Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

REMEMBERING NANCY [W, 1-29-20]



Nancy Wiseman Briner Griffith’s funeral is at 11 o’clock this morning. I can’t be there in person, but I’ll be there in memory and hope, because she was my first girlfriend, sort of.

We were in the same class. It was around 8th or 9th grade. A Sadie Hawkins Day dance. Nancy asked me to go with her. I was honored, and I went, but she was a forceful woman, [even then] and I was a backward boy [even now]. So, I never followed up. Sixty years later, Nancy told me she had always been sorry I didn’t follow up on our one date. But it was not personal. I was scared of all girls, not just her.

In fact, the only other girl I dated in Oakland City, three years later, was Nancy’s cousin, Phyllis. She was patient with me, but even she got fed up with my backwardness, and in senior year traded up to guy who was not only a better boyfriend, but better-looking, which was quite embarrassing.

Nancy and I remained friends, even though we didn’t see each other very often for the next 65 years, because of distance. In our mature years, when I had gained some notice as a writer, she asked me to mentor her in writing, and I was glad to do so. She was a good writer. She and Helen and I would often spend time together around our every-five-years class reunions.

Nancy and Helen had a special appreciation for each other, because…

Helen and I were students at IU, and we were going to get married in Bloomington, the first couple married at the just-started St. Mark’s Methodist, where we attend now in retirement. In those days, the 1950s, you had to get a marriage license in the county in which one of you was a resident. Helen lived in Gary. It was closer to go to Princeton to get our license.

Our class schedules were tricky, and I was preaching at three little churches, which added to the scheduling problems, so we were going down to Princeton on the last possible day to get a license before our wedding day. On the way, I got the only moving violation ticket in my 67 years of driving, ever since Mr. Oren Stuckey took his life in his hands to teach Anne Turner and Carolyn Wilder and me as a driving trio. I was so distracted by Anne and Carolyn that it’s amazing I passed.

I was distracted enough by Helen on the way to get our marriage license that I was stopped by a state trooper, who took me immediately into Huntingburg to pay my fine. That was out of the way, and we got behind schedule. We had also forgotten that Bloomington and Princeton were in different time zones.

We pulled up to an austere and forbidding darkened Gothic courthouse. It was deserted. It was closed. Almost. A woman was locking the doors even as we ran up the walk. She was doing it forcefully. It was Nancy!

I calmly explained our dilemma. Bad cop! Huntingburg way far! Mr. Stuckey not good teacher! Anne and Carolyn! Stupid legislators make bad time zones! Last day!

Nancy looked like she was rethinking her regret about the absence of my follow-up on the Sadie Hawkins Day dance. “No problem,” she said. “I work in the clerk’s office. I’ll get you a license.”

What a relief. Until I opened my billfold to pay and realized that the driving ticket fine had taken all my cash. [No credit cards in those days.] So Helen dug around in her purse and found enough money to pay for our license.

I’m sure that Nancy breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness this loser never followed up on that Sadie Hawkins dance. I really lucked out. He can’t even pay for a marriage license.”

As I said, Helen and Nancy had a special bond. Helen loved Nancy because she opened the court house that day. Nancy loved Helen because she felt sorry for her.

Rest in peace, Nancy. Thank you for honoring me by asking me to go to that dance with you. Thank you for being my friend through so many years. And especially, thank you for that marriage license.

John Robert McFarland


Tuesday, January 28, 2020

YOUR BRAIN ON STORIES [T, 1-28-20]


One old man, meaning he’s about my age, asks me every Sunday when we encounter each other in a hallway or the sanctuary at St. Mark’s, “You have any jokes today?”

Well, no, I don’t, but I understand his confusion.

When I preached my final sermon, almost a year ago now, I said some funny things as I conducted worship, and I told some humorous stories in the sermon.

I also did some funny things. I had to get two big college boys from the choir—a tenor and a baritone—to help me get up after the children’s time because I had made the mistake of sitting down on the floor. Old people not only say funny things, we are fun to watch.

We laughed together a lot during that hour. One woman said after worship that day that I am a stand-up comedian. I take that as a compliment, because the best stand-up comedians don’t just throw disconnected one-liners, one after another, the way Bob Hope or Henny Youngman used to do. They tell stories.

