Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Monday, December 30, 2019


Our door bell never rings on Sunday afternoon, except it did, yesterday. There stood Susan and Norma, neighbors in the Sherwood Green condo subdivision.

“Do you know the woman who lives in the unit that backs up to yours?” they asked.

Well, no, because no one knows her. She lives in IL and comes over once or twice a month to see her grandchildren who live here. She bought the unit beside ours just for those occasional appearances. We have encountered her only a couple of times in the four years we’ve “lived” beside each other. We were friendly and welcoming, and she was pleasant, but she didn’t volunteer her name or contact information.

“She’s gone away and left her garage door up,” Susan said. “No telling when she’ll be back. We can’t leave it that way. We tried taking turns going in and pushing the “close” button by the kitchen door and then running out as fast as possible, before the door came down, but at the end we had to jump to get over that electronic beam that makes the door go back up, and the door was coming down, and we couldn’t jump high enough.”

I asked them to do it again. I’ve never gotten to put a video on YouTube, and I figured a movie of little old ladies in house slippers, dashing through an unknown neighbor’s garage like a bat out of Shady Rest, and trying to leap out beyond the door at the end, would certainly go viral. Unfortunately, they declined. [Norma’s house slippers were mismatched, even, but when you’re 89 you don’t worry about such things. Besides, she claimed she has another pair just like them at home.]

I figured I could try the garage run, but I am tall, and slow, and tend to fall over when moving, or standing, so Helen thought that was not a good idea.

We needed someone short and fast who could jump. We could think of no one in the 118 units of Sherwood Green who fit that description. I thought about Simone Biles but was afraid she might be too full of Christmas candy.

It was Sunday afternoon. We figured the condo office would know how to contact our mystery neighbor, but the office wasn’t open, of course, so Susan started calling and texting the realtor managers.

There was a number pad at the side of the door, but none of us had any idea what her code would be.

The four of us together have 337 years [actual count] of living experience, but we couldn’t figure out how to close a garage door.

Then I thought of William of Ockham [1287-1347]. Actually, I thought of Glenn Santner, but he looks a lot like Bill. When I pick up Glenn to go to Crumble Bakery for coffee with the other Crumble Bums [Tony, Charlie, and Ron], he closes his garage door with one button, not a whole code.

So, I pushed the Enter button at the bottom of the number pad. There went the door, right down, no running or jumping necessary.

Susan did all her phoning and texting again to say, as Rosanne Roseannadanna used to put it, “Never mind.”

And as “Old Bill” Ockham liked to say, “The simplest solution is probably the right solution.”

John Robert McFarland

Saturday, December 28, 2019


 That is what Georgia Karr, the world’s best mother-in-law, always said, as she slumped into an easy chair on the afternoon of Dec. 24. Over. The buying, the making, the wrapping, the cooking, the smiling, all of it—over.

There is another way that nothing is as over as Christmas: God spoke the complete Word of Christ once, in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The Word of Love. The Word of You Matter. The first word, and the final word. Alpha and Omega.

Once. That was enough. But it’s like that good story Grandpa always tells at Christmas. It is a once-upon-a-time story… “once”… but it’s a repeat story, too. It happened once, but it’s such a good story, such an important story, that it needs to be repeated, retold, relived.

God birthed Love into the world once, came to us in the flesh, incarnate, once, but each Christmas we retell the story.

Nothing is as over as Christmas. But Christmas is never over.

John Robert McFarland

I’m a little embarrassed to post what I wrote above. It sounds so trite, a cliché you’d find on a card from The Dollar Store. I’m supposed to tell little stories that are sometimes semi-humorous and let folks draw their own lessons from them, not spout some oxymoronic simplism. But it reminds me of my friend, The Rev. Jean Cramer-Heuerman, gone from us much too soon. Jean and I used to sit in the back of the room at church conference meetings and make snide remarks behind out hands to each other about the stupid clichés the leaders winded off with. But then we both got cancer at the same time. Once, while we were both still in treatment, Jean whispered to me, “You know, all the clichés are true. That’s why they are clichés.”

Wednesday, December 25, 2019


It occurred to me that if anyone accesses this blog on Christmas day, it means you are really desperate for something to do. And I’m already too full of mincemeat pie to write something new, but I can do  a repeat from 12-25-10.

