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Helping to overcome gun violence

From the April 2019 issue of The Christian Science Journal

This interview was originally recorded as a podcast on July 2, 2018 and was adapted for the April 2019 issue of The Christian Science Journal

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Everyone would agree that even one life lost to violence is one too many, but it is equally true that even one life saved is cause for great rejoicing. As Christian Science military chaplains, Matthew Schmidt and Terri Erickson have been in positions to minister to people motivated by rage and revenge. In this interview, they share moving stories of how spiritual thoughts and healing prayer enabled them to prevent acts of violence. We trust that your healing prayer for anyone tempted to react with violence will be inspired by the spiritual thoughts shared in this interview.

Matt, we’ve been hearing a lot in the news lately about people, usually young men, causing tragic loss of life through gun violence, including mass shootings in schools. I know when you were in seminary training to become a chaplain, you had an experience that really speaks to this. Can you tell us about that experience and how you prayed?

Matthew Schmidt: Sure, I’d be happy to. I was working with the judicial affairs department at a major university in a big city. One of the roles I had was for students to meet with me after they would get disciplined. I would help them think about the choices they had made and look at the boundaries they were setting, and I would try to help them get more involved in the university in the way they wanted to be involved. 

At the same time, I was hoping to bring my study of Christian Science to bear on this. As I was studying and praying, one of my goals was to help the students discover more about their true self as God’s child. I studied some passages in the Bible and then some passages in Mary Baker Eddy’s writings, and most of them focused on the upright and unfallen nature of man as God’s child. The idea was that if God created man, He made man in His image, and that nature was good. And so, these difficult events that students were going through didn’t really define them. There was something more inherent and deeper about them, and that’s what I was praying to understand and bring to these meetings with these students.

One passage that was particularly helpful was found in Mrs. Eddy’s response to the question, “Has man fallen from a state of perfection?” At one point she describes man as God’s likeness and says that man “cannot get out of the focal distance of infinity” (Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896, pp. 78–79). And this concept of man includes both men and women as God’s children. 

That was really a defining thought for me as I met with these students. I would think about how God’s perspective about His children is that they are pure, upright, and unfallen. That’s what I would allow to shape my understanding of what I was doing when I met with these students.

Usually I would have one or two sessions with students, and usually they would be about things like drugs or alcohol, or minor infractions. But one time I was paired with a student who had made a threat against another student. I think the university thought this bad behavior really wasn’t what he intended. Rather, he didn’t seem to have the social skills from his upbringing to deal with these things in a better way. We met over the period of a semester and talked about who he wanted to be, how he could relate to others, and discovering more of who he really is. 

So, at the same time, as part of my training to become a military chaplain, I would have training with our church’s endorsing agent, who is a representative of our church to the military, and in these trainings we would focus specifically on a Christian Science approach to issues that come up in the military. We would meet and address topics that were relevant to us as chaplains. So, it might be things like public prayer, grief, or dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Early in the semester we had a gathering, and we were talking about PTSD and studying the Bible and the writings of Mrs. Eddy. We were sharing insights with each other, digging in and trying to see how we could have a healing insight into this issue. When someone is exposed to something traumatic, typically there’s a recovery period and then, through resilience, people kind of get back to normal. But in the case of PTSD, trauma continues. So, people are trapped in anxiety or hypervigilance. And there’s anger and hatred. So, we were praying about it and really thinking about our role as chaplains—the heart goes out to those who are going through this, and to those around them, because PTSD has a big impact and is growing in relevance in the military. There has been a greater expectation that people who were in combat would have PTSD. 

God’s perspective about His children is that they are pure, upright, and unfallen.

A couple of things were really helpful during that training session. First, our chaplain endorsing agent pointed out a number of different Bible characters who had gone through what we would consider very traumatic events, and they came through those events retaining the dominion that God had given them. They were able to continue doing what God had intended them to do through His will, and they weren’t traumatized. 

The other component that came out while we were sharing and talking about these insights was that God, the divine intelligence, was governing, and that through this governance He gives man the ability to do what He created him to do. God gives man dominion. One passage really stood out, and that was Romans 12:2, which says, “Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” 

That strengthened my thought and showed that I needed to be more focused on God’s perspective and what God is seeing, rather than these human events that aren’t reflecting the nature of God’s creation. So, that training was on a Friday. Then, on Sunday, it was midday, and I just felt impelled to reread these passages from the Friday training. I wasn’t really sure why, but I just trusted I needed to do that. And it strengthened my trust that God is giving man dominion, that God is in control, and that hatred isn’t natural. 

That evening I was contacted by this student, and he wanted to meet. At the time I don’t think I thought much of it, but looking back I can realize this was unusual because rarely did students ever contact me unless they were forced to. They would generally wait until I had contacted them, and then we’d set up a meeting. So, when this student and I ended up sitting down and meeting, it turned out that over the holiday he had developed a lot of anger about certain things happening in his family. And at one point he had a lot of anger towards a non-family member, and he shared that one of his potential solutions included a gun and bullets. And he said he knew where they were. 

