My Burden is Light!

By Jimmy Merrell

Be sure to also listen to Jimmy share his story. Watch video here.
Jimmy works as a music therapist and enjoys helping people with cancer, emotional disabilities, neurological disabilities, AIDS, and terminal illnesses. He serves as first counselor in a bishopric and has also served as the choir directors and ward mission leader. Through his experiences with same-sex attraction, Jimmy has learned that the Lord will lighten his burdens by giving him opportunities to serve others. That sounds paradoxical, but it's a practice that has brought Jimmy much joy. Accordingly, Jimmy has served within the North Star organization as a moderator for the men's group, online groups coordinator, treasurer of the executive committee, and director of the online community.

“I find your kind despicable.”

These words from my bishop pierced my soul. They were a reflection of years of self-hatred, a testimony of what a wretch I had become. Just a few months earlier I had met with him my bishop for the first time. I could not say the word gay and had not heard of the term same-sex attraction (SSA). Bewildered and feeling abandoned at his characterization of me, I immediately went home in tears. I tried to call my therapist at LDS Family Services; he was not available. So I called my dad, but he was not home.

So, I finally opened up to my mom. She was livid with my bishop. At that moment, I needed to get a sense of hope and support. My mom’s reaction was just what I needed, and sharing this with her relieved me of years of pent up fear and anxiety. In that moment, my world got a little bit brighter.

Eight months earlier, after a series of small miracles, I came to a place where my addiction to porn was lifted and the temptation was gone. Finally, I had come to the realization that God did love me. I’d lost hope many years prior when the woman I planned to marry, Mary Jo, died unexpectedly. I had been engaged to multiple women over the years, and as each relationship grew a strange phenomenon occurred; my skin started to burn. With Mary Jo this skin-burning sensation never occurred, and this was my sign that we were to get married. Her death seemed a cruel trick from God, one that sent me into the depths of depression for years.

Finally, in a moment of desperation at how dark my life had become, I knelt in prayer. The date was November 8, 2008. It was a simple supplication for strength to withstand the temptations of just that day. No longer did I pray for God to take this curse from me. As I admitted my weakness to the Lord and prayed for strength, immediately the temptations were gone. Later, I found that prayer and scripture study fortified me each day against the whirlwinds of temptation.

Two weeks after my Bishop told me that I was despicable, I was sitting in a disciplinary council with him and two football coaches by his side. What an ominous moment this was. I enjoyed sports, but my experiences in locker rooms were filled with lots of trauma, fear, and resentment. My oldest sister, Phyllis, counseled me to walk in confidently yet humbly. I shared with them how I had lost my faith and then turned to the world. I spoke of how I found the gay community through my work and had become enthralled in the culture of gay theatre and gay pride festivals. I talked about working for agencies and programs geared to serving the gay community. I had held the hands of men who were dying of AIDS or who had survived suicide attempts after their boyfriends left them. I told the council that I didn’t want that life, but that I found myself in a predicament. I desperately longed to be a father and husband, yet I believed God yanked that away. So in rebellion I turned to the alternative. I had been too afraid to act on my attractions other than to view porn. Though my gay friends were loving, kind, and wonderful, I knew deep down that the life they were living was not the life that I wanted.

The Decision



The council determined to disfellowship me. I went home and knelt in prayer. I felt a calm peace envelop me, almost like a divine hug from the Lord. As I prayed my phone rang and my bishop asked me to come back to the chapel. When I arrived he explained that he received impression that I needed to hold some callings. This was a tender mercy. I was called to serve in three music-related callings, one of which included sitting on the stand and leading the music each week. This presented a unique dilemma. Everyone who attended church would see me decline to partake of the sacrament. While this felt very intimidation, I later it was a blessing in disguise.

Two months after my disciplinary council I attended the annual Evergreen Conference. Elder Bruce C. Hafen of the Seventy was the keynote speaker. As he spoke, I heard all the words of comfort and hope that I sought in vain from my bishop. A sense of relief came to me with his promise that as I lived in accordance with the principles of the gospel and the covenants I had made in the temple, all things would be made right. I felt a sense of peace and hope, an assurance to hang on for just a little while longer.