I’m not opposed to stand-alone jokes. They can be funny. But I think the best humor comes in story form. My friend at church rightly wants to laugh, so he asks me for a joke. I used to tell jokes, and that’s okay, but now I tell stories, and I doubt that either Ken or I could stand up long enough without falling over for me to tell him a story. [When I wasn’t being helped by choir members when I preached last February, I hung onto the pulpit with both hands.]

That reminds me of the story of the man who fell off a cliff and had grasped onto an exposed tree limb by one hand. “Help,” he cried. “Is there any one up there?” “Yes, I’m God. I’m up here.” “Help me, God,” the man cried. “Okay,” said God, “let go of the limb.” The man looked down and then called, “Is there anyone else up there?”

That story is funny, and it does not require explanation. We’ve all hung onto that limb at one time or another.

Randy Estes, our son by reverse adoption [he adopted us] recently posted a piece about what happens to our brains as we tell or listen to stories. What happens is good. On stories, our brains are more fully engaged than in any other kind of listening. They release dopamine, that “drug” that makes us feel pleasure. Our brains get healthy on stories.

There is an old preacher story about old preacher stories. Back in the days of a “swapping” economy in rural places, one church member asks a member from another church, “What do preachers do at those conferences they go to?” “They trade stories.” “Hmm, I think our preacher gets cheated.”

Well, that’s okay. A bad story is better than no story. We find our place in The Story by hearing and telling the stories. If no one else will listen to your story, let go of the limb and tell it to God.

John Robert McFarland




Sunday, January 26, 2020

THE MEN AT THE DOOR [Su, 1-26-20]


I saw them through the patio window, yesterday, a man about 60, in a black suit and white shirt and tie, wearing a Trilby hat, and a boy, about 14, dressed in the same outfit, except bare-headed.

It’s bad enough when you are ensconced on your sofa on a cold and snowy morning, just to get up to answer the door. Especially since there is a “No Soliciting” policy in Sherwood Green, and “No Soliciting” signs posted in many places. It’s no easy thing for old people to get up, then trundle across the room without shoes, and undo both deadbolts.

“I’m Asa, and this is my friend, Martin,” the man said, nodding at the boy, who stood behind him, as far back as the red brick patio wall allowed, looking miserable. “We are here to tell you about a free home Bible study course…”

I know it is useless to talk rationally with men at the door. They are there to talk, not to listen. This has happened to me before…

The time I remember most was during the 7th game of the world series. I don’t remember the game or the teams or the year, only that I loved watching baseball, and I was interrupted. This was in the 1960s. I got to see baseball infrequently. Through the regular season, there was only one game a week on TV, appropriately named “The Game of the Week.” I looked forward to it, anticipated it, planned for it. Even more so the World Series!

I was home alone, so there was no one else to answer the door. It was a hot day, so the windows and door were open, only the screen between me and the outside world. So, when the doorbell rang, there was no way I could pretend I wasn’t there. Also, I was a pastor, and it might be someone who needed me, or get mad at me if they realized I was more interested in baseball than in church. So, reluctantly, still watching the TV screen, I went to the door.

There stood two young men in short-sleeve white shirts and black ties. Before I could say anything, like “Sorry, but I have a medical condition that prevents me from talking to men in dark ties,” they started. Those spiels are designed, of course, so there is no way for the listener to break in and break away from the men at the door. Until they get to the clincher, and they ask the question: “Are you familiar with The Book of Mormon?”

It was the 9th inning. I could hear the crowd yelling. I did the only logical thing. I lied.

“Yes,” I said, “I have a PhD in Comparative Religions, and I did my dissertation on The Book of Mormon.”

There! That would get rid of them as fast as anything possibly could.

I was a little bit sorry that I “had to tell” a lie—We always think “I HAD to tell it,” not “I CHOSE to tell it-- but this was baseball, and it was a reasonable lie. I was old enough to have a doctorate. We lived in a university town. I did not need to feel remorse at telling the lie, though; they didn’t even hear it.

