Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering

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Crises, Hummingbirds, and Margaritas

It’s been a tough week. Someone shot down a commercial airliner over Ukrainian airspace, the Israelis and Hamas are re-engaged in brutal combat, and hundreds of helpless migrant children have become pawns in an ongoing political battle about America’s southern border. There are two or more sides to all of the conflicts underlying these events, and it seems there is very little room for God’s love, or even human decency, as each side demonizes the other.

Closer to home, we have a friend who has had a pretty crisis-laden week or two as well. The drought has completely dried up her well, one of her dogs was attacked by a black bear cub, and a cat came home with internal injuries that led to a vet bill of over $650. Fortunately the animals are recovering and she has joined a number of other New Mexicans in having water delivered to her home, but when she mentioned the need to relax with “a pitcher of margaritas,” we asked if she might like some company.

As a result, yesterday became a day of rest from crises. In the morning, Henry and I drove to photograph a Hummingbird Festival near Lake Roberts. DSC_3396 cropResearchers were catching, banding, weighing, and measuring the various hummingbirds that were flocking to the bird feeders at the Little Toad Creek Inn & Tavern. I got some great images for the Grant County Beat, and some for myself as well. DSC_3368 cropThen in the afternoon our friend joined us for a trek across the border into Palomas, Mexico, to visit the Pink Store for a meal and a margarita or two, as well as a lot of story-sharing and laughter.

It was a good break. And last evening we returned to doing our share to show this crisis-ridden world a bit of Love. Henry composed an email to local faith groups, advertising the need expressed by the New Mexico Coalition for Faith and Immigration for travel-sized toiletries for the migrant children at our border. I am holding all these crises in prayer and listening for what else God might be inviting me to do.

When crises descend upon our lives, we can lose track of the need for rest and relaxation. We can become so caught up in the turmoil that we forget to step back (literally or metaphorically) and take time to connect with friends, and with God, before returning to face what is going on in the world around us. Obviously, the timing of those breaks is essential—our friend needed to get her animals’ needs taken care of before taking time away—but they are important for our health and well-being, and for our relationship with God.

And so I invite you to remember, probably “yet again,” that even God took a day off—the Sabbath. Is it time for you to take one, too?

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I’ve been reading, through a couple of online writers’ forums, about the havoc being wrought recently by weather on this continent: tornadoes full of rain and wind in Pennsylvania, hurricane damage in Nova Scotia that left a fellow writer without power for almost a week. While we’ve been in the desperate grip of drought here in New Mexico, rain has been cascading down on soaked landscapes elsewhere.

Fortunately for New Mexico, our summer “monsoon” rains have finally arrived. After months of completely clear blue skies, day after day, it’s wonderful to see clouds build up, pregnant with water, and empty themselves over the landscape in afternoon torrents of rainwater. More unusual have been a couple of nights or early mornings where the gentle drip of a light rain has woken me from sleep.

photo(5)In this monsoon season I love to watch the rain clouds billow and darken, shifting as the prevailing winds push them across our skyscape. Lighting and thunder frequently come along for the ride. Many days I can literally see the rain, like curtains hanging from the sky (and called virga when they don’t reach the ground), advancing toward us across the desert landscape until it descends upon our land and drives me under the porch or indoors with its fierce pounding. Other days the clouds almost seem to bob and sway, moving directly toward us and then veering off to water a different patch of desperately dry ground.

I see a connection between these clouds and our spiritual lives. There are seasons that feel dry as a bone, with nary a nourishing cloud in sight. These seasons can feel endless, and while we know how critical the sun is in our lives (from both scientific and spiritual perspectives), we can come to feel only the thirst and the heat, until our souls cry out for the rain.

In other seasons, the clouds come not as blessing but with threat and power, dragging wind, lightning and torrents of rain along with them, wreaking havoc and destruction upon our frail human structures. The earth cannot absorb the quantities of water, causing floods and mudslides which further disturb our carefully ordered lives. In those times we desperately long for the calm of a dry, sunny day.

And then there are those seasons where the rain comes more gently and moderately, in dancing rhythm with the sunshine, at a rate which allows earth to absorb it, and vegetation to drink deep and flourish.

Which type of spiritual season are you experiencing in your life right now? Does your relationship with God feel dry and desolate, or is there so much happening to test and strengthen you that you long for some peace and calm? Or is there a sense of balance in your spiritual life, of rain and sun, of ebb and flow, of gift and grace?

Can you gather strength, from the memory of other seasons, to endure whatever type of season you are now experiencing?

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Pests, Blogs, and the Spiritual Life

photo(4)This spring Henry and I spent many hours building a cage to keep animals out of one area of our yard so that I might attempt a vegetable garden. It turned into quite an elaborate enterprise, in part because we kept changing the parameters. Originally we purchased plastic deer fencing, then realized we also needed to keep the birds and bunnies out. We ended up with two different types of bird netting, some of which we stapled on top of the deer fencing because the holes were large enough that birds were getting in. I planted a number of seeds and young transplants, as well as moving my raspberry and blackberry bushes into the cage in the hopes that I might get a few of the berries.

