Reflections for the inner life.
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.
Audio and Video: Celebration of Life service for Harrison Stokes Smith
To hear this letter read by Hayne Steen followed by some thoughts from John Wilson, scroll to the 30:50 mark in the audio recording provided above..