Life Uncensored

sunset-summer-golden-hour-paul-filitchkin.jpgI realize that not all I’ve written is about celebrating my life in the moment, and may at times drift toward a tendency to rehash old stories and experiences. Today, I want to share what I am most grateful for, which is the ability to live a life uncensored! I am beholden to no one! No one can tell me what to believe, why to believe or how to believe anything. Whether I believe in God or not is my own business.

When I write about living life uncensored, I don’t mean I’m walking around naked or going about shouting obscenities at random strangers. I don’t live my life in a way that ever causes harm to anyone. In fact, I’m most comfortable giving to others, whether that be giving blood or working in a soup kitchen for the homeless, something one of Jehovah’s Witnesses would not and could not ever do. My life is uncensored in that I don’t need anyone’s “literature” to help me gain a better understanding of God, and I don’t need to be guided or directed by other men and women. I certainly don’t need to be chastised for falling out of line with anyone’s directives. That’s not freedom.

I don’t believe in a God who manipulates of outcomes or that our lives are “predestined” (a most depressing and hopeless thought indeed). My life is what I make it, my “luck” comes from being prepared for every opportunity that comes my way. While I may at times have prayed silently or out loud for God to guide me, or to help me find peace during a very difficult period, I’ve never asked to be “fixed” or have asked God to “jump in” and take care of anything directly. If there was a God who was always pulling the strings we’d all be nothing more than a captive puppet, a victim of circumstances, weak and fearful of the unknown. I pride myself on the free will and free mind that I have too much to ask someone to do for me what I should be doing myself.

With living a life uncensored comes responsibility and accountability. I am answerable to myself for my actions. If my life isn’t working out the way I’d like it, well, that’s on me to find a way to right the situation. I will not wait on God or any other supreme being to come in and make me a better person. That’s my job.

 

The Decision

pexels-photo-277615.jpegWhen I explain to others that I no longer speak with my father or several siblings due to my decision to no longer follow the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I am met with puzzled looks and mouths that don’t know how to respond. Most everyone I know believes that their religious convictions, or lack thereof, is a personal choice.They just do not get what the “big deal” is with regard to what happened when I decided to no longer be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “What?” they ask; “Your father doesn’t speak with you because you don’t go to his church anymore?” That doesn’t make any sense, they say. Who would stop speaking with their own children over a religion? If you’ve not been associated with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Orthodox Jews, the Amish, etc., then you may not understand this practice at all, but for those of us who have, it is known as “shunning.”

I was already somewhat familiar with the term by the time I was eight. My mother, a practicing JW for just about six years, was the first person I can ever recall being disfellowshipped. I came to understand her place in odd circumstances, such as the night she needed our only car, which also happened to be meeting night.  To make it all work, she took my father, sister and I to the Hall, but first we had to stop and pick up good old sister Smith, as we always did, along the way. Sister Smith was real quiet. I’d never known her to remain so silent. The typical conversations between the adults in the car were a thing of the past. When I asked my father later why no one said anything in the car, he told me. He explained to me in the best way he could that my mother was no longer in Jehovah’s favor (as if he knew who was and was not in Jehovah’s favor!) and therefore the brothers and sisters in the congregation were no longer allowed to speak with her.

Years later, after I’d decided to make “the truth” my own, I typically knew who was getting disfellowshipped before the congregation at large found out. I was either helping to “catch” the wrongdoer in the act of sinning, or was close enough to the elders and ministerial servants to know what was going on behind the scenes. Once the announcement was made, a few of us would gather together to talk about the newly disfellowshipped person. “Tsk, tsk,” we’d remark, “I always knew there was something not right about him,” or “I knew it was only a matter of time before Jehovah brought his sins to light….” Then we would glance toward the back of the hall (the last row of shame), where we’d find the disfellowshipped person. They would usually get into the hall just as the song was starting, and sometimes leave before the final prayer, just to avoid walking by someone in awkward silence.

