While watching highlights from the 2017 Astros’ championship games with his wife and his grandson, who sat next to him and called the plays, my dear friend Larry Prater passed into glory October 19 at 2:30 PM CT.
I’ve known this day would come for quite some time. Larry had been battling cancer for four years, and his body slowly failed him. In the end, the 71-year-old grandfather and husband and retired teacher who was known for running marathons up until last year could no longer even walk. A few months ago, he wrote me that he “needed” to “live longer and stronger to bless my kids and to be a link between the faith of my fathers and the faith of my grandkids. I want to be a testament of God’s goodness in the midst of chaos and of wickedness.” I can hardly imagine a more honorable desire for a man.His life’s work was the common and righteous work of loving those around him until he physically was incapable of serving others.
I learned many things from Larry, even if it was from the distance of the internet. He reminded me of the obligation I have as a father and husband, and as a Christian, to pass on the faith and to care for my family. To be present with my children and one day my grandchildren. Larry modeled this as, in his retirement, he helped raise his grandchildren—work that must have been tiring. But he was so incredibly proud of his grandchildren: He went to their performances. He took them fishing and to baseball games. He praised them to us, his friends. He clearly loved them. And I know in his last years, he felt anxious about the possibility of leaving them. You can see that anxiety in his message to me. He really did believe that he needed to live longer for them.
It was that faithfulness and sense of duty that I always admired in Larry, and I still do. He and his wife were married nearly 47 years. His life’s work was the common and righteous work of loving those around him until he physically was incapable of serving others.
But it is that same deep sense of duty that, I fear, made Larry anxious sometimes. And I can very easily imagine myself feeling the exact same way—thinking that I need to live longer and stronger to help my family, to carry their faith forward.
There is a fine line between fulfilling your basic human duty to your family, neighbor, and God and the anxious fear that their well-being is up to you. No one can bear that burden except God.
When I survey the contemporary world, I don’t find many men or women with the kind of quiet, sacrificial, longsuffering faithfulness of Larry Prater. To grow old is to watch those you once respected and admired fail you. Their weakness, abuse, violence, lust, egotism, or greed begin to surface, and you wonder if everyone is not only a sinner, but also a hidden predator.
But Larry made it. He lived a life of quiet, honest service. I know he sinned. I don’t know all his moral failings, but I’m sure he screwed up badly at one time or another. But he persevered. He took care of those in need. He loved people. He prayed for me and supported me while I was still just an anxious and insecure graduate student. Larry was who he desired to be, “a testament of God’s goodness in the midst of chaos and of wickedness.”
I hope and pray that I can become the kind of man Larry Prater was and is. The world needs men like him—men who don’t abuse their power or privilege and who keep their word, men who love God and give their lives to others.
Our society pressures us to be someone, to achieve something, to own something. But we’d all be much better off if each of us would strive to be faithful to the immediate calling God has given us. Be someone trustworthy. Stay married. Love your children. Humble yourself. Share your faith. Provide for those in need. Thank God every day. And do all that for decade after decade after decade until one day God calls you home.
God grant me the courage of Larry Prater.
Bellow I have reproduced the last two letters I sent to Larry, which his wife graciously read to him. I have made minor edits to respect the privacy of his family. I share these letters because they say a lot about my friend.
Dear Larry Prater,
I want to remind you that you are good man. There are so few trustworthy, godly men in the world, it feels like. Maybe it’s just easier to learn about the failures of others or to be exposed, I don’t know. But what I do know is that the list of men I admire is short. So I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to watch you faithfully serve as a husband, father, grandfather, and friend.
I’ve learned from you the importance of quiet perseverance. Not stoicism, because you have confessed your fears and weaknesses to us. And I’m sure that there are heavier mistakes you have made in life about which I know nothing. But that is part of why I admire you. I’ve always known that you were a man who loved his family and God and the Church imperfectly, with moments of selfishness or fear, but a lasting devotion. You persevere. Your grandchildren are blessed to call you grandfather.
I will always regret that we never got the timing right to see each other in Waco. The last time you came through while I was there, I took a raincheck so I could format my dissertation. I should have had lunch with you instead. I’m sorry. Of the formatting of dissertations there is no end.
