Sunday, September 12, 2010

Cowboy Church

      Part of the fun and excitement of college is having the opportunity to meet new people,  try new things, explore new venues, and enlarge your world view.  In order to do this, you have to be open to stepping out of your comfort zone and entering arenas that have not previously been on your life path. On Thursday, Sissey took a little trip down the road less travelled, saddled up for a trailride down an untrodden path,  and ending up having a hum-dinger of an evening. This is where it all happened and how it all began....

        For several weeks, a friend at school had been inviting us to attend Cowboy Church with her family.  As dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterians, we were used to a traditional church service of  old familiar hymns, polished wooden pews, stained glass windows, pipe organ music, responsive readings and communion. However, we were not opposed to worshipping with friends within the realms of their comfort zones and in the tradition of their own church experiences. We had been to a biker church in Richmond, where leather-clad and tattooed Harley boys ushered us into a gym for a rock-n-roll service. Our tour guide in Costa Rica had taken us to the rain forest river where all of his family had been baptized in the tropical, muddy, crocodile-infested waters.  We had worshipped while roasting marshmellows on campfires by a lake, had sung hymns on a beach at sunrise, had donned veils to enter duomos in Italy, climbed old stone stairways to cathedrals in France,  and once even had a wandering preacher give an impromtu sermon while we were trout-fishing on the Linville River.
     God is everywhere and speaks to us in a language we can each understand, so the immense range of worship opportunities available was a natural part of His plan to reach out to all of His children. When the opportunity came up for us to worship in a barn with a cowboy preacher, we had no doubt that God would be there, plus I told Sissey that cowboys were always so nice and polite and friendly with their "Howdy, ma'am's" and "Let me hep ya with that's",  so we didn't think twice about going as we hopped into our car and took off.
      The directions we were given to the service  instructed us to exit Highway Nine, turn left, drive past a trailer park until we got to the junkyard, look for a fence that we could see through, turn left at the cattle gate, and drive through the pasture until we reached the barn. Naturally, we got lost and ended up in downtown Lancaster.  Not seeing a barn or a cow in sight, I knew we had headed in the wrong direction and, unlike any male I've ever met, I called for some help. After several phone conversations, four turn-arounds, and a little back-tracking, we were  back on-course but a little off-schedule.
      When we finally arrived at the site of Snipes Farm and Rodeo, the worship service was already underway. Brother Jack was delivering a powerful sermon on the gift of faith as we quietly scooted to our seats and settled in for the service. He told of his journey to salvation-- which came after a tour of duty overseas, many years as an alcoholic, a stint as a biker dude, some questionable life decisions, all kinds of brawls and ruckuses--  and then, the "Aha!" moment, when he discovered the missing link in his existence on Planet Earth and accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior.  As a changed man, he shifted courses and entered seminary after his army discharge, then served as a pastor at various churches ever since. The focal point of Thursday night's sermon was the free gift of salvation, the free will of man to accept or reject the gift, and the life-changing experiences  that can result from making the right decision.  It was a genuine and heart-felt message delivered by an humbled and repetent man, and even in midst of the hay-filled barn, with the gentle snorting of horses in the background and the soft buzz of insects flying in the rafters, I could feel God smile upon His good people.
      At the end of the service, everyone was offered the chance to place an offering in the feed bucket and to fill in their "Howdy" cards--info cards which colllected names, addresses, and phone numbers of all visitors and members so that the staff could round'em up later.  The children then took off for horse and pony rides in the rodeo ring,  and we lingered to meet some of the congregants and chat with the preacher.
       Brother Snipe, the owner of the farm, immediately asked Sissey if she had ever ridden a horse.  She admitted that she had taken a few riding lessons in Richmond, but hadn't been in the saddle for quite a while.  He lit up with a grin and said, "Well then, I'm gonna get you on one of my mules!"
      Mules have gotten such a bum rap in our modern society, but  if you remember your Biblical history, only Kings road mules. Regular soldiers, everyday people, the plebians of society...they all had to ride plain old horses, perhaps an occassional donkey, but MULES were reserved for Kings. I was rather excited to think that Sissey was going to get the opportunity to sit upon the mount of royalty.
     But then, Brother Snipe proceeded to tell us the story of how he and Brother Jack had gone mule-riding just last week, and as he had mounted the first mule, it bucked him right off.  Brushing off the dirt and hay, he sent the first mule packing and saddled up a second mule, but alas, it too threw him right into the dust. He finally saddled up for the third try a reticent mule that allowed him to sit undisturbed in the saddle, and off he and Brother Jack went for a jaunt through the pastures.  At this point, with images of Sissey flying through the air as an angry mule bucked and thrashed, I interrupted and said, "There's no way you're putting my daughter on a MULE!"
    With a slow smile and a shake of his head, he just said, "Aw, don't worry, I'm gonna put her on Sweetie. She won't throw her."
