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Great is Repentance

by Mario Bergner


MANY YEARS AGO, I worked as a teaching associate in drama at Boston University. In the evenings I waited on tables, and often after my shift I went out to the gay bars. One evening I took the subway to Copley Square, stopping in the middle of the open square in front of Trinity Church, a glorious building. I stared up at the starlit sky and asked myself, Where is God? I had come to Christ as a teenager, but that now seemed a long time ago and no longer relevant.
Standing there in the dark, it seemed as if the church was empty - and indeed it was empty. I continued walking through Copley Square and followed a poorly lit, narrow street behind the John Hancock Tower to Chaps, a gay bar I often patronized.
While sipping my drink, I look a long, sweeping look at the men in the bar. One hundred male bodies pulsated on the dance floor to a Michael Jackson tune. The sour smell of their perspiration pervaded the air. The dance floor was framed on all sides by long carpeted bleachers. At the end of these bleachers, refrigerator-sized loudspeakers blared out music. Off to one side was a smaller barroom where men who didn't like to dance conversed over the loud music, yelling at each other.
In the many shadows of this bar stood older homosexual men. Their eyes were glassed over and empty. Hopelessly they stared at the younger men in the bar.
The younger gays, including me, referred to them as "trolls." There were even special bars for trolls called "wrinkle rooms." On a few occasions my friend Bob and I went to these bars and entertained the trolls, singing Broadway show tunes at the piano. The glassed-over helplessness in the eyes of the trolls grieved me that night.
Still drinking my vodka martini, I thought, Surely God loves these men, surely God intends more for their lives than this. Looking at my reflection in a nearby mirror, I asked myself, Will my eyes one day be dark and empty like theirs? The answer was, Yes, if I continued in the gay life. Words from the Bible flowed through my head, words I had learned as a young boy: "The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness, how great is that darkness! " I felt myself descending into despair. I called out the name of Christ. Then I heard an audible voice, "You will help me deliver these people."

Thinking this was my friend Bob, I turned around, expecting to find him standing behind me. But he wasn't there. I thought, Oh no, I'm hearing things. So I ordered another martini, this time in a mug.
Taking my second drink, I left the main bar, walked across the crowded dance floor, and sat on one of those carpeted bleachers next to a huge speaker. With music pounding in my ears I heard the voice again. It was very clear, clearer than the first time. "You will help me deliver these people."
I knew this was God. Gripped with fear, I left the bar.

When I awakened the next morning, I thought to myself, You were tired and you were drunk, Mario. Just forget what you heard. It couldn't have been God. But deep inside, I knew it was.
I lived in an old piano factory in the South End, which had been turned into huge lofts for artists. I had my own voice studio there. Coming home from yet another gay bar one night, I was walking up the stairwell to the third floor talking to God. I often did this. The whole time I lived a gay life I knew who Jesus was. I knew the gospel message. I had heard it in the Roman Catholic Church, in an evangelical nondenominational church, and I had heard it on TV.

I knew who Jesus was, but the Church had failed to minister healing to me. So I left the Church, but somehow couldn't leave Jesus behind. That night in the stairwell, I tried. Tired and drunk, I said to Him, "Why do you keep bothering me? There is nothing for me in the Church. Why do I have this Christian guilt hanging over me from my from my teens? Leave me alone."

As I reached out to open the door that led to the third floor hallway, I said it again, "Leave me alone." A Scripture popped into my head: "Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you." Defiantly I cried out, "If you're not going to leave me and forsake me, I'm going to leave you. I'm going to forsake you. When I walk through this door, you're staying out here."

And the Lord did stay in the stairwell as I opened the door and went into the hallway. Suddenly in the Spirit my eyes were opened. I saw hundreds of demons charging toward me. I ran back into the stairwell, "Lord, I'm net ready for you to leave just yet! "

Once I was safely in my apartment, I tried to block out the horrifying images I had seen. But after that night the demonic harassment got worse. Sometimes I would be awakened violently in the middle of the night by the presence of demons in my room.

