Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Thursday, August 30, 2018


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

The college football season is upon us. I have serious misgivings about football in general, and college football in particular, but I do love it. Last night we were in the live audience for Coach Tom Allen’s first radio show of the year, as he prepares for IU to play its first game this Saturday, at Florida International University. It reminded me of another football game in Florida, and so I am repeating this post from 2014…


As I watched the Florida State-Notre Dame football game last night, I thought of all the problems FSU has had with star quarterback, Jamies Winston [charges of shoplifting, rape, and public obscenity] and of FSU’s history of such players. That sort of thing didn’t happen under Coach Darrel Mudra.

He had been fired at Florida State after only two years, for not winning enough games fast enough, even though he won more his second year than his first. Eastern Illinois University was glad to pick him up off the coaching scrap heap.

The year before, the EIU Panthers had won only one game. In Mudra’s first year, they won the national championship.

His career record was 200-81-4, 70.9 %. He’s in the national football hall of fame. His nickname is “Dr. Victory.” His expertise and reputation were in taking long-time losing programs and turning them into winners. That’s why FSU hired him. Despite all that, FSU gave Mudra only two years to turn their floundering program around.

Bobby Bowden, who succeeded Mudra at FSU, has said that it was Mudra who really turned FSU football around and made it possible for him to win.

Mark Dantonio, the hugely successful coach at Michigan State U, says that there is no secret to football success. “You recruit one good young man at a time. You help them become better persons, academically, socially, relationally. As they become better persons, they become better players.”

It takes more than two years to turn good young men into better young men. It takes even longer to take young men who have never been expected to be good and get them to see that being a good football player is not as important as being a good person. Dantonio has had his share of problems along that line.

It takes a long time to turn anyone into a good person.

Darrel Mudra attended worship services at my church when he coached at EIU. I was a long distance runner in those days and often used the mile-long woodchip trail around the university athletic fields, including the football practice field. Sometimes Coach Mudra would be standing under a tree, watching practice from a distance, as I ran by. I’d stop and chat and give him tips, the way people who know just a little about something like to advise folks who know a lot about it.

A number of the football players came to church, too. I asked them about Coach Mudra, who was famous for always coaching from the press box, not on the field. “He hardly ever talks to us about football,” they said. “He asks us what we want to do with our lives, what our goals are, who we want to be.”

One of the questions Methodist preachers are asked as they apply for ordination is: Do you expect to be made perfect in this life? It’s from John Wesley’s “Doctrine of Christian Perfection.” We are not expected to be perfect in knowledge or ability, but we are expected become perfect in love, to be good people.

Wesley said that perfection in love is the work of a lifetime, but it is what God expects of us, not just to be good players, but to be good persons.

As this football season gets started, I give thanks for the coaches, in all walks of life, who help us become better persons, and trust that in the process we shall become better players. We’re never old enough to stop working on being perfect, in love.

John Robert McFarland

The “place of winter” mentioned in the title line is Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where we lived when I started this blog and first posted this column, where life is defined by winter even in the summer! [This phrase is explained in the post for March 20, 2014.] We now live in Bloomington, IN, where we met and married almost 60 years ago, where life is defined by autumn—football, leaves, and all.

I tweet, occasionally, as yooper1721.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018


Christ in Winter: Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter… 

I hold it true, what ere befall. I feel it when I sorrow most. Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

I actually copied those famous lines of Alfred Lord Tennyson, with a fountain pen, in blue ink, on a 3x5 slip of white paper, along with 3 other “inspirational sayings,” and propped it on my desk in Room 219 of Linden Hall, where I would see it each time I sat down to study. I put it there because of Susie. It was she I had loved and lost.

Yes, the lines are famous, but at the time, I was sure I was the first and only swain who had ever really understood the depths of their meaning. I was a university freshman.

I was sure I would be a life-long bachelor. How could I ever love anyone else like I loved Susie? Especially since she had dumped me for being too conservative. I vowed that never again would I let my heart rule my head, let myself be hurt as I was hurting when I copied those lines. No, I would love “pure and chaste from afar,” as Don Quixote sings in “Man of LaMancha.” [1] I would live my life as an eligible but solitary bachelor, pitied by all who knew how I had been wounded by love.

I was a pitiable bachelor for a very long year [not counting a romance with a girl named Uree in there somewhere, but that’s a different story]. But I was not a lovelorn and lost bachelor for very long. Helen found me and rescued me from my life of solitary confinement… and pathetic romanticism.

Unlike my short tenure in bachelorhood, Wally Mead was an extremely eligible bachelor for a very long time. Really eligible—tall, masculine, outdoorsy, handsome, kind, sensitive, smart, generous, fun-loving. And single…for 80 years.

He didn’t lack for female companionship during his long career as a political science professor at Illinois State U. His dog, Kleid, not only lived with him at home but accompanied him to his classes, sleeping under the desk while Wally lectured.

Then, when he was 80, he met Norma. He introduced her to us at the funeral for a mutual friend. He was just so pleased. The marriage didn’t last long… because he died at 83.

Wally loved, and lost… ? No. I hold it true what ere betide, I feel it when I sorrow most, tis better to have loved just for a little while, than never to have loved at all.

RIL [Rest In Love], Wally. And thank you, Norma.

John Robert McFarland

Wally was originally Waldo, but had his name changed legally to Walter when he was in middle age, probably when his parents died and would not know he had changed the name they gave him. Or when “Where’s Waldo?” hit publicly.

He was one of triplet boys, his brothers being Wayne and Warne. They were a surprise to their parents, and especially their older sister.

Wally was a life-long civil rights advocate. He was arrested at a restaurant sit-in while a PhD student at Duke U and was sentenced to a chain gang, where he keeled over, working under the Carolina sun without water, and almost died. He suffered the effects of that commitment to justice his whole life.

1] [Lyrics to “The Quest,” aka “The Impossible Dream,” by Joe Darion, music by Mitch Leigh.]

