I was a child of the Charismatic Movement, in quite a literal way. Two years after my Anglican-Presbyterian mother got born again and Spirit filled, God told her to have another child. She stopped taking the pill, and I was born about a year later.
I grew up Charismatic Presbyterian in 1980s New Zealand and attended two Reformed Christian secondary schools in the 1990s. When I was 13, there was a stint living with my parents on campus at a Pentecostal Bible College.
These were the days of tearing down strongholds with shouted prayers and loud worship music, back-masking, demon deliverance and stories about the Russians digging a hole so deep that when they dangled a microphone down there, they could hear the screams of the souls in hell. These were the days of the inevitable immanent return of Jesus as the year 2000 approached. I wish we’d all been ready.
There were all kinds of adventures and good friends. I experienced the stark difference of Reformed Christianity on the one hand and Pentecostalism on the other, with Charismatic Presbyterianism somewhere in-between, but I was an introvert imaginative kid always looking for home – some kind of space where I felt I could belong, somewhere safe from guilt and fear.
I stayed Charismatic Presbyterian for over 20 years. During that time I finished a master’s degree in English at university, got a job at a Christian publishing company (where I still work, 20 years later) and met Anna, my wife, at a Christian music festival after one of my poetry performances.
Anna had chronic fatigue (ME/CFS). She had it when we met, but we both knew she was going to get better soon. We were both God-honouring young people, so we knew that God wouldn’t want us to have our dreams derailed by illness. That’s how it works, right? And anyway, I was a perfectionist and an idealist – so that’s how it had to work.
A few months into our marriage, the illness worsened. Anna ran out of sick days in her first job as a Spanish and English teacher and had to resign. Her feelings of isolation deepened, so we moved to her hometown to be closer to family.
Over the course of the next decade or so, Anna’s health continued to fluctuate. At one point she felt well enough to step out and take on another teaching job. ‘Step-out in faith’ is how we framed it. She made it through one term then, during the two-week school holidays, she started having non-epileptic seizures.
The scans were clear, but the seizures continued to occur unpredictably – sometimes in a cluster, sometimes months apart. Anxiety became a feature of my life alongside a growing sense of disenchantment with the way things had turned out.
By now, I was attending a Pentecostal church and was actually quite involved – mainly as a worship leader – despite the awkwardness an introvert can feel in what is essentially an extrovert style of Christianity. I had wonderful friends there and had no particular beef with the place. But my faith was slipping and, ironically, it was partly due to the positivity preached from the stage. It was intended to boost our faith so that healing and joy would come. But healing wasn’t coming, and there was no official space for sorrow and lament. There was plenty about the faith it takes to be physically healed, and nothing about the faith it takes to live unhealed.
With perfectionism as grist to the mill, disenchantment was turning into a generalised sense of resentment, and resentment is very tiring.
Without any unpleasant rupture with the church I’d been attending, I gravitated towards a newly established local church where people wanted to explore faith in a deeper, more intellectually engaged way. The informal term that I latched onto there was ‘post-Pentecostal’. In effect, aspects of the deconstruction process were taking place within the context of church community.
There was more existentially honest theology taking place – space for ambiguity and mystery – but my expectations about how life should be, and God’s role in that, ran very deep… the resentment and tiredness, alongside caregiver fatigue and trauma, continued to gather.
Age 39, anxiety was increasingly popping up at unexpected times and it didn’t seem to be directly linked to specific triggers. I was starting to experience weird physiological symptoms, and my body wasn’t healing itself properly. Then, after an unfortunate experience with an antidepressant, my system collapsed. I was experiencing burnout… maybe even, dare I say it in the old language, a nervous breakdown.
The process of making sense of my life, and recovery, began. There were medical tests, including an MRI for MS-like symptoms, and an ultrasound for sharp pains in my abdomen. The results, from a pathological point of view, were always those of a healthy individual. So the real, and perhaps most important, work came to the fore – that long internal journey – deconstruction or dissembling via falling apart – a journey which I hoped, to use Richard Rohr’s term, would prove to be a falling upward.
By and by I discovered a wide river. I first caught the sound of it during one of those moments of desperate internet searching, which turned up a thing called mindfulness. Walking in that direction, I found myself ankle-deep in something called contemplative spirituality. I don’t think I found it by accident. There was a familiarity to it and a strange newness.
Mysticism had always been my thing, truth be told. I’d flirted with it in every church context I’d been in. I had a strong longing for a connection to something that extended all the way back – something ancient. Something deep. If nothing else, my burnout made me feel like I needed to plunge head-first into cool, clear water, and so I dove in and entered the flow.
It transpires that contemplative spirituality isn’t just about practices, but a whole way of being in the world. Bigger than congregations or denominations, or even my own existential expectations. A gathering sense of home. For me, it’s the most hopeful possibility for Christianity.
Questions about theology and the presence and intention of God seem to be increasingly filled with wonder, rather than angst or frustration. Nearly five years on, the burnout recovery continues. This morning I experienced the confusion of a sudden onset of brain-fog, anxiety and tiredness. But there’s something different now. Open-handedness and gratitude are friends. Little by little, guilt is becoming less of a feature in my belief dynamic. Love and Presence. Restedness is a core value. ‘Accept and float’ is the mantra I got from one of the many books I’ve read. I don’t want to over-romanticise this, and wax too lyrical; but then again, I did ask for a sense of wonder.
There’s a place on the spiritual journey described by French philosopher Paul Riceour called ‘the second naïveté’. It’s a post-critical mindset – a possible way of being beyond the deconstruction/dissembling process – and I find it very inviting. In essence, it’s a journey from disenchantment to re-enchantment – not an arrival but an ongoing process. It contains all the gifts and wisdom of the critical phase, but it rests easier. It’s a more nuanced interaction with the old words, the symbol and metaphor, returning to them in their richness with the embodied engagement of the sacramental.
About 15 months ago, Anna and I moved north, closer to the equator, to the outskirts of a small town, near the rugged west coast. Northland is the least wealthy region of New Zealand. We set out on an adventure – a place in the country, and a place where Anna has been able to engage in coalface youth work. She still has to carefully manage her health, but it’s been over three years since she had a seizure – so who knows…
On Wednesday morning I sat in church for Eucharist – just the six of us – me and five older women, including the vicar. Holy Trinity, a nearly 150-year-old structure, an Anglican church, built in what was then a colonial outpost, from Kauri timber that took from hundreds to thousands of years to grow. (The area was once clothed with these giant sacred trees – the legs of Tāne Mahuta as he held earth and sky apart to let in the light – until they were clear-felled as a resource for empire.) We say liturgy that, via a series of fairly minor revisions, dates at least as far back as 1549. The timber and the liturgy have that in common.
We entered via the vestry door because the main door is exposed to wind and rain – the church is built on a high point above the town. The rain is a gentle white noise to our prayer, and the structure creaks just a little in a gust. The squall passes and now the beautiful stain-glass behind the altar (donated by the widow of the colonial entrepreneur for whom the town is named) is illuminated.
The wide brown heft of the Northern Wairoa River flows on by downstream, then back again as the tidal force of the Kaipara Harbour’s 947 square kilometres of water pushes inland. So many metaphors, so much ambiguity, so much poetry, so much to admire and regret. Disconnects, breaking, burning and reassembling. So much beauty and… sin. And yet, and yet… this age-old hum of potentiality, dissembling and remaking… perhaps – in the richest, ever-new sense of the old language – the possibility of redemption, of coming home.
– Andrew Killick