This is the second part of a three part series on what happened when my coven visited a “spirit-filled” Christian church. In the first part I wrote about what prompted us to visit the church and together with Autumn, who has no background in Christianity, we shared our initial reactions. In this second part Autumn and I compare notes on our experience, how we sensed and saw the flow of energy. We also look at how we both understood the sermon, and how together we were able to make sense of our experiences.
Autumn: One of the big questions I had for how Christians do magic is, how can they possibly balance the energy of large groups like the one in Bethel? If you’re going to move energy for healing or for whatever purpose, it’s my understanding that the energy has to be contained, focused, and directed, requiring large-scale coordination. You have a large number of people who haven’t really studied any of the prerequisites I have found necessary to create a solid container. There are no anchors, there is no circle cast. With essentially random people coming in without even a basic briefing on what to do at the beginning, how could they achieve the various forms of divination and healing work that Annika described to me? I think Christians would say that Jesus does it, but my experience suggests that divine influence on these things is only one part of the equation. How does what they are doing create the space for that?
Annika: When Autumn asked me about how charismatic Christians create a container, her question didn’t really make sense to me. In the past I had always perceived the energy during worship as ecstatic, beautiful, and completely safe. It was such a comfortable experience to just lose myself in worship, so this whole idea of containment, which I came to appreciate in Pagan rituals, seemed irrelevant with respect to Christian worship.
Autumn: This roughly 45 minute worship/music bit at the beginning was my first opportunity to see how it worked. At first, my shields were up, and while I could see the mechanics as I mentioned in part 1, other than a vague sense of energy moving somewhere, I wasn’t really perceiving the energy. But this is what I was here to learn about, and so despite my fear, I started to open up a bit to sense what was going on. Frankly, the power of what was happening was astonishing. In my own personal perception of magic, this was orange energy — the sense of the color orange coming from the entire crowd — directed upwards toward the stage and … well, probably to Jesus, was exceptionally powerful. Ordinarily I only sense energy that strongly at the peak of workings involving 30-50 people such as at a public Pagan gathering, so to see this much energy flowing continuously was pretty surprising. The color was also unusual; my perception of Pagan rituals is that orange is rare; more frequently I perceive purple, blue, green, and sometimes red or yellow.
Annika: Praise and worship always felt like such an orange experience to me. Even when I was a child I felt like the room filled with an orange light whenever we worshipped, and I loved it. As I got older, I longed for more diversity in color, specifically purple, blue, and green. I remember saying to my husband at the time “I wish there was more purple, blue, and green in our worship. If I ever figure out a way to make this happen, I will write a book called ‘God is Purple, Blue, and Green.’” He thought I was crazy.
This time I was ready to reunite with some orange energy again. I get plenty of purple, blue, and green in Pagan rituals, and was excited for the warmness and “floatiness” of orange. I wanted to be open to the experience just as if I was still a Christian, so I didn’t put up any shields. I opened and felt into the orange energy, wondering if I could fully enter it even though the message of the songs was so alienating. But something was wrong.
Autumn: As I opened to sensing the energy, I suddenly felt it tugging on the edges of my energy field, threatening to rip it off and carry it away. The sensation was pretty strong, and a few tears welled up in my eyes as that orange color washed over me like the rapids of a river. Whoa there! A little too open, maybe. I re-grounded myself, pushing my roots down deep so I could stand in that torrent, still able to perceive it but no longer in danger of being swept away by the current. Now, fully grounded, I could safely see where the energy was going and what was happening without having to be afraid of it.
Annika: As much as I wanted to dive into the flow, the energy felt aggressive to me, like it was going to tear down my own energy body before I could experience it. It seemed like the energy would reverse the triple soul alignment I practice as a part of my spiritual path. I wasn’t going to experience this energy with my own energy body intact and if I allowed it in, it would take me away from myself. I became angry. This was invasive, like tentacles reaching for me, trying to take over. I still didn’t shield, I just held on to my own energy.
Autumn: As I stood in that torrent, I gained some clarity on the purpose of all this. The underlying subtext of what they were chanting was “I am nothing, Jesus is everything”. Their own personal power to make things work in the world needed to be given up to Jesus. And so the power they were channeling into the prayer service was not as I had been taught, drawn from the Earth and Sky, but intentionally depleting their personal power and energy. That was the work they were doing, attempting to essentially divorce themselves of their own power, hand it to Jesus, and be completely open and empty as an end to itself. I wondered, is that the state they consider to be pure and divinely inspired? Is their human ability to love other people, to care about things besides Jesus and their worship, to even have a body and enjoy moving around in it, just in the way? Magically, it began to make sense how this worked — you don’t need to balance everyone’s energy if the first thing you do is exhort everyone to give it all up and shoot it off into space.
