Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Wednesday, February 28, 2018


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

The TV ad Hillary Clinton ran in 2016, showing young kids watching Donald Trump ridiculing and humiliating a physically handicapped reporter, backfired. The assumption was that everyone would think that such ridicule is a bad thing. There are many who do not, who not only think ridiculing the handicapped is acceptable, but that discriminating against them is perfectly okay.

That includes folks like movie star and director, Clint Eastwood, whose movies and actions say, “Better dead than handicapped, not because it’s hard on them, but it’s because we who are not handicapped should not have to make adjustments to accommodate those who are.” The movie that represents this is “Million Dollar Baby.”

When Eastwood was mayor of Carmel, CA, and also owned a restaurant there, he fought hard against any handicapped-friendly legislation. “Why should I have to put a ramp on my restaurant? If they can’t get in, that’s their problem.”

Rush Limbaugh has famously ridiculed Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s Disease twitches, even suggesting Fox doesn’t have to twitch like that but just does it to get sympathy.

In one way, ridicule and discrimination against handicapped folks is just the old blame-the-victim approach, If it’s their own fault, we don’t have to do anything to help them, don’t even have to be sympathetic.

In another way, such ridicule and discrimination is just classic bullying. Bullying, by definition, is the strong picking on the weak.

I have a friend who was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s. At first he was reluctant to go to a support group, because he knew there would be people there further advanced in the disease. He didn’t want to see what he would become. He goes, though, and is glad that he does.

His reluctance, though, points out a psychological problem that is hard to deal with politically.

There is something within us that fears and despises weakness, because we know that we ourselves might become handicapped, weak and defenseless. We don’t want to acknowledge that.

The big problem is that we are unwilling to acknowledge the psychological reasons. We deal with the handicapped only in social and political terms.

You don’t get Gestapo or ICE or KGB or Secret Police or Stasi unless there are people who want to do those jobs, who enjoy causing others harm and misery.

The politicians who are undoing the Americans With Disabilities Act claim it is because they are pro-business, and it costs businesses too much to have to make their places handicapped accessible. I suspect some of them have convinced themselves that is their reason. There is an even better chance, though, that they are afraid of vulnerability and unconsciously want to make it illegal.

We all claim our political actions as based on social policies of some sort or another, but we should never rule out the personal and psychological reasons, even in the political. Perhaps especially in the political.


Tuesday, February 27, 2018


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

As our granddaughter prepares to graduate from The James Madison College at Michigan State University, it is appropriate to give Madison his props. In popular history, when we think about the formation of American democracy and its Constitution, the prominent names are Washington and Jefferson and Franklin. They, however, were relatively unimportant. Washington was an aloof chair of the Continental Congress as it wrote the Constitution. Jefferson was in France. Franklin was old and irrelevant. It was James Madison who pushed the vision of equality—equality before the law and equality of opportunity.

People who are opposed to equality of opportunity, who want certain opportunities for themselves and not for others, say that opportunity equality is an illusion. Only the tall and fast can play in the NBA. Only the highly intelligent can be quantum physicians. Only the brave can be astronauts. Only the skinny can be supermodels. [1]

That, of course, is a red herring, a false comparison. The point of Madison’s American constitutional democracy is not sameness equality but opportunity equality—you cannot be barred from the NBA because you are white, from being a quantum physicist because you are a woman, from being an astronaut because your ancestors came to America from Ireland. If you have the quicks, the smarts, the guts, that’s all that matters, not your gender or race or religion or national origin.

Now, though, we have a de-facto inequality of opportunity because of the huge wealth gap.

The second equality Madison wrote into the Constitution is before the law. There are not separate laws for Christians and Jews, men and women, whites and blacks. That, of course, was not true for a long time. We had laws about who could marry whom according to race and gender, who could vote according to race and gender, who could live in particular communities or go to particular schools according to race and gender.

They were like the old-time sumptuary laws, in which only people of a certain class could wear a certain color or a particular style of clothing, so that everyone would know who was rich and who was poor, who was “nobility” and who was “common.”

We still have de-facto sumptuary laws because of wealth. You can’t buy a Tesla or a Mercedes if you are a school teacher. You can’t even play golf if you don’t have a hundred bucks [or a thousand] for the “greens fees.” But you can’t be barred from buying a BMW because you’re of Chinese descent, or because you’re a woman.

Equality before the law means the legal system is the same for everybody. There can’t be a law that forbids you to walk on the beach because you’re an accountant. Or makes you sit in the back of the bus because you’re black. There are not different laws--a different justice--for rich and poor, black and white, Christian and atheist. If it’s a crime, it’s a crime, regardless of who commits it.

At least that was the vision of James Madison.

Madison was smart enough to know that his Constitution was exactly that—a vision. It was not a reality, and would not be until people began to realize that equality was a good thing, for the powerful and the powerless alike.


1] What separates supermodels from regular models? Supermodels don’t fall off the runway.

Monday, February 26, 2018

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

BECOMING KAREEM   [M, 2-26-18]

I just finished Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s memoir, Becoming Kareem. [1]
It is an excellent memoir. Spoke to my interests and concerns, right at my level. I’m only slightly chagrined that it was only when I finished that I noticed on the flyleaf that it is for “young readers.”

Well, it’s excellent for young and old, both, because we are always in the process of becoming, either what others want us to be, or what we want to be ourselves, or what God wants us to be.

I’m a little surprised Kareem bothered with a co-writer. He’s well known for his intellectual and writing skills. Maybe it is because Obtsfeld specializes in making adult stuff into YA stuff. In that case, he did me a favor. I am YA at heart. Or maybe it’s just that I still have not resolved the issues of young adulthood that you’re supposed to take care of in your teens and twenties.

