Thursday, October 25, 2007

On Lost Magic

"Study to shew thyself approved unto God" --
1 Timothy 2:15, King James Version

If I could condense my life as a Witness into two words, the first would be "study". I was surprised to discover recently that the English word "study" does not appear even one time in the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, the translation produced by Jehovah's Witnesses. During my childhood and on into my adult life as a Witness, study was the foundation stone on which everything else was built.

Although personal Bible reading was a habit of mine (established, no doubt, during those early morning family sessions), most of my study time was occupied with reading and studying publications of the Watchtower Society. Every summer, new books were "released" at the large conventions that we always attended as a family. Each of these was devoured greedily, as most purported to reveal the fulfillment of Bible prophecies in what was always termed this "Time of the End". Many explanations of Bible prophecy focused on the work of "modern-day" Jehovah's Witnesses and drew parallels between the Witnesses, ancient Israel, and the early Christians. Some of these books, such as the lengthy Babylon the Great has Fallen, God's Kingdom Rules, a discussion of the book of Revelation, identified all religions other than the Witnesses as being lead (knowingly or unknowingly) by the Devil in opposition to the Witnesses (God's people). Written in what appeared to be scholarly terms, these books also included references to events in history, together with dates for these events.

The Babylon book came out in 1963, the summer after my sixth grade year, and a few years before my baptism in 1967. I studied it intently, even though it was not used in formal group studies for several years. I loved the charts of kings and world events, and was pleased to be learning so much about history.

My first World History class as a sophomore in high school, however, was not what my study had lead me to expect. The Babylonian kings were detailed in this class, along with the dates of their reigns. But when I compared the dates in my history book with the dates in my prized Babylon book, I discovered that there were serious areas of difference. In particular, my world history book dated the destruction of Jerusalem as occuring in 586 or 587 B.C., while the Babylon book and other publications of the Watchtower Society insisted that this destruction occured in 607 B.C. Not only that, but 607 B.C. was used as the basis for Jehovah's Witnesses understanding of the beginning of the "Time of the End" and their insistence that the end of the wicked world was imminent.

It is indicative of the degree of trust that I held in my religion that I did not raise these questions with anyone, not even with my father, who had always assured me that he was willing to discuss anything. Our various study books did at times instruct us that there were differences between secular chronology and "Bible" chronology. I told myself that this was just one of those differences, pushed down my questions, and continued to read and study everything the Watchtower Society sent out.

All of this studying, intense as it was, was not drawing me closer to God. The more I studied, the farther I seemed to move from the innocent child who could always talk to her Heavenly Father. Even my baptism at age 14, much desired and eagerly anticipated as it was, did not fill the strange empty space that I found growing in my heart.

In a poem written shortly before my baptism in 1967, I remarked:

I remember when touching the mantlepiece was an accomplishment,
And Mommy was a long way up.
Funny, heaven seemed so much closer then.

Next: Sacred Service

Sunday, October 14, 2007

In the Embrace of Family

"When you read the Bible, God speaks to you; when you pray you speak to God.” -- St. Augustine

I don't remember learning to read. I do remember going to school and discovering that I knew how to read already -- the teacher put the word "look" on the chalkboard, and I knew the word.

I believe that I learned to read while sitting on my father's lap. My father loved to read and to study, and he read to me every day. While he was teaching me to read, Dad was also teaching me to love God and to love the Bible. I don't remember learning either of those things either, but as no one is born with such love, I must have learned it.

I remember asking my mother, when I was five or six, "Who made God?" My mother replied, "No one made God. God had no beginning and has no end." I looked out the window at the darkening night sky and wondered about that for a long time. In many ways, I wondered about God for most of my life. How could He have no beginning and no end? It was a mystery to me, although the term "mystery" was not a part of my religious vocabulary. But a mystery it was.

As a child, up until about age twelve, I felt a mystical closeness with God. It was not something I could explain to my very rational and logical parents. My dear father, in particular, spent a lot of time worrying about his daydreaming little girl. I would talk to God just as I would talk to my mother or sister; it didn't matter to me that he didn't answer me out loud. I knew he could hear me.

When I was only five, I would accompany my parents in their door-to-door ministry as Jehovah's Witnesses. I was very precocious, and insisted on speaking at the doors. As a grandmother now, I cannot imagine opening the door to find a tiny five-year old earnestly admonishing me to read the Bible. But I did exactly that. As I learned to read at an early age, I would even read scriptures from the Bible at the doors. I conducted my first "home Bible study" (where I was the teacher!) when I was seven years old. You might say I was an unusual child.

When my sister and I were in elementary school, my father decided that we needed to read the Bible daily as a family. Because of our conflicting schedules, the best time was early morning. So for several years, we all got up at 5:30 a.m. and read the Bible together. I have never forgotten the warmth of those mornings.

I dearly wished to be baptized, which I understood to be the dedicating of my life to serve God. Especially from the time I was about ten, when I read a book called Jehovah's Witnesses in the Divine Purpose, I had this strong desire. In this book I read about Witnesses, including children, who had given their lives for their faith. Many of these experiences were from Nazi Germany during World War II, when Jehovah's Witnesses were imprisoned in the concentration camps and many died. I used to have nightmares about such persecution, and wake up in the night and pray that God would give me strength to be faithful to him should I ever have to face such trials. This was a heavy burden for a young child, but I believed it to be my destiny as a Witness of Jehovah. I really believed that God would be coming to destroy the wicked world very soon, and that before that occurrence there would be great persecution. Even though I pleaded with them, my parents decided that I was too young to be baptized and that I should wait until my teenage years.

