The Art of Remembrance

We are born time travelers. The earth spins and we hurtle through the years. We breathe, act, decide, love, and create. We do all of it in the present. That’s all we have. Today only comes around once, so we experience life as it comes, each moment precious and brief.

In this way, we travel through time, moment built upon moment. But the journey of life is much richer than the simple now. The quality of our sojourning, at least in part, is rooted in our ability to embrace the art of remembrance. For we arrive to the present laden with hearts full of memory waiting to give meaning to our days.

Remembering is often so hard. For a long time I chose to forget. Several years ago I discovered that my default orientation to pain and suffering is to run faster into the future while actively forgetting the past. For a while this worked. I lived, created, built relationships and a life. I didn’t know it then, but I did all of that with half a heart. The half that could feel deeply, experience true joy, true agony, no longer worked. In the forgetting, in the numbing I learned to survive. I forgot how to live.

Everything changed when a friend and mentor asked me a simple question. “What’s your story?” he asked. I began relaying my list of achievements and simple facts about where I was from, places I had lived, jobs I had. When we got to the part of my story where I was a soldier in a war he paused and said, “Tell me more about that. What happened to you there?” I didn’t know what he meant and I stumbled through an answer. In that question my friend invited me on a journey of learning to remember.

One of the things I have learned on this journey is the significance of set aside remembering days. Sometimes we need time to slow down so that the space between the past and present is suddenly thin. On these days, the mundane activities of life fade into the background as the beauty, pain, images, people, events, and feelings of yesterday take center stage. I have grown to both cherish and dread these remembering days. When I slow down and remember, my heart awakens to real things and I feel deeply once again. I feel joy and sorrow rushing into my numbed consciousness and I know that I am alive. I look forward to the joy, remembering little things about someone I loved – a favorite phrase, a smile, the goodness of their presence. At nearly the same instance I feel the jolting dagger of sorrow piercing deeply into flesh and soul, for the life lost, the things left undone, the things that will not be.

This weekend is a remembering day for me. For most of the eighteen years that have passed since I returned from war I paid no attention to Memorial Day. It was just another blur in the racetrack of my movement forward. But then my friend invited me on a journey of story and remembrance. So in these last few years I choose to slow down, and become a time traveler once again. I pull out pictures. I sit on my porch and read their names. I tell my loved ones this part of my story. I tell their stories. For a moment I let myself feel the real sorrow and joy that I shoved down into the recesses of my soul for so long. On my day of remembrance, my friends are with me again even if for a moment and then they leave once again. But they leave me a little more whole. For when the remembering brings a rush of life it heals me a little more each time. I’m less afraid of pain and more weary of returning to a life without feeling.

So this weekend I raise a glass to my friends who left too soon. You are not forgotten. And your memory still brings me life. Until we meet again dear ones, I’ll keep traveling back to see you.

Passenger Parenting

You never see the big moments coming. Life kind of just moves and then suddenly something changes. In those moments you realize that the categories you held close, the ones that made sense of things, no longer apply.

I had one of those life moving, category shifting moments a few weeks ago. I should have seen it coming. She was obviously changing and growing. The girl was fading, the woman becoming. I overheard her talking while in her online driver’s education course. I listened as she recounted her first harrowing experience on the freeway with a stranger, a driving instructor in the passenger seat. I saw the learner’s permit she now carries in the back of her pink phone case. All of this should have clued me in that big things were changing. They didn’t. My category for my daughter simply couldn’t hold them. She is my little girl. I take her places. She needs me to navigate the world. She needs me to cut the edges off of her peanut butter and jelly. How could she be old enough to drive?

And then it happened. She climbed into the driver’s seat. I slid into the passenger’s seat. We buckled up. I gripped the handle next to the door made for parent’s in this very situation. My knuckles were white I think. She asked, “Daddy are you okay?” “I will be.” I replied. She pulled out onto the road and right then it hit me, “Things are different now.” It’s not just that she’s learning to drive. She’s learning to leave. And that’s a beautiful and gut wrenching thing all at once. 

