Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Saturday, September 14, 2019

WALKING ON THE WATER TOWARD YOU NOW


Recently on Facebook folks have been talking about raising money for churches by letting people pay to block a particular hymn from worship, for a year, or paying to get a particular hymn included in worship.

I have been clearing stuff off my computer so my daughters won’t have to go through it when I die to decide if it’s something they need. Save them some time and trouble. In the process I came across this hymn I wrote. It’s not very good poetry—although it could be improved if I ever had the patience to edit or use a thesaurus--and you have to furnish your own music, but I like the idea, especially the last verse. Sunday is Stewardship Day at our church, and I think I can raise some $ by offering not to sing this…

SOMEONE’S WALKING ON THE WATER TOWARD YOU NOW

I was washed off by a fierce and evil wave
I was sure the ocean deep would be my grave
Without a single friend, I knew it was the end
Then I heard a voice shout out against the wind

Don’t give up. Keep holding on
Until the darkness ends and night is gone
The current is so fast, you think you cannot last
But someone’s walking on the water toward you now

Two arms full of water was all that I could grasp
A gurgling cry for help was all that I could gasp
Then a hand within the darkness pulled me to a drifting mast
And I heard a voice call in the storm so vast

Don’t give up. Keep holding on
Until the darkness ends and night is gone
The current is so fast, you think you cannot last
But someone’s walking on the water toward you now

When light came with the dawning and the darkness was all past
I looked on every side to see who had pulled me to the mast
There was no one close at hand but in the distance I could see
Someone going toward a sailor just like me
And I called…

Don’t give up. Keep holding on
Until the darkness ends and night is gone
The current is so fast, you think you cannot last
But someone’s walking on the water toward you now

John Robert McFarland

Please note that I am not writing again, since this was done so long ago it even had time to get lost in the crevices of my computer.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

THE THREE THINGS WORTH LIVING FOR


On 9/11, it boggles my mind that anyone would even consider dying for or killing for something that is only a figment of our imaginations, like Islam or Christianity, or America or Iran.

Of course no one does. We die for and kill for one thing only—to take the power of God for ourselves, and we use excuses like religion and nation. That is why the First Commandment is first.

Tom T. Hall sums up all the Commandments, all the religions, all the constitutions so completely when he says, “There ain’t but three things that’s worth a solitary dime. That’s old dogs and children and watermelon wine.”

John Robert McFarland

Saturday, September 7, 2019

THE RETELL BOOKS


I don’t read much anymore, which surprises me. I’ve always loved to read. Oh, I still do read some, in all the genres I’ve always read: Bible, theology, church stuff, novels—adventure, Western, mystery, etc—biography, history, science… Just not nearly as much.

I’ve pondered on that. Why, since I have always loved to read, do I do so little of it now? Some reasons have to do with the ability to see and the ability to sit and the ability to focus—more inabilities than abilities--but mostly it’s because there are so few retell books.

Actually, of course, there are as many retell books as always, but I have few opportunities for the retelling. So books stop for me now at “The End,” instead of going on in a retelling.

All through school and college and professional school, and later, again, through doctoral work, I did a lot of reading, but almost all of it was required for my courses. A lot of it was good, and fun, but it wasn’t my choice.

When I graduated from seminary, I began to read in a genre that went across all other genres—the Retell Books. Lin Yutang’s A Leaf in the Storm, Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey, Elmore Leonard’s Hombre, Ross MacDonald’s [Kenneth Millar] The Drowning Pool, Alistair Maclean’s Where Eagles Dare, Conrad Richter’s A Simple, Honorable Man, Ronald Glasser’s Ward 402…

As time went on, new authors were added to the stack of Retell Books: Marcus Borg, Jane Smiley, Malcolm Gladwell, Oliver Sacks, Will Campbell, Marilynne Robinson, Kent Haruf…

There was something in each of those books, often several somethings, that I could retell in preaching or writing or simply conversation. I was always so excited when I came across a retell incident or story. I wasn’t reading for the purpose of finding such somethings. I was reading for enjoyment, and simply to be an educated, literate person. So it was all the more exhilarating when I came across a nugget I could retell.

I wrote those retell fortuities down on 4x6 cards, so that I would have them always. Eventually I had two thousand such cards. All from reading Retell Books. [1]

One of my favorites is from Ward 402, Glasser’s story of the pediatric ward in the U of MN Hospital, especially meaningful to me because of my grandson’s experiences in the U of IA Children’s Hospital.

