Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


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

[I wrote this on Feb. 4 but forgot to post it then, so I suppose April Fool’s Day is an appropriate time to catch up.]

My theological alma mater, Garrett-Evangelical, at Northwestern University, has been taking nominations for “160 Alumni Who Changed the World” to celebrate its 160th anniversary. My long-time friend, Bill White, emeritus chaplain and professor of religion at Illinois Wesleyan University, nominated me. [1] So G-ETS ran an article about me on its site [Jan. 23] titled “Pastor, Author, and Baseball Enthusiast.”

At first I was surprised at the emphasis upon baseball. Sure, I’ve played a lot of baseball, and written a lot about it, but in my writing for Scribners reference works, you would think a school of theology might be more interested in the article I wrote on Protestantism in the DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN HISTORY than in the biography of Reds Hall of Fame center fielder, Edd Roush, in AMERICAN LIVES, even though Edd and I do share the home town of Oakland City, IN.

G-ETS got it right, though. Mine is a baseball life. First Base: It’s my birthday. Second Base: It’s the 24th anniversary of the pale oncologist telling me I had but “one to two years” to live. Third Base: It’s the day pitchers and catchers, the canaries of baseball, start reporting for spring training. Those three have me on my way to Home Plate.

Cancer was a huge surprise, like a kick in the gut. Actually, a cut in the gut, that revealed colon cancer. At the time, there was no cancer history in my large extended family. I lived a healthy life style. So how did this happen when I was only 53?

Someone has said that “Without courage, no other virtue is possible.” I thought I was fairly brave, but as I lay there in the hospital bed, I realized that my courage was only for living, not for dying. I knew that because it was the year of the baseball lockout. Management and players could not come to an agreement. Spring training was going to be canceled. And I didn’t care! [2]

I was going to die, maybe even before the baseball season was over. I had to get ready for dying, not baseball. But when my Cincinnati Reds won their first game, I saw another possibility. The Reds were the first professional baseball club. In honor of that, they always got to have their opening game at home. Some bureaucrat decided in 1990, though, that they should open on the road, they only time they have done so. I decided if the Reds could suffer that insult and win, maybe I could suffer the insult to my body and win. The Reds won. That year, without spring training, from start to finish, all the way through the World Series, they were never out of first place. “We” won.

Courage has never come naturally to me. My first reaction to anything is fear. I think it’s the fault of baseball. I could knock the hide off a fastball, but curve balls scared me. They looked like they were coming at my head. I ducked out of the way, only to see the ball swerve over the plate and be called a strike.

That’s been a problem my whole career, my whole life, the courage to face the curves. It’s especially bad when they’re splitters or spit balls or knucklers… or screwballs.

I’ve always had to talk myself into courage. Through the years, I’ve told myself that I wasn’t afraid, that ducking out of the way would hurt more than if I stood in there and got hit by the pitch, that if I did stand in and swing I might knock one out of the park. Sometimes that worked.

After his heart attack, David Letterman said: “If you don’t have courage, fake it. That’s almost as good.”

How do I survive winter in the UP? By looking forward to spring training. How do I survive the winter of my years? By faking courage, telling myself that I’m ready for any pitch that comes.

John Robert McFarland

1] It should have been the other way around, with me nominating Bill, not only for his university pastoring and teaching but his work on C.S. Lewis, and his pastoring of me when I had cancer. He’s in “The Touching Time” reflection in NOW THAT I HAVE CANCER I AM WHOLE.

2] It would not have bothered Edd Roush, whose twin brother, Fred, was one of my baseball coaches. Edd didn’t like spring training, refused to go. It interfered with his hunting and fishing. I admired Edd, but at thirteen I couldn’t understand why anyone would not want to leave winter in Oakland City for a free trip to play baseball in Florida. Forty years later, I didn’t care.

After I told the story above in NOW THAT I HAVE CANCER I AM WHOLE, Marge Schott, then the owner of the Reds, sent me an honorary contract.

The “place of winter” mentioned in the title line is Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where people are Yoopers [UPers] and life is defined by winter even in the summer!

You don’t have to bookmark or favorite the CIW URL to return here. Just Google Christ In Winter and it will show up at the top of the page.

I tweet, occasionally, as yooper1721.

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