The other significant thing that I realized is that I’m the passenger now. In the car and in life, she’s behind the wheel. Her feet are on the pedals. She’s making big decisions, where to turn, how fast to go, and when to stop. I’m along for the ride. I don’t have any pedals. All I have is my voice and my presence. In the car I’m learning that calm, gentle, guidance is the way to sit in my new seat. “You might want to think about slowing down now.” I hear myself saying. She glances at me, a little smile, nervous eyes shoot my way and then back on the road. I’m still in the car. She needs me there. But I have to let her drive.

This sudden realization that my little girl is the driver and I the passenger blew apart my categories of parent and child. With shocking clarity I had the epiphany that my orientation to being her Dad needed to mirror my role in her training to drive.

There are three principles I’m trying hard to remember right now:

  1. My best posture is as a non-anxious presence. Be in the car.
  2. My time in this seat is short. One day soon she will drive off without me. This time is a gift.
  3. Encourage more than I criticize. She needs to borrow my courage right now.

I’ll admit that sliding into the passenger seat in her life still doesn’t feel right sometimes. She talks about her day, the people she knows, the things she is doing, and I want to grab the wheel. Sometimes I still do but I’m learning to let go and just be there. In the car and in life.

The Where of Leadership

I have taken many courses on leadership. Most of these learning experiences focused on the “how” questions – how to navigate conflict, how to plan, and how to inspire others. None of those courses ever had anything to say about the “Where” of leadership.

The “where” is a significant factor in the leadership task. The places we do life don’t merely contain the important conversations and interactions, they shape them.

When I was a Cadet at West Point I had the privilege of learning leadership from Army officers who served as professors but had decades of experience leading soldiers in the real world. When I think about the importance of “where” in the leader task, two very different conversations with two very different professors come to mind.

One older Colonel, the head of my department, always met with me in his office. He sat in a leather, high-back swivel chair behind a large, oak desk. He insisted that I stand while he addressed me. Needless to say my predominant emotion in those interactions was fear. The space, a cold professional, controlled environment, marked by intimidating furniture and an intimidating personality behind the desk, shaped the conversations that happened there.

The same week I stood fearfully in the Colonel’s office another professor, an Infantry Captain who taught military history, invited me to lunch. He wanted to talk about my recent paper, which as I remember, wasn’t very good. He took me to the officers club, bought my lunch and we sat at a table and talked. The shared experience of a meal, sitting eye to eye created the possibility for a different sort of conversation. The Captain had much more influence with me than the Colonel.

Sometimes the swivel chair and the desk is the appropriate space for particular conversations with people we lead.

More often the lunch table is a more productive leadership space.

How intentionally have you thought about the “where” of your leadership? How do the spaces you choose to have conversations, make decisions and plan shape your work and your relationships?

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Dog in the Glass

 

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I have a little, black toy poodle. His name is Bokkie. This morning Bokkie discovered his reflection in the glass doors of my office. He saw a black toy poodle moving back and forth in the panes and didn’t like it. He saw himself and it made him growl and bark.

Bokkie’s adventure in the glass reminded me of some of my less pleasant moments with people. Like Bokkie I too see myself in the words and actions of those around me. Their words often trigger something deeper in my story, something I don’t like about myself or some memory that causes me not to like myself. Like Bokkie I am unsettled and sometimes respond with loud barking.

This happens most often with my wife. The other day she made a comment. Her words were benign, something like “Have you finished your expense report?” And for some reason her question triggered something in me and I “barked” at her. Now I realize that I was barking at myself. I hadn’t looked at my expense report and knew that I should have. In that moment I saw the Gabe I didn’t like in her words. I saw the Gabe that doesn’t live up to my standard. I saw the Gabe that isn’t as diligent as I would like to be. And in her words I heard the lie, “See you are pretty worthless. You can’t even get an expense report done on time.” Those weren’t her words. She loves me. She was asking about my work because she wants to help me. She is my best friend, the one who knows me the best and yet I responded with barking. And my barking wounded her.

