Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Monday, December 30, 2019


Our door bell never rings on Sunday afternoon, except it did, yesterday. There stood Susan and Norma, neighbors in the Sherwood Green condo subdivision.

“Do you know the woman who lives in the unit that backs up to yours?” they asked.

Well, no, because no one knows her. She lives in IL and comes over once or twice a month to see her grandchildren who live here. She bought the unit beside ours just for those occasional appearances. We have encountered her only a couple of times in the four years we’ve “lived” beside each other. We were friendly and welcoming, and she was pleasant, but she didn’t volunteer her name or contact information.

“She’s gone away and left her garage door up,” Susan said. “No telling when she’ll be back. We can’t leave it that way. We tried taking turns going in and pushing the “close” button by the kitchen door and then running out as fast as possible, before the door came down, but at the end we had to jump to get over that electronic beam that makes the door go back up, and the door was coming down, and we couldn’t jump high enough.”

I asked them to do it again. I’ve never gotten to put a video on YouTube, and I figured a movie of little old ladies in house slippers, dashing through an unknown neighbor’s garage like a bat out of Shady Rest, and trying to leap out beyond the door at the end, would certainly go viral. Unfortunately, they declined. [Norma’s house slippers were mismatched, even, but when you’re 89 you don’t worry about such things. Besides, she claimed she has another pair just like them at home.]

I figured I could try the garage run, but I am tall, and slow, and tend to fall over when moving, or standing, so Helen thought that was not a good idea.

We needed someone short and fast who could jump. We could think of no one in the 118 units of Sherwood Green who fit that description. I thought about Simone Biles but was afraid she might be too full of Christmas candy.

It was Sunday afternoon. We figured the condo office would know how to contact our mystery neighbor, but the office wasn’t open, of course, so Susan started calling and texting the realtor managers.

There was a number pad at the side of the door, but none of us had any idea what her code would be.

The four of us together have 337 years [actual count] of living experience, but we couldn’t figure out how to close a garage door.

Then I thought of William of Ockham [1287-1347]. Actually, I thought of Glenn Santner, but he looks a lot like Bill. When I pick up Glenn to go to Crumble Bakery for coffee with the other Crumble Bums [Tony, Charlie, and Ron], he closes his garage door with one button, not a whole code.

So, I pushed the Enter button at the bottom of the number pad. There went the door, right down, no running or jumping necessary.

Susan did all her phoning and texting again to say, as Rosanne Roseannadanna used to put it, “Never mind.”

And as “Old Bill” Ockham liked to say, “The simplest solution is probably the right solution.”

John Robert McFarland

Saturday, December 28, 2019


 That is what Georgia Karr, the world’s best mother-in-law, always said, as she slumped into an easy chair on the afternoon of Dec. 24. Over. The buying, the making, the wrapping, the cooking, the smiling, all of it—over.

There is another way that nothing is as over as Christmas: God spoke the complete Word of Christ once, in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The Word of Love. The Word of You Matter. The first word, and the final word. Alpha and Omega.

Once. That was enough. But it’s like that good story Grandpa always tells at Christmas. It is a once-upon-a-time story… “once”… but it’s a repeat story, too. It happened once, but it’s such a good story, such an important story, that it needs to be repeated, retold, relived.

God birthed Love into the world once, came to us in the flesh, incarnate, once, but each Christmas we retell the story.

Nothing is as over as Christmas. But Christmas is never over.

John Robert McFarland

I’m a little embarrassed to post what I wrote above. It sounds so trite, a cliché you’d find on a card from The Dollar Store. I’m supposed to tell little stories that are sometimes semi-humorous and let folks draw their own lessons from them, not spout some oxymoronic simplism. But it reminds me of my friend, The Rev. Jean Cramer-Heuerman, gone from us much too soon. Jean and I used to sit in the back of the room at church conference meetings and make snide remarks behind out hands to each other about the stupid clichés the leaders winded off with. But then we both got cancer at the same time. Once, while we were both still in treatment, Jean whispered to me, “You know, all the clichés are true. That’s why they are clichés.”

Wednesday, December 25, 2019


It occurred to me that if anyone accesses this blog on Christmas day, it means you are really desperate for something to do. And I’m already too full of mincemeat pie to write something new, but I can do  a repeat from 12-25-10.

It’s Christmas, almost, and I miss my friend, Phyllis, for it was at Christmas time that I first met her, when we were both ten years old. I miss her especially when I hear “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

My family had moved from the working-class near-east side of Indianapolis to the country near Oakland City in March. Phyllis and I were both in fifth grade, but I didn’t meet her until Christmas time. I was in 5-A, kids who started school in January, and she was 5-B, kids who started in Sept. She lived in town and I rode a school bus. And we went to different churches.

I went to Forsythe, an open-country Methodist church. Phyllis’ father, Jimmy Graham, was the pastor at Oak Grove General Baptist Church, a mile down the gravel road from Forsythe, as well as attending Oakland City College. Those churches held different theologies, but we shared a common culture, and so we also shared a common VBS and Christmas program. It was at that shared Christmas program in 1947 that I met Phyllis.

After the little children had “said their pieces,” and the older ones had sung a carol in a rag-tag choir, there was an excited stirring, especially among the Methodists, who were not used to excitement in church, at least not of the Baptist kind. Everyone looked to the back of the church. Striding confidently forward, holding an accordion almost as large as she, came this skinny little girl. She stepped up onto the platform, worked the bellows, and began to sing, with the deepest, fullest voice I had ever heard. Her song was “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” Longfellow’s 1863 poem, written in the midst of the Civil War, later set to John Calkin’s music.

