Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Sunday, September 29, 2019


The circle is closed
the last song sung
the final refrain echoes

“joy to the world,” or perhaps
“I love to tell the story.”
It is not easy now

to separate one page from another
The hymnal has been
soaked with water

and blood and tears
The words and notes
run together as one

unending hymn of hope

John Robert McFarland

Wednesday, September 25, 2019


I did not want to be a hillbilly, and I assumed that if I liked hillbilly music, that meant I was a hillbilly. I had to listen to quite a bit of it, though, from age ten on, because it was my father’s favorite, and he had control of the radio, which before TV was like having control of the remote.

I was ten years old when we moved 135 miles south, from the laboring lower class near east side of Indianapolis, to a hardscrabble farm near Oakland City. It was definitely a step down socially and economically.

In Indianapolis we did not have a car, but we could walk or ride the street car to any place we wanted to go. We had a furnace in the basement, and a gas stove, and an indoor toilet. On the farm, we had none of these things. We barely had electricity, and that only in the house, not the barn or the other out-buildings. We didn’t have a car, so we didn’t go any place, except for hitching the horse up to the wagon to go into town to have feed ground. It was a hillbilly existence. I did not want to be a hillbilly, so I did not like their music.

It wasn’t just that I wanted to be a city guy with a car and indoor plumbing. Hillbilly music just banged off my ear drums. It was twangy and nasal and ungrammatical. I had not lived long enough to understand that the twangs and the “ain’ts” were the necessary way to tell the stories of those songs. I had not lived enough stories yet to realize that the best songs always tell a story, a real one, an honest one, a true one.

All this comes to mind because we have been watching the excellent Ken Burns documentary on PBS about country music.

In Indianapolis I had liked folk songs that I learned at Lucretia Mott Public School # 3, on Rural Street. My sister and I sang them as we did the dishes—Down In the Valley, Darling Clementine, I’ve Been Workin’ On The Railroad, etc. I didn’t understand that folk and hillbilly came out of the same stories.

In high school in Oakland City, there were plenty of hillbilly kids, kids who liked hillbilly music. I wanted to run with the cool kids, though, the ones who listened to Frank Sinatra and Doris Day, not Hank Williams and Kitty Wells, the ones who danced to Benny Goodman and Count Basie, not to Bill Monroe and Bob Wills. I wanted the musical stories that came from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, not from Jimmy Rodgers and Minnie Pearl.

But “story” became the motif of my life. That’s all I’ve ever been—a story listener, a story teller, a story preacher, a story sharer. So country music became a part of my life, too, because of the stories, so much so that in my latter years I have gladly referred to myself as “a hillbilly.”

I usually add “liberal,” as in “hillbilly liberal,” so folks will know I like Meredith Willson as well as Tom T. Hall, but I’m my father’s son, even though there was a time he didn’t think so. I know he’s my father, because I like hillbilly music.

John Robert McFarland

“Yesterday is dead and gone, and tomorrow’s out of sight…” Kris Kristoferson

Saturday, September 21, 2019


In the Undeniably Indiana book, published for the state’s 200th anniversary, there is an article about the filming of “A League of Their Own” in Evansville, and the anger and hurt feelings over what Madonna [not the one who works the produce section in the South Walnut St. Kroger’s] uncharitably said about Eville following her 3 month stay there for filming.

Actually, Helen and I know that she had a pretty good time there, because several years ago we spent a week at spring training with the Cincinnati Reds, and Karen and Jack Kunkel were there, too. [Helen was there to give instructions to the baseball announcers and commentators. They didn’t know it, but…]

Karen and Jack knew Madonna well, for Karen was the technical advisor on A League of Their Own, having played in the All-American Girls Baseball League, and Jack was Madonna’s body guard, being a military veteran and a retired administrator at N. MI U, and you know how tough those college administrators are.

Anyway, Madonna got bored one night and said to Jack, “Let’s go dancing.”

“We can’t go dancing. Everyone will recognize you, and you’ll be mobbed, and…”

“No, let’s go. I’ll show you where. Just drive around. I’ll know it when I see it.”

So they drove around town until Madonna told Jack to stop at a particular bar. It was a gay bar. Everyone there recognized her, and danced with her, but took it in stride. She was just a movie star. Nobody was interested in being romantic with her.

The next night she said, “Let’s go again.”

“We can’t. The word will be out. Everyone will be there.”

“Yes, and we’ll enjoy the show.”

So they sat at the restaurant across the street where they could watch the chaos when most of Evansville showed up at a gay bar without knowing what they were doing.

