Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

TRUE CLICHES [T, 7-31-18]

Christ in Winter: Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter--TRUE CLICHES  [T, 7-31-18]

Jean Cramer-Heuerman and I were friendly colleagues before we went through cancer together, but sharing the cancer experience made us fully into friends, not just like-minded colleagues, even though I was fifteen years older. During the time we were both in cancer treatments, we’d sit in the back of the room during committee meetings of our denominational conference and compare notes.

One day, she said, “You know, all the clichés are true.”

That was highly credible, coming from Jean, for she and I were always the cynics, the ones who laughed at clichés and shouted out for more substance.

She died much too young, a long time ago. When she did, the bishop asked me to spend time with her church staff and congregation to help them work through their grief. He knew I could do that, because I shared that grief. I still miss Jean, and sometimes I run through the list of clichés we decided were most true. They make me feel like we are together again, at the back of the room, laughing at cancer behind our hands, hoping for healing in our hearts.

Here are the true clichés that appealed to us most:

It’s never too late to have a happy childhood

Today is the first day of the rest of your life

No day is over if it makes a memory.

John Robert McFarland

Monday, July 30, 2018

THE COBRADOR WILL GET YOU—a book review [M, 7-30-18]

The book is GLASS HOUSES, by Louise Penny [2017]

This is the 13th of now 14 novels of Montreal police guy Armand Gamanche and the village of Three Pines. But the first time I have read Penny. She writes well, and there are enough twists and turns to keep it interesting. It’s not perfect, but if you like police/who dunnit novels, I recommend.

That’s not the main point of reviewing it here, however. There is in the novel a fascinating character, the cobrador. A little known part of Spanish culture, the cobrador is masked and robed in black and follows around, without saying anything, someone who is a debtor, in order to shame them into paying. When the justice system fails, the cobrador often succeeds. The cobrador is hired by the person to whom the debt is owed, or someone who just wants to see justice done. The cobrador acts as a conscience for people who don’t have one. In Glass Houses, the cobrador acts as a conscience for a different kind of debt.

I think it’s a fascinating theological concept. Is it the opposite of Jesus when he teaches us to pray for forgiveness of debt, rather than payment of debt, or is it the same thing in a different costume? Discuss among yourselves.

BTW, Marcus Borg says that debt is probably the most accurate word to use in praying the Lord’s Prayer, rather than trespasses or sins, because of the importance of debt in the time of Jesus, the domination class using debt to keep poor people under control. The way mine owners did with coal miners via the company store [St. Peter, don’t you call me, ‘cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store] and the way land owners do with tenant farmers.


Glass Houses is a Christmas gift to Helen from daughter Katie Kennedy and her family. Most of our books come to us as gifts from our daughters. That’s a good thing, because they both know good books from the others.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

FIFTH SUNDAYS [Su, 7-29-18]

Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter…

Today is the 5th Sunday of the month. Interesting things happen on 5th Sundays. Special things.

At St. Mark’s on the Bypass, our Sunday School for kids is held during worship, which is an abomination, since teachers, like the children, never get to worship. Except on the 5th Sunday.

On 5th Sundays, teachers and students alike abandon their electronic flannel boards and seek sanctuary. Since they are there anyway, we press children into worship leadership, the way the shipping industry in the late 1800s pressed sailors onto ships.

In other places it was called “shanghaiing.” Men, sometimes boys as young as ten, were kidnapped, threatened, tricked, beaten, drugged and dragged on board sailing ships and kept there for voyages that sometimes lasted for years [hard to escape a ship on the sea] to increase the profits of rich ship owners, who didn’t care how their ship captains got their crews as long as their goods got delivered. It wasn’t until 1948 that the US passed a law against it.

So it is at St. Mark’s on the Bypass, except we shanghai children up into the chancel and make them read scripture and lead litanies and do other similarly onerous duties--like ringing bells to get folks to stop shaking hands and saying “Hot enuf for ya?” when they are supposed to be passing the peace of Christ. We have kids, some as young as 2nd grade, who do an amazing job at this stuff. Makes us wonder why we pay preachers when it’s so easy to shanghai folks into doing this stuff.

When I was an IU student and preaching at Solsberry, Koleen, and Mineral, we had a different approach to 5th Sundays. We had no worship at all. I’m sure people needed it then as much as any other Sunday, but it was just too complicated to figure out.