I had never before heard a song like that, or a voice like that. It seemed like I was in the presence of royalty, or perhaps twelve-year old Elizabeth Taylor in “National Velvet,” or Margaret O’Brien in “Meet Me in St. Louis.” [1]

I say that I met Phyllis then, but she didn’t meet me. Because of different home rooms and buses and churches, we didn’t really meet until we were freshmen in high school. We met then because I was in the girls’ biology class.

I was a mid-year student, and worked on the school newspaper and sang in the choir. In a small school, with limited class offerings, that meant a confused class schedule. As a freshman, I had the second semester of “Commercial Arithmetic,” without benefit of the first semester, with mostly junior girls, and since I was otherwise scheduled during the boys’ biology class, I was placed in the girls’ class, taught by Iva Jane McCrary, the “old maid” home ec teacher. Phyllis and I sat across a big sewing table from each other. Phyllis was quite pretty and very smart, which meant that I could look at her or her test paper and expect erudition in either case.

The high point of freshman biology was learning about “human reproduction,” which took two whole days. When those two days came, though, Sammy Kell and I, Sammy being the only other boy with a class schedule as eccentric as mine, were sent off to sit in the principal’s outer office during biology class, since we did not have the right mind-set, or equipment, presumably, to learn about human reproduction with the girls.

When I returned to class, I asked Phyllis about what I had missed. “I think you’ll still be able to have children,” she said.

In our sophomore year, Phyllis’ father graduated from college and took a church in Tennessee. I did not see her again until I was the new Methodist campus minister at Indiana State University and Rose Polytechnic in Terre Haute, just graduated from Garrett Theological Seminary, and she was a new professor of mathematics at Indiana State, having just received a PhD from Indiana University. Typically of Phyllis, she had done graduate work in math because she felt it was her weakest subject, thus the one in which she needed extra work to be a truly educated person.

Phyllis was pleased that I had indeed been able to have children, two darling little girls. She became a member of our family, a special aunt to Mary Beth and Katie, sharing meals and picnics and friends. 

The Wesley Foundation did not have its own worship services, and as the new campus minister, I got to preach only once a semester at Centenary Church. By the time those rare Sundays came around, I had a lot of ideas and passion stored up. Those were Sundays when Phyllis became a Methodist. After one of those sermons, she waited until everyone else had filed past me at the door, then reached up and grabbed me by the top of my robe and pulled me down to her face and said, “You don’t know it yet, but when you’re in that pulpit, you’re something special. People will believe what you say just because of the way you say it. So you make damn sure you say the truth.”

So, in memory of my friend, whom I miss especially at Christmas time, I will say the truth, in the words of William Wadsworth Longfellow:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead nor doth he sleep.’
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth good will to men.’

May the peace of God be with you,
John Robert McFarland

[1] I had a special crush on Margaret O’Brien because I had seen a photo of her holding the same fifth-grader reader I used at Lucretia Mott Public School # 3 in Indianapolis. Interestingly, at least to me, Margaret shared a birthday with the late Joe Frazier, the baritone of the Chad Mitchell Trio and Episcopal vicar in Big Bear Lake, CA. Each was 19 days further advanced in decrepitude than I.

Monday, December 23, 2019

SANTA AND GRANDPA [A repeat] [M, 12-23-19]

As Christmas approached when our granddaughter, Brigid, was four years old, she said to her mother: “You know, Santa and Grandpa are a lot alike. Santa has a bald head, and Grandpa has a bald head. Santa has a white beard, and Grandpa has a white beard. Santa brings you toys, and Grandpa brings toys. But Grandpa is better, because he stays and plays.”

Yes, I tell this story every Christmas, for it is, I think, the best explanation of Christmas that I know. God is not just some Santa, rushing from one place to another, making a brief stop on the roof of the world to throw down a few goodies. In Jesus, the Christ, God stays and plays.

John Robert McFarland

Helen is not a theoretical physicist, by profession or inclination, but she does have remarkable theoretical insights into the space-time continuum. She says that the shortest measure of time is from when a grandchild is born to when they’re all grown up. Brigid is now 24.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

A MUGGY CHRISTMAS [Sat, 12-21-19]

Helen and I agreed we would not buy each other gifts this year. We are trying to get rid of stuff, so bringing more stuff into that process would be counter-productive, meaning there would be a lot more stuff on the counters, which are already too crowded.

However, I was in TIS, buying some stuff for other people that she asked me to. Helen is not allowed in TIS anymore, since the last time she was there she did a face plant on their sidewalk and had to go to the ER. It’s not that TIS won’t let her in now. I’m the one who insists on going alone. Last time she got my handkerchief all bloody.

TIS means, in Indiana, Textbooks for Indiana Students, but there are no text books there, or anywhere else, anymore. But there are scads of great IU gifts and gear, including a big display of 200th anniversary IU coffee mugs, with names on them. I knew they would not have a Helen mug. It’s a great name, but little used anymore. If she were a Whitney or a Courtney or Madison, no problem.

But lo and behold, there was a mug with “Helen” displayed proudly on it. I knew I could not wrap it up, since that would say “Christmas gift,” so I washed it and just put it in the dish dryer rack for her to find.

