Reflections for the inner life.
Circa 1997, I met up with a friend Keith in Chattanooga to go longboard skateboarding around downtown. At some point we ended up at the highest point of Georgia Avenue pointing our boards downhill. From where we stood it seemed like a slow and easy grade. My buddy had memorized the timing of the stoplights. To any passerby we must have looked absolutely ridiculous wearing those jumpsuits, knee and elbow pads…in my memory, I seem to recall wearing helmets and goggles too. Like two poser wannabe knock off Evil Kaneevals on skateboards. I can remember feeling tentative so I borrowed (or mimicked) some courage of Keith's.
We pushed off and glanced at one another with a grin, hooted at each each other as we picked up a little speed. Keith seemed so calm and free. I remember feeling terrified and tight. Midway downhill he glanced over and noticed that the adventure in my face had transitioned into terror. My feet were beginning to wobble terribly.
Keith yelled something at me that I could not hear at first. He yelled it again. “Breathe! Just breathe!” So I did. I somehow had the faculties to trust this high speed wisdom. The momentum was only picking up and my friend's only words to me were to do what comes naturally in every other moment…except when your life is flashing before your eyes. I breathed. I took deep breaths that I had never taken before. Within seconds the calm flowed from my head to my toes, literally. The wobbles went away and soon I was ripping down the remainder of that hill with a newfound calm that I could not access before.
Just a few weeks ago, my son and I traveled back to Chattanooga for a wedding that I was officiating. Ironically the groom is nothing short of a pro skater traveling the globe sharing of God’s love through the medium of skateboarding. So, at some point on Friday afternoon just before the rehearsal dinner my son called me. He had been staying with a friend on the mountain and while the were coming home from lunch, his buddy decided to test out his penny board on one of the steepest downhills between our old house and the lunch joint. My son recalls watching his friend take off downhill and witnessing his friend get the speed wobbles. Right at the peak of the wobbles his friend took two steps off the board at full speed. Classic rookie move. At first, Sam recalls, his friend seemed like he was going to be ok but they both underestimated what the cost of momentum would be. His friend hit the pavement face first and thankfully walked away to tell the tale with some of gnarliest road rash you’ve ever seen.
I’ve spoken on the topic of toxic momentum many times but I’ve never translated it through the lens of this memory. Speed wobbles are an image that anyone whose traveled way too fast on a skateboard can very quickly identify with.
On a retreat several years ago, a friend of mine arrived exhausted from the fray of running a non-profit out in Colorado. Not long after arriving on retreat, one of our facilitators had him on his back in the main meeting space walking him through some exercises in therapeutic breathing. Our facilitator shared with him that he was not actually breathing. She said he was panting. Over the weekend she continued to help him absorb and incorporate therapeutic breathing into his life.
Breathing is one of the most basic things we can do to settle down and combat the internal momentum that picks up when we feel threatened. Speed wobbles are the lived out expression of anxiety under pressure combined with momentum. Breathing brings oxygen to our extremities beginning with our brain.
Recently a friend described the experience of receiving the news of a friend’s suicide. My friend has, through the years, developed some high level discipline in crisis moments and easily remembers to “battle breathe” when life throws him a curve ball that spikes his hear rate. Breathing is our way back to ourselves. When our breathing pattern picks up momentum, our heart rate increases signaling to our brain and our body that we are actively being threatened. When we perceive a threat we operate from a space that is devoid of calm, compassion, curiosity, creating and connection. Typically we hear an invitation to kill or be killed…to dominate or be dominated…to become godlike.
Thankfully, our faith narrative invites us to “be still and know that I am God.” This is an invitation to pause, to take a break, to listen for what’s going on and release ourselves from the tyranny of that momentum and rest in the sovereignty of our benevolent God. That means I can learn to let go.
My life started with one breath and will end with a final breath. All of creation was formed by the very breath of God. The Palmist reminds us, "By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, And by the breath of His mouth all their host. (PSALM 33:6).