Annika:I had been so excited to come here and lose myself in that orange energy again, but now it didn’t feel appealing anymore. I felt the disappointment wash over me. There was such lightness and bliss in losing oneself in that orange torrent, but I had never realized the cost. I didn’t know who I was back then, in fact, I wasn’t supposed to know, my identity was supposed to be in Jesus alone. Nowadays I know who I am, and I worked hard to come to a place where I like myself. I wasn’t going to give that up in order to join in worship.
Autumn: Toward the end of the musical part, there were a few folks dancing and moving around. My sense of what was going on though was… well. It’s really hard to say this because it feels as though I’m judging. But it did not feel authentically from them — it felt like maybe random muscle twitching or some sort of forced “random looking” movements. In a witch’s circle, where everyone is trying to express themselves authentically, no matter how someone moves, I don’t tend to get that sense. (Even people who are ‘trying too hard’, clearly show that and that is authentic in its own way.) People in that gymnasium seemed so empty of anything that was theirs — whether intellect, emotion, or spirit. Yet it didn’t look like people were aspecting Jesus or even in their Fetch — there was just emptiness. The sense was of a hall of mirrors where everyone was trying to reflect everyone else but there was very little there to actually reflect. And again, while I feel like this is judging, it actually seemed intentional.
Annika: As I watched people dance, tears came into my eyes. So many memories. The lightness, the carefreeness, that sense of floating outside of myself, blissful disassociation. And now the sweetness and purity of those experiences were being re-written. It was painful to endure. Grief at the loss, anger at the deception, and gratitude for my new life, all tied in a bundle of emotions that threatened to overwhelm me.
I thought about the time I played music at a conference with Tony Campolo as the main speaker. After I left the stage, he started his sermon by asking if anyone ever goes out to find themselves and comes back claiming that they did. He meant it as a rhetorical question deriding the whole concept, and the conference attendees laughed. I didn’t. I was so upset by the question that I went outside and agonized over it. That day I decided that I would prove him wrong, and I did. I found myself. And just as a person who finds the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45), I knew I would give up everything for it, including the purity of my memories, and these experiences of worship.
Autumn: Immediately after the music bit, out came the offering bowls. This was the first part of what was going on that I felt was unambiguously a bad idea. In the Reclaiming tradition, we would consider it unethical to have a ritual dedicated for almost an hour to shedding our personal power followed by taking people’s money. It would be like having the last gate at a Descent of Inanna ritual being “And now, it is time to hand over your wallet. The ways of the underworld are perfect, and must not be questioned, don’tchaknow?” Well, worse than that actually: in the story of Inanna, she returns to power. Whereas this Christian service seemed to be a one-way trip to dis-empowerment.
Annika: When they brought out the offering bowls, I was angry at how manipulative that was. I would have resented that even back when I was a Christian. Whether it is an honoring of Jesus, as I used to see it, or a giving up of personal power, as I think of it now, worship is never meant to be a setup for eliciting money from people. Taking financial advantage of people when their energy is altered through praise and worship is anathema.
Autumn: As the flow of energy subsided, the offering bowls were withdrawn and the sermon began. I was again reminded of an Apple keynote speech as the preacher walked onto the stage, surrounded by darkness and flanked by huge glowing screens, to a simple, glass podium with a disposable bottle of water sitting close at hand. And so the crowd settled in. The topic of the sermon was how to be in the world despite the fear of how others thought of you, and how to deal with that fear. Of course like many of us, I’ve experienced it, too: how can I be myself in the world that doesn’t always accept and appreciate me? Especially when I have felt extremely dis-empowered, the idea of being out in the world and speaking my truth was terrifying. So I found it really fascinating that after everyone’s personal power had been blasted off into space that he clearly was going to speak of how to be confident in the world.
Annika: The sermon started out really good and I was surprised. After the offering fiasco, I was expecting a disaster of a give-us-money pep talk, but instead the preacher spoke of what we call “rightsizedness” in Reclaiming. “We either hide or we perform”, he said. We either make ourselves too small, or we blow ourselves up too big, but either way, we are not at our right size. This sounded like a sermon on empowerment, which was surprising and ironic given the worship-time-turned-money-drive. I started scribbling notes, confused, wondering if I had been too harsh in my judgment.