Shortly thereafter, another mug appeared in that rack, the one with Larry Dunphee’s face on it. Larry was the proprietor of our favorite book store-coffee shop, Books on First, in Dixon, IL. He died a couple of weeks ago, and Brenda Spratt, the manager, started selling mugs with Larry’s mug on it as a memorial. Knowing how much I liked Larry and Books on First, Helen sent all the way to Dixon to get me one.

When you’ve been married a long time, you know you are supposed to get each other a coffee mug, even if you said you wouldn’t do gifts this year.

John Robert McFarland

Thursday, December 19, 2019

THE WRONG GIFT [R, 12-19-19]

What can you do when you get the wrong gift? It’s okay to be sad. I was. But I also wanted to use my gift, so I developed a hook shot that compensated for that ball’s deficiencies.

That’s the ball Uncle Ted and Aunt Nora gave me when I was ten years old. We had moved that year, 135 miles south from the working-class near east side of Indianapolis. to a little hardscrabble farm near Oakland City, my father’s home town, five miles from Francisco, Mother’s home town. It was then that I discovered two important realities: basketball and poverty.

I learned that I needed a basketball, and I learned we were too poor to buy one.

In Indianapolis I did not know about basketball. There was certainly basketball in Indianapolis. After all, Oscar Robertson and I were in school there at the same time. Different schools. Very different. The difference of black and white. And also basketball goal posts.

My Indy school had no sports teams. There were no playground basketball goal posts, or alley goalpost where kids gathered. Oakland City was very different. There every boy, even the grade school kids, had a goal post. And their own basketball. I wanted to be one of those kids.

Uncle Ted and Aunt Nora owned and ran a general store in Francisco. They had basketballs, lined up in bright boxes, on a shelf in that store. They knew I wanted a basketball. So they gave me one for Christmas, perhaps the most thoughtful gift I ever received.

Except it was the wrong ball. The ball inside that box was not the vulcanized balls that had come in after WWII, very similar to the basketballs of today. The ball I received was the old-fashioned type, with light-weight slightly-pebbled sections stitched together with white thread. Inside that covering was a black bladder that you inflated with a long valve that stuck out of a hole. You couldn’t dribble it, especially in a barn yard where farm boys usually had their baskets, up against the barn sides, because it would not bounce true. If you shot from more than a few feet away, the wind would catch that lightweight ball and send it anywhere. Uncle Ted and Aunt Nora didn’t know better. Uncle Ted had been a star with a ball like that thirty years before. It was the best gift ever, exactly the gift I wanted, but the wrong gift.

It was what I had, though, so I used it. I developed a hook shot with either hand that I used from no more than ten feet away. I learned to twirl as fast as I possibly could and release the ball before it could get away from me. Hurled it hard against the back board before the wind could get it. I dismayed many a would-be defender and scored a lot of points with that shot, because I had learned with the wrong ball.  

The very first Christmas gift, Jesus, seemed to most people to be the wrong gift. Most folks who were around then thought God was as clueless as Uncle Ted—well-meaning but not up to date. They wanted a savior of  strength. They got a savior of love. But the wrong gift turned out to be the perfect gift, the gift we always wanted, without knowing it.

Merry Christmas.

John Robert McFarland

Tuesday, December 17, 2019


Gloria usually chats with me before church, because she doesn’t like people, and I fit the description of non-person better than anyone she knows at church. Maria didn’t know about Gloria’s person recalcitrance, though, and so invited her to a book club that is really a spiritual yearning club.

Gloria went, and was dumbstruck. “I can’t understand why any of those women are still in church,” she said to me. “They’ve all had terrible experiences in conservative churches, growing up, and even later, sometimes way into their adult years, mostly just because they are women. They’ve been treated like non-persons.”

 “It’s because of the yearning,” I said. “They’re yearning to fill what Augustine called that ‘God-shaped void.’ A lot of people give up on the yearning, because of what they’ve suffered in church, but these women haven’t. I admire that. But it’s not just because of their endurance. It’s also because of God’s perseverance. That’s what creates the yearning.”

Perhaps we see the nature of yearning most in this jaded world in children at Christmas. They think they are yearning for a particular gift, but yearning is not specific. What they really want is that sense of being in touch with God, of being loved beyond even the love of their parents. They yearn for completeness.

Yearning is far more than wishing or wanting. If you are filled with yearning, getting what you want or wish for won’t satisfy you.

By God’s design, Christ is far beyond wanting or wishing. Nobody wants a savior born as a helpless baby, to unwed parents of poverty, in a fourth-world nation. But we all yearn for that savior. God makes sure we don’t settle for less in a savior, by making sure the things we wish for won’t satisfy us. It’s only what we yearn for that satisfies.

John Robert McFarland

Sunday, December 15, 2019


Basketball coaches and preachers are fond of lists of three things. It’s as high as coaches can count and as much time as a preacher has in a twenty-minute sermon.

Coach Jim Valvano, in his 1993 “Never Give Up” anti-cancer speech, says that there are three things you should do every day: laugh, think, and cry [be moved so deeply by something that you weep].

When I was a young preacher, I was told that every sermon should contain something to think, something to remember, and something to feel.

Essentially, they are the same lists.

As a preacher, I soon realized that telling people stuff wasn’t very useful, even in getting people to think. The more thoughts I pushed at people, the less thinking they did for themselves. And it certainly wasn’t very good at getting them to laugh with joy or weep with fulfillment. So, I told stories. In a story, the Holy Spirit has a chance to move each person in the way she or he needs to be moved, into thought, and laughter of joy, and tears of wholeness.

