Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Monday, April 23, 2018


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter…

Guitarist Chet Atkins said that he used to think he was pretty good. By the time he found out he wasn’t, he was too rich to care. By the time I found out I wasn’t any good, I was too old to care.

One of the gifts of the years of winter is freedom from expectations.      

Nobody expects anything from me, and that’s okay. No one expects me to save the world, or even change it a little bit.

Which allows me to be an undercover operative.

I am friends with—once removed, which means I know someone who knows her—a woman nobody expected to be an undercover agent. She is a small woman, obviously crippled, confined to a wheelchair. Nobody expected her to be a spy, so she was really good at it.

That’s how I am now. I sit in the rocking chair at family gatherings, in the corner at the coffee shop, on the park bench as people parade by with their signs and shouts, in the back row at church, in the balcony looking at those below in the seats of power. Nobody expects me to be sorting the sheep from the goats, plotting against their worldly plans by praying for God’s Kingdom to come. But I am.


Sunday, April 22, 2018


There is an old story about someone, maybe an angel, asking Jesus after his resurrection what would happen to his message on earth now. He said that the church would be his body now, to be the message. The angel asked what his backup plan was. Jesus replied, “I have no other plans.”

Preachers love stories like that. It provides a platform from which we can harangue church members to get with the plan.

Recently, in the pastoral prayer at our church, I even mentioned that it seems God has no Plan B, implying that the church is Plan A.

As I have thought about it since, I regret that. Actually, the church is no higher than Plan E, which may explain why we are so poor at carrying out the plan.

Plan A was Nature—natural and human. “For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…” {Romans 1:20.} Problem: Greed said the world and its creatures are here just for humans to use to make money.

Plan B was Israel, the whole nation, a people chosen to be “a light to the nations.” [Isaiah 49:6] Problem: Israel was quite willing to believe it was God’s chosen nation, but chosen for privilege, not for purpose.

Plan C was the prophets. Problem: Who the hell cares about a prophet unless there’s a profit? So we get Joel Osteen and his fellow travelers of the “wealth gospel.”

Plan D was Jesus. Problem: The man is impossible, expecting all sorts of unrealistic behavior, a threat to the social order. Must be eliminated.

So now, in desperation, maybe even in resignation it seems, comes the church. Plan E. Problem:


Saturday, April 21, 2018

ALMOST-a poem, sort of [Sat, 4-21-18]

I have always lived on the edge
of almost

I almost made it once or twice

That is why I like
that line about “the ballroom prize
we almost won”
in that song about moments
to remember

If it’s almost
there is still the chance
that it might happen


Friday, April 20, 2018


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter..

After I have put on shoes in the morning, I try to get everything done for the whole day that requires shoes. Taking shoes off and putting them back on again is a lot of work. Surely once a day should suffice.

Retying the laces takes a lot of work, too, especially the bending over part. Or the raising the foot up to a tying level on a chair or park bench. So I tie the laces really tight, to be sure I don’t have to retie. Except untying laces when they are tied really tight takes a lot of work.

My wife had to go to the podiatrist. He “gave” her inserts for her shoes. They are quite helpful in reducing pain. Her pain. My pain has increased considerably since there is not enough room for old feet and new inserts together in old shoes and so she is now “required” to buy new shoes into which the old feet and the new inserts together will fit. That’s another problem with shoes in old age.

Life is too short, especially when you’re old, to waste any time on changing clothes. The old people’s fashion principal is: Whatever I’ve already got on is good enough for wherever I’m going.

I suppose to younger people this disregard for fashion seems a result of weakness of limb or wavering of mind. Actually, it is the result of purity of heart. Soren Kierkegaard says that “purity of heart is to will one thing.” I “will” put shoes on only once a day.

We old folks no longer have to impress others with our appearance. We know that we are accepted by God, and so we are able to accept ourselves, just as we are, coffee stain on the shirt and all. That is the gift and good news of old age. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.


Thursday, April 19, 2018


We went out to Gentry Park for a tour. Independent living. Assisted living. Dining room. Coffee shop. Beauty parlor. Exercise room. Patios. An OPP, Old People Place.

OPPs are usually named Village or Park or some other pleasant-sounding word, rather than calling it Eternity’s Waiting Room.

We’re not quite ready for an OPP situation yet, but our friend’s name-Ann-just came to the top on the waiting list for the OPP in her town, and so she decided to sell her house and move to the OPP. She and Bill had put their name on the list about five years ago. He died in the meantime. Her name came up at a good time.

So that got us to thinking. In five years, we might be ready for an OPP. So we went for a tour of Gentry Park. Really nice place. Glad we went, especially since they gave us a peach pie, so that our health will deteriorate faster and we’ll have to move there sooner. [Do not misunderstand; if you want to give me a pie, I’m quite willing to let my body go to pieces.]

