Community and Communing:03092_000_018
A few years ago, a woman came from the Midwest to do her Ph.D. work at Brigham Young University. Not a member of the Church, she was nevertheless interested in the Mormon way of life and spent much of her time observing Church members. Her most impressive experience, she told me, was attending a devotional where one of the General Authorities was speaking. “I’ve never been in a place where so many people believed the same thing,” she reported. “I could feel something in that fieldhouse I’d never experienced before. I could feel the force of that belief.”
I know another woman, however, an active member of the Church, for whom testimony meetings were agony. They made her nervous and agitated; by the end of each meeting she was depressed. We learned later that some elements in her personal life explained why the concentration of spiritual power in that meeting made her extremely uncomfortable.
And then there’s my own experience, which is probably similar to that of many members of the Church. A few months ago I found everything going wrong—not just spiritually, but socially, professionally, and personally. I was trying to be a superteacher, supercounselor, superadministrator—and doing none of them very well. I was hurt and exhausted, and the harder I tried, the worse things got. I could tell from the quality of my prayers that thick insulation was building up between me and the Spirit, until even the thought of trying to break through was exhausting. Then, as had happened so often before, testimony meeting saved my spiritual life. I entered the chapel still insulated, still numb, still tired. But I had enough discipline to make myself listen. I heard people testify that their prayers had been answered. I heard people talk about their knowledge that the Lord loved them. I heard people say they knew Christ as a dynamic reality in their lives. And I felt the insulation melt away. I walked out in tune with their testimonies and back in touch with my own testimony.
In all of these experiences, the central element was the power of testimony, a collective spiritual power that is at the very core of any testimony meeting where the Holy Ghost is present. That power comes, I believe, from the promise of the Lord to his disciples: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt. 18:20.)
As a Latter-day Saint, I can understand the influence of the Holy Ghost on a group of people as they bear testimony together. As a professional counselor, I can pinpoint some elements in the testimony meeting itself that generate this kind of power.
First, in a good testimony meeting, people feel secure, loved, and trusting. My experience in counseling has shown me that when people have these feelings about others in the room, extraordinary things happen. They can explore their own feelings more deeply and perceive them more accurately. They can share those discoveries more openly. And, most importantly, they can learn faster. In counseling situations, the learning is usually directed toward knowledge of oneself. In testimony meetings there’s the added dimension of learning about the eternal self in the context of the gospel plan.
Second, testimony meetings create communities out of near strangers—people who perhaps only know each other by sight or by hearsay. Each personal testimony, whether spoken or cherished in the heart, contributes to the unity of spirit in the room. This in itself is different from other group meetings, where silence may be viewed as nonsupportive, even hostile. In a testimony meeting, silence is supportive, not only to the speaker but to all who listen and partake of the Spirit. The sharing of common values and commitment is strengthening, warning.
Testimonies give the Holy Ghost a chance to testify to us that the information being conveyed is true. They help us recognize our relationship to each other and to God and to feel responsible for our brothers and sisters. Also, they motivate us to be worthy of that brotherhood and sisterhood by identifying our personal weaknesses and purifying our lives. Because we can feel we belong to that community of the Spirit, we yearn for greater belonging. I’ve seldom felt more motivated to repent than when I’ve heard people in my ward bear humble witness about the help they’ve received with their problems and the love they feel for the Savior and for the congregation. Ultimately, experiences like this strengthen our desire for the total communion we will feel when we are reunited with our Heavenly Father.
I remember a friend telling me about the two wards she most loved. In both cases, her sense of closeness with the ward had begun with the first testimony meeting she attended there. The first was a student ward in Seattle. “Everyone was just back from summer vacation. One of the girls who bore her testimony had investigated the Church the previous spring, went home, and was baptized there. When she announced her baptism and bore her testimony to the rest of the congregation, a wave of joy ran through the whole group. I didn’t even know her name, but I was transported by the same joy. As later speakers expressed their love for her, I felt the same love radiating through me as well.
“In the second ward, a ward in Salt Lake City, I heard some deacons apologize for some mischief they had done, then heard their teachers and the bishopric express confidence in them and appreciation for them. The whole ward cared about those boys. It’s a funny thing,” she added thoughtfully, “I was a stranger, but I still felt included.”
When a person bears his testimony, he receives new strength and spiritual power. I believe this happens because finding the words to express our beliefs somehow makes them more real to us. Telling someone how much you appreciate your parents automatically intensifies those feelings. And thinking through something so you can say it brings the concept into focus. I sometimes see people who really need to express positive feelings aloud so that the Holy Ghost can validate them. Feeling the witness that what you are saying really is true can be one of the most exhilarating experiences in life. Thus, when one makes his testimony public, he often gains significant insights about the gospel.
We need the time that testimony meeting gives us because strong spiritual feelings take time to develop. President Spencer W. Kimball has said, “Testimonies are feelings, not merely the accumulation of facts.” (The Berlin Spirit, Berlin Mission, Jan. 1962.) Talking about our feelings lets us pay attention to them long enough to realize how important they are to us. Bearing testimony repeatedly helps that which we know and feel to surface and become a consistent part of us.
In addition to learning about ourselves, we also learn about other people. I remember a Laurel leader who was really discouraged about the apathetic and flippant attitude of her girls, but at one testimony meeting three or four of them bore sincere witness to the importance of the Savior in their lives. It transformed the negative attitude that teacher had been forming. I recall another testimony meeting a few months ago where a woman I didn’t know very well told how she had overcome a personal problem and expressed her gratitude to the Lord for providing her with the resources to do it. I could understand what she was saying, and I felt an intense desire to know her better. Without that spiritual recognition of kinship between us, I probably would not have discovered the richness of her friendship.
