Testimony Meeting: Not the Time for Coming Out…Or a Lot of Other Things

The Church is getting a lot of flack in the press over a stake presidency member’s decision to cut the mic during a 12-year old’s “testimony,” in which she declared that she is gay (while her parents rolled tape on the entire affair).  I guess I would understand the controversy if it really were a matter of silencing a member’s declaration that he or she is gay.  But I think that the hullabaloo over the incident misses the point of what a Testimony meeting is for.

For those who aren’t members of the Church, a quick explanation.  On the first Sunday of each month, our regular “Sacrament meeting” (think of it as mass, or Sunday services, or whatever makes sense for your frame of reference) is designated as a “Testimony” meeting.  Members are encouraged to fast prior to the meeting, and during the meeting they  are invited to share their testimonies of the gospel.

Contrary to popular opinion within the Church, a Testimony meeting is not “open mic night for Mormons.”  Although there are no hard-and-fast rules for what constitutes a “testimony,” the presiding priesthood holder at the meeting (usually the bishop, but in this case a stake presidency member was present) has the discretion to ask someone to step down if what they are sharing is not consistent with the purpose of the meeting.

That discretion is rarely used, but I have seen it happen a few times.  A person might be asked to step down if he begins confessing a serious sin (bishops in single adult wards have to sit on the edge of their seat for that possibility, I understand), airing a personal gripe against another member, taking up too much time, espousing false doctrine or sentiments contrary to the Church’s doctrine, that kind of stuff.  Like I said, it’s rare, but it happens.

I wasn’t there for the meeting in question, so I can’t opine as to whether if I were  presiding in the meeting I would have terminated the testimony.  But the circumstances strongly suggest that the girl and/or her parents were making some kind of manifesto (having prepared for this in advance and deciding to record it, in violation of Church policy), and under those circumstances it wouldn’t be unreasonable to terminate it.  I would like to think that if I were talking about my heterosexual orientation, practices, or preferences, I’d be asked to sit down, too.  No one needs to hear how stirring I though Wonder Woman was.  That’s just not what the meeting is for.  On the other hand, if she had expressed this during a Sunday School class or some other forum where it might be more appropriate for discussion, then I don’t think anyone should ask her to pipe down.  Indeed, I’ve been in Church meetings where individuals disclosed they are gay, and while not everyone in the room was comfortable with it, no one was stopping them from talking or asking them to leave.

You have to feel for the guy who made the decision.  If he lets her talk, he’ll have members complaining to him; if he doesn’t, then he gets this kind of fallout.  If I’m him, I take a fake bathroom break and let someone else make the call.  Running for the hills is always an option.

Frankly, I think that someone coming out in a Testimony meeting should be the least of our concerns.  There is a long list of other people that I think should be invited to return to their seats, including:

  • Anyone who comes to the stand with prepared remarks or a scripture they want to share.  Usually these folks haven’t been invited to speak for a while, and they are looking for a chance to make up for lost time.  No sermons, please.
  • Anyone who starts crying before their first word comes out.  If you are going to talk like a dolphin for the entire testimony, none of us is going to be able to understand you.  First Xanax, then your testimony.
  • Anyone dragging up their two-year-old and whispering in the kid’s ear every word he or she says.  I’ve never cared for ventriloquist acts, especially when I can see your lips moving.  Teach the kids in Primary how to give their testimonies, then bring them to the Big Show when they are ready.
  • Anyone who has traveled to a Church historical site in the last 30 days.  None of us need another 20 minute travelog rehashing a trip to Nauvoo.  Yes, I’m sure it was meaningful for you.  You can tell me all about it on Facebook.  Where I can ignore you.
  • Anyone who has written a poem for their testimony.  Actually, strike that objection.  I’ve only seen it happen once, and it was funny enough to make the entire meeting worth it.  I’m all for beatnik testimonies.
  • Anyone who has given a testimony in more than two consecutive months.  We love you.  We’re glad you are so enthused about your testimony.  But, really, there is only so much of you that we can stand.  Let someone else have some time.  Or allow there to be a silent gap in time.  Our texts aren’t going to check themselves.
  • Anyone who has recently returned from Girl’s Camp, Scout Camp, Youth Conference, or Especially for Youth.  It’s great that you love your friends.  Feel free to cut out the middle man and tell them directly.
  • Anyone who gets up at five minutes after the hour.  The testimony will inevitably begin with “the Spirit has been telling me to get up for the entire meeting.”  That may be true, but the rest of us shouldn’t pay the price for your procrastination.  We’ve got singing, praying, and a trip to the bathroom in our immediate future, and you are holding up the show.