I’m just a little older than Kareem. Being a basketball fan—and an IU alum who is always interested in proving that IU basketball is and was superior to UCLA basketball—I started following his career when he was in high school in NYC, as Lew Alcindor, and continued to read about him when he was at UCLA and in the pros.

Lew and I shared a love of Western stories and of basketball, even though he lived in NYC and I lived on a little hardscrabble Hoosier farm. There was a really big difference between us, though: I am white. He is black. Growing up black in the USA poses a set of problems in “becoming” that white people can never really understand, regardless of how hard we try.

Be we black or white, though, one of the tragedies of youthful rebellion, in an effort to break away from parents and cultural expectations, is that so often we trade one set of norms for another, often a new set that is far more toxic than the old. Why in the world do young people think they discovered/invented booze and drugs and sex and profanity? In an effort at rebellion, they become mundane and boring and expectable. The only difference is that instead of being mundane and boring and expectable and leading a non-toxic life they are equally boring but also toxic, to themselves and others.

To his great credit, Lew/Kareem never did that. He went about trying to find an identity that fit him in a thoughtful way. He did not reject his parents, even though he had to leave the family name of Alcindor because it came from the slaver who owned his ancestors. He did not reject the ethical code of the Christian Roman Catholicism in which he had been reared, even though he felt the religion of Islam was a better fit for him. He became the man he needed to be while respecting the identity paths of others.

Despite my paleness, I can understand why a black man in America would want to find a different way from the Christianity that tried so long to justify the enslavement of black people. It is a little unsettling, though, for an African American to ignore the part that Muslims played in the slave trade. It was Arab Muslims who actually went into African villages and abducted people and sold them to the white ship owners who transported them to America.

Kareem is definitely not an angry black man, seeing no good in white culture or white people. John Wooden, his UCLA coach, was culturally as far removed as you can get from being young and black in NYC in the 1970s. Wooden was a very white Hoosier farm boy, more than twice Kareem’s age. Kareem recognizes their cultural differences, but calls Wooden “a second father.” [1]

I recommend this book to any young person who is trying to find a path to identity, to learn who she or he should be. Any old person, too.


1] KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR, with Raymond Obstfeld. BECOMING KAREEM: Growing Up On and Off the Court.

2] Helen has become more basketball aware as years have gone along, but during the UCLA days of John Wooden, when I would watch a game on TV, she would overhear Wooden introduced as “Johnny Woodenhead, Coach.” He was All-American in college and played one year in the pros, back in the days when they were more semi-pro than pro, and made 124 consecutive free throws, a record that still stands.

I tweet occasionally as yooper1721.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

PRAYER TO A NON-EXISTENT GOD-a poem [Sun, 2-25-18]

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

O God, help me this day
To be a better person

To be more sensitive, kind, and caring
To “knit up the raveled sleeve of care”

To divvy up the coffee spoons
With insight to those who thirst the most

To wade into the fray, to guard the back
Of the helpless and the hopeless

To love the beauty of the trees
And melodies and jolly flutterbys

To move and pray with grace
Of form and thought and memory

And if it is true that you do not exist
Or simply do not give a neutron

And thus cannot help me
To be a better person

At least help me find someone
Who will


Saturday, February 24, 2018

RESPECT & VIRGINS [Sat, 2-24-18]

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

I later learned that I wasn’t the only one in our high school, but I was the only one who thought everybody else was one, too. Every other one assumed there were only two of us. I was the only one who actually wanted to be one. Well, I didn’t want to be one, either, but I thought I had to be one, for reasons that in this day and age seem quaint at best.

Well, that’s confusing. I’m talking about virgins, that is. Like the best olive oil in my case, extra-virgin.

All the other virgins of the male persuasion thought I should be the only one, but they couldn’t get any girls to cooperate with that plan, especially since this was way before the pill, and the only place you could secretly get a condom was from a dispenser in the men’s room in the restroom of the gas station at “the junction,” a place so undesirable that even Tommy Houchins wouldn’t go in there.

The virgins of the female persuasion were adequately horrified at the thought of being required to “go visit her aunt in California for a few months,” despite apparently universal horniness [Remember that I learned all this later.] So they simply hung out with me, because they knew that with me there would never even need to be a discussion about abortion. Long before Obama, I got all the female vote—class president three straight years. [1]

Don’t get me wrong. There were girls in our school who weren’t virgins, despite the fear of being cast as the BVM in the Christmas play, where they figured no one would buy that immaculate conception story again. [2]

Without NV [non-virgin] girls there wouldn’t have been so many NV guys. However, an equal number of girls and guys was not necessary to produce the same number of NVs of each persuasion, since some of the girls were like the anti-olive oil, extra-sluttish. Even some of them voted for me. As I said, I learned all this later.

Those were good days, when the most obviously male virgin in the whole school could get votes instead of insults. I wish kids today could experience that kind of atmosphere. But you can’t put the genie back in the bottle, which seems to be a perfectly good double-entendre reference for this discussion.

So talking with kids about sex these days needs to be focused not on abstention—because that just doesn’t work, as Sarah Palin’s family has proved over and over, and I say that sympathetically--but on respect, treating other persons not as objects to fulfill your personal desires but as real human beings.

In fact, teaching kids, and ourselves, about anything, it would be good to start, and end, with just being a respectful human being.


1] Actually not all that impressive. This was in the day that the first person nominated got elected because we all knew one another and were embarrassed to say we preferred someone else.

2] We had good names in my town back in the day, like Blue Minnis, which my wife said sounded like a disease, and Ima June Bugg, and most importantly in this footnote, a real Mary Christmas, with whom I shared a school bus.

Friday, February 23, 2018


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

In the CIW for Feb. 12, I talked about my sports obsession and claimed that it was really my commitment to justice that made me obsessed with sports. [You just have to scroll down to read it to see my reasoning.]

Another reason, though, for my sports obsession… I was good at it.

