Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Thursday, December 14, 2017


I don’t know if kids learn about Eli Whitney’s terrible, slave-producing, child-laboring, family-breaking, war-causing invention anymore. I learned about the cotton gin [short for engine] in grade school, but that was right after WWII. We studied that sort of agricultural thing in school then, because the US still thought of itself as an agricultural nation. That had changed drastically during the war, when so many people were needed in city factories to make bombs and airplanes. We were no longer a nation of farmers, but our identity had not yet caught up with reality.

We didn’t learn about how nasty Whitney’s invention was, of course. Indeed, it was the exact opposite. It was a wonderful invention, we were told, this cotton gin, because it made cotton processing so much easier for laborers, and was a major motivator of “the industrial revolution.”

It was in 1794 that Whitney patented his gin. Not that it did him much good. He died impoverished, having spent what little he made off the gin, plus all the rest of his money, trying to get folks to honor his patent.

It was an easy patent to bypass, because it was so simple for anyone to make one of the gins. It was essentially just nails in a rotating drum. Run the raw cotton through and it takes out the seeds. It was easy for anyone, including folks who owned other factories, to say, “Well, it’s so simple I certainly would have come up with it on my own. It’s not like inventing the light bulb.” [It’s unlikely they would have said that, since Edison did not patent the light bulb until 1879, but they probably said something like it.]

Whitney’s invention was one of the major causes of the Civil War. Because of it, cotton fabric became much more plentiful and less expensive. Thus there was need for more cotton production. That was possible only in southern states, because of the weather. That required more slaves for the production. The African slave trade was winding down. The easiest place for cotton plantations to get more slaves was northern states. Previously, it was reasonable for a slave owner to buy whole families. You could use women and children in the house and men in the field. But now they needed only field workers, so that’s how long-established slave families got broken up, with only the men sold south to work in cotton. The anguish of broken slave families, as portrayed in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was a major motivator for the abolitionist movement.

When Lincoln met Stowe, he said, “So you are the little woman who started this great war.” [1] No, she was just a final step in the stairs to that great war. Eli Whitney started it.

One of the few things sociologist Garret Hardin has said that I agree with is, “You can’t do one thing.”


Much of the info above comes from Bill Bryson’s book, AT HOME
1] Most historians quote it as: “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

2] Until recently, school text books in South Carolina said that the plantation owners “imported agricultural workers from Africa” to work the fields. Slavery? What slavery?


I tweet occasionally as yooper1721.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith from a place of winter For the Years of Winter…

[A repeat from 12-12-12]
It was the Sunday before Christmas. We’d had two good morning worship services. I was tired. I was sitting at the table in the kitchen, sans shoes and tie, gratefully full of lunch, sipping a second cup of tea, when the phone on the wall beside me blared more forcefully than necessary. I picked it up. A rather thin, small voice…

“Rev. McFarland, aren’t you coming to our wedding?”

A minister should not schedule anything on a Sunday afternoon. A Sunday morning is intense. It empties your brain out. By the time it is over, there is no room to remember anything that is coming up.

In over 50 years in ministry, I forgot two events. The first time I was supposed to be part of a panel discussion for an evening program at a church on the other side of town. It’s not too bad if one member of a panel doesn’t show. It’s definitely not good if the only minister doesn’t show up for a wedding.

It’s even worse if the bride is a scared teen-ager whose family threw her out when she told them she was pregnant.

I hadn’t known her or her boyfriend, but they came to me when her pastor refused to marry them. “People say, when there’s no place else to go, they come to you,” they told me. Now the pastor of last resort had forgotten about them, too. You can’t get much more forgotten than that.

I set a record for retrieving shoes and tying tie, and I flew out the back door. Helen was right behind me. Mary Beth and Katie, who were teenagers, were right behind her. Fortunately, we lived next door to the church building, and there was already a path shoveled through the big snow drift that always swept in and up between the back doors of the parsonage and the church building.

They were in the kitchen, the bulging bride, and her skinny husband-to-be, and the nervous teen couple they had brought along as witnesses. This was well before cell phones. When I had not showed up at 1:00 o’clock, they had wandered through the building and found the phone in the kitchen.

I led them back to the sanctuary. Oops. I had forgotten something else. After the morning services, we had prepared for the Christmas program that evening. The pulpit and lectern and altar table had been removed, turning the chancel into a large Akron-plan wrap-around stage. The chancel was bare.

But we were decorated for Christmas. Wreaths and candles and red ribbons, and a crèche set. They took their vows standing in front of the manger, part of a scene that said, “Love came down at Christmas.”

Every Christmas, the wedding I forgot is the one that I remember.


The “place of winter” mentioned in the title line is Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where life is defined by winter even in the summer!

