Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Saturday, December 31, 2016


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

As the world and the calendar turn, from 2016 to 2017, there are so many statements of “The year just past was pretty bad, but the new year will be better.” We seem to be predisposed to assume that what comes “after” will be better than what comes “before.” We are a future loving people.

I suppose there is a literature in fundamentalist circles of how the author used to be an open-minded “liberal” tolerant Christian or Muslim [liberal in quotations here because in this context it is a bad word], but had an encounter with the true God and now knows that the only correct way of serving God is the narrow way that not only shuns those who are not true believers but actively works against them, either to convert them or to subvert them.

I don’t know those books/testimonies, but I suspect they are there, because I know their opposite.

Their opposite is the former fundamentalist who has had an encounter with the true God and now knows the only correct way of serving God is the open way of tolerance and acceptance and love, working to allow into the fold those who are shunned and vilified by their former fundamentalist brethren. Folks like Frankie Schaeffer and Brian McLaren come to mind. Or the pastor of a UCC I heard say of his former life as a Baptist pastor, “I have been in prison, and I have been free. Free is better.”

In these cases, and in any other where a person has changed her mind [i.e., I used to be a Bears fan but now I love the Packers], the assumption, at least by the one making the testimony and their admirers, is that the latter position is the correct one precisely because it is the latter, the one changed TO instead of FROM. We are a future-loving people. If we have changed from something of the past, the newer position has to be better.

A good example Nadia Bolz-Weber. I read her book, Pastrix. She grew up in a terribly restrictive fundamentalist home and church and rebelled by going deep into booze and drugs and promiscuity. She had an encounter with God through a Lutheran seminary student, and she is now the Lutheran pastor of The Church for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, a congregation that is the exact opposite of the one she grew up in.

Another example is Anne Lamott, whose story is similar to Bolz-Weber’s, except that she grew up in a benignly atheistic home. She stumbled into a rundown little African American Presbyterian church one day when she was at her lowest, and now she writes about her new life as a Christian. I appreciate Lamott because she writes so well, and because she doesn’t sugar-coat the present [the demons are still with her, but so are the angels] to make the contrast with the past, and because she helps others to realize it is okay to come out of the darkness into the light, where they can get help.

I also envy Nadia and Anne, yea, even get sort of angry at them at times, because I can’t get the sort of accolades they do, because I don’t have a sordid past to live down. They are able to get such good testimonies from their dissolute pasts and ragged presents. That kind of past is what fundamentalists call “building a testimony.” People like the stories of “I once was blind but now I see.”

I have tried to build a testimony. It’s difficult, though. I grew up in a little open-country church in hillbilly country. It was open-minded. It brought a black evangelist into a culture that was racist, both personally and institutionally. It not only accepted a woman pastor when such folks hardly existed, but asked for one. I’ve always felt God was with me. I’ve had one wife, who loves me against all odds. My children and grandchildren are wonderful, and so are my boozeless, drugless, non-promiscuous friends. Sheesh, what kind of attention can you get for a life like that?

Not everyone can be like Nadia and Anne, not just because they’ve had boring lives like mine, but because of concern for others. Some folks would have great testimonies to tell from their former addictions and dissolutions, but they can’t tell about them because of the damage they would cause, not to themselves, but to others.

I am sure that being open about your demons is a good and health-giving thing. I admire people who can do that. It’s okay, though, just to admire the folks who have built strong testimonies and now have interesting stories to tell. We don’t have to emulate them.

Not everyone can tell about their demons, but we all have them, so we need to listen to any kind and helpful word spoken to us, regardless of who speaks it, in the before or the after, in the memories of years past or in the hopes of years to come.

John Robert McFarland

I tweet as yooper1721.

Thursday, December 29, 2016


Bowling Green, IN is now little more than a wide spot on IN highway 46 between Terre Haute and Bloomington. It has a church, a scattering of houses--some abandoned, and a few weary old closed-up store fronts. A century ago, though, when the KKK was running roughshod over Indiana, it was an infamous “sundown town,” signs at the boundaries saying, “Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on Your Head in this Town.”

Indiana has always been racist, and still is. In the 1920s it had the highest % of KKK members of any state. In 1925 over half the Indiana legislature and the governor were KKK members. Yes, that was long ago, but in the 1960s, IN was the only northern state in which George Wallace won the presidential nomination. Racism here was not so long ago, especially if you listen to local folks talk about our first half-black president.

For its first century, the state constitution was openly racist, with anti-miscegenation laws, of course, and also requiring segregation, requiring blacks to register, and refusal to allow new blacks to immigrate to the state. All that in the state constitution. Many of those provisions were still in the state constitution in the 1960s.

My home town was and is as racist as the rest of the state, yet we are very proud that Abraham Lincoln was born only a county away, proud of having had a major stop on the underground railroad, and proud of the Indiana soldiers who wore Yankee blue in the Civil War, including my great-grandfather, John White McFarland, who lied about his age, at 14, to get into the army. [1]

In many ways, the state went backwards in race relations in the decades following the Civil War. Progress in such matters is not automatic and never secure.

White racism, of course, is never quite single-issue. The Indiana Klan was anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic, too. Current white supremacists add gays and “Mexicans” to their hate list. Being a white European Protestant straight male myself, I see nothing wrong with white supremacy, except for being immoral and unchristian. 

It was sundown on Tuesday when we drove through Bowling Green, returning from a Christmas visit with our daughters and their families, and the “low tire pressure” light came on, followed very quickly by an awful noise from the right front of the car. Highway 46 just past Bowling Green is picturesque, meaning there are no shoulders, only deep ditches full of trees that come right up to the narrow ribbon of concrete. I had no choice but to turn into a narrow gravel driveway and up beside a work shop. A man was using a table saw in the shed.

