In the summer of 1994, I got the opportunity to join my favorite male singing group, “Liberty” from Cumming, Georgia. I had been friends with these guys for years, and had prayed that God would allow me to one day be a part of the group. They had already made great strides in the Gospel Music world, and had endeared themselves to countless thousands of fans from the southern tip of Florida up to Chicago and all points in between. I was elated to finally have found my own place within this well-loved bunch of guys from the foothills of North Georgia.
About a year after I joined, the group went through a particularly upsetting change. Two of the three vocalists and two of the four band members decided to leave the group. It was devastating to me, especially. They had been my heroes, and I had just begun to live out my dream of ministering alongside of them. But, with God’s guiding hand, we who remained, put together a fresh, energetic lineup of guys who had a desire to carry on the work with the same integrity and anointing that folks had come to know, love and respect.
We spent quite a few months of really intense rehearsal leading up the changeover. The debut of ‘The New Guys’ had been scheduled for December 15th at a local eatery there in Cumming, so the Tuesday before, we planned one last practice.
That evening, I pulled my Ford Bronco into the driveway of the house where we were to rehearse, and my ‘cellular bag phone’ began ringing. Each time I tried to answer it, no connection could be made. I though that odd at the time, but in hindsight, it was God’s hand of emotional protection for me. Frustrated, I finally turned the device off, knowing that anyone truly needed to; they could get to me by calling the landline where we were holding our practice session.
While I waited for the others to arrive, I heard Vince Gill’s signature song, “Go Rest High On That Mountain” for the very first time. The song moved me to tears. I had no idea at the time what was actually going on with my family back in West Atlanta.
Alas, after some of the other guys began to arrive, I got on out of the Bronco and we all went in. We had a solid program lined up, and we were all thrilled with what was happening for us all. A few hours later, I drove the 90 minutes back to my home.
When I walked in the door, I knew that something was wrong. My folks were sitting around the table (something they really rarely ever did) and my best friend, Dennis Shoup was there. He carefully and gingerly gave me the sad news. Bud Swafford, the only male cousin I had on my Mom’s side of the family, had hung himself in the hallway of his home. The news paralyzed me. He was like my big brother. In fact, he and I and his wife, Darlene, and another a friend of ours, had a very successful local group during my High School years. Bud was an amazing singer. He just had that ‘It Factor’. He could tear a crowd up like no other.
The next few days were a blur. Dealing with the untimely death – plus the anticipation of launching a new version of such a beloved singing group – was overwhelming to say the least. With God’s grace, we made it though the first afternoon of visitation, but with a broken heart, I left my family to go meet up with the guys and play my little piano for Jesus. Afterwards, as I hurriedly sped back home to be ready to play at the funeral the next day, I heard that song again. As Vince sang the words, “I know your life on earth was troubled. Only you could know the pain...” I lost it. I cried, and screamed out to God. What was He trying to prove? Was this a test? If so, I felt like I was failing miserably. Why did He allow this? Didn’t He know I was doing everything I could for Him? Why? Why? Why?
I pulled of the side of Georgia Highway 400, and wept for about 30 minutes. Then it happened. A Peace that I had never experienced filled my vehicle. It stayed with me through the night, through the funeral, the graveside service, and through the dark days that followed.
A little over a week later, our little family unit gathered at Bud’s parent’s house to try to celebrate Christmas. It was surreal. There was sadness. There were tears. There were some forced smiles and even a few laughs, but they were few. Very few. No one really wanted to eat, and the opening of the presents was really more of a chore, than a joy.
Then, my Grandpaw Swafford – a mighty Soldier of The Cross- stood to speak. With a tear in his voice, and the authoritative Power of God on His lips, he began to speak life into each of us. I couldn’t tell you exactly one thing that he said that day, but one by one, he gave us assurance that none of the events of the last two weeks had taken God by surprise. He reminded us that Jesus was our Present Help, that we’d survive this current storm that had invaded our lives.
Let me tell you. Business picked up in that little living room. With a touch of that same, sweet Peace that I had felt on the side of a busy expressway, we began the healing process. Has it been easy? Heavens. No! 24 years later, almost all of my family is gone. Loneliness is vial. Do I still grieve? Yes, I do. More than people may realize – but not as one who is void of Hope. Friend, my Sweet Jesus IS my Hope! Well, Glory! Call on Him. He promises to be near the sad, despondent, lonely and broken-hearted. You are gonna make it. I am living proof.
Now, I realize that this may not truly be my most ‘favorite’ Christmas Memory, but in some strange way, it really is… because it changed me, and it made me a better person. I hope that my sharing this story will encourage any of you who may have lost a family member to suicide – especially if your loved one battled addiction. Please know that although it may be easy to be sad this year, you really can find a reason to celebrate life!!!
Sexton & Homecoming