Valvano, as a coach, was a story-teller. He told his players the story of how they won the national championship, even though they hadn’t done it yet. Each year, as the season started, they practiced cutting down the nets after their national championship, even though they hadn’t played one game yet. It was a powerful acting out of a story.

He told cancer patients how they would defeat cancer, even if they died, by refusing to give up. It was a laugh-think-cry story just in itself.

I was three years into cancer when Valvano gave his speech. My first oncologist had told me right after my surgery that I’d be dead in “a year or two.” At three years I was beginning to think that if I did not give up, I might have a longer life. Valvano’s speech made me laugh-because he was always funny, even when he knew he was dying-and think, and cry.

In Christian faith, we have settled for one item only in the lists--thinking. Belief. Mental assent. It has led us to anger and exclusion. If we had spent more time laughing and crying together, instead of trying to get everyone to think the same way, we’d be much farther along in the story that starts with Christmas.

I wish I could tell you a story right now that would let you find yourself in it so completely that you would laugh at the absurdity of everything else, and cry with overwhelming joy at the gift of love. A story like God being with us so completely that it moves us to tears, the absurdity of God willing to be born into life as a helpless baby, so ridiculous that it makes us laugh… but we’ve heard that story so often that we no longer hear it… but, listen to it again, every time you get the chance. There are three things in it for you, every time. Never give up on the Christmas story.

John Robert McFarland

Friday, December 13, 2019


I know that Jesus
is the reason
for the season
So trite, but true
But I like Santa
and the reindeer
and the Grinch and his dog
and rockin’ around the Xmas
tree, and hoping for a pony
I’m not pure about anything
else, so why should I be so
stuffy about it being Jesus’
birthday? I’ll bet he never
even got a cake,
what with his birthday
being on Christmas
So let’s be jolly
because that’s the reason
for the season, isn’t it?
Didn’t Jesus say he came
that we might have life abundant?
What could be more abundant
than Silent Night with candles
followed by too much chocolate?
Life abundant.
Surely that’s the reason
for the season…

John Robert McFarland

“Of course Jesus is God. He was born in a place called The Holy Land. Duh!” Archie Bunker

Tuesday, December 10, 2019


As the light fades
the way toward home
grows dim

Dust motes linger
tiny statues in still air

Shadows lean long
through bare limbs
maple trees so recent
full to overflowing
with wild dancing leaves

Silhouettes of wild
blackberry canes
hover ghostly on the berm
beneath a slivery moon

Fence posts tilt toward dusk
The wires between go slack
Sassafras leaves are dusty
with forgotten days
The ditch is dry and cracked

The light grows dim
I have no lantern
but I know the way

John Robert McFarland

Saturday, December 7, 2019


Amidst dire warnings of catastrophe, my McAfee computer security ended today. They’ve been threatening it for weeks, ever since I bought this new Lenovo computer, because it was cheap, sort of. Apparently, Lenovo and McAfee are in cahoots, since McAfee always claims Lenovo recommends them. Some forgotten number of weeks of McAfee security came with the purchase of the computer.

But almost every day, sometimes more than once a day, every day, there arises a popup telling me that some dastardly but vague evil entity will take my first-born child and all my hopes and dreams, via my computer, if I don’t pay up. [The price keeps decreasing, I guess as an incentive to get a recalcitrant like myself hooked in.]

And the only available responses are, “Yes, charge me for security I don’t need, since Microsoft builds in its own security system, Windows Defender, into its computers,” or “Accept Risk,” you moron.

To make it worse, they themselves hold my computer hostage. The popup won’t close until I have responded to it. I can’t do anything else on the computer until I have responded to the  McAfee popup. I guess that’s an example of what will happen if I don’t pay them, but it doesn’t work with me, because…

…I do not like to be bullied or manipulated. On those rare occasions when I look at Facebook, if some post says “I’ll bet nobody will ‘Like’ or ‘Share’ this picture of…a wounded veteran… a cute puppy… a child with cancer…” I refuse to Like or Share, even though I’m an advocate for wounded veterans and cute puppies and children with cancer. If you’re supporting wounded veterans because you’re manipulated into it, that’s not support.

It has occurred to me that McAfee himself obviously knows how to stop my computer, since nothing will work until I have responded to his popups. So, if you don’t see anything here next week, you’ll know what happened, because I’m going to keep putting stuff on this blog to show McAfee my computer still works, even without his security.

Wait a minute. I stopped writing… and I refuse to be manipulated into anything…

…but I’m writing stuff on a computer blog because McAfee tried to manipulate me into computer security… just to show McAfee I don’t need his security…

…there’s something backward going on here…

John Robert McFarland

Another one popped up just as I finished typing this.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019


I am at ease
with my new, hermetic
life, devoid of contact
with person, beast, or fern,
except I would admit
an occasional baby
for playing trotty-horse,
and a woolly black dog
with cold ebony nose
and big brown eyes.
For each, the baby and the dog,
would adore me
for those qualities
that worry others so,
the cluelessness that results
in endless peekaboo,
and the clumsiness
that results in cake
upon the floor.
They would catch
each other’s eye,
the baby and the dog,
and in their infantic
and caninic languages
nod so knowingly
and say, This old man
is A O K.