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

POPUP BOOKS {Pathetic Old Preacher’s Ultimate Peace} [T, 8-28-18]

Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter… 

Novelists do a good job of having old preachers look back over their careers, realize they didn’t amount to much, and make peace with it. Like Marilynne Robinson in Gilead. And Conrad Richter in A Simple, Honorable Man. There are others. As a group, I call them POPUP books, for “Pathetic Old Preacher’s Ultimate Peace.”

As a long-time preacher and an occasional novelist, I resent Robinson and Richter and their ilk. I think they should let actual preachers instead of preacher-observers write POPUP books. Of course, it would help if actual preachers could create those stories and write them as well as Robinson and Richter.

Robinson [born 1943] may be the best writer ever. If you asked me to pick one book only as the best I ever read, I’d have to say Housekeeping. It would not come in very far ahead of Gilead. She doesn’t write much, but, oh, she’s so well worth waiting for.

Richter [1890 -1968] is not as well-known now, but he was a fiction force in his day. The Town won the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The Waters of Kronos won the 1961 National Book Award for Fiction.

He was a PK. Not only was his father a Lutheran pastor, but his grandfather, an uncle, and a great-uncle were, too. His writing was influenced by parsonage life. A Simple, Honorable Man is a novel, but it’s also the unacknowledged biography of his father.

As a young pastor, I was an avid reader of books about preachers, including POPUPs, and I liked A Simple, Honorable Man. Except…

I certainly wanted to be honorable, but “simple, honorable” sounded like a participation prize. I wanted a blue ribbon. I didn’t want to look back on my career and realize it didn’t amount to much but make peace with it. I wanted to have a career that was so successful no old-age peace-making was necessary. Honorable? Yes. Simple? No.

I remember now only two images from Richter’s book. In one, the pastor has gotten a new suit, his first in a long time, for he was always poorly paid. He thinks, as he walks home after preaching in it for the first time, with satisfaction, how good a new suit feels, how different, how successful. He doesn’t notice that his wife is wearing the same dress she has worn to church for over twenty years.

In the other, he is looking back and can’t remember any positive comment from a parishioner about one of his sermons.

There was a lot of simple and honorable about that pastor in the book, but what I remember is his insensitivity along the way and his despair at the end. It is not accidental. I tried to remember them, as a reminder, to be sensitive to others along the way, including my wife [and it’s very easy for a preacher to neglect his/her family and feel righteous about it] and to accept each comment of appreciation as it came, so that it made no difference if I could remember it at the end.

As I said above, I knew that when I looked back on my career, I did not want it to be simple, but I did want it to be honorable. I was only partially successful. I know now that I was a lot more simple than I thought I was as I went along. And I was not as honorable as I wanted to be.

So, looking back on my career, I realize it didn’t amount to much, but I’ve made peace with it. Damn, I could have written one of those POPUP books!

John Robert McFarland

Monday, August 27, 2018

Doctor Ferrell’s Favorite Student [M, 8-27-18]

Christ In Winter: Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter…  

Even when Helen and I talked about him in our kitchen, we hardly ever called him Bob, even though he told us to. It was always Dr. Ferrell.

Robert Hugh Ferrell died this month, at the age of 97. He was a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at Indiana University.

He was a scholar. Yes, appreciate the admirable David McCollough, but  Ferrell was the world’s foremost Truman scholar, and an excellent scholar of American history in general, especially presidential and diplomatic history, with a fondness for WWI, his father’s war.

He was a writer. He won awards not just for scholarship but for the writing he used in communicating that scholarship. His style was clear and plain and yet interesting and meaningful. He knew that the first job of an historian is to tell the story.

He was a teacher. He never felt that undergraduate teaching was beneath him, and he was always willing to find new ways to do it, including teaching in dormitories as well as class buildings.

That was the way daughter Katie met him, as he taught a class in the Collins Living-Learning Center, where she lived in the 1980s.

If you’ve read her novels, now under her married name of Kennedy, Learning to Swear in America and What Goes Up, [1] you’ll not be surprised to learn that she was an excellent writer when she started college. Well, way before college. I was the graduate assistant to James Spalding, the Director of The School of Religion at the U of Iowa when I did graduate work there, and so graded the papers in the undergraduate course he taught. As I did so, I thought, “Good grief, my 5th grade daughter writes better than any of these college students.”

Katie was in one of Dr. Ferrell’s classes at Collins. He was especially impressed with her writing skills. He asked her one day, “Where did you learn to write like this?” She replied, “From my father.” He said, “Well, where did he learn to write like this?” “From you,” she replied.

Understandably, she immediately became his all-time favorite student.

During that time, he taught a summer course at Eastern IL U, in Charleston, IL, where we lived, so Helen and I decided to audit his course. When he found out that we were Katie’s parents, he was delighted, and told the class all about Katie and how wonderful she was, both as a scholar and as a writer.

It was a class filled with students working on their master’s degrees. Apparently they got fed up with hearing about Katie, for when she was starting her PhD work at the U of IL in Champaign, and the new grad students introduced themselves at their orientation meeting, and she said, “I’m Katie McFarland,” a loud voice from the back of the room, in which she knew no one, yelled, “I hate you!” It was Bob Ubriaco, by then finished with his EIU master’s and enrolled for a doctorate at UIL. Bob had been in Dr. Ferrell’s summer class which had ostensibly been about Truman but was mostly about Katie.

Dr. Ferrell kept up with us through the years, until his wife died and he moved to MI to be near his daughter. While he was editing Scribner’s Dictionary of American History, he had me write the article on Protestantism, thinking that perhaps I could write as well as my daughter. That got me involved with Scribner’s, where I then got to write for others of their publications, like American Lives. I am so grateful to him for those opportunities. [2]

Especially when I was in treatment for cancer [3], he would come over to Arcola, IL to visit us, and give us an autographed copy of whichever book he had just finished. We would talk about everything. He even gave us advice, which we followed, on how to buy a car. Mostly, though, he wanted to talk about his all-time favorite student.  

