Updated: Oct 4
Guest post by Matthew Smith
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” –- Maya Angelou
If you know me, you know that telling stories is not a problem for me. Close friends constantly tease me on my need for the spotlight in any conversation. However, I have held onto one story that I have had trouble letting go of. At this point in my life, it is more important for me that this story is told over it being heard. I do this for myself, but I also kindly invite you into my story as I attempt to convey a beautiful, messy life in such few words. I have had plans to write this for a while, but I became overwhelmed at the thought of summing up my life in a blog post. I romanticized this post to the point that I didn’t want to go near it in the chance that I would mess it up. I admit that my words won’t be perfect nor will I convey everything as neatly as I had envisioned, but I ask for your grace as I begin…
My story is not typical. I come from an evangelical tradition, the Church of Christ, where my father has preached at the same church for twenty-three years. I loved church. I made many life-long friends in youth group, and I felt incredibly supported by my church family. Growing up as the pastor’s kid, I felt an incredible pressure to steward myself and represent my family well. I learned how to “do” church the right way. I learned early on how to pray “well,” how to mark my Bible up so that it looked like I read it a lot, and how to sit still and attentive during the sermon. (It wouldn’t be until college that I truly found my own faith and fell in love with Jesus Christ and his mission.) During those adolescent years, I cherished life, and I loved the attention of being the PK. I felt secure and happy at school, church, and home. Life seemed easy.
It wouldn’t be until seventh grade that my world began to unravel.
I realized I was gay and instantly thrown into a journey I never anticipated.
It took me a long time to become comfortable with the word “gay.” I recall a beach trip my freshman year of college when a close friend asked me how it felt to be gay. I was thrown off. When I told this close group of friends, I explained that I struggled with “same-sex attraction.” I wasn’t gay. Couldn’t he understand that I only struggled with it? That this was only a temporary thing? That I would be “fixed” after a couple years of therapy, and then my life would be good? I remember being irritated he used that word to describe me. Up until that point in my life, I was still hopeful that my burden was only temporary. I still dreamt of a day where I would marry a beautiful woman, have two kids, and settle down close to home. The word “gay” was too final and clearly defined, whereas a struggle can be overcome and defeated. I believed that God would rescue me from my struggle of same-sex attraction. It wasn’t until later in college that my real struggle was highlighted: finding my worth and accepting myself for who I was/am/will be.
After my realization in seventh grade, I came out to my parents via a letter. I remember writing the letter during English class. I made sure to cover the small paper with my hands in case anyone happened to look over. Later that night, I left it on my parent’s nightstand next to their bed before going to sleep. The memories are hazy from that night. But I remember my dad walking into my room shortly after and weeping together. I think our tears stemmed from the realization that we had a long, difficult journey ahead of us for myself and my family. It was a loss of security and normalcy. In those few minutes that he hugged me and cried, I remember him looking at me and saying, “There is nothing you could do that could stop me from loving you.” I didn’t notice it then, but I now recognize that my dad showed me a glimpse of the radical, unconditional love that God has for me as well. If my broken, perfectly human father could look at me, flaws and all, and still accept me, then how much more does my Heavenly Father look down upon me with love?
It has been a slow, painful journey of wrestling with my identity and accepting myself. Up to this point, I have glossed over the instances where I either felt unsafe in church due to my sexual orientation or where I was picked on for sounding or acting gay. Church is not an easy place for a kid who is secretly gay. It is not my intent to list every grievance or harm the church has caused me or the LGBTQ+ community. I don’t want to come across as bitter or hateful, because I am not those things. I deeply care for the church, but I do believe that the church has missed the mark when talking about or to the LGBTQ+ community. I don’t hold bitterness in my heart because I realize that God has redeemed my pain and suffering. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul writes:
I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
I have prayed countless times in my life that God would take the “gay” away. All my life, I have asked God the timeless question, “Why me?” I never understood why God would let a young boy bear the burden of his own sexuality in a world where it seems he isn’t welcomed or loved. However, God has taken this “thorn” and redeemed it by giving me purpose in life. In high school, I went to Honduras every summer for a mission trip. On one of those trips, God spoke so clearly into my life and revealed his plan for me. Yes, I would have to wait years to see its fruition, but I knew that God was working for my good. I remember sitting on the rooftop of our hotel looking out to the lights on the mountains surrounding the city. As I read through 2 Corinthians 5, I stumbled across Paul’s passage about reconciliation.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us…
In a truly epiphanic moment, God pierced my heart, and I understood instantly why I had to bear the burden of being gay and a pastor’s kid. I felt a call to reconciliation. Up until that point in my life, my being had been split into two identities: gay and Christian. Yet, I saw God beginning to weave those two stories together. I knew God could use my “weakness” for his glory and that I was called to ministry. God turned my shame and fear into passion and purpose.
