My Story – Don

Hills in Scotland. Image by M W from Pixabay

This is the first of a series where I have asked someone else to tell me their story.  I have given little glimpse’s of my story as part of my essay, which some of you will have read, but I haven’t personally experienced a situation where the Church drives you away, rejecting you for something you can do nothing about. However, I do know what it is like to feel I cannot stay in a church, because I no longer feel welcome. Some of my writers have had to leave churches because they are LGBTQ+, and others have had requirements or expectations imposed that have meant they could not stay. The nearest that many churches get to accepting the LGBTQ+ person is by playing the “Let’s pretend” game: “You behave as if you are straight and we’ll pretend you are one of us; but as soon as you fail, you’re out.”

In the coming months, I am hoping to have the stories of at least four people, and hopefully more.  Some of the writers will use their “real” names, and others will use an assumed name, because it may be that not everyone in their personal world may be aware of the writer’s background, so for their own protection and peace of mind, I will use a different name.  That doesn’t make their story dishonest, or fake, every story will be wholly true.  This is the first time any of them have written anything of this nature, and they are not being paid, sadly, as I don’t get anything either! As you will see over the coming weeks, my friends have been superb, and their writings do not disappoint.

I have a second story currently being finalised (hopefully), and there will be a direct link to today’s story – actually there is more than one, though neither of the writers yet know it, as they have not yet seen each other’s stories. So, after reading this, join me again next month and see how they complement each other.

My first story comes from my friend Don, and he writes:

I was raised in a strict Presbyterian Church, so as a child I learned to love God, but more than that, to fear God.  The church used the King James Version, and prayed in the same language, so I understood that “except ye be converted” you were going to hell.  But I had no idea what that meant – I remember crying, asking God to convert me because I was scared of going to hell.  I didn’t know what I was asking for, but I knew I needed it.  I’m sure if I’d asked someone, they’d have explained it to me, but the leadership wasn’t that approachable.  I must have been 8 or 9 at that time.

I had somewhat of a troubled childhood.  My father was an alcoholic, so despite still loving him, my mother had to divorce him.  Raising me in that environment would have been very unhealthy – as well as financially impossible.  I later learned that Mum lived on tins of beans for ages trying to feed us.  So, she prayed and felt God was saying it was okay to get a divorce.  It was the only way she could separate because my dad worked, so she wasn’t entitled to benefits or help.  As things were, she was stuck in an emotional and financial black hole.  For this “sin” she was excommunicated by our Church.  We stopped attending because my mother was heartbroken.  The people she needed most had abandoned her at her most vulnerable point.  She’s never regularly attended Church since.

For a few years I had nothing to do with Church, until I was 14 when some travelling evangelists came to my town.  They were so funny and as a result drew large crowds.  They made God and the Bible accessible through drama, comedy and personal stories.  They presented the Gospel clearly.  I realised I needed God in my life, and for the first time, I asked Him into my heart.  In my early teens I got very involved with another Presbyterian Church (after Mum, I couldn’t go back to our first Church), and in time got involved with their youth work, and went on missions and camps.  But, as I grew up, like we all do, I became sexually aware.

For a time I just felt an attraction to guys, and eventually I realised that I was what the Church called, “a homosexual”.  Even although I didn’t understand it, I knew this was a really bad thing to be.  Over the years these feelings got stronger, and no matter how hard I prayed, no matter how hard I tried to fight it, I couldn’t shake these feelings.  I couldn’t tell anyone – I had seen what happened to my Mum, and my sin was far worse.  When I was 16 I “fooled around” with one of my friends, and it felt so good.  At least it did at the time, the guilt afterwards was awful. 

I lived a double life, my friend and I fooled about a couple of times a month, but I had my faith.  I was zealous for God, I loved Jesus.  That made me an anomaly, everyone knew I was a Christian.  I tried to witness to my Chemistry teacher, and to my Mum’s horror, invited the Jehovah’s Witnesses into our home every Saturday morning.  Despite my Mum making it clear she didn’t like this, and the minister of the Church advising me to stay away from them, I knew the Bible quite well and saw it as my duty to witness. 