It’s Christmas, almost, and I miss my friend, Phyllis, for it was at Christmas time that I first met her, when we were both ten years old. I miss her especially when I hear “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

My family had moved from the working-class near-east side of Indianapolis to the country near Oakland City in March. Phyllis and I were both in fifth grade, but I didn’t meet her until Christmas time. I was in 5-A, kids who started school in January, and she was 5-B, kids who started in Sept. She lived in town and I rode a school bus. And we went to different churches.

I went to Forsythe, an open-country Methodist church. Phyllis’ father, Jimmy Graham, was the pastor at Oak Grove General Baptist Church, a mile down the gravel road from Forsythe, as well as attending Oakland City College. Those churches held different theologies, but we shared a common culture, and so we also shared a common VBS and Christmas program. It was at that shared Christmas program in 1947 that I met Phyllis.

After the little children had “said their pieces,” and the older ones had sung a carol in a rag-tag choir, there was an excited stirring, especially among the Methodists, who were not used to excitement in church, at least not of the Baptist kind. Everyone looked to the back of the church. Striding confidently forward, holding an accordion almost as large as she, came this skinny little girl. She stepped up onto the platform, worked the bellows, and began to sing, with the deepest, fullest voice I had ever heard. Her song was “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” Longfellow’s 1863 poem, written in the midst of the Civil War, later set to John Calkin’s music.

I had never before heard a song like that, or a voice like that. It seemed like I was in the presence of royalty, or perhaps twelve-year old Elizabeth Taylor in “National Velvet,” or Margaret O’Brien in “Meet Me in St. Louis.” [1]

I say that I met Phyllis then, but she didn’t meet me. Because of different home rooms and buses and churches, we didn’t really meet until we were freshmen in high school. We met then because I was in the girls’ biology class.

I was a mid-year student, and worked on the school newspaper and sang in the choir. In a small school, with limited class offerings, that meant a confused class schedule. As a freshman, I had the second semester of “Commercial Arithmetic,” without benefit of the first semester, with mostly junior girls, and since I was otherwise scheduled during the boys’ biology class, I was placed in the girls’ class, taught by Iva Jane McCrary, the “old maid” home ec teacher. Phyllis and I sat across a big sewing table from each other. Phyllis was quite pretty and very smart, which meant that I could look at her or her test paper and expect erudition in either case.

The high point of freshman biology was learning about “human reproduction,” which took two whole days. When those two days came, though, Sammy Kell and I, Sammy being the only other boy with a class schedule as eccentric as mine, were sent off to sit in the principal’s outer office during biology class, since we did not have the right mind-set, or equipment, presumably, to learn about human reproduction with the girls.

When I returned to class, I asked Phyllis about what I had missed. “I think you’ll still be able to have children,” she said.

In our sophomore year, Phyllis’ father graduated from college and took a church in Tennessee. I did not see her again until I was the new Methodist campus minister at Indiana State University and Rose Polytechnic in Terre Haute, just graduated from Garrett Theological Seminary, and she was a new professor of mathematics at Indiana State, having just received a PhD from Indiana University. Typically of Phyllis, she had done graduate work in math because she felt it was her weakest subject, thus the one in which she needed extra work to be a truly educated person.

Phyllis was pleased that I had indeed been able to have children, two darling little girls. She became a member of our family, a special aunt to Mary Beth and Katie, sharing meals and picnics and friends. 

The Wesley Foundation did not have its own worship services, and as the new campus minister, I got to preach only once a semester at Centenary Church. By the time those rare Sundays came around, I had a lot of ideas and passion stored up. Those were Sundays when Phyllis became a Methodist. After one of those sermons, she waited until everyone else had filed past me at the door, then reached up and grabbed me by the top of my robe and pulled me down to her face and said, “You don’t know it yet, but when you’re in that pulpit, you’re something special. People will believe what you say just because of the way you say it. So you make damn sure you say the truth.”

So, in memory of my friend, whom I miss especially at Christmas time, I will say the truth, in the words of William Wadsworth Longfellow:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead nor doth he sleep.’
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth good will to men.’

May the peace of God be with you,
John Robert McFarland

[1] I had a special crush on Margaret O’Brien because I had seen a photo of her holding the same fifth-grader reader I used at Lucretia Mott Public School # 3 in Indianapolis. Interestingly, at least to me, Margaret shared a birthday with the late Joe Frazier, the baritone of the Chad Mitchell Trio and Episcopal vicar in Big Bear Lake, CA. Each was 19 days further advanced in decrepitude than I.

