Paul Prather

I feel called to write on 3 topics

I've been writing newspaper columns off and on for 20 years. Hundreds of columns. So many columns I can't remember them all.

Usually, nowadays, the hardest part of writing these pieces is coming up with a topic I haven't beaten to death already. But then, once in a while, I have the opposite experience. I find myself with several things I want to discuss and have a difficult time choosing.

This was one of those latter weeks. I have more to say than time or room to say it. Thus, a potpourri of three unrelated subjects.

Grand motivators

The July 4 issue of The New York Times Magazine included a question-and-answer article with George Shultz, former secretary of state under Presidents Nixon and Reagan.

Shultz is featured in a new three-part PBS documentary that, according to the Times' interviewer, Deborah Solomon, portrays him in extremely flattering terms — indeed as perhaps the ablest secretary of state in U.S. history.

What caught my attention was how Shultz reacted to that praise.

He's not much concerned about his legacy among critics or scholars, he told Solomon.

"I think the film is a great, flattering film, and I hope my grandchildren like it," he said. "I want my grandchildren to be proud of me. That's the main thing."

Shultz might be the greatest diplomat in U.S. history, and I might be, well, just me. But I was struck that the great man's concerns aren't much different from mine.

I want to honor my granddaughters' love and earn their respect, and I want them to always know, even after I'm gone, how much I cared about them.

Whether we're a former secretary of state or a small-town preacher, at the end of the day some of us old men are, above almost anything else, grandpas.

Sincere apologies

The same magazine included an article by Lisa Belkin called, "Why Is It So Hard to Apologize Well?"

We've seen a spate of apologies lately from prominent people, the Times noted, including Gen. Stanley McChrystal's mea culpa for bad-mouthing his civilian commanders, and BP chief executive Tony Hayward's apology for his company's oil spill.

Many apologies, whether public or private, fail miserably, Belkin observed. Apologies often leave the wronged parties angrier than before.

Yet, good apologies can restore friendships, repair scandals and even prevent lawsuits.

What separates apologies that make peace from those that make bad matters worse?

Belkin cited experts who bore out what I've witnessed in my own corner of the world. Like them, I think most people find apologizing among the hardest things to do. It can be excruciating to say, "I'm sorry." For some people, it's nearly impossible.

But a real apology requires that we lay aside our egos, that we really take responsibility for our faults. Not many of us want to do that. We don't want to become vulnerable.

Instead, even when circumstances force us to offer an admission of guilt, we tend to do so vaguely, grudgingly and half-heartedly. No one is convinced.

What we end up with is, "Well, um, I'm sorry if you felt hurt."

A real apology demands that we hold nothing back. A real apology says, "I hurt you. I was wrong. It's my fault, I know it and I'm terribly sorry. Please forgive me."

It's amazing how many of our sins other people will overlook, how many personal and professional bridges we can mend if we truly apologize. That's all most people want.

Reasons to believe

I don't compose the headlines for my columns, so I was amused to find that a copy editor had titled my June 26 entry, "This I believe: Many atheists missed my point."

By coincidence, unbeknownst to the copy desk, I'm a fan of the venerable media project This I Believe. I've even tried to write an essay I could submit to This I Believe but never have managed to finish it.

If I do complete that piece, its title will be, "This I believe: I believe in doubt."

I believe doubt is a vital part of any meaningful faith.

I don't much trust people who claim never to suffer doubts about their religion, their God or, for that matter, their politics or economic theories or parenting skills.

Doubt isn't the opposite of faith. It's not the same as unbelief.

Doubt doesn't simply dismiss the great truths offered by our church or our scriptures or our deity. But it does question them. It searches for evidence. It asks "Why?" It reassesses.

Doubt says, "I'm not omniscient. I may hold certain views very dear — but that doesn't of itself make them valid."

Doubt says, "I need to learn more." It seeks deeper answers. It listens to all sides.

Doubt struggles. It's willing, if necessary, to change its assumptions. Doubt leads us toward growth as spiritual pilgrims. It makes us more gracious toward our fellow wanderers.

Doubt forces faith to earn its keep.

I'd argue that doubt isn't a sin. It's a virtue.