May you, wherever you find yourself getting the speed wobbles, breathe deep the breath of God. May you feel your feet settling underneath you. May God’s spirit fill your lungs and settle your soul. May you find a new pace and rhythm more in tune with the way you were made. You were not made for speed. You were made for relationship and momentum, even in good things, can be a thief to intimacy. As we breathe we reclaim and restore that which has been lost. We slow down and practice the sovereignty of God, releasing our need to be needed and having to be so busy. If we refuse then we starve our brains and bodies of the recourse it needs to stay vital and refreshed.
It's wedding season. This translates into a significant increase in the number of couples seeking pre-marriage counseling. One of my goals is to help couples recognize the need for marriage counseling in every season of their relationship.
For couples seeking marriage therapy, it can be overwhelming to know who to choose from. A healthy google search can produce counseling options of every flavor. A counselor's bio or credentials, while important for establishing professional credibility, are not always enough to satisfy our need for some additional assurance.
One third of the change you desire will occur because you just show up to therapy. Another third of the change will rest on your trust in the therapist's ability to guide and help you accomplish the change or outcome you desire. The last third rests on the arduous work you will do in and away from therapy.
Did you catch that? A significant amount of the change in your situation rests on your confidence and trust in the therapist ability to facilitate the process. That's so huge! So I am writing this guide to help you to to navigate your way into a counseling setting that best matches your specific needs and desires.
1. Dig your well before you are thirsty.
The best time to look for a therapist is when you don't need one. Getting established with a therapist you trust in non-critical moments will set the stage for feeling much more grounded in critical moments. It can also help to mitigate a crisis before one even occurs. Many of the staging grounds for a crisis come from some area of neglect in a marriage. By sitting down in those non-critical moments with a marriage therapist, you may actually be able to have those difficult conversations before they become toxic.
2. Ask around.
Google is a powerful search engine but nothing is more powerful than the referral of a trusted friend. I'd begin by asking other couples or a local pastor who they trust to work with couples. Pastors typically triage couples in crisis and wisely refer them to a trusted local marriage therapist. Unless a marriage therapist is new to town, the good ones will have a reputation that precedes them. Here are some things trusted referral sources have had to say about partnering with me...
3. One size does not fit all.
Different kinds of couples have different kinds of needs. Listening to one another's preferences prior to making an appointment will help narrow down your field of options. The wife may prefer to meet with a woman, while the husband may prefer to meet with a man. One couple may need to do some targeted work around communication while another couple may be negotiating a complex trauma or some level of marital infidelity.
4. You don't have to hit bullseye on the first throw.
When you are looking for a marriage therapist there can be a lot of unnecessary pressure to choose the right one on the first visit. We would not walk onto a car lot and buy the first car we see. Why would we trust our most vital earthly relationship with the first visit?
Don't get me wrong, many people do actually find a good therapist on their first visit (after google searching, asking around, discussing therapy needs and goals with their spouse, scheduling an appointment and making the journey across town to their first appointment). It can be done but that is not necessarily the goal.
Sometimes meeting with the "wrong therapist" can set you up to clarify what you really are looking for and needing. Sometimes you know right away if it is a good fit. Other times it may take a couple sessions. Don't be discouraged if you go to three sessions and discern its not the best fit. This is all part of the process of your growth. Meeting with the "wrong therapist" can help you become even more clear about you need. That is growth!
5. Good chemistry matters.
You read earlier that nearly one third of the change you are seeking leans heavily on your trust in the therapist's ability to facilitate your process. This trust includes good chemistry between the two of you. Like any relationship, there will need to be a runway of time together for trust to form and rapport to develop. For some, that first one hour appointment will be enough. For others it may take a little more time.
Three attributes that make all the difference in helping cultivate the rapport that is needed will be the warmth, curiosity and empathy demonstrated by your therapist toward you. While therapy is not designed to always make you feel better, you should experience a growing sense of safety and rapport with your therapist as you begin facing aspects of ourselves that stir up fear, shame, regret, grief, hurt, loneliness and sadness.
What has been helpful for you?
Everything I need to know about launching a brand, I learned in middle school art class and Young Life...
