It took a long time to admit that, especially to myself. The process of self-acceptance had started a few months earlier, at a small, midweek Advent service at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta. The rector at that time, the Rev. 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 at that service, 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 sexuality, 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 sexuality as a gift from God was overwhelming. I had been brought up to believe that homosexuality was a sin, an abomination before God. I had never fully loved myself because I could never fully admit to myself who I really was. 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 in my life 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.
That following Palm Sunday weekend I sat in the office of the Rev. Dr. John Westerhoff at St. Luke’s and spoke out loud about my sexuality. 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 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 tortured pride, to crumble and for me to finally accept that God does love me, just as I am.
I’ve recently come to appreciate that passage of scripture as it is paraphrased in The Message:
I still have days when my old way of thinking intrudes. I sometimes read scripture and see it through the eyes of the fundamentalist Baptist 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.
But now, God’s Message,
the God who made you in the first place, Jacob,
the One who got you started, Israel:
“Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you.
I’ve called your name. You’re mine.
When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you.
When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down.
When you’re between a rock and a hard place,
it won’t be a dead end –
Because I am God, your personal God,
The Holy of Israel, your Savior.
I paid a huge price for you:
all of Egypt, with rich Cush and Seba thrown in!
That’s how much you mean to me!
That’s how much I love you!
I’d sell off the whole world to get you back,
trade the creation just for you.
“So don’t be afraid: I’m with you.
I’ll round up all your scattered children,
pull them in from east and west.
I’ll send orders north and south:
‘Send them back.
Return my sons from distant lands,
my daughters from faraway places.
I want them back, every last one who bears my name,
every man, woman, and child
Whom I created for my glory,
yes, personally formed and made each one.’”