I never told him that Katie was wrong when she said I learned to write from him. It was an understandable mistake. I had been a history major at IU in his early years there. She assumed he had been one of my professors, but I never had a course with Dr. Ferrell. [4]

Instead, I learned to write by not writing. When I told the District Superintendent that I was thinking about becoming a minister, he immediately, and I mean immediately, appointed me as the preacher in three little churches. [5] I was a full-time student and a part-time janitor as well. I had no time to write out sermons. So I did them in my head in the little interstices of time between classes and jobs. I had to learn to be clear and simple and still interesting and meaningful without putting anything down on paper. So when I wrote, it was the same way I preached. People who read my books say they can hear my voice. By learning how to preach, I learned how to write like Dr. Ferrell, or at least as close as I could come. Like an historian, the first job of a preacher is to tell the story.

Dr. Ferrell was not really churchly, but he was always rather proud of me for combining the roles of preacher and scholar and author. And, of course, father.

John Robert McFarland

1] Published by Bloomsbury Press, which also publishes lesser authors like JK Rowling, and available in hardback, paperback, electronic, and audio.

2] Thirty years after my student days, I did the research for my Western novel, An Ordinary Man [Harper-Collins] in the IU archives, using the tools I learned as a history student in what is now Rawles Hall but was then called the Social Science Building.

3] You can read more about this in NOW THAT I HAVE CANCER I AM WHOLE: Reflections on Life and Healing for Cancer Patients and Those Who Love Them. [AndrewsMcMeel]

4] I did not have a course as such with Dr. Ferrell because my only American history courses--other than the then brand new folklore courses of Richard Dorson--were the basic survey courses everyone took, and my sections were taught by doctoral student Jack Sosen. Many people belittle courses taught by graduate students, but Jack Sosen was a good teacher, and a good enough scholar that when he got his IU doctorate, Harvard called him to a professorship there.
All my other history courses were in ancient [John Snyder] or European [Leo Solt and Leonard Lundin, a kindly man we all hated because of his execrable map tests] or in the history of Christian thought [D.J. Bowden]. But all the profs lectured in our historiography classes, so I heard Dr. Ferrell there, and he was a subject of discussion among the tight-knit and gossipy undergrad history majors, because he was already known as a stickler for deep research and good writing, and for rubbing some of the older profs the wrong way.

5] You can read more about this in The Strange Calling [Smyth&Helwys]

Sunday, August 26, 2018


Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter… 

In the column for April 17, I told of my first continuing education experience for preachers, “The School of the Prophets,” for all Indiana Methodist clergy, at Depauw University, in 1957, when I was 20 years old and had already been preaching on a three-church charge for a year.

Ministry is a lonely profession. Most of us are solo pastors. Our colleagues may be miles away, and we see them seldom. That first School of the Prophets was a meaningful time for me, because it was when I first realized that even though most of the year I was out there on my own, nonetheless I had colleagues. I belonged to “the goodly fellowship of the prophets.”

That was impressed on me most by the hymn singing those 300 men, and one woman, did there at Depauw that August.

As I thought back to that event, as I do each August, and I heard those colleagues singing again, in my soul, it occurred to me that preachers should probably have a hymn of their own. So I wrote one… to the tune of R. Kelso Carter’s “Standing on the Promises.”

I don’t preach anymore, but I’m going to sing this each Sunday morning, to encourage those who do. You can join in, even if you are not a preacher, for if we all sing loudly enough, it may remind and encourage the pulpiteers in their sometimes lonely work…


Speaking forth the promises
Of truth and grace
Telling how Christ came
To save the whole damned race
Shouting at the devil
Standing face to face
Telling forth the promises of God

Preaching, teaching,
Bringing good news to the poor and frail
Preaching, teaching
Telling of God’s promises that do not fail

Shouting down temptations
That can stain the soul
Telling of the broken Christ
Who makes us whole
Bringing in God’s Kingdom
Is our earthly goal
Telling forth the promises of God


Standing in the gap
And pointing to the cross
In the boat with Jesus
Although tempest tossed
We shall join the saints
And bring hope to the lost
Telling forth the promises of God


Laying on the hands of healing
With a prayer
Handing out the bread and wine
In Christ we share
Pouring out baptismal water
With a dare
Telling forth the promises of God


John Robert McFarland

One of my favorite old preacher jokes: We sing “Standing on the Promises” while we’re just sitting on the premises.

Another one: A lot of activity in the church is like a hen trying to lay an egg on an escalator—a lot of moving around but not much getting down to business.

I heard both of those at The School of The Prophets in 1957.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

I LISTEN FOR BASSOONS-poem [Sat, 8-25-18]

Reflections on Faith and Life for the Years of Winter…

I know not why God chose me
For the bassoon, or why God chose
The bassoon for me
Perhaps because I so easily lead
A double life, which is doubled
By the bassoon’s own double reed

What have you come here to hear?
A bruised reed, squeaking in the desert?

I stand in the middle
An ear for either side
Between the law and mercy
Between sin and salvation
Between the lost and found

Between the human race and amazing grace

I listen for bassoons


Billy Collins on how transient are our lives, and insignificant in the total scheme of things, like “soap bubbles floating above a children’s party.”

Friday, August 24, 2018

ELAINE’S BABY [F, 8-24-18]

Another entry from my recently resurfaced 1970s journal, that I had forgotten about. I was the campus minister at IL State U at this time…

Christ In Winter: Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter--

Elaine finally had her baby. Holding her hand in the labor room, I longed to be able to touch her soul as well as her skin, to let her know how much God really does care about her. I suspect God weeps more over a girl of 22 who is having her 2nd child out of wedlock than He does over most of us pedestrian sinners. [1]

Poor na├»ve thing. I’m sure she loved both those guys who were mature enough for sex but scared to death of marriage. They ran away. Her parents literally locked her out—changed the locks. My family and I, we’re all she has. For 7 months we have had her with us. [2] During that time she felt that tiny life within her, too. Now it’s out and gone, and we are all she has.

To some lonely, childless couple, she has brought great happiness. But she herself has only emptiness. What will she do? Can she ever trust a man again? Will love ever find her, get behind the ever growing wall of pain?

