Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Friday, February 23, 2018


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

In the CIW for Feb. 12, I talked about my sports obsession and claimed that it was really my commitment to justice that made me obsessed with sports. [You just have to scroll down to read it to see my reasoning.]

Another reason, though, for my sports obsession… I was good at it.

That’s not quite accurate. I was good at sports physically. I had good eye-hand coordination. I could connect the bat to the ball and hit it a surprisingly long way for a skinny guy. I could catch a fly or scoop up a grounder. I could put a ball through a hoop. I did not have much confidence, though. I loved to hit the ball and catch the ball and shoot the ball, but I assumed others were better than I at doing those things. So I always deferred to competitors who were more aggressive. As BTN basketball analyst Shon Morris says, “The meek may inherit the earth, but they won’t get any offensive rebounds.”

Sports, though, gave me control of my body. Especially when puberty hit, I was afraid of my body. No one talked to me about the changes my body was going through. It no longer seemed like my body. As I got used to it, I wasn’t so much afraid of my body as unsure of it. either way, I wasn’t going to get many offensive rebounds, but I could still chase down a fly ball with that body, and doing that gave me a sense of security. Later, being able to run 26 miles and 385 yards without stopping gave me an even greater sense of control of my body.

The Apostle, Paul, says that our bodies are God’s temples. [I Corinthians 6:19-20.] I always got that sense of holiness when I was tossing a ball to a child, running hard on a back road, hearing the swish of the ball through a net. I can’t do those things myself anymore, but I still get that feeling of holiness through wholeness when I see someone else do those things well.

Many years ago I read A Leaf In the Storm by Lin Yutang. In it, the protagonist is caught up in Chinese revolution and upheaval. She has been a child and woman of privilege, very much concerned with her body, but only in terms of beauty--clothing and makeup and seductiveness. She becomes a refugee, stripped of all her privilege, wandering homeless. Then she sees a woman working in a field. She is barefoot. Her muscular legs are covered with mud. Her calves bulge as she bends to her work. It is an epiphany for the protagonist. “There,” she says, “there is real beauty, for those legs are doing what they are meant to do.”


I tweet once in a while as yooper1721

Thursday, February 22, 2018


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

[Caveat lector: this is twice as long as a blog post should be and does not conclude very satisfactorily, but at least there is a “nice” photo from my hillbilly farm boy days.]

Helen says that one of the advantages of raising smart kids is that they give you good books at Christmas. So smart daughter Mary Beth gave me this Christmas J.D. Vance’s, HILLBILLY ELEGY: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. It is a fascinating book, a well-written story that is hard to put down.

Vance grew up in a culture of family violence, of poverty, of close-mindedness, without models of achievement. Yet he achieved, through the Marines and an Ohio State U and Yale Law School.

Although separated by fifty years or so in age, JD Vance and I grew up in a very similar culture, the hillbilly culture, because that culture never changes through the years. Nonetheless, Vance became a hillbilly conservative and I became a hillbilly liberal. [1]

There was one major difference in our formative lives: our families. Mine was no picnic, and in later life my father told me I wasn’t actually his child [2]. Compared to Vance’s family, however, mine was “Ozzie & Harriet.”

JD’s family was a mess. His father walked out. His mother was a narcissistic alcoholic and drug addict who brought man after man into their ever-shifting houses, some trying to be a father to JD and his sister, some just to be there for a while. None lasted long. They were always on the edge of poverty.

It is said that a child can survive a tumultuous childhood if there is one dependable adult in its life. JD had that, his mamaw, Bonnie Vance, a gun-wielding foul-mouthed nasty woman who scorned everyone and everything, except her grandson.

Vance and I even share some common ground, SW Ohio. My family had roots in both SW Indiana and SW Ohio, starting in the late 19th century in Cedarville and Dayton and extending later down to Oxford and Hamilton. During the industrial expansion after WWII, the companies there, in places like Middletown, where Vance grew up off and on, recruited workers from Kentucky. They were smart enough to recruit whole families, thus creating a more stable work force.

