Singer-songwriter Dennis Jernigan recounts his former struggles with homosexuality and describes how he found hope, restoration and a new identity through his personal relationship with Jesus Christ. (Part 1 of 2)
John Fuller: The following program contains explicit material and isn't suitable for younger listeners.
Let's listen to some song clips as we begin today's "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly. And as we here these, let me ask if you know the man who composed them or anything about him?
Music Clips: Montage of Dennis Jernigan Songs
John: Dennis Jernigan is the composer of those classic Christian songs and he's with us today and sharing his own personal story of transformation in the hands of a loving God.
Jim Daly: John, Dennis has quite a story to tell. I'm looking forward to hearing it and we're gonna get to it right away. But he grew up in a farming community in eastern Oklahoma, probably one of the most conservative areas (Chuckling) in the United States. He's been married more than 30 years to Melinda, his bride. And I love this fact: Dennis has written thousands of worship songs, not just dozens or hundreds, but thousands of worship songs--
Jim: --and you heard a clip of those just a moment ago. And, uh, Dennis, let me first welcome you to "Focus on the Family."
Dennis Jernigan: Well, thank you, guys, for having me. I love being here.
Jim: It is great to have you and how did the Lord pack in so much talent into one person?
Jim: How do you come up with thousands of worship songs?
Dennis: When the fire gets hot, stuff comes out. Good stuff.
Jim: Well, that's a good point.
Jim: You know, someone once said to me, "Trust people that walk with a limp."
Dennis: That's right.
Jim: And in brokenness, the Lord can do so much with a broken spirit, huh?
Dennis: Uh-hm, yeah, well, I immediately think of the fragrance of myrrh. Myrrh comes from a bush that has to be cut. And the drops of rosin that come out are called tears. You still don't have the beautiful fragrance yet. Those tears are allowed to harden; then they're crushed and that's when you have the fragrance.
Dennis: With the crushing, with the fire, with the hardships of life, with the suffering, with whatever, I've discovered that God wastes none of that and that's why I love to tell my story just because I know that He's gonna turn some lights on for some other people out there.
Jim: Dennis, in talking about that pain, we gotta paint a picture for the listener--
Jim: --because we haven't really said what it is you struggled with and it's a controversial one--
Jim: --in the culture today, homosexuality.
Jim: Let's start back when you're a little boy. What happened to you that set you on a path of destruction?
Dennis: Well, several things came together. I call it the perfect storm. I was very artistic as a child. I could hear a song on the radio, by the time I'm 5- or 6-years-old and sit down at the piano and pick out the melody.
Dennis: If you were sad, I would be sad. If you were happy, I would be happy. I was wired to sense things emotionally and I know now that was for use for the Lord. I didn't know it, then.
Jim: So you were a feeler?
Dennis: Yes, very much so. In fact, I get to first grade and the other boys find out I play the piano and they start calling me sissy and girl and fag and queer, by junior high, especially.
But at the age of 5 a very profound incident took place in my life. I was in a public restroom. And I did my business. Turned around and there was a man with his pants down, exposing himself to me, wanting me to touch him and I wouldn't do it. I ran. That scared me so badly. And I had full intentions of telling my mom and dad. And I stopped short, though, just before I got to my mom because I thought ... I began thinking these thoughts. "What's wrong with me? Why would that man think he could do that to me? What is wrong with me that would cause him to respond that way to me?" And I've had people argue with me and say that wouldn't, a 5 year old wouldn't think that way. Guys, I've never forgotten.
Dennis: That's exactly what I thought.
Jim: Well, it's a little audacious that somebody would even say they could think differently from how you were thinking.
Jim: Again, you were the only one that knew how you were thinking.
Dennis: That's right.
Jim: I think the other aspect of that, Dennis, and we'll continue--
Jim: --with your story, but I see that in people that I know, the sensitive spirit.
Jim: I know women that maybe had some sexual abuse in their background. It wasn't extreme, what many people rationalize as, "Well, how would that affect you in that way?" But with sensitive spirits, those moments are profoundly impacting and very deep. To other people, it may not impact them quite the same way. Is that fair?
Dennis: It's very fair. Like I said earlier, I, if you felt a certain way, I was empathetic with you. And I know now those were gifts from the Lord for use in His Kingdom, for His purposes. But, when I was a kid, I discovered very quickly that the men would approve of me if I performed well on the athletic field, which is kind of a twist and turn from the typical story. I needed my dad's affirmation. I wanted his affection. I wanted his approval.
