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What can we rely on in an uncertain world?

From the December 2020 issue of The Christian Science Journal

This interview was originally recorded as a podcast on April 20, 2020 and was adapted for the November 2020 issue of The Christian Science Journal

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In this Sentinel Watch podcast from JSH-Online.com, adapted for print, Associate Editor Tony Lobl talks with Amelia Newcomb and Mark Sappenfield from The Christian Science Monitor. Amelia is Managing Editor and Mark is the Editor of the Monitor. They share news of a series the Monitor ran earlier this year called “Navigating uncertainty: The search for global bearings.” They also share individual experiences of understanding and proving Christian Science. 


Tony: Amelia, we’d love to hear about this series. 

Amelia: Well, the series is really a result of some issues that have been kicking around for a few years now, but also the result of recent conversations I’ve had with people about the sense of uncertainty in the world—this feeling that people don’t quite know where things are, and they don’t know if the foundations we’ve counted on are still strong. We began to ask: How can we think more thoughtfully and carefully about where we’re headed? We’re not helpless. We do have agency. Just because things seem uncertain, it doesn’t mean you have to assume that there’s a negative destination at the end of a given road. 

So we got together, all our international correspondents who are located around the world, and we really wrestled with this idea for quite a while. We wanted to make sure that we were looking at it through the Monitor lens, which is one of progress, of calm, of an uplifted way of seeing things, to say, Yes, there are problems, but there are also solutions, and there are paths to progress. Can we identify those? 

We reported from Brazil, from the UK, from Russia, Hong Kong, France, and Somaliland. And in all these places, people are taking action, and it’s action that we can all learn from. 

I think it’s fair to ask, What’s our foundation for that perspective? I would say that it’s spiritually grounded in God’s allness and our understanding that His government has to be expressed everywhere. Even if you’re in places where things seem chaotic or not working properly, divine government is in operation. 

Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, writes in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures that “it is ignorance and false belief, based on a material sense of things, which hide spiritual beauty and goodness. Understanding this, Paul said: ‘Neither death, nor life, . . . nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God.’ This is the doctrine of Christian Science: that divine Love cannot be deprived of its manifestation, or object; that joy cannot be turned into sorrow, for sorrow is not the master of joy; that good can never produce evil; that matter can never produce mind nor life result in death” (p. 304). For us, I think that is our impetus for knowing that wherever we are, we can find the light in a situation, and that’s what the “Navigating uncertainty: The search for global bearings” series does.

A global embrace is so important, because that sense of uncertainty really feels global. What I’d like to do just before we move on is talk about the Monitor’s mission. 

Mark: Sure. What you’re referring to is a mission that was written by the Founder of The Christian Science Monitor and the Founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist: Mary Baker Eddy. It’s in the first editorial that appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, in November of 1908. She writes that she founded the Monitor to “spread undivided the Science that operates unspent” (The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany, p. 353). There she capitalized the S in Science, and in capitalizing it, she’s referring to the laws of God, what God creates and governs, which is really universal truth for everyone. 

I can look out as the Editor of the Monitor at different people, from different faith traditions all across the world, and yet they see the same thing that Amelia was talking about. They see points of progress. They see this universal sense of humanity coming to the surface and having a positive effect on our world. 

You can talk to ethicists, and they will say there are core qualities that are expressed in communities around the world. Honesty and compassion and responsibility and fairness, just to name a few. There is a scientific nature to these spiritual qualities, which everyone has as sons and daughters of God. 

So to me, when Mrs. Eddy says the Monitor was created to “spread undivided the Science that operates unspent,” it means the Monitor looks to see where spiritual qualities are operating and what effect they are having. In some cases, it’s seeing where these qualities seem to not be operating or where these qualities are being impeded. The Monitor always starts from the sense that those qualities are there. Sometimes they’re kind of nascent and need to be watered a little bit. But the Monitor can help with that watering both in terms of bringing them to the surface and recognizing ways in which they can grow. 