We’ll know one of these days. When we look out the window and see her leaving us, because we are the past, then our love will have been successful. Others who were supposed to love her turned their backs on her. When she can turn hers on us, knowing we still care, then we shall know that love is before her, as well as behind.

John Robert McFarland

1] In 1970, we—or at least I—had not become sensitive to using the male pronoun for God.

2] Not in our house. She was in an apartment already when her second impregnator brought her to us and said, “Now she’s your problem.”

If you’ve not yet bought a copy of Katie Kennedy’s WHAT GOES UP, or two copies, so you can give one as a gift, now is your chance, for it’s out now in paperback. It’s technically YA, but readers of all ages rave about the descriptions, actions, dialog, terrible jokes, and delightful characters that Katie produces.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

SHARED TEARS [R, 8-22-18]

Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter…    

Our grandson, Joe, was diagnosed with liver cancer when he was 15 months old. The pediatrician in Mason City, IA, where we lived, said, “I was just at a conference where the head of pediatric oncology at Children’s Hospital at University of Iowa gave a talk. I was really impressed with her. I’m going to call down there.”

He did. Even though Sue O’Dorisio, MD, PhD, was head of the department, just by chance, and probably because everyone else had gone home, she answered the phone. “Bring him down right now,” she said.

So Katie and Patrick left his four year old sister with us, and got into their car and drove 175 miles and arrived at the hospital in the middle of the night. By rules of the hospital, Dr. O’Dorisio was Joe’s personal physician now, just because she was the first contact. She was with them every step of the way through Joe’s long, long year of chemo and surgeries that put him in harm’s way and so near death so many times. [1]

Yesterday, Katie called the flower shop in Iowa City to have flowers delivered to Dr. O. The flower woman asked what should go on the card. Katie said, “Joe Kennedy started college.”

There was a long pause, and the woman said, “You’ve called here a lot over the years.” “Yes,” said Katie, I sent Dr. O’Dorisio flowers when the cards said, “Joe Kennedy started kindergarten,” and “Joe Kennedy started first grade,” and “Joe Kennedy started high school,” and “Joe Kennedy is 18.”

“I know,” the flower lady said, “Each time you ordered those flowers, you cried.” “Yes,” said Katie. The flower lady said, “I want you to know, each time, I cried, too.”

John Robert McFarland

I suppose Joe was the only kid at the hospital who had a grandpa as one of his regular companions. His mother was always with him, but his father had to work, to keep the insurance going, and his sister was too little, and Grandma had to take care of Brigid when Joe was in the hospital, so I was fairly often the one who accompanied Joe and Katie to the hospital, where I stayed nights, when I didn’t stay all night at the hospital, at the Ronald McDonald House. A couple of years after Joe’s time there, we were back in Iowa City at the wonderful Dance Marathon, where UIA students raise millions every year to help kids at the hospital. There were huge throngs everywhere, but as I was pushing through one of them, a woman I didn’t even recognize looked at me and said, “Hi, Joe’s grandpa.” She didn’t know my name, but she knew Joe, and she knew my role. That was one of my neatest moments ever.

1] You can read about this more in the second edition of my book, Now That I Have Cancer, I Am Whole: Reflections on Life and Healing for Cancer Patients and Those Who Love Them. It’s published by AndrewsMcMeel.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018


Reflections On Faith And Life For The Years Of Winter…     

Memory experts say that old age produces a condition that is like chronic divided attention. I can certainly attest to that.

That’s one of the reasons we have short-term memory problems. Our focus can shift so quickly. “Now that I’m old, I spend a lot of time wondering about the hereafter. I walk into a room and wonder, What am I here after?”

One of our friends recently proudly posted a notice that he had actually walked into a room and remembered why he had gone there in the first place. “It was the bathroom, but…”

The problem with old-age brains, that give us that chronic divided attention, is not just physical. It’s also spiritual. The very first commandment, not just because God wants a lot of attention, but because God knows we don’t focus very well, is: You shall have no other gods ahead of me!

Of course, that really means you have no other gods at all, because God is the ground of being, the end all of end all. There is no need for other gods.

We keep creating lesser gods and accepting them and worshipping them, anyway. Old age is a gift of focus, precisely because we know our brains can so easily go out of focus, be divided. Every time we wonder “What am I here after?” we are reminded of why we are here, in any moment: “To love thee more dearly, to see thee more clearly, to follow thee more nearly, day by day.” [1]


1] A song by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak in the musical, Godspell, 1971, from a prayer of 13th century English bishop Sir Richard of Chichester.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

FIRE TRUCK! [T, 8-21-18]

Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter: 

A friend—sorry, but I have forgotten which one--told us this story…

A man was on a plane. He could tell there was trouble because the flight attendants were paying no attention to the passengers. They were strapped in and hugging each other and crying.

The pilot, knowing there were many people returning from a Special Olympics on the plane, used simple terms as he spoke over the PA system and tried to calm everyone.

“You won’t see any other planes on the ground as we land,” he said. “They’ve been removed just for convenience. You will see a lot of foam on the runway, but that’s just a precaution. At the end of the runway you’ll see a fire truck…”

Suddenly, from the back of the plane, came an exultant, “Fire truck!”

The man said the mood in the plane changed immediately. He had been praying, repenting his sins, regretting his missed opportunities, grieving his loved ones. Suddenly, instead, along with everyone else on the plane, he was looking forward to seeing a fire truck.

Sometimes I feel like I’m on a plane bound for a disastrous crash. There is nothing I can do except repent and regret and grieve. And vow that if I survive, I’m going to get on a better plane next time. In the meantime, the best thing to do is find the fun thing to look at. Fire truck!


Monday, August 20, 2018


Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter…    

Fifty thousand IU students moved into Bloomington last week. Just over eight thousand are “beginners.” That mostly means freshmen, but transfers, too, and others in their first undergraduate year on the Bloomington campus. I wonder what their first week memories will be…

My first week at IU, I met two people who were so important to me at the time that I have remembered them, and their names, for 63 years. I played football with Jerry Friedman. I took Marlon Phillips to a dance.

