Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering

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Another Face in the Wood

Another thing that caught my attention during our time in California was the number of blackened and scarred trees. We see on television the powerful pictures of fire tearing through the drought-ridden California hillsides, but once the fires are over, they tend to fade from consciousness—at least for those of us in the rest of the country.

DSC_1088However, every time I drive through the Black Range in southern New Mexico, I am reminded of our own Silver Fire, 15 months ago, which left behind many similarly blackened and scarred trees. I usually don’t stop to take pictures, but last fall I did take a few, including this one at Emory Pass.

What caught my attention in California was a huge skeleton of a tree with a hollow center, big enough for me to stand inside if I had wanted to thoroughly blacken my clothing. Thriving nearby trees show that it’s clearly been a few years since this fire, but the occasional remnant remains, and once again (as during my retreat in April) I saw a face in the wood.

DSC_6393It’s rather animistic, and some would say unchristian, to say that I’ve found myself wondering whether these faces represent some element of the spirit of the tree…but I have thought about it. Is there any reason why God would not give a portion of the divine Spirit to other living beings besides humans? Certainly many Americans are convinced that their pets are possessed of a spirit as well as intelligence. Why would God not bless all creation equally, since Genesis tells us that God saw all creation as equally good?

When I look at the face at the top of this gnarled, scarred trunk, I sense a spirit crying out in anguish at the lick of flames and the heat of fire. It reminds me of the cries that I also imagine are emanating from Mother Earth as we continue to abuse her to feed our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels, dig deep for precious stones and metals, and carelessly discard trash wherever we please. Surely this is not what God meant in Genesis 2:15 by “cultivate and care for it.”

Where in your own life to you see God’s creation crying out? What are you being called to do in response? What is your prayer for “this fragile earth, our island home”?

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Living Together

DSC_5567While in San Diego, Henry and I spent an enjoyable morning photographing the wildlife in Point Loma. This image in particular has stuck with me—how these two very different creatures are able to coexist on the same stretch of rocks. In fact, entire communities of seals and cormorants, along with pelicans and seagulls, clearly return to the same rocks, day after day (the smell will tell you that if nothing else does!).

But they appear to do more than coexist; it might be my imagination, but I can easily see these two engaged in a conversation of sorts. Perhaps they do not understand each other’s language, but at some level there is acknowledgment and acceptance of the other. They have some major things in common after all; both fish for their food, and bask in the sun to warm up and dry off once their bellies are full.

We humans also have some important things in common, but in the rush to the top (whatever that might mean for each of us) we tend to forget how much we share. There are species-level urges, such as the need for food and shelter, to reproduce, and to raise our children to adulthood. There are social norms which we hold in common, ranging from the rules of the road to our intricate economic exchanges. There are also those ways of being together that each family and social group has created to help build cohesiveness, including the types of food we cook and the sports teams we follow.

And then there is our faith—an element that sometimes brings us together, but at other times tears us apart. Like our very basic needs for food and shelter, we need the divine—at a deep, primal level which appears to be coded into our very DNA. While our individual expressions of that desire for the divine often vary widely—and at their worst, come in overt conflict with each other—we all hold that desire in common, and when we can live together, different though we may be, our world is a fuller, richer place.

Where in your life are you called to live together with those who are different from you—humans and other creatures? How can you more intentionally seek for what we all hold in common, rather than those things which tear us apart? What does it mean for you, like the seals and cormorants, to truly share common ground—common rocks—with those who are different?

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Trips and Typos

photo 2(7)An editor may go on vacation, but her brain never does. This past week Henry and I enjoyed some time away, in San Diego and its environs. In a small town in southern California I came across this sign, and couldn’t help noticing that the adjacent parking lot must belong to a famished group of Christians!

Henry suggested that perhaps the misspelling was intentional, and went along with their plea for parking payments to offset their debt. But I doubt that is the case, and imagine that the sign printer just didn’t know about the country called Hungary on the other side of the world, or the Saint Elizabeth whose nationality has become part of her name.