Last month I was away for a few days, and a friend was watering. The very day I came home, something got into the garden, ate the lettuce back to the ground, chomped on a few other seedlings, and “topped” about half of my tomato plants. When I investigated, I discovered that something—presumably a young rabbit, as I later saw one doing exactly that—had literally chewed through the bird netting at ground level and squeezed through the holes in the deer fencing to get at my tasty young plants. So out I went to purchase chicken wire, which I stapled over the lowest layer of the cage. This seems to have solved the rabbit problem.

But I’ve still got pests. I’ve found tiny baby grasshoppers in my garden, and they or some other pests have also nibbled holes in pepper and berry leaves, munched on the spinach, and even munched through the tender young stems of the berry plants. And a couple days ago I saw a tiny bird inside my garden—which slipped out between the bird netting when I walked into the cage—proving that some birds are small enough that netting makes no difference! The next day there was actually an oriole inside the cage! I still have absolutely no idea how it got in, and we spent a bit of time trying to chase it toward the open gate before it finally got so exhausted that I was able to capture it and carry it out.

I’m frustrated, but there are limits to what I am willing to do to stop the invaders. I am determined to have an organic garden, and know that bees are critical as pollinators, so I will not be spraying poisons around my yard or screening in the entire garden. I’m also very aware of the terrible drought that is plaguing our state, and many others, which means there is not much food available for the wild critters around here.

So what does all this have to do with the spiritual life? I’ve been pondering that over the past few days. Part of it, I suppose, is the relentlessness on both sides of the equation. The bugs and beasts keep trying to get food, and the plants keep trying to grow. Munching might delay a plant’s fruiting, but it takes more than most of these predators can manage to actually kill a plant.

I think the distractions, detours, and other struggles in our lives are similar. I delayed starting this blog for many months, but eventually the Spirit, pushing for it, was able to overcome the insect-type depredations that I let nibble away at my time and energy each week, keeping the blogs from coming into being. Now, with the commitment made, it’s sometimes still a struggle, but there’s always something worth writing about, and some way to connect it with that larger picture of growth in the spiritual life.

What in your own life is struggling to make headway against the depredation of the “pests” in your life? Where do you need to set clearer boundaries, commit to new practices, or make other changes in order to bring about growth, maturity, and fruit in your own life?


Don’t Get Attached to Results

Today is the final blog in my series of four lessons from the Biblical story of Jonah. The four lessons are:

  • Show up
  • Pay attention
  • Tell the truth
  • Don’t get attached to results

Attachment is tricky. We all need some level of attachment in our lives; if we weren’t attached to the need for food, clothing, and shelter, we wouldn’t survive. If we weren’t attached to others, we wouldn’t experience love and joy—and also pain and grief.

Jonah’s problem was that his attachments were connected with expectations. The fourth (and last) chapter of the book of Jonah is all about his attachment to his own expectations about the results of things. He was angry because God told him to proclaim punishment to the Ninevites, but then God relented and did not punish them when the Ninevites repented. I imagine Jonah thinking, “This makes me look bad! I said God would punish them, and he hasn’t!” So God grows a bush to teach Jonah a lesson—and sure enough, Jonah gets attached to the lovely shade provided by the bush, then angry again when he loses it.

You see, the root of Jonah’s problem is his attachment. If he had been able to metaphorically take a step back and see the Ninevites from God’s perspective—with love and compassion, and a strong desire that they would change their ways, for the benefit of all—then he would not have run away in the first place, but instead would have happily gone to Nineveh to preach, probably with a different spin: “Here’s a way that you can avoid the calamity that is coming upon you!”

Buddhists talk a lot about non-attachment, in ways that are in keeping with this lesson from Jonah. They believe that attachment to things, results, and expectations is the root cause of suffering. In the late Middle Ages, St. Ignatius of Loyola used the word “indifference” in a very positive way, as an indicator of the importance of being indifferent to, or detached from, the results of our prayers. His method of prayer is still widely used today, and the message continues to be an important one. We need to trust that God has in view a bigger picture that, at times, we cannot possibly comprehend.

IMG_0887 HH

Photo courtesy Henry Hoffman

So how often do you act like Jonah, responding purely from your attachment to results, rather than from a God’s-eye perspective? What would it take for you to be indifferent to the results of your prayers, your actions, or your way of life? Can you trust God to be keeping tabs on that bigger picture, and perhaps sending modern-day Jonahs to preach to modern-day Ninevahs?

Have you ever been called upon by God to preach a message like Jonah’s?

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Tell the Truth

Two weeks ago I started a series of four blogs on lessons from the Biblical story of Jonah. Those four things are:

  • Show up
  • Pay attention
  • Tell the truth
  • Don’t get attached to results

DSC_8728 quailThis week my reflections have to do with telling the truth. Interestingly, this has also come up in The Conscious Booksmith class that I’m taking. In that context, the issue had to do with telling the truth in a memoir. Now, obviously, when it comes to sharing our experiences, truth is often subjective and probably fluid as well. For example, my memories of my sister’s wedding are likely quite different from my sister’s. This doesn’t mean that either of us is not telling the truth; instead, we are telling our truth, which is part of a larger truth which encompasses both our experiences.