Roommate Tom Cone and I came out of Arbutus dining hall one night after supper. On the lawn a wiry kind of guy who talked like a New York gangster had a football and was getting up a touch game. “Come on,” said Tom. “Let’s play.” So we did, except I don’t think I ever got to touch the ball, because there were about 30 guys on each side, but it was fun to run around on the lawn with my new beginner friends.

I never saw Jerry again, but that seemed so much like college, to play a game on the lawn after supper—I guess that’s why I remember the name of the guy who started the game.

Toward the end of our week, orientation week, we were told that Linden Hall and Cedar Hall were having a mixer. We were to go over to Cedar, mill around in their lounge with their girls, pick one out, and walk over to the ball room in the Union for a dance. It never occurred to us that we had a choice. We probably didn’t. We dutifully went over and milled around. A cute little brunette with no sense decided I was her date. I was a terrible date. I had no idea how to talk to a strange girl. And I was a terrible dancer. Nonetheless, we did the whole thing—walked, talked, danced, walked back.

Girls had “hours” in those days, meaning they had a curfew. Most nights they had to be in by 9:30, but this was a special event, so it was probably more like 10:30. I know it was dark. When we got to Cedar, there was a scene straight out of Caligula. All around the doors to the dorm couples were standing and kissing like the soldiers were shipping out tomorrow.

Without warning, but apparently inspired by the scene, Marlon grabbed me and started in on my face like it was sweet corn and she had missed supper. I had no idea what to do. All the girls I had dated in Oakland City were demure church girls who were willing to be kissed, but who would never have made the first move. Mercifully, the dorm director blew her curfew whistle. All the girls went inside and all the guys started drudging forlornly back to Linden Hall.

I never saw Marlon again, but that seemed so much like college--to go to a mixer and a dance. I guess that’s why I remember the name of the girl who started the game.

So much like college…  That was the only touch football game I played in and the only mixer/dance I went to in four years.

John Robert McFarland

Yes, I’ve told much of this story before, including in my book, The Strange Calling. But my grandson, Joe, is in his first week of college, and I thought he should know that he’ll remember this week in a special way. Also, I really like that "sweet corn" line.

Sunday, August 19, 2018


Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter… 

In the Christ in Winter column for April 25, I told of how Helen and I went to worship at the Solsberry, IN church, where I started preaching when I was a nineteen year old college sophomore—our first time back in 58 years--and how I closed the circle when the current pastor there, Matt Whitaker, asked me to give the benediction.

At the start of that worship service, Matt told this story: He was a kid in school. The teacher asked him to solve a math problem. “What is ¾ of 5/16?” He didn’t have to do it in his head. She gave him two minutes. That wasn’t enough, though.

When his time was up, he said, “I don’t know the answer, but it’s too small to care about.” He was sent to the office for being a smartass.

But the point is well-taken. Some problems aren’t worth solving because the answer is too insignificant to care about.


Saturday, August 18, 2018

IN THE BLEAK MIDSUMMER–Poem [Sat, 8-18-18]

In the bleak midsummer
humid, hot, a blanket
of sweat upon the skin and dirt
flies too tired to buzz

Yet, roses still in bloom
Susans in yellow dresses
and eyes of brown
some chicory, blue and dusty
trees full in green lofty
homage to the sky

My soul dry and tight
as withered persimmons
from years long past
long passed

In the bleak midsummer
I heard birds try their best,
watched clouds drift south,
felt a little breeze,


Friday, August 17, 2018


Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter…   

I already knew Bill Pruitt a little bit when I was appointed to Charleston, IL Wesley Church. I knew him mostly by reputation, as a hard-line, hard-edge conservative. I was not looking forward to getting to know him better. Outer edges that are too hard mean nothing new can pass through. But as the senior pastors of the two largest churches of our denomination in the county, it was inevitable that we would have to cross paths often.

Turns out he wasn’t looking forward to having anything to do with me, either, but we became good friends, the kind who share the difficulties of life as well as the necessities of work. He always introduced me as “My friend, John; he’s a liberal,” as though a badge of rebel honor, within his usual circles, to be friends with the likes of me.

“You make me think,” he said. “You don’t let me get away with saying ‘It’s the will of God.’ You ask, ‘Why is it the will of God?’ Evangelicals like me, we rely on emotion. If it feels right, if it must be right. But sometimes you just don’t feel anything. Then you have to rely on the brain God has given you. There is more than one way to get to the truth.”

Bill returned the favor by reminding me that in addition to the rationality of faith that appeals so much to me, faith has an emotional factor, too. Tears and theorems go together in faith, [Autocorrect changed theorems to thermos the first time; that’s sort of an interesting byplay on the relation of rationality and emotion.]

Bill and I were faith friends because we challenged and corrected and complemented each other. It’s a really good friend who will do that for you.

We live now in an era when there is very little rationality. Everything relies on emotion. If this makes me feel good, then it’s okay, even if it’s mean and disrespectful and downright dangerous for someone else.

I have always loved the song by Joe Brooks, “You Light Up My Life.” The lyrics and music work together in such a haunting and hopeful way. But I blanche at one line: “It can’t be wrong when it feels so right.” 

Bill Pruitt would say: “Of course it can be wrong, regardless of how right it feels. There is a whole lot that feels right but turns out to be totally wrong. There are times you just have to use that brain God has given you…”

I miss the wisdom of my friend Bill; he’s a conservative.

John Robert McFarland

Thursday, August 16, 2018


Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter… 

Psychologists delineate three stages of old age—young old [60-78], middle old [78-90], and old old [90 +]. I call them--because I think it’s more descriptive: Snailland, Decrepitstan, and Drainagascar.

SNAILLAND: Here’s where we live in the early stages of old age. In this first stage, we can do about anything we always did, but slower. Yes, there are aches and pains, and some restrictions--perhaps less night driving, no spicy food after 8 pm, that sort of thing—but we are basically the same people we have always been doing the same things we have always done. Just slower.

