Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering

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The Silence of Snow

One of the things I miss about winters in New England is the silence of the snow. Watching a curtain of falling flakes drift toward the ground in almost perfect silence is a visceral memory for me. The muffling nature of a blanket of snow feels very appropriate for the season—especially following on the chaotic busyness of the holidays.

We all need some muffling in our lives, at various times, in various ways. Whether it’s the barrage of information coming at us via electronic and social media or simply all the input we must wade through during the course of a workday, we live in a cacophony of sound—unless we are intentional about seeking silence.

But why seek silence? It’s such a basic, fundamental concept for me, yet I’m aware that we may not be doing a good job of teaching younger generations about the value of silence, of muffling the external and internal noise so that we might hear the “still small voices” in our lives: God, nature, our suffering neighbors and friends.

What would it mean for our world if each of us were to muffle our own chaos for some moments in order to hear the still, small voices of others? What might arise when God can speak, through the silence, to our deepest souls?

dsc_2444-eImagine yourself in a comfortable chair, bundled up in a winter quilt or fleece blanket, perhaps with your fingers wrapped around a cup of hot chocolate, tea, or coffee. Imagine gazing through a picture window upon a meadow covered in still, silent snow. The scene is “empty”—but not really. The snow covers many things—but they are still there, buried beneath the snow. Let the snow blanket muffle all those things. Let your mind become still, empty, silent. Let your breathing slow. Let your eyes close. Let your heart be open, waiting. Don’t “expect” anything. Just let yourself let go. See what might happen.

Join me?

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The Stillness of Ice

Winter does come to the Sonoran Desert. It freezes here, although not frequently. I’ve seen ice form on puddles in the early mornings, and if I need reminders of true cold, I can look across to the Catalina Mountains, which are high enough to gather snow while it rains here in the valley.

I’ve been reflecting further on the theme I started last week: on the need to foster emptiness, stillness, and silence in these winter days—especially as a way of recovering from a very full and busy Christmas season. Our culture—at least here in America—has effectively stolen Advent from us, replacing it instead with the chaotic busyness of holiday events, parties, lights, gifts, travel, family, and so on and so on…. We may try, but—especially for me last month—Advent stillness was hard to come by. So now, in this quieter, more reflective season, I am finding wisdom in my contemplation of ice.

img_3877Ice is literally reflective—which makes it a good choice for reflecting upon the season. Although it may not reflect its surroundings as clearly as water, ice is also not ruffled by wind. It stands solid, with a stillness that lasts as long as the colder weather holds. It can be moved by the larger forces of nature, or human intervention, but not by every gale of winter storm.

Ice can handle a lot more pressure than water. Think about the weight of an ice skater versus the bulk of a swimmer. Skaters might scrape up the surface of the ice, but the underlying layers remain still. Swimmers displace water, pushing it outward, disturbing the whole. Ice can endure much more because the gales of life slip along its surface and slide away.

Ice also protects. Deep bodies of water do not freeze completely, forming a barrier against the bitter winter cold and allowing the creatures who dwell in the depths to survive. In the same way, our seasons of stillness protect the parts of us that might not be able to withstand the gales which storm about us at some points in our lives.

Stillness also brings balance into our lives. If we spend all our time in frenetic activity, we can lose touch with our deep inner strength, our patient endurance, and our need to protect the more delicate parts of our soul’s habitat. When storms rage, we stand strong in our stillness and let the chaos fly by.

In what ways do you need to foster an appropriate icy stillness in this season of your life?

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The Emptiness of Bells

Christmastide is officially over. Gifts have been given, carols sung, food eaten. With a few intentional exceptions, the Christmas decorations have been taken down and stored away for another year. (A friend of mine declared recently, “I’m surprised how much the Christmas lights feed my inner spiritual joy. The ceramic houses that light up…will be featured until at least Candlemas…possibly even Shrove Tuesday!”)

Yet I can’t help but reflect on a continued sense of “fullness” from the Christmas season. Our hands were filled with gifts, our ears and hearts with carols, our stomachs with food. All of that is good—as far as it goes. But the problem is that we have so filled the season of Christmas with events and activities and material things that we are often filled to the bursting point.

I found myself, one recent afternoon, sitting in the wan winter sun in our living room, just wanting to let go. I wanted to release all the stuff and busyness and accumulated sense of accumulation. I was aching for emptiness, stillness, and silence.

