Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Sunday, July 15, 2018

THE DIFFERENCE IN DOUBTS-A quote [Su, 7-15-18]

“Doubt is a difficult animal to master because it requires that we learn the difference between doubting God and doubting what we believe about God. The former has the potential to destroy faith; the latter has the power to enrich and refine it. The former is a vice; the latter a virtue.”

Rachel Held Evans, Faith Unraveled. Page 219. [An excellent book, but I wish she had kept the title under which it was first published, Evolving in Monkey Town, since she grew up in Dayton, TN, site of the infamous Scopes “monkey trial.”]

Saturday, July 14, 2018

HOMELESS WORDS-a poem [Sat, 7-14-18]

That beautiful voice
Will be stilled soon
Laughter, as a round
Sung slowly
That voice, so full
Of comfort, full
Of grace, will soon
Be stilled
The ears attuned
To that whole sound
Will be empty
The words known
To that voice alone
Will be without a home
Where will the words go
Where will the words
Go then?


Thursday, July 12, 2018


Reflections on Faith and Life for the Years of Winter…

Day breaks late in Bloomington, even in summer, because we are at the western edge of the Eastern time zone. So the first hour or two that I am up, I sit in the darkness of our living room or patio—which one varies according to the weather—and sip my coffee and let my mind go where it will. This morning it went to the sanctuary of the Arcola, IL UMC, my last pastoral appointment before retirement.

Interestingly, the faces that stood out as I looked into the congregation from the pulpit were people who were there only once…

…Ronald Nelson and John and Norma Blackburn, from my school days in Oakland City. Mr. Nelson was my 7th grade teacher. Norma was the high school secretary. John ran the Standard station and sold me tires for my first car.

…Earl and Martha Davis. Earl was a colleague in the College of Fellows in the Academy of Parish Clergy. They drove over from Indianapolis the night before my final Sunday in that pulpit and secreted themselves in a motel so that they could surprise me by just sitting there on Sunday morning.

…Leroy Foster. He had been a member of the church in Orion, IL when I pastored there. Leroy drove all night from Russellville, AR to get to Arcola by 10:30 Sunday morning.

What I see now is very much like the last scene in the movie, “Places in the Heart.” It is in the church in the small town. It is communion Sunday. Folks are sitting in the pews and passing the communion plate one to another. In those pews are all the people who were in the story, including those who died along the way. Each has a place in the heart, even though some no longer have the same bodies.

That’s the nature of communion, which we acknowledge and celebrate with the ritual of communion in worship. Ronald and John and Norma and Leroy and Earl and Martha… all part of my community, along with so many others, even though we shall never be together again in these earthly bodies. But we are in the same body of community. In church, in worship, in communion, we call that the body of Christ.

John Robert McFarland

Okay, so I am breaking my vow to “write no more forever,” but this is really just me thinking in ways that you can see.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith and Life for the Years of Winter… In the heat and humifity of summer? For Christ’s sake…

Yes, I have posted this story before, but I just wrote it in a letter to my college friend, Jon Stroble, who did not know about this blog back then, and it’s just too good a story not to tell again…

Jon and I used to work together in the cafeteria of the graduate student residence center, which in our day was called Rogers Center. This is what I wrote to him…

Do you remember Cora Lee Smith, black girl from Elkhart? She and I used to hang out at a bussing stand in the Rogers Center cafeteria together, where she was fascinated by my thick soft white arm hair. Black folks from Elkhart didn’t have hair like that. She had never seen a hairy-armed farm boy from southern Indiana, and I had never seen a black girl from northern Indiana [or anywhere else, for that matter.]. As we stood there, she would stroke my arm hair, just to see what it felt like.

She became a multi-degreed distinguished educator back in Elkhart, by the name of Cora Breckenridge, and served several terms as an IU Trustee.

For some reason I totally forget, I was seated beside a young black woman from Elkhart at a banquet in the Tudor Room of the Union about 30 years ago. As we talked, I realized she was Cora Lee’s daughter. “Oh, you must know her from way back,” she said. “She only goes by Cora now.” I explained that I did, indeed, know her from way back, and showed her my arm and told her about how Cora Lee used to stroke that hair. She said, “Oh, I can’t wait to tell Mother: I know what you did with white boys when you were in college!”