I think that because I had been doing all of this prayer and study about the inherent spiritual nature of man, I was not impressed. I passed this along to my administration, and they were really grateful to know about this because they had a robust response. They brought in mental health professionals, they brought in the police—everything they could to take care of him. The idea was that if he could make progress, he could stay in school.

Around that time, he stopped responding to my emails, and I guess maybe he felt betrayed when I turned this over to the school administration. But I just kept meeting with the other students, and each time I’d go to these meetings, I reaffirmed the true, upright nature of man as God’s child. 

Later I heard that this student had threatened an administrator, and if that continued, he would be removed from the school. I thought that Christian Science and what I was learning from my study of it could bring additional help to him. So, my prayer was pretty simple at that point: I just prayed to know that if God was bringing me into this student’s life to help bring care, then God would do that, and I didn’t need an official channel to make that happen. 

It turned out that a couple of weeks later, I had been riding on a bus that the school provides to move students around campus. This student got on the bus and sat a couple rows behind me. We hadn’t seen each other or talked before that. And I just said a quick prayer again that “if this is God’s will, it’ll be harmonious.” And he did talk to me, and we caught up just like we were old friends. I emailed him later, and he suggested that we start meeting again, this time in an unofficial capacity. It wouldn’t be through the school department. 

During these meetings, I had one more major shift in thought. I’d been reading these passages from the Bible and Mrs. Eddy’s writings before I met with students, and one day the insight came to me that I needed to read these passages as applying to myself, not only to the students. I realized that the more I understood myself as God’s child, the more I would see these students as God’s children too, and the easier it would be for me to help them. That was a big turning point for me. 

A couple meetings later, right before it, I had this feeling that I needed to get ready for a really good meeting. And it was a really good meeting, because he was just beaming. He had established goals for himself, like being in a relationship, and in student organizations, and they had all just come together. It seemed like the perfect way to close the relationship we had built, and for us to stop meeting. So, we stopped. I only saw him once more after that, but I know he continued with that student organization, and that he graduated successfully. 

Thank you so much for sharing that. Going through that experience must have meant a lot to you. What do you think you learned from it? 

I think one thing I learned is that the mental state and the outlook that I brought to this experience were really important. The more my mental state and outlook were informed by what I was learning of God and God’s relationship to man, the more impactful I was. I think the more I saw that God was already governing, the easier it was to turn things over to God and just trust God’s guidance. 

Matt, you’re now a chaplain in the Army Reserve. You finished school several years ago, and you’ve been a chaplain for a while now. How has what you’ve learned in that experience with the student helped you with what you’re doing now?

I think it’s been foundational in how I approach counseling and how I help people going through hard times, and how I can look to the Bible for inspiration and see how God is working in their life. I think a lot about the issues that soldiers are dealing with—questioning things like, “Where is God in this situation?” or, “How could I expect God to love me after the mistakes that I made or the hardships that I went through?” The ideas I’m learning in Christian Science about man’s innate good nature have really been helpful in dealing with these issues. And it’s also been helpful to just be willing to trust God’s role in a session when I’m sitting down and talking with a soldier and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Taking a moment and just listening for that guidance from God and then seeing the next step unfold—that, sometimes, is the most rewarding thing, to just be a witness to what God is doing. 

Thank you, Matt.
        Terri, you served as a chaplain in the Air Force for 26 years and had 14 assignments and 3 deployments. I know that much of your job was to comfort and support men and women in the service who were going through hard times. As a Christian Scientist, how did you approach your job? 

Terri Erickson: As a Christian Scientist, I approached my job with prayer and love, and I used Bible passages, since most of the people I was working with were very familiar with the Bible, and since Christian Scientists love and appreciate the Bible. 

What has the Bible taught you specifically about dealing with angry or violent thoughts? 

One passage in the Bible came alive to me, and that’s Isaiah, chapter 2, verses 2–4. The prophet Isaiah says, “And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Isaiah’s vision is a beautiful vision, and I find the very possibility of people coexisting peacefully in a frictionless world to be wonderful. Is this an impossible vision? No, I don’t believe so. Individuals and nations have turned violent cultures into peaceful, coexistent cultures, such as in Northern Ireland, for example. 

While serving as a chaplain, I learned firsthand that Isaiah’s vision is a practical vision, both in a discordant office situation and then in the midst of violent circumstances. 

First, I was stuck in an unyielding situation at work. While there were no physical weapons involved, I felt like I was entering a work environment where I was unwanted and not liked by my boss. This went on every day, for months. As I searched the Bible, one night I saw those words of the prophet Isaiah in a new light. I saw both the possibility of experiencing Isaiah’s vision and the practical steps for attaining this vision. 

I just prayed to know that if God was bringing me into this student’s life to help bring care, then God would do that. 

