Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Monday, April 30, 2018


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


Recently I saw this statement: “Be the kind of Christian that Paul Rayan wants to fire.” James H. Cone was that kind of Christian.

Jim died last week. We had a few things in common. Same age. Studied at Garrett Theological Seminary, at Northwestern U, at the same time. Played a lot of table tennis.

All of us at Garrett in those student days knew Jim was smart, but he stood out more for his race than his scholarship, one of only two black students in our whole student body. And his back-hand. He could slam with his backhand as well as his forehand. After lunch, he and Raydean Davis and Malcolm MacArthur, from New Zealand, and I would gather in the ping-pong room deep in the lowest recesses of Loder Hall. There Jim would beat us in straight sets, or whatever the table tennis equivalent of straight sets is. When he made a point, it hit the table so hard, you heard it ring around the whole room. Then he would hurry away to the library to do research on his PhD dissertation on Satan.

I don’t know if Union Seminary in New York knew about his backhand, but they hired him to teach theology. At that time, Union was the premiere theological seminary in the country, with Reinhold Niehuhr and Paul Tillich and John Bennett nearing the end of their careers. James was a worthy successor.

Not only did he teach, but he developed what was called Black Liberation Theology, insisting that Jesus is not a theory but an event, an event of liberation. “There can be no knowledge of Jesus independent of the culture and history of the oppressed.” He was not just a professor; he was a prophet.

Over the last 30 years, Marcus Borg and James Cone were the prophets of liberation through Christ, not just personal liberation from personal sin, but social liberation from social sin. Marcus came at that position through Biblical studies, James through theology, and they arrived at the same destination.

James alone could not keep Union Seminary at the forefront of theological education. As the names of Tillich and Niebuhr began to fade, so did Union. But James kept Union relevant. He became the face of Union Seminary. A black face. A liberation face.

He professed and preached and propheted the same way he played table tennis, slamming with either hand, hitting the point so hard that you heard it ring around the whole room.

He has now transferred from the church militant to the church triumphant. I hope those angels look out for his backhand.


I tweet occasionally, as yooper1721.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

MAY IS FOR DYING-a poem [Sun, 4-29-18]

Undertakers and preachers know that October and May are the dying months. The prettiest months are the dying months. It’s easier to understand when you are closer to dying. If you don’t want to take another winter, you die in October. If you’ve gone ahead into winter, when it is finally over, and you have endured, it’s okay to die. In May.

MAY IS FOR DYING-a poem            [Sun, 4-29-18]

April is the cruelest month
but May is the month
for dying
when daffodils
and robins feel
the frost go limp
beneath their feet
and the understudies
of maple leaves
propeller down
when snow has finally lost
its last and dirty hope
then we die
to spite the winter


A CIW BONUS: I recently mentioned my first pastoral appointment, The Methodist Church in Solsberry, IN. In their membership book, certain people were marked as “puny and feeble” to explain why they did not come to church but should be kept on the membership rolls anyway. I think that should be a standard addition to the membership categories: Full Member; Associate Member; Constituent; Puny and Feeble. 

Saturday, April 28, 2018

RADIO TOWN-a poem [Sat, 4-28-18]

This morning’s rain
takes me to a town
that once lived in the radio

A widow lady bakes biscuits
for her boarders, the schoolmarm
dreads the muddy boots
the blacksmith longs
for a drink at the saloon
with the swinging doors
the parson stands behind
the church and wonders why
he ever left the city
the sheriff knows
the rain means trouble

A town that once lived
in the radio
and still lives in my boyhood
dreams of valor in the rain


Friday, April 27, 2018


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

[I get an idea, write as much of it as I can, file it where I’ll find it easily so I can finish it up and post it, lose it for days, months, maybe years, and then it pops up and… I can’t remember if I have already used it. So it is with this column. It sounds so familiar, like I’ve posted it before, but I can find no mention of it in the fairly careful indexing I used to do so that I would not repeat posts. It will be especially embarrassing if I forget and repost a column in which I brag about how good my memory is, but…]

I have 23 “children” in the ministry, young people who heard the strange calling because, they said, I made it “look like fun.” They all hate me.

They did, however, name a scholarship, and several dogs, for me, the latter, I think, so they can shout, “John Robert, get your furry bottom off the sofa.” Come to think of it, that’s what Helen shouts, too, except for two of the words. [She doesn’t call me John Robert.]

In response to the column and emails on the occasion of Helen’s birthday, about Helen making it look easy to be a preacher’s wife, [1] Raydean Davis said satirically, “Of course, you make the ministry look so difficult.”

I suppose I did make it look easy at times, because I remembered names. At least, that was my reputation. I’m still fairly good at names, although like all old people, the forgetter demons--the ones that live by eating names--have taken up residence in my brain. [2] I was never really as good at names as my reputation. But I love stories. Stories and names go together. When I knew a person’s story, it was easy to remember his or her name.

A name is simply a shortened form of story. Say “Adele” or “John Lennon” or “Steve Jobs” and you don’t hear just a name, you hear that person’s whole story, or at least as much of it as you know. There are names I have forgotten, but I still know the stories; I just can’t give you the short form of it, the name.

The very nature of life is story. When I say your name, or you say mine, we are saying that we both have a story,

Any name is good if it tells a good story.

Here, I think, is what is necessary for a name: 1] You must have a story. 2] It must be your story. 3] It must be bigger than just your story. 4] It has to be big enough to include everyone.

The tragedy today is that so many want to stop at number three. Oh, yes, they’ll claim their story includes everyone, but it’s inclusion by exclusion. If you don’t agree with them at every point, you are in the story only as evil, infidel, the enemy. That takes all the meaning from a good name.


1] Barbara Reick, the wife of the Lutheran pastor in Hoopeston, IL, told me: “I hate your wife. She makes being a preacher’s wife look so easy, and it’s not.” I told her, “That’s because Helen isn’t the preacher’s wife; she’s just herself.”

2] Strangely, the first letter of a name and the rest of the name are stored in two different places in the brain, accounting for the oft-occasioned, “Oh, I know his name starts with an S, [or some other letter], but I just can’t think of the rest of it.”
I used to keep a careful index of topics and stories so that I would not bore readers with repeats. But that became cumbersome, and since this blog is primarily for folks in the winter of their years, I figure they won’t be able to remember if they’ve heard it before, anyway.

