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.

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