Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering

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Ring the Bells

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

- Leonard Cohen, Anthem

IMG_0710This week I added a number of bells to our Advent/Christmas tree—and found myself thinking, over and over again, of this song by Leonard Cohen.

Advent is a time of assessment, as well as waiting. After all, it’s wise to have some idea of what we’re waiting for. We are not waiting for perfection, nor are we striving for flawlessness. In fact, Jesus was born so that God might enter into our imperfect lives. Incarnation is about becoming human—and humans are by our very nature imperfect.

This does not mean that we do not strive to improve, or to live more fully. But perfection—at least in the common cultural understanding of the word—is not our goal. There is a crack in everything, and it is through that crack that God’s light comes streaming through into our lives.

Thus the goal is not to strive for flawlessness, but to learn how to ring the bells that are good enough to ring. That means singing out our praises even when we know we can’t carry a tune, because the desire to sing, and the joy we find in singing, brings glory to God.

That means being as kind and caring as we can to those who make our lives difficult—not because we think we’re better, but because we’re ringing God’s bell of love in order to change the world, one relationship at a time.

That means giving out of our abundance because the food, clothing, and other goods that we share are bells that ring out messages of hope to the hopeless, warmth in the winter, sufficiency for the hungry, and joy for those who are mired in despair.

Do you live joyously in spite of your imperfections, seeking to spread God’s love without regard for how well you do it?

What bells are you being called to ring in this holy season?

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Becoming Angels

Angels have been on my mind a lot the past couple weeks, as I prepared for and led an Advent retreat entitled The Advent of Jesus Through the Eyes of Others. (Stay tuned, because I intend to offer this retreat online next year!) God’s messengers were busy in the lives of those around Jesus’ incarnation; individual angels appeared to Zechariah in the temple, to Mary, and to Joseph in a dream, while an entire band of angels (How many is a “band,” I wonder?!) appeared to the shepherds on the hillside outside Bethlehem. The wise men were also warned in a dream—perhaps by angels—not to return to Herod and tell him exactly where to find the baby Messiah.

IMG_0636Henry and I have accumulated a lot of angels over the years, and this past week I have added a number of them to our Advent tree. They are a very fitting Christmas ornament.

They are also an excellent reminder that God still sends angels into our lives, although most of them do not obviously sport wings or fly. Because of the Holy Spirit, given to us by God after Jesus’ resurrection, we are all equipped to be angels for each other. If you look back across the difficult times in your life, you can doubtlessly come up with moments when someone else became an angelic presence in your life, whether they swooped in with a casserole (or takeout!) after surgery or shared an encouraging word when you were feeling down or hopeless.

In this season, our culture encourages us to be angels for one another—whether it’s the Bling Team paying for holiday shopping or church choir members serenading nursing home residents with Christmas carols. But we don’t need to limit our angelic impulses to the holiday season. There is always the need to spread joy and love, and messages about the surprising ways God continues to manifest in our lives.

How might you be an angel to someone in need today? Next week? Next year?

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Let There Be Light!

Advent 2 2As the Advent season continues, so does the daily decorating process of my Advent-to-Christmas tree.

The first quotation in scripture is “Let there be light.” Tradition has God speaking those words as the first transformation of creation, which was originally crafted as a “formless void” covered in darkness. Light was the first differentiator in creation, and so it seems fitting that adding lights—in this case, votive cups to hold candles—is an appropriate first differentiator between a bare metal infrastructure and a beautiful—and meaningful—symbol of Christmas.

And so I ask, in the creation that is your life, where do you need to add more light? What portions of your life are lived in darkness? Are there aspects of your life that need to be brought out into the light, in this season of prayerful pondering? Are there portions of your life that need attention, need your loving care, perhaps need forgiveness, or even transformation?

And how might you, in this season of increasing darkness, bring light to those around you? Where in the world, or in your neighborhood, does the darkness seem impervious, or perhaps taken for granted? What might you do to shed light in these “dark days” of winter? How might you help others to see the light?

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An Advent Tree

Happy Liturgical New Year!

Sometime last year Henry and I purchased a rather unusual Christmas tree. We found it in a store in the small town of Palomas, Mexico, just across the border from Columbus, New Mexico. Standing as tall as we are and formed of curving metal branches, we thought it would make a unique Christmas tree.

