins"), Nahath said that there is "no room for lukewarm imitation of Jesus' manner of thinking". Next was a brief interview with a JW family, who take "full advantage of all of the theocratic provisions made available through his organization". They rely on the Father through "the power of prayer". (Yet another case of the JWs being affected by Christian-ese. Interesting.) The world has nothing to offer for the children of this family, and the whole family strives to participate in and comment at meetings, and to prepare for them. This ending the interview, Nahath turned to John 13:15 ("For I set the pattern for YOU, that, just as I did to YOU, YOU should also do") and urged us to "let our works speak for themselves". Elders and ministerial servants are in congregations as servants, not lords, which Nahath illustrated with reference to Luke 17:10 ("So YOU, also, when YOU have done all things assigned to YOU, say, 'We are good-for-nothing slaves. What we have done is what we ought to have done'"). This, he summed up in one word: "love". "Love will be our uniform, as it were". He referenced John 14:31 ("But, in order for the world to know that I love the Father, even as the Father has given me commandment [to do], so I am doing. Get up, let us go from here") and 15:9-10 ("Just as the Father has loved me and I have loved YOU, remain in my love. If YOU observe my commandments, YOU will remain in my love, just as I have observed the commandments of the Father and remain in his love"), saying that "Jehovah loves the Son because of his implicit obedience". Indeed, "Christ died on a torture stake" to show his pure love, and so we too must "practice genuine love".

That led the way for the final talk, "What Characterizes a Spiritual Person?", delivered by Ezbon. Noting that illness has been prevalent in recent years and that we recognize symptoms and fight it, he queried, "What about spiritual illness?" Nothing gets to the heart without going through the mind. Noting that the sick are advised to drink lots of fluid, he advised the hearers to drink the waters of life--namely, God's Word. There was a reference to the 15 September 2008 issue of The Watchtower, which counseled to keep a clean mind in order to receive a clean spirit. First Corinthians 2:13 talks of spiritual matters and spiritual words. Ezbon commented on the next verse that the "physical man does not examine all things", just his area of interest, which is thoroughly non-spiritual. The verse after that, however, shows that the spiritual man examines all things. Ezbon then used the image of a person stuck in traffic on the interstate, trying to decide whether to remain in line or try to exit; but, seeing a traffic helicopter above, he turns to the radio station and finds a solution--"wisdom from above, humanly speaking".

At this point, Ezbon began to discuss the characteristics of spiritual and non-spiritual persons. A spiritual person will, first of all, have a "simple eye". Ezbon told the story of two pioneers in different states being offered lucrative jobs. One of them turned down the offer and instead remained in the full-time ministry. The other, however, accepted the offer and spent several years focused on their career and promotions before finally regaining their senses and taking a demotion in order to devote more time to ministry. Citing 1 Corinthians 7:31, Ezbon explained that this kosmos is "the world-system, humanity", and that Jehovah's Witnesses go in, not to love it, but solely out of necessity. First 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") shows that this kosmos is passing away; however, Jehovah's Witnesses are permitted to use technology for Jehovah's goals, as with the giant printing presses used by the Society to more effectively distribute their message. Jehovah's Witnesses use the world only to an extent; Ezbon, stressing the value of having God's Kingdom as one's chief priority, asked the audience, "Could you simplify your life?" There is, after all, a time to throw away (cf. Ecclesiastes 3:6). According to the September 2009 issue of Awake!, in 2008 today's teenagers spent an average of 6.5 hours per day in "electronic isolation", whereas in 2009 this had already leapt to 8 hours per day. So, Ezbon asked, "Are we preoccupied with 'things'?" Some people fall for "a job that effectively ends their service to Jehovah", but if this entire world isn't worth that cost, how much less a single job? He told a few stories to illustrate, including one of a JW truck driver who refused jobs that would interfere with meeting times, and who then was offered a job that didn't and would also pay more than all the others put together.