I asked him if we could park there until the AAA could come. He said “Sure.” Then he said, “Let’s take a look at it.” Mr. Query is the sort of guy who when he says, “Let’s take a look at it,” means “I’m going to fix it.” “It will take a long time for AAA to get here,” he said.

We emptied the extremely full trunk and got out the spare “donut” tire and only then learned that the factory had not included the lug wrench, jack, and tool kit the owner’s manual says is there in the spare tire well. So Mr. Query got two jacks, a piece of plywood, and a lug wrench from various places on his “funny farm,” so called because he has a marvelous menagerie of bantam roosters, guinea fowl, little donkeys, ponies, a cow, and a delightful puppy named Jax, who really wanted to welcome us by peeing on our luggage as it sat beside the car.

As he changed our tire, our host made sure that we go to church and also entertained us with stories of his first grandchild, now 18 months old. He refused money, of course, until we said he should take it to use for his church or folks in need.

We didn’t talk politics. Would he have helped us so readily had we been black or brown or gay or had a rosary or Star of David hanging from our rear-view mirror? I don’t know. I do know, though, that sundown in Bowling Green was good this year, and that gives me hope for 2017.

1] 14 is a pivotal age for men in my family named John. That was the age when my father quit school and when I was “called” to be a preacher.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

JOY TO THE WORLD, 12-25-16

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”

Not has come, or will come, but “is” come. Interesting.

The Lord is not in the past or in the future but only in the now, the eternal Now.


Christmas may be the best day of all to honor the dictum, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” be it the family get-together, or gathered worship, or the state of the world, or one’s own life. Give and accept the love that is available; don’t worry about that which is not available.

Joy to the world…


Thursday, December 22, 2016


Scroll down to 12-19-16 to read from the beginning.

            Twenty-six years later I was doing graduate work at the University of Iowa.  It was the last day before Christmas break and I was in the field house "shooting around" with a friend.  We weren't working hard at it; after all, we were approaching forty years of age.  Only a few others were working out.  Most students were getting ready to go home for the break.  A few players from the basketball team were there, however, out on the main floor, scrimmaging on their own.
            "Hey," they yelled at Fred and me.  "We need two more guys.  Come on over."
            "Good grief," I muttered to Fred.  "That's suicide.  Look at the size of those guys!  We'd better just stay right here."
            "Aw, come on," he said.  "How often do we get to play on the big floor?"
            One thing about basketball players: they never lose the lust for the big floor. We went.
            I was assigned to play opposite a young man I had only seen on television before.  He was a product of inner-city playgrounds, so fast he could "turn out the light and be in bed before it was dark."  He stood six inches above my six feet and one.  He had the widest, happiest grin I think I have ever seen, and it got even wider as he looked at me. 
            I was "shirts" and he was "skins," which made him even more intimidating.  Muscles rippled on him like waves on a tawny sand beach. 
            The shirts had the ball out first.  Instinctively I set up just to the right of the basket.  Some foolhardy guard threaded a needle pass between somebody's legs and it hit me in the hands.  My only thought was to get rid of that "specious spheroid" as quickly as possible.  I twisted right and hooked.  Swish!  Everybody stood around for a moment; it had happened so fast, and it was so unexpected...
            Then the skins had the ball and my man drove for the basket.  I lunged, thinking I might at least be able to tackle him.  He was too fast; I couldn't even get the back of his pants as he went by.
            I set up again. This time I hooked left.  He was caught defending on the wrong side.  Swish! Everything I shot went in.  No shot was like the one before it.  I couldn't stop him, but he couldn't stop me.  Back and forth we ran.  I went outside and hurled my overhead shot.  I went inside and hooked with either hand from either side.  He drove around me or shot his jump shot over me.  The other players set picks for us and fed us the ball. It was one-on-one with a supporting cast.
            "Give me that rotund orb," I shouted at my fellow shirts.
            "Man, you talk wierd," came the voice from over my shoulder. I could not see him, but I knew he was grinning.
            "Look out when I get that bulbous roundel," I exulted, "or you'll wish you were in the morgue." 
            I could feel it!  This time I didn't even bother to look at the basket.  I just flipped it over my head.  Swish!
            "Man, you are too old for this," he teased.  "You the one gonna be in the morgue, from a heart attack.  You from a different time zone!"
            "You should be ashamed, letting an old guy score on you," I shot back.  "I don't even have a scholarship."
            "Can't give scholarships to guys over a hundred," he informed me.
            I was pleased to see that the game was still played with the mouth.
            At fifty to fifty the game was called.  It was time for Christmas break.  We staggered to the drinking fountain.
            He held the pedal down while I put my head under the stream and drank.  Then I held it down for him.  He drank as I gasped.  Finally we just stood there, on either side of the fountain, heads down, fists grasping the legs of our shorts, searching for oxygen.
            By the time I thought I might live through it after all, he looked up and grinned and said, "Man, you're the baddest dude I ever saw.  Where'd you learn those moves, anyway?"
            "Indiana," I gasped.
            "I should have known it!  You played at IU.”    
He said it as though it were an accusation of unfair competition, as though I had pulled a fast one.
            "No," I said, my heart rate slowing down to about 300.  "Not on the IU team.  That's just how I learned when I was a kid."
            "Man, you mustv'e been some bad kid."
            "You ever get a basketball for Christmas?" I asked him.
            "Sure," he replied.  "Played with it all the time."
            "Must have been the wrong kind," I said.  "You gotta have a really bad ball to learn to play where I come from."
            "Yeah," he grinned.  "A bad ball.  I gotta get me one of them."
            "Do that," I told him, "or you'll wish you were in the morgue."
            Then we went home for Christmas.


