“I’ll pull myself up by my own bootstraps.”
It’s a phrase that has ingrained itself in the American cowboy ethos. It’s the can-do spirit that leads people to believe they can recover from any setback on the sole basis of their own effort or abilities.
Cody Cochran was determined to go through life doing just that. When he was in high school, his family came undone. Wounded, he promised himself he’d never allow any harm to the future family he planned. In fact, nothing would stop him from being a top hand and working for a big outfit, either.
And he had the pedigree to accomplish his goal. His father roped at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in the tie-down and his grandparents on both sides come from old, West Texas ranching stock. Cody probably roped calves well enough to make the Finals himself, but the bright lights of rodeo held no sway over him. Instead, he yearned for the simple life of a cowboy on a big ranch with a wife and family. That was something he could do on his own merits.
“I had this image in my head of these old cowboys and what they did and how they lived: smoke Camel cigarettes with no filter and drink W.L. Weller whiskey, ride, rope, and be a wild cowboy.”
He worked on all the ranches he was supposed to work on to establish his credibility: the Diamond A, Babbitt, and Tongue River ranches. And his ability to rope any wild critter, sit any bronc, and think like a cow won him the hard-earned respect of the West Texas cowboy culture. Before long, he found himself (along with his new bride, Jennifer) working at the Four Sixes, the pinnacle of West Texas ranch cowboy success.
“I had the job I wanted, the pointed toe boots, pointed hat, straight-leg Levis, and the wife that I wanted,” he says. “But still, at night when I laid down, all of the things that I wanted didn’t bring complete fulfillment to my life.”
People react in different ways when they feel their circumstances and contentment slipping from their control. Some press harder, some turn to meaningless distractions, and some numb the pain artificially. We all, as French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “… strive to fill the void of the God-shaped vacuum in our hearts one way or another.”
Cody Cochran, though, was blindsided. He and his wife had been attending an Assembly of God church in Roaring Springs, Texas, a small town of about 300 souls, 55 miles from where he lived on the 6666s. For him, church was only a requirement to fulfill his idea of what a good ol’ boy ought to do. As he sat in those pews, he could never quite reconcile the popular portrayal of Jesus with his own understanding of what a man ought to be.
“I always had this image of Christ followers as being sissy men,” he says. “They are the guys that had suits and didn’t work and went to seminary. The paintings of Jesus in the Bible show him with long feathered hair, highlights, and a lamb around his neck, kind of feminine-looking.”
But one Sunday it was different. An inner struggle was raging in Cochran as he listened to the preaching, and he couldn’t get his head around it.
“The Lord was wearing me out,” he explains. “The preacher preached about the power of the Holy Spirit to help us overcome sin. At the end of the sermon I was embarrassed and nervous, but I went to that preacher and I said, ‘I can’t do it on my own, I need that power. I don’t understand it but I believe what you’re saying.’”
The weight of the world began to lift from Cochran’s shoulders. Once at home, feeling a freedom he’d never felt before, he went to the back room of his bunkhouse, pulled out a King James version of the Bible, dusted it off, and cracked it open at random.
The mighty book fell open to the nineteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. It’s the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He interpreted the Word of God as only a cowboy could.
“The way that I read it that night was, Jesus told two disciples to go to that next town over to find a bronc donkey tied to a fence,” he remembers. “The scriptures specifically said that nobody’s ever ridden this donkey. I pictured these people throwing their coats over this donkey’s back and the donkey going nuts and Peter jumping and grabbing him, getting a mouthful of ear to ear this sucker down. They had the donkey blindfolded to get Jesus on him, and then they sat Jesus on there. Jesus never used his power to help himself while he was on earth, so I had this picture that the donkey had to have bucked and Jesus rode him.”
Somehow, and Cochran doesn’t even try to explain it, the next place he turned to was the nineteenth chapter of Revelation, where the Bible describes Jesus sitting on a white horse.
“I was thinking, man, he graduated from a jackass to a horse,” he says. “Then I think, there are horses in Heaven! The scripture goes on to say all the armies were following him in heaven were riding white horses. At that moment, my faith became so real and Jesus became so personal to me. It was like, Jesus is a cowboy! That’s what I actually thought.”
From then on, Cochran’s life changed dramatically. He, alongside Jennifer, knew it was time to leave the 6666s. He was riding for a new brand now and he pledged his allegiance to God. His prayer was for the Lord to show him where he should go and what he should do; his only stipulations were he didn’t want to live in Abilene, be a full-time pastor, or attend an Assembly of God church.
To make ends meet—and to show just how much of his cowboy pride he’d surrendered—he worked the 4:15 a.m. shift at UPS in Abilene loading boxes. He day worked on some ranches, started colts, sold insurance, and preached on the side. He was allowing someone else to tug on his bootstraps, and even though he was not horseback all the time, he began to find peace. Then, the events that unfolded in the coming months demonstrated God’s sense of humor.
The pastor of a little Assembly of God church in Anson, Texas—a town of about 2,000 folks—was going on vacation and asked Cody to fill in for two weeks. While gone, the pastor suffered a minor stroke, so Cody stayed on another few weeks. Just as the pastor was set to return, his wife fell and broke her hip. The congregation, which consisted of about 13 members—most of whom were more than 70 years old—asked Cody to stay on full time.
In the six months since leaving the 6666s to ride for God, Cochran was living in Abilene and working as a full-time preacher at an Assembly of God church. Some 14 years later, he’s still there. The church has grown to 400 congregants—many of whom are his old cowboy pals who swore they’d never darken the door of a church.
“I think the reason there’s a great movement of cowboy churches today is because the cowboy is an American icon,” he says. “Sure, there’s black hats and white hats, some are good and some are outlaws, but I think at the core, when someone sees a cowboy, they think that’s someone they can trust. I think these cowboys know what’s right and stand for justice, but when they come to the Lord, they begin to understand that they have a destiny and purpose in life, and it’s bigger than punching cows for $1,700 a month.”
And as Cochran attests, it’s only by putting our faith in something greater than ourselves that we can get across the fence to discover that purpose.