Solsberry was 15 miles from my dorm. Mineral was 35. Koleen was 40. Koleen and Mineral were only 5 miles apart. I could get to both of them on a Sunday morning, but not one of them and Solsberry, too. We always had an evening service in one of the churches, but Solsberry didn’t want to have the evening service all the time, so… we ended up with schedules like Koleen and Mineral in the morning on the first Sunday of the month, with Sosberry in the evening, and Mineral and Solsberry in the morning on the second Sunday and Koleen in the evening, and… well, you get the idea. Twice in those three years I went to the wrong church. Putting a 5th Sunday into a schedule like that was just too much, so I got 5th Sundays off.

It is only partially true that I proposed to Helen by saying, “A fifth Sunday is coming up, so let’s get married.” But it was on a fifth Sunday. At St Mark’s on the Bypass. Where today we shall hear the old, old story, told by new, new voices. Something special.


Saturday, July 28, 2018

DAYTIME DEMONS-a poem [Sat, 7-28-18]

The demons strike at dawning
When the day is barley lit
First a scout in soft-soled shoes
Then a trio comes to riff the blues
Then quickly the whole damned hoard
Of demons short and demons long
They grab your throat and steal your song
Before the sun can break the plane of moving day
The demons stay and squat on every happy thought
Until the day is fully wrought
With demon haste and demon waste

So at the first soft glimmer of the light
Grab your sword with all your might
Slash it full along the line
Where sleep does end and day begins
Cut them off and do not mourn them
They’ll be back upon the morrow
Time a plenty then for sorrow
Take this day and shake it free from demon grasp and demon glee


Friday, July 27, 2018

WHY AM I SURPRISED? [F, 7-27-18]

I am not throwing stones. I am probably the chief of all offenders in this category. Here is the sin: I am surprised, yea, flabbergasted, when people make backward, ignorant, self-destructive decisions politically, both as politicians and as voters. Why in the world should I be surprised? They [we?] do it all the time in other areas of life.

Why in the world would you vote for a politician who is a self-centered ignoramus and does everything wrong and actually makes your own life worse with his or her bad policies?

For the same reason that you marry the wrong man, and have unprotected sex, and beat your wife, and cheat on your spouse, and gamble your money away, and drink booze and do drugs, and keep a loaded gun in the house for your two-year-old to find, and refuse your vegetables—except for couch potatoes, and post compromising pix of yourself on social media, and say “social media,” and do book reviews without reading the book, and text while driving, and put off until tomorrow what should be done today, and spend any time at all thinking about what the Kardashians are doing, and get a tattoo some place where tattoos should not be—like on your body, and lie on your resume, and arrest—and sometimes shoot—people for driving while black, and criticize people for wearing three plaids together, and never learn from your mistakes. These are the people who vote, and run for office.

We really expect those people to make good decisions about who to vote for? And we expect the people they vote for to make good decisions as leaders? These are our leaders and our voters, people who make stupid mistakes over and over in every facet of life. Of course, we are not going to get suddenly smart and make rational and useful decisions when we vote.

The world is full of idiots, and we should not be surprised when they act like idiots.

What to do? First, don’t act like an idiot. After we’ve done that, we can go on to step two.

John Robert McFarland

Thursday, July 26, 2018

EVERY DAY A NEW WAY [R, 7-26-18]

Our older daughter, Mary Beth, when she was little, loved a book by Will and Nicolas called Perry the Imp. Perry had several slogans. One was, “Every man his own plan.” Another was “Every day a new way.” Those fit right into Mary Beth’s wheelhouse.

They did not fit as well into the plans of her young parents. But now that I am old, I see that Perry’s slogan was not so much a plan as a statement of reality.

One of my old-age frustrations is seeing the turn-back on inclusions I have worked on so hard throughout my life—inclusions for poor people and female people and homosexual people and religious people and peaceful people and colored people--in the rights and goods of society. We did make some progress on making rights and opportunities available on an equitable basis, for everyone, but now, as always, there are those who are trying to turn back the clock, say that colored people and poor people and their ilk should have fewer rights and opportunities than white people and rich people and educated people and mean people.

