A Softer Answer (Excerpt)

"I longed for indulgence, patience, an exorbitant kind of understanding, maybe even love, that I began to suspect was unrealistic."

Religion

 

Empty the Pews_Cover
Empty the Pews cover via Bookshop.

 

The following is an essay written by Rebekah Matthews, published in Empty the Pews — an anthology of essays examining the "intersections of queerness, spiritual abuse, loss of faith, and the courage needed to leave one's religious community" — edited by Chrissy Stroop and Lauren O'Neal.

 

***

 

It wasn’t all the time, but it was enough to remember — lying in bed as a child, staring at the glow-in-the-dark star stickers on my ceiling, thinking about going to hell. I tried to picture the physical details: would there be literal fire, a lake of sulfur, bodies burning? I thought the most about eternity. If I went to hell, I would be there forever, longer than a year, longer than a lifetime. It would never end.

 

I wondered about the people who might go there even if I didn’t, the girls who lived down the street from me, celebrities from my favorite TV shows, singers I liked on the radio. It wouldn’t end for them, either.

 

When my thoughts began to race, I’d get out of bed and walk down the hallway to my parents’ bedroom, where I’d wake up my mom and tell her why I was scared. She’d go back with me to my room, sit in bed with me, and read the Bible out loud to me, the passages that reassured me I was going to heaven. 

 

It continued to upset me, though, and one night my mom suggested I meet with the pastor at our church so I could talk with him about my fears. He and I sat together alone in his office, and he gently outlined to me what it meant to be saved as a Christian. I was so nervous that I had a hard time looking him in the eyes, so I stared at his shoes instead. Everything he told me that day I had heard so many times before. I knew all the words. You were a Christian if you believed that Jesus would save you from your sins. But I still didn’t know what that was supposed to feel like inside. I thought I believed, but what if I didn’t really? How would I know? It was so much to risk, an eternity of suffering. 

 

***

 

Growing up, much of my life was defined by Christianity; it was my religion but it was also my social and cultural world. There was my family and my church, and beginning in sixth grade, there was also my new school, a private and nondenominational Christian school. I went to two Bible studies a week, chapel services at school every Thursday, Bible class every weekday, church on Sunday mornings, and youth group on Sunday nights. 

 

Each night before I went to sleep, I read a few passages in my Bible, then prayed. I followed a prescribed order in my prayers: praise, confession, thanksgiving, intercession. I listed all the things about God that were good: he was merciful, he was just. I listed what I had done wrong: I was selfish, I had gotten in a fight with my mom. I thanked him for good things in my life: I was grateful for my friends. I asked him to help me with my problems: I wished I didn’t worry so much all the time. I didn’t like praying. It felt like talking to the wall. I did it anyway, hoping someday it would feel like more. 

 

My friends at school were like me. We had religious families, got good grades in school, and were involved in student council, tutoring kids downtown, running our own Bible study Tuesday mornings before school. We weren’t boy-crazy, and very few of us dated. If it was a remarkably tame way to spend adolescence, I didn’t realize it then; our friendship felt normal to me.

 

We were ourselves, I thought, sometimes sharing a kind of weirdness with one another. I remember eating lunch, sitting outside at a picnic table, laughing with my friends until we cried because one of us said the canned peach halves I brought for lunch jiggled like breasts. I watched old episodes of Saturday Night Live with my best friend. A friend’s older sister got married and, returning from her honeymoon, advised us that using K-Y Jelly helped when having sex for the first time. One night, at a party celebrating the end of the school year, a friend and I went skinny-dipping in her backyard pool, exhilarated by our small trespass. 

 

We were good but still human, and still occasionally troubled. One friend ran away from home, driving through the night to get to Georgia, to meet her friend from the internet. She later confessed to me that she had suicidal fantasies. Another friend shared that she had grown so obsessive about reading her Bible that she had started taking medication for OCD. One summer I tested out what it felt like to use swear words, mostly privately in writing, in my journal, but it felt like trying on an outfit meant for someone else, and I stopped. 

 

I read whatever I wanted, and later in high school I grew more daring in my choices. I read Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Allison, and I read these books in front of my family and friends without criticism. But TV was different. My mom and I got into fights about TV—I was watching too much, watching things I shouldn’t watch, movies or shows with too much sex. During a Good Friday sermon at my church, the pastor implored the congregation to examine ourselves for the sins that we kept secret from others. I considered that I should probably stop thinking so much about my favorite TV show, The X-Files. 