Wednesday, December 21, 2016


Scroll down to 12-19-16 to start at the beginning.

            On January 2 we went back to school.  On the school bus John and Kenny and Philip and David asked me where I'd been during Christmas vacation, why I hadn't come around with my new ball so we could all play together.  I told them I had been too busy to play basketball, farm work and all that.
            "Ha," said Philip.  "I'll bet he's practicing by himself so he'll get good and put us all in the morgue!"
            They all laughed.  Right then I would have loved to see them in the morgue; it could have saved me a lot of embarrassment.  I smiled weakly, trying to indicate that he was right.  Better to lie to my friends, I thought, than to try to explain about the basketball that was not a basketball.  It would have been disloyal to my family to disparage the gift I had received, but I could not bring myself to let anyone else see that "gruesome globe."
            Nonetheless, it was all I had, so after school, when the bus had disappeared over the hill where dead sassafras leaves shook listlessly in the winder wind, I would take the ball out of its box, carefully kept out of sight behind the pull-out bed in the living room where my little brother and I slept, and I would go out to the barnyard and heave it toward the rim on the barn. 
            I never learned to drive to the basket, because I could never dribble with that ball.  I could not shoot a normal push shot from outside, because the ball was so light that the wind would carry it away.  (Only an occasional "freak" from New York shot the new-fangled "jump" shot.  "The Great Scism" and other sports writers assured one and all that it would never have a place in the game because a shooter had to have at least one foot on the floor to be able to control the flight of the ball.)  Instead I developed a two-handed "set" shot that was pulled back behind my head and then hurled on a line directly at the backboard just above the rim, as hard as I could throw it.  The force of the throw and the low trajectory combined to defeat the wind.  I couldn't even lay it in, because the barn side was too rough for the light ball, and it would carom off in any odd direction.
            Other than my "throw" shot, about all I could do with that ball was stand with my back to the basket and twirl for a one step "curl" shot or twist around for a hook shot.  I learned to vary the arc on the hook according to the wind.  When the wind was strong I shot a line drive that barely cleared the rim.  When the wind was gentle I faded away and arched the ball high.  I learned to shoot those shots with either hand.  It wasn't really that difficult; the ball was light enough and small enough that I could grip it easily.
            I never had another ball of my own, and I never let anyone else see that Christmas basketball. I continued to walk to the homes of my friends for games. When I reached seventh grade I got to use the balls on the playground and in the gym. I was never the great player I dreamed of becoming.  My skills were too limited.  More importantly, my confidence was limited.  When I was a teen-ager, however, and later in college, there were games when I dazzled the opposition with an array of hook shots and an indefensible overhead throw shot.
            "Where in the world did you learn to shoot like that?" people asked me.  I never said.

[To be continued and finished tomorrow, 12-22-16, with Part 4 of 4.]

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


Scroll down to read Part I first.

