Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Sunday, July 28, 2019


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter -- IS THIS YOUR FIRST TIME HERE?

I did not know Dwight E. Loder, although he was the president of Garrett Theological Seminary, at Northwestern U, the whole time I was a student there. I occasionally heard him preach in chapel, but I never met him personally.

I used Loder Hall quite a bit, though. It was Garrett’s newest building when I matriculated, named for the president himself. It had several floors of dorm rooms, plus a cafeteria, and lounges, and a book store, and a ping-pong room, where I spent a great deal of time trying “to go on to perfection,” as John Wesley said Methodists, especially his preachers, should. If a table tennis backhand is the measure of perfection, I fear that I fall far short of Father John’s exhortation.

From the Garrett presidency, Dwight Loder was elected a bishop.

After he retired from the bishopric, several years beyond his presidency there, he had gone back to Garrett for a conference. He signed in at the desk and was assigned a room. In Loder Hall.

The woman working the desk said to him, “Is this your first time here? If you don’t know where Loder Hall is, I can have someone show you.”

Apparently she did not consider that there might be a connection between the Loder on his name badge and the Loder on the front of the building.

The former president just told her “No, that’s okay. I think I can find it.”

He said, “How totally appropriate. My day is over. At Garrett now, I’m just another person who comes to a conference. That’s the way it should be.”

I have been one of those assigned to help people find the way. I have walked many a person over to that house of many rooms that our Father has prepared for us. I think there is even a path, hopefully straight and narrow, that is named for me. But as I get to the door of that house of many rooms myself, it’s okay for the registrar to say, “Is this your first time here?” because it is.

But as I come closer to the “room at the end of the hall,” I’m inclined to say, should anyone offer direction, “I think I can find it.”

John Robert McFarland

“If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there’s shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.” Harriet Tubman

Friday, July 26, 2019


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter – THE FUTURE OF HUMANITY

I’m really sorry I made somebody pay $30 to get me Michio Kaku’s The Future of Humanity. Fortunately, I can’t remember exactly who gifted me with this book, at my request, or I would feel even sorrier.

Old people are not easy to gift. We have too much already. Basically our gifts are things we can consume and read, meaning White Castle gift certificates and books. We read the books while recovering in the hospital from the White Castle sliders.

I read a lot of brain science stuff anymore, for I’m interested in how the brain creates the mind, or vice versa. I think that’s important for incarnational theology. In fact, Helen and I will soon be subjects in an IU study on “aging and cognition.”

I don’t read original research, of course. That’s way beyond me. But I get a lot from the synthesizers, like Malcolm Gladwell and Oliver Sacks and Daniel Schachter and, especially, Michio Kaku’s The Future of the Mind.

So I asked for the Future of Humanity as a gift, assuming it would be in the general category of Kaku’s Future of the Mind. Not so.

Its basic premise is: The world is coming to an end, because it will burn up, so we’ve got to get to Mars and other places in space as quickly as possible so we can survive. 

The book is basically a synthesis of current research and theory about how we can colonize space. And a lot of faith statements like “Mars will be easy once we have learned how to terraform it.” Yes, and I’ll make the big leagues once I have learned how to hit a curve ball.

The only future for humanity, Kaku and his ilk are convinced, is in space.

The book should be called The Future of Billionaires, because Kaku is quite enthralled by the billionaires who are financing space exploration. And, of course, they are the only ones who will ever get to go live in space. I mean, when the earth burns up, it’s going to take all the rest of us—who don’t have a billion for a rocket--with it. [Then the billionaires can repeat on Mars all the original sins that have made humanity unhappy and the earth uninhabitable.]

I have some inside information on this. Chris Voorhees, a little boy from one of my churches—the son of our choir director and organist—is working with the billionaires even now, primarily to mine useful metals in planetoids. When his dad and I talked on the phone a while back, I asked how Chris was doing. “Oh, he’s a rocket scientist,” Larry said. “He designed the Mars rover.”

“But he can’t do that,” I cried. “He’s only six years old, and our daughter babysits with him.”

The future of my mind doesn’t look so good. Somebody needs to synthesize Einstein and the space-time continuum for me!

As we celebrate, properly so, the anniversary of Apollo 11, it might be good to remember that if we can’t conquer the inner space of humanity here on earth, just transporting it to a different outer space isn’t going to do much good. The future of humanity has to include the love of humanity, or there will be no future, on Mars or anywhere else.