Ezbon spoke for a while about the misuse of time, noting that rather than waste it on ungodly entertainment, "spiritual people are generous of their time and their assets". After quoting Proverbs 21:17 ("He that is loving merriment will be an individual in want; he that is loving wine and oil will not gain riches"), Ezbon asserted that the root of the word "amusement" is "a-muse", that is, "not thinking". Rather than be "lovers of pleasures" (cf. 2 Timothy 3:4), we should balance our time and be "absorbed in spiritual matters" (cf. 1 Corinthians 2; Romans 5). People who do this are true "self-starters" and don't let their minds drift at meetings. In Revelation 3:17 ("Because you say: 'I am rich and have acquired riches and do not need anything at all,' but you do not know that you are miserable and pitiable and poor and blind and naked"), Jesus blasted even the anointed Christians at Laodicea, and so we mustn't ignore warning signs. Citing Proverbs 4:14 ("Into the path of the wicked ones do not enter, and do not walk straight on into the way of the bad ones") and Ecclesiastes 7:8 ("Better is the end afterward of a matter than its beginning. Better is one who is patient than one who is haughty in spirit"), he urged the audience to always look at both the consequences of our actions as well as at biblical principles that should guide our actions. He brought up "sexting" as a recent problem, and warned the audience that if they should do such things, "dirty-minded demons" are watching them, and they shouldn't expose themselves to that. He then noted some of the consequences of wrongdoing: (1) facing a judicial committee, (2) bringing anguish to one's family, (3) the shock to one's peers in the congregation service meeting, (4) disappointment to one's friends, and finally (5) shame in the sight of Jehovah, Christ, and the angels. Ezbon also said that "some, being well-meaning, have associated with disfellowshipped relatives", but faithful Jehovah's Witnesses must keep such contact to an absolute minimum, being loyal to God instead; after all, Ezbon remarked, 1 Corinthians 5:11 ("But now I am writing YOU to quit mixing in company with anyone called a brother that is a fornicator or a greedy person or an idolater or a reviler or a drunkard or an extortioner, not even eating with such a man") offers no exception in the case of family relationships. Many disfellowshipped persons seek to return because their families stick to their guns, as it were, while if they get to retain that degree of family contact, there's less of a social incentive to return to the true faith. So, he told the audience, if you get disfellowshipped, don't call to socialize until you're reinstated.

The next exhortation he had was to respectfully apply counsel. Counsel is not to be viewed the same way as criticism, but should be accepted humbly; if one responds to light counsel, that averts the need for more heavy-handed counsel later. (So, in other words, do what you're told, or there'll be consequences.) He cited Psalm 141:5 ("Should the righteous one strike me, it would be a loving-kindness; and should he reprove me, it would be oil upon the head, which my head would not want to refuse. For still there would be even my prayer during their calamities") as well as Mark 10:21 ("Jesus looked upon him and felt love for him and said to him: 'One thing is missing about you: Go, sell what things you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come be my follower'"), noting how Jesus offered counsel out of love. The elders of today's congregations are imperfect, but Jehovah knows all of their faults and appoints them anyway, so the proper approach is to look at the counsel given rather than the counselor; as Ezbon quipped, "After all, who did Jehovah use as a counselor for Balaam?" (That got quite a few laughs from the crowd; I'll have to remember that line.)

Then came yet another reminder to be diligent in the door-to-door ministry. The audience was told to focus especially on afternoons, weekends, and holidays, because people are more likely to be home. They should also persist in trying to contact those who aren't at home on initial visits. Joy in the ministry should be based on obedience rather than results, because a good work is being done "regardless of people's apathy". When it comes to irritation in the local congregation, however, the right course of action is to respond with sincere love. After all, in a courtroom setting, witnesses and judges have different roles, and the Scriptures never tell anyone to be "Jehovah's Judges"! Finally, Ezbon turned his attention to the inevitable subject: having a genuine sense of urgency, since Jehovah's Witnesses must "realize that we're living at the end". Hearkening back to the 2009 district convention, there's a need to be vigilant and alert (cf. Matthew 24:42-44 - "Keep on the watch, therefore, because YOU do not know on what day YOUR Lord is coming. But know one thing, that if the householder had known in what watch the thief was coming, he would have kept awake and not allowed his house to be broken into. On this account YOU too prove yourselves ready, because at an hour that YOU do not think to be it, the Son of man is coming"). He asked, "Are we eagerly expectating [sic] a change?" One shouldn't buy into Satan's lie that this system will continue much longer. Revelation 22:20 ("He that bears witness of these things says, 'Yes; I am coming quickly.' 'Amen! Come, Lord Jesus'") shows that "great expectation" we might have in "these pre-Armageddon days", and on that note he ended.

All 1,149 in attendance in the afternoon session - less than the morning, oddly enough - rose to sing song #50, "The Divine Pattern of Love", based on 1 John 4:19 ("As for us, we love, because he first loved us"), and then joined in a prayer led by Nahath. When all was said and done, I knew I'd be there for quite some time, since Uriah, Shem, and Atarah were all working in the coatroom. So I milled around for a while, met a few folks, did some reading, and ended up chatting with one Witness on a bench near the baptismal pool about religion; he pontificated for a bit about how others misinterpret and twist the obvious meaning of Jesus' words about Gehenna, because they want to create a hell of fiery torment out of the plainly visible reality of the Valley of Hinnom. After he left, I spent some more time reading Let God Be True before it was finally time to depart. I knew I'd need to get some rest before another day of the assembly.