Meet my 7th grade art teacher, Mr. (Ed) Obermeyer. For fun away from the classroom, he shaped and air brushed surfboards for WRV (Wave Riding Vehicles). He drove a sweet dark gray Toyota pickup truck with surf racks with his board/s on top and wetsuits locked up in the bed of the truck that had a shell on it. Half-way through the school year he gave me a huge stash of his old Surfer Magazines to keep. Who knows how many times I poured through those magazines. Mr. O loved teaching art. And he was good at it!
I'm pretty convinced that almost everything I learned about building a brand I learned in that middle school art class. One of my favorite art projects was to design our own brand of cereal. That required peeling apart an old cereal box and studying everything about the box, the coloration, the logo and the hook trying to reel you in as a consumer.
My enthusiasm for this particular project left me shuddering with excitement. Just by peeling back the glued down tabs of a cereal box, Mr. O ushered me into a world that I did not even know existed. It was like being invited into Narnia through the wardrobe.
A few years later, in college, I woke up again to the idea that I could be more creative with the manner in which I approached life beyond college. So many dimensions of my volunteer work with Young Life engaged so many dimensions of who I am and how I am made.
One of my favorite roles on our team apart from actually hanging out with high school folks, was making the Club flyer. Club was a gathering of high school folks that mirrored the set of Saturday Night Live. Every week was a different theme so every week I made a different flyer. Growing up I drew all kinds of cartoons and so I incorporated cartoons into every flyer...for the next decade.
Along the way, I learned to peel back the box tabs of my life, to imagine what images would capture the fleeting attention of my high school friends and allow them to feel absolutely wanted and welcome to come to Club every week. Thankfully Young Life is not a program driven organization, it's relationally driven. So, that much more care went into crafting this half sheet of paper than probably was ever necessary.
In many ways, it's like the PB&J that my mom used to make for me. The actual sandwich was not much different than the next PB&J...except for the little slice of love that my mom included. My hope has always been to evoke that same kind of personal touch in my work whether as a Lifeguard, Young Life leader, teaching swim lessons, serving as a Youth Pastor, or most recently as a licensed counselor.
The last six years have been marked by my work with Elbow Tree in Chattanooga, TN. So much of our brand is personal touch. From the time a potential client interacts with Elbow Tree, they are interacting with the actual therapist, not a front office. That personal touch, or little slice of love, is what we want folks to experience from the moment they reach out to take such a brave step to get the help they are looking for.
So, not only do we glad assume the role of Counselor but we each embrace the many roles we play as entrepreneur, community builder, brand strategist, marketing team, accounting department, janitorial service, landscaper, interior designer, barista...did I mention counselor? It's not a burden to wear so many hats. In fact, it is what keeps things fresh and in touch with what it going on. This blog wrote itself while I was sitting in the car line waiting on my daughter on her first day of school.
In this season of conceptualizing a new business, I am learning so much about the world of small business. For the last six years I built a solid counseling practice under the umbrella of an existing practice designed that my friend built before my very eyes. To weave into that mix was relatively seamless. It was predictably stressful to cultivate a new client base but it was thrilling to have the freedom to focus on the client development without having to build a practice from the ground up. It was riddled with risk but my friend carried the lions share of burden for the day to day liability of that practice.
This summer I have loved getting my hands dirty with creating the infrastructures for what will hopefully become a flourishing counseling practice. Already I've been contacted by a number of interested professionals curious about how to become more formally involved with Elbow Tree here in a Saint Augustine. That is really exciting.
A few minutes ago I stopped by my new office that is being renovated near downtown and I picked up some mail that had come in. It blows my mind that mail, addressed to Elbow Tree, is arriving in Florida. In today's mail was the code for officially verifying my business with Google so my business is discoverable. Again, it just blows my mind.
So as this new venture prepares to launch soon I will continue to write about the adventure of business ownership as it collides with matters of the inner life. What does business ownership or entrepreneurship have to do with the inner life? Everything. There are all sorts of interior feelings and experiences to make sense of and listen to. Not to mention the anxiety of others who Ar for my flourishing and equally as afraid it will fail.
