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Tomatoes, Grapes, and the Congregation Book Study

When they needed more parking years ago at the Kodak facilities, there was no alternative but to blacktop surrounding blocks. Of course, people lived there, so Kodak bought them out one by one and demolished the homes. Here and there, though, some stalwart would dig in and stay put, so the spacious parking lots wrap around a few odd houses….houses fronting the street but the other three sides abutting fence and blacktop.

Torre didn’t approve.

“These people are so stubborn,” he decreed to the rest of the car group. “Kodak needs that parking and offered good money.” And upon further reflection: “I’m stubborn, but I’m not so stubborn as these people!”

It was the perfect set-up for his three co-passengers. “YOU, Torre? YOU? Stubborn? You?? How can you say that, Torre!? Oh, no….not YOU!”

Torre may have been the most stubborn person ever to walk the planet. It’s a little surprising that someone so stubborn could die. It took an auto accident (in which he was a passenger) to kill him.

Like the time he was mowing his lawn and a heart attack felled him in his tracks. They rushed him to the hospital, probed and fussed over him and brought him up to snuff. “Now remember, Torre,” they said. “You’re not a young man anymore. You take it easy. No exertions for several weeks at least.”

The first thing he did upon returning home was finish the lawn.

But if he was one of the most stubborn persons I’ve known, he was also one of the most hospitable. And magnanimous. The coffee pot was always on the stove. “Let it stay a little longer, Jo,” he’d say to his wife. “Let it get hot.” “Torre, it’s boiling! It’s not going to get any hotter!” she’d reply. Maybe that’s why the Congregation book study conducted in his home is the one I most enjoyed, and through the years I’ve attended a lot. In the winter, we’d file downstairs and sit around his two ping pong tables. In the summer it would be outdoors, under the shade and fragrance of the grape trellis. Torre was from the old country….he didn’t conduct the study, you had to listen hard in order to decipher his accent….and he knew how to grow things. But if his grapes were prolific, they were nothing next to his softball-sized tomatoes. Torres didn’t really have a back yard…..it was all tomato field, and he’d spend a couple hours there every day when he got home from work.

For the longest time, Jehovah’s Witnesses have had five meetings per week, but have only gone out on three nights. That’s because some of the meetings were back to back. And now, alas, the book study also is to be rolled into the School-Service Meeting routine, decreasing total nights out from three to two. The JW organization said something about expensive travel, ever more hectic lives, 24/7 and so forth, and consequently their desire to streamline theocratic life to the extent possible. Tom Barfendogs had a fit over this, of course, and suggested the REAL reason was that congregation members were on the verge of mutiny if they didn’t get lighter routines. But then another notion caught his fancy, equally appealing to his….ahem…increasingly paranoid personality, which held that at the Kingdom Hall comments could be monitored more closely than at informal homes, and those who stepped out of line could be promptly taken to task. ….sheesh…..He even pointed to Kingdom Ministry statements in recent years praising the Book Study…..awfully suspicious that it was being eliminated when it had recently been praised, he floated.....as if only an “our meeting sucks” confession could preface getting rid of it.

Look, I’ll miss the book study, but combining it with other meetings is entirely in line with simplification, which the parent organization has pushed for two decades. (Wiseacre math buff Tom Wheatandweeds extrapolates that, should this system of things continue, by 2055 all JWs will take a weekly pill, which will contain all 5 meetings, field service and study)  Life gets more and more demanding, and simplification is a way to adjust. The present 3-day district conventions were once 8 days. And each day ran into the evening, they didn’t end at 4 or 5PM as they do today.

In the old days (before Assembly Halls) preparation for an assembly would include construction of a full kitchen capable of feeding 2000 persons within an hour or two. I've seen such facilities arise from empty rooms with just a single water and electric hookup. The record is the NYC convention in the late 1950's attended by a quarter million persons, all fed on premises from makeshift facilities. There is some apocryphal story of the U. S. Army sending observers to determine how it was possible, and being told by someone that they would never be able to do it since it was motivated by love, not money or duty.

I miss those times. They sure beat bagging your own lunch, as we do now. But they took an huge toll on the persons donating their time and energy. Life today is much more expensive, hectic, time-devouring, and often aggravating, than it was then. No reason to think that the Book Study arrangement is not just one more adjustment to simplify in the face of ever-challenging times.

Besides, if the now-free night becomes a family study night, as is suggested, that may be a good thing. Less formal in structure, partly social, with others invited, perhaps local ministry combined in some way. Time will tell.

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Higher Education and Jehovah's Witnesses

Bill Bishop looked at American migratory patterns for humans, not birds, and he found Americans like to live and speak and breathe with those who think just like themselves. For example, when George Bush squeaked out re-election in 2004.…the popular vote was almost even….almost half the vote came from “landslide counties,” where one candidate trounced the other by 20 percentage points or more. Back then, playwright Arthur Miller asked: “How can the polls be neck and neck when I don’t know one Bush supporter?” He lived in a landslide area, that’s how, surrounded only by those who thought just like him. (the Economist, 6/21/08, p 41)

Bishop’s book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing us Apart found many other factors segregating citizens. Cable channels that feed viewers only the viewpoint they already agree with, for instance. Even more so with the internet, the author observed. Tell me about it……sometimes I think that nobody has ever changed their mind about anything on the internet, that it’s just one giant forum for preaching to the choir.

