On Oct. 5, we said goodbye to L. Paul Prather with a funeral service at our church. We respected Dad's wishes, which were that we make the service a party rather than a parting.
Instead of playing tear-jerking organ music, we sang lively praise songs. A church elder attached balloons to his coffin. We set out bowls of candy and bubble gum for the guests. I told some funny tales.
Naturally, somebody's cellphone went off in the middle of my eulogy.
"That's probably him now," I told the audience. "He's calling to suggest a few stories he thinks would be better than the ones I'm telling."
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All my life, he'd claimed this was how he wanted to go.
"When I die, I don't want any old sad, mournful service," he'd say. "I'm going home to see the Lord. Be happy. I want you to give out candy and gum to the kids and clap your hands and shout for joy. I want a celebration."
At which point my mother invariably would chime in: "Not me. When I go, I want you all to wail and cry and sling snot. I want you to throw yourselves across the casket and beg me to stay. Put on a real show. I want waterworks."
When Mom died in 2003, we did do a fair amount of crying.
Last week, we gave Dad the party he desired.
It was difficult to keep it light, but I really was glad for him.
The last years of his life were tough. He was inconsolable after my mother died. He talked regularly about how much he wanted to be with her.
His physical health failed and then his mental health. He suffered falls, blindness, a heart attack, dementia. It was bad. He was miserable.
Now he's free, and he's healthy, and he's back with my mom, and he finally gets to see the Lord he preached about for more than 60 years.
More than anyone else I've known, including me, Dad truly believed in and lived a gospel that was profoundly good news.
He was convinced that the secret to God's nature, the key to the New Testament, the crux of Christianity, was love.
That was his constant theme: unconditional love.
To him, everyone deserved a second chance. Or a 20th chance.
He overcame so much to be that man.
He recognized that you couldn't change where you came from. But he was sure that with God's help you could always change who you became.
For instance, his own father had lost his dad when he was 5 and later was forced to drop out of grade school to go to work.
My grandfather grew up to be a semi-literate laborer who put in 12- and 16-hour days, six days a week, driving trucks, digging ditches and shoveling coal. As a result, he was absent emotionally and exhausted physically.
He wasn't a bad man.
But Dad told me that in his whole life they never had a real conversation.
Instead of repeating the painful patterns of his own boyhood, Dad decided to become the father he wished he'd had. He prayed for wisdom.
He made time to talk with me. He answered my endless questions. He took me to movies and ballgames. He became not only my father but my great friend.
When I became a father myself, I didn't have to try to re-create myself. I instinctively imitated Dad.
And today, so does my own son, whether or not he realizes it. My grandchildren possess, in my son, one of the best fathers on Earth.
They might never understand this, but they're the beneficiaries of their great-grandfather's choice to use his past to make himself better rather than bitter.
I could give you so many examples like that, ways in which my dad transformed his sufferings into blessings for others.
He was formed by a religion full of brimstone, fear, self-loathing, judgmentalism and legalism.
He said that as a child, he'd come home from church and lie awake nights weeping, terrified, as if he could feel hell's flames lapping up around his bed.
So what did he preach? A message of grace.
When he saw people who were hurting, he would clap them on the shoulder. "The Lord loves you just like you are — and so do I," he'd say, smiling.
If they were sick, he went to visit them. If they were broke, he raised money for them. If they sinned, he assured them of God's forgiveness.
He embraced lunatics and fools and ne'er-do-wells and welfare mothers.
He openly accepted black people and gay people decades before it was thinkable for a white, evangelical, straight Christian to do so in our part of the world.
He had Catholic buddies, Jewish buddies, Episcopal buddies, agnostic buddies.
Once, when I was a young minister, I went on a tirade against some surly bigots I had encountered.
I was feeling pretty special about myself.
Dad raised his eyebrows.
"I see," he said. "So you're only prejudiced against prejudiced people?"
"Well," he said, "if you can't accept prejudiced people, then what makes you different than they are? You're just as prejudiced, only in the opposite direction. No, if you're going to follow Jesus, you've got to love everybody — even bigots."
I had no comeback for that. And still don't.
I really am happy for you.
But I'm sure going to miss you.