It’s good to live where you should be. Some folks need an OPP. But “location, location, location” is not the panacea realtors claim. A different location might help with your problems, but it won’t eliminate them entirely.

My father never quite understood that. In his last years, he kept thinking that if he just changed his location—from house to nursing home to apartment to a different nursing home to a different apartment to still another nursing home—he would be back to being 85 again. He did not get any younger in that process, although I did get quite a bit older.

Each stage of life pulls our limits in a bit more. We need to live within them. If that means moving to an OPP, that’s okay. But we should not let new limits on old limbs limit old virtues like kindness and hope.

A different location doesn’t make you older, and it doesn’t make you younger. It’s just the place where you get to be yourself.

Go where you need to be, but remember that wherever it is, God is there, same as always.

Okay, I think I’ve convinced myself now.


Wednesday, April 18, 2018


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith and Life for the Years of Winter…

The caller ID on the house phone said IU. I picked it up. So did Helen. I heard a pleasant-sounding young man ask for Helen. Fine with me; I’m not much for talking on the phone, especially if people are asking for money. I was right. He was asking for money. Strangely, though, since he asked for Helen, he was a sports fund raiser.

I got to hear her side of a long and pleasant conversation. She acknowledged that we were sports fans but played the little old granny card, unable to buy tickets because we are no longer able to walk in from the parking lot in Nebraska to which they assigned us in the days we were able to go to games.

Then I heard her ask him if he had a grandmother. Apparently he said yes, for then she asked him if he emailed his grandmother regularly. He said that was difficult because she was 95, but that he called her once a week. [I got this later from Helen, of course.] She told him how important it was to his grandmother that he keep doing so. After a bit more talk about sports finance, Helen giving the young man a basic course in coach-speak, before she hung up she reminded him to keep calling his grandmother.

All this came about because two days previous, grandson Joe had emailed her. [It actually was to both of us, but she keeps saying, “He emailed me!” when she tells people about it.] He had discovered that the names Jerome and Hieronymus have the same root, with one name picked up by the Greeks, the others by the Dutch, with the Dutch getting the better deal. Apparently he intends to name all his children Hieronymus.

Joe has always felt that Grandma should be kept informed of arcane information. I recently found an entry in my journal, from when he was nine, noting that he had thrown up three times at school, once through his nose, and when his mother got him home, he insisted that she call Grandma and tell her, for “Through my nose!” was important for Grandma to know. He knew she would be interested. Also it was likely that such information would cause her to bake a cake for him to ease his suffering.

Now, though, Joe is a teen, and through his teen years, he has become quiet. Not silent, or secretive, although he has taken quite literally to “the Messianic secret” in the gospel of Mark, by growing his hair and beard out long so that he looks exactly like Jesus, at least the tall white Irish Jesus of the Sunday School papers.[ I don’t think it was his intention to look like Jesus, but that’s the way it turned out.]

Bing a teen boy, it is very rare for Joe to initiate contact, although he is quite pleasant, and always informative, when others start conversations. Sometimes Helen texts him, since teens actually look at and reply to texts, and asks him if he has time to talk on the phone that night. He always says yes, takes the call at the appointed time. They always have pleasant conversations, mostly Helen asking questions and Joe replying either “Good” or “Yes,” but he does also offer new bits of remote knowledge he has picked up.

Joe is busy. He is a senior and preparing for college. He plays tenor sax in all the school’s bands and ensembles. He is a letterman on the tennis team. I assume he must talk to teachers and classmates. At least if they speak first. But he’s not too busy to let us know about Jerome and Hieronymus.

Now some folks might think the common root of those names is unnecessary information. To certain people, it is the most important information ever.


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter…

The Academy of Parish Clergy starts its annual meeting today. Yesterday I wrote of Granger Westberg and the founding of APC. I was supposed to be in Racine, WI today to give the opening remarks, reflecting on the fifty years of APC’s existence, but it became impossible for me to attend in person. So, here is what I was going to say. It’s about four times longer than my usual columns, so you might want to refill your coffee…


John Robert McFarland, FAPC

[Not every member of APC is Christian, and certainly not Methodist, but the only language I have to tell this story is Christian and Methodist. I do not mean to exclude anyone, just tell the story as it was and is.]