As I was thinking about how I would observe Advent this year, it crossed my mind to decorate this tree with one or two ornaments a day, saying a prayer as I did so, as if the tree was an Advent calendar of sorts. It would be a daily reminder of the Advent season, a small ritual to distance myself from all the Christmas ads, holiday parties and other trappings of the cultural observance which have so little connection with the holy season of Advent.

You see, Advent is a time of waiting. Waiting for our yearly observance of Jesus’ birth, of God becoming incarnate in human flesh, and also waiting for that expected “end of time” when Christ will come again. And as we wait, it is a time to “set our hearts in order,” as I find myself thinking about this time. With each daily return to the tree, each ornament added and prayer spoken, something sacred is being created. Plain black metal transforms into an incarnation of prayers spoken and symbols shared.

Advent 1And so today I begin with a blue candle holder—blue being one color that represents the Advent season. Blue is also traditionally the color associated with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and she has been on my mind as I prepare a series of meditations for an Advent retreat this coming weekend.

How will you observe Advent this year? What daily ritual and prayer can help keep you grounded in the waiting, even as the culture around us dives into Christmas a month early?

One intriguing daily ritual which has come to my attention—and caught my interest—can be found at

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The Big Tree

big treeI’ve finally seen it—up close and personal (yes, that’s me standing under the tree!). After two years of hearing about “the big tree,” we finally went to it on one of our recent weekly hikes. As you can see, it certainly is a very tall, very wide, quite grand tree. According to the Forest Service, “The Big Juniper Tree is nationally ranked as the second largest alligator Juniper Tree. Its diameter is 70.2 in, circumference is 18 ft. 4 in, crown spread is 62 ft., and height is 63 ft.” They don’t say how old it is, which I’d like to know—but perhaps they’ve decided not to damage it in order to find out.

I’ve been thinking a lot about trees lately, in part because my blogs during Advent will focus on a tree that Henry and I have purchased…but you’ll have to wait until next week to learn more about that! Today, however, is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Christian year, and it seems quite fitting to meditate today on a truly kingly (or perhaps queenly?) tree.

This tree has withstood many things over the years. People have carved their names into its bark. Some limbs have died, while one or two others show signs of what might have been fire, or a lightning strike. But the tree itself appears to be quite healthy, with nary a yellow branch or needle in sight. And as you can see in this photo, the Forest Service has surrounded the tree with a fence—but not to keep people out, as there is a way in on one side. Our guess was to keep elk from rubbing their antlers on the bark…but it still seems like a funny thing to do to a tree that has survived everything that has come its way for hundreds of years before we humans arrived with our fence!

The Christian tradition is not unlike this big tree. It has withstood many things over the centuries. People have attempted to imprint their names upon Christianity—although, for the most part, it is those like St. Francis and Mother Teresa, whose focus has not been upon making a name for themselves, who have succeeded. Some limbs—some versions of the faith—have died out, but others are flourishing, and the center remains strong. Some have tried to fence it about to “protect” the faith, but it is just as ironic to think Christianity needs our protection as it is to fence a tree that is more endangered by our pollution than by the wild animals that have peacefully coexisted with it for hundreds of years.

What traditions have a kingly, or queenly, stature or role in your life? Do you seek to carve your name into them—to make them yours in some way? Do you build fences to keep others out—or in?

What, or who, reigns as king or queen in your life?

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New Mexico Foliage

It’s not as spectacular as the foliage in New England, but New Mexico has its own special beauty in the fall. NM fall 3On our hike this past week, we did not find fields filled with color. Instead, we saw spots of color highlighted amidst an evergreen and desert-brown landscape. All the more special for being unexpected, these colors delighted our eyes and prompted conversation about our years of living on the east coast.

NM fall 1The colors of fall are the colors of fire. Bright oranges, reds, and yellows, they stand out against the cool evergreens and background browns. In much the same way, some seasons in our lives stand out for how they catch us on fire, whether it be an exciting new challenge at work or teaching a child how to walk or read.