When the time came for me to go, I swore there was no way I was going to be made a spectacle before the congregation. I debated for the better part of a year about leaving. I knew once I had made my decision, there would be no turning back, no sitting in the back, no aim for “reinstatement.” Conveniently, I was relocated just before I left. Once my move was complete, I wrote a letter to one of the elders and explained what “sins” I had been committing, further indicating that I was not repentant and would not be appealing the decision. I wanted it over as quickly as possible. I didn’t even let my own father know what was happening. He found out once the elder told him, but that’s another story.

I can still recall all these years later the last time I stepped foot in a Kingdom Hall; like an object frozen in time, I still have my New World Translation that I received at the District Convention in 1985, complete with a miniature sized version of the Theocratic Ministry School schedule from 1987, including the date on which I was officially disfellowshipped. My heart was broken when I left, along with the hearts of many others. A connection had been severed with not just my immediate family, but the hundreds of “friends” I had made over a span of five years. In an instant, I was cut off from everyone, completely separated, not even twenty one years old, feeling completely alone in the world. I was scared, petrified and momentarily lost. It took me a long time to regain my footing. I’m grateful that those who are leaving or are thinking of leaving have the multitude of online resources available today. If you are or have ever been a Jehovah’s Witness, then you know the decision to leave is probably the most difficult decision you will ever make in your life. If you haven’t yet made a decision to formally join, think carefully before you do, as there is no such thing as a graceful exit.

 

 

 

Why Do Some JWs Live A Lie?

pexels-photo-48566.jpegIn the month since I launched this blog, I have become amazed at the amount of people on Jehovah’s Witness boards and blogs who currently consider themselves to be Jehovah’s Witnesses yet either do not agree with the teachings or live in accordance with the directives or organization leadership. This could be understandable if we were considering the Roman Catholic Church, where not every member agrees with the church’s stand on abortion, or the United Methodist Church, where not every congregant agrees with that church’s stand on gay marriage. But the Watchtower organization tolerates no dissension or disagreement whatsoever. To be considered as an active Jehovah’s Witness in good standing, you must agree that only the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses has the one, true and accurate understanding and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. This means that as a good Jehovah’s Witness, you share in the beliefs that blood transfusions are forbidden, even if it means losing one’s life, and that you agree that you must cut off and completely shun anyone who leaves the organization for whatever reason, not even answering the phone if your ex-JW family member tries to contact you. These are just two examples of some major points of differentiation between the JWs and many of the world’s religions.

The demands on a Jehovah’s Witness are high. They must spend a certain amount of time going door-to-door. They must attend, and prepare for, two meetings a week. They must abstain from joining in holiday and birthday celebrations with co-workers and fellow students. They must abstain from voting and even discussing politics. The pressure to be different, act different, and think different is great, and not everyone can handle it. The temptations in the “world” overcome more than a few, as they seek out alcohol, drugs or even illicit sex as a means of relieving the pressure. As a Witness, I saw many brothers and sisters buckle and succumb to these “worldly” desires.

In my long adult life, I’ve come to realize that I have seen less “breakdowns” among the so-called worldly people than among the Jehovah’s Witnesses during my time as an active member. I’ve been in the same small community for 15 years now and know many, many individuals and families. I know of not one that committed adultery. I can count on one hand the people I’ve known with a drug or alcohol problem (all recovered). However, these were things I saw on a somewhat regular basis as a Witness, and I watched more than a few work hard to evade being “caught in the act” of doing something wrong. The rumor mill swirled briskly after the announcement of one’s disfellowshipping, as we would gleefully spread the word on the offense, occasionally taking great delight in the situation if it was a brother or sister who seemed to have it all. Someone in my family even suffered abuse at the hands of a child molester (who was an active Witness) while not yet a teenager, and this was my only experience in my life with this kind of horrific act.

So I’ve asked myself on many occasions, why does it seem like the very things the Witnesses are on guard against seem to happen more frequently within the walls of the Kingdom Hall than without? Why do so many Jehovah’s Witnesses live a lie? When I was a Witness, the often heard refrain was that these issues were cropping up due to the “sinful” and “imperfect” nature of the self. Wait for the “New System,” I was told, and these issues would disappear. I believe the matter is more complicated than that. While I’m sure there is research on this topic that I haven’t come across yet, I do believe that for many Jehovah’s Witnesses, God’s word is not “written in their hearts” (Romans 2:15). I’ve spoken with family members and others associated with the Witnesses, who when caught engaging in acts that would not be approved by the organization, would beg me not to tell their parents or the elders. If God’s word was truly “written in their hearts” they would have more to fear than parents and elders; they would fear disappointing the great being who represents the first word in the name “Jehovah’s Witness.”

