Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Saturday, March 31, 2018

STARTING AT THE END                  [Sat, 3-31-18]

I have found that it is best to start at the end. Some might say that I am so close to the end now that there is no place else for me to start. I don’t just start at the end of my life, though. I start at the end of the day, and at the end of writing a column like this one, or the end of my walk. Wherever there is an end, that’s where I start.

It is true, as Maria sings in “The Sound of Music,” that the beginning is a very good place to start, but that’s for singing. Everything else, the end is a very good place to start.

According to Billy Collins, Juan Ramon Jiminez said, “The worst thing about death must be the first night.” [Preface to Billy’s poem, “The First Night”] I agree. Today is Boring Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter. I think in most calendars it’s called Holy Saturday, but it must have been so very dull for Jesus, so I call it Boring Saturday, even though the year’s 2nd Blue Moon is tonight. [1]

I credit Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy for giving me the words to talk about starting at the end to understand the Christ story. Too often we start at the cross to understand Christ and salvation. The real start of the Jesus story is at the resurrection. That is where my story starts, too.


1] Some people claim it was between the cross and the empty tomb that Jesus went into hell and preached to the folks there, which answers—sort of--a sticky theological question, “Isn’t it unfair to consign people to hell forever if they lived before Jesus and had no chance to accept him as savior?” If he preached in hell, too, they had their chance. But let’s not consider that, not only because it’s sort of far-fetched, but because it’s too non-dull. I have preached to people in hell, myself, and I know that can be quite interesting. In this post I’m trying to make the point that “Holy” Saturday was boring. Work with me on this.

Friday, March 30, 2018

LOOKING GOOD [F, 3-30-18]

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

[I wrote this when we lived in Iron Mountain, MI, 2007-2015]

In the Upper Peninsula in winter, which comprises 13 months each year, you can’t tell who is good-looking and who is not, because everyone looks the same in boots, Duluth Fire Hose pants [stronger than a giant angry beaver], a parka, and a ski mask.

So the UP is a great place for old people to live. Our bodies are no saggier or lumpy-looking than those of young people, and gray hair and wrinkles just look like they’re part of a plaid muffler.

You would think, thus, that all old people would move to the UP, since declining pulchritude is a concern for the aging, as teeth go yellow, skin goes gray, and hair goes blue—not a good color combination. Nonetheless, most senior citizens continue to live places where they have to worry about whether they can go out in public without frightening children and other small beasts. It’s a very embarrassing walk back to your Desoto when a Wal-Mart greeter turns you away at the door after you failed the “You must be this pretty to enter” test, which involves standing next to a composite photo that includes Donald Trump’s hair, Chris Christie’s body, and Phyllis Diller’s face.

One of the advantages, though, of being so old that no amount of money can make you look good, is that you learn that looking good isn’t a matter of being good looking.

We worry about that when we’re younger. My first theological mentor, D. J. Bowden, the Director of The Indiana School of Religion at IU, used to call me “Handsome,” as in “Hi, Handsome.” Since I definitely did not think of myself as handsome, I thought maybe he was making some cruel joke. But he was never unkind to me or anyone else, in any way, so I had to wonder what he meant.

Many years ago I read a novel by Lin Yutang called A LEAF IN THE STORM. It included a young woman who was very concerned with her beauty. Her world was turned upside down, from riches to poverty, to being a leaf in the storm, as China went through a revolution. As she fled from trouble, blown from one place to another, she passed a peasant woman working in a sloping field. The woman was not good looking. Her feet were in mud. Her unshapely legs strained as she toiled. “There is beauty,” the protagonist said. “Those muddy ugly legs are doing what they have to do. It’s not what they look like that makes the beauty. It’s what they do.” [This is a memory, not a direct quote.]

When our granddaughter was small, she stroked her grandmother’s face one day and said, “I love your wrinkles.” “Why would you love wrinkles?” asked Grandma. “Because they’re on you,” said Brigid.

Being old gives us a chance to understand what beauty really is. When I was a long-distance runner, when we met another runner on the road, we called out “Lookin’ good,” as a word of encouragement. We were not good looking, though. We were sweaty and smelly. But we were doing what we had to do to get to the finish line. I think D. J. Bowden was giving me a word of encouragement when he called me Handsome. He was acknowledging that even though I wasn’t very pretty, I was doing what I was called to do.

I don’t worry much anymore about whether I’m good looking. I understand beauty in a different way. When I see Jesus’ broken body on the cross, I call out, “Lookin’ good.”

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!

Thursday, March 29, 2018


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

“In the spring, a young man’s fancy turns to… baseball!” Old men, too.

I am excited, far more than I should be. But it’s Maundy Thursday! Also Opening Day! The very first professional baseball team, my team, the Cincinnati Reds team, is starting the season! They’re still in first place!

In my column of Feb. 12, I tried to explain, more for myself than anyone else, why I have such an obsession with sports. There is more than one answer to this question, but right now, in this time of political turmoil, I’m aware that sports provides an oasis in the desert of insults and falsehoods and tribalism. It’s called “between the lines.”

