Being gay in a church that didn’t accept me led to years of wrestling with God, but when God spoke a blessing in the midst of the struggle, everything began to change.
I lingered after the church service while the evening sun set, my heart pounding and the rest of me coldly electrified. My steps were heavy walking to the empty fellowship hall where my youth pastor had agreed to meet. I had to tell someone the truth. I believed it had to be her—not a friend or a family member, but someone who could speak God’s will for me. So I sat down across from the pastor, took a deep breath and began to speak.
I have heard that some children have a sense of their queerness at as young as four or five years old. I was around that age when I first attended church. My devout grandparents, who were missionaries with World Mission, dressed me in a suit and whisked me to College Church of the Nazarene in the suburbs of Kansas City, for a wet Sunday service during which they fittingly sang “Holy Spirit Rain Down.” There I sat amazed amid the luminous stained glass, the endless rows of pews, and the glowing red carpet. Yet what captured me most was the sermon. The pastor‘s text was Genesis 32:22-32, Jacob wrestling with God. As Jacob struggles, the man (God in disguise) strikes Jacob’s hip and it pops out of joint, or in the pastor’s telling, the divine touch instantly saps his muscles of their strength. All the awful tangibility of God struck upon my young mind: God was one who could touch me, a God with whom I could struggle.
Years later at thirteen, I had begun occasionally attending a Nazarene church for myself, attending the youth group. I was shy, awkward, and didn’t feel like I fit with other boys. Peers bullied me at school for seeming “gay.” I felt alone. Yet it happened that one night at youth group an intern from the Nazarene seminary was sharing a message. I don’t remember what he preached. But what happened when he read from scripture, Luke 5:1-11, where Jesus calls Peter with the miraculous catch of fish, I cannot forget. There is a moment after Peter and his partners pull the fish into the boat when Peter falls at Jesus’s knees and confesses his brokenness. In that moment, I too was Peter kneeling before Jesus. I sensed his presence there with me, calling me to follow and to fish for people. In my loneliness, Jesus had noticed me, and in him God had come near to me, even close enough to touch me. That evening, I told my parents everything had changed. I signed up for the summer mission trip. Less than six months later, I was baptized. Through the reading of scripture, God had touched me.
I found that in reading God’s Word, the church finds its power, even frightful power. The Church of the Nazarene confesses belief in the plenary inspiration of scripture, holding that it “inerrantly reveal[s] the will of God concerning us and our salvation.” Scripture began my searching and introduced me to Christ, and in the provision of the Spirit it had fed my growth toward Christlikeness. In other hands, I would discover, it could sow destruction. In political policies that disadvantaged people who didn’t fit our definition of pure, in how peers in school treated people who seemed queer, in the words spoken in the church’s Manual, its Sunday Schools, and its pulpits, scripture’s breaking and shattering power thundered all around.
And it thundered in me. Though scripture had revealed my salvation, there was another truth within me revealing itself in my being. It began to appear in the sidelong glances that seemed to catch me by surprise, at the novel, organic stirrings in my heart, and the fearful sense that who I was becoming was not in my control. I tried to block it all away. I took refuge in my belief in God to shield myself from my feelings. I poured through my ESV Study Bible to figure out what these things meant before the Lord. I pleaded; I bargained; I struggled. When I could no longer plausibly deny it, I lay awake at night pondering my course. I could not leave my faith. I could not surrender the convictions I had gained from reading scripture within the life of my church. So, I let what the church had taught me thus far instruct me.
I sent a text to my youth pastor, we met in the fellowship hall, and I told her I was gay. Her eyes grew wide. It struck me that perhaps her training at the local Nazarene university had not prepared her for this. Reaching for something familiar, she encouraged me to pray Psalm 51. A psalm of repentance, for sinners. “My sin is always before you; against you and you only have I sinned,” the psalmist says. When I got home, I hid my face from my eyes in the bathroom mirror, and I prayed the psalm, hoping that it would make my queerness go away. I prayed it again, until it felt like it was taunting me. My attraction to other men did not change, and I grew more alone and desperate. In youth group, it seemed every joke was a gay joke. But the adults weren’t laughing. A family member was recruited to counsel me out of homosexuality. One youth sponsor reminisced about the days when gays were beat up in schools. Another man was kicked out of the church when he revealed he had a partner. In our hands, scripture cut deep.
