Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Monday, December 21, 2015

Religion and Faith

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

It is possible to wonder, as some do, if this blog is “religious” enough to qualify as… well, religious.

But note that the title says this blog reflects on faith, not on religion. Religion is part of faith, but faith is more than religion.

Now it is time for a Christmas break. The Lord willing, there will be more opportunities to reflect on faith in the new year.

John Robert McFarland

I started this blog several years ago, when we followed the grandchildren to the “place of winter,” Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula [The UP]. I put that in the sub-title, Reflections on Faith from a Place of Winter for the Years of Winter, where life is defined by winter even in the summer! [This phrase is explained in the post for March 20, 2014.] We don’t live in the place of winter anymore, but we are still in the years of winter.

I tweet as yooper1721.

Sunday, December 20, 2015


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

{For many years I wrote a new Christmas story each year to use as a Christmas eve sermon. This is the most well-known, and most-often published. Feel free to use it yourself if you have need.]


Before the green hills had become the spoil banks of the strip mines, when United States highways were graveled ribbons and mules still pulled the plows, where the Wabash meets the Ohio, my father "rode the mail." 

            It was not a regular job.  The people in the hills read slowly and wrote only when they had something important to say.  A postage penny was a lot of money.

            Once each week or two, however, the letters and circulars for the folks in the hills mounded up until they filled a leather mail-pouch.  When the papers peeked over the bag top, my father unhitched the mules with which he had been grading the roads since he was twelve, saddled up his horse, and clucked a "giddyap" out toward the cabins where no roads dared to go. 

            The trackless hills, where the woods are deep, are cool and pleasant in the haze of summer. When the autumn comes, though, the heavy rains dump the soggy maple leaves down upon your head.  The water sneaks in between your hat and the collar of your coat. Then the hills hunker down and close in and say, "Beware."

            It was on such a day that Father lost his way.  So when he crossed a clearing and saw a cabin, it was both relief and fear that ran with the rain down along his backbone.  From underneath his dripping hat he hailed the gray, unpainted shack. 

            "Helloooo, the cabin," he called.

            No answer.  The owner must be in on such a day, he thought, or else the cabin was deserted.

            His right foot had left the stirrup and was half-way over the horse's rump when he saw the shotgun.  Only one barrel, but it was big, and it looked straight out at him from where the door had cracked open.  Off the saddle, he waited.

            "What do y' want?" a thin voice from behind the shotgun demanded.

            Father thought fast. 

            "I'v brot your mail," he called.

            "And I need a place to git dry," he added.

            The shotgun held its place, and so did Father.  Finally, however, the muzzle lowered toward the rough boards of the porch, and Father lowered himself to the ground.

            "Come," the cabin called, and Father went.

            Inside the door he met the oldest, frailest-looking woman he had ever seen.  A hound dog that must have shared her birthday lay in front of the fireplace.  A table, a ladder-back chair, a bed, the shotgun, a shaker chest, and a stool were the cabin's only other occupants.

            The woman was still wary. 

            "I don't git no mail," she said.

            Father fished into the pouch and hooked an old circular.  He pushed it out across the gap between them.  A thin, veined hand took it and held it close to two slow eyes.  The eyes were satisfied.  The hand pointed to the chair. 

            "Sit," she said. 

            Father sat.  He wondered a little at how the old woman had read the circular while holding it upside down.

            She brewed some tea. They sipped and sat before the fire until the silence of the roof reported that the rain had gone. They did not talk--just sat and sipped together--the very young man who was only beginning, the very old woman whose life was ending. 

            Father said, "I'll be goin' now.  I thank you for the shelter and the tea." 

            The frail old hands picked up the circular as he left.

            From then on when Father rode the mail, he put into the pouch an old sale bill, or a circular, and he took it to the little cabin in the clearing in the woods.  Each time the young man and the old woman sat and sipped in silence.  Each time Father noted that the "mail" of his last trip had been tacked up on the wall.