Katie Kennedy’s magnificent What Goes Up is out in paperback. Buy a few copies.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018


Helen is not a great sports fan, but she is kind enough to sit in the living room, ordering stuff on her computer, while I watch the Reds. In the process, she has become a great fan of Billy Hamilton, the Reds’ centerfielder, who covers the entire outfield, and sometimes the stands, with his speed, and hits singles and steals bases and creates havoc until the opposition just gives up. Billy plays “small ball.”

In “long ball,” each batter tries to hit a home run, or at least hit the ball as far as possible. In “small ball,” a batter gets on base in a small way—a single, a walk, hit by a pitch. Then he steals second base. The next batter “sacrifices” him to third with a bunt. The next batter hits a fly ball long enough for the man on third to score after the catch, another sacrifice. Or some similar sequence. Many small acts, including sacrifices of self, add up to one run. It’s “small ball.”

George Plimpton talked about “small ball” in a different way. He theorized that in sports writing, the smaller the ball, the better the writing. Thus golf produced the best writing, followed by tennis, and then baseball. What then? Croquet? Hai Alai? Water polo? Football must surely be in a class by itself; there just aren’t many sports with a non-round ball.

Faith is much like this, I think. Billy Graham and his ilk, including the apostle, Paul, are long-ballers. Home run experiences that change the whole game.

I can appreciate the long-ball approach, but I’m a small-ball guy myself--a little sacrifice here, another there, a stolen base while Satan isn’t looking… after a while you’ve reached home.

We are in a long-ball era. In the major leagues, for the first time in history, more at-bat appearances end in home runs or strike outs than any other result. It’s all or nothing.

It’s the same in politics. And religion. My way or the highway in politics, mega church or no church in religion.

I remind myself—small ball is still okay, and it may well end up winning the game.

John Robert McFarland

Friday, July 6, 2018


Today, I get to see my beautiful and brilliant granddaughter, Brigid. I wrote this when she was eight. She is now a college graduate—Michigan State University—and starting a PhD at The University of Chicago. This is another “essay” from an unpublished manuscript called Stealing Donkeys and Other Ways of Serving the Master.

            James and John said to Jesus, “Hey, we’ve got a deal for you.” “So what is it?” said Jesus. “Well, when you’ve made it all the way to the top, we want to share the props and perks, one of us sitting on your right, the other one on your left.” Jesus said, “You don’t have a clue. Can you drink from my cup, take my baptism?” “Sure,” said James and John. “You’re right about that,” said Jesus. “You will drink from that cup and receive that baptism, but the right and left hand places, those aren’t mine to say. They’re already spoken for.”
            When the rest of the gang heard about it, they were mad at James and John. So Jesus called them and said, “You know with the Gentiles, how the ones they elect to lead then lord it over them and act like they’re entitled to do anything they want? That’s not our way. If you want to be a great leader, you have to be a humble servant. Whoever wants to be first has to be last, a slave to everybody. The Son of Man didn’t come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45, VSR) (Also Matthew 20:20-28, in which their mother asks for the best places for James and John.)