At 17 I left school and moved to the city.  I started going to a Baptist Church, I had been thinking through doctrine and they fit my beliefs better than the Presbyterian Church, mainly around baptising babies which I saw as unscriptural, and the separation of Church and state which I liked.  This was an independent Baptist Church, not affiliated with the Baptist Union, and they were very conservative.  I was baptised by immersion, and I continued to follow Jesus.  But over the next year things came to a head.  By day I was a regular happy guy – the face I wanted people to see.  By night I was my real self – lonely, depressed, and I thought about death.  Of course, I could never kill myself – that would be a sin.  So, I begged God to cure me.  I couldn’t go on, I prayed, and I fasted, I cannot tell you how many nights I cried myself to sleep, begging God to “take it away”.  Falling asleep on a wet pillow became an almost nightly occurrence for me.

Eventually the clean line I kept between my outward and inner life broke.  I wasn’t used to alcohol, but one evening I went out and got drunk.  I got home late to find my flatmate had a few friends from the Church round.  I am one of those people who can get drunk but remember everything – so I still remember the four horrified faces watch me stagger in the door.  I burst into tears, and they asked what was wrong.  Before I knew what had happened the words were out of my mouth.  “I’m gay”. 

I still tell people that the best way to get a bunch of Baptists to forget you’re drunk is tell them you’re gay.  The three visitors soon made their excuses, I just went to bed.  That night I didn’t cry.  I was emotionally dead – I felt like a black curtain had been drawn over my future.  I was used to the double life, but now I’d said those words, there was no taking it back.  I had no idea what would happen next. 

None of them said anything to me about this, though they started distancing themselves – all apart from my flatmate.  He did his best to be a friend.  He fumbled though it, not understanding what he was dealing with, but he hugged me and made it clear he would always be my friend. He encouraged me to speak to someone, but who?

Finally, I forced myself to confide in one of the pastors at the Church, who I knew and trusted.  He was great – he wasn’t shocked.  He didn’t treat me any differently, which wasn’t what I’d expected.  His kindness was reassuring.  He helped me to get counselling because he admitted his wasn’t something he was qualified to help me with, so he set it up and arranged for the Church to pay for it without disclosing my identity to the elders.  

The counselling started well; the counsellor believed that homosexuality could be cured.  For the first couple of months, I felt hope.  But that turned to despair, and I sank even deeper into depression.  Through the counsellor I met other gay Christians, but their stories didn’t give me hope.  One, who was now married to a woman, still spoke of the daily temptation.  Another freely admitted he hated summer, because all the topless guys made it harder to control his thought life.  Was this my future?  The depression and suicidal thoughts came back, far stronger than before.  Now I was praying for death.  My heartfelt prayer was “kill me or cure me, I can’t go on”.  I meant it.

Not long after, the pastor asked to meet with me, he wanted to check in and see how I was getting on.  When I told my pastor what the counsellor was doing, and how I felt, I burst into tears.  He was horrified.  He apologised, he told me that he believed that being gay was not a sin and thought I had only been getting help to live a celibate life.  He was genuinely shocked and promised to remove that counsellor from the list the Church used and assured me no one else would be referred to them.  He pulled the funding for counselling and started to meet me weekly himself.  We spent a long time in prayer and Bible study.  But things didn’t get any easier.  The hope for change was gone, my future seemed lonely and bleak.  Where was God’s love – let alone the possibility of a man to share life with?  I agree with Justin Cannon, a gay Christian, who said, “hell is where you’re always on the run from yourself, and the statement, God is Love, ends with a question mark”.  That’s exactly how I felt,