That’s not quite accurate. I was good at sports physically. I had good eye-hand coordination. I could connect the bat to the ball and hit it a surprisingly long way for a skinny guy. I could catch a fly or scoop up a grounder. I could put a ball through a hoop. I did not have much confidence, though. I loved to hit the ball and catch the ball and shoot the ball, but I assumed others were better than I at doing those things. So I always deferred to competitors who were more aggressive. As BTN basketball analyst Shon Morris says, “The meek may inherit the earth, but they won’t get any offensive rebounds.”

Sports, though, gave me control of my body. Especially when puberty hit, I was afraid of my body. No one talked to me about the changes my body was going through. It no longer seemed like my body. As I got used to it, I wasn’t so much afraid of my body as unsure of it. either way, I wasn’t going to get many offensive rebounds, but I could still chase down a fly ball with that body, and doing that gave me a sense of security. Later, being able to run 26 miles and 385 yards without stopping gave me an even greater sense of control of my body.

The Apostle, Paul, says that our bodies are God’s temples. [I Corinthians 6:19-20.] I always got that sense of holiness when I was tossing a ball to a child, running hard on a back road, hearing the swish of the ball through a net. I can’t do those things myself anymore, but I still get that feeling of holiness through wholeness when I see someone else do those things well.

Many years ago I read A Leaf In the Storm by Lin Yutang. In it, the protagonist is caught up in Chinese revolution and upheaval. She has been a child and woman of privilege, very much concerned with her body, but only in terms of beauty--clothing and makeup and seductiveness. She becomes a refugee, stripped of all her privilege, wandering homeless. Then she sees a woman working in a field. She is barefoot. Her muscular legs are covered with mud. Her calves bulge as she bends to her work. It is an epiphany for the protagonist. “There,” she says, “there is real beauty, for those legs are doing what they are meant to do.”


I tweet once in a while as yooper1721

Thursday, February 22, 2018


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

[Caveat lector: this is twice as long as a blog post should be and does not conclude very satisfactorily, but at least there is a “nice” photo from my hillbilly farm boy days.]

Helen says that one of the advantages of raising smart kids is that they give you good books at Christmas. So smart daughter Mary Beth gave me this Christmas J.D. Vance’s, HILLBILLY ELEGY: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. It is a fascinating book, a well-written story that is hard to put down.

Vance grew up in a culture of family violence, of poverty, of close-mindedness, without models of achievement. Yet he achieved, through the Marines and an Ohio State U and Yale Law School.

Although separated by fifty years or so in age, JD Vance and I grew up in a very similar culture, the hillbilly culture, because that culture never changes through the years. Nonetheless, Vance became a hillbilly conservative and I became a hillbilly liberal. [1]

There was one major difference in our formative lives: our families. Mine was no picnic, and in later life my father told me I wasn’t actually his child [2]. Compared to Vance’s family, however, mine was “Ozzie & Harriet.”

JD’s family was a mess. His father walked out. His mother was a narcissistic alcoholic and drug addict who brought man after man into their ever-shifting houses, some trying to be a father to JD and his sister, some just to be there for a while. None lasted long. They were always on the edge of poverty.

It is said that a child can survive a tumultuous childhood if there is one dependable adult in its life. JD had that, his mamaw, Bonnie Vance, a gun-wielding foul-mouthed nasty woman who scorned everyone and everything, except her grandson.

Vance and I even share some common ground, SW Ohio. My family had roots in both SW Indiana and SW Ohio, starting in the late 19th century in Cedarville and Dayton and extending later down to Oxford and Hamilton. During the industrial expansion after WWII, the companies there, in places like Middletown, where Vance grew up off and on, recruited workers from Kentucky. They were smart enough to recruit whole families, thus creating a more stable work force.

Their culture, however, remained hillbilly. It was linked inexorably to “home,” the hill county of the Hatfields and McCoys in Kentucky. Every weekend there were long lines of cars going to and from “home.” When you asked them where they were from, they named their county in Kentucky. The SW OH industrial area was never “home,” but just where they resided and worked.

Here is basically what Vance says about hillbillies, and I think he’s right. Hillbillies are tribalistic. They are pugnacious. They value toughness—they fight hard and drink hard. They also work hard if it’s something they’ve chosen to do, but if they’re working for someone else, the main point is to get paid without working. They are patriotic, in a tribalistic nationalistic sense. They are identified not by what they trust but by what they distrust. They distrust outsiders. They distrust the Law. They distrust education and educated people. They assume they are stuck in poverty. They deplore government welfare but depend upon it. They are gullible. They think they are smarter than educated people, “pointy headed intellectuals,” as my father called them. They live by a misogynistic “honor” code, in which a man is allowed to abuse “his” women freely but is honor-found to avenge them if some other man mistreats them.

Once again, a major difference between his hillbilly culture and mine. My extended family and the people around me were patriotic and proud of military service but deplored stupid violence, especially in the family. They honored education and achievement. Their honor code was “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.” You were to respect others, even if you disagreed with them.

Vance does not say, “I made it on my own.” He is much too smart for that. He knows it he made it with a lot of help. He deplores the close-mindedness of his own people who believe things like Barak Obama was born in Kenya and is not a Christian. He says that good social policy is better than bad social policy.

I say that Vance “became” a hillbilly conservative. That’s both true and false. He started out conservative, because that is part of hillbilly culture. He became one by choice as an adult. He is a thoughtful and responsible conservative, but I still have trouble understanding it.

He says that government help won’t make a difference, that people will have to be responsible for themselves. That’s the part conservatives like. But he also says that hillbilly culture is so depressed that nobody sees a way out of it. There are no models of how to achieve or incentives to do so. There are no models of good marriages. He himself went to the Marines instead of trying for college when he graduated high school because he and his mamaw together couldn’t even figure out how to fill out the application forms and knew no one who could help them.