But since “education broadens minds,” can we not look to advanced education for hope? Nope. The better educated people are, the more they segregate themselves, found Mr. Bishop. Whether by choice or necessity, less educated persons tend to stay put.

Don’t you get tired of those who insist that education is the answer? Education will solve our problems, they say. Education will bring us all together, they say. Hogwash! Bishop’s book (though I’m sure this is not his point) shows how people use their education: they stake out opposing positions and hurl intellectual bombshells at each other. Nowhere is that more evident than on the internet. It ought to give us pause in the way we view higher education.

The world is screwed up not because people are stupid….for the most part those who run things are both clever and educated…..it is screwed up because they are greedy and selfish and arrogant. These are the glaring defects of human nature, not lack of intellect. Yet today’s world deems it top priority to feed the intellect. Colleges exist for just that purpose. The more important moral qualities are largely left to chance…catch as catch can, with no one especially concerned whether you catch them or not. Occasionally some scandal forces a temporary concern with teaching “ethics,” but what qualifications do colleges really have to teach it? In the wake of Enron, I took a college business course. There was the hastily inserted chapter on ethics. Look deep into yourself, readers were advised, before making this or that decision. Does this decision make you feel good about yourself? Can you live with yourself afterwards? Sheesh!…..the 911 terrorists felt real good about themselves, though, strictly speaking, they were not able to live with their decision!

Watchtower literature frequently observes that the best education available today is Bible education. To people who link education with landing a big career, this counsel seems ridiculous. But put aside that link for a moment and it makes sense. Surely it’s reasonable to conclude that today’s world…..political, economic and religious….run by the most educated of persons, is a practical demonstration of today’s aggragate wisdom. Seeing that said wisdom has produced such disastrous results, how wise can it be to immerse oneself in that atmosphere for four or six years through higher education? Doesn’t higher education typify today’s wisdom? For that reason, Watchtower publications are decidedly cool toward university careers.

Of course, one must make a living. Those same publications speak of training one’s children so that they can “support themselves decently.” For some, the economic benefits of college outweigh detriments in other areas. But on the bell curve, JWs lean toward vocational degrees, technical and certificate programs, or trades. Where youngsters go to college, it is recommended that they do so while living at home. Dormitory living, where the only adults present are those raining down condoms as confetti, does not agree with the moral training with which parents try to equip their children. Still, a member of the Ithacacongregation tells me there is usually a small stream of Witness college students at their meetings who attend either Cornell or SUNY Ithaca. Sometimes they do all right spiritually, sometimes not. Education is a family decision, and all are advised not to stick their noses in another family’s business. People being what they are, however….that counsel is not uncommonly breached.

Since their beginning, Jehovah’s Witnesses have constructed their own houses of worship. Even Assembly Halls that seat one or two thousand are built by volunteers. Same with “Bethels” around the globe, organizational headquarters. Organization has been streamlined to the point that Kingdom Halls are built in one or two weekends of volunteer effort. A number of our youngsters thereby pick up the building trades….electrical, HVAC, plumbing, etc….and go on to make a living in that way. Often they go abroad as Western aid jumpstarts Kingdom Hall building in lands where people don’t have much.

With such a restrained view of education, might the really high-flying careers elude our people? Yeah….they do, at least for those who adhere to the advice. But that’s by design. The apostle Paul recommended that those using the world, “not use it to the full” since “the scene of this world is changing.” (1 Cor 7:31) Jehovah’s Witnesses view this world’s system of things as passing away, soon to be replaced by government of God’s design. Generally speaking, they don’t shoot for lofty careers in such a world. They prefer to focus on a ministry which tells of the coming changes and trains people in godly ways. Many of our youngsters school for “portable” skills allowing them to pick up and move and work part time as desired, so that they can more readily put their ministry first.

Your religion is fine, just keep it in its place is the advice people sometimes offer us. Last place is usually what they have in mind. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t feel that way. Meantime, Bible education has produced a people who long ago overcame nationalism, and racism, who enjoy overwhelming unity, and who can cooperate towards a common end as no one limited by this world’s wisdom can.

 

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Tom Irregardless and Me             No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

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Serena, Venus, and Obama

It is a strange quirk of contemporary life that the two dominant players in woman’s tennis today are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Moreover, they are sisters. Imagine, year after year ….seven of the last nine, the Wimbleton crown boils down to a family affair, one sibling or another, sometimes a deciding duel between them. That’s how it was this year, with Venus finally besting her sister Serena to capture the crown.

It’s a strange quirk because, for one, there’s not that many of Jehovah’s Witnesses to start with, and for another, they generally keep out of the limelight. Indeed, they are encouraged to do so. Watchtower literature is replete with accounts of persons who gave up potential or even actual stardom in this or that field so as to “have a greater share in the ministry.” Fame and spirituality abound with conflicts. You can get yourself in odd situations, as Prince did. How many superstars manage not to get a big head? How many have marriages that last more than ten minutes? Some do both, of course, but with lesser mortals idolizing their every move, and photographers hounding them everywhere, it is a significant challenge.