John Robert McFarland

Sunday, December 1, 2019


Come, o come, Emmanuel
to this earthly heaven, this earthly hell
Come, o come, Emmanuel

on winter mornings when feet are cold
and in big box stores where souls are sold

where walls are high and hopes are low
where old eyes and feet must move so slow

where foundations shake both far and near
and hearts of children quake with fear

where harsh words are spoken, and hearts are broken
and love is just a tinsel token

where the homeless gather to look for heat
use a cardboard box in place of a sheet

where pains are heavy and joys are light
where dreams and daring are out of sight

where your people cloak your cross with hate
and claim that’s the way to make us great

where things are people, and people are things
and the only good is a fist of bling

Come, o come, Emmanuel…

John Robert McFarland

Thursday, November 28, 2019


I’m thinking on this Thanksgiving Day of former Thanksgiving Days, and giving thanks for those memories. Thanksgivings with grandparents when our girls were little, Thanksgivings with stray singles they brought home when they were young women, Thanksgivings with our own grandchildren, Thanksgivings when we worked the homeless shelters and community kitchens.

I’m also giving thanks for Marsha and Tom Huberty..

Our car was in the garage for five days over the weekend, so Tom and Marsha took us to church, and to lunch. In the process, they told us this story…

Their son, Christopher, lives in Oregon. On weekends, he goes with a church team to the homeless camps, handing out sack lunches, and now that it’s getting cold, warm socks and mittens and the like.

One weekend their van’s battery died, and they had to get a jump start from a homeless guy who lives in his car!

Everyone is a giver, and everyone is a recipient. Even the least among us has something to give. That is what makes us humans. I give thanks for that common humanity.

John Robert McFarland

Tuesday, November 26, 2019


When our granddaughter was in kindergarten, she told us one day that a boy in her class had called another kid “a tootie-head.”

We know not to get ahead in a conversation with a child. At least, Helen does. When daughter Mary Beth was in first grade, she asked me one day, “What is sex?” I thought, “Oh, no, I’ve got to have the talk with her, and I have no idea how…” Helen jumped in, “It means whether you’re a boy or a girl.” “Oh,” said MB, going merrily on her way.

So, knowing one should not assume too far too fast with a child, we asked Brigid what tootie-head meant.

“I don’t know,” she said, “but it must be something awful, because the teacher sent him to the office.”

We respected Edna Jablonski, Brigid’s kindergarten teacher, a lot, and we knew she had sent a kid to the office for just calling another a tootie-head, so we were taken aback when Brigid told us one day that Mrs. Jablonski had threatened “to give us the finger if we didn’t behave.”

This time it was hard to hold back on the assumptions, but we tried. Turns out the dreaded “getting the finger” was when the teacher holds her index finger up in the air and wags it back and forth.

A lot of problems arise when we assume we know what is meant before we have checked it out.

When the afore-mentioned Mary Beth grew up and was a teacher, fifth grade, yet, a prime age for referring to others as tootie-heads and worse, like excrement-orifices,  she had only one rule in her classroom: You cannot be disrespectful to anyone, in any way. “Not every kid can get good grades,” she said, “but every kid can be respectful of others. Besides, respect solves every other problem.”

There are a lot of people these days in high places that I think are tootie-heads, but I try not to call them that. I should disagree with them, and oppose them, when they are disrespectful to others, but that opposition cannot include a similar disrespect. No, not even if you add an honorific title first, like President Tootie-Head.

John Robert McFarland

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Jesus of Nazareth

Friday, November 22, 2019


The New Testament reading for Sunday, Nov. 24, is Colossians 1:11-20.
The writer gives such a full “listing” of the attributes and actions of Christ. He is rescuer, redeemer, forgiver, creator, firstborn from among the dead, reconciler, head of the church.

As with the Gospel of John, Colossians attributes creation to the Son. Doesn’t this make God irrelevant? Creation and salvation both are through Christ. So do we need God? Why does the early church feel the need for an intermediary to God?

I personally have never felt the need for an intermediary to God, either Christ or angels, saints, Mother Mary, etc. But some folks obviously do, and that’s okay. I don’t assume my form of relating to God is better than anyone else’s. Still, I am puzzled by the theology of separation.

The most obvious reason for Christ as intermediary, I think, is that God can seem so distant, so transcendent, especially when we believed in literal heavens. Jesus, the Christ, is not way out there. He’s right there, one of us.

There’s an old preacher story about a child drawing a picture. “Who is that?” she was asked, “God,” she replied. “But nobody knows what God looks like,” she was told. “They will now,” she retorted.

Christians say that Jesus, the Christ, is the picture of God.

More important than Christ as immanence, closeness, outward picture, I think, is that in Jesus, God is incarnate, in the flesh. Not just face, but guts. And brain.

We should not be surprised by brain research that shows there are “religious” parts of the brain. EVERYTHING in the world is material. There is always a material form for every spiritual reality, just as there is the material Christ as the form of the spiritual God.

Interestingly, people who point out that religion is “just” the stimulation of a particular part of the brain ignore the fact that skepticism is just the stimulation of a different part of the brain,

I think if Colossians were written today, the writer would also say: Christ is not just the face of God but the guts of God. Not just the mind of God, but the brain of God.

John Robert McFarland

Thursday, November 21, 2019


 My father and I were sitting alone on the patio behind our parsonage in Arcola, IL. It was following my end-of-chemo celebration in the church basement. Most folks had gone home, but there was still some family inside the house. Daddy was in a reflective mood.