Today I hope to have more self awareness than my dog.

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Fears Over Forty

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I am forty years old. I have many friends who are also forty years old. One thing that I find we have in common is an increasing desire to for our days to count for something of value. Forty is an interesting age. In some ways I still feel the energy of my youth. I still have the desire to compete, to spend myself for something worthy. I still possess a youthful optimism that the best is yet to come.

I also feel the creaking of my bones when I wake up. The glasses that hang, usually a bit skewed on my face remind me that my vision isn’t what it used to be. At forty I know the wisdom of numbering my days.

Like any season of life, this one is marked by certain hopes and certain fears. The hope is that I haven’t wasted my life, that my days have counted for something of worth and that there are still days ahead where things might even make more sense. There is hope that my mistakes haven’t been fatal, that I will still grow and improve and become what I am meant to be.

And then there are the fears. This morning I realized that I live with two levels of fear. On one level I fear not making enough money, losing the bit of material stability that I have. I fear losing influence and relationships. I fear a life of mediocrity. These are fears rooted in one story, a liturgy if you will, of the world. This story says that becoming is about being valuable – relationally, financially, vocationally. In this narrative I earn my value through the sweat of my brow. I win in relationships when my goodness outweighs my brokenness. This story exhausts me. In this story I can never win. In this story I can never be certain of my value because it’s determination is subjective and comparative in nature.

I also live with a second level of fear. On this level I fear living on the surface, giving into the liturgy of the first story. I fear living without courage and faith. I fear taking the easy road. I fear making decisions that make life comfortable but lifeless. I fear not fully drinking in the joy and peace offered without measure. I think these are good and helpful fears. These fears are also rooted in a story. This is the true story of the world. This story tells me that I am the beloved. This story says that I am made to live full life marked by a reckless faith, trusting that even my pain makes sense in the long run and is leading to something beautiful and whole. This story always says that the best is definitely yet to come, that I was called valuable before I ever did anything. In this story I am free to dream and explore and trust. This story is exhilarating.

Today I see the two stories and their promises and fears. Today I choose the second story. I choose a life of faith. I choose to believe that I’m beloved. I choose to believe that joy and peace aren’t a product of my circumstances rather they free gifts that are mine for the taking. And I choose to believe that my best days are yet to come and that my best will come not out of a clawing and grasping for meaning and value but from a deeply settled sense that I am chosen, loved, forgiven, and blessed by the King who is good and who will one day make all things new.

The Beauty and Pain of Forgetfulness

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To be human is to be forgetful. We forget more than we remember. Think about it. In the last year every one of us lived 8,760 hours. How many do we remember? Each day we speak thousands of words. How many do we remember? Over the course of our lifetime we watch thousands of television shows, listen to thousands of podcasts, speeches, and participate in countless conversations. How many do we remember?

In some ways forgetfulness is painful. As we age we forget where we put our keys, what we had for breakfast and eventually events and people of greater significance. We forget birthdays, names, the sound of loved ones voices after they walk the earth no more. We also forget the beautiful things we are privileged to experience. We forget blessing. We forget the gifts we are given. This forgetfulness is part of our brokenness and weakness. It disempowers and shames us. We wish that it weren’t so but it is.

And yet in other ways forgetfulness is a gift. We forget many of the wrongs done to us, allowing once acute pain to dissipate into distant memory. We also forget how ugly we were to others, the harshness of our words, the intensity of our hatred and so we are able to move on. Forgetfulness allows us to be forgiven and to forgive. This is a divine quality for he who made us chooses to remember our sin no more. Perhaps we do not possess the same power of volitional forgetfulness, but it empowers love for others all the same. Forgetfulness is gift.

This human quality of fading memory is blessing and curse. Like an anchor our memory steadies us when we need hope in the midst of raging swells our lives inevitably bring. And like an anchor pulled onto the deck in calmer waters our forgetfulness allows us to shove off and continue course towards new destinations.

