Rewriting My “Testimony Rules”
Posted by Shawn L on March 5, 2008
If you have spent any time at all as a member of the Church, you undoubtedly have a few horror stories of fast and testimony meetings gone awry. From false doctrine to racially-insensitive remarks to right-wing political “calls to arms” to just plain weirdness, I’ve have heard my fair share of, ahem, ”colorful” testimonies. [My favorite is the departing missionary who ended his testimony by saying, "In the words of the Lord, 'it is finished,'" and then promptly sat down.] As a result, many jaded members — and virtually every full-time missionary — can be heard, at one time or another, to say that they look upon this monthly ritual with dread, a feeling that is only exacerbated by the presence of persons unfamiliar with the practice, such as investigators. Who knows what crazy old Sister Jones will say this month? What if Brother Jones spends another 30 minutes bemoaning his long-haired son-in-law and the evils of cable television?
I’ll admit, I’m no different. Over the years, as a direct response to these instances, I developed my own set of criteria for how I thought a testimony — an honest to goodness Testimony — should sound. Each week, of course, members broke every single one of my little rules, which drove me crazy. Didn’t they get it? Bearing testimony is a serious business, for goodness sake. But through a couple of recent experiences, I have come to rethink — and now take the opportunity to rewrite — my “testimony rules.”Here is my original set of rules:
A Testimony should:
1. Consist simple declarations of faith (or, if your prefer, “knowledge”), such as “God is our Father in Heaven,” “Joseph Smith was a true Prophet,” or “I know the Church is true.
2. Never include the reading of a scripture — auxiliary meetings and regularly-scheduled talks are the exclusive fora for scripture reading/discussion.
3. Avoid “travelogues” — personal experiences should be shared only to extent they illustrate the basis for faith declarations (see #1).
4. Avoid confessionals — we, the audience, are not judges in Israel and, hence, have no business hearing about your personal sins.
5. Not to be whispered into a child’s ear, then regurgitated by said child — family home evening is where parents can and should teach kids about bearing testimony; and
6. Most importantly, never last more than 5 minutes (a corollary: no one should approach the pulpit within 10 minutes of the meeting’s close (i.e., the “red zone”) for fear of going over the 70 minute mark).
In the past several months, however, the following three experiences have challenged these criteria:
Experience #1: For the first time in years, my wife and I recently attended a Saturday night session of Stake Conference. The meeting started off as expected. The third speaker, however, was a man in his mid-thirties, who had been asked to bear a short testimony about his return to the Church after a lifetime of inactivity. In a nutshell, he had been born into the Church, but fell away as a teenager. He subsequently found a non-member wife, started a family, had great financial success in the mortgage industry and spared no thought for the religion of his youth. You can see where this is going, right? When the So. Cal. real estate market tanked, he lost everything. At or about that same time, he was diagnosed with cancer. He and family were relegated to living in a single room in his parents’ house with nothing to their name. Afte exhausting every other option, he found his local Bishop and asked him for financial help on the one condition (as if he were in a position to set conditions) that he not be required to ever have anything to do with the Church. The wise and loving Bishop gave the family the financial help they needed, but took time to get to know the family. Over time, this man came back to Church and eventually (within the past 6 months or so) baptized his wife. More than once he said, “I can’t believe I’m telling you all of this.” His words were at times humorous and accompanied with a chuckle or two, but more often they were very quiet and spoken through heart-felt tears. This was not a 10-minute story — it lasted nearly 35 minutes. But, to my surprise, I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. I hadn’t felt the Spirit so strongly in a large meeting like that for quite some time.
Experience #2: In a testimony meeting last year, a less-active sister, who had only been in the ward a few months, came to the pulpit. She told the story of how she came to know of the Church. Quite frankly, I don’t recall all of the details now, but I do remember that she spoke at length about the experience of being the “other woman” in an adulterous affair, and the lessons she had learned. As you might imagine, I heard plenty of “can you believe she said that” and “that was so inappropriate” from folks in the hallway between classes. For me, however, her words were deeply moving. I was struck by her humility in sharing what she recognized to be a shameful and difficult period in her life.
Experience #3: As a result of an edict forbidding the practice, it’s been a while since I have heard a young child bear testimony in a Sacrament meeting. Apparently, the Brethren’s message didn’t stretch all the way out to Florida. A few weeks ago, we had a great new family move in Miami. This past Sunday, their first testimony meeting with us, Mom trotted up to the stand with her 6-year daughter and proceeded to guide her through a fairly standard testimony: “I know the Church is true. I love my family, etc.” Maybe I’m becoming a old softie now that I have kids, but earnestness in her voice and especially the big grin of satisfaction on her face when she was done, really hit me.
These experiences were not only memorable, but they made clear that I need to change my thinking about, and expectations for, testimony meeting. What converts mere words into a “testimony” has nothing to do with form, structure or timing; it has everything to do with the true emotion with which the bearer embues his or her words. Think of great testimonies from the Book of Mormon, such Nephi’s Psalm or Alma’s yearning to be an angel in the service of his God. These simple witnesses are powerful not because other their linguistic appeal, but because they are pure emotional and spritual expressions (and they surely took longer than 5 minutes to deliver.) The same is true for the folks in the three examples listed above. While a bit out of the norm in some way, their testimonies were the product of humility, faith and love for God.
So, with that all in mind, here are my revised “Testimony Rules” . . .
1. Should consist of heartfelt statements of whatever is in the speaker’s heart. Certainly those feelings may be expressed in the form of short, well-punctuated sentences. But just as easily, they may come spilling out in rambling paragraphs as the speaker fumbles to find words expansive enough to capture everything he or she senses and believes.
2. May include the reading of any written passages — including, but not limited to, scriptures — that have had a personal impact on the speaker’s personal spiritual journey. Journal entries, whether authored by you or a family member, are particularly welcomed.
3. May include narratives of travels (both domestic and international), birthday parties, campfire sing-alongs, backyard BBQs and any other events/parties/soirees that are particularly memorable to the speaker and which serve to enhance or strengthen their spirituality.
4. May include humble admissions of prior sin or difficulty, especially when used to offer a lifeline to those in the crowd who may be struggling with the same issue. Listeners, by the way, must receive such declarations in love and understanding, rather than as fodder for ward gossip.
5. Should come from children, recent converts, out-of-practice members and anyone else who wants to express themselves. If a child has a righteous desire, but can’t quite muster the courage to speak in front of hundreds of people, we should applaud his/her assisted effort, rather than stand on form.
6. Should last as long as necessary for the speaker to say what he or she feels, while saving plenty of time for others to do the same.