I think a coming out party would probably liven up most Testimony meetings, but it just isn’t the right forum for it.  Or for much else outside of heartfelt expressions about the gospel.  I’m not overly concerned about this girl having the mic cut.  I just wish she had more company.

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When the Youth of Zion Falter

LDS Youth

The past week brought a new experience for me:  My first girl’s camp.  My wife has been attending for countless years with our unending parade of daughters, but this was the first year that I was invited to attend under the safely vague title of “Priesthood Leader.”  Apparently that is Mormon speak for “someone who gives blessings, takes out the garbage, and makes sure there is fresh water for everyone.”  In other words, I was one of four Camp Dads.

I wasn’t particularly excited at the prospect of going.  Nature is overrated, and I’ve reached my zenith of “roughing it” when I lose the remote control.  But unlike my abbreviated experience in Boy Scouts, this was more like a cheap hotel with a REALLY big yard.  Most of my time was spent in air conditioning reading a book.  Kind of like the other 361 days of the year.

Surprisingly, I had a good time.  On a personal level, I made new friends, laughed a lot, successfully negotiated a hike up a hill (a bucket list item after dying a couple of times), and wound up the experience dressed in a tutu lip syncing to “Dude (Looks Like a Lady).”  (The Stake President has seen the video, and I still have my temple recommend, so don’t judge).  From a broader perspective, I was able to see what a group of committed adult leaders can do to provide meaningful social, educational and spiritual experience to 12-17 year-old girls.  Not all of it was up my alley–Dante never imagined anything as horrible as camp songs–but most of the girls seemed to find it an enjoyable and uplifting experience.

Near the end of the week I was given an opportunity to share a short message with the girls from my own ward.  I asked five of them to stand up.  I told the group that I had been hearing all week about how much the girls loved each other, loved the gospel, and generally were just up to their eyeballs in Mormonism.

“But in six years,” I told them, “when all of you have graduated from high school, four of these five young women will no longer be active in the Church.  Take a good look at them.  Which four are you ready to lose?”

It was a somber moment.  More somber, in my mind, because I was understating the truth.  About 10% of young single adults are active.  Regardless, my point was that if the girls hope to stay active in the Church, they need to get to nurturing their testimonies right now, because  if they wait until later, they might already have exited the building…or, to be more symbolically accurate, have entered the great and spacious building.

I think that most Church leaders who are being honest with themselves recognize that the youth of Zion are faltering.  That realization is reflected in program changes (such as diminishing the role of Boy Scouts, which I see as a move to “less tents, more testimony”), curriculum changes, the emphasis on graduating from seminary and institute, the lowering of the minimum age for full-time missionary service and so forth.  Still, somewhere between the last years of high school and graduation from college, our youth are wandering into strange paths, with many of them unlikely to return.

Knowing that, I looked at the girls camp experience and was reminded of the lament of the Lord of the vineyard in Jacob 5:  “What more could I have done for my vineyard?”  I do not believe that the Church has failed in terms of effort.  We have some wonderful programs in place to help youth progress from step to step in the gospel in preparation for missionary service and receiving temple ordinances.  But something is amiss.

In part, the Church is suffering from the broader societal trends running against religious identification and participation.  I think that exposure to misinformation or information without context through the internet also contributes to this, but I suspect that is more of a problem for older members of the Church rather than the youth.  The current young people have been raised in a time of considerably more transparency and frank honesty from the Church than I was, so they are less likely to  run up against something that the Church hasn’t already addressed.