When you are “between the lines” on a baseball field, you have to concentrate so hard on the game that you can’t think about anything else. In the chaos of family life as a child, and puberty as an adolescent, and stupidity [mine as well as that of others] as an adult, sports has allowed me to drop all concern except the next pitch, the next snap, the next shot. It is a reset.

Everybody needs a spot “between the lines,” be it knitting or carving or… you name it. Even if it’s just watching. You’re never too old to find a spot between the lines.


In my column of 2-12-18, I said that I had stopped playing sports myself when I turned 70 because we moved to Iron Mountain that year, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where there was no old-guys softball league and the only sports involve sliding down mountains at great speed, or shooting animals who don’t know they are part of a “sport.” I forgot about pickle ball, a cut-down version of tennis, which I started playing in my early 70s and played until I was almost 80. I loved pickle ball, but at that point I realized I had too big a risk while going backward to get a lob and losing my balance and “bonking my noggin,” as our granddaughter referred to it when she was little. When old people bonk their noggins, they tend to die.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018


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

FROSTY AND THE BABE    [W, 3-28-18]

In the spring, an old man’s fancy turns to baseball. Spring training time is over. Next year is here. Any team can go all the way to World Series victory. Sort of like contemplating heaven. So I thought it appropriate to bring out of winter’s back room a baseball poem I have posted here before.

When Hofstra University hosted a conference to celebrate the 100th birth of Babe Ruth, they asked for poems about the Babe. I had just read a statement by Robert Frost in “Sports Illustrated” that “One of my unfulfilled promises on earth was to my fellow in art, Alfred Kreyemborg, to write a poem about a ball batted so hard by Babe Ruth that it never came back, but got to going round and round the world like a satellite.” So I wrote the following poem to fulfill Frost’s promise, sort of. It was read at the conference. Hofstra asked me to come read it myself, but I could not because it conflicted with an Academy of Parish Clergy meeting. [For some strange reason I used to think that being a preacher was more important than being a baseball poet.]

“For Alfred, From Bob and the Babe, at Last”

The Bambino’s team was mighty,
Nine stories full of fame,
DiMaggio and Gehrig,
Masters of the game.

Lazzeri, Dickey, Berra,
Made pitchers weep at night.
Ruffing, Ford and Hoyt,
They were a fearsome sight.

Yes, Babe’s team, it was mighty,
All members of the Hall,
But they’d never faced old Frosty,
That master of the ball.

Frosty heaved it with a sentence,
Frosty hurled it with a word.
When Frosty threw the horsehide
It split lumber like a sword.

Frosty turned his back on walls,
Unlovable as sin,
Frosty turned and faced home plate,
Where they have to take you in.

He took the road less traveled,
As he stopped beside the wood,
Then he turned and faced the platter,
Where the Babe in splendor stood.

The Babe was rapt and ready,
He gave his hat a tip.
Three runners took their leads,
On the bat Babe took his grip.

Babe pointed to the outfield,
His finger to the sky,
Far beyond the fences,
To the clouds away up high.

Frosty rhymed the spheroid.
Babe took a mighty swing.
The ball was split in even halves,
It was an awesome thing.

Half soared beyond the fences,
Half fell into the mitt.
Half the ball was called a strike,
Half was a home run hit.

Babe trotted ‘round the bases,
As half the ball kept climbin’
Frosty dipped his pen to fans,
Threw verse upon the diamond.

One a poet with the lumber,
One a poet with the phrase
One his bat all full of thunder,
One his arm all full of grace.


This was originally published in Elysian Fields Quarterly and is on the “Baseball Almanac” web site at

Tuesday, March 27, 2018



Our grandson was diagnosed with hepatoblastoma [liver cancer] at 15 months. He underwent a year of intense chemotherapy and several surgeries. It is not overstating to say that he died three times before he was 2 years old.

As grandparents, we had huge worries and concerns for the awful stress on our daughter and her husband, and for Joe’s four-year-old sister. We did a lot of care of Brigid during that time because Joe--and one or both of his parents with him--was in the hospital 170 miles away almost all the time.

Helen says she was never more sure of what she was to be and do than when Joe was sick. That experience, she says, gave a whole new meaning to “laying down one’s life.”

Laying down your life doesn’t mean dying necessarily, a physical death. In fact, most of the time it probably does not.

Laying down your life is similar to people laying down garments and palm leaves for Jesus on that first Palm Sunday, to honor him as the bringer of life over against the bringer of death.

Because at the same time Jesus was coming into the city through the back door, Pilate, the Roman head of the domination culture in Jerusalem, was coming in through the front door, the gate on the other side of the city, with all his pomp and power on display. For those with eyes to see, it was a stark contrast, those two entrances. One was demanding life. One was laying down life. Only one was successful.

When you lay down your life, that’s when you know who you are. That’s when life begins.


