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Peace like a river

How unspeakable tragedy prompted a country music star to step out of the spotlight and into full-time ministry

Photo by Kevin Vandivier/Genesis

Peace like a river
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It was the summer of 2020 when I started noticing the word river everywhere. That might not seem surprising since the word is on maps and street signs and shopping centers all over the world. But for me, it was a matter of torment.

It wasn’t that the word actually appeared more often, but that I was encountering it more often. Or at least that’s how it felt. It’s called the Baader-Meinhof effect—when something seems to be ­happening more, even when it’s not.

On one particular day that summer, I was ­driving around my hometown and within the span of just a few minutes I saw river four different times. Clutching the steering wheel and making a right turn onto I-35, I saw the word for a fifth time. This was too much. I glared through the windshield up into the blue sky and shouted, “What!? What are You trying to show me, God?”

What He was trying to show me was that even amid crushing tragedy, I had not yet fully surrendered to Him.

Until 2019, I was living pretty large. Being a successful country music singer was everything I’d dreamed of since my dad took me to see George Strait at the Alamodome in San Antonio when I was 16. I was topping charts, winning awards, touring with my friends and family—life was good.

One Texas evening in June, I was barefoot in the backyard, enjoying a beautiful, relaxing evening, spotting my daughter, London, as she did a handstand. Meanwhile our boys, Lincoln and River, were in another part of the yard having a water gun fight. Lincoln was 5 years old, and River was a 3-year-old extrovert who was always on the move. It was about as wonderful an evening as any dad could ask for, and I wanted to soak up every second. Even more so because my bags were already packed to go back on tour the next day.

Yet as I stood in the yard with my kids, I realized all I ever really wanted was to be present in this moment—at home with my incredible family. I thought, Soak in this moment because it won’t last forever.

I didn’t realize just how true those words were until another thought interrupted them immediately: The boys are quiet. Where’s River?

I glanced over my left shoulder, and my heart stopped. Just 15 paces away, inside our gated and locked pool, I saw River in the water, facedown. Panic devoured me. How many minutes since I’d last seen him? One? Maybe two? Fear gripped me. London shrieked, and I took off running as the whole world began to spin around me. I rushed to the pool, flung the gate open, crashed into the water, and picked him up. I started CPR and my wife called 911.

In the NICU, River was surrounded by a team of doctors who were doing everything they could to save him. We stayed with him in his room, sitting, crying, and praying to God for a miracle.

But the miracle didn’t come.

In the hospital, when the doctors told us that River wasn’t going to survive, shock overwhelmed us. Absolutely nothing can prepare you for that moment. The moment you have to say goodbye to your child.

River driving his beloved tractor.

River driving his beloved tractor. Heidi Underwood

Dark night of the soul

After we lost Riv, I stayed home for three weeks before the next decision became imminent. I had to go back out on the road. The next string of shows was a blur. I’ve been a professional performer for most of my life, but that was some of the best ­pretending I’ve ever done. By the final song each night, I could barely hold back the heavy tears ready to erupt from my eyes.

The first week of December 2019, I bused off with my country music band for a rigorous 22-day sold-out tour on the West Coast. Night after night I chiseled through the concerts and flew home for the occasional days off. Nearing the end of the tour, on Dec. 19, we arrived in Boise, Idaho, where we parked the buses for three days. We were scheduled for two days of back-to-back shows.

That last show was special to me. After nearly seven months of struggle, heartache, and anxiety—and the exhaustion of hiding it—I wanted to celebrate making it through. So when some of the guys affiliated with our show found a small bar directly across the street from our buses and invited the rest of us to join them for a nightcap, I didn’t hesitate. I also didn’t stop at one drink. Late in the evening, I pushed back from the bar, said my farewells, and stumbled drunkenly to my room in the back of the tour bus. The concert might’ve felt normal, but what happened in that back room reminded me that my life still wasn’t: The slideshow burst into my mind again, vivid and crystal clear. My 3-year-old son, River, is facedown in the pool. I crash into the water.

I clenched my face. No. No. No. No. Big tears exploded down my cheeks and puddled onto the bus floor.

When a desperate man is drowning, he’ll do whatever it takes to find air. That night, I cried out: “My God, my Jesus! Save me! Save me, Jesus!”

It took that night in Boise for me to come to grips with the fact that I actually have no control over the waves in the river at all. Pretending that we do, and fighting against the pressure, leads to so much fatigue that we don’t even have enough energy to breathe at the crest. The Source of the river was something I still hadn’t connected with, but I would soon. 

