Johnny was just one of those people in life that you never forget. He was getting up in years when I first met him. Well, my first encounter with this son of Italy wasn’t really an introduction. I heard him pray at the Lord’s Supper!
When he finished his prayer, I confess I looked up to see who this man was who entered the presence of God with such simplicity, such intimacy, and with tears.
There was nothing of note in his appearance. Not tall, but stocky, a nondescript gray suit draped over what had once been the powerful figure of a working man. He was obviously more at home in his mother tongue than the American English of his adopted land. His accent was still highly seasoned with the characteristics of the traditional Italian immigrant, but that in no way hindered his approach into the Sanctuary.
Oh! those prayers! When he rose to pray before the Gospel meeting to lay hold on God on behalf of lost sinners, his earnest appeals carried us with him into the throne room of the universe. He was a man who appreciated being saved and longed for others to “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”
Yes! God had been good to Johnny and to his dear wife of many years. He had never lost the joy of his salvation and wanted my preaching colleague and I to come for dinner so that he could tell us his story of the goodness of God.
We were invited for a noon-hour meal. We realized—as the meal progressed—how much we had to be thankful for, that this was not the evening meal just before we preached! After all, who can translate hospitality into those wonderful aromas, delectable dishes, and spicy marvels like an Italian mama?
The real purpose, however, was not just to set a delicious feast before us for our bodies, but to tell us his story. It took the whole hour of the meal as he spread out before us a more wonderful feast than that crossing our palate. Even after these many years I still relish it.
It is a long time ago now, and no doubt some of the details may be lost to my memory, but I have never forgotten the salient facts.
He, his wife, and children were very poor in Italy. Some of his relatives had made it over to the United States and enjoyed the benefits of their new land. So to help out, they sent Johnny the fare to bring his little family over to the New World with all its promise and prospects. So they came.
But the promise and prospects had died in the crash of the late 20’s, and the depression filled the streets with the unemployed. Johnny walked those streets every day looking for any kind of a job that would put food on the table.
One day, someone told him that an Italian preacher, Caesar Patrizio, was preaching the Gospel at a nearby meeting place, and invited him to attend. Johnny wasn’t too interested, feeling that he had his own religion. But time lagged in those days and there were few distractions, so one evening found Johnny slipping into the back seat to hear the Italian preacher.
The message was simple, the text was the Golden Gospel Text, John 3:16 , “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Johnny didn’t get much out of the message. His mind was already thinking about tomorrow and the daily hunt for a job. But there it was, “For God so loved the world . . . ” Well, thought Johnny, if God loved the world, just maybe that included him, and maybe this God could get him the job he needed. So he sent into heaven his desperate prayer, not for his soul, for his salvation, or for heaven, but just for a job. “O God, if You love me, please get me a job, so I can feed my wife and kids.”
The very next day, at the market, a man offered Johnny a job, loading vegetables on the trucks, for 75 cents a day! “Wasn’t God a-good to me?” he would say. Then he went on, “The next day, he hire’ me again—an’ I got a promote; he pay me a dollar a day! Say, wasn’t God a-good to me?”
At the end of that long, hot day, the boss said, “Hey, Johnny, you look hot. Here, drink this Coke,” and handed him a bottle of pop.
“Thank you, boss,” replied Johnny, “But you keep the Coke and give me the nickel instead, an’ I buy a loaf a’ bread for my kids.” “Oh, Johnny,” laughed the boss, “Drink the Coke, and here’s the money for a loaf of bread for your kids, too.”
By this time Johnny is beaming as he tells us again, “Say, wasn’t God a-good to me?” But his story isn’t over yet. The next day, after a hard day’s loading of trucks, the boss called him over, “Johnny, d’ya like a cabbage?”
He tossed a large fresh cabbage into a bushel basket. “Like potatoes, Johnny?”
“What about squash and cauliflower?”
“Yes, yes, we like them all,” Johnny gasped as he saw the boss fill up the bushel basket to the top with delectable vegetables and fruits.
“There, Johnny, take that home to the wife and kids.”
We could hear it coming. And the tears in his eyes primed ours too, “Say, wasn’t God a-good to me?”
He hoisted the bushel of vegetables and fruit on to his shoulder and set out to walk across the city, seven miles to his little home. “An’ my heart was-a sing,” he laughed.
Johnny always had difficulty with his prepositions. “Under this roof” was “A-bottom this roof.” “In front of the house” was “A-top-a the house.” So he arrived home at last, perhaps a little later than usual because of the load of blessing in the bushel basket, and his wife was “a-waitin’” for him “a-top-a the house.”
Once inside, he put down the bushel basket from his shoulder and explained their good fortune. Then after some silent moments, Johnny spoke again, “Wife, if God goin’-a love me like-a this, I goin’-a love Him back.”
No doubt Heaven was moved at the sight of that little family, bowed in the presence of the God of John 3:16, drawn in loving response and obedience by the evidence of the goodness of God in a bushel of vegetables. For as Johnny would learn, “The goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance” ( Rom. 2:4 ).
How good God has been to us in these western lands. Not just with a bushel of vegetables; “He daily loadeth us with benefits.” The food we eat, the ability to eat it and the appetite to enjoy it. A measure of health and strength and soundness of mind. A bed to sleep on and shelter from the elements. Meaningful employment and a paycheck God enables us to earn. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights . . .”(Jas.1:17). Friends and loved ones around us, and God handing us a breath at a time without fail, “The God in whose hand thy breath is” ( Dan. 5:23 ). Yet the greatest evidence of His goodness and wondrous love is still emblazoned in John 3:16 , the gift of His only begotten Son.
If indeed God has so loved you as Johnny found out, do you love Him back? Have you obeyed His gospel call? Has there ever been a time when you got down before Him and thanked Him for all the riches of His goodness and received His greatest Gift, His own beloved Son as your Saviour? If not . . . why not? God is not good to us because we are good, but because He is good!
Well, Johnny, his dear wife, and the Italian preacher laugh and sing and serve together in a Land where the fruit doesn’t come in bushel baskets, and the trees never lose their leaves. They are at home with the Lord, to bask forever in the sunshine of the riches of the goodness of God. And there, in the House of the Lord, Johnny will “love Him back” forever and forever.
Isn’t God good?