Jonathan Merritt’s Testimony
Just to add another testimony into the mix, here’s celibate Jonathan Merritt who was famously outed recently.
When I was about 10 years old, the isolation of my pain almost killed me as thoughts of suicide plagued my mind. I was so suffocated by my secret that I believed only death would provide me the space needed to breathe freely. One day, I remember walking into my room, locking my door, tying a brown leather belt around my frail neck and trying to hang myself from my bedpost. It never occurred to me that the attempt was futile because I was taller than the wooden column.
As I contemplated how I could exit this world quickly and with the least amount of pain, I sat down and penned a three-page letter to my family. I shook with emotion and muffled my sobs as I shared everything I’d wrestled with and all the things I wanted to say but never mustered up the strength to speak. When finished, I placed the drenched pages into a small white envelope and taped it to the bottom of one of my dresser drawers.Â If I ever get up the courage, I’ll kill myself. But at least in death, they’ll truly know me.Â The letter remained in place for months, but eventually it became a source of fear and anxiety. What if my mom stumbles across it while cleaning my room? I’ll be committed to a mental institution. When the pressure was too much, I retrieved the letter and tore it up.
The next few years of my life seemed to go well. I was an above-average student and happy enoughâ€”often quiet and yet humorous, like a reincarnated Harpo Marx. Friends were often difficult to come by, but I never blamed myself. I started to gain a little traction, and then middle school arrived. These years are awkward even for children with the most pristine pasts. Your face flares up with acne, kids discover how to be extra cruel, and your body begins to change with the influx of adolescent hormones. For me, this spelled “trouble.”
I felt attracted to pretty girls, though none of them gave me much attention. But I also occasionally felt myself drawn to other boys. I stuffed these in my mind’s box, never to be shared. After all, I was the son of a prominent evangelical pastor, and I knew that if anyone found out, I’d be dodging stares and whispers in the supermarket. That’s the last thing I wanted.In high school, I had several healthy relationships with girls but was still insecure beneath the faÃ§ade of confidence. And in college, I rigorously devoted myself to my studies, embracing it as a welcome escape. I dated a few girls from time to time, but the turmoil inside kept me from letting myself get too close to anyone. I didn’t feel like much of a man, and even when I was attracted to a girl, I was afraid I would never be able to love her as I wanted to.
I’ve been asked what kind of connection I see between these adolescent feelings and the childhood abuse I experienced. Did the childhood abuse shape my adolescent and young adult experiences, or were those parts of me already there? I’m certain I don’t know the answer to this question, and I’m not sure anyone does except God.
By 2009, my writing career was in full swing. I was entering my late 20s and enjoying much success. I wrote an opinion column forÂ USA TodayÂ titled, “An Evangelical’s Plea: ‘Love the Sinner.’ ”
“One of the mantras of evangelicalism over the past quarter-century regarding gay men and lesbians has been ‘hate the sin, love the sinner,'” I wrote. “If, however, you Google the public statements made by evangelicals regarding our gay neighbors, you’ll uncover a virtual how-to manual on hating sin and little if anything about loving sinners.”
I asked readers to do away with self-gratifying monologues and harsh language. I pled with Christians to abandon clichÃ©s such as the infamous “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
“Now is the time for those who bear the name of Jesus Christ to stop merely talking about love and start showing love to our gay and lesbian neighbors,” I concluded. “It must be concrete and tangible. It must move beyond cheap rhetoric. We cannot pick and choose which neighbors we will love. We must love them all.”
Though no one knew, the article was written with my secret lockbox in view. I was not just asking that we do a better job loving our neighbors; I wanted to know I was loved too.
In response to the article, I was contacted by a gay blogger who wanted to dialogue more about my article. Over many months, we communicated by email and texts. I began to grow comfortable with him, and finally, I shared my story of struggle with him.
When I was traveling through a city near him, we met for dinner, and as we were saying goodbye, we had physical contact that fell short of sex but went beyond the bounds of friendship. Afterwards, I went back to my hotel room by myself, and laid there, sorting through my clouded emotions.
He and I ceased communication soon after, and I never saw him again, but years later, the day I feared finally arrived.
I awoke to prepare a talk I was giving at a local church on the subject of grace. The sermon centered on a solitary question: How do you forgive the unforgiveable? With my coffee maker gurgling in the background, I had no idea the answers I’d come up with were ones I’d need moments later.I decided to check my email. The sender line read “Google Alert,” and the article linked to was written by the blogger I’d met for dinner. Though he hadn’t shared every detail, he was threatening to.
I fell to my knees next to my kitchen table with tears in the corner of my eyes: “Lord, I can’t do this. I’m not ready. I’m not strong enough.”
My heart heard the reply:Â It’s time.
I sat in silence for a bitâ€”five, maybe ten minutesâ€”and my cell phone rang. A friend was calling to tell me he’d seen the same story, but not from the original post. A Christian blogger had already picked up the story. There was no going back.
