Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Friday, May 31, 2019


Several years ago, we heard someone say, making plans to go somewhere, “I’ll ride the last mile with you.” Helen said, “That’s a good line. You should do something with that.” So I did. I have printed it here before. Various folks have asked to use it in other connections. Today Helen and I start our 61st year of marriage, so it seems appropriate, once again…

On the bright white floral morning
When we could see forever
And the path was paved with blossoms for our feet
We clasped our hands together
And this is what I whispered
I’ll walk the last mile with you

I’ll walk the last mile with you
            Wherever this road takes us
In sunshine or in rain
In gladness or in pain
I’ll walk the last mile with you

On those chill still rainy mid-days
When storm clouds gathered o’er us
And the way was only mud beneath our feet
We linked our arms together
And this is what I stammered
I’ll walk the last mile with you

I’ll walk the last mile with you
            Wherever this road takes us
In sunshine or in rain
In gladness or in pain
I’ll walk the last mile with you

On this low slow lingering evening
When the light is growing dimmer
And the road is long behind our weary feet
We shall press our lips together
And with our fading breath say
I’ll walk the last mile with you.

I’ll walk the last mile with you
            Wherever this road takes us
In sunshine or in rain
In gladness or in pain
I’ll walk the last mile with you

John Robert McFarland

Thursday, May 30, 2019


When we moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, following the grandchildren, a dozen years ago, old seminary friend and now retired Methodist bishop Fritz Mutti said: “You two always seem to be starting out on some new adventure.”

We went reluctantly to the UP, the land of winter, but it certainly was a place of adventure. We have also gone reluctantly into the winter of years, but old age has turned out to be an adventure, too.

As we conclude 60 years of marriage tomorrow, we look forward to the next adventure.

John Robert McFarland

“Don’t let yesterday use up too much of today.” John Wooden

Wednesday, May 29, 2019


The funny thing is

The narrow way
Is the rocky way
The slippery way, the pot-holed way
The sloggy way, the muddy way
The hilly way, the cold wet way

The broad way is smooth and dry
Always sunny, forever easy
Its name is Pleasure Way

The name of the narrow way is Joy

John Robert McFarland [My note says I wrote this 9-12-12]

“God so loved the world that he didn’t send a committee. Oh, I haven’t heard that in a long time. I’m glad I said that.” Helen McFarland

Tuesday, May 28, 2019


In the last week or so, I have been offered, via email, the opportunity to apply for a job: as a sales estimator, emergency room nurse, refrigeration technician, optometrist, sandwich engineer, quality assurance software tester, customer service rep, computer programmer, hospital CEO, and manager trainee.

At first I was pleased that the person who gave them my name as a possible employee was so impressed with my skills, that I would be able to do all those different jobs. Then it occurred to me what whoever wants me to get a job must be quite desperate, willing to suggest me for any job that came along. I am pretty sure I know who gave those potential employers my email address. As George Weiss’ wife said, “I married George for better or for worse, but not for lunch.”

When we lived in Sterling, IL, a new restaurant was opening up in the mall where we walked in bad weather. They had a big sign in the window saying that they were hiring. Many married couples walked by that sign. There was never a time, not one, when I was within hearing distance, that a wife did not say to her husband as they walked by, “You know, you could get a job there.” The average age of the husbands was about 85. You’ve got to hand it to those wives for continuing to hope.

I am often tempted by such signs myself. Even those emails. I don’t trust invisible money. I like to get a check, or a handful of cash, at the end of each week. So I think about what fun it would be to work at Wal-Mart, ignoring customers so I can complain to my fellow employees about who is taking her break out of turn.

I do have some work experience—farm hand, detassler, hod carrier, carpenter’s assistant, gas station attendant, tester and adjuster of electrical relays, bus boy, janitor, carnival roustabout, social worker, commercial actor. I imagine any one of those is more likely to get me an interview for a job as sandwich engineer or hospital CEO than “preacher.”

That’s why I don’t even bother to apply. As soon as you tell an employer that you used to be a preacher, they suddenly have to go a meeting and say, on the way out the door, “Don’t call us; we’ll call you,” which, of course, they never do… until they need someone to officiate at their kid’s wedding or their parent’s funeral.

And when they do, I’m going to charge them big! I have to; I can’t get a different job.

John Robert McFarland

No, I’m not writing again. I’m just trying to gain control of my keyboard by making it produce random thoughts out of random words out of random letters, the way those ten thousand monkeys with typewriters used to produce “The Encyclopedia Britannica.”

Monday, May 27, 2019


Memorial Day is really an excuse for using force to get our way, at every level. We don’t acknowledge that, of course, either at the national or personal level.

Despite how many times politicians or baseball announcers say that Memorial Day and its paired “patriotism” is not a glorification of war, is only honoring those who fight to “protect our freedoms” of “the greatest nation in the world” [Greatest in what? Poverty level? Infant birth rate? White terrorism?] it is a justification for using force, not as a last resort, but as a first, a standard operating system.

