About 6 years ago I had the privilege of visiting Israel and we drove through the desert where Jesus was tempted by the devil. The King James Version uses the word ‘wilderness’ instead of ‘desert’. Having been there, I personally think that the word ‘wilderness’ better describes the place. As far as we could see there was barren, rocky land where no vegetation could grow. There were about 12 of us in our group and we stopped the minibus we were travelling in, and got out. I walked off, away from the others and stood alone, taking it all in, thinking and praying. I enjoyed those few minutes that I spent by myself, but I cannot comprehend what it must have been like for Jesus to have been there for 40 days and 40 nights. But what we do know is that when the time was over, Jesus went on to Capernaum where he began his ministry.
Many of us have been through wilderness experiences, times when we have felt alone, felt vulnerable, when the going really has got tough. My wilderness experience happened in the 1980’s.
To give you a bit of the background – there were two threads that have weaved themselves through my life. One is, that as long as I can remember, I have always had a deep faith in God. He has always been very real to me, even as a small child. I can never remember a time when I did not believe in Him. The other thread, as I call it, was that I have always known, again from childhood, that I was attracted to men, even though I did not know the words gay or homosexual.
However, because of my family life, society and especially the church, I became very confused and wanted more than anything not to be gay. I was married in 1971 and have two beautiful children and three equally beautiful grandchildren.
By the early 80’s I was working full time for the Baptist church where I had been attending for some years. They were definitely the worst years of my life as I fought desperately to change my sexuality. My faith was so important to me and I really did not want to be gay. So I set about trying to do something about it. I went first of all to visit a couple I had met, who had a particular ministry of praying with people. They decided that I had a demon of homosexuality and claimed to cast it out. Someone else I visited said that I had been cursed as a child and so prayed that I would be cut off from the curse. I attended one to one counselling, and went to a support group with other Christians who were struggling with their sexuality. Still other people prayed with me. It seemed to me that if anyone could have been healed of their sexuality, then I should have been! However, there was one problem. Nothing had changed!!
I felt a complete failure, dirty and unlovable, and really did not want to live. So I actually came to the place where I planned to commit suicide. I knew exactly what I was going to do to end my life. The only thing that stopped me was the thought of what it would do to my family if I killed myself. Instead I would go to my room, kneel by the side of my bed and literally cry out to God to heal me. Nobody could have wanted to have been healed more than I did.
What I still had to learn was that God’s ways were not necessarily my ways. In fact he actually knew better. In Proverbs 55 it says this, ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thought than your thoughts.’ I will also add that God’s timing is not always our timing. I wanted him to heal me NOW! But His timing is always perfect.
In 1990, I started working at the Mildmay, a hospice for people with HIV/AIDS. There I met many more people who were gay, some patients, and some staff. There was one person in particular who was the social worker there. It just so happened that he lived just down the road from me in Barkingside, near Ilford, Essex. I often met him with my car and drove him into work. During the journey we would share together. He was obviously gay; in fact he lived with his partner of 10 years. Fifteen years on they are still together, and have just celebrated their civil partnership. He was obviously very at ease with his sexuality. On the other hand he was also a committed Christian. It was evident by the way he spoke that his faith was very important to him. He was the first person I had met who managed to bring the two together, his sexuality and his faith. The thing that struck me most was that he appeared to be very much at peace with himself. That spoke volumes to me. Up until that time I had only met gay Christians, who like me, were struggling with their sexuality. Do you know what I discovered? God did answer my prayers. He did heal me. My healing came when I came to terms with who I was – a gay Christian man! It was like a burden being lifted off my shoulders and for the first time in my life I was at peace.
Well you may think that was the end of the story. In one way it was, but it was also the start of another difficult time in my life. I was still very involved in the leadership of the Baptist Church. I preached most Sundays and the people there all said how much they appreciated me. In fact they all thought I was wonderful. Now please understand me, I am not saying that to blow my own trumpet. I am telling you this to make a point. As soon as I told the other leader that I was gay and now happy to be gay, I was told that I could no longer preach or be in leadership, and I could no longer take communion. I could not understand this: what had changed? I had always been gay! God had chosen to use me in that church and he certainly knew I was gay. The only difference was that now they knew. I decided that if I could no longer take communion with them, there was no point in me going to that church. In fact I did not want to know about any Church. I had had enough!!
However, God decided differently. There were two truths that he instilled in my heart. One was that he existed and the other was that he loved me. You may think that was pretty basic, but at that time that is all I had to hold on to. Even though the church had turned its back on me and had rejected me, I knew that God never would! He eventually led me to St Botolph’s church in Aldgate where I was loved and accepted for who I am.
My wife, in the meantime, had gone to a so called Christian counsellor. I know there are many good counsellors who are committed Christians. But there are also Christians who after a few days training set themselves up as counsellors and have their own agenda. My wife had been told that she should ask me to leave. Therefore, one day when I returned from a late shift at work, there was a letter suggesting that we sell our home and go our separate ways. I moved out just two days later. It was obviously difficult at first for both of us. However, fourteen years later, we relate well and probably find it easier to share together now than when we were married.
I consider myself very fortunate. I have a brilliant relationship with my daughter and her husband. They are really two of my closest friends. My son simply says that as long as I am happy, that is all that matters. He and I meet from time to time and enjoy a good relationship.
Back in the 1960’s, Martin Luther King preached his famous sermon. He had a dream that one day all Americans, regardless of their colour or background would be able to live together in peace and harmony. Today, generally speaking, that dream has become a reality. Well I too have a dream! I look for the day when all Christians can stand together hand in hand, regardless of our race, colour, gender or sexuality, and as one voice proclaim the good news of a God who loves each and every one of us, exactly the way we are.