Six months after attending the Evergreen Conference, my bishop called me into his office. As I entered his office I noticed his eyes were red.  He began to cry. He told me he had encountered someone in the Church—a closeted gay man—who lived a lie, kept his attractions a secret as he served in the Church, and hurt those around him until he died. Many years of hard feelings toward this man and others like him festered within my bishop. Then, he explained through his tears that another man had come to him who was also experiencing same-sex attraction. Through working with me my bishop had received insight on how to minister to this man. He thanked me for working with him and asked for my forgiveness, sensing he had caused hurt. This was the start of a new chapter in my life where I began to see my attractions no longer as a curse, but a blessing.

My Personal Priesthood Interview in the Pre-Existence



Throughout this time I drew near to the Lord. I filled my life with inspiring things. I remember listening to a Michael McLean song, “This Day Is One of Those.” While listening, I received an impression that in the pre-existence I sat down and had a personal priesthood interview with the Father. We talked about what I would experience in this life, including the challenges I would face: same-sex attraction, addiction, and the heartache of losing Mary Jo. I was given a choice to accept these challenges as part of my time here on earth.

I cherish this impression because it gives me a glimpse into eternity. I began to see evidence of this impression in others’ writings. Terryl and Fiona Givens write in The God Who Weeps, “suffering can be sanctifying, pain is not punishment, and the path to virtue is fraught with opposition.”1 The Bible Dictionary says this about repentance: “denotes a change of mind, a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world.” When my mind first caught hold of these ideas, I like Alma, “did seek to sing the song of redeeming love!”

I have learned that repentance doesn’t mean giving up feelings of attraction or even having God take them away; repentance means embracing same-sex attraction for the gift that it is. When I learned this, I no longer resented God for cursing me with this condition; on the contrary, I cherish same-sex attraction as part of my divine calling and inheritance. Over the years general authorities have used words like “sweet” and “delightful” to describe the experience of repentance. I started getting a glimpse of what these leaders described. Elder Russell M. Nelson said this about repentance,

“The fruits of repentance are sweet. Repentant converts find that the truths of the restored gospel govern their thoughts and deeds, shape their habits, and forge their character. They are more resilient and able to deny themselves of all ungodliness. Moreover, uncontrolled appetite, addiction to pornography or harmful drugs, unbridled passion, carnal desire, and unrighteous pride are diminished with complete conversion to the Lord and a determination to serve Him and to emulate His example. Virtue garnishes their thoughts, and self-confidence grows. Tithing is seen as a joyful and protective blessing, not as a duty or a sacrifice. Truth becomes more attractive, and things praiseworthy become more engaging.”2

Angels Unaware



It took time to adjust to this change of mind. Even though I understood repentance on a cognitive level, I was still coming to terms with it on an emotional level. I attended a Journey into Manhood weekend. What a powerfully healing experience; I was able to let go of some deep-seated anger, grief, and shame associated with my experiences growing up. Even more profound was the deep sense love and camaraderie that I started to feel far more intensely than at any time before. Healing began to take place in this intimate environment as I surrendered the masks I’d been hiding behind for years.

The spirit I felt that weekend was so strong. Often it seemed that angels were in attendance. During one particular moment one man shared a particularly dark moment in his life when someone dear to him had passed. His reaction mirrored my reaction to the loss of my sweet Mary Jo. The date of his loved one’s passing was November 8, 2008. I do not believe this was a coincidence. The Lord had placed this man in my path for it was on November 8, 2008 that I had decided to stop viewing pornography. I have often wondered whether our crossing of paths was carefully orchestrated by ministering angels from the other side of the veil.

I returned to work, where I was interpreting at a school with approximately 5,000 mechanics. Every three weeks a new course began, and my first day back coincided with the first day of one of these three-week phases. Typically, I found myself attracted to at least six men in the room of 30. That morning no one seemed even remotely appealing to me.

My colleague came in and questioned what I was doing. I was reading a book while the students were taking a pre-test. The teacher had been chatting with others while my student was finishing up, and it looked like I was playing around. I felt shame when she questioned me. As I looked up from my book and felt what the deeper message was behind her words, immediately six men in the room became irresistibly attractive to me. I froze. I asked myself what just happened. It dawned on me that I had allowed my perception of what others thought of me to create an emotional charge of shame in my heart. This in turn changed my views of who I was and prompted an avalanche of lust to hit me.

This episode reminded me of an elders quorum activity where we had loaded gunpowder and musket ball into a muzzleloader. The trigger did not seem to work without the loading of a charge. Once I noticed how I had taken my colleague’s message as a shame-producing charge, I felt that I needed to maintain the lessons I’d learned at Journey into Manhood. This became the adventure of my lifetime.