            They knew what I wanted.  It was no secret.  They had asked, and I had told them.  They had no children of their own and were marvelous about giving their nieces and nephews what we asked for.  Besides that, they owned a general store, which meant that whatever we wanted was probably in stock.  The only possible glitch was that I had reached the age of "practical gifts," underwear and flannel shirts and blue jeans and four-buckle galoshes.  Those they had in great supply in the long, glass-fronted cases in the dry goods section of the store.  Not being parents, however, they were likely to give a practical gift or two to appease our parents and then go ahead and give us what we asked for as well.  They were the relatives of every child's dream.  My brother and sisters and cousins and I were blessed not only with Uncle Ted and Aunt Nora, but with dozens--literally--of grandparents and aunts and uncles whose generosity was just like theirs. Uncle Ted and Aunt Nora, however, were the ones I was counting on for the basketball.
            Most of the relatives sent their gifts or brought them by in the days before Christmas.  They were piled under the Christmas tree, awaiting the grand opening on Christmas morning.  Uncle Ted and Aunt Nora lived only a few miles away, however, so they liked to bring their gifts by in person, to share in the excitement as we ripped open the packages while our mother tried to get us to slit the paper neatly so it could be folded and stored and used again next year.  Ours was not their only stop, so we were never sure exactly when they would come. 
            So it was early afternoon on that particular Christmas day before they arrived.  I was already dressed in a practical gift or two and just hanging around in the front yard, in the uncommonly warm winter sun, waiting for them.  I could hear their blue Ford, the one with the trunk big enough to hold gifts for all the basketball players in Gibson County, before I could see it.  When it topped the rise in the road, it was all I could do to keep from jumping up and down. They pulled into the driveway, and as they got out of the car, they were right in line with the new iron rim my father had already mounted on the side of our barn.  It was a perfect picture for Christmas day.
            By the time they got the trunk open, the rest of the family was there, and we all helped carry in the wondrous array of happy packages.  Mother was sure they must be tired by now and should have some coffee and Christmas treats before anything else, but Uncle Ted and Aunt Nora knew that they were not there to drink coffee, at least not yet.  They started handing out packages, and we children opened them as fast as we got them.  Although Uncle Ted had been a high school basketball star himself, in the days when he was the high point man in games that ended in scores of six to four--literal “barn burners,” since they really played in a barn--they had no idea how much having my own basketball meant to me.  Consequently there was no special drama as they presented that particular square box to me; it was just one in a line of presents they were handing out. 
            I suppose that was what saved me.  They were still handing out gifts, and everyone else was opening gifts, each person concentrating on his or her task. 
            I ripped the paper from the box and saw the picture and the word, in bold black letters on an orange background.  No mistaking what this was!  It did not say "stupendous spheroid," but that was all right.  It said basketball; that was good enough.  I gently lifted up the hinged lid of the box and looked down at what lay in a bed of thin tissue papers.  My wish had come true.  I had a basketball.
            It was not, however, the basketball I had pictured.  All the boys I knew had vulcanized rubber basketballs with pebble grains and deep, black lines between the sections.  They were a bright reddish-brown in color.  They were easy to grip.  They bounced high and true, at least on a smooth surface.  But the ball in the box before me was an old-fashioned basketball, with a big, black bladder, and an inch-long inflating stem sticking out, and thin, light tan sections sewn together with white thread, so that some of the sections were depressed and some were upraised; it looked like a crazy-quilt.  It was a basketball for little kids, or old men, maybe.
            I hoped my face did not betray my disappointment.  I don't think anyone noticed.  There were still more presents to open.  I set the ball aside and opened up packages of underwear and socks.  I was happy to see them.  They gave me something to do while I tried to make sense out of what had happened.  I had received the gift that I wanted more than anything in the world, but it was not what I wanted.  What was I going to do now?
            Each of us got to hold up our gifts and thank Uncle Ted and Aunt Nora for them.  I was truly thankful.  They were good people, as good as any I would ever know, and they had done me the honor of listening to my desire and doing their best to fulfill it.  They had probably been tremendously pleased that they had something on their store shelves that I wanted, probably felt that it had been waiting there for a long time just for me, and they were glad to give it.  I was glad to have it, too, because it was a symbol of their love and a symbol of belonging to this big, generous family that made me feel at home in a world that often tried to make poor kids feel out of place.  But it wasn't the "magical moon" of the sports columns.
            "Well, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to go outside to play with my new basketball," I said.
            Everyone smiled.  On snowy Christmas days, kids were supposed to go outside to play with new sleds.  On sunny Christmas days, they were supposed to go outside to play with new basketballs.  I needed to do the proper thing for the day.  I hoped no one could notice my lack of enthusiasm. 
            I went to the barnyard.  I threw the ball up toward the rim.  The light breeze caught it and veered it off toward the chicken house.  I ran after it, picked it up, and started to dribble back toward the barn.  On the first bounce the ball hit with the long inflating valve down and bounced crazily away toward the coal shed.  I tried again, being sure the valve was up.  The ball hit the ground flush and bounced back up about six inches.  I couldn't shoot it and I couldn't dribble it.
            "If I had a real ball," I said to it, squeezing it as hard as I could, "you'd be in the morgue."



Monday, December 19, 2016


I wrote “A Hoosier Christmas” years ago. It’s much too long for a blog post [4300 words], so I have broken it into four parts. I’ll post one part each day. By the time I am ready to take a Christmas break from blogging, you will have the whole thing. So, you can either read one part each day, or wait until Thursday, Dec. 22, and scroll down to Dec. 19 and read the whole thing by scrolling back up to the 22nd.