The key phrase in that paragraph just above is “as always.” It’s part of original sin. There will always be within each of us that “us against them” mentality, and often it will take the form of political and social legality and violence—both passive and aggressive violence—to be sure that we are included and “they” are excluded.

This is the way it is, either by God’s plan, or by no plan—this tussle between the includers and the excluders. We certainly should hope and try to make progress, and try to hold onto it when we do, but each generation of includers is responsible for going up against each generation of excluders.

We oldsters fought the battles in our generation. Only for our generation, as it turns out. Now, younger people, you must fight that battle for your generation. We’re with you. Count on us for support. But we won’t be around long. When we are gone, it’s completely up to you. May the peace and courage of Christ be with you.


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith and Life for the Years of Winter… I started this column when we moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where winter is 13 months long, at the same time I was entering upon old age. So it was originally reflections “from a place of winter for the years of winter.” Now we live in Bloomington, IN, where people ask us if we are going south for the winter, and we say, “We already have.”

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

SIMILAR LIVES-With Wm. Sloane Coffin [W, 7-25-18]


In the process of sorting, I came across my partly-read copy of William Sloane Coffin’s Credo. As one does with most things sorted, rather than passing it on, I began to read it again.

When he died in 2006, he was the same age I am now. As I reread him, I realize that Coffin and I led very similar lives across our equal number of years.

He was a city child of wealth and privilege. I am a farm kid who grew up on Aid to Dependent Children.

He was the grandson of Henry Sloane Coffin, the most famous clergyman of his generation, Moderator [Head Honcho] of The Presbyterian Church in the USA and President of Union Seminary in NYC. I am the grandson of Arthur Harrison McFarland, who took a correspondence course to learn to be a stationary engineer in a coal mine [1] and Elmer Pond, a coal miner who advocated for safer conditions in mines and was killed in a mine cave-in.

He did private schooling—Phillips Academy. I went to public school in a southern Indiana county that is known as “the Mississippi of the North.”

He studied music at Yale, where he was a member of Skull & Bones, with a boy who later was President of the US, George H.W. Bush. I studied history at a “Godless state university,” where I was on the Residence Scholarship Plan, for first generation students who could not afford college otherwise, with a boy who was later President of a Lions Club.

He studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger to be a concert pianist. I was second bassoon to Carolyn Waller in the high school band.

He was fluent in French and Russian. He learned Russian while in the army in WWII and was an interpreter for General Patton. I was in ROTC in college and got a C in French.

He was a CIA agent, trying to persuade Russians to subvert the Soviet Union. I was a Reds fan and tried to persuade people to abandon the St. Louis Cardinals.

He went to Yale Divinity School and at 33 was appointed Chaplain at Yale University, their youngest ever, only 2 years after ordination, at a university known for producing business and world and national leaders. I got thrown out of seminary in Dallas and finished at a commuter school for “preacher boys.” Two years after ordination, I was also in campus ministry, in a town in the Midwest named Normal, at a college known for producing elementary teachers.

He was so well known he became a character in the Doonesbury cartoon strip. I read Doonesbury.

He married 3 times, the first time to Eva Rubinstein, a ballerina and daughter of pianist Arthur Rubinstein. His first two marriages ended in divorce. I married once, to a steelworker’s [2] daughter from Gary, Indiana, a Home Ec teacher, and that marriage is in its 60th year.

He became the minister at NYC’s iconic Riverside Church, made famous by Harry Emerson Fosdick. I became the minister at UMC’s only church in Arcola, a town with a smaller population than any one block of Riverside Drive.

He hung out with Martin Luther King, and Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela. I hung out with Bill Jones, and Bob Butts, and Rebecca Ninke.

He was the creator of pithy statements. “I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, and then you grow wings.” I retold long stories. “There was a man who had two sons…”

He left wealth and privilege and status to advocate for peace, and justice for the oppressed. I left poverty and anonymity to advocate for peace and justice for the oppressed. As I said, we led very similar lives.


1] Since Grandpa Mac finished his career in a paper mill, he was also a stationery engineer.