    Yeah, right, I thought. We may be standing in the shadow of the barn where Brother Jack just delivered God's Holy word, your mule may have a name sweet as honey,  but I didn't believe one letter of that line, and there was no way in hell I was putting my daughter on a mule, Sweetie or not, thank you very much.
     Following the worship service, the next part of the evening's activities was to head across town to a Mexican restaurant where it was karaoke night.  All the cowboys and Christians loaded into trucks and cars and made a convoy over to the restaurant. The singing and dancing was in full swing as we settled into a long, oilcloth covered table.  It was difficult trying to find room between ten-gallon cowboy hats and men the size of bulls, but Sissey finally wedged in between Trippy and her daughter, Kudzu, while I plopped down beside PNut and a cowboy named Matt.  We listened to some of the worst singing I have ever heard, and all I could think was that this is where American Idol must have been born.  There were two women-- obviously thinking they were the next Patsy Cline or Carrie Underwood-  who were painfully singing the most off-key, off-tempo, out-of-tune melodies I have ever witnessed--- and they kept coming back to the microphone again and again and again as their tone-deaf family and friends applauded and cheered them on. Please, I thought, this caterwauling has got to stop...can somebody say Amen, brother, and turn that mike off?
     Other than that, the rest of the evening was progressing swimmingly. We sat back and watched couples shagging and cruising to the beach music interludes that thankfully broke up the cacophony of the karoake. We munched on nachos and salsa until dinner arrived, then tried to find room for the delicious pollo adobo and chimichangas that arrived on piping hot platters. Fat and happy, it had been a good evening so far.
   As the evening drew late, I decided it was about time for Sissey and me to hit the trail for home, especially since we had a thirty mile drive back on dark country roads.  I grabbed our ticket and went into the room next door to pay our tab, but as I was settling up with the cashier, our waitress came running through the restaurant screaming, "FIGHT, FIGHT! Call 911!" The diners, cooks, waitstaff, kitchen staff, hostess, DJ and everyone else it the restaurant flew out to the parking lot to see what was happening.  Realizing I had left Sissey alone in the room where the fight originated, I ran back in a panic, visualizing semi-automatic weapons and knives and gangsters invading the building and mowing us all down.  When I found her, she was standing by the window, her face as white as her smocked, pressed, and starched Calvin Klein blouse. She stood there, frozen, watching as two cowboys pummelled each other in the parking lot, bones cracking, blood flying, shirts ripping, hats sailing as they rolled and punched and grunted and threw each other against trucks and concrete. I grabbed her, my purse, her sweater, and whispered, "We're getting out of here. NOW!"
     I wanted to get out of there quickly, before guns appeared or more angry cowboys showed up or the police arrived or things really got out of control. I knew we were out of our element, out of our league, and definitely out of our comfort zone. I had been to church followed by dinner on the grounds, church followed by a congregational meeting,  church followed by a hymn sing, church followed by a prayer meeting, but this was the first time I had ever been to church followed by a fight, and I must say, I did not care for it at all. I had never seen grown men fight, had never witnessed a bloody brawl, had never been that close to such raw physical violence, and it unnerved me. It didn't exactly fit with Brother Jack's message of redemption and salvation, of making the right decisions in life, of changing courses and choosing the straight and narrow path. It felt off-kilter to worship together and then go out and pummell your fellow man. Not quite the fellowship I was expecting, and it was time to make a quick exit.
        As I tried to rush her safely out the door, Sissey, in her oh-so-cordial manner, stopped, turned to the group, and politely said, 'It's been such a pleasure to be here this evening. We had a wonderful time. Hope to see you all again soon!"  I'm not sure they even heard her over the roar of the fist-fight, or if they even noticed as we left, and I had to laugh at her gracious attempt to exit a bar fight.  I scooted her down the ramp and across the parking lot, praying like a fiend that the fighting cowboys wouldn't come rolling across the ground to where our car was parked and that we wouldn't get caught up in the brawl. My hands were shaking as I buckled her in and threw her walker into the back of the car. I ran around to the driver's side,  cranked up the engine, and peeled out of that parking lot like a big ole redneck gunning down a dirt-road track. I couldn't get us out of there fast enough. Praying like mad that God would deliver us from evil, restore our souls, and lead us beside quieter pastures, I headed back to the safety of our home and our secure little world.
     And as we drove down the dark road, adrenaline racing, hearts pounding, hands still shaking, I laughed and said to Sissey, "Well, honey, you have just seen more action in one night than in your entire college career!" 
     She was still caught between shaking and smiling, but she managed to grin and say, "So what was that you were saying about cowboys being so nice and friendly and polite and all that?"
    "Live and learn, honey, live and learn," was all I could think to respond.
     And oh, isn't that what college is all about? Living and learning. Learning and living.
    And through it all, you stick to your values, count on your family, discover your identity, find your independence, claim your spot in the world, keep a smile on your face, and always, always, always, cling to your faith.
    That doesn't mean, however, that you can't have one heck of a time on a Thursday night and laugh about it all the way home!

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