My Journey Becomes an Adventure



Spiritual experiences shared at Journey into Manhood continue to guide my life. Following the event I continued to meet with my group intermittently. On one conference call a facilitator sensed that I was holding onto my shame over same-sex attraction, shame that precluded me from being authentic in another environment. He encouraged me to open up, but I worried about what others would think of me. He quipped, “What other people think of you is none of your business.”

Still, I felt a sense of impending doom, especially after going through the turmoil I experienced with my bishop. I cringed at the thought of being vulnerable with so many other men who I knew very little about. In my past, I had heard others speak about the cruel things they would do to someone had they found out a friend of theirs was gay. These comments induced in me the impulse to hide from others in shame and fear. Yet this reaction was no longer serving me, and it ran contrary to my newfound view of God and the world. So, I began reaching out to all my friends who knew my story—those with and without same-sex attraction—and asked for their support. Some were concerned for my emotional and physical safety. Others were supportive and encouraging, and they gave me the confidence to go forward and share.

I did. And after sharing, I was swarmed with affection and gratitude from men who had not previously known my history. Again, I realized that same-sex attraction was not the horrible monster that had incapacitated me for so long. I resolved from that day forward to call it a blessing when introducing myself in support groups like the Church’s addiction recovery program.

I have always been welcomed with kindness and love from the men and women in these groups. When I spoke of my gift, these men and women thanked me for sharing my perspective. I noticed other men began to have take courage in openly sharing with the group that they, too, experienced same-sex attraction.

When I had been in the clutches of addiction my life was in shambles. I was laid off from my dream job as a music therapist due to the economic downturn. But this news caused me to jump for joy; now I could entertain my addiction for more hours each day. When I arrived home, with a plan to hit my favorite porn sites, I found my house filled with six inches of water. My shock was exacerbated by a realization that I had accumulated garbage throughout the house. My home, like my life, was unbearable. I distinctly remember thinking my life had become the prodigal son. After removing 200 huge bags of trash and, with the help of my dad, laying a new tile floor, my home became livable again. The remodeling of my spiritual life took a bit longer. In fact, I realized this was a process that would take the rest of my life.

Amid such wreckage, how could I consider addiction a blessing? M. Scott Peck, in Further along the Road Less Travelled, referred to addiction as a “sacred disease,” because much like cancer or heart disease it destroys all that is sacred to us. Andrew Twersky, in his book Addictive Thinking, likens the disease of addiction to the mental illness of schizophrenia. With both diseases the sufferers experience deep-seated delusions. The only difference is that the addict can convince those around him that his delusions are true. This convincing turns into enabling relationships with folks who soothe the addict into a pattern of wreckage. I used to seek out soothsayers in my life because I believed these people loved me. Had they seen the stench and darkness deep inside they would understand how sick, how dead, I really was inside. I was like the “whited sepulchre…full of dead men’s bones” (Matthew 23: 27).

I learned that only through Christ could those “dead men’s bones” be resurrected. Only through Christ could I receive a new life each day filled with the love and joy of my Savior. My body and spirit can be in alignment as I do what I can each day to turn my will and my life over to Christ rather than to seek the approval and love of others.

Burdens Become Beacons



While at an addiction recovery group one night I noticed a poster with this familiar scripture: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11: 28-30). I realized I had been reading that scripture wrong all my life. Prior to recovery, I was in a lonely, dark, and heavy place without any hope. Then, as I found recovery and turned my will over to Christ—as I yoked myself to him—my burden became light. In order for me to take his yoke upon me my burdens needed to be brought out of hiding. I found sharing my burdens with others helped their burdens to be light as well. As members of the Church who have taken the name of Christ upon us, we have the “burden” to share his light with others so their burdens will be lightened. God can work through us, even in our weakness, to bless the lives of others. It requires humility and faith, but these gifts are there to strengthen us as we yoke ourselves to him.

Each week as I sat at the front of the congregation and declined to take the sacrament, I could see the eyes of those in the audience change from pity to a quiet hope. I saw their joy and gratitude as they watched me finally partake of the sacrament and re-enter the temple. Later, my “burden” was a “light” and a blessing to others as I worked with the missionaries as a ward mission leader. We ministered to many, including some who are gay and some who struggle with addiction.