Armies and soldiers cannot protect freedom. They protect the nation. It is only the citizens of the nation who can protect freedom, and many of the citizens of this nation do not want freedom. It’s too demanding. And too inclusive.

Some people just like aggression and force. They applaud when a comedian or politician talks about spanking children. They think that protecting kids from bullies is wussy; you should teach kids to stand up for themselves and fight back.

They justify their love of aggression and force by saying that it is the way of the world, that people are going to be violent anyway, and all you can do is protect yourself.

There is some truth in that. There is violence in all of us. St. Augustine was right—there is a God-shaped void in our soul. But there is also a fist-shaped snarl in our brain.

I’m no pacifist, although I admire those who are. I’m a Niebuhrian realist. [Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society]
Maybe an Amos Wilson realist. Amos is a Presbyterian pastor who served almost his whole career as a prison chaplain. “There are some really bad people in there,” he says, “and they need to be kept there.”

I suspect that 95% of terrorists, as distinct from regular soldiers or people fighting for their homeland against outside invasion, would find a reason to keep on terrorizing even if all their demands were met. That gives credence to those who say, “The only thing they understand is force.” But even terrorists have people who love them and who share their narrative. You can’t eliminate them by force, for every time you do, you create a martyr whose family and friends want to avenge them.

Sharon Angle, as a US Senate candidate in Nevada, talked about “Second Amendment remedies.” Since the 2nd Amendment, which to most of its supporters is the whole of the Constitution, is about the right “to bear arms,” there is no question what she is talking about, despite how much she tried to wriggle as the election approached. Lee Harvey Oswald used a 2nd Amendment remedy on John F. Kennedy. John Hinckley tried to use a 2nd Amendment remedy on Ronald Reagan.

If we want a free nation, we can’t use force as a first principle. And we can’t let “force first” people run the nation or our institutions. Memorial Day should be a reminder of that truth!

John Robert McFarland

“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” Harriet Tubman

Sunday, May 26, 2019


Today is Pam’s last time on the St. Mark’s organ bench. Last time on any organ bench. She has one of those deterioration diseases. Her brain still knows the notes so well, just like always, but her hands and feet are no longer cooperating.

It is a hard future for her. It is a hard future for the congregation. We have depended on her for so much. Most of it, we don’t even know about. In addition to Sunday morning services, there are choir rehearsals, and soloist rehearsals, and weddings and funerals, and special services at Christmas and Holy Week and other holidays. And practice, always practice.

I remember the first time I heard an organist practicing. Laura Kohlmeyer wasn’t my first organist, but she was the first one where I had an office in the building. Poor Laura. It’s amazing she practiced at all, since she had to climb a ladder to get up to the organ in the back of the church, and it was always cold there in the winter and hot in the summer. But I was in my office, early in my pastorate there, when I heard her practicing. She was terrible! Mistake after mistake. As she mangled an iconic Wesley hymn, I found myself humming “O, for a thousand hands to use, to cover up my ears.” That can’t be Laura. I peeked. It was. How could this be? She was so perfect on Sunday morning. Of course, because she was so imperfect during the week. She practiced. As John Wesley put it, she was “going on to perfection.”

That became one of my favorite stories about growing spiritually, what William Stringfellow titled Free in Obedience. Laura had the freedom to play so beautifully on Sunday because she had worked on it during the week. We become free to play the right spiritual notes because we have worked at observing and hearing the ways of God. None of the rest of us in the congregation were free to play the organ, because we had not chained ourselves to the organ bench, the way Laura did.

And the way Pam has. In a town of great organists, because of the famous IU School of Music, Pam is as good as any of them. Because she put in her ten thousand hours. [1]

There are fewer organists all the time. It’s a hard instrument to learn. And hard to practice. You can’t just pick it up any time you want, like a guitar. You have to go to where the organ is. And church music, and music in general, is moving away from organ sounds. It’s a bit ironic: the organ was developed to mimic the sounds of a whole orchestra, so churches could get by with only one musician. Now that one musician is increasingly being replaced by a whole band, of guitars and drums and saxophones.

Pam will be replaced. On the bench. That’s the way life goes. But she will not be replaced in our prayers. And our appreciation.

Even though organists practice hard on their preludes and postludes—and Pam Freeman has so often played amazingly beautiful arrangements--people rarely hear them because we’re talking as we get seated, or talking as we leave. Today, as a way or honoring her, as Pam plays her last postlude, we shall all sit right there, still, listening for grace notes.

John Robert McFarland

1] In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell notes that it takes ten thousand hours of practice really to master a craft.

Saturday, May 25, 2019


This morning, as I walked
I found a message
on the sidewalk, in chalk,
each letter a different color

at the corner of Allendale
and Dunstan, should you like
to see this message for yourself

in a font named Child Hand


I smiled all the way home.
Even as I write these lines
in a font named
Circling the Drain
I am still smiling.

John Robert McFarland

“One must wait until evening to see how splendid the day has been.”