The only time I felt like my dad ever spoke to me and this is so indicative of how the enemy gets us so self-focused, that all we can see is ourselves and our own needs, and our own wants and our own desires and that's where I was.
I discovered that when I got that first hit on the baseball field, my dad went nuts in a good way. Not just my dad, but all the men, and I got those pats on the back and I thought "Wow, if I perform." I didn't put it in these terms, but I thought to myself, "if I perform well on the ball field, I'm loved." So that transcended every aspect of my life to the point where scholastically, artistically, in the athletic realm, I had to be the best at everything.
Jim: Let me ask you in the background of that. Your dad's a worship leader and your mom, a Sunday School teacher in a small town again in Oklahoma.
Dennis: Yes, sir.
Jim: As that boy, later, after 5 years old, maybe 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, what was happening to you in terms of your sexual awareness? What was happening in that space?
Dennis: Well, experimentation with other boys, especially older boys. Even though it was detestable to me at the time at first, the boys, the older boys made me feel good about myself. If I pleased them, I felt good about myself, so I did whatever and I'm very ashamed of that to this day, but, thank the Lord He dealt with even my shame.
Jim: What hole and you allude to it--
Jim: --but I want to be very clear with it, that void in your heart that you're tryin' to fill.
Dennis: Yeah, I wanted my dad's affection. I needed him. He never told me he loved me 'til after I was married. The only time I felt like my dad ever spoke to me was when he needed me to do something for him or if he was disciplining me, so that's exactly what I thought of God. So I had this emptiness in my soul where I never really felt accepted at all. I felt that if anyone really did know me, I would be rejected for sure. But I was trying to fill a void that only God could fill. I don't know how else to say it. Am I answering your question?
Jim: It is. I want to help those who are listening, both parents and children who are most likely hearing this that are struggling, 'cause they're different. They're feeling different. They may not have a sexual expression of that. That might come out in different ways. You know, it doesn't always have to come out sexually.
Dennis: Well, sure. One of my main orientations was towards anger.
Dennis: That sounds ridiculous to people, but I didn't understand my gifts. My parents didn't understand my gifts. And I would just resort to just blowing up in tantrums as a little boy and you know what my mom would say to me? "You come by that naturally. That's just your great-grandparents. That's just the fiery red-head Bristol coming through in you." (Laughter) So, that communicated to me, "I can't help it. This is just the way I am."
Well, one of the first things that the Lord did after He set me free was, again, dealing with my angry heart. He said, "Son, who told you that's who you are? I said, "Well, my mom." He said "But did I tell you? I'm your Maker."
Dennis: "Oh, no, then show me." He said "That's not who I say you are. See that heart of peace I planted in you? I want you to be that 'cause that's who you truly are.
Jim: Well, and we need to get to the point where you're having that kind of discussion with God and I want to hear that in just a minute.
John: Yeah, uh, and Jim, we have resources from Dennis and helps connected to the conversation at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio. I'm thinking about angry people and what is behind that anger. Did God reveal that to you?
John: What was that about?
Dennis: That I had a right to anything. That sounds, again, like over-simplifying of the situation, but I felt like I had a right to certain things and the Lord said, "Son, really, because of your sin, if you got what you deserved, you'd be dead now."
Jim: That's true for all of us.
Dennis: Yeah, exactly. That's my point. And He said, "But son"--this will rock some Christian's world, but--"you were worth Me dying for. That's how much I wanted you." I was worth His life. That's what has kept me seeking Him all these years. I've been free for almost 35 years now and nothing's changed as far as my seeking Jesus. In fact, if anything is true, I seek Him more than I did the day He set me free.
Jim: Dennis, it feels like, in your description, life is like a freeway. Some people find the off-ramp to health and well-being through a relationship with Jesus. Some people pass right be that escape. Why is that? Why is there such a rejection from wounded people to lean into God?
Dennis: Wounded people, one of two things, they want to protect themselves. They don't want to be hurt anymore. So if they can devise a way to stop feeling that hurt, they put themselves in a box in a sense. When you put yourself in a box you don't let anyone in and you don't let anything out that you don't approve of and I called that a coffin.
Dennis: That's a place of death.
Dennis: The Dead Sea is dead, but it receives all the same water, all the same life as the Sea of Galilee, which is a living organism of a lake. It flows down the Jordan River. Why is one living and one is dead, but they have the same water? Well, the Sea of Galilee, it receives water, but it gives water. It receives and gives. There's an ebb and a flow. The Dead Sea receives, receives, receives, takes, takes, takes and releases nothing.
