Charles Dickens’s classic novel A Tale of Two Cities opens with the words, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us ….” I’ve always loved church, but there was a time when that depiction of extremes fairly well defined my experience of church—in my case, it would have been called “A Tale of Two Churches.”
The first church had a feeling of true holiness to it. The welcome among members was so much more than happy smiles and handshakes. There was real joy and support, and an energy that made people feel they were working together to bring Christian healing to their own lives and to the community. The prayer in the services was powerful and far-reaching. The sermon lifted us. Quite simply, we felt God there, and we wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.
But the other church felt, for lack of a better word, mechanical. Members were preoccupied and burdened with church duties, going through the motions of church rather than actually loving God and each other. The few members there made me wonder how much longer this church could stay open. I would leave those services feeling discouraged and low.
Now the catch is, these weren’t actually two different churches. It just felt that way. It was the same building, the same members, the same church. So why such a difference?
Obviously, none of us believed God was any less present on those “off” days. Over time, I realized a need to face squarely an issue that is too easy to push into the background—everything about a material way of thinking and living has the effect of deadening our experience of church, to make us dislike it, or at the very least, daydream our way through it. The problem is in such moments it is too easy to believe what we think we’re feeling, rather than wake up to the fact that we’re being lied to.
The reason truth has more power than a lie, the reason love triumphs over hate, the reason we will always insist on health rather than acquiesce to suffering, is because of something we know deep in the marrow of our being—that good is real. And we want to devote our best energies to it. But the obvious fact is that we have to be spiritually awake enough to discern what is true and what is simply evil using the name of good to deaden our spiritual sense.
Christ Jesus made a defining statement about the nature of church in our time. And when you picture the scene, it’s rather amazing how casually he appears to raise the subject. He’s just arrived in a new area, and he asks his disciples, “Who do the crowds say I am?” (Luke 9:18, New International Version). Jesus’ healing and teaching had caused quite a stir, so the disciples were naturally aware of what the word on the street was. And they shared what they’d been hearing about him possibly being a prophet or John the Baptist.
But then Jesus raises the ante considerably and asks them who they themselves believed he was. Without hesitation, Peter declares, “You are the Christ” (Matthew 16:16, English Standard Version). Jesus praises Peter’s response and makes it clear that this quality of spiritual discernment that allowed Peter to recognize the presence of Christ, right where the swirl of mortal opinion was obscuring the truth, was the basis of experiencing true church. He said his church would be built on exactly this ability to discern the Christ—the true idea of God that speaks to our hearts and manifests itself in our lives by bringing to light evidence of what it means to be the child of God (see Matthew 16:13–18 and Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, pp. 136–138).
So we really do have a choice as to how we feel about church and how we experience it. We don’t have to go along with the drone of a material assessment of things, but can mentally get up on our tiptoes to peer over all of the obstacles that were blocking our view of the Christ. When we greet guests and members, we are certainly being friendly. But when we also let ourselves feel love for them and acknowledge in our hearts that they are the very expression of Spirit, God, we are hearing and experiencing the Christ. It’s good to pay attention to the sermon, but when we let the truth of what’s being heard enter our hearts and form the basis for how we think of the world around us, then we’re feeling the animating influence of the Christ. It’s good to get the words and the tune right when we pray and sing in church, but when we let those words flow from our deepest yearnings to know God and feel the compounded effect of others in church reaching out to God with the same sincerity, then we are experiencing something of Christ’s oneness with God that makes us not only hope for healing but insist on our divine right to experience it.
Whether we’re talking about our own lives or the life of our church, Mrs. Eddy tells us what’s needed just now, when she writes, “Let us feel the divine energy of Spirit, bringing us into newness of life and recognizing no mortal nor material power as able to destroy” (Science and Health, p. 249). A mortal perspective is too apt to say, “Yes, I’d love to feel the renewal of that divine energy, but I don’t know how to let that happen.”
The word let is often used to convey a sense of yielding to something or allowing something to happen, but it can also have the force of a command. When we read in Genesis that God said, “Let there be light: and there was light” (1:3), it’s pretty clear God wasn’t just allowing light to happen. He was commanding it. We might even say that this spiritual sense of let conveys the grace that both yields to God’s will, and commands that it be done.
Letting ourselves feel Spirit’s energy requires a willingness to admit that whatever God calls true and real is more valid than what mortal thought believes is true. It is a yielding of a personal feeling of things to an understanding of what is actually going on. It is turning away from mere human efforts and is a waiting for Spirit, Truth, alone to fill our hearts, and it may be about the most demanding mental work there is to be done.
Feeling the divine energy of Spirit comes out of a fundamental protest of the heart that insists we do have the right to have the good God is giving. It is the deep conviction that if God wants us to have something, then nothing can keep us from experiencing it.
In some ways, the Bible’s “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26) expresses God’s commitment and power to make sure His creation turns out exactly as God intends—wholly good and exactly like God in every quality of man’s identity. So too, we can say that Science and Health’s statement, “Let us feel the divine energy of Spirit, bringing us into newness of life and recognizing no mortal nor material power as able to destroy,” expresses our commitment to making sure we exercise our inviolate ability to feel our oneness with God, including our ability to not be deceived into thinking matter has power over Spirit in our lives.
Throughout this year, Christian Scientists all over the world will be working with this passage as the theme for Annual Meeting 2017. How reassuring to know this work of “letting” is not up to just you or me, but “us.” And what an “us” it will be as we work together to feel Spirit’s energy bring us into newness of life, and as we truly see and recognize that the long history of a false sense of church can never destroy that actual Church of Christ, Scientist, we’re building today.