Friday, May 24, 2019


Herb Shriner’s comedy shtick was about growing up in a small town in Indiana. A typical line was, “It was so small that for entertainment we’d go down to the library to see who had borrowed the book.”

That’s pretty much how the Los Angeles Public Library started out, when LA was a frontier town. By the time of the great LA library fire, in 1986, it had grown to huge proportions, both in the size of the building and the size of the holdings.

Susan Orlean, a masterful story teller, gives us the entire story of the LA library in The Library Book, from the first book until now, centering on the 1986 fire that did such horrendous damage to the building and to the books and other items, a million of them.

What exactly happened? Was it arson? If so, did Harry Peek start the fire? If he did, why?

In the process, she tells the story from start to now not only of the LA library, but libraries in general. What is the place and purpose of a library? What does it mean to a community, and individuals, to have a library, and what does it mean to be without one? Is it just for entertainment, as for Herb Shriner, or something more?

I grew up in a small town in Indiana myself. Well, not actually in the town. We lived on a little hardscrabble farm four miles outside of Oakland City, but our library was in town. Upstairs over the fire station. The fire department had one truck, so you can guess how small the library was. It’s been replaced, but it will always be my favorite library.

I have been in some big and impressive libraries—St. Andrew’s University in Scotland, The Lilly Rare Books Library, The University of Illinois, [the second-largest university library in the world, smaller only than Harvard’s] where I used to do research for articles I wrote for Scribners’ reference works. But my best memories are in small-town libraries.

When our daughters were still at home, on Friday nights we would go to the local library after supper, each get an armload of books, and retreat to our respective bedrooms to read as long as we could. Occasionally we would hear someone go downstairs to get a snack, and we’d all gather in the kitchen over hot chocolate or popcorn and discuss our books--Rebecca Caudill or Nancy Drew for the girls, Alistair Mclean for me, Miss Marple for Helen.

We talked, though, only as long as it took to snarf our snacks. Then we returned to our reading, until we fell asleep. At some point Helen or I would wake up and go turn the lights off in the girls’ bedrooms, where they lay with their open books still lying beside them.

That’s when we started using plastic-coated paperclips as bookmarks. They don’t leave a crease in the page, but if you fall asleep, they don’t fall out the way an unsecured book mark can, and leave you wondering where you were in the book.

Libraries are a source of connection. They connect us to the history and knowledge of the whole world. For me, they are a connection to happy Friday nights.

John Robert McFarland

“Without libraries, what do we have? We have no past and no future.” Ray Bradbury

Thursday, May 23, 2019


I finished Bill’s book today…fifty-one years from when I started it.

I’ve taken a long time over several books, but surely this is a reading longevity record for me. Of course, first laying it aside for forty-seven years and then reading only a paragraph a day over the last four years extended the reading time a little longer than strictly necessary.

The book is The Image of Man in C.S. Lewis, and was published by Abingdon in 1968, but William Luther White had been working on it, as his PhD dissertation at Northwestern University, when I was a B.D. student [1] at Garrett Theological Seminary. [2] We ate brown bag lunches together each day, along with Tom Treadway, who became president of Augustana College, and Ron Goetz and Paul Blankenship, who became religion professors, and James Cone, who became the famous theologian of black power.

Bill died four years ago, and I did the eulogy at his funeral. [3] While he was alive, I never felt like I needed to finish reading his book, because we talked so much through the years that I was always current on his thinking. I learned so much from him that way. But with his voice gone, I needed that daily dose of Bill. I think I have made the transition. I think I can let him go now. Not from joyful memory, but from the need to keep renewing him through the pages of that book.

Bill was a few years older than I, but we knew of each other in our teens, since we both started out in the old Indiana Conference of The Methodist Church, and later my Aunt Helen, my father’s only sister, was the superintendent of the pre-school Sunday School at Methodist Temple in Evansville when he was on their staff in charge of Christian education.

Then we were at Garrett/Northwestern together, while I was working on my professional degree and he was working on his PhD. He became chaplain and religion professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, a position he held until retirement, and when the campus ministry position at Illinois State came open, a few years after he went to IWU, Bill and Jameson Jones, who was sort of the unofficial “bishop” of campus ministry, and father of current bishop Scott Jones, both recommended me for it. So we got to be campus ministry colleagues, our universities just a mile apart, until I went off to work on a PhD myself. But we stayed in touch all the later years, visiting in person as often as we could.

I recommend the book as a good intro both to Bill and to C.S. Lewis. I’m sure Bill would use “Humanity” instead of “Man” in the title now, but it would not be necessary. He was the quintessential inclusive Christian citizen of the world. I’m glad I miss him, for I would not do so had I not known him.

That’s the way with friends in old age. We part days, but not ways.