As I sat in the silence, I found myself reflecting on an article I had just edited. The article spoke of a series of bells that represented different aspects of the spiritual life, but as I sat on the couch, I found myself thinking instead about how bells must be empty in order to resonate with sound.

dsc_0304-bell-ringing-cropI have seen many different kinds of bells, from all over the world, during the course of my life. I’ve rung a huge bell in Korea, taller than me, using a large external log suspended on chains. I’ve held in my hand tiny bells from the Middle East that encase small round balls that ring the bells when they are shaken. I often use a Tibetan singing bowl as an aid to meditation, and have awakened to the sound of church bells soaring over the Italian countryside.

All of those bells share one thing in common: they must be empty, or nearly so, in order to freely resonate. Anything cluttering up the inside of the bell will cause a hollow thunk rather than a resonant, sonorous ring.

Winter is often considered a season of slowing down and letting go. In the wake of a full Advent and Christmastide, what might you need to release during these winter days? Where in your life might you need to foster emptiness? What keeps you from resonating?

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Preserving Dependence on the Light

dsc_8111-lighthouseDid you know that the US Government has been auctioning off lighthouses? A friend recently mentioned this to me and I did a bit of research. Evidently, over a hundred historic lighthouses are now considered “excess government real estate assets” and are being sold to raise funds for preserving and maintaining lighthouses that are still active.

It’s intriguing to consider owning such an iconic piece of American history, but I’m more intrigued by the idea that we no longer need so many of these lighthouses. It would seem that we no longer need the light; we’ve become dependent instead on our own devices—literally, in the case of GPS and other modern marvels.

So what does that have to say to us, spiritually, as we begin another year? We’ve just celebrated Jesus’ birth—the Light of the World has once again come into the world (as if Christ ever left!). A new year begins, and each day is a bit longer here in the northern hemisphere, meaning that there is literally more light each day.

But are we paying attention to that Light, or are we fixated instead upon our own devices—be they the devices through which you’re reading this blog, or the devices that keep us safely cocooned for the winter, or the mental devices that allow us to avoid interacting with those who are different?

What would it mean for you to stop relying on your own devices—literally and figuratively—in 2017? How are you called to turn again toward the Light? What New Year’s resolution would you like to make today about embracing the Light, living in—and shining through—the Light of the World?


The Crime of Coexistence

This is not a fluffy Christmas post—but it is definitely a Christmas post.

The first Christmas was not fluffy. It was hard. Mary and Joseph were on the road, away from home. They were on the road because the occupying Roman authorities decreed that their census be taken in the husband’s homeland, rather than his current place of residence. If tradition is to be believed, Mary gave birth on her own, in a dark, smelly, cold stable in the middle of the night. She might not have understood about germs and the possibility of infection, but she would have understood many other kinds of fears.

The land of Israel was an urban crossroads between Egypt and Mesopotamia. All sorts of people traveled through the land—and wanted to control it, as the Hebrews learned, time and time again, over the centuries. During Jesus’ lifetime, the Romans were the occupiers, but in other centuries it was the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Philistines. And yet…the Jews of Jesus’ time reserved their greatest hatred for the ones who were closest to themselves: the Samaritans.

The Samaritans were Hebrews who lived in what had formerly been the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Their territory was overrun and occupied by Assyria in 722 BCE and many Samaritans intermarried with the Assyrians and worshiped their gods. A century later, the Southern Kingdom of Judah was overrun by Babylonians, who carted away the Hebrew leadership into exile for seventy years. When those leaders were allowed to return, the Samaritans resisted their repatriation and the rebuilding of Jerusalem, while the returning Jews looked down upon the Samaritans as being of mixed race and having fallen away from the worship of the one true God.

Isn’t it ironic that we often reserve our bitterest hatred for those who are closest to us, but have made different choices in how to respond to the various challenges and oppressions in our lives? Think about the United States of America—which is now far-too-firmly divided (at least in consciousness) between the Red and Blue States of America. We are all Americans. Yet we reserve our bitterest hatreds for each other, rather than the Russians who might have influenced our political choices or the Chinese and Indians who have surpassed our technological capacity while we’ve been so busy fighting with each other.

Even Jesus had to learn about coexistence, and loving his nearest neighbors. He learned it from the Samaritan woman at the well (see John 4:1–41) and the Canaanite woman who begged him to heal her daughter (see Matthew 15:21–28). They both taught him that his wisdom and his healing power were available to all, that everyone needed what he had to give, and that everyone was worthy of receiving it.

dsc_1387-hheTrue, respectful coexistence is far too often considered a crime—by cultures ancient and modern. God became incarnate in Jesus in part to learn about the crime of coexistence and to make it into a virtue—and a necessity. Our country, our world, has seldom been in greater need of respectful, even loving coexistence. We must learn to love those who are closest to us—who might have made different choices, have different heritage and lineage, but are still our sisters and brothers in these United States of America.

