GOING TO CHURCH
I can't remember the last time I went to church. I think it was in the late 1960s when I was visiting my parents for Christmas and they wanted to go to the Christmas Eve services. At that time, much to my parent's horror, I refused to take communion. I didn't believe, so it seemed hypocritical to do so. I had stopped going to church after I graduated from high school. I went to church once at college where I didn't know anyone and realized that church had been a social experience for me rather than a religious experience. Now, 39 years after my last church experience, I did it again.
What has inspired me to write about this experience is that it was so unlike any other in my distant past. The names and places are real people and real places. The church is called the Hot Sulphur Springs Community Church, and, as it's name implies, is located in Hot Sulphur Springs, Colorado. My good friend Reed Taussig is the interim preacher there and has been for some time. I first met Reed and Kathy Taussig and their three kids, Kelly, Jason, and Matt, in 1992 when I worked for them as a wrangler at the dude ranch they were managing. Reed's dad, Bill Taussig is the preacher at the church in Parshall, about 5 miles up the road.
The Taussigs no longer manage the dude ranch. Reed now helps manage Tri River Hardware in Kremmling - 15 miles to the west, and his wife Kathy is a schoolteacher who is trying hard to quit, but keeps going back. Reed and I still go back to the dude ranch once each week during the summer season to entertain the guests. Reed plays the guitar and sings, and I play the washtub base. We both do cowboy poetry. Reed gets paid to do this. I'm just good enough that they allow me to participate.
The occasion for my presence in church, other than it being a Sunday, was that it was Hot Sulphur Days. This is a once a year, weekend celebration that the town holds every June. I don't know the population of Hot Sulphur Springs, but I can guarantee that it is in the low three digits. Unless you are a resident of the town, or know many folks there, I can promise you that you wouldn't enjoy Hot Sulphur Days - but more about that later.
As part of the celebration, the community church held their Sunday services outside in the small park, right next to the baseball diamond. During the previous few weeks Reed had been reminding me, in a humorous way, that church starts each Sunday at 10 AM. I usually say that I have to wash my dog, or come up with some other excuse. But this particular Sunday I decided to surprise him and show up. Being that it was outside, I figured it was a lot easier to come and go without being conspicuous. It wasn't.
I arrived about five minutes before the services started. The first person I recognized was Reed standing on a hay wagon with his guitar. His 16-year old son Matt was sitting to his right at a keyboard. Matt was wearing jeans, sunglasses, and a jungle green hat that looked a lot like what I wore in Vietnam. Reed had on a pair of clean jeans with a leather vest, boots and cowboy hat. To Reed's immediate right was a similarly dressed guitar player who reminded me of Grizzly Adams. To his right was a skinny mandolin player with long reddish hair. Together they looked like a rural blue grass band from Arkansas.
About 20 people had gathered and were milling around socializing while Reed and the band were getting ready. Hay bales were set in two concentric arcs in front of the hay wagon with a few picnic benches behind them. Kathy Taussig, who is about six feet one, was easy to spot. She greeted me in her usual effervescent manner, which insured that the other nineteen folks knew I had arrived. She then proceeded to introduce me to everyone as if they were all members of her immediate family. I can only learn one new name a day, so I was overwhelmed. More people began to arrive and, by the time Reed was ready to start, the congregation had doubled in size.
We all sat down and the band began to play "Mountain Railroad," which wasn't a song I remembered ever hearing when I was in Sunday school. It began, "Life is like a mountain railway..." I started tapping my foot and thinking, gee, church was never like this. Everyone else started singing. Just about the time I was really getting into it, Reed announced that it was greeting time, and while the band continued to play, everyone stood up and started greeting each other. This seemed a little strange to me since I had just met everyone five minutes earlier. And besides, everyone there already knew each other better than I know my own dog. My dog was in my truck, but I'm certain that if I had let her out, people would have greeted her. I haven't seen people that friendly since my last college fraternity party - but they were drunk so it doesn't count.