His is a fascinating story of personal achievement. But it stops there. With being a hillbilly conservative. My own growing-up story is much like his, except I am a hillbilly liberal. I agree that good social policy is better than bad social policy. There is always going to be a social policy of some sort, and I don’t think “I made it and you’re on your own” is very good social policy.


1] Both Vance and I use “hillbilly” only as a descriptive term, not a derogatory word, and we both use it with a certain amount of pride, the way Jim Webb does in Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America.]

2] I don’t believe it, and, anyway, I don’t care.

3] I remember once my Uncle Randall, who worked at Fisher Body in Hamilton, telling how a fellow worker asked him what county he was from. He was surprised. “Butler,” he said. The man looked puzzled. “Where’s that?” “Right here,” Uncle Randall said. The man looked more puzzled. “No, I mean your county in Kentucky,”

I tweet occasionally as yooper1721.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018


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

The trailer on the bottom of the TV screen said something about California getting ready to declare that coffee is a cancer risk. I know no more than that. I don’t intend to follow up to learn more.

That’s one of the great things about being old: just because something is there to know doesn’t mean you need to know it.

Another great thing is that you can say: So what? I’m old. I’m going to die from something. It might as well be while doing something I love, like drinking coffee.

When my father was in his 90s, the doctor told him he had to stop crossing his legs, because of circulation problems. He said, “But I can’t drink coffee without crossing legs.” He had his priorities.

Besides, it’s California. They do all sorts of crazy things there. Probably just trying to get people to stop drinking coffee so they’ll drink more wine. Also, as with almost every health study, there are other studies that say coffee is good for you.

I know that any good thing can be overdone. Dee Lemkau in her middle years realized she was getting nervous and irritable. She counted up her cups of coffee one day. Twenty-two! She was home all day. She liked coffee. When the pot ran out, she brewed another. She said, “It was just a habit, taking that cup to my mouth. I had no idea how many times I did it.”

Before it is a habit, though, coffee is an acquired taste. When I dropped out of high school and went to work on the night shift in the Potter & Brumfield factory, sitting in front of a big bright light to test and adjust electrical relays, I began to drink coffee out of the machine. The only choices were 20W-30 and 30W-30. [1] But I needed to stay awake. I got used to it. I began to like it.

When we married, Helen used cream and sugar in her coffee. No McFarland ever diluted a cup of coffee. That contradicts the Commandment against adultery. She finally decided it was just easier to drink it black. She has never looked back.

Coffee is known as “the common cup of Methodism.” We don’t use wine in communion. We don’t use coffee for communion, either, but we use it for community.

The main thing on a winter morning is to have a cup of something warm. Maybe share a cup of something warm. A cup of kindness will do nicely.


1] These are actually viscosity counts for motor oil. You get the point.

Spoiler Alert: If you have read this column in the last 3 months, all that follows is old news:

I tweet occasionally as yooper1721.

The “place of winter” mentioned in the title line is Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula [The UP], where life is defined by winter even in the summer! [This phrase is explained in the post for March 20, 2014.] Having met and married while at IU in Bloomington, IN, we became Bloomarangs in May of 2015, moving from Iron Mountain,  back to where we started, closing the circle. We no longer live in the land of winter, but I am in the winter of my years, and so I am still trying to understand Christ in winter.

Katie Kennedy is the rising star in YA lit. [She is also our daughter.] She is published by Bloomsbury, which also publishes lesser authors, like JK Rowling. Her latest book is, What Goes Up. It’s published in hardback, paperback, audio, and electronic, from B&N, Amazon, etc.

It’s neat; in writing circles, Katie is no longer known as my daughter. Now I am known as her father.

Speaking of writing, my most recent book, VETS, about four homeless and handicapped Iraqistan veterans, is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, BOKO, Powell’s, etc. It’s published by Black Opal Books.

Speaking of more writing, the full story of how God tricked me into becoming a professional Xn is in my book, The Strange Calling, published by Smyth&Helwys.

Speaking of even more writing, my book, NOW THAT I HAVE CANCER I AM WHOLE: Reflections on Life and Healing for Cancer Patients and Those Who Love Them is published by AndrewsMcmeel. It is available in paperback, ebook, audio, Czech, and Japanese.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

WALK THIS WAY [T, 2-20-18]

I’m not sure I want to be called “Christian” these days. There are so many who claim—loudly--to be Christians but live and espouse a way of living that is the opposite of what Christ proclaimed.

I am sure, however, that I want to try to follow in the Jesus Way. That was what early Christians called following Jesus, The Way. It was THE Way.

Everyone walks in some way. [“Walk this way” is one of the oldest sight gags in the world, but I remember it especially from seeing Dudley Moore in “Arthur.”] When I look at all the possible ways to walk through life, even if I don’t “believe” in God, I can only conclude that The Way, The Way of Jesus, is the most satisfying and fulfilling and joyful way to live. In-joy-able living is The Jesus Way. [I capitalize The Way not to be arrogant, but to distinguish it from other ways.]

Not the Christian way—that word is loaded with too much history and too much anger. Not the TV evangelism way. Not the nationalistic religion way. Not the church way. The Jesus Way.

I think that is why Rob Bell was so successful when he was a conservative church founder. He didn’t start with the Bible or theology or beliefs. He started with Jesus, and he simply said, “Look at all the ways there are to live and compare them. If you do it without preconceptions, you’ll find that the Jesus way is best.”

The Way has two parts that make a whole, what Jesus did and what Jesus said to do. Jesus said very little about believing as part of The Way. He said a great deal about doing.

His model prayer includes daily bread, not just for “me,” but for “us.” So it is important to pray that all may eat, to pray for an end to world hunger. But the Jesus Way does not stop with prayer. He actually fed hungry people. All of Jesus’ prayers were paired with actions. God’s Kingdom doesn’t just come without Jesus’ followers working at it.