There was a four-year-old boy, Kerry, who had undergone so many terrible experiences in the hospital, in an effort to get him well, that he closed his eyes and kept them closed. He never opened them. He operated like a blind child, reaching around on his bed for a toy or piece of candy. The doctors debated how to get him to open his eyes, for if he did not, he would go hysterically blind and not be able to see even when his eyes were open.

They got nowhere, until one day the resident came into the ward with a kitten. He said nothing, just put it down on Kerry’s bed. The kitten mewed. It crawled around. It sniffed Kerry’s hand. Finally, the little boy just couldn’t stand not seeing it. He opened his eyes.

You can retell that story in almost any circumstance and not say a thing more. People know how to apply it to family or church or school or life in general. The story of Kerry is such a good one. It’s too bad I don’t write anymore; I’d like to retell it.

John Robert McFarland

“A book is a gift you can open again and again.” Garrison Keillor

1] When I realized I had no retell opportunities anymore, I put those cards into the recycling bin. Helen tells me that when daughter Katie, the author, heard that, she came and pulled them out of the bin. There may still be some retell life in those cards.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

DESTROYING THE ROOF FOR A CHANCE AT HEALING


When I was a young preacher, in my 2nd year in a full-time church, taking in 103 new members in my first year there, which I assumed was normal, but which I matched only one more time in 40 years of fulltime ministry, while I was also going to seminary full-time, commuting daily between Cedar Lake, IN and Evanston, IL, 2 hours or more each way, which was when I learned to prepare sermons by simply reading the Scripture for the coming Sunday, since I had no other time to prepare, and then thinking about it all week as I commuted, and working into my mental outline all the things I saw and heard and read that week, unless I picked up Ed Tucker and/or Paul Blankenship in south Chicago to go on up to Garrett Theological Seminary, where we were all students, and then we had a little preaching seminar as we drove, which was much better than preparing on my own, I preached on the story of the men who heard that Jesus was in town, and so picked up their lame friend on his pallet and took him to the house where Jesus was, with the hope that Jesus could cure him, but could not get their lame friend into the house, because there were so many people there, so they took their friend up on the roof, made a hole in the roof, and lowered their lame friend down to Jesus. [I’m practicing to fulfill my one true goal of writing an entire book, 106 thousand words, that is only one sentence. But not today…]

As I preached, I asked what I thought was a rhetorical question: “What would we do if people were so anxious to hear about Jesus that they made a hole in the roof to get into church?” Lilly Foster, in the 2nd row, old then, but younger than I am now, yelled, “We’d arrest ‘em!” She was probably right.

I worry some about the preachers at our church, Jimmy and Mary Beth. They ask a lot of questions as they preach [“How many of you think Docetism is a greater heresy than Arianism?], usually requesting a show of hands, which is fairly safe, since they don’t pay much attention to them, anyway, but if you’re not careful, somebody will answer out loud, which is okay during the children’s time, usually, but is much more precarious if someone like Lilly, or real estate mogul Vic Stenger, the time I was reciting all the ills of the world in a sermon, yelled out “Don’t forget the Federal Reserve Board,” decides to answer.

I don’t worry about our preachers too much, though, because they preach so well in general, as they did a couple of Sundays ago, in a dialogue sermon, on that same story, the hole in the roof for the sake of the friend.

Those men did not know if Jesus could heal their friend, but they wanted that opportunity for him, so much so that they were willing to get him up onto the roof, not an easy task, and make a hole, again, not an easy task, even if it were, as some scholars believe, a hot weather roof that was mostly a lattice of tree limbs and fronds and so did not require a lot of sawing and prying to make a hole, and risk the anger of the house owner and the law, and lower him down, another not easy task…

After Now That I Have Cancer I Am Whole: Reflections on Faith and Life for Cancer Patients and Those Who Love Them, was published, I received a lot of invitations to speak to conferences of cancer patients.

When it was a fund raiser, as it often was, to be able to provide free mammograms or other treatments, I said, “By being here today, by paying your way in here, it’s possible that someone who would not otherwise get an early diagnosis will get it and have the opportunity to be cured. You didn’t know that when you paid your way, but you were willing to take that chance, because you wanted to take your stance on the side of healing. So on behalf of someone you don’t even know, someone who hasn’t even received treatment yet, I say to you, ‘Thank you, for taking your stance on the side of healing.’”