2] Earl “Tank” Karr almost had an 8th grade education. He did not do 8th grade commencement in Monon, IN, though. He told Helen it was because he had been smoking in the outhouse. She found out later that it was because he shot the weathervane off the school building. That brought him to the attention of the Remington Company. They wanted him to demonstrate the accuracy of their rifles. He was a home boy, though, and did not want to go on the road, so…

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

NOT A VERY GOOD TRADE OFF-Quote [T, 7-24-18]

"If Jesus had listened to his family and the religious authorities, instead of the savior of the world, he would have become the best carpenter in the world." Wm. Sloane Coffin


Monday, July 23, 2018

COMEDY AND HONESTY—A book review [M, 7-23-18]

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

The actual title is: THE DAILY SHOW (The Book): AN ORAL HISTORY as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff, and Guests, by Chris Smith

I wasn’t sure an oral history of a TV show would work, especially an oral history that was actually print, but because I had watched “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” for almost its whole 16 years, and enjoyed and appreciated it, I figured I’d take a chance and ask for it as a Christmas gift. I’m glad I did.

Bottom line: This is a good book if you watched the show a lot, or if you are interested in creativity and the communication process. Otherwise, you probably won’t get much out of it. I got a lot out of it.

I didn’t watch it at night, of course, when it was live. That was well after my bed time. But Comedy Central showed it the next day at noon [in my time zone], so I got to have comedy and honesty with my lunch.

Stephen Colbert says comedy and honesty is what drives Jon Stewart—the desire to be funny and the need to be honest. Perhaps that is why I liked Stewart and the show—I have always wanted to be funny, and I needed to be honest. I think every preacher, every Christian, should be funny and honest.

Or at least honest. There is so much that is bad about honesty, though, that it’s very helpful if we throw in a spoon full of laughter to help the honesty go down.

In addition to enjoying laughs from Stewart and appreciating his pinioning and puncturing of the hypocrisies of those who think they should be our leaders, I am a communications scholar. I wanted to see how it was that he became “the most trusted newscaster” in the nation, while anchoring a fake news show. The answer is, not surprisingly, comedy and honesty, which no other news outlet practiced with the kind of emotional appeal of Stewart and his ilk.

My communication theorist self got a special treat about half-way through the years of the TV show by getting to hear Stewart in person at the IU auditorium, when we made forays out of the Upper Peninsula to thaw out physically and culturally. He just wandered around the stage, talking to 3200 people, twice, chatting with us as though we were in our living room. That was similar to but also very different from the way he communicated on TV. They are, after all, very different sorts of media—one “hot” and one “cool.” But the laughter and honesty worked in both venues. Not everyone can do that.

I was always put off by the profanity and crudeness of Stewart and others on the show. In part, because of my attempt to be a Christian and a civilized and civil person. In part, as a communications scholar who thinks gratuitous profanity and crudeness detracts from the message rather than adds to it. If you want to make the point, the damn [or much worse word] needs to mean something, not just be an unnecessary adjective. But the laughs still came through, and so did the honesty, so I did not let the perfect be the enemy of the good in appreciating “The Daily Show.”

We could use Jon Stewart right now, although I’m not sure that even Stewart could do parody anymore, since our reality is itself a parody of both comedy and honesty.


Sunday, July 22, 2018

LIVING TO LIVE, a poem [Su, 7-22-18]

Today is one of those days,
perfect, not just because
air is mild and the sun
acts like it has only now
discovered the joy
of shining,
not just because the birds
are singing a new song
in an old land
but because it is the day
when the world
has informed me
that it is okay to live
for life alone,
no need to be useful,
to earn my way,
to accept the past
or hope for the future
but just to live to live


Saturday, July 21, 2018


I am caught between
The sunrise and the page

Knowing I should watch
The sky’s edge for a pastel signal

Knowing I should write
The signal down in darkest ink

So as the prophet says
Those who run may read it

There are no runners here
On this narrow patio

Nor readers, still I fear
That caught between

The sunrise and the page
I shall miss the sunset

And the word


Friday, July 20, 2018



I was driving a friend to the doctor recently when he mentioned that the key to good driving is to be constantly “gathering information” about the situation around you as you drive, to use when you need it.

I was aware of that, of course. I have always done that, scanned the areas ahead and behind my car, scanned the roadsides, watched for people [and when we lived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, watched for deer and bears.] I had never thought of it before, though, as “gathering information.” It was just driving. But I like his take on it, because it’s the way of life.

