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An Excerpt from The Lord's University by Daniel Embree

© Daniel Embree, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.

I started praying as soon as I learned to talk. My mom would help me kneel next to my bed, arms folded. She would whisper in my ear and I would repeat, “Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for this day. Please bless my family, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

By the time I was four, I didn’t need her whispering in my ear, I said my own prayers. “Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for this day. Thank you for food. Thank you for all the many blessings. Please bless Mommy. Please bless Daddy. Please bless Puppydog. Please bless the flowers, and make them grow pretty. Please bless my toys. Please bless my room. Please bless the whole house. Please bless my bed. Please bless that monsters won’t eat me when I sleep. Please bless my new brother. Please bless that monsters won’t eat him when he’s sleeping. Please bless that he won’t cry too loud. Please bless…” The longer the prayer was, the longer I got to stay awake, but after prodding me at least three times, my mom would just cut me off and say herself, “In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

As I got older I learned that prayers could fix problems. I had a little lockbox where I kept my most important possessions when I was seven, but I lost the key. I didn’t know what to do, so I said a prayer. Later my dad was able to open it with a screwdriver so I could get my things back, and I knew that God had answered my prayer. A few years later when I turned 10, my parents planned a big birthday party for me at the local pool. The day of the party it started to rain, and I was devastated when my parents told me they would have to cancel the party.

“Did you pray about it?” I asked them, and then I went to pray myself. It seemed like minutes later the rain stopped and the sun came out, and my birthday party was able to go on as planned. Clearly God could answer prayers.

My simple childhood faith was encouraged at church, where Sunday school teachers told me many stories about prayer. My favorite was about Joseph Smith, the first of the Mormon prophets. When he was fourteen he was seeking answers about what to do with his life. He went into the woods near his home to pray, asking God what was right. As he prayed, God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him in a spectacular pillar of light. They told him his sins were forgiven and promised to give him instructions. Later when Joseph was seventeen, an angel appeared to him while he was praying and gave those specific instructions that ultimately led him to produce the Book of Mormon, a new book of scripture, and to form the Mormon Church.

If God could answer the boy Joseph’s prayers, then surely he could answer mine, and so as a teenager, I prayed desperately to become straight.

My prayers were messy battles as I pleaded with God. I couldn’t kneel with my back straight and my hands gently clasped like the depictions of Joseph Smith in the Sunday school manuals. Anyone who has knelt on his knees knows that it is uncomfortable after thirty-seconds and downright painful after two minutes. My shortest nightly prayers were ten minutes, so I would have to rock back and forth to minimize the pressure on my knees. By the end of the prayer I was usually collapsed on the bed for support.

I prayed late at night after my parents were asleep. Sometimes I would pray at two or three in the morning after staying up to look at Internet pornography. Hunched over at the side of my bed, face buried in my sheets, I would beg for forgiveness. “I’m not a homo, Father!” I would sob. “I’m not a homo.” It was more of a demand than a statement. Sometimes I was on my knees for an hour, waiting for inspiration or comfort.

It’s disturbing to think about what I looked like when I prayed, practically writhing beside my bed, frantically begging God to change me. I imagine it looked a lot like the actor who plays Jesus in the church videos when they show him praying and suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane as he relinquished his will to God’s. That prayer was so agonizing it made him spontaneously bleed.

In my head it was even worse than it looked on the outside. I’m so weak, I would think. I imagined my fist rising above me and pounding me in the head, again and again. Then I imagined what my body would look like, crumpled in a bloody heap on the floor. Mechanically analyzing my broken self was a way to calm down when my prayers became too intense.

Sometimes when I prayed, I would feel comfort or guidance after the agonized pleading. I would think of the songs I had learned as a kid and remember that God loved me no matter what, or I would think about being with my family and feel hopeful that in the end things would work out. It was the comfort of those teachings that made me believe Mormonism really was true—that Joseph Smith really was a prophet, and that I had to trust what he had taught. That’s why I kept praying. I wouldn’t have gone through all that if I didn’t believe that God was listening and would eventually answer me.

In high school, I decided I wanted to go to art school. My teachers encouraged me and told me about great schools in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New England. As I took my portfolio to college fairs, these schools started to recruit me. It was liberating to suddenly have options. When you grow up Mormon, everyone just expects you to go to Brigham Young University.

Affectionately called the Lord’s University, BYU was where my parents went and where they were married. I was conceived in a small second floor apartment just a few blocks south of the campus in Provo, Utah. I always assumed it was where I would end up, and though I was excited to follow in my dad’s footsteps, the idea of going to an art school was alluring. When one of the schools in Boston invited me to tour their campus, I couldn’t say no.

Visiting the college with my dad was my first time in Boston, and I fell head over heals in love with the city. We stayed in a hotel right in the Back Bay overlooking charming brownstones and beautiful storefronts. I loved the brick, the charm, the ocean, the food, the schools, and the art—the whole vibe of the city.

“It’s nice,” my dad agreed. “But wait until you visit BYU. I think you’ll really love it there.”