While I was in counselling, at one of the dark periods, I popped into a toilet somewhere – and ran into a guy who was cruising. He was probably 5 years older than me.  That wasn’t why I went in, but we ended up back at mine, and when we were done, we lay in bed chatting for a while. It was one of the few times during that period where I felt content and safe.  After an hour or so, he got up and started getting dressed, then noticed the book by my bed – a Neil Anderson book the counsellor had me reading.  He must have known what it was, he picked it up, flipped it over and put it straight back down.  He sat down again, put his arm round me – then almost whispering said, “you won’t find answers there.  But this,” he kissed me, “this is who you are, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” 

I never saw him again; I never even got his name.  Is it ironic a complete stranger was the first person who ever told me that there was nothing wrong with me?  I wasn’t ready to hear that and was back at the counsellor a couple of days later.  I didn’t tell the counsellor about that.  And that time, I never felt guilty.  Thinking about it now, it was the first time someone noticed my struggle, treated me with kindness, and told me it was ok.  Hmm.  I wonder, if God can use a talking donkey, astrologers etc, could he use a complete stranger and a random hookup?  Maybe God wasn’t as silent as I’ve always said.  Now, I’m not ready to claim that God was definitely speaking through him, but over the years I’ve learned that God can use the most unlikely people and events to try and get our attention. So, with hindsight, that’s a possibility that’s going to bug me! 

One evening I climbed a hill with my best friend at Church (by some miracle she didn’t know!) and I told her all my dirty secrets and fears.  The biggest was my fear of being alone all my life.  I knew God had designed us to live in pairs, except for those with a calling of celibacy on their lives – but that wasn’t me!  I yearned for love and affection (contrary to what many think, it is not about sex).  

Over the next few months, I got honest with God.  But I felt that all my prayers were just hitting off the ceiling.  God seemed so distant.  The more I reached out, the farther away he seemed.  In time I stopped taking communion because I felt like a hypocrite.  Eventually I stopped going to Church.  One evening I gave up.  I remember my prayer.  “For all the good this does I could be talking to the ceiling.  If I’m going to hell, at least let me enjoy this life.  I’ll stay out of your way; I can’t do this.  I’ve had enough.”

I rebelled against God.  I moved, changed my phone number, and cut off everyone in the Church.  I started smoking, drinking and took up casual sex.  I went “on the pull” every Friday and Saturday, and sometimes went cruising during the week too (meeting strangers for sex).  I rarely came home alone.  For the first time I felt so alive.  But of course, that wasn’t to last.  You see, it feels great at first – but in time it drains you.  As 1 Corinthians 6:21 says in The Message, “we must not pursue the kind of sex that avoids commitment and intimacy, leaving us more lonely than ever”.  As always, God is right, but it would take me years to figure that out!

Finally I met a guy, a staunch agnostic, which at the time helped me get over religion.  We got into a serious relationship.  We were together for almost 10 years, it wasn’t a healthy relationship, but it was stable.  Then, something happened 6 years into our relationship.  It was the one thing I wanted to avoid.  I was watching TV one evening, and it was something about Jesus.  I don’t remember the details, but the “fact” being reported was something I knew was not true.  My blood ran cold as I realised if I could work out what wasn’t true, I could work out what is true.  That bugged me and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  And the more I thought about it, the more I started remembering evidence for Christianity.  So, I set out to investigate it.  Surely it wasn’t true!

I spent just over a year of studying, researching, and reading the entire Bible.  I read Christian apologists, and atheist equivalents.  I researched the Bible, how did we get it, was it reliable?  I began to realise that Christianity was true, Jesus was who he claimed to be. The God I was trying to avoid was back in my face again.  Eventually, I had to ignore how I felt about it, and bow to the facts.  I knelt, and there were no words, just a reluctant change of heart.  What could I say, after I’d told God to effectively “get lost”?  I accepted God back into my life.  For a few months I struggled with the notion that God could love me, yet the Bible says he does.  One evening I was reading 1 John 4:16 in the New Living Translation.  It says, “We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love.”  I stopped dead in my tracks.  I didn’t know that, so I asked him if it was true.  