            It was three on two.  I was almost good enough to be on the short side of an odd-man game, but not quite.  It was David and John and me against Philip and Kenny.  We were beating them and crowing about it.
            "Aw, man...," they whined.  "This doesn't mean nothin'.  It's only 'cause you've got three guys.  Two on two, we'd take you any day."
            They had a lot of pride at stake.  They were twelve; John and I were just eleven, and David was only nine.
            It would never have occurred to us to leave one "man" out for a game so the sides were even.  When you played, you played with what you had--the kids, the weather, the court.  Those were just the variables; no one really cared about them.  The game was the thing.  All you really needed was the ball.
            We played in snow storms with mittens on, in rain so hard we couldn't see the basket, in heat so intense we couldn't grip the ball because of the sweat running down our arms.  We played in rutted hog lots, in garages so narrow that every shot was from the corner, against barn sides that threatened a concussion every time you dared to drive to the basket.  We played with fathers, cousins, uncles, friends, strangers.  We played wearing stocking caps in winter, straw sombreros in summer, clodhopper high-tops or pointed-toe "street" shoes or four-buckle galoshes or P.F. Flyers.  We played "horse" and "pig" and odds and evens and shirts-and-skins.  We played when the only others out were "mad dogs and Englishmen," when the moon was high enough we could see the rim and when it was so low we could judge if a ball were in or out only by the sound.  We were Hoosiers.  We played basketball.
"Ha!" David grunted.  "You couldn't take us with a ten-foot pole and the Fort Wayne Zolner Pistons to boot."
            "When I get a ball to practice with, then you'll wish you were in the morgue," I predicted. 
            I had two obsessions that year--the morgue, which figured prominently in the radio mystery shows we listened to on Sunday afternoons, and getting my own basketball.
             I started a drive for the basket that ended with the first bounce as the ball caromed wildly away.  Kenny's barnyard was never smooth enough to return a dribbled ball anywhere near the player who tried it, and the early December freeze had hardened every rut and hoof-print into concrete.
            "Big talk," yelled Philip, grabbing my boot-ball and heaving it in the general direction of the bankboard. "You could practice all day and not hit the side of a barn with a twelve-gauge shotgun."
            "Yeah, you could practice all day and still not be able to catch a cold."
            We played basketball with our feet and with our legs and with our hands, but especially with our mouths.
            I walked the two miles home from Kenny's house.  The dark was gathering earlier every night as we headed toward the shortest day of the year.   Normally the darkness hid a whole rag-tag army of fears and dreads.  They were accompanied by a sound-track of wind in dead sassafras leaves and echoes of my own steps on the hard-frozen gravel.  Tonight, though, I wasn't even thinking about the anxieties that normally dogged my steps in the dark.  I felt good. 
I had been on the winning side, even if it had been three on two.  Better yet, Christmas was coming, and I knew I was going to get a basketball.  Having your own basketball defeats a whole host of fears.
            We didn't play basketball during recess at school.  Only the older boys got to do that.  There were just two baskets, and unless you were in the seventh grade you were never chosen for the ten on ten melees that churned over the broken blacktop like a cat-and-dog fight in the funny papers.  We younger boys pitched washers and commented on how poorly the chosen twenty played.
            "Shit fire," exclaimed John.  "If I couldn't shoot any better than that, I'd quit school and move to Kentucky."
            "Those guys don't know whether to shoot or get off the pot," smirked Philip.
            "They never even heard of defense," muttered Kenny."
            "If I had my own ball, they'd wish they were in the morgue," said I.
            Of course, none of these comments were stated loudly enough that they could be heard either by Mrs. Mason, as she made her rounds of the playground, or by the seventh grade boys as they profaned the art and drama of basketball.
            Since sixth graders and lesser life forms could not play at school, and since I did not have my own ball, I could participate in the magic only by going to the home of one of my friends when I knew they were getting a game up.  That was not easily done.  We lived in the country and did not have a car.  Sometimes, if my father did not need the horse for farm work, I could borrow a saddle from Mr. Heathman, our closest neighbor, and ride "Old Prince" to where the action was.  Old Prince, however, was almost always hitched to a wagon or rake or cultivator plow.  So, I walked--a mile or two or three…
             Being the newest kid on Jimmy Bigham's bus route, I got the seat over the hole in the floor, which corresponded with the window that was stuck in the half-open position in the winter and the half-closed position in the spring and fall.  It was a great air-conditioning system, except that in hot weather the air was laden with dust, and in the winter it circulated a chill breeze that was often laced with slush.  From that strange vantage point I watched them, the boys and their basketballs.  It seemed that every boy in the county had a basketball of his own.  That is, every boy in the county but me.  They would be shooting baskets when the bus pulled up in the morning.  Some of them even had backboards that existed for the sole purpose of basketball, rather than doubling as the side of a barn; that was impressive!  When Jimmy gave his impatient two hoots on the horn, they knew they had been seen and could now casually toss the ball aside, letting it lie there and wait until the bus returned them in the evening.  Then I would look back and watch them as they scored two or six or even ten points against some imaginary foe before the bus had even pulled out of sight.
            "If I had a ball of my own, you'd wish you were in the morgue," I would grumble at them, to myself. 
            How could they be so cavalier about those balls, I wondered, just leaving them outside all day like that? Probably even left them out all night, to be sure there would be no hold-up in the morning when it came time to shoot again.  Certainly wouldn't want to be caught with no ball to shoot when the school bus was coming.  If I has a ball of my own, I'd take care of it, and I certainly wouldn't show off with it, not me!  I'd practice and practice, in secret, and then suddenly I would appear on the scene, shooting shots that no one had ever seen before, becoming a star before they even knew I had a ball.  Ah, but first I had to get my hands on one of those "marvelous, magical spheroids" for myself.
            We actually talked like that, even when we played.
            "Toss me the spheroid," Philip would yell.
            "If you want the golden globe, learn to rebound," came Kenny's retort.
            "Intercept that projectile," John would instruct me.
            "If I had a rounded ellipsoid of my own, you'd wish you were in the morgue," I said.
            We had little idea what those words meant, except for "globe," but we learned them because we were avid readers of "The Great Scism” [Dan] who wrote the sports column to which we were addicted.  For some reason, the sports writers in our time and place felt it was a loss of face to refer to "the old pig bladder," as a ball.  They would try anything to avoid calling the "mystical balloon" by its given name. Reading them gave us a well-rounded education.  We learned history, mythology, folklore, music, astronomy, science, Bible--all from the pages of the sports section.  Furthermore, we thought those were the words that normal people used about basketball, so we spoke them as we played, dribbling the "majestic moon" trough hog manure, shooting the "amazing atom" at the side of a barn.  Needless to say, we also learned the allure of alliteration.
            My entire vocabulary was shaped by the ethos of basketball.  I recall listening to Paul Burns, the local postmaster and a lay minister, preach one Sunday morning in the Forsythe Methodist Church.  "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner," was his text.  I heard it as "Lord, have mercy on me, a center."  I carefully to the sermon but could not figure out why centers were more in need of mercy than guards and forwards.  This was especially disturbing since I was growing fast and assumed I would be a center.
            To me, they were all wonderful words, because they all meant basketball.  I ran them over in my head in the hard cold of that dark December evening, savoring them as I walked home, for I knew, as sure as I could be, that I was going to get a basketball from Uncle Ted and Aunt Nora for Christmas.


Sunday, December 18, 2016


It seems so strange to think, to know
that I was once a little boy
with muddy knees and untied shoes
hair like straw and a wary gaze

I loved him well enough but knew
not how to keep him close,
let him wander on narrow paths
mad sad hills where snares and tares
and monster lairs are daily fare

It’s hard to walk with rocks in socks

He learned that well and stepped
so lightly no one knew
he never touched the ground


Saturday, December 17, 2016

WHEN FATHER RODE THE MAIL--1926 A Christmas repeat

An annual Christmas repeat. Below is the post from 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. There are a lot of typos in it. I apologize for them. Just how they got there…`

Thursday, December 15, 2016


Since I live only 25 miles from Dan Bortner, I assume that he is “my” presidential elector. Thus a copy of my letter to him…

Dan Bortner
1502 23rd St
Bedford, IN 47421-4702

Dear Mr. Bortner:

I write to you in your capacity as a Presidential Elector, [although I am very appreciative of the work you do as Director of State Parks.]