I think Madonna said bad things about Evansville after the fact so she wouldn’t feel so bad about not getting to live there all the time.

John Robert McFarland

“It’s so crowded, nobody goes there anymore.” Yogi Berra

Saturday, September 14, 2019


Recently on Facebook folks have been talking about raising money for churches by letting people pay to block a particular hymn from worship, for a year, or paying to get a particular hymn included in worship.

I have been clearing stuff off my computer so my daughters won’t have to go through it when I die to decide if it’s something they need. Save them some time and trouble. In the process I came across this hymn I wrote. It’s not very good poetry—although it could be improved if I ever had the patience to edit or use a thesaurus--and you have to furnish your own music, but I like the idea, especially the last verse. Sunday is Stewardship Day at our church, and I think I can raise some $ by offering not to sing this…


I was washed off by a fierce and evil wave
I was sure the ocean deep would be my grave
Without a single friend, I knew it was the end
Then I heard a voice shout out against the wind

Don’t give up. Keep holding on
Until the darkness ends and night is gone
The current is so fast, you think you cannot last
But someone’s walking on the water toward you now

Two arms full of water was all that I could grasp
A gurgling cry for help was all that I could gasp
Then a hand within the darkness pulled me to a drifting mast
And I heard a voice call in the storm so vast

Don’t give up. Keep holding on
Until the darkness ends and night is gone
The current is so fast, you think you cannot last
But someone’s walking on the water toward you now

When light came with the dawning and the darkness was all past
I looked on every side to see who had pulled me to the mast
There was no one close at hand but in the distance I could see
Someone going toward a sailor just like me
And I called…

Don’t give up. Keep holding on
Until the darkness ends and night is gone
The current is so fast, you think you cannot last
But someone’s walking on the water toward you now

John Robert McFarland

Please note that I am not writing again, since this was done so long ago it even had time to get lost in the crevices of my computer.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019


On 9/11, it boggles my mind that anyone would even consider dying for or killing for something that is only a figment of our imaginations, like Islam or Christianity, or America or Iran.

Of course no one does. We die for and kill for one thing only—to take the power of God for ourselves, and we use excuses like religion and nation. That is why the First Commandment is first.

Tom T. Hall sums up all the Commandments, all the religions, all the constitutions so completely when he says, “There ain’t but three things that’s worth a solitary dime. That’s old dogs and children and watermelon wine.”

John Robert McFarland

Saturday, September 7, 2019


I don’t read much anymore, which surprises me. I’ve always loved to read. Oh, I still do read some, in all the genres I’ve always read: Bible, theology, church stuff, novels—adventure, Western, mystery, etc—biography, history, science… Just not nearly as much.

I’ve pondered on that. Why, since I have always loved to read, do I do so little of it now? Some reasons have to do with the ability to see and the ability to sit and the ability to focus—more inabilities than abilities--but mostly it’s because there are so few retell books.

Actually, of course, there are as many retell books as always, but I have few opportunities for the retelling. So books stop for me now at “The End,” instead of going on in a retelling.

All through school and college and professional school, and later, again, through doctoral work, I did a lot of reading, but almost all of it was required for my courses. A lot of it was good, and fun, but it wasn’t my choice.

When I graduated from seminary, I began to read in a genre that went across all other genres—the Retell Books. Lin Yutang’s A Leaf in the Storm, Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey, Elmore Leonard’s Hombre, Ross MacDonald’s [Kenneth Millar] The Drowning Pool, Alistair Maclean’s Where Eagles Dare, Conrad Richter’s A Simple, Honorable Man, Ronald Glasser’s Ward 402…

As time went on, new authors were added to the stack of Retell Books: Marcus Borg, Jane Smiley, Malcolm Gladwell, Oliver Sacks, Will Campbell, Marilynne Robinson, Kent Haruf…

There was something in each of those books, often several somethings, that I could retell in preaching or writing or simply conversation. I was always so excited when I came across a retell incident or story. I wasn’t reading for the purpose of finding such somethings. I was reading for enjoyment, and simply to be an educated, literate person. So it was all the more exhilarating when I came across a nugget I could retell.

I wrote those retell fortuities down on 4x6 cards, so that I would have them always. Eventually I had two thousand such cards. All from reading Retell Books. [1]

One of my favorites is from Ward 402, Glasser’s story of the pediatric ward in the U of MN Hospital, especially meaningful to me because of my grandson’s experiences in the U of IA Children’s Hospital.