What happened next is hard to describe.  I felt the room fill with a sense of peace, then waves of what I can only describe as energy started pulsating through my body – and I experienced the most intense feeling of love and acceptance.  It was like I could reach out and touch it.  I knew it was Jesus.  The hurts and pains of the past were literally washed away in seconds.  I cried and I cried – and just sat in this amazing love.  This time the tears weren’t sadness, it was a healing experience.  I don’t know how long it lasted, but I have never doubted His love for me again.

I started out slowly, but my newfound faith caused my relationship to break down.  My partner had also had a bad experience of Church, and now I was bringing it home.  If he walked in and I was reading the Bible, he’d comment, “you’re reading that again”.  The tension between us grew.  A few months later, I asked him if he saw us together in 5 years. Without skipping a beat, he said, “no”.  It wasn’t just my faith, but it was a big factor.  I knew I had to choose: him, or Jesus.  I chose to follow Jesus.  By this time, I had gone back to university, and I was starting my final year which meant the University guaranteed accommodation if I wanted it.  I applied and in September 2009 I moved into a small room, with £200 in my bank account and the contents of two carloads.  For the second time in my life, I walked away from my life to start over.  I started going to a local Baptist church, this one was far more down to earth, and more mainstream evangelical, and unlike my last one – charismatic.  That helped me make sense of what I’d experienced.

Six months later I faced the other issue I’d been avoiding – the sexuality and the Bible issue.  I knew it had been the death of my faith before and I didn’t want that again, so I actively ignored it.  But I couldn’t keep it up, I was still gay with the track record to prove it.  I started praying about it, and something – the Holy Spirit – told me it was okay to go there, that this time I would be safe.  For a year I devoured websites, different views, and opinions.  All the time I was seeking God’s help, and in a strange way I felt like God was holding me as I researched, and at the same time, scared.

What scared me was that I was seeing those 6 passages in the Bible in a new light.  I realised that other Christians had a different interpretation, but it was Justin Lee* that blew my mind.  He is an openly gay Christian, who has a high view of Scripture, and he took his evangelical approach to those 6 verses and came to a different conclusion – God blesses two people who love each other, whether they’re a man and a woman, two men or two women.  I was stunned.  Was it possible? 

I was slowly becoming intellectually convinced that the Bible does not condemn gay relationships.  That triggered months of panic and denial – what if I was only believing it because I wanted to, not because it really is true?  After all, if what I had been taught was right, practicing homosexuals wouldn’t inherit the Kingdom.  I was still going to hell if I had sex with a man again.  Then one night as I prayed, I asked God – and I had the most amazing sense of peace about it all.  For the first time I felt like a whole person.  God saw me, all of me, and loved me, and I loved him.  And it felt safe.

Throughout this time, I started to make peace with my past with God’s help.  I remembered the two people who had stuck by me, my flatmate, and the friend I’d climbed the hill to spill all my secrets to.  I’d cut them off with everyone else, and I suddenly felt guilty.   Even though they didn’t understand what I was going through, they really tried to be good friends.  I said an off the cuff prayer – something along the lines of “I wish I could do things differently; I should have kept in touch”. 

If my spiritual encounter with God had been hard to believe, what happened next took me by complete surprise.  I had moved three times and had no contact details for either of them.  Within 2 weeks, they both contacted my Mum and asked her for my details.  Both had moved, and they were not in touch with each other.  I remember being in awe of God and thinking, “wow, you can do this?”. 

Just after I had moved into student accommodation, the friend I had climbed the hill with came to see me.  It had been 8 years, and I booked her into a local B&B, I’d no idea what she would make of my story, so I didn’t want her to stay with me.  I met her at the station, and while she dropped off her luggage and we got a taxi to a restaurant for dinner we made small talk.  We ordered and then there was this awkward silence.  I started to talk – but so did she.  Being polite I said, “you first”.  She launched into a story. 

