Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Love, Worldly Style

Photo courtesy of The Halfway Point.

Posted by Joel Gunz

I was raised to believe that the "world alienated from God," (read: the realm of non-Jehovah's Witnesses) is an ugly, selfish, brutish place. As you might guess, I was in for a surprising -- though not rude -- awakening.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not bitter about this. I received more than my share of love and hospitality from the Witnesses. Once, when vacationing with my family in Italy, we were at the end of our trip and barely had money to get home. Then we missed our flight out of Milan and had to stay an extra night. An elderly Witness brought us into her home, fed us and even offered us money on the way out the door. Except for the fact that we shared the same religion she didn't know us from Adam. I will never forget her guileless open-handedness.

At the same time, however, I can also share stories of betrayal and mean-spiritedness. Both kindness and unkindness can be found among the Witnesses -- just as in the world at large. Which is to say, in my experience, there isn't much difference between Witness culture and "the world."

I can't stress enough how much this realization affected my outlook. In fact, it was love, not any doctrinal issue or "Watchtower scandal," that convinced me that Jehovah's Witnessism is no more special than any other religion. Frankly, I don't care that the Watchtower Society owns a controlling interest in a weapons-manufacturing company or that it once held membership in the United Nations. Heck, if you want to fry up a theocracy, you have to break a few eggs. No, it was love that moved me to reconsider my religion convictions.

After I was disfellowshipped, I tried vigorously to return. For a couple of years, I pursued an intense program of counseling and treatment (along with a near-perfect record of meeting attendance) in an effort to overcome character flaws that I was sure would bar me from gaining everlasting life. While putting 20 or more hours each week into these activities, something strange began to happen. Non-Witnesses that I had occasion to interact with began to appear in a new light. It wasn't that my faith was weakening, because I was still convinced that Jehovah's Witnesses worshiped "the only true God"; rather, those individuals showed me love, unselfconsciously sharing their time and material possessions with me, gladly putting up with my imperfections (not least of which was my smug air of religious superiority) for no benefit to themselves, except to pay forward love that had been shown them. Such experiences happened over and over again. It was overwhelming.

The words attributed to Jesus at Mark 10:29 became more true for me than ever: “Truly I say to YOU men, No one has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the good news who will not get a hundredfold now in this period of time." (NWT) True, I hadn't left the Witnesses for the "sake of the good news," but I did accept my disfellowshipping as part of God's will for me (as I experienced God at that time), and my life sprouted more "brothers" and "sisters" than I know what to do with.

Maybe even more to the point is Psalm 27:10: "In case my own father and my own mother did leave me, Even Jehovah himself would take me up." (NWT) Even though I'm more of a half-hearted atheist than anything else, the point stands. Everything and everyone I'd ever believed in had suddenly turned away from me. Yet, if I felt alone or unloved in the universe for even a moment, I don't remember it. Some people call that grace. Whatever. That sounds a little too churchy for me, so if you don't mind, I'll just call it love and leave it at that.

Recently, someone I know experienced some financial setbacks and had to obtain donated food from the Oregon Food Bank. The food depot he visited (the OFB calls them pantries) was housed in the Allen Temple in Northeast Portland and operated by a trio of beautiful black women. Church ladies in the best sense of the term. He described it this way: "Their warmth and kindness, along with the dignity they accorded me, was deeply moving. If I'd stuck around long enough, I might have been converted. If I ever reconsider Christianity, I'm going to their church." Sure, they were providing a social service. But they did it with infectious joy.

I'm reminded of the words of the Dalai Lama:

"[Some people] claim that anger and hatred are so much a part of human nature that humanity will always be dominated by them. I do not agree. ... I believe that if ... the human mind had been primarily controlled by anger and hatred, our overall population would have decreased. But today, despite all our wars, we find that the human population is greater than ever. This clearly indicates to me that love and compassion predominate in the world. And this is why unpleasant events are "news"; compassionate activities are so much a part of daily life that they are taken for granted and, therefore, largely ignored."

Once I opened my eyes to it, I found that there is more goodness in the world than I ever imagined. Maybe that's been your experience too. If you're so inclined, drop a line to the comments section and share your experience with your fellow readers.