That’s what those men did for their friend. They took their chance and their stance on the side of healing. That’s always the side where followers of Jesus take their stance.

John Robert McFarland

There are many paths to illness, and many ways of healing. The slowest way to healing, but the best, is up the greenest hill, for it is from beyond the hills that help comes, and you can’t see it except from the crest, but when you have climbed the steepest hill, you may find that in the climbing you were healed.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

UNDENIABLY TRADITIONAL


There is a lot of talk about “tradition” at this time of year, as schools and churches gear up for another year. But tradition is not nearly as traditional as traditionalists would like us to believe it is. Tradition always starts with me.

I made a very short contribution to Undeniably Indiana, the IU Press book published to celebrate Indiana’s 200th birthday, by pointing out that the word “Hoosier” was applied to Indiana folks because the traveling evangelist, “Black Harry” Hoosier, often called “The Greatest Preacher Ever Forgotten,” was so popular in the state. His "groupies" were called "Hoosiers," sort of like Grateful Dead groupies were "Deadheads."

The book is 274 pp, and many of the remembrances of Indiana have to do with basketball, of course. For instance, on p. 133, Grace Waitman-Reed refers to “…the basketball tradition that Coach Knight had built over his nearly three decades as the ‘Hurryin’ Hoosiers’ head coach.”

Knight coached at IU for 29 years [1971-2000] and won 3 national championships.

Grace assumes that the IU basketball tradition started with Knight, because she went to IU during his years.

But it actually started with Branch McCracken, who was coach in my IU student years. In fact, Waitman-Reed is guilty of an anachronism. “Hurryin’ Hoosiers” is not part of the Knight tradition. It was applied to the Hoosiers first in the McCracken years.

McCracken coached at IU for 24 years, in two stints, [1938-43, 1946-65] interrupted by military service in WWII. The national collegiate basketball championship tournament started after his first year as coach, and he won two national championships in 23 years.

But wait! Did the IU basketball tradition start with McCracken, the coach of my years? No, it started much earlier, with Everett Dean, who was IU’s first All American player, in 1921, and coached from 1924-1938, winning 64% of his games, before the NCAA tournament, but he did win a national championship later when he coached at Stanford.

So when did the IU basketball tradition start? Like all traditions, with me, and my generation. Tradition always starts with “me.”

Grace thinks IU basketball started with Knight, because he was “her” coach. I think it started with McCracken, because he was “my” coach. And there is no one left alive for whom Everett Dean was coach, so he gets left out entirely, even though he is the one who is really responsible for the whole IU basketball tradition!

John Robert McFarland

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Usually attributed to Albert Enstein. That’s the traditional attribution, at least. It probably started with Ugh, the cave man.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

SINGING THE OLD SONGS


When I pastored in Charleston, IL, we had several students at Eastern IL U from Ghana. Most were Methodist. I don’t know how Ghana students got started coming to EIU, but once international students get established in a particular university, others tend to come to the same place. So we had a fairly steady stream of them. One of my favorites was Sam Asamoah.

Sam and I became close when I “cured” him of a strange disease. He was in the hospital. The doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. I made a pastoral call on him, as I did with any of my members, and prayed with him. He was out of the hospital the next day, feeling fine. I still have the dashiki he gave me as a gift. “It was your prayer that cured me,” he said.

Sam was not a caricature of some primitive African. He was an established educator, at EIU working on a master’s degree. But he had the African understanding of the spiritual wholeness of mind and body, and so he was able to incorporate my prayer into his healing.

There was a new edition of the Methodist hymnal at the time, and it included a number of hymns from non-European sources. One was an African hymn, with a very irregular beat. I thought we should sing it in worship so Sam especially, but Clement and our other Ghanaian students, too, would feel at home. Our organist and congregation struggled through it one Sunday morning, not well, but hopefully. As Sam came by me at the door, I said, “Well, did you like that hymn?”

He was horrified. “Oh, no. that’s terrible church music. I grew up in an English mission church. I like “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and “Holy, Holy, Holy!” He went away humming “O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”

Worship is coming up again, as it does every week on Sunday morning, and I’m worrying about what we’ll sing. And what we won’t sing.

I like “contemporary” church music. Some of it. I don’t like “praise” music much. It sounds too much like singing a grocery list, plainsong fashion, without the excitement of plainsong. It’s rightly called “count down” music: five words sung four times to three chords on two screens…hmm, I’ve forgotten what the “one” is.