After I had cut everyone off, she had a crisis of faith.  Because of me.  She’d watched me spiral out of control, lose my faith, and walk away from the church because I’m gay.  Was this the Gospel?  How could this be good news to someone like me if this was the effect?  She moved back to London when she finished university and started attending her local Church of England.  The priest was passionate about Jesus and her faith recovered.  Then, three months later she found out something that shook her worldview.  The priest was gay.  The man he lived with was not a lodger – which she’d just assumed – he was his partner, and he too had a strong Christian faith.  She quickly realised that this gay priest was being used by God, his ministry bore good fruit, so she realised that the problem wasn’t Jesus, it was her theology.  She arranged to meet the priest and she told him all about me, and what my experience had done to her faith.  He was kind and gracious and took her through what the Bible said.  She wanted me to know it was okay and opened her backpack and pulled out a bunch of papers to start showing me that God didn’t care if I was gay.  I stopped her, and said, “I know”, and told her about my journey.

It took her 8 years to get in touch because she had no way to contact me.  One evening she opened a book she’d not touched in all that time, and there, on a piece of paper was my Mum’s phone number.  Not knowing if it would still work, she phoned my Mum.  My other friend had a similar story, and though he’s not sure what to make of same-sex relationships we are close.  God is amazing.

I now believe that God allowed me to walk away from my faith and the Church, and my friends.  The gap gave me space to move on from that experience, so that when I started researching it was for the right reasons.  When the time was right, he brought my friends back into my life as only he could do.  After dinner that night we laughed, prayed together, and spoke about how our different paths had been used by God to bring us to new places.  It was like the 8-year gap never happened, and we’re still friends today.  In Joel 2:25, God promised the Israelites, “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten” (NIV).  He did that for me too.

My friend’s influence on me wasn’t quite done though.  She looked up a Church in a city near where I was living at the time.  They endorse same-sex relationships, but I thought they must be a bunch of crazy liberals.  They would be gay men playing at Church.  But she wouldn’t let up!  The Baptist Church I was attending was great – I had come out to a few people, and they were fine with it.  But my friend said as good as that was, I needed to know other gay Christians.  I needed to have people in my life who knew what I had been through for myself.  To keep her happy, I agreed to go.  Once.

On the way I prayed that if this was truly God’s people, that I’d feel the Spirit there.  I arrived and sat right at the back beside the door – with a planned escape route!  But to my surprise, there was no orgy on the alter, no funny stuff, no obsession with sexuality.  Surprisingly it was, well, “just church”.  And the Holy Spirit was there.  For a long time, I commuted and went to both the Baptist Church and this new Church, but I ended up moving to the new city when my contract with work was up, and I got a job quickly.  So naturally it became my Church and I joined.  It was great to be in a Church where I didn’t have to worry about being “found out” – I can just focus on my relationship with God.

That was 10 years ago.  My faith journey has deepened my love for God and my respect for the Bible.  I’ve become more convinced than ever that no matter who you are, God loves you.  He wants to be part of our lives, to offer forgiveness and a fresh start.  

I know the damage that can be done by bad theology, conversion therapy, and by well-meaning people who just don’t get it.  But I also know God’s love.  That dark curtain that was drawn over my future was pulled away – ripped in two like the curtain in the Temple the day Jesus died.  I know that if God loves me, he loves you too.  It doesn’t matter what your past is, or how broken you are, to Jesus you are precious, to him you are worth dying for.  Those first steps towards Jesus can be scary because of what we have experienced, but I promise you, his love can bring healing to your life.  If any part of my story is familiar to you, please know that all he did for me, he can do for you too.  It might not look the same, but his love and his promises are for you too.  Trust Jesus.  Let him into your life, and as you take each step, however small, however painful, one day you will look back and see that all along he was there.  He always has, and always will love you. 

“We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.” (Romans 3:22 NLT)

*[PJ: Don mentioned Justin Lee earlier. Justin was the founder of the Gay Christian Network which he led until 2017. It is now known as Q Christian Fellowship. Justin is currently the executive director of Nuance Ministries. Read the explanation that made such an impression on him, by going to “The Great Debate: Justin’s View. After that, if you are interested in an alternative view, follow the link on Justin’s page and read Ron Belgau’s view.]