Paul Prather

Paul Prather: My bride and I are proof there's hope for anyone

Paul Prather
Paul Prather

Help me! Those are the words traditionally painted on the bottoms of a groom's shoes, so when he kneels before the congregation, the audience can giggle at his distress.

I don't imagine anyone will actually paint "Help me!" on my white bucks, but I'll probably have a few moments Saturday when that plea runs through my head.

Yep, I'm walking down the aisle. The last mile, as I like to call it.

At 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Liz Mandrell and I will be joined in holy matrimony.

The weeks leading up to the nuptials have been filled with joy, incredulity, stress — anyone ever taken part in a wedding that wasn't stressful? — and, occasionally, sheer terror.

Saturday marks a new beginning, and new beginnings are scary. They're also thrilling, filled with wonderful possibilities.

One thing Liz and I have discussed is how far we've come. How very, very far.

When we began dating, I was at the lowest ebb of my life. I'd lost my mother and my wife. My church appeared to be falling apart. My faith was failing me. My livelihood was in jeopardy. I was lonelier than I'd ever been.

I was just waiting around to die, basically. As I watched my 50th birthday approach, I was sure I had nothing to look forward to, ever again.

Liz was as miserable as I was.

We were long-time casual friends who exchanged our short stories and essays with each other for editing, but not so close I really understood the depth of her sadness.

She'd been through a divorce, had parted ways with her church and had moved 1,000 miles to Texas, where she was trying to put herself back together and not having much luck at it.

We were two shattered, lost souls.

Before this starts sounding like a forlorn country song — wait, it already sounds like one — I should tell you that's not the entire story.

I discerned good in Liz at a time when she couldn't find it in herself. She was, beneath the sometimes bristly front she put up, compassionate, amazingly forgiving of others' flaws and hungry for spiritual truth.

She says she saw me as a thoughtful, decent and honest man wounded by tragedies beyond my control. It's not how I viewed myself. It's how she saw me.

We stuck it out for a year and a half while she continued to live in Austin. We talked on the phone, sent long emails, visited each other during vacations.

Then she moved back home to Kentucky. She joined the church where I'm the pastor.

Still, we spent almost as much time fighting as canoodling. We'd break up. We'd get back together. Break up. Get back together. Call each other names. Apologize.

Ever so slowly, the Holy Spirit did the work only the Holy Spirit can do: He started healing our hearts.

The Holy Spirit had a lot of help, mainly from our fellow congregants, but also from assorted friends and counselors, and time itself.

The Liz I'm marrying today isn't the same woman I started dating more than five years ago. I'm not the same man I was, either. We've both been incrementally reborn.

For many people, middle age is largely a transition period, an unsettling or else boring precursor to the slide into old age.

Liz and I find ourselves taking tender, joyous steps toward a new life.

The God we serve is a God of new beginnings. He repairs broken people.

I'm happy today. Scared witless, but happy.

I'm so grateful to Liz, to God, to our congregation, to all who stuck with me when I wasn't worth sticking with.

Which leads me, finally, to what I really want to say.

I'm certain there's someone reading this, maybe a lot of you, who think your life is over. Maybe you've lost a loved one through death, endured a divorce, been downsized from your job, are battling an illness, are growing old.

Liz and I, if nothing else, might serve as testimonies that it's not over until it's over. There really is hope. If there was hope for us, there's hope for you.

I'm not so naïve as to think we won't face suffering again or have to work our way through difficulties in our marriage. I know better. In this world, we will have tribulation.

But God has brought us so far from where we were.

Speaking only for myself now, I have three beautiful little grandchildren I never thought I'd live to see. My congregation has rebounded. I also landed a full-time secular job at an age and in an economy in which I thought I was unemployable.

And I'm marrying a woman I genuinely love, and who I know loves me.

It wasn't over when I thought it was.

It isn't over for you.