I was as surprised as anyone to receive a Facebook friend request from Frank in Holmes’ Prairie. Of all the people you wouldn’t expect to have a Facebook account. Knowing Frank as well as I do, I should have known that trouble was on the way. The next time I logged in I discovered that he had posted more than a dozen home videos of people’s dogs to my page. There were dogs jumping into swimming pools, dogs jumping on trampolines, dogs jumping on other dogs. I gave Frank a call to tell him to knock it off.
“Glad I got your attention,” Frank told me. “I wish I had created one of these Facebook accounts years ago. Now all I have to do to annoy someone is to push a few buttons on the computer from the comfort of my own home.”
“Just what the internet was designed for,” I mumbled back.
“Well, I’m glad you called,” Frank told me. “I could stand to talk to a pastor. I’ll buy the coffee. What do you say, preacher boy?”
“Frank, you know I’ve always got time for a trip over to Holmes’ Prairie.”
Pardon my lack of manners. There are probably a few of you of who have never heard about Holmes’ Prairie. Well, Holmes’ Prairie is a small town, way out on the Kansas prairie, going the way that small towns go. It is a town known for its stifling neighborliness and its overbearing decency, a town where nothing ever changes because nothing ever happens. But, if you can open your eyes, you’ll find that there is a lot going on for a small town where nothing ever happens.
If you’re trying to find Holmes’ Prairie on a map, you’ll find it well to West of Wichita geographically but well to the right of Liberal, geographically and politically. If you’re traveling by car, just wait for the radio stations to turn to static and be careful not to blink,or else you’ll miss it. On a map it is far away. And, most of the time it feels even further away. But, you’ll also find if you can quiet your complaints, put aside your cynicism, and let go of your own self-importance that Holmes’ Prairie is closer than you might think.
I should probably also introduce you to Frank. Frank is the town curmudgeon of Holmes’ Prairie, a veritable fount of criticism and blasphemy. He’s never met anyone whose business wasn’t his. Frank doesn’t really have a religious home though he’s been known to attend the three houses of worship in Holmes’ Prairie. There’s the First Full-Gospel Baptist Church of Holmes’ Prairie led by Pastor Solomon J. Samuels. Pastor Sol has seen it all, and the years he’s spent living out on the prairie has turned him into a Christian existentialist. There’s also St. John’s Catholic Church, shepherded by Father Diaz. And, there’s the Holmes’ Prairie Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, a lay-led group with ten members, twelve committees, and their sensible leader, Mabel Pool, who keeps them whipped into shape. Frank tells me that he chooses where to go to church each week based on who he feels most like arguing with, but I suspect that his choice actually depends on who puts out the best lunch spread.
After the Facebook episode with Frank I rolled into Holmes’ Prairie, parked on Main Street, stretched my limbs and walked into Annie’s Coffee Shop where Frank had settled into a corner booth and Annie had a fresh slice of apple pie and a cup of dismal coffee waiting for me.
“So, Frank, what’s on your mind?”
“Llamas,” Frank replied.
“You had me drive half-way across the state for llamas? I don’t know the first thing about llamas. I went to seminary, not agricultural school.”
“Eat your pie and let me talk,” Frank interrupted. “It’s actually this new family, the Walters, Ed and Lisa. Just moved to town, which is strange enough. People aren’t supposed to move to Holmes’ Prairie. People are supposed to move away. Follow their dreams away because this is the place where dreams go to die. But, this couple bought some land out on the edge of town, and set up a farm with two hundred llamas. As soon as they moved here you could be sure that every good neighbor and gossip in the town was knocking on their door, offering them a jar of preserves or a basket of muffins, and asking after their business. Of course, I went by with one of Annie’s apple pies and do you know what Ed told me? He said, ‘We were living in the city. We both had business careers. And, I guess one day we just looked at each other and told each other that we wanted something different from life. So, we sold everything, cashed it all in, and bought this farm and the llamas. Now we’re living the good life.’”
Frank continued, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use the words ‘the good life’ and Holmes’ Prairie in the same sentence. To each, his own I suppose. What do they see that I don’t see? There’s no good life in Holmes’ Prairie. Hey preacher, help me out here. What is the good life, anyways?”
“Well,” I answered, signaling Annie for a warm-up while trying to think on my feet, “I’d say the good life partly has to do with asking questions about the impact that our lives have and also challenging popular assumptions about what makes us happy. It also has to do with awareness of life in the here and now. I think of Henry David Thoreau asking hard questions about his own culture. ‘Why should we live in such a hurry and waste of life?’ What does it mean to live deliberately? What exactly would it look like to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life? And, I think of words by William Henry Channing who wrote about living contently with small means and letting the spiritual grow up through the common. They told us that the good life was often closer to us than we recognize.”
“So, preacher,” Frank asked, “You’re telling me that your church is full of people who are content? That sounds pretty boring.”
“I suppose some are more content than others. They’re troubled by different things.” I replied.
Frank smiled at me that devilish smile and I knew he wanted to push me into an argument. “I didn’t know that there such a thing as a content Unitarian Universalist. I thought you were all like Mabel Pool over at the UU Fellowship. Every day she has about four different petitions she’s collecting signatures for, everything from closing down Guantanamo Bay to having a women’s history month display at the public library. She has more bumper stickers than I knew it was possible to fit on a car. ‘If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.’ That kind of stuff.”