[Prayers pairs…that’s sort of clever. Note to self: do something with that some time.]

In the Jesus way, “We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have to minds and hearts that are shaped by the Spirit of God. We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have—minds dominated and blinded by conventional categories, identities, and preoccupations-- to minds and hearts centered in the Spirit, alive to wonder, alive to seeing, and alive to compassion. We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have—minds dominated by the ideologies and preoccupations of individualism-- to minds and hearts that see and hear the suffering caused by systemic injustice, to minds alive to God’s passion for justice.” [1]

The Jesus Way is Good News, and it’s good news that you don’t have to be a Jesus follower or believer to follow in the Jesus Way. You can walk the walk of The Way regardless of what talk you talk.

The one thing I can conclude after many years of living is that The Way is very hard, and worth it, and you are never too young or too old to start walking it.


1] Marcus J. Borg, Days of Awe and Wonder, Page 129.

I tweet as yooper1721.

Monday, February 19, 2018


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

When I pastored in Hoopeston, IL, we invited all the pastors, various denominations, and their wives to our house for supper occasionally. One night. Dirk was there, with his wife, Barbara. He was the Lutheran pastor. Dirk and Barbara reminded us of George Clooney and Elle MacPherson, except better looking. After supper I was carrying dishes to the kitchen and Barbara followed me, which frightened me a little. Normal people are not sure how to deal with beautiful people. She plunked some dirty plates down on the counter and sniffed. “I hate your wife,” she said.

I was dumbstruck. Nobody hates Helen. Every church I ever pastored, plenty of people were glad when I left, but everybody wanted Helen to stay.

“Why do you hate Helen?” I asked. Barbara almost teared up as she said, “She makes being a preacher’s wife look so easy, and it’s NOT!”

All I could tell her was, “Barbara, Helen makes it look easy because she is not the preacher’s wife. She’s just herself. That’s always easier.” [1]

I thought of that incident last Lent when I realized that from the age of 14, I had always been the preacher, never just myself. I had been a professional Xn all my life, never just myself, never just a regular Christian. At the start of that Lent last year I had just had a birthday, one that ended with a zero. Not a double zero, as some have suggested, but still a significant number. I realized that time for new learnings was running out. If I were ever to find out if I could be myself, just a regular Christian, I had to do it soon.

So I decided on a professional Xn fast. [2] I told our pastors that I would not sermonize or pastorally pray or any of that preacher stuff. They agreed. In fact, they looked quite relieved and were almost unseemly in their willingness to cooperate. As Lent went along, I realized that forty days, not counting Sundays, would not be nearly long enough, so the fast was extended to a year.

So, for a year, I have been a regular Christian, a lay person.

What do lay people do? As my old Academy of Parish Clergy friend, Father Joe Dooley, used to say, “All we require of Catholics is to pray, pay, and obey.”

So I prayed, and paid, and obeyed. I did lay person stuff. I took the backpack Sunday food to Community Kitchen. I brought bars of soap and sticks of deodorant for jail bingo. I was on the hospitality committee, to which I agreed only because it is a committee that has no meetings.

I went out into the world each day to do the will of God. Of course, in my case, going out into the world means lying on the sofa looking at Facebook, but that’s sort of like being in the world.

Most importantly, I criticized the preachers, since that is a regular Christian’s first responsibility. I provided “help” for our pastors, remembering always that the job of a regular Christian is just to point out the problems, not to provide solutions for them. Solutions are the job of the professionals. 

A new Lent is starting now. My professional Xn fast has ended.

It was a miserable failure.

Professional Xns have so much insulation. When we show up, people say, “Got to stop cussing; the preacher’s here.” If you are a woman preacher, you aren’t subject to nearly as much sexual innuendo as most women have to put up with. [You’re not home free, but there’s not as much.] We get discounts. We are called “Reverend.” We get to wear robes and collars and stoles and crosses so people can’t see what we’re really like underneath all that. We get to hide behind solid oak on three sides.

Regular Christians are out there every day on their own. They’ve got no special degrees, no special attire, no insulation, not even very good instructions. We professional Xns just say, “Love everybody.” We don’t tell how to do it, because we don’t know. Regular Christians just have to wing it.

I’m fortunate to know folks who make being a regular Christian look easy. Those of us who can’t make it as regular Christians, and have to keep on being professionals, we admire you, because we know you make it look easy when it’s not!

The Rev. Dr. JRMcF

1] As some readers will recognize, like most writers, I like to get more than one use out of a story.

2] Professional Christians use Xn as shorthand for Christian when we make notes, but it’s also an ancient and early form of referring to Christ, Xristos in Greek.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

THE JESUS ROMANCE [Sun, 2-18-18]

In the time of winter, the roses have no dew.

In seminary we made fun of C. Austin Miles’ 1912 song, “In the Garden.” We called it “Andy.” Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me, Andy tells me I am his own.

Someone told us it had been composed as a popular love song but had not made it, so the composer went to the religious market with it, where it became one of the great all-time hits. That first part was not true, but truth has little weight when we want to ridicule something.

I enjoyed making fun of the hymn, in the same way children enjoy making fun of the odd kid at school. It was a love song, not a theological song. It was sappy. It carried nothing of the realism and suffering and sacrifice and scandal of the real Gospel. It was the worst of self-centered Protestant individualism: “The joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.” Talk about exclusive! The life of Jesus was all about blood on a cross, not dew on roses. That’s how we sophisticated seminarians saw it.

Miles, though, intended it as a hymn from the beginning, but it is also clearly a romantic love song. By Miles’ own account, it is a depiction of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, after Jesus’ resurrection, meeting “in the garden,” to share a joy that “none other has ever known.”