John Robert McFarland

[1] The B.D., or Bachelor of Divinity, was never really a bachelor’s degree, and never should have been called that. It was a three year graduate degree on top of a four year baccalaureate degree. Any other profession, such as medicine or dentistry, granted a doctorate after those seven years, although law was still giving a bachelor’s, LLB, similar to the B.D. in the 1960s. Law went to the doctoral JD in the 1970s, while theology, in its vast humility, moved only to a master’s degree, MDiv, to replace the B.D. Also it allowed theology schools to require another year of study and tuition from students to become a doctor, the DMin-Doctor of Ministry. In the least-well paid profession, clergy, you have to go to school longer to become a “doctor” than in any of the better-paid professions.

2] Garrett-Evangelical since the 1974 merger with the Naperville based Evangelical Theological Seminary.

3] Fellow former campus ministry colleague Howard Daughenbaugh spoke after I did and said, “Folks, you have just heard eulogy as art.” People have said nice things about my preaching from time to time through the years, but I think I appreciated that more than anything else, because I wanted so much to do a good job of keeping Bill alive in our minds and hearts.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019


We have so many books on our shelves that some of them are on the floor. I have no idea how or when or from whom we acquired Michael Dibdin’s A Rich Full Death. I pulled it off a shelf recently just because we are trying to get rid of all extraneous stuff. It looked expendable. Of course, instead of putting it in the pile for the library book sale, I decided to read it.

Dibdin’s name meant nothing to me, although I am a fairly long-term regular reader of the mystery genre. A short internet search, though, shows that he has been active and successful in that genre for some time, especially creating the eleven Aurelio Zen novels, set in Italy, where A Rich Full Death is also set, in the Florence of 1855.

The premise of mystery is always, of course, Who dunnit? But in this novel, Dibdin is not only giving us an interesting look at the literary life and language of Florence, Italy in 1855 but exploring, perhaps without knowing it, the question: What happens as we consider, when we near death, how we shall be remembered?

We were all asked to wear purple to Judy Chapman’s funeral, because it was her favorite color. On our way to Charleston, IL from Iron Mountain, MI, we spent the night with Bill and Ann White in Normal, IL. When I told them about the funeral, and that the then pastor of Wesley Church in Charleston, Wally Carlson, had graciously invited me to help officiate at Judy’s purple funeral, since we were close friends, Bill said, “I have a whole purple robe, my doctoral robe from Northwestern. Why don’t you wear that instead of just your purple stole?” So I did.

When Wally and I walked out to take our places, a ripple of laughter went through the whole congregation. They knew how unexpected that robe was, and how heartily Judy would approve of it.

After the service, Patty Carmichael, who had been an undergrad at EIU when I pastored Wesley Church and had subsequently earned a PhD at U of IL and was then Charleston Wesley’s choir director, said to me: “When I saw you walk out, I thought, how perfectly you that was, totally appropriate, doing just what Judy wanted, but also totally over the top.”

As I think of how I might be remembered, I’m okay with that.

John Robert McFarland

“I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free, so that others could be free, too.” Rosa Parks

Tuesday, May 21, 2019


I am the old man you see walking
Through the park on a day in spring
When trees are all abloom in pink and white

Or on a summer morning in a mesh-side hat
So the air can caress my memories
With a slow and gentle breeze

Or on an autumn afternoon
When trees declare a festival
Ablaze with leaves of red and gold

Or in an early winter evening
Darkness falling fast and hard
A soft glow street lamp

Lighting the way to home

John Robert McFarland

“Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.” Carl Sandburg

Monday, May 20, 2019


I love merry-go-rounds. I rode one once when I was little. The bachelor uncles took my older sister and me to the Lesourdsville amusement park in Middletown, OH. I was four years old. It was Dr. Pepper night. Every time you drank a Dr. Pepper, you got a free ride. Like Caesar, sort of: I drank, I rode, I puked,

I don’t think I ever rode a merry-go-round again as a child. We did not live where such things were common, and we had no money for amusements.

But I love merry-go-rounds because of seeing children on them. I still remember the ecstatic looks on the faces of my girls when they were four and two as they rode what they called, respectively, “the merry old thing,” and “the roundy roundy.” It was just a kiddie ride, not a real merry-go-round, just temporary, in a mall parking lot, and they may not remember it at all, but it is one of my best memories.

I have similar memories from the grandchildren, at East Park and the 4-H fair in Mason City, IA. And as an adult the summer we took grandson Joe to a week-long camp at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI, as an 8th grade graduation present. We thought it was a residential camp, but it turned out to be days only, so we rented a room in a motel and took Joe to camp each morning, and then in the evenings the three of us went exploring all of southern MI, including East Lansing and Ann Arbor, so he could get a look at the universities there.

Day times, though, we had nothing to do, so we mostly hung around Greenfield Village, the old-time town that is part of the Ford Museum. We watched folks play old time baseball, and ride old time unicycles, and even heard Huck Finn telling of his adventures. Mostly, though, we hung around the merry go round, waiting for it to open, so we could watch. Helen was disappointed it did not have a pink pig to ride, because she rode one of those in the first childhood dream she can remember, but we had a good time anyway, sometimes riding, but mostly watching the little children, with their joyful faces, as they rode.