For some of us, the colors of fall are present in the produce of our gardens. Last night I roasted a bunch of those steadily ripening red Roma tomatoes, while earlier in the week I cooked up a nice-sized orange pumpkin that I’d picked up at the last farmer’s market of the season. To me, these colors speak of the abundance of harvest, and the abundance of God in my own life: of love, of work, of having enough to share. I’ll be taking one of those box lids full of tomatoes to church on Sunday afternoon to see if I can’t share this abundance.

What are the colors of this season of your life? Are you on fire, or are you in a cool zone? What do those colors represent for you? Where do you find God in it all?

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Green Tomatoes

tomatoes 2This past week we finally had a frost. I’d been keeping an eye on the weather forecast and spent a late afternoon harvesting green, pink, and almost-red tomatoes—quite a few of them. As I picked, I thought about Henry’s aunt Ada, who lived with us the last year of her life. I’ve written a book of meditations on that year, and keep contemplating publishing it…but somehow that hasn’t happened yet.

Today, however, I thought I’d share one of those meditations, as it also has to do with green tomatoes. I hope you enjoy it!


In preparation for moving from one home to another last fall, we had to dismantle our garden before the first frost. As she so often did, Ada joined me and wanted to help out. I gave her the project of picking all the tomatoes that were showing any blush of red. I focused on the large green ones, with visions of green tomato relish and fried green tomatoes making me salivate. Together we filled a couple of cardboard box lids, after which I began to uproot the plants themselves. Ada wanted to keep going, to pick the dozens of cherry-size green tomatoes as well. I encouraged her, figuring it would keep her busy. In my mind it was make-work, because I didn’t think those tomatoes were large enough to amount to anything.

We ended up with four full box lids of tomatoes, thoroughly mixed—large and small, green and half-ripe—which found a home on a shelf unit in our new garage, covered with newspapers to let those half-ripened tomatoes finish their work. Over the ensuing weeks my intentions for frying and canning green tomatoes fell victim to the realities of unpacking boxes and getting settled. I did dip into the box lids, though, every few days, to pull what had ripened for use in sandwiches and salads. Eventually I ended up roasting dozens of the cherry-size tomatoes because we could not keep up with them otherwise. No matter how green they were when picked, they ripened, perhaps encouraged by their larger neighbors. Many of those tiny roasted tomatoes ended up on our Thanksgiving appetizer platter—every one of them a gift I would have left behind if not for Ada’s companionship that day.

So now I ponder: did I disregard the imperfect and immature because I am fortunate enough to live with abundance? Did Ada reach for those green tomatoes because she was a teenager during the Great Depression and remembered, at a visceral level, how much each small bite of food was worth? I never went hungry growing up—unless I refused the food that was presented to me at the dinner table. I also cannot count the number of times that my mother said we needed to clean our plates because of the “starving Armenians.” I didn’t know who those Armenians were, or why they were starving, but I did grow up knowing that it was tantamount to a crime to waste food. I remember Henry’s comment, when we set up our new compost bin a couple of months ago, that he had been feeling guilty for wasting all the vegetable trimmings and eggshells that we had been throwing into the trash.

Recently the Food Network aired a television special featuring two teams competing to create the best gourmet meal constructed entirely from food destined for the trash. The waste of food that they encountered is appalling. How did we get to the point that we will not accept any apple less than “perfect”? Every one of us is clearly as imperfect as our fabled foremother Eve, who was tempted by the snake to eat the apple in the Garden of Eden.

The abundance of food in America has also led to a disregard for its unseen attributes, and for its impact upon the human body. The food making our teenagers obese is filled with chemicals and preservatives so that our convenience culture can distance itself even further from the sources of its own sustenance, and shortcut the time needed to transform the raw materials into a meal. Inner-city children being exposed for the first time to a school garden are horrified by the fact that a carrot grows in the dirt. That dirt, to them, is more dangerous than the chemicals in the snack cake they bought at the corner convenience store on the way home from school.

Fortunately, it appears that the urge to garden, to return to our roots—dirty as they are—is growing in America today. Schools and community open spaces are providing opportunities for gardening to children and adults who have no experience or understanding of growing plants for food. We can hope that they will see the imperfection in their own fruits and be willing to tolerate it there, as well as in the imperfect humans with whom they share the adventure.


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