Cowboys and Jesus
For a few hours I was a “cowboy”. Standing next to a vintage hand-painted blue ‘41 Chevy pickup, I was the real dude. Leaning into the truck, I jawed and pointed to somewhere, then self-consciously sauntered about as a Marlboro man covering the back 40. A pair of crusty boots, attached stirrups, torn and tight jeans and a grease-stained hat augmented my role. The photographer nodded approvingly.
A swaggering gait with a machismo grind deliciously possessed me once I pulled those high-heeled, narrow-toed boots on. The only thing missing was a cigarette, smoke lazily lifting off the butt end and a woman or two squaring up to dance. Don’t know much about smoking, can’t dance very well either. Funny how we make these things into romantic something’s at the time.
As I looked down at my weathered alligator, “pointy-toed” boots and inserted my thumbs into the belt loops of my jeans, I couldn’t help but think of the days, some 50+ years ago, when my younger brother was strapped into a plastic horse head and told to sing. The extravaganza took place at old-fashioned tent meetings conducted by our parents traveling as evangelists to claim America for Jesus. The family took my brother to work the crowds with them. Dad always set the scene for the assemblage with his usual show-biz evangelistic fervor. Something like, “Our little four year-old cowboy is going to sing a song he wrote with his mother called, ‘Let’s be Cowboys for Jesus.’ Cowgirls and cowboys let’s welcome…Little Richy…!”
Generator furnished electricity lit up incandescent lights strung on thin wire between creosoted wooden tent poles. The lights struck my brother’s blonde hair and handsome face with theatrical “glowworm” sheen. He wore a black Hopalong Cassidy outfit sporting silver-studded buttons and buckles, an outfit chosen to lend authenticity to his nightly cowboy role. A toy plastic horse head, the kind you strap to your waist Mom and Dad found in a “five and dime” Woolworth’s store looked proportionately right on my brother’s four year-old body. He sang boldly into a vintage microphone. The public address system responded with a scratch, crackle, and a whimpering pop. All eyes were on him as he sprightly pranced about the stage to the throaty sounds of laughter, little people giggles and spontaneous applause. He was an antidote to boredom while fabricating happiness. A hero in the making.
This was Little Richy, (not to be mistaken for Little Richard). “Richy” later became a medical doctor and while en-route to his practice tasted the legendary lifestyle of Haight-Ashbury and its seductive drug culture. This was a kid who would become student government president of every school he attended. That’s a story we’ll get to later.
Mom smiled approvingly from her piano bench while accompanying Richy on the poorly tuned upright piano near to tipping over on the low budget, hastily assembled, quarter-inch plywood stage floor. He’d sing his song on cue and mean it too…at least, then he did!
I am a little cowboy I ride a buckin’ bronco,
I like to play with lasso, rope, and gun.
I’d love to be a sheriff and capture all the outlaws,
So come to my log cabin we’ll have a lot of fun.
Let’s be cowboys for Jesus. Let’s be cowboys for Jesus.
We’ll work and play ‘til break of day and capture the outlaws for Him.
As the photographer circled the Chevy pickup truck I thought about the song “Little Richy” sang. The lyrics got stuck in my throat, just wouldn’t come out. While I clearly remembered the words and simple tune it got me to thinking nostalgically in a bittersweet kind of way. I thought about those days of glory for Jesus, touring the country, doing tent meetings. “Little Richy” was just too young to escape the spectacle of it all. We didn’t see it then, and my parents would disavow this were they alive, but I see it now as a form of child abuse and exploitation. “Little Richy” had no choice in the matter. Just as any kid would, he enjoyed the flattering attention.
Being in grade school at the time, I escaped most of this spectacle. Still, it impacted me forcibly on weekends and summer vacation as it would be assumed I would take part in these performances whenever I was with the family. I learned to lean on the crowd for laughs, tears and acceptance. Can’t say I miss it much today, but then it was vitally important. It had a lasting and profound influence on my life. I discovered you could get people to “love” you by performing well.
Was it really for Jesus? Did Jesus care if I took my pre-adolescent talent on tour for Him? Did He care that I gave up little league baseball and my friends for a chance at a big-time evangelistic outreach sometimes drawing 50-75 people a night? Did He care that our family sacrificed home shelter to live in pup tents, servant’s quarters, “prophets chambers” and trailers so we could have a chance at bringing people to Christ? Did He really care? I wonder! I don’t know. Is it possible that any good could come of this for two brothers, a four and seven year old, who weren’t given the chance to make up their own minds about Jesus? Personal decisions would be put off for later.
That is what I remember of our little “carnival” act; religious passion covered over with street savvy show business. The family business was based on a mix of manipulation and piety, a product of daydreams designed to call others from bedrooms of shame, gambling gaming tables and forbidden drinks. We were going to win these people to our way of life and knew this would be the road to our success. And, we were going to feel good and frothy while making it into meaningful employment. We believed this with all our hearts. We knew we were headed for the big time. And we were convinced there would be a reward of some kind somewhere, somehow.
I felt a grubby shame somewhere near the soles of my feet that sucked the life out of my childhood imagination and creativity while pulling me down into ministry expectations. I bought the whole thing, yes, every bit of it, and passionately preached it as an adult. And, I always made sure it came bathed in passion as one who genuinely believed it to be true. Because I believed it all to be true.
I had a compulsion to perform (I wonder where that came from?). But performance had to be at least good if not excellent for we were singing, playing and praying for God. I mean, this was about, and allegedly for, the God of the universe. The thing is, if you weren’t good at what you did musically forget about a second invitation. You had to be good or you would suffer a personal kind of rejection. It was the people who decided, not God, as some would have us believe. This really wasn’t about worshipping God. This was about worshipping the deliverer of shimmering vocals who could bring worshippers to heights of ecstatic unguarded emotional experience.
You could judge how we did by record sales, or the sale of photos we made of ourselves purchased by admirers for memorabilia and autographs. Yes, autographs! Adolescent idolizers and tearful senior citizens would line up at our product table to purchase a whiff of what they thought was fame. During the span of my musical career sales of 78 and 33-rpm records, cassettes, CD’s and photos were the indicator of just how well we did. And, of course, there was the saving souls angle. We just knew that our notoriety came from winning souls. No one was really counting, yet it was always the reason for our existence; to win and encourage souls. Did we do that? I wonder. The applause was most satisfying, easily distracting us from our mission. Listening to the candid stories of people in deep distress who wanted to come to Jesus was much more difficult than signing the back of an L.P., CD or photo.
There were always the needy and adoring. The tendency was to cater to the supporter and find a way to shorten the road to salvation for the seeker so we could find the quickest way back to the adoring souls and our next gig.
To be continued…
Copyright Ed Anderson, 2013