Amelia: How you look at a situation is fundamental to how you act in terms of finding paths to progress. And we often talk about seeing things differently. That takes courage. It takes some daring, because the world, generally speaking, and news often, wants to say it’s all bad, it’s negative—“We’re going to tell you what’s wrong, and then you can figure out all the rest.” And I think what we try to do is look for where there’s light and for where there are people wrestling and grappling with concepts and issues. We aim to do it with a sense of confidence, because you do need to have confidence that it is OK to look at the world that way. 

So, if you take things to a spiritual level, where are you putting your trust? Well, your trust is in God. I understand God as being only good, as Spirit, Love, and Principle. And I know that God’s foundation is secure. So my trust is well-placed. 

Something I’ve always loved from the book of Proverbs relates to this. It says, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (3:5, 6). You can have confidence that if that’s where you place yourself, you’ll be starting from the right standpoint.

Mark: In excellent journalism, you see an effort to shine a light on something. Oftentimes when you’re thinking about journalistic awards and the language they talk about, “This shined a light.” Very valuable. An essential element of journalism. But to reiterate a point we’ve covered, the Monitor finds the light that is already there. And to me, this is spiritual light that we all express as God’s creation. It might not be the dominant story, but that light that is already present is going to be the beginnings of whatever progress can come. 

One thing the Monitor can do is shine that light places where perhaps other journalistic outlets aren’t doing that quite as much. 

Can you expand on these ideas a bit more, concerning the distinct nature of Monitor journalism? 

Mark: I think journalism too often has warped our sense of the reality of what’s going on. It’s important that Mrs. Eddy insisted on the Monitor being called The Christian Science Monitor. I do think that the underpinning of the Church of Christ, Scientist, and how Christian Science views God and the Bible and what Jesus taught, does give a confidence that good has true power. 

The Christ helps us see a higher picture, to see our identity, and our worth, and our value, and our future, and our present in different terms.

Amelia: You know, you could think, Well, if you’re looking at things that way, you’re not going to get the story, you’re not going to get the scoop. And yet, as Mark was talking, I was thinking of a couple of instances where reporters told me about how they very specifically got the story because of looking at the world through a different lens. One of our correspondents has often said to me, “I sometimes feel nervous when I’m out there in a place where there are a number of journalists and there’s a big story. A bunch of them will go over to one area, and that’s where everybody’s looking, but I think I should go in the opposite direction for the story.” And she does. She finds what she needs. There is always light to be found. You just have to be looking for it. 

Here’s an example. This was years ago in Los Angeles, actually, at the time of the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots. And there was a lot of tension. A Monitor reporter was going around and trying to find out, because of a legal judgment that was about to come down, whether there would be a surge of violence again. And he talked to one shop owner who was kind of known for making incendiary comments. The reporter kept pressing him. And the shop owner was fairly caustic. 

Then the correspondent asked him, “But have you seen any progress?” Because it had been about a year since the original riots. The shop owner’s whole demeanor changed. And he said, “Well, actually, yes, I have.” He mentioned several things that were concrete progress. And he was part of that progress. He was part of the solution. But nobody had really asked him about that. Nobody had probed: Where are you making a contribution? He had a beautiful answer, and it was a loving answer. I found that very telling about the kind of journalism we do. 

Mark: I’ve many times been grateful for Mrs. Eddy’s insistence that the words Christian Science be put on top of the paper. One of the things that’s meaningful for me about that right now is that we’re at a time when Christianity itself can be controversial in some quarters, and it can be presented as just a set of doctrines, or as judgment, or as a club where you are either a part of it or not. 

Some of the things that Amelia has been talking about point to that fundamentally Christian quality, derived from Christ Jesus—it’s the insistence and confidence on seeing the world differently and spiritually. We are constantly confronted with the material picture, and that picture can be oftentimes filled with sadness, with loss, with devastation. And yet the Christ helps us see a higher picture, to see our identity, and our worth, and our value, and our future, and our present in different terms that give us a gift that is beyond anything the world can calculate. I think it’s only appropriate for that to inform how our newspaper works. 

