I had many friends at church who had been on The Walk to Emmaus, and I had written letters for them to read on their Walks, but I didn’t really understand fully what the Walk was about. I knew it was a religious retreat of some kind, and I was supposed to write a letter about how their friendship had impacted me. When I asked my friends to tell me about their Walk afterward, they had trouble explaining it and just said that The Walk to Emmaus is something that must be experienced. For this reason alone, I wanted to go.
My wife and I had been invited many times over the years as friends offered to sponsor us. I really wanted to go, but my wife was hesitant, and those who had experienced Walks said it was best for married couples that we both go. So for years, I waited to go and prayed that my wife would decide to accept the invitation. One day at church, my sponsor approached my wife and me and asked if I would go if she sponsored me. I told her I would. She said she didn’t want to upset things with Dana if I went, and she didn’t. Dana encouraged me to go; she just didn’t want to go and had many reasons for declining: she’d recently had back surgery and didn’t want to sleep on the floor or a cot. She had been to many “mountain top” experiences with United Methodist Youth and felt like a Walk was probably more of the same, and she didn’t want to be away from our children for that many days. She said she didn’t want to stand in my way of attending The Walk to Emmaus if I really wanted to go. I did, so I went.
The Walk to Emmaus taught me about God’s unconditional love in a profound way. It also helped me understand more clearly what my purpose is in life. During my Walk, I wrote a couple of songs in response to talks that were given. Those songs were well received by the men on the Walk, and I came away greatly encouraged. I’ve always thought of myself as a songwriter. I moved to Nashville from Colorado to write songs. In addition, I have volunteered at the Country Music Hall of Fame Words & Music Program as a professional songwriter for over 25 years, setting student lyrics to music. In 2009 I was invited to perform at the White House for Michelle Obama’s Arts and Education Series with student writer Sal La Rosa. It was a profound honor to represent the County Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville songwriting community at “the [American] people’s house.”. But my writing took on new and deeper meaning during and after my Walk.
In country music, when you’re writing for commercial success, your songs tend to be about personal experiences in the world. That is the kind of songs I wrote as I sought to get published and get a song included on an album. I had some success with that kind of writing and had a couple dozen songs published over time. Since my experience on The Walk to Emmaus, I can’t even try to write a song like that. Every time I do, it turns into a song with a Christian message. It still sounds like country music because that’s the style of music I write, but the lyrics point to some truth the Lord has revealed to me. Now my songs must have a message of hope, a moral compass, and a spiritual aim. Almost every song I have written since 2012 has been a song I could play in church.
My Fourth Day has seen me grow in piety. I feel continually wooed by God’s agape love, and God continues to draw me nearer to him daily. I have responded by saying yes when asked to serve, whether that means serving as a music director or assistant music director on a Walk, recording an album of Christian country songs, filling the pulpit when asked to do so as a lay speaker, or writing a daily devotion on my Facebook page.
After I complete my devotional post in the morning, I like to clear my mind with a meditation. I use the phrase “Abba, I belong to you.” I repeat this phrase throughout my day. It reminds me that I belong to the Father, and it uses the name for Father that Jesus used, Abba. This phrase helps me stay focused on Jesus throughout my day and gives me a sense of belonging as I walk in the Spirit. I breathe in on “Abba” and exhale on “I belong to you.” (I learned this form of meditation, called a breath prayer, from Brother Brennan Manning in one of his online videos.)
It isn’t always easy saying yes when asked to serve the Lord. I recently accepted an invitation to be music director for a men’s Walk. Within a couple weeks of committing to this responsibility, I had a crisis of faith that brought doubts about my ability to lead the music. I felt as though I was not prepared to lead men in worship. I was so concerned that I told the lay director, Steve Zuercher, of my doubts. He encouraged me to be obedient to my calling and let God deal with the consequences of my obedience. Steve shared some Bible verses through several phone texts with me, and these verses brought many other verses to mind. . I literally felt the word of God pouring into me. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with encouragement and love. I knew I couldn’t fail, that God would watch over me no matter what. The Walk turned out to be a great experience, and the music we provided helped set the tone.
I continue to grow spiritually through studying the Bible, which has helped me know Jesus more intimately. I better understand the love we are to share and the mission we have as followers of Christ. I share the good news every day in my Facebook devotional and encourage others to love the Lord with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love others as they love themselves. I hope to lead those who read my devotional to an abiding faith in Christ. I want them to know the joy that can be theirs as believers.
