Burning Bosom

Theology, History, Culture, Politics & Life from a LDS (Mormon) Perspective

Rewriting My “Testimony Rules”

Posted by Shawn L on March 5, 2008

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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” . . .

A Testimony:

          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. 

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10 Responses to “Rewriting My “Testimony Rules””

  1. Andrew said

    Great post, Shawn. I love your rules. I would humbly add one rule:

    If you have a problem with what other people are saying in their testimonies, get off your duff, walk up to the pulpit, and say from your heart what you wish the prior speakers had told you.

  2. Fifthgen said

    I liked this post. Like the author, my rules on many things have become less rigid as I get older. For me, fast and testimony meeting is largely a comunity exercise in expressing how we are all trying to do our best to draw closer to God. The more personal, the better. For an interesting related post, see http://sanfordbarrett.blogspot.com/2008/03/fast-and-testimony-meeting.html.

  3. Sorry for being so late to this but about Experience #3: Was there a statement by the Brethren regarding young children bearing testimonies?

    If there was do you have cite where I could look it up?

    Thanks.

  4. Shawn L said

    There was a letter read over the pulpit a few years back. The statement, in very kinds words, discouraged parents from having their children bear whispered testimonies during Fast & Testimony meeting. I heard it and remember it the topic of much conversation. I have not idea from whence to pull the acutal text now. Can anyone else out there back me up on this?

  5. Kerry said

    Sorry Shawn, I don’t know where to find that letter. I do remember hearing it also…read from the pulpit.

    Which brings to mind another question I was thinking about the other day: is there a database of these letters for ecclesiastical leaders to access? Obviously, there is a lot of content in the priesthood manuals, but those were published in the late 90’s right? What about all the letters and used-to-be-called bulletins that have come out since then? How does a Bishop, who is called in 2006, access those old letters and mandates?

  6. Shawn L said

    Kerry — As far as I know, the only resource of the sort you mention is a book entitled, “Statements of the LDS First Presidency” (order here: http://www.signaturebooks.com/firstpresidency.htm). But I don’t think that book includes the run-of-the-mill letters we hear on Sunday morning. I would imagine each Ward or Stake keeps (is required to keep?) a file for all those things. Any ward clerks out here?

    Re: Priesthood manuals, those are updated all the time. Even before the current “Teachings of” series, they came and went every couple of years.

  7. Aha!

    The best place to find recent First Presidency statements that I know of is at the Church News site. Here are the recent First Presidency letters that are for general consumption (I don’t know if it is behind a subscriber firewall or not).

    I think I found the one the post refers to dated May 2, 2002, “Express brief, heartfelt testimony of the Savior.

    I’ll post it here in case it is behind the firewall.

    Dear Brethren:

    We are concerned that in some instances, members who desire to bear their testimonies in fast and testimony meeting do not have the opportunity to do so. Bishoprics are encouraged to help all people learn to express a brief, heartfelt testimony of the Savior, His teachings, and the Restoration, so that more members may have the opportunity to participate.

    Parents and teachers should help children learn what a testimony is and when it is appropriate for them to express it. It may be best to have younger children learn to share their testimonies at such times as family home evening or when giving talks in Primary until they are old enough to do so in a fast and testimony meeting.

    We encourage bishoprics to teach these important principles to priesthood and auxiliary leaders and to all ward members.

    Sincerely,

    The First Presidency

    Very interesting. Thanks for the post.

  8. Alan L said

    CHI(2006)pp.66 – “He then invites members to bear heartfelt testimonies and to relate faith promoting experiences”. The paragragh goes on to say young children can bear testimony in HE or primary or wait till they can do so in Sac. mtg. unassisted. I too have changed my attitude and am happy to enjoy whatever people feel impressed to share.

  9. Matt Rasmussen said

    You forgot the rule that if there is a lull for more than a minute and a half because nobody gets up, get yourself up and bear a quick testimony. There have been some F&T meetings where people were more concerned about not having enough testimonies shared than too many. Your testimony is no less important or effective to others just because you don’t feel like your heart will burst if you don’t get up.

  10. Alexander said

    While I appreciate the spirit of your post, I’m not buying. For instance rule #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.”

    Crazy Brother (or more likely Sister) Jones rambles on about what is in her heart, and really “senses and believes” all of the nonsense that makes us cringe. You can’t open it up for heartfelt “whatevers” and not get a fairly regular dose of false doctrine, political diatribe, etc. And you will never be rid of it since those that are prone to it are unaware that they are kooks, or not smart enough to realize that “the very kind words” of counsel about what’s appropriate and what’s not might actually apply to them.
    I guess you could say that unlike #8, I’m not at the point yet where I’m happy to enjoy whatever people feel impressed to share. And while true, heartfelt pure testimony like you describe is wonderful, it still doesn’t eliminate the occasionally horrible effects of our current open mic model.

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