Amelia, I know you’ve had times when you’ve been able to see divine certainty because of the foundation you have in Christian Science. Would you share?

Amelia: Yes, I can share two things. One was when I lost sight of my daughter on a beach when she was about six years old, and I started to run off doing the things you would think are really smart to do at that moment, which is search everywhere and get a lot of people involved. But I also started to pray, because I remembered that even if I couldn’t see my daughter on the beach, God could see her. He is all-seeing, and I could trust that God was taking care of her even though I didn’t know where she was. 

The effect of that prayer and trust was really interesting. I stopped running, and I closed my eyes. The healing thought that came to me was this: “Dare to see this situation differently.” I loved that, because it took some courage to calm down, to say I can trust that my daughter is well, she is safe, and we can be reconnected. I just calmed down right away. My eyes were still closed. 

This all happened very quickly, but I pivoted on my heel and opened my eyes. And then way down the beach was this little orange dot that I knew was my daughter because she had a very bright bathing suit on. 

So what happened there was that I did the exact opposite of what human sense would tell me to do, and what humanly would seem practical. And I could do that because of the spiritual laws of God that govern us. That’s my true foundation, which I’ve also proved in my life during other challenging situations. 

Another instance in my life was a few years ago when my adult son, who had been studying in Iran, in Tehran, was unjustly imprisoned just before he was supposed to come home. It was a very difficult situation. We were dealing with the State Department and geopolitics. It was right around the time of the Iran nuclear deal, so we felt like very small players in a very big world. 

During that time, there were days when I wasn’t very happy and days when I was very concerned and feeling upset and sad and anxious. We weren’t telling anybody, so we had very few confidants. But that was kind of a good thing because, you know, ultimately you want to put your confidence in God. And that’s what we did. 

It was so interesting to me that even amid those times when it felt so tumultuous in my head and in my heart, I didn’t fundamentally doubt. I felt I could trust that, ultimately, God had the situation under control. I was working with a Christian Science practitioner who was super supportive, and that really helped. 

Scientific understanding makes it much easier to make progress. And it opens up a whole world that we might not otherwise see.

One of the Bible passages I worked with really undergirded that sense of confidence even amid tumult. It’s from Isaiah 43, verses 1 and 2: “But now thus saith the Lord that created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.” I think it’s pretty clear why that was really helpful to me, because my son was in prison, and we just really had to trust that he wouldn’t have any “flame” left upon him. 

So it was just this interesting moment where I realized you could trust God, even as the human picture around you felt insecure and unsafe. And forty days later, he was released. That was one joyous homecoming! Our son was well, he was safe, and he had not been harmed. We were very grateful for that. 

Have these experiences informed how you actually work as a journalist and editor as well?

Amelia: Yes, yes, definitely. There are two things that come to thought. In Psalms there’s the passage, “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer” (19:14). And I think to myself, “Yes, if your thoughts are straight, aren’t tangled, and they are with God, then they’ll be straight with the person you’re talking to.” Not that you agree with them, necessarily, but you can talk in a way that is civil and even loving. 

In Science and Health, Mary Baker Eddy says, “Love inspires, illumines, designates, and leads the way” (p. 454). Here Mrs. Eddy is referring to divine Love, Love that is God. If that is driving your conversation, that can inspire you to ask the right questions. It can illuminate where you’re supposed to go and help you make sure that you’re bringing out the full picture of a situation and not just one piece of it. 

Mark: It’s that sense of leading with love, because that’s where our work is actually done. 

I remember part of my job at the Monitor about ten years ago was going to India. And part of the India coverage meant that I would go to Pakistan and Afghanistan. I can vividly remember sitting down to lunch with an international editor and saying, “Could we somehow do this so I go less to Pakistan and Afghanistan?” I wasn’t enthused by the idea of going to Pakistan and Afghanistan, because that was right around the height of the Afghan-US war. It was certainly when things were escalating. But I, of course, tried to do my best and went on a trip to Afghanistan pretty soon after that and went on various trips to Pakistan when there were unsettled things there—the Pakistani Taliban was growing. There were growing terror events. 