The following days tasted bitter, and I got a lot of unhelpful advice. One friend told me to “throw the gay community under the bus and save yourself.” Another, who was a high-powered publicist, said I should kill the story by digging up garbage on the blogger who wrote the post. But I couldn’t shake Jesus’ words that those who live by the sword, die by it also. Those who survive by destroying others will themselves be destroyed. My platform as a writer allowed me an opportunity to test that maxim, but I chose a different response.
Rather than attack or defend, I opted for honesty. I shared my story through an interview on a good friend’s website:
Although I was unable to choose when I would share some of these painful memories, I am thankful for the opportunity to share it now. I’m thankful that I am able to make better decisions about how to handle a difficult situation. And, I’m thankful that because of grace, I can identify with those who have dealt with similar situations. . . .
It’s bred compassion in me towards others who wrestle with the baggage they carry in life. People like me who passionately pursue Godâ€”on his terms and not oursâ€”experience incredible times of struggle along the way. I know what it is like to experience periods of depression, frustration, and confusion. And that’s why I live out my calling the way I do, as best as I can, sometimes stumbling along the way.
Every keystroke was a struggle, but the words I heard that fateful morning rang in my ears:Â It’s time.
My deepest, darkest secrets were now on display for the world to read. I knew that I might live with this struggle for the rest of my life. But the lock on my box had been shattered, and I was already beginning to feel liberated from its captivity.
Being raised in a pastor’s home, I am acutely aware of what everyone else thinks about me. I notice the looks, monitor the whispers, and manage the perceptions. Growing up, a fight sometimes broke out while riding to church in our family minivan with my parents and two brothers. This is a common scenario for most families, but ours always had the same ending. When we arrived at church, Mom or Dad would turn around and say, “Okay. We’re at church now. Time for everyone to be on their best behavior. You’re Merritts. You need to act like it.”
The door slid open and a transformation occurred. When we stepped out, smiles had replaced scowls. We’d hold hands even though we really wanted to pull each other’s arms out of socket. The tone of our voices changed from scathing to saccharine. And as years of this behavior progressed, I became skilled in wearing a mask.
“I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked,” Adam told God in Genesis, “so I hid.” The human inclination is to conceal when we feel naked or exposed or vulnerable. I wanted to hide from the pain of sexual abuse and the confusion I felt, so my mask rarely came off. I lived behind it.Hiding behind my disguise was crushing and conflicting because my coreâ€”at everyone’s coreâ€”is a desire to be fully known. I want others to see me, both the beautiful and wretched parts. And often my desire to be known is almost as strong as my fear of being known.
I fashioned my mask because I believed, in the words of Parker Palmer, “[My] inner light will be extinguished or [my] inner darkness will be exposed.” My secret was intended to shield me from experiencing more pain, but it only isolated me from those with whom I needed to share my true self. I became more a performer and less of a person.
“I not only have my secrets, I am my secrets. And you are yours,” Frederick Buechner said. “Our secrets are human secrets, and our trusting each other enough to share them with each other has much to do with the secret of what it means to be human.”
The months after my story was posted online were some of the most humanizing of my life. One night after a particularly difficult day, I turned into my neighborhood to see cars lined up along the curb outside of my house. A group of my friends waited in the driveway. When I pulled in, they said they came to pray with me and over me. I hadn’t been home when they arrived an hour earlier, so they decided to wait. I choked back tears and welcomed them in.
I sat cross-legged in the floor of my living room and my friends surrounded me, laying their hands on my back and shoulders, grasping my arms. One by one, they prayed for grace and mercy and strength and divine presence. Hot tears fell off their cheeks and landed on my neck and arms, mingling with mine as they ran down.
That evening, I became more “me” than I’d ever been. For once, I wasn’t trying to burnish my surface, to create an alternate version of myself that was more acceptable or likeable. I was finally able to lower my shoulder, drop my mask, and just exist in the present moment.
Jonathan has a book out entitled Jesus is better than you imagined. Can’t wait to read it.
Thank you Peter for sharing this story too. Jonathan Merritt seems to be a very gifted writer and there’s lots of thought-provoking stuff here.
“I fashioned my mask because I believed, in the words of Parker Palmer,
â€œ[My] inner light will be extinguished or [my] inner darkness will be
exposed.â€ My secret was intended to shield me from experiencing more
pain, but it only isolated me from those with whom I needed to share my
true self. I became more a performer and less of a person.”
In our churches today we have too many isolated people who still don’t feel safe to share their stories – breaking down the structures that keep people isolated and fearful is one of our most pressing needs. It takes courage – on both sides – to break the self-imposed silence and to listen.
Also looking forward to reading ‘Jesus is better than you imagined’.
I found this really moving….it’s about so much more than just homosexuality…….lies and truth, hiddenness and transparency…….and most of all, the loving but firm way God deals with a person who needs mending (which all of us do of course). I went to Amazon and read more bits of the book there. I’m looking forward to reading the rest too.