My suspicion is that the problem is one of conversion and spirituality.  My non-scientific sense of things from having taught youth for decades is that “I am a Mormon” doesn’t mean for some young people what we would hope it would mean.  Identifying as a member of the Church isn’t translating into being spiritual sons and daughters of God and disciples of Christ.  Social identification as a Church member simply does not have the same lasting hold on the heart as does devotion and discipleship to the Master.

Chirst

This isn’t something that we don’t already know.  The Lord has warned us repeatedly about the kinds of foundations on which we build our testimonies.  The only firm and sure foundation is faith in Jesus Christ.  He is perfect; every other option is flawed.  We cannot build our testimony upon the notion of “I know the Church is true.”  Aside from that statement being a grammatical mess, the “truthfulness” of the Church–meaning that the Church holds authority from God to minister among mankind and perform saving ordinances–is several steps farther along in the testimony construction project.  We start with having a testimony of the divine and living Christ and developing an understanding and appreciation of His atonement for us.  On that foundation we lay other essential doctrinal principles:  The restoration of the Gospel; the Book of Mormon; continuing revelation; essential ordinances; the temple; and on and on.

All of that, however, has to be firmly planted on the foundation of Christ.  In my experience, that is what I hear too little of from our youth.  Their testimonies too often neglect the reality of Jesus Christ and what He means for them personally.  Their faith seems centered on something other than their conviction that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, our elder brother, and the author and finisher of our salvation.  I believe that if Christ meant more to our youth, the chance of them faltering would be diminished.  At that point, “Church” would be more than just a place to go; rather, it would be place you go to find Christ.  The Sacrament would become an essential and personal ordinance, a Holy Communion, rather than the name of a meeting.  The Holy Ghost would be a companion rather than a concept.

Membership in a Church is something you do.  Discipleship to Christ is something you are.  Releasing one’s hold on the iron rod should be more than quitting a club.  It needs to represent leaving the family and fellowship of Christ.

How do we move our youth towards deeper spiritual conversion?  While the Church is moving in that direction, parents cannot expect Church leadership and youth teachers to do the heavy lifting.  Such conversion most often will happen, if it happens at all, as the result of what is done in the home.  What specifically we do in order to foster such conversion, I am not sure, but I can think of at least a place to start.

We adults in the Church need to provide better models of what a testimony means, both in terms of uttered testimonies and the testimonies reflected in our lives.  We need to speak more of Christ, teach more of Christ, and rejoice more in Christ.  Our spoken testimonies need to be more Christ-centered, rather than starting with the standard testimonial trifecta of “I know the Church is true.  I know the Book of Mormon is true.  I know that Thomas S. Monson is a prophet of God.”  All of those things are essential to our testimonies, but we cannot omit the central truth of Christ’s reality, divinity, and redemptive role in our lives.  If our own testimonies are insufficiently Christ-centered, then we need to engage in immediate and effective foundation repair.

In addition, we need to be more open in our informal discussions about our devotion to the Savior.   Our youth should be able to clearly see that Church membership is part of, but not the essence of, our testimony of Christ.  The promise of the prophet Nephi is that if we believe in Christ, we will believe in “these words,” meaning the Book of Mormon, as a direct result of that testimony. (2 Ne. 33:10).  Too often we try to reverse the process.  We cannot afford to do so.  We have to start where the original apostles started:  “We believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.” (John 6:69).

We do so many great things with our youth, but we have to be cautious that great things do not take the place of necessary things.  Prudence dictates that if we see cracks in our walls or ceilings, or if we notice that the doors in and out of the Church aren’t opening or closing as they should, then we check to see whether we have a foundation problem.  I do not believe that we need new revelation or that the Church is fundamentally or fatally flawed.  What I do believe is that we would be helped individually and collectively by adjusting our emphasis a little to ensure that our foundation rests on the Rock of our Redeemer.  Only then will we be able to answer the question of shall the youth of Zion will falter with the hymn’s resolute response:  “No!”

