Michael's Monthly Column "Throwing My Loop"


     Older I get, the more I like this fellow.  Jesus, I mean.  When I was a little boy, I was afraid of Him, ‘cause the preachers said He had all these rules.  Mrs. Lynch was my seventh-grade teacher, and she had a slew of them too.  And since I couldn’t measure up to hers, I knew I was going to have a devil of a time living up to His.  But I was wrong about that…  

     One time when the fish swallowed Jonah, he said, “My soul fainted, but I remembered the Lord.”  That proves Jonah was a better person than me - to remember the Lord in a time of crises - but I can say something sweeter than Jonah.  When my soul fainted, the Lord remembered me. 

     I can hardly be described as a religious nut - as our preacher said to me once, “I love you like a brother, but it wouldn’t hurt you to straighten up a little bit,” -  but because of my wife, I find myself at our little Methodist Church in the country more and more.  One reason being, I love to hear Rebecca sing, and another being, those Methodist women can cook like my little Momma did.  But most of all, it’s because of our pastor…Gene Van Alstyne. 

     I really liked the one we had before.  His name was Rick Forthman.  He always gave the same sermon about the Prodigal Son.  He told the same story most every Sunday about this young man who wouldn’t listen to his Daddy.  About how he wasted his life, spent his money, and ended up broke, hungry, and full of regret.  And then about how the Bible said, he “came to himself” and he went back home.  How his Daddy ran to him, and cooked a big barbeque ‘cause his boy had come home.  Then, he would tell a story about another boy who didn’t listen to his Daddy, and went to prison, and then a worse prison, and then a worse prison.  And he always ended the sermon about how Jesus came to see the young man in prison and said, “I’m worried about you, I love you, and I want you to be okay.” He always told that same story about how Jesus had come to see the boy in prison, and how He didn’t have a list of rules.  He just said, “I’m worried about you.”  And the Pastor’s last line was always the same.  His last line was always, “And the boy in prison Jesus came to see was me.” 

     Some people in the church grew tired of that sermon.  I was never one of them.  I never tired of hearing that story. 

     But then Pastor Van Alstyne came.  I knew he would be nice, but I also knew I wouldn’t like him as much as Rick.  But I was wrong about that too.  Now, I like them both the same.  Even though they use different words, they tell the same story. The story is always about Jesus, and how He came to check on them.  They tell the story in different ways, but the story is always about Jesus and how He came to see if they were okay. 

     “There was this kid,” begins our new pastor.  “And everyone knew he wasn’t much.  His parents had no unrealistic expectations about him, and his teachers certainly didn’t.  His peers knew he was shy and backward, so the popular kids avoided him, and those not so popular did the same.  But then…” he pauses. 

     “There was this teacher.  She had red hair, and could hardly be described as attractive.  She smoked cigarettes and wore lipstick that was far too red.  No, she wasn’t attractive, but the more you were around her, the more you realized there was something attractive about her.  She took notice of this young shy boy, and saw something in him that others didn’t see… and she told him that.” 

     And at this point, the whole congregation is leaning forward on the pews, knowing like Paul Harvey, the preacher is going to tell us “the rest of the story.”
We all know the punch line will be, “And today, that person is Bill Cosby - today that person is Art Linkletter, that person is Colin Powell.”  We all know that’s coming, and the preacher continues… 

     “She picked this child.  She told him he was special, that he could lead others, that there was something special about him ‘cause the Lord had made him to do good work, and on and on, she told this boy he could do things, that he was not made to be ordinary, ‘cause the Lord does not make us to be ordinary, and on and on - and the child listened - and the child believed.” 

     And the preacher always concludes this story with the same lines.  “She helped this child believe in himself.  And today…”  Now all the congregation is on the front edge of the pews, all leaning forward, all with an unspoken silent guess about who this famous person is - and the pastor continues… 

     “That child changed his ways.  He ‘came to himself,’ and believed he could do things.  And later, that young boy would excel in school, act and sing, and debate and work in drama.  Later he would attend the seminary, and today he speaks to thousands every year in three churches.  And that young man grew up to be… your pastor - Gene Van Alstyne.” 

     And everybody just sits there in stunned silence.  This preacher had us going down the left field line, all looking for a fastball.  Then, he comes out of right field, and just when we know he’s bringin’ heat, he comes from right field with a change-up curve we miss by a foot.  “That story’s about Jesus,” I think to myself.  About this fellow that hung around with lepers, tax collectors, and sinners, and when they asked him why, He said, “…’Cause the righteous don’t need saving.”  And I sit there and I think, “That’s what He does.  He goes into a prison and says, “I’m worried about you.”  He lives in a red haired schoolteacher with too much lipstick who believes in a child.  And He comes to see us when our soul faints, in our darkest time, and He says, “You may have forgotten about me, but I haven’t forgotten you.” The stories are the same.  Neither is really about Rick or about Gene.  The stories are about us.  About how we are all more than we think, we are all more than we know. 

     So many preachers yell.  I wonder why they do that.  They yell at the top of their lungs ‘bout how “we need to get right with Jesus,” and when they do, I always have two thoughts.  First one is, “Why do you assume our relationship with Him is so bad in the first place?”  And the second thought I have is, “God is not deaf.  There is no need to yell, He can hear really good.” And I doubt He yells much.  Reason I think that is because Elijah found God, not in the whirlwind, the earthquake, nor the fire, but in the still small voice.  He knows that when He whispers, as Elmer Fudd might say, “We have to wisten vewry, vewry cwosely.” 

     Rebecca and I have a daily ritual.  We feed the horses and cattle, then give them all too much hay, and after sweeping out the barn, we move our chairs to the barn door.  We turn out the horses, and they come around to smell her hair, and see if she has a treat.  Even if she doesn’t, they remain – standing close - so clearly desiring a connection.  I see Him in them too, in Shine’s face, and in Blue’s. And it occurs to me, the evolutionists don’t have a clue. 

     Older I get, the more I see Him - in hummingbirds, in baby colts, in the geese that fly over sometimes, and in Rebecca’s eyes.  And the older I get, the more I like Him. 

I am neither pastor nor teacher, but an ordinary pilgrim, one person among many on a spiritual search.                                                                                                    Phillip Yancey, Soul Survivor  

        Merry Christmas to all of you,

        Michael Johnson 

Michael's latest release, Reflections Of A Cowboy, is currently available in audio book form. The two volume set consists of articles, essays and excerpts from radio performances about good people and good horses in the life of an Oklahoma cowboy. Approximately 8 hours in length. Reflections Of A Cowboy in printed form is scheduled for release in the summer of 2005. Order from Michael's website.

Michael heading for the great Sonny Gould

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