Church on a Sunday morning meant singing, clapping, dancing, and watching the power men on stage fire bolts of spirit at people, knocking them to the floor. The service generally concluded with screaming, writhing exorcisms. It was always a sound that disturbed me, but at least it signaled it would soon be time for refreshments.
At children’s camp when I was twelve there was an assembly line which manufactured spiritual experiences. As the children stood worshiping, a male church elder went from child to child, laying his hand on their foreheads. I always tried to avoid this kind of thing, but today I realised that I was standing in the line he was currently working on, and it was too late: he was already too close to make an unnoticed escape to the bathroom. When his hand finally made contact with my forehead, I felt only that it was warm. I waited for God to make me fall over backwards, but felt nothing except for increasing emotional pressure, with this man fervently praying in front of me and the pastor’s wife waiting from behind to catch me. After a tense few minutes I finally gave in and voluntarily fell backwards. As she lay me down the pastor’s wife whispered into my ear: “Well done, Kit, well done.”
A year or so later I was visiting an Anglican church with Mum. The service wasn’t charismatic, and so I wasn’t expecting anything dramatic to happen as I stood singing beside a pew during the worship. But suddenly I was regaining consciousness on the floor with no memory of falling, and no sensation of pain from hitting the pew or the ground. I felt only a vivid sense that I was enveloped by love and peace. A small group of adults had formed around me, and I heard one of them say to Mum “It’s reassuring, isn’t it?”
That question frames the struggles I went through as a young evangelical. The message of our church was the love of God and joy of salvation, but the service at the Anglican church was the only time I remember having any sense that this was real. My daily emotional reality was a constant state of anxiety over whether I was definitely still saved, and whether I was doing enough to save the people around me. I tried to suppress my fears of God, Satan, and hell, but they bubbled to the surface in nightmares of being left behind after the rapture, after which I would wake up and sit crying alone in my room.
But something clicked into place when I went to Leeds university, and the moments of reassurance started coming in more frequently. I went to small groups, prayer groups, prophetic sessions, camps and outreaches. I prayed and I fasted until I literally threw up. I would jump up and down, cry out in passion, and fall to my knees. I felt that being evangelical made me part of God’s special people, but I also felt that I was special among God’s people. Every time I did something that was regarded as spiritual, whether that was praying with a stranger, giving or receiving a prophetic word, or leading worship or Bible study, this egotistical belief was strengthened.
But in the final year of my degree in psychology, the tower came tumbling down. Thanks in part to a module on social constructionism, I came to the conclusion that three of the beliefs I had inherited were incorrect. The first was condemnation of homosexuality. I came to realise how sexual identity is a core part of who we are rather than an optional extra that we can choose, like the flavour of an ice cream. The idea of “love the sinner hate the sin” meant trying to eliminate an essential part of a person, and this wasn’t loving. The second was the doctrine of eternal hell as punishment for everyone who hasn’t made the right contract with Jesus. The third was how the Bible could possibly be the inerrant and inspired word of God when it contains so much divinely-sanctioned violence.
During this questioning I felt unsure but hopeful. I read Dave Tomlinson’s The Post-Evangelical and saw that I wasn’t alone, that there was already a path beyond my inherited faith that others had walked before me. And I had overwhelming experiences of joy and love in the Holy Spirit which I felt provided confirmation that this new path was still of God. So one morning while following my usual routine of praying in the morning before getting out of bed, it was sudden and unexpected when I realised that the presence of God had gone away. Until that moment I hadn’t been aware of the presence as I prayed each day, but now it was gone. I waited a week for it to return, after which began a rapid and intense spiral into atheism and rebellious enjoyment of so many things that I had been denied as an evangelical Christian. I dyed my hair red and wore it in spikes, got an eyebrow piercing, and started smoking, swearing, and taking drugs. Everything felt so open and new, and I realised I was now speaking to non-Christians as equals for the first time.
While life free from religion was thrilling and poignant in extremes that I had never before known, it was also dizzying, and I suffered from depression and loneliness. I didn’t feel that I could relate to my evangelical friends or family, which left me with no close relationships in Leeds. During the time when I was madly going about making new friends and trying new experiences, I realised that I needed to take some real time out to process these wild changes, and so made a plan: first graduate, and then fly to India and backpack around the world for a year. But as I was saving money for the trip, I lost the little remaining stability I had left. Psychologically I was under increasing strain, living in a house of evangelicals while my drug-fuelled partying became more frequent. I was also in a complex and emotionally demanding relationship with one of my new drug-taking friends. Finally my body put a stop to things with an intense case of glandular fever, which meant I had to stop working, postpone the trip, and go back to live with Mum and Dad with my tail between my legs while I recovered enough strength to make the flight.
It took three months of rest to get through the acute phase of the illness. I made it to Delhi, but was still highly susceptible to exhaustion and sickness, so during my travels through Asia I thirsted above all for rest. Physically this meant slow travel, moving on to a new location every week or so, and spending my time reading, journaling, enjoying local food, and taking gentle walks. Spiritually this thirst meant exploring the Eastern spiritual practices of Buddhist meditation, soft martial arts, and Taoism.
It was after leaving Asia and while working in a hospital in Wellington, New Zealand that I came across the word Reiki. On seeing it for the first time I clearly sensed that I was going to learn it, despite not knowing what the word meant. I got all of the books from the library that I could, found out that I would need a teacher, and so when my contract was over at the hospital I shouldered my backpack once more to begin the final stage of my year-long journey: walking and hitch-hiking the length of the south island to Dunedin, to find a Reiki teacher called Janine Joyce.
The Reiki course revealed an approach that was so much more gentle than my experiences with charismatic healing. The most powerful moment of the course was during the initiation ceremony. I was sitting with my eyes closed, hands in prayer position, while Janine completed the ritual. The silence was only broken by the gentle chime of a Tibetan singing bowl. At first I felt tense about what might be happening to me spiritually, but let go of that as I began to feel a rushing of heat inside and around me. In that moment came an intuitive knowing: after more than a year since God had withdrawn her presence from me, the energy that was now coursing through the room was my old friend the Holy Spirit.
This moment at the end of 2007 marked the beginning of a new chapter in my spiritual journey. Reiki revealed itself to me not as a replacement for a now invalid conception of God, but as a new manifestation of the same spirit. And this formed a bridge between my former experiences and the mystery that I was now discovering. This moment therefore was a returning as well as a renewing, and it began a process of healing and growing which continues to this day.
– Kit Johnson