Sadness tries to envelop many people as the holidays roll around every year. I, too, am a bit emotional, thinking about Dean, my husband of 42 years, who is not with us this first time, presiding over the gift-opening ceremonies in his Santa hat and with his cheery ho-ho-ho’s.

But I was also surprised not to receive my first Christmas card of the year, which for almost all those same 42 years came from a 1973 Southern Adventist University friend of mine, Joe Branson.

Joe revealed once to me, on one of our few phone conversations, that he mailed out way over a hundred cards every year to his friends all over the country. And they usually came right after Thanksgiving, as if he couldn’t wait for his bright, glittery greetings to grace our mailboxes and set our spirits in the holiday, gift-giving mode every year.

Here it is, almost half of December gone now, and no card from Joe. I was justifiably anxious about it after talking to another college friend of mine and discovered she had not received her customary card either. She too was suspicious that something was not right in Joe’s world.

With very little internet searching, my friend, Sharon Titus Harrell, was able to find an obituary about him in a small town newspaper, his hometown of Pulaski, Virginia.

It was not what we were hoping to find; but there he was, with a photo to verify the news. In his obituary, it was stated that he was the last surviving member of his immediate family, probably the only one who shared our Adventist faith. Joe became an Adventist when he was a teenager. The comments under the obituary revealed that some of his few, remaining relatives had regrettably not even received the news until this obituary was seen.

How lonely Joe’s life was at the end can only be imagined. He was only 67 years old, had never married, recently retired, and was attending the Spring Meadows SDA church in Sanford, Florida. He simply died unexpectedly in his home, according to the obituary.

He had an almost thirty-year career of elementary teaching in public schools (many of them in Provo, Utah; he loved second grade, he once told me). But Joe didn’t retire from serving God. His last Christmas card told how he was conducting a prison ministry for his church through the mail and was writing to many, many inmates.

I have a feeling there weren’t many church members in Sanford, who knew Joe long enough to appreciate his lifelong love of the Lord as some of us do. But according to the obituary, his enthusiastic piano playing did get noticed there.

Joe’s death may have gone unnoticed at the time, but his life and influence surely encircled thousands of young children and God-thirsty adults in prisons. Yes, Joe will not be lonely in the resurrection. If there’s a piano there, Joe will be pounding out one of his gospel songs. And his voice will likely be the first one raised in worshipful praise to our Creator God in heaven, prompting all his friends and loved ones to join him in song, just as he diligently prompted us to begin our gift-giving preparations for the Christmas season every year here on earth.

This thought of Joe in heaven has lifted my saddened heart and will enable me to continue my holiday with joy.

Joe would want it that way. Rest now in peace, Joe Branson. You are not forgotten.