As we toured the art school, I became more and more convinced it was the perfect place for me. The dean of admissions treated me like royalty as she showed us around.

“These are the first year studios,” she said. “And as a student here you would have twenty-four hour access to this space.”

“This whole space is just for freshman?” I marveled.

She opened up students’ drawers and started showing me their work.

My dad frowned. “Between you and me,” he whispered, “I don’t think their work is that great. I think you’d be challenged more at a university.”

After showing us the school, the dean took us to see the student housing in Cambridge. Students lived together in a giant Victorian house, which I thought was beautiful and exciting. He was unsure because it was a coed living arrangement.

“Don’t you think you’d be uncomfortable sharing a bathroom with women?” he asked me.

“You would get a male roommate,” our tour guide assured us, “and there are several bathrooms with plenty of privacy.”

My dad still didn’t like the idea. When another male student walked out of the dorm, it confirmed his fears. The guy had several piercings and tattoos, oddly styled bleached hair, and skintight jeans. You would never see a BYU student dressed like that.

“Would you want that as a roommate?” my dad whispered.

Despite my parents’ reservations, I decided I would go to art school in Boston. I could live with a roommate who had pierced ears if it meant having twenty-four hour access to my own studio space.

“Have you prayed about it?” my mom asked when I told her what I had decided. It was what she asked every time I had a decision to make.

“Yes, Mom,” I said, but it was a lie. I was afraid that if I prayed about it, God would tell me to go to BYU, and I really wanted to go to art school.

“Well, if you prayed about it, then you should go where the Lord wants you to go.”

My parents could see how much I loved Boston and how excited I was, so they gave their blessing. I started telling my friends and teachers. I made plans. I was going to art school.

But then in May that year Massachusetts began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, and I panicked.

Gay marriage was all over the news. We talked about it in my government class, in my English class, and my art classes. Church was even worse. I attended a daily scripture study class before school called Seminary, and the teacher told us legalized gay marriage was a sign of the approaching Armageddon. In Sunday school, everyone was talking about how scary it was that not even Mitt Romney, Massachusetts’s Mormon governor, had been able to stop gay marriage. So the thought of living in the state where all of this was going on scared me. How could I change—how could I fix my homosexual feelings—if I lived in a place where homosexuality was so openly tolerated?

I searched for answers on the Internet, and I discovered an organization called Evergreen International. The group targeted Mormons with same-sex attractions who wanted to become straight and referred them to therapists who professed to help them. Their website listed a therapist at BYU, and mentioned that BYU students had access to this confidential therapy for free.

“I don’t know any more,” I told my mom. “Maybe I should reconsider BYU.”

“Have you prayed about it?”

My mom is the only person I know who prays as fervently as I prayed. I have seen her pray many times, though she is, like I was, very private about her prayers. I remember walking in on her as a kid when she was on her knees next to her bed. She didn’t just pray when she woke up and before she went to sleep. She prayed in the quiet midmorning when the kids were watching TV, or in the afternoon when we had gone to the pool to swim and the house was finally empty. Sometimes I would burst into the bedroom about to demand to know where she had moved something that I couldn’t find or why she hadn’t washed the shirt I wanted to wear, when I would see her there quietly kneeling with her arms folded, completely ignoring my loud intrusion. I would silently back out of the room and gently shut the door, feeling a mixture of shame for my pettiness and frustration that I still didn’t have that clean shirt.

One time I found my mom praying out loud, and as I quietly backed out and started to close the door, I stopped to listen. She prayed for each of her children individually and by name, listing their strengths and weaknesses, and asking for help for each one. I could hear the eager sincerity in her voice. I ducked away quickly as she finished, “In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

Growing up I took great comfort in knowing that my mom prayed for me. It meant that nothing truly bad could happen, because if God answered prayers, he must answer hers. How could he turn a deaf ear to her sincerity, frequency, and urgency? Even now as an adult who doesn’t believe in prayer, knowing that she still prays for me makes me feel more secure and grounded, though it can also be painful. Years later when I started living openly as a gay man, my dad would remind me of her prayers.

“You know she still prays for you every day?”

“Yes,” I balked, “but after years of those prayers, I’m still gay.”

“She’s not praying to change you,” he replied. “Not anymore. She prays every night for forgiveness. She thinks it’s her fault that you have this struggle.”

“But it’s not her fault.”

“I’ve tried to tell her that,” my dad sighed.

That was when I realized that I had learned how to pray from her. I imagined her next to her bed, every bit as messy in her pleadings as I was.

In addition to walking in on my mom praying in private, I often walked in on her reading her scriptures. For Mormons, scripture study is almost a form of prayer. You’re supposed to do it daily, coupled with reverent meditation. Daily practice is hard to implement with the demands of a large household, but my parents tried. The idea was to comb through the Bible and the Book of Mormon as often as you could to make connections between passages and to apply insights into your daily life.

My mom’s favorite book of scripture is the Old Testament because those stories of faithfulness through trial and suffering inspire her. Once when I was in high school, I walked into the family room on a quiet Sunday afternoon and found her reading the Old Testament. I turned to leave and give her some privacy, but she invited me to sit down and read with her.

