Coming Back from Coming Out
By Angie Best
Coming out ruined my life. At least, that’s the way it seemed. To claim my identity as a lesbian meant sacrificing everything on the altar of my own selfishness, of my need to be “true to myself.” To come out as a 43- year- old woman meant walking away from a tolerable twenty- year marriage, leaving behind a career in church ministry, and learning to negotiate custody arrangements and a new solo life. To come out, for me, meant walking away from God.
But the price of dishonesty had been higher. I paid for it in years of battling depression, anxiety, and bulimia. I bought my silence with a cocktail of psych meds, suffering a stroke, and spending hundreds of hours with a Christian therapist where I never revealed the struggle of my heart.
To look at me then, you would never have known what I was going through. I stood in the pulpit week and after week and preached the good news of the One who came to save us. I was good at it; I crafted sermons rich with powerful illustrations, handling Scripture deftly and with surgical precision. My homiletics professors would have been impressed with the way I reimagined Biblical texts in ways that made ancient stories come alive. I wrote devotionals and books on how to pastor. I spoke to seminary students at workshops and pastoral conferences.
No one would ever have known that by the end of my ministry, God and I weren’t even on speaking terms. I didn’t even realize it at first. I slipped away a little at a time.
I had grown up in a little Methodist church in the South, a warm, loving congregation nestled on the bank of the Dismal Swamp. When my family of origin failed me, the church took me under its wing. I became president of the youth group, preached my first sermon at 15 and felt the first stirrings of a call to ministry before I finished high school. College beckoned, I became the youth minister, and I married a fellow church member in the perfect wedding. Our reception was catered by the ladies’ circle. Seminary followed, and I knew I had found my place in the world. It worked for a long time.
I loved the church. The feel of the pews under my hands—warm, satiny wood, rubbed smooth over the years. Folding crisp bulletins waiting to be handed out by eager Sunday morning ushers. I used to get to church hours before anyone else to practice my sermon, my voice echoing down the carpeted aisle, sunlight hitting the stained glass cross and blinding me every week at the same time. I loved the familiar hymns, the out of tune piano, and I’d keep my eye on the discreetly placed clock, designed to keep long-winded pastors aware of pot roasts that demanded to be out of the oven by quarter after twelve. At the latest.
I loved the stories my people told me. At baby showers and hospital waiting rooms and funeral parlors. In living rooms and in church kitchens. We are nothing without our stories, and I held space for the tales of first loves and lost children, of commitment and disappointments. I bore witness to God’s presence in their lives. They were sacred stories.
But along the way I lost my voice when it came to telling my own story. I was too unsure, too indoctrinated and inflexible to believe that a Holy God had anything to do with my sexuality and with my growing struggle to reconcile those feelings with my narrowly defined roles of wife, mother, and pastor. I don’t know when I knew I was a lesbian; there were hundreds of aha moments over two decades of adulthood. And each one of those moments took me further away from the God of my childhood. I simply could not imagine a way of life that integrated my faith and my sexuality.
And so, slowly, I slipped away. I stopped praying, unless I counted the Call to Worship on Sunday mornings. Increasingly, I just copied and pasted those from a pastor’s sourcebook. My own words had dried up. I stopped reading my Bible, unless I needed fodder for next week’s sermon. God and I, once close, became strangers. I was awkward around God, avoiding eye contact and pretending we hadn’t meant something to each other once.
I limped away from the church, not knowing anyone who could hold space for my struggle. I was alone, and I had to choose between honesty and faithfulness. Between my identity and my calling. To choose to be faithful to a dead marriage that no longer served us, or to let it go to grasp at a chance for happiness. To come out or be in a community of faith.
Finally the price of keeping silent was too much and I walked away slowly. From my marriage. From the home we shared. From my church, my ministry, and my faith.
And for a long time, I didn’t miss any of it. I liked life on my own. My children adapted to a new way of being a family. I loved my new career, and I particularly relished sleeping in on Sunday mornings. Months stretched into several years, and then it happened.
I missed God.
I missed the comfort and peace I received through prayer and meditation, and I missed the love I felt when my heart and mind were aligned with God.
I remembered Pascal’s admonition, that there is a God-shaped vacuum in every heart. Even in mine. I need to connect with the Divine, even if I don’t know what that looks like yet.
And I realized I missed being part of a community of faith. I need to connect with a tribe made up of people who love each other unconditionally, that celebrates the Mystery that binds us, and makes the world better. I don’t know where that is yet.
Slowly, I’m coming back. Maybe. These are just baby steps, small enough to risk little. Whispered prayers so tentative that I could almost imagine they were never uttered. I started acknowledging, almost begrudgingly, that what looked like coincidences might actually be Divine Order.
And this time, being a lesbian doesn’t matter. Walking away from the church and the God that I knew freed me to reimagine what a loving God and community might look like. I know there are safe places for me. I just haven’t found mine yet. But I know that the still, small Voice that calls me back embraces all of me, including my sexuality.
Angie Best is a psychiatric nurse, a Quaker pastor, a writer, and a lesbian, and she isn’t sure she’s ever going to be feel comfortable in her faith again. She has an MDiv from Virginia Union University in Richmond, Va and is the author or co-author of ten books, including Heart of a Shepherd: Meditations for New Pastors, and Surviving Your First Year as Pastor: What Seminary Couldn’t Teach You, both published by Judson Press. She’s learning how to quilt, makes a mean risotto, and is happiest with her toes in the sand.
© 2015 by Angie Best