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A Thread Called Grace
Image: Dan Bigelow

"Hush, Dorothy," whispered the Tiger, "you'll ruin my reputation if you are not more discreet. It isn't what we are, but what folks think we are, that counts in this world." ~ Frank Baum, The Road to Oz

Have you ever had something in your life that you were afraid to say aloud to someone else? A struggle that you held beneath the surface and didn't want anyone to know? A secret that you packed in a box and swore never to open? I've carried mine since childhood. And when I woke on July 26, 2012, I had no idea it would be exposed, not just to my family and friends, but posted online for the world to see.

As best I can remember, my secret began early when I was around the age of 7. That was how old I was when Michael, a much older boy who lived in a brick house near the front of our neighborhood, began to sexually abuse me.

Michael's family and mine had been friends for years. We were drawn together by his father's terminal cancer. My parents would look after him and his sister in the afternoons so his dad could rest after chemotherapy. We'd pick them up for church on the weekends so they wouldn't miss Sunday school. The bond between our families was tight and only grew tighter the day lung cancer finally stole Michael's father's life.

He'd still come by to play with me and my brothers in the months after the funeral, but his countenance was different—frustrated and pensive. He always seemed to be pondering something but never voiced what vexed him. One evening when Michael was spending the night in my room, he told me that boys could have secret kinds of fun without parents noticing. As he spoke, he put his hands in places I'd never been touched except by undergarments, and my body froze in fear and confusion.

Later, I grew anxious about what happened.

"Can a boy get AIDS just from touching a private part?" I asked my parents.

They told me no, but when they asked me why I was inquiring, I changed the subject. I was too scared to tell them what happened—indeed, too paralyzed by fear to tell anyone. I should just forget about it and move on, I supposed. But, I couldn't move on for it would happen again. This time while I was playing a video game in Michael's bedroom. And then again, after he checked to make sure no one was around and pushed me into an upstairs linen closet.

I can't tell you how many times something like this occurred. I remember those three vividly, and when I let my mind wander, I can still see the events in my mind like I'm watching an old 8mm film. I guess it doesn't matter how many times it happened, only that it did. And it singed a part of my soul in a way I can't explain. Now it only hurts when I press down on the injury, but at the time, I lived with a dull throb and occasional shooting pains.

With my parents and brothers, school counselors and friends—I never let on that anything was wrong. But it was. For something inside of me had been bruised. Or broken. The best way to let it heal, I determined, was to deal with it myself.

No one can help me.
No one can protect me.
No one can fix what hurts.

I. Am. On. My. Own.

With that thought, I crammed all the pain and emotions and memories into a box. I tossed the box into a bag and wrapped the bag in duct tape and rolled the whole wad with a steel chain. On this chain, I clamped a lock whose key had been thrown away. And I buried it in my memory.

This is going to be my secret and now no one ever has to know.

With that, I believed I'd laid hold of safety and security and normalcy. No one knowing about my trauma seemed the second best option to never having experienced it at all. For a moment, I felt the freedom to forget and exhale. But the liberty would not last.

Early Attractions

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. If I ever get up the courage, I'll kill myself. But at least in death, they'll truly know me. 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 enough—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.

Did the abuse shape my adolescent experiences, or were those parts of me already there? I'm certain I don't know the answer, and I'm not sure anyone does except God.

In high school, I had several healthy relationships with girls but was still insecure beneath the façade 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 for USA Today 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 clichés 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.

Alone.

He and I ceased communication soon after, and I never saw him again, but years later, the day I feared finally arrived.

It's Time

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 fell to my knees next to my kitchen table with tears in my eyes: 'Lord, I can't do this. I'm not ready. I'm not strong enough.' My heart heard the reply: It's time.

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: It's time.

I sat in silence for a bit—five, maybe ten minutes—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 God—on his terms and not ours—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: 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.

Image: Courtesy of Hachette Book Group

Hiding behind my disguise was crushing and conflicting because my core—at everyone's core—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.

What's In a Name

I found comfort in the Old Testament story of Jacob. In Genesis 27, where we meet him, his first words are, "I am Esau." With his eyes set on blessings and inheritance, Jacob finds himself captured by the desire to be someone else. He wants to be the better one, the brawnier one, the beloved one, the firstborn. Jacob wants to be Esau.