Regardless of the intentionality, the typo caught my attention and tickled my funny bone. It also got me thinking about the fact that we Christians are generally a hungry bunch. For many branches of Christianity, a meal—even if symbolic in nature—is a major element in our weekly worship services. We also tend to have gatherings for fellowship and food after the liturgy, and gather at other times during the week for Bible study, discussion—and more food.

But it is our spiritual need that is at the root of so much of our hunger. We hunger for love in a world that cheapens the meaning of love (see my blog last week for more on that topic). We hunger for meaning in a nation that substitutes activity and achievement for purpose and progress. We hunger to connect with each other in a culture that idolizes individualism at the expense of community and the environment.

In light of all this hunger, I find myself wanting to take advantage of this typo, and add “St. Elizabeth of the Hungry” to the saintly lexicon—that spiritual support network which is the Communion of Saints.

And so today I ask you: for what do you hunger, spiritually? What might this new St. Elizabeth, patroness of the hungry Christian, have to say to you, at this time in your life?

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Never Stop Loving

stop signI came across this altered stop sign a few days ago and it definitely spoke to where I was at that moment. I’d had a rough few days, and allowed some hurtful emails to get to me, such that I responded with anger instead of taking time to step back and let go of my initial reactions. I’m human. We all have our breaking points; this week I found some more. And then I came across this sign.

So much of our culture has cheapened the concept of love, making it into an easy, everyday phrase, as in “I love ice cream” or “Don’t you just love that dress?” True love—what Christians call agape—is a different story altogether, at least the way I’ve been taught to understand it from a spiritual perspective. This love is not about really liking something, or someone. It’s not infatuation, either; I think infatuation is a genetic disposition toward attachment to another for procreation and the survival of the species. It can lead to love, but it is not the same thing.

To my mind, true love is the ability to recognize the innate goodness in another person, despite their imperfections, shortcomings, and breaking points. It’s the willingness to look beyond what we like, or don’t like, about another person, and find the spark of the Spirit which dwells within them. We all have that spark; we all have particular gifts and graces which make us unique, make us valuable, indeed make us irreplaceable in the grand, Divine scheme of things.

Later that same day, as I was editing, I came across this phrase from St. Teresa of Avila: “think less and love more.” It was another good invitation for me, as I have been pondering how to step back, let go of initial reactions, and make healthy choices about how to love people who send hateful emails. I need to get out of my head and into my heart in order to find the path to loving people whom, in the heat of the moment, I struggle to like or understand.

Where in your life do you need to embrace the message to Never Stop Loving? In what situations do you need to think less and love more?

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Anticipation and Expectation

DSC_1642This week’s hike was filled with wildflowers. Although it hasn’t rained for about ten days now, there’s been enough moisture to get the plants flowering, at least along the area where we walked. We saw some familiar wildflowers, but also many that we did not recognize. As we were completing our hike, my companion laughingly said that the bar was now set pretty high for these hikes, with fossils one week and abundant wildflowers the next.

Without in any way denigrating my friend—because she said this in a light-hearted manner—her comment got me thinking about expectations. So often our expectations and assumptions lead to disappointment—whether it’s something as simple as expecting to really enjoy a special meal, or something as complex and expensive as enjoying “the event of a lifetime” or a long-anticipated vacation.

I think the key lies in how we approach these events in our lives. It’s one thing to look forward to something with anticipation: wondering what it will be like, curious about what we will see, do, or experience. It’s something else entirely to assume how it will turn out, expect exactly what we will enjoy, or believe that we know precisely how an event or experience will unfold.

When we approach something with anticipation, we bring wonder and “fresh eyes” to what could be an “old” experience—like hiking some particular trail—and find it brand new because of the fleeting presence of wildflowers. When we approach something with expectation, we bring our agenda about what we will experience, which often has the effect of metaphorically closing our eyes to new and unusual experiences—and perhaps even literally preventing our brains from registering something new which our eyes might otherwise see.