Almost fifty years ago, James Glasse spoke at an APC conference. Glasse was a distinguished pastor and educator of pastors, the dean of Lancaster Theological Seminary, and his father was a well-known, respected, even revered pastor in their denomination.
Jim’s new book was out, and he asked his father what he thought of it. But his father had not read it.
 “They tell me it’s a pretty good book, if you like that kind of book, but Son, I don’t like that kind of book.”
The elder Glasse had not read the book, because he didn’t need to, to know he didn’t like that kind of book. Its title was, Profession: Minister.
Those of us who are old enough can sympathize with Glasse’s father. For him, the ministry was not a profession. You didn’t choose it just for the high status and big bucks and low hours. The ministry was a vocation, a calling, not a profession. You didn’t choose it, it chose you. You were called--by God, no less. As my bishop told me, “Don’t go into the ministry if you can do anything else.”
That was one of the ways you knew you were called to the ministry--you didn’t want to do it. That was one of the reasons I thought I was called.


          When I was fourteen my older sister became mysteriously and desperately ill. Her heart and kidneys and lungs were all failing. The doctors said there was nothing they could do and that she had only three hours to three days to live. I knew from Sunday School that if you want to get something from God you had to give something to God. The only thing I had to give for my sister’s life was my own life, and the only thing I could imagine God might want from me was my life as a preacher. So I made the deal. Immediately, at the very time I told God I would make the trade, my sister got well, as mysteriously and completely as she had gotten ill. The doctors, of all people, actually used the M word: “It was a miracle,” they said. And only I knew why. [1]
          But was that a call? It was a deal, a trade, and as an honest as well as promising young man, I was obligated to keep it. Or was I? You had to be called to be a minister. Was a deal like that really a call? That was my out. I wasn’t really called. Unless I really was…


          I had to start thinking theologically, a fourteen year old hairy legged farm boy. Did God make my sister sick to get me into the ministry? Would God have let her die if I had not made the deal? Will God come back and kill her if I don’t keep the deal? Is a God like that worth serving? I decided to give it 50 years and if I couldn’t get answers by then I’d try something else.
          I received my first appointment as a Methodist preacher when I was nineteen. Three points—Solsberry, Koleen, and Mineral, about 200 folks all told. I was ready. After all, I had been thinking about God since I was fourteen. And ever since.
          Then I hit a birthday that ended with a zero. Not a double zero as some have suggested, but significant, nonetheless.
          All those years before, from nineteen on, every book I read, every story I heard, every incident I saw, I put it into my ministry. It went into my preacher brain, which was a shoe box full of 4x6 cards. My brain got very big through the years and became several shoe boxes full of 4x6 cards. I never read a word or had a thought or said a prayer that wasn’t directed at helping my people grow in faith.
I’m considerably sorry to say that in addition to helping my people grow in faith, every word I read and thought I had and prayer I said was also directed to helping me to get ahead. I especially wanted to impress my colleagues with how good I was at our shared profession. My life was lived to help others and maximize my status. Nothing about it was designed to help me personally be a real honest-to-God regular Christian. I lived with only one question about everything, Will it preach?
          There is always some spillover, of course, if you’re thinking about God and talking about God and helping others be open to God. You can’t help but get some of it on yourself.


          That, however, was beside the point. I was 80 and I had never been a real Christian. I knew I needed to fast. I needed a professional Christian fast—no professional thinking and acting at all, only Christian thinking and acting. So I did the Lenten study on Jonah at our church the way I was asked to do, as my last hurrah. The rest of Lent I would fast from the profession of ministry.
Lent is very long when you’re a professional Xn but very short when you’re just a regular Christian, and when it was over, I knew it wasn’t long enough to do me any good. I extended the fast for a year. I told our pastors that I would do nothing professional for a year—no pastoral prayers or serving communion, no study group leadership, no weddings or funerals, no hospital calls. They were willing to honor my fast. In fact, they seemed unduly happy about it. That year, that professional fast, ended on a day celebrated both as Easter and April Fool’s Day.
It was a total failure. 
          After all my years as a professional Xn, I was a complete bust as a real Christian. Oh, I did real Christian stuff. Our old colleague, Father Joe Dooley, always said that the responsibility of lay persons is to “pray, pay, and obey.” I tried. I prayed. I paid. I obeyed, mostly.
I worked food repack nights at the Food Bank. I took the Backpack Buddies food from the church building to the Community Kitchen. I invited people to come to church. I greeted newcomers and sent them notes. I bought prizes for Jail Bingo. I criticized the preachers and the hymns. All the things real Christians are supposed to do. [2]
Mentally, though, I put every one of those things on a 4x6 card and stuck it in a shoe box in the back of my brain.


