Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Sunday, June 30, 2019


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

This is Bob Morwell’s last Sunday as a full-time pastor. He is retiring today. He’s old enough. He’s also fed up with the hypocrisy of the United Methodist Church, proclaiming Open Doors and Open Minds and Open Hearts, but only if you’re heterosexual.

His retirement makes me feel old. Again. Older. I’ve been feeling old since the first of the students from my campus ministry days started retiring. Bob’s retirement after 41 years of ordained pastoring makes me feel old because I was there at the beginning of his career. Almost. He had been on staff at Wesley UMC in Charleston, IL for a year, his first after ordination, when we started working together there.

Bob was full of ideas and hopes and idealism. As always, however, the realities of the intransigence of all institutions, including the church, began to show up. That’s a jar to all of us who start out thinking people are in the church because they want to act like Christians. Sometimes he got discouraged. So did I, but as an older colleague, I felt it was my job to encourage him, regardless of how hopeless I felt myself. So I always reminded him, and myself, that God does not call us to be successful, but to be faithful.

He took that focus in and made it his own. He writes in farewell to his congregation at Carterville, IL First UMC: “Our task is to be faithful to our understanding of God’s will, and to be open to the possibility we might have more to learn. Our task, even in times of uncertainty is to be selflessly and humbly loving. I see no way to retire from that.” 

It is better--if you are an advocate for care for the oppressed and justice for all--to be successful, to achieve care and justice, but there are a lot of forces in the world that do not want love and inclusion and justice to prevail. They gain too much for themselves through exclusion and injustice.

The more self-centered you are, the more ruthless you are. You don’t care who gets hurt while you grab for what you want. If you are seeking justice, you do care. The non-caring ones always have a big advantage.

As this world gets hotter and nastier, with more and more people seeking only their own good, becoming more powerful as they do so, trampling anyone who gets in their way, caring not if the world goes down in flames as long as they are the ones with all the matches, it’s easy to get discouraged, to want just to back off and sit and complain.

Yes, we inclusive Christians want to be successful, but in the end, that’s not really up to us. What is up to us is the faithfulness with which we practice Christian love.

IU business professor Wain Martin was famous as the first prof to apply computer technology to business, and for writing the text books about it. More importantly in my mind, he was the icon of Christian generosity in Bloomington, IN for his whole, long life, especially to those with the hardest row to hoe, like those in prison, or just out of prison and finding all the cards stacked against them as they try to become good citizens. And Native Americans.

He used to make a lot of trips to the Dakota reservations with supplies for the needy. When he became too old to do so, a friend took his place. But he was dumbfounded on his first trip. He reported to Wain, “I took all that stuff to those people, and they gave it all away to others. There was nothing left for them.” Wain said simply, “Next time, take more stuff.”

Bob Morwell has tried to do that through his years—take to those in need more of his stuff, more of his advocacy and work for justice. He has been faithful even when it did not look like success.

When I am discouraged now, I turn to Bonaro Overstreet’s magnificent little poem:

You say the little efforts that I make
will do no good; they never will prevail
to tip the hovering scale
where justice hangs in balance.

I don’t think I ever thought they would,
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
in favor of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.

As I age, my stubborn ounces don’t weigh as much, but, if anything, like old folks are rumored to be, they are even more stubborn.

Happy retirement, Bob. May the world continue to feel your stubborn ounces as you enter the years of winter.

John Robert McFarland

Saturday, June 29, 2019


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections On Faith And Life For The Years Of Winter — 

It was the start of the second semester of my senior year at IU, the era of pencils instead of computers. The registrar’s office told me I could not register for classes until I had paid my fines from last semester. “What fines? I don’t owe any fines.” “Yes, you do. There’s a check mark beside your name.” “Okay, how much do I owe?” “We don’t know that here. You have to go to the place where you owe it to find out how much.” “Well, where do I owe?” “We don’t know that here. You’ll have to go to each of the departments where you might owe a fine and get them to give you a waiver that shows you don’t owe them anything.”

It was winter. Cold. Snow everywhere. IU is a pedestrian campus. No buses in those days. No scooters. Beautiful in the snow, but slow going. Nonetheless, I went. To the library. To the athletic department. To the book store. To the parking department. To The Indiana Daily Student newspaper. To the housing office. To the trolls under the Jordan River bridge. Every one of them gave me a document to take back to the registrar to prove I didn’t owe anything.

“Oh, some clerk must have put a check by your name when it was somebody else who actually owes a fine.” “You mean somebody else is getting away with being guilty while I’m the one who had to do all the work to prove I’m innocent?” “Yes,” the registrar said.

That’s the way that story ends and remains, to this day, more than 60 years later. That’s the way it will always be. Somebody got away with not paying a debt, and somebody else had to pay the price, not with money but with time and shoe leather, because a distracted clerk put a check mark on the wrong line. There are a lot of stories like that, in which the mistake and the payment are much more significant than my lost afternoon. And they end the same way—not like a Saturday matinee Western, where wrongs are always righted—but without resolution.

As old people, it’s okay to remember the times we feel we were on the receiving end of injustice. It’s not wise, however, to hang onto the story in order to feel again the anger and frustration. So I think instead about how great it was to be able to walk briskly that afternoon, without a single worry about losing my balance. About how beautiful the campus was in the snow, even on a gray day. About the satisfaction of proving I was not a debtor.

Those sorts of mistakes were understandable in my college days. Record keeping was cumbersome, especially in an institution that was used to a few hundred records and suddenly had thousands. Everything was done with paper and pen, often pencil.

Records were kept the same way for hundreds of years. Suddenly, there were typewriters. Almost immediately after typewriters came computers. The only constant is mistakes.

Vera Largent Watts, the Registrar at Garrett Theological Seminary, said that when I started there, they were still using paper and ink. While I was there, they went to manual typewriters. A decade later they went to electric typewriters. A decade later they went to computers. That’s when she retired.

Computers make things faster, but they don’t eliminate the mistakes, and they can multiply a mistake at warp speed. So in my memory, I keep walking the snowy pathways of my old campus, glad to have good legs and good memories.

John Robert McFarland

“The older we get, the fewer things seem waiting in line for.”

Friday, June 28, 2019

Are You Bloated Tonight?

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

The first time I heard Linda Luttrell sing was when we were in 7th grade. The last time was at our 50 year high school reunion.

“Three Little Words” was her solo at an assembly program in the old “Departmental” school building in Oakland City, IN. I recall thinking, “She sounds just like someone you’d hear on the radio.” She was that good.