Let us lament the curse and mourn our low estate. Let us celebrate the blessing and revel in the glory that our past does not always dictate our present. And let us keep moving towards the distant shore where memory will lead to thankfulness and the shadows of glory we once saw in part give way to the fullness of glory without end.

**(Painting: Sea of Forgetfulness by Missy Borden. Located at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/sea-of-forgetfulness-missy-borden.html)

Next Things

(Picking out our first live Christmas tree in 7 years)

The frost of winter is fading. This is a statement full of meaning for the Smith family as we enter this new season of life and ministry. As the new tulips break through the hardened, dark dirt on the edges of our lawn in South Carolina, new opportunities and vision are also breaking through the newly turned over soil of our lives.

The three months of sabbatical provided a space for our fields to lie fallow, for pruning lifeless areas and for new things to be nurtured. The fallow field is a metaphor for a place of rest. In the ancient days the Lord instructed the forefathers of our faith to “let the land lie unplowed and unused” every seventh year (Exodus 23:11). This was a discipline of sabbath rest, a place to do the uncomfortable thing of not working the resources entrusted to their care. The seventh year was an invitation to a sort of wholistic rest that precipitates life.

The sabbatical in our seventh year since beginning the work of East Mountain was a place of wholistic rest. During this time we intentionally set aside the work of doing ministry, building Christian community and making disciples. In the absence of these activities some of the things that needed pruning were given space to fall away. One of these things was the lie that our ultimate value is in what we can do for God. This year we wrestled with the theme of identity, realizing that too often we have connected our worth as people to the work entrusted to us. In the ninety days of sabbatical we were forced to face who we are without our titles, positions in organizations, and places to use our giftedness outside of the home. What we discovered is that we are deeply loved by our Father in Heaven who calls us his beloved. What an incredible joy it is to discover that despite all of our shortcomings we are his beloved, chosen by him and invited to be part of program for the world!

This theme of letting dead things die and allowing new things to be sown in our lives took on different meaning for each of us. I (Gabe) was confronted with my propensity to feel responsible for everything and everyone. This soul killing belief had too often governed my decisions and motivated my actions, leaving me drained and apathetic. For Janet it was letting go of the idea that she needed to be a stay at home Mom to be a faithful Christian wife. For Madeline it was a painful process of mourning the departure from South Africa, the place she considered her home.

On the other side of the letting go and leaving we discovered new life.

(Our farewell committee from East Mountain the day we left South Africa)

I (Gabe) am growing increasingly confident and excited about my giftedness as a visionary leader made to build innovative, disciple-making Christian communities. Janet has embraced a new opportunity to start a business and is finding a big, new life in the marketplace where she is learning that she is really good at marketing, sales and motivating others on her team. Madeline has made four new friends at school and is finding new freedom as a creative person designing her daily outfits at her new school (no more uniforms!).

We are filled with incredible amounts of gratitude as we contemplate your generosity and steadfast partnership for the Gospel that enabled us to take this sabbatical time. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

So what’s next?

When we went on sabbatical we went with the idea that the Lord may be calling us to lay down the work of East Mountain permanently. We hoped that wasn’t the case, but also realized that we must be open to that reality. To our great surprise and joy what we discovered upon our return were multiple requests from all over the world from people and organizations interested in starting new East Mountain communities. There is too much to share in one letter, but in short we are in conversations with leaders in Australia, Germany, Thailand, Scotland and India as they build or consider building an East Mountain Community in their context. I just returned from a two week trip to South Africa where I spent time with our two East Mountain communities there and to helped teach twenty or so pastors in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape.

Why East Mountain?

You may be wondering why folks are interested in joining the East Mountain movement. The easy answer is that the Lord is on the move and East Mountain Communities are part of his work to make all things new. The more complex answer is that people are longing for authentic Christian community where they are invited to be known, loved and given a place to use their giftedness in a common work of discipling others.