1968 was the year that ministry went from calling to profession. Yes, it was the year Abingdon published James Glasse’s Profession: Minister. It was also the year Granger Westberg proposed The APC in the pages of The Christian Century.
          Westberg had been talking about an academy for parish clergy before 1968, however. I heard him do so when he came to Bloomington, IL to speak at the Lutheran church where he had pastored years before. He made an academy for professionalizing the ministry sound so exciting—continuing education requirements, a code of ethics, a journal for sharing the practice of the profession. I wanted to join, even though it didn’t exist yet. But I was bereft. I would not be allowed to join. It was for parish pastors only, and I was a campus minister.
          I wasn’t ever going to get to join APC, because I wasn’t ever going to be a parish pastor again. I was going to honor my deal with God but not exactly. I would get a doctorate in communication theory and become a seminary professor of homiletics. You don’t have to be called to be a preacher to teach others to preach.
          By the time I finished doctoral work, though, all the homiletics positions were filled, or at least that’s what they told me, and like so many other would-be parish escapees before me, I took a congregation because I needed a job.
By that time, APC had moved from a gleam in Granger Westberg’s eye to a Lilly-funded reality. It had not existed very long, but it was there, and the first thing I did following the Methodist annual conference when I was appointed to Orion, IL was to join the APC.
What with campus ministry and graduate work, I had not been pastor of a congregation for ten years. I knew I needed the help of experts to make the transition, and who could be more expert at pastoring a congregation than other pastors, pastors who weren’t just flying off the seat of their pants, living off an incident of calling from years before, but real professionals who would share their knowledge, share their practice, with me?
For twenty-two years of fulltime ministry and twenty-two more of part-time interims and occasional ministry forays, every word I read and every thought I had and every prayer I said was enhanced by sharing that practice with my APC colleagues.


When I was twenty, I went to my first clergy continuing education conference. It was called the School of the Prophets, for all the Methodist ministers in Indiana, at Depauw University. I had been preaching at Solsberry and Koleen and Mineral for a year already, with no education for the job except Speech 101.
This was my first opportunity for education as a minister. I was enthralled. There was a Cokesbury display, with all the books and Jesus junk any preacher could ever possibly use, or misuse. I heard sermons by Bishop Richard Raines and Ralph Sockman of Christ Church in NYC. I got enough sermon illustrations to last a month, the only reason preachers go to these things anyway.
Most importantly, I was in a preaching workshop led by Webb Garrison. His teaching was practical. We were to put sermon “illustrations” [3] on 4x6 cards, because they fit into a shoe box. We were to use rubber cement to affix clippings to the cards because it did not dry out the way Scotch Tape did.
At lunch I went downtown. To buy 4x6 cards and rubber cement. I also bought a pair of shoes I could not afford, but I really wanted the box. By the time I got done, I was running late for the afternoon session. I was in a hurry. I didn’t want to miss a single minute of that conference. In the distance, from the auditorium in Old Main, I heard the after-lunch singing start. What a sound. 100 tenors. 100 baritones. 100 basses. One soprano, Clara Mae Ripple, the only woman clergy in Indiana Methodism.
As I rushed along, ahead of me I saw an old man, bald and with a white beard, standing on the curb. He was wearing a black suit, shiny at the knees and elbows, with a yellowed white shirt buttoned up at the collar, but no tie. I was dressed like the cool university student I was, Kingston Trio style vertical stripe shirt, Ivy League chinos, argyle sox, tan buck shoes. The old man looked at me, hurrying toward the sound of the prophets, my shoe box under my arm, and as I got to him he said, “Are you a preacher?”
That was the question, for sure. But it was too complicated to explain, so I just said yes.
“I used to be a preacher.” He looked toward Old Main. “Is that the preachers singing?” he asked. I assured him it was.
I thought he would come with me, to the School of the Prophets, but he didn’t. He only stood there, gazing toward Old Main, his ear cocked toward the singing. He seemed content just to be close to “the goodly fellowship of the prophets.”
Now I am the old man standing on the curb. In the distance, I hear the voices raised in song, such much richer harmony now, with all those sopranos and altos.
In that harmony I hear the voices of Perry Biddle, Thor Bogren, Earl and Martha Davis, Joe Dooley, Ed Friedman, Kim Egolf-Fox, John and Dottie Freed, Roger Imhoff, Granger Westberg, and so many others.
I hear the singing of the prophets, and I know where I belong: I am called, and I am professional.

John Robert McFarland, FAPC

1] I tell this story more fully in The Strange Calling, published by Smyth&Helwys.

2] I was like one of the football players on a team I heard their coach describe. He said, “They are good at running around the field, doing football-like activities, but they don’t really play football.” I was okay at doing real-Christian-like activities, but I wasn’t a regular Christian.

3] I resist calling the stories we tell in sermons as “illustrations” because I think the experiences we tell about are the points. The things we say about those stories are the illustrations.