Thursday, April 26, 2018


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

Nancy came home with Helen after H2O aerobics at the Y for coffee. She is retired now, but was a professional musician and educator. She was much impressed when she learned I was a bassoonist back in the day, even “primary” bassoonist in our high school orchestra, as I knew she would be, because music pros are always in awe of bassoonists.

I avoided having to say that I was the worst bassoonist in the history of “the ill wind that nobody blows good,” and that I was “primary” only because Carolyn Waller had graduated and that Peggy Hunt, the new recruit, was only just switching over from clarinet and had not yet mastered the bass clef, by telling her of how I bought my reeds at Troutman’s Drug Store. Nancy was astounded at the idea of being able to buy a bassoon reed at a drug store.

She recognized the name of Oakland City, my home town, so she knew it was a small town even back when I played bassoon there in the early 1950s. I gave her a little history, of how a couple of Oakland City boys had played in Sousa’s band, in which the brother of Meredith Willson, the creator of the best Broadway musical ever, played bassoon, while Meredith himself played piccolo, and so the town thought of itself more as a music town than a sports town, even though the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame centerfielder, Edd Roush, whose twin brother, Fred, was one of my boyhood baseball coaches, was also from Oakland City, and so Mr. Troutman stocked reeds for every instrument in his drug store, even bassoons and oboes as well as the more popular clarinets and saxophones, which was right across Main Street from our other drug store, because OC had two not only of drug stores but every other kind of store in those days, not because it was really profitable for Mr. Troutman to take up store space with bassoon reeds, although they were small and took up only one little drawer of the dozens of little drawers in the huge cabinet behind his counter, but because small town businessmen then thought it was their duty to be good citizens of the town, and to help the school have a good band, and help poor kids get to be in the band, since bassoons were so expensive that the school had to buy them and thus the poorest kids got to play the most expensive instruments because they could not afford a cheaper instrument, and not just make as much profit as possible.

He did make some profit from those reeds, because they cost a whole two dollars, which was still a good deal for a poor kid, since a $2.00 reed was a lot less than a whole instrument would cost, and I always made sure I had $2.15 from my job at Moe’s Groceries, Gas, & Auto Repair [1] when I bought one, so that I could also have a chocolate soda or root beer float at the old-fashioned, marble-topped, mirror-backed soda fountain which was also a fixture of the store, which also served as the regional and interstate bus terminal.

In the public service spirit of Mr. Troutman, this CIW was a dementia/Alzheimer’s test, to see if you could keep going through all those commas. Congratulations; you passed.


I tweet occasionally as yooper1721.

1] Moe later ran for county sheriff and won, even though he had no law enforcement experience, because in a place like Gibson County, the main qualification for sheriff is knowing who the perpetrator of a crime is even before the crime is perpetrated.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018


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

Helen and I went to worship at the Solsberry United Methodist Church last Sunday. It was my first “permanent” pastoral appointment. The Solsberry Circuit had three preaching “points,” Koleen and Mineral in addition to Solsberry. We had not been there for 58 years. [1]

We went just to close the circle, to worship in the same place we did when we were courting, where we lived the first year of our marriage. We did not know that Danny Funderberk, formerly of the Cathedrals gospel quartet, would be there to do a Sunday morning concert. But that turned out fine. It was a lot of fun. We got to sing a lot of the songs we sang back in the day, the songs we don’t get to sing in our sophisticated college town church.

Surprisingly, several old women remembered us. They had been members of the youth fellowship, in high school and junior high. They clustered around us in a circle of smiles, telling us how important we had been to their spiritual growth back when, how they had incorporated those lessons into their lives as they went along. I was pleased, but also astounded. I had no idea.

I had no idea or memory of other things they talked about, either. They reminded me that we won a District award for having the largest MYF attendance, a big achievement for a small church. Apparently, though, we had such a large group because, as one of the old ladies said, “We were all in love with you.” “Oh, yes,” another said. “My mother was so hoping you’d end up marrying my older sister.”

I guess that is not surprising. I’m exceptionally good-looking. Except that’s mostly due to my bald head and white beard and ear hair, none of which I had when I started preaching at Solsberry, when I was 19 years old, a college sophomore. Although I don’t really recall it, I must have been at least slightly aware that those girls were in love with me, if juvenile infatuation can be called “in love,” but I was a mature college man, interested in mature college women, with their pony tails and poodle skirts and saddle shoes. I just wasn’t interested in mere girls, some a whole year younger than I.

The ministry is not a visible results job. Occasionally you know that you have done something that was good for someone, but mostly you just have to hope. My mentors in ministry have always said things like “You are not called to be successful, only faithful,” and “You never know how much good you do.” It’s gratifying to know that even when I was so young, I was faithful, and that I did good I did not know about.

Of course, one of my friends says, “You also never know how much harm you did.” A good counter-weight, but I think whenever Helen gets out of line, I’ll remind her that she did have competition once, even if I didn’t know it.


For years I thought Solsberry was a typical SoInd corruption of the British Salisbury, as in cathedral and steak. 35 years after I preached there, I spent time in a hospital waiting room with the wife of Jim Cummings, a member of my church in Arcola, IL, while Jim had an operation. It was a long operation, and we were alone, so we talked of many things. Somehow, Solsberry came up. “Oh,” she said, “Jim was born there. His folks lived here then, but she wanted him to be born in Solsberry, so when her delivery time came, she went over there to have him where the town was named for his grandfather, Sol Cummings, and the berry bushes that grew wild on those hills.”

1] My first actual appointment was to the Chrisney Circuit, also three points, with Crossroads and Bloomfield [not the Bloomfield that is the seat of Greene County.] I knew that the Chrisney appointment was temporary, from Sept. until January, when Ellis P. Hukill, Jr. would graduate from Asbury Seminary and be appointed there full-time.

These were part-time appointments, of course, while I was a student at IU. After Helen and I married, and she was doing her senior year at IU, a new Solsberry Circuit was created, to make a full-time appointment for me before I went off to seminary. It was still three points, with Greene County Chapel and Walker’s Chapel in place of Koleen and Mineral.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018


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

I once waited at a Starbucks, without buying anything, for a business meeting. I used the restroom as I waited. Nobody told me the rest room was for paying customers only. Nobody called the cops on me just because I was sitting there, not ordering anything.

