Recently, I received a phone call from a guy who wanted to rent one of the apartments I own. A mutual friend had given him my name and number.
During our conversation, the caller asked if I happened to be the son of the Mr. Prather who was a substitute teacher in the local schools.
I said I was.
I'm glad to talk with you, he said. He'd wanted to meet Mr. Prather's son since he'd first heard my father died in October. He said he had a story about Dad that he'd told to a lot of people and thought I ought to hear, too.
Frankly, I had no idea where he was headed with this. I felt myself cringing.
But the fellow pressed on. He said that when he was in high school during the 1970s, my dad served a stint as a substitute in one of his classes.
As kids often do, this fellow and two friends had decided to take advantage of the sub. Their classroom had a smaller back room attached to it. This guy happened to be carrying a deck of cards in his pocket, and he and his buddies slipped into the back room when my father wasn't looking to play poker.
Problem was, Dad soon caught them in the act.
What are you boys up to? he asked.
Playing cards, the kids admitted.
You know you're not supposed to do that at school, Dad said.
The boys hung their heads and agreed they'd done wrong.
According to my caller, Dad then said he'd make them a proposal. He would sit down and play them five hands of poker himself. If they could beat him three hands out of five, they could bring their cards every day he was subbing in their class and play poker, and he wouldn't say a word. But if he won three hands, they had to take the cards home and not bring them back.
The caller told me, "I thought, 'This is the easiest bet ever. There's no way he can beat all of us.' "
Then Dad added a catch: They had to let him deal the cards.
This is how that little arrangement went. My father sat down and in succession dealt himself five killer hands of straights and full houses and such, while dealing his young opponents five hands of zilch. Nada. Hardly even a pair of deuces.
"He won all five hands," the caller said. "We didn't win one."
Well, that settles that, Dad told them. Guess you'd better put those cards up.
"I couldn't believe what I'd just seen," the fellow told me. "I said, 'Mr. Prather, where did you learn to do that? I thought you were a preacher.'"
According to him, Dad smiled and said, "'Son, we were all something before.'"
Thirty-five years later, those words were still with this man.
He said they'd helped him give his own heart to the Lord. Even though he'd made mistakes, and thought perhaps he didn't deserve God's compassion, recalling my dad's words had led him to recognize that everyone lays at the altar his or her own marred past. Nobody's history is spotless.
"To this day, I still tell people, 'We were all something before.'"
I'd never heard that story about the poker game.
But I heard Dad preach essentially that same message all his life, that God, because of his profound love, accepts us just the way we are. Yet, as the old saying goes, God loves us too much to let us stay that way. If we let him, he'll change our minds and futures.
I see these transformations a lot in the congregation where I'm the pastor.
It's a church my dad helped found, a place where he and I worked together. I look around the sanctuary on Sundays, and I see drunks and addicts and gamblers and liars and playboys and party girls and—well, you name it, they're there.
I see them looking fresh-eyed and hopeful and sober and delivered, raising their hands in praise, singing their hearts out, thumbing through their Bibles.
Sometimes tears of joy trickle down their cheeks.
In each of our lives there's a B.C. and an A.D.
To borrow another old saw, none of us is yet everything we ought to be. But bless God, none of us is who we used to be, either.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.