 

***

 

One of my friends left our Christian school to attend public school, and when we met for dinner, she said she had started to realize our school had been too strict, too closed-minded. But I thought about all the people at my school I cared about, my friends and my teachers, and I disagreed with her. But I did recognize that sometimes people said ridiculous things at school.

 

During history class, for example, our teacher showed us a newspaper article that suggested President Clinton was trying to make it illegal to talk about Jesus on the internet, but I’d never heard of this newspaper before, and I dismissed it as a fringe publication.

 

Another time, our PE teacher gave a talk during chapel about demon possession, relating an anecdote about a family who had trouble with their child before they found a toy with a demonic mark on it. I talked about it with my mom, who had left the Pentecostal church decades ago, was now Reformed Presbyterian, and had grown critical about the more extreme trends in Christianity. She and I connected in that way, sharing our occasional skepticism with one another. I thought I had pretty good critical-thinking skills, that I could easily recognize exaggerations, fears that had nothing to do with reality, wrong opinions. 

 

***

 

During my junior year, I started throwing up every morning before school. None of the doctors I went to found anything physically wrong with me. One doctor suggested therapy and medication for anxiety. I tried both with encouragement from my mom, who had also struggled with anxiety in the past. 

 

My new therapist said she was a Christian, but I wasn’t sure about her. She said she didn’t always take the Bible literally, that sometimes there were things more important than a person’s religious beliefs. During one session, we talked about what it meant for something to be objectively true. 

 

"If the sky is blue, then you really need to know it’s blue," I said. 

 

She disagreed. "If a person thinks the sky is green, that still matters."

 

I shook my head. Sometimes I thought she was kind of dumb. 

 

For a few years, I had secretly worried I was gay. I didn’t tell my therapist for a while. First, I tried telling my English teacher, who was also my friend, because I trusted her more than anyone else in my life. But when talking with her didn’t help any of my feelings go away, I told someone else, my youth pastor, who directed me to a counselor at our church. The counselor and I met once. He gave me a photocopied chapter from a book about codependent friendships between women and suggested I stop watching the TV shows that made me feel attracted to women. I didn’t stop watching the TV shows that made me feel attracted to women.

 

All three — my teacher, my pastor, and the church counselor — advised me the same way: I couldn’t help it if I felt same-sex attraction, but the Bible said it would be wrong for me to act on my feelings. I agreed with them, but I also knew I needed something more than a fifteen-minute conversation about it. 

 

I started recording radio broadcasts from Focus on the Family, where people talked about leaving the “homosexual lifestyle” behind. I went to the public library and searched on the internet for other Christians who were “struggling with same-sex attraction.” I emailed them, and a few replied. It wasn’t enough for me, though. I wanted someone to talk to all the time. I had a million things to say, a million things to ask. I longed for indulgence, patience, an exorbitant kind of understanding, maybe even love, that I began to suspect was unrealistic given the limitations of my current life. 

 

Out of desperation, I told my therapist that I thought I might be gay. She said she wasn’t surprised, that it was okay, that it was also okay if it took time for me to figure things out. If I was uncertain about what I wanted, she said, that just meant I wasn’t ready to decide. I didn’t know if I agreed with her. She hugged me afterward, and I was uncomfortable, and I tried to pull away. At the same time, I was relieved.

 

***

 

One cornerstone of Evangelical Christianity is that a person’s relationship with Jesus Christ goes beyond the institution of the church. I believed that a kind of personal closeness with God was possible, but I was frustrated by my own lack of emotional response to him. I didn’t like talking to someone who never responded to me. 

 

I had been taught that God spoke back to a person through other means: through the Bible, through other people, through some ineffable stirring inside your heart. But a moody and anxious person feels a lot of stirrings in her heart, in all different directions. One summer, my church planned a week-long mission trip to paint houses in West Virginia. I really didn’t want to go—it sounded like a lot of work—but I lost sleep agonizing over it, convinced God wanted me to do this. I went, but about halfway through the trip, I recognized that what I’d felt had only been guilt, and guilt was not the same thing as a message from God. In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t really matter if I was present to paint houses or not.

 

Another summer, I went on a camping trip to the Canadian wilderness with a small group of teachers and other students from my school. We hiked and canoed during the day, and during the night we sat in front of the campfire, sharing personal stories with each other—our pasts, our individual journeys with God. That kind of sharing felt intimate and real.

 

One afternoon, each of us went off into the wilderness alone. I found a spot on the ledge of a rock, overlooking the lake, and I sat there in silence, looking out to the water and the sky, both of which were blue and extraordinarily vast. I felt good, really good. I felt close to the people in my group, and I felt close to God, certain of his existence. The world in front of me was beautiful, and I felt in my bones that God must be beautiful, too. The trip ended. School resumed. I tried to hang on to that feeling, but I couldn’t, or I didn’t. 