Helen says that old age is like a merry-go-round. Each time around is like a day. We and all our loved ones and friends are on the horses. On one day, some will be up and some down. The next time around, those who were up may well be down, and vice versa, or something like that. You get the idea.

She is onto something, as she usually is. It’s good to remember than when we’re “down,” it might not last forever. Get ready to wave at the people the next time you go around. Actually, that might not be a good idea. I get dizzy easily, so I’d better hang on with two hands. The best advice I can give myself as I ride this old age merry-go-round is: remember the faces of the children. And, enjoy the ride.

Oh, I think I’ll start using that as my sign-off line. My friend, Glenn, says “Make it a good day,” which is neat, but sounds like a lot of work. So…

Enjoy the ride!

John Robert McFarland

“Good pitching will always beat good hitting, and vice versa.” Baseball Maxim

Sunday, May 19, 2019


Each Sunday morning, as I start the coffee and wash up the dishes from the night before, I sing—softly, because Helen is still sleeping—the theme song from each of the churches of my life. Most of those were churches where I was pastor, but in some I was “just” a lay person. Each has an iconic song, a song I associate with that church whenever I hear it. I sing only first verses; otherwise I’d still be singing at supper time.

I start with East Park in Indianapolis, where I lived from ages four to ten, and where--with my older sister, Mary V—I was confirmed. Its song is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” because it was there that I portrayed the young shepherd who learned the true meaning of Christmas in the play, Why the Chimes Rang.

I end with St. Mark’s in Bloomington, “In Christ There Is No East or West.” We’ve sung it only once in the four years since we moved “Back Home Again, In Indiana,” but it sums up the inclusive philosophy of our current congregation.

My second church, the open-country little Forsythe Methodist, when I was ages ten to eighteen, is “Higher Ground.” First Methodist in Bloomington, where I attended as a college freshman… Well, I won’t bore you with my complete listing, because it will be more fun if you compile your own list.

That is, I’d say something like “make your own list” if I were still writing, But since I now just jot down stuff that’s interesting to me, I’ll desist. One must write to give advice. [It is fun, though, to make your own list.]

John Robert McFarland

“There’s within my heart a melody…”

Friday, May 17, 2019


 A dragonfly has 4 wings
But they do not beat together
Each is free to beat at the air
In whatever way it wants
So the dragonfly can turn so quickly

Or get very confused

I am a dragonfly

John Robert McFarland

Perhaps the most important person in history is unknown, that being the person who invented the way to take the pot off the burner for a few seconds while the coffee is still brewing, telling the coffee up above to hold it, so you can go ahead and pour a cup NOW and not have to wait for the entire pot to brew.

Thursday, May 16, 2019


Here is the thing
about old age…
You are such a bore.
Not so much to others,
if you can ever find new ears
to listen,
but to yourself,
because you have no new
You’re heard them all before
so many times.
Now all that is new
is depressing…
some new symptom
some new medicine
some new obit.
That’s why our stories
sound so outlandish,
We are not trying to deceive.
We just don’t want to bore
If you happen to listen
as we talk…
well, that’s on you.

John Robert McFarland

“In old age, all we ask is to continue to be the authors of our own stories.” Atul Gawande, Being Mortal

Wednesday, May 15, 2019


In my mind, I walk
a straight and narrow
line, so plum
that even Euclid
would be proud,
but my feet prefer
to tack from side
to side, as a sail boat
measuring out the wind.
I hope when Jesus
spoke that quote
about the straight and narrow,
he had intention more
in mind than action.

John Robert McFarland

“A gentleman is the devil’s christian.”

Tuesday, May 14, 2019


In high school, I was class president three years. I was principal bassoonist in the band and orchestra. I was editor of the newspaper. I was a power-hitting first baseman. I set the all-time record on comprehensive exams [1]. I set the all-time record on the entrance exam at the Potter & Brumfield factory, where they let us start manufacturing electrical relays as soon as we turned eighteen, whether we were out of school or not. [2]

 But the only thing my classmates remember is that I once tried to catch a run-away typewriter.

It was our freshman year, in typing class, with Mr. [Manfred]
Morrow. I had just been elected class president, so I thought of myself as very cool. But I had never before experienced a typewriter. These were manual Royals, with a strong reflex. The first time I hit the “return” button, the carriage raced from left to right with great alacrity. I was sure I had hit the wrong button, done something to ruin the typewriter.

I dove into the aisle between my seat and Linda Luttrell’s, ready to grab that thing when it came loose. I ended up on the floor, empty-handed, and I definitely was not just trying to get a better look at Linda’s legs, although that was the view I had once down there. The whole class laughed uproariously.

So much for being cool. How was a farm boy, for whom fire was advanced technology, who even plowed with horses instead of a tractor [3], to know about such things? In my world, if something flew fast from left to right, it came off.

Whenever the class of 1955 has gathered--the class Miss Grace Robb said was more closely involved with one another emotionally than any she ever saw in her many years of teaching--that is the only story they tell about me. They don’t mention my degrees, my awards, my books, my honors. They just laugh about the skinny farm boy and the run-away typewriter.