I tweet, occasionally, as yooper1721.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

THE TRIAGE NURSE [T, 12-12-17]

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

Dr. Vucescu’s triage nurse called yesterday. Twice. Once for me and once for Helen. I’m diabetic, and I have a cold. Cold meds can affect blood sugar, so Helen had called the doctor’s office to see what I should take. It was the triage nurse who returned the call with the necessary information. Later, she called with information about what Helen should do about her dry throat. The triage nurse! I felt like I was living in an episode of M*A*S*H.

We sort of live in the 4077 M*A*S*H unit anyway. Each night at supper time we watch two or three episodes of that epic TV show, where the triage nurse, with a lot of help from Hawkeye and Trapper John and BJ, would dash from patient to patient, just in from the battlefront on a helicopter or truck, to see who needed help first and most.

Triage is the first level of care. If the triage nurse can take care of it, she does. If it is more than she is prepared to handle, she asks the doctor and gets back to you. The next step after that is the doctor herself.

I had no idea our doctor has a triage nurse. I know she has other nurses, the kind who stick you with needles. She also has a pharmacist and a phlebotomist and an x-ray technician right there in her office. It’s very efficient.

My doctor when I was a kid, Old Doc Ropp, as distinct from his son, Young Doc Ropp, had none of that stuff. He sat in an old swivel chair in his office, which was the room off his parlor, and asked you what was wrong with you. You told him that your nose was running or you had female troubles or your back hurt, and he would reach into a drawer of his desk and shake some pills into a little white envelope and hand it to you and charge you fifty cents, less if you looked like you didn’t have that much. Old Doc Ropp’s system was even more efficient than Dr. Vucescu’s. No need for a triage nurse. Old Doc Ropp was the whole shebang, from triage to coffin.

M*A*S*H was a very Christian show, despite Hawkeye’s, and most everybody else’s, lustfulness, and despite Father Mulcahy’s genial ineptitude. It was about inclusion, getting everybody well. The point of triage was not to decide who got left out, but who needed help the most. Even if the wounded patient was one of the enemy, he would go to the OR first, if that’s what the triage nurse saw as necessary. Even if they had to work all night, though, they would eventually get around to everyone.

I think of the church as the triage nurse of society, because Jesus says we are to help first those who need it most. In our society, though, those who need the help least get to go first, because Congress is the reverse-triage nurse. The church needs to do triage a whole lot better.


Reader Alert: Old news ahead:

I tweet occasionally as yooper1721.

I stopped writing this column for a while, for several reasons. It wasn’t until I had quit, though, that I knew this reason: I did not want to be responsible for wasting your time. If I write for others, I have to think about whether it’s worthwhile for you to read. If I write only for myself, it’s caveat emptor. If you choose to read something I have written, but I have not advertised it, not asked you to read it, and it’s poorly constructed navel-gazing drivel, well, it’s your own fault. Still, I apologize if you have to ask yourself, “Why did I waste time reading

Monday, December 11, 2017


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith from a place of winter For the Years of Winter…

Spring and summer are times of planting and of growth. Autumn is a time of harvest. Winter is the fulfillment of all the seasons past, a time to pull all the scattered pieces of seasons past into a final wholeness. In winter we still plant and cultivate and harvest, but in new ways.

When you live in a place of winter, where you dare not plant anything outside until after Memorial Day-or your new plants will be only memorials themselves after the freeze that haunts spring like a zombie craving the brains of vegetarians-you push the season forward any way you can, so a place of winter is a place of hanging baskets, that can be brought inside when a night is too cold.

The freezes are not the only pillagers of springtime. There are four-legged predators, too, that want to eat the fruits of your work. Rabbits and deer will munch anything you plant, no matter how much you paid for it. So a place of winter is a place of flower boxes, high on railings on porches and decks, too high for rabbits, and where deer will not venture.

Gardeners in winter years fret with the work but cannot give it up. They get down onto their knees and cannot get back up. That’s okay. If you have to stay on your knees, you can feel a lot of humility and do a lot of praying. But baskets and boxes give you room to plant and dig even if your knees won’t bend.

There is a growing season, even in winter, but it is for flower boxes and hanging baskets. There are predators in winter, freezes and deer and rabbits, that will devour your blooms if you put them out too far. Winter is a time to keep your flowers close, and to be sure they are not vulnerable to those that devour buds and blooms.


The “place of winter” mentioned in the title line is Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where life is defined by winter even in the summer! I wrote this when we lived there 2007-2015.

Sunday, December 10, 2017


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

Each time we have moved in retirement, I had to jettison some books. Usually a lot of books. Books weigh a lot, and movers charge by the pound. No point in paying to move a book you’ll never read or need again.

Books are precious to me, beyond their looks or contents. They represent a way of life and a way of getting into a wider world. So each time I let a book go, it was like losing a friend.

As the years and moves went on, that constant winnowing meant my library was smaller with each move. We were always moving into a standard house, though, so if I could not decide to part with a book, well, 75 cents per pound is a small price to pay for a good book.