“Good,” they said. “Let us tell you about it…”

This time I wouldn’t have to lie. I could say, “I have a doctorate in the Bible, and I read it in Greek and Hebrew. I doubt that your free course is going to add to my knowledge.” [1] 

But that’s not the point, of course. The “course” is designed to persuade the reader to believe that the world is ending, or that God wants Donald Trump to be president, or that if you just have enough faith, God will cure your cancer and give you lots of money.

I looked over Asa’s shoulder, at Martin, as Asa announced that he was going to give me a card about the free Bible course that contained questions people have about the Bible. I thought about a time when I was the same age as Martin, and Kenwood Bryant and I were the men at the door…

Ken was a school teacher in Evansville, and a licensed Local Preacher in The Methodist Church. He was appointed to Forsythe, our little open country congregation, 30 miles away from his home. Basically, he just came up to preach on Sunday mornings, but he tried to be a pastor, too, especially in the summer, when he had more time for church work. One day he came up to Forsythe to make pastoral calls, and decided I should go with him, a subtle way to try to sly me into being a preacher. I blame Kenwood Bryant for the 40 years I spent as a man at the door. [2]

I looked again at Martin and thought, “That young man should not have to stand out in the cold and snow today. He should be home watching a ballgame. And this old man should not have to stand here on this side of the door, either.”

So, I didn’t take the card for the free home Bible study. It was the best I could do to get Martin home in time to see the game.

John Robert McFarland

1] Actually, my doctorate is in theology, but all Christian theology comes out of Bible study, so… not exactly a lie…

2] Well, somebody has to be blamed. Bob Butts’ brother says, “Bob, it was really Daddy who got the call to preach, but it deflected off onto you, but he was already teaching school and supporting us by then.” I suspect that Kenwood Bryant’s call got deflected onto me. Years later, after Ken’s kids were raised, when I was standing in the registration line to sign up as a new student at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, I heard a man in the line ahead of me introducing himself to someone. “I’m Kenwood Bryant,” he said, “from Indiana.’

Friday, January 24, 2020

AFTER THE PLAY IS OVER [F, 1-24-20]



I run my lines
Over and over
Again and again

Even though the play
Has ended
The reviews are in
The crowd has moved on

I stand here in the alley
Beside the stage door
Beyond the darkened rows

I spoke the lines well enough
When I trod the boards
But now, with no ears to hear
I strive for perfection

John Robert McFarland

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

KNOWING WHEN TO QUIT [W, 1-22-20]



We watched the AARP Movies for Grownups Awards on PBS. We thought it would be a good place to find shows the very grownup people at our house should watch. It was. Also, it wasn’t as boring as awards shows usually are. But… [You knew there would be a “but,” didn’t you?]

One presenter was Conan O’Brien. He is funny. For one joke. The problem is that he tries to turn one good line into four. He won’t let it go. He keeps working a funny idea until it becomes tedious. Humor turns to boredom very quickly.

I understand the impulse to multi-use. As a story-teller, I always tried to get more than one use out of a story idea—sermon, short story, newspaper column, chapter of a novel, even a letter.

But working an idea over and over, in the same way, with no time lapses in between, even if it starts out as a funny, fits Einstein’s definition of insanity. [Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.]

Part of the problem is that O’Brien, like many current comedians, base their humor on complaining. Some, like Jim Gaffigan, are very adept at that. But whining and complaining can get old in a hurry. Gaffigan moves quickly from one complaint to another, even if he stays on the same subject. O’Brien works the same complaint over and over.

I know I’m sounding like an old man, but Steve Lawrence, Jack Parr, Johnny Carson—they almost always let a funny stand by itself, or followed it up with only one line if it increased the humor. They knew when to quit.

Knowing when to quit. That’s one of the main secrets of humor. And of aging.

I hear a voice saying, “Take your own advice, old man.” Okay. I apologize. Sort of. I’m done. For now. I’m sure I’ll have some more complaints later. I want to get more than one use out of this.

John Robert McFarland

Monday, January 20, 2020

THE TRUTH BIAS AND MONEY IN THE CHURCH [M, 1-20-2020]



I tend to get WMDs and RMDs confused. Not the realities, but the initials. I try to keep them straight by remembering that RMDs are only in January, while WMDs seem to threaten all the time.

Because of RMDs, churches are going to have an increasingly hard time working out a way for people to respond to God’s call during the worship service. Most preachers settled for putting the offering at the end and claiming that we are putting ourselves into the plate via the symbols of our dollars or pledge envelopes.