All these factors help account for the power of testimony meetings. I recently read a talk President Kimball gave to a group of missionaries when he was a member of the Council of the Twelve. Speaking about the importance of testimony bearing, he said:
“Now this testimony bearing is not some strange eccentric thing which only we do. This is a fundamental part of the Church. … I remember bearing my testimony when I was just a child in Primary and in Sunday School. It is basic. It is important. … We have critics who say it is silly to have little children bear their testimonies and that they cannot know it is true. Undoubtedly their knowledge is limited. But they can have feelings, and testimonies are feelings, not merely the accumulation of facts. Testimonies come from the heart. And so, they become a basic thing. … We have testimonies all through the Church. When we get a group of presidents of missions together, we bear our testimonies and when members get together in little groups almost anywhere, they formally or informally bear their testimonies.
“At home we bear testimonies, we of the Twelve. The eighteen and a half years I have been in the Twelve, we have been holding a quarterly testimony meeting. We go to the temple early in the morning, the twelve of us, or as many as are not too far away from headquarters. … in our own room up on the fourth floor. Here is a room in which there are twelve old leather-covered chairs. They are very old. I think they have been occupied by apostles for half a century at least. The leather is wearing, but they are still comfortable old chairs. They are in a semi-circle. We have our clerk there. President Smith sits at one end and the youngest member sits at the other. We sit in horse-shoe fashion. We sing. Brother Lee plays the organ or he leads the singing and I play the organ. We have a little pump organ which we pump with our feet. We pray very earnestly for the Spirit of the Lord to be with us and then we hear the minutes of our last meeting in great detail. The minutes take fifteen or twenty minutes to read … [and they] are thrilling. We hear again the testimonies we heard three months ago from the brethren.
“Then President Smith, who is President of the Twelve, generally stands up and with his books in his hand opens the scriptures to us, I think a great deal like the Lord did to the two men on their way to Emmaus. …
“We are fasting. Two of us administer to [the sacrament] and we pass [it] to each other. And then the testimonies begin. We spend three or four hours, just the twelve of us, bearing testimony to each other. I mention this so you may know [that testimony bearing] is basic and is an important part of the Church program. If the Twelve Apostles need to bear testimony to each other to express themselves and speak their gratitude to the Lord, then the missionaries may need it too, to sustain and lift and inspire them, and to keep the fires burning. We sing again, and pray, and go back to our regular duties.
“Now we have another testimony meeting every six months on the Thursday preceding the General Conference. All of the General Authorities are there … in the room of the Presidency and the Twelve in the temple. At the top is a chair in which the President sits. Never does any one sit in that chair, except the Prophet of the Lord. Even though his counselors conduct the meeting when he is gone, always they sit in their own chairs. …
“The sacrament is administered by two of the brethren, (we are fasting) generally two of the Twelve. Then we have our testimonies. The Patriarch, one of the Bishopric, one of the Seventies, one of the assistants, one or more of the Twelve, and all three of the Presidency, bear their testimonies. It is a glorious experience to have it all capped by the testimony of the Prophet of the Lord. To hear him stand there and say, ‘I know it is true. I know the Lord is responding. He is revealing His mind and will to us.’ I tell you that is an experience to remember.
“I mention this so you do not think that testimony bearing is some little thing that is incidental to the mission only. This is the Church program. It is powerful and mighty. … It is the lifeblood of the organization and of the Church.” (The Berlin Spirit, Jan. 1962.)
Not all testimony meetings are such wonderful experiences for everyone present. We’ve probably all sat through some when we were completely out of tune. Let me suggest a couple of problems that can sometimes lessen the influence of the Spirit in our lives. One is when we talk about our testimonies (“I have a testimony”) rather than actually bearing our testimony (“I know that Christ lives”). It also helps to tell why we know. We might share some of the specific things that have happened to us to give us our knowledge.
A second problem is distraction. I’ve heard young parents trying to cope with four hungry children say they wonder what they’re doing there. In spite of the challenge, I do feel they should be there. I think the gift of the Holy Ghost is being exercised “around” them, even if they’re not in a position to exercise their own gift for the moment.
And even if we don’t have the best experience in every testimony meeting, we should still be there. There have been times in my life when I haven’t been spiritually strong myself, but I’ve still been strengthened by the faith of others. This is true of adults in times of spiritual weakness; it’s true of children who aren’t spiritually mature yet. When I went on my mission, I still hadn’t finished reading the Book of Mormon, but I could not deny its truthfulness. Such strong testimony had been borne to me and around me that I knew it was true. I have never been able to deny it. That knowledge has pulled me into spiritual renewal in times of need.
But if testimony meeting isn’t a completely satisfying and nourishing experience, let me suggest some things that help me. First of all, attend. No matter how you feel, if you can move, get there. Second, prepare for the experience. Fast and pray. Really fast, not just by refraining from food and drink but by concentrating your mental energies on the Savior. Savor the familiarity of going to the old familiar place at the old familiar time. There can be great power in repetition. Consciously try to contribute to the reverent atmosphere in the building and among the congregation. Sing the familiar songs with affection and attention. Listen to the prayers. All of these activities will make you aware of your own feelings and help you be receptive to the influence of the Savior. Then when the sharing of testimonies begins, accept the strength and faith of those speaking; get the power of the gospel into your being and into your activities. Let your mind and spirit be strengthened. We have the right to be so strengthened.
I remember some testimony meetings where the Spirit has been powerfully present. Some special experiences are associated with meetings in very small congregations in the mission field in England—meetings where every member had a testimony and thirsted to share it. The purity and joy of those feelings come back to me now in testimony meetings, and suggest to me what it might be like to be in the presence of the Savior. Those experiences have given me faith in the Savior’s promise that he will come when we have gathered in his name.