In between 7th grade and our 50 year reunion, she sang many solos, earning degrees in music, becoming a classically trained and beautifully voiced music professor.

And just as a classy and classical soprano aria soloist would do it, she sang this after supper at the all-school banquet that featured our class as the honored guests for our 50 years. It is, of course, to the tune of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” It was written by Roy Turk and Lou Handman in 1926, but made popular by Elvis Presley in 1960.

Are you bloated tonight
Does your tummy feel tight
Did you bring your Mylanta and Tums

Does your memory stray
To that bright sunny day
When you had all your teeth and your gums

Is your hairline receding?
Your eyes growing dim
Hysterectomy for her
And it’s prostate for him

Does your back give you pain?
Do your knees predict rain?
Tell me dear, are you bloated tonight?

Is your blood pressure up
Good cholesterol down
Are you eating your low fat cuisine

All that oat bran and fruit
Metamucil to boot
Makes you run like
A well oiled machine

If it’s football or baseball
He sure knows the score
Yes he knows where it’s at
But forgets what it’s for

So your gallbladder’s gone
But your gout lingers on
Tell me dear, are you bloated tonight?

When you’re hungry, he’s not,
When you’re cold, he is hot,
Then you start that old thermostat war

When you turn out the light
He goes left and you go right
Then you get his great symphonic snore

He was once so romantic
So witty and smart
How did he turn out to be such
A cranky old fart?

So don’t take any bets
It’s as good as it gets
Tell me dear, are you bloated tonight?

John Robert McFarland

“How did I get over the hill without ever getting to the top of it?”

Wednesday, June 26, 2019


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

When I pastored in Charleston, IL, we had a lot of young [22-35] singles in our congregation. Our campus minister, to Eastern IL U, George Loveland, was one of them. He and Helen were cooking buddies. He complained to her one day that one of the biggest problems of cooking as a single was left-overs. “Even if you try to cut a recipe down, you have to eat the same thing for a week,” said George. “Well,” said Helen, “let’s have a supper group at our house for singles where you all bring your leftovers. We’ll have a good church fellowship group, and you all can get rid of your leftovers.”

It worked great, except there were several EIU Home Ec professors in the group, and they were not about to bring leftovers when they could show off their culinary skills with new dishes. We ate great, and had good fellowship, but George died with a refrigerator full of leftovers.

One night the guys had all left and the women began to tell horror stories, the ones involving the bathrooms of guys they dated, or where they went to parties. There seemed to be large aggregations of unidentified green things growing in those bathrooms. The women vowed that they would never go to those particular apartments again.

I mentioned it to Eli Sidwell, Charleston’s leading realtor and landlord.
“Well,” he said, “apartment women aren’t so great at cleaning themselves, but yes, the guys are worse. But those are straight guys. I don’t understand people being so anti-gay. You rent to gay guys and they leave the place better than it was when they moved in.”

I don’t think that’s in the Top Ten Reasons Why Gays Should Be Treated Like Everybody Else, but it worked for Eli.

I saw Eli’s obit in the paper last week. He was 86, and the obit pic was current, but he was still a strikingly handsome man. He was one of the leading Republicans in IL, the man who started Charleston’s own Jim Edgar into politics and shepherded him all the way to the governor’s mansion.

He was a true businessman, thinking always in business terms, even trying to convince me that the church was actually a business, with me as the proprietor. I explained that if the church is a business, then the customers are the owners, and I was just the maintenance man. I don’t think we ever connected on that, but it was okay, because he thought the church’s business was selling goodness, not making money, and that’s sort of neat.

He was highly successful as a business man. Most of all, he was a highly successful human being, a staunch church member, a constant supporter of mine--even though we were many furlongs removed in politics--just because I was his pastor. I liked and respected Eli. I pray for the passage of his soul and for the good memories of his loved ones. He sold a lot of goodness in his days.

There has been much speculation recently about why attitudes toward gays have changed so much from exclusion to acceptance in such a short period of time. I doubt that keeping the bathrooms of rental units clean is one of the major reasons, but if you give a decent human being like Eli any chance to exercise his innate goodness… that’s a good start.

John Robert McFarland

“At the end of the day, I’d rather be excluded because of who I include than be included because of who I exclude.” Rev. Eston Williams. The “Sizzle” site says the original source is Caleb Miller.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith & Life For the Years of Winter—

I learned that from the late Joe Frazier, the baritone in The Chad Mitchell Trio [CMT], the great folk group of the 1960s. We were in our special lounge on the MS Amsterdam cruise ship, late at night, with Joe and the eponymous Chad and Mike Kobluk, and the regular musicians for the trio—Paul Prestopino and Ron Greenstein and Bob Heffernan—and other CMT fans.

Helen and I are not cruise people, but the trio had reunited to do an autumn foliage cruise with their fans, up the Canadian Atlantic coastline, and we were on the cruise because Joe had asked me to help him write a book about his life in the mode of my memoir, The Strange Calling. Since Joe lived in Big Bear Lake, CA, and we lived in Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the logical way to get together was on a cruise in the Atlantic.

The trio did several formal concerts, and at night we gathered informally in our lounge to sing all the old CMT favorites. Sometimes we sang along with the trio, sometimes we just listened.

This particular night, it was late, and Joe was tired and not feeling well, and he got up to leave, just as someone called for Mike to sing his lovely version of “Four Strong Winds,” by Ian Tyson. Joe was half-way through the door and rather dejectedly turned around and took up a stance behind Mike, to sing the background harmony he had always sung on that piece.

“Go on,” Mike said to him. “You’re tired. I can do this by myself.”

“No, you can’t,” replied Joe. “You can’t do your own woo-woos.”

Those were Joe’s background sounds, sort of like the four strong winds themselves, as Mike sang. Yes, Mike can sing that song by himself, and wonderful it is when he does it, but the trio had a long history of working out arrangements that enhanced a song to its fullest, and on “Four Strong Winds,” that was when Joe did his woo-woos.

There are a lot of things we can do by ourselves, but they go better if there is someone to harmonize with the woo-woos, and you can’t do your own woo-woos.

John Robert McFarland

“Are you goin’ away with no word of farewell, will there be not a trace left behind? I could have loved you better, didn’t mean to be unkind. You know that was the last thing on my mind.” Tom Paxton wrote those words, but I always hear them in the voice of Joe Frazier.