Amber, London, Lincoln, Granger, and River ride through the woods near their future home.

Amber, London, Lincoln, Granger, and River ride through the woods near their future home. Photo courtesy of the Smith family

Dog-tag Christianity

The next morning, I thought about the events from the night before. I had so many questions but not many answers. Jesus was not a new name for me. At the time, I was a Dog-Tag Christian—at least that’s the phrase I use now. It comes from a practice during World War II where the military stamped the name of the soldiers’ religion on their dog tags so that if they died people would know what kind of holy man should speak at the funeral.

I grew up in a Christian home with a mother who read the entire New Testament to me as an infant while I nursed. I went to Sunday school every week and learned about Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, and Moses parting the Red Sea. In high school, I attended the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, youth groups, and church camps. On rare occasions I would pick up a Bible and read some of the red-­letter words, but not really understand what they meant in context with the black ones.

After my dark night in Boise, I began to doubt that my Dog-Tag Christianity was worth anything. In John 6:44 Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”

When the call came, it was irresistible. It was as though I’d been handed a key that opened a door that had been locked, and when I gazed inside, nothing looked the same. I went home and ditched the self-help books I’d been relying on to get me through my grief. I sidelined the devotionals, the visualizations, and the affirmations. I quit the meditation apps cold turkey and deleted them all. I dusted off my childhood Bible. I was hungry for what it would feed to my wearied soul.

Where should I start?

I thought about it for a moment, then turned to Matthew Chapter 1—the birth of Jesus. I was holding an NIV Study Bible that began the chapter with an introductory commentary. I read every word and looked up every footnote. I was no longer a man drowning at the bottom of a river; I was a starving man who had just found bread. I feasted on that bread, the Word of God, as if my life depended on it—because it did.

The more I ate at that table, the hungrier I became. If I still didn’t understand, I read the commentary in the study Bible or I searched YouTube for another educated resource.

I was still grieving the loss of River, but now I was grieving with hope—hope that none of my pain was meaningless. None of it was wasted. All of it was purposeful. All this “light and momentary affliction” was preparing me for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. I could see that now.

Photo courtesy of the Smith family

Song of surrender

I started carving time out in my daily schedule to learn more about Jesus but realized I needed a preacher. So, I began listening to sermons by Billy Graham. I imagined I might look a little silly driving around in my pickup truck, windows down on a back road, headed to the farm and listening to these sermons that were older than I was. But I didn’t care what anyone thought.

One day my friend texted me a three-minute YouTube clip from a pastor named John Piper. I still have the text from Feb. 27, 2020. The title of the video was “Popular Verses: A Video Devotional With John Piper—Day 5.” I liked the video a lot and went searching for more.

A few days later, I was listening to a Piper sermon on YouTube titled “How To Seek the Holy Spirit.” At just before the 46-minute mark, he was reading from John 14:22-23, where one of Jesus’ followers asked Him, “‘Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?’ Jesus answered him, ‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him.’” After a pause, Piper again passionately interjected, “In a way that He doesn’t love everybody!”

I can’t fully explain what happened next, but suffice it to say that my eyes were opened to see things like never before. I was loved! I felt it. Not because of anything I had done. In fact, I certainly didn’t deserve it. Yet He had adopted me as a son. That revelation while hearing the gospel triggered a flood—not the hopeless flood I felt after losing River but God’s covenant promise flood of His Spirit to live in me and walk with me. I fell head over heels into an unprompted, unrehearsed, ­spontaneous prayer, without thinking about the words. I don’t even fully remember what I said, but right there in that truck on a small county road in Texas, the old me died.

I was overflowing with gratitude. It was all His grace, which can be defined as unmerited favor. I suddenly hated living a life that wasn’t pleasing to Him, but that’s not what merited His love. Instead, that was my response to it. I knew of God before, but now I understood something far greater than that: He knew me.

Early morning coffee and Bible study in the barn: “I haven’t skipped a single morning since 2020.”

Early morning coffee and Bible study in the barn: “I haven’t skipped a single morning since 2020.” Photo courtesy of the Smith family

The source of life

After that, I filled my calendar not with tour dates but also with lunch meetings with different pastors around the Austin area. I wanted to know everything about God that they could tell me. I asked questions like: What is your faith story? What does your Bible study routine look like? What are your thoughts on this or that Biblical doctrine? How do you pray?