People like to speculate about the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but no one really knows anything about it. I think Tim Rice speculates best when he has Magdalene say, “I don’t know how to love him… I’ve been changed… in these past few days, when I’ve seen myself, I seem like someone else.” [1]

It is popular, and not unreasonable, to think that the time after the Resurrection was springtime for Jesus. After all, he was going home, to “reign in glory,” and all that. But if you are the savior of the world, can you sit in heaven and be content with the world as it has been for these past two thousand years? No, this is a long hard bitter winter time for Jesus.

In this barren winter time of our culture, we have removed romance from sexuality. Sex is physical contact, only. It has little, if anything, to do with relationship, with love, with romance. People who look at Jesus and Magdalene assume either that they had a conventionally modern physical relationship, or that Jesus was beyond all that sexuality stuff. They forget about romance.

I wish there were a better word to put here. “Romance” usually means something shallow, only emotional. I don’t mean it that way. Romance, rightly understood, is about “the joy we share.” One of the great things about “In the Garden” is its low-key joy. Considering this long despairing two thousand year winter Jesus has had to endure, mostly at the hands of those who invoke his name as savior, I cherish for him that short romantic time with Mary Magdalene in the garden, that simple joy in just being together. One remembered moment of true romance, of a time when joy was shared when there was dew on the roses, one such moment can sustain a body, even a resurrected one, through the cold of winter.


I tweet as yooper1721.

At Story Church the other night, one of the main stories was told by a “Will & Grace” couple. They were thrown together by circumstances. Compressing their long story into just a few sentences, they said: We are in love. It’s not physical. It’s not husband and wife, although we live together. It’s not boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s not brother and sister. It’s not mother and son. [She is several years older.] It’s just love.

 1] Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jesus Christ, Superstar.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

HOPING GOD READS THIS-a poem, sort of [Sat, 2-17-18]

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

I always hope
that my words on the page…

Yes, they start on the page
It is only later that they move
to a screen
the way an angry old man
leaves the church he loves
just to spite the new preacher
because they no longer sing
the old songs

I always hope
they are a glass, these words,
however darkly
a two-way glass
that shows me to God
and God to me

Yes, God needs the glass
to get a bead on me
for I am quick
like the brown fox
and God is busy
with many things
making protons and mountains
and love
from mustard seeds alone

Maybe, though, my words
on the page are not a glass
but a wall to keep God from seeing
me the way I am
when I have no words
not quick like the fox
but plodding as a proton
that has lost its charge

Glass or no glass
two-way or none
I must put the words
on the page
hoping only that God
has bookmarked this blog
and reads it to the cherubim
on a slow Saturday
and laughs


I tweet occasionally as yooper1721.

Friday, February 16, 2018

THE OPF [F, 2-16-18]

 When I was a child in Indianapolis, from ages 4 to 10, my parents talked about seeing street lamplighters at work when they had lived there as young marrieds around 1930. [1]

I was intrigued, and I was sorry, sorry that the lamplighter was no longer a job. Even at that young age, I thought it would be great to have a job where you could create light in darkness. My main foes—the bullies and the bogeyman and the devil and girls--were all less likely to grab you in the light.

So when I heard some old preacher tell one of those old preacher stories about the kid told his parents about seeing the lamplighter by saying he had seen a man “punching holes in the darkness,” that became one of my favorite sermon illustrations. And one of my favorite images for myself, for who I wanted to be. “He made the night a little brighter, wherever he would go. The old lamplighter, of long, long ago.” [2]

We all have such images of ourselves, I think, from literature or movies or life, images of who we would like to be. It’s not quite the same as having a hero, but it’s just as important. We need those images as reminders, iconic post-it notes of how we are supposed to act.

Through the years, my images of who I want to be have changed, but they are all take-offs of the old lamplighter. Our younger daughter says she thinks of me as Gandalf the Grey, not so much repairing the breach, as standing in it. I like that, too.

Maybe the images we had when we were younger are no longer relevant. Maybe we have outlived or outgrown them. But as we face the irrelevancy of old age, it is important that we keep some image before us that allows us to be a part of the solution instead of a part of the problem.

This comes up now because at our Ash Wednesday service, Isaiah 58:6-12 was read in a translation unfamiliar to me. It ends with “You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets to live in.”

So now I have another image to pull myself forward—“The restorer of the streets to live in.” Streets to live in: So kids can play ball and ride bikes. So folks can take soup to their sick neighbors. So the post office guys and the UPS gals can deliver gift books. So people can go to work and school and church and basketball games. So the ambulance can take folks to where they can get help. So the police and firefighters can get to your house on time. So the marching band can lead the parade. Streets where you don’t have to worry about someone mowing you down with an AK-47.

In other words, The Old Pothole Filler, The OPF. I kind of like that. “He made the street a little smoother, wherever he would go…”


1] Gas street lamps, and thus lamplighters, existed well into the 20th century. Baltimore was the first American city to use gas street lamps and did not do away with the last of them until 1957.

2] “The Old Lamplighter.” Lyrics by Charles Tobias, music by Nat Simon. Published in 1946.

Thursday, February 15, 2018


American democracy is founded on “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Get that? Not a word about guns. Or thoughts. Or prayers.

If you do not value the right of a child to have a life more than you value the right of anyone to have a gun, you are not a human being.

It is the day after another one—another shooting. A school shooting. A church shooting. An outdoor concert shooting. They’re all alike. They’re all followed by “thoughts and prayers.” That’s all. Just “thoughts and prayers.

I wrote a thoughtful column for today, the day after Ash Wednesday, the day that starts a Christian’s Lenten season of repentance for sin. It is thoughtful and slightly clever and a bit humorous, with a neat twist. It is well-written. It is totally irrelevant.

Don’t give us that crap about “It’s complicated.” No, this issue of gun murders is not complicated. There are people who have the power to do something to stop this. All they have to do is commit themselves, to say, “I shall not stand for this. The lives of children are more important than guns.” Then do one simple thing. Vote for common sense gun restrictions. No hunter, nobody at all, needs a gun that can kill and kill and kill, murder and murder and murder, take so many lives in so little time.