“You’re right, Frank. Some of the most alive people I know are discontents. The people who speak out about sexism, racism, and homophobia. The people who work to combat poverty and protest injustice. But, that spirit of discontent is not narrow. I remember hearing about John Wolf, the really famous minister of the Unitarian Church in Tulsa. He was really well known for being the outspoken liberal in that town and not just when it came to racial justice or women’s rights or religious freedom. He’d speak out on just about anything. Back in the 1970s Tulsa was debating about whether to spend public money to build a performing arts center. John Wolf had an opinion about this so he decided to preach a sermon throwing his support behind the performing arts center. It caused a bit of controversy, probably because he gave his sermon the title, ‘Tulsa is a Hick Town.’ True story. Imagine that on a church sign.”
“Let’s make sure we don’t tell that story to Mabel over at the Fellowship,” Frank interjected. “I can’t even imagine what she would put up on a church sign. Great God almighty! But, tell me this. How can people see what’s good and right in one moment, but not also see the better parts of life, even if it’s right in front of their faces? I remember this story that Pastor Sol posted on his Facebook page before he defriended me.”
“Dogs on trampolines?” I asked.
“Far worse,” he answered.
“I don’t want to know,” I said.
“You’re better off that way. Anyways, Pastor Sol posted this true story that ran in the Washington Post a couple of years ago. A reporter wanted to do a social experiment, so he arranged to have this violinist play for forty-five minutes at a Metro stop around rush hour. The reporter wanted to see who would stop to listen to this busker playing the violin. Only, the violinist the reporter gets to play was only disguised as a busker. In reality, he was one of the world’s most accomplished violinists, a world-renowned musician who has played with all of the world’s major symphonies. At the Metro stop he played selections from Bach on his 3.5 million dollar Stradivarius violin. He played the same selections that he had played the night before at a sold-out show where tickets were a hundred dollars a seat. More than 1,000 people walked by without noticing him. Sixteen people put money in the hat. Seven people stopped to listen for more than a few seconds. One person recognized him as a famous violinist and, with a knowing wink, put a twenty dollar bill in the hat. The violinist’s total haul was thirty-two dollars and seventeen cents. What makes you think that we would recognize the good life if it jumped up and bit us on the nose?”
“Good point, Frank. I think the good life is telling us that we should have another piece of pie.”
The sun sets on a long day in Holmes’ Prairie. Pastor Solomon J. Samuels is putting the final touches on his sermon about the Biblical stories of abundance, like Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana and the multiplying the fishes and loaves by the Sea of Galilee. Pastor Sol is troubled, questioning his own faith, wondering if those stories of plenty still speak to us today.
Meanwhile, Father Diaz over at St. John’s Catholic is making preparations for Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, that drama of life’s goodness and life’s hardship as two sides of the same coin. And, over at the Holmes’ Prairie UU Fellowship, Mabel Pool is working to perfect her vegan jambalaya recipe for the Fellowship’s Mardi Gras party and social justice fundraiser. Despite the prevailing politics of Holmes’ Prairie the Fellowship fundraisers are always a big success, mostly due to the fact that Holmes’ Prairie sits in the heart of a dry county and the Fellowship understands freedom of religion as giving them the prerogative to violate every liquor law in the state of Kansas.
On the outskirts of town, Edward and Lisa Walters come inside after a long day of work. As they take their evening rest they pause for a moment of awareness and memory. They remember the books they had read that had gotten them interested in llamas in the first place. They had learned about the history of South America, how the good life had meant something to the Andean tribes and something different when the tribes were joined together as part of the Incan Empire. The good life had certainly meant something different to the Spanish conquerors who came carrying disease and warfare, hungry for as much gold and silver as they could force the tribes to dig out of the earth.
The good life had meant something to the first nations of this prairie land, the Osage, Pawnee, Kiowa, and Kansa. The good life had meant something to the immigrants from central Europe who came in search of the land they would never have been able to own in their homelands, land subsidized here by act of Congress. And, the good life looks different now, in the age of big agriculture and globalism, with manufacturing jobs shipped overseas.
The good life had meant something to Edward and Lisa in their previous lives. It was something they questioned. Is this the good life? For whom? Who shares in it? Who is excluded from it? What are the trade-offs, the small print, the hidden costs? Is it real?
On the outskirts of town, Edward and Lisa turn towards one another. “The good life,” they say to each other. I’ll let you decide whether they were telling or asking.
I preach about one Holmes' Prairie sermon each year. My discovery of Holmes' Prairie was only possible because of my internship supervisor, Rev. Dennis Hamilton of the Horizon UU Church in Carrollton, TX, who introduced me to the town of Bodacia, Texas, during my internship year. Similarities between the two towns may not be coincidental and may indicate a "blood relationship."
John Wolf's "Tulsa is a Hick Town" sermon is mentioned on the Wikipedia page for All Souls in Tulsa. The Washington Post piece about the master violinist playing at a Metro stop came from a friend's Facebook page. My understanding of Holmes' Prairie has also been impacted by a recent reading of several anti-racism books by Tim Wise. Finally, a bit note of thanks to Frank. I sit down to catch up with you for an hour at Annie's coffee shop and I leave with most of the sermon finished.