My wife loaded up the compact car already full with two 6’3”grown men and we set out to tour prospective colleges with our son Clinton. Ten hours later we found ourselves in a high desert ranching community in Montana. I have had a romantic attachment with Montana for many years and that only intensified with the epic and Pulitzer Prize winning novel Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry. It is safe to say I vicariously hoped my son would land in this mythic place of hope and rugged beauty.
Clinton has wrestled with church since his days at a private Christian high school. The idea of attending a large gathering of people who emote during praise songs, weep, and clap to the beat of bubble-gum Top 40 type tunes is tortuous to him. It gets worse when a talking head at the front of the room moralizes about how a person is supposed to live when that speaker does not even know the person to whom he is speaking. Add to that the incongruent behavior of many Christians he knew in high school and the increasingly influential impact his non-church-attending friends have on his world view, it is safe to say that Clinton has not exactly been warm to faith in conventional ways for a long time.
But on this day in Montana, we were going to find a church for Clinton, dadgumit. So we looked up a few churches to scout out.
After a breakfast of stale cinnamon rolls and a bowl of cereal at the Days Inn, we set out to find the churches in time for worship. If we didn’t like the looks of one, the town was small enough to quickly find the others and be on time.
We drove by the Southern Baptist church first, because, well—it’s what we are. We drove into the gravel parking lot slowly, taking it all in. It was a cute, little brown faux log cabin building. Only six or eight cars were parked. As we made a turn to exit the lot, we noticed an open upstairs window. Faces were smiling and arms were waving at us. It felt creepy to be honest, like they were stranded on a deserted island and were waving at a passing search plane. They seemed a little too desperate for attenders.
I didn’t mean for the car to spin gravel back at them when I accelerated out of the parking lot.
Next, we went to the other Baptist church in town. The parking lot was full of pickup trucks with a few cars here and there. A full parking lot was a good sign, right?
The music had begun; we could hear it as we approached the front door. It had a marching band cadence and rhythm. The greeters wore polyester suits and ties and—cowboy boots. Okay, we’re in Montana after all.
We thanked the men for the bulletin. They opened the door for us and the staccato rhythm of the hymns almost pushed us back out the door. They were singing full-throated as if to yell the devil back into the abyss. We found a place on the back pew and stood—because they were standing—and tried to sing along. Even though my wife and I had been in the church all of our lives, we didn’t recognize the hymn. We three stood stoically, eyes darting furtively around at the polyester clad congregation. I leaned over to Clinton and said, “Walmart must have an outlet store in this town.”
About that time a stern looking man pushed a smile up from the corners of his mouth and thrust an open hymn book at me. I’m not sure this was an act of kindness or an effort to get us to conform to the collective and sing. I took the hymnal and nodded at the man.
The song ended and the man at the front of the room called, with a military clipped voice, “Jonathan Jacobs, do you have song for us this morning?” It wasn’t a question. A man about four pews away stepped out into the aisle and made his way to the pulpit, cleared his throat and shouted out, “Number 378!” The piano began to thunder the same tempo as the other songs we had heard. I looked at my wife as if to say, “Do you know this hymn?” She shook her head. I looked through the hymnal to see if I recognized any titles. Not a one.
I holstered the hymnal into the rack on the back of the pew. Someone across the aisle noticed we weren’t singing and brought us an open hymnal again. I took the book, nodded sternly and when they turned to go back to their seat, I leaned over to Clinton and said, “Let’s get out of here while we can.” I grabbed my wife’s hand, who looked scared, and we made our way to the exit.
As we filed out robotic heads turned and plastic faces watched us leave. I wanted to say, “You can come too!” But the blank faces seemed to have lost all interest in doing anything but shout their songs to the front of the church.
Two men followed us out the door, bibles drawn. I told Clinton we had to protect our women folk. He and I turned to face the polyester proletariat. One of them said in a high pinched voice, “You can’t leave before the pastor preaches!”
“Get your mom and get in the car, Clinton,” I said.
The men took a couple more steps toward us. Standing as tall as I could with a stern look I stamped my Keens and said, “You shall not pass!”
Clinton pulled the car around and I dove in while he squealed the tires. Nette and I watched the men standing at the edge of the parking lot, hands up turned and spread wide as if pantomiming a message of, “How did you slip through our fierce love?”
“Can we just go to Subway for lunch?” Clinton asked.