Just a reminder that I write these columns for myself. I’m glad if you get something out of them, too, but if I write with you in mind, I have to write with a lot of “yous” in mind, and it confuses me. Thank you, though, for reading.

Monday, March 26, 2018


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

 We take up burdens to avoid the cross.

We don’t know they are burdens at first. Burdens take only a part of us at a time and so they seem easy, compared to the cross. The cross demands all of us, all at once.

The meaning of “cross” is simply giving up all of one’s self to God.

At first burdens don’t seem bad. “Why do people think this is a burden?”
We get so used to them that they are satisfying, pleasurable. But it is the pleasures of burdens that hold us away from the joy of the cross.

It is smart NOT to take up the cross. The cross is hard. The only problem is that all the alternatives are worse. The alternatives are burdens.

 “Finally, the only rational act is love.”

Power is a burden.

Love is a cross.


Sunday, March 25, 2018


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

STEALING DONKEYS FOR JESUS                         [Sun, 3-25-18]
[An occasional Palm Sunday repeat]

As they approached Jerusalem, Jesus sent two of his disciples to get a colt that had never been ridden. “If anybody sees you taking it,” he told them, “tell them I need it.” They found the colt and brought it to Jesus and put their coats on it for a saddle and Jesus rode on it into Jerusalem. Many people spread their own clothes on the road, or leafy branches they cut from the trees, and they shouted “Hosanna” as he rode into town. (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-40; John 12:12-19)
“It’s Palm Sunday, so I want you to go into town and steal me a donkey,” Jesus told his disciples. “If anybody catches you, tell them I need it.”

Reminds me of the time “Gunner Bob” Reinhart, one of my colleagues in the “Willing Workers” Sunday School class, happened to notice the keys dangling from the ignition in Mr. Bothwell’s new Olds Rocket 88. It was Palm Sunday afternoon, and Gunner decided to take the car for a Holy Week spin. Mr. Bothwell noticed his car taking off from in front of his house and ran down his driveway after it, house slippers on feet and Sunday funnies in hand.

“Why are you taking my car?” he cried.

Gunner, apparently remembering our lesson on the morning, yelled back, “I need it.”

One of Jesus’ disciples nudged the other as they walked into town. “And if they go for that, I’ve got some nice recreational lots along the Dead Sea I can sell them.”

Both capitalists and communists claim Jesus, but he was neither. His approach was entirely different; he just borrowed everything. He borrowed the water he turned into wine, and he borrowed the stone jars from which that wine was poured. He borrowed a boat from which to teach or by which to cross a lake. He borrowed houses in which to eat, teach, and heal. (Some of them did not fare very well, either–one lost its roof so a paralytic could be lowered in to be healed.) He borrowed sons, brothers and husbands to be his disciples. He borrowed the upper room in which he ate his last supper with his borrowed friends. Borrowed was the manger in which he was born, borrowed his cross, and borrowed his tomb.

We think of Jesus as a giver, not a taker. He was the giver of health, love, truth and even the ultimate, his own life. Yet Jesus throughout his entire career borrowed things.

This was not just his lifestyle as an itinerant preacher. He was teaching us that all we have is borrowed from God. He ignored all strictures against lending and borrowing , be it a cloak or a second mile or even one’s other cheek, because none of us really has any possessions. Bigger barns, Swiss bank accounts, even gaining the whole world–none of that is enough for us to establish a claim upon ourselves. You yourself, your very life, is borrowed, so how can you claim anything you have as your own?

Gunner and I learned in Sunday school the “accounting theory” of faith. You get what you have coming to you. Indeed, Gunner got it when he returned Mr. Bothwell’s car. One doesn’t steal donkeys–or Oldsmobiles–and get away with it in my hometown.

Over against the accounting theory stands the unexpected Jesus, the one who says, “If you would follow me, take up your cross, and steal me a donkey.” Jesus lived the reality of grace, of God being good to us not because we are good but because God is good; not because we have been true to some legalistic plumb line of stewardship but because God is rue to the divine identity. To see ourselves as borrowers is to recognize ourselves as those who live by grace, who have no claim upon God except the one that God give in Christ.

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia launched the New York City Center of Music and Drama, but he never attended the ballet there. Someone asked him why, since he otherwise seemed to be such a supporter of art. He replied, “I’m a guy who likes to keep score. With ballet, I never know who’s ahead.” There is some kind of relationship calculator built into most of us that causes us to keep score.

Relationships, however, have a way of refusing to go by the numbers. That is why so many of us end up forsaking relationships altogether–relationships to other people, to God and even to ourselves. Unless we can keep score and know who is ahead, we do not even want to attend the performance. We may support the idea, and say that it is beautiful, just as LaGuardia did with ballet, but we do not go.

The unexpected Jesus says to us, “Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:421). “And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But…lend, expecting nothing in return…” (Luke 6:34035a). “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive every one who is indebted to us…” (Luke 11:4a).

That’s a clue. The last sentence comes from a prayer; it is a plea to God. “God, you forgive us our sins, for sins–­those attitudes and actions that keep us so far from you–are our debts, and there is no way we can pay off those debts. The only way we can make right our relationship with you is if you forgive those debts." Each one of us is a Third World nation.