I wasn’t ordering anything because I was waiting for two white District Superintendents [Methodist for sub-bishops] to interview me for a job. I knew they would buy coffee for themselves once they got there, because most of the DS job description is drinking coffee. I figured if they saw me with nothing on the table in front of me, they would be embarrassed to get coffee for themselves without offering to buy me some time, too. That worked.

I point this out because two black men, waiting for a white businessman, to discuss a business deal, were denied access to the restroom at a Starbucks in the upscale Rittenhouse Square neighborhood in Philadelphia because they were not customers, since they had no coffee on the table in front of them, and were arrested and spent the night in jail because… they were black. That is the only explanation, because our circumstances were exactly the same, except I am white.

I was really surprised this happened at a Starbucks. I like Starbucks. I consider them to be civilized oases in the midst of an uncivil world. You can tell they are civilized by how much they charge for a cup of coffee. But I like Starbucks.

We’ve been to many Starbucks outlets where the happy baristas were black people and where at least some of our fellow caffeinates were black. On road trips, Helen and I often stop at a Starbucks to use the rest room, because they have nice, clean rest rooms. As we travel on highways, I watch carefully to catch sight of a Starbucks sign, that strange green Medusa-like figure. I memorize which exits have a Starbucks so we even if we don’t need one on the way there, we know where one is on the way back. When we moved to Bloomington and ATT thought a year or two would be an adequate period in which to get our internet hookup accomplished, we daily went to a Starbucks [there are 5 in Bloomington, and I have used the rest rooms in 4 of them] to use their Wi-Fi.

Let me repeat, I like Starbucks. Like their Wi-Fi. Like their rest rooms. Like their baristas. Like their coffee. Like their pastries. Like their ambiance. Like their mysterious Christmas designs. I’d like all that more if they charged a little less, but I like Starbucks.

Except for toll-road service plazas and airports and stores. For some reason, the baristas at Starbucks stores in toll-road service plazas and in airports and in grocery stores are not nearly as interested in serving customers or smiling as are their counterparts in free-standing Starbucks stores. I suggest to black people that they should have business meetings at those Starbucks stores, Their employees will not call the cops on them because they are not interested enough to do so.

Or perhaps black folks could go some place for their meetings where they will be treated the same as white folks, like Starbucks promises to be in the future. I hope they keep that promise. We need those civilized oases. For everybody.


I tweet occasionally as yooper1721

Monday, April 23, 2018


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

Guitarist Chet Atkins said that he used to think he was pretty good. By the time he found out he wasn’t, he was too rich to care. By the time I found out I wasn’t any good, I was too old to care.

One of the gifts of the years of winter is freedom from expectations.      

Nobody expects anything from me, and that’s okay. No one expects me to save the world, or even change it a little bit.

Which allows me to be an undercover operative.

I am friends with—once removed, which means I know someone who knows her—a woman nobody expected to be an undercover agent. She is a small woman, obviously crippled, confined to a wheelchair. Nobody expected her to be a spy, so she was really good at it.

That’s how I am now. I sit in the rocking chair at family gatherings, in the corner at the coffee shop, on the park bench as people parade by with their signs and shouts, in the back row at church, in the balcony looking at those below in the seats of power. Nobody expects me to be sorting the sheep from the goats, plotting against their worldly plans by praying for God’s Kingdom to come. But I am.


Sunday, April 22, 2018


There is an old story about someone, maybe an angel, asking Jesus after his resurrection what would happen to his message on earth now. He said that the church would be his body now, to be the message. The angel asked what his backup plan was. Jesus replied, “I have no other plans.”

Preachers love stories like that. It provides a platform from which we can harangue church members to get with the plan.

Recently, in the pastoral prayer at our church, I even mentioned that it seems God has no Plan B, implying that the church is Plan A.

As I have thought about it since, I regret that. Actually, the church is no higher than Plan E, which may explain why we are so poor at carrying out the plan.

Plan A was Nature—natural and human. “For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…” {Romans 1:20.} Problem: Greed said the world and its creatures are here just for humans to use to make money.

Plan B was Israel, the whole nation, a people chosen to be “a light to the nations.” [Isaiah 49:6] Problem: Israel was quite willing to believe it was God’s chosen nation, but chosen for privilege, not for purpose.

Plan C was the prophets. Problem: Who the hell cares about a prophet unless there’s a profit? So we get Joel Osteen and his fellow travelers of the “wealth gospel.”

Plan D was Jesus. Problem: The man is impossible, expecting all sorts of unrealistic behavior, a threat to the social order. Must be eliminated.

So now, in desperation, maybe even in resignation it seems, comes the church. Plan E. Problem:


Saturday, April 21, 2018

ALMOST-a poem, sort of [Sat, 4-21-18]

I have always lived on the edge
of almost

I almost made it once or twice

That is why I like
that line about “the ballroom prize
we almost won”
in that song about moments
to remember

If it’s almost
there is still the chance
that it might happen


Friday, April 20, 2018


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

After I have put on shoes in the morning, I try to get everything done for the whole day that requires shoes. Taking shoes off and putting them back on again is a lot of work. Surely once a day should suffice.

Retying the laces takes a lot of work, too, especially the bending over part. Or the raising the foot up to a tying level on a chair or park bench. So I tie the laces really tight, to be sure I don’t have to retie. Except untying laces when they are tied really tight takes a lot of work.

My wife had to go to the podiatrist. He “gave” her inserts for her shoes. They are quite helpful in reducing pain. Her pain. My pain has increased considerably since there is not enough room for old feet and new inserts together in old shoes and so she is now “required” to buy new shoes into which the old feet and the new inserts together will fit. That’s another problem with shoes in old age.

Life is too short, especially when you’re old, to waste any time on changing clothes. The old people’s fashion principal is: Whatever I’ve already got on is good enough for wherever I’m going.

I suppose to younger people this disregard for fashion seems a result of weakness of limb or wavering of mind. Actually, it is the result of purity of heart. Soren Kierkegaard says that “purity of heart is to will one thing.” I “will” put shoes on only once a day.