Dennis: It's a dead sea. That just dawned on me about 30 years ago that I don't want to be the Dead Sea. So that means I've got to let people in. That means I've got to be a living organism. That means I've got to receive what I need from others and I've also got to be a giver.
Jim: Wow. I mean there is so much in that statement to unpack. Dennis, as I have engaged, on purpose, some in the leadership of the same-sex marriage movement, it's been really interesting to me. No. 1, I've not given up any principle. We usually start each meeting with, "Let's agree we're gonna disagree fundamentally on the definition of marriage" and then we start in on getting to know each other better. My faith, their faith in some cases, or no faith.
Help me and others understand in that person's mind, that homosexual tension. When they are looking for identity, I've often thought to myself as this marriage push is moving forward, it's like the caution of the rich man who pursues riches. They get billions and then they realize that it's not satisfying me. My whole life I've been pursuing money and now I've got all this money and it's not meeting the need.
I feel like it's gonna be the same for these people. They're going to go to court. They're gonna fight. They're gonna scratch and claw and they're gonna get some kind of affirmation from the government and they're gonna go, "It's not fulfilling the hole in my heart." I mean it may help in some ways. Talk about that to that community. Speak to that community what you have found in God and your relationship with Christ in filling that need, versus this endless pursuit of affirmation, forcing the culture to accept me. Talk to that.
Dennis: Well, we can force the culture to do whatever we want and still never get to the root of what the real need is. And as long as we try to meet our needs in ways, any other way other than the way God intended, those needs will never be ultimately met. They just won't.
And I came to that conclusion a long time ago in my own life. Regardless of how I feel, regardless of how comfortable I wanna be, I've gotta begin and end with the truth. It's gotta be foundational, you can search all you want, but until that search begins and ends with Jesus, you're never gonna be satisfied.
Jim: Well, and what I hear in you is a man who's thirst has been quenched.
Dennis: Very much so—
Jim: And that's the—
Dennis: --but that makes me even more thirsty for Jesus.
Jim: --that's the point, but it doesn't require you to keep thirsting for what the world was offering.
Dennis: Oh, not at all. In fact, if I even entertain for a brief moment a temptation, it makes me sick. It really does, because I realize, "Oh my goodness! What I've found in Jesus is worth every struggle I've ever been through." It is. It's worth every temptation, worth every sorrow, worth every ang … bit of anguish or pain. To know Jesus intimately has been worth it all.
Jim: And I want to say to the person struggling in that area, don't let us be an impediment—
Dennis: Oh, yeah.
Jim: --and I mean the church. You know, don't let a person's attitude that is hostile toward you be the impediment for you finding that well. That's not a good excuse, even though it's painful.
Dennis: And let me say to the church–the body of Christ out there–you don't have to have gone through anything to help somebody else out. You just have to be willing to walk toward Jesus with them. You're no one's Savior. You're no one's Redeemer. You're not responsible for the outcome of their life, but you are responsible to love them. And love means laying down your life. That's the greatest expression of love.
Jim: Let's talk again though. Let's finish the story--
Jim: --in terms of your journey and how you, as a child, had these experiences. You're sexually active as a young boy with other men, older boys, you said. You're in a Christian home. You're going to church every Sunday. Talk about how the Lord began to pull you in a different direction in the midst of all that. How old were you when you had this awareness that maybe this isn't the way to go?
Dennis: Well, I have to say this before I get there. When I was 10-years-old, by the time I was 10, I was already the church pianist in our church. I was very ingrained in our church. Every time the door was open …
Jim: So you had talent.
Dennis: I was there, yes. Couldn't read a lick of music, but I had memorized the hymns. I could play by ear. One Sunday morning, I am out playing with my brothers and cousins before I'm gonna go up and play piano in big church and the men who had taught me about God since I'm a little boy, the men who I respected most, the men who were most like God to me began discussing what they thought of homosexuals. My only conclusion after hearing the conversation was, "They hate me. They don't know it's me they hate, but I know."
And if they hate me, they know God. God hates me. So, I went into this utter shell where I would not let anyone in. It was that coffin I talk about and it was a place of death for me in so many ways. But…
Jim: And you had no one to talk to.
Dennis: No one to talk to. No, in fact one of the guys that was using me would then turn around and mock me in front of the other boys. That's how warped it became, but he knew I wouldn't say anything. I didn't want to be rejected.
Jim: Trapped in fear.