Monday, December 23, 2019

SANTA AND GRANDPA [A repeat] [M, 12-23-19]

As Christmas approached when our granddaughter, Brigid, was four years old, she said to her mother: “You know, Santa and Grandpa are a lot alike. Santa has a bald head, and Grandpa has a bald head. Santa has a white beard, and Grandpa has a white beard. Santa brings you toys, and Grandpa brings toys. But Grandpa is better, because he stays and plays.”

Yes, I tell this story every Christmas, for it is, I think, the best explanation of Christmas that I know. God is not just some Santa, rushing from one place to another, making a brief stop on the roof of the world to throw down a few goodies. In Jesus, the Christ, God stays and plays.

John Robert McFarland

Helen is not a theoretical physicist, by profession or inclination, but she does have remarkable theoretical insights into the space-time continuum. She says that the shortest measure of time is from when a grandchild is born to when they’re all grown up. Brigid is now 24.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

A MUGGY CHRISTMAS [Sat, 12-21-19]

Helen and I agreed we would not buy each other gifts this year. We are trying to get rid of stuff, so bringing more stuff into that process would be counter-productive, meaning there would be a lot more stuff on the counters, which are already too crowded.

However, I was in TIS, buying some stuff for other people that she asked me to. Helen is not allowed in TIS anymore, since the last time she was there she did a face plant on their sidewalk and had to go to the ER. It’s not that TIS won’t let her in now. I’m the one who insists on going alone. Last time she got my handkerchief all bloody.

TIS means, in Indiana, Textbooks for Indiana Students, but there are no text books there, or anywhere else, anymore. But there are scads of great IU gifts and gear, including a big display of 200th anniversary IU coffee mugs, with names on them. I knew they would not have a Helen mug. It’s a great name, but little used anymore. If she were a Whitney or a Courtney or Madison, no problem.

But lo and behold, there was a mug with “Helen” displayed proudly on it. I knew I could not wrap it up, since that would say “Christmas gift,” so I washed it and just put it in the dish dryer rack for her to find.

Shortly thereafter, another mug appeared in that rack, the one with Larry Dunphee’s face on it. Larry was the proprietor of our favorite book store-coffee shop, Books on First, in Dixon, IL. He died a couple of weeks ago, and Brenda Spratt, the manager, started selling mugs with Larry’s mug on it as a memorial. Knowing how much I liked Larry and Books on First, Helen sent all the way to Dixon to get me one.

When you’ve been married a long time, you know you are supposed to get each other a coffee mug, even if you said you wouldn’t do gifts this year.

John Robert McFarland

Thursday, December 19, 2019

THE WRONG GIFT [R, 12-19-19]

What can you do when you get the wrong gift? It’s okay to be sad. I was. But I also wanted to use my gift, so I developed a hook shot that compensated for that ball’s deficiencies.

That’s the ball Uncle Ted and Aunt Nora gave me when I was ten years old. We had moved that year, 135 miles south from the working-class near east side of Indianapolis. to a little hardscrabble farm near Oakland City, my father’s home town, five miles from Francisco, Mother’s home town. It was then that I discovered two important realities: basketball and poverty.

I learned that I needed a basketball, and I learned we were too poor to buy one.

In Indianapolis I did not know about basketball. There was certainly basketball in Indianapolis. After all, Oscar Robertson and I were in school there at the same time. Different schools. Very different. The difference of black and white. And also basketball goal posts.

My Indy school had no sports teams. There were no playground basketball goal posts, or alley goalpost where kids gathered. Oakland City was very different. There every boy, even the grade school kids, had a goal post. And their own basketball. I wanted to be one of those kids.

Uncle Ted and Aunt Nora owned and ran a general store in Francisco. They had basketballs, lined up in bright boxes, on a shelf in that store. They knew I wanted a basketball. So they gave me one for Christmas, perhaps the most thoughtful gift I ever received.

Except it was the wrong ball. The ball inside that box was not the vulcanized balls that had come in after WWII, very similar to the basketballs of today. The ball I received was the old-fashioned type, with light-weight slightly-pebbled sections stitched together with white thread. Inside that covering was a black bladder that you inflated with a long valve that stuck out of a hole. You couldn’t dribble it, especially in a barn yard where farm boys usually had their baskets, up against the barn sides, because it would not bounce true. If you shot from more than a few feet away, the wind would catch that lightweight ball and send it anywhere. Uncle Ted and Aunt Nora didn’t know better. Uncle Ted had been a star with a ball like that thirty years before. It was the best gift ever, exactly the gift I wanted, but the wrong gift.

