Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Sunday, January 24, 2016


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

I have mentioned George Paterson several times over the years in this blog, because I learned so much from him, about pastoring, about friendship, about living, about dying.

Helen and I met George and Ida Belle when we moved to Iowa City so I could pursue a PhD 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, and 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 of pastoral psychology 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. He was the trombone player in jazz groups that played in seedy places I frequented. I thought, what is he 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, but there’s nothing there. Be that combination, like George.

2] George flunked my PhD qualifying exam in psychology. 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.”

When I began to write in earnest—stories, essays, reference works, professional articles, Western 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!

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 there. 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 Joe 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. For the next year, Katie was often 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 17, 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 George was dying, I 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. I told George about this and said. “Wait around for me when you get there. I figure my chances are a lot better if I can be in the same group with you.”

John Robert McFarland

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.

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