In 1962, Milt Okun, the musical director of The CMT, heard a demo by a totally unknown kid who had changed his name to Bob Dylan. The CMT immediately recognized its potential and tried to record it as a single, but their record label wouldn’t let them—they thought it was a loser song. Next the CMT tried to use it as one song in an album, but their recording firm again refused. So Okun gave “Blowin’ In The Wind” to another group for which he was musical director, “Peter, Paul, and Mary.” It went to # 2 on the charts, and so CMT was forever trailing PPM and The Kingston Trio in popularity and record sales, even though the CMT was far better musically.

Monday, June 24, 2019


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

There is within us from birth the desire to dominate—to have our own way—and the desire to cooperate—to consider the needs of others as well as our own. Theologically, these are “original sin” and “prevenient grace.”

Especially in our early years, but true mostly all the way to puberty, we dominate or cooperate according to our own internal state at the moment. It’s the “if I’m not with the girl I love, I love the girl I’m with” syndrome. If I’m feeling unhappy within myself as a four year old, I take it out in mean behavior on whoever I’m with, even if it’s the most important person in the world, the one who loves me most. If I’m feeling happy and secure and content as a four year old, I am kind to whoever I am with, even though they may be nasty people who are themselves not kind to me or anyone else.

Most of us grow out of that four year old state and begin to be able to relate to other persons as other persons, rather than only as projections of our own internal state. Some never do. You can name some of those folks.

At puberty, those twins begin to separate. Some people become dominators and some cooperators. Oh, we are never completely one or the other. Mafia hitmen are notoriously kind to animals. But our actions—in family and politics and sports and business and all the rest of life—tend to become either dominating or cooperating.

Most who are dominators are not very competent at it, but it is the only way they know how to relate to the world. So they cheer on the ones who are skilled enough and ruthless enough at dominating, even if they themselves suffer from the domination system. They get the emotional satisfaction of domination by proxy.

I learned a long time ago the maxim that we don’t vote for candidates but we vote for ourselves. I thought that meant we voted for candidates who would serve our interests. More recently, I have come to understand that we don’t primarily vote for candidates who represent our interests but for those who share our emotions, even if those candidates carry out policies that are bad for us and our own interests.

In politics or economics or church, you don’t vote your interests, you vote your character. You vote who you are. So look at who you vote for and realize: you’re looking in the mirror.

That’s why I’m a conservative; I think character matters. That’s why I’m a liberal; you can’t trust in character alone because some people are bad characters.

John Robert McFarland

I know. These posts are supposed to include a whimsical or slightly humorous story. Sorry about today’s.

A new reader of these musings asked me the reason for the title. I started writing this blog when we followed the grandchildren to Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where winter is 13 months long every year. I sub-titled it “reflections on faith and life from a place of winter for the years of winter.” I was 70 then and thought I was in the years of winter. I had no idea how young 70 is! That was just December. Now I’m deep into January!

Sunday, June 23, 2019


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

Be warned: this is longer than usual, [850 words instead of the usual 500 or so] and mostly a memoir.

I think that “confirmation” is one of the most important thing a church can do, because in it, we are confirming that each person counts.

I have been through a lot of confirmation Sundays, enough that they run together in memory, vaguely. Four, however, stand out, because of who I got to share them with. [Yes, but it sounds better having the “with” at the end.]

Granddaughter Brigid’s confirmation is memorable primarily because Grandma was her mentor, and they were so disgusted with the level of the confirmation materials that they devised their own. Later Helen asked Marcus Borg to write a confirmation-level version of The Heart of Christianity, since she had used it with Brigid and thought others should get to. He said that he could not write at that level, but she could, since she had been a teacher, so she should do it and he’d put both their names on it and get his publisher, HarperSanFrancisco, to publish it. Alas, that never got done, but that confirmation was important because we got to do it with our granddaughter.

The first confirmation that I remember was my own, and older sister Mary V’s, at East Park Methodist in Indianapolis. I was 9 and she was 13. There weren’t many kids in the church, and the pastor figured he’d better get us all confirmed while there were enough for a class, especially since the actual confirmation process involved standing up in front of the church and reciting together stuff that we had memorized. You feel better at a time like that if there are more kids around you to drown you out.

We had a class, I’m sure, but I can’t remember anything about it. It was probably during Sunday School. Mostly it was memorization. Probably Psalm 23 and such, but all I remember was the Apostle’s Creed. We were covered from the stock of robes in the church basement, various sizes of white, and stood up in front together and mumbled. Mary V and I both said after, only to each other, that the Apostles’ Creed was the only thing we were able to get through without gaps.

That confirmation was important to me because East Park was my first church, and I felt at home there. The people were affirming, especially when I was the young shepherd in “Why the Chimes Rang.” Mostly it was important because I got to do it with my sister.

The second important confirmation was similar to the first, in that it was a multi-age group. I was preaching at Stanwood and Red Oak Grove Presbyterian churches, near Tipton, Iowa, while I did doctoral work in Iowa City. They had quite a few children, about a dozen, who could be considered confirmation age. The people were eager to get them confirmed while they had a preacher who was willing to do it.

Daughter Mary Beth was confirmation age, so we would drive out together on Wednesday nights to do confirmation class. The women of the churches prepared a supper, a nice one. Then we had class.

In those days I was into writing my own materials and developing all sorts of unusual ways of confirmation education. The parents thought it was great. The kids were all cooperative and willing to participate, But mostly this confirmation was important because I got to do it with my daughter.

My last confirmation class was at Tampico, IL, when I did a part-time interim year there in retirement. We had class on Sunday mornings, since that was easiest for Helen and me. They had a big group, about a dozen kids, who fit the usual confirmation age, young teens, so we were able to do young teen stuff. The wonderful TV show, “Joan of Arcadia,” where God would appear to teen Joan in the guise of everyone from a linesman to the cafeteria line lady, was on in those days. It was required watching for confirmation class. At least one kid didn’t have the correct TV connections to get it [no live streaming and YouTube and such in those days] so a cooperative adult church member taped it and took it to him.

We had mentors who came to class with the kids and sat with them in worship and talked with them after worship about what we had done in worship and why. We talked every week about “our friend, Joan.” I wrote a “Confirmation Times” newsletter every week that reflected on worldly events and how we might see God there—more questions than answers.

This was a great confirmation experience, because the whole church was so enthusiastic and supportive and eager to get kids confirmed while they had a preacher who could do it, and because the mentors took their jobs both seriously and joyfully, and because the kids enjoyed participating so much. Mostly, though, this confirmation was important to me because I got to do it with my wife.

I think that “confirmation” is one of the most important thing a church can do, because in it, we are confirming that each person counts.

John Robert McFarland

Freud’s method was called “the talking cure.” Jesus practiced the walking cure. “Come, follow me.”