They have kept me humble all these years. Whenever I have been tempted to think of myself too highly, I remember Mike and Ann and Bob and Shirley and Hovey and Kenny and Bill and Jarvis and Wally and “Rowdy Russ,” who, of course, was not rowdy at all, and the rest of my 61 classmates laughing at the boy who was so dumb he tried to catch a typewriter.

John Robert McFarland

1] Until James Burch turned his exam in thirty minutes later. Comprehensive exams took all of one day, covering the material of all four years of high school.

2] Until James Burch took the exam the next week. I love James Burch. He was always willing to take the pressure off me. We called him “Wally,” after the Mr. Peepers character of Wally Cox.

3] We later had a tractor, an old, used orange Case. I keep a model of it on my book case.

Monday, May 13, 2019


It used to be that my only real regret about death was that I would not be able to use it as a sermon illustration. Now that I no longer preach, even that regret is both moot and mute. That’s quite a relief.

John Robert McFarland

“Every living thing is an elaboration on a single original plan… Remarkably we are even closely related to fruit and vegetables… It cannot be said too often: all life is one. That is, and I suspect will be forever, the most profound true statement there is.” Bill Bryson, page 415, ending his chapter on genetics, in A Short History of Nearly Everything

Sunday, May 12, 2019


There is a joy
In nothingness
In knowing there are no
Half-burnt candles smoldering
Too close to the thin curtains
No mean bears
Hiding in the darkness
No homeless ideas
Drinking from a wrinkled brown bag
No regrets in the photos
Of those you loved

John Robert McFarland

We must learn to live within our limits, but not be limited by them.

Saturday, May 11, 2019


 My hope still comes from beyond the hills
Even though the hills are low
And the sun yet lower
My help comes from the Lord
Who doesn’t give a Creator’s damn
About whether I believe in him
Or worship her
Or praise it
 Him and her and it being a sort of
Trinity of pronouns
United in ignoring my creeds and credos

John Robert McFarland

I seem to be the only person in the world who has moral qualms about the ending of Delia Owens’ quite good debut novel, Where the Crawdads Sing.

Thursday, May 9, 2019


It takes a devious
Mind to be a poet
Obedient to a muse
Wrapped in mystic mist
Who leads through deep
Grass to the place
Where angst doth grow
Oblivious to the obvious
Even though every line
Insists on starting
With a capital
Which may be more
At the behest
Of the computer
Than the muse these days
Making each line short
As Langston Hughes did
Because he was paid
By the line
Which is really
The only true reason
To write a poem

John Robert McFarland

The above is 23 lines. At ten cents per line, which, I admit, is far more than it is worth--but you did read it--that comes to $2.30. You may make your payment to any good cause that enhances the kindliness or beauty of the world.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019


I just read Oliver Sacks’ memoir, On the Move. Sacks was physician, neurologist, and author. As a neurological physician, he was memorably played by Robin Williams in the film “Awakening,” based on Sacks’ book of the same name. The film also stars Robert DeNiro as a patient.

I did not learn of Sacks through the film, since I am--for a reasonably educated and worldly 20th century person--remarkably ignorant of films, especially considering that my granddaughter has a master’s degree in film studies from The U of Chicago. I first became aware of Sacks through his writings in “The New Yorker,” which led me to two of his many books, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and River of Consciousness. [Yes, that’s no mistake above. I am a 20th century—not a 21st century—person.]

I’m glad that I read those two books, in that order, for in between the first one to the latter, Sacks evolved from a classical understanding of neurology, as a sort of regionalized computer [although he was never a psychological behaviorist Skinnerian, as I was taught to be as an undergraduate] to the current plasticity model, generated most notably by Gerald Edelman.

Edelman’s theory is that each human brain evolves from birth to death in much the same way that humanity has been evolving as a whole for millions of years.

As a plastic neurologist [my term] Sacks’ main curiosity became: How does the brain produce the mind?

Sacks himself had an “interesting” brain. Among other things, he had prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize and distinguish between faces. Physical accidents, such as one that left him with a feeling that his leg was no longer attached to his body, became research fodder. He was a graphaholic, writing millions of words in journals throughout his life and, once written, never looking at them again. As a young physician, his compulsive brain, with its desire for movement, would cause him to ride on a motorcycle for ten hours at a time, without stopping, 100 miles per hour, at night.

Most interestingly--although most of the volume of his book is about his varied work as a physician with people with brain problems, and his collaboration with various researchers--he talks about his life in terms of love and loss, home and away, joyful and dreary, the way any one of us would, almost as though his understanding of brain mechanisms had nothing to do with his own living.

That’s the difference between brain and mind. Through research as a physician and living as a person, Sacks understood that brain and mind are not the same. I suspect he smiled as he titled his book. “On the move” is really about how the brain evolves to create the mind.

I personally believe that God, as Creator, is “involved” in general evolution. I think that the Edelman theory of the brain means that God is involved in the evolution of each of our minds. We call that “spirituality.”