Their culture, however, remained hillbilly. It was linked inexorably to “home,” the hill county of the Hatfields and McCoys in Kentucky. Every weekend there were long lines of cars going to and from “home.” When you asked them where they were from, they named their county in Kentucky. The SW OH industrial area was never “home,” but just where they resided and worked.

Here is basically what Vance says about hillbillies, and I think he’s right. Hillbillies are tribalistic. They are pugnacious. They value toughness—they fight hard and drink hard. They also work hard if it’s something they’ve chosen to do, but if they’re working for someone else, the main point is to get paid without working. They are patriotic, in a tribalistic nationalistic sense. They are identified not by what they trust but by what they distrust. They distrust outsiders. They distrust the Law. They distrust education and educated people. They assume they are stuck in poverty. They deplore government welfare but depend upon it. They are gullible. They think they are smarter than educated people, “pointy headed intellectuals,” as my father called them. They live by a misogynistic “honor” code, in which a man is allowed to abuse “his” women freely but is honor-found to avenge them if some other man mistreats them.

Once again, a major difference between his hillbilly culture and mine. My extended family and the people around me were patriotic and proud of military service but deplored stupid violence, especially in the family. They honored education and achievement. Their honor code was “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.” You were to respect others, even if you disagreed with them.

Vance does not say, “I made it on my own.” He is much too smart for that. He knows it he made it with a lot of help. He deplores the close-mindedness of his own people who believe things like Barak Obama was born in Kenya and is not a Christian. He says that good social policy is better than bad social policy.

I say that Vance “became” a hillbilly conservative. That’s both true and false. He started out conservative, because that is part of hillbilly culture. He became one by choice as an adult. He is a thoughtful and responsible conservative, but I still have trouble understanding it.

He says that government help won’t make a difference, that people will have to be responsible for themselves. That’s the part conservatives like. But he also says that hillbilly culture is so depressed that nobody sees a way out of it. There are no models of how to achieve or incentives to do so. There are no models of good marriages. He himself went to the Marines instead of trying for college when he graduated high school because he and his mamaw together couldn’t even figure out how to fill out the application forms and knew no one who could help them.

His is a fascinating story of personal achievement. But it stops there. With being a hillbilly conservative. My own growing-up story is much like his, except I am a hillbilly liberal. I agree that good social policy is better than bad social policy. There is always going to be a social policy of some sort, and I don’t think “I made it and you’re on your own” is very good social policy.


1] Both Vance and I use “hillbilly” only as a descriptive term, not a derogatory word, and we both use it with a certain amount of pride, the way Jim Webb does in Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America.]

2] I don’t believe it, and, anyway, I don’t care.

3] I remember once my Uncle Randall, who worked at Fisher Body in Hamilton, telling how a fellow worker asked him what county he was from. He was surprised. “Butler,” he said. The man looked puzzled. “Where’s that?” “Right here,” Uncle Randall said. The man looked more puzzled. “No, I mean your county in Kentucky,”

I tweet occasionally as yooper1721.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018


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

The trailer on the bottom of the TV screen said something about California getting ready to declare that coffee is a cancer risk. I know no more than that. I don’t intend to follow up to learn more.

That’s one of the great things about being old: just because something is there to know doesn’t mean you need to know it.

Another great thing is that you can say: So what? I’m old. I’m going to die from something. It might as well be while doing something I love, like drinking coffee.

When my father was in his 90s, the doctor told him he had to stop crossing his legs, because of circulation problems. He said, “But I can’t drink coffee without crossing legs.” He had his priorities.

Besides, it’s California. They do all sorts of crazy things there. Probably just trying to get people to stop drinking coffee so they’ll drink more wine. Also, as with almost every health study, there are other studies that say coffee is good for you.

I know that any good thing can be overdone. Dee Lemkau in her middle years realized she was getting nervous and irritable. She counted up her cups of coffee one day. Twenty-two! She was home all day. She liked coffee. When the pot ran out, she brewed another. She said, “It was just a habit, taking that cup to my mouth. I had no idea how many times I did it.”