Grace has no contract requirement, nor can it be attained through manipulation. Grace is what we borrow, knowing we can never repay, and knowing that the Lender understands we can never repay

Jesus frees us to be borrowers from God. Perhaps it is too much to expect us to borrow easily from one another. We are not ready to be fellow borrowers until we have borrowed life from God. That is what Jesus teaches. “Look at me,” he says. “I’m a borrower. If I can be a borrower, you can be one, too. Borrow what you need from me.”

Jesus comes to us in a borrowed manger, on a borrowed cross, up from a borrowed tomb, breaking to us the borrowed bread of life, lending us life, forgiveness and hope. “Borrow from me,” he says. “Borrow the things that make for life. Let others borrow as well, and do not hinder them. Hell is a life that is earned. Heaven is a life that is borrowed. Borrowed is best. Go steal me a donkey…:”


Yes, I wrote it. It was originally published in The Christian Century, 3-21-90.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

THE LAMP OF THE BODY-a poem [Sat, 3-24-18]

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

So this is the point
to which my life has dwindled down
the prick of a pin
not even the sleek and surgical
prick of a needle point
but the rough-edged gouging
of a farm-wife hemming pin,
the sort of pin my mother
used on those black and white
1920s photographs of her friends
with bobbed hair and flapper skirts
so different from the snaps of my wife
and her friends in 1950s
flip and ducktail doos
and poodle skirts
those shots of Mother’s friends
smiling mouths but with their
eyes gouged out because my mother
did not like them anymore
to her dying day she
could not recall their names
because she could not see their eyes


Matthew 6:22

Friday, March 23, 2018

TREES [F, 3-23-18]

            I think that I shall never see

            A poem lovely as a tree…

Joyce Kilmer’s Trees was one of the first poems I ever memorized, partly because we sang it at Lucretia Mott Public School # 3 in Indianapolis, partly because it was short and simple, mostly because it rang true to me
I learned the incorrect version, of course, since we sang it. Kilmer closed it with: Poems are written by fools like me, but only God can make a tree. The song version says: Poems are made by fools like me

I knew more about poems than trees, though, living in the inner-city of Indianapolis. It was only when we moved to a farm near Oakland City, 135 miles south of Indy, that I really began to understand trees, and to appreciate them.

My father was a good shade-tree botanist. He was an outdoorsman. He knew animals and plants. He could name trees. It’s strange, since I love words so much, that I learned so few trees by name.

On the farm, I learned to love trees and plants, except for the ones I had to hoe in the garden, or put up as hay, but I rarely learned their names. I learned the ones everyone knew--maples, oaks, willows, fruit trees in their ripe seasons. I never learned to tell a hickory from an ash, though. All that was really important, it seemed to me, was the shade.

The summers in southern Indiana were long and hot and humid. Life was physical and sweaty. We carried water and fire wood in and out. We heated water on a wood stove and washed clothes in a wringer washer and hung them on a line. We hoed and canned vegetables. We had no air conditioning. We did have electricity, but only one old-fashioned slow-moving fan.

In our front yard, though, we had shade trees—big maples. The front yard was open on all sides except for the house. There was almost always a breeze. When the heat became too much, I would flop down on the grass in the front yard, in the shade of those leafy maples, and feel the breeze.

Trees hardly ever do harm. They provide shade in summer. They provide homes for birds and small animals and insects. They share their limbs with children, to climb on, to hang a swing from. Their roots keep erosion away. They provide beauty in spring and fall. They often provide fruits that are delightful to eat. They cleanse the air and provide oxygen.

When they do damage, it’s not their fault. It’s because of disease or wind that has caused them to drop their limbs on your Volvo.

The trees are beautiful in spring and summer and autumn, but in winter, we can see the trunk and the limbs. They have their own beauty. In winter we see the beauty of what is below.

In my own winter, I have learned better to appreciate the beauty of the structure of trees. It’s not just about the shade anymore.

Now spring is almost here again. Around here, the magnolias show their flowers first, and the one a block from our house came out yesterday. That basic beauty of the limbs of the trees will soon be covered over with pastel blossoms and green leaves. But that trunk and those limbs will still be there, the foundation for all that God’s trees do to make life better.


Thursday, March 22, 2018


Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter…

Recently a fragment of The Dead See Scrolls was discovered on a floppy disc in a discarded Commodore 64 in the back room of the Habitat Restore. It appears to answer the question of what Lazarus did after Jesus got him out of his tomb. Technicians in Mumbai, Arkansas are working on the rest of the disc to see if they can recover any other fragments. Here is what they have so far…

I am Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha. I was a disciple of Jesus, although not one of The Twelve. I followed Jesus almost from the beginning. My home is in Bethany, but I was in Galilee when Jesus first started to teach and heal. I wrote down what Jesus said and did. The other disciples made fun of me. “The Kingdom is coming, tootie head. What’s the need of your silly writing?”

