JONI OVERTON-JUNG'S WEBSITE SPILLS OUT A message from Dante in bold black letters that flow like a river from the horizon:
"Infinite goodness has such wide arms."
Joni has felt the tender embrace of those wide arms. She's felt goodness flow through her life. The waters of experience have churned and foamed at times, raged even, but they've carried her relentlessly ... forward.
From an early age, Joni attended Christian Science Sunday School, where she learned about the infinite reach of divine goodness. Where she learned to trust divine goodness to give her whatever she needs, including love, health, and work—learned that, as she puts it, "Spiritual healing is as natural and fundamental as light in the morning. It's something we can count on."
I talked with Joni recently about some of her insights into the nature of God and how healing happens. In our conversation, she discussed how to fully experience the wholeness and harmony that everyone wants. She explained how natural it is to rely on a metaphysical healthcare model in which our mental vantage point, the way we think, plays a pivotal role. I started the conversation by asking Joni to tell me about a major turning point: How did she become a Christian Science practitioner and teacher? She described how she had reached a low point in her life, the battle she fought to overcome despair, her dramatic turnaround—and the upward path she took.
JONI OVERTON-JUNG: The turning point came during my senior year in college. I was majoring in English at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. And I was extremely depressed. I'd had difficulty with depression at different points in my life, but not to the degree that I experienced that fall quarter. My life felt darker than it had ever been. I was way behind in work on my thesis. All I wanted was to find a way to escape the nightmare. During the Thanksgiving break, I stayed at school to work. That weekend things came to a head. Though I'd been in my own way trying to find answers and reaching out for help, it felt like nothing was working.
I started thinking about how I might kill myself: What would be the easiest way? What would happen? As I was thinking about this, a quiet thought came, and it was this: "Suicide won't resolve the issues you're struggling with—you'll still have to deal with them." At first that thought made me kind of mad. What comfort was that? But then I started listening. I felt there was something really important behind that message, something bigger, deeper calling me, trying to get my attention. So I made a commitment to listen. I decided I'd pace the floor, whatever it took. Even if it took me all night, all my life, I would listen. I would hang in there for the answer. Nothing was more important.
JEFFREY HILDNER: Joni, you said the thought came to you that suicide wouldn't resolve the issues you were struggling with. Why not? What do you mean?
Beneath all of the darkness and my desire to escape, I felt an underlying and calm sense that life was too big to kill. Somehow in that moment, when that quiet thought I described came to me, I understood that I couldn't run from Life, God. I couldn't run from the authenticity and goodness of my own life, from my own God-authored life. It was the darkness that had to go, not me. In some ways I began to see that the depression was just a smokescreen, a diversion trying to keep me from being true to a deeper, spiritual calling—the calling to live with the power, grace, and authority that God has given to all of us.
The discomfort of my inner conflict no longer seemed so daunting. I felt the inevitability of light, progress, and promise. Everything became still, quiet, peaceful.
I can imagine. I've experienced moments like that lots of times in my life, light cutting through darkness, inner storms calmed, leaving me with a feeling of hope. The way I see it, you said "No" to death and "Yes" to Life because you heard angels. And I'm using the word Life as a synonym for God—you said "Yes" to God. And you said "No" to the opposite of God, or death. Now when I say angels I don't mean mysterious beings with wings. I mean angels as defined by Mary Baker Eddy, "God's thoughts passing to man; spiritual instuitions, pure and perfect; the inspiration of goodness ..." (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p. 581). These Life-angels inspired you. They whispered to you about your eternity. They told you that you can't die. Life is an immortal Principle! Which you and I and everyone coexist with and express, just as sunbeams coexist with and express the sun. I think those angels nudged you to see your incorporeal nature, your immortality, your scientific unity with incorporeal and immortal divine Life. Tell me what happened next.
I found that I was more mentally quiet than I had ever been. I was not only ready to listen, but willing to listen. And I began to feel God's infinite love sweeping right through that darkness and despair. Two messages—yes, more angels!—came to me. First, I got this great sense that I belonged, that in the bigger scheme of things I was both essential and necessary, that I was loved. While nothing had changed around me, I felt completely released. I felt like myself. I knew that I was feeling the presence of God right there. The second thought-message was this: "Joni, you've been sitting on the fence in everything in your life, pretty much being a sponge for any thought, feeling, situation. You're not taking a stand for anything. Use the tools you have, read the Bible and Science and Health. Let them help you sift between what's real and what isn't. Let them help you recognize God's all-goodness and love for you and all."
That second message helped me see why I had been feeling so immobile and what I could do to make some immediate changes. From that day on I spent time studying the Bible and Science and Health. I searched for spiritual answers and endeavored to turn to God more consciously as my compass, my anchor, my Life. As I did so, I began to feel true joy rising up within me, completely independent of what was going around me. Even though my closest friends were away during the next quarter at school, I felt such a sense of completeness. I finished my thesis and received honors. I think my advisors were surprised, given how badly the project had started out, but I knew that these accomplishments were the direct result of turning to God. What a relief it was to be learning that I was never alone, that I would never have to come up with good ideas or chart a course by myself, that I was worthy of love, inseparable from God, a direct expression of all that God includes. Such liberty!