We old folks no longer have to impress others with our appearance. We know that we are accepted by God, and so we are able to accept ourselves, just as we are, coffee stain on the shirt and all. That is the gift and good news of old age. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.


Thursday, April 19, 2018


We went out to Gentry Park for a tour. Independent living. Assisted living. Dining room. Coffee shop. Beauty parlor. Exercise room. Patios. An OPP, Old People Place.

OPPs are usually named Village or Park or some other pleasant-sounding word, rather than calling it Eternity’s Waiting Room.

We’re not quite ready for an OPP situation yet, but our friend’s name-Ann-just came to the top on the waiting list for the OPP in her town, and so she decided to sell her house and move to the OPP. She and Bill had put their name on the list about five years ago. He died in the meantime. Her name came up at a good time.

So that got us to thinking. In five years, we might be ready for an OPP. So we went for a tour of Gentry Park. Really nice place. Glad we went, especially since they gave us a peach pie, so that our health will deteriorate faster and we’ll have to move there sooner. [Do not misunderstand; if you want to give me a pie, I’m quite willing to let my body go to pieces.]

It’s good to live where you should be. Some folks need an OPP. But “location, location, location” is not the panacea realtors claim. A different location might help with your problems, but it won’t eliminate them entirely.

My father never quite understood that. In his last years, he kept thinking that if he just changed his location—from house to nursing home to apartment to a different nursing home to a different apartment to still another nursing home—he would be back to being 85 again. He did not get any younger in that process, although I did get quite a bit older.

Each stage of life pulls our limits in a bit more. We need to live within them. If that means moving to an OPP, that’s okay. But we should not let new limits on old limbs limit old virtues like kindness and hope.

A different location doesn’t make you older, and it doesn’t make you younger. It’s just the place where you get to be yourself.

Go where you need to be, but remember that wherever it is, God is there, same as always.

Okay, I think I’ve convinced myself now.


Wednesday, April 18, 2018


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

The caller ID on the house phone said IU. I picked it up. So did Helen. I heard a pleasant-sounding young man ask for Helen. Fine with me; I’m not much for talking on the phone, especially if people are asking for money. I was right. He was asking for money. Strangely, though, since he asked for Helen, he was a sports fund raiser.

I got to hear her side of a long and pleasant conversation. She acknowledged that we were sports fans but played the little old granny card, unable to buy tickets because we are no longer able to walk in from the parking lot in Nebraska to which they assigned us in the days we were able to go to games.

Then I heard her ask him if he had a grandmother. Apparently he said yes, for then she asked him if he emailed his grandmother regularly. He said that was difficult because she was 95, but that he called her once a week. [I got this later from Helen, of course.] She told him how important it was to his grandmother that he keep doing so. After a bit more talk about sports finance, Helen giving the young man a basic course in coach-speak, before she hung up she reminded him to keep calling his grandmother.

All this came about because two days previous, grandson Joe had emailed her. [It actually was to both of us, but she keeps saying, “He emailed me!” when she tells people about it.] He had discovered that the names Jerome and Hieronymus have the same root, with one name picked up by the Greeks, the others by the Dutch, with the Dutch getting the better deal. Apparently he intends to name all his children Hieronymus.

Joe has always felt that Grandma should be kept informed of arcane information. I recently found an entry in my journal, from when he was nine, noting that he had thrown up three times at school, once through his nose, and when his mother got him home, he insisted that she call Grandma and tell her, for “Through my nose!” was important for Grandma to know. He knew she would be interested. Also it was likely that such information would cause her to bake a cake for him to ease his suffering.

Now, though, Joe is a teen, and through his teen years, he has become quiet. Not silent, or secretive, although he has taken quite literally to “the Messianic secret” in the gospel of Mark, by growing his hair and beard out long so that he looks exactly like Jesus, at least the tall white Irish Jesus of the Sunday School papers.[ I don’t think it was his intention to look like Jesus, but that’s the way it turned out.]

Bing a teen boy, it is very rare for Joe to initiate contact, although he is quite pleasant, and always informative, when others start conversations. Sometimes Helen texts him, since teens actually look at and reply to texts, and asks him if he has time to talk on the phone that night. He always says yes, takes the call at the appointed time. They always have pleasant conversations, mostly Helen asking questions and Joe replying either “Good” or “Yes,” but he does also offer new bits of remote knowledge he has picked up.

Joe is busy. He is a senior and preparing for college. He plays tenor sax in all the school’s bands and ensembles. He is a letterman on the tennis team. I assume he must talk to teachers and classmates. At least if they speak first. But he’s not too busy to let us know about Jerome and Hieronymus.

Now some folks might think the common root of those names is unnecessary information. To certain people, it is the most important information ever.


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

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

The Academy of Parish Clergy starts its annual meeting today. Yesterday I wrote of Granger Westberg and the founding of APC. I was supposed to be in Racine, WI today to give the opening remarks, reflecting on the fifty years of APC’s existence, but it became impossible for me to attend in person. So, here is what I was going to say. It’s about four times longer than my usual columns, so you might want to refill your coffee…


John Robert McFarland, FAPC

[Not every member of APC is Christian, and certainly not Methodist, but the only language I have to tell this story is Christian and Methodist. I do not mean to exclude anyone, just tell the story as it was and is.]


Almost fifty years ago, James Glasse spoke at an APC conference. Glasse was a distinguished pastor and educator of pastors, the dean of Lancaster Theological Seminary, and his father was a well-known, respected, even revered pastor in their denomination.
Jim’s new book was out, and he asked his father what he thought of it. But his father had not read it.
 “They tell me it’s a pretty good book, if you like that kind of book, but Son, I don’t like that kind of book.”
The elder Glasse had not read the book, because he didn’t need to, to know he didn’t like that kind of book. Its title was, Profession: Minister.
Those of us who are old enough can sympathize with Glasse’s father. For him, the ministry was not a profession. You didn’t choose it just for the high status and big bucks and low hours. The ministry was a vocation, a calling, not a profession. You didn’t choose it, it chose you. You were called--by God, no less. As my bishop told me, “Don’t go into the ministry if you can do anything else.”
That was one of the ways you knew you were called to the ministry--you didn’t want to do it. That was one of the reasons I thought I was called.