I respectfully request that you do not cast your electoral vote for Donald Trump, at least until further investigations can be made of Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia and the possibility of Russian tampering in our recent election.

Indiana wisely trusts its Presidential Electors and does not require them to vote for the winner of the Indiana popular vote if they feel their vote would go to someone who is not qualified to be president, or who would do damage to our democracy as president.

I grew up in Gibson County, where the Republican Party lived by sound Republican principles. As a Republican Party leader, I know you value Republican principles over temporary power. A Trump presidency might well result in long-lasting damage to the Republican Party.

Thank you for your service to our nation and our state [and our parks.]

John Robert McFarland
3301 S. Piccadilly St.
Bloomington, IN 47401

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


Jim Bortell emailed me to tell me that Vaughn Hoffman had used the anecdote below in his sermon at Wesley UMC in Bloomington, IL last Sunday. I like Vaughn a lot; he was called to preach out of the UMC in Hoopeston, IL, where I pastored. I like Jim a lot, too, but it really was not necessary for him to say that when Vaughn mentioned my name as the author, the congregation did NOT stand and cheer. Nonetheless, here is my annual repeat of the prescient wisdom of my granddaughter.

This is a repost from 12-25-14.

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

One way or another, I tell this story every Christmas…

As Christmas approached when granddaughter Brigid was about four year old, she said to her mother, “You know, Santa and Grandpa are a lot alike. Santa has a bald head, and Grandpa has a bald head. Santa has a white beard, and Grandpa has a white beard. Santa brings toys, and Grandpa brings toys. But Grandpa is better, because he stays and plays.”

That is the message of Christmas. God is not just some Santa, making a quick stop on the roof to throw some toys down the chimney and then hurrying on.

In Jesus, the Christ, God stays and plays.

John Robert McFarland

The “place of winter” mentioned in the title line is Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where life is defined by winter even in the summer! [This phrase is explained in the post for March 20, 2014.]

I tweet as yooper1721.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016


When old friend Jay Smoke learned that we were moving to Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, in 2007, to follow the grandchildren, he said, “Oh, Marilyn Phillips.”

That was really the only necessary thing to say about Iron Mountain, and its sister city, Kingsford. The spirit of Marilyn Phillips was everywhere.

By everywhere, I don’t mean just Iron Mountain and Kingsford. It was in Bolivia and Chile and Detroit and Spirit Lake in North Dakota. The first time Jay saw Marilyn, hammer in hand, was on a mission trip to South America. He says, “The last time I saw her, she was on a ladder, with a hammer in her hand, fixing up a house in the inner-city of Milwaukee.”

Marilyn had a passion for helping people, any place, every place.

She was no plaster saint. She knew how to do things, and she was willing to tell you how to do them, whether you wanted that advice or not. But real saints have fault lines, and those are how we recognize them, and realize how precious they are.

She had a family. She had a career as a teacher. She was a gymnastics coach who took her little out-of-the-way Kingsford girls down to Ann Arbor and won a state title. But after raising the family and doing the teaching, her time was spent in mission.

And art. She founded an artist consortium. Because of her, we had a little artist colony, right there in the UP.

And Santa’s lap. We started looking for Marilyn as soon as we moved to Iron Mountain, to tell her Jay had sent his love, but she was hard to find. She was always away on some mission trip. But finally, one Sunday morning after church, we asked someone, probably Scott Ritsma, in the fellowship hall, if Marilyn were present. “Oh, yes. That’s her, on Santa’s lap.” She was probably asking for a new hammer.

Appropriately, last Sunday morning, with Santa soon to arrive, Marilyn transferred from the church in mission to the church triumphant, the ultimate mission trip.


Monday, December 12, 2016

THE TIME TO WRITE-A poem 12-12-16

When your only time
for writing is at day
break, when snow is
dazzling bright
and toes are numb
with winter’s chill,
it is hard to write
of heat and hay, or a beach
of noon-hot sand.
So the morning poet waits
and hopes that evening
comes without delay,
so lines of sunset and the moon
can flow from out his pen.
Then suddenly it is far
too dark to see to write…


Sunday, December 11, 2016


When I was in high school, I worked at Moe’s. It had no other name, like Moe’s Gas, even though we sold gas, out of two pumps, or Moe’s Garage, even though we worked on cars, like doing lubes and oil changes, or Moe’s Grocery, even though we sold every sort of food a person could possibly want, as long as it was bread or bologna, out of a building about the size of my living room. No, just Moe’s, after Moe Conley, its owner.

It was at the edge of town, the poor edge, the only gas station and store that was open on Sundays and holidays and late into the evening. This was in the 1950s. Respectable places closed on Sundays and holidays and at night. Moe’s was respectable enough, in its own down-trodden way, but being on the poor edge of town, we didn’t get as much business as places that were better looking and better situated. Moe felt we needed the Sunday and holiday and night trade to keep up.

Moe didn’t like to work Sundays and holidays and nights himself, though, especially opening early and closing late. So those were my hours, Sunday and holiday mornings and nights. 

