Some year’s back, while working my committee shifts at that year’s rodeo, my friend Stewart asked me to lead a cowboy church service on a trail ride coming up at his family’s ranch in April. I was both honored and apprehensive but I agreed and immediately started thinking about it.
I’ve led cowboy church before. It’s a simple service that rarely takes more than 30 minutes. Unless the weather is terrible, the service is outdoors. It typically opens with the leader offering a prayer that touches on the sorts of things horse people are most thankful for (freedom, security, the majesty of creation, human and animal fellowship) and most concerned about (safety, the weather, the environment). After the opening prayer, the leader reads a bit of scripture and talks about it. Then, all those assembled pray the Lord’s Prayer and sing Amazing Grace. Everyone knows the Lord’s Prayer, most receive comfort from it, and some seem to really understand it. Everyone knows Amazing Grace and each person in some way relates to its message.
The service is pretty straightforward except for one thing. Picking the scripture to read and then talking about it can be downright frightening. I try to come up with an idea that somehow relates the Word of God to people who love the outdoors and a western lifestyle. If I can, I use horses and riding in my talk to help draw my listeners in. Drawing them into that bit of scripture and talking is the challenge. Even though my friend had just asked me to lead Cowboy church and the service was a month-and-a-half away, I quickly began to worry about what I was going to say. I shouldn’t have. Jesus told his disciples not to worry about what to say when they were called to testify. He told them that God would give them the words. In this case, the process had already started.
A few weeks earlier, I’d asked my friend Lori about a particular kind of bit. She said that she didn’t know the answer but that I should ask Lon Randazzo. She said that Lon really knows horses and knows more about bits than anyone she knows. Coming from Lori, that was high praise. I didn’t know Lon. I knew his name because we were on the same rodeo committee but I certainly didn’t know he was a horse expert.
Not two hours after my conversation with Stewart, I ran into Lon and asked him my question about the bit. He answered it and we began to talk about riding. He asked what sort of riding I did. I told him I rode trails mostly or rode fence on my parents’ place and sometimes helped friends work cattle. He asked if I ever rode in an arena. I thought to myself “The arena’s where kids go to learn to ride. The arena’s where the show crowd hangs out.” I said no – I didn’t really have any interest in showing. I’d thought about trying some team penning on my younger horse but I hadn’t yet so no, I never rode in an arena.
He said it didn’t matter if I showed or whether I ever got around to penning, I should still ride in an arena every so often. He said I should have someone who rides watch me walk and trot and lope and stop. He said they could maybe spot some bad habits I was getting into and help me get right. Maybe my posture is slipping or maybe I’m not keeping my heels down or my elbows in. Maybe I’m getting sloppy in turns or giving conflicting cues to the horse. He said it was a good idea to ride in an arena regularly – to get in the habit – so a flaw could be caught and corrected before it became a real problem. He said a friend watching could tell me what I was doing that I might not see or notice and keep me from going too far wrong.
I thought about what Lon said and I realized he was right. He didn’t say it but I realized I could still learn by going to school – by riding in an arena. Knowing that I’m being watched makes me think about what I’m doing because I want whoever’s watching to know (or at least to think) that I’m “a good rider” or “a good horseman.” I also know that the better I ride sometimes, the easier it gets for me to ride better all the time. The more I thought about it, the more I saw that riding in an arena would help me be a better rider. I also realized that Lon’s advise applied to a lot more than arenas and horses and riding.
A number of people I’ve met on trail rides tell me that cowboy church is the only sort of church service they attend. When I ask why they don’t attend regular church services, they tell me different things. Many start by telling me that they’re Christians and even mention a denomination. A few say they don’t have time. A few say they had a bad experience with church sometime in the past. But almost all of them also say “Why should I go to church? I can worship God out in nature and do my praying out under God’s sky. That’s where I talk to God.” They tell me they don’t need organized Christianity.
Even though I feel differently, I always thought that it wasn’t for me to say that they’re wrong. Although I can’t truthfully say I’ve ever worshipped on horseback, I have prayed on horseback – often “Wow” and sometimes “thank you,” most often “help” or “please forgive me.” I do get a lot of peace from riding and being out in nature but it doesn’t replace that peace I get from worshipping in church (or participating in cowboy church). Even so, I never had a good answer for those people . . . until I talked with Lon.
So my talk that Sunday morning in April was on how going to church is like riding in an arena. It’s where I go to learn. It’s where I walk in the light where my friends and family can see me. It’s where I am on my best behavior because I know they’re watching. When I mess up or express a wrong-headed notion, I have a priest or a Sunday school teacher or a friend to set me right – usually gently but with some force when needed. It helps keep me on the right path. I learn more about my faith. I learn who I am and Who’s I am. I slip out of my bad or sloppy habits and reinforce my good habits. Having been to church reminds me Who to thank (and that I need to offer thanks) for the “wow” of a thunderstorm lighting the twilight sky as it passes north of me on the prairie. Having been to church reminds me Who to ask for help when I’m in need or danger or when I see someone in need or danger. I know Who to confess to and ask for forgiveness. I know Who to thank when, in whatever form, that requested help or forgiveness has been given. I know because I’ve been to church . . . because I’ve been riding in the arena.
– Charles M. Bear Dalton