          When I was fourteen my older sister became mysteriously and desperately ill. Her heart and kidneys and lungs were all failing. The doctors said there was nothing they could do and that she had only three hours to three days to live. I knew from Sunday School that if you want to get something from God you had to give something to God. The only thing I had to give for my sister’s life was my own life, and the only thing I could imagine God might want from me was my life as a preacher. So I made the deal. Immediately, at the very time I told God I would make the trade, my sister got well, as mysteriously and completely as she had gotten ill. The doctors, of all people, actually used the M word: “It was a miracle,” they said. And only I knew why. [1]
          But was that a call? It was a deal, a trade, and as an honest as well as promising young man, I was obligated to keep it. Or was I? You had to be called to be a minister. Was a deal like that really a call? That was my out. I wasn’t really called. Unless I really was…


          I had to start thinking theologically, a fourteen year old hairy legged farm boy. Did God make my sister sick to get me into the ministry? Would God have let her die if I had not made the deal? Will God come back and kill her if I don’t keep the deal? Is a God like that worth serving? I decided to give it 50 years and if I couldn’t get answers by then I’d try something else.
          I received my first appointment as a Methodist preacher when I was nineteen. Three points—Solsberry, Koleen, and Mineral, about 200 folks all told. I was ready. After all, I had been thinking about God since I was fourteen. And ever since.
          Then I hit a birthday that ended with a zero. Not a double zero as some have suggested, but significant, nonetheless.
          All those years before, from nineteen on, every book I read, every story I heard, every incident I saw, I put it into my ministry. It went into my preacher brain, which was a shoe box full of 4x6 cards. My brain got very big through the years and became several shoe boxes full of 4x6 cards. I never read a word or had a thought or said a prayer that wasn’t directed at helping my people grow in faith.
I’m considerably sorry to say that in addition to helping my people grow in faith, every word I read and thought I had and prayer I said was also directed to helping me to get ahead. I especially wanted to impress my colleagues with how good I was at our shared profession. My life was lived to help others and maximize my status. Nothing about it was designed to help me personally be a real honest-to-God regular Christian. I lived with only one question about everything, Will it preach?
          There is always some spillover, of course, if you’re thinking about God and talking about God and helping others be open to God. You can’t help but get some of it on yourself.


          That, however, was beside the point. I was 80 and I had never been a real Christian. I knew I needed to fast. I needed a professional Christian fast—no professional thinking and acting at all, only Christian thinking and acting. So I did the Lenten study on Jonah at our church the way I was asked to do, as my last hurrah. The rest of Lent I would fast from the profession of ministry.
Lent is very long when you’re a professional Xn but very short when you’re just a regular Christian, and when it was over, I knew it wasn’t long enough to do me any good. I extended the fast for a year. I told our pastors that I would do nothing professional for a year—no pastoral prayers or serving communion, no study group leadership, no weddings or funerals, no hospital calls. They were willing to honor my fast. In fact, they seemed unduly happy about it. That year, that professional fast, ended on a day celebrated both as Easter and April Fool’s Day.
It was a total failure. 
          After all my years as a professional Xn, I was a complete bust as a real Christian. Oh, I did real Christian stuff. Our old colleague, Father Joe Dooley, always said that the responsibility of lay persons is to “pray, pay, and obey.” I tried. I prayed. I paid. I obeyed, mostly.
I worked food repack nights at the Food Bank. I took the Backpack Buddies food from the church building to the Community Kitchen. I invited people to come to church. I greeted newcomers and sent them notes. I bought prizes for Jail Bingo. I criticized the preachers and the hymns. All the things real Christians are supposed to do. [2]
Mentally, though, I put every one of those things on a 4x6 card and stuck it in a shoe box in the back of my brain.


1968 was the year that ministry went from calling to profession. Yes, it was the year Abingdon published James Glasse’s Profession: Minister. It was also the year Granger Westberg proposed The APC in the pages of The Christian Century.
          Westberg had been talking about an academy for parish clergy before 1968, however. I heard him do so when he came to Bloomington, IL to speak at the Lutheran church where he had pastored years before. He made an academy for professionalizing the ministry sound so exciting—continuing education requirements, a code of ethics, a journal for sharing the practice of the profession. I wanted to join, even though it didn’t exist yet. But I was bereft. I would not be allowed to join. It was for parish pastors only, and I was a campus minister.
          I wasn’t ever going to get to join APC, because I wasn’t ever going to be a parish pastor again. I was going to honor my deal with God but not exactly. I would get a doctorate in communication theory and become a seminary professor of homiletics. You don’t have to be called to be a preacher to teach others to preach.
          By the time I finished doctoral work, though, all the homiletics positions were filled, or at least that’s what they told me, and like so many other would-be parish escapees before me, I took a congregation because I needed a job.
By that time, APC had moved from a gleam in Granger Westberg’s eye to a Lilly-funded reality. It had not existed very long, but it was there, and the first thing I did following the Methodist annual conference when I was appointed to Orion, IL was to join the APC.
What with campus ministry and graduate work, I had not been pastor of a congregation for ten years. I knew I needed the help of experts to make the transition, and who could be more expert at pastoring a congregation than other pastors, pastors who weren’t just flying off the seat of their pants, living off an incident of calling from years before, but real professionals who would share their knowledge, share their practice, with me?
For twenty-two years of fulltime ministry and twenty-two more of part-time interims and occasional ministry forays, every word I read and every thought I had and every prayer I said was enhanced by sharing that practice with my APC colleagues.


