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 Webb 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. 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 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/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.

Being Known

*This was the first blog post on my former blog, published January 5, 2014, in which I first publicly shared that I experienced same-sex attraction. I’m reposting it here in its entirety.

To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything.

— Timothy Keller.

What does it mean to know someone? I don’t simply mean knowing of someone…but what does it mean to truly know him?  I think we’d all agree that knowing someone is more than knowing a collection of facts about that person…but it certainly can’t be anything less.

If you know me, chances are that you already know the basics: I grew up in Panama City Beach, Florida. I’m an only child of two parents who love Jesus. I grew up attending school and church in the same building, and my faith has always played a significant role in my life. I majored in journalism at Samford University in Birmingham, and after college, I served on campus ministry staff with Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I’m currently a student at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, pursuing a call to full-time ministry. When I have free time, you can usually find me writing in a coffee shop (ahem), hiking the nearest mountain (no easy feat in Missouri), or following my Florida State Seminoles (ditto). 

That’s the short biography. That’s the basics. If you know me, surely you know most of that information. But let’s be real, you could also piece much of that together from a cursory glance at my facebook.

Beyond these basic facts, what else does it mean to know me? What would it mean for me to know you?

As I’m sure you could say for yourself, there’s a lot more to that answer than could ever fit in a blog post. In fact, the majority of that answer probably doesn’t even belong in a blog post. It belongs in the safe, intimate conversations of close friendships and community. It’s impossible to truly know someone through a blog.

I could share my hopes and my dreams here on this blog. I could share what makes me feel the happiest or the safest. I could share what makes me laugh uncontrollably or what inevitably brings me to tears. I could share my deepest fears and anxieties, those gut-wrenching insecurities that gnaw at my peace and keep me up at night. I could share the careless words that have been spoken to me and that I’ve spoken to others–words that seem to play in my head on endless repeat. I could share all that, but I won’t. Not here. That sharing is meant for living rooms and coffee shops, over good food and drink, with real laughter and real tears…with real, in-the-flesh people.

[Another thing to know about me: I write long and meandering blog introductions…]

But let’s get to the point. [aha! there is a point!]

There is something I want to share with you all here. It’s something you may not know, even if you’ve known me for a very long time. It’s something that I’ve decided needs to be known if I am going to be known–a decision made after much prayer and counsel from people far wiser than myself. It wasn’t an easy decision.

You see, friends, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been same-sex attracted.

[wow. there it is.]

Okay. [exhale] What does that mean? Again, like what it means to know me, it means a whole lot more than I could possibly fit into one blog post…but I will try.

First of all, and maybe most obviously, it means I’ve always been more attracted to guys than I have been to girls. It should go without saying that I didn’t choose this. There was never a point of decision for me, but rather, it was a slow process of realization. [read: denial]

What does this change? Well…nothing really. None of my beliefs regarding the Bible’s teaching on sexuality have changed. I still believe, as I always have, that the marriage covenant, as instituted by God, is designed for one man and one woman. I also believe the Bible is clear that sex is a gift reserved exclusively for covenant marriage. For this reason, it is my firm conviction that there are only two options for me to honor God with my sexuality: I can either marry a woman, or I can remain single and celibate. Either way, I will need strong friendships and intentional, Christ-centered community. Either way, I know God has a perfect plan.

This isn’t my first time sharing this part of my story. That’s been a long process too. The first person I ever told was Jason Sterling, my RUF campus minister at Samford, during the summer before my senior year. As I began to process what all this meant for me, Jason’s compassion and encouragement were so important in keeping my eyes fixed on my Savior. In the years that followed that first conversation, I’ve been able to share this with a growing number of friends and family.

So why this post? Why share this with the world? Why now? Why decide to share something so personal and potentially confusing in such a public setting?

It all goes back to the quote I included at the top. What does it mean to be known? Keller is  specifically addressing marriage here, but it has a great deal of significance for friendships and other relationships too. I’ve always been loved. I’ve been blessed with family and friends that have all loved me so well. That’s not the problem.