I felt a deep and certain peace that there was nothing in human experience beyond the reach, touch, and tender love of God.
I feel your liberty! Let's take a second to fill out what you mean when you say God. You and I have hinted to this point that we think of God as divine goodness, as Life, the divine Principle. Describe for me how else you think about God.
God, dear God, how to even articulate the largesse of infinite, all-embracing, encompassing, sustaining divine Love—to pause right now to feel this omnipotent, all-pervading gentle presence. Love that is Life—the origin, breath, source, impetus of all being. Love that is Truth—uncompromisingly true, present, All, good. Love that is Spirit, Soul—flawless orchestrator of life, pure grace, beauty, peace, unceasingly real ... the singular, indivisible basis, foundation, essence, substance, and nature of all that is.
Let me underscore what you've said by pointing readers to the definition that Mary Baker Eddy gave in Science and Health (p. 587), which I know you turn to as the basis for your own enlarging concept of God, "The great I am; the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-acting, all-wise, all-loving, and eternal; Principle; Mind; Soul; Spirit; Life; Truth; Love; all substance; intelligence." Now let's pick up where you left off. There you are in your senior year of college, and you feel God rescue you from terrifying depression. Then what?
Well, I applied to the Peace Corps. They said it might take a year and half before being placed, but I was in Africa within six months of applying. I taught English for two years to junior secondary students in Bobonong, Botswana. But before I left, I took Christian Science class instruction. It was the most important class I've ever taken. I found it interesting that though I had struggled with academics in college, this class opened a whole new level of study, inspiration, and practical living, and I loved every minute of it. All my questions about life were answered in some way. While I knew that what I was learning included significant demands for daily living, I felt a deep and certain peace that there was nothing in human experience beyond the reach, touch, and tender love of God. From that time on, I knew that all I really wanted to do was practice Christian Science healing. It satisfied my longing for a social, spiritual, individual activism—my longing to find answers, to be able to help others, to respond in bigger, more universal ways, right from the vantage point of my own thought and life.
When I got out of the Peace Corps, I wasn't sure what to do. I looked into graduate programs in Chicago, and as I was thumbing through a catalog, the thought came, "What do you really want to study?" I knew the answer: Christian Science. Then I got this follow-up thought: "So study that, make Christian Science your graduate program, devote your life to the practice of Christian Science healing." From that day on, that's what I did. During the first couple years of my practice, I did odd jobs—teaching, copy editing, waitressing, housesitting. I also served as a volunteer chaplain at a mental health center in Chicago. But in my heart I had one job only and that was to be a witness to God's allness and goodness. So in 1991, I began advertising my healing practice in the directory of the Journal. I became a member of the Board of Lectureship in 1995 and served for ten years. Then in 2003, I took Normal class and became a Christian Science teacher. It's an ongoing adventure for sure.
The 17th-century English theologian and historian Thomas Fuller said, "It is always darkest just before the day dawneth." Your grand adventure dawned from that darkest moment years ago in college.
Yes, and you know, when I think back to that dark time, I can now see that there was never a question about whether good would ultimately triumph. I learned that no matter how bad things seem, they can only propel us forward to healing, propel us forward to discover our inherent God-given freedom, purpose, and goodness.
You told me recently that you see healing less as an event and more as "a result of seamless, effortless being." What did you mean?
Healing isn't about getting something we don't have—it's about remembering, realizing, who we really are. Everyone yearns to find a way to be whole, sound, healthy, to return to an original state of purity and integrity, to feel in sync and at one with harmony and peace. There's something about these yearnings that won't be put down. They don't go away. They function as a protest in the face of any struggle, as a message or inner inkling that being whole is what's native to us. These yearnings urge us to throw off the fragments of what feels like our shattered selves and discover the seamless goodness of unstained identity.
My experience has shown me that we need to trace our footsteps back to that quiet reservoir within to find the real source, the answers, the wisdom, the assurance, and the discovery that what we seek in every single arena of our lives is not "out there," but is at hand, and that we include it. We need to trust those inner urgings, be patient in learning to listen, humble enough to hang in there while the world tries to rage around us in the forms of clamor, fear, distraction. Mary Baker Eddy talked about it like this, "The thought of it stills complaint; the heaving surf of life's troubled sea foams itself away, and underneath is a deep-settled calm" (Message to The Mother Church for 1902, p. 19). Christian Science has taught me that healing is not an event, but a discovery. In its purest sense, healing is like a gentle awakening, a quiet recognition that everything we feel separated from is actually here: health, peace, joy, love, freedom, abundance, worth, purpose, opportunity. These forms of goodness are here because God is here. Each one of us is an immediate, individual, and constant expression of all that God is. So we express intelligence, beauty, grace, goodness—more good than we can begin to fathom.
You're talking about a model of healing radically different from popular models, aren't you?
That's right. We need to stop trying to fix things. Instead we need to look for the inherent health, wholeness, unity, and harmony that are forever established of God. We long for good because it is our birthright, our nature, not because we've been separated from it, not because there's a lack of it!
Could you give an example? How does this we-are-already-whole model of healing work?