Don’t give us that crap about “guns save lives.” Even you don’t believe that. It’s just your habitual snowflake reaction. At least have a little pride; don’t act like you really believe that.

Don’t give us that crap about knives and clubs. Sure, people murder with knives and clubs. But not a dozen or two dozen or three dozen at a time.

Don’t give us that crap about “people will still murder with guns regardless of how many laws we have against it.” Part of that is because you have put so many guns into unsteady hands that it is hard to keep them away from those trigger-happy hands. But we don’t use that stupid argument against any other crime and sin. We have laws against rape and robbery. Men still rape. People still rob. But we don’t say, “All we can do is offer thoughts and prayers.” We say it’s wrong and we combat it the best we can.

That’s all I’m asking about these gun murders. Say they’re wrong and do the best you can to make sure they don’t keep happening.

Don’t give us that crap about how it’s wrong to say crap. Don’t you dare get judgy about my “tone,” how I’m being unreasonable, how I don’t understand the complications, how I'm being "extreme." You DO something about this, or have the human decency to get out of the way of those who will.

Don’t give us that crap about “thoughts and prayers.” If that’s all you have to offer, may God have mercy on your dead soul.

John Robert McFarland

Wednesday, February 14, 2018


It is possible that I am transgressing Billy’s copyright, but since I am telling you that Billy is my favorite poet, and that this poem appears on page 57 of Aimless Love, and urging you to buy that book, or any of the other books of Billy’s poems, I hope he’ll forgive me, which would be an appropriate thing for him to do on Ash Wednesday.



It has been calculated that each copy of
the Gutenberg Bible …required the
skins of 300 sheep

--from an article on printing

I saw them squeezed into the holding pen
behind the stone building
where the printing press is housed,

all of them squirming around
to find a little room
and looking so much alike

it would be nearly impossible
to count them,
and there is no telling

which one will carry the news
that the Lord is a shepherd,
one of the few things they already know.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018


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

[The Reds’ pitchers and catchers report for spring training today.]

Jimmy Moore, our pastor, tells of how his father, older that most fathers when Jimmy was born, would come home from work, dead tired, but still play catch with him. Baseball uniting fathers and sons—a red thread of meaning that has run through baseball from its beginnings, as in the movie Field of Dreams, based on W.P. Kinsella’s novel, Shoeless Joe.

It’s not just fathers and sons. Many younger men, with mothers who grew up in the 1970s or later, when sports for girls were coming to the fore, say that their mothers were the ones who were their sports playmates and mentors, and often coaches, the ones who taught them how to play ball.

And fathers and daughters. Rebecca Ninke’s parents were in their forties when they married and adopted children and were not sure how to raise kids, but her dad knew he should play catch with her, and that gave her a sense of identity. [1]

I think girls who play sports have a better body image. They don’t think of boys as strange creatures if they can compete with them. Because of that, they relate more easily to boys. Our younger daughter, Katie Kennedy, the famous YA author [2], was the only girl on a twenty-two member cross-country team [3]. She saw those guys sweat and stumble and puke with exhaustion and fall by the roadside, just as she did. They were just teammates, not an alien species.

It doesn’t take baseball, or sports at all, to create memories of good times together, parents with children, but in our culture, baseball is one of those mythic deep wells of memories. I think that is one of the reasons we love it so much.

My father never played catch with me, in great part because he lost his eyesight when I was five years old. But Uncle Randall, my father’s brother, taught me to swing a bat and to love the Reds, and later Uncle Johnny, my mother’s youngest brother, gave me his own old bat and ball and glove and hit flies to me by the hour.

The people who think they own baseball {MLB} need to remember that it’s not really about the baseball. It’s about the memories, those present and those to come.


I tweet as yooper1721. Now that we are no longer Yoopers [denizens of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where winter is thirteen months long] I would change my “handle” to something more current, like “writesfortfunandprophet,” but I don’t know how.

1] I’m not sure Lutheran pastor friend Rebecca can be trusted about identities. She says that she and I are twins, except that I am old, male, Methodist, and eat meat.

2] Learning to Swear in America and What Goes Up, published by Bloomsbury, and available from B&N, Amazon, Powell’s, and your friendly independent neighborhood book store.

3] The only girl ever to win a letter in a boys’ sport at Hoopeston-East Lynn High School, Hoopeston, IL.

Monday, February 12, 2018

SPORTS AND JUSTICE [Monday, 2-12-18]

I am embarrassed by the amount of time I spend on sports. Well, no, I’m not really embarrassed, but I should be, because it borders on obsession. In fact, my sports Rubicon is far back in the rear-view mirror. [1]

My dentist is a MI State U fan. He is as sports-obsessed as I. We have concluded there is something wrong with us. His hygienist agrees. When I apologized one day when she could not start scraping on my teeth because Chris and I were talking sports, she sighed and said, “It’s okay. I schedule extra time when I know you are coming in.” [2]

I once cancelled a TV service because it did not have the Big Ten Network. When I was nominated for a distinguished alum award at Garrett Theological Seminary, my profile did not mention stuff I did in the ministry. It talked about how much I love baseball.

When daughter Katie and her husband taught history at Auburn U, and granddaughter Brigid was born there, Perry & Sue Biddle were gracious enough to let us spend the night with them in Nashville on our way from IL to AL. They usually had a party for us, inviting old friends we met in Scotland, Amos & Etta Wilson, and other folks they thought we might enjoy. One man, as he left one night, said, either with admiration or bewilderment, “I’ve never before met a minister who knew so much about sports.”

