Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Saturday, November 3, 2012


 CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith For the Years of Winter…
I have just learned of the death of George Paterson.
Helen and I met George and Ida Belle in 1972, when we moved to Iowa City so I could pursue a PhD in the School of Religion at the U of Iowa. We had a lot in common. Their Lisa and our Katie were in the same grade at school. We were both former Wesley Foundation ministers, we were Methodist clergy without a congregation, and George himself had gotten his PhD at U IA. George had two jobs, as chaplain at University Hospital and as a professor in the School of Religion.
There were three pivotal moments in our relationship:
1] I was doing a quarter of Clinical Pastoral Education under David Belgum, professor of pastoral counseling. One day he brought to class a woman in her forties, who was struggling with cancer. She told us of how George had walked into her room…
“I knew him. I thought, What is the trombone player in jazz groups that play in seedy places I frequent doing here? Then he explained that his real job was hospital chaplain. He made all the difference for me. He had just the right combination of strength and availability.”
I have spoken to many clergy since then, in various settings—conferences, retreats, classes, periodicals. I have always told them: Be like George Paterson. You’re no good if you’re only strength, because people can’t receive you if you’re only strength. You’re no good if you’re only availability. They can get into you easily, but there’s nothing there. Be that combination, like George.
2] Second pivotal moment: George flunked me out of the PhD program, which means he failed my qualifying exam. He put it as nicely as he could: “You have such a creative mind,” he said. “You use so many ideas and stories from so many different fields, and so many parenthetical expressions to explain them, I can’t tell what you’re saying.” [I appreciated that he said “creative” instead of “disorganized.”]
When I began to write in earnest—stories, essays, reference works, professional articles, novels, books for cancer patients—in my mind I always put at the top of the every page: Write this so that George Paterson can understand it or you will fail! It has served me well.
3] When the grandchildren moved to Mason City, IA, 175 miles northwest of Iowa City, we retired and moved there, too. George and Ida Belle had relatives in Mason City, so they stopped in to see us whenever they were in town. We went through Iowa City on our way to IN to see my father, so we’d meet for lunch on our way through. We had just begun to get really acquainted again when fifteen-month old grandson Joseph was diagnosed with liver cancer one Thursday afternoon. By Thursday evening Katie and Patrick were at Children’s Hospital in Iowa City with him. George and Ida Belle were there, too, and they remained. Often Katie was there alone with Joe. Patrick had to work to keep insurance in force. Helen and I had to care for four-year-old Brigid. But Katie wasn’t alone. George and Ida Belle were there, surrogate parents and grandparents, and with a bed and a meal and a hug for the rest of us when we could be there, too—a storm home, all the way through. Joe is now an extremely handsome young man of 13, with an easy mix of strength and availability. Along with their own grandchildren, his picture is on the Paterson’s refrigerator, as is Brigid’s.
As regular readers know, I recently learned from Father Guido Sarducci that things are so backed up in heaven that when we die we are judged in groups of ten thousand, to expedite things. George was the first person I contacted. “Wait around for me when you get there,” I told him. “I figure my chances are a lot better if I can be in the same group with you.”
On Monday at noon, we’ll celebrate a life so well-lived that ten thousand can ride to salvation on it.
May the peace of Christ be with George, and with us all,
JRMcF [John Robert McFarland]
{I also write the fictional “Periwinkle Chronicles” blog. One needs a rather strange sense of humor to enjoy it, but occasionally it is slightly funny. It is at}
(If you would prefer to receive either “Christ In Winter” or “Periwinkle Chronicles” via email, just let me know at, and I’ll put you on the email list.)


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