When I was twenty, I went to my first clergy continuing education conference. It was called the School of the Prophets, for all the Methodist ministers in Indiana, at Depauw University. I had been preaching at Solsberry and Koleen and Mineral for a year already, with no education for the job except Speech 101.
This was my first opportunity for education as a minister. I was enthralled. There was a Cokesbury display, with all the books and Jesus junk any preacher could ever possibly use, or misuse. I heard sermons by Bishop Richard Raines and Ralph Sockman of Christ Church in NYC. I got enough sermon illustrations to last a month, the only reason preachers go to these things anyway.
Most importantly, I was in a preaching workshop led by Webb Garrison. His teaching was practical. We were to put sermon “illustrations” [3] on 4x6 cards, because they fit into a shoe box. We were to use rubber cement to affix clippings to the cards because it did not dry out the way Scotch Tape did.
At lunch I went downtown. To buy 4x6 cards and rubber cement. I also bought a pair of shoes I could not afford, but I really wanted the box. By the time I got done, I was running late for the afternoon session. I was in a hurry. I didn’t want to miss a single minute of that conference. In the distance, from the auditorium in Old Main, I heard the after-lunch singing start. What a sound. 100 tenors. 100 baritones. 100 basses. One soprano, Clara Mae Ripple, the only woman clergy in Indiana Methodism.
As I rushed along, ahead of me I saw an old man, bald and with a white beard, standing on the curb. He was wearing a black suit, shiny at the knees and elbows, with a yellowed white shirt buttoned up at the collar, but no tie. I was dressed like the cool university student I was, Kingston Trio style vertical stripe shirt, Ivy League chinos, argyle sox, tan buck shoes. The old man looked at me, hurrying toward the sound of the prophets, my shoe box under my arm, and as I got to him he said, “Are you a preacher?”
That was the question, for sure. But it was too complicated to explain, so I just said yes.
“I used to be a preacher.” He looked toward Old Main. “Is that the preachers singing?” he asked. I assured him it was.
I thought he would come with me, to the School of the Prophets, but he didn’t. He only stood there, gazing toward Old Main, his ear cocked toward the singing. He seemed content just to be close to “the goodly fellowship of the prophets.”
Now I am the old man standing on the curb. In the distance, I hear the voices raised in song, such much richer harmony now, with all those sopranos and altos.
In that harmony I hear the voices of Perry Biddle, Thor Bogren, Earl and Martha Davis, Joe Dooley, Ed Friedman, Kim Egolf-Fox, John and Dottie Freed, Roger Imhoff, Granger Westberg, and so many others.
I hear the singing of the prophets, and I know where I belong: I am called, and I am professional.

John Robert McFarland, FAPC

1] I tell this story more fully in The Strange Calling, published by Smyth&Helwys.

2] I was like one of the football players on a team I heard their coach describe. He said, “They are good at running around the field, doing football-like activities, but they don’t really play football.” I was okay at doing real-Christian-like activities, but I wasn’t a regular Christian.

3] I resist calling the stories we tell in sermons as “illustrations” because I think the experiences we tell about are the points. The things we say about those stories are the illustrations.

Monday, April 16, 2018


I heard Granger Westberg speak long before I met him. It was the late 1960s, and he was back to speak at the Lutheran church in Bloomington, IL where he had pastored before he became famous as a chaplain/professor/innovator who did ministry in medicine.

In his speech, he told of how he had learned of the need for continuing education [CE] for pastors by watching how doctors continued to learn. Indeed, you could not stay in good medical standing if you did not acquire CE credits. He proposed to form an Academy of Parish Clergy [APC], modeled on the American Association of Family Physicians, in which clergy would have to accrue regularly a certain number of CE units to be in good standing.

I was bereft, because I really wanted to be a member, and I would not be eligible.

I would not be eligible for APC because I was not parish clergy. Westberg was clear about that. He said that the real experts in parish ministry were those who practiced it, and that they could learn a great deal from one another by sharing that practice. If, however, they admitted seminary and college professors, and denominational officials, and chaplains and other ordained people who were not actually parish clergy, those worthies would take over, because the church thought preachers could learn from anyone who was not a preacher but had nothing of educational value to contribute to other clergy, or to anybody else. So to be sure that did not happen, only real working clergy could be members.

I had been a preacher, a parish pastor, for eight years, but I was then a campus minister, and when I finished my master’s in communication theory at IL State, where I was Director of The Wesley Foundation, and got a doctorate in theology at Iowa, and applied communication theory to theological methodology to create my own narrative theology, I planned to be a seminary preaching professor.

I knew, though, that I needed to be in the company of every-Sunday preachers as much as possible, to keep being renewed in what those folks needed to learn to be good preachers. APC seemed like a good way to stay in touch with real preachers, but I would be the very type the APC would be most unwilling to accept.

In addition to needing to relate to preachers as a professor of preaching, I just loved the company of other preachers, the “goodly fellowship of the prophets.” I felt so blessed to be in the company of thoughtful, educated, compassionate, open-minded men-all men then-who took Christian faith seriously, not just culturally.

Those weren’t just “liberal” preachers. I knew many pastors who were conservative, and several who were fundamentalist. We disagreed about “taking the Bible literally,” but not about being Christians literally. They insisted on the literal interpretation of the virgin birth and the resurrection, but also on the literal interpretation of “feed the hungry” and “clothe the naked.” We were in one accord on Christian behavior, and that was before Hondas even made it to the USA. [1] We were denominational then, but not tribal, as we are now.

I recall having coffee one afternoon with one of my conservative friends. He almost cried when he told me he had just learned that people called him and his ilk “fundies.” He was proud to be a fundamentalist, but he thought “fundy” was disrespectful. I told him I thought so, too, and vowed to myself to stop saying it.

Things did not go as I planned, of course. I had some chances to be on a seminary staff for administration, but nobody wanted me as a preaching professor. I went back to parish ministry. The good thing about that was, I got to join APC! I became a Fellow. I was even the President for a term. The sharing of the practice and the fellowship were even better than I had thought they would be!

Not long before I retired, we had an APC Midwest Chapter meeting at Grace Lutheran in River Forest, IL. That was always exciting, because F. Dean Lueking was the pastor there, and his presence made any meeting better. That particular day, though, it was more exciting than usual, because Granger Westberg himself was there. He was retired and living in Willowbrook, after a distinguished career in which he pioneered almost everything having to do with pastoral care and holistic medicine in hospitals, including creating the parish nurse program, with almost three thousand parish nurses in practice by that time.

We had a lively discussion that day, doing case studies of situations in the parish, in which we helped one another see better ways to deal with certain practical pastoral concerns in our congregations. Granger pulled me aside afterward to say that he was much impressed with my insights and would like to get to know me better. He asked me to come see him some time. I doubt that I was all that impressive. I think he was just lonely.