Saturday, June 22, 2019


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

Yes, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, as Gail Honeyman assures us, but she has a heart-wrenching and hilarious time getting that way. I am reluctant to recommend fiction, because fiction tastes are so subjective, but GH is a superb writer, so much so that you don’t even notice how well she writes, and Eleanor’s is a completely intriguing story. Actually two stories at once, the public Eleanor and the hidden Eleanor, and GH parcels out each piece of the secret story at just the right moment.

Not a word about religion in the whole book, except for an occasional “Jesus Christ!” said in disgust, but GH deals subtly with good and evil, isolation and salvation, guilt and forgiveness, being and non-being without ever using those words.

According to the cover, Reese Witherspoon is making a movie out of the book.

It’s the best novel I’ve read in a long time, and I thank Marsha Huberty for recommending it to Helen.

John Robert McFarland

“Jesus Christ has saved many people who never knew his name.” C.S. Lewis

Friday, June 21, 2019


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

Our younger daughter did not call me for Fathers Day until Monday. Her gift had not arrived by Sunday, so she assumed that Fathers Day was postponed until it got here. This is the daughter who has our medical power of attorney, which is a bit troubling, in case the defibrillator is slow in arriving.

Her biggest worry about the parcel delay seems to be that the bows on the packages will be mashed because of all the transit by the time they get here. Like I will notice if the bows are mashed, or if they exist.

The main point of all that, as far as old people is concerned—and the concerns of old people is the excuse for these Christ In Winter columns, so I have to give such concerns a nod—is that your children will never understand you, and you’ll never understand your children, no matter how old they get, or how old you get.

This column is really about package bows, but I couldn’t figure out how to make that part of “reflections for old people,” so I’ll just relate this story because Helen just told it and I don’t want to forget to use it…

As part of her Master’s at IL State U, Helen took a course in The Art and Culture of the Pennsylvania Dutch. She liked the idea, and the course, and the instructor, but she really took it because it was offered on Thursday night. Ostensibly, her degree was an MS in Home Ec, but it was really an MSTN, Master of Science in Thursday Night, since that was the night I was available to babysit.

Her instructor was a Pennsylvania Dutch native, and went home to that area for Christmas. On the way back to IL, she had engine trouble. A hose came apart. No auto repair people were available, so being a home ec type, she got into her trunk, to get something to tie the hose together. When the auto shop in Normal, IL opened after Christmas break, they popped the engine hood and found a red ribbon with a big red bow from a Christmas gift neatly wrapped around the cracked hose. Home Ec people are like that—both practical and beautiful. [1]

John Robert McFarland

1] I figured after yesterday’s column, this would be a good time to say this.

Thursday, June 20, 2019


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

Monday I did errands and walked The Polly Grimshaw Trail [1] and stopped by St. Mark’s Beside the Inner-City Hay Field to see if I could get some funeral business from suicidal VBS teachers.

When I returned home, there were no curtains on the window in my study. Apparently they had been crying out for laundering, although I had felt no need or desire for cleaner curtains, but that was okay.

Apparently they had not been returned to the window because they had not been ironed. I felt no need or desire for unwrinkled curtains, but apparently they wanted or needed that extra step, and that was okay.

Apparently they received ironing on Tuesday, for in the morning, the lower-half curtains were in place on the window when I returned from walking. There is a ruffly top curtain, however, that was not in place. But that was okay.

After lunch Helen said, “Do you want to take a nap or help me hang the curtains in your study?” I have been married a long time, so I knew the right answer.

Helen has always been appreciative of my willingness to help. Once she told me, “Thank you for all you’re doing around the house today, including the stuff you don’t know about yet.”

I pulled furniture away from the window. Helen processed in with the clean curtains, that looked a lot to me like the old curtains, and proceeded to select a pair of pliers from the stein on my desk. [This sort of thing happens quite a bit at our house, and so instead of keeping all the tools in the garage, I have a selection of pliers and screwdrivers on my desk.]

She said, “You should probably be doing this, because you can reach higher than I can, but I really like to do this sort of thing.”

She proceeded to use the pliers to re-shape the curtain rod attachment on the right end, so that the rod would no longer fit on it, and then dropped one of the nails, which she could not find, and said, “Maybe you should do this.”

I reshaped the attachment to its original condition. There was a one-step footstool available, but I fall off if I don’t have something to lean against, so I went to the garage and got the step ladder and climbed up with the curtain rod with the fluffy clean and ironed curtains and fitted the rod ends down onto the attachments.

Helen said, “It must be frustrating to be married to me.” I’ve been married a long time. I knew the correct answer to that.

John Robert McFarland

1] I envy Polly. If one gets to have an eponymous architectural or geographical feature, I think a trail would be really cool.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019


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

I think what success I had as a minister was due largely to my conservatism.

When I was the Wesley Foundation campus minister at IN State U, I was friends with a whole raft of young professors who came there at the same time I did. Andre’ Hammonds in Sociology, Jim Knoblauch in Business, Bob Epps and Bob Clouse and Richard Pierard in History, Phyllis Graham in math, Rich Stephens in Education. 

Rich was a very active Free Methodist church layman and went on to become president of Greenville [IL] College [now Greenville University]. He and I were chatting one day about the role of a pastor. He said, “I need my pastor to be more conservative than I am.”

That surprised me. From what I had seen of the church, I thought a pastor had to be more liberal than the congregation, to pull people out of their conservatism, out of their ruts.

Rich explained, “I am personally conservative. But I need to be liberal in dealing with other people. That’s the Jesus way. So I need a pastor who is a little more conservative than I am to be my anchor, so I can venture out into more liberal waters, but know I have someone to pull me back if I get into danger. If my pastor is more liberal than I, then as I try to follow him, if he gets too far ahead, I might drown.”

I’m not sure I ever fully understood that, and no pastor can be just the right mixture of conservative and liberal, because each person in the congregation is a different mixture than any other. As I look back on my career, though, I think I fulfilled Rich’s maxim most of the time by being conservative in dealing with myself, but, as he wanted to be, liberal in dealing with others, trying to find ways to include rather than exclude, even if, especially if, the “others” were not like me. As Rich said, because it’s the Jesus way.

By conservative personally, I mean that I was opposed to booze, drugs, promiscuity, gambling, tobacco, profanity, greed, lust, pornography, envy, adultery, lying, etc. All the traditionals. The ones that don’t seem to matter much to people who call themselves conservative or evangelical in the 21st century. I was not perfect, especially when it came to envy—mostly of people who got grandchildren before I did—but I was generally pretty consistent in personal conservatism, so anyone who needed a more conservative pastor could assume I filled that role.