As we go through life, if we’re smart, we pay attention to what’s ahead and behind, what’s along the roadsides, who might run out into the way and cause an accident. We gather information. We won’t need all of it. Some will be irrelevant. But we’ll have it if we need it.

I think that was what I did best as a pastor—gather information. That was why I was able to perform the “miracle” I talked about in the post of      titled “A Miracle for a Little Sister,” on W, 7-18. I gathered information from and about everyone I met. After that “big sister” had left, I got to thinking about my gathered information and realized I knew a family that might meet her need.

As a pastor, I was just a conduit—between people and God, and between people in need and people who could meet that need.

Now that I am no longer a pastor, I continue to do that, and I am finally realizing that’s what all Christians do. We gather information, so that when the world needs it, we have it.

Here is a good piece of information I gathered from a hymn by Maltie Babcock: “Though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”’


Remember that Katie Kennedy’s WHAT GOES UP is out now in paperback. And my VETS is always available in paperback. So is NOW THAT I HAVE CANCER I AM WHOLE.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

A LITTLE SISTER MIRACLE [From the 1970s, posted 7-17-18]


As old people must do, I have been trying to clear out extraneous stuff so that our daughters will not have to do it later. In the process I came across a “journal” that I kept in the 1970s. It doesn’t look like a journal, just a yellow tablet, at the back of a file drawer, and I didn’t even know it was there. I had forgotten almost all of the events it chronicles. Here is one entry.,,

A girl of 20 came today, with her mother and a baby. She claimed the child was her sister. They wanted me to find a family for the baby to stay with that would be close to where the “big sister” must work. But why didn’t the mother say anything? It was the 20 year old, not the 45, who did the talking. Finally, it was “big sister” who broke into gentle, desperate sobs.
            Hers I knew was the old, old story. She was a “good” girl. She loved the boy. He backed out. She couldn’t stand to give her baby for adoption, so now… a little sister… close by… it was the best she could do.
            I knew she was a “good girl.” Bad girls don’t get pregnant. They know how to avoid that one little handicap. How many times I’ve felt like saying, “At least be smart.” But by the time they come to me, it’s usually too late.
            She cried some more as she told me how many agencies, how many professionals who, supposedly, are in the “helping” professions, had refused even to consider her needs. And so, I said I’d try, knowing I couldn’t do anything either.
Yet within four hours, she was sitting in the living room of the family she needed, thinking I was a miracle worker. I’ve pulled off two [1] “miracles” within a week now—all by accident. But you can’t explain how it’s all accidental; that sounds like false modesty in search of greater praise.
            Maybe that’s what a miracle is—just being there, so that accidents can happen to you, and people’s needs are met. Of course, the more needs that get met, the more accidents happen, and…


1] I have no idea what the other “miracle” was.

Buy Katie Kennedy’s What Goes Up! You’ll regret it if you don’t. Bound to be your new favorite book, and just out in paperback. “Buy two; they’re cheap.” Give someone a copy; they’ll thank you.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

THE DIFFERENCE IN DOUBTS-A quote [Su, 7-15-18]

“Doubt is a difficult animal to master because it requires that we learn the difference between doubting God and doubting what we believe about God. The former has the potential to destroy faith; the latter has the power to enrich and refine it. The former is a vice; the latter a virtue.”

Rachel Held Evans, Faith Unraveled. Page 219. [An excellent book, but I wish she had kept the title under which it was first published, Evolving in Monkey Town, since she grew up in Dayton, TN, site of the infamous Scopes “monkey trial.”]

Saturday, July 14, 2018

HOMELESS WORDS-a poem [Sat, 7-14-18]

That beautiful voice
Will be stilled soon
Laughter, as a round
Sung slowly
That voice, so full
Of comfort, full
Of grace, will soon
Be stilled
The ears attuned
To that whole sound
Will be empty
The words known
To that voice alone
Will be without a home
Where will the words go
Where will the words
Go then?


Thursday, July 12, 2018


Reflections on Faith and Life for the Years of Winter…

Day breaks late in Bloomington, even in summer, because we are at the western edge of the Eastern time zone. So the first hour or two that I am up, I sit in the darkness of our living room or patio—which one varies according to the weather—and sip my coffee and let my mind go where it will. This morning it went to the sanctuary of the Arcola, IL UMC, my last pastoral appointment before retirement.