Before it is a habit, though, coffee is an acquired taste. When I dropped out of high school and went to work on the night shift in the Potter & Brumfield factory, sitting in front of a big bright light to test and adjust electrical relays, I began to drink coffee out of the machine. The only choices were 20W-30 and 30W-30. [1] But I needed to stay awake. I got used to it. I began to like it.

When we married, Helen used cream and sugar in her coffee. No McFarland ever diluted a cup of coffee. That contradicts the Commandment against adultery. She finally decided it was just easier to drink it black. She has never looked back.

Coffee is known as “the common cup of Methodism.” We don’t use wine in communion. We don’t use coffee for communion, either, but we use it for community.

The main thing on a winter morning is to have a cup of something warm. Maybe share a cup of something warm. A cup of kindness will do nicely.


1] These are actually viscosity counts for motor oil. You get the point.

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

I tweet occasionally as yooper1721.

The “place of winter” mentioned in the title line is Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula [The UP], where life is defined by winter even in the summer! [This phrase is explained in the post for March 20, 2014.] Having met and married while at IU in Bloomington, IN, we became Bloomarangs in May of 2015, moving from Iron Mountain,  back to where we started, closing the circle. We no longer live in the land of winter, but I am in the winter of my years, and so I am still trying to understand Christ in winter.

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.

It’s neat; in writing circles, Katie is no longer known as my daughter. Now I am known as her father.

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.

Speaking of more writing, the full story of how God tricked me into becoming a professional Xn is in my book, The Strange Calling, published by Smyth&Helwys.

Speaking of even more writing, my book, NOW THAT I HAVE CANCER I AM WHOLE: Reflections on Life and Healing for Cancer Patients and Those Who Love Them is published by AndrewsMcmeel. It is available in paperback, ebook, audio, Czech, and Japanese.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

WALK THIS WAY [T, 2-20-18]

I’m not sure I want to be called “Christian” these days. There are so many who claim—loudly--to be Christians but live and espouse a way of living that is the opposite of what Christ proclaimed.

I am sure, however, that I want to try to follow in the Jesus Way. That was what early Christians called following Jesus, The Way. It was THE Way.

Everyone walks in some way. [“Walk this way” is one of the oldest sight gags in the world, but I remember it especially from seeing Dudley Moore in “Arthur.”] When I look at all the possible ways to walk through life, even if I don’t “believe” in God, I can only conclude that The Way, The Way of Jesus, is the most satisfying and fulfilling and joyful way to live. In-joy-able living is The Jesus Way. [I capitalize The Way not to be arrogant, but to distinguish it from other ways.]

Not the Christian way—that word is loaded with too much history and too much anger. Not the TV evangelism way. Not the nationalistic religion way. Not the church way. The Jesus Way.

I think that is why Rob Bell was so successful when he was a conservative church founder. He didn’t start with the Bible or theology or beliefs. He started with Jesus, and he simply said, “Look at all the ways there are to live and compare them. If you do it without preconceptions, you’ll find that the Jesus way is best.”

The Way has two parts that make a whole, what Jesus did and what Jesus said to do. Jesus said very little about believing as part of The Way. He said a great deal about doing.

His model prayer includes daily bread, not just for “me,” but for “us.” So it is important to pray that all may eat, to pray for an end to world hunger. But the Jesus Way does not stop with prayer. He actually fed hungry people. All of Jesus’ prayers were paired with actions. God’s Kingdom doesn’t just come without Jesus’ followers working at it.

[Prayers pairs…that’s sort of clever. Note to self: do something with that some time.]

In the Jesus way, “We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have to minds and hearts that are shaped by the Spirit of God. We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have—minds dominated and blinded by conventional categories, identities, and preoccupations-- to minds and hearts centered in the Spirit, alive to wonder, alive to seeing, and alive to compassion. We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have—minds dominated by the ideologies and preoccupations of individualism-- to minds and hearts that see and hear the suffering caused by systemic injustice, to minds alive to God’s passion for justice.” [1]

The Jesus Way is Good News, and it’s good news that you don’t have to be a Jesus follower or believer to follow in the Jesus Way. You can walk the walk of The Way regardless of what talk you talk.

