Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Thursday, April 17, 2014


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith from a place of winter For the Years of Winter…

I’m listening to my Pandora Radio station on my computer. With Pandora you get to choose your music. My station has only folk music and Broadway musicals. []

I’m listening to Mike Kobluk, Joe Frazier, and Chad Mitchell—The Chad Mitchell Trio—sing “Four Strong Winds,” and marveling at how each one always hits just the right note at just the right time. That was one of their special qualities, hitting just the right note, especially difficult because they use such complex arrangements, which they never wrote down, just worked out, with their musicians and Milt Okun, their musical director, in their heads.

I was in the band in high school. I used my eyes for music, reading the notes on the page so I could reproduce them, more or less, on the bassoon. No one ever taught me to use my ears for music, though. In fact, my ears were used for non-musical sounds.

The third of John Wesley’s rules for singing says, “Do now bawl..” I understand that. I have an ear for bawling. I grew up on a hard-scrabble farm with one cow, Old Jersey. She regularly jumped the fence into Mr. Thieman’s corn field. It was my job to bring her back. I developed a good ear for bawling, so I could find that damned cow.

When I entered Perkins School of Theology at SMU, they gave all the entering students an ear test. They determined that three of us had such good ears for language that we should start both Greek and Hebrew. I had no idea I had such a great ear. I was proud. Then I found out that wasn’t so great. We three were also expected to keep up with the English Bible course all the other students took. A prof would give us on the last day of the week what it had taken the English Bible students all week to learn, after the three of us had done aleph-beth-gimel and alpha-beta-gamma all week ourselves.

It has just now occurred to me as I listen to Mike Kobluk do the solo on “Four Strong Winds” that you don’t need to have a good ear to learn biblical Greek and Hebrew. No one speaks them. We were learning in order to do scholarship and translation. My ear didn’t do me a bit of good. I had a wife and a full-time job in addition to seminary. What I needed was another good 20 or 30 hours per week, not a good ear. They should have given us a perseverance test.

Through the years I have asked many people this question: “If you could speak all the languages of the world, or play all the musical instruments of the world, which would you choose?”

There are exceptions, but most of the time, younger people choose languages, and older people choose music. In the winter of our years, we need a different kind of ear, not to understand the words of this world, but to hear the simple harmonies of the universe.

A music critic once said of Johnny Cash: “He does make an honest attempt to hit every note.” I think Johnny was loved as much for the notes he didn’t hit, the imperfections, as for those he hit. We knew he was trying.

You don’t have to have such a good ear that you hit every note. But you do need to try to hit them all. I think that summarizes what Jesus said pretty well.

Wait…there’s Johnny on my station now. He’s doing “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” I have an ear for the harmony on this one, so I have to sing along. I’d also better change my ways so I don’t have to chase those damn cows forever.

John Robert McFarland

The “place of winter” mentioned in the title is Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where life is defined by winter even in the summer.

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