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Saturday, November 29, 2008

the not-so-lonely road

The Journey To Emmaus by Robert Zünd

December 1st is World AIDS Day

Though I wrote this awhile ago for another site - I felt that I should share it again.

The Not-So-Lonely Road

I am inspired by those with cancer and other life threatening illnesses as they battle with courage and optimism to the end of their mortal existence. However, I seldom look in the mirror and witness my own courage and perseverance I exhibit each day of my own personal war with both body and soul. One day I may see that I am like those I am inspired by. Maybe this will lift the hearts of those who read on—I'm not sure—but I feel the call to share my story.

I have struggled with same-gender attraction for longer than I can remember. It wasn't until 19 that I went to a bishop for the first time and attempted to put on my armor of God and become a soldier in my own fight. For the last ten years I have wavered in my Church activity and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, but I haven't given up.

Between 19 and 23 I was very sexually active even while being very active in Young Single Adult wards. Living a double life cost me the blessings the Lord had in store for me. I missed an opportunity to serve a mission when the branch president announced the "raising of the bar" for missionaries. Going inactive again because of my lack of faith, I ventured head-first into the shallows of the darkness off the path that led to the Lord. I sought ways to hurt myself emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically—nothing seemed to ease the pain and agony I felt because my choices only led to more pain and agony, not to mention anxiety. I made the choice to make my road lonely by leaving the path of light and truth I was on with friends, family, and even the Lord.

Later on I was motivated to return to church and make my life right, but I still didn't trust the Lord would help me or come to my aid. My bishop showed me all the love he could, even when it came to time to discipline me for my actions. He always supported me and tried to lead me back to the safety of the Lord and His gospel. I came to a point when I realized I needed to be excommunicated because I had offended the Lord and was unwilling to make sacrifices needed to be worthy in His church. I didn't realize it immediately, but that day was probably the most painful day for the Lord and me both—but it needed to happen for change to occur in my life.

Shortly afterward, I assumed being excommunicated was like a free ticket to the "sin amusement park"—I could sin as much as I wanted to without any consequences. That was the sign Satan posted on the gate anyway. I gave up my sobriety from alcohol, pornography, and sex and continued down a slippery slope to the bitterness of hell. I remember that summer vividly. I was in school full-time with three jobs and three rehearsals a week for a show I was in, not to mention it was hot, humid, and I didn't have a car. My body, mind, heart and soul ached everyday—I had no or little connection to anything or anyone—especially because I lived in a dark and lonely basement apartment. In October, I started to notice a change in my body—something very different and very physical. Maybe it was from a steady diet of Ding Dongs and Yoo-Hoos, or overworking my body and mind. Maybe it was from not having the spirit with me. Either way, I was exhausted!

One day after a shower I took to relax, I looked into my mirror and saw something new. It wasn't courage or optimism like I hope to see one day—it was yellow. My eyes and parts of my face were yellow. The last time I saw something like this was when my brother had jaundice caused by his hepatitis that came from his life long battle with cystic fibrosis. Doctors thought I had cystic fibrosis when I was born, but it was just pneumonia. In fact, I was born with a weak immune system—I can get sick quite easily. Being somewhat alarmed I decided to get it checked out after my show was over and I could relax for a bit. During the next two weeks it only got worse. It was particularly bad when others began to notice. I decided to go to a free STD clinic to check everything out, since I had been so sexually active.

On November 18th, 2005, I walked out of the clinic knowing I was HIV positive. The jaundice was caused by the Hepatitis B I also had. Apparently, I had been positive with both since early 2003 based on my low T-Cell count. The jaundice came due to my stress, unhealthy diet, and constant dehydration. Actually, it came as a blessing, because I didn't know I was living with HIV. I walked alone out of the clinic back to the train station and soon realized how different my life was going to be. I knew immediately that I was being given another chance to turn back to God—even though it was like my 21st chance; God found a way to call my name so that I would finally listen. There's nothing like a terminal illness to catch one's attention.

I am not sure this qualifies as irony, but years before in 1997 I found out that my then-imprisoned mother had contracted HIV in the late 1980's. I decided to learn a lot about HIV/AIDS and later in 2003 became an educator and activist. The problem was that I didn't believe it could ever happen to me. During my self-destructive phase, I went looking for HIV-positive men to have unprotected sex with to ensure my chances of becoming positive. My tests never came back positive for two years! I am glad that they didn't because I was more inclined to suicidal thoughts then, and I am afraid that had I known then, I would have ended my life. The good part of being an educator, even despite my ignoring what I knew was safe and right, was that I knew what steps to take now that I knew I was positive.