The East Mountain way is to build an authentic relational space where members are called to love God and neighbor as they find a rhythm of their life together, pursuing intentional relationships and living according to a common rule. The community seeks to partner with others for wholistic Kingdom mission, engaging in intentional relationships with church, non-profit, business and school leaders to ask the question, “How can we help?”. The community works with, and through, these partnerships to craft discipleship and leadership development pathways that make sense in the particular context.

(The East Mountain UK Community on retreat)

In the pilot community in South Africa, we started a year long residency, a six week summer internship, and several theological cohort models. As we engage with leaders interested in East Mountain, we are learning that our language of community, partnership, discipleship, and leadership development resonates with what people have already been contemplating.

What part does our family play?

I (Gabe) see very clearly that my role is to continue to envision, equip, and encourage leaders with a particular emphasis on those starting new East Mountain communities. This kind of work gives me energy and joy as I see other leaders move into their giftedness. What a joy it is to invest in a few who are investing in many.

We also see very clearly that the Lord has equipped us to start a new community here in the Greenville area. We will be sharing more about that vision soon so look out for our next letter!

Janet will also keep growing her business to supplement our income and explore a new entrepreneurial passion. In the meantime, we will continue to depend on the support of our friends who have chosen to partner with us in this amazing work for the Kingdom.

And last but certainly not least, Madeline can’t wait to finally finish the fifth grade and enjoy her first American summer vacation.

How can I be a part of what’s going on?

(With pastors in the rural Eastern Cape of South Africa with West Point classmate and friend Erik Borggren after leading a weekend theology intensive last month)

Pray:

On sabbatical, we saw the viciousness of the forces of darkness that want to discourage and destroy us. We also experienced the incredible power of prayer. Prayer is the space where the temporary meets the eternal, the mundane the divine, the terrestrial the heavenly. We are desperate for people who will commit to praying with us and for us each week. To facilitate this serious Kingdom work we have set up a place to sign up to be a prayer partner. If you are willing to serve in this way, we ask that you commit to praying for us and the work of East Mountain at a designated time each week. You can expect to receive a special weekly email detailing prayer needs and invited to a monthly webinar prayer service online. You can register here to serve in this capacity. (https://goo.gl/forms/xhtfJjBXuGtZ3Q4D2)

Give:

This kind of edge of the Kingdom, global work is necessarily funded by generous Christians who see it as part of their calling to commit to radical giving so that leaders all around the world can be properly discipled, envisioned and launched to build the church. Right now we have a BIG fundraising goal of finding families or individuals who can commit to giving in the following amounts for the next year:

  • Five Givers @ $500 per month or $6,000 per year
  • Ten Givers @ $200 per month or $2,400 per year
  • Twenty Givers @ $100 per month or $1,200 per year
  • Forty Givers @ $50 per month or $600 per year
  • Sixty Givers @ $25 per month or $300 per year

If we can successfully find and partner with these 135 Givers we would:

  • Personally be 100% funded for the year. A tremendous stress relief!
  • Be able to seed fund 2 new East Mountain Communities.
  • Be able to personally encourage, envision and equip leaders on 5 continents.
  • Be able to offer scholarships to deserving young leaders from some of the world’s poorest communities to attend East Mountain residency.

If you would like to either become a Giver or increase your current gift, please visit our donation site by clicking here

Much Love,

Gabe, Janet and Madeline

Reimagine the Statues

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My great, great, great grandfather was James Augustus Whitley, a Sergeant in the Confederate Army and a tobacco farm owner who no doubt benefited from the use of slave labor. I still have the desk that he built, his eyeglasses and his change purse. These few artifacts of his life arranged neatly in a corner of my childhood home served as a kind of historical marker, silently memorializing him, celebrating his heroism in the war, and reminding me that his story is a part of my own.

As I think about that desk I am reminded that history matters.

In our postmodern context we are want to believe that history doesn’t matter. We are gripped by the fantasy that we are pure masters of our own fate, disconnected and free to make choices and write the narrative we imagine for our lives independent of the stories that carried us into the present.