I don’t know why I have this obsession. I don’t come from an athletic family. I hardly knew sports existed until we moved to Oakland City, IN, when I was 10. Maybe it was the isolation of the farm. We didn’t have a car. From the last day of school in May until the first day in September, I didn’t have any playmates. I really wanted something to do besides farm chores. By myself I could shoot at the basketball goal on the side of the barn, and throw a tennis ball against that same barn, and pretend I was Ted Kluzewski or Gil Hodges scooping up ground balls.

I used to justify my obsession, at least in my own mind, by claiming that it’s good exercise. It keeps one healthy. But my sports activity came to a screeching halt, unless you count walking as a sport, when I was 70 and we moved to Iron Mt and there was no softball league for old people, and where the only sport is strapping a couple of sticks to your feet and sliding down a long slope on ice and snow and then hanging in the air, buffeted by blizzard winds, until crashing into the tops of red pines several miles away. [Iron Mountain has the highest man-made ski jump in the world and hosts an international competition each winter.]

So now, I just watch. It’s hard to justify sitting in front of the TV several hours a day, especially between seasons when there is nothing but field hockey and water polo and curling, relieved only by Big Bang Theory re-runs, and claim that’s good for one’s health.

This comes up now because old people need to get rid of stuff, and I’m sorting through old correspondence. There was a time I corresponded with the President of Ohio State about the firing of football coach Earle Bruce… and with Joe Paterno about sharing football factory receipts with historically black colleges… and Milt Weisbecker, the Athletics Director at ILSU about hiring a black basketball coach… and other coaches and ADs trying to get scholarships for kids.,,

Only now do I understand my obsession with sports. It’s not about sports at all. It’s about justice. My daughters learned to become advocates for justice because they heard me proclaim, whenever one of my teams lost, that “It was a grave miscarriage of justice.”

Spring training starts tomorrow. ”Let justice roll down like waters, pitchers and catchers reporting like an ever-flowing stream.” My sports obsession does not mean I am emotionally weird. I’m just committed to justice. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


1] I don’t want to insult anyone by suggesting you don’t already know this, but the Rubicon was the border [river] that Caesar crossed and was thus irrevocably committed to civil war. When you’ve “crossed the Rubicon,” there’s no turning back.

2] Chris Selden is no longer my dentist, since he is in Iron Mountain, MI, and I am in Bloomington, IN, but I started writing this when we still lived in IM. In that remote and frozen place, it was important for me to have someone who shared my yearnings. I no longer live where it’s remote and frozen, but I miss him.

3] The exception to my lonely existence was my Uncle Johnny [John H. Pond, my mother’s youngest brother, 15 years older than I.] He was single and lived with his mother in a town of 600. There wasn’t much for him to do in the evenings. Many evenings he drove over from Francisco, five miles away, after he had closed his hardware store, and hit flies to me in our orchard/pasture field. I so looked forward to those moments with him. He was my best man at our wedding. To this day, when I am at loose ends, in my mind I go to that field and chase those fly balls. I still think of him as the best playmate I ever had.

Sunday, February 11, 2018


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

I remember how intrigued I was when I learned that people did not just read the Bible but saw lines of meaning that ran through it. I was especially fascinated by “The Messianic Secret” in Mark. Over and over again, Jesus would work miracles and do other neat stuff that indicated that he was special, so special he was probably even the predicted Messiah of Hebrew scripture and tradition, but, strangely, he kept telling everybody to keep quiet about it.

The Gospel reading for this week is Mark’s story of “The Transfiguration,” when Jesus goes up onto the mountain and his disciples see him chatting with Moses and Elijah, the two major characters in Hebrew history.

He’s one of them! Our friend, Jesus, knows the main guys. We are on the inside.

It’s impressive when someone you know in turn knows someone important. We have friends who let us eat off plates made by Pete Seeger’s sister. It’s almost like knowing Pete.

When our granddaughter was young she wanted to meet Mark Twain and figured if he were alive I could introduce her to Mark. I knew some important writers, like Bob Hammel and Marcus Borg. So she figured I would know any good writer.

It’s like 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon. I know Bob Hammel, who knows Bob Knight, who knew Phog Allen, who knew James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, who knew Ugla, the cave woman who invented the basket. So if you ask me, I say, “Oh, yes, Ugla, good woman. I knew her well.”

So the disciples of course wanted to go tell everybody what they had seen up there on the mountain, but Jesus said, “No. Keep your mouths shut about this.” That’s hard to do.

I was walking at the mall recently, not where I prefer to walk, but it was way below freezing outdoors, with ice on the sidewalks. I’m glad I did, because a little girl, barely able to walk and almost talk, saw me coming and held up her grubby little hand and with a big smile said, “I got candy.” If you have good news, you want to share it.

Maybe that’s why Jesus told the disciples to be quiet about that mountain top experience. It wasn’t good news that Peter and James and John had. It was just celebrity news, by which they could strut their inside stuff in front of those who missed it.

There’s a difference between good news and celebrity news. We are so intrigued by celebrity news that we forget: good news isn’t just for those who have the right connections. Good news is for everybody.


Spoiler Alert: If you have read this column in the last 3 months, all that follows is old news [except for the bit about the ice storm]:

I tweet occasionally as yooper1721.

The “place of winter” mentioned in the title line is Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula [The UP], where life is defined by winter even in the summer! [This phrase is explained in the post for March 20, 2014.] Having met and married while at IU in Bloomington, IN, we became Bloomarangs in May of 2015, moving back to where we started, closing the circle. We no longer live in the land of winter, but I am in the winter of my years, and there is an ice storm predicted for Bloomington this morning, so I am still trying to understand Christ in winter.

Katie Kennedy is the rising star in YA lit. [She is also our daughter.] She is published by Bloomsbury, which also publishes lesser authors, like JK Rowling. Her latest book is, What Goes Up. It’s published in hardback, paperback, audio, and electronic, from B&N, Amazon, etc.