But theologically and politically I was liberal, meaning I was more eager to try new ways of living the Gospel, that fit the present time, than requiring people to live it in the old ways, that fit a former time, more eager to include than to exclude. I wanted to gain converts instead of burn heretics.

Unfortunately, today “conservative” has little to do with “my” behavior but everything to do with “your” behavior. “Liberal” has little to do with anybody’s behavior. Do I sound like an old guy, or what?

But I’m not an old guy, because society won’t let me be one. I was so looking forward to being a curmudgeon in my old age and criticizing others for being too liberal, for wanting to try new ways that I don’t like because they are different from my old ways. Instead, no one else is willing to be personally conservative while being socially liberal. I have to keep being me. This has NOT turned out the way I hoped!

John Robert McFarland

“If you don’t learn to laugh at trouble, you won’t have anything to laugh at when you’re old.”

This is Vacation Bible School week at St. Mark’s Down From the Polly Grimshaw Trail. I stopped by about 11:00 Monday to see if I could pick up a little extra funeral business, assuming a teacher or two would have committed suicide. I told the director why I was there. “Come back Wednesday,” she said.

And I should have put in a plug for There’s No Wrong Way to Pray before VBS got started all over the place, but it’s good for Sunday School, and home, anytime. Written by ten-year-old Kate Watson, with a little help from her mother, Pastor Rebecca Ninke, with delightful illustrations by Liam Darcy, it’s published by Beaming Books and available from B&N, Target, Amazon, etc.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019


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

In yesterday’s column, I mentioned the statue of Herman B [That’s right; there’s no period.] Wells-- and I called Hermie, as we students always referred to him, with great affection--“IU’s perpetual president.” And he is, even though his more recent presidential years have been in brass. Daughter Katie Kennedy, the famous YA author, [1] posted a Fathers Day picture of Helen and me with the statue of Hermie, seated on a bench in the middle of the campus he loved so much.

He was a business prof at IU, starting in 1930, and was named acting president in 1937. From 1938 to 1962 he was president, and from 1962 to his death in 2000, he was chancellor.

Hermie insisted that education was done best when surrounded by beauty, music, drama art, academic freedom, foreign languages and foreign students, and people of all skin colors. He insisted on that for a long time. Although other presidents, like Clark Kerr and Nathan Pusey, got the publicity, Hermie was the most important figure in higher education in the 20th century, for his stances on academic freedom and civil rights and international education. He never married. IU was his passion. It got all his attention. He was famous for personally signing every diploma IU granted—thousands of them—during his presidential years.

We need models when we are young, people we can look to and say, “Oh, that’s how life is to be lived.” We need models when we are old, too. Hermie is the image of gracious aging. He became president when he was only 35. Every day until he died at 98, he got up thinking, “What can I do today to make IU a better place?” Like all old folks, his energy lessened, but his focus and his love did not.

Terry Clepacs was the IU vice-president, in charge of buildings, grounds and statues, for the last 40 years, until he retired in 2009, and oversaw the building of more than 450 buildings on the various IU campuses, which is why the Bloomington campus is considered the prettiest anywhere; it is “beautiful by design.” Terry carried out Hermie’s vision for education enhanced by beauty. He oversaw the creation of the statue to honor Hermie.

VP Clepacs is a member of our church, and his wife was Phyllis Wiseman as an IU student, and that was the name of my high school girlfriend, so we have a lot in common. [Well, only church and girlfriends, but those are both important.] Terry told our XYZ group [old people] at church about overseeing the statue of Hermie.

The sculptor was a U of MN grad, and the statue was being dedicated on a football homecoming Saturday when IU was playing MN. Unknown to anyone else, on the underside brim of Hermie’s hat, which sits beside him on the bench, he had inscribed “Go, Gophers.”

He told Terry about it later and said that since the game was over, he would buff it out. “Oh, no,” said Terry, “Hermie would love it.” So it remains. You have to get down on your knees and look up into Hermie’s hat, but there it is.

Sam Braden was IU academic VP for a long time under Hermie, and became president of IL State U while I was campus minister there. At his inaugural banquet, Dr. Braden told of how he had gone to the U of WI for his doctorate in economics, as Hermie had done before him. They even had the same advisor. And like Hermie before him, Braden came to IU to be a prof in the business school.

“Now don’t be like Herman Wells,” his advisor said, “and go down there to IU and not ever get your dissertation finished.”

After I got to IU, Sam told us, I wrote him and said, “But Herman Wells is president!”

And so he remains, forever, with a secret under his hat.

John Robert McFarland

1] Learning to Swear in America and What Goes Up, both published by Bloomsbury, which also publishes lesser authors, like JK Rowling.

Monday, June 17, 2019

CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter — TALKING OURSELVES INTO THE WORLD

Friday night we went to a concert on the steps of the IU Union building, by a band listed on the publicity flyer as the So n So’s. [Where is The Apostrophe Protection Society when you really need it?] They cover 80s and 90s songs, which means all their offerings were far too new for us ever to have heard of them. None of them were done originally by Guy Lombardo or Lawrence Welk, or even one of the new groups, like The Beatles.

The concert, of course, was not designed for old people. It was arranged by the IU Union Board, which advertises itself as “IU’s largest student programming body.” I saw a notice about it on Facebook, and I knew we’d be the only old people there, but it sounded like something we could talk ourselves into doing.

We decided recently that we needed to start doing that—talking ourselves into going out into the world—because of the meddling of Gloria Emerson, who recently told Helen that she and Joe had been talking themselves out of going out and felt they were too young just to sit around home all the time, and so they needed to reverse that approach. Since they are five years older than we, well, you can see what happened. We went to a student concert, with a band called the So n So’s…

It’s a good thing we did, because not only we the only old people there, we were the only people there. The only “real” people—audience. We weren’t the only bodies present, but the other 16 were all required to be there--the band, the band’s tech guys, a couple of band parents, reporters and photographers from both local newspapers, the food truck and snow cone truck people, members of the Union Board, in their identifying t-shirts. There were many people, including students, walking the sidewalks in the pleasant evening air, only a block away, in front of The Gables on Indiana Ave, and up and down Kirkwood Ave, but either they had not gotten the publicity, or they had heard the So n So’s before.

There were no chairs. The Union Board folks had set up a dozen high tables, the kind where you stand and lean your elbows on as you sip the drink you got at the bar, if you were at a drinking establishment, but we found a concrete retaining wall. No back support, but better than standing. There was a fairly stiff breeze, which kept pushing a garbage can on casters up against me, but I managed to keep it from rolling on toward the statue of Herman B Wells, IU’s perpetual president, by keeping my knee against it.