Helen and I sit about ¾ of the way back at St. Mark’s, yet when the plate gets to us, it has only a couple of envelopes and a stray tenner or two. We pass it on without putting anything in it, ourselves, except for the first Sunday, when Helen puts our month’s pledge in. Not many people are committing themselves via their plate contributions.

It gets even worse as more and more people make their contributions online, and now when old people like we make contributions for the while year by having our pensional Required Minimum Distributions given directly to the church, and various charities, for tax reasons.

It also makes it tough on someone like the man in Hoopeston, IL, where I once pastored. He rarely came to church. Maybe twice a year, when he was between wives. I don’t know if he came to church to ask God to forgive him for the last wife, or to look for a new one. I tried to be welcoming to him, but he didn’t show much interest. Until tax time.

He came to ask me to verify to the tax people for him that he had given $2,000 in loose offerings to the church in the previous year. I always avoided knowing anything about who gave how much in a church, but it sounded a bit farfetched. I was aware just by taking the offering plates from the ushers on Sunday morning and placing them on what we called the altar table that they were filled mostly with pledge envelopes and checks—not many loose offering bills.

But I, like almost all people, have a “truth bias.” We assume people are telling the truth unless there is evidence to prove them wrong. [1] So I asked the secretary for the financial record book—not the one with individual giving, but the totals by categories. It turned out that in the previous year, the entire congregation had not come close to giving $2000 in loose offerings. It was closer to $1,000… for everybody combined!

“Well,” he said, “it was worth a try.” He walked out, and I never saw him again. He knew that at least for him, I no longer had a truth bias.

John Robert McFarland

1] Take a look at Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers for an excellent exposition of the truth bias, and why it is a good thing, even though we sometimes get scammed because of it.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

HOSTING AT PICKLEBALL, AND THE WORLD [Sa, 1-18-20]



I like to walk outside, but some days it is rainy, or just too cold, so I go to the mall. As I walked there this morning, a couple of social workers came in with a group of mentally and physically challenged adults. It reminded me of playing pickleball in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in winter.

The UP is sparsely settled. Towns are small and far between. Winters are thirteen months long every year. A warm day is anything above single digits, Fahrenheit. There isn’t much to do. And one day, as our motley crew of retirees and widows and nurses and licensed marijuana growers played pickleball in the gym of The Covenant Church, in Norway, ten miles east of Iron Mountain, a couple of social workers brought in a short-bus load of mentally and physically challenged people to watch.

At first, we had no idea who they were or why they had come. Apparently, their social workers had reached a desperation point and just loaded them up and went looking for something to do.

Anyone who wanted to play pickleball was welcome at our soiree, so we had new folks show up from time to time, but not a whole lot at one time, and none of these folks looked like they’d be very good at trying to hit an erratic ball with a big paddle. They just stood along the wall and stared.

I was on the court, playing with Mary against a duo of Debbie and Lee. Mary and I were a good duo. There was a famous game where Mary and I were down 14 to 1 and I said, “Now, we’ve got them where we want them, Mary.” She looked uncertain, as people often do at my pronouncements, but we actually scored the next 15 points and won. So, we were not about to stop playing just because some strangers had come in. The other players, sitting against the other wall, waiting their turn, stared back at the newcomers. Except for Vicky.

Vicky is one of those women who is a hostess even in someone else’s house, or town, or church, or gym. She went over to the newcomers, learned why they were there, sympathized with the desperate social workers, learned everyone’s name, got them chairs, and told us players that we needed to put on a good show because these folks had come 35 miles, from a different time zone, even, to watch us play.

We did a pretty good presentation. Our audience cheered whenever the ball went a long way, the farther the better, regardless of whether it was any place close to the court. They booed when I hit a shot beyond Vicky’s reach, the sixty-year old with the wild ponytail now being Miss America in their eyes. When they left, they waved, except that each one said goodbye personally to Vicky.

As I said, there isn’t much to do in the UP in winter, if you can’t ski or skate. Our new friends kept coming back to watch, and cheer for one of the players. You know which one.

Each of us decides whether we shall be a guest or a host in this world.

John Robert McFarland