Interestingly, the faces that stood out as I looked into the congregation from the pulpit were people who were there only once…

…Ronald Nelson and John and Norma Blackburn, from my school days in Oakland City. Mr. Nelson was my 7th grade teacher. Norma was the high school secretary. John ran the Standard station and sold me tires for my first car.

…Earl and Martha Davis. Earl was a colleague in the College of Fellows in the Academy of Parish Clergy. They drove over from Indianapolis the night before my final Sunday in that pulpit and secreted themselves in a motel so that they could surprise me by just sitting there on Sunday morning.

…Leroy Foster. He had been a member of the church in Orion, IL when I pastored there. Leroy drove all night from Russellville, AR to get to Arcola by 10:30 Sunday morning.

What I see now is very much like the last scene in the movie, “Places in the Heart.” It is in the church in the small town. It is communion Sunday. Folks are sitting in the pews and passing the communion plate one to another. In those pews are all the people who were in the story, including those who died along the way. Each has a place in the heart, even though some no longer have the same bodies.

That’s the nature of communion, which we acknowledge and celebrate with the ritual of communion in worship. Ronald and John and Norma and Leroy and Earl and Martha… all part of my community, along with so many others, even though we shall never be together again in these earthly bodies. But we are in the same body of community. In church, in worship, in communion, we call that the body of Christ.

John Robert McFarland

Okay, so I am breaking my vow to “write no more forever,” but this is really just me thinking in ways that you can see.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith and Life for the Years of Winter… In the heat and humifity of summer? For Christ’s sake…

Yes, I have posted this story before, but I just wrote it in a letter to my college friend, Jon Stroble, who did not know about this blog back then, and it’s just too good a story not to tell again…

Jon and I used to work together in the cafeteria of the graduate student residence center, which in our day was called Rogers Center. This is what I wrote to him…

Do you remember Cora Lee Smith, black girl from Elkhart? She and I used to hang out at a bussing stand in the Rogers Center cafeteria together, where she was fascinated by my thick soft white arm hair. Black folks from Elkhart didn’t have hair like that. She had never seen a hairy-armed farm boy from southern Indiana, and I had never seen a black girl from northern Indiana [or anywhere else, for that matter.]. As we stood there, she would stroke my arm hair, just to see what it felt like.

She became a multi-degreed distinguished educator back in Elkhart, by the name of Cora Breckenridge, and served several terms as an IU Trustee.

For some reason I totally forget, I was seated beside a young black woman from Elkhart at a banquet in the Tudor Room of the Union about 30 years ago. As we talked, I realized she was Cora Lee’s daughter. “Oh, you must know her from way back,” she said. “She only goes by Cora now.” I explained that I did, indeed, know her from way back, and showed her my arm and told her about how Cora Lee used to stroke that hair. She said, “Oh, I can’t wait to tell Mother: I know what you did with white boys when you were in college!”


Katie Kennedy’s magnificent What Goes Up is out in paperback. Buy a few copies.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018


Helen is not a great sports fan, but she is kind enough to sit in the living room, ordering stuff on her computer, while I watch the Reds. In the process, she has become a great fan of Billy Hamilton, the Reds’ centerfielder, who covers the entire outfield, and sometimes the stands, with his speed, and hits singles and steals bases and creates havoc until the opposition just gives up. Billy plays “small ball.”

In “long ball,” each batter tries to hit a home run, or at least hit the ball as far as possible. In “small ball,” a batter gets on base in a small way—a single, a walk, hit by a pitch. Then he steals second base. The next batter “sacrifices” him to third with a bunt. The next batter hits a fly ball long enough for the man on third to score after the catch, another sacrifice. Or some similar sequence. Many small acts, including sacrifices of self, add up to one run. It’s “small ball.”

George Plimpton talked about “small ball” in a different way. He theorized that in sports writing, the smaller the ball, the better the writing. Thus golf produced the best writing, followed by tennis, and then baseball. What then? Croquet? Hai Alai? Water polo? Football must surely be in a class by itself; there just aren’t many sports with a non-round ball.

Faith is much like this, I think. Billy Graham and his ilk, including the apostle, Paul, are long-ballers. Home run experiences that change the whole game.