DECREPITSTAN: I have recently moved here, to a foreign nation, where people speak a different language, where I don’t know my way around, where I don’t feel comfortable except in my own home. Here’s the real reason I’m writing this column; I’m trying to deal with living in this foreign land, and I don’t know how.

At this stage, life is qualitatively different, not just quantitatively different, the way it is in Snail City. I’ve been slowing down for a long time, living longer in Snail City, and I’ve gotten used to it. Now, though, life isn’t just slower, it’s different. It’s really like moving to a foreign land, where you don’t know the language and you can’t get around.

A lot of life in Decrepitstan is just staying home. As a friend said, “I could do that. I just don’t have any ambition to do it.” I have no energy or ambition to go out into the foreign streets and mix with the hoi polloi. I have nothing against those people and streets. In fact, they look rather interesting. But they aren’t my people; my people live in Memorysoslowvia. They aren’t my streets; my streets are in The Central Confusion Republic.

DRAINAGASCAR: Basically, at this last stage, we are out of touch, and totally dependent upon others. The world has drained our tank of gas, and being so drained, we now just circle the drain.

I’m not worried about Drainagascar. People there will take care of me. I think they’re required to. But in the meantime, in Decrepistan, I am flummoxed. I’m used to doing stuff I always did, only slower—life in Snailland. There really are things, though, that I always did, and now cannot, not even real slow. If I come up with any solutions, I’ll let you know. Or else I’ll see you in Drainagascar.

When Jack Newsome was first appointed as senior pastor at Quincy, IL Vermont Street UMC, one of the middle-aged women in the church asked him to call on her mother, who was in a nursing home. “But don’t be fooled by her,” she said. “She’s not what she appears to be.”

Jack went to call on the lady, and lovely lady she was. They had a great conversation. “Her daughter is the one who actually has the problem,” he thought. “This woman is delightful.”

Then she said, “Rev. Newsome, will you do me a favor?” “Of course,” he replied. “Bring me a pistol. I’m going to shoot that son-of-a-bitch in the next room.”

I’m not to the last stage yet. At least, I don’t think so. If, however, I ask you to do me a favor…

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter—

Grandson Joe moves to college today. The same college where he was treated for liver cancer, starting when he was 15 months old. He had so much chemo that he weighed 2 lbs less on his 2nd birthday than he did on his first. In a way, it didn’t matter, because there was a good chance he would be dead by the age of two anyway. They said that if he lived, he would lose his hearing, be unable to jump, have kidney dysfunction, and other unfortunate effects.

Instead, he plays tenor sax and mandolin, he was a tennis letterman, and the nephrologist yesterday said his kidney function is only 3 points [on a scale of 100] below what is expected at his age. He’s an amazing guy.

I know it’s a bit unorthodox, but in Joe’s honor, I’d like to have root beer floats served at the party following my funeral.

This will happen, of course, only if Helen dies first. The one major problem in our marriage has concerned root beer. One of us loves it; the other loathes it. She tolerates it not because I love it but because Joe loves it.

But when I die, I want people to have a good time, to be happy, and it is from my grandson, Joe, when he was about five years old, that I learned the secret of happiness.

His sister, three and ½ years older, experienced a distressing incident. I can’t remember what bothered her so much, but it was enough to throw her for a real loop, complete with sobs of agony.

Their mother found Joe, standing on a chair in front of the refrigerator, with the freezer door open, digging with difficulty into a container of hard ice cream.

“What are you doing, Joe?” she asked.

“I’m fixing Biddey a root beer float,” he said. “You can’t be unhappy if you have a root beer float.”

That’s the attitude that kept him going in his second year of life, and has kept him going ever since. He’s an amazing guy.

John Robert McFarland

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

I WALK THE LINE [T, 8-14-18]

Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter…

Our granddaughter is home this summer in Marshalltown, Iowa, between graduating from MSU and starting her graduate work at U of Chicago. She is working part-time as a receptionist for a social service agency. At least she was until the tornado hit.

The agency she works for is responsible for helping people make claims for loans and such to rebuild after the tornado. So now she is a social worker, working 50 hours per week, with lines in front of her counter sometimes twenty people deep. In Spanish, because Marshalltown has a lot of settled-out Mexican folks.

That’s not quite as tough as it sounds. She had Spanish in high school. She minored in it at university. But it’s definitely not her native tongue. There is a lot of pressure in trying to help people understand convoluted government forms and regulations in a language that is not your first.

But when you have to use a language every day, regularly, for real stuff, you learn in a different way. I’m not exactly sure how it came up, but yesterday she learned to say “bellbottoms” in Spanish. I can only assume that someone lost some 1970s clothes in the tornado and is making a claim for their replacement.

Of course, bellbottoms did not originate in the 70s. They started in the navy. When my older sister, Mary V, was dating the man who became her husband, her favorite song was one that I think doesn’t even exist anymore, so to speak… Bellbottom trousers, coat of navy blue, I love a sailor, and he loves me, too…

When she was dating Dick she lived in a rooming house for girls, most of whom were telephone operators, who went on strike. Mother didn’t want Mary V walking the picket line by herself, especially at night, because she remembered the quite real violence that was perpetrated upon her father and other coal miners when they struck, so she made me go to Evansville to walk the line with Mary V.

Mary V was slightly embarrassed, to have her little brother walking with her, as some sort of bodyguard, but she was remarkably good-natured about it, as she has always been about everything. If anything happened, it would have been more likely that she would be defending me. I was young, like 15, and looked it, and many people figured there was reason to strike if the telephone company had to hire kids like me. But I felt important, especially when the newspaper photogs took pix of us.

After I walked Mary V home at the end of her picket shift, I’d go to the Y and spend the night.

We didn’t have a car, so I rode the bus down to Evansville. You could stand along the highway and wave the bus down and the driver would figure up some discount for the fare since we didn’t ride all the way from Oakland City to Evansville. That’s how Mary V got back and forth to visit once in a while, on the weekend, on the bus. I’d walk over to the highway to meet her bus on Friday night and then walk her back on Sunday afternoon. Dick was stationed at Fort Campbell in KY and didn’t get free every weekend to come up to Evansville to see her, so those were weekends she would come home.