Don’t waste your money or time on The Future of Humanity. We must, however, expend our money and time on the future of humanity.

John Robert McFarland

“The future isn’t what it used to be.” Yogi Berra

“If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Anne Lamott

Wednesday, July 24, 2019


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

I’ve mentioned Jennie Edwards Bertrand before. She was in my church in Arcola, IL, a high school junior when I was appointed there. She recently did me the honor of saying that because I was her pastor then, when she went to seminary, after a brief foray into special ed, she didn’t have to unlearn any theology.

She is now the Director of The Wesley Foundation at ILSU, as I was in the 1960s, although she is not now the campus minister there also, as she was for several years. They have another campus minister, under Jennie’s supervision, so that her main job of the last 3 years or so is starting Hope Church, a church for the unchurched.

Jennie recently mentioned that she has discovered a basic design flaw in her ministry—a church for the unchurched. People are unchurched for a reason. They don’t want to come to church. A church for the unchurched is an oxymoron at best.

The unchurched in her city are willing to accept pastoral care, even seek it out. Bar owners and other unchurched types have come to know her, as she does “evangelism,” and not only talk to her about their problems when she comes around, but actively seek her out, and point her to other people who need care. All the unchurched folk in Bloomington-Normal say, “Oh, yes, Hope church. That’s a great place. They take in anybody.” Except them. They like the idea of a church like that, but they don’t want to come to it.

So, she says, how do we overcome the basic design flaw? I have no answers for her, of course, but I thought you’d like to ruminate on that.

It occurs to me that design flaws afflict us in other areas of the church. Church unity, for instance. Is it a design flaw to assume that unity means organizational unity? Might we do better if we have a different design than a church for everybody when not everybody wants to be in that church? That’s certainly as far as I have gotten with that.

I’m a little farther along in figuring out the design flaw of a blog for old people: They are too old to remember to look at it. They are too blind to be able to read it. They are too obtuse to care what someone else thinks. They die a lot. Well, each one only once, but as a group, they are ever diminishing.

I wonder if it’s too late to start a blog for young people? They like up-to-date written word media stuff, like email and blogs, without any of those distracting “images,” and they love to listen to old people tell stories about the olden days. Surely there could be no design flaw in that…

John Robert McFarland

“All wars are planned by old men in council rooms apart.” Grantland Rice, sports writer

Sunday, July 21, 2019


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter – UNRECORDED, A Poem

[After reading Mary Oliver’s poem of the same name.]

I would love to stand
at the door at dawn
notebook in my hand
to write the scene

birds backlighted
in the sky
sun beginning its smile
creatures of the night
returning to safety

but I live
where concrete grows
beyond my door
waiting for me to slip
and crack my head
bricks beside my window
remind me to stay put

birds shout angrily
at the requirement
to eat worms
squirrels uproot
flowers to hide
their greedy hoard

best to leave
the notebook
in the drawer
leave this scene

John Robert McFarland

“The thing about great poetry is that we have no defenses against it.” David Whyte

Friday, July 19, 2019


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith and Life for the Years of Winter – STAYING HUMBLE

Jimmy Moore, our pastor, told a Fred Craddock story last Sunday. Craddock was a magnificent narrative preacher, in an understated style. He was one of the major influencers of preaching from 1970 to 2000 or so, and continues to be an influence through his books, even after his death in 2015.

I heard Craddock preach in conferences from time to time, and read most of his books, but this was a new story to me.

While he was Professor of Preaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, Wm. Sloane Coffin, the pastor at Riverside Church in NYC, the most prestigious pulpit in the country, asked Fred to come preach one Sunday when Coffin had to be away. He told him he could stay in his apartment.

On Sunday morning, though, when Fred went to the refrigerator, he found only a note that said, “There’s nothing to eat, but there’s breakfast at the church.”

Craddock thought that was nice. Breakfast had been arranged. Probably with the staff—Riverside was a huge church with a large staff—or perhaps with the members of the board. But when he got to the church, he just found a long line for breakfast. It was the homeless people of New York. Fred got in line, and got a tray with one section that he was pretty sure was eggs. He found a place at a table. He asked the man seated across from him why he was there.

