Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Sermon: "Father's Day in Holmes' Prairie" (Delivered 6-15-08)

[The little town of Holmes' Prairie is Kansas' version of Lake Wobegon. However, it also bears certain resemblances to the town of Bodacia, Texas as described UU minister Rev. Dennis Hamilton. Baptist preacher Solomon J. Samuels III is kin to Bodacia's Baptist preacher. And Sherman Lumley of Bodacia shares several traits in common with Frank Rodden. Frank Rodden, by the way, is named after my own father's childhood friend, although the two have nothing in common. Finally, Caitlin Lessing is based losely on a character developed by folk-singer David Wilcox in the song "Johnny's Camaro."]

It has been a while since we last heard from our friends in Holmes’ Prairie, Kansas. They send their warmest greetings, prayers, and curious thanks that we city folk would take an interest in the happenings in their small town.

If you’ve never been to Holmes’ Prairie, I will tell you where it is. On a map, Holmes’ Prairie is located to the left of Lawrence, geographically, but to the right of Liberal in all ways. You just drive West from Wichita and the directions involve turning at a water tower and taking a side road when you see the topiary pruned to resemble President Eisenhower. You’ll find the real map leading to Holmes’ Prairie written in your own heart, when you put aside all the clutter – all things busy and hectic, frenetic and frantic – and, fully renouncing all pretension, regard our human condition with the awe, bemusement, and whimsy that are its proper due.

I had meant to make the trek out to Holmes’ Prairie this week, except the weather worried me, so I had to settle for a phone call to Frank Rodden. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Frank, he is the town crank. He spends most of his days sitting in Annie’s Pie and Coffee shop on Main Street, taking notice of all the happenings in this town where nothing ever happens. Frank is the town gossip. He’s never met anyone whose business wasn’t his. But Frank’s language isn’t exactly suitable for a church crowd, so I’ve kind of put his words into my own.

Frank and I began by discussing the weather, which isn’t exactly novel. Frank’s the type of man who could spend hours talking about the weather and nothing else, and if you pay attention and listen carefully you can decode his life story, his mood, his fears, and even his opinion of the McCain / Obama presidential race just from how he talks about the humidity and the clouds. Speaking weather is like a second language to him, only when we talked he was really talking about the weather and he asked me to let you know that Holmes’ Prairie looked just about the same after the storms as before. And they are thankful that there were no injuries.

I am always partial to knowing about the happenings at the various houses of worship in Holmes’ Prairie, which I am sure you may not be as interested in, but religion is a big deal is Holmes’ Prairie. Over at St. John’s Catholic Church they have themselves a new Priest, Father Jesus Diaz. Father’s Day is always a difficult time spiritually for Father Diaz, or “Padre” as he’s frequently called. He knows he should be above his feelings of jealousy, above his own ego needs… but Father’s Day always manages to send him into a tizzy. Most of his parishioners call him Father more often than they can their own fathers, but on this day everybody seems to forget him. He wishes somebody would just say, “Feliz Dia de los Padres, Padre.”

Meanwhile, over at The First Baptist Church, Pastor Solomon J. Samuels III is having his own type of crisis. For those of you who don’t know, Pastor Samuels is a bit unusual for a Baptist preacher. Maybe it is the natural result of spending so many years in such a monotonous place as Holmes’ Prairie. Maybe it is the life of seeing human beings and knowing them when they are stripped of all pretenses. Maybe it is his ongoing bafflement with the puzzle we humans can be, the meanest lows of the lofty and the unexpected grace of the seemingly graceless. Or, maybe it is just the quiet of a spring day when the swooping of birds and the chirring of the insects combined with the cool breeze and long shadows cast by a distant sunset can place a person into an uncommon kind of contemplation. But whatever it is, Solomon Samuels has had his theology over-turned and up-rooted as much as a theology can be.

It has been a tiring year for Solomon, unusually so. Maybe it is grief that tugs at his heart, maybe it is that his age is catching up with him and he’s slipping a bit, but he is fatigued, and Father’s Day is just about the last sermon he wants to preach. He is looking forward to traveling to his annual prayer retreat and the rejuvenation that comes to him each year, just as, in Psalm 42, “The hart panteth after the water brooks.”

Searching for inspiration, Pastor Sol went to his file cabinet and began pulling sermons preached on Father’s Day. This added to his own bad attitude. All he could find were sermons on God’s Fathership, Lordship, and Dominion, sermons that exhorted his flock to be God’s obedient children. The exception was that sermon he preached about a decade ago addressing how the congregation should recite the Lord’s Prayer. This was all set off when a visitor had approached a member of the congregation several weeks earlier before the service and asked, “Excuse me, are you sinners, trespassers, or debtors here?” The congregant misunderstood the question, and trying to seem humble, replied, “All three.” This answer thoroughly shocked the visitor and when the Lord’s Prayer was spoken in the service he spoke in a proud and sure voice, declaring, “Forgive us our sins, debts, and trespasses and we forgive those who sin, debt, and trespass against us.” This sent off a firestorm of discussion and the congregation tried to decide whether they were more sinners or debtors or trespassers.

But, to make a long story short, Pastor Samuels’ theology had expanded beyond imagining “Our Father who art in heaven.” It was now, unlike the sermons he had given for years and years, no longer just a Father god, but a mother god and a child god and an animal god too, as well as a fluid force, shapeless and beyond all shaping, personal and transpersonal, always changing yet unchanged, and certainly known but still somehow unknowable. Solomon now believes that to try to nail God down is to try to kill God, and that, just like the Romans found out, God won’t stand for being nailed down, but will surprise us. And after his sermon this morning, most people in his congregation will probably just look askance and tell him that they hope he will enjoy his prayer retreat. He seems to need it.

