Maybe it is just sentimental musing, but I think that I remember a time when things were, well, messy.
I remember Mormon testimony meetings where the eccentric ramblings of older members consumed large chunks of time, providing both a challenge to the constitution of the 12-year-old deacons dutifully assembled on the front row and ample fodder for laughing family conversations traveling home from church.
I could count on the monthly musings of one older sister, speaking in English heavily accented with her native German, proclaiming that she "loved her fate." I can still see my bishop rising reluctantly to correct the meandering of one brother who held a distinctly apocalyptic view of the world and the immediacy of Christ’s second coming. The proverbial sister who would regularly rise to tell the congregation of her travails with her rundown automobile, always attributing its lack of dependency to Lucifer himself, actually lived in my little ward.
Today’s Fast and Testimony Meetings, a service held the first Sunday of every month, are a tame affair. No, not tame: bland, predictable, homogenized, boring, and, above all else, neat--very, very neat.
The primary difference that I notice is that the older eccentrics seem to be missing. When I was young, no children were ever heard from in the Fast and Testimony Meeting; that time was reserved for the adults. Not so now.
My ward’s Fast and Testimony Meeting is now dominated by young children, ages 10 and younger, who are pressed to the front of the congregation to "bear their testimonies." Inevitably, beginning by assuring us that they love their parents, these youngsters then proceed to, shall I say, recite a rote set of catechisms: they know this is the "true church"; they know that Gordon B. Hinckley (the uniquely middle-initialed adult in their young world) is a "true prophet"; etc. Often the child’s testimony is aided by one of his or her parents whispering the words in the ear of the repeating child.
What has happened to my Old Time Testimony meeting?
The late Elder Bruce R. McConkie, an influential Mormon apostle, said that every valid testimony must include "three great truths"--that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the World; that Joseph Smith is the Prophet of God through whom the gospel was restored; and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is "the only true and living church upon the face of the earth today."
Elder McConkie’s statement forms, I believe, the basis for the movement to restrict the expression of idiosyncratic views in the modern Mormon testimony meeting. He was laying out his view of the minimal set of beliefs that one had to receive or have in order to be a believing Mormon. But those ought not to be seen as the limits of LDS belief, exploited by those who simply would suppress the dynamic, extemporaneous, charismatic, and idiosyncratic nature of the religious experience that may be expressed in a testimony meeting.
Beyond that, I believe that in modern Mormonism, the concept of faith has been cheapened.
In the Book of Mormon, faith is portrayed, not as the ultimate spiritual goal depicted in the New Testament, but as an interim step between the weakest form of belief and "perfect knowledge."
Unfortunately, in my view, at testimony meetings everybody "knows" everything. Worse, everyone knows everything "beyond a shadow of a doubt." Even three-year-olds are coached to say that they know that "this is the only true church."
How is it that these people, young and old, all "know" all these things while Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob spent all their days in a vain search for a city having foundations whose builder and maker is God?
In Mormondom, faith has been reduced to a garage-sale trifle, a hasty souvenir stop on the way to "perfect knowledge" proclaimed every month from our pulpits. One can sit through dozens of Mormon meetings and never hear any member say in any context "I believe the church is true" or "I have hope that my faith in Christ is not in vain" or "I have faith despite my doubts and weaknesses."
In these affirmations, faith is no longer developed in the crucible of anguishing doubt and struggle. Hope is no longer nourished in a community of uncertain seekers striving for truth. Charity is not forged in the struggle for love in a world filled with disappointment and tragedy whose frail humans share one another’s burdens.
Moses’ mother does not weep as she tells of hiding her son in the reeds to avoid execution. Noah does not tell of building an ark in the desert. Abraham does not tell of raising his knife to murder his son before the face of God who has commanded human sacrifice. No, all of the struggle, the angst, the fear and trembling are swept away, banished from our thoughts by our counterfeit proclamations, received from our infancy, that we already "know" what Noah, Abraham, and the mother of Moses died only hoping.
Would there be unpleasant results from allowing doubt and fear to be expressed in our testimony meetings, or permitting members to say they merely hope that their faith is not in vain? Would our meetings be different if our testimonies were filled with stories of human struggle in the face of anxiety?
There would be odd moments, awkward glances at the podium, giggling deacons, just plain dumb utterances. Things would be...messy. I believe, however, that we would all be richer for the clutter.