But the counsel to go low-key is just that: counsel. It’s not law. It serves to sway the majority of Jehovah‘s Witnesses, being from a respected source and all. Still, individuals embrace it only to the extent they are inclined or feel able, for any number of reasons. As for the Williams sisters…..well, they just like to play tennis, I guess.

Because they’re celebrities, everyone wants to know their opinion on everything, and because they are black…..what about the first black Presidential candidate? Are they excited about Obama? Venus declined the question. But Serena effused she was "excited to see Obama out there doing his thing.''...."I'm a Jehovah's Witness, so I don't get involved in politics. We stay neutral. We don't vote,'' she said. "So I'm not going to necessarily go out and vote for him. I would if it wasn't for my religion.''

Now, for the most part, no one cares. She’s not voting? Ah, well, just one more odd factoid about a quirky religion. But here and there were some critics with very pronounced opinions.

For example, the “friendly atheist” passed this very unfriendly judgment: "Because we all know God hates people who have a sense of civic duty." And a race-oriented blog whose URL I have misplaced fretted that Serena was letting down the entire black race! What if all blacks were Jehovah’s Witnesses and didn‘t vote? the blog host opined. Why, then Obama wouldn’t have a chance. What about that, Serena?

A number read into Serena’s remarks that she, and by extension all of Jehovah’s Witnesses, would love to vote for the next Pres, but the over-controlling, mean JW organization won’t allow it. Vic Vomidog, author of Forty Years Down the Toilet….My Wasted Life with Jehovah’s Witnesses, was of that opinion. Even the Associated Press bought into that view, writing that the Williams sisters "say they're not allowed to vote because of their religion." 

Jehovah’s Witnesses take any number of positions that go against the grain of contemporary thinking today. It’s well, when called upon to explain why we do this or don’t do that, that we give a reason. For example, you don’t say we don’t accept blood transfusions because we’re Jehovah’s Witnesses. You say we don’t accept blood transfusions because the Bible speaks against it. That's not a detailed answer, of course, but it points in the right direction.

You don’t say we don’t celebrate Christmas because we’re Jehovah’s Witnesses. You say we don’t celebrate Christmas because the day is not Christ’s birthday, because he never said anything about celebrating his birth anyway, and because most Christmas customs come from non-Christian sources.

Sometimes it’s just as well to deflect the question. Not that you’re ashamed of your position. It’s just that you want to be known primarily as one who trusts in God’s Kingdom, or who makes known God’s name and purposes. You don’t especially want to be known primarily as one who doesn’t take blood and doesn’t celebrate Christmas. As a corollary to your main position, okay, but not as a main position in itself. So, for example:

Q: “So how was your Christmas?”

A: “Quiet.”

Now, what do you say about not voting? Look, the Williams sisters are athletes, not JW spokespersons. They can hardly be expected to give long-winded statements on religious convictions. Few want to hear it anyway. Easier to say “we can’t do it.” Serena’s answer’s not bad, really. She said we are neutral. We are. Frankly, I don’t know any quick sound bytes to give reporters when asked about voting. Oh, I suppose you can say “our vote is for the Kingdom” or some such pious remark, but it leaves an odd taste, doesn’t it? and raises as many questions as answers.

The Bible uses the word “ambassadors” illustrating for us the politically neutral role Christians are to play:

“We are therefore ambassadors substituting for Christ, as though God were making entreaty through us. As substitutes for Christ we beg: ’Become reconciled to God.’”    2 Cor 5:20

If you were an ambassador from a foreign country stationed here in the U.S. (where I am), you would adapt to all laws and customs locally. You’d likely come to love the land in which you live, and its people. But when it came to the politics of your host country, you wouldn’t take a position…nor would anyone expect you to. It is not your business…your business is to represent wherever you are ambassador from. Even if heavy issues develop and positions evolve for which, since you live here, you may have some feelings, still, it is not your job to take sides. Your lack of involvement would not be because of callousness, or apathy, or lack of interest in fellowman…but it is simply not your place, representing another government, to take sides in the disputes of your host country.

Now, God’s Kingdom is a government very real to Jehovah‘s Witnesses. It is the government with which God will bring an end to human rule, unite all peoples, restore earth to it’s original paradise state, and extend everlasting life to all those under it’s rule. We view it as the only hope for mankind. No amount of tweaking of human governments will ever approach what God brings through his own rule. We believe that it rules from heaven now, and will shortly extend its rule earth wide. Those who believe in it are charged to represent it, to announce it….in effect, to act as ambassadors of that government. And an ambassador does not vote in the country in which he is stationed.

There. That's an explanation. But it runs substantially longer than a sound byte, doesn't it?

I only came across one other place on the web that gave a reasonably accurate reason for our non-voting. Here.It seems worthy of mention, if only because it stands alone.

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