I thought that it would be great to visit him, though. I was honored. Talk about continuing education, with Granger, himself?! It would not have been hard to do it. I lived only a couple of hours south of Chicago. I was able to drive fast and long in those days. But I never got around to it.

I was still recovering from cancer. I was getting ready to retire. Whenever I had opportunity to leave town, I went south rather than north, to see my granddaughter in Alabama. Then she moved to Iowa and I retired so I could move there, too.

I don’t regret at all going to see Brigid, ever. But I do regret that I did not make time to see Granger Westberg. When you are no longer the innovator and enabler, people honor you but they don’t pay much attention to you. He had read my cancer book and thought we would be on the same wavelength. I’m sure he was right.

Now I am Granger Westberg. Nobody wants my advice. Nobody pays attention to me. Personally, I find that refreshing. It takes a big load off. I need to pay attention to myself, not some young whippersnapper in his fifties. I hope Granger felt the same way.


1] Preacher joke: Honda is the Biblical car because “the apostles were all in one accord.” [Acts 2:1]

Sunday, April 15, 2018


Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter…

I face the end now with a surprising absence of fear. Perhaps it is just resignation. After all, none of us has an alternative to the end. Some see it as a beginning. I think I am in that number. I have hope for a fearless life in that new place, whatever or wherever it may be.

If hell is real, I suppose that’s the place I have earned. But I have no fear of hell. I used up all my fears in this place, in this life. Also, I don’t fear hell much because I have more trust in God’s mercy than in Satan’s punishment.

When I say that my fears are lessened in old age, I do not mean they are entirely gone. In this life, there will always be fear, because in this world, there is evil. In this life there is loss and pain and suffering. We cannot help but fear them. Even if I do not fear for myself in this life, I fear for others. But I do not fear death.

The message of Easter is that we need have no fear either of death or of fear itself, because resurrection awaits. Christ does not take away our fears, but shares them with us, and when they are realized, Christ shares with us the hurt. [1]


1] I call that paschaltheism. A Google search can’t find any mention of such a word, so apparently I created it. [Instead Google suggests psychotheism.] Its root is “paschal,” as in Christ being the paschal lamb, the sacrifice. It is the theology of Christ suffering with us and us sharing in the suffering of Christ.  I prefer paschal to the word “passion,” traditionally used to denote the suffering of Christ, because the way we use passion these days is almost the opposite of suffering. Sometimes it’s better to use a word, paschal, we have to explain than a word everyone thinks they already know.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

THE PRESENT MOMENT-a poem [Sat, 4-14-14]

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

This bit about staying
In the moment
Is not all it’s cracked up to be
I do not like this moment

There is a pile of mail
In my in-box
If emails can be said to pile
Dishes can for sure
Be said to pile
And the dirty ones
Are waiting there
In a pile
In the sink

I do not like this moment
But as they say at the raffle
At the county fair
You must be present
To win


Friday, April 13, 2018


When I feel the need to let my spirit settle, I listen to Darrel Guimond play hymns on the trumpet. Darrel was my first BFF. We were ten years old. We met on Jimmy Bigham’s school bus just after my family had moved from the working-class inner-city of Indianapolis, 135 miles south to a little farm outside Oakland City.

Before Darrel, I’d had playmates, especially Jimmy Mencin, who lived across the street on N. Oakland Ave. in Indianapolis, but not friends. Playmates and friends are not the same thing.

A playmate is someone whose parents put you into the back seat of their car on VJ Day, when you are eight years old, along with their son, and drive downtown, honking their horn all the way, to join all the other honkers and shouters. They told me to bring something to make noise. I was not very adept at understanding how to make noise. I brought a pithy WWI toy helmet to beat on with a spoon. All that beating did not make much noise but did cave in the helmet. Mr. Mencin told me not to worry, that I would not need a helmet anymore. But it meant Jimmy and I could not play soldiers in his basement anymore, either.

Friends and playmates are not the same, and friends and BFFs are not the same, either. You talk with friends, and do things with them. That’s good. With a BFF, though, you go beyond talking and doing. A BFF is someone with whom you share hopes and dreams, fears and doubts.

By definition, there can be only one BFF, for “best” is exclusive, the one above all others. Through the years, though, I’ve had several BFFs, and one did not replace or displace another; they just sort of joined a special club.

As grade school and high school went along, I had other BFFs. Mike Dickey. Don Survant. In college, BFFs were Tom Cone and Jon Stroble. In seminary and through the years of ministry, there were others. It was an amazing and wonderful group.

Your first BFF is special, though, and Darrel was my first. We’d do sleepovers at his house and look at sex manuals he’d slipped out of the school library, via a flashlight, under the covers. There were line drawings that confused more than illuminated, and words that were so technical we did not understand them. But that is the kind of thing you do with your first BFF.

Yes, other BFFs through the years, but that first one has a place, an importance, no one else has, because that is the one who taught you how to be a friend to the others.

In old age, the BFF is someone with whom you share the memories and stories of hopes and dreams, fears and doubts.

Darrel became an engineer by profession, but he was such a good musician, so good on any brass instrument. At the 60 year reunion of my high school class, Butch Corn gave me a CD of Darrel playing hymns on trumpet. It’s nice to spend time with your first BFF, as I am doing now, listening to Darrel’s hopes and dreams.


Thursday, April 12, 2018


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

Sometimes people are not there even when they are there.

Twice I have had experiences in the middle of conversations when people simply stopped acknowledging my presence. I’m not talking about medical situations, like Alzheimer’s, when people forget you’re there, but intentional shunning.

The first was when Richard Bednardsky tried to go to high school. I was the pastor at Cedar Lake, IN. We had our own grade school, but students went to high school in the county seat, Crown Point. Richard showed up at Crown Point HS the first day of his freshman year, along with all the other graduated 8th graders from Cedar Lake, and was told he could not come in. Richard was black. Actually only half-black. Well, probably only about one-third black.

Richard was a member of our church. I did not know his parents. Neither of them came to church. He was a bright and handsome and personable boy, very popular in the church youth group. When I made an “altar call” one day at the end of worship, for anyone who wanted to join the church to come forward, Richard did so, standing straight, all by himself.

