Air-conditioning was an unknown commodity in the late 50s in churches throughout Kentucky so the doors were always propped open on hot summer Sundays to let in a little fresh air. Funeral homes did a thriving advertising business as they provided paper fans on a stick that one could use to cool themselves during the extremely hot days in July and August. Honestly, I tried to listen to the sermons; but I usually failed, unless the preacher got to telling a good story. My least favorite part of church took place during the closing hymn, the dreaded “invitational hymn.” I grew to hate this hymn offered at the end of every service when any good Baptist preacher worth his salt would give the requisite altar call. So just when a young boy’s restless feet were itching to get out the door, just when I would begin to imagine being free to play softball or ride my horse in the woods or the lake after a huge Sunday dinner, just when everything seemed to be winding down to a merciful and humane conclusion, the service would inevitably grind to an abrupt, albeit predictable, halt. And the worst part of that was not ever knowing how long this inevitable altar-call might last.
I don’t remember for certain how old I was when I experienced what may have been the most memorable, and certainly had to be the most unusual altar call I ever witnessed growing up. True story! I could go back to Marin County today and find countless witnesses who would sign a legal affidavit swearing they saw it happen . . .
It took place on an ordinary Sunday. So ordinary, that I doubt anyone there, including the pastor, would remember what he preached on. But I can guarantee you that none of us in attendance that day will ever forget the way the service ended.
The first clue that we were not to enjoy a quick escape for Sunday lunch came at the end of the first verse of the closing hymn when our minister announced that he “had a word from the Lord that somewhere in the congregation there was at least one man, one woman, one young person, one boy, or one girl” to whom the Lord was speaking “in a special way this morning.” And God was obviously calling them to respond to the morning message by stepping out and coming to this altar to while we sang the next verse.
So we sang. But nobody came.
The pastor stopped the music at the end of the second verse to say that he just knew in his heart that someone desperately needed to respond as we sang verse three. Somewhere after verse five or six he stepped to the microphone one more time to admit that he had no idea whether “that someone” in the sanctuary God was speaking to needed to come down to the altar seeking salvation. Or whether someone in the sound of his voice needed to confess a secret sin, rededicate their life to Christ, or maybe just forgive a husband, a wife, a brother, a sister, or friend. Whatever the reason might be, he now believed more firmly than ever, that at least one person in attendance needed to “get right with God before they leave church today.”
So the organist kept playing, playing and playing as the congregation remained standing to sing and sweat as we waited while the preacher pleaded and pleaded and pleaded, for someone, anyone, to make his or her way to the altar. If I would have had any pocket change I might have bribed one of my friends to go forward just to end this service! After the 14th or 15th verse of Just as I Am, the obviously conflicted, almost distraught minister, laid out his final plea. It actually felt more like a threat to me, when he declared that he was now absolutely convinced the Lord WOULD NOT permit him to end the service and let the congregation leave, “Until we see at least one response here this morning!” It was all I could do to suppress a loud groan before the organist started up yet again.
As the congregation began the umpteenth verse with waning conviction and diminished volume, something truly amazing happened. I actually considered it a miracle at the time. And I doubt I was the only one to think so. Even now looking back, I see it, at the very least, a considerate, loving and generous demonstration of God’s grace—as well as His sense of humor.
About the time we got to the second line of the verse, the biggest ol’ brown, aging, and arthritic coon hound known throughout the town, came wandering through that open, back door at the back of the sanctuary and ambled ever so slowly down the center aisle toward the front of the church. Perhaps it was my imagination, but it seemed to me the farther that old dog progressed up that aisle the louder we sang—as much to urge him on as to cover the fast spreading wave of snickers and whispers. By the time we reached the last line of yet another verse, that blessed beast had passed the front pew, walked down to the altar area of the church, plopped down and sprawled out at the pastor’s feet, right next to the altar table.
The pastor looked at the dog, looked around at the church members and wiped the sweat from his brow. While a hound dog “joining the church” certainly wasn’t what he’d been pleading for, he undeniably had received his “one response.” So there was nothing left for him to say or do, but pronounce the benediction and send us all home.
This hound dog was the most popular and well fed critter in our small country town for months to come.