As I look up from writing this blog (mostly on my phone in the notes), I see my daughter coming over to get in the car after her first day as a student in the middle school Arts Academy at her new school here in Saint Augustine. It's wonderful to be able to sit with my daughter in this moment and celebrate how she is being formed and imagine how the pain and awkwardness of today is preparing her for leading a brand of her own someday. I can't wait to hear about her art teacher, and all the many cereal boxes she too will get to peel back and explore this year. What a thrill for her to be invited into a whole new world of discovery as she even articulated in the car to me yesterday...on her own..."Dad, I'm pretty sure that between my art class and my digital design class, that I will be able to launch my own business someday."
She sees it...and this only confirms again...everything I learned about building a new brand, I leaned in middle school and Young Life.
One of the many beautiful waves by my 7th grade art teacher, Mr. Ed Obermeyer.
On the morning of July 15th, I received a call that my young friend, Harrison Stokes Smith, had been tragically killed in a Sea Doo accident in Texas. This is a 22 year old young man who I've known for over 11 years as his small group leader. He was one of 25-30 young men who I walked with closely for seven straight years with no finish line in sight. Harrison had just recently graduated from Texas Christian University.
So, I let it hit me. For a solid hour, emotional gail force winds pounded on the frame of my heart. And I wept. That's what you do when life meets you on life's terms. On the losing end, we grieve. To not grieve is to deny the way I am made.
Then, when the shock subsided some, I started reaching out one by one to the other 25-30 young men in our group. One at a time, we called them and tenderly asked if they had heard the news about our friend Harry.
Most had heard. Some had not. It did not matter. Shock seemed to be the shared experience regardless.
The remainder of that week was dedicated to closing the loop on making sure everyone in our group had heard the news. When we had a game plan in place, we invited everyone to a D-group dinner on Friday night, just to be together, to remember our dear friend, to cry and laugh, to drink a cold beer or two in his honor, and to simply sit with one another in the awkward but honest reality that Harrison would have loved being there in our midst.
It was a sweet night celebrating our dear friend. Just a couple hours prior to the get together on Friday, I felt the strong nudge to write Harrison a letter. So that's what I did. It was a gift to be able to organize some words that could help to integrate my head and heart. Words poured onto the page. So did my tears.
Later that night, 20 guys from our D-Group showed up with a little bit of beer and whole bunch of stories. We ate huge steaks cooked to perfection. It was a tender time as we circled up like we had done for seven years together.
It's funny. Circles have a way of opening doors for intimacy in ways that sitting in rows could never accomplish. This particular circle represents our shared story...one that had accumulated some relational distance over the four years that guys had headed off to schools all over the country.
So, we showed up and we ate. We laughed. We cried. And we cried some more. That's what you do when you lose a friend like Harry.
And then, I read the guys my letter to Harrison. It was so good to have those thoughts right there on paper to guide our hearts into a place of particular sensitivity. We prayed together for a while and we honored our tears with more honesty.
Then we met up with a few more of Harrison's friends, some who are local and some who are from Texas. It was holy ground.
As one of Harrison's Discipleship Group leaders, I was asked to say a few words at his Celebration of Life service on behalf of our group. It occurred to me that maybe I should just read my letter. So I did.
Before the service, guys from our group rolled in. 25 of them ended up being able to join us while others expressed they would be joining us in spirit from wherever they were on the planet.
I gathered some thoughts in a journal to help shine some light on the legacy of Discipleship Groups at Signal Mountain Presbyterian.
So, I created a runway for the letter and then I read it.
I recall feeling so relaxed and so clear. I was grateful for my notes but the words flowed almost effortlessly. Maybe thats what happens when you really own them for yourself. That happens to me sometimes. After I've meditated on an idea, I find that I can leave my notes (not abandon them) and be so distinctly present. It's as if my head and heart find agreement and my words become an intersection as well as evidence of their connection.
I also remember being grateful for John Wilson's hand on my shoulder as his gentle affirmation.
