I’m Jeremy Johnson and this is how I’ve been living deeply.
“I was 14 years old, just hanging out at my house watching a football game, I believe, and the phone rang. And it was Mike on the other end. He says, ‘Hi, Jeremy, I’m Mike Wenger. I have a couple girls here from the youth group working the concession stand, and they think you’d be a good person for this job I have open.’ He just explained it would be working at the church [Cedar Springs] in the control room where we have basketballs and equipment for practices, open gym, things like that. I just said, ‘Yeah, I think that would be fun.’ So that was how Mike and I started. My family had started going to Cedar Springs when we moved here from Illinois. I was only 10. We moved here and I didn’t like it, to be really honest. So the years of 10, 11, 12, I was really miserable. I fought with God a lot, and so subsequently, I fought with my parents. I wanted to seek after my goals and ambitions and have God come along with me; He was going to be my co-pilot and comfort as I made life work for me. Well God was not okay with that plan, but I didn’t get the message right away. It took a long time, and it was really difficult, and I was miserable in life. So the summer between seventh and eighth grade was the first time I decided, ‘Okay, fine, God. I’m trying to do what I want to do and it doesn’t work. So what do you want me to do?’ That was the first time I asked Him to direct me in life and didn’t want to direct myself with Him just along for the ride. That didn’t mean everything was magically better, but slowly, surely, life became better than miserable. I got the call from Mike shortly after I made that turn. So I didn’t know it at the time, but Mike was truly a Godsend for me- a friend who was older but so patient, and he loved me where I was. He didn’t need me to be further along in my walk than I was. Mike just stuck with me, encouraged me and helped me to grow. We hung out and talked sports all the time. It was a natural connection. I ended up working with Mike for 23 of the next 27 years. Most of that time he was CSPC’s director of sports ministry and I was his assistant director.
One thing I got from Mike was the ability to start a conversation with someone who normally wouldn’t let you in, and use that as a transition to talk about something meaningful. For instance, I can be traveling and see someone with a Houston Texans shirt. On the plane, if I’m sitting next to them, I might say, ‘Oh, you’re a Texans fan.’ And they say, ‘Yeah, we’re terrible’ or whatever. I’ll answer with, ‘Yeah, I can’t believe you guys traded Whitney Mercilus.’ And they’ll say, ‘You know who Whitney Mercilus is?’ Then within five minutes I can easily say, ‘So tell me why you’re a Texans fan. Are you from Texas? Have you always been from Texas?’ Ten minutes later we can be talking about their life- where they’re from, what they do. Mike did that all the time. He did it with me, enabling me to let down my guard when I was 14. He always saw the best parts of me and thankfully glossed over the not so good parts. Because he gave his time and relational investment, Mike was able to ask questions like very few people. He made people comfortable, and it led to them having deep relationships with Mike. By the very nature of the depth of his questions, the conversations would often turn spiritual. The other thing was his memory. I run into people all the time who say, ‘Mike remembered something about me from years ago that I can’t believe he still remembers.’ He would ask about their kids who were in college- he’d remember their names, where they went to school, what they were interested in when they played in our sports leagues. These were everyday ministry opportunities –whether Mike thought of them that way or not- that Mike didn’t miss. People recognized by all this that this was truly someone who did care about them. It makes me want to be that type of person going forward.
Mike had cancer eight years ago, and he beat it. This type of cancer was super aggressive, so his understanding was that if it didn’t come back within six months, it probably wouldn’t come back at all. Nothing happened after that for almost eight years. Mike also had an autoimmune disease that could never be pinpointed exactly. It caused swelling in his joints and fingers. He’d seen gradual improvement, but over the past six to eight months, the bad swelling was flaring back up. So he was having issues again, and in the back of my mind I suspected and feared the cancer might be back. Then he got sick over the summer and was just really miserable- that was when he went back to the hospital and they ended up finding new cancer cells. I was on vacation when Mike called me and told me. I was definitely taken aback and sad, but my natural thought was, ‘Mike, you’re going to beat this and it’s going to be fine.’ Maybe that’s just because I’m a glass half-full sort of person; maybe it’s because I had watched him beat it last time. But that was what I honestly thought.
Not long after, I talked to Mike on the day he died- I didn’t know he was dying at the time. We talked on the phone a little bit, and he was really swollen. He had dealt with an infection, and it had made his neck and his jaw just incredibly swollen. So he got on the phone, and it was terrible because I couldn’t tell what he was saying. It was like his mouth was full and he was trying to talk. It could have been the swelling but it also could have been bad reception- I’m not sure. Three or four times I said, ‘Mike, I’m not really sure what you’re saying.’ I felt bad. Probably after the fourth time, I said, ‘Mike, I am so, so sorry. I can’t tell what you’re saying.’ And he said, ‘That’s okay, I’ll just text you’- I could tell enough that he was saying that. So I said okay and hung up. I had no idea that would be our last conversation. Now just before all this, he had called me, but I couldn’t get to my phone so he left me a message. When I saw Mike had called, I just called him without listening to the message, and that was the last time we talked. I knew I had this message from him on my phone, and I just couldn’t listen to it- I couldn’t. For two days it sat on my phone. Then, on Wednesday of that week, I finally got on my phone and listened to his message, and it was very clear. He was like, ‘Hey buddy. I hope you’re doing good. I love you and miss you, and I hope you’re doing alright.’ Just real basic stuff. But I felt like that was really a gift from the Lord- because it doesn’t make any sense to me that I can hear that message and it’s plain as day, and literally two minutes later on the phone I can’t tell what he’s saying. It’s just so obvious that was a gift God gave me. And even though he was too humble to think he was qualified to teach the Bible, Mike ministered in powerful everyday ways that made his life a gift to all of us.”