“Well, I’ve lived a long time,” he said, “and I guess I wasted most of it.”

Today I am almost exactly the same age as Daddy was when he said that.

I understand better now what he was saying. Then, I wanted to fix him. It sounded so forlorn. I wanted to say something to make him feel better.

“Well, at least you had four good children,” I suggested.

He did not seem comforted.

But I do think I understand what Daddy was saying. Yes, I’ve wasted most of my almost-83 years, too. [He lived another 13.]

At earlier ages, it is easy to see all the dead ends we’ve walked down, despite the warning signs, and to say, “Well, I’ve still got time left to get it right.” In our dotage years, we not only lack the time, we lack the energy, and the ambition.

Perhaps the gift of old age is that we finally must accept grace, the way God says--the same way Fred Rogers used to say it to little children in “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” -- “I like you just the way you are.”

That’s when this business of old people entering “a second childhood” really comes in nicely.

John Robert McFarland

“The greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and capable of love.” Fred Rogers

Sunday, November 17, 2019


The Gospel reading for Sunday, 11/17/19, is Luke 21:5-19, Jesus foretelling the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.

Many scholars believe that this passage was actually written after the temple destruction, that the memories of the disciples were “refreshed” after it happened and that they then remembered Jesus saying something about it, so they “remembered” more words than Jesus actually spoke. That’s probably true.

Even though this passage might not be exactly “accurate,” word by word what Jesus said, it’s surely “true,” because it’s certainly in keeping with what he taught at other times.

There is one phrase, in particular, that echoes Jesus’ thought from several occasions: “Beware that you are not led astray, for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he,’ or ‘The end is near.’ Do not go after them.”

Jesus warned many times about those who try to predict the end. I think he did it because getting fixated on the end allows us to ignore what Jesus wants us to do right now.

It’s simply amazing how many people who claim to be Christians just laugh in the face of Jesus when it comes to end-times predictions. There is a whole cottage industry, maybe a factory industry, of people who make money and reputation by ignoring Jesus and claiming that they are the one who knows when the end will come.

It reminds me of the time when my friend, Walt Wagener, was campus minister at the U of WI-Whitewater. It was in the highly racist civil right struggles of the 1960s. There was one young black man at Whitewater. He was regularly hassled and arrested by the town police, just for being black. He was a poet, and Walt invited him to read some of his poetry in a church service.

One member of the church was particularly enraged by this. He called up the Dean of the U, who was president of the board of directors of The Wesley Foundation, Walt’s employer, to complain. Of course, he couldn’t voice his main complaint, that the student was black.

“That guy’s a criminal. Arrested all the time. Maybe I’ll just go over to Milwaukee and get some whore prostitute off the streets and bring her over to read her poetry in church,” he said. “That’ll be the same thing.”

Dean Graham allowed as how that would probably be okay since Jesus had said about the woman of ill repute that the one who was without sin should throw the first stone at her.

There was a silence, and then the man said, “I never did agree with Jesus on that one.”

At least he was honest. Not many are. So many who claim the name of Jesus then willingly and perversely ignore his clear teaching and intentions, if it is more convenient and profitable, financially or emotionally, to do otherwise.

I don’t know what to do about that. I am not without sin, and so I am reluctant to throw stones. But I am thinking about some name other than “Christian” by which I can identify myself.  Maybe I’ll revert to the days of the hippies and call myself a “Jesus freak.”

A music critic once said about Johnny Cash: “He does make an honest attempt to hit every note.” I think if you call yourself a Christian, you won’t be perfect, but you do have to make an honest attempt to follow every teaching of Jesus. You can’t just disagree when you want to.

John Robert McFarland

“The Bible, like any book, is something of a mirror. If an ass peers in, you can’t expect an apostle to peer out.” Wm. Sloane Coffin

 This isn’t writing, just an experiment, using the Sunday scriptures, that I used to study so I could preach on them, just for my own spiritual reflection. If it’s any help with your reflections on the scriptures, that’s okay.

Friday, November 15, 2019


Many years ago, a District Superintendent told one of his young preachers that he would come to that novice’s church to preach on a particular Sunday. When he arrived on the appointed day, there were very few people in the pews.

“Apparently you did not tell them I was coming,” the DS huffed.

“No, sir, I didn’t,” the young preacher replied, “but they found out anyway.”

So the DS in his sermon excoriated those who were there because there were so few of them. He scolded the faithful about the faithless, which is both disrespectful and counter-productive.

I’ve heard that done throughout my years—teachers scolding present students and parents for those who were absent, politicians scolding present voters, retailers scolding present shoppers… and the list goes on.

Recently I was thinking about the attendees at my funeral. Most of the people I want to be there won’t be. They have a good reason. They are dead. I won’t be there, either, so I can’t even scold those who do attend about those who are absent. Life is so unfair…

John Robert McFarland

Friday, November 8, 2019


Each day the line
around me comes closer,
drawn by the unseen
hand of time.
It is not darkness
that gathers outside
the line, but memory.
Memory is not dark.
It is not a past,
but a present.
It is bright with hope,
ready for perfecting
through forgiveness
and mercy…

John Robert McFarland

Friday, November 1, 2019


I live in a land
beyond the bells.
No church bells
tolling the toiling
of men and women,
beast and God.
No school bells
called to life
by girls and boys
in sweaty jeans,
pulling on a gnarly
rope. It is only
now, as I listen
to the gathering
silence, that I miss
the bells.

