Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Monday, October 28, 2019


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

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

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

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

“I’m on the pompom squad,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Robert McFarland

Friday, October 25, 2019


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


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

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

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

John Robert McFarland

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

Tuesday, October 22, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Robert McFarland

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

Saturday, October 19, 2019


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

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

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

John Robert McFarland

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

Wednesday, October 16, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After all, life itself is an interim position.

John Robert McFarland

“Just do the next right thing.”

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

Sunday, October 13, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

Even after death, your soul goes on.

Even after death, your story goes on.

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

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

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

John Robert McFarland

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

Thursday, October 10, 2019


We went to the IU Football Coach’s radio show last night. They have good burgers at the Holiday Inn, where the show originates. But last night we hit the trifecta—a baby, a dog, and a cake.

Don Fischer, “the voice of the Hoosiers,” is the host of the show, so naturally he was there. So was head coach Tom Allen, and wide receivers Donovan Hale and Whop [so named because he loved Whoppers at Burger King from the time he was a little boy] Philyor.

The star of the show at our table, though, was four-month-old Jones Wommack, who brought his mother, Melissa, the wife of IU’s defensive coordinator, Kane Wommack. Definitely a linebacker in the making. He wanted me to hold him, so I did. Suddenly, I realized, “I’m an old man with balance problems. I have no business holding a baby who thinks he’s an acrobat.” But I managed to fake competency for longer than I should.

Melissa and Kane were trying to pick out a name for their third son, and they had just come to Bloomington to be on the IU football coaching staff, and they were watching the “Indiana Jones” movie, so they said, “Let’s name him…” No, not Indiana. Coaches get fired too often for that. Can you imagine a kid named Indiana with a father coaching at Purdue? No, they named him Jones, Melissa said, because in the Bible it means “God is gracious.”

That surprised me. I thought MY name means “God is gracious.” So I interneted it. Turns out that Jones is a variant of the name John, so little Jones and I share a biblical name. That’s really cool.

Then a woman came in with a little white dog. More cuteness.

Then Ellie Mallory, the widow of Bill, the winningest coach in IU football history, treated us all to cake for her birthday.

As we left, Helen said, “A baby, a dog, and a cake. It doesn’t get better than that.” “Yep, “I said, “the holy trinity.” Actually, I said, “The trifecta,” but in the bible that means trinity. Maybe. Look it up.

John Robert McFarland

“…and the three men I admire most, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast, the day the music died.”
“American Pie,” Don McLean.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019


Nine days ago, my trusty—at least I considered it trusty—old Asus computer went kaput. Just stopped right in the middle of whatever. I tried restarting. Several times. Each time it said, “Cannot restart.” Finally, it said, “Forget it, old man! You’ve had it.”

In some ways, it came at a fortuitous time. I always back up all my computer doings immediately on a push drive, so I wasn’t fearful of losing any precious, or otherwise, material. I was going to have to get Windows 10 before January, anyway, since Microsoft is doing away with my beloved Windows 7 then. [“Beloved” because I ALREADY know how to use it.]

But why get another computer at all? I have an iphone and an ipad. I can get email on them, and look up unnecessary info on the web. I don’t write anymore, so I don’t need a big keyboard or a word processing program.

Most importantly, I just did not want to have to learn a new system. I’m old. I’ll probably die as soon as I figure out how to turn the durn thing on, yet alone figure out how to avoid playing Candy Crush while on my way to find football scores.

But all that stuff I had backed up I could not get at minus a computer, and Helen had already purchased a new one with Windows 10 just a couple of months ago, so surely she could help me in my transition. [The counter argument: If she finds out how incompetent I really am, she might just go ahead and put me in “the home.”]

So I bought a computer just like Helen’s. Now she is worried that we might get them mixed up. Like I have files labeled Pier 1 and Penzy’s Spices.

 John Robert McFarland

And don’t tell me I should have had a Mac. We used Macs for years. When mine went kaput, it did lose much of my material, even though I had it backed up, because it wouldn’t “translate,” and the nearest place that would work on fixing a Mac was in Kazakhstan, and they charged me a lot of money for fixes that didn’t work, and $2000 for a new computer, and when the email program on it wouldn’t work, Apple’s suggestion was to buy Eudora for another $200 rather than for them to make their durn program work, so I bought my trusty Asus for the $200 it would take to get working email alone via the Mac, even though it meant learning a new program… ah, a new program… gaahh, no!!!

Wednesday, October 2, 2019


The well of memory
is so bottomless
I can let down
my bucket
to any depth
and pull up mystery

Often I sip
hesitantly, carefully
for I remember
that there were times
when the water
was bitter

I drink from a bucket
of mercy
from a dipper
of grace
Each sip
is tasty
on my tongue

For somehow
in the dark depths
of the well of memory
turned the water
into wine

John Robert McFarland

“It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”