It was late in the afternoon of September 23, 1986. I was two years old, and my dad had just taken off on a routine training exercise in his F-4 Phantom fighter jet. He was flying over the Atlantic Ocean, not far from our home in Beaufort, South Carolina, when his F-4 crashed into another F-4 during a dogfight maneuver. Both my dad, Captain Charles Kelly Castleberry, and his navigator, Major Christopher Brammer, were never seen again. Search and Rescue crews scoured the Eastern seaboard for days, but they were never able to locate my father.
Ever since that day, I have had a special place in my heart for the “fatherless” of this world, especially those who have experienced loss through traumatic circumstances. This ache for the fatherless was stirred up again on April 17, as the news aired the horrific events concerning the giant fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. I was distraught to learn that a crew of firemen had been at the site, trying to put out the fire when
the blast occurred. Two thoughts immediately came to my mind: Unless there had been a miracle, the firemen on site would not have survived the blast, and, at least some of those firemen were never again going to see their wives and children on this earth. It may have been a “routine” call for these trained professionals. Then, in an instant, it became a deadly tragedy. The lives of their loved ones would never be the same. Their children would be left, clinging to every possible memory of their fathers, but they would never again, on this side of eternity, see their dads’ faces or be able physically to talk to them.
Losing a father is unspeakably horrific for any child. The son has lost the one person primarily responsible to train him to be a man, and to help him through that process. The daughter has lost her provider, protector, and the man responsible for teaching her what it means to be cherished and valued as a woman. I believe this is one reason why God has such a special, tender heart for the fatherless and the widows of the world. David, by the Holy Spirit, writes in Psalm 68:5, “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.”
I have experienced this special fatherly love of God throughout my life, as his special hand of providence has guided me in numerous ways. One way that he has shown this love is through another godly man, Preston Abbott, who was sent to be my earthly father four years after my first dad died. Another provision from my Heavenly Father is the amazing legacy of my first father, Kelly. God enabled my father to do some extraordinary things in his short twenty-six years on earth. These have shaped and will continue to shape me for the rest of my life.
1. My Father’s Faith: God used my father’s untimely death to make me think about the realities of death, heaven, and hell at a very early age. This enabled my mom to share with me about my father’s Lord and how “because my father had trusted Christ as his Savior from sin, he was with Jesus now in Heaven.” Because I admired my dad so much, I knew that if he loved Jesus, then I should learn more about Jesus. Eventually, I came to see how irresistibly good Jesus is, so one night I prayed with my mom and expressed faith in Christ. I rejoiced that I too would one day get to see Jesus in Heaven.
2. My Father’s Purity: One night my dad’s squadron took a “mandatory” trip to a beach house somewhere along the Atlantic Coast. No wives or children were allowed to come. This was a special night in which many of the young pilots would receive their “call-signs.” Shortly after my father arrived at the beach house, he realized why family members were not invited. Someone had invited strippers as entertainment for the evening. Later that night, when he confided this event to my mom, she asked him how he responded. He said that he had stayed in the corner of the beach house with his hand over his eyes (see picture below). A few months after my father’s crash, a pilot in the squadron gave my mom a picture that someone had taken inside the beach house that night. He told my mom that deep down “everyone respected Kelly for it, but no one had the guts to follow him.” Sure enough, in the background was my father with his hand covering his eyes. As a young boy, my mom showed me that picture and explained to me the integrity and courage my dad had displayed in that moment. She then explained the necessity of walking a path of purity in my own life. My mom framed the picture and put it in my room for me as a constant reminder to always walk in purity. The legacy of purity my father left for me has made a huge difference in my life. In high school, college, and the Marine Corps, I faced numerous temptations to compromise, but the Holy Spirit used the legacy of my dad and other biblical heroes —-to help me withstand temptation.
3. My Father’s Life of Prayer: After my dad’s death, my mom told me how he had spent hours each night over my crib, praying for me after I had fallen asleep. As a three-, four-, and five-year-old fatherless boy, when I missed my dad immensely, my mom would often remind me of these prayers and how much my dad loved me. She would tell me that God loved me more than my dad ever could and that he was my Father now. Since I was a boy, I have been sensitive to the blessings God has bestowed on my life, such as a calling to ministry, a beautiful wife, two precious daughters, and incredible relationships with family and friends. I thank God for these gifts (James 1:17), and I believe they are answers to my father’s prayers. Now, as a daddy to two little girls, I often spend time at night over their cribs praying for them. In that way, my father’s legacy has not only impacted me, but it has impacted my children as well.
We live in a cursed world, and we never know when the Lord could take us from our families. As Christians, we no longer need to fear death because of Christ’s death and resurrection (Heb 2:15), but we should prepare for it. We should live every day to maximize the glory of Christ (Phil 1:20-26).
Any valuable Christian legacy that we have to pass down to our children is only due to the precious blood of Jesus Christ. After all, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet 2:24).
Don’t underestimate the value of a life lived for Christ. Although our lives are but a vapor, the Spirit can use the example of our lives in extraordinary ways for the building of the kingdom. Iain Murray wrote in his outstanding book Heroes, “The Bible no more knows a separate class of heroes than it does of saints. Because of Jesus Christ, every Christian is extraordinary and attains to glory. Yet grace so shines in some (as in the portraits of Hebrews 11), that it lightens the path of many.” As A.W. Tozer could write, ‘Next to the Holy Scriptures, the greatest aid to the life of faith may be Christian biographies.’”
As we consider the legacies that parents leave for their families, please join with me in praying for the children of the firemen and others who lost their lives in West, Texas. Pray that God would use the legacy of their fathers for good and that they would come to faith in Christ. Also pray that we, like Paul, would be able to say at the end of our lives, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Phil. 3:17).
[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in The Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry 3.2 (Spring/Summer 2013). You can access a PDF version of this article here.]
About the Author: Grant Castleberry and his wife, GraceAnna, live in Louisville with their two daughters, AudreyKate and Evangeline. He serves as the Student Life Coordinator at Southern Seminary and as a Captain in the Marine Corps. A native Texan and Aggie, Grant attends Kenwood Baptist Church and works as assistant editor and conference coordinator for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.