One day, a pastor friend asked me to speak at a men’s breakfast conference at the church we attended weekly. The topic was suffering. I had ­serious doubts about my qualifications for an event like this, but my friend reassured me that God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called.

When my wife Amber became pregnant with our son Maverick, we were excited, but the news didn’t negate or replace the heaviness we still felt for our loss of River. We continued to have our ups and downs, natural waves of grief. And none of it was a distraction from the tremendous love we had for London and Lincoln. Through it all, we were discovering new depths in our emotional capacity. What we learned was that grief and joy can beautifully coexist.

We were still hurting, but we were also joyful even in our circumstances, and that birthed a hope within us—a hope that wasn’t fruitless. It was becoming evident that God was doing something new. He was restoring us—not by removing the fire but by walking us right through the middle of it.

“In the world you will have tribulation,” Jesus told His disciples: “But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

There are too many hurting people, too many lost people, and too many people without a Savior in Jesus. … The reality of that burden is too great, and the stakes are too high for me to continue at a distance from the front lines of history’s great spiritual battle.

New mornings and new mercies

As I prepared for the men’s breakfast conference, my mind raced while I scrambled to piece together enough thoughts for a 25-minute talk.

I’m not sure if any of those men benefited from what I said that day, but I did. I learned that by my sharing my story of pain and redemption, God was gradually revealing the answer to the question I’d shouted at him in grief and anger while turning onto I-35: “What are You trying to show me?”

God responded through His Word, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).

Until the day of the conference, I’d been so caught up in preparing my talk that I hadn’t noticed the date: June 11, 2020. It was exactly one year to the day from when I walked into that same church for the first time for Riv’s funeral. God was speaking. He was restoring. He was reminding me to depend on Him.

First time preaching at a church in 2021.

First time preaching at a church in 2021. Photo courtesy of the Smith family

A few months later, after a concert in Indiana, I was again invited to speak at a church the following Sunday morning. The date wasn’t significant this time, but the name of the church sure was. I stood in the parking lot with the lead pastor, smiling as we gazed up at the building. In huge letters on the side of the church it read, “Granger Community Church.” I had to laugh at the irony.

I wrote the sermon and was responsibly prepared to deliver it, but I just didn’t know how to end the message. Navigating my own grief was hard enough, but now I wasn’t sure that I was ready to shepherd other people’s pain.

That’s when I found it. There was a folded-up napkin stuffed into my pocket in the same blue jeans I’d been wearing onstage the night before. I don’t remember anyone putting it there, but it must have been from a fan at the meet-and-greet. I unfolded it, and tears filled my eyes as I read the words. In scribbled writing, a Scripture verse: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10).

Peace like a river

You have to understand that this was not the plan I’d made for my life. The public platform I was so busy building wasn’t based on anything spiritual. I love music touring. Touring has been a wildly focused passion of mine for 24 years.

But as much as I love it, I’ve decided to end my touring career and follow the unrelenting call from God upon my life. I ran from that call; I hid from it; I convinced myself during those dark days and nights that I absolutely wasn’t qualified for it.

But there are too many hurting people, too many lost people, and too many people without a Savior in Jesus. John 3:36 says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” The reality of that burden is too great and the stakes are too high for me to continue at a distance from the front lines of history’s great spiritual battle.

London and Lincoln with little brother Maverick.

London and Lincoln with little brother Maverick. Photo courtesy of the Smith family

In His faithfulness, God has reduced my ­passion for music touring and raised it proportionately for missionary touring. This passion literally kept me up at night until I finally submitted to it. I will still travel, only with a very different purpose. I’ll continue preaching at churches, and I am pursuing a master’s degree at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Other than that, my future is none of my business. What a freeing feeling that is.

There is such healing in letting go. It breathes fresh fire into every aspect of life. When I let go of River, God gave us Maverick. When I let go of music, it stopped feeling like a job and started to feel like a ministry opportunity. When I let go of the old vision for my family, God opened the door for a new family construct. When I stopped trying to hold on to my own plans for my life, I realized God’s plans were far better.

We can’t control the speed or the direction or the obstacles along the way. We can control only how much or how little we surrender to the Source. How quickly we are able to move forward with the ever-flowing current depends on when we decide to stop resisting it.

—Granger Smith is an award-winning, platinum-selling ­country music singer-songwriter and the author of Like a River: Finding the Faith and Strength To Move Forward After Heartache, available from W Publishing Group on Aug. 1. Read more about Granger Smith in Backstory.


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