There was a four-year-old boy, Kerry, who had undergone so many terrible experiences in the hospital, in an effort to get him well, that he closed his eyes and kept them closed. He never opened them. He operated like a blind child, reaching around on his bed for a toy or piece of candy. The doctors debated how to get him to open his eyes, for if he did not, he would go hysterically blind and not be able to see even when his eyes were open.

They got nowhere, until one day the resident came into the ward with a kitten. He said nothing, just put it down on Kerry’s bed. The kitten mewed. It crawled around. It sniffed Kerry’s hand. Finally, the little boy just couldn’t stand not seeing it. He opened his eyes.

You can retell that story in almost any circumstance and not say a thing more. People know how to apply it to family or church or school or life in general. The story of Kerry is such a good one. It’s too bad I don’t write anymore; I’d like to retell it.

John Robert McFarland

“A book is a gift you can open again and again.” Garrison Keillor

1] When I realized I had no retell opportunities anymore, I put those cards into the recycling bin. Helen tells me that when daughter Katie, the author, heard that, she came and pulled them out of the bin. There may still be some retell life in those cards.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019


When I was a young preacher, in my 2nd year in a full-time church, taking in 103 new members in my first year there, which I assumed was normal, but which I matched only one more time in 40 years of fulltime ministry, while I was also going to seminary full-time, commuting daily between Cedar Lake, IN and Evanston, IL, 2 hours or more each way, which was when I learned to prepare sermons by simply reading the Scripture for the coming Sunday, since I had no other time to prepare, and then thinking about it all week as I commuted, and working into my mental outline all the things I saw and heard and read that week, unless I picked up Ed Tucker and/or Paul Blankenship in south Chicago to go on up to Garrett Theological Seminary, where we were all students, and then we had a little preaching seminar as we drove, which was much better than preparing on my own, I preached on the story of the men who heard that Jesus was in town, and so picked up their lame friend on his pallet and took him to the house where Jesus was, with the hope that Jesus could cure him, but could not get their lame friend into the house, because there were so many people there, so they took their friend up on the roof, made a hole in the roof, and lowered their lame friend down to Jesus. [I’m practicing to fulfill my one true goal of writing an entire book, 106 thousand words, that is only one sentence. But not today…]

As I preached, I asked what I thought was a rhetorical question: “What would we do if people were so anxious to hear about Jesus that they made a hole in the roof to get into church?” Lilly Foster, in the 2nd row, old then, but younger than I am now, yelled, “We’d arrest ‘em!” She was probably right.

I worry some about the preachers at our church, Jimmy and Mary Beth. They ask a lot of questions as they preach [“How many of you think Docetism is a greater heresy than Arianism?], usually requesting a show of hands, which is fairly safe, since they don’t pay much attention to them, anyway, but if you’re not careful, somebody will answer out loud, which is okay during the children’s time, usually, but is much more precarious if someone like Lilly, or real estate mogul Vic Stenger, the time I was reciting all the ills of the world in a sermon, yelled out “Don’t forget the Federal Reserve Board,” decides to answer.

I don’t worry about our preachers too much, though, because they preach so well in general, as they did a couple of Sundays ago, in a dialogue sermon, on that same story, the hole in the roof for the sake of the friend.

Those men did not know if Jesus could heal their friend, but they wanted that opportunity for him, so much so that they were willing to get him up onto the roof, not an easy task, and make a hole, again, not an easy task, even if it were, as some scholars believe, a hot weather roof that was mostly a lattice of tree limbs and fronds and so did not require a lot of sawing and prying to make a hole, and risk the anger of the house owner and the law, and lower him down, another not easy task…

After Now That I Have Cancer I Am Whole: Reflections on Faith and Life for Cancer Patients and Those Who Love Them, was published, I received a lot of invitations to speak to conferences of cancer patients.

When it was a fund raiser, as it often was, to be able to provide free mammograms or other treatments, I said, “By being here today, by paying your way in here, it’s possible that someone who would not otherwise get an early diagnosis will get it and have the opportunity to be cured. You didn’t know that when you paid your way, but you were willing to take that chance, because you wanted to take your stance on the side of healing. So on behalf of someone you don’t even know, someone who hasn’t even received treatment yet, I say to you, ‘Thank you, for taking your stance on the side of healing.’”

That’s what those men did for their friend. They took their chance and their stance on the side of healing. That’s always the side where followers of Jesus take their stance.

John Robert McFarland

There are many paths to illness, and many ways of healing. The slowest way to healing, but the best, is up the greenest hill, for it is from beyond the hills that help comes, and you can’t see it except from the crest, but when you have climbed the steepest hill, you may find that in the climbing you were healed.