Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Saturday, November 25, 2017

FLASH MOBS [Sat 11-25-17]

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

‘Tis the season for… flash mobs.

I’ve never been part of a flash mob, although I’ve always wanted to be. But they involve singing—like people popping up in a mall food court to do the “Hallelujah Chorus”—or musical instruments, like the viola flash mob the IU School of Music did at the Bloomington farmers’ market a few years ago. We didn’t live here then, so I didn’t see it live, but I have watched it on YouTube. There are very few places where there are enough violists that you can have a whole flash mob of them—or dancing. Unfortunately, I don’t qualify for any of those kinds of flash mobs. [Those are the same disabilities that keep me from being a backup dancer in a music video, another unfulfilled wish. Yes, I have regrets.]

I guess I could be part of a preaching flash mob, but that would be too much like Rev. Jeb and Sister Cindy, who travel around to college campuses and convert students by calling them sluts and whore-mongers.

So I’ll just go to malls and hope for the best, which means a flash mob of Christmas carolers rather than some NRA-sponsored cretin with an automatic weapon killing us all.

I guess it is no surprise that flash mobs happen mostly in the Advent season, that season of hopeful waiting, getting ready for Christmas, for the first flash mob was when the angels appeared to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus. “Fear not…”


I tweet occasionally as yooper1721.

Still looking for a Christmas gift for someone who reads, or ought to read, YA literature? 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.

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 this?” 

Friday, November 24, 2017

MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS-a Black Friday Reflection [F, 11-23-17]

“Sumptuary laws” have existed in many ages in many countries. They were especially prevalent in Elizabethan England, to keep people in their places. They were often tied to income. For instance, you had to prove that your income was above a certain level or you were not allowed to wear purple or satin. Even that law was stratified. For instance, if your income was $40,000 per year [I’m using modern American sums, not the English pound sums of that day], you could wear satin sleeves but not satin britches. If your income was $80,000 per year, you could wear the satin britches but not a feather in your hat. The laws were extremely detailed, so that when you walked down the street, everyone knew exactly where you were in the social order.

This was necessary because all English people were the same color. To discriminate, there must be physical differences, so you know who is privileged and who is not, and just exactly how privileged or unprivileged they are. In a society without sumptuary laws, to dictate how you can dress, you need skin color or other racial markers to be able to discriminate. If there are not enough obvious natural racial markers, you make persons of a certain race wear created marks, as the Nazis made Jews wear yellow stars.

The American experiment says that all people are equal, that no one is privileged over anyone else. But our “original sin,” our desire by nature to put self ahead of others, makes us want special privilege for ourselves and our kind, regardless. The presence of people with different skin colors in America has made discrimination easier. Segregation laws were our form of sumptuary laws.

The most obvious form of Christianity in America today, “Evangelical,” is a religion of privilege, and privilege, in its very definition, is not equality. Privilege means power, and power isn’t power unless it is exercised against those unlike ourselves.

Many will jump in immediately to say that equality is a myth, that there is no such thing. For instance, I do not have the same opportunity to be an NFL football player as some 22 year old 300 pound man who spends most of his time in the weight room. We are not equal.

That, of course, is a red herring. Apples and oranges. “Equality” in the American experiment has never meant sameness. It is “equality before the law.” No one is above or beyond the law.

Some of us are not allowed to wear cream and crimson while others are required to wear black and gold. If you choose to wear those inferior colors, that is on you. [Tomorrow is the annual battle for The Old Oaken Bucket between the football teams of Indiana and Purdue.]

The Constitution also provides equality of opportunity. Again, not equality of sameness. Obviously someone with a great voice has a better opportunity to make it in show business than someone who is mute. [1] But in America, at least as it is supposed to be, the only barrier is ability, not opportunity. You can’t tell blacks or women or gays or rednecks or Irish they are not allowed even to try to sing.

Enter so-called “Evangelical” Christianity, which is a code word for privilege. Strangely, “evangelicals” are not evangelistic. Evangelism is the process of bringing people into the church, the Body of Christ. Evangelicals are concerned not with inviting people into the church but being sure certain types of people are kept out of the church. Privilege is always about keeping people out. [2]

The American dream has been of a nation where all are equal. George Orwell warned us a long time ago in Animal Farm that when we are told “all are equal but some are more equal than others,” that the dream and the American experiment would be over. It’s over.

There is one remaining question. I suspect it can be answered only by people who believe that a time in the tomb of death can lead to resurrection.


1] Although Beware the Brindlebeast, a musical by my friend, Anita Riggio, wife of my former student, Roland Axelson, will be on Broadway soon, and its songs are all done in American Sign Language as well as English, by hearing and non-hearing actors.