That particular night I carefully acted on each step towards ending the combative relationship that I was in the middle of. First I approached “the mountain of the Lord’s house,” prayerfully seeking divine wisdom. Next I listened humbly for the Lord’s instruction, which was to read Christ Jesus’ Beatitudes (see Matthew 5:3–12). We all know that reading the Beatitudes never leaves us in the same place mentally. Now I was ready for the next step, to let God be judge over this boss. My job was to focus on taking the beam out of my own eye (see Matthew 7:3–5). So, I turned my thought to my behavior. I realized that I had been bringing my own weapons of war to work. These “weapons” were a critical eye and a sharp tongue. These weapons kill joy and human dignity and foster the death of relationship. 

Isaiah’s practical vision made me consider how effective gardening tools are. After all, plowshares furrow the ground, crumble the clods, and allow for rain and oxygen to sink in. They prepare the ground for planting. Pruninghooks cut off excess growth on the plant so the harvest will be plentiful. 

I decided that night to give up my weapons for “gardening tools”—spiritual qualities such as love, respect, humor, and gratitude, which would cultivate peace. We must never underestimate the protection one can gain from spiritual tools. My opportunity to harvest more “gardening tools” came the next day when this boss called me into his office. While discussing a project, I humbly looked for the Christlikeness that was truly in him. I respectfully magnified the good. I thought I was preparing the ground for the next season’s crop, only to learn how quick and effective gardening tools are. Ten minutes after this peaceful meeting was over, my boss walked into my office, apologized for the way he had treated me over the past year, and asked if I would come work for him at his next assignment. 

Is it possible that actual guns can be put aside for gardening tools as readily? I was to learn a month later that it is possible, this time under violent circumstances. A well-loved eighteen-year-old airman was murdered after two men jumped into his truck at an ATM machine. As the chaplain for that airman’s unit, I was asked to hold a memorial service. I was keenly aware that his coworkers wanted revenge. I heard that some were planning to take their weapons and hunt down the men who had murdered their friend. 

I knew I had to prayerfully find a way to calm this rage. This could not be accomplished by throwing out platitudes. These men were coming to the Lord’s house, and only wise counsel directly from God could change the intensity of their thoughts and intended actions. The night before the memorial service, I spent hours in prayer humbly listening for a word from God. 

I chose the words of the Apostle Paul in the book of Romans to assure them “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come” could “separate” their friend “from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38, 39). Furthermore, I expounded on the fact that when we bury someone, we are only burying our view of them. We’re not burying God’s view of them. We’re not burying their view of themselves. 

While these men were gripped with the image of their friend, gripped with the thought of terror and animosity and bullets, Paul’s words and Christ Jesus’ lifework assured them that life with God is far beyond a defining moment of terror. Life with God is eternal. I also addressed the strong emotions of shock, grief, confusion, anger, rage, and hate—the fear for their own security, and the fear for their children’s security, as well as a deep sense of loss that was so tangibly felt in that chapel. I reminded them that hate precedes murder. It kills the spirit, our own and others’.  

During the memorial service I also shared the experience of a woman who was the victim of hate and rage. Her own hate towards the perpetrator was beating her up, churning away inside. And she desperately wanted relief from that hate. Unable to forgive the perpetrator, it occurred to her that had Jesus been hateful or revengeful, he could not have been resurrected. Any hate or revenge would have been “earth weights” holding him down. She longed to have a resurrection experience of her own, and knew that she had to drop the earth weights of hate, revenge, bitterness, hardness of heart—all weapons of war. After deep and humble prayer, she was ready to let God be the Judge over her perpetrator, and she used the gardening tool of gratitude for the good in her life to renew a right spirit within her. She experienced a profound sense of peace from this deep and humble prayer. 

Near the end of the service, I presented a choice for these men to make: the choice to serve hate, which leads to death, or to choose gratitude and kindness, which leads to peace of mind and peaceful coexistence. As the service concluded, I could feel the transformation of collective thought rising out of the mental muck and ashes. The next day several men in the deceased airman’s unit took leave from work, not to hunt the perpetrators but to travel to a different state to lovingly meet with the airman’s parents, planting seeds of kindness and regeneration. 

Sixteen years later two senior military men recognized me as I was picking up some retirement paperwork. The men ran over to me, reminded me of this memorial service so many years before, and thanked me for redirecting their thoughts from a rash violent response to a far more positive response to the tragic loss of their friend. They had been profoundly blessed by putting down their weapons of war for spiritual gardening tools. 

Terri, that was a really moving experience. Thank you. Do you have any further thoughts you can add for someone who may be really struggling with anger or dark thoughts? 

Just a final thought: Mrs. Eddy assures us, “One infinite God, good, unifies men and nations; constitutes the brotherhood of man; ends wars; fulfils the Scripture, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself;’ annihilates pagan and Christian idolatry,—whatever is wrong in social, civil, criminal, political, and religious codes; equalizes the sexes; annuls the curse on man, and leaves nothing that can sin, suffer, be punished or destroyed” (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p. 340). Originally and ultimately, we share the same divine heritage, which assures us that Isaiah’s vision is both a promise and a present possibility for all, individually and collectively.

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