Monday, November 08, 2010

Fast and Testimony Meeting

Latter-Day Saint congregations devote the first Sunday each month to fasting. Members of the church (that are physically capable) are asked to go without food and drink for two meals — about 24 hours. The cost of the meals is to be donated as a “fast offering” for the benefit of the poor and needy. Church leaders have long admonished members to give “much, much more—ten times more when we are in a position to do it.”

While helping the poor is an important feature of fasting in the LDS Church, fasting is to be coupled with earnest prayer to develop greater faith and spiritual power. The importance of this kind of spiritual power is evidenced in Matthew 17:14-21, where the Savior succeeded in healing a boy after his disciples could not, thanks to prayer and fasting.

As part of the fast, the weekly congregational worship service (known as Sacrament meeting) on “fast Sunday” is devoted to the impromptu bearing of testimonies by those in attendance. Following the administration of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, a member of the bishopric (lay ministers that lead the congregation) spend a few minutes bearing testimony. This ‘primes the pump,’ as it were. Congregants are then encouraged to stand and bear their own testimonies for the remainder of the service.

Since attendees are at various stages of spiritual maturity and understanding, testimony meeting can produce varied results. No one is assigned to speak and pretty much anyone present may take a turn. No formal time limit exists except for the scheduled end of the meeting.  Even that limit is violated from time to time.  The potential for problems should be apparent.

Although church leaders have advised that it is inappropriate for very young children to testify in this setting, it is not uncommon for kids still learning to speak to come to the microphone. Occasionally, teenagers old enough to know better, and even adults, treat the meeting as an open mic situation where anything can be said, regardless of its spiritual value.

Years ago, I was unable to attend our ward fast and testimony meeting one Sunday. My wife was there with our three young children when the baby needed to eat. She left the two older boys in the chapel and went to the mother’s lounge. Audio from the meeting was piped into the small room.

As my wife nursed the baby — a process that defies rushing — she heard the voice of our six-year-old son at the microphone. Instead of giving the pro-forma 30-second ‘testimony’ speech that is common among children, our son embarked on a broad ranging, rambling talk that had little to do with spiritual matters.

As my embarrassed wife sat there, unable to do anything about it, she occasionally heard the congregation roaring with laughter. She thought that a member of the bishopric would surely bring a stop to the debacle and kindly ask our son to take his seat. But he rambled on, and on, and on for seven minutes before he decided he was done. My wife was mortified, but she later received many encouraging comments from ward members.

Some church members seem to be unaware of what kind of testimony is appropriate in a public testimony meeting. Some seem to be clueless as to what a testimony is. The relatively brief discussion of testimony in the booklet True to the Faith is probably as good as anything you’re going to find on the topic. Testimony is something inward. With respect to its outward expression, “Your testimony will be most powerful when it is expressed as a brief, heartfelt conviction about the Savior, His teachings, and the Restoration.”

I have sat through hundreds of fast and testimony meetings during my lifetime. Most of the time, the value I derive from the meeting has more to do with my own spiritual preparedness than with the actual words spoken in the meeting. I have come away from some of these meetings marvelously uplifted. But I have also been bored, simply waiting for time to pass. Occasionally I have been quite entertained.

Once when I was younger, a fellow stood in testimony meeting and told of meeting his wife for the first time. He recounted, “Then the most beautiful girl I had ever seen walked into the room. She later became my wife.” My friend, who had only known this woman as middle aged and a bit haggard, leaned over and said, “I guess that was his first wife.”

When I was a teenager, a woman in our ward was ‘testifying.’ This mother of five looked like a 5’2”, 200-lb pile of cottage cheese. There was an audible gasp among the congregants when — for whatever reason — she said, “I have never knowingly enticed any man.” I overheard as my stunned father leaned over and whispered to my mother, “Never unknowingly either.”

We had two older men in the ward where I grew up that were capable of droning on in testimony meeting for impossibly long periods of time. As soon as either would stand, teenage boys would start timing them. We’d compare notes after the meeting to see if either had broke his previous longwinded record. My Dad quipped that one of these guys was more effective at killing the Spirit than Satan himself.

Church leaders have also expressed concerns that some people mistake emotionalism for testimony. Page 99 of the book Preach My Gospel includes this warning by Howard W. Hunter:

“Let me offer a word of caution. . . . I think if we are not careful . . . , we may begin to try to counterfeit the true influence of the Spirit of the Lord by unworthy and manipulative means. I get concerned when it appears that strong emotion or free-flowing tears are equated with the presence of the Spirit. Certainly the Spirit of the Lord can bring strong emotional feelings, including tears, but that outward manifestation ought not to be confused with the presence of the Spirit itself.”
Among the worst testimony meetings are when minutes pass by without anyone getting up to speak. I am reminded of the line in the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (a brutally long and laborious song) that says, “Does anyone know where the love of God goes – When the waves turn the minutes to hours?” A friend called long gaps in testimony meeting a bishop’s nightmare. I’ve noticed over the years in the wards I have attended that these gaps occur on Super Bowl Sunday more often than at any other time. I guess congregant’s hearts and thoughts are worshipping elsewhere that day.

Despite the inherent risks of having a meeting with an open microphone, many of the fast and testimony meetings I have attended have been spiritually powerful and ennobling. The spiritually disconnected utterances that occur are a small price to pay for the priceless gems that can be gathered in these meetings.

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