It was really quite a pleasant evening. The breeze was stiff but gentle, the air was dry, the band well-tuned, although tuneless. We enjoyed ourselves. Along about the fourth song, though, a couple with two little girls showed up, and our backs were hurting, so we snuck off behind the black bar-b-q truck with the big “Follow the smoke” sign and went home for ice cream floats. [Dr. Vucescu, please note that I had already taken my diabetes medicine.]

I’m glad we went. It’s so easy when you’re old and it gets dark early in the evening and it’s cold and snowy out, and there is a game or “Big Bang Theory” rerun on TV… it’s so easy to talk yourself out of going off into the world. When you can see to drive all the way to nine o’clock, and you don’t go to bed until 9:22 anyway, and the air is pleasant, and the air is full of music, you need to remember that the world is still there, and you still belong in it. Even if we don’t feel like it, we need to talk ourselves into going out into that world. So the next time we hear that the So n So’s are playing, we’re going to tell Joe and Gloria.

However, I read in our church newsletter that one of our musicians is forming a small, mobile “choir” to go to the homes of old people to sing hymns and folk songs, a cover band for Charles Wesley and Stephen Foster. I want to be supportive of our church’s ministries, and this one can’t be successful unless they have homes where the people stay put so that they can come sing, so I think…

John Robert McFarland

“Home is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to.”

[Rock ‘n Roll is about the first half of that sentence; Country is about the second half.]

Sunday, June 16, 2019


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

I am the third verse
You do not know my words
Yet my words are those
That prepare you for the last verse
You think that if you do not sing
Me, the fourth verse will never
Come, but it will, and you will not be
Because you do not know me
I am the third verse

John Robert McFarland

The date on this poem is 6-22-08. I thought a decade or so ago that I was deep enough into winter that I could think about getting ready for life’s last verse. I’ve been singing the third verse for a long time now.

Saturday, June 15, 2019


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

[If you are looking for the column “The UMC is Conservative but Not Mean,” you need to scroll down to F, 6-14-19]

I think I was one of the first annual conference vote organizers in Methodism, along with Miley Palmer and Jack Newsome and Dick McGuire. Collectively, we were known, not affectionately, to the power structure of the Central IL Conference as The BNC Ring, because Miley and Jack pastored in Bloomington, and I in Normal, and Dick in Colfax.

This comes to mind as regional conferences around the country end their week-long annual conferences, in which they elected clergy and laity delegates for the 2020 General Conference, the total denomination meeting that will decide the future of the Divided Methodist Church.

It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when campaigning for a position was the surest way not to get it. That was not true of politics, of course, but if you wanted to be class president or prom queen or a delegate to General Conference, you had to wait patiently with an “aw, shucks” pose and attitude. What you had to do to get elected as an annual conference representative to the General Conference was attain a position in the conference power structure, as a District Superintendent [DS] or some other major administrative position, or as the pastor of a big church. All those elected were from that power structure. It was automatic.

But in the late 1960s, things were changing, and the power structure, church or otherwise, did not want to acknowledge the changes. The power structure folks benefited by keeping things as they were, be it race relations or war profits. Because of this, young people were dropping out, especially from the church. Our numbers—membership, worship attendance, etc—were going down fast. The BNC Ring thought we needed to do something about it.

I remember talking to a DS about a major church that had declined in membership from four thousand to two thousand in just a few years. I thought that church needed a change in leadership, in order to fulfill its mission. “Oh, he’ll retired in a few years, and then it will come back up,” the DS said. It was clear he just didn’t want to deal with it. Also, he was wrong. And he was delegate to General Conference.

The BNC Ring decided we needed to elect new, younger delegates to General Conference, the legislative and leadership and programming group for the entire denomination. The GC needed to start doing things in new ways, and we were sure it would not if it were filled with just the same old people who met every four years to ignore the problems.

We weren’t trying to get ourselves elected. That would be neither seemly nor possible. But we had a slate of folks who were old enough to be experienced and electable, but young enough to be willing to try new ideas.

I asked one of our friends—same age, seminary classmate—to vote for our slate of delegates to General Conference, explaining to him that we needed new blood to make necessary changes, since the old guard obviously would not make those changes. “No,” he replied. “I think the District Superintendents and the pastors of the big churches have earned their way into those positions and thus earned the honor of being a delegate to General Conference.”

He was neither venal nor stupid. But he lived by an honor code. That’s been our problem for a long time. Being a leader is not an honor, it’s a responsibility. Leaders in the church are not in their positions to enforce the laws of the past or to enjoy the plaudits of the crowd, but to show us how to be disciples of Christ in the now.

Throughout the whole Divided Methodist Church, a lot of dishonorable people were elected in the last couple of weeks. That bodes well for the church.

John Robert McFarland

“We just sat around waiting to die, and we’re not going to do THAT again!”

Friday, June 14, 2019


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

That’s a rather unwieldy title, but a title should give the readers a reasonable chance of knowing what the subject is, and that’s the best I could come up with.

Here is the main point: Most American Christians are conservative. They are in favor of punishment for crimes, but not for sins, and the conservative, anti-gay movement in the United Methodist Church did not count on that in the 2019 special UMC General Conference when they garnered enough votes to keep “The Traditional Plan” for the church, in which we do not allow gay marriage or gay ordination. Now they are surprised at the strong backlash.

I don’t mean that most Christians are “conservative” like the current definition of “evangelical,” people who have sold their souls to white supremacy or Trumpism in irrational ways. I mean just regular Christians. They prefer change to come slowly, if at all. They don’t want the boat rocked. They are “law and order” folks, who are glad to punish folks who are, or might be, guilty of criminal activity.

But they are very reluctant to punish fellow Christians for trying to be sincere followers of Jesus, even if they don’t agree with them. They were fine with The Traditional Plan—homosexuals are people of sacred worth but they shouldn’t be married in the church or be pastors. But they balked at throwing bishops out of the church for ordaining gays or throwing preachers out for doing weddings for them, add-ons to The Traditional Plan at the 2019 GC.

[Everything beyond this paragraph is explanation of the point just made, so it will be boring to read, for there are none of my usual almost-humorous asides, so read further at your own peril.]