John Robert McFarland

Monday, October 28, 2019


Occasionally someone from the past rises into consciousness and you wonder, “Whatever happened to her, anyhow?” So it is with Bonnie. And no amount of searching on Facebook or Google provides an answer.

In college at IL State U, she was Roland’s girlfriend. They were in our Wesley Foundation [Methodist campus ministry] group. They were a natural couple. Both fun loving. Both very good looking, Roland tall and Scandinavian, Bonnie petite and dark.

They were both Spanish majors. In Roland’s 40 year education career, much of it was spent in bilingual education. And one summer, Bonnie went to Mexico for a language immersion school with students from Mexican teacher colleges.

That fall she told us about her first week. She got off to a very bad start, or a very good one, according to who you might ask. She and the other students were sitting around one night, talking about their respective colleges, and someone asked Bonnie what she did at Illinois State.

“I’m on the pompom squad,” she said.

This was met with uproarious laughter, mostly by the girls, and uproarious affirmation, mostly by the boys. Bonnie was pleased but a bit mystified.

“What do you do on the pompom squad, Bonnie?” someone asked.

“I’m the captain of the pompom squad,” Bonnie answered proudly.

Even more uproarious laughter and affirmation. But one of the girls hurried up to her and said, “Bonnie, pompom here means prostitution.”

Bonnie and Roland broke up, which was good for Roland, since then he met Anita. But I sort of wish they had kept in touch. I’d like to know what happened to her.

This I do know, somewhere in Mexico, there are old men sitting around saying, “If you think things are bad in America now, back in the 1960s, they even had pompom squads in the teacher’s colleges. And called it Normal.”

John Robert McFarland

Friday, October 25, 2019


Helen says she is dreaming more recently. She’s not exactly happy about it, but I think this will explain it:


When you have lived four score years
and two
there is not enough room
in your brain
for all the memories, so
they are parceled out
to other places in the body

Big toe memories are so different
from those of the pancreas.
Rotator cuff memories are not
at all like left nostril memories

When you sleep the body parts
compete to see whose memories are
best. We call those contests

John Robert McFarland

“I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart for so long. If we are in each other’s dreams, we can be together all the time.” Winnie the Pooh

Tuesday, October 22, 2019


My friend and fellow church member, Dave Tanner, has been going through cancer treatments for a year now. He’s on his 6th protocol. The first five have not worked. This one is experimental. He has lost 50 lbs. He is in pain all the time.

But Homecoming was a Saturday ago, and he was a 50-year letterman, swimming on one of those great Doc Counsilman IU teams. So did he stay home, the way a cancer patient should? No, he rode in the parade with his fellow lettermen. He went to the ball game. He went to the banquet. And Sunday morning, after all that fatiguing stuff, he looked as healthy as I have seen him in a long time.

Being a letterman does that for you. Because you’re a letterman, you know that you belong.

I so much wanted to win a letter in high school, and never did, or so I thought. I have often said through the years that I would trade all the other accolades and achievements of my high school years for a sports letter. I think I was prouder than daughter Katie was when she won a cross country letter in high school.

We all want to belong, and there is nothing that tells others, and ourselves, that we belong, like a uniform does. Or a letter for wearing that uniform.

When I was twelve, I played baseball in the church league. I was so proud of the small green felt “M,” for Methodist, that Mother ironed onto the front of my white t-shirt. It wasn’t much of a uniform, not much of a letter, but it said that I belonged.

I was class president and on the Student Council for three years, editor of the school newspaper, in the band and orchestra, and still didn’t feel like I really belonged at Oakland City High School because I did not have a sports letter.

Recently, though, I’ve been going through old report cards, newspaper clippings, and the other detritus we collect along the way, parceling it out to relatives who might want one thing or another, and discarding the rest. In the process, I found an article in which I was listed as a LETTERMAN! In track.

I suppose I always thought I was not a letterman because I did not have a letter sweater. In Oakland City, the school bought and presented to senior lettermen not a jacket but a pullover sweater, green, with a big white O in the middle. On the bottom line of the O was a little gold football, or basketball. On the sleeves were chevrons to indicate how many years you lettered.

But letter sweaters were awarded only for basketball and football, not track or baseball, our only two other sports. There were no sports for girls, of course, although Shirley Black did get a letter sweater for cheer leading, the first time they awarded a sweater for cheering, and then I suspect it was because Jim Shaw had been the school’s first male cheerleader and they wanted to give him a sweater and so had to give one to Shey, too.

All these years, yearning for a letter, when I actually had one. Surely a lesson there somehow. Oh, yes, the real belongings, to God and family, do not require a letter. That’s nice.

Also, however, just in case belonging to God and family are not enough, do you know where I can buy a green pullover? And a big white O? And a little golden winged foot? And some white chevrons?

John Robert McFarland

It’s never too late to be a letterman. Maybe a big G.