It was what I had, though, so I used it. I developed a hook shot with either hand that I used from no more than ten feet away. I learned to twirl as fast as I possibly could and release the ball before it could get away from me. Hurled it hard against the back board before the wind could get it. I dismayed many a would-be defender and scored a lot of points with that shot, because I had learned with the wrong ball.  

The very first Christmas gift, Jesus, seemed to most people to be the wrong gift. Most folks who were around then thought God was as clueless as Uncle Ted—well-meaning but not up to date. They wanted a savior of  strength. They got a savior of love. But the wrong gift turned out to be the perfect gift, the gift we always wanted, without knowing it.

Merry Christmas.

John Robert McFarland

Tuesday, December 17, 2019


Gloria usually chats with me before church, because she doesn’t like people, and I fit the description of non-person better than anyone she knows at church. Maria didn’t know about Gloria’s person recalcitrance, though, and so invited her to a book club that is really a spiritual yearning club.

Gloria went, and was dumbstruck. “I can’t understand why any of those women are still in church,” she said to me. “They’ve all had terrible experiences in conservative churches, growing up, and even later, sometimes way into their adult years, mostly just because they are women. They’ve been treated like non-persons.”

 “It’s because of the yearning,” I said. “They’re yearning to fill what Augustine called that ‘God-shaped void.’ A lot of people give up on the yearning, because of what they’ve suffered in church, but these women haven’t. I admire that. But it’s not just because of their endurance. It’s also because of God’s perseverance. That’s what creates the yearning.”

Perhaps we see the nature of yearning most in this jaded world in children at Christmas. They think they are yearning for a particular gift, but yearning is not specific. What they really want is that sense of being in touch with God, of being loved beyond even the love of their parents. They yearn for completeness.

Yearning is far more than wishing or wanting. If you are filled with yearning, getting what you want or wish for won’t satisfy you.

By God’s design, Christ is far beyond wanting or wishing. Nobody wants a savior born as a helpless baby, to unwed parents of poverty, in a fourth-world nation. But we all yearn for that savior. God makes sure we don’t settle for less in a savior, by making sure the things we wish for won’t satisfy us. It’s only what we yearn for that satisfies.

John Robert McFarland

Sunday, December 15, 2019


Basketball coaches and preachers are fond of lists of three things. It’s as high as coaches can count and as much time as a preacher has in a twenty-minute sermon.

Coach Jim Valvano, in his 1993 “Never Give Up” anti-cancer speech, says that there are three things you should do every day: laugh, think, and cry [be moved so deeply by something that you weep].

When I was a young preacher, I was told that every sermon should contain something to think, something to remember, and something to feel.

Essentially, they are the same lists.

As a preacher, I soon realized that telling people stuff wasn’t very useful, even in getting people to think. The more thoughts I pushed at people, the less thinking they did for themselves. And it certainly wasn’t very good at getting them to laugh with joy or weep with fulfillment. So, I told stories. In a story, the Holy Spirit has a chance to move each person in the way she or he needs to be moved, into thought, and laughter of joy, and tears of wholeness.

Valvano, as a coach, was a story-teller. He told his players the story of how they won the national championship, even though they hadn’t done it yet. Each year, as the season started, they practiced cutting down the nets after their national championship, even though they hadn’t played one game yet. It was a powerful acting out of a story.

He told cancer patients how they would defeat cancer, even if they died, by refusing to give up. It was a laugh-think-cry story just in itself.

I was three years into cancer when Valvano gave his speech. My first oncologist had told me right after my surgery that I’d be dead in “a year or two.” At three years I was beginning to think that if I did not give up, I might have a longer life. Valvano’s speech made me laugh-because he was always funny, even when he knew he was dying-and think, and cry.

In Christian faith, we have settled for one item only in the lists--thinking. Belief. Mental assent. It has led us to anger and exclusion. If we had spent more time laughing and crying together, instead of trying to get everyone to think the same way, we’d be much farther along in the story that starts with Christmas.

I wish I could tell you a story right now that would let you find yourself in it so completely that you would laugh at the absurdity of everything else, and cry with overwhelming joy at the gift of love. A story like God being with us so completely that it moves us to tears, the absurdity of God willing to be born into life as a helpless baby, so ridiculous that it makes us laugh… but we’ve heard that story so often that we no longer hear it… but, listen to it again, every time you get the chance. There are three things in it for you, every time. Never give up on the Christmas story.

