The chapel service, like many Pentecostal services in the early 1980s, was well orchestrated, modeled after the talk show format of The PTL Club. The shiny blonde worship leader, a grad student in the school of theology, led one praise chorus after another, accompanied by a small ensemble of music students. One praise chorus blended seamlessly into the next. Many of the students in the congregation were raising their hands as they sang along, caught up in the music and the emotion. Others were bored, present only because chapel attendance was required of students at this Christian university.
At the beginning of the service, the dean of the school of theology had asked us to pray for the infant son of one of our professors. The child was being operated on for a brain tumor. The worship leader had led us in a rousing prayer, in which he quoted several Bible verses from memory as we “named and claimed” healing for the professor’s child. The TV evangelist for whom the college was named had preached about “the word of faith,” likening God to a coin-operated Coke machine where we “drop in faith, and out comes God’s healing.”
Near the end of the service, the dean came back out on stage and very somberly informed us that the professor’s baby had died on the operating table. Anticipating the reaction of many of the students — that obviously the professor did not have enough faith, otherwise his child would have been healed — the dean ended the service by asking that we respond to the professor and his family with Christian love. “And may we let that love bridge the gap between our theology and the reality of what has happened.”
The dean’s words, while eloquent and sincere, went unheeded by many. As the students filed out of the chapel, I could already hear many of them whispering about the professor’s lack of faith.
Those words haunted me: “…bridge the gap between our theology and the reality…” I began to ask myself why there should be such a gap. And I began to wonder if a theology that didn’t square with reality was a theology worth having at all.
These were dangerous questions for me. I was told by those I respected spiritually that such questions and doubts were not to be entertained, that they would only “give room for the devil.” Faith was an easily-defined set of beliefs to be accepted, not examined or scrutinized. And so, in addition to the questions themselves, I began to experience feelings of guilt about having the questions at all.
In the midst of this struggle, I attended an interfaith service off campus, where I was introduced to a concept that was radical and new to me: the idea that faith is a journey, not a set of beliefs, and that doubts and questions could be allies in this journey. The minister at this service outlined four stages of the faith journey, taken from a book called Will Our Children Have Faith? by John Westerhoff.
In this book, faith is imaged as a pilgrimage which expands through four “styles”: the affective “experienced faith” of childhood; “affiliative faith” with its emphasis on community and belonging; “searching faith” with its doubts, critical judgments, and experimentation; and “owned faith,” a faith that has been fully examined and is fully lived as part of one’s personal identity.
Reading this book helped me realize that, by asking questions, by seeking to find my own “owned faith,” I was not being a bad person or a bad Christian. I was beginning to bridge the gap between reality and my own theology.
Many years later, I left the Pentecostal church and joined St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta. To my delight, one of the priests at St. Luke’s was John Westerhoff, who had written Will Our Children Have Faith?, the book that had been so influential on my journey of faith. As I learned from him, and from the rector Spenser Simrill, I realized that St. Luke’s was a safe place for me to finally confront the most difficult reality in my life: my bisexuality.
During a small, midweek Advent service at St. Luke’s in 1994, Spenser Simrill introduced me to a prayer, and a way of praying, that forever changed the way I saw God and the way I related to God. Instead of preaching a homily, Spenser had us sit in silence for about five minutes and suggested that we coordinate this prayer with our breathing, like a mantra: “Gentle loving God, Mother of my soul, hold me as Your own.” Then, he led us on an Ignatian journey into whatever in our lives was causing us pain. For me, that was my bisexuality, which had caused me such conflict and turmoil for so many years. Spenser invited us to experience the pain fully, grounded in the knowledge that we were safe in the arms of our gentle loving God. And then he asked us to consider if there were any way we could accept whatever was causing our pain as a gift.
The idea of my bisexuality as a gift from God was overwhelming. And yet, that cold winter night in the middle of Advent, I realized for the first time in my life that God really did love me, “just as I am” as the old hymn says. And my sexuality was part of the me that God accepted. For the first time I could feel God, the gentle loving God, Mother of my soul, hold me as Her own. And I began to open my heart to the idea of my sexuality as a gift, not something to be ashamed of.
Soon afterward, I sat in John Westerhoff’s office at St. Luke’s and spoke the words I had never before said to another human being: “I am bisexual. I am attracted to men as well as to women.” The earth did not open and swallow me; thunder did not strike. Instead, this respected theologian, this grey-haired, wizard-like priest told me that my sin was not experiencing same-sex attraction, my real sin had been not accepting God’s love for me as God had created me. My own self-hatred and homophobia had been a perverse form of pride, telling God, “No, you’re wrong — I’m not worth loving.”
My penance was this: John directed me to read Isaiah 43:1-7, every morning for however many days it took for me to believe it — to really believe it:
. . . thus says the Lord . . . I have called you by name, you are mine . . .
. . . because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you . . .
It took a little over a month of reading this passage every day for my self-hatred, my homophobic pride, to crumble and for me to finally accept that God does love me, just as I am.
I still feel the conflict between having same-sex attractions and a deeper desire to someday marry a woman and have children. But I’ve accepted that God may continue to let me experience this conflict — the conflict itself may be what God is using to draw me closer to Him.
And I still have days when my old way of thinking intrudes. I sometimes read Scripture and see it through the eyes of the fundamentalist college student I once was, rather than through the lens of God’s love and acceptance. But now I know the truth. And each day as I pray this prayer, “Gentle loving God, Mother of my soul, hold me as Your own,” in rhythm with my breathing, I allow the prayer to center me, to ground me in God’s grace. And I allow myself to feel God’s loving arms around me, holding me secure, never letting go.
A licensed professional counselor in private practice in metro Atlanta, Darrell Grizzle is the author of I Never Meant to Start a Murder Cult and Other Stories.