Our friend, Paul Baker, a sociologist of religion before becoming Illinois State University’s Distinguished Professor of Education, said that you always know a church is failing when they build a new steeple. [He meant that both literally and figuratively.] It’s a last attempt to rally the congregation into thinking it’s succeeding by making an add-on to something that has really already failed. The harsh and stringent punitive add-ons to The Traditional Plan is an add-on to failure. The anti-gay movement in the UMC and the public in general has already failed, for the vast majority of Christians know that homosexuality is a born-with condition instead of a choice, and that the idea the Bible is against homosexuality is just a smoke-screen for not wanting to face the “ick” factor.

I think the evangelicals in the United Methodist Church overplayed their hand on the issue of whether to allow gay marriage and gay ordination in the denomination, by including stringent punishment provisions for those who break the rules of what they call “The Traditional Plan,” including throwing them out.

There are hateful individual Methodists, who get satisfaction from punishment of others, and there are hateful congregations and entire denominations that are punishers, but Methodists in general are non-punishers, be they conservative or liberal. I think that is true of “mainline” denominations in general, such as Presbyterians and Disciples and Lutherans and the UCC, etc.

Close to half of UMC members, if not more than half, are “conservative,” but they feel ill-at-ease with punishing fellow church members who are sincere in their beliefs, even if those beliefs are different from their own.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association and other backers of “The Traditional Plan” for excluding gays from the church, at least from marriage and ordination, counted, correctly, on enough church members being anti-gay that they could get a majority vote for the continuation of the traditional ways. But the UM exclusion of gays from ordination and marriage in the church up until 2019 did not carry a punishment provision, other than the general punishment provision for anyone who broke any church doctrine. The WCA and its fellow-travelers did not count on so many fellow conservatives being unwilling to go along with specific severe punishments of bishops who ordain gay clergy and pastors who marry gay couples. There is a blatant hypocrisy in singling out that particular breaking of the rules for severe punishment and ignoring other rule breakers.

There is a huge backlash against the Traditional Plan as passed by the special 2019 General Conference of The UMC, and a lot of it is from folks who would be quite happy to continue to refuse church marriage and ordination to gays, but who are not willing to be punishers. That’s a hopeful sign for the future of the church, regardless of what happens next in regard to church organization.

The UMC is basically a center-right conservative bunch, but it is not hateful. Neither our liberals nor our conservatives are punishers. That’s a good start on being Christian.

John Robert McFarland

“There is no greater pathos in the spiritual life than the cruelty of righteous people.” Reinhold Niebuhr

Thursday, June 13, 2019


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

Each second Monday in January, when we lived in Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where winter is thirteen months long, we went to a potluck supper at the home of Dean and Bette Premo, because Bryan Bowers, the famous folk singer/auto harpist was at Fortune Lake Lutheran Camp the night before, doing the concert part for the Premo’s Second Sunday Folk Dance, and Bryan had spent the night with Dean and Bette, and they needed help in entertaining him.

Except for Mountain Man Mike, Helen and I were the only non-musicians. We were invited because Mountain Man Mike makes a fabulous bear stew, and everybody loved Helen’s tropical beet salad, and anything else she brought, and I could keep the multi-talented but somewhat unpredictable Bryan under control, since, for some unknown reason, he thought I was an old 1960s hippie poet and so liked to get my opinion on his own poetry.

After supper, folks uncased their instruments, and we went into the living room to play and sing. All around the top of that room--which the Premos call “the front parlor,” which gives name to The Front Parlor Dance Band, the group that plays for the dancing part of the Second Sunday Folk Dance, a room large enough to hold twenty people, many of them playing stringed instruments--runs a book shelf, from the kitchen, above the double sliding doors to the deck that overlooks Fire Lake, turning the corner at the end where the violinists sat, and finally stopping over the piano, on the wall beside the bedroom where we piled the coats, a pile so big, this being the UP, where everyone has to wear a parka, a snowmobile suit, insulated boots and a fur cap [and that’s just inside], that it took twenty minutes to find your own coat in amongst the others.

It is a deep and tall shelf, for it holds dozens of cardboard archive boxes, the kind that are about a foot high and only four inches wide, the sort that libraries use to shelve stuff that doesn’t stand up on its own.

Bette and Dean both have PhDs from Michigan State University. She is a limnologist and he is an environmentalist. They own and run White Water Associates, an environmental consulting firm, but their first love is music. They perform under the name of White Water. Their children, Evan and Laurel, were part of White Water from the time they were little, but as grown-up, married, professional musicians, they no longer live in the UP, so the mother-daughter duo of pianist Susan and fiddler/clog dancer Carrie Dlutkowski are now part of White Water. Carrie’s sister, Emma, also a fiddler/clog dancer, plays with them when she can get away from her job as a park ranger.

I knew that Dean had built that house himself, into the hill beside Fire Lake, deep in the woods, with a sauna outside, and a huge wood shed, large enough to house his parents originally, too. [The house, not the wood shed.] So it was he who put that shelf high up all around the parlor. I assumed those boxes must contain research from his doctoral work. One night, though, I enquired about it. No, it was not his research. It was the research of Dean’s major professor. It was probably out of date even when that erstwhile professor retired, but he could not bear to part with all that represented his life’s work, the stuff he had worked on so hard for so long, so he gave it all to Dean.

Poor Dean! What do you do with a white elephant like that? He could not refuse; that would dishonor a man who had helped him so much. He built a long and winding shelf for those archive boxes. There all that old research still sits. No one has looked into any of those boxes since the day many years before when they were placed on that shelf. Dean’s old professor has been dead for decades.

Try, though, as we might, even with all our might, to continue our time on earth, by passing on our “stuff,” be it material or emotional, our time will eventually come to an end, even if those who respect us are willing to humor us by building a place for our stuff.

Some day, Evan and Laurel will have to deal with the stuff on that shelf. Should you think about buying a house on Fire Lake, don’t agree to take it “as is.”

John Robert McFarland

We are living right now in somebody’s “good old days.”

Wednesday, June 12, 2019


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

Some autumns back, I was seated at a banquet beside a man who had that spring retired as president of a school of theology. He told me that he had not wanted to retire entirely, though, for he still needed a few years on his pension, so he had stayed on the faculty, as a professor of preaching, since that was the only faculty position open.

“It’s sort of scary,” he said. “I’m ordained, but I never did have a job preaching every week, since I was always doing academic work. But I’ve spent all summer reading the church fathers to get ready.”

I was astonished. It’s a good thing to know the church fathers, to understand how Origen and Irenaeus differ on soteriology, but you don’t preach that. Not even how Ambrose compares to Augustine on the Trinity. Not even if you go to the new Bloomington restaurant called “The Hive,” which I’m sure was named for Ambrose’s famous sermon comparing the church to a bee hive. [1]

Preachers are experimental theologians, not theoretical theologians. It’s the difference between Leonard Hofstadter and Sheldon Cooper, experimental physicist and theoretical physicist. They are both necessary and important, but the Higgs boson [“The God particle”] would still be just a theory had not the CERN scientists found it wandering around in their super-collider. [2]

People in the pews don’t need to know theories of salvation, they need to be saved. That’s the point of preaching.