One Sunday morning I opened up and then tried to get our only source of heat, the pot-bellied coal stove, going. It was reluctant, and I was cold, so I went to the garage, got some old motor oil, and poured it in on top of the coal to give it a little impetus. Then I struck a wooden kitchen match and dropped it in. Whump! Blew the iron door right off the top of the stove. The door didn’t hit me, and I was able to put it right back into place, but the flames got me. I felt the burning of my face. I looked into a mirror. My face was quite red. My eyebrows were gone! I was quite lucky, but also feeling quite painful. I couldn’t leave. What to do? Surely there was something in our stock… No, no Unguentine, or calamine. But we had butter! I smeared butter all over my face and hoped we’d have no customers.

I was embarrassed. How stupid can you be? I knew better than that. So I told no one about the stove. I told customers that I was preparing for a school play that required me to look Chinese.

And I thought about Glenn Cunningham. I was a track runner, and he was my hero. He had almost accomplished the impossible, running a four minute mile. And he had done it despite pouring oil into a coal stove and burning himself badly. Bad enough that the doctors said he’d never walk again. But he persevered. I thought maybe now that I had blown a stove up in my face I’d be able to run a four minute mile, maybe outdo even my hero Glenn.

Didn’t turn out that way. It was Roger Bannister who ran the first four minute mile, even though he had not blown up any stoves. In fact, maybe because he had not blown up any stoves in his face. Although you’d think a buttered face would cut down wind resistance.

The four minute mile has been run many times since Roger Bannister, but until he did it, it was just a theory, a possibility, a hope. It became a reality only when somebody did it. Somebody had to be first or it could never be real.

That’s the message of Christmas, I think, at least in part. God present in the world, incarnate in human beings--God as love, God as love in the here and now, in human form—that was only a theory, a possibility, a hope, a prophecy by Isaiah, until somebody actually did it, until somebody was first. Jesus of Nazareth is the Roger Bannister of God incarnate.

This is only one of the many ways we try to understand God incarnate, God in Christ. It’s not the only way, not complete, but it’s helpful, I think. And it doesn’t even require blowing up a stove in your face to get the message.


Some folks chide me for continuing to post stuff in CIW when I say that I am no longer writing. As I pointed out on Dec. 9, I am only blogging now, and that can’t be considered writing. This particular piece, however, I did a long time ago with the idea of posting at Christmas time, so it does not count as current writing.

Saturday, December 10, 2016


A number of old friends gathered this week for a Christmas party. It was too far away for us to go, but Jim Bortell took the trouble to email me to say, “You were remembered fondly.”

That’s what I do each morning, as I drink my coffee before the winter sun has bested the horizon, fondly remember my friends who have passed on. As we spend time together, through the gift and miracle of memory, I am reminded by my fond remembrances of them of who I am, for we are defined and identified by our relationships.

I cannot think of anything better, in life or in death, than to be remembered fondly by old friends.


Friday, December 9, 2016


Writing is about the reader. Blogging is about the blogger.

The following is not writing, it is a self-indulgent piece of blogging. As such, I advise you against wasting your time reading it.

Helen said yesterday, “But I thought you had quit writing, but there is still stuff appearing in CIW.” Well, yes, I said that, because it is true. There is a difference between writing and blogging.

When I started CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith for the Years of Winter [1], I thought of it as an old-fashioned newspaper column, because I grew up in the days of newspapers. Editors who wrote columns were considered real writers, even those, perhaps especially those, of small town papers who wrote whimsical columns about small town life. Newspaper editors/columnists like William Allen White of the Emporia, Kansas Gazette, were also crusaders for justice. White almost single-handedly wrote the KKK out of Kansas. I wanted to do that kind of writing.

Writers have to think about readers. In CIW, I could not just toss out any piece of personal confetti, as bloggers do, and call it writing. I had to think, find the right angle that might open up faith to a better light, use the best words to communicate a particular idea, and not just whatever came into my mind. I had to proof-read, for heaven’s sake!

I realized that my writing had grown irrelevant. There was no longer a reason to do it. I’m not the only old person writing for other old people, and others write so much better about age and faith than I can. People should use their time reading those others, not me.

Also, there is pressure in writing. If you are arrogant enough to call yourself a writer, you have to produce something worthwhile for others to read. I had enough pressure from other sources. Blogging has no pressure. If you think of something to put into your blog, you do it. If you don’t think of anything worthwhile, you put something down anyway. The only pressure is on the poor reader.

Besides, writing is no longer the way communication takes place. It’s Twitter and podcasts and YouTube and things I don’t even know the names of. [And on any of those, they don’t care if you end a sentence with a preposition, the way I just did.] Words on a line is not “dope” at all. [2]

And the poems, so-called. Good grief! No one should have to read one of my poems, not if Billy Collins or William Stafford or Marianne Moore is available. But I write a “poem” each morning as a discipline/devotional. I don’t think about which words to use or where to break lines; I just jot. But every once in a while, one of those jottings yearns to get onto the net. It’s not fair to call that writing.

However, I cannot think without putting it into words on a line, and I’m still able to think once in a while, and since CIW was still available online, I started putting those words down here, without trying to find the best words or proof-reading. Nothing that might be worthwhile to anyone else, just indulging myself. I was blogging!

This blogging is not worthy of the title CHRIST IN WINTER, but CIW is already in place, so I’m using this outlet. Read at your own peril. Strangely, though, now that I am blogging instead of writing, the stats Google supplies say that there are twice as many readers each day. Who wooda thunk?


1] The sub-title was originally “From a Place of Winter for the Years of Winter” since we lived in Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, following the grandchildren there, where winter is 13 months long each year. When we moved to Bloomington, IN I dropped the “Place of Winter.”