“I was a stock broker, but I got to drinking. I lost everything. My daughter said I could live with her and her family if I gave up the bottle. That went okay for about six weeks, but then… here I am.”

The man asked Craddock what he did. The humble and unprepossessing Craddock did not want to brag, and say that he was the most popular professor of preaching in the country, and would even that morning preach in the most prestigious pulpit in the city, so he just said, “I’m a preacher.”

“Ah,” the man said, “the bottle gets even the best of us.”

John Robert McFarland

“Somebody suffers with every sermon. Either the preacher as s/he prepares, or the congregation as they listen.”

Wednesday, July 17, 2019


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith and Life for the Years of Winter -- THE COFFEE HOUSE OF UNPENNED POEMS

Surely there must be a place
where unpenned poems go
to talk to one another
about their fate

A coffee house of the soul

Complaining about authorial
perfidy, how some soggy morning
brain took the time
to place their words in line
then deemed them too unworthy
to be seen on screen or paper

Or perhaps, being poems,
they would say
“On screen or paper to be seen”

Perhaps they write their own
being themselves
poets in a coffee house

I hold it true, what’ere befalls
I feel it when I’m but free verse
Tis better to have rhymed and lost
Than never to have rhymed at all

Then they laugh
and stare into a mirror
behind the pentameter barista
that reflects nothing

John Robert McFarland

Monday, July 15, 2019


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

My last brain cell has been used up
The neurons, the synapses, all gone
Even the campus where hippos went to school
Nothing left but a worn and broken Frisbee
They used to toss around with cookies after supper

No great loss, really
Those cells never worked well
They were more like jail cells than brain cells
Each one trying to talk to others
By tapping secret code on the walls

Still, I sort of miss them, sometimes
When I’m sitting in the morning, sipping in the morning,
Wondering what those winged and singing
Creatures are called, or why they are there at all
I think the cells, or maybe it was the ganglia,
Used to know that sort of thing

John Robert McFarland

“Anybody can ride a horse, but not many know how to fall off.”

Saturday, July 13, 2019


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter – THE LONE RANGER AND HIS FAITHFUL COMPANION [ME]

I just realized that The Lone Ranger was the model for my life. I always knew, of course, that he was my hero.

I grew up before TV, but we had radio. My favorite program was The Lone Ranger. I think The Wm. Tell Overture is probably still my favorite music.

Why do I think he provided the template for my life? The Lone Ranger was alone, except for one faithful friend. He kept his real identity secret. He did not reveal who he was, but he showed up, he did some good, and then he left.

Sounds about right.

John Robert McFarland

The music for TLR taking out the trash: To the dump, to the dump, to the dump, dump, dump…

Thursday, July 11, 2019

CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter -- THE GIFT OF BEAUTY-Audrey Hepburn

As I walked on a recent morning, I noticed a parked car with a license plate number that started with the letters URE. That made me remember Marian Ure. If we are supposed to remember people for being pretty, Marian would be at the top of my list. But I hadn’t thought of her for a long time. Because she was only pretty.

That wasn’t really her fault. She tried to be more than pretty. She came all the way from California to Chicago, to work for the summer in a settlement house in the gritty Pilsen neighborhood, along with a bunch of other college students. She had been there only a couple of days when her boyfriend, Paul, came after her. She was the flame, he the moth. Those of us who knew her for a short time that summer, before Paul persuaded her to return to California with him, remember her as pretty, but that’s all.

Recently, on Facebook, someone posted a picture of Audrey Hepburn. They pointed out that her father was a Nazi sympathizer who left his family, that she almost starved to death as a child during WWII, that she performed as a ballerina to raise money for the Dutch Resistance, that she was a special ambassador for UNICEF on behalf of starving children, that she received the Medal of Freedom, but that “SHE IS ONLY REMEMBERED FOR BEING PRETTY!”

I’m sure the person who posted that meant it to be… what? Laudatory? Complimentary? Appreciative of Audrey? But it is not those things, because it is disrespectful, that’s what it is, not only of those of us who remember Audrey for much more than being pretty, but of Audrey herself. Actually, the post was not about the beauty of Audrey but about the anger of the person who did the posting, which makes it even more disrespectful, using Audrey’s beauty as a cudgel rather than accepting her beauty as a gift.

