VOICES OF HOPE
Jacob is a full-time student of creative writing, a poet and fantasy writer who uses metaphors to explain his thoughts. He was raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and strongly believes in the mission of the Savior. He knows that each experience he encounters is for his benefit and can either be viewed as a stumbling block or a stepping stone. He believes we have the opportunity to choose how to respond to our experiences and become better through them.
OF STONES AND CROSSES
Why a Struggle?
Recently, I noticed that when most people who have same-sex attractions (SSA) describe their journey, they use the word “struggle.” They describe their experiences using phrases such as,“It is a daily struggle,” “I have struggled for years,” “I struggle with SSA,” etc. In the past I used this same vocabulary, describing my life as a struggle rather than an experience. I now realize that if I consistently refer to SSA as a struggle, it is. When I began to refer to it as an experience, I started to see the blessings associated with the trials rather than only the trials. My realization came over the course of several years but cemented when I remembered a story.
A man was carrying a cross up a steep mountain path. His cross was so long it dragged on the ground behind him as he walked. As time passed, and the climb grew steep, he tired of carrying the large cross and prayed, “Lord, shorten this cross, so that I can more easily walk the mountain path.”
The Lord replied, “Are you sure you want me to shorten the cross?”
“Yes! Lord, I am sure.”
“My son, if I shorten the cross, I cannot change it back again.”
“It does not matter. With the shorter cross, I will travel more easily.”
The Lord then shortened the man’s cross. Several days later, marveling at how much lighter the cross was he came across a wide chasm. He stared at it for a long time, so long in fact that another traveler came up behind him, passed him and set her cross down so it made a bridge across the chasm. She then walked across the chasm, picked up her cross and continued on the path. The man tried to do the same, and despaired as he realized his shortened cross was not long enough to bridge the chasm. He sat in misery, watching as others came and passed the chasm bearing their crosses with joy and the understanding that it was only because of their cross that they would reach the summit.
This story helped me realize that my trials need not be suffered through, but can instead be seen as the bridge that will get me home to my Heavenly Father. This is only one of the many experiences that has changed my perspective from one of struggling to one of experiencing.
At the Foot of the Path
I grew up in a small town situated in the foothills on the eastern side of the Sacramento valley. It is a not-quite-rural area where, with only an hour’s drive, one could go to the city for a night on the town or could go up into the mountains for an impromptu camping trip. My childhood was fairly typical of Latter-day Saint families: lots of generally well-behaved kids (seven, of which I am the fifth) running around doing all sorts of different things appropriate for their ages.
What was atypical about my childhood was my acute understanding of mortality. My mother has multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system. I have vague memories of paramedics rushing up the stairs in the middle of the night. I would awake in the morning only to find mom was gone again, whisked off to the hospital where I was never sure I would see her again. Some of these memories mixed with nightmares, and I can remember many nights I would sneak into my parents’ room and wake my father for a priesthood blessing so that I could sleep. The MS also made it difficult for my mother to do all the household tasks mothers usually do, so I quickly became independent, and took it upon myself to do as much as I could to help her. My siblings did the same, and we started doing all the cooking during mom’s last pregnancy, as well as the laundry and the majority of the household cleaning and yard work.
About this same time, it became apparent to my mom that strong emotions, particularly anger, exacerbated her symptoms. It didn’t even need to be her own anger. This led to many family discussions with Dad teaching us that emotions were to be controlled. Being a child, I took this to mean that emotions were bad and needed to be rejected and not expressed. In his desire to help us understand, he used an example that affects me to this day. Dad explained that when we got angry, it was like we walked up to Mom with a baseball bat and hit her. This image planted seeds of fear that grew to be terror of feeling emotions in general; if emotion was equivalent to hitting people with baseball bats it had to be evil and dangerous. I became particularly adept at using logic and complex descriptions to trap or control emotions so that I would not have to experience them. I would search for the perfect word to describe what I was feeling so that it became an intellectual pursuit instead of an emotional trauma. This led to the creation of several thinking errors that I have since learned how to resolve.
The Cross I Bear
My childhood passed, as most people’s do, and soon I was submitting my mission papers. I had not yet acknowledged my feelings of SSA as I entered the mission field. I also was very naive when it came to worldly and sexual things. I thought I was very wise and strong but quickly learned that my previous behaviors and coping mechanisms were not enough.
For the first year of my mission in Argentina I struggled to learn Spanish and only began to learn how to communicate. When I finally humbled myself enough to pray for help, it clicked. This was an important lesson for me, one that I am constantly reminded of. Then came the bigger problem of health concerns.
About the time I could communicate effectively I developed arthritis. For several months I was in so much pain it was hard to function with any sense of normalcy. I could only stand for a few minutes before needing to sit and could barely hold anything in my hands. To drink I needed to pick up my cups between my wrists because my fingers shook too much with pain to hold on long enough to drink. Needless to say, there was a lot of spilled water during that time. I don’t share this to solicit pity rather I share it to place my later experiences with SSA into perspective. (You say that you share this to place your later experiences in perspective, but this is never mentioned again after you return home from your mission, you never make the connection. It’s not wrong, I’m just not sure how the two relate. It was through the experience of such physical pain that I learned how to cope and then heal from emotional pain.