About the time the band finished playing "Mountain Railroad", a freight train came past on the route from Denver to Glenwood Springs and points west. (The tracks are about 100 yards to our north.) Then Reed made quite a few announcements - most of which I don't remember. I do recall that Riddles the Clown is coming to Vacation Bible School sometime in August. Then there were a number of prayer requests - twelve in all. I took note that we were to "Pray for Todd Hansz and the Y2K problems he is trying to solve." I don't know who Todd Hansz is, but I was surprised that there might be any Y2K problems in Hot Sulphur Springs. Any town that is too small to have a traffic light shouldn't have Y2K problems.
Next we sang "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and "Amazing Grace." I actually remembered the first song from Sunday school back in the late 1940s, and I was curious to see how the mandolin player was going to play Amazing Grace. Amazing Grace is a beautiful song, but about as far from foot tapping as music can get and still be called music. Once the singing ended, the collection was taken. Reed apologized for having forgotten the collection plates, so someone found a big cardboard box that would have held enough money for a new church.
After one more song the band left the hay wagon and Reed began his sermon. I sat through lots of sermons during my first 17 years of life. It was rare that I ever missed a Sunday. The two things that all of those sermons have in common is that they were longer than I would have liked, and none of them made an impression on me. I recall nothing from any of them. In contrast, Reed's sermon was exceptionally good and interesting. He took the theme of "Our Heritage" and wove it around scripture, humor, local history, and good plain language explanations that both adults and children could understand and appreciate. I think the reason Reed did so well at giving the sermon is because he use to be a school teacher, and he never attended seminary.
Twice during the sermon a light plane came buzzing overhead. Reed and Kathy's oldest boy, Jason, is finishing up flight training and was out getting some flying time when he decided to interrupt dad's sermon. To Reed's credit, he stopped his sermon long enough to acknowledge his son above - before going back to talking about his father above. At the end of the service, which did not seem long at all, everyone started socializing again and refreshments were available. Some of the congregation were selling baked goods and making root beer floats. I had two cookies and a rootbeer float for the grand sum of 55 cents. I felt guilty and gave them a dollar. Reed had two rootbeer floats.
After loading the hay bales back on the hay wagon - not something I have ever associated with church - we all wandered up towards the main street to watch the parade. This was really the only part of the Hot Sulphur Days celebration that I observed, and is the sole basis for my earlier judgmental statement. The parade only went for three blocks, and there were more people in the parade than there were watching it. The only true float was a trailer with a five-foot hamburger made out of chicken wire and crate paper. There was a flat bed trailer with a kids baseball team on it, one wagon full of people pulled by a team of horses, one girl riding a horse, a Volkswagen with a local business sign on the door, a garbage truck (no decorations), a tow truck from the local garage, a pickup truck with the Hot Sulphur Day Queen in the back, a Mountain Parks Electric Co-op truck driven by my friend William and his girlfriend Amanda, two guys on dirt bikes, and two young girls walking their dogs. Every person in the parade threw candy at us. We had so much candy that I started throwing it back at them. The Volkswagen came past a second time to throw more candy and I lobbed a rootbeer barrel through the window.
The parade took about 10 minutes, and then a group of us decided to have lunch at the County Seat - a small cafe on the main street. Our group consisted of Reed and Kathy and their son Matt, myself, and a retired couple named Chuck and Phyllis who use to own the Bar Lazy J dude ranch in Parshall. Jason, the pilot, joined us with his friend Benji who is a midget. Benji is a wrangler at a dude ranch and a delightful guy. Jason is over six feet tall, and Benji is barely three feet tall. They are best friends and the classic odd couple. Chuck and Phyllis' son and three grandchildren also joined us. We all joined hands for a prayer and then had a wonderful lunch and conversation, which ended long before I wanted it to end.
Another large group of fourteen diners who were friends of ours were there having a family reunion and had just come from the Parshall chapel where Reed's dad, Bill Taussig is the preacher. Bill and his wife Virginia were with that group. Thus we filled up the County Seat Cafe with friends ranging in ages from six to 75. Two large tables were filled with the kids and two large tables for the adults. All in all, it was a wonderful social occasion in the style and manner that only a small rural town can have, and I loved every minute of it. They are all wonderful Christian people and I love them dearly.
Did going to church change my life? No. I'm no more or less religious now than before. But I am a little more understanding toward those who do attend church, and it made me really miss the social experiences that one gets from belonging to a small church. There is no close substitute or equivalent for that type of close-knit family social environment. I'd probably start going to church again if they would promise not to talk about religion.
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