You see, I’ve grown up wearing a mask. You probably did too. We all have parts of our stories that have brought us shame. We all have things that we try to hide. For me, my mask hid the fact that I was attracted to other guys. It was a mask I crafted carefully, and I guarded it obsessively. For years, my deepest fear was that someone might discover the secret that lay behind that mask and my life would be over. Yes, I was loved–loved deeply, loved well–but I could never really believe it. “Surely they just love my mask,” I told myself. “If they knew the real me, it’d be a whole different story.”

The terrible lie I had believed–that my family and friends wouldn’t love me if they really knew me–was sinister enough, but far worse, I started to believe the same thing about Jesus. See, I believed that homosexuality was one of the worst and wickedest of all sins. I knew Jesus had died to save me, but how could Jesus really love me if this was what I struggled with? 

I’ll be sharing more of my story in future posts, and I’d love to talk more with any of you about it! Seriously. But for now, this is why I’m sharing my story: Jesus has done some crazy awesome things in my life, and I want to be able to talk about them. He’s given me this story; who am I to hide it under a bushel? I don’t claim to be any kind of expert on sexuality. Far from it, but I do have a story to tell. It’s a story of a Christian kid growing up in the Church, a kid who’s too scared to talk about what’s really going on, a kid who believes deep down that no one could ever love him. It’s a story that’s far more common than you may think.

God has been so gracious to me. He has provided me with loving, encouraging friends, a wonderful family, and a seminary community that reminds me every day that Jesus loves me. He has called me into full-time ministry, and my heart and passion is to share the good news of Jesus with college students, especially those students who believe that no one could really love them…least of all God.

I understand this may be a lot to process. Maybe it isn’t. I don’t know where you stand on this. This may be a shock to you, or you might not be all that surprised. You might be excited, or you might be dismayed. Wherever you are, I want you to know you have the space to process this however you need to. I want you to know I’m open for discussion. There is no question you can ask me that will offend or upset me. If you cross a line, I’ll let you know with a smile. If you want to talk, great! If you don’t have anything to say, that’s fine too. Here’s the thing: I’m still Stephen. I’m still me. Nothing has changed; you just know more of my story now.

Jesus is Lord, my friends. There is nothing in this world which he does not declare, “Mine!” He calls us to follow him with every part of our being, and that includes our sexuality. Jesus is Lord. That may be hard for us to hear sometimes, but here’s the thing about our Lord: He’s good. “Come to me,” Jesus says, “All who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The old hymn “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” has been particularly meaningful to me in the past few years, especially the last lines of the last verse. “I came to Jesus, and I found | in Him my Star, my Sun | and in that light of life I’ll walk | ’til pilgrim days are done.”

These are indeed pilgrim days. The journey may be long and incredibly difficult, but he gives rest. I may be weak, but “a bruised reed he will not break.” I don’t necessarily know where I’m going, but I know who I’m following. This blog in an attempt to walk in that “light of life.” Because of Jesus, I don’t have to be ashamed to tell my story. In fact, because of Jesus, I can share my own story of redemption, one small story in the grand Story of Scripture, the story of Christ redeeming his Church and his Creation. Walking in this light of life, I can find healing in the community of believers, and I can be a part of other’s healing as we walk together.

I invite you to join me in this journey. Please feel free to engage and ask and challenge along the way. I’ll be writing some about same-sex attraction, but I’ll be writing a lot more about other things…other parts of my story that are far more important. Same-sex attraction does not define me, and it won’t define this blog. Mine is a story of brokenness, redemption, and ongoing repentance. Really, it’s a story that’s more about Jesus than it’s about me. I hope you can find encouragement through this story to share your own story, and I’d love to be a part of that.

“O Love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee | I give thee back the life I owe, that in thine ocean depths its flow | May richer, fuller be.”

George Matheson

Grace to you, my brothers and sisters, and the peace of Christ that passes all understanding,

In His Matchless Love,

Your brother,