This kind of thinking isn’t helpful. Our lives, our culture, and our realities are intricately connected to the choices, ways of thinking, successes and sins of those who came before us. The contexts in which we live our lives are shaped by the forces of history.

I am a son of North Carolina, the progeny of people who believed that the color of a person’s skin determined their worth. This is a part of my heritage. It’s my past but it’s not my future.

Next month I am moving back to South Carolina from South Africa, where I have lived for over five years giving my life to see the next generation of African leaders empowered to make a difference in the world. My friends will help me carry James Augustus’ desk from my parents home into mine. I will not destroy the desk. Instead I will reimagine it. I will set it in a corner and fill it with pictures of my African friends. The faces of Luthando, Obedience, Phumelele, Joel, Noah, Lindiwe, Marlyn, and many others will stare at us from the darkly stained pine. Then when my young daughter remembers the story of her past she will see it more fully. She will know that James Augustus fought bravely. She will know that he was part of oppressing African people. And she will never remember that desk without also remembering the love for her friends. She will know what redemption looks like.

I wonder if this little desk re-imagination project could inform the current conversation regarding the statues in the South. What if the best way forward isn’t to tear down the statues, but to reimagine them? What if we invested the same energy used to destroy, to empower African-American artists to create visual art that does not forget the past but tells a more complete story?

Redemption is always about creating beauty from the ashes. History matters but the present matters more. We are responsible for writing the history that our children will remember for generations to come. Our present is their history. Let it be a history they can be proud of.

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The Smartphone Conundrum

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Last month I let my nine year old borrow my smart phone. She dropped it on an asphalt road, cracking the screen. A few weeks later I sealed my phone’s fate when I inadvertently stepped on it, expanding the original imperfection into a spider web of cracks. I remember the moment I realized that my phone was gone. I felt sick to my stomach, frustrated and even a little angry. Later that night as I lay in bed I caught myself reaching for my phone to scroll through the latest Facebook update. The addiction was deep.

Over the next week there were hundreds of other moments where I felt the urge to grab my phone. On one level I just missed the convenience that my smart phone provided. Google Maps kept me from getting lost (most of the time anyway). Facebook, Instagram, Podcast Addict, Kindle, and the BBC gave me an easy exit from reality in the moments that were either too boring or too painful to engage. What’s App, texting and Facebook messenger ensured that I didn’t go too deep with people too often.

The move away from convenience was annoying but what truly disturbed me was the rising sense of angst, impatience and entitlement festering in my soul. I longed for my phone and somehow I became increasingly aware that this sort of desire shouldn’t be fed. So here I am, still considering whether I should buy a new smart phone or dust off the old brick sitting in my drawer.

As I write the words the absurdity of that proposition sets in and I know that the smart phone needs to go but I’m also a little afraid of what life will look like without it.

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Need Hope? Forget Yourself and Remember.

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We live in a culture that elevates our experience as the ultimate measure of truth. In our pragmatism we believe that what we can see, hear, touch and feel provide access to what is true about ourselves, the world and even God. The trouble is that our day to day existence is often marked by tragedy, confusion and pain. The difficulty of our mundane experience clouds our perception, rendering our ability to discern truth useless in the face of everyday life.

The psalmist alludes to this conundrum in Psalm 77 as he considers his present trouble and cries out, “I am so troubled that I cannot speak.” His pain causes him to question the goodness and love of God as he says, “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favourable? Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”.

Our culture balks at the notion that we should look to the past for guidance. We are progressive, always moving forward, always improving on the failures of yesteryear. But this too is folly. For when our present circumstances fail to give us hope where shall we look? Here too the Psalmist helps us. He says “I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds.”

Like the Psalmist if we possess enough humility to forget ourselves for a moment and allow the picture of God’s faithfulness, compassion and greatness to overwhelm our present sensibilities, then we too can move forward in faith with supreme confidence, joy and peace. Today let us forget ourselves and remember what God has done, trusting that he will do it again.