Thirteen years ago it was a first and it inevitably became a last–  someone listened to a sermon of mine and converted part of it into a T-shirt slogan. “If you lead a good life, say your prayers and go to church,when you die you’ll go to Montana.” The words came from the “Cowboy Prayer” I used as an illustration of something, maybe. Anyway, I treasured the T-shirt and got it appropriately sweaty as I ran my three miles a day.

Our hopes for salvation and paradise come in many forms. Since Field of Dreams Iowa has had a corner on the market (T-shirt and otherwise) for some folks. Of course Montana wanted its share.

I must insist in Lutheran style that we still cannot earn our way there. We may try to be as good as we can be, praying and going to church, and we still fall short of the glory of Montana. It is vast. Not that some Midwesterners don’t have our share of Montana experiences. My wife cut her teeth as a summer houseparent for delinquent girls somewhere in them thar hills, only a year older than some of those she “parented” and a lot more sheltered (as she usually tells this story), until the day the old red-haired Irish cook chased her around the kitchen work table with a meat cleaver. Then she became an old hand, turned around, stomped her foot and proclaimed, “Stop this! Look at yourself! Grow up!” This was Montana’s gift to help her grow up, and enable her graciously to pass this “take command” attitude on to me. I will be grateful, some day, in the Great By and By. (Is that supposed to be spelled instead as “Bye” or Buy”?).

Only faith gets us there. Montana does have a claim to be the vast hunting grounds foreseen by the prophets of many native peoples. Its Great Sky may not be larger than here but there are a few more bumps in the landscape, and there are fewer human interruptions in between. One can hunt for ages and aeons before finding anything worth commenting upon. As far as I can see, it has a better claim to be God’s Country than all of those Southern states put together.

Forty-odd years ago an older honored couple in my first parish, Lester and Alice Brown, made a similar journey into the Midwest and yearned for the return. Lester went first, succumbing to emphysema after much suffering with Illinois heat and humidity. Alice then packed up her earthly belongings and joined her sister out on the Montana ranch where they had been born, fifty miles from the nearest town. The last I heard– she was indeed in heaven.

It is a gift. It is a gift to be listened to, and it is of course (or of curse) a surprise what people hear when they listen. The cowboy prayer is actually set in Wyoming, which, according to Garrison Keillor, already has filled its quota of Montanans.