Dennis: Very much so. My Grandmother Jernigan was a very spiritual woman. She had a piano and so after school I was at her house after I did my chores and I'd play the piano for hours. And she would tell me things of the Lord that really blew my mind as a little boy, but I told her "I hate my gift. I get beat up at school for playing the piano" and she said "Oh, that gift is from the Lord for use in his Kingdom." I didn't have a clue as to what that meant. That was just crazy talk to me, but at the same time it just drew me into an awareness that maybe God did have a plan for my life. I just didn't know how to figure that out.
Jim: You may not have understood the comment, but in later years, did it give you perspective or strength, to say okay grandma, now I get it?
Dennis: Yes, very much so. In fact, after the Lord set me free and I'll get back to the crux of my story. for several years after my initial freedom, I still battled thoughts of despair and depression and just all kinds of junk. And I thought, well I'm a mighty man of God, that's how I choose to see myself. And so, Lord, why am I still dealing with these things? And the Holy Spirit just said to me, "Well son, what are you thinking about when those thoughts of depression come?"
I said, "Well, the time I was 5 and that guy did what he did in that restroom and my grandmother when I was 13, she passed away. You took her out of my life." "He said, "Son, make a list of all the times you feel like I've forsaken you and I will show you my perspective and show you where I was."
One of the first things he did after I gave him that list--my list became four pages long y'all--
Jim: Wow, think of that.
Dennis: --and just, 'cause I wanted God to redeem even my memories, 'cause my perspective is one thing. God's perspective is the ultimate perspective. So that's where I wanted to get to.
Dennis: Two weeks later after making that list, I go to my hometown where I grew up in Northeastern Oklahoma and had a time of worship. After that worship time, this little grey haired lady comes up to me and says "Isn't it wonderful how your Grandmother's prayers have been answered." I said "What?" She said "You don't know?" I said, "No, please tell me."
She said, "Remember when you were a little boy and you'd go to her house and play the piano?" I said "Yes, that's my most precious memories, but how do you know that?"
She said, "Did you not know that each day you'd come over to play that piano she would stand behind you and pray for you and ask the Lord to use you in the area of worship and music for His kingdom and His glory?" I said, "How do you know that?"
She said, "'Cause son, for years once a week at our women's prayer meeting she would come to us and ask us to agree with her and son we still do."
Jim: Praying for you.
Dennis: Praying for me. At this moment I'm 56-years-old. Two of those women are still alive, still praying for me. My perspective was one thing, but God's perspective was, you'll see your grandmother again, but I covered you with prayer. You thought I abandoned you. Quite the opposite son. Quite the opposite was true.
Like I said, my grandmother died when I was 13 and I went further into a shell, if that's possible. And I get through high school. I'm valedictorian of my senior class, starting point guard on the basketball team, only white guy. Played in three state tournaments. But the reality was that I was using it also as a smokescreen. People, again, they'd never ask questions of the good Jernigan boy. He does everything the coach says. Coach calls him the brains of the outfit. That was my position on the team. And then I decided I'm gonna go to college and major in music and play basketball. I tried out for the Oklahoma Baptist University basketball team. They told me I could walk on the team. I made the team. And I'm gonna major in music.
I get to my first music lesson and realize, okay, I don't know anything. I thought I knew everything. I know nothing. It was like being set into a place where they only speak Russian and I've never spoken a word of Russian in my life. To be a part of a music school, to be a music major in those days you had to be a part of a choir. And to be part of a choir, I had to audition. Well, my audition went something like this. "Mr. Jernigan, will you take that choral octavo, go to the second page under the third score and would you read the alto line in your register?"
And you might as well of heard crickets chirping, because I had no idea what they were even talking about. So, I failed every audition, but never fear they still wanted my money at Oklahoma Baptist University, so they had created a special choir called the Shawnee Choral Society. Lamest name ever. I called it "The Island of Misfit Toys." That was the name I gave to that choir.
In addition, I wanted to major in songwriting. I knew that I could do that. So, I went to the head of theory and composition department and said I wanted to declare my major as a freshman. And they sat me down and said this, "We only have a few openings and we reserve them for people we see potential in and just quite honestly we don't see that potential in you." And that crushed me.
Dennis: So, long story made short, through that process, I really bore down on my studies. I quit the basketball team and just worked on my music and for the next four years, that was my life; just diving into learning all I could about music. During my freshman year, a man named Keith Green came to our campus and that dude scared me to death.
Dennis: Because you're with him five minutes and you knew you needed Jesus. But then he did another thing as he began to sing, 'cause I'm thinking first of all the dude looks like John the Baptist and I'm thinking he's come back.
John: Yeah, for folks that don't remember he was a fairly bushy haired, wild looking guy.
Dennis: Wild guy
John: Very expressive.