Can’t remember exactly how the strike ended, but I’m pretty sure the telephone company didn’t hire goons to beat up the strikers, the way the coal mine owners did. Or maybe they hit me on the head and that’s why I can’t remember…

It was my first experience with learning that if someone has his boot on your neck, he thinks he has a good reason for having it there, and that arrangement is working out nicely for him, even if it’s mighty uncomfortable for you, so he’s not going to take that boot off your neck just because you ask him politely. You’re going to have to bow your neck.


Hooray! Katie Kennedy’s What Goes Up is out in paper back.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

THE ENDING OF THE STORY-Poem [Sat, 8-11-18]

Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter… 

This morning I wrote a story
An interesting story
A true story
A good story
But I did not finish the story
It is not a bad story
No one is harmed in the telling of this story
But I did not write the finish of the story
It seemed wrong to let others read the story
An intrusion as they try to tell their own story
I know the ending of this story
That is enough


BONUS POIESIS: Billy Collins on wilting flowers… they “lost their grip on themselves.” On birds watching him as he passed by… “like they all knew my password.”

Friday, August 10, 2018

HOPING FOR BETTER ANGELS—a book review [F, 8-10-18]

Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter: 

THE SOUL OF AMERICA: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Jon Meacham [Random House, 2018]

Meacham writes history like a novelist. Good, popular, readable history. His writing is simple and clear, but engaging. He knows how to tell a story.

His message in this book is simple: Donald Trump is a disaster, and his supporters may be an even bigger disaster, but America has survived disastrous presidents and frightened voters before.

America did not survive, though, by trusting that everything would turn out okay. We survived because enough people got concerned and involved and changed the president, and the culture.

He examines presidential leadership styles—Lincoln, Teddy, FDR, LBJ, et al--and demagoguery leadership styles—Father Coughlin, Joe McCarthy, et al.

Meacham is an historian and journalist by profession, but a theologian by instinct and interest. He understands original sin. He knows that there is no permanent progress toward victory by our better angels. It’s a new battle—actually the same old battle—in each new generation.

It’s a good and hopeful book. I recommend it. But it will do no good if I only appreciate the book and do nothing to follow up on its insights.


“I think disguise is the essence of evil… calling the evil good, believing the disguise—that’s when real trouble begins… there is surely no better disguise than the cloak of religious piety.” Wm. Sloane Coffin

Thursday, August 9, 2018


Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter: 

Jim and Jennie Kiefer are our most regular visitors, at least our most regular from a distance. Like San Francisco. They show up about once a year. Of course, since Jennie has family in Terre Haute…

The visit before this last one, they had their thirtyish daughter, Emily, with them. We all went out to eat and then retreated to our house for dessert. Emily was overwhelmed. She loves ice cream, and she had never seen an assortment like the one in our extra freezer, the one for the ice cream.

This visit, Jennie told us, “Every once in a while, Emily goes around the house shaking her head and saying, ‘Helen’s McFarland’s ice cream!’”

Helen is a grandma. She knows what young adults need—a chance to recapture the sense of childhood wonder that the world tries to steamroll out of us. That’s what grandmas are for.

[Below, Mike and Yancy and Kate and Clara are not their real names.]

When Mike told his mother that he was gay, she could not deal with it. But his grandma did. She never wavered in support of her grandson. That’s what grandmas are for. When Mike had children, he knew they had to have a grandma, and even though his mother was not willing, he knew his grandma was. He used to sneak them into the small town where his mother and grandmother lived so his sons could see their great-grandma. That’s what grandmas are for, to provide a sneaky place.

[It took a while, but Mike’s mother got over it. They are now great friends.]

When Yancy got divorced, he was confused. He went back to Mississippi to visit “Mammie.” He knew a talk with her would get him back onto track. That’s what grandmas are for, to be an anchor in the storm.

Kate is more like Memaw on “Young Sheldon” than like the traditional milk and cookies grandma. She is an excellent grandma, though, and recently while staying with Clara when her parents had to be away for a couple of days, Kate told Clara that she would make her cookies and provide milk with them. Clara looked astonished. “Don’t you want milk and cookies?” Kathy asked. “Oh, yes, but it just seems so unlikely,” Clara replied. That’s what grandmas are for—to astonish.

When Reds 3rd baseman Eugenio [pronounced A-You-HAY-Knee-Oh, but his nickname on the team is Geno] Suarez got injured early this season, they called up Alex Blandino from the minor leagues to replace him. He had a slow start but began to hit as he got more major league experience. Although a slightly-build middle-infielder type, he even hit a home run. The ball was caught in the stands by a young man who returned it to Alex. After all, the ball of your first home run is quite special. He was asked what he would do with it. “Give it to my grandma,” he said. “She’s always been my biggest fan.” That’s what grandmas are for—to support.

Old people need to clear stuff out and get rid of it. We have been going though old greeting cards—60 years worth of anniversary and birthday and Mothers Day and Fathers Day and… you-name-it cards. It’s time to look at them one more time and then put them in the recycling bin. I did that, with all of them, except for the ones from Grandma. I need to hang onto them a little longer. That’s what grandmas are for.

John Robert McFarland

BONUS QUOTE: “God becomes the most present when we become the most human.” Henri Nouwen

Wednesday, August 8, 2018


One of our long-time friends—meaning an OLD friend—decided to prune some trees in her back yard. No problem. She’s done it before. So she got out the ladder, climbed up with her snippers, and went to work. Reached too far. Lost her balance. Fell. Caught her leg in the ladder. Hung upside down, caught between the ladder and the chain-link fence. For a LONG time. Because her husband wasn’t home, and nobody else could hear her yell for help.

What was the problem? Something that afflicts all people, all the time, but which is exacerbated in old age—being behind the learning curve in knowing what our limits are.

Usually, we find out that our limits have changed by doing what used to be within our limits, and ending up hanging upside down.