After living as a gay for five years, I had begun to develop symptoms of AIDS. My immune system had broken down; I had opportunistic infections; I was hospitalized with thrush; I had rashes; I had all sorts of diseases. This was years ago, before the diagnostic test for AIDS was developed. The only test my doctors could do to tell whether I had AIDS was a bone marrow biopsy, where they would take my marrow and test the white blood cells to see if the T-cells were affected.

The night before the biopsy, I prayed, "Lord, I've been looking for you, and I've come to you several times. Why did I not get any help from the Church?" The Lord didn't give me an answer. Instead He appeared to me. It was as if my hospital bed was taken up into His presence. He said to me, "I want to heal your whole person. Choose."

I had to make a choice for Jesus again. So I said, "All right." At that time I was only concerned about being healed physically. I thought I was going to die. Once I chose the Lord, it was as if I was brought back into my hospital room.

The next morning a nurse came and took more blood in preparation for my bone marrow biopsy. From that blood test my doctors could tell that my white count had jumped. They decided to wait to see if my T-cell count had jumped, so they ordered a new T-cell count. Sure enough, my T-cell counts were higher. Over a short period of time all my other symptoms went away: the opportunistic infections, the bruises, the rashes, the thrush. I don't know if I had AIDS or not, but that's not the point of the story. The point is that Jesus appeared to me.

After my release from the hospital, I called my sister Annelyse in Milwaukee and told her about my miraculous physical healing. She had played a great role in my coming to Christ as a teenager. A few weeks after my call, she wrote me a long letter, placing it within the pages of a copy of Leanne Payne's book, The Broken Image. Offended by Payne's claim that homosexuality is both a neurosis and a problem, I shelved the book without finding my sister's letter hidden between the pages.

Several months went by. One weekend I found myself home alone with a severe cold. Having felt within moments of being diagnosed with AIDS, a simple cold sent me into a frenzy of fear. I remembered the book, and finding it on top of my wardrobe, I reached up to get it. The book fell, and my sister's letter fluttered to the ground.

Her letter was so full of love for me, asking for my forgiveness for any way she had failed me and judged me for my homosexuality. That perhaps was the key factor that motivated me to read The Broken Image.

I had great difficult reading the book. Because I did not want to leave the homosexual lifestyle, I would not allow myself to believe the healings documented within it. However, a powerful truth still broke through to me: all people bear wounds from broken relationships, but these relationships can be healed through the Cross of Jesus.

I decided to begin praying daily some of the prayers suggested in Payne's book. But never did I think that praying would eventually lead me to repent of homosexuality as a sin or seek healing for it as a neurosis. I simply thought I was praying to be free of the negative influences from the past that still affected my life.

I became depressed as I began to realize that God was asking me to choose between Himself and homosexuality. For the first time, I seriously considered the possibility that homosexuality could be reversed through faith in Jesus Christ. A day never went by that I did not think about the physical healing Jesus had done in me.

A few months later, Annelyse invited me to a class Leanne Payne was teaching at her church in Milwaukee. As I neared the door to the classroom, fear and anxiety made me nauseous. "Oh, Jesus, help me," I prayed. To my surprise, I saw a mental image of a large uncovered trash can filled with rotting garbage. I saw the lid of the trash can begin to move and cover the stinking mess. Only a little sliver of the rim remained open. I felt that God was reassuring me that He would only bring up each issue as I could deal with it.

As I walked in, Leanne was reading from Psalm I39. I heard her read with great joy, "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.... When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be."

She then said something like, "Dear ones, God the Father knew you before you were born. He takes great delight in being with His people. He took great delight in becoming present to you, God incarnate through His Son Jesus. God is present in every memory that shapes you. He is present to heal every hurt in your life."