My banquet partner should have spent his summer reading Marshall McLuhan or Abraham Maslow, or listening to the sermons of Adam Hamilton or Rob Bell or Phillip Gully, because he was preparing experimental theologians, not theoretical theologians.

His theology school no longer exists. I hope he got his pension years in before it had to close up.

John Robert McFarland

“There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.” Marshall McLuhan

1] When a restaurant asks my name, so that they can call me to come get my food at some unnamed later date, I tell them “Ambrose,” because if they yell out “John,” every old man in the place jumps up—as much as old men are able to jump--and tries to get my food, but also to honor Ambrose, since it was under his preaching that the hedonistic playboy Augustine was converted into St. Augustine.

2] I found Sean Carroll’s book, The Particle at the End of the Universe to be quite helpful in understanding the Higgs boson search.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019


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

“Mayor Pete” is in town today. It’s not just a campaign appearance, although since he is a presidential candidate, any speaking occasion is a campaign appearance. The mayor of South Bend, IN, Pete Buttigieg was invited by the Hamilton-Lugar School of Global and International Studies at IU, to speak on national security and international relations. It is important that any presidential candidate have a plan for national security and international relations, and that all of us know what it is, so we know if we should vote for him, so we’re glad he’s here.

Helen and I would like to hear him. We have a history of getting into the orbit of presidential candidates early on. When semi-son Len Kirkpatrick graduated from the IL state police academy, the commencement speaker was an unknown IL state legislator with the improbable name of Barack Obama. “He makes a good speech,” I said to Helen, “but he won’t go far with a name like that.”

I feel the same about Mayor Pete. “Buttigieg?” Really? Nobody even knows how to say it, and you can’t call the leader of the free world “President Pete.”

We’d like to go, though, simply to honor the School of Global and International Studies eponymous Lee Hamilton and Richard Lugar, probably the most respected US Congressman and Senator, respectively, of the 20th century. One was a Democrat and the other a Republican, both smart and able, and they put the needs of the nation ahead of their political parties. Lugar died recently and Hamilton, our fellow Bloomingtonian, is 88. The last of their smart, honest, capable breed.

I say all this partly to lead up to a mention of Hamilton’s recent book, Congress, Presidents, and American Politics. It is basically a compilation of the newsletters he sent to constituents in Indiana’s 9th Congressional District while he was their representative in Washington from 1965 to 1999, and continued columns since. I found it very valuable, but it was easiest to read when I read only his introductions and reflections on each column rather than the columns themselves, since the columns necessarily include a lot of facts and figures that are not necessary to understand the issues now.

Well, we’d like to hear Mayor Pete. We won’t go, though, because there is no way old people with walking problems can get to the IU Auditorium, unless we ride the special bus from the Atwater parking garage, and that runs only when the Auditorium is making money off ticket sales. Besides, you had to go yesterday to get a ticket, which are free, and stand in line, and each person could get only one ticket, so both of us would have had to go, and then back today, walking from the parking lot in Terre Haute that is the closest one to the Auditorium…

We’ll just watch Fox News, the way old people do, and find out that Afghanistan veteran Pete said that Democrats don’t favor national security at all and want to turn the country over to Sharia Law. I don’t understand the problem with that, really. I mean, Sharia Law is the same as Alabama Law, and they seem to think that’s okay.

John Robert McFarland

“I think it is an inevitable rule that people destroy what they do not understand.”

Monday, June 10, 2019


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections On Faith And Life For The Years Of Winter--

As I understand it, Spiderman--aka Peter Parker, but aka four-year-old Nicholas Ingalsbe as far as our church is concerned, when he is not being Batman—got the powers of a spider by being bitten by one, which is sort of how I got into the ministry.

Kenwood Bryant was a young school teacher in Evansville--30 miles from my open country home church, Forsythe Methodist, four miles outside Oakland City--who was occasionally persuaded by the District Superintendent to fill in as preacher at Forsythe. Ken got the idea that I should be a preacher, and tried to put me into situations that would nudge me in that direction. I think he really felt called to be a preacher himself and thought he could avoid it if he could get God to focus on me instead. [1]

In one of his iterations as the Forsythe preacher, he decided he needed to visit parishoners, and that I should go along, to direct him through the dirt and gravel roads to where his parishoners lived, and to get the idea of what preachers do.

One of our first visits was to Gib Spaw, [2] who had been mysteriously but seriously ill. He was lying in a humid bedroom on a hot summer day in a typical Gibson County house of the early 1950s, with an outhouse instead of indoor plumbing, when Ken and I made our call. Ken, at that time a better teacher than preacher, and so did not know how to pussyfoot around when talking about mysterious illnesses, just asked him what was wrong.

“Got bit by a spider,” Gib replied.

Intrigued, and, again, not thinking too far ahead, Ken blurted out, “How in the world did that happen?”

“It was dark, and I needed to take a leak, and I didn’t want to use the outhouse on a hot night, so I just unzipped in the back yard to do it, and a black widow bit me on the end of my pecker.”

He seemed almost proud. Ken stammered a bit and decided we needed to go visit people with less dramatic stories.

I was about 15 or 16 at the time, and decided I didn’t really need a job making calls on the ill. I had made a deal with God, though, to save my sister’s life, so in 1960, as a newly married man, several years removed from the ministry of Kenwood Bryant and Forsythe Church, I matriculated at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University to learn how to do pastoral calls, among other duties of a preacher.

I was standing in a hallway, in a long line of students waiting to register, when I heard a man farther up in the line introducing himself. “I’m Kenwood Bryant, from Indiana,” he said.

Yes, Ken had finally decided to learn to do pastoral calls himself. Maybe a spider bite gave him super powers as a pastor. I hope so.

John Robert McFarland

1] I once heard Tex Sample say: “A call to the ministry is like throwing up. You can put it off for a while…”

2] When we moved to Oakland City from Indianapolis, I encountered a dialect I had never heard before. Gibson County is “The Mississippi of the North,” in almost all ways, including language. I heard people speaking of “the spaw banks.” Since we lived not far from the Spaws, I thought it had something to do with them. Not so. “Spaw” banks were actually the “spoil banks” of the strip mines. People there also had tars on their cars.

“Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.”