This year, I was accepted to Yale’s Divinity School. Most people have asked what I plan on doing after graduate school. Until now, I have given vague answers about ministry or possibly preaching. However, since that night in Honduras, I have seen God gently nudging me towards reconciliation. My aspiration to study theology is linked to my desire to share what my father showed me: that love and acceptance can be found in church. I long to reconnect gay people to their worth and faith, to help mend the pain caused by the church, and to facilitate conversations around sexuality and faith. I want to continue exploring the intersection of my own faith and identity, and to begin paving a path for those who feel there is no hope.
Fortunately, my story is not typical. I have been blessed and privileged to have a supportive family. My mother’s fierce love has supported me every step of the way, and my sisters have been like my personal guardian angels: protective and present when I need them. I never had to worry about being disowned by my family unlike so many other unfortunate situations where queer people are outcast. I have felt shame knowing that I have had it easy in so many ways. The last thing I want is for people to throw a pity party for me. My hope in writing this is to illuminate the fact that we, queer people, are all around you. In your workplace, in your church, in your families. And to understand that we desire the same thing as you: to be known and loved. Thank God I have had people in my life who have seen me for myself and cherished me. To my family, friends, mentors, and professors who have walked this journey with me. Thank you. Your grace, kindness, and love has sustained me and led me to a much better place.
I want to reiterate. It is more important that this story is told and not heard. In order for me to grow and flourish, I must finally step out of fear. I have been presenting a Matthew to people that is not truly myself, and it is exhausting. Like I said before, I love being the center of attention, and I realized at an early age that if I could impress and charm people then they would possibly love me. I was referred to as the golden boy in my family growing up. Partly because my sisters thought I was spoiled (I was). But I made this personality my wall of defense from people knowing who I truly was. I became a laid-back, people-pleasing person and substituted people liking me for true intimacy. I longed to earn people’s favor with my “golden boy” personality which is why affirmation and praise became intoxicating to me. But those moments are not sustainable for a healthy life. I have been reading Donald Miller’s Scary Close and his words perfectly resonated with my story:
It costs personal fear to be authentic but the reward is integrity, and by that I mean a soul fully integrated, no difference between his act and his actual person. Having integrity is about being the same person on the inside that we are on the outside, and if we don’t have integrity, life becomes exhausting.
I am exhausted. To be blunt, I was depressed and isolated my last two years of college. I lacked true connection and intimacy with most of my surrounding friends. My friends joked that I became a hermit my senior year, and I was. I became a shell of my former golden boy personality. I no longer felt golden. My therapist helped me process this. He quoted the verse where John writes “Perfect love casts out all fear” and reversed it. He said if that’s true then “Perfect fear casts out all love.” I have lived a life in fear and bought into Satan’s lies which is why I’m stepping out in courage now. I now believe that on the other side of fear is a life of abundance. Growth, contentment, and a soul fully integrated. I am excited for this next chapter in life. I can now see the golden light that illuminates and surrounds me. In Him, there is no darkness at all. Although I am miles away from home, God has blessed me with tremendous peace. I am exactly where I need to be. And I always have been.
I want to leave this space with a challenge for all of us. I would be forsaking my church tradition if I didn’t neatly close this with a call to action. We spend a majority of our lives running from our personal demons. These demons take many different manifestations and guises. Instead of confronting them, we choose to act out, run, bury our emotions, seek pleasure, etc. As humans, we are addicted to fleeing from pain. I want to gently remind us all that the way to dissolve our resistance to pain and fear is to meet it face to face. Spend time sitting in your fear and ask God to give you the courage to face it.
As my dad helped me move up north, our catchphrase for the week was “We can do hard things.” As I struggled to carry my things, I would whisper to myself “I can do hard things.” After I dropped my dad off at the airport, I prayed “I can do hard things.” And I believe this to be true for all of us. We can do hard things.
Thank you for listening.
*Reposted with permission from the author