This last time we moved was from a standard house to a small condo. In the house we had eight floor to ceiling book cases, which I thought was far too few. In the condo we would have room for only three. I could keep only the very most important of all those books.

So now I am reading those I kept, again, because the ones I kept were the ones I knew had been especially meaningful to me when I first read them. If they were good reading the first time, surely they would be helpful as I prepare for final exams.

Some of them, I wonder why I kept them. They are so mundane. Why would I ever have thought they were worthwhile? Others, though, open up the world again this time just as they did the first time. Such a book is Gunther Bornkamm’s simply titled, Jesus of Nazareth.

Published in English in 1956, Bornkamm was the gateway for later New Testament scholar-believers like Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan and N.T. Wright.

It was from Bornkamm that I first learned, and am learning again, that the Gospels were never intended as an historical account, a factual account, of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel writers were not so much telling as experiencing, participating in Jesus’ interaction with the church.

That very word, “church,” misleads us now, because when we hear it, we think of what we know as “church” today. But in Gospel terms, church was simply a collection of people who were radically engaged with the earthly and risen Jesus. It was a spiritual reality. The Gospels are the written account of spiritual engagement, the record not just of the earthly Jesus but of the collision of these saints, as early Christians were called, with the incarnate God, the Christ.

In the culture at large and in almost all denominations, we decry the lack of unity in the church. But unity is a matter of spirit, not organization. As John Wesley said, “If your heart is with my heart, then give me your hand.”


Spoiler Alert: If you have read this column in the last 3 months, all that follows is old news:

I tweet occasionally as yooper1721.

In case you need to buy another Christmas present: Katie Kennedy is the rising star in YA lit. [She is also our daughter.] She is published by Bloomsbury, which also publishes lesser authors, like JK Rowling. Her latest book is, What Goes Up. It’s published in hardback, paperback, audio, and electronic, from B&N, Amazon, etc.

Speaking of writing, my most recent book, VETS, about four homeless and handicapped Iraqistan veterans, is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, BOKO, Powell’s, etc. It’s published by Black Opal Books.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

LEGACY-a poem [Sat 12-8-17]

Now my only hope
my one desire
is to leave a legacy
of love

The ramparts stormed
the flags waved high
the confetti and parades
the big brass band
no one remembers
no one cares
including me

But the baby’s laugh
the lover’s touch
the friend’s smile
these I take with me
and these I leave behind


Friday, December 8, 2017


Yesterday I wrote about bad coffee, and blamed it on the people who made the coffee machine. I had an encounter with the inventor of that machine about 25 years ago.

It’s a really good invention. It’s the machine where you put water in a reservoir and coffee in a basket. The machine pumps the water up from the reservoir and runs it through the coffee and it drips down into the pot, provided the pot is centered correctly. It even has a hold mechanism so if you need coffee really bad and pull the pot out to pour yourself an early cup, it won’t let the coffee drip out until you put the pot back in place, if you do it quickly enough. Makes really good coffee.

I was on the Board of Ministry of our conference. Candidates for ministry came before us, and it was our responsibility to decide if their call to ministry was genuine. The inventor of the machine came before us. We wondered why. He was sixty years old and looked tired. Why start working at a new job when you had made millions by inventing a coffee machine that was universally used?

Well, it turned out that he had made nothing off that invention. He worked for the company. They owned all his inventions and innovations. All he made was his salary. Except the company had decided it was making enough money it no longer needed him and so they praised him for his past work but said they had to “let him go.”

That’s such a nice euphemism, isn’t it, letting someone go. It sounds like you’re just giving them freedom… the freedom to starve.

So he now wanted to be a preacher, so he and his family would have a place to live-parsonage-and a way to buy food, even though a pastoral salary would be minimal, and not have to work very hard, since he really was old and worn out.

That’s not the reason he gave us, of course. He tried to create a story of “call,” but his heart wasn’t really in it.

After all the questions and answers and discussion, we sat there in awkward silence. We all felt sorry for him. No one wanted to turn him down. But it was clear that he did not have “the gifts and graces” for ministry, nor did he have the right motivation. He was a good coffee machine inventor; he would not be a good pastor.

As usual, or at least often, it fell to me to be the one with bad news. I started by thanking him for his work on behalf of all of us, pointing out that even the coffee we were drinking at that meeting came through his invention. Before I had gotten very far, with a sigh, he stood, heavily, and, without a word, walked out. He knew what praise for past work meant.


I tweet occasionally as yooper1721. A “yooper” is a citizen of the upper peninsula of MI, where we lived for 8 years, and where I started this blog, as reflections on faith not only for the years of winter but “from a place of winter,” because the UP is north of WI and quite a bit of Canada, and winter is 13 months long every year. This morning, in southern Indiana, it is 16 degrees. I feel like a yooper again.