Autumn: I can recall during that early part of the sermon exchanging approving glances with Annika. The preacher’s approach to this challenge of being authentic started out in a way I could take in. And, I can agree that focusing too much on the fear of being misunderstood or misrepresented can lead to the silencing of one’s voice, which segued into how he felt people should deal with that fear. But things went pear-shaped for me shortly after that. The preacher emphasized overpowering rejection through a personal relationship with God. In particular, he exhorted us to “be an object of His love.” How can you love an object, I wondered? Love is not a projection, it is a relationship. I can be in loving relationship with trees, plants, even my beat-up old Mac laptop, but only if I don’t treat them as lifeless objects. But I suppose it makes sense in the context of the magic they are doing: by stripping oneself of all personal agency and power, they are becoming “objects”. Of course, the reality is that these people are not objects, so to maintain this illusion such services have to be repeated at regular intervals.
Annika: “The only way I would care about what people think of me is because I doubt what God thinks of me. I make that choice!” – Wait, what? The preacher just said that?
What started out like a speech on empowerment turned into a sermon on willpower, without ever identifying it as such. If you don’t feel empowered, it’s because you don’t trust Jesus enough. You need to stop doubting. Only Jesus can empower you. Stop trying. You have to trust more. Stop trying so hard. Just trust. Why aren’t you trusting more? It’s no wonder you feel miserable, you’re trying too hard, so stop already and let Jesus do the work. Try harder to not try. You’re still trying too hard, try harder to stop trying, or else Jesus can’t fulfill and empower you! This theme was repeated for 45 minutes.
This was something I was familiar with. The power of will, so prominent in Evangelicalism. It’s the crazy-making cognitive dissonance between being told that you are simultaneously trying too hard (it’s all by grace alone), and not trying hard enough (if it’s not working, well, it’s not God’s fault, is it?).
Autumn: During the remainder of the sermon, I know I went through a number of camera-worthy expressions of confusion, horror, and outright incredulousness at how someone could simultaneously tell people to let things happen, but if they didn’t happen a certain way, that it was their own fault. The preacher gave a few examples of how this technique had worked with people he taught or preached to in the past, but by this time, I was getting pretty bored at the hammering of this theme. I instead checked out the giant countdown clock over the control booth (they have a control booth?!) and waited for it to approach zero.
Annika: I kept glancing at the countdown clock, bursting with questions for Autumn, impatient to know what she thought of all this. When the timer finally approached zero, the sermon ended, and the preacher prayed a closing prayer, and I heaved a sigh of relief. But the service wasn’t over yet, now was the time for people to respond. The preacher reiterated some of his themes, asking people to come forward to become an object of His love, to open up to God’s blessings. He issued an invitation to submit to God, and to let one’s worth by defined by Jesus alone. People flocked forward, some of them crying, some on their knees, many with their arms raised to heaven. The worship team started playing again and people on stage stretched out hands toward the crowd, gesturing God’s blessings raining down on them. A few years ago I would have been among those rushing forward to receive, but not today.
Autumn: Gathered around the preacher and the ‘worship team’, the congregation experienced the last bit of energy movement for the night. I perceived little sprinkles of greenish energy sprinkling down from the preachers and worship team (not, I might add, from any divine source). It seemed so tiny compared what had been given up. I wondered how anyone could feel as though this was a beneficial exchange. When I mentioned this observation to Annika, she said that when one is that empty, even a tiny bit of energy coming in can feel huge. I suppose that makes sense. If the value of a stock goes down 99% on one day, and then goes up 300% the next day, it seems like that second day was a huge gain. But you’ve still lost 96% of the original value. Maybe people in the congregation didn’t remember what they lost earlier, I thought. But now I’m starting to realize that it isn’t that they didn’t remember it — they didn’t value it. They didn’t value their personal power at all as something for themselves. In this belief structure, the only thing that personal power is good for is praising Jesus.
Annika: Even now, several months later, I am not sure what to make of Autumn’s observation of the energy that happened after the sermon. I never perceived anything green, and didn’t notice any sprinkles. The fact that it looked like a tiny amount to Autumn surprised me as well. I remember those times, what we called “ministry time” or “soaking in the Spirit”, as an amazingly powerful and energy filled experience. Maybe there was a different quality to the energy? Maybe what Autumn perceived as green was so foreign to our orange giving of energy that it had a tremendous impact? I still have no idea.
Her interpretations make sense to me, but at times they are painful to take in. We’re talking about something I used to love so dearly that I dedicated my whole life to it. As I read through our reflections, they sound so negative, and it breaks my heart. I didn’t go to Bethel to further distance myself from Christianity, I went for the opposite reason. I wanted to reclaim some of the beauty, and instead I found myself focusing on how what I once loved now feels so wrong.
I hardly slept that night, mulling over conversations and experiences in my lucid dreams. The next morning we went back to Bethel and signed up for the healing rooms, famous the world over for miracles occurring as prayer ministers prophesy over people and lay on hands for healing. We will write about the prophesies we received and the healing ministry in part 3.