Jesus didn’t approve, either, but for a different reason. When he heard the disciples laugh at me, he sent for me. That is how we met.

“True religion is of the Word of God, not the words of men,” he said. “The Spirit blows like the wind. Stone is too heavy for the wind and papyrus is too light. The Spirit writes neither on stone nor papyrus but on the heart.”

“My head is like stone and my mind is like papyrus,” I told him, “so I must write it down in order to understand and remember.”

Jesus laughed, but it wasn’t the same laughter as the disciples. “Go ahead then, wiseacre,” he told me. “You write it down and I’ll tell you it’s not worth it and we’ll let God sort it out.”

That was the start of our friendship. Jesus always liked a wiseacre. He seemed to like best the ones in whom others saw little value. I was one of those.

Later, when Jesus spoke of the road of God being long and narrow, he said it was good that I wrote stuff down.

“They think the Kingdom will come soon,” he said, “but they are wrong. It is already here. It is the end that will come soon, for each of us, but only God knows when the world itself will end, and God is infinitely patient. The journey will be much longer than anyone now knows. Perhaps in time to come, God will use your words.”

But this is not about me. This is my account of the work of Jesus before he ascended to the Kingdom beyond, when he brought the Good News of the Kingdom of God. I did not know it when I started this writing, but I know it now: Jesus was and is the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is Lord even of the Law and the Prophets.

God sent a messenger to prepare the way. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “Behold, I send my messenger before you. He will prepare your way. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.”

The messenger was called John the Southern Baptist, because he appeared in the wilderness of Judea, the southern kingdom, preaching the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People from all of Judea and from Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized by him in the river Jordan and they were confessing their sins. I went out, too, and I had many sins to confess, but I was afraid to be baptized, because John the Southern Baptist was scary. He ate locusts.

He preached: “One is coming after me who’s mightier than I. I’m not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

That was when Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And he heard a voice coming from heaven saying, “You are my son, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

I was there, and so were others. Later Jesus asked me if I had seen the heavens opened or heard the voice. I had to tell him I had not. The others gave no indication they had, either, but I have no doubt it happened.

You see, you have to be open to heaven to see the heavens opened.


Wednesday, March 21, 2018




Neal is a friend, and I went at this book with some trepidation. I have high standards—for others—in both theology and writing. What if it were not very good? How could I tell the truth without hurting a friend’s feelings?

What if he’s out of date? There’s a good chance, because he’s as old as I am, give or take a decade. What if he just rehashes dispensationalism, or The Bloody Tenet, or lapsarianism? Even worse, supralapsarianism? After all, he’s a professional theologian, so he knows about that stuff.

My fears were unfounded. This book is, in a word, excellent.

There are other words that apply. I’m tempted to say “simple,” because it is so clear, but simple so often means simplistic, and that it is not. It is deceptive, because it reads so easily. It was not, however, a fast read, because every paragraph made me stop and think.

I was surprised by all that thinking. I intended to read it just because Neal is a friend and I wanted to review it here. That would not take long, right? Wrong!

When I retired, I pretty much gave up reading theology. Having done that for forty years, I figured I had theology as much under control as I ever would, even patripassionism. So over the last 20 years, I have concentrated on the subjects I neglected during my career, especially science. {Sean Carroll, Sheldon Cooper [Bazinga!]. Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Steven Johnson, Michio Kaku, Oliver Sacks, Daniel Schachter, Neal Degrasse Tyson, et al.}

But Neal’s book worked perfectly with that. It is totally current. He examines all the ways contemporary science disputes, dialogues with, and supports faith in God. After all, science and religion are looking at and experiencing the same world.

“The premise of this book is that faith can be understood, in part, as seeing the world more deeply.” [p. 262] He fulfills the promise of the premise.

Occasionally I wanted Neal to apply his deeper way to some special interest of mine, such as current politics, but he knows that the surest way to be irrelevant tomorrow is to be too relevant today. [1] Because of that, this book will be relevant for a long time.

He writes with all the fullness and breadth of a professional theologian but through the lens of a fellow-seeker.

A perfect book for group study. The ten chapters and epilogue end with perceptive questions for discussion. I’m sorry I did not get it read in time to suggest it as a Lenten study book, but the need for “a deeper way of seeing” is always with us.


1] I know this is true because we’ve had the “particular vs general” discussion before. When Neal was still President of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and I was still a fulltime pastor, I advocated more specific education for ministry for Garrett-Evangelical students. He resisted and said the seminary needed to provide students with general education which they could then apply to specifics. We were both right.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018


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

Online I came across some 1960 correspondence from L. Harold DeWolf to Martin Luther King, Jr. DeWolf had been King’s PhD dissertation advisor at Boston University School of Theology. [BUST, an unfortunate acronym for a seminary] By 1960, of course, King was pastoring and leading protests against racial discrimination in Birmingham, AL.