We can probably all call to mind times when a friend or family member is recounting a story and we think, “That’s not how it happened.” Sometimes we even say those words out loud—and perhaps that results in an argument over exactly what did occur. But what if everyone was willing to recognize that each of our truths is, at best, only partial? What if we were less hung up on “the” truth than on recognizing the beautiful patterns that can result from each of us contributing our own truths to a larger whole?

Furthermore, what if, like with Jonah and the people of Nineveh, telling the truth—as we see it—actually changed things for the better? Scripture doesn’t tell us exactly what the people of Nineveh were doing wrong. What matters is that, at some deep level, they knew it. They knew the truth of what Jonah was proclaiming, and recognized the need to repent and change their ways.

What if, instead of focusing on “my” truth versus “your” truth, we repented and got together to focus on the bigger, broader truths? What if, instead of focusing on who’s “right” and who’s “wrong,” we focused on what’s right?

What would that look like in your life? What would that look like in your community? What first step could you take along that journey today?

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Pay Attention

Last week I began talking about a series of four lessons from the Biblical story of Jonah that are applicable in our lives today. Those four things are:

  • Show up
  • Pay attention
  • Tell the truth
  • Don’t get attached to results

Today I want to talk about paying attention. This past week I started an online class called The Conscious Booksmith, and part of what has come up for me in working through the exercises and conversing in the very active online group has been my ongoing struggle with determining my priorities and figuring out what I am called to be doing at this time in my life. In response to one of my relatively agonized queries about this, our leader suggested that I “find a quiet space to sit still and LISTEN to what your body is telling you.”DSC_0663 yellow eyed look

Ah, yes. Paying attention. Making the time to get still in prayer and really listen. I’m beginning to sense a theme in my life here! So often I—and so many of us—just don’t slow down enough to pay attention. So, a few days ago, when I finished one segment of work for a client, I just took the time (as much to give my back a break as anything else), lay on the floor of my office, and just felt my body being pulled toward the rug by gravity.

When is the last time you’ve really paid attention to something so omnipresent as gravity? We develop routines in our lives, and eventually stop noticing those things which are part of the routine. Another example might be the last time that you really paid attention to the view out your bedroom window. I mean, really paid attention to what was out there. Not what might be different—such as a ground squirrel digging in your newly landscaped rock garden—but what is really there.

When Jonah ran away from God’s call, he got on a boat that was headed out into the ocean. He probably took the boat, and the ocean, for granted, and it wasn’t until the storm blew in that he began to really pay attention to his surroundings. The sailors, on the other hand, who were used to paying close attention to the behavior of the ocean, did not take it for granted. They recognized that this storm was unusual, and so they first cast lots (an ancient method of establishing an answer to a question) to determine the cause of the problem, then prayed for God’s forgiveness when they threw Jonah overboard, believing it was the only option left to them.

Where in your life do you need to pay attention? Is gravity pulling on you as you sit and read this blog? Are you needing to get still and listen in order to discern or prioritize events in your busy life? Do you need to pay attention to something in your environment because it is not behaving like “normal”? Is God, perhaps, trying to get your attention in some way?

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Show Up

A number of years ago I attended a staff workshop led by Suzanne Stabile. While she shared a number of gems over the course of the day, one has stuck with me through the years. She was talking about the story of Jonah, the Hebrew prophet who tried to run away from God’s call. If you aren’t familiar with Jonah, you can read his story here.

Suzanne said that we can learn four lessons from Jonah’s story that will help us in a lot of everyday situations. Those four things are:

  • Show up
  • Pay attention
  • Tell the truth
  • Don’t get attached to results

Over the next few weeks I want to reflect on each of these elements, because I think they have a lot to teach me at this point in my life, and probably each of us.

The first element is to show up. This means that we need to go—and sometimes stay—where we are called. Jonah was called to go to Nineveh to preach a message from God. He decided that he didn’t want to do this, and literally ran away. Sometimes I also have run away. At other times, Henry and I have followed those directives to “go”—which is how we ended up moving from Massachusetts to New Mexico, and from one city to another within this wonderful state.DSC_2314 taking off

But the showing up isn’t always about leaving everything behind. Last week I followed the nudge to attend a Tuesday evening Vespers service—and arrived to find the door locked. I decided to hang around since I was a few minutes early, and someone else arrived shortly after I did. We entered into a conversation that turned out to be very powerful, and empowering, for both of us. In fact, at the end of the conversation we decided to explicitly become companions on our respective, and related, journeys, checking in each week to share what we’ve accomplished and be accountable to each other for reaching our goals.

I might have missed this gift of a companion for this stage of my journey if I had not listened to the Spirit speaking within me, telling me that I needed to show up.

When in your life have you followed those directives to show up—in both small and large instances—and found your life transformed by God in wondrous and miraculous ways?

When have you run away from the call to show up? What were the consequences?


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