We need to stop trying to fix things. Instead we need to look for the inherent health, wholeness, unity, and harmony that are forever established of God.
Recently I got a call from someone who was getting ready to have her first baby. Though she tried to sound upbeat, she was in a state of panic. She'd just had a doctor's appointment and had been told to expect the birth to be long and painful. As she poured out her concerns, I turned to God, listened for those calm, strong currents of Truth. What came to me to share with her was that this birth was not an event, that both she and the baby were already complete—living and moving and having their being in God, with plenty of room to be and do everything they needed to do. God governs and sustains the development and unfoldment of our moments with grace and joy and freedom. It was so clear to me that I didn't need to try and fix this situation, or get caught up in trying to fix all the human beliefs about birth and creation. All I needed to do was listen to God, Spirit. Immediately the conversation changed—it was like a light went on. Her fear gave place to joy, peace, assurance. By the end of our phone call, she sounded like her usual bubbly, buoyant, joyful self.
Two weeks later she called to say she was starting to have contractions, just as I was getting ready for bed. We talked briefly about God's great love for her and the baby, and that she could feel so completely at peace. I told her I would be praying right along with her and to call whenever she wanted. As I paused in prayer to listen, I had the most gentle and certain sense that everything was already complete and being expressed exactly as it needed to be. I knew she and this baby were entirely safe in God's hands. I felt so peaceful that it seemed natural to continue getting ready for bed. But again I listened, and there was such an assurance that God had everything covered—I didn't need to work on it, tend it, or second-guess it. During the night I woke a couple times, but it was always with the gentle clarity that God was being God, that everything was in order and safe for this mother and her baby.
She called back in the morning to say that she and her husband now had a beautiful baby girl. She said that two hours after she had called me the night before, they went to the hospital. After a checkup, the doctor told her to go home and to come back in the morning when they would induce the birth—that her water had not broken all at once, and that she should be prepared for a long, difficult night. They went home, but returned to the hospital three hours later. The medical staff was about to tell her to go home again, but she said, "Please check, because I'm sure the baby is coming." Thirty minutes later the baby was born. She said that nurses and doctors couldn't get over how natural the birth had been. When they brought the baby to her, the baby was crying, but this new mom started talking to her baby. And the baby opened her eyes, looked right at her mom, stopped crying, and smiled.
I've been very moved by this mother's clear sense that God is the Father and Mother of her child. She respects the spiritual integrity and completeness of this baby as the child of God, which in turn is deepening her respect for her own integrity and completeness. There was such an ordered grace to this whole experience. It underlines and confirms the certainty of God's care for each of us, that good can never be interrupted, and that we don't need to labor for it. It also points to how much we need to look to God and God alone for what's true about us. The divine Christ presence is always here to remind us of who we are and what's true, to restore our sense of things to wholeness, and in turn bring healing.
It's a powerful thing to witness, this transforming presence of God, how it lifts us up and gives us a glimpse of the spiritual substance and relevance of our lives. The transforming presence of God opens our eyes to the fact that life isn't random or up for grabs, but proceeds from the divine Principle, Love, which governs the universe with order, tenderness, and grace. Each one of us has the potential to experience this and to help others do so as well.
You also told me that you've been thinking a lot about divine Science—and how no one can really wander beyond the reach of Science ... beyond the influence, the safety of Science.
That's right. Divine Science is universal. No one is outside of it. No one is outside of the divine presence, knowledge, government, and power.
In a way, that's what you're hinting at on the homepage of your website, isn't it, by that quote from Dante: "Infinite goodness has such wide arms."
That's why I love that quote. No one anywhere has the capacity to be outside of Love's infinite embrace. Goodness is so basic—something everyone can identify with, something yearned for. It is a universal, fundamental quality of being. If we can recognize goodness, we can begin to understand the ever-presence of God. To me this is what divine Science is all about. Divine Science helps us recognize what's already true, what's real about who we are, what belongs to all of us, and how we can experience the freedom of that right now. I love the definition of Science that Mary Baker Eddy gives in her book No and Yes: "Divinely defined, Science is the atmosphere of God; ..." (p. 9). What an incredible concept. Do we not all live in the atmosphere of God? Everything that exists lives and moves and expresses the substance and presence of God, His nature, essence, character. What God is, and the laws that explain the Divine, cannot be reduced to denomination, sect, or religion in a theological or organizational sense. It's way too big for that. It's infinite. It belongs to everyone—no one is outside of the goodness of God. No one can be separated from the security, freedom, integrity, holiness of divine Love's all-encompassing government of being. And God cannot be deprived of anyone's expression of Him.
Thinking about the world in this light brings me such hope, encouragement, and assurance. We all belong to God. If we follow Jesus' simple admonition to know what's true, to look for what's true, honor what's true—it doesn't matter how different someone's perspective is. It becomes a journey of loving and nurturing discovery that respects the divine integrity that everyone includes.
The river of God has plenty of water; ... for you have ordered it so.
—PSALMS (New Living Translation)
River. Channel of thought.
—MARY BAKER EDDY
Jeffrey Hildner is a senior writer for the Journal. He also is creative director of the Journal and the Christian Science Sentinel.