One can never know how delicately balanced a long-term truce is until its equilibrium is shattered by the weight of a straw. A straw that lands as if it were a ten-pound hammer.
That straw was a few kids wearing ball caps in the worship service.
The church was a hundred years old in a town barely older. Both showed their age. The town and the church stood as landmarks to human determination to beat a living out of poor soil and bad weather. These people were tough. They put up with a lot to live there, and generally they put up with a lot from each other. Their main prejudice was against disingenuousness. The rule was, "Don't act like one of us if you ain't." People who moved in and bought fancy western clothes didn't last long.
One Sunday, a mother of teenage boys, who was also the church pianist, came to me right before the service and said, "I hope you don't mind if the boys wear hats in church today. They got in late from the game last night, and they didn't wake up in time to take showers, so their hair is all messed up."
I shrugged my shoulders. Once, when high school kids took the Sunday morning offering wearing cut-off sweat pants and T-shirts ripped halfway up, no one said a thing. It was football clothing. High school sports is god in little Montana towns, so even though their dress seemed inappropriate, wearing football regalia made cultural sense. It made us feel proud to be so open to high school kids.
Montana schools are so far apart that it is not uncommon for teams to travel six hours to a contest. The boys hadn't gotten in until 3:30 in the morning. A lot of kids in athletics don't make it to church at all during the sports seasons; I figured it was better to have them in church with caps on than not at all. I respected the family's desire for the boys to be in church.
Thinking back on what they'd worn in the past, I said to their mom, "I don't see why it should be a problem."
When I entered the sanctuary, I saw the boys—wearing nice clothes and ball caps. The service went fine, and I didn't hear a word from anyone about it. Naturally, the boys wore their caps in church the next week and the next ... It took a month before the sheep began to bleat:
"I wish the boys wouldn't wear hats in church."
"Pastor, do you think the boys should be wearing hats in church?"
I consistently defended the boys with passive responses: "It's just good to have them in church. Hats aren't such a big deal." That would end the conversation.
This pattern continued for about four months, but pockets of resentment existed like heaps of dry tinder around our feet. It would only take a spark to get the fire going. The steel struck the flint in an unexpected way.
Twinkie Man's confrontation
It was a clear, cool Sunday morning in July. The sun warmed the earth and the water in the Bitterroot River as the congregation gathered for worship, anticipating our annual river baptism and potluck picnic afterward. The biggest thing on most of our minds was potato salad.
While I was in the back room with the accompanists, making last-minute preparations for worship, a man in his mid-twenties, an East-Coast out-of-towner with a shaggy mane and a fast motorcycle, walked from the rear of the sanctuary to the front where the boys were seated. He asked them to remove their hats out of respect for the house of God.
This man, who attended worship regularly, was loved by everyone. I called him "Twinkie Man" because he distributed Hostess products to valley grocers as he pursued graduate studies at the University of Montana.