When the Jay Dubs Came to Call

A few years ago, we were upgrading our house, and I fell in love with these modern cut glass doors that we installed. Because of the pattern of the glass, you can see shapes moving inside, so it’s obvious if we are home. I was running late to leave for the office when the doorbell rang.

As missionaries, we called the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs in English for short), the TJs (Testigos de Jehovah). Since they were also door-to-door proselytizers in a predominantly Catholic country, we felt like competitors, or at times comrades-at-arms. We were told they tithe in their time, giving 10% of their personal time to proselyting. I’m not normally home during the day, but I have run into them a few times as I’ve been leaving the house.

I opened the door to greet the two women, both just slightly older than me (I’d guess in their mid-fifties or well-kept early sixties maybe). One of the women introduced herself as Patty and her companion as Linda. Patty was clearly the senior, and a lot of this door approach was her modeling for Linda what to say and how to engage. I was a trainer three times, so I recognized the social cues. She asked if I knew about God’s love for me. I replied that we were (pause to remember not to say Mormons) “members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” She smiled broadly and rejoined, “That’s great! So you do know about God’s love already. Can we share a scripture with you?” (I recognized her “yes and” approach, followed by a pivot to her own message).

She used her smart phone to locate Matthew 10: 29-31 which she asked me to read after enthusiastically remarking about the advances of technology and having the Bible on her phone. She asked if we also read our scriptures on our phones now, and I agreed that we did.

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.

This is a funny scripture to me. It’s one my mother read to me when I was growing up. I don’t recall hearing it used much at church, though, except maybe in passing. We never used it in a door approach. There were a few things that always struck me about this passage when I was a child:

  1. Were there a lot of birds just falling dead out of the sky at some time in the past? Why? What happened to them?
  2. Why would God or anyone bother to number the hairs on our heads? What possible value is there in that information? If God truly loves us isn’t it more important that he knows us, not just weird facts about us? Does he also know the numbers of hairs on our arms and other places? Is he just really into hair?
  3. How many sparrows (worth apparently half a farthing each) is a human worth? “Many” sounds like a finite number of sparrows. What is the trade value from sparrows to humans?

Image result for janet good placeEven now, I often think in the morning when I pull the hair from my hairbrush, “They’d better update that count.” This verse makes God seem more like Janet in the Good Place, a computer-like “person” who can render any fact anyone could want to know, like a personified Google. But how does it really demonstrate care and love for us as individuals?

Which is basically what she asked next while I was standing there thinking these thoughts.

“Well, I mean we all lose hair all the time. I guess it reminds us frequently that God pays attention to the details and seemingly trivial things.” I’m not sure this was the right answer or not. She smiled and laughed in a friendly manner about the loss of hair as she looked at Linda, pretending she was involved in this conversation even though she had said nothing to this point. Then she switched abruptly to asking if I wanted a copy of Watchtower, pointing out that many people found it lying around a picked it up, finding inspiration when they needed it. I like that idea, although it always reminds me of “Bible dipping” from the book Running with Scissors, but that’s a staple of many people’s religious lives–of all denominations.

Bibliomancy: foretelling the future by interpreting a randomly chosen passage from a book, especially the Bible.

For some reason, just seeing Watchtower magazine makes me feel sick to the stomach. My conditioning against it runs deep from early programming, a disdain I developed at too young an age to remember its source. It’s the same feeling I had when I saw an anti-Mormon brochure tucked inside a Book of Mormon in the motel lobby I worked in when I was 19. My mission partly erased that dread of other religions’ pamphlets and books because the work can be so hard that it’s impossible not to feel kinship with others who are sharing their faith with the public. I have leafed through Watchtower once or twice over the years, and honestly, religious magazines just aren’t my jam. They seem cheesy and overconfident in their worldview, and when it’s a worldview you don’t share, it makes it seem even more cheesy.  The Watchtower has gotten smaller and thinner over the years. I politely declined the magazine, but I wondered if seeing the Book of Mormon creates a similar feeling for some people.

We often changed our door approach to something more general and inspirational when we weren’t having success, to emphasize our commonality with others, and I always felt good about the idea that you are leaving someone with a positive idea or concept to ponder, something that might inspire them that day or that week. I took her message in that same spirit. I still think that’s a weird scripture, not one that particularly makes a lot of sense to me, but it’s one that I have been thinking about my whole life because I encountered it early. To me, it’s more about scrupulosity than God’s love, but maybe that’s what God’s love looks like to some. How can you prove a thing like God’s love? You can’t. You can feel it or not, no matter how many birds drop down dead. To me, it’s like being in a good mood, feeling sunshine beating down on me, seeing a clear path ahead of me.

What I’ve really been thinking about since this encounter, though, is Patty. I saw so much of me in her. I’ve been in her exact position, doing the same things, talking in the same way, setting an example for someone junior to me, revising my approach in the same manner, doing what I felt would better the lives of others. I don’t think it made me feel God’s love that we read that scripture. But I’m glad I talked with her, that I got to see myself through her, and maybe got to see how God sees us both.

