Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Reflections on the Art of Testimony

So I had two very different experiences with testimony in a week last month.
February 1st, I went to a Worship Alive! workshop with Lillian Daniels, who wrote Tell Is Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony. Her focus was on bringing testimony, a practice common in evangelical churches, to mainstream denominations. She defined testimony as a lay person telling a story about God in his or her life. It occurs to me that faith-sharing is also closely related: in small faith groups or retreat environments, people share their stories of faith in a safe, intimate, supportive environment. Giving testimony is a public version.
I am reminded about a discussion I had about a "dialogue homily" at a church. I was upset when I heard some people speaking disparagingly about a woman who had taken a personal risk and shared a very intimate struggle during a dialogue homily. I brought it up during a liturgy meeting and suggested that perhaps some guidelines needed to be stated upfront to provide safety in the sharing. But, what came out of the discussion was that a homily is different from faith-sharing, and faith sharing wasn't really appropriate in that context. A homily or sermon is breaking open the word. So, during a dialogue homily, everyone who speaks needs to consider him or herself a mini-homilist and make comments that reflect on the scripture.
So, testimony is a challenge: it's an opportunity for a lay person to share publicly. Lillian said people will listen to other lay people in a way that they won't listen to the pastor who is seen as a "super-Christian." She said it takes a confident community to "risk testimony." Testimony is risky to hear as well as give.
Lillian's workshop focused on figuring out how to integrate testimony into a traditional worship service. She is the pastor of the First Congregational Church of Glen Ellyn, and she asks one person in advance to prepare a testimony for a service. While Lillian didn't necessarily recommend it, I think if I were coordinating testimony in services, I would ask the lay people to give a testimony based on the gospel (or scripture) of the day. It would make the worship experience more coherent. Here the differences between homily/sermon and testimony can be very nuanced. It's interesting to think about and consider.

Then on February 7th, I attended REV 12:11, a night of up close and personal dance ministry. The evening started slowly, and I thought that I made a mistake, that I should have gone to the Wheat Ridge Ministries dinner where my friend Lisa Wagner-Carollo, founder of Still Point Theatre Collective, was being honored that night. But, now I know I was where I was meant to be. The format for the evening was very simple. After a group opening dance, eight dancers each gave a verbal testimony and then danced to a song that expressed or inspired the testimony. Many of the testimonies were incredibly honest, brave, risky and powerful. The women were courageous to be so vulnerable, and it was the ones who risked the most who gave me the most and, I'd venture to say, probably got the most out of the experience as well. It's one thing to say "there were challenges in my life" and another to confess to everyone there, friend and stranger alike, to drugs and abortions and to tell of murders of loved ones and empty wombs.

As a dancer, I hate to admit that it was the words rather than the movement that really touched me. The dances (all to recorded music), which followed the testimonies, served as meditations on the personal stories. So, this is an interesting question: can testimony be told through movement? Or is movement too abstract? If the most touching testimonies were the most specific, can movement get specific enough? What is/can be the role of movement in testimony?
The most effective combination of words and movement for me was by Myah McKinnie. She told of a mistake she made because she didn't listen to God (I don't feel comfortable going into specifics about it even though the event was public.) and how, with God's help she has worked through it and is now finding joy in her life. It may be that because Myah is a friend of mine that her story of transformation was particularly moving to me. It also helped that I liked her song the best, a very upbeat number, "Identity" by Israel Houghton. Her dance was so joyful: she looked 20 years younger. If I had a photo of her dance, it would be the image for this posting.
The fact that I was particularly moved by a friend's testimony, brings up another issue. Who makes up the appropriate community for hearing and witnessing testimony?

Hats off to the Founder and Artistic Director of The Spirit Moves Performance Ensemble, Glynis James-Watson, who had the vision for the event and created and coordinated it. She wisely had two pastors at the end provide some perspective. In the invitation to discipleship, Rev. Orlando Dallas said something very simple and, as simple things often are, profound: "In order to have a testimony, you have to have a test." (I could write another whole posting on that and maybe I will.) And, then for the benediction, Min. Pamela Sullivan suggested that we could each hear a bit of ourselves in each of the testimonies. And, so I thought, Yes, that's why we share our testimonies, to learn we aren't alone and help others heal, to find and express universal truths. I am reminded of what my spiritual director once said to me, "Helping others helps us heal." Rev. Pamela also suggested that many of us sit on our testimonies. How true, I thought: I certainly am. I'm trying to figure out the forum and format for expressing a testimony of mine (Don't we all have many?). So, this beautiful night gave me lots of ideas and insight and prayer. Thank you!

The evening also brought up a question I keep coming back to: What's the difference between performance art and ministry? I have gone to performances where "artists" have shared very personal stories, and I was very turned off because I felt like I was (unwillingly) attending their (much needed) therapy session. It was too raw and unprocessed. And while in this night of testimony, the women shared incredibly intimate trials, I didn't feel uncomfortable or resentful. On the contrary, I was drawn in. I think there were two differences. The first was my expectation. At a prayer service, we are engaged in a different way, we are asked to fulfill a different role than an audience member is. We are active participants. As Catholic liturgists often quote, the congregation is called to "active and conscious participation." And the second were the presentations themselves. The dancers had done a lot of processing of the events they were retelling. They had prayed and considered how God had been moving in their lives, and those were the stories they were sharing. They had some perspective on the events. They weren't raw. Just as in good performance art, artistic framing can provide the necessary distance and perspective, for testimony, prayer and reflection can provide the mediating presence.

So, this has been a long post, but these experiences provided a lot of food for thought.

BTW, I will be presenting my choreography for congregational movement participation in the Lord's Prayer at another Worship Alive! workshop: Worship Wellspring: A Sampling of Innovative Worship Experiences from Chicago Area Congregations on Saturday, April 25, 2009 from 2:00 – 5:00 pm at First United Methodist Church in Park Ridge.

Also, I will once again be leading the opening and closing rituals for the Third Annual Women's Spirituality Conference on Saturday March 21st 9am-3:30pm in Northfield, Illinois.
I wrote about my experiences last year on my blog.

Finally, I'm on the board of the Lakeshore Chapter of the Sacred Dance Guild and we have an excellent workshop coming up which I highly recommend: Tools and Fuels for Sacred Dance: A Choreography Workshop for your BodySpirit on
Saturday, March 28, 2009 9AM-4PM
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