            When the winter comes, the rains stop, but the sky is gray as slate sometimes, and the wind sneaks past the button sentries.  In those cold days, Father was especially glad for the cabin and the fire and the tea and the silence.

            A week before Christmas, Father put an old catalog into his pouch, along with all the cards for others on the way, and set out to ride the mail.  He took the catalog to the cabin.  There they sat, the silent young man and the quiet old woman.  As Father rose to leave, the old woman spoke into the silence.

            "It was good of y' to leave your own family and come out to see me on Christmas day," she said.

            Father looked at the walls around him.  There was no calendar, only the circulars and sale bills winking back at him in the firelight.

            Father did not ever talk very much, but many, many years later, when he told this story to his children and grandchildren, he said, "I guess she never did know it wasn't really Christmas day."

            Perhaps he never knew it really was.

John Robert McFarland

When my Christmas stories were compiled in a book, I was going to title it THE YEARS OF CHRISTMAS, since each story is set in a different past year. WHEN FATHER RODE THE MAIL… was so popular, though, that publisher people thought that should be the title of the book. You can order a copy at I think you can order just using the book title or my name, but the ISBN is 978-1-300-38566-0.

Saturday, December 19, 2015


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

It is almost the heart of winter. Two more days is the winter solstice. It will be the shortest day of the year. The fewest hours of daylight for any day all year. The pansies don’t care. “Bring it on,” they say, turning their pretty faces into the frosty wind.

The pansies are in a wooden pot on the glass table on our patio. Helen hasn’t watered them for weeks. Or tended them in any other way. They don’t care. They keep on being their own jolly multi-colored selves. Against all odds, without any help, they survive.

Wait a minute, though. These are pansies. Their very name means weak-hearted, fearful, running-away at the thought of danger. When Frank Barone, on that TV sitcom about everybody loving Raymond, wanted to ridicule his sons, he called them pansies. We did that on the playground when I was growing up. You pansy!

We discovered while living in the UP, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a totally pansy-unfriendly place, where winters are 13 months long, that pansies lasted longest, and most colorfully. Who wouldathunk?

So why is it that they have such a reputation for weakness? Because they once ran for president. Those who manage political campaigns learned about 30 years ago that the way you win is to attack your opponent at hisher strongest point and claim it is hisher weakest, and reverse the process with your own candidate. “That war hero guy is actually a pansy and our guy who got three deferments is the one who is the really tough guy who will defeat our enemies.”

All you need is enough money to say it about a ten thousand times on TV, and the vast majority of voters will pay no attention, but they’ll overhear it as part of the general sounds in the air until when election day comes, they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, that gal who served two tours in Afghanistan is the pansy. I’ll not vote for her. I’ll vote for the CEO who laid off her father so he could get a big bonus. He knows how to deal with those kinds of people, whoever they are.”

So, pansies, don’t run for office. Just keep smiling out there on the patio, looking in at the rest of us, snug and warm in our houses. Keep smiling at us in the storm as you make the world a better place just by being pansies.

As for the rest of us, we need to be very careful about disrespecting pansies.

John Robert McFarland

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


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

I’m the only person in our family who actually knows how to get out of the house.

When all the good-byes have been said, and the coats and boots are on, that’s the time to bring out the doll house or go pick tomatoes to send with us, or argue about who should take how much of some left-over food in the refrigerator, or discuss at whose house the gathering for the next holiday will be, and who will bring what.

It’s not just getting out the door. It’s any transition time. When it is time to go to bed, I think one should get into bed, but I’m wrong. That’s when one is supposed to pull the sheets tighter and beat the hell out of the pillows, which is called fluffing the pillows.

It’s not much better when we get going. I recall one auto trip with our young daughters and my parents and several other relatives. The car had no people, only bladders, all on different schedules.

We took my father home after he had lived with us for a while to have an operation. We found Mother on the floor, where she had been for several hours. She did not want to go to the hospital.

Helen grabbed the phone to call 911 anyway. “If you call 911, I’ll never speak to you again,” Mother said. I’ve never seen a woman dial a phone so fast.

