Finally, I understood what God was telling me: “You are okay, gay and all.”
April 10, 2018
The Paradox and the Parable – In God’s Keeping
by Michael Haehnel
In my early teens, I encountered two monumental turning points: 1) I realized I was attracted to guys, and 2) I learned for myself that God lives and that He loves me. The only way these two facts could co-exist in my heart was due to a curious paradox in my church experience.
My upbringing in the Church was, by most measures, doomed to failure. First of all, we were a part-member family. My mother joined the Church when I was five. My father expressed interest in the Church at first but the more he realized how complicated being a Mormon was, the more he backed away. As the years passed, his attitude toward the Church shifted from avoidance to antagonism. When it came to raising my four younger siblings and me in a gospel-centered home, Mom was completely on her own.
Statistically, the odds against part-member families remaining in the Church are very high. What made matters worse was that a number of the prominent adults in the small, New-England branch that we attended seemed to be more interested in stirring up division than in nurturing faith. Some members regularly raised their hands to object to others’ callings. Fault-finding was rampant. During one of my Boy Scout interviews with the troop committee, the committee chair tried to convince me that my scoutmaster was incompetent. Discussions between the adult brethren in priesthood meeting sometimes grew heated and would even descend into name-calling. My branch president and some our district leaders despaired over our branch’s divisiveness.
Criticism overflowed to affect the youth. It was the 1970’s and I was not the only young man with hair well over his ears. One adult said to me once, “If I hadn’t been momentarily blinded by your good character, I would not have sustained your ordination as a priest, on account of your hair.” It is not surprising that most of the young men in our branch went inactive.
So here is the paradox: growing up in a part-member family where the greatest concern was just getting to church, and attending church in a contentious branch where the adults were preoccupied with each other’s shortcomings—those adverse conditions actually protected me. How so? Because I never once heard anyone teach anything about the evils of homosexuality. Whatever attitudes my parents or the adults in the branch might have had about homosexuality, they were too busy with other things to express them. I knew for myself that I was homosexual—or at least that I had strong leanings in that direction—but I experienced that awareness in a vacuum. Never once did I think of myself as sick or perverted. Meanwhile, my testimony of God’s love and kindness grew stronger.
However, that paradox alone was not enough to keep me mentally and emotionally healthy. As I neared mission age, I managed on my own to develop negative feelings toward my sexuality. My homosexuality was, I thought, a disability that I was going to have to compensate for. I planned to keep it a secret for my entire life.
However, following a prompting from the Spirit, I came out to my bishop a month before I was due to leave on my mission. My bishop was almost never at a loss for words, but this took him off guard. He conferred with my stake president, who decided that it was okay for me to go ahead and serve a mission. Meanwhile, my bishop regained his composure, and just before I left for my mission, he tried to convey to me in no uncertain terms that I was whole and complete and good in God’s eyes.
I refused to believe that. I knew God loved me—I had no doubt about that. But I could not accept that He loved all of me.
I am convinced that my bishop was acting as God’s mouthpiece and that God Himself was trying to tell me, “Michael, you are okay, gay and all.” But on my own, with no help from parents, church members or The Miracle of Forgiveness (which oddly enough, no one suggested I read), I developed a hide of leather against believing that homosexuality could ever have a place in God’s plan.
I served a wonderful mission in Japan. I didn’t want to come home. Nevertheless, the two years came and went, and I found myself back in college at BYU Provo. I set my sights on marriage and family. I suppose God was watching and shaking His head, knowing I was on a collision course. God knew that at that point in my life, I was not about to listen to His views concerning my gayness. I was like the Israelites who only had to look at the brazen serpent to be healed, but would not. However, God did not give up on me. He resorted to Plan B: a parable.
Less than a year after I returned home from my mission, I hit a spiritual low. I decided to head into the mountains for a personal retreat. Book of Mormon by my side, I drove as far up Mount Timpanogos as a car could go, then hiked a few miles further up the mountain. I thought I was going to engage in a personal Book-of-Mormon marathon. God, however, had a different plan. He sent a thunderstorm.
As I scurried to get back to my car, I took two or three wrong turns and lost my way. Instead of ending up at the small parking lot at the edge of a grove of aspen trees where my car was, I landed in the middle of a dark wood with towering pine trees blocking out almost all light—but not the rain. There was nothing but death and decay on the forest floor. Soaked to the skin, chilled and scared, I went down on my knees. It didn’t matter that the thick, wet mat of pine needles would soak through my pant legs and probably leave stains: I was desperate. I knelt in front of a fallen tree and said, “Heavenly Father, I am lost.”
God immediately surrounded me in a blanket of peace and assured me that all would be well if I trusted His guiding influence. “Walk in the direction that feels peaceful”: those were my instructions.
The process required faith because the direction that felt peaceful on the inside did not always make sense on the outside. At one point I encountered a well-worn footpath, but the direction of peace led me to cross that path, not follow it. At another point, the direction of peace led me into a thicket of trees. Nevertheless, I trusted the peaceful feeling, and soon I returned to my car.
It was a curious incident. I had just experienced a miracle—but it was more than a miracle. As I sat in my car, I asked God, “What just happened?”