I like hymns, however, from composers like Natalie Sleeth and Marty Haugen and Brian Wren and Ruth Duck. But like Sam Asamoah, I grew up in a different church. I grew up in a southern Indiana hillbilly country church. I need Charles Wesley and Helen Laemmel, Fanny Crosby and Alfred P. Brumley, too. A steady diet of Wren and Duck makes you think the church has been around only twenty years. Maybe thirty.

Throughout my sixty or so years of preaching, old people always complained that “we never sing the old songs.” They weren’t right. I always put the “old” songs in. but I put some new ones in, too. Their problem wasn’t that we did not sing the old ones but that we did sing the new ones. They just didn’t want to waste any singing time on “Lord of the Dance” when we could be “Standing on the Promises.”

I understand those old complainers better now, even though I’m not one of them. Yet. But if we go another year without singing about morning gilding the skies…

John Robert McFarland

“Sing lustily and with a good courage.” The start of # 3 in John Wesley’s directions for hymn singing.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

THE CALL TO PREACH RAG



In my post for August 18, I noted that I am no longer writing but put that particular post up for the sake of some poor history grad student who needed info for a thesis on preaching in the olden days. [Actually, it was just something I wanted to write and I used history grad students as an excuse.] Nina Morwell said, in response, that I should include some music, since she is now a music history grad student and needs an excuse to neglect her studies. So, here, for Nina, is a song that combines the history of “preachers in the olden days” with the history of Vietnam War protest…  [Below the song is the explanation of why and how an adolescent boy is trying to avoid God’s call.]

THE CALL TO PREACH RAG
[To the tune of “The Draft Dodger Rag,” by Phil Ochs. You can get it on YouTube, by Ochs himself, or The Smothers Brothers, and also in what I think is its best version by The Chad Mitchell Trio.]

I’m just an ordinary Methodist boy
From a hillbilly liberal church
I believe in God, that God’s temple’s your bod
And leaving Old Scratch in the lurch

I don’t smoke or chew or go with girls who do
I’m regular at Sunday School
But when God called me to preach I let out a screech
‘cause I ain’t no religious fool

I believe in kindness, against spiritual blindness
Want all of god’s children well fed
But I pick my nose and go to movie shows
So this is what I said…

Lord, I’m only fourteen, I’m caught in between
My hormones and my brain
If I have to pray, every day
I’ll probably go insane
You’ve got nothing to gain
I’m just too plain
To make your Kingdom come
So call some other, from a neglectful mother
‘cause I ain’t gonna be that dumb

I believe in the testaments, old and new
And the spirit that always flew
Down from heaven, with feathers and leaven
And manna all over like dew

I believe in Noah, the whale and Jonah
And parting the Sea of Red
But if preaching I try I’ll surely die
So this is what I said…

My sore throat’s getting worse
I forget the third verse
In church I can’t stay awake
Weddings I hate, to funerals I’m late
I’m really just a fake
It will be more fitting, if you get someone sitting
In the pew that’s way up there
Cause here in the back, in the doofus pack
This is all we’ve got to share…

Lord, I’m only fourteen, I’m caught in between
My hormones and my brain
If I have to pray, every day
I’ll probably go insane
You’ve got nothing to gain
I’m just too plain
To make your Kingdom come
So call some other, from a neglectful mother
‘cause I ain’t gonna be that dumb

It’s been sixty years of laughs and tears
Since I started to preach for God
My hearing is dicey, I can’t eat it if it’s spicy
And I’m getting tired in the bod
If you’re called to go to lead God’s show
On a cloudy or sunny day
Be it fast of slow you’ve got to go with the flow
It won’t do you any good to say…

Lord, I’m only fourteen, I’m caught in between
My hormones and my brain
If I have to pray, every day
I’ll probably go insane
You’ve got nothing to gain
I’m just too plain
To make your Kingdom come
So call some other, from a neglectful mother
‘cause I ain’t gonna be that dumb

This is explained more fully than anyone needs in The Strange Calling, but in brief… When I was 14, I told God I would be a preacher if “He” would save my sister’s life. He did, and I was stuck… except, I knew you have to have a “call” to be a preacher, and was a deal the same as a call? If it wasn’t really a call, then I didn’t have to go, did I? I wasn’t sure, so I decided to give it sixty years, and if I didn’t know by then…

John Robert McFarland