What Father’s Smiles Are Mine

Soul, then know thy full salvation. Rise o’er sin and fear and care. Joy to find in every station something still to do or bear. Think what Spirit dwells within thee. Think what Father’s smiles are thine. Think that Jesus died to win thee. Child of heaven, canst thou repine?

Henry Lyte, “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken” (1825)

“I miss coming out somedays for that very reason”

I received this text from my friend Gregg about 5 years ago. I had just told him about a particularly encouraging “coming out” conversation that I’d had with another friend of mine.

It was August of 2013, and I’d been having quite a few of these “coming out” conversations, opening up and sharing with friends about the fact that I was same-sex attracted and what that meant for me. At the time I received this text from Gregg, I’d already had 14 such conversations in less than week. You might think this sounds emotionally-taxing, perhaps recklessly so, and you might be right. In one span of 24 hours, I told more people that I was attracted to other guys than I had told in my first 24 years put together.

I’ve never been good with gray area. After I decided earlier that summer that I’d be sharing my story publicly, the idea of waiting months to do so seemed unbearable. I was tired of wearing a mask. I was tired of living two different stories. I saw “coming out” as a rather awkward, unpleasant process to be powered through as quickly as possible.

Hence, those 14 coming-out conversations crammed into one week, with even more on the horizon. I was ready to have the whole messy process behind me.

This is why Gregg’s text message gave me such pause. He missed coming out? Why on earth? There he was, living his life in the open, and he missed the days of double-life and awkward conversations?

But then I reflected on the particular conversation I’d just told him about, with a guy who had been one of my students when I was the RUF intern at the University of Tennessee. I’d spent 2 years listening to him and trying to encourage him, love him, and point him to Jesus. Now, a few months later, sitting in a Mellow Mushroom, he was listening to me, encouraging me, loving me, and pointing me to Jesus.

What made this particular conversation with this former student [we’ll call him Brad] stand out among the rest?

First of all, quite simply…he smiled. He smiled the whole time. Sure, he’d been just as surprised as anyone else (I think), but his first reaction was to smile. He wasn’t being insensitive or callous. He didn’t think anything was funny, but he was instantly moved by the power of what I was sharing. He knew what it meant that I was telling him this. When I saw his smile, I didn’t see someone glossing over the weight of my story…I saw someone grasping its full beauty, difficulty and pain included. His smile said that he was glad I was sharing this with him, that he knew God was sovereign, that he too was hopeful about my future.

Brad’s smile as he listened to my story made a big difference in how I told it. I told my story with more hope…more thankfulness. I felt the freedom to tell the more difficult parts of my story, because I knew he was looking at the bigger picture. It reminded me that despite all the trials and challenges, my story already has a glorious ending that can’t be unwritten.

Brad listened, he smiled…occasionally he’d shake his head in amazement. He asked questions…thoughtful questions. He wondered aloud how hard it must have been for me to live with that secret.

I told him about the impact Wesley Hill’s book, Washed and Waiting, had on me, and before I could even think to suggest it, he asked me if it would be a good book for him to read, to help him gain a better understanding of the experience of Christians who are same-sex attracted. He wanted to learn more…to read more. This showed me his support. It gained even more of my trust. It let me know just how valuable he saw my story to be.

There’s a place for tears. There’s a place for sorrow and weightiness. There’s a place for challenge and exhortation, but Brad’s simple, authentic response communicated so much to me in that moment.

It said that he loved me, but it also said he respected me. It said he wanted to enter into my story’s framework rather than try to fit my story into his framework. It said he didn’t see me as someone to be pitied, but rather, someone he could learn from.

It reminded me that at the end of the day, my story is not a tragedy. It’s a story of hope. It’s a story of Redemption.

I was blessed with so many conversations like this that week, and countless others in the months and years since. The more I saw friends and loved ones respond with smiles, with interested questions, with affirmations of love and support…it proved to me that these relationships were not fake after all. The lies that my heart had told me for so long were false. My friends didn’t just love the mask that I’d been wearing; they loved me…and when my mask came off, that love for me continued…even deepened.

For the first time, I was starting to experience what it feels like to be fully known and truly loved. And that, as Tim Keller says, is a lot like being loved by God…what we need more than anything.

As I continued having conversations in those days, weeks, and months to come, I began to understand what Gregg meant when he said that he missed coming out. And I can say now, five years later, that I miss it myself sometimes. Those were special days I was living in…days in which God communicated his love for me in a way that my “pensive, doubting, fearful heart” could not only hear, but actually feel and grasp. It wasn’t a time to be rushed and hurried through.

Those were moments to be cherished…moments to savor. For the first time, the love of my friends and family had breached my heart’s defenses. It was flooding in—filling all those dusty places and dark corners. It was pointing me right back to the love of my Savior, the love that had always been there…the love that had always seemed too good to be true.

As I reflect back on this time, I’m moved to thankfulness that for me, this period of coming out was a largely positive experience. But I’m painfully aware that the support and love that I experienced is simply not true across the board for many other gay people. Far too many encounter fear, anger, even rejection when they share this part of their story. Even for those who maintain traditional Christian beliefs and practices, they often hear the message that they can never fully belong. That they will always be viewed with anxiety and suspicion.

I mourn with my brothers and sisters for whom coming out was not a joyful experience, for whom it’s not a time that they miss, perhaps a time of great pain. I mourn with those who can’t even begin to imagine ever coming out at all, even now.

It’s my desire, my passion, my prayer that more and more brothers and sisters would experience this same kind of support, encouragement, and love in their families and church communities. We all need this love. We need to learn how to show this love, and we need to learn how to receive it. This love changes hearts, and it transforms lives. This love, Jesus said, is how the world will know that we are his.

I’ve occasionally been asked why a Christian who holds to the traditional biblical position on marriage, who believes his primary identity is new creation in Christ, would feel the need to “come out” as gay or same-sex attracted, or to reflect publicly on the experience. There are a variety of reasons that I could list, but my primary reason is this: if I’m going to talk about what the Lord has done in my life, and how he has drawn me to himself, I can’t not talk about coming out.

As I reflect on my coming out experience, I remember countless moments that drew me closer to the heart of my Father, as I saw his “never-stopping, never-giving-up, unbreaking, always and forever love” reflected—imperfectly yet tangibly—in the love of my friends and family members.

I remember seeing the smile of my Father in the smile of my friend, and for the first time, daring to believe that smile was meant for me.

How can I keep quiet about that?

This post was adapted from an article I originally wrote in August 2013.

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