What would it be like, today and in the days ahead, for you to let go—as much as possible—of all assumptions about how your days will go and expectations as to what you will experience? What if you opened your eyes, and the eyes of your heart, to welcome new experiences, new sights, with anticipation?

How might that openness lead you to see God’s creation, and the gifts inherent in each day, in a new light?

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Ancient History

photo(6)This week’s hike took us up a hill northwest of town, where we saw more gray rocks that seemed to be flowing over and encasing other rocks—similar to what I talked about last week. But as we were hiking back, we took a closer look at one patch of gray rocks and discovered that some of them included hundreds of little fossils! photo 1(5)These fossils came in a variety of shapes and sizes, and one even looked like a tiny wing. Fascinating and infinitely varied, these imprints of ancient history seem to indicate another possible cause of the encasement of one type of rock by another: the motion of sea and sand.

It’s hard to imagine that this desert landscape, and these rocks perched high on a hill, were once part of an ancient sea bed, but we know from scientific studies that mountains harbor ancient sea beds in other places as well. These hills are filled with ancient history, about which I know very little because I have not undertaken much study of rocks and the stories that they have to tell.

There is ancient history all around us, no matter where we live. There is also ancient history in our scriptures, and if we do not undertake to study them, we can miss much of what they might have to tell us. Today I am preaching at a local church, and so I have been immersing myself more deeply in a few passages of scripture than I normally would, and it’s been fun to see what caught my attention.

For one thing, rocks appear to be a theme in my life right now. In addition to these rocks I am encountering on my walks, there are rocks mentioned in today’s scripture lessons. For example, Isaiah 51:1b says, “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.” The prophet goes on to say that by this he means our spiritual ancestors, Abraham and Sarah. Today’s gospel, in Matthew 16:18a, recounts Jesus saying to another of our spiritual ancestors, “I tell you, you are Peter [which means “rock”], and on this rock I will build my church.”

So I ask you: which spiritual ancestors have been the foundational rocks in your life? What ancient history has shaped you, or left its imprint on you? In what ways are you carrying on their mission?

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In What Do You Immerse Yourself?

My weekly hikes are turning into wonderful opportunities for reflection and inspiration! This past week’s hike took place in an open space near Silver City called Boston Hill (because the area was owned in the early 1880s by the Massachusetts and New Mexico Mining Company), which today is home to a number of abandoned mines, volcanic rocks and, during monsoon season, a nice array of wildflowers. photo 2(4)One of the things that caught my attention, however, were these rocks, which had clearly completely encased rocks of a very different sort. Here, the lighter, softer rock has worn away, exposing the tougher, multi-colored rocks. Given the volcanic nature of the area, I found myself wondering if perhaps that lighter rock is volcanic ash, which settled around these other rocks and eventually encased them.

I also found myself remembering the little joke about the baby fish asking “Momma, what’s ‘water’?” Water being, of course, for fish what air is for humans: that ubiquitous element that surrounds us and is always touching us, that we breathe in and out, and that we cannot conceive of as anything apart from our experience of it. For literally thousands, perhaps millions, of years, those multi-colored rocks were completely encased in the lighter rock; if they had the ability to perceive, they would not have known there was an existence that did not involve the rocks in which they were encased.

That is, until the lighter rocks wore down or were flaked away, and the multi-colored rocks were—for them, “suddenly”—exposed to air, and wind-blown dust, and rain. An entirely new type of existence was forced upon them—in much the same way as fish caught on a line or in a net are suddenly exposed to air after a lifetime of only experiencing water.

All this led me to think about the experience of being immersed in God’s love. I believe it is very similar to our experience of air, and a fish’s experience of water. As the Psalmist says (139:5), “You have enclosed me behind and before, and laid your hand upon me.” In Romans 8:38-39, Paul says “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Are you aware of being surrounded by that love of God? Are you ever conscious of breathing love in and out, just as you do air? Or are you most aware of love when you feel separated from it?

Do you know that God’s love comes to you via grace, and that you are immersed in it, whether you will it or not?

Besides air, and love, in what else do you immerse yourself? Are those things helpful, or harmful, to you?


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