Paul Prather

Neither bad, good times last forever

For me, the just-ended decade arrived with a whimper — or, more accurately, a sob — and went out with a bang.

This past September, I published my first book since 1999. In October, at an age and in an economy in which I considered myself unemployable, I landed a full-time job in corporate communications, which I can do in addition to my pastoral work.

In November, I witnessed the birth of my second granddaughter. In December, I got engaged. All year, my church fared better than it had in recent memory.

Indeed, 2009 ranks among the more exhilarating years of my life.

I'm not gloating. I don't feel vindicated. I don't feel more favored by God than other people. I don't think I'm smart or even particularly lucky.

I am, however, grateful. And relieved. And, in a way, chastened.

I seem to have survived what was, overall, the worst 10 years of my life — in fact, for the moment, to have come out on top again.

I would have been satisfied with mere survival.

This column is for all of you who currently find yourselves in a maelstrom, who think you'll never experience joy again.

What I want to say is this: Nothing on this earth lasts. The good times don't go on forever. But, thank the Lord, neither do the awful times.

In 2000, as most of you already know, my wife, Renee, fell ill with terminal cancer. We tumbled into a black pit. She became totally disabled. I was her primary caregiver. In the midst of my wife's illness, my mother died.

When Renee passed in 2005, I felt unmoored. I'll never be able to express, here or anywhere else that I'm dependent on human language, the depths of grief and remorse under which I labored. Losing her almost destroyed me.

Five years of constant caregiving also left me with diabetes, hypertension and debilitating, crushing depression.

All these trials crippled my other relationships, too. I watched half of my church's members depart. I could go on, but I've written about this before.

I assumed my life was, for all intents and purposes, over. I couldn't imagine having a good week again, much less a good year.

I assumed that, given my tenuous physical and emotional states, I wouldn't live to see my grandchildren. I didn't expect to find love. I was just waiting around to die.

Now, as suddenly as tragedy befell me, a series of wonderful things has happened.

The planet seems to keep on revolving, relentlessly.

Or, as my muse John Prine puts it: "That's the way the world goes 'round, you're up one day, the next you're down. You're in a half-an-inch of water and you think you're gonna drown. Well, that's the way the world goes 'round."

To our own detriment, we humans tend to assume too much responsibility for our fortunes. When we're on top, we grow smug. We think we've done something wonderful to deserve our blessings. If we're not careful, we even start to condescend toward those who are less fortunate.

Then we plunge into some private hell — and blame ourselves. We decide God or karma or the cosmos is punishing us for an awful sin of which we remain unaware.

I don't deny that our own efforts, and often our morality, can contribute to our successes and our woes. Some behaviors are wise; others are destructive.

Still, we can do almost everything right, and something will go terribly wrong eventually. "In this world you will have tribulation," Jesus promised.

We can do a lot of things wrong, and sooner or later something will turn out better than we've any reason to expect.

Blessings and curses alike are mysteries.

They also have this in common: Neither lasts forever.

We shouldn't preen when we're on the mountaintop, but neither should we despair when we're in the abyss. Whatever we're going through, we as likely as not didn't cause it. Whatever we're going through, it, too, shall pass.

One of the oldest stories in literature and Scripture is that of Job, a righteous man who lost everything, then regained twice as much.

When his wife had given up hope, Job responded, "What? Shall we receive only pleasant things from the hand of God and never anything unpleasant?"

I won't pretend I've mastered this principle, but I believe that, ideally, we ought to discipline ourselves to remain equally philosophical about our triumphs and our failures. We should remind ourselves that both are natural seasons of life.

We should trust that the God who seems to have hoisted us on his shoulders during our victories is, just as surely, clutching us in his arms during our agonies.