Recently, I was contacted via Facebook by a former missionary who I met briefly as he was teaching a gay man in a nearby stake. His parents are both psychologists and were working with a man in another state who was suicidal. He asked me if I would be willing to have his parents share my name with this man and his family. I was more than happy to do so. This dear man and his wife who were at the edge of despair have been in contact with me many times since, and we have even met in person. I have seen the miraculous effects of how letting my light shine can reach others, even across many miles, to bring them hope. It is while ministering to others struggling with their own burdens that I have experienced the lightening of my burdens. This phenomenon was expressed beautifully by James Farrell in his book Falling to Heaven: the Surprising Path to Happiness.

“For he teaches that our burdens are lifted only as we take upon ourselves an additional burden! Take my yoke upon you . . . and ye shall find rest unto your souls. Think about what this means. When we are feeling burdened, weighed down, and heavy, Jesus is telling us that relief comes only as we do what all of our intuitions tell us is the last thing we should do—take upon ourselves an additional burden. Although yokes distribute burdens between partners, Jesus is asking us to take on the burden of a yoke we aren’t presently carrying. This is an additional weight, or at least it seems to be, and therefore what sounds like an added measure of heaviness.”3

An Unexpected Turn of Events



A few years back while visiting family over the holidays, I received a phone call from President Nelson. He was asking me to meet with the stake presidency immediately. I ended my vacation early and I had a four hour drive to ponder what calling might be in store for me. I also mourned the fact that I’d be losing my calling as ward mission leader, which allowed me to work shoulder to shoulder with the elders.

The first question President Nelson posed to me was, “When was the last time you viewed pornography?” I answered with confidence and resolve. Then it was revealed that the bishopric of our ward was being dissolved and the Lord wanted me to serve as first counselor in the new bishopric. I was taken aback; I had not even considered that such a calling would be offered to me. I responded to his words: “I’m single.” He chuckled and assured me that this did not preclude me from such a calling. Then I shared with him that I experienced same-sex attraction and had only been reinstated the year prior from being disfellowshipped. He looked at me soberly and asked, “Are you living a chaste life and has everything been cleared up?” I responded in the affirmative to both questions. He then sat back in his chair and said that those experiences had prepared me for this calling and that it was clear to him that I was who the Lord wanted to serve in this capacity. I cannot describe the joy and light that filled my soul as my former bishop, the one who once described my “kind” as “despicable,” laid his hands upon me to ordain me a high priest and shared words of love, acceptance, and belonging from my Heavenly Father. My former bishop—Bishop Bob, as I now affectionately call him—later told me that it was revealed to him that his being called was for him to have the opportunity to work with me. He needed to work through feelings that had festered in him for many years and come to a place of forgiveness. A burden of his was brought to light. As he faced his mortality with the diagnosis of a brain tumor and subsequent surgery, he thanked me for helping work though his own repentance process. He thanked me for helping prepare him for the real possibility of moving on to the next life.

Death, Dreams, and Dating



My brother, Orson, gained precious insight during the passing of a dear friend of his. When his burden seemed particularly heavy, he received the distinct impression that we are born in this life planted with the seeds of death. We feel these seeds as we get older in the aches and pains and struggles we experience, including the diseases, the lonely moments, and the heartaches of this life. These seeds are evidence of God’s love for us because he longs for us to find him through these trials and come back to live with him someday.

Doing family history and temple work is a cherished blessing for me. In 1984 my mother was visited in a dream by a woman who was her art teacher. My mom was a gifted painter and she had painted an image of President Kimball with help from this woman’s mentoring. In the dream, this woman shared with my mom that she was the only person in her family who had not been baptized, and she asked my mom if she would do her temple work for her. As a disfellowshipped member I did some research and discovered we shared a common relative; we were allowed to do her work. Once I was back in full fellowship I submitted this woman’s name and my mom completed her work. I stood in as proxy for her husband, and she was finally sealed to him after many years of waiting for this work to be completed. One of her paintings now brightens a wall in my house, and the memory of this woman’s burden being made light is a bright memory for me.

I have dated other women since returning to full fellowship in the Church. My first dating experience was going to a concert. I was set up on a blind date by a friend who met me in the temple the day we were doing the work for my mother’s art teacher. We made our way through the crowd to our seats and a few minutes later the party sitting next to us showed up. On one side of me was my date and on the other side of me was my therapist from back when I was working with my bishop. I was nervous as could be and the Lord must have sent him as a ray of light to soothe my uneasiness at the prospect of entering the dating world again.

My Loss or My Light?