Dennis: But the most profound he did was he began to sing, "Oh Lord, You're beautiful, Your face is all I seek." And it was like hearing two intimate friends in the most intimate of conversations and I am wondering should I even be listening to this, but the effect was it drew me right into an awareness: God is here and I did not know how to deal with that.
That same year someone handed me a record album by the band, Second Chapter of Acts. And Annie Herring had a messed up life before she met Jesus and I won't go into her story. But I thought if He could love her, he could love me. She had a song on this record and a record for you young whipper snappers out there is like a giant CD, but it's cooler. You can play it on both sides. (Laughter)
Dennis: But this friend handed me this record by this Christian band and I said, "Hippie music. You want me to listen to Hippies?" And they said, "Oh they helped us during the Jesus Movement." That's for another story, but I never had heard of the Jesus Movement.
And so, I was being overwhelmed by these Christian things that were going on around my life. And … but it made me intrigued to listen to her music. And she had a particular song with these lyrics.
He took away my sin and shame.
He took away my sin and shame.
He loves me. He loves me, Hallelujah.
And listening to that song, she was screaming it and I thought how can you believe that? You were more messed up than me! But for the next four years, the music of Keith Green and Annie Hearing kept me from taking my life.
[In the] fall of 1980. I'm a senior at Oklahoma Baptist University. I am more desperate than ever, because I can't keep the plates all spinning as you would in those old vaudeville plays--
Dennis: --where they'd spin the plates and I just didn't see how I was gonna keep it up and something had to give. So I'm walking across campus one day and I hear my name and I turn around and it's a Christian leader in the community--husband, father, well-respected. I'm a worthless worm of a nobody. How does he even know who I am? He said I've been watching you around campus and I believe the Lord wants me to just help you. I said "What?" He said how are your studies going? How can I pray for you?" Nobody'd ever taken that kind of interest in my life. I just began to feel valued. Every week he would call me and just pray with me.
Jim: Well, kind of a father figure.
Dennis: Exactly and He would take me out for coffee and or a coke and just study, help me with my studies and pray for me. And it was an amazing thing. And so, there came a point where, in my desperation and I went to him and said, "Listen, there's something that I have been carrying my whole life and it's all I've ever known. And I'm tired of it, but I can't fix myself. I've tried. And God's doing nothin'. I don't know what to do. Will you help me?"
And he said, "Yeah, just tell me." I said, "Well, are you gonna love me, 'cause it's pretty bad." He said, There's nothing you can tell me that would keep me from loving you." So I told him. For the first time in my life it felt like the absolute weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders. That feeling lasted just a brief moment, because then he made a sexual advance on me--
Jim: Oh my goodness.
Dennis: --this one whom I had trusted. And I felt so humiliated, betrayed. Now I thought I knew what hopeless, but in that moment, I really did, 'cause I thought this is one I thought God sent to help me and they've been setting me up to use me.
Jim: Dennis, people are hearing this and it may be that same issue of homosexuality, it could be other issues. We're wrapping up today and I want to come back next time and delve into God's relationship with you. How you began to move on the right track you might say.
But speak to the person right now who is hearing this. Their jaw's dropping because you're speaking right where there at today. And we're leaving at a point where we haven't talked about hope and I don't want people to stay there.
Jim: Just talk for a minute about hope and what hope meant to you and we'll come back next time and fill in that discussion.
Dennis: I don't care how far you think you've fallen away from the Lord or away from hope, away from stability. Let me give you a good word here. If you're breathing, there is hope and God can reach as far as you can fall. Trust me on that. If He can reach me, He can reach anyone. And He loves you right where you are. He really does. But I have great news for you. He loves you enough to not leave you there, so give him a chance.
Jim: Dennis Jernigan, a songwriter, worship leader, musician, really honest, extraordinary human being, let's come back next time and fill in these blanks for people.
Jim: Can you do that?
Dennis: I'd love to.
John: Well, we've heard some very tender recollections and painful memories that Dennis had and if you're at a point where there just seems to be no hope, then please call us her at focus on the family and request to speak with one of four counselors. Our number is 800-232-6459.
And we're only part way through Dennis's story, but you can watch a 90-minute documentary about his life called Sing Over Me. Ask for that when you call or learn details about ordering it at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio. And if you can donate generously to Focus on the Family today, in return for your generous financial gift of any amount to support our efforts here, we'll send that DVD to you as a thank-you gift. Just ask about it when you donate, 1-800-232-6459.
Our program today was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, I'm John Fuller, inviting you back next time. We'll continue to hear from Dennis Jernigan, as we offer more encouragement to help your family thrive.
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