Comments

  1. The last JW pair that came to my door included a lovely elderly gentleman who offered that “those of us who love the Lord can encourage each other.” I heartily agreed.

  2. Thank you for the introduction to the term bibliomancy. I knew that Christians are often guilty of using the Bible for divination, but I hadn’t heard a term for the practice before now.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for recounting your experience. I similarly have often felt a sense of solidarity with JWs, certainly en mish and immediately post mish, although that sense has probably dissipated over time. But proselyting is not easy and I admire anyone who is willing to try. Several times I was invited in by JWs while on my mission, and several times I invited JWs in post-mission. I think both they and I had not only a sense of empathy but also a pretty strong confidence that we would not be susceptible to the other’s spiel. Eventually I think I lost that solidarity, as inviting them in just took too much time (sometimes devolving to arguments) over a message I knew I wasn’t going to accept.

    It has been many years since I have had any Witnesses knock on my door, but I see them usually three times every work day: at my train station in the morning, outside the Chicago train station in the morning, and outside the Chicago train station every evening. If it were me I would much rather stand there next to a display instead of having to knock doors all the time, so I think that’s a pretty good development. The ones in the morning usually give me a bright and cheery “Good morning!”, which I’m always happy to reciprocate.

  4. Jack Hughes says:

    Another hat tip for the mention of bibliomancy. I once had a seminary teacher that promoted it as a valid way of engaging with the scriptures and seeking inspiration from God (pray about a problem, let your scriptures fall open, find the answer on that page). Even then I thought it to be an intellectually lazy approach to studying the scriptures. It seems a bit sacrilegious to treat the scriptures as a Magic 8-Ball.

    And the only time I ever hear the “hairs on your head are all numbered” passage is when it is invoked humorously by a bald man.

  5. I feel a similar sense of solidarity with the TJ’s (French mission so Temoin Jehovah) when I see them out working doors. I recall on my mission we would occasionally run into them working along the same street or building and think, “Nuts, we better go find another area to work or else we’re going to get the second knock angry answer.” Though sometimes we would run into an apartment building and race to the top floor to start working from the top down. Since generally the TJ itinerant ministers were little ladies of a certain age who carried sizable black brief cases we knew we young Elders were more nimble. I don’t know if we thought the elect would be found at the heights of the top floors (in the spirit of Isaiah 52:7 / 3 Nephi 20:40) but there was the adrenaline rush of knowing we got there before them because it seemed they always started a building from the top down when tracting it.

    I taught my fair share of converts who first started their explorations with the TJs so I was always grateful for their efforts to soften the hearts and open the minds of those we encountered and might not have been searching otherwise. On a few occasions I met with the TJs and happily took their literature, I always figured it was best to really understand your competition and to understand the messages they were preaching. Not to undermine them but simply to understand what avenues were already being explored and to figure out how to build upon those messages with our own. In fact by the end of my mission I had a small library of Bibles, Qurans, Missals, and various tracts that were ready reference materials. I always offered an exchange but universally the response I received from my new TJ friends when I pulled out our little blue book was an abject look of horror or a shudder as if the very devil was offering a forbidden fruit to them.

    We live not too far from the local Kingdom Hall so our neighborhood receives regular visits during the week every few months. Since I now work from home I’m always happy to answer the door and chat with them for a few minutes. It’s a pleasant exchange and I offer water if the day is warm – can’t overstate how grateful I was to those kind souls who offered us similarly on the humid Summer days in France – though lately they’re no longer asking if they can come in and visit with me. I wonder if our house has a mark in an area book somewhere that we’re overly kind Mormons and therefore to treated with suspicion.

    It’s hard work preaching the good word and anyone who puts their heart and will into it deserves my respect.

  6. Jack Hughes says:

    In the last 5 years or so, I’ve visited multiple major cities in the U.S. and Europe. In almost every airport, train station, public plaza or other high-traffic pedestrian environment, the JWs are out in full force, with stand-up displays readily identifying them. You can’t swing a dead cat in Times Square without hitting one. Back at home, they tract into my neighborhood about once a year on average. By contrast, I almost never see LDS missionaries out in public anymore. In a moment of strangeness, last year I saw a pair of JWs handing out tracts in the baggage claim area of the SLC airport, about 20 yards away from a growing crowd of families waiting for their returning missionaries.

    I sometimes wonder about the overall effectiveness of proselytizing efforts–both ours and theirs.

  7. MikeInWeHo says:

    I’ve noticed the same thing in L.A. the last few years. Jehovah’s Witnesses are all over the place, all week long and especially on Saturdays. Only on rare occasion have I seen LDS missionaries biking around.

  8. Bibliomancy was made into a running gag on my mission. Every six weeks, the night before we were notified of transfers, we would call other missionaries in our district and share “transfer prophecies,” where we would flip to a random scripture and read it on speakerphone for all four of us to hear. We would pick apart the words in a mocking attempt to predict where we would be transferred. A wagon might mean you’re going to a car area. (There were only a handful of areas with cars in my mission.)