Crossing the Chasm
It was at this time of such physical pain that I truly learned how to rely on the Lord. I was in such poor health that I prayed each morning to know which one investigator was the one we needed to see that day. Even though I could do so little each day the Lord magnified my efforts. I was also the district leader at that time. I was responsible for leading and teaching another 10 missionaries, five sisters and five elders (one was my companion). Since I could barely manage to see one investigator a day, to complete my duties as district leader I laid the phone on my cheek as I called, laying in bed because I could no longer hold the phone in my fingers. I thought I was accomplishing so little. I began to despair, believing that I was doomed to be in pain forever.
My landlords started asking why I stayed in Argentina when I was obviously in such poor health. The doctors I saw told me it was all in my head and that I needed a psychiatrist more than a doctor. Needless to say I stopped seeing the doctors. More and more members of the ward began questioning my desire to stay in the mission field and as they did my determination began to waver. I humbled myself enough to ask my mission president for a blessing, in which I was instructed to study Paul.
The next day for personal study I opened the Bible and began reading everything Paul wrote in the New Testament. As I studied I found these words in 2 Corinthians chapter 12 verses 7-10:
“And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.” (Italics added for emphasis.)
This began a new chapter in my mission and my life. I realized that I was trying to do everything on my own while ignoring the grace that Jesus Christ was so ready to offer. I needed that enabling power of Christ. I wish I could say that this epiphany was enough to heal me but it wasn’t.
Several days after this, I found myself so discouraged again that I went to the mission president and asked to be sent home for medical reasons. He told me that he thought it was a mistake and that he had too many meetings that day to fill out the necessary paperwork, but that he would fill it out the next day. As soon as I returned to my apartment I felt strongly impressed to read the story of Jonah from the Old Testament. As I read those four short chapters of the Bible I began to cry. I was so broken inside. When I finished reading I heard a voice say something that has affected me ever since: “I did not name you Jonah. Do not act like him.” My crying turned to weeping as I called my mission president and left a message on his phone informing him I would not be leaving the mission field.
Soon after this I asked for another blessing in which I was told very clearly: “You have the faith to be healed. That is not your test. Your test is to have the faith to not be healed.” This, when combined with the knowledge I gained reading about Paul and Jonah, gave me the strength to accept the will of the Lord regarding my health. I finished my mission and was blessed to see many more miracles that reaffirmed what I learned in these experiences.
It was through the crucible of pain that I learned the significance of the scriptures and how the same symbol can be used in many ways. For example, Isaiah speaks of how Christ will be a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense (Isaiah 8) but we also know that Christ is the rock, the sure foundation on which if we build we cannot fall. Although it took me awhile I began to see my trials as foundations and stepping stones rather than millstones drowning me in despair. This motif of stones and rocks has remained strong in my life and has shaped my perspective to be more positive than before.
This experience with physical pain prepared me for the emotional pain that was coming. My experiences with arthritis helped me to see my trials as stepping stones that give me opportunities to rely on God. Where I once saw same-sex attraction as a millstone drowning me, I now see it as one more of these stepping stones allowing me to cross the water.
The Stumbling Stone
When I arrived home I discovered all of my friends were missing. My friends had all waited to serve their missions until I had already been out a year and a half. I tried to not let it affect me but it did. I grew depressed without even realizing it was happening. So I did what every good Mormon boy does when he gets home from a mission: I looked for a wife.
I quickly started dating and discovered that as much as I wanted to be attracted to women and be married, my relationships with girls felt empty. Before this I was so focused on the mission and preparing for it that I deliberately suppressed all sexual desires and attractions. Now I began experimenting with masturbation and was quickly caught in the fierce grip of addiction. It reached the point where I could not sleep without masturbating first. It was also at this time that I realized I was attracted to men and not women. I was never aroused with thoughts of women but I still refused to acknowledge that SSA was a part of my life.
This continued for about a year and a half as I completed my Associate’s degree. As I worked three jobs and was a full-time student stress was just a part of life. It also required some form of release and my coping mechanism became pornography. I was so ashamed I could not tell my parents. I tried talking to the bishop of my singles ward but I could never bring myself to tell him the whole story. He encouraged me to stop masturbating but he had no idea I was looking at gay porn at the same time.
I started coming home only to sleep and sought to never be with my parents longer than necessary because I was terrified they would find out that I was not the perfect son they sent out to the mission field. Instead, I was damaged and had no idea how to be healed. I stopped listening to the Spirit and thought I could do it all on my own. Lonely became the only way to describe how I felt despite having many friends and most of my family nearby.
When I finished my Associate’s degree I transferred to BYU-Idaho, which I believe is one of the best decisions of my life. For the first time I was truly living on my own and was responsible for my own actions and didn’t have mom and dad to bail me out of everything that overwhelmed me or to look over my shoulder to check what I was doing.