I had hoped that someone would have me out to speak in San Antonio this year so that I could see you. But with the virus, everything has stopped, and I don’t know when I’ll get another opportunity to speak. Which is why I’m writing this. I know it’s not the same, but I don’t want to wait another year hoping that the virus will die down so that I can tell you some things you need to know.
Thank you for encouraging me for the last 8 years. It’s meant a lot to me that you’ve been there to pray for me and support me and believe in me while I was still just an extremely anxious PhD student. You sent books to help me with research. You sent us a Seven Samurai poster! I have had many interactions with people on social media, but only a handful of them have felt tangible despite the medium. Your gifts did that. But more so, your presence. I imagine this is a glimpse at what your grandchildren and children have experienced—the knowledge that you are right there, watching them, desiring their good, praying for them, believing in them. And I felt that. It made a difference in me. Trying to do anything meaningful in life is risky and frightening. You expose yourself to criticism and failure. So the only way anyone can try is to know that there are people who care for them even in the failures.
Another regret is that I didn’t finish this book on time. I don’t know when it will be published, but I want you to know that I intend to include your name in the acknowledgements. It’s a small, trivial gesture, but it feels right that your name should be on my work, because you’ve been such a part of it.
A couple things I want you to know right now: You are a responsible man. You tend to try to carry the weight of your family on your shoulders. It’s one of the characteristics I admire about you, but it also needs to have an end. You have done your duty. Take this time to rest in God’s grace. Don’t worry about your wife. God blessed your wife with you and your family, and He will continue to care for her. Don’t worry about your children. God is sovereign over our parenting or none of us have any hope. Don’t worry about your grandchildren. They grew up with grandparents who love them. God will be with them, too. If any of your grandchildren need advice or encouragement or whatever, they can reach out and I’ll help.
I’m sorry the pain is getting worse. Don’t be afraid. All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
Thank you for your friendship and love. I hope and pray that your health improves and the world calms down and I can visit you soon. Until then,
The Lord bless you and keep you,
The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.
The following letter was written after Larry was placed under hospice care.
If I were able to travel, I’d sit with you and try not to say a word. But since I can’t be there, I’m going to have to rely on my words to be there for you. I’m sorry. But I’m so grateful for you.
Remember who you are. No change in your body has changed the fact that you are Larry Prater, beloved by God, married to J—, father and grandfather. This day you have before you the same duty as every other day of your life: to glorify God and enjoy Him. It may not feel like it, but by God’s grace, you still have the power to continue glorifying and enjoying God and His creation. Perhaps all you can manage today is a look of gratitude towards J— and a silent prayer of “Thank you God.” But at your best, isn’t that what you’ve been trying to say your whole life, anyway?
There is nothing you need to do right now. Nothing you need to fix or provide for your family. You can rest. Your time right now is good. It’s good for you to see J—’s face, to talk with your son, to breath God’s air. It may hurt a great deal, but it is good. Try to rest and delight in these moments, but don’t fear or sorrow, because there is nothing good or beautiful or true that you can lose that you will not gain back in unspeakable fullness. God has turned His face on you, and He sees His Son’s righteousness, and He loves you.
The same God who gave you breath each moment of your life will continue to preserve and love you. As real and tangible as your being in this world feels right now, whether it be pain or agony or fear or even a kind of dullness, His love for you is more real. And your peace in him is more real, even if you don’t feel that peace right now. Although I hope to God you do. Christ’s resurrection was as bodily and visceral as the bread and the wine, and yours will be, too. And mine. That is all the hope we can ever have.
I know that you are a proud man. Losing your mobility is probably weighing on you heavily. Please listen to me: there is no shame in being cared for. None at all. One of the most sacred acts a person can offer another person is to care for their bodies when they are vulnerable. No, please feel no shame or self-pity. You are being cared for by people who love you, and their caring for you, no matter how uncomfortable or invasive or gross, is an act of holy service, whether they know it or not. Be honored, because it is an honor to be loved so. Be grateful without shame, because all of our lives are gratuitous gifts from God.
May the Lord bless you and keep you,
The Lord make His face shine upon you
And be gracious unto you.
May He lift up His countenance upon you
And give you peace, now and forever more.
-O. Alan Noble