 

I began reading more about Christian philosophy and theology, hoping that my brain might find Christianity more exciting than my heart ever could. My mom loved Reformed theologians like John Piper and R. C. Sproul, and I grew interested in their intellectualism, in their acknowledgement of contradictions and difficulties within the Christian faith, in the impossible questions that they still tried to honestly confront. My mom and I watched a documentary about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor who had struggled with his faith during Nazi-occupied Germany and had tried to assassinate Hitler even though he knew murder was a serious sin. 

 

I read books recommended by my mom, my youth pastor, and my Bible teacher. One aspect of theology that particularly moved me was the idea of God’s grace, the belief that God looks favorably at his people no matter what they do, bad or good. His positive regard and affection for his people is limitless. To sin means that God’s grace increases. When I thought about that, I felt waves of gratitude and I believed I could act morally and generously in response to that kind of love. 

 

But it was the same thing as the moment during my camping trip to Canada—perhaps real, but also temporary. If this was true—if God was that good—it still felt far away from me. My conviction came and went. 

 

***

 

But there were other moments that stayed with me. 

 

Late at night, I was driving home with my English teacher after an award ceremony for young writers, for a contest in which I’d been a finalist. In the car, she and I were tired, and I was staring straight ahead; I only saw her out of the corner of my eye. We had both dressed up for the event. I had used a curling iron on my hair, and she had worn eyeliner, and she looked even prettier than she usually did. I had loved attending the ceremony with her. When the winner was announced and it wasn’t me, I didn’t even care that much, because she was with me, because she joked with me, whispered the competition must have been rigged, obviously I should have won.

 

I thought about her all the time, and I wanted to be with her all time. As we drove, I wondered what she was thinking about, but I didn’t ask her. We were quiet, and I could hear her breathing. I was overwhelmed in a way I had never felt before. It was the first thing that happened to me despite myself, past myself. It was the opposite of all the ways I had tried to force myself to feel something with God. That night, with her, I wasn’t even trying. But I wanted something and lost it at the same time. 

 

***

 

Even after I talked to my therapist about being gay, I believed that if I wanted to remain a Christian, I could never have a romantic relationship with a woman. While it was true that all Christians sinned, I knew, being gay wasn’t your average one-time sin; it was a continual refusal, over and over, of God’s will. A person couldn’t be a Christian if they ignored God all the time like that. Gay people probably went to hell after they died. 

 

Something changed in me, though not at all once. 

 

I wanted more. I had tried to do what I thought I was supposed to do. I had prayed, read my Bible, talked to people at my church and my school, talked to my therapist, researched the issue on the internet. I had read a lot of books. But my life seemed empty and without comfort. It felt like reaching for someone, wanting to be held, never being held, always only reaching. 

 

I was about to finish my junior year when I watched an episode of The X-Files written by its costar Gillian Anderson. I was at home by myself, which I realized was a good thing as soon as I discovered the episode dealt with sexual orientation. A character revealed she was a lesbian and that she finally understood that her shame about her feelings was making her physically sick — in this case, with cancer. I paused the episode and left the house to go for a walk. Was my shame making me sick too? I couldn’t stop thinking about what the woman said about herself or how pretty Gillian Anderson was, the understanding, unfazed face she made when the woman said it. I wanted more for my life than only a moment in passing sitting next to a woman I loved for a few minutes. 

 

The loop around my neighborhood was a familiar walk, but I felt different as I passed each front lawn. I thought to myself, I don’t know why this matters to me so much, but it does. I wondered if maybe God could forgive a sin like being gay. Or maybe being gay wasn’t even a sin. But there was another, darker part of me, too, that thought maybe it was a sin, maybe God wouldn’t forgive me, and maybe I didn’t care. 

 

***

 

During my senior year of high school, my relationship with Christianity became increasingly murky. I went back and forth with my beliefs, sometimes convinced by conflicting opinions within the span of a few minutes. 

 

I applied to two Christian colleges and one public university. After reading the Christian colleges’ mandatory morality clauses, which forbade same-sex relationships, I decided to attend the public university. In therapy I talked more about "coming out." I wanted to share this part of myself with other people. I found pen pals online who were gay, some of whom weren’t Christian. I went to see a lesbian movie by myself in the theater. I read more books written by gay people. I listened to Indigo Girls. I told my sister and a few of my best friends that I was gay. 