As time unfurls, Jacob learns to live in pursuit of God, and a transformation happens. In Genesis 32, he is asked, "What is your name?" to which he replies, "It is Jacob." Modern Americans can easily miss this because our names don't have quite the significance they did in that time. Whether one is named Rosalyn or Zoey, Josh or Gregory makes very little difference. "Don't judge a book by its cover," we might say. "It's the inside that counts."

But the ancients were worlds apart from us on the importance of names. Ancient names describe who a person is and what marks them as individuals. Isaac means "laughter," Abimelech means "my father is king," and the prophet Isaiah called his first son "Shear-Jashub" or "a remnant shall return." Moses means "to draw out." The name was given because his mother drew him out of a river, though God had something bigger in mind.

God displays the importance of a name when he says to Abraham, "I am El Shaddai." It was quite a gift for Abraham to receive the divine name, which Jews today will not even speak or write out of respect. Later, when Moses questioned whether he was up to the task God was giving him, El Shaddai would tell him, "I AM WHO I AM. This is what you say to the Israelites, 'I AM has sent me to you.' . . . This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation." By giving his name, God is offering more than a way to identify him. God is giving them an ancient and intimate invitation into relationship.

For this reason, Jesus shocked the crowds when he proclaimed, "Before Abraham was born, I AM!" More than a statement of his role as God's son and messenger, Jesus is telling them that the intimate relationship that God offered their ancestors can be accessed through Christ. And the sign of this relationship is not a signed contract or a firm handshake, but a name.

Names mattered, and when one was changed, it was more than a legal matter to be taken care of at the county courthouse. It signaled a shift in the individual's identity. God changed Abram's and Sarai's names to Abraham ("father of a multitude") and Sarah ("queen") as a reminder of his promise to make them parents of a great nation. Jesus changed Simon's name to Peter as an expression of his future role in forming the church.

So this subtle shift we see in Jacob's life turns out to be significant. The closer God drew Jacob in, the more comfortable Jacob became with who he is—both the smooth spots and the rough edges. He is ready to be fully used because he is ready to be fully honest about who he has been and who God has created him to be. As he learns to trust God, he learns to be honest with the story in which he is intertwined like strands of cord. And as I learn to lean into God, I am able to make similar shifts.

This is part of what Jesus was getting at when he said, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you." Because the English word peace comes from the Latin "pax," we assume it means the absence of conflict, a time in which wars have ceased. But the Hebrew concept of peace or shalom means much more than that. It literally translates "wholeness," and it means having everything you need to be fully and wholly who God has created you to be—physically, emotionally, and psychologically at peace. This is what Christ offers: an opportunity to be free by understanding who we are in the context of who God is and what God wants for us.

But if trading secrets for honesty is so liberating, then why is it so difficult? In my case and many others, it is because of shame.

Secrets draw their power from shame. I convince myself that I am too messed-up, too tainted, or too tarnished for others to accept. Or maybe people will think I am a fraud. As I believe these lies, shame grows into fear, which is almost always at some level, fear that if others truly know me, they won't love me. Or at least love me as much or in the same way.

In order to release my secrets, I must uncurl my white-knuckled fingers from deep desires:

My desire to be perfect. My desire to be liked. My desire to be in control. My desire to be successful.

Without releasing these desires, shame will keep my secrets locked up and convince me they can never be disclosed. It forces me to forge masks for myself and hide under them. Whether one faces an eating disorder, a marriage failure, insecurities and inadequacies, or just something done that they don't feel free enough to share with others, shame can trap us in the mire of our secrets and steal from us the gift of openness with those we love.

"Shame keeps us from telling our own stories and prevents us from listening to others tell their stories," says Brené Brown. "We silence our voices and keep our secrets out of the fear of disconnection." In the end, shame steals the very thing it promises: meaningful, authentic connections with others. Pursuing a life of honesty means to reveal who I truly am and assert that my story too belongs at the table.