In a May 10, 1960 letter, DeWolf told King that Boston University had raised $2500 in scholarship money for students—black or white—who had been expelled for non-violent protests against racial discrimination. He thought King might know of students who needed the scholarship.

King knew of some, of course, including James Lawson, who had been thrown out of Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville for that very reason. He later graduated from BUST and went on to significant leadership in the civil rights movement.

I had never heard of that scholarship fund, although it does not surprise me. When I was a college junior, I was determined to go to BUST myself, in great part because my model and mentor, my bishop, Richard C. Raines, had done his seminary degree there, but also BUST was known in general for its advocacy of the social gospel. Then, though, I heard Bishop Raines say that if he were choosing seminary now [1958], he would go to Perkins, at SMU, because they were on the cutting edge of theological education. So I went to Perkins. {1}

I had not heard of that scholarship, but I had definitely heard of Jim Lawson and his expulsion from Vanderbilt Divinity School. I wrote a “strongly worded letter,” [as Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory TV show calls them] to John Robert Nelson, the dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, excoriating him for Lawson’s expulsion. Later I learned that Nelson was opposed to Lawson’s expulsion but overruled by Vanderbilt’s president. So when Nelson came to IU in my senior year to give a lecture, I went up to him afterwards to apologize. I said, “I’m John Robert McFarland. You won’t remember me, but I wrote you a letter about…” He didn’t let me finish. “Oh, yes,” he said. “I remember that letter quite well.” [I must have been a pretty good writer back then.]

Anyway, I hope somebody at a college—community or otherwise--starts a scholarship fund for students who get expelled from school for protest against gun violence—the civil rights issue of the current time. I want to make a contribution.


1} I got thrown out of Dallas for civil right advocacy and finished at Garrett, at Northwestern U. I tell more of that story in The Strange Calling, published by Smyth&Helwys and available quite inexpensively all over the internet. I finally got to go to BUST, in 1967, when I did graduate work there.

Monday, March 19, 2018


Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter…

Let’s have applause for…not doing it. Whatever “it” might be.

One of our pastors, Mary Beth Morgan, has been warning us—claiming it is voluntary, but we know what that means—that SSPES [“Sit Some Place Else Sunday”] is coming up. Palm Sunday, no less, which is chaotic enough as it is, what will all that palm waving and parading around.

She stated that “some place else” did not mean an entire section could just pick up and stake out a different spot, like a tribe of Israel in the desert. She specifically pointed out the likelihood of The Alfred Hitchcock Society--so named because we sit in the North by Northwest [NNW] part of the sanctuary--being likely culprits to move en masse. Needless to say, Helen and I sit in that area. We may even have had a hand in naming it.

The problem is that NNW has a lot of old people and other misfits. I was pretty sure that once scattered, they would not be able to find their way back home on subsequent Sundays. So I hatched a plan. Yes, we NNW folks would scatter, but on the Sunday before SSPES, I would hand out to all the citizens of NNW home-made but nicely done maps pointing the way back to NNW come Easter, with various instructions in case obstacles were encountered on the way, etc. Sort of a biblical journey--how to part the waters to get through, where to find manna, etc.

Then I got to thinking about it… which is always a problem with my plans. I knew Mark and Michael would have fun with it, just because they are like that. Doran and Mary Ellen would be indulgent, saying, “Oh, you young whippersnappers.” Bill and Pat would think it's a hoot. Janice and the Shirleys [a great name for a girl singing trio] would be a bit befuddled but okay with it. Byron would be polite. So would Janis, and Randy would laugh heartily. Martha would be late, but that would be no problem, because Carle would swing into head-usher mode and be sure everyone got a map. And therein lay the problem…

At St. Mark’s, NNW is back-left, easily accessed by latecomers and newcomers. Being handed a map for future excursions when you have no idea what is happening even in the present would be enough for some folks to leave immediately to worship at St. Arbucks, just down the hill.

So I didn’t do it. One of my best ideas, and I would get no applause, no accolades, no affirmation, because no one ever knows when we do NOT do something.

Oh, yeah, it’s great to get big hand for doing something, but most of my best stuff is in the category of “It’s good because I did NOT do it.” Nobody ever applauds because we did NOT do something stupid, because they don’t know about it. It’s quite frustrating to get criticism for stupid stuff you do while getting no accolades for stupid stuff you DON’T do.

So give yourself a hand. You’re the only one who knows how much you deserve it.


Being an advance planner, Helen was looking forward to sitting with a favorite friend on the east side until I pointed out to her that he would have to sit some place else on SSPES, too.

Sunday, March 18, 2018


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

Helen and I are trying to start a college student fellowship at our church. The Operation Friendship group was having a fundraising soup supper after worship one Sunday, so we invited students to be our guests. We would sit together, get acquainted. You can learn a lot about someone by questioning them about the meaning of  life as they’re slurping soup. Seven agreed to break soup with us. We were delighted.

But an ice storm intervened. The soup lunch had to be postponed a week. I had to email the students to let them know. In the subject line, I put “No soup for you!” Then I remembered that these kids were not even born when “the soup Nazi” spoke that line on the Seinfeld TV show.

