Listen and Bear it
Yesterday during fast and testimony meeting three people stood up and spoke for more than ten minutes each. One of them had a series of stories to tell. Another person gave a twelve minute talk - the subject of which I can't remember. And the third person shared an incredibly long list of personal maladies.
They talked and talked and talked and talked.
I spent much of the meeting staring at the pew in front of me.
If you look long enough, I learned, you can make out animal shapes in the grain of the wood. I found two armadillos, a giraffe, and the head of a Scottish terrier.
And then I remembered the letter.
About a year and half ago the First Presidency sent a letter to all ward and stake leaders with specific instructions concerning testimony meetings.
First, testimonies are to be brief and of a spiritual nature, focusing primarily on Christ and the restoration.
Secondly, bishoprics are to teach by example. Whoever conducts the meeting will bear their own testimony first and give the ward a standard to follow.
This wasn't new doctrine of course. Testimonies and testimony meetings have always been defined this way. Everybody knew that. And everybody agreed.
And yet, when some people stand at the pulpit, it's as if they're following the counsel of a different letter entirely, one that reads, "A testimony is a long, meandering monologue that may or may not touch upon the subject of religion."
Why is that? Why do we believe one thing and do another? If we all agree that testimonies should be brief and centered on Christ, then why do so many testimonies fail to meet these criteria?
There are several reasons, I think. First, some people simply get nervous and lose track of time. What seems like two minutes is actually twenty.
But this is an innocent mistake.
Other people knowingly take twenty minutes. They believe their circumstance makes them unique and they deserve the majority of the meeting.
I've actually heard someone say at the beginning of their testimony, "Y'all get comfortable because I got a lot to say."
Well sorry, buddy. I ain't about to get comfortable. In fact, I'm loading my BB gun and as soon as five minutes are up, you better start weaving while you talk because I'll be trigger happy.
Brief means brief. Not only does it help the speaker consolidate - and therefore emphasize - the points he or she is trying to make, but it also it gives more people the opportunity to bear their testimony.
To knowingly use up a lot of time is testimony grandstanding. And trust me, the moment you start doing it, people turn a deaf ear.
But grandstanders can't carry all the blame. Some testimonies are awkward because the person bearing it confuses human emotion with the influence of the Spirit.
I cringe whenever a husband says, "And I want to tell my good wife Glenda how much I love her. She's the light in my life...".
This is not appropriate. This is not a testimony. This is a public display of affection. Yes, it's sweet and tender and nice, but it's not edifying. The Spirit will not witness to me that Hank does indeed love his dear wife Glenda.
Hank would do his wife a greater service by standing and bearing testimony of the Savior and of the restoration of the priesthood. What could be more gratifying to a wife than to know her husband is a stalwart disciple of Christ?
What's worse is when these "testimonies" invoke tears.
When I was at BYU, for example, I endured many weeping testimonies that were nothing more than one roommate declaring her affection for the other.
"I don't know what I would do without her (sob sob sob). She's the best friend I ever had (sob sob sob)."
I'm sorry, dear. I don't mean to sound cold-hearted, but that is not a testimony. I think it's wonderful that you love your roommate, but tell her so in private. Testimony meeting is not the right time or place.
Or consider a sister who stands at the pulpit and says, "My husband lost his job (sob sob sob). This is a trial of my faith (sob sob sob)."
Let's be blunt here. The woman isn't crying because the Spirit is touching her heart. The woman is crying because her husband lost his job and all the emotions she's been feeling regarding that event and its consequences are now welling up inside her.
But I feel for her, you say. Isn't that the Spirit telling me that her trial of faith is sincere?
Personally, I don't think so. The Spirit can help us mourn with those that mourn, yes. But it does so by prompting us to be compassionate. I don't think the Spirit makes us sad.
If you disagree, ask yourself who makes you cry during sad movies. The Spirit? Obviously not. Those tears are simply the product of our own human emotions connecting with someone else's - be they fictional or real.
But Aaron, are you saying then that the Spirit doesn't make us cry?
No. That's not what I'm saying at all. Put down your pitchforks.
In fact, I always cry when I bear my testimony. Despite my best efforts to dam the floodgates, they always burst open.
That's because the moment I mention Christ, for example, the Spirit touches my heart and reminds me that he is indeed the Savior. The result is tears of joy, not tears of sorrow.
For other people, tears don't come at all. This doesn't mean, of course, that their testimony is any less valid or any less "spiritual" than mine. It simply means that the Spirit influences them differently.
Let's go back to the sister who's husband lost his job. If she goes on to say, "But one night while praying I felt at peace and I knew the Lord would bless us," she has shared a legitimate testimony.
Well, technically she's shared a personal experience. The real testimony comes next when she says, "That's why I know God loves each of us. That's why I know God lives."
A testimony is a personal declaration of truth, not a purging of human emotions resulting from love or the difficulties of life.
The last and perhaps most obvious reason for awkward testimonies is that the person is simply crazy. Come on, admit it. There are some kooky individuals in this church.
I've been in a testimony meeting, for example, where a person stood and talked about the "magic rainbow bus."
I'm not making this up, folks.
It was bad on my mission. One of the wards I served in was notorious for off-the-wall testimonies. A fellow missionary called it the "apostate rodeo." He instructed us to grab the pew we were sitting on like we would a saddle horn, raise the other hand high in the air, and hold on for dear life.
My favorite testimony, however, happened here in the United States. A sister came to the pulpit and said, "My testimony is best expressed in song." She then proceeded to sing all of the verses of a Janice Kapp Perry song.
Only a crazy person would do this.
To make matters worse, she did the same thing the next month, singing the exact same song. It didn't help that she sounded very much like a slowly deflating balloon.
No, the best testimonies are brief and focused on Christ and the restoration. That's why we enjoy children's testimonies so much. Children are brief, and they testify of truth. "I know Jesus loves me. I know President Hinckley (pronounced Hink-rey) is a prophet. I know the church is true."
That, folks, is a testimony.
What about those long "testimonies" given in my ward yesterday? Well, none of them mentioned Christ. He never came up. And the only person to mention Joseph Smith - or any aspect of the restoration - was one of the missionaries serving in our ward.
Bless this missionary. Each of us would be wise to follow his example. Otherwise we can all expect another letter soon.
Copyright © 2004 by Aaron Johnston
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