“I’m in the book of Daniel,” she said, “so it seems appropriate.”

She explained that the prophet Daniel had just received a revelation, a vision, and that afterwards he had collapsed because of his weaknesses. An angel then comes to him.

“Then said he unto me, Fear not, Daniel,” she read. “For from the day that thou didst set thine heart to understand, and to chasten thyself before thy God, thy words were heard, and I am come for thy words.”

Again he falls to the ground speechless, but the angel touches him and gives him strength.

“And said, O man greatly beloved, fear not,” she read, “Peace be unto thee, be strong, yea, be strong. And when he had spoken unto me, I was strengthened, and said, Let my lord speak; for thou hast strengthened me.”

After that, Daniel chapter 10 became my favorite passage of scripture. I felt it applied directly to me—that if I sought guidance from God, he would ultimately give it to me, and that he would provide the strength to receive it.

As a high school student trying to decide between art school in Boston and BYU in Utah, I needed guidance. My mom was right; I really did need to pray about it.

At the end of high school, I went to a youth retreat in the woods in southern Wisconsin, and I decided then that I would have my own Daniel-chapter-10 experience. After many devotionals and spiritual activities with other local Mormon teens, I went off to pray. I found a quiet clearing just off a trail in the forest, making sure I was alone as I knelt down in the tall grass. The sun was right above me, and there was an arch of trees behind me. It looked like the Sacred Grove where Joseph had seen God.

“Father,” I whispered quietly. My prayer started out like my late night pleadings. “You know what it is that I hate about myself.” I collapsed in the grass bawling.

There was so much shame that I felt crushed under the weight of it. I felt shame for liking men in the first place, shame that I couldn’t stop liking men, shame for every time I noticed another guy or thought about someone I had a crush on. I felt shame for looking at pornography, and from hiding it from my parents. I felt shame for not repenting for it. Even though I was constantly begging God for forgiveness, true repentance meant confessing to the Bishop.

“I just don’t know what to do!” I prayed.

For a long time I lay prostrate in the grass, crying as if the pain I felt could act as a penance for my shortcomings. Then as I knelt there rocking back and forth, I was suddenly overcome with a sensation of love. It was like God was strengthening me, just as he had strengthened the prophet Daniel in preparation for his revelation. The sun was warm on my back, and I thought again of the songs that I had learned when I was a child.

He gave me my eyes that I might see

The color of butterfly wings.

He gave me my ears that I might hear

The magical sound of things.

He gave me my life, my mind, my heart:

I thank him reverently

For all his creations, of which I'm a part.

Yes, I know Heavenly Father loves me.

The song made me think of saying prayers with my mom when I was little—listing everything I was thankful for. I thought of her praying for each of her children and about all the time I spent with my dad touring colleges he didn’t really want me to go to. Thinking about my family changed my prayer from frantic to calculated. I wiped my eyes and straightened my shoulders and waited for God to tell me what to do.

At the time, the only way I could imagine myself being happy was if I somehow became completely straight so I could marry a woman. I just didn’t know how to make that happen.

“What should I do?” I called out to the universe. “I need to know. I need to know,” I said, pounding the ground with my fists.

The white, blinding sun was there in front of me in the same way the pillar of light had descended on Joseph Smith two hundred years ago. “You answered his prayer! You told him what to do.” I began to cry again, but then an idea started forming in my mind.

I already knew what I had to do for salvation, and I just needed to do it—to do what I was supposed to do. What my dad had done. What my brothers would do. I just needed to stick to the Mormon script. I needed to go to BYU where I would be encouraged to stay faithful. I needed the help I would get from therapy there. I needed to repent for my sins by confessing to the Bishop, and I needed to be a Mormon missionary. If I did those things, then I would be free from all of this shame. I would be straight and able to get married just like I was supposed to. It didn’t matter how I felt now or what I really wanted to do; surely God would reward me for doing what I was supposed to do.

During the youth retreat, one of the devotional speakers had handed out sheets of paper with the word “goals” written at the top for us to map out what we wanted out of life. I pulled it out and wrote down what I had just decided.

  1. Go to BYU
  2. Get therapy
  3. Tell the Bishop
  4. Serve a mission

These steps seemed so simple, but that only made my goal feel more achievable. I was getting more and more excited just thinking about it until I was absolutely sure that this was my answer from God. It was a revelation, and if it came from God, then surely it came with a promise. God had told Naaman to wash seven times in the river to be cured of his leprosy. It didn’t matter how silly or how simple the instructions were. When he did what God had told him to do, he was cured. If I did what God wanted me to do, then he would cure me.

So there in the woods, tears streaked down my face and a wrinkled piece of paper in my hand, I made a deal with God. I would go to the Lord’s University and do what I was supposed to do, and he would make me straight.

“In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

Calloused Knees, original monotype by Daniel Embree ©2010
Calloused Knees, original monotype by Daniel Embree ©2010