He was a life guard on the lake. He was not allowed to be on property adjoining the lake, though. We found that out when the Bothwells were having a picnic for our youth group in their yard that abutted the lake. “But Richard is a life guard on the lake,” WWII veteran Glenn Bothwell said. He was told, “It’s okay for him to be on the lake [in the life boat that pulled drunks out of the water when they crashed their boats], but he can’t be in the lake, or on the shore.”

I went to the high school to plead Richard’s case with the principal. I told him what a good kid Richard was, how popular he was in the youth group, how smart he was, what a good citizen. The principal said it was against the rules, or the laws, or something, so he could not let Richard come to school. I pointed out there was no place else for him to go. He lived within that district. “He’ll have to go up to Gary.” “He has no way to get there, and, besides, that’s wrong.” “That’s not my problem.”

I continued to press the case for Richard. The principal turned to some papers on his desk and started shuffling them. He simply pretended I was not there. I kept talking. He did not respond. I knew he was listening, because his face kept getting redder, but he did not look at me, did not say anything, just acted like he was working at his desk. I was astounded. I had no idea what to do. I had never experienced anything like that before. I was twenty-five. He was at least forty. Here was the man who was the second-highest administrator in a large county-seat school district and his way of dealing with a problem was only to ignore it? Eventually I got up, stood there for a minute, and left.

Later Richard went to Viet Nam, not for high school, but “to protect our freedoms.”

Fast forward twenty years. A young preacher in my conference was being discontinued, not because of moral turpitude [Don’t you love that word?] or because of incompetence, but because he had not advanced in his theological studies degree in the proper ways in the proper time frame. He had fallen behind on his school work because he was spending too much time on his “part-time” pastorate. I knew him well, both from being on the District Committee on Ministry and seeing him at work in his church and in the district. He was acknowledged on the Committee and by all our colleagues as one of our very best. We were letting him go on a technicality while we were keeping a whole lot of preachers who didn’t come close to his “gifts and graces for ministry.”

I went to see the bishop. She was new. I didn’t know her well. But I knew the young preacher well, and so I argued that we should find a way to keep him, that the people in his church loved him, that he was really good at his job, that he was called by God to be a minister. The bishop listened for a while and then, as that high school principal years before, simply turned away from me and started working at her desk. I continued to talk. If she listened, she gave no indication of it. I eventually ran out of words and out of amazement at her… what? I couldn’t even put a name to it. I got up, stood there for a minute, finally left, without her acknowledging that I had even been there. Here was the highest officer in our Conference, and this was the way she dealt with an unwanted problem, simply to ignore it?

I’m a pretty good communicator. But I wasn’t even there, either time.

Public education isn’t doing very well. Neither is the church. I’m not surprised.


A follow-up on Chap Stick Wars from yesterday: I suspect I started carrying a Chap Stick in high school in the hope some girl would see my moist lips and grab me and kiss me. In college, one finally did, and kept on doing so. Chap Sticks then cost about 19 cents. It was a small investment that paid big dividends.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018


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

Darrell and I—his wife called him Jim, but she’s the only one who did—had a lot in common, especially a love of baseball. There was a single A baseball team only 30 or so miles away from where we lived. On sunny afternoons, we’d hop in my car and drive over to watch the Lumber Kings. His car was nicer than mine, but he always wanted me to drive. I found out that was because the backstop wasn’t very high and foul balls off a lefthander’s bat arced up and into the parking lot, where a lot of dented cars were parked. No wonder his car was nicer.

That was also because he was a retired medical doctor, so he simply had made more money over the years than I had and could afford a nicer car, which ne naturally did not want dented by foul balls. But he usually paid for our ballpark ice cream, so it evened out.

We did things as couples, too, mostly, as with older folks, going out to eat. There was a riverboat twenty or so miles from us. They served lunch on it. The four of us would go over—in his car for these excursions—and have lunch and enjoy the lazy trip up and down the river. It was like going back in time.

Which suited Darrell fine, because he was quite conservative politically. That was our only real difference, except for Chap Stick.

I can’t recall when I first started carrying a Chap Stick in my pocket and using it whenever I felt the need. In high school, I think. Which meant I had about fifty years of Chap Stick use in my experience when I met Darrell. I got to the place where I tried not to use it in his presence, but sometimes I forgot, or the lip dryness became too much, and I pulled it out and applied it and he went into his gentle rant.

I am aware that I use Chap Stick more than most people. But it’s inexpensive, especially since it’s all I put on my Christmas wish list and so Santa puts some into my stocking. That supply lasts me all year. And why have the discomfort of dry lips when you don’t have to? After all, it’s not harmful.

That’s what I asked Darrel when he would get so upset when I used Chap Stick in front of him. “Is it harmful?” After all, he was a physician. Maybe he knew it was carcinogenic or something. “No,” he said, “but it’s not necessary. It’s just a habit. It’s an addiction. You don’t need it.”

I never did understand why my inexpensive and harmless “addiction” bothered him so much. Did he think Chap Stick was a “gateway drug” to worser epidermal addictions, like hand lotion, or tattoos?

Whatever the reason, it bothered him, and he wasted a lot of energy—both his and mine—on it. I really think that his addiction to objecting to Chap Stick was worse than my addiction to using it.

Darrell always claimed he was objecting to Chap Stick as a physician,  because of his concern for me, but it was really about concern for himself.

It was the “ick” factor, in a very minor way. Seeing someone doing something he thought was icky bothered him. Being socially conservative, he thought it was his duty to change people who were doing icky things, even though my Chap Stick usage was not harmful either to him or to me, and provided employment both to folks in the Chap Stick factory and to Santa Claus. It really was not his circus or his monkeys. It wasn’t even his business. He could have just looked the other way. But the ick factor is just too much for some folks, even if they are nice people.

Anymore, whenever I find myself objecting to anything, and claiming I’m doing it out of pastoral concern—the way Darrell thought he was reacting out of medical concern--I ask myself, “Is this because of the ick factor?” It often is. Body piercings. Tattoos. Quinoa. Cheering for the Cubs. Yes, those are icky, but I am not in charge of those for other people. So I look the other way. I’m better off that way, and so are they.


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