 

 

No Part of This World

sky-earth-galaxy-universe.jpgWhen I was much younger, my father would frequently apologize for his abusive episodes, telling me that he was imperfect, and waiting for the day when Jehovah would “make him better.” My stepmother similarly had many flaws of her own, as do many of us, but again, she was looking forward to a time in the future, when Jehovah would “make her right,” into a perfect, blemish-free individual. There was no obligation on their part to really work that hard at being better parents, spouses or overall individuals. No need to try to be the “best version” of themselves, as so many of us are striving toward day in and day out.

This individual, and somewhat collective perspective, keeps loyal Jehovah’s Witnesses from being active in politics, voting, and engaging in civic-minded activities like feeding the homeless (and let’s not mention refusing to give blood; oh wait, I just did). They reason that “someday” Jehovah will cleanse the earth of all wickedness, and miraculously convert the earth into a paradise earth for all Jehovah’s Witnesses to enjoy exclusively (although more than a few of us have been left to speculate what is going to be done to quickly rid the earth of the seven billion “wicked ones” now walking the earth). Holding to the view that it is the responsibility of someone else, namely Jehovah’s, to fix all of the world’s ills, is awfully liberating. Wouldn’t it be great to not have to care at all whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton win the US presidential election? Then again, I do believe there are many people who are not Jehovah’s Witnesses who don’t care about that either, but I hope you see my point.

Yes, in many ways it is easier to live in the bubble, separate from the world at large, with no skin in the game whatsoever. Foreign troops drop in on the United States and take over? Who cares, Jehovah will fix it eventually. The invaders come and kill our women and children? No problem! They will just wake up in a paradise earth in a flash! If I had a nickel for every time someone told me they just couldn’t wait for “the new system of things,” well, you know the rest. It’s one thing to put faith in God, which I do, it’s another to expect that God will just take care of it all, absolving ourselves of any and all responsibility.

I’m not going to open a dialogue here to try to explain what Jesus meant when he said “I am no part of the world” in John 17:16 (although anyone reading this may feel free to jump in), but I do believe we need to be accountable for our own actions and behaviors. We can’t continue to carelessly ignore the work of progressive personal improvement, expecting God to fix us, like a broken clock.  I don’t like it much either when so-called Christians (non-JW) habitually commit awful acts, then write them off saying it’s okay, “Jesus died for my sins.” I don’t subscribe to this “blank-check” theory whereby we are given a license to not care about our behavior or the world at large. I don’t believe that is what God intended. You may or may not agree with me, and that’s fine. With freedom comes the right to disagree and have dissenting views; but with freedom also comes responsibility, the responsibility to be the best we can be and in the process contribute the best of ourselves to the world around us.

I Am Not A Victim

pexels-photo-347135.jpegI have struggled for a long time with the idea that my experience as a Jehovah’s Witness was one of inevitability. Naturally, my outcomes were a byproduct of the thoughts and desires that drove me. I’ve had a thirst for truth all of my life. I’ve wanted a close, personal relationship with God for as long as I could remember. I’ve craved answers for all the unknowns in this world, whether they be the injustices that seem to occur on a daily basis, or the vast expanse of space and all the unknown worlds that it cradles. When I was very young (just three years old), my parents’ choice to mutually dedicate themselves to Jehovah’s “earthly organization” was something that happened to me. At some point, I crossed the line of demarcation, and my own baptism as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses was something that happened because of me.

Like two dance partners finding themselves moving in sync with each other on the floor, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were always there, always right in front of me.  Even though my mother left the organization when I was just eight years old, my father’s fervent desire to follow “Jehovah’s commands” never waned. His unwavering stance made me believe that there must have been more to it and so I decided to investigate further. I liked what I saw. I wanted more. I became powerfully addicted to the idea that I was someone in Jehovah’s organization.  I was no longer this lost teenager trying to find his way in a world I didn’t completely understand. I was finally satisfied that I had found a place that provided all the answers, a stark contrast to the life I’d known, where almost nothing was predictable. I became fastened to the congregation with a strong, powerful glue. The bond was so powerfully secure and so firm, that separating with it later nearly tore me apart for good.