He answered that it was a parable. He told me that He would not reveal the meaning of the parable at that time, but would at some later point in my life. For the time being, I rededicated myself to studying the scriptures and gained rich rewards from doing that. I never forgot the incident, but eventually, it faded to the back of my mind.
A couple years later, I met my wife, Maureen, fell as deeply in love with her as I knew how to love, and we got married. I was a little confused at the time: I thought that some stain-remover zing of Spirit would come along and rinse away my homosexuality. That didn’t happen. But I carried on, sure that my personal strait-and-narrow path was to think, speak and act heterosexual in every way I could.
Fast-forward thirty years. To anyone looking at me from the outside, I was a responsible husband and father, an energetic Church leader, and a successful breadwinner. But on the inside, I was turning gray emotionally and falling apart. In the battle against the mounting onslaught of my homosexual feelings and desires, I was losing. I came to the conclusion that I was not Celestial material. I never doubted that God loved me. I wanted to love God in return. Yet over and over I heard the refrain, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” If love for God was measured by heart-might and-mind obedience, I failed that requirement. The best I could do, I decided, was to keep up appearances, in the hopes that my family could be saved without me. I visualized myself standing at the gates of the Celestial Kingdom, watching and congratulating each of my loved ones as they passed through, stepping back as the gate closed, then turning and finding my way to some lesser, lonely kingdom.
On a particular Sunday morning, I awoke with a sense of failure more keen and oppressive than ever before. I was utterly defeated. I had no hope of getting help from God. Repentance was beyond me: there was no point in making promises I knew I would break. Nevertheless, I knelt down to pray. I wasn’t asking for anything. My only purpose was to tell God that I knew where I stood, and I deserved whatever His judgments might be. I uttered three words: “I am lost.” If nothing else, I could be honest. That was all I had left.
Instantly a vision blossomed in my mind. More than thirty years had passed, but I knew the place: a deep, dark pine forest with cold rain coming down. The feeling that accompanied that vision was the same that God had given me thirty years before: peace and assurance. “Trust me now as you trusted me then, and I will lead you out of this mess.”
And the parable replayed itself, this time in very slow motion. I began to walk and act and point my thoughts in the direction that felt the most peaceful. In a few weeks, I found myself in my bishop’s office. I thought I was getting a temple recommend, but I ended up telling him that I was gay. He connected me with the original mormonsandgays.org website. As inadequate as that primitive website was, it was to me like a candle in pitch blackness. About a month later, I met a member of the high council whom I immediately felt I could trust. I told him that I was gay, and he connected me with NorthStar’s Voices of Hope website. I watched a few videos, and as I did so, I felt the impression that I needed to come out of the closet. One by one, I selected friends to confide in, and each of these friends helped me gain confidence.
The time came when I received a specific and powerful prompting. I saw a post on Facebook from someone I had known years before, a fellow church member who had come out as gay. “Reach out to him,” the prompting said. “He will help you.” This went against everything I had ever believed about controlling my homosexual desires. For one gay man to keep company with another gay man seemed like striking matches when you smell a gas leak. Nevertheless, I knew that God’s peace would not lead me astray. I sent a private message to this old acquaintance, and shortly thereafter, we began talking regularly on the phone. Ultimately, he helped me connect with Affirmation.
In God’s Keeping
The coming-out process had its twists and turns, highs and lows. Not everyone took well to learning that I was gay. Moreover, as I came out, I underwent unexpected mental and emotional changes. I was going through a do-over of my teenage years, this time accommodating my sexuality, rather than suppressing it. Like any teenager, I was awkward, temperamental and unpredictable. So naturally, it was an uncomfortable time for me and for those around me. However, the Lord helped me hold on to this truth: that becoming fully myself was the best thing I could do for those I loved—only then could I give to others out of the abundance of God’s gifts to me.
Although I continued to face challenges, my soul grew calmer and calmer with the assurance of God’s love and guidance. I no longer doubted my potential for eternal life. Each and every day seemed lighter and brighter.
One winter’s day I saw the wind blow a clump of snow from the high branches of a tree. The snow billowed in the air and the cloud of snowflakes sparkled in the sunlight. It was as though the fabric of an angel’s robe was floating on the wind.
“Oh, Father!” I said, “that is so gorgeous! Thank you!” I poured out my heart and praised all the beauty that God had brought into my life. Then I caught myself. “Hmm,” I thought, “I sound pretty gay; I wonder what God thinks of that.”
It was as though the shimmering robe came down to envelope me, not with cold crystals of snow, but with the warmth of Heaven. “At last!” I heard God say, “you have come to me as I have always known you. It is good to have you back.”
After all these years I finally understood what God had tried to tell me: “Michael, you are okay, gay and all.”
My favorite scripture these days is Malachi 3:17. “And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels.” God’s treasure chest is not full of only diamonds, but it contains also emeralds, rubies, sapphires, amethysts, garnets, topazes. We LGBTQIAP+ enrich the beauty of God’s great family in a way that only we can. We belong. I know that as surely as I know anything.
I am unspeakably grateful that God has protected me and reclaimed me from my own homophobia. I am unspeakably grateful for His peace that has guided and filled me. I am nearly sixty now, but I feel as young as a child, and every day is full of wonder.