In other words, as St. Augustine said it, “God loves each of us as though there were only one of us.”

John Robert McFarland

“With God, time is eternity in disguise.” Abraham Heschel

Tuesday, May 7, 2019


I can count on getting only one thing done each day, the first thing that I do. After that, I’m tired. Anything that comes up, I can say, “I’ll do that tomorrow.”

So the first frog I swallow each day had better be the biggest one.

That’s what we used to say in working days, about having many tasks to do. If you have three frogs to swallow, swallow the biggest frog first. Then all the others will go down more easily.

Now I say it not to make the following jobs easier, but just to be sure I get the most important job done before I run out of energy.

Being without energy has its problems, but there is an upside. I used to do all the unimportant stuff first—clearing the deck so I could really concentrate on the important stuff when I got to it. Answer the email before really writing. That sort of thing. Rearranging the deck chairs.

The problem there, of course, was I often didn’t get past the deck clearing. Now I know I can’t even try to clear the decks. I have to go right after the big kahuna. [I have no idea what a kahuna is, but that sounds good.]

John Robert McFarland

 “Documenting evil is not the same as doing good.” Craig Greenfield

Monday, May 6, 2019


 I have returned
from the mountain
and my feet are still
beautiful despite
the wearying climb
the strained muscles
the thorny bristles
the stony pathway
because I bring
good news
despite the fall
of the descent
the trees are blossomed
the birds are singing
the clouds are drifting
the earth still turns

John Robert McFarland

“God contains everything, and nothing contains God.” Irenaeus

Sunday, May 5, 2019


A recent story in our local newspaper noted that a woman had stabbed a man because the sandwich he brought her from a fast food place did not have enough mayo on it.

Talk about “killing the messenger!”

I have no idea where to start trying to understand the “why” of that episode. Did he purposely tell Devin at Burger King to omit the mayo because he did not want the woman to have it her way? Did this happen all the time? Was this the last straw? Did some childhood trauma give her a weird and lasting need for mayo as her comfort food?

As Luther said, “Give a woman enough mayo and she’ll eat for a day. Don’t put enough mayo on it and you’ll surely pay.” Well, maybe that wasn’t Luther.

Anyway, on this day, of all days, if you bring a woman a sandwich, for heaven’s sake, and your own, put enough mayo on it.

John Robert McFarland

IRRELEVANT OBSERVATION: Every TV series ends up being a soap opera. They may start out trying to thwart terrorists, or catch criminals, or extol family life, or get laughs, but as the producers and writers run out of story lines, they are all about which amnesiac has whose baby.

Saturday, May 4, 2019


The McFarlands gathered last summer to tell one another how we have not changed a bit since the last reunion—even though we looked at photographs of times past that prove we lied about that--and also to tell one another how many aches and pains we have developed since we last saw each other face to face,

I put one of those lie-proving photo albums together myself, out of the many boxes of loose photos we have here and there. It includes the men of my father’s generation in their WWII uniforms. It was a generation of wingmen. [I include women in that title, of course.]

“Wingman” these days means something quite different. Guys talk about taking a wingman along to a bar as they try to pick up women. The characters of “The Big Bang Theory” TV show say the wingman’s job is to back up their lies as they talk to a woman.

When my Uncle Jesse was a Navy pilot, though, “wingman” meant someone who was watching out for you, someone you relied on for the truth, even if it meant telling you there was an enemy on your tail. Especially if it meant telling you there is an enemy on your tail.

Television’s Mr. Rogers says that his mother told him, “Look for the helpers.” The helpers are the wingmen. Like Riley Howell, the twenty-one-year-old student at UNC-Charlotte who charged the shooter in his classroom. He was killed in the process. He undoubtedly knew he would die if he did that. But he did it anyway, and he saved the lives of his classmates.

I mourn for Riley and for his parents and for all who loved him. I pray for the passage of his soul. But I know that he lived more in one moment than most of us do in a lifetime, and I honor him.

In this world of greed and selfishness, where money and power are the only things considered good, look not to the takers but for the helpers. Trust your wingman. Like Riley Howell.

John Robert McFarland

“Without courage, no other virtue is possible.”

Friday, May 3, 2019


One of my youth fellowship girls became a famous porn star.

She was a teen-ager, in the same class as one of my daughters, when I pastored the church in her small suburb town. She did not come to worship, nor did anyone else in her family, but she liked the sponsors of our youth fellowship, whom she knew as teachers in her school, so she came to the youth fellowship. Also, she came to me when she got into trouble.

Actually, I went to her. She ran away, and after a while ended up at an uncle’s house. They called me to come talk to her. They said she wouldn’t talk to anyone else.

I know now that teenage girls often run away because they are sexually abused. I know now that many, probably most, porn actors were sexually abused as children. It was thirty-five years ago, though, when Lisa ran away, and I knew little about why girls ran away or became porn actors. Not many other people did then, either.

