Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The Problems and the Beauties of LDS Fast and Testimony Meetings

Once each month LDS congregations around the world hold a fast. Those that are physically able are asked to fast for two consecutive meals and then donate at least the value of those meals for the aid of the poor. As part of this effort, congregations hold a fast and testimony meeting, where "members who feel prompted ... share (or "bear") their testimony with the" congregation.

Fast and testimony meetings can be powerfully uplifting and spiritually fulfilling experiences. However, given that anyone can get up to testify, and given that "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a place for people with all kinds of testimonies" (per Pres. Uchtdorf in October 2014 general conference), unscripted testimony meetings can have moments that are comical, awkward, or downright strange.

Indeed, anyone that has attended more than a handful of LDS testimony meetings can probably relate episodes where less than perfect people have provided for less than ideal worship experiences. In our misanthropic moments, some of my acquaintances and I have been known to refer to these kinds of fast and testimony meetings as Open Mic Sunday.

One of our family's fondest memories of such an incident occurred one Sunday that I was unable to attend church due to an emergency. That left my wife to manage three young children. She left the two older boys quietly drawing in the chapel while she retreated to the mother's lounge to nurse the baby. She soon was surprised to hear Son #1 speaking via the audio piped in from the meeting.

Although he is characteristically an introvert, Son #1 went on at great length about many things that had little to do with spiritual matters, offering multiple childish insights that elicited hearty laughter from the congregation. My poor wife cringed as nearly ten seemingly endless minutes passed. Why didn't somebody from the bishopric stop the charade? Even many years later we still occasionally get comments about how charming our son was that day, although, charm is hardly the point of testimony meeting.

I will never forget one fast Sunday as a kid when one middle aged sister in our congregation spoke. She had many admirable qualities, but physical beauty was not at that time among those traits. I can remember the blatant appalled look on my father's face after this sister said, "I just want you all to know that I have never knowingly enticed any man." Dad quickly regained his composure, but then leaned over and whispered to Mom, "Never unknowingly either." Which earned him an elbow jab to the ribs.

After relating tales from one particularly tedious testimony meeting, a friend that currently serves in a stake leadership position wondered aloud why the Brethren (Mormon code phrase for top church leaders) didn't just put the kybosh on Open Mic Sunday. I believe that he overstates the challenges of the testimony meeting format. But church leaders obviously recognize some problems, since they issue directives like this 2013 letter every few years encouraging improved management of these meetings.

It is even possible that the testimony meeting glitches serve a worthwhile purpose. Stephen E. Robinson has reminded us that the church is filled with imperfect people that are prone to acting like "boneheads," and that each of us occasionally plays the part of the bonehead. If the Savior was willing to sacrifice himself for all of these boneheads (including us), perhaps he has a right to ask us to exercise some patience in dealing with the frailties of our fellow church members. Indeed, graciously suffering through others' mistakes may be among the most Christ-like things we could ever do.

Another distinct possibility is that the Brethren have carefully considered the matter and have determined that the pros of holding fast and testimony meetings outweigh the cons. Our meeting this past Sunday might provide evidence of such a positive cost-benefit analysis.

Among the many high quality witnesses that were spoken that day, one sister that was visiting our congregation got up, probably because many of her family members were present. I knew that this sister had been through some rough years but had turned her life around. She began by saying, "I have been a member of this church since I was a child, but I became a convert to the gospel of Jesus Christ two years ago." The following two minutes were powerful in their simplicity.

I'm not sure that it is possible to adequately explain to someone how the Holy Ghost feels. It certainly isn't simple emotionalism, although, many have leveled such accusations. It is probably like trying to explain the taste of salt someone that has never tasted salt. Dr. Daniel Peterson says that while revelation from the Holy Ghost is "nontransferable," the methodology that leads to personal spiritual encounters (see Moroni 10:4-5) "is proportioned to the needs and capacities of all and is not restricted to a specially trained ... elite."

I believe that the testimony meeting format lends itself particularly well to opportunities for experiencing this kind of spiritual communion. When I begin to find a testimony meeting wearisome or when I begin to overly focus on the meeting's flaws, it is likely that I am choosing to erect barriers to the witness that the Holy Ghost is willing to give me. I hope that I will continue to cherish fast and testimony meetings throughout my life, complete with their imperfections.

1 comment:

Nate Deppermann said...

Thanks for the post - I love testimony meetings and am aware of the...variety of testimonies people decide to share.

I think the sacred meeting merits beginning the title with the "beauties" rather than problems. Makes it seem more emphasis on the negative. Small and simple thing, but I think it's important.