Another event happened when I was ten years old -- my dear mother (who was in her mid-forties) suffered a heart attack. She was in the hospital for a while, and after she came home she was confined to bed for a time. I would sit on the bed and talk to her for hours, and it was during one of these talks that I found out that my mother had undergone heart surgery before she met my father. She was born with a heart defect (which in 1918 in the mountains of Arkansas could easily have been a death sentence). Somehow, she survived, but by the time she was in her mid-twenties, her heart was failing. She was referred to the Mayo Clinic for her surgery. At the time, the operation (to correct patent ductus arteriosus)was only being done at three hospitals in the United States. In the course of this surgery, she received a great deal of blood by transfusion.

Learning that mother had had blood transfusions was shocking to me, as blood transfusions were forbidden to Jehovah's Witnesses. Many battles were being fought in the courts to compel Witnesses to take blood, and Witnesses who died after refusing a blood transfusion were viewed as having been martyrs for their faith. But she explained that, at the time of her surgery (1944), blood transfusions were not forbidden or viewed as sinful. The use of blood for medical purposes was identified as sinful in the following year, 1945. It was declared a "disfellowshipping offense" several years later.

I was only ten, but I quickly made the connection -- my mother would not have survived to meet my father without the surgery she had. The surgery would not have been performed in 1944 without the use of blood transfusions. No blood -- no surgery -- no marriage -- no ME! I didn't know what to do with this information. It was shocking to me to think that, had my mother not found the surgeon until 1945, she might never have had the operation. I would have never been born.

This was my first experience with cognitive dissonance, although it would be many years before I would discover the meaning of that term.

Next: On Lost Magic

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Deep Roots

All things must come to the soul from its roots, from where it is planted.
Saint Teresa of Avila

My family is deeply rooted in religious rebellion. Both of my grandmothers were Scots-Irish, descended from Protestants who were at odds with both the Catholics and the Anglicans. (See: Ulster-Scots ). My paternal grandfather was alleged to be a descendant of French Protestants. (See: Huguenot ) By the nineteenth century, these three families were all American Baptists. My maternal grandfather had a Welsh Protestant (Presbyterian) father and a German Protestant (Lutheran) mother.

Additionally, in the late nineteenth century, one of my Baptist great-great-grandfathers obtained a copy of a tract called "Food for Thinking Christians" that was written by C. T. Russell, considered the father of the present-day Jehovah's Witnesses. He accepted the doctrines of those who were then called Bible Students, as did his son and later his granddaughter (my grandmother). Possibly due to the influence of my great-grandmother, my grandmother attended a Baptist Church every Sunday while meeting with the Bible Students as her father and grandfather did during the week. She played the organ and sang in the Church. It was there that she met my grandfather. Now how a West Virginian who was a product of a Presbyterian-Lutheran marriage happened to be in a Baptist Church in Arkansas around the turn of the century was never told to us. I expect that would be quite a story in itself. But the tall West Virginian married the tiny Scots Irish Bible Student and he became a Bible Student himself.

Back in West Virginia, my other Scots Irish grandmother was being raised as a good Baptist. She was attending school, and her 8th grade teacher was a handsome fellow of French descent who was also a good Baptist (his grandfather built the local Baptist Church which is named for my father's family). On Christmas Day, 1905, he picked her up in a horse and buggy, ostensibly to take her to Church. Instead of attending regular services, the handsome school teacher married his beautiful 16-year-old pupil.

The first couple, who met and married in Arkansas, were my mother's parents. The second couple were my father's parents.

Fast forward to World War II, and my mother is a pioneer (a Jehovah's Witness missionary) in West Virginia. She is studying the Bible with a widow; three of the widow's four sons are serving in the War effort. Her fourth son, who already had a family at the start of the War, has married a Jehovah's Witness woman, and the widow wants to know what this religion is all about. Ultimately, the pioneer meets one of the widow's sons (home on leave from the Navy), who has also been discussing religion with his brother. These two marry, and become my parents.

So as you can see, religious rebellion has played a very prominent role in my personal history. I am descended from strong-willed, strong-principled, and hardworking folk who invested their lives in studying the Bible and endeavored to live by it. My parents were the same. They thoroughly believed their Jehovah's Witness faith was the one true religion. That is how they raised me.

Why would I ever doubt that I was born into the right religion? What could possibly persuade me to leave the "faith of my fathers"?

Next: In the Embrace of Family

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Where to start?

It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.
St. Francis of Assisi

It is said that every journey begins with just one step. So my journey to the one Holy Catholic Church must have had a beginning; I'm just not sure when it began.

It would be easy for me to say that the journey began the evening I attended my first Mass -- November 1, 2006. But it could not have -- part of the journey had to lead me to the Church door in the first place.

The truth is, I believe I have been "on my way" for my entire life. The little girl who lay in the grass and spoke to God was already on her way. The young woman who greeted her newborn children with wonder at the miracle of their existence was on her way. The almost-40 matriarch who sat by her father's bed as he lay suffering was travelling "the road". She just had not bothered to read the signs.

I hope to trace (or retrace) through these pages and these words the various "signs of grace" in my life that have lead me to this place -- this faith, this longing for baptism, this hunger for communion. If you are so inclined, come walk with me. We will look for the signs together.

Next Installment: Deep Roots