She was willing to talk to me, just the two of us in the back room of her uncle’s house, while various family members hovered about in the rest of the house. She talked, but not really. I knew she was holding something back, but we could not get to it. I had the feeling that she was waiting for me to ask the right question, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.

I tried to listen to her, and get her to talk about what was important to her. She told me she was interested in acting. I have always been interested in drama, too, and I have done a little acting. I said maybe the youth fellowship could form a drama group, and she could be in it. She said she thought that would be great.

I tried to form a group, without success. No one else in youth fellowship was interested in a drama group.

As soon as she graduated from high school, Lisa went to California and got into a drama group, one quite different from what we would have had in youth fellowship. She was very successful, in terms of porn acting accolades. She died in her early thirties of AIDS.

I know that I did not “fail” her. My contacts with her were marginal. I did the best I could, with limited resources. Many other people had much more influence on her, for good or for ill. But I still regret not being able to form that drama group. I still wonder if her life might have turned out differently if she’d been able to act in church instead of in front of a cheap camera.

Dealing with regret is a major issue for older people. We have been through a lot, and failed in at least some of it. We have done things we should not have done and not done things we should have done.

Occasionally I hear someone reflecting on his or her life and saying, “I have no regrets. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

If you have no regrets and would not change a thing, what in the world is wrong with you? You’re just a damned fool! You have not learned a thing! Where is the so-called wisdom of age if you couldn’t do it better the second time?

Erik Erikson says that old age is the stage of final integrity vs despair. We cannot change what has been. If we cannot affirm the lives we have lived, despair is our only option.

Affirming your life, however, is very different from having no regrets. I do not think you can affirm your life if you have no regrets. The only way you can have no regrets is by denying your past. You did do some things wrong, and if you are not sorry about that, you are simply denying reality. Or you are an old sociopath. And everybody knows there’s no sociopath like an old sociopath. [Okay, the actual saying is: “There’s no fool like an old fool.” But it means the same thing.]

Affirmation of the past means accepting reality. I heard the story of a man who was new in town. He visited from church to church, but none of them seemed quite right. One Sunday he arrived at a church a little late and got in just as they were intoning the prayer of confession: We have done those things we ought not to have done, and not done those things we should have done. He breathed a sigh of relief and said, “My kind of people at last!”

I have plenty of regrets. I hurt feelings. I took wrong positions. I was cowardly and kept silent when I should have stood up for the truth and justice. I neglected people I should have cared for. I said a lot of stupid things. I told jokes when I should have kept my mouth shut. I did not form a youth fellowship drama group. If I could, I would change many things. Still, I affirm who I have been, warts and all, regrets and all, because I know God forgives me, and so I can forgive myself.

Paul Tillich said that forgiveness doesn’t change the facts, but it changes the meaning of the facts.

To affirm the past, we must accept forgiveness for our mistakes. First we have to admit that we made mistakes.

John Robert McFarland

“Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt but in spite of doubt.” Rollo May

Wednesday, May 1, 2019


I think it was Robert Schuller, of all people, who said, perhaps 30 years or so ago: “If the Methodist Church did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it.”

His point was that all other denominations were either on the right or on the left of the theological/social spectrum. Only Methodism occupied the broad middle.

Chinua Achebe named his classic novel of African culture clash Things Fall Apart, from the line in W. B. Yeats poem, “The Second Coming:”

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.
 Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

That seems to be the way with the United Methodist Church as the center of the theological spectrum. Things are falling apart. The center is not holding. Anarchy is loosed. We are all saved by the blood, but some are more saved than others. We have lost our innocent conviction that the arc of history, or at least the arc of the church, bends toward justice. There is both a weary absence of conviction and misplaced passionate intensity.

In a similar vein to Schuller, U.S. Grant often said that America had three political parties: Republican, Democrat, and Methodist.

Methodism has always been the quintessential American denomination, the broad middle. As such, we have always harbored the best of Christian conviction and the worst of Christian separatism and exclusion and everything in between. In the Methodist manifestation called The United Methodist Church, the separatists and exclusionists have prevailed. Grant, a life-long and committed Methodist--committed to defeating the exclusionists without excluding them--must be turning over in Grant’s Tomb. [1]

Methodism, though, has never been primarily a church. It is a movement, and as such, it now must move on to new manifestations. Soon The UMC will be just a footnote in the history of bigotry, but Methodism will go on. I regret the demise of The UMC, but I am a Methodist, not just a United Methodist.

It turns out that The UMC does not have open doors, open hearts, and open minds, despite its claim, but the movement of Methodism has always had such, and continues to be open to all, regardless of how closed the doors and hearts and minds of its largest ecclesial entity might be.

Maybe the absent proofreaders had it right all along: Soon I shall be an Untied Methodist.

John Robert McFarland

[What it means to be a Methodist]

Do all the good you can
In all the ways you can
To all the souls you can
By all the means you can
In all the places you can
At all the times you can
As long as ever you can

[1] I highly recommend Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant, a recent Christmas present from historian daughter Katie Kennedy.