When the ambulance guys got there, really nice and personable young man, Mother tried to talk them into stopping for supper at the Hilltop restaurant, her favorite, and only a few miles in the wrong direction, on the way to the hospital for supper. “I’ll pay,” she said.

Everybody in my family wants to delay the trip, for whatever reason, but not me. I have always been eager to get on the road, to “make good time,” to see what comes next, which is one reason I’ve never feared death.

However, when Charon, the ferryman on the river Styx, comes to collect me, I suspect I’ll say, “Why don’t we stop at Hilltop first? I’ll pay.”

John Robert McFarland

I started this blog several years ago, when we followed the grandchildren to the “place of winter,” Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula [The UP]. I put that in the sub-title, Reflections on Faith from a Place of Winter for the Years of Winter, where life is defined by winter even in the summer! [This phrase is explained in the post for March 20, 2014.] The grandchildren, though, are grown up, so in May, 2015 we moved “home,” to Bloomington, IN, where we met and married. It’s not a “place of winter,” but we are still in winter years of the life cycle, so I am still trying to understand what it means to be a follower of Christ in winter…

I tweet as yooper1721.

My new novel is VETS, about four homeless Iraqistan veterans accused of murdering a VA doctor, is available from your local independent book store, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, BOKO, Books-A-Million, Black Opal Books, and almost any place else that sells books. $8.49 or $12.99 for paperback, according to which site you look at, and $3.99 for Kindle. Free if you can get your library to buy one.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


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

Will Barrett, Walker Percy’s protagonist in The Last Gentleman, says that one need not listen to a good preacher, for good preachers know how to eliminate the objectionable. A dumb preacher, however, a stupid preacher, a poor preacher, will almost always something by accident that you need to hear.


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

The TV said that a marriage should have magic moments. It suggested that this could be accomplished if a man gave his wife a diamond something or other. I do not have any diamonds. I asked my wife if our marriage still had magic moments. She laughed. It was a magic moment.

Saturday, December 12, 2015


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

It is strange that people say they take the Bible literally when the Bible does not say that it should be taken literally.

It is strange that people say that the Bible is the Word of God. The Bible says that Christ is the Word of God. Christ does not say that the Bible is the Word of God. So if you take the Bible literally, it is not the Word of God, so you can’t take it literally.

The real reason for saying we take the Bible literally is to pick out some verse that will justify excluding some group that is unlike my group, and then ignore all the rest of the Bible.

It is hard to take the Bible literally even if we have good intentions for doing so unless we know Greek and Hebrew. There is very little of either of those languages that can be treated as an algebraic equation for translating into English.

For instance, we now accept the word atonement as Biblical. It is not. It is not even atonement. It should be pronounced at-one-ment. A bible translator made it up to express a Biblical sentiment—being at one with-- for which there is no direct English equivalent word. You cannot take atonement literally because there is no such thing.

Who was that translator? Tyndale? Wycliffe? I forget. I’d like to say it was Wycliffe, because for a short time in the 1950s, I was the first English-speaking pastor of the Wycliffe Methodist Church in the Pilsen area of Chicago.

Not long before that, Pilsen was the largest Czech settlement in the world, outside of Prague.

Now that I think about it, I wonder why a Czech speaking Methodist church was named for one famous for translating the Bible into English. I guess they were not taking the Bible literally.

Friday, December 11, 2015


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

I share this each year, because… Well, it’s a grandchild story!

When granddaughter Brigid was about four, as Christmas approached, she said to her mother…

“You know, Santa and Grandpa are a lot alike. Santa has a white beard, and Grandpa has a white beard. Santa has a bald head, and Grandpa has a bald head. Santa brings toys, and Grandpa brings toys…

But Grandpa is better, because he stays and plays.”

That’s the message of Christmas, I think. God is not just some Santa making a quick stop on the roof, throwing some goodies down the chimney, and then hurrying on. In Jesus, the Christ, God stays and plays.