 

I started college, and I began dating women. I wasn’t sure if what I was doing was wrong or not, but it felt better than what had been before. I fell in love with a girl, and she held me in her arms. 

 

I remained anchored to my faith in small ways. I regularly attended a surprisingly LGBT-friendly Baptist church near my college. Yet I was leaving much of Christianity behind. It wasn’t just one thing anymore — it was a lot of things. I stopped reading the Bible by myself at night. I was having sex with my girlfriend. I was using swear words in a way that stuck this time. I was lying to my parents. I tried to check in with myself about what I really believed, but there was too much to wade through. It seemed irreconcilable. I didn’t want to become one of those people who tried to justify everything she did. But I had also stopped caring so much. My faith remained vague. 

 

After college, I moved to Boston. I didn’t find a church home, and I still didn’t think that much about God or my faith. I told myself I could figure that out later. I remained single for many years and tried casual sex with something like a thrill when I realized I could do it without guilt. But I was lonely, and I was still anxious and sometimes depressed. I found another therapist. I tried to figure out how to be happier. I built stronger friendships, started a job in publishing, in sales, that I was good at and enjoyed. I wrote and published several short stories and two books, traveled, learned to enjoy the time I spent by myself.

 

I celebrated my thirtieth birthday surrounded by friends whom I loved, whom I could be myself with, and I was mostly content. I still had worries for myself, especially because I was still single, and so many of my friends were settling down with their partners, sharing a home together, starting a family, something I used to want more than anything. I worried maybe there was something wrong with me, if I had made some serious mistake along the way — perhaps some defect inside of me from such a conflicted adolescence. Sometimes I even wondered if maybe, if I had followed the path that had been prescribed to me years ago as a Christian woman — if I had gone to a Christian college, dated men, found a husband, had children — I would have felt less alone. 

 

It’s difficult to know the markers of a meaningful life. In a suburb near Boston now, I share a house with my best friend, who writes jokes about our cats on our whiteboard, digs my car out from the snow when I’m away, seems happy to indulge my crushes on female TV characters. My parents and I enjoy an imperfect but loving relationship even with our differences. My sister has two daughters, whom I love with a kind of foreign, overwhelming tenderness. I’ve dated and fallen in love a few times, but nothing has lasted more than a year or two. I look inside myself more than I look outside. I think I’m doing okay, but I am not always sure. 

 

I don’t miss the life I left behind. I don’t want to go back to anything like that. I am wary still of most churches, most spiritual communities— I don’t like the idea of people united by their shared certainty. I’m glad that I get to feel like myself, that I am known and understood by the people in my life. Most of all I like that I am able look at the world with nuance, an interest in complexity, an understanding that there is no universal roadmap every person needs to follow. When I feel lost sometimes, I wonder if that’s what it means to be human. I can’t quite discern what old questions linger from my childhood. 

 

***

 

Some days I believe in a God who is full of grace, who is more beautiful than anyone can imagine, whose love does not depend on what a person does or doesn’t do. Other days, I believe God is indifferent or cruel.

 

When I’m having a particularly rough time, right after a breakup or during a string of terrible dates, I make jokes — halfway-true jokes — to my friends that maybe God is punishing me for being gay. I still pray, especially when I’m anxious or upset, though so often it still feels like I’m only pleading at an unresponsive sky. I pray with a kind of stream-of-consciousness rambling. I pray the same way I think.

 

"God, I don’t know if you listen to me anymore, and I don’t know how to ask for anything from you anymore, and if I knew what to do, maybe I would do it. But I don’t know. Maybe I wouldn’t do it. How much does any of this even matter to you? I still want to try to talk to you. This is what I want to say to you." 

 

Maybe this is more authentic than how I prayed so many years ago — no one told me this is how I’m supposed to pray — but I still don’t feel much of anything. Now, I give up easily. I stop, I pick up my phone, I fall asleep. This is one important part of myself I lost: the willingness to persist. 

 

The threat of hell lurks in the back of my mind. When I imagine having children, I don’t know what I would tell them about God. I wouldn’t want them to be scared. 

 

I remember with affection the teenager I was, who secretly recorded Christian radio broadcasts because she wanted to do the right thing, who also knew she wanted more for her life than what was in front of her. I’m proud that I wrestled with my faith; if it had come easily to me, I think I would have been a different kind of person altogether, less able to take life’s more confusing aspects in stride. 

 

When my parents found out I was gay, my dad wrote me a letter saying they had baptized me in the church and so they believed God considered me his child, would always consider me his child, and someday he would bring me back to him. I don’t know what is true, but I still hope for a God who holds on for longer than I could. 

 

 

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