It’s disrespectful to say we remember her only because she was pretty because Audrey was an excellent actress, even though her original goal was to be a dancer. She is one of only 12 people who won Academy, Tony, Grammy, and Emmy awards. Anyone who remembers her as pretty knows she was pretty because they saw her act. We would never have seen her, known her as pretty, just as you never saw Marian Ure to note her prettiness, except that Audrey’s acting skills put her into the public eye.

I remember Audrey as a fellow colon cancer patient. We were diagnosed and went through treatments at the same time. I grieved her passing in 1992 not as a pretty face, but as a fellow sufferer. I suspect all of us who were cancer patients at that time remember her that way. Pretty, yes, but much more than pretty—a fellow traveler on the cancer journey.

Don’t disparage and disrespect Audrey Hepburn for being remembered because she was pretty. Physical beauty like hers is a gift, and it was a gateway to the beauty of her other gifts as well.

BTW, if you want to remember me for being pretty, I’m okay with that.

John Robert McFarland

“Of two devils, choose the prettier.”

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Incredible Lightness of Heaven [A repeat from Aug 26, 2010]

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

It’s not easy to lose weight in winter, either the winter of the calendar year or the winter that is our declining years.

Summer is the time for losing weight. Even if you aren’t, it feels like you are, because your clothes weigh so much less. But we’re more active in summer, and have fresh produce to eat instead of stew and hash, so we’re losing weight.

Helen says the good thing about losing weight is that you don’t have to pay attention to your body all the time, whether you can’t wear these pants because they’re too tight, whether you’d better take another antacid pill before bed, whether you have to go to Wal-Mart instead of Kroger’s so you’ll blend in better. In winter, you’re so busy with your fat that you don’t have time for much else.

She says that must be what death is like, losing all that weight so you don’t have to pay attention to your body, so you’ll have time to pay attention to relationships.

The Apostle Paul said he was sure we’d have a body in heaven, but he wasn’t sure if it would be physical or spiritual. By “body” he meant an individual identity. On earth, that’s the only way we can tell one another apart, and thus have an individual identity, by body.  Individual identity is the only way we can have relationships. On earth we have to have physical bodies in order to have relationships; not so in heaven.

Helen’s faith is that whatever body we have in heaven, it will let us spend all our time on relationships, without worrying about whether we can fit into our wings.

John Robert McFarland

“Two steeples, no waiting.” Helen’s translation of the French sign on the cathedral in Montreal.

Sunday, July 7, 2019


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

In these days of controversy about refugees, I thought it might be interesting to see how the original Methodists dealt with strangers…

“In the morning I met the Strangers Society, instituted wholly for the relief, not of our society, but for the poor, sick, and friendless strangers. I do not think that I ever heard or read of such an institution till within a few years ago. So this also is one of the fruits of Methodism.” John Wesley’s Journal, Sunday, March 14, 1790.

John Robert McFarland

“Prejudice disfigures the observer, not the person observed.” Wm. Sloane Coffin

Friday, July 5, 2019

CAPE COD CAPERS [A repeat from 2-15-13, just because I like it.]

CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith from a place of winter For the Years of Winter… 

I think Helen still has not forgiven me. Not for taking her to Cape Cod; she liked that. But we got there because I was the “outside” theologian at a New England theological gathering of the United Church of Christ. [UCC], “outside” meaning I was Methodist, Midwestern, and theologically “narrative” rather than “systematic.” There have always been story-tellers in Christianity, starting with Jesus, but as a theological approach, narrative was in the 1970s new, exotic, and of questionable repute. [It wasn’t “rigorous,” and you didn’t need a Harvard doctorate to do it.]

[The UCC was formed in 1957 by the merger of The Evangelical and Reformed & Congregational Christian denominations.]

I had a pretty good time. We were in a long-time UCC campground, with nice cottages and a big tabernacle and a spacious eating hall. I got to walk around the beautiful grounds and drink coffee and teach a workshop and bop into the tabernacle once in a while to “address” the plenary assembly.

Also my first theological mentor, D.J. Bowden, my professor of The History of Christian Thought at IU, was a Congregational Christian from the Northeast who got his PhD at Yale. I could well imagine him as a boy singing camp songs in the tabernacle, or later being a presenter himself at such a conference. It was quite inspiring to think that I was following in his footsteps.

