I WAS STUCK.
I had recently left a full-time college teaching position, in part so I could engage more actively in conflict resolution with a religious dimension, my area of expertise. It was the late '90s, and a flowering of inspiring work was taking place in some of the world's most violence-ridden arenas. People were drawing more deeply on their religious values and practices to find creative ways to build peace. Inspired by their activities and organizations, I wanted to devote writing my PhD dissertation to these religious peace activists.
But the project just wasn't coming together. For a variety of reasons, I couldn't figure out how to move it forward. So I decided to go to a professional conference where many individuals pioneering this work would be attending. I hoped this conference would help me break through. I also used the time away from my busy home life with small children to pray. I wanted to listen to how God wanted me to go forward with this work.
The answer I got surprised me. Inspired as I was by the rich conversations and exciting stories of peacemaking, this thought came to me clearly one morning: It is easier to plan for peace for the whole world tomorrow, than to take the opportunities we have to make peace where we are today. I realized, with chagrin, that focusing my thought too much on peacemaking as something that happens "out there" could actually be a distraction from the real work necessary to develop the qualities of character that nurture peace. And I felt that my prayer was prodding me to be willing to work at peacemaking right where I was. This meant putting aside the idea that the most important contribution to peacemaking had to be in Bosnia or northern Ireland or South Africa. Rather, I had to be willing to practice peacemaking in my small Midwestern town.
I didn't have to wait long. That summer my branch Church of Christ, Scientist, was confronted with some difficult issues that split the membership into opposing points of view. Sparks flew. By the end of the summer, the flames of conflict were fully fanned.
I learned several important things through the experience, and I grew spiritually in some significant ways.
First, the situation was difficult. And it wasn't pretty. It took several months for the membership to address the situation in a comprehensive way. And although as a church we hadn't had experience in dealing openly with conflict, we did have the desire to turn to God for guidance. We wanted to use this time to get a deeper understanding and practice of what Church really means as Mary Baker Eddy defined it: "The structure of Truth and Love; whatever rests upon and proceeds from divine Principle.
Although as a church we hadn't had experience in dealing openly with conflict, we did have the desire to turn to God for guidance.
"The Church is that institution, which affords proof of its utility and is found elevating the race, rousing the dormant understanding from material beliefs to the apprehension of spiritual ideas and the demonstration of divine Science, thereby casting out devils, or error, and healing the sick" (see Science and Health, p. 583).
With a disposition toward activism and a strong sense of how I thought the situation should be handled, I was ready to mobilize church members to forward my perspective. Then I was elected Second Reader. Mrs. Eddy's guidance for Readers on page 33 in the Manual of The Mother Church says that Readers are not to be Leaders. Instead, they are to "maintain . . . discipline" in the church. This By-Law hit home. I realized that my role wasn't to lead a campaign. My most important contribution was to rely on prayer. As I studied Mrs. Eddy's definition of Church, I realized that in my role as Second Reader, maintaining discipline meant holding my thought clearly to understanding the spiritual definition of Church. I had to affirm that this church was the only church any of us were a part of. I had to let that understanding guide me in dealing with this conflict.
I was deeply troubled by how the conflict was getting framed in our discussions. Although people had varying positions on the issue at hand, the discussions were getting polarized as an either/or choice—either "We have to show love for everybody," or "We have to uphold what is right." Yet it seemed to me that the problem wasn't deciding which of these sides to choose, but rather believing that you had to choose one or the other, either love or righteousness. As I prayed to understand Mrs. Eddy's definition of Church as "the structure of Truth and Love," I saw the healing power of her use of the word and. Truth and Love aren't oppositional but are both necessary parts of the Church's structure. They couldn't then, in fact, be pulled apart.
I had a healing that resulted from these wonderful insights about Church. I was pregnant at the time with our third child, and a blood test indicated that I had gestational diabetes. Rather than go through with the daylong hospital tests that our midwife recommended, I asked her if I could address the situation through prayer, and then take the initial blood test again. She agreed. As the midwife explained, the diagnosis meant that there wasn't enough insulin in my blood system to process sugar. Relating this issue to the prayer I was doing for our church, it occurred to me that sugar represented the sweetness of love, and that insulin represented the strength of truth that was needed to absorb the love. I saw that just as divine Love and Truth couldn't be separated or out of balance in a church body, they couldn't be pulled apart or out of balance in any human experience, including my body, which is governed by divine Love. I prayed to better understand this truth about my own balance of Truth and Love, and when I retook the test a week later, my blood sugar levels were completely normal.
One of the most difficult aspects for me of the church conflict was having close friends with very different perspectives. The loss of friendships seemed inevitable. When this prospect was most disturbing, I took great solace in the second half of that first sentence in Mrs. Eddy's definition of Church: that which "rests upon and proceeds from divine Principle." I realized that resting our church on Principle would provide the strength we needed to resist being swayed by personal opinions or the temptation to let friendships be determined by opinions on a particular issue.
As difficult as it was to always communicate, divine Principle propelled us forward in significant ways as a church. We began to examine more deeply what our real purpose was. Unwilling to let division and discord define us, we recommitted, despite our differences, to being a healing presence and power in our community. This commitment and practice of Christly love in turn drew new members.
One result of this recommitment was moving our Reading Room from a lovely but quiet residential location to a prominent corner site in the local mall. As the momentum to do this took off, I chaired the committee for the relocation, having finished my commitment as Reader. In an interesting parallel, as our church's desire to commit to living Church grew, so did my opportunities to engage in international peacemaking initiatives. This culminated in an opportunity to host a Middle East peace conference, which brought together grassroots Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers, American policymakers, Democrats and Republicans, and both lay and clerical Jewish, Muslim, and Christian representatives. The conference was held in a week before our new Reading Room opened to the public. I consistently found that my prayers and work in one arena supported and strengthened my prayers and work in the other.
One specific lesson from this experience is the realization that I had moved from praying for church, to praying from church. That is, I saw that an enlightened, healing concept of church wasn't so much something to work toward, but something we were already in, something that structured and shaped and defined our experience—something that we were working out from. This became a powerful basis not only for prayer, but for action in other arenas.
When we commit to living peace at home, even where it seems most difficult, we find unlimited divine resources to make peace. And the whole world can benefit.
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