I can remember being in a taxi with a man who was driving me from one of the airports, and all throughout my time in these countries, I had tried to show as much respect and love as I could. I had dressed in the local clothes. I had worked with people specifically in Afghanistan. He allowed me to see Afghanistan through his eyes, which was a joy. There was laughter, joking, and just genuine fellowship. I had learned a little bit of the local language and was speaking it to this man, and he could not have been more happy. You know, there I was speaking his language, in his country, trying to explore stories about his people. 

There’s a phrase that Mrs. Eddy used when she’s discussing her understanding of the Lord’s Prayer, given to us by Christ Jesus. The Lord’s Prayer says, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12), and she spiritually interprets those words as, “And Love is reflected in love” (Science and Health, p. 17). And I saw, again, the Science of that, the fact that that was a law of the universe and that as I was showing love to others, I was getting it back in waves. I got a completely different view of what was governing. And it’s never left me. And I never really felt afraid in any of those places ever again. 

When I left, I can legitimately say the place that I enjoyed going to most was Afghanistan. So looking for the light in a situation can be transformational. And it is part of that absolute commitment to love and to let that be what leads how you see. 

Amelia: On a related note, a story we did just popped into my head about a woman in Congo who is in an Ebola zone, and she had survived but had lost a family member (see Ryan Lenora Brown, “They survived Ebola. Now, they’re helping others do the same,” csmonitor.com, November 6, 2019). It was a tough situation, but she had been moved to help others struggling with Ebola. And so our correspondent did a piece about her and others like her who were helping in these very challenging situations. It was just pure love and courage. 

It was so lovely when we got a letter from a reader who said that when she saw that woman’s example, she realized she could rise to that level herself. She saw someone living according to the values she appreciated and had gratitude for. She forged a connection. The article made her think, How can I do maybe a little bit more in my own life? And that’s a healing thing.

Mark: When this woman forged the connection with the other woman from Congo, that was divine Science operating. There was some universal connection that happened because of some deeper experience that enlarged their sense of action and agency. And is that healing? I would say yes. 

Healing is a huge spectrum of activity. It is something that moves you forward into a larger sense of your identity, an action that is spiritually based and grounded in the largeness that is God. And is that something that the Monitor aims to do with every single article? I would certainly hope so. 

You know, that spectrum is broad. It’s not all going to be the same thing. But can we help move humanity and our readers some incremental steps forward, or in some cases a large step forward, toward that understanding of divine Science, that universality connects us and uplifts us? 

So if you were explaining that universal Science to someone who’s never come across Christian Science, how would you do that? What does the Science in Christian Science Monitor mean? 

Amelia: Science is a discipline, right? And it has its rules and practices. I think sometimes people can think of discipline as being rather severe. But it gives you a way to shape your thought and direct your thought. 

That is honestly such a freeing thing, because I think back to that situation with my son in Iran. What a wonderful thing it was to have something that disciplined my thought. You know, I wanted to go way off into spiraling and going, This is awful, this is awful. But I was able to say no to that. I was brought back to what I know is true, to, What does Christian Science teach me? It teaches me that all of us are God’s children, not just me. Or not just people like me. And so the people who I see as responsible for my son’s detention—and basically kidnapping, from my point of view—are God’s children. He created them. They are His beloved children, just as I am God’s child. 

Then you start to see, OK, that fathering and mothering that I feel in my own life from Father-Mother God, they can feel, too. And I can see even those who are difficult to love through that familial lens. This reduces fear in such a fundamental way. 

So to me that Science—again, that idea of Science as the spiritual laws of God—is a really powerful thing, because it gives you ways to find each step forward. Scientific understanding makes it much easier to make progress. And it opens up a whole world that we might not otherwise see.

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