John Robert McFarland

Friday, December 13, 2019


I know that Jesus
is the reason
for the season
So trite, but true
But I like Santa
and the reindeer
and the Grinch and his dog
and rockin’ around the Xmas
tree, and hoping for a pony
I’m not pure about anything
else, so why should I be so
stuffy about it being Jesus’
birthday? I’ll bet he never
even got a cake,
what with his birthday
being on Christmas
So let’s be jolly
because that’s the reason
for the season, isn’t it?
Didn’t Jesus say he came
that we might have life abundant?
What could be more abundant
than Silent Night with candles
followed by too much chocolate?
Life abundant.
Surely that’s the reason
for the season…

John Robert McFarland

“Of course Jesus is God. He was born in a place called The Holy Land. Duh!” Archie Bunker

Tuesday, December 10, 2019


As the light fades
the way toward home
grows dim

Dust motes linger
tiny statues in still air

Shadows lean long
through bare limbs
maple trees so recent
full to overflowing
with wild dancing leaves

Silhouettes of wild
blackberry canes
hover ghostly on the berm
beneath a slivery moon

Fence posts tilt toward dusk
The wires between go slack
Sassafras leaves are dusty
with forgotten days
The ditch is dry and cracked

The light grows dim
I have no lantern
but I know the way

John Robert McFarland

Saturday, December 7, 2019


Amidst dire warnings of catastrophe, my McAfee computer security ended today. They’ve been threatening it for weeks, ever since I bought this new Lenovo computer, because it was cheap, sort of. Apparently, Lenovo and McAfee are in cahoots, since McAfee always claims Lenovo recommends them. Some forgotten number of weeks of McAfee security came with the purchase of the computer.

But almost every day, sometimes more than once a day, every day, there arises a popup telling me that some dastardly but vague evil entity will take my first-born child and all my hopes and dreams, via my computer, if I don’t pay up. [The price keeps decreasing, I guess as an incentive to get a recalcitrant like myself hooked in.]

And the only available responses are, “Yes, charge me for security I don’t need, since Microsoft builds in its own security system, Windows Defender, into its computers,” or “Accept Risk,” you moron.

To make it worse, they themselves hold my computer hostage. The popup won’t close until I have responded to it. I can’t do anything else on the computer until I have responded to the  McAfee popup. I guess that’s an example of what will happen if I don’t pay them, but it doesn’t work with me, because…

…I do not like to be bullied or manipulated. On those rare occasions when I look at Facebook, if some post says “I’ll bet nobody will ‘Like’ or ‘Share’ this picture of…a wounded veteran… a cute puppy… a child with cancer…” I refuse to Like or Share, even though I’m an advocate for wounded veterans and cute puppies and children with cancer. If you’re supporting wounded veterans because you’re manipulated into it, that’s not support.

It has occurred to me that McAfee himself obviously knows how to stop my computer, since nothing will work until I have responded to his popups. So, if you don’t see anything here next week, you’ll know what happened, because I’m going to keep putting stuff on this blog to show McAfee my computer still works, even without his security.

Wait a minute. I stopped writing… and I refuse to be manipulated into anything…

…but I’m writing stuff on a computer blog because McAfee tried to manipulate me into computer security… just to show McAfee I don’t need his security…

…there’s something backward going on here…

John Robert McFarland

Another one popped up just as I finished typing this.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019


I am at ease
with my new, hermetic
life, devoid of contact
with person, beast, or fern,
except I would admit
an occasional baby
for playing trotty-horse,
and a woolly black dog
with cold ebony nose
and big brown eyes.
For each, the baby and the dog,
would adore me
for those qualities
that worry others so,
the cluelessness that results
in endless peekaboo,
and the clumsiness
that results in cake
upon the floor.
They would catch
each other’s eye,
the baby and the dog,
and in their infantic
and caninic languages
nod so knowingly
and say, This old man
is A O K.

John Robert McFarland

Sunday, December 1, 2019


Come, o come, Emmanuel
to this earthly heaven, this earthly hell
Come, o come, Emmanuel

on winter mornings when feet are cold
and in big box stores where souls are sold

where walls are high and hopes are low
where old eyes and feet must move so slow

where foundations shake both far and near
and hearts of children quake with fear

where harsh words are spoken, and hearts are broken
and love is just a tinsel token

where the homeless gather to look for heat
use a cardboard box in place of a sheet

where pains are heavy and joys are light
where dreams and daring are out of sight

where your people cloak your cross with hate
and claim that’s the way to make us great

where things are people, and people are things
and the only good is a fist of bling

Come, o come, Emmanuel…

John Robert McFarland