Saturday, October 19, 2019


The rain is holding off
this still dark morning
giving the last gold leaves
a chance at center ring
to flutter in the quick
flickers of the lightning
accompanied by a red
nose woodpecker
rhythm with the big bass
drum of thunder

every player in a circus
wants to be in that ring
the center of applause

only the main acts
with top billing
on gaudy posters
of bright colors
are secure in the faith
that the audience will stay
to see their final  act

John Robert McFarland

“Autumn… the year’s last, loveliest smile,” Wm. Cullen Bryant

Wednesday, October 16, 2019


Helen and I have been going through the flotsam and jetsam of a combined 165 years of putting mementos into boxes, sorting, passing on to the appropriate person, throwing away. She came across the worship bulletin for the awarding of my doctoral degree at the Hoopeston, IL UMC where I was pastoring at the time. It was pleasant to think back on that day, and all the people who participated in that service, including those who have transferred to the church triumphant—Half, with Frances Hunt, of the best church secretary tandem in the history of Christendom, Rose Cress; College roommates Bob ‘Ole Bob” Miller, who awarded me a full-size old farm scythe from his collection  and Bishop Leroy Hodapp; Dean of UDTS [The University of Dubuque Theological Seminary], Herb Manning.

[Presbyterian] UDTS was part of the Schools of Theology in Iowa consortium, with the School of Religion of The University of Iowa, and [Lutheran] Wartburg Theological Seminary, and [Roman Catholic] Aquinas Institute. [1]

I did two years on a PhD at U of Iowa and realized, with some help from undergrad students who did not like the grades I gave them, and theology professor Robert Scharleman, who did like the answers I gave on tests,  that I really should be in the preaching rather than teaching ministry, so I finished my degree as a Doctor of Ministry, granted by UDTS, since the consortium worked together in all ways, except that degrees were granted by one school or another, not all of them together.

Herb Manning came all the way from Dubuque, Iowa to Hoopeston, IL so that I could receive my degree in my church rather than in the commencement ceremony in Dubuque. He was that kind of Dean.

He did not set out to be a Dean, though. He wanted to be a preacher, like his father, a highly regarded Presbyterian clergyman. But, as he told it, “after several years of mediocre results, I realized I did not have the gifts and graces of my father, and decided I’d better get a doctorate and teach.”

He had done his theology degree at UDTS, which shared a campus with Aquinas Institute in Dubuque, so it was a natural for him to enroll in the PhD program at Aquinas. [1] While there, a part-time staff position in field work supervision came open at UDTS, and Herb was hired for it. Then the Dean abruptly departed. It was at the end of the school year. There wasn’t time to do a search for a new dean. Again, as Herb tells it, “I was the only person on staff with a twelve-month contract, so they had to make me the acting dean.”

He had found his calling. He was a really good dean. After a few months, the trustees and faculty understood that and hired him as the permanent dean. He was too busy as dean to finish his PhD.

It reminds me of Herman B Wells, the long-time, much-honored president of Indiana University. He was a new, young business and economics prof who had not even finished his PhD dissertation when long-time president William Lowe Bryan suddenly resigned. The president of the trustees called Wells and said they wanted to make him acting president. Wells demurred, saying there were other faculty members who were better qualified. The trustee said they realized that, and they wanted Wells as interim precisely because they knew they did NOT want him as permanent president. But he was so good at the job they had to hire him. That meant he was too busy to finish his dissertation and get his PhD, from the U of WI, but he served IU as president or chancellor for 63 years, and was the most important figure in higher education in the 20th century, for his leadership in racial integration, academic freedom, and international education.

The story of Wells is well-known. That of Manning, not much. But it’s the same story, up to a point. Wells had such a long career. Manning died, of a sudden heart attack, when he was just into his forties.  

Their shared story is that of taking advantage of an opportunity when it came along. Wells would have been a good econ professor. Manning would have been an adequate theology professor. Neither expected to be a president or dean for long. But they did the best they could in their unexpected positions.

That’s really all any of us can do. Even as old people, unexpected opportunities arise. We are sometimes put into the position of being an interim care-giver, or an interim listener, or an interim adviser. Those are not likely to lead to permanent positions, just because our years are limited, if nothing else, but we do the best we can.

After all, life itself is an interim position.

John Robert McFarland

“Just do the next right thing.”

1] Aquinas has since moved to the campus of St. Louis University.

Sunday, October 13, 2019


For reasons best forgotten, we went to a different church for worship a few Sundays ago. That church has three pastors on staff. The one preaching that morning had been a lawyer for 20 years before going into the ministry. She preached on the necessity of “telling the story.” She did so without telling a single story. Not even a hint of one.

She presented a cogent and articulate legal brief to the jury in the pews, trying to persuade us, beyond a reasonable doubt, of the rightness of her client, the story, But she never told a story. Not one.

I think about this as I read again medical doctor Rachel Remen’s wonderful Kitchen Table Wisdom. In it she says, “You are a story.”

Not you have a story, but you ARE a story.

Just as CS Lewis used to say, “You are not a body that has a soul. You are a soul that has a body.”

Even after death, your soul goes on.

Even after death, your story goes on.

Not just in the remembrances of others. All of us will be forgotten sooner or later. But that does not end our story, for it does not end THE story.

We are remembered for a while, though, and recently I have seen a number of interviews in which people are asked, “How would you like to be remembered?”

That got me to thinking that perhaps we should have bumper stickers for caskets, something that would express our epitaph in visible form for all who mourn. Then I remembered that Helen and I will be incinerated and our ashes mingled so that our family can scatter them together in a place that was important to us, so we won’t have a casket for a bumper sticker anyway. But if I had one, I think I’d like for it to say, “He tried his best to be sure that everyone was included in the story.” By telling a story. A story that includes everyone.

John Robert McFarland

“Now I Know Something You Don’t” [Epitaph on a grave stone.]