2] The Greek word, evangelos, means Gospel, Good News. It is difficult to understand how anyone can conceive of “evangelical” as meaning good news only for the privileged.

Thursday, November 23, 2017


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

This is the first Thanksgiving Day [TD] that Helen and I have spent alone in 59 years of marriage. We are thankful for that, both to spend the day alone, together, and for all those TDs we spent with family and friends.

Until our daughters were grown, of course, TD was at our house-often with my parents and my brother and his wife-or at one of the grandparent houses. After they married, Katie and her family have always gone to her husband’s family on TD, and since we always lived where they lived, once grandchildren were available, nobody was home for TD with us, so we usually spent TD with older daughter, Mary Beth, either at our house or hers, in Chicago, usually in the company of her friends.

Sometimes, though, MB would be at the Cleveland home of old friend Chris Rander, who is a marvelous TD cook and often came to Chicago to cook TD dinner for her and us. On her Cleveland TDs we would work community Thanksgiving meals for the hungry and homeless, usually delivering meals to shut-ins, because we were good at finding obscure places. Now anybody can find an obscure place, because of the GPS voice in the dashboard, but navigation was a skill then.

We weren’t alone, together, on those community meal TDs. We were in the midst of a bustling bunch of do-gooders, with whom we would finally sit down in a church basement or hospital cafeteria and eat the food we had not delivered or served up earlier. Helen would talk recipes with the women. I would talk football with the teen-age boys.

When I was a student at Perkins School of Theology at SMU, it was too far to go home for TD, so we hosted the other misplaced students from IN, and their children, at Rankin, the community center that we directed, in a Dallas barrio. Merle and Judy Lehman and little daughter, Debbie, Jack and Cora Divine, Doug and Helen Gatton, Bob Parsons. We were a long way from home, but we were not alone.

All those were good TDs, days for which to be thankful, to be with family or friends. This is a different sort of day. No bustling, because Helen has done most of the cooking ahead of time. No little dog to sit patiently for hours in the middle of the kitchen, watching through the oven’s steamy glass window as the turkey cooks. No one with whom to bend over the new jigsaw puzzle-one of our TD traditions-until we can’t straighten up. No grandchildren with red cheeks and happy faces.

A different sort of day, for which I am thankful.


I tweet occasionally as yooper1721.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

TO LIKE OR NOT TO LIKE [W, 11-22-17]

 I worry these days about saying I “like” something, because I no longer know what “like” means.

There is a lot of football coming up, so football commentators are predicting which team will win by saying they “like” the team. “I like Alabama.” None of them ever says she likes Indiana, which is too bad, because I think IU is quite likeable. Apparently, though, football commentators just don’t like you if they think you can’t win.

At least in football, “liking” is linked to effectiveness. In other areas of life, “liking” is not tantamount to competence. I have noticed that often when people say, “We like our pastor,” it means the pastor is not very good at her job, but they like him anyway.

I accompanied granddaughter Brigid to her high school freshman orientation gathering and picnic since her parents were both working at the time. Many of her classmates went out of their way to speak to her. I said, “They must really like you.” “No,” she said, “they respect me.”

She was right. There is a difference between liking and respect. For instance, I like Sarah Palin.

When she was running for vice-president, I heard many people say, “I’m going to vote for her because I like her.” I said, “I like her, too, but liking a person is not enough reason to vote for her.” Much more important than likability is ability.

I blame it on Facebook. There “liking” does not necessarily mean liking. It’s just phatic communication, an acknowledgement that a fellow Facebooker has seen that stupid cat video you posted. [Although, I do like cat videos.]

But I like you, for being kind and patient enough to read what I write.


I tweet occasionally as yooper1721.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

UGLY BABY [T, 11-21-17]

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

I just made a connection between two statements that were ten years apart.

The first was my mother telling me what an ugly baby I was, when I was 54. The second was my father telling me that I was not really his child, when I was 64.

My father inherited colon cancer from me. I had it, with the attendant surgery and chemotherapy, when I was 51. My father got it a year later, when he was 82, with the attendant surgery and chemotherapy. The difference was that he had a colostomy.

No surgeon near where they lived would attempt a temporary colostomy. They said the tumor was too near his anus. The surgery could not be reversed. He would always have to have a colostomy bag. But the young surgeon in the little town where I lived said “No sweat. I can reverse it in 3 months.” Which he did.

My parents lived with Helen and me for three months, getting my father ready for surgery, having the surgery, recovering. They had never gotten along with each other. There may have been two or three pleasant days in the 69 and ½ years of their marriage, but if so, I was not around to witness them, including the three months they lived with us. Living in the same room together in our house, with the added stress of cancer, did nothing to improve their relationship. It did a lot for my marriage, though. Helen and I would lie in bed together at night and hug each other and cry.