But shouldn’t we resist accepting limits? Doesn’t that diminish life? Shouldn’t we be brave old people who look at limits and laugh at them? Like those 90 year old marathoners and body builders?

Look, being smart about changing limits does not diminish life nearly as much as not knowing those limits and spending the day hanging upside down.

Being smart about not climbing a ladder when you are home alone is not limiting. Accepting your limits doesn’t make you old. Falling on your head makes you old.

John Robert McFarland

Bonus quote about limitations: As a saint I have limitations; as a sinner, none.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

ERNIE PYLE DAY-F, Aug 3 [Posted T, Aug 7, 2018]

Famed Hall of Fame sports writer Bob Hammel was recently walking along 7th street, going from the parking lot to the IU Union Building for a meeting. He was behind some students as they passed Ernie Pyle Hall. One of them asked another, “Who was Ernie Pyle, anyway?” The answer: “I don’t know, but he must have given a lot of money to get a building named after him.”

No, he didn’t give a lot of money. He didn’t even make very much of it. But Friday, August 3, was the inaugural Ernie Pyle Day, a new national holiday. Declared so by Congress, since they have nothing better to do. Or at least nothing else that they can agree on.

Banks were not closed. Nor post offices. Nor anything else. No celebrations of the day, outside of the Media School building at IU, housed in what was the library back when I was a student here, the Media School incorporating what little is left of the Journalism Department that straggled over from Ernie Pyle Hall, with a statue of Ernie out in front, sitting at his typewriter, pecking out one of his columns. But it was a special day for me, because Ernie Pyle was my first role model.

I can’t remember now if I wanted to be a newspaper reporter first and then took Ernie as my newspaper reporter model, or if Ernie came first. Either way, I wanted to be the next Ernie Pyle.

Ernie was the first and foremost of the “embedded” reporters, slogging along with the foot soldiers in WWII, suffering just as they did, although he was old enough to be the father of most of them—in his 40s—and facing the same dangers. His columns about the war, told from the standpoint of those dogfaces in the front lines, were simply but elegantly written, and the soldiers said that Ernie told it like it really was.

That was important to me, because my beloved uncles were among those soldiers. My father was too old and too blind to be drafted. Well, not according to some. The draft boards became desperate enough to fill their quotas that Daddy was called in for a physical, even though he was 35 years old and the father of two and blind. [1]

His brothers were good draft material, though. Bob and Randall and Mike were in the army, Randall in heavy fighting in the South Pacific, where he got malaria that continued to plague him off and on through the rest of his life, and Mike in the worst of the fighting up through Anzio in Europe. Mother’s brothers were on the watery side of the military, Jesse in the navy [pilot] and Johnny in the marines. These were the men Ernie Pyle wrote about, the kinds of men I wanted to write about one day. 

The war was almost over when Ernie was killed by a sniper, on the island of Ie, just west of Okinawa.

Ernie became an icon of his times. He was even featured, along with Bill Mauldin, the WWII cartoonist, in Peanuts cartoon strips, whenever Snoopy took on his military alter ego, the WWI flying ace. Now Ernie is remembered only in his home state, especially in his alma mater, Indiana University, where he was the first person to receive an honorary doctorate, remarked on by young people only as one who must have given money to get a building named after him. It’s not their fault, of course. They live in an age when buildings of all sorts are named only for those who bought the honor rather than suffering and dying for it.

 I did go to IU, to the Ernie Pyle School of Journalism. I even had a class in Ernie Pyle hall. Stuff happened that caused me to detour from the newspaper route. But I became a different sort of war reporter. I learned from Ernie the importance of being embedded with the real people, and telling well the stories of ordinary folk as they did their best under difficult conditions, like that one about the man who was going down to Jericho when he saw a guy who had been wounded and…

Happy holiday, Ernie.


1] Daddy was blind in one eye and almost so in the other, but one doctor tried to fix up a tunnel for him to look through to shut out peripheral light so he could pass the exam. It didn’t work.

Monday, August 6, 2018


I love satire and sarcasm. Our daughters say, “You just can’t resist the sarcastic response, can you?” They even gave me a t-shirt that says

National Sarcasm Society
Like we need your support

It’s some kind of psychological failing The psychologytoday web site says that sarcasm is indirectly expressing aggression toward others and insecurity about one’s self.

Yeah, like psychologytoday knows anything about psychology.

Yeah, like we didn’t already know that.

I learned early that sarcasm can get you into trouble, especially if you try it on your mother or father. So why did I keep on with it? I’m not sure.

Part of it is being a guy. At our 55 year high school reunion, as Kenny talked about his upcoming sixth knee operation, I told him that now he would have more knee operations than ex-wives. [1] Guys just talk to one another that way. Like Jesus did to Peter when he said, “Get behind me, Satan.” Satan-that’s a neat nickname for a buddy.

In fact, Jesus used sarcasm himself. “Why do you try to get the little piece of sawdust out of somebody else’s eye when you’ve got a 2x4 sticking out of your own eye?” I know that the risen Christ has no gender, but the historical Jesus does. No locker-room talk, but he liked to zing a friend once in a while.

But women can be sarcastic, too, so maybe it’s that “insecurity about self” thing. Security within one’s own self is a good thing. I’d hate to get so secure that I’d have to give up sarcasm, though. Especially about myself.

Yeah, self, like you think you know a lot about communication when you can’t figure out what comes after “How are you?” when you meet someone on the street.

So what’s the point of this reflection? I don’t know. I started this column a long time ago and it just resurfaced and I hate to do all this writing and not make somebody else read it.

Sometimes, sarcasm is just the best way to communicate. Lutheran Pastor Rebecca Ninke says that this column is better since I quit writing. That tells me more about self-security than any other way she might have put it.


1] That may not have been accurate. Kenny has LOTS of ex-wives. As he said at our 25 year reunion, “I’ve been married for 20 years, but none of them are here.” That pattern continued. Kenny is truly a nice guy, an excellent Gospel singer, but too handsome for his own good. But comparing his knee operations to his ex-wives is probably an example of going too far with sarcasm.