Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Monday, November 20, 2017


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

I admire Neal Fisher for a number of reasons. Most important for “faith in the winter years” is how seamlessly he moved from a large stage to a small one without losing his focus or his identity.

Neal is a theologian by profession and spent most of his career as a leader in theological education, especially as President of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, at Northwestern U. He presided over G-ETS during turbulent years and held together a faculty and student body that ran the theological alphabet from Anselm to Zwingli, from aggressive liberals to absolutist conservatives. I’m not sure anyone else could have done that with the success and sense of joy and wholeness that Neal brought to it. All this time he also cared for his wife, Ila, whose suffering from Parkinson’s disease for 24 years steadily progressed from manageable to impossible. Toward the end of his G-ETS presidency, cancer hit Neal himself, but it barely slowed him.

As president of G-ETS, Neal was a “player”—nationally known, nationally recognized, nationally sought. Neal retired, and he and Ila moved to Vermont, to be near their daughter, Bryn, who was a floor-mate of our daughter, Katie, at Indiana University.

Neal got the usual invitations in the first couple of years of retirement—teach a little here, preach a little there. Like most of us in the first years of retirement, he thought he should try to answer those calls. After all, it is an honor that those still in the harness ask us to help pull the load. And also, we’re not sure who we are if we’re not helping with that load. That’s what we’ve always done.

That’s especially true if you’ve been on a big stage, especially difficult to move to a small stage. Neal did that, though, as seamlessly as anyone I know, keeping the same focus he used  as president of G-ETS, but now “just” in the congregation of which he is a member, keeping  the same focus he used on faculty and students at G-ETS, but shining that light on Ila and other members of his family who struggled with illness.

When we are young, we have heroes who inspire us to do great things. When we are old, if we are fortunate, we have models who show us how to move from doing great things to doing small things with the same grace.


During the time Neal was president at G-ETS, the seminary decided to endow a scholarship in our name, The John Robert and Helen Karr McFarland Scholarship. It is awarded each year to a student from the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the UMC, the conference in which I spent most of my career. Neal came to Arcola, where I was pastoring at the time, to preach at the service announcing the scholarship. Fittingly, the first recipient was Jennie Edwards Bertrand, from that Arcola congregation, who went on to become the Director of The Wesley Foundation at ILSU, where I spent the early and best years of my career.

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