When talking about the ice storm, I referred to it as “Sunday morning, coming down.” Then I realized that Kris Kristofferson was the age of not of their grandparents but of their great-grandparents!

When I was a campus minister at IL State U, I invited Bishop Richard Raines to lead a retreat for our students. He had just retired, at age 70. That summer he learned to water ski. He had always wanted to, but had never had time. That seemed rather youthful. But he said, “You’d better invite someone younger. I live in the present generation, but the present generation does not live in me.” I insisted he come. He did. It was one of the best things I ever did for those students.

Now, though, I understand much better what he meant when he said, “I live in the present generation, but the present generation doesn’t live in me.”

This year’s frosh were born, give or take a year, in 1999. Granted, that’s in the last millennium, which makes it sound like a long time ago, but it’s also three years after I retired. The Soup Nazi and Kris Kristoferson are contemporaries of mine. They are ancient history to students today. I have nothing in common with this Snap Chat generation.

Except for one thing. As Paul Tournier said, “You are never too old or too young to give your life to Christ. After that, what else is there to do to get ready to die?”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get ready to be cool. The Sunday School kids at St. Mark’s are making a documentary film about “cool people at church” and are interviewing Helen and me this morning.


Saturday, March 17, 2018


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

As I grow older it is hard to know the difference
between resignation and acceptance
two really stupid words to use in a poem

instead, being a poet,
I should write of two identical trees in the forest,
one with a nest of robins in her hair,
the other full of chattering squirrels at play
each reaching to the sky
or heaven if you prefer

one with roots like dachshunds,
the other with roots like Rottweilers
the only real difference being that spehlczech
capitalizes rottweilers but not Dachshunds,
since they are little and can’t bite very hard

and let you try to figure out
if my shoulders are slumped or squared
as I write
or “pen,” this being a poem
about full and empty nests in those trees

or if you’re like me
instead of like the poet I pretend to be
resignation and acceptance
illusion and faith


I do pretend to be a poet, but I’m not one really, which is why I always put “a poem” in lowercase letters in the title, so you are warned and can skip it if you wish.

Friday, March 16, 2018


 Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter…

Trains have always been an image for life and Christian faith, at least as long as there have been trains.

Life is like a mountain railroad
With an engineer who’s brave
We must make this run successful
From the cradle to the grave
Watch the curves, the fills, the tunnels
Never falter, never quail
Keep your hand upon the throttle
And your eye upon the rail

Blessed savior, thou wilt guide us
Till we reach the blissful shore
Where the angels wait to join us
In thy praise for evermore
[There are three more verses that fill out the whole railroad journey.]

Our pastor, Jimmy Moore, used a very helpful railroad image as Bob Epps lead our Lenten Bible study at St Mark’s UMC on “The Song of the Vineyard,” in Isaiah 5:1-7.

Someone asked about people who don’t acknowledge God. Not just theoretical atheists, but “practical atheists,” the vast majority of people who are not aware of the “thin places” in the universe where we actually experience God, who are not aware of the action of God in the world, who do not even consider God unless something bad happens.

Jimmy said that with a train, it’s not about who’s on board, but where the train is going.

I find that to be a very helpful image of the Kingdom of God, a train that is going toward its destination regardless. We can get on board or not, but the train keeps going.

Still, I like to sing as we go along, “Get on board, little children, get on board, little children, get on board, little children, there’s room for many a more.”


“Life’s Railroad to Heaven” was written by Eliza R. Snow and M.E. Abbey.

I think both Madeline L’Engle and CS Lewis spoke of “thin places in the universe.”

Thursday, March 15, 2018


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

“Oh, just one more thing…” That was the line everybody knew and looked forward to as we watched Peter Falk play Detective Columbo so enjoyably on TV in the 1970s.

Columbo was just going out the door, in his ratty raincoat. The suspect he was questioning thought it was all over. Then he turned and said, “Oh, just one more thing…” Unlike his suspect, we all knew Columbo had not forgotten his “one more thing.” He was just using it to trap the perpetrator.

Like Columbo, as I go out the door, I always have one more thing--not because I get distracted easily, certainly not because I am forgetful or absent-minded-- but because I have so many stories on any subject from which to choose.

A few years ago, when we lived in a different place and went to a different church, the preacher asked a young engineer in the congregation, Dan Wallington, to fill the pulpit one Sunday while she was gone. He did a marvelous job, but afterward said, “Oh, there was other stuff I meant to say. I didn’t get it all in.”

I said, “Don’t worry about it. I preached for fifty years and still didn’t get in everything I wanted to say.”

When I was young, I had only one story to apply to a scripture or a theme, so I was never distracted from using it. But now I have 60 years worth of stories, so I often get distracted,

When I was getting ready to retire, a friend said, “I spent the first half of my life building up and the last half using up.” I took that to heart. I had two thousand file cards--which nowadays would be on the computer-- with stories and anecdotes. I tried to make it come out so that on my last Sunday before retirement, I would use my only remaining cards. Didn’t happen.