Things were different during the days my father was in the hospital, but not better, for being in our house without Daddy to fuss at allowed Mother’s weirdness to come out in other ways. For instance, she was afraid of cats. One day she saw one walking on the street as she was coming back from downtown, so she stopped at the funeral director’s house and asked him to bring her home in his car. He did. We lived next door.

The time came for Daddy to come home from the hospital. Or so the hospital informed me the morning they wanted to discharge him. “But first,” they said, “someone will have to come here to take colostomy training.” Normally that sort of thing fell to poor Helen, but she was thoughtlessly off teaching school. It had to be me, the least likely candidate in the world to learn how to care for a colostomy. Least likely except for Mother, who would not spit on Daddy if he were on fire, and who was phobic about all body fluids, and plenty of other things.

I had just recovered from cancer myself, almost, and was not sure how long I had to live. I was pastoring a recalcitrant church that was giving me a hard time. My mother had been driving me crazy for three months. I was very close to crying. Colostomy training was the last straw, or so I thought. I was going out the back door to get into the car when my mother said, “Did I ever tell you what an ugly baby you were?”

Now I have put the two together, my father’s statement that I was not his child, and my mother’s that I was an ugly baby. If she had given birth to me by some other man, who was not her husband, that would be an ugly outcome for her. And it would make sense that all those years later Daddy would finally tell me I wasn’t really his child.

I was a darned good son. I was the one who took care of our parents for years while my siblings lived at ease in tropical climes. [I don’t blame them; just envy them.] Yeah, maybe I was a bastard, but I draw the line at that ugly baby thing. I’ve seen pictures. I was adorable.


I am finally at peace, and uneasy about it.

Monday, November 20, 2017


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

I admire Neal Fisher for a number of reasons. Most important for “faith in the winter years” is how seamlessly he moved from a large stage to a small one without losing his focus or his identity.

Neal is a theologian by profession and spent most of his career as a leader in theological education, especially as President of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, at Northwestern U. He presided over G-ETS during turbulent years and held together a faculty and student body that ran the theological alphabet from Anselm to Zwingli, from aggressive liberals to absolutist conservatives. I’m not sure anyone else could have done that with the success and sense of joy and wholeness that Neal brought to it. All this time he also cared for his wife, Ila, whose suffering from Parkinson’s disease for 24 years steadily progressed from manageable to impossible. Toward the end of his G-ETS presidency, cancer hit Neal himself, but it barely slowed him.

As president of G-ETS, Neal was a “player”—nationally known, nationally recognized, nationally sought. Neal retired, and he and Ila moved to Vermont, to be near their daughter, Bryn, who was a floor-mate of our daughter, Katie, at Indiana University.

Neal got the usual invitations in the first couple of years of retirement—teach a little here, preach a little there. Like most of us in the first years of retirement, he thought he should try to answer those calls. After all, it is an honor that those still in the harness ask us to help pull the load. And also, we’re not sure who we are if we’re not helping with that load. That’s what we’ve always done.

That’s especially true if you’ve been on a big stage, especially difficult to move to a small stage. Neal did that, though, as seamlessly as anyone I know, keeping the same focus he used  as president of G-ETS, but now “just” in the congregation of which he is a member, keeping  the same focus he used on faculty and students at G-ETS, but shining that light on Ila and other members of his family who struggled with illness.

When we are young, we have heroes who inspire us to do great things. When we are old, if we are fortunate, we have models who show us how to move from doing great things to doing small things with the same grace.


During the time Neal was president at G-ETS, the seminary decided to endow a scholarship in our name, The John Robert and Helen Karr McFarland Scholarship. It is awarded each year to a student from the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the UMC, the conference in which I spent most of my career. Neal came to Arcola, where I was pastoring at the time, to preach at the service announcing the scholarship. Fittingly, the first recipient was Jennie Edwards Bertrand, from that Arcola congregation, who went on to become the Director of The Wesley Foundation at ILSU, where I spent the early and best years of my career.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

THE ABYSS, a poem [Sun, 11-19-17]

Faith discovered Christian Wiman
as he stared into the cancer.
He calls it his “bright abyss.”

I look down often
into an abyss
that is not bright.

I wonder at the absence
of the light. My abyss
is dark and deep and lost
in space and time and fear.

My bright hope
is to dive so deep
I pop out
on the other side.


Christian Wiman was a secular poet who discovered Christ when he got cancer and writes about that beautifully in My Bright Abyss.