It was a pivotal moment years ago at a SHAPE retreat in Oregon. I was having lunch with Al Ells and a group of fellow pastors. Earlier that day Al talked about genograms, which are a type of family org-chart that maps out key relationships and their impact. I asked Al a genogram question and he responded by laying out my personal genogram on a napkin. On that napkin, Al skillfully deciphered my family of origin and my marriage. It was an epiphany. I still have that napkin. One of the earliest questions in doing a genogram is “which parent claimed you?” or “which parent were you closest to?” Typically most guys are closer to their mothers. I was closer to my father. I was the oldest child in my family and I was dad’s boy. As a child, I wanted to grow up to be just like him; and I always wanted to be with him. I was
his constant shadow. Wherever you saw my father Joe, I was nearby.
My father’s death was one of the most difficult mountains I’ve ever had to climb. On Thursday, December 6, 1984, I was a 23-year-old first-year grad student at Temple University in Philadelphia and had been married to Carla for two-and-a-half years. Carla and I were in our apartment that evening when our phone rang; it was my Uncle John calling to break the news. I could hear my mother sobbing in the background; an hour earlier, she discovered that she was a 42-year-old widow. My mother would later recall hearing me screaming in grief over the phone as I heard the news; oddly, I don’t remember doing that. I was in shock.
My father, only three days shy of his 54th birthday, was the picture of health; he always took care of himself. He took the bus home from the steel mill after a 7am to 3pm shift on that wintery cold day in Johnstown, Pennsylvania so mom could have the car. He was reading the newspaper and waiting for my mother to finish preparing an incredible Slovak meal called “pigs in the blanket.” Before dinner was served, the paramedics would be transporting my father to the hospital trying in vain to revive him. Just like that, he was gone.
My father taught me so much; if I can impart half as much to my children and grandchildren, I’ll be doing well. He taught me how to be a strong man with a tender heart. He taught me how to be a husband that loves his wife with the love of Christ. He taught me what it means to be a godly man. He taught me the value of hard work, dedication, and the value of keeping your word. If a picture is worth a thousand words, I have a lot of precious pictures of my father in my memory each telling a story. I can still see him after dinner, washing dishes for my mother; shooing her away, saying the warm sudsy water felt good on his hands. His hands were always calloused and stained with machine grease from the mill. I remember peeking in his room at night and seeing him on his knees in prayer. Before he left for work, he would always pack his pocket leather Bible and Sunday School lesson in his lunch bucket. I remember him with checkbook in hand, explaining to me that he was writing his tithe to the church…even when my mother occasionally protested his
generosity. He taught me how to do a hook shot and how to run a “down-and-out” pass route. He taught the neighborhood kids how to play “kick-the-can”. More than anything else, my father taught me a lot about God the Father in the way he lived and loved. His influence on me was beyond measure.
As a young man, my motivation in life was to live in such a way that I would make my father proud. When I lost him, I lost more than a father; I lost a mentor, a best friend, and a cheerleader. But after all these years, my motivation is still the same…to live in such a way that he would be proud. My love from him impacts the way I live to this day. And that might be the greatest gift he ever gave me, to allow my love for another to guide my life and impact my decisions. My dad was showing me the love of God the Father and how my love for the Father impacts my entire life. I don’t do the right things out of obligation because “I have to” as a Christ follower; I strive to do the right things as a natural response of my love for the Father as demonstrated through Jesus Christ His Son.
At 54 years of age I have lived longer than my father, but in my heart I will always be a daddy’s boy. And one day—thanks to Jesus Christ—I will be reunited with him, to be with him forever.
It’s been over 30 years since my father’s passing and I’m so thankful I had Joseph Matas as my dad. My children and grandchildren never knew him; but I hope they will see my father in the son.