I knew I was hearing the truth, though from then on, the pain within was so great that I heard little more. Occasionally I caught a word, and it sank in deeply, but for the most part all I heard was "blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, FATHER, blah, blah, blah, FORGIVENESS, blah, blah, blah, THE CROSS OF JESUS." My survival mechanism of denial allowed me to hear only those things my soul could comprehend.
Later, back home in Ohio, I began the prayer journal Leanne asked the class to keep. I still was not convinced that healing from homosexuality was possible, but I had come to the point in my relationship with God that I could no longer deny Him, Never again was I going to live life without God. If He wanted to change my homosexuality, I was willing to let Him.

And I was honest before God. A large part of me liked being gay. I enjoyed the fellowship in the gay lifestyle and the gratification I experienced in homosexual encounters.
The time in Milwaukee shed much light on the dark corners of my past, corners in which many painful childhood memories hid, memories I had previously worked hard to deny. I began to ask myself: if these painful memories have played a part in shaping my sexuality, just how natural can homosexuality be?

I took some steps to assist the healing God was trying to pour into me. I even stopped my sexual fantasias and curbed the masturbation that went along with them, though this took immense effort and prayer. I became more depressed, now facing not only terrible loneliness, but also all of the newly surfaced pain of my childhood.

One Sunday, vaguely remembering the name of a small rural church one of my students, the only Christian in the class, attended, I decided to go to the evening service. When the preacher gave the altar call, I went forward, holding back tears. A pastor came to my side and whispered, "Do you know that your name is written in the Lamb's Book of Life?" My throat was constricted with sorrow over my sin. My body was trembling at the presence of God in that place. I choked out, "No, I've committed too many sins."

"That doesn't matter. Just repent of those sins," the pastor replied. With tears of sorrow I repented of all my sins, including the sin of homosexuality.
Then the pastor asked, "Do you want to be filled with the Holy Spirit?" "Sure," I said, though I didn't even know you could ask for such a thing. As the pastor prayed for me, like a great rush of wind from heaven, the Holy Spirit descended into the depths of my being.

All the fear and dread lodged in my gut left me, and more tears of joy flowed from my eyes. few moments later, a heavenly language of tongues welled up from within me. I spoke words of pure praise and adoration to God. And that night, for the first time in ten years, I slept straight through until morning.
All this came to me by repentance. During those eleven months, between being hospitalized in Boston and repenting at that little church in Ohio, the sinful circumstances of my life brought me to the absolute end of myself. Yet I was also being graciously wooed by Jesus into the kingdom of God. These were the most painful months of my life, as God was working to create in me "a broken and a contrite heart" to finally sacrifice up to Him at my repentance.

Now Jesus dwelled within me. Now, no matter what memory came up, no matter what vile sin was revealed within my heart, no matter what petty or ludicrous or lustful thought raced through my mind, no matter what soul-shaking pain overcame me, I knew that Jesus was living in me. Because "Another lived in me," I had the courage to face the beasts within.

In Jesus' day a popular rabbinical teaching declared: "Great is repentance, for it brings healing upon the world." I am grateful to God that during those eleven months He protected me from the foolish teachings that psychologize all inner pain and thereby banish even the thought of sin, rather than properly naming some as sins we choose to commit.

Some inner pain is the soul's quest to be free from sin. To repress the pain through false teaching is to repress the one thing that might drive the soul to repentance and healing.
Repentance at the Cross of Jesus is the foundational healing for all who seek to be free from any life-controlling affliction. The Cross of Jesus and the repentance it demands let me break myself away from my sinful past. No longer was I a homosexual.
For the past ten years, I have been able to proclaim: "Now I am free to identify myself with Christ."

Mr. Bergner, who graduated from Trinity with a Master of Divinity degree in 1994, is director of Redeemed Life Ministries in Wheaton, Illinois, and a longtime associate of Leanne Payne. He is the author of Setting Love in Order: Hope and Healing for the Homosexual (Baker, 1995).

Originally published in Cornerstone Vo1. 29 Issue 119, 2000, pp. 37-39