That's just like John though. He's there.
And so I read...and I read...
In a little over an hour, a group of your friends will be gathering...again. Most of these guys have not been gathered like this with one another in over four years. Get this, we are meeting for an expensive steak dinner at Griffin Moon’s house tonight. No, not his parent’s house. You read that right...Griff’s house. The house where he will bring his soon-to-be wife home where they will begin to build a family. Just crafting those words reminds my head and heart again of the stabbing pain of your absence among us right now and in the days ahead. There are 24 steaks marinating that J-Dub (John Wilson) will be working his grill master magic on...and this time, our D-group does not have to show up to some random semi-disguised “Man Day” at my house to help me rake old wet leaves or mulch my never ending flower beds, in order to get one delicious steak. Oh, and this time we are also drinking cold beer. Eleven years ago, who could have imagined such a gathering as this? My heart could not have stood to know this kind of pain. It can’t stand it now. And now, here we are. Grown. Grieving. Gathered without the man we’ve come to know and love as our beloved brother, “Harry.” As adults, we leave home for new adventures which means we leave friends. We leave our families. As we enter into these new spaces and places, we find room there for brand new friendships. We take the risk of being known. For many of us, it can feel like a fresh start. For others, it is agonizing. Eventually we do find a home in many of these new faces and places. And they find a home in us. Just like you did when you moved here to us on Signal Mountain from Texas when you were 11. That was half your life ago. Do you want to feel old, Harry? My daughter was only a newborn then. She’s a 12 year old 7th grader now. About your age when we met you. To most of us, it was as if you had always been here with us among. You fit in without such ease. But for you, your arrival was probably a lonely time that was soon met with a great big invitation into some very special friendships that have endured. Good grief Harry, 25 or more of us have traveled across the country this weekend and back to the mountain to be with you again...to be together again....because we love you. Because you lived as a man who is deeply loved by God. And you treated everyone as though they were deeply loved. And because we have been those lucky enough to have been loved BY you. So, tonight we’ll remember through our tears and laughter how you showed us Jesus - so naturally, so fiercely and so authentically. We’ll be silent for a moment to listen, for God’s voice reminding us that though we we are still here and you are now closer to Jesus than we could ever dream or imagine, we will confess our grief as honestly as we are able. And we will confess our hope as vulnerably as we are able. And we will confess our envy...yes our envy...that you are with the One whose heart you imaged to us...over and over and over again. May we each know for ourselves the passage of scripture your life so richly demonstrated...
“My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:14-19 MSG).
After Jesus died, he rallied the disciples back together for one final meal with them. He cooked it over a fire and he reminded them of how deeply loved they are. May we be reminded again by Jesus, at your invitation, to hear Jesus asking us...”Do you love me?” Which we know is just one of those special ways that Jesus is also reminding us that we too are dearly loved men.
We love you Harrison Stokes Smith! We’ve treasured the time.
Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church
Disciple Group Class of 2013
John Wilson has been a D-group leader longer than anyone at our church. He's rounding 27 or 28 years. No matter what, he shows up.. Every single week. I've not met a more loyal man when it comes to caring for young men so selflessly. To have a John Wilson in your life is most certainly to to be rich in friendship.
After I read the letter, John candidly captured many of the snapshots of our friend Harry. Our D-group spoke of his humor, his intelligence, creativity, courage, loyalty and conviction. Guys pointed at the sturdiness of his character.
What an honor to stand before so many who love Harrison and his family, to be a mouthpiece for those who have known and loved him the most.
May we be marked by your legacy, Harrison.
Father & Son trip to Pioneer Plunge
Harrison is pictured left center with a walking stick
with an arm around his dad, Stokes Smith, in the yellow shirt.