My mother was released from prison earlier in 2005 and had told me how she had changed her life in prison and was looking forward to being rebaptized. At the time I told her I was excommunicated, and why, and also that I wasn't sure what I wanted anymore. Later when I found out I was HIV-positive, I reconnected to her since she was now living with AIDS. And God blessed us both. She was able to testify to me that regardless of what happens to her body, her soul belongs to God. That testimony has stayed with me and has changed my life. Even though I had been to church off and on after my excommunication, this time I decided to really put forth an effort to gain a testimony of the gospel and exert my faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It has not been easy; I have missed being rebaptized twice in the last three years because I gave in to temptations that, at the time, seemed so harmless.

HIV/AIDS is a terrible disease, like many diseases are. For my mother and me, it has been a catalyst for change. Some may say my mom found jailhouse religion, and others may say I feared my death, so I changed. Regardless, God has allowed the two of us to reclaim our souls and to be purified and made whole through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. That is what was central to my mother's testimony to me. She has been rebaptized already and testifies to me that the Atonement of Jesus Christ works deep within us to cleanse and sanctify us all. I am still looking forward to the waters of rebaptism and the rebaptism by fire and the Holy Ghost—which I miss dearly—but my mother can testify "that all things work together for good to them that love God" (Romans 8:28).

HIV/AIDS doesn't have to mean that life is over. It actually can be the sign that a new life has just begun. Some say God gave mankind HIV/AIDS to punish them; I believe I was given a second chance to turn my life to God. I find now that my path is the not-so-lonely road because I know Christ walks with me each step I choose to walk with Him—and like the story of the footprints in the sand, there are days He carries me instead.

Is it any wonder that the scriptures tell so many stories about paths and roads? Think for a moment on the stories of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, the Good Samaritan finding the beaten man on the road, the road to Emmaus, the conversion of Paul, the path towards the Tree of Life and the conversion of Alma the Younger and the sons of Mosiah, to name a few. Think even for a moment of the road that Jesus walked with a cross upon His back towards Calvary's hill. Paths and roads are powerful symbols of trial, tribulation, miracles, conversion, and sacrifice. What is even more powerful about paths and roads is that they either lead to light and the Lord, or to darkness and sin. The Lord is with those who choose to walk the path towards His light, truth, and joy. I have seen both roads. I testify that the Adversary will make his road look easy and comfortable, but further down it only leads to misery and pain. The Lord's path includes hardship, trial, and tribulation, but with endurance and faith in Jesus Christ, it will always lead safely home to eternal rest and joy. The road many of us travels on toward God, while enduring the hardship of HIV/AIDS, is a not-so-lonely road because Christ and His angels are with us and will guide us safely home toward the Tree of Life to have eternal joy and rest.

To my dear brothers and sister who struggle with HIV/AIDS—please know that your life is not over. Seek the understanding needed to see that this life is truly the time to prepare to meet God, regardless of our physical ailments, deformities, or hardships. When God asks his sons and daughters to do something, He also promises to prepare and provide a way to do what He has asked. I testify to you that God knows you; He loves you with or without a disease. Having HIV/AIDS is itself not a sin. It's not fun, either, but it can be an opportunity to humble yourself to ask for the mercy and help of God and His Spirit to guide you in the rest of your journey here and beyond. Jesus Christ, our Redeemer and Savior, took upon Himself the sins, sicknesses, and heartaches of all mankind. I know He took on HIV/AIDS. I know that, because He did so, He knows how to succor those who struggle with it. He knows the way, because He is the way. I know the Atonement of Jesus Christ is real. It is the power to make us whole and allow us the opportunity to enjoy eternal life with our Heavenly Father and family again. If you are not on the right path, please hear the call to join Christ on His not-so-lonely road of light, peace and love. There's always room for another.

Whenever I think of my mortality and how my days may be numbered, I think of Job, whom I love for his great testimony:

"For I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; And though after my [immune system, HIV/AIDS will] destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God" (Job 19:25-26)

Diseases, sickness, and ailments of all kind may destroy the flesh, but only we can make the choice to destroy our souls. "Choose you this day [whose path you will follow]…" (Joshua 24:15)

In the words of President Gordon B Hinckley:

I know that my Redeemer lives,
Triumphant Savior, Son of God,
Victorious over pain and death,
My King, my Leader, and my Lord.

He lives, my one sure rock of faith,
The one bright hope of men on earth,
The beacon to a better way,
The light beyond the veil of death.

Oh, give me thy sweet Spirit still,
The peace that comes alone from thee,
The faith to walk the [not-so-]lonely road
That leads to thine eternity.
("My Redeemer Lives," Hymns, no. 135)


Bravone said...

Jey,what an inspiring post. Thanks for sharing your journey, both away from and return to the Lord. You are a good man with a sincere heart. I pray daily for your health, both physical and spiritual. Thank you for sharing your witness of the Atonement. It strengthened me.


jey walker gladstone said...

You are a loyal friend!