  9. Ryan Mullen says:

    A similar verse about birds has caused me no small amount of consternation over the years:

    “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26, NRSV)

    Even as a kid, I knew that sparrows must die regularly from disease, starvation, exposure, and being eaten. Sure, birds as a whole find food often enough that the Avian class is not in danger of extinction, but what is phrased as a comforting thought just caused me anxiety. As an adult, I’m less stressed by the idea that God cares more for humanity as a whole than for me as an individual, but I still don’t see it as one of God’s better selling points.

  10. Bibliomancy: I have no idea how many times I’ve heard people talk about how their scriptures just fell open to a helpful scripture at a time of need. I think I’ve heard it less frequently in my more mature groups and wards, but it’s extremely common in the culture, even if it is not doctrinally supported.

  11. I have great respect for JWs, who taught me about Christ and the Bible for 2 years before I joined our church. I feel like their way of doing things prepared me to receive the Elders when they came knocking later, at the right time and place. In the beginning they pretty much felt the same, except that they were younger and a bit more ‘wild’ in terms of doctrine (A 14-year old prophet? Christ in America? Continuing revelation???!!!!). Their particular style of art work prepared me to accept our particular style of art work. Pretty sure I would have snubbed it otherwise. Even the blue Book of Mormon with the gold letters looked strangely familiar (same script?). Anyway, I always accept a copy of the Watchtower when I get offered one now.

  12. “I’ve heard people talk about how their scriptures just fell open to a helpful scripture at a time of need. I think I’ve heard it less frequently in my more mature groups and wards,”

    I’ve had it happen. It wasn’t coincidence, but connected to a personal sacred experience beyond the veil. Is that immature?

  13. I second Ryan Mullen on the sparrows. Sparrows have a terrible “infant mortality” rate. Just surviving to adulthood and having offspring (biological imperative) is an accomplishment. If this verse reflects God’s love then what does that mean about God’s possible intervention to save an individual sparrow from a horrible death. I believe that it is worth pondering what God’s love might mean if it is not God showing up to perform minor miracles on your behalf.

  14. My wife and I studied with the JW’s for many months. I would describe their religion as internally consistent. The worldview made sense from an insider’s perspective. They are very much like us in that they have a very duty bound, sacrifice, and disciple based religion. They take seriously the bible admonition to remove themselves from the world in ways that we brush off as harmless fun (Halloween!). Ultimately, they stopped coming because I confessed that I view the Adam and Eve story as allegorical/creation myth. I believe that they felt that without that common foundation, we were just exploring hypotheticals and I would likely never come to fully adopt the JW worldview.

    I imagine that they see anyone that believes more literally in the foundational/OT bible stories as fertile ground for conversion. As if they say to themselves, “They believe in the bible, now if we can just show them what the bible really says.”

  15. I don’t think the bibliomancy thing is immature. In terms of predicting the future maybe, but not in terms of flipping to a random page and finding the answer you needed. I don’t think God is shifting the flow of air in the room to cause the book to fall open on a certain page, but I do think that great spiritual wisdom applicable to any situation can be found on just about any page of the scriptures if you’re willing to have an open mind as you read. I see it as a way of saying “It doesn’t matter what part of the scriptures you study. Just study them, any part of them, and the spirit will teach you what you need to know.”

  16. Can’t help but get a little chuckle out of your questions about that scripture, Angela. And I thought the JW’s took scripture literally! :). But since you asked, I’ve always taken those verses poetically, and as directed specifically to apostles and missionairies. Maybe Jesus was reading the apostles’ concerns or fear about going out without purse or scrip. But to tour point, I wonder if part of the message was, if you fall as a sparrow, God will be mindful of that too. I wonder what it would be like if we still served missions that way?

  17. •to your point•

  18. I was shocked to see such a disrespectful label applied to Jehovah’s Witnesses in the title. I’ve known enough of them to be aware they prefer to be called by their name just as we do.

  19. TheMagicRat says:

    “For some reason, just seeing Watchtower magazine makes me feel sick to the stomach. My conditioning against it runs deep from early programming, a disdain I developed at too young an age to remember its source….I have leafed through Watchtower once or twice over the years, and honestly, religious magazines just aren’t my jam. They seem cheesy and overconfident in their worldview, and when it’s a worldview you don’t share, it makes it seem even more cheesy.”

    I used to have the same reaction to Watchtower and other religious, non LDS magazines, tracts, etc. Unfortunately (or not) I now feel that way about the Ensign and other LDS publications now too.

  20. JNR: I don’t see why using their initials is disrespectful. It isn’t an insult. The post that follows isn’t disrespectful. I don’t care what they call us either. What’s in a name? The more important thing is the quality of a person. I don’t agree that Satan rejoices when nicknames are used.

  21. Left Field says:

    JW seems like a perfectly reasonable abbreviation for most purposes, but I have to say that “Jay Dubs” does seem flippant and disrespectful.

  22. Waerenga-a-Hika says:

    Going way back to 1977, a nice reflection on strangers coming to call and share their faith. https://www.lds.org/ensign/1977/07/day-of-the-strangers?lang=eng

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