The Stepping Stone
My first semester in Rexburg was miserable. I had few friends, no family, and very little social interaction. I was drowning. I didn’t trust my bishop enough to talk to him. I didn’t trust my roommates enough to confide in them and I didn’t feel I was worthy to ask the Lord for help. I stopped praying and reading the scriptures. I went to church but did not participate and barely fulfilled the responsibilities of my calling. This continued for about the first half of the semester.
It changed when one of the women in my young adult literature class called me over to sit with her in the cafeteria. We ended up talking about everything and anything for several hours. She introduced me to her friends and I began meeting people who cared about me for me, not for who I was when I was younger or what I could do for them. I had no experience with friends that relied on each other and trusted one another. Even as I began to feel accepted I also felt guilt, believing I was not worthy of such friends.
Just a week or two after that I was sitting in a congregation at stake conference. During the conference one of the bishops was asked to share the most important lesson he had learned while serving as a bishop. I don’t remember if he ever answered that question, but he did answer the questions in my heart. I was wrestling with the knowledge that yes, I experience SSA, and yes, I needed to make a decision. This bishop told a story of a young man coming in to see him and asking to have his name removed from the records of the church. Upon further discussion the bishop discovered that this young man was struggling with SSA but had not broken the Law of Chastity nor any other commandment. Armed with this knowledge the bishop asked the young man who he was. The young man responded that he was a child of God. In the end the young man realized that as a son of God he was destined to be a father. When the bishop said the words “I was born to be a father” I felt like he was speaking to me and no one else in the congregation. I do not know this bishop’s name nor do I have any way of contacting him, but I am eternally grateful that he listened to the Holy Ghost and answered my prayers because I needed to hear that I am destined to be a father. At that point I made my decision: I would remain in the Church no matter what came and make it work because I am destined to be a father.
Then came the hard part. I needed to make changes and seek healing through the Atonement. I was still masturbating close to daily and viewing pornography frequently. I still couldn’t bring myself to confide in my bishop so instead I confided in my friend from young adult literature. Little did I know that she had firsthand experience with SSA. She informed me that she had been married and her husband left her to live the gay lifestyle. She shared with me how to get in touch with a support group and where to go to find literary resources for my continued growth and healing. At that time I was still too scared to seek help from a counselor or a support group so I wrote down the names of several books and left it at that.
Falling Down and Standing Up
That summer I moved to Utah and worked pest control, first as a salesman and then as a technician. It pains me to say it but I was working with the scum of the earth. Most of the salesmen were just out of high school and had no plans for their lives. Others quickly moved on and were successful but those in my apartment were drinking, smoking, and sleeping around in such a manner that I could not feel the Spirit in the main part of the apartment. I’m thankful that the man who shared my room was righteous and sought to invite the power of God into our lives. I confided my attractions to him and his first words gave me more comfort than he realized. All he said was, “Jacob, I trust you.” That was all he said and it was enough. His response and continued friendship gave me the confidence to talk to my bishop in Utah.
That Sunday I arranged to meet with the bishop and spoke to him about everything, the attractions, the pornography, and the masturbation. He tried to be understanding but was uncomfortable working with me. He was of the school of thought that says if you pray hard enough SSA will go away. After a few weeks I stopped confiding in him because I had lost the confidence that he could help me.
When I returned to BYU-Idaho I knew that if I didn’t speak to my bishop the first week I wouldn’t ever talk to him. So I scheduled an appointment with him and laid all my concerns and experiences on the table. He let me talk for about ten to fifteen minutes before talking. His first questions was: “How much do you know about the Atonement?” We then proceeded to discuss how the Atonement is not only for sin and physical ailments but also for any other thing we feel needs to be healed in our life. The Atonement covers depression and misunderstandings. The Atonement also provides grace, the enabling power of Christ to overcome challenges and trials. I have since met with my Bishop often confiding in him my burdens and successes in equal measure.
After meeting with him I sought out local support by seeing a counselor and participating in a local support group. Through these experiences I learned that I am not alone. I learned that I am not a monster and, most importantly, that emotions can be experienced in healthy ways without harming those I love or myself. The men I met through the support group have truly become that, a group of men who support each other in all their trials, not just those connected to their SSA. Through these men I learned that it is alright to have moments of weakness and that I am able to seek help. It has been almost a year since I met them and now I am volunteering as an assistant group leader. If I had been asked two years ago if I would work with a group of men experiencing SSA I would have panicked and refused. Now I am comfortable knowing that my trials are not unique nor do they define me.
My Sling and my Stone
The nature of my health problems, depression, and SSA have not changed; rather, my perception of them has. The trials that once appeared as millstones dragging me beneath the surface of the sea have changed in recent months. Now they seem like sling stones I can use to defeat my future challenges as David slew Goliath. They have taught me how to forgive and be forgiven, how to teach and be taught, how to remember while letting go and to be cautious without fear. My struggle became an experience, a journey with both good and bad moments that teach me. I no longer struggle. I experience.