I also find inspiration through studying books by Max Lucado, Charles Stanley, and N.T. Wright. Currently I am reading Paul: A Biography by N.T. Wright. It gives me insights into Paul’s personality and his writings in scripture. Wright’s biography is a compelling study of a man who went from being a Jewish zealot who persecuted early Christians to become one of the most influential Christians in the New Testament. Paul’s spiritual journey, which differed from that of the apostles who lived with Jesus, remains inspiring today because like us, he never walked with Jesus while he was living on earth, but he received the Holy Spirit anyway and shared the good news wherever he traveled. He not only spread the gospel but helped create disciples of Jesus, and his epistles still influence us today.
In addition to this study of Paul, I have started a book by Alistair Begg titled Pray Big: Learn to Pray Like an Apostle. The author uses the prayers of Paul to help readers understand how to pray big (bold) prayers and points out that our small prayers don’t really focus on the eternal as they should. They tend to focus on the temporary fleshly needs and desires of our earthly existence. Pray Big has helped me realize that I need to focus more of my prayers on things that will be eternal.
My growth through action on my Fourth Day has taken many forms. I used to work at the WeWork/Regions Bank building downtown. We had to park at Nissan Stadium and walk or take the shuttle across the river each morning. I chose to walk. I soon found a mission field in the numerous homeless people I encountered while walking over the pedestrian bridge and through downtown. They often asked for money, but I don’t carry cash. I decided to start packing water, peanut butter crackers, protein bars, Rice Krispy treats, and tuna fish packets to give to people who asked for money. I let them know I didn’t have money on me, but I had food and water if they were hungry. I told some people at church what I was doing, and they bought bags and supplies and helped me build a homeless ministry. Others at church began doing the same as me. I often put two bags of provisions that would feed someone for a day in my backpack. I tried to come home without any bags each day. I began to learn the names of the people I gave bags to and called them by name when I saw them again. It makes a huge difference to a homeless person when you call them by name and smile at them. Most folks walk on the other side of the street when they encounter a homeless person. I try to see Jesus in them.
With the pandemic and the closing of our business operations downtown, my homeless ministry ended. I have been busy lately volunteering with various groups to help veterans. CreatiVets is an organization run by veterans that helps veterans through the visual arts and music. I’ve helped leaders of the organization make connections with the music community in Nashville and have arranged to make virtual 3D walk-throughs of their various veteran art exhibits in Chicago and Nashville. The work of CreatiVets helps veterans tell their stories without talking about them. The art speaks for them. It has helped numerous veterans deal with PTSD and the invisible scars of war. (Website: creativets.org)
I have also organized and hosted Orality Training Sessions with my friend Jerry Wiles. Jerry is president emeritus of Living Water International. He is an evangelist who travels around the world, sharing the gospel through contextual storytelling. He tells Bible stories within the context of living with oral learners, and they can reproduce the stories within their sphere of influence. It’s a way of sharing the gospel through conversation and storytelling that spreads the gospel quickly and has been successful in building faith communities all over the globe.
Living Water International goes throughout the world, giving water in Jesus’ name. They drill wells so people can access clean drinking water, but they also seek to give them living water that Jesus brings so they never thirst again. (Website: water.cc)
I constantly say yes to opportunities to serve the Lord by serving others. Homeless ministry, CreatiVets, and Living Water International Orality Training Sessions are just a few of the ways I seek growth through Christian action.
My Fourth Day has not always been sunshine and roses. I have experienced the deaths of my father, my sponsor for The Walk to Emmaus, my pastor, and one of my best friends. (My mother passed in 2005.) The faith they shared with me strengthens me in their absence. The love they shared with me perseveres. As God continues to woo me into deeper relationship with him, I feel closer to my loved ones in heaven. He gives me comfort and hope.
My Fourth Day goes on as I plan to continue my daily devotional, writing and performing songs of faith and lay speaking. I plan to apply for the United Methodist Orientation to Ministry in August to explore my calling further. I also plan to self-publish a book of devotionals within the year. In the meantime, I continue to live a life of piety, study, and action. I am counting on Christ, and Christ is counting on me. De Colores.
Gary Michael Smith, Nashville Emmaus Walk 175, Table of Mark.
The RESILIENCE conference in 2021 was so uplifting and nourishing. It was wonderful to be with other Christians around the world at this retreat, who truly care about responding to trauma in a compassionate way by teaching spiritual practices to help with grounding and healing.”
Join us for the next RESILIENCE conference on September 29-30, 2023. Learn more at UpperRoom.org/resilience.