Why (Spare) Me?

A good friend, reflecting upon my multiple scrapes with the Reaper, speculated that the only reason I am still alive is that Heaven doesn’t want me and Hell is afraid I’ll take over the place.  I’m not sure I can argue that point.  But I have found that as I have experienced one near-miss after another, the question that plagues me is less “why me” in terms of my struggles and more “why me” in terms of my survival.

The last twenty-four hours have given me stark reminders of my two closest calls with the Big Sleep.  Yesterday, a friend passed away after an unexplained illness.  I had visited him (or more properly, his wife) in ICU, and he was in much the same situation as I was in 2015:  In a coma, body swollen from fluids, intubated, and tubes running all over the place.  As sick as he was, he wasn’t as sick as I had been (three conditions with a 1% survival each…you statisticians can do the math), and I had even flatlined a couple of times and still came home.  I thought his chances would be pretty good.  They weren’t.

This morning, I noticed that a long stretch of I-20 near my home was closed due to a fatality resulting from a teenager trying to run across the freeway.  It was within a few hundred yards of where I collided with three eighteen wheelers in 2012.  The freeway was closed, camera crews were out, flashing lights everywhere.  It looked very much like the pictures from my accident.  My daughters and I survived that mess, when we had no business doing so.

There have been other serious health scares over the last 5 years, yet on Monday I was walking/running a 5K (a lot more walking than running, but still pretty good for a zombie), and here I am still polluting cyberspace with my blog.  During that same time, I’ve lost a few friends and a father in law, I’ve watched families endure hardships of cancer and other serious health conditions, and I’ve spent some nights hanging out in the waiting room of ICUs, just as others hung out in support of me.  I’ve long since abandoned self-pity and wallowing in my own hardships, and instead look at where I am and wonder why I have been spared.

I don’t know the answer to that.  A friend who was injured in the Vietnam War told me that after he survived a life-threatening wound, he wrote on a card, “The Lord gave me another day.  Why?”  He carries that with him until this day.  I don’t think he has been able to pencil in an anwer yet.

Most people’s reaction to my continued residence above ground have said some version of “The Lord still has a mission for you.”  If that’s the case, I think He must be sorely disappointed.  I think I’ve been considerably less useful after my accident and coma.  A traumatic brain injury I suffered in the wreck has not been debilitating, but it has compromised some things and made me an irritable, grumpy, “get those kids off my lawn” kind of guy.  And the whole Lazarus act has left me with a few nagging health issues.  I’m getting along fine, but I suspect I was more useful before all of that went down.

And the friends I’ve lost?  No false humility here:  They were more likely to do good things than I am.  Better people.  Better servants.  They’d both get picked way before me in a pickup game of celestial softball.  I’m a right fielder on that team:  Limited skills, but if the ball only comes my way every couple of innings, I won’t screw things up too badly.  (Maybe I should stick with this analogy and assume that they were called up to the majors while I’m left scuffling in triple-A).

All of us struggle with finding meaning in life.  I think that struggle is amplified when experiences make our lives seem more fragile.  Such experiences leave whispers in our ears telling us that if we have a purpose, we better find it quickly, because our tomorrows aren’t guaranteed.

I’ve had to reconcile myself to the realization that if there was a Purpose to me being spared (the capital-P kind of Purpose, like the reason Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider), I’m unlikely to know what it is until it gets here, and forcing the issue probably will just frustrate me.  So I focus more on the lower-case purposes for which I might have been spared.  That involves the people right in front of me.  If I can be encouraging or comforting, if I can lighten a load through humor, if i can use my bonus hours by being present for others, that is probably enough for me.  I think a lot of accumulated good can be done by just being a little kinder, a little more available, a little more helpful to the people with whom I am blessed to share mortality.

Either Heaven or Hell is going to have to put up with me eventually.   Until that time, I’ll worry less about why I am here and just try to make my little piece of the planet a bit more pleasant.

As long as everyone stays off my lawn.