John Robert McFarland

Monday, December 7, 2015

What Is Missing in the Talk of Old Age--a poem

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

The constant weakened
Beat of sagging drums
Sounds mournful
In my saddened ears
As friends from years long
Past speak only
Of their aches and pains
And imagined plots
Injustice, old and new
With never even one loud
Cymbal clash
Of joy

John Robert McFarland

Friday, December 4, 2015


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

As I walked this morning, about 32, nippy, frosty, it reminded me of so many mornings like it when I walked to class at IU, Indiana University, and I was very thankful to be back here, in Bloomington, to close the circle, to be “where my life began.”
            I really think of it that way. Mostly because it was at IU that I met Helen, and none of the rest of my life would have been possible without her, but the whole IU experience opened the world to me. Those were a marvelous four years. Yes, there was the usual heartbreak of romantic rejections, before I met Helen, and the uncertainty about what I was supposed to do with my life, all the usual stuff of that stage of life, but it was like being put into the basket of a trebuchet and then flung out into space--uncertain where you’ll land, but exhilarating.
            At the same time, I feel a little embarrassed at saying my life started at IU, because Oakland City, IN was so good to me. Moving there in the middle of the first semester of 5th grade, a poor country kid, without decent clothes, who had to ride on a horse-drawn wagon with his father to go into town, those OC kids were so accepting of me anyway. They had a high regard for education and intelligence. As soon as I started getting the best grades in class, [matched by James Burch], they were even nicer to me. They thought that was great, quite unlike the anti-intellectual tenor of our current times.
            The good grades were a surprise to me. We did not have letter grades at Lucretia Mott Public School # 3 in Indianapolis. Each grading period the teacher wrote something like “Johnny isn’t too awful.” I already knew that.
            Oakland City was old-fashioned. We had quizzes in spelling and arithmetic and all the other subjects almost every day. No concern for privacy--we passed them to the kid across the aisle to grade. Quickly everybody knew that I got all the answers right.
            On top of that, Uncle Ted, my mother’s oldest brother, who once served in the Indiana Legislature, lived only 5 miles away now, and had no children, so he became a sort of grandfather. He promised me a dime for each A and a nickel for each B. I was rich.
            I wasn’t really competitive. I didn’t try to out-shine the other kids. I was glad if they got good grades, too. But I wanted their respect, and I wanted dimes.
            Strangely, I think a lot of my dimes were the result of Lucretia Mott School, so I guess maybe I should say that my life started in Indianapolis. The state board of education, or whoever made those decisions in those days, decided that PS 3 would be an ideal place to try out new ways of educating. It was a poor but respectable section of the city. Educators were not afraid to come into our part of town, which was probably the main reason we were chosen. All the kids were white. Our parents were uneducated and compliant, so they would not complain if the experiments went wrong.
            A lot of the experiments did not work. I was afraid for years to sing. I still can’t draw. I could not learn to read by having whole phrases flashed onto a screen by a slide projector. [Part of experimentation was using new technology.]
            But the Hawthorne effect worked.
The AT&T labor engineers experimented at the Hawthorne, IL plant. They gave the employees longer lunch breaks, and productivity went up. They brought in snack machines, and productivity went up. They gave folks nice stools instead of making them stand up to work the assembly lines, and productivity went up.
The message was pretty clear. But then one of the engineers got a bright idea.
He shortened lunch breaks, and productivity went up. He took away snack machines, and productivity went up. He took away the nice stools and made people stand up to work at the assembly lines, and productivity went up.
            Productivity was the result of getting attention! The attention mattered. The employees felt that they were respected, that not just what they did mattered but that they themselves mattered.
So, I think I got dimes at Oakland City in part because I got a lot of attention at School # 3 in Indianapolis. Also because of Saturday afternoon matinees at the Tacoma Theater, where I learned not to trust guys in black hats.
Well, my life started some place, and I give thanks for all the folks who helped me along the way.

John Robert McFarland

I tweet as yooper1721.