As I took off my mask and wept with my friends that evening, I sensed there was an unseen guest in my midst. In the swirling cocktail of healing, grief, shared love, compassion, and prayer, God was present. Standing. Observing. And maybe even cheering.

More Than My Feelings

As the furor died down, reality set in and I realized that I'd be okay. In fact, I'd be better than okay. I took a month off to travel, rest, and reflect. As I opened these secret spaces and invited God in, he rushed in like a flash flood. He reminded me that he has me even in this and offered me the very things I convinced myself I'd never attain. He bathed me with grace and mercy and provision. Proved again that he can be trusted with those sore and sensitive places, and working miracles in my midst.

My friend Marilyn approached me recently with wet eyes. She'd shared my story with her sister, who in turn told her about a period of abuse perpetrated by their uncle. Somehow my story became one of the keys that unlocked the box in her life. The unspoken wedge that once divided Marilyn from her sister has now been removed, and healing is happening.

A woman named Crystal was one of more than a hundred who sent me an e-mail in recent months. She was raised by a single mother and abused by a neighbor whom she thought was a friend. She didn't tell anyone what happened, but the ripples from the trauma flooded her life. "I now feel free enough to share my story," she wrote at the close of her note.

God was setting me free by calling me to a place of honesty. And through my liberation, he was freeing others as well. When the storm swept through my life, I didn't know what in the world God was up to. Or if he was even involved. But the storm helped me see God in ways I'd never imagined. As it turns out, sometimes God lets our house burn down so we can better see the sun rise.

Though I'm still on this journey toward honesty, I can't help marveling at what God has accomplished. When I consider the freedom I now feel, I praise him. When I see others finding freedom, I rejoice yet again. God's mercies really are new each morning.

A woman in my church walked up not long ago and said, "I feel so bad for you. Your wounds are so deep." I appreciated her concern, but I also felt she didn't have the whole story.

"It's okay, ma'am," I replied. "I am wounded, and while I have deep holes in my heart, they are not empty. They are filled with grace."

Honesty has a way of humbling us, and it has me. It has softened my heart. As I've been honest about the bruised and broken parts of myself, the openness has become a doorway for God's healing.

For weeks, I slept like a baby, and by that I mean I was up all night crying. But over time, the pain dulled and God started working. I'd stopped worrying about perfect performance and shaping others' perceptions of me. I drew close to God's embrace and we conversed with a frankness we'd never shared.

After my moment of honesty, I spent two weeks with a counselor in the Rocky Mountains talking through events and feelings I'd never spoken out loud. There I realized that the ultimate key to move from secrecy to honesty is not telling the whole world, but rather letting God have access. Giving him permission to speak into the dusty recesses of the hidden places and letting him become a conversation partner as I sorted through the rubble.

In a celebrity age, everyone feels they have a right to know about every intimate detail of everyone else's life. If people find you have a secret, they often assume that you should divulge every chapter and verse to the entire world. But often the ones who demand to know the most deserve to know the least. I learned from this experience that the way to move from secrecy to honesty isn't to share every detail of my life with anyone who demands an answer. Instead, it requires opening the lockbox I've tucked away and dumping the contents at the Lord's feet. To discover the authentic life, I invite God into the secret spaces and let him soak it in grace.

When people today ask me how I identify myself, I never quite know how to answer. It doesn't feel authentic to label the whole of my being by feelings and attractions, and my experience has been that those parts of me tend to be somewhat fluid. One day I may feel more one way than another, and the next I feel a little differently. I am far more than my feelings, so I don't answer that question. Not because I want to evade others but because I want to stay true to myself.

The essence of who I am is far more shaped, influenced, and guided by my spirituality than by my sexuality. I am wholly wrapped up in my pursuit of Christ and his amazing grace. And I'm quite comfortable there. When I'm feeling pretty bad about myself, when the wounds of my heart cry out loud for healing, when shame attempts to suffocate me, or when I'm especially discouraged over my most tragic failures, I find myself holding onto a thread.

A thread called grace.

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and author most recently of Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined (FaithWords). This article is adapted from the book Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined by Jonathan Merritt. Copyright © 2014 by Jonathan Merritt. Reprinted by permission of FaithWords, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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A Thread Called Grace