For too long I regretted my decision. I lost the connection I once had to my father and my many friends. Everything that I identified with, all that had made me me, was gone in an instant. My safety net vanished into thin air and I fell. I fell hard. I didn’t immediately bounce back. Like a fighter who suffered the knockout punch at the hands of his opponent, I laid face down on the mat, blood trickling out of my ear and the corner of my mouth. Somewhere, off in the distance, I heard the count. Long after the count was complete, I remained on the mat. After the bloodthirsty fans were gone, I finally, slowly, made my way up. First to me knees, with my head still hanging low, my neck unable to support it. I used both of my fits, still encased in my boxer’s gloves, to hold me up. I stared for nearly an hour at the patterns and stains that my blood left on the mat. I was unaware of the world outside of that spot, and certainly not fully conscious of the fact that I remained alone in a vest arena, which itself was at the center of a sprawling metropolis. I was a speck among it all, a lonely, solitary figure, left to die on my own.

I did not die. Hours later, I lifted my head slowly and with much difficulty, the muscles tight and tense, unable to permit quick movement. My eyes, so used to looking down, finally found the means to lift themselves up, allowing me to take in all the empty seats, spread out in every direction as far as I could see. Yes, I was alone. I screamed. My scream echoed off the walls over and over again. It was maddening. My own voices began to curse me. What had I done? How did I allow this all to happen?

For much of the thirty years after, I’ve pondered this cataclysmic event. I’ve tried to understand how I got from there to here. I believe I understand now. I chose to be one of Jehovah’s Witness. I chose to believe what I was told. I made the choice to leave. I have the power to choose. I have free will. I am not a victim.

 

 

 

Conditional Love

I’ll never forget the ride home from the Kingdom Hall about a month after I found out that my parent’s were separating, and my father got his own place. This all closely followed the announcement of my mother’s disfellowshipping. Riding alone in the car with my father, the only thing I could think of to say was that all of this must be a “bad dream.”paradise lost

“It’s no dream,” my father said tersely, his comment doing nothing to comfort me. I wanted so badly for him to tell me it was a dream, and to wake up in the home I knew with him and my mother at the dinner table with my sister and me. As we drove on, my sister fell fast asleep, and the silence prevailed all the way home, until my father broke it.

“Son, I want you to know I love you very much, and you should know Jehovah loves you very much too, but I want you to know I will never love you as much as if you love Jehovah as much as I do, and you do what’s right. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, dad.” I felt a little fearful at his words. The newfound physical separation between us was creating a gnawing need inside of me for his approval. I was afraid that somehow, if I didn’t meet his approval, I might see him even less than I was already.

“Your mother is doing things right now that Jehovah hates, and she may never change, but you have to make sure your heart is always where it belongs, with Jehovah. Will you do that for me?”

“Yes, dad, I will.” I thought about my mother, being cut off from Jehovah, and being destroyed at Armageddon. I saw the pictures from the Witness book “From Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained” that showed people screaming as the fiery earth opened up to swallow them whole, still alive. I knew then this would almost certainly be my mother’s fate. It wasn’t for me to judge, that was Jehovah’s job, but it’d been instilled in me for the past six years, since I learned how to read, that the wicked person’s fate would be eternal destruction while those found to be pleasing to Jehovah would find eternal life in a paradise earth. I dreamed of sitting down with the lamb and the lion together, with a harmless rattlesnake curled up in my lap. Still in my dream state, I looked around and realized my mother wasn’t to be found anywhere. A tear ran down my cheek as I contemplated all of this.

“Do you promise?” He was more than serious.