I can appreciate the long-ball approach, but I’m a small-ball guy myself--a little sacrifice here, another there, a stolen base while Satan isn’t looking… after a while you’ve reached home.

We are in a long-ball era. In the major leagues, for the first time in history, more at-bat appearances end in home runs or strike outs than any other result. It’s all or nothing.

It’s the same in politics. And religion. My way or the highway in politics, mega church or no church in religion.

I remind myself—small ball is still okay, and it may well end up winning the game.

John Robert McFarland

Friday, July 6, 2018


Today, I get to see my beautiful and brilliant granddaughter, Brigid. I wrote this when she was eight. She is now a college graduate—Michigan State University—and starting a PhD at The University of Chicago. This is another “essay” from an unpublished manuscript called Stealing Donkeys and Other Ways of Serving the Master.

            James and John said to Jesus, “Hey, we’ve got a deal for you.” “So what is it?” said Jesus. “Well, when you’ve made it all the way to the top, we want to share the props and perks, one of us sitting on your right, the other one on your left.” Jesus said, “You don’t have a clue. Can you drink from my cup, take my baptism?” “Sure,” said James and John. “You’re right about that,” said Jesus. “You will drink from that cup and receive that baptism, but the right and left hand places, those aren’t mine to say. They’re already spoken for.”
            When the rest of the gang heard about it, they were mad at James and John. So Jesus called them and said, “You know with the Gentiles, how the ones they elect to lead then lord it over them and act like they’re entitled to do anything they want? That’s not our way. If you want to be a great leader, you have to be a humble servant. Whoever wants to be first has to be last, a slave to everybody. The Son of Man didn’t come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45, VSR) (Also Matthew 20:20-28, in which their mother asks for the best places for James and John.)

Our eight-year-old granddaughter, Brigid Mary, is into competitive loving. If you say to her “I love you,” she replies, “I love you more.” Recently she and her mother had been escalating the stakes.
“I love you, Brigid, more than I love chocolate.”
“That’s nothing; I love you more than I love Barbie dolls.”
“Well,” said Katie, “I love you more than pigs love slop.”
Then Brigid played her trump card, the game-ender.
“I love you more,” she told her mother, “than Grandpa loves me.”
            “That’s her gold standard,” her mother said later as she told me this story. “She can’t conceive of anybody being able to top how much you love her.”
            Brigid is right, of course. No one has ever been loved by anyone more than she is loved by me. Of course, that can correctly and accurately be said by many grandmas and grandpas, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.
            It bothers my wife when Brigid says “I love you more.” She thinks that love should not be a competitive sport. It should just be…well, love. She’s not sure where Brigid picked up the idea of competitive loving.
            Actually, we’ve always been mystified by where she learns things. Once, when she was two, the plumber was working in their basement. Without her mother’s knowledge, Brigid went down to observe. When she came back up she said, “Things weren’t going too well down there, so I said ‘damn’ for him.”
            “Brigid, where did you learn that word? At pre-school?”
            No, she didn’t think it was at pre-school, or any of the other places her mother suggested. Finally, she said, “It must have been at the Grandma and Grandpa house. They were just sitting around saying ‘damn.’”
            Now there are two problems with that tale. One is that when Brigid was present, there was no sitting around. The other is that she hadn’t been there when we were dealing with the telephone company, but that’s a different story.
            I think some things are just in the air, and ‘damn’ is probably one of them. Another is this matter of competition. It’s in the very air we breathe. We live in a competitive ethos. Apparently James and John did, too. They knew they couldn’t be Numero Uno, but they wanted to be as close to him as they could get, on his right and left hands. They wanted to share the glory.
            Obviously if you’re sitting at the head table, right beside the guest of honor, you’re expecting the waiters to be at your beck and call, filling your glass, bringing a different entre’ if you don’t like the first one. You don’t expect to get up and go to the back of the room to take water and rolls to those who couldn’t afford the higher priced tickets, the ones that get you a table up front.
But that’s what Jesus says you’re supposed to do, to follow his example. You should want to be first, to be the best, the greatest, the top of the heap, but what that means is that you’re the best at being the least, the best at taking care of others, the one who’s best at taking orders instead of giving them. The meaning of the sacrifice of the cross is that God loves each of us more than any other.
There is always a competition going on within us, between our best and worst selves. It’s a hard and uncomfortable battle, and we’re the battlefield. The way we avoid that internal battle is by “taking it outside,” as they say about arguments in bars. We replace the necessary internal competition between our best and worst selves with external competition in sports and business and politics so we don’t have to deal with the discomfort of the internal competition. It’s a system where for every winner, there are many losers, and where even if we’re a winner one time, we’ll be losers many more times.
Jesus not only encourages us to keep the battle going inside, but he’s there with us, hoping and helping with our best selves. Jesus doesn’t say competition is bad, just that we misunderstand its purpose and location. We’re not to be the best so our worst selves can lord it over others, say “Na-na-nanana” to them, but so our best selves can say, “I love you more.”