Our eight-year-old granddaughter, Brigid Mary, is into competitive loving. If you say to her “I love you,” she replies, “I love you more.” Recently she and her mother had been escalating the stakes.
“I love you, Brigid, more than I love chocolate.”
“That’s nothing; I love you more than I love Barbie dolls.”
“Well,” said Katie, “I love you more than pigs love slop.”
Then Brigid played her trump card, the game-ender.
“I love you more,” she told her mother, “than Grandpa loves me.”
            “That’s her gold standard,” her mother said later as she told me this story. “She can’t conceive of anybody being able to top how much you love her.”
            Brigid is right, of course. No one has ever been loved by anyone more than she is loved by me. Of course, that can correctly and accurately be said by many grandmas and grandpas, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.
            It bothers my wife when Brigid says “I love you more.” She thinks that love should not be a competitive sport. It should just be…well, love. She’s not sure where Brigid picked up the idea of competitive loving.
            Actually, we’ve always been mystified by where she learns things. Once, when she was two, the plumber was working in their basement. Without her mother’s knowledge, Brigid went down to observe. When she came back up she said, “Things weren’t going too well down there, so I said ‘damn’ for him.”
            “Brigid, where did you learn that word? At pre-school?”
            No, she didn’t think it was at pre-school, or any of the other places her mother suggested. Finally, she said, “It must have been at the Grandma and Grandpa house. They were just sitting around saying ‘damn.’”
            Now there are two problems with that tale. One is that when Brigid was present, there was no sitting around. The other is that she hadn’t been there when we were dealing with the telephone company, but that’s a different story.
            I think some things are just in the air, and ‘damn’ is probably one of them. Another is this matter of competition. It’s in the very air we breathe. We live in a competitive ethos. Apparently James and John did, too. They knew they couldn’t be Numero Uno, but they wanted to be as close to him as they could get, on his right and left hands. They wanted to share the glory.
            Obviously if you’re sitting at the head table, right beside the guest of honor, you’re expecting the waiters to be at your beck and call, filling your glass, bringing a different entre’ if you don’t like the first one. You don’t expect to get up and go to the back of the room to take water and rolls to those who couldn’t afford the higher priced tickets, the ones that get you a table up front.
But that’s what Jesus says you’re supposed to do, to follow his example. You should want to be first, to be the best, the greatest, the top of the heap, but what that means is that you’re the best at being the least, the best at taking care of others, the one who’s best at taking orders instead of giving them. The meaning of the sacrifice of the cross is that God loves each of us more than any other.
There is always a competition going on within us, between our best and worst selves. It’s a hard and uncomfortable battle, and we’re the battlefield. The way we avoid that internal battle is by “taking it outside,” as they say about arguments in bars. We replace the necessary internal competition between our best and worst selves with external competition in sports and business and politics so we don’t have to deal with the discomfort of the internal competition. It’s a system where for every winner, there are many losers, and where even if we’re a winner one time, we’ll be losers many more times.
Jesus not only encourages us to keep the battle going inside, but he’s there with us, hoping and helping with our best selves. Jesus doesn’t say competition is bad, just that we misunderstand its purpose and location. We’re not to be the best so our worst selves can lord it over others, say “Na-na-nanana” to them, but so our best selves can say, “I love you more.”


Tuesday, July 3, 2018


Helen and I have been fretting and sweating, not just because of this dome of heat covering most of the nation, but because a whole lot of McFarlands are going to descend upon us this week, from Canada and Florida and California and New Mexico and Iowa and Illinois and Indiana and, we hope, Ohio. Well, it’s not exactly “us” upon whom they will descend. We are gathering 35 miles south of us, at the beautiful Spring Mill State Park. A whole lot of us, for several days.

Since we live closest, we’ve had a whole lot of work to do to get ready, meaning we’ve called up several businesses and told them to do stuff for us and to deliver it at the proper times. Having a family reunion is exhausting.

Not just for us, but for those who are traveling. They’ve had to call up airlines and car companies and told them to bring them here. I’m sure there will be stories about flight attendants who put only one ice cube in their Coke when they wanted two. Or they’ll drive a day or two and stay in some motel that didn’t have a pool. Traveling to a family reunion is exhausting.

Having a reunion is such hard work, getting anything you want when you want it, going from place to place, from state to state, anytime you want, no one hindering you, no one saying you aren’t welcome.

Contrast that with families that want the most simple of reunions, just want to be reunited with their own children. But those children were wrested away from them and put in cages in Trump Camps, places they don’t even know where. They have no idea of how, or even if, they are being cared for.

Imagine my little sister’s now-grown children coming across the border from Canada, and their kids grabbed and put in cages and whisked away. Or my Florida sister bringing her little grandchildren to Spring Mill Park so that we can meet them only to have them grabbed away at the Indiana border and taken off to Idaho or Harlem or who knows where else.

McFarlands came to America from Scotland because the English king was claiming he had the right to do anything he wanted to with our children, that he had the “divine right” to disunite our families for his own purposes. We were the Presbyterians called “Dissenters,” because we believed there was only one King, the one to whom we prayed, and still pray, by saying “THY kingdom come, on earth.” We Dissenters were those who came as refugees, and once in this nation, we had only one objection to the new Constitution, which was that it did not specifically say that there was no king but God. We knew how badly things could go if someone in charge acted like a king who could break families apart for his own purposes.

Dissenters and refugees, we Scots on July 4, Independence Day, gather to celebrate how we helped to build a nation where there is no king, where any family can find refuge from oppression, and where any family can have a reunion any time, any place. If you’re white.

John Robert McFarland

The direct heirs of the Dissenters are those in the denomination now known as Reformed Presbyterians. The emphasis upon family unions caused them to be especially active in the Underground Railroad during slavery days.

McFarland is a form of the original MacFarlane. That’s Gaelic. The English translated MacFarlane into Bartholomew.