Paul Prather

Paul Prather: Reflecting on my faith helped me better understand God's kindness, grace

Associated Press

I got an email from the Rev. David A. Shirey, senior minister at Lexington's Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He wanted me to speak to his congregation's men's group. The group, he said, asks guest speakers to answer three questions.

Even though I couldn't make Central Christian's meeting, I found the questions intriguing, and I wanted to answer them anyway, here.

You might ask yourself these questions; they're well-suited for reflection. At least they prompted me to reflect.

One caveat: Because this was a men's group, the first question concerns only men, but you can easily substitute a woman instead.

1. Who is the man (or men) who has had the most influence on your life? How so?

My dad. I imagine that would be the commonest answer if you surveyed 1,000 men. Rarely does anyone play a bigger a role in a guy's life than his father, just by his presence — or his absence.

When you're a boy, your dad is your god almost. Later, you discover to your dismay, and his, that he's only a mortal, with all the failings and flounderings that suggests.

My father could be, at times, frustrating, even crazy-making.

But in the larger scheme, I'm so grateful I had him.

Two lessons he taught me particularly have influenced me for the better. First, he taught me that God is defined by his lavish love. My dad believed God loved everyone, and he thought his job, as a disciple, was to love everyone, too.

He lived that. He loved the rich and respected. He loved beggars and ne'er-do-wells. Whites, blacks, racists, immigrants, gays, straights, prisoners, cops, scammers — he never met a person he wouldn't hug or to whom he wouldn't give what he possessed.

Which leads me to a second lesson: he taught me it's more blessed to give than receive. He gave to God and to others beyond all boundaries of common sense. From him I learned that temporal possessions don't amount to much, that there's enormous peace in letting them go.

2. Tell us about a particularly difficult period(s) of your life. How did your faith sustain you?

Like everyone, I've endured pain, such as losing my first wife to cancer.

My earliest hard time came during my senior year of high school and freshman year of college.

Just before my senior year, my parents moved 100 miles away. I ended up boarding with a kind family in my hometown. I stayed for two reasons: I was in love, and I wanted to finish my high school football career at the school where I'd previously played.

Turned out, that season we got new coaches, who benched me. I was heartbroken.

After high school, I remained in town another year and attended a local college so I could be near my girlfriend. During the fall semester, she and I broke up. Then I got into disciplinary trouble at school.

Within about a year, then, I'd lost my home, my parents, my football glory and my first love, and found myself temporarily stuck at a college where I was an outcast.

It seemed like my own private apocalypse. Or, as the late Lewis Grizzard might have put it, it felt as if somebody had "tore out my heart and stomped that sucker flat."

I blamed God. I went from being disinterested in religion to railing at heaven, scoffing at the faithful and defiantly declaring myself an atheist.

I studied all the literature by skeptics I could get my mitts on.

At my parents' house the next summer, I went off to my room alone one night, still fuming and mumbling about the ridiculousness of those who, like my mom and dad, believed in a mythical puppet-master in the sky.

The next morning I walked out of that room a new creation — blindsided by faith and imbued with wonder. I've been a believer ever since.

Faith didn't sustain me through this excruciating period; I had none. But I came out of it with faith. I learned sometimes God uses our difficulties to lead us toward better things we couldn't have foreseen for ourselves.

3. As you look back over your life, what is one thing for which you are profoundly grateful to God?

My initial answer was my family.

But I'm perhaps equally as grateful for God's grace. That's been my game changer. I probably wouldn't have fully appreciated my family, for instance, without a revelation of grace, weird as that sounds.

Grace says we're all pretty hopeless, yet God loves us as we are.

As I've written before, the only appropriate response to a gift that spectacular is humility toward the Lord and our fellow pilgrims.

Grace has made my life an ongoing, "Thank you." Consequently, I try (with varying success) to feel nothing toward my fellow travelers except compassion and hope. Yes, they're silly and undeserving.

And so am I.

If God showed me kindness, he'll do the same for them. He accepts me where I am, and in doing so, enables me to accept others. Which is kind of what my dad told me all those years ago.