“Yes, Dad, I promise.” The sick feeling remained. I didn’t want to end up like my mother. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t want to live forever with us, choosing wickedness over service to Jehovah. My mother chose to split us up. I should’ve been angry with her, but for some reason I wasn’t. I just wanted so badly for her to come back, to join us in the meetings again, to love Jehovah as much as my father and I did. I held hope for that and just as often the brothers and sisters in the Kingdom Hall worked hard to instill that hope in me. I prayed every night to Jehovah that my mother would find her back. Even though my mother had a new boyfriend who had become a fixture in our lives, I wished hard for my mother to break it off with him and do the right thing.

We spoke no more on the drive home. My father stared out the windshield as he drove, the illumination of the instrument panel reflecting in his stern, stone-like face. There wasn’t any doubt in my mind as to how seriously my father held to his convictions, nor did I doubt he expected the very same seriousness from me. I was afraid to deviate from his instructions and afraid I wouldn’t be loved by Jehovah, leading to my destruction when the world was restored to the beauty of the original Garden of Eden. Most importantly, I was afraid of not having my father’s love should I not follow in his footsteps. I had been duly warned of that potential already. My being loved by him, as well as Jehovah, was completely and irrevocably conditional.

Sheep and Wolves

sheeps wolvesI’d chosen the title for this blog site prior to finding out that it was actually embedded in an old Turkish proverb, which states, “The sheep separated from the flock is eaten by the wolf.” I was dumbstruck upon seeing this. I found myself connecting with this proverb on so many levels. Of course! As Jehovah’s Witnesses, we are taught that if we stray from the flock of “righteous ones,” then there is “nowhere to go.” We believe everyone outside of “the truth” is an alcoholic, thief or drug dealer and will certainly lead us into a life of misery and debauchery. We stay where we are because we are afraid of the “wolves,” who just can’t wait to devour us. We live in fear of being separated from the flock and so remain humbly, and blindly obedient to the shepherds, the elders in the congregation, who act on the orders received from the Faithful and Discreet Slave, also known as the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The more afraid, and the more sheep-like we become, the lower the likelihood of ever straying away from the flock and going out on our own. Paralyzed and unable to think freely, we take the direction provided to us, believing there is nothing better out there. We speak of anything outside of the organization as being “wordly,” and part of the “old system of things.” We look upon non-Jehovah’s Witnesses with contempt and derision, bordering on abject hatred. We claim to be protected from the wickedness of the world by the “society” and its “spiritual food.”

Let’s shift our thinking now. Let’s imagine that instead of the wolves existing outside the fences containing the happy, contented, and well-protected flock, that they are actually running the show? Yes, keeping the sheep locked up under their own will, devouring their minds instead of their flesh, feasting on their freedom and independence, which the wolves have maliciously and knowingly stole from them. Somehow, other members of the flock have left. They occasionally come and stand near the fence, calling out to their old friends and relatives. They try to tell them that they can live outside the fence, and think independently, without the wolves protection. The wolves come out of their lofty “watchtowers” high above the flock. They terrorize their own sheep, telling them if they talk to the sheep on the other side of the fence they will be cast out, no longer to benefit from the wolves’ kindness and hospitality. “Where else will you go?” the wolves say. “Who will feed you food at the proper time?” The vast majority of the sheep turn away from the fence and don’t even look upon the ones on the other side. They conclude they are better off inside, and don’t see any possible reason to leave. They know they have everything they need right where they are. They don’t have to worry about where their next meal will come from, and besides, they are constantly protected from the wolves that roam freely outside the fences. It doesn’t strike them as odd that somehow the sheep that have left are still surviving out there, away from the flock.

If you are one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, please think carefully about the situation you are in. Do you really believe that everyone that is not a Jehovah’s Witness is really such a wicked person–a “bad association?” Are you being told not to talk to any members that have left for fear of punishment? Are you allowed to verify anything you are being told? In 1 John 4:1 we are admonished to “test the inspired expressions to see whether they originate with God, because many false prophets have gone forth into the world.” What are you doing to test the food that is being provided to you?

If you are no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and are struggling to find your way, know that life is meant to be a search for answers and for truth. We were created with the wonderful gift of choice and will. It is not possible for any organization, or even any small group of men, to have all of the answers. There are sheep and wolves on both sides of the fence. Time and experience will guide you toward knowing who is who.