The one thing I can conclude after many years of living is that The Way is very hard, and worth it, and you are never too young or too old to start walking it.


1] Marcus J. Borg, Days of Awe and Wonder, Page 129.

I tweet as yooper1721.

Monday, February 19, 2018


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

When I pastored in Hoopeston, IL, we invited all the pastors, various denominations, and their wives to our house for supper occasionally. One night. Dirk was there, with his wife, Barbara. He was the Lutheran pastor. Dirk and Barbara reminded us of George Clooney and Elle MacPherson, except better looking. After supper I was carrying dishes to the kitchen and Barbara followed me, which frightened me a little. Normal people are not sure how to deal with beautiful people. She plunked some dirty plates down on the counter and sniffed. “I hate your wife,” she said.

I was dumbstruck. Nobody hates Helen. Every church I ever pastored, plenty of people were glad when I left, but everybody wanted Helen to stay.

“Why do you hate Helen?” I asked. Barbara almost teared up as she said, “She makes being a preacher’s wife look so easy, and it’s NOT!”

All I could tell her was, “Barbara, Helen makes it look easy because she is not the preacher’s wife. She’s just herself. That’s always easier.” [1]

I thought of that incident last Lent when I realized that from the age of 14, I had always been the preacher, never just myself. I had been a professional Xn all my life, never just myself, never just a regular Christian. At the start of that Lent last year I had just had a birthday, one that ended with a zero. Not a double zero, as some have suggested, but still a significant number. I realized that time for new learnings was running out. If I were ever to find out if I could be myself, just a regular Christian, I had to do it soon.

So I decided on a professional Xn fast. [2] I told our pastors that I would not sermonize or pastorally pray or any of that preacher stuff. They agreed. In fact, they looked quite relieved and were almost unseemly in their willingness to cooperate. As Lent went along, I realized that forty days, not counting Sundays, would not be nearly long enough, so the fast was extended to a year.

So, for a year, I have been a regular Christian, a lay person.

What do lay people do? As my old Academy of Parish Clergy friend, Father Joe Dooley, used to say, “All we require of Catholics is to pray, pay, and obey.”

So I prayed, and paid, and obeyed. I did lay person stuff. I took the backpack Sunday food to Community Kitchen. I brought bars of soap and sticks of deodorant for jail bingo. I was on the hospitality committee, to which I agreed only because it is a committee that has no meetings.

I went out into the world each day to do the will of God. Of course, in my case, going out into the world means lying on the sofa looking at Facebook, but that’s sort of like being in the world.

Most importantly, I criticized the preachers, since that is a regular Christian’s first responsibility. I provided “help” for our pastors, remembering always that the job of a regular Christian is just to point out the problems, not to provide solutions for them. Solutions are the job of the professionals. 

A new Lent is starting now. My professional Xn fast has ended.

It was a miserable failure.

Professional Xns have so much insulation. When we show up, people say, “Got to stop cussing; the preacher’s here.” If you are a woman preacher, you aren’t subject to nearly as much sexual innuendo as most women have to put up with. [You’re not home free, but there’s not as much.] We get discounts. We are called “Reverend.” We get to wear robes and collars and stoles and crosses so people can’t see what we’re really like underneath all that. We get to hide behind solid oak on three sides.

Regular Christians are out there every day on their own. They’ve got no special degrees, no special attire, no insulation, not even very good instructions. We professional Xns just say, “Love everybody.” We don’t tell how to do it, because we don’t know. Regular Christians just have to wing it.

I’m fortunate to know folks who make being a regular Christian look easy. Those of us who can’t make it as regular Christians, and have to keep on being professionals, we admire you, because we know you make it look easy when it’s not!