At times, I still experience that burning sensation while dating. I have often pondered and even sought various treatments for this burning sensation. I’ve wondered why I didn’t experience that sensation while dating Mary Jo. Mary Jo was a survivor of childhood molestation. This burden was part of her light because I believe she intuitively understood my uneasiness surrounding physical touch. I distinctly remember her asking permission to touch me almost every time, something for which I was grateful. I think she intuitively knew that even though her intent was pure, healthy, nurturing, and agreed upon, touch is a sacred birthright of each person. I am grateful for her light, and at the same time my heart breaks that she went through such trauma to bring me that light. I am grateful now that Father took her when he did; I think she was one of those special angels sent to earth to share her light and insight with me. I am honored that she and I had the time that we did together.

I have faith that the Lord has set aside one of his noble daughters for me to marry at the appointed time. My patriarchal blessing promises these blessings and even leaves it open for such temple blessings to be fulfilled in the next life. I have come to understand that I cannot come to God through a relationship with another person. This was how I approached marriage when I was dating Mary Jo. I have since learned that the healthiest relationships are forged through a strong and close relationship with God. Until the time comes for those blessings to be fulfilled, I am content on going about doing good in the world and putting my efforts into drawing nearer to God.

The Jonathan and David Experience



Recently, I helped found a group called the Jonathan and David Experience where men from all different backgrounds meet to fellowship and discuss the importance of creating bonds of brotherhood. We take our model from the relationship of Jonathan and David. We seek a similar bond, a love David described as “passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26). One of the other founders of this group—Brad—helped me understand that the affections we have for men are a remnant from the preexistence where we knew each other, loved each other, and developed a deep bond of brotherhood. He and I also believe that as we develop these bonds this love only deepens into a celestial bond that has eternal increase as it is kept within the bounds the Lord has set. I shudder to think how we might feel if we were to break our covenants and, in the next life, look back and see how close we were in the preexistence. How heartbroken we would be after seeing we acted on those feelings sexually, causing that celestial connection to be broken and that increase of blessings to be lost.

My stake president said that bonds forged in the service of the priesthood are only surpassed by a man and wife in marriage. How true this is! Brad once said he wonders if David would have fallen had his friend Jonathan still been alive. I am grateful for those men in my life who are the Jonathan to my David, men who have sponsored me in the Addiction Recovery Program, who have been there on the other side of a phone call when temptation seemed to come unexpectedly. The funny thing is that it seems that as their call comes through to me, I am usually on the verge of calling them just to see how they are doing. It is in those moments that these bonds of celestial brotherhood are forged and my soul swells with delight.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”4


These are words penned by Teddy Roosevelt which Bishop Bob shared with me just before I was brought back into full fellowship. With the Lord’s help, my burdens have become a blessing of light. I believe that I was born with these divine seeds of love for other men to forge the bonds of brotherhood. As I learn to nurture these seeds and allow them to grow in their purest, most chaste, and consecrated form, I understand the kind of love that is referred to as “charity” or the “pure love of Christ” (Moroni 7:47). This love allows us to see beyond the masks and sins of others into their hearts. This love allows us to nourish the seeds of noble brotherhood waiting to sprout into the hope of a celestial and majestic birthright.  It takes faith to enter this noble arena, eschew the critics, and dare greatly. Through developing charity and love we can begin to nurture a place on earth once known as Zion. It is my hope and now my burden to reach out to those who might see themselves or be seen by others as “despicable” and nurture these seeds of brotherhood and love planted there by our loving Heavenly Father. We belong to him!

 
 
 

REFERENCES

1 Givens, Terryl and Fiona. The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book.

2 Nelson, Russell M. “Repentance and Conversion.” Ensign, May 2007, 102-105.

3 Ferrell, James L. Falling to Heaven: The Surprising Path to Happiness. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book.

4 Roosevelt, Theodore. Sorbonne. Paris, France. 23 Apr. 1910. Speech.





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Rick Hall
6 Apr, 2015

Jimmy, thank you so much for a fresh eternal insight into the "trial" (and blessing!) of same sex attraction. I so appreciated your narrative story of your journey, which adds more strength and hope to my own.


Jimmy Merrell
7 Apr, 2015

You are welcome Rick. I appreciate your comments and I am grateful that they have brought hope and light to you. May God be with you as you reach out to him through lifting others on their journey! ForeverSTRONG, Your Brother Jimmy


Michael
5 May, 2015

What a powerful story and testimony. Thank you, Jimmy, for sharing it! I learned so much from your insights.



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