He wasn’t the man who fathered me in the physical sense. He was the man who married my divorced mother at a time in my life when I was very angry at my natural father. My anger, resentment and bitterness toward my natural father kept me from being willing to recognize or accept any attempts on behalf of my step-father to fill the void in my life. It was a sad but all too common way to live.
Through my pre-teen and teen years, the man I would eventually call “Papa Joe” did all that he could to show me his love and to make known to me that he saw me as his own even though I did not come from his loins. He taught me things that are still valuable in my life decades later. Sometimes the lessons came from simply observing him. Other times the lessons came as a direct result of his efforts to teach me. And sometimes the lessons came through discipline – occasionally severe discipline. Even when I was not interested in learning, Papa Joe was still teaching.
There were things I was glad to learn like how to hunt, how to shoot, how to spot the ear flinching on a deer in the forest. There were things I had no interest in like how to repair automobile engines, how to maintain water pumps, how to wire electrical appliances. There were things which were hard to learn like the importance of keeping your word even when it cost you something. Papa Joe could have taught me much more than he did if only I had been willing to learn.
As the latter part of my teenage years came along, I began to rebel against all forms of authority. I somehow came to think that I was the captain of my own fate and I did not want anyone, certainly not a man who was not even my blood relative, to have any influence in what I did with my life. So, I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. After boot camp and then technical school, my tour of duty with the U.S. Marine Corps took me to places I often did not want to go. I found myself on the other side of the world, dealing with physical and mental challenges I had never anticipated. For the first time in my life, I felt completely alone. And that is where Papa Joe’s legacy began for me.
Although I had often received letters from my mother and knew that she loved me and cared what happened to me, there was within me a need to be loved and cared for by a father. I needed a man as role model. I needed a hero. I needed someone who had faced the challenges of life and had overcome them. I needed a father I had never known. Just when I was at the darkest point my life, just when I felt more alone than at any other time, just when I most desperately needed that father/hero/example, I got a surprise: a handwritten letter from Papa Joe!
“Dear Faron,” it read. “If you ever want to talk, I am here. Love, Hilda”. Papa Joe’s actual name was Joseph Hilda and he went by the name Hilda. Just thirteen words handwritten on a five by seven piece of notepad paper-that’s all it was. I read the letter again and again, mostly through eyes filled with tears. Even today, I cry when I remember that moment. It changed me forever!
It was a few years later before I learned that the letter was, as far as any of us in the family know, the only letter Papa Joe wrote in his life. Somehow, that letter came at just the point in my life when I needed it most. Those thirteen words do not say much to the ordinary reader, but to me at that moment in my life those thirteen words spoke volumes. They told me of a father’s love for a prodigal, rebellious, ungrateful son. They told me of a man’s strength of character to love the unlovable; to care for the thankless. Those words, especially the last two, pierced the heart of stone within me. I would never be the same and Papa Joe would suddenly occupy a place in my heart and life that had been empty for many years.
Over the remaining years of his life, Papa Joe would always be the man I call my dad. He would be all the things I had needed and yet had refused to see. He would be the hero who had fought life’s battles and came out the victor. He would be the confidant with whom I could share my burdens and secrets. He would be the role model I try to shape my character around. He would be the man who helped me see the importance of deciding what is truly important in life and then committing to it.
I could write a book of all the ways his legacy impacts my life. For now, I’ll share one other brief story. As I began to see Papa Joe in the role of my dad, there came a time in my life when things once again reached a peak of brokenness and disarray. Through a number of poor decisions on my part and the continuing weight of post-traumatic stress, I reached a point where I had decided to end my own life. I remember the day Papa Joe quietly followed me to a place where I was contemplating suicide. He looked me in the eye and told me that there was nothing this life could throw at me that was worth suicide. Then, in a very practical demonstration of those last two words of the only letter Papa Joe wrote in his entire life, he reached out his hand and took the shotgun out of mine. As he turned and walked away, I realized once again that what he said in that letter was true. He loved me as his son, unconditionally.
In many ways, it has been through Papa Joe’s legacy that I have come to better understand the love of my Heavenly Father. Just as Papa Joe wrote that letter to me back in the early 1970’s, my Heavenly Father sent the Word of God at just the right time in my life. Just as Papa Joe offered a caring, compassionate counsel when I needed it, my Heavenly Father is always there when I call on Him. And just as Papa Joe demonstrated His love for me in clear way that day in the forest, so my Heavenly Father demonstrated His love for me on a hill called Calvary. I just hope the legacy I leave for the two men I call sons will mean as much to them as Papa Joe’s legacy means to me.
Faron Golden is the Church Planter and Lead Pastor of Lake Pointe Baptist Church, Dadeville, Alabama, where he and his wife, Nancy, have served since October, 2015. Faron is the author of Lessons from Life published by Christian Faith Publishing in 2016. The church website is www.lakepointebaptist.com and Faron blogs at brotherfaron.wordpress.com as well.
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