The Rev. Dr. JRMcF

1] As some readers will recognize, like most writers, I like to get more than one use out of a story.

2] Professional Christians use Xn as shorthand for Christian when we make notes, but it’s also an ancient and early form of referring to Christ, Xristos in Greek.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

THE JESUS ROMANCE [Sun, 2-18-18]

In the time of winter, the roses have no dew.

In seminary we made fun of C. Austin Miles’ 1912 song, “In the Garden.” We called it “Andy.” Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me, Andy tells me I am his own.

Someone told us it had been composed as a popular love song but had not made it, so the composer went to the religious market with it, where it became one of the great all-time hits. That first part was not true, but truth has little weight when we want to ridicule something.

I enjoyed making fun of the hymn, in the same way children enjoy making fun of the odd kid at school. It was a love song, not a theological song. It was sappy. It carried nothing of the realism and suffering and sacrifice and scandal of the real Gospel. It was the worst of self-centered Protestant individualism: “The joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.” Talk about exclusive! The life of Jesus was all about blood on a cross, not dew on roses. That’s how we sophisticated seminarians saw it.

Miles, though, intended it as a hymn from the beginning, but it is also clearly a romantic love song. By Miles’ own account, it is a depiction of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, after Jesus’ resurrection, meeting “in the garden,” to share a joy that “none other has ever known.”

People like to speculate about the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but no one really knows anything about it. I think Tim Rice speculates best when he has Magdalene say, “I don’t know how to love him… I’ve been changed… in these past few days, when I’ve seen myself, I seem like someone else.” [1]

It is popular, and not unreasonable, to think that the time after the Resurrection was springtime for Jesus. After all, he was going home, to “reign in glory,” and all that. But if you are the savior of the world, can you sit in heaven and be content with the world as it has been for these past two thousand years? No, this is a long hard bitter winter time for Jesus.

In this barren winter time of our culture, we have removed romance from sexuality. Sex is physical contact, only. It has little, if anything, to do with relationship, with love, with romance. People who look at Jesus and Magdalene assume either that they had a conventionally modern physical relationship, or that Jesus was beyond all that sexuality stuff. They forget about romance.

I wish there were a better word to put here. “Romance” usually means something shallow, only emotional. I don’t mean it that way. Romance, rightly understood, is about “the joy we share.” One of the great things about “In the Garden” is its low-key joy. Considering this long despairing two thousand year winter Jesus has had to endure, mostly at the hands of those who invoke his name as savior, I cherish for him that short romantic time with Mary Magdalene in the garden, that simple joy in just being together. One remembered moment of true romance, of a time when joy was shared when there was dew on the roses, one such moment can sustain a body, even a resurrected one, through the cold of winter.


I tweet as yooper1721.

At Story Church the other night, one of the main stories was told by a “Will & Grace” couple. They were thrown together by circumstances. Compressing their long story into just a few sentences, they said: We are in love. It’s not physical. It’s not husband and wife, although we live together. It’s not boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s not brother and sister. It’s not mother and son. [She is several years older.] It’s just love.

 1] Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jesus Christ, Superstar.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

HOPING GOD READS THIS-a poem, sort of [Sat, 2-17-18]

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

I always hope
that my words on the page…

Yes, they start on the page
It is only later that they move
to a screen
the way an angry old man
leaves the church he loves
just to spite the new preacher
because they no longer sing
the old songs

I always hope
they are a glass, these words,
however darkly
a two-way glass
that shows me to God
and God to me

Yes, God needs the glass
to get a bead on me
for I am quick
like the brown fox
and God is busy
with many things
making protons and mountains
and love
from mustard seeds alone

Maybe, though, my words
on the page are not a glass
but a wall to keep God from seeing
me the way I am
when I have no words
not quick like the fox
but plodding as a proton
that has lost its charge

Glass or no glass
two-way or none
I must put the words
on the page
hoping only that God
has bookmarked this blog
and reads it to the cherubim
on a slow Saturday
and laughs


I tweet occasionally as yooper1721.