Across town, at the Holmes’ Prairie Unitarian Fellowship, it has been a robust year. Yes, there is a Unitarian Fellowship in Holmes’ Prairie. The congregation grew by 11 percent this past year, meaning they took in one new member to give them an even 10 members. But they also managed to add two new committees for a total of 7. The main business of the church year was how they should abbreviate their name. Nobody was quite sure how to pronounce HPUF. Some were adamant about calling the Fellowship “HUF” while others insisted on “PUF.” They could have decided it just like the Supreme Court, 5 to 4, except for that darn new member who felt bad for the minority and decided to side with them because she liked rooting for the underdog. After a three hour congregational meeting they reached a compromise and decided to refer to themselves as “HUF-n-PUF” which was fair in that it pleased nobody.

The Father’s Day service at “Huf-n-Puf” is led each year by Mabel Pool, the founder of the Fellowship. The service is not so much a Father’s Day service as it is an anti-patriarchy day. The service consists of a long-winded and in-depth recitation of the sins of patriarchy throughout world history. The service concludes with a scrawny and shy man delivering a benediction that consists of an apology of behalf of all men.

And though I happen to be particularly interested in getting the gossip about what is happening in Holmes’ Prairie’s houses of worship, there is more to the world.

Caitlin Lessing, who you may remember from an earlier report from Holmes’ Prairie, has decided to stay in town for a while. For those who don’t know the story of Caitlin Lessing, let me tell you. Rail thin and tall and tomboyish, Caitlin had always been a little bit different, a bit of an odd match for a town like Holmes’ Prairie. She had left town at seventeen on a scholarship to a prestigious liberal arts college in the Midwest. Then she had joined the Peace Corps and went to live in Tanzania. Fate brought her back to Holmes’ Prairie when Caitlin’s father took ill with cancer and she returned to tend to him and her mother and the family stead. She took up teaching English at the regional school when a temporary vacancy opened up, which became somewhat of a scandal when she had high school students reading and discussing Sylvia Plath and D.H. Lawrence and Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison. The school threatened to reassign her to teach the combined first through third grades, knowing that the subversive literature available to assign to elementary school children was a bit harder to obtain. Caitlin, summoning her untamable spirit, replied that she would enjoy working with more impressionable minds. They decided to keep her in the high school.

Caitlin’s father passed away when she was 24, less than a year after she had returned from Tanzania, but she decided to stay in town on account of her mother.

Now off for the summer break, Caitlin drops by the regional school and lets herself in. It is the school that she remembers for all twelve years and twelve grades she was there. Valedictorian. Taking on boys on the basketball courts and throwing bony elbows, boxing out, scraped knees and hands and chin. Worrying people by being a little too odd, a little too good, and a bit too much unlike the other girls.

Caitlin’s father used to take her as a child through the farm, down to the creek that passed through the corner of their property. He would tell Caitlin that the world extends beyond these horizons you see, that this water in the creek came from another town, and another town before that, and another town before that, and before that the rain, and before that a cloud, and before that a mystery. And this water, as idle as it seems right now, is bound for another town, and another town after that, then a river, then a sea, then a mystery. And in those moments, Caitlin knew her path would be like the creek, and she liked the creek best during springtime when it had a current to it.

Now, Caitlin walks through her old school, now the school where she teaches. She touches desks and chairs, recalls the faces of her classmates, her students. She thinks about their fathers. She wonders what they would write if she assigned them each an essay on their father. She wonders how many would write the truth. She imagines what these essays would say. “My father who comes home from work grimy and tired and silent.” “My father who left my mom and I when I was two.” “My father who put himself last and everyone else first.” “My father who taught me to ride a bike.” “My father who gets violent when he drinks.” “My father who takes us for ice cream at Dairy Queen after every little league game, even when I strike out three times.” “My father who never really knew what he wanted and still doesn’t.” “My father who told me I would amount to nothing.” “My father who told me I could be whatever I wanted.” “My father who cared for us after mom died.” “My father who said no too much, or so I thought, when I was too young to know any better.” And so many more, these essays she writes for the students she’s known.

She leaves and gets into her car and heads down the country road on Sunday, the fifteenth of June. She is driving home, driving home and writing her essay of her father who took her down to the creek.

The ritual was the same. They would cast their gaze up-river imagining what lay beyond. They would cast their gaze down river, imagining where the water flowed, how it touched flotsam and jetsam and the undersides of turtle bellies, the spouts of whales… how the water spumed into a mist that was carried on the breeze and touched some foreign shore, was dried by the sun and became mystery.

And then Caitlin would say, “But dad, what about the frogs? They stay right here and they like it.” And her father would suggest that they catch some. Sometimes this involved buckets and nets. Sometimes it involved wading in and trying to bare hand them, which resulted in much shrieking and laughing and splashing.

Caitlin pulls off the dusty gravel road on the way to the farm. She casts off her shoes as she walks down to the creek. She squats, still, peering into the stream. She catches her own reflection as her own salty tear ripples the water’s glassy surface. She laughs and shrieks and cries. She steps into the stream and feels the squishiness of mud between her toes, her hands, mud all over her pants and in her hair. She feels what it must feel like for those frogs that stay right there, and who come, somehow, somehow, to like it. Sun and mud and stream. She feels the reality of fathers gone and also, also still here.

That is the news from Holmes’ Prairie, a town where nothing ever happens, except if you pause for a few moments and pay attention, and realize that there is more to life than you see.