I felt my space in the church shrinking. Being gay was enough to disqualify me, to mark me as a sinner. So I begged God that I could be entirely sanctified, that all my sin would be stricken from my heart and soul, that I could draw close again to the intimacy of the Jesus who came and blessed me. I wanted to dwell in that intimacy. But I was stuck attempting to brace myself against the rising tide of my sexuality, and Christ seemed far off.
In Genesis 32:22-32, Jacob wrestles God for a blessing. There is a pattern of struggle and grace in the Christian life. The Nazarene tradition holds that entire consecration precedes the “fullness of the blessing” or entire sanctification. All of us must become God’s so we can experience all of God, and for this reason we wrestle. We wrestle with our sin, with our ignorance, with our rebellion. God confronts us with all our untruth, that by our lived faith we might overcome it. Yet, for this queer Christian, the struggle for holiness grew twisted. I went into the valley. I turned my strength, my mind, and my faith against myself, until the labor of consecration turned into rejecting who I was, apologizing for my pain, and straining to pull myself from the “depths of perversion” where my sexuality placed me. I have heard stories of queer souls being recast into straightness, “success stories.” I have never met one in real life. In my experience, queerness is virulent in the human spirit; even when paved over it still sends its green tendrils through the cracks. Some know this and keep LGBTQ+ people from ministry altogether. When I was last a member of a Nazarene church, the Manual barred anyone who had ever done a homosexual act from ministry. Yet, in my eyes, entire sanctification held out the hope that if I could just purify myself enough, God would wipe away my sin nature and the stain of my sexuality. So I wrestled with God through the night, waiting for the fullness of the blessing.
In fact it was late at night when God next confronted me like Jacob. I couldn’t sleep so I stayed awake praying, trying to drag myself through the spiritual sludge that had built up over years of struggling with my sexuality, when I realized something. In all my years of striving, I had only ever confessed my sexuality to God as a sin—I had never shared it with my creator, I had never come out. With trepidation, I lifted my heart to the Almighty. I took a deep breath and began to speak: “God, I’m gay.” And I heard the Lord say, “You can be as gay as you need to be with me.”
A bit of light dawned on the horizon. A bit of wonder. For the first time, I heard an affirmation that who I was could be a site of acceptance instead of shame. God touched me and it changed me; God spoke and gave the blessing of release. Try as I might, I could not stay the same. By steps, I began to trust God more with my identity, as the One Who Is began to show me who I am. And the Holy One opened up the scripture to me, to read in ways that I had never read before. In one instance, while reading Genesis 1:27, “Male and female he made them” God’s Spirit turned me to what was not said, the absence of boundaries and boxes around “male” and “female” allowing people just to be. God opened up this and other passages. And in all this I was growing in accepting the self God had created me to be. The Lord had come to set me free, and only by living in this freedom would I find the fullness of the blessing.
In some sense, we wrestle with God all our lives, working out our salvation with fear and trembling. But at times the struggle opens up and we receive a blessing. Like Jacob, we see God and live, and I came to see where God was working in my life. I slowly came to accept my sexuality. One wrestling match with God yielded a benediction. Not unlike entire sanctification, my growth in grace did not end there. Instead it began anew with power and bold confidence. The hand of God was moving all along, through my experiences in the Church of the Nazarene where I received my knowledge of God and of Christ’s love for me, my baptism, my call to serve God’s people, and beyond it. Jesus Christ was in all of it.
Even so, there were times when the church and I struggled. When I needed Psalm 139, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” it gave me Psalm 51, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before you.” It tried to excise the unwanted parts of my soul. It was never just the actions of one person in the church. I found myself amid a whole system in which the church read scripture upside down and ended up aligning its action with the world instead of God. It aligned itself with the world because it saw me bullied for being queer, and agreed I was disordered. It saw me alone and treated my “sin” as a special kind of iniquity. It saw me struggling to live out God’s call in purity and holiness, and added burdens to me that it was unwilling to move. Yet Jesus loved me in my rejection, stayed with me in my loneliness, and wrung a blessing out of my pain. In my shame, Jesus delivered me.
Like Jacob, I have seen God through the struggle and lived. I first wrestled with Jesus in the Church of the Nazarene, and that is the space that raised me. In Jacob’s story we see that God is still wrestling with the church, offering it a blessing if it holds on to the end. In its wrestling, it may find itself changed. In its struggle, it may come to behold God and the people whom God has called blessed. I can only hope that the blessing God has given to me would be multiplied in the lives of others.
Brandon Smee is a Clinical Pastoral Education Resident at the University of Kansas Hospital. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and a Kansas City native, Brandon is in the ordination process in the Episcopal Church.