Tuesday, July 3, 2018


Helen and I have been fretting and sweating, not just because of this dome of heat covering most of the nation, but because a whole lot of McFarlands are going to descend upon us this week, from Canada and Florida and California and New Mexico and Iowa and Illinois and Indiana and, we hope, Ohio. Well, it’s not exactly “us” upon whom they will descend. We are gathering 35 miles south of us, at the beautiful Spring Mill State Park. A whole lot of us, for several days.

Since we live closest, we’ve had a whole lot of work to do to get ready, meaning we’ve called up several businesses and told them to do stuff for us and to deliver it at the proper times. Having a family reunion is exhausting.

Not just for us, but for those who are traveling. They’ve had to call up airlines and car companies and told them to bring them here. I’m sure there will be stories about flight attendants who put only one ice cube in their Coke when they wanted two. Or they’ll drive a day or two and stay in some motel that didn’t have a pool. Traveling to a family reunion is exhausting.

Having a reunion is such hard work, getting anything you want when you want it, going from place to place, from state to state, anytime you want, no one hindering you, no one saying you aren’t welcome.

Contrast that with families that want the most simple of reunions, just want to be reunited with their own children. But those children were wrested away from them and put in cages in Trump Camps, places they don’t even know where. They have no idea of how, or even if, they are being cared for.

Imagine my little sister’s now-grown children coming across the border from Canada, and their kids grabbed and put in cages and whisked away. Or my Florida sister bringing her little grandchildren to Spring Mill Park so that we can meet them only to have them grabbed away at the Indiana border and taken off to Idaho or Harlem or who knows where else.

McFarlands came to America from Scotland because the English king was claiming he had the right to do anything he wanted to with our children, that he had the “divine right” to disunite our families for his own purposes. We were the Presbyterians called “Dissenters,” because we believed there was only one King, the one to whom we prayed, and still pray, by saying “THY kingdom come, on earth.” We Dissenters were those who came as refugees, and once in this nation, we had only one objection to the new Constitution, which was that it did not specifically say that there was no king but God. We knew how badly things could go if someone in charge acted like a king who could break families apart for his own purposes.

Dissenters and refugees, we Scots on July 4, Independence Day, gather to celebrate how we helped to build a nation where there is no king, where any family can find refuge from oppression, and where any family can have a reunion any time, any place. If you’re white.

John Robert McFarland

The direct heirs of the Dissenters are those in the denomination now known as Reformed Presbyterians. The emphasis upon family unions caused them to be especially active in the Underground Railroad during slavery days.

McFarland is a form of the original MacFarlane. That’s Gaelic. The English translated MacFarlane into Bartholomew.

Sunday, July 1, 2018


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

Today is the first day of the rest of my life.
It will end like my other first days.
I shall take a drink,
because others take a drink.
They do not get drunk,
so why should I?

It is a normal thing,
a joyful thing,
to drink of the juice of the vine.
It is sometimes called communion;
is that not good?
So why can I not be like others?

Then I have another drink
because I did the first so well.
After all, communion is so sweet and right.
There is a table for communion.
Soon I am under it,
unable to move, full of remorse,
washing my dirty feet with my tears.

Then I vow that I shall bear no more first days
nor make them bear me away,
because they always end like this,
with the vow that I shall be a new self,
which I am for an hour or a day or even a week.

It is time to start at the end,
skip all the chapters in the middle,
the way the Jesus story starts at the end.
It is called resurrection…