I've been back in our former home town of Chattanooga this weekend officiating the wedding of some dear friends, Austin and Kiersten Noonan. Such a sweet weekend on Signal Mountain, traveling up with my son Sam who has enjoyed spending time with his friends while I have attended to wedding stuff. I've never officiated a Sunday morning wedding but this morning was absolutely glorious. To walk with a young couple into what they sense God is preparing for them as a husband and wife is massively life giving. And to stand before their community to speak into an ordinary and very common service, one made extraordinary by God's loving presence among us. Austin and Kiersten shared their first communion as husband and wife right in our midst. Over breakfast a couple days before the wedding, Kiersten shared with me that to offer a woman a glass of wine in Jesus' culture was to invite her to become your bride. We hovered over this idea together, discussing how controversial it must have been for Jesus to invite his disciples to be his bride...grown men! What an invitation into vulnerability and risk. What an enduring image of being invited to be one with him. So this common cup and this common bread fed my dear friends and then we worshipped. Oh, how we worshipped. The band, As Issac, led us into a thin space near to the heart of God. Never have I had an actual bride sing so heavenly standing right there in front of me just a few feet away. And then back to this cup, and this bread...bread that in order to be made was a grain that had to be crushed...and a grape, that in order to become wine, had to be stomped. This image of brokenness is a brutal one. It was the place of extreme torture, humiliation, vulnerability, and nakedness...and it was and is our rescue from enslavement, bondage and shame. To take this common cup is to embrace an uncommon sacrifice, one that could only flow from the heart of a good Father. Standing as the officiant witnessing the flow of a wedding day is among my favorites, and I am grateful for a few minutes to reflect back some of the goodness I witnessed with my own eyes and ears.
Jill Rowe, Director of Ethos and Formation at Oasis in the UK (fast forward to 8:00)
Recently, I have been listening to an amazing podcast...over and over. Not one podcast "stream," but one specific solitary podcast. And it just keeps sinking in deeper and deeper.
A foundation in the United Kingdom called OASIS has become intimately involved with the public school systems. On their website, they explain, "Oasis has a radical and genuinely distinctive vision of community, seeking to reconnect people to each other and to the services they need. In the UK, Oasis works across 35 hubs. We are the second largest multi-academy trust in the UK, with 47 schools serving 25,000 children and their families."
Oasis is also unapologetically Christian. As a result of their involvement, schools and the communities they serve are transforming from the inside out all over the country. Their reputation is spreading with great favor as they employ and celebrate people of a wide variety of ethnicities and faith backgrounds as both teachers and administrators.
I have loved listening to Jill Rowe, "Ethos and Formation Director" at Oasis, describe the ethos and values of her organization. She candidly describes meeting with brand new schools who are coming under the care of OASIS for the first time. In these early moments of transition, she gathers the faculty and administrators together to begin sharing the contagious heartbeat of Oasis. She is also very up front about Oasis being uniquely Christian in its theology. Knowing there will be fears and concerns, she makes plenty of room for spending time for individual conversations that need to take place.
The more I hear Jill's heartbeat, I can not help but see the dynamic parallel between Oasis and Elbow Tree. We, too, hope to enter into our work from a shared theology that does not impose itself on clients but shows up in the way we live out what we believe.
"We act out of what we believe…and what I believe, I will eventually live out." -Jill Rowe
Jill Rowe breaks down five core theological beliefs of OASIS along with their invitation to teachers and administrations to partner with them in living these out in the classroom. Each core belief is paired with a practical lived expression to be lived out and modeled among students, teachers, and the administration
Here are the five core beliefs and lived out expressions:
So, what does any of this have to do with our small mom and pop counseling shops in Chattanooga and Saint Augustine?
We are committed to building an ethos of trust. That does not happen overnight. In Chattanooga, that has looked like decades of relationship building. Elbow Tree has become a trusted ally to the community as we routinely are sought after to speak, offer critical incident response with banks and the local police department, partnering with the counseling department at nationally renown boarding schools, and serving churches and non-profits locally and all around the country.
As we open our doors in Saint Augustine in the next month, we want to build relationships first and partner only when it makes great sense to us both. If you have any questions about anything you've read here or seen on the sight, don't hesitate to reach out and email Hayne at email@example.com.
Let's get a cup of coffee soon. My treat.
Elbow Tree Christian Counseling