2] I was recently at a “LIDS” store. I couldn’t figure out how to use my new credit card, where you stick it in your ear and say the magic words and the receipt appears on the back of your eyeballs, or in the cloud, or something like that. So I pointed at a bunch of caps that said “DOPE” on them and said, “I’m so dumb I should wear one of those.” “Oh, no,” the young man waiting on me assured me, “DOPE is good.”  Who wooda thunk? Certainly not an old line-writer like me.

Thursday, December 8, 2016


On Facebook, one of Helen’s friends was giving her friends a questionnaire about their bucket list, or something like that. One question was about zip lining.

Helen thought about it for quite a while, ran through a mental list of all her coats, and concluded that the answer was “Yes.” But she began to wonder. The other questions had to do with piercings and tattoos and belly dancing. Oh, zip lining wasn’t about whether she’d ever had a coat with a zip-out lining, after all.

Old people live in a different world. It no longer exists. Nobody cares what we think or do. We are irrelevant, and that’s okay.

A tottering old man in one of my churches, I’ll call him Hank, then the age I am now, used to complain bitterly, and divisively, about how the younger people in the church did not respect him since they did not ask his advice. They did not disrespect him. They just didn’t notice him. He was irrelevant. Unfortunately, Hank did not understand that it was okay to be irrelevant.

There is a time to be relevant and a time to be irrelevant. The surest way to be irrelevant tomorrow is to be too relevant today. Hank thought relevance was his reason for existence.

Relevance and irrelevance are relative. Relevant or irrelevant, you are a child of God. Neither relevance nor irrelevance separates us from the love of God.

Nobody cares about what I think or do. I’m old. I’m irrelevant. That’s okay, because I’m a child of God.

How will people learn that it is okay to be irrelevant unless old people show them by living irrelevantly? Oh, I guess that makes us relevant, doesn't it?


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

HOLDING ON-A poem 12-6-16

From time to time
I catch a glimpse…

as from a gun-slit
in a long-embattled fort

…of myself, riding by
on my last horse

slumped weary in the saddle
dusty from the road

brim pulled low against the sun
holding on…


Monday, December 5, 2016

TREES IN WINTER, a poem 12-5-16

I love your trees, Creator God
In springtime when leaves
Are buds, and bright

In summer when leaves
Are full, and green

In autumn when leaves
Are complete, and gold

But most of all in winter
When leaves are gone
And limbs branch out brave
In all their blackened glory

John Robert McFarland

Saturday, December 3, 2016


[I posted this on Facebook, but there might be someone from Twitter or at random who does not see my occasional FB posts, so…]

I want Donald Trump to succeed as President of the USA. I want him to be a good president. I pray for him. I am distressed by folks who say “He is not my president,” or “We shall resist him at every point.” That is what many did to Barack Obama. The results were disastrous, not because Obama did not try to be a good president, or did not have the skills to be a good president, but because his opponents determined ahead of time to resist everything he did and said, regardless of whether it would be good for America.

I want Trump to be the best president we have ever had, just as I wanted Obama to be the best president we ever had. Obama had what it took to be a great president, but his opponents determined ahead of time that they would resist everything he said and did, even if it were something they favored. That is the classic example of “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” It was stupid and destructive and disastrous.

I will resist Trump every time he does or says something that is un-American. I will not determine ahead of time that that includes everything he says and does. I hope he’ll do good things for America and the world. If he does, I’ll cheer. If he does not, I’ll resist. If everyone had tried to help President Obama succeed instead of trying to make him fail, the world would be much better off. I don’t want to repeat that with President Trump.



There are two major advantages to channel surfing. The first is obvious: it keeps my fingers nimble so that I can continue to feed myself. The second is coming across snippets of commercials or shows or interviews that are enlightening.

So it was with a man named Bernie being interviewed by a woman named Oprah. He said, “I was so poor for so long, and nobody gave me anything. Now that I’m rich and have everything, people want to give me all kinds of stuff.”


Friday, December 2, 2016

THE WAY A POEM STARTS-A poem [not surprisingly] 12-2-16

[No, I’m not writing again. This is another “picked-up piece” from back in the computer, prepared some time ago.]

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

Robert Frost said it was a lump
in the throat, for Billy
Collins, a wry-full smile.
Gerard saw foil shook out
to shine. William Stafford
looks beside the road.
Wendell Berry walks
Kentucky fields.
Elaine Palencia pulls a string
that dangles from her heart.
Brother Antoninus felt grace
poured out into an open wound
and I listen for
the Word of God that issues
forth from the dark roast grind
in the burbling pot


The problem with writing a blog for old people, CHRIST IN WINTER, is an ever-diminishing population, of people who cannot remember to go to the blog site.

I tweet as yooper1721, because when I started, I thought you were supposed to have a “handle,” like CB radio, instead of a name. I was a Yooper, resident of MI’s UP [Upper Peninsula], and my phone ended in 1721, so…

Here I come to save the day! No, not Mighty Mouse. Yuri Strelnikov, the boy genius of Katie McFarland Kennedy’s delightful Learning to Swear in America. Buy it or borrow it, but read this book! [What do you mean, you’re not old enough to remember Mighty Mouse?”

I became disturbed by the huge number of military suicides, both veterans and active duty, so I wrote VETS, about four handicapped and homeless Iraqistan veterans accused of murdering a VA doctor. It’s a darn good tootin’ adventure mystery story. My royalties go to helping prevent veteran suicides. You can buy it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.
My youthful ambition was to be a journalist, and write a column for a newspaper. So I think of this blog as an online column. I started it 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 no longer live in “the place of winter.” The grandchildren grew 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 continue to work at understanding what it means to be a follower of Christ in winter…