Trying to use it all up is impossible, regardless of how old we get. I’m sure that as I’m going out that final door, I’ll say, “Oh, wait, just one more thing…”


Many of the stories I wanted to tell, I did, in my book, The Strange Calling, published by Smyth&Helwys, and available just about anywhere on the web.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018


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

My consultant, Levi, and I were hanging together Wednesday last. He is 14 and working on a “Taking Backpack Buddies Food from the Church Building to the Community Kitchen” Boy Scout merit badge. I had introduced him to Caitlyn at the Kitchen as my assistant. Later we decided that would not look as good on his college admission applications as Consultant, so we changed it.

It is amazing that I got him introduced as anything at all, for I’m dysnomic. Can’t think of nouns. It’s no problem when I am writing. I just use a different word. Or I sip coffee until the preferred one appears. It’s much harder to do that in speaking. People aren’t willing to wait that long.

It’s hereditary. I get it from both sides of my family.

My father, a taciturn man, when he could not think of a noun, would simply sit there in silence until it came to him. Sometimes it went on so long that we had another whole conversation in the meantime. When he finally found his word, he would go on with his original sentence as though no other words or voices had intervened.

My mother had a different approach. She abhorred silence, so when she could not think of a word, she would simply use “stovepipe” in its place. It made for some interesting, and incomprehensible, thoughts.

In emergencies, it’s a real problem to be dysnomic. “Here comes a…what?” Bullet? Dinosaur? Truck?

When pressed, Mother would just yell whatever came to mind. One day at lunch my father was going to pour her some more coffee. She did not want any more but could not think of a word to inform him thus. [Like “no.”] So she yelled, “Get away! Get away!”

This happened to coincide with the appearance of the Watkins man at our back door. Watkins products were sold door to door, like Fuller Brushes, but were “notions”--patent medicines, vanilla flavoring, shoe laces, etc. We lived in the country. On a gravel road. Our driveway was a long distance from our back door so we didn’t hear cars drive up. Nobody ever came to our house anyway. Except for the Watkins man. When he heard mother yell, “Get away! Get away!” he left.

Mother said, “Oh, no. I wanted to buy some… stovepipe… from him.”


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 so I am still trying to understand Christ in winter. Also, it has felt quite winterish in Bloomington this week.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


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

There is an old saying: If you have three frogs to swallow, swallow the biggest one first.

When I was an every-Sunday preacher, and was faced each week with four scriptures—one “lesson” each from Old Testament, Psalms, Gospels, and New Testament] to use as a sermon springboard, I had two principles by which I chose: 1] Preach the Gospel. We are Christ-ians. Preach from the story about or from Jesus, the Christ, the Word of God. 2] Preach from the one that is hardest, most difficult to understand, the one from which I wanted least to preach.

When you have a choice, do the hardest thing. It’s not just the most character-building, it’s the most useful.

My friend, Phyllis Graham Parr, did a PhD in math, because, she said, “At the end of my bachelor’s degree, I felt I understood humanities and arts and sciences pretty well, but I did not really know math. It was hardest. I needed more work in it.”

Each Lent at our church, retired engineer Charlie Matson sets up Tuesday night Bible studies. We have a lot of retired preachers in our congregation, so, in addition to our “active” pastoral staff, he calls on those timorous theologians to lead. For the two years I have been going to these, he has asked those hoary homileticians to reflect on their favorite Bible passages.

I have suggested to him that next year we should ask them to work with us on the one that is most difficult for them. It’s partly because I have a particular one in mind. Mostly, though, it’s just because I want to see them squirm.


Monday, March 12, 2018


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

Bill Verrette is thoughtful, and he appreciates others who are thoughtful, even abstract, even esoteric. But he really appreciates the concrete. In fact, he has poured most of the concrete in the whole land.

Well, he didn’t pour much of it personally. He has peeps for that. He does not now, though, even oversee the pourers of the concrete. He has other peeps for that.

He still goes into his office each day, in Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, because he has an important job that no one else can really do. His business card notes that he is Champion Concrete’s “Keeper of the Culture.”

In his thinking, both abstract and concrete, Bill knows that every organization, even a business, has a culture. Somebody needs to be a living history for a family, a school, a club, a church… Otherwise, the organization loses its identity, its focus, its reason for being—and that leads quickly to failure.

One of the reasons Bill’s businesses have been so successful is that he has adapted to changing times. Keeping the culture does not mean never changing. It means continuity within change. Change will happen whether we want it or not. But in the midst of that change, we shall not remember who we are without someone to keep the culture, who knows and tells the story.

Old people sometimes struggle with irrelevancy. Who needs us? What are we good for? Well, old people can be keepers of the culture in ways that no one else can. That is a gift that God gives us, and one we can give to our culture.


Of course, I am reminded of the workman who chased a child out of his newly poured concrete and was admonished. “Don’t you like children?” He replied, “I like them fine in the abstract, just not in the concrete.”