Since Helen was a “participant” instead of a presenter, she was required to be a member of a theology work group. She was assigned to the bunch that was writing a new faith statement for the UCC. It was composed mostly of academic theologians and preachers, who argued endlessly about whether “of” should go before or after “parousia.” Or maybe it was “from” instead of “of.” She wasn’t keen on the details. Her participation was mostly rolling her eyes, making snoring sounds, voting “No” on everything, and hitting me on the head, hard, when we were alone.

Sometimes the presenters hung out together, but I didn’t hang if I knew Dr. Austere would be there. [That wasn’t his real name, although it should have been.]  I stayed as far away from him as I could, for several reasons. For one thing, he was a professor of systematic theology in a UCC seminary, and I was running the Gospel through Marshall McLuhan and Hans Frei instead of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. For a second, I had a wife who was doing her best to sabotage the entire belief system of the UCC.

More importantly, before my plenary presentation each day, he gave a theology lecture, austerely, with footnotes and bibliography. Next to him, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Soren Kierkegaard looked like simpletons. His lectures were like the marching band in a parade, every line in step, each instrument playing its own part, only its part, and playing in tune. My presentation was like the clown in the parade, sitting in the back of a pickup throwing candies by the handful and hoping someone caught a peppermint, hoping a root barrel didn’t take out somebody’s eye. During my presentation, Dr. Austere would stand--never sit--in back, with his arms folded over his chest, looking stern. I was intimidated and embarrassed. He was so scholastic, and I was so… well, just a story-teller.

One night, though, the director of this theological institute took the presenters and their wives out to a seafood place. I was trying to avoid both Helen and Dr. Austere, so naturally the director seated me between them, where she could reach across me and tell him what she thought of UCC theology, and he could reach across me and tell her what he thought of MY theology.

I had a mouth-full of crab when he turned to me and said, “How do you DO that?”

“Do what?” I mumbled, thinking that now I had further embarrassed myself by eating crab like a Hoosier hillbilly gnawing a pork-chop.

“Tell those stories,” he said. “I work and work to try to get people to understand, and then you just tell a story that pulls the veil off all my words and makes people see what I was trying to say. I’d love to be able to do that.”

All I could think to do was grab his hand and put it into Helen’s and say, “You two should talk.”

JRMcF [John Robert McFarland]

It’s tempting to pull a “moral” out of this story, such as “Don’t assume you know what a person with crossed arms is thinking,” but grandson Joe [then 13] says the problem with the kid lit stories that win prizes is that “…they have morals. Kids just want good stories.” As Jesus said, “If you want to enter the Kingdom, be like a kid who just wants a good story.”

The “place of winter” was Iron Mountain, in MI’s Upper Peninsula.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019


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

On Wednesday mornings I have coffee at Crumble Bakery and Coffee House with The Crumble Bums. Crumble has a deal where you put your phone # into their iPad whenever you buy a cup of coffee, and when you get to ten, you get a free cup. So when I got to ten, I exulted over my success. The woman behind me was surprised, and a bit scornful. “You feel successful for getting a free cup of coffee?”

Well, yes, at my age, that is as successful as I’m going to get. But rather than explain that to her, I decided to put her on a list.

That’s how I have always disposed of and controlled things, listing them. But now I’m old enough to give up lists.

I have kept a list of the books I’ve read for around 50 years. Now I am giving up making lists of books. If I forget I read a book, I can enjoy it again.

Too bad I didn’t connect giving up lists with Lent; I could have done two things at once

Listophile does not seem to be listed in any of the lists of mental illnesses so I started to make a list of all the lists it’s not on but should be. Then I remembered…

Lists are different from listicles. I’ve never been a listicle maker. The 7 Habits of Really Annoying People. The 11 Best Ways to Force People to Love Jesus. The 6 Most Amazing Lists of All Time.

I started making lists when I was class president and school newspaper editor in high school. Those kinds of lists are useful. They help you remember what you need to do. Now I have nothing I need or want to do, so why make lists?

Lists are because we are afraid we shall forget something. When I die, there will be nothing left to remember, so no need for a list.

My last list is titled: How To Get Ready To Die. The first thing on it is, stop making lists.

John Robert McFarland

“All we ask [in old age] is to be allowed to remain the authors of our own story.” Atul Gawande, Being Mortal, p. 140.