Joy will only come to the World when we live as Jesus learned, and taught. How will you live the crime of respectful coexistence today, and in the days ahead?


Being For

This is not a political post—although it starts there. Please bear with me.

I read an article a couple of weeks ago that posited a number of things about why Trump won the American presidential election—and also stated clearly why current political, economic, and social modalities aren’t working (1) for the many types of people who voted for him, or (2) for those who sat out the election in disgust with the options available.

One thing that struck me in the article was a schematic that talked about four types of responses. Two were personal and two were communal. They say that three are fairly typical responses, and certainly I’ve been seeing them on social media and considering them for myself: personal rage, personal change, and reactionary movements. Rage and movements are reactions “against”; they seek to push back, they foster conflict and negativity. For many years, I have felt that this type of response is insufficient, but I hadn’t been as successful in articulating why, or comprehending another alternative.

A number of elements have conspired to make it crystal clear to me today. A few years ago, a friend and I were discussing the divisiveness that tends to arise in so many Christian organizations. He said something that stuck with me: Those who leave and start another church or denomination will not grow as long as they remain against those they left. They will only grow when they figure out what they are for.

This is the key to the fourth response articulated in the article:

What is called for today is a massive response that…focus[es] on evolving and transforming the collective. What’s missing most is an enabling infrastructure that supports initiatives to move into…co-creating change.

The fourth response is for. Yes, it involves turning our backs on what is against, rather than engaging with it (and thereby giving it additional coverage and power, as the media did with so many issues during the campaign). As I mentioned a couple of months ago, I’ve learned from Alison Kirkpatrick that there is a time and place for leaving structures that do not work for you.

But this fourth response is not just giving up and hiding away. The important thing is to figure out, when you leave, what you are walking toward.

This is a key for the process I’ve been engaged with since the election, and have talked about here on a couple of occasions. I know I need to take action, and I am discerning the particular nature of that action. I am getting closer to something concrete. I now know that it needs to be more than personal change (although that will continue, and I trust it will provide a firm foundation upon which to take action), and it needs to be collective. Whatever I do needs to foster and support systemic change and transformation—not in reaction to what has happened in this country, but because my sisters and brothers around the globe are in need of these transformative changes.

So what does all this have to do with Advent, and Jesus’ birth? Advent isn’t just about remembering an event that took place two thousand years ago. It’s also about preparing for Christ’s return. I’m betting that Christ is aching to transform the inequities in America today, just as he spoke out against them in Palestine. Why hasn’t he come again? This is rather simplistic (I’m sure there’s a lot more to it), but I believe it’s because he’s given us our marching orders and told us that transforming this world is our job.

Yes, sometimes Jesus spoke out against the powers and principalities of his day. But mostly he spoke for a radical, loving way of being and acting in the world:dsc_2758-held-candle

  • Be salt.
  • Give to those who ask.
  • Carry a soldier’s belongings twice as far as you’re obligated to.
  • Care for the person who has been attacked by robbers.
  • Let your light shine where it can give light for others.

As we near the end of Advent, I invite you to take a good look at those four types of responses (personal rage, personal change, reactionary movements, and awareness-based collective action) and reflect on how you tend to act in the world. What are you for?

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Real Life in Nazareth

I’m continuing to prepare for our trip to Israel, and finding much to reflect upon in my reading. In Jesus: A Pilgrimage by James Martin, he talks about how tiny and insignificant Nazareth really was. Scholars estimate that it had two to four hundred people living in it in Jesus’ day. It was so small that it probably didn’t even have a synagogue, which leads scholars to say that Luke’s account of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 4:16–30) could well be incorrect: Nazoreans would have worshipped outdoors and probably didn’t have written scrolls. Jesus probably read from a smaller written text or recited from memory.

Interestingly, Nazareth isn’t listed anywhere in Jewish scripture or the Talmud, nor in the writings of the historian Josephus—and all of them list dozens of other Galilean villages. Archaeologists say “nothing suggests wealth” in their finds in Nazareth; just subsistence agriculture. However, it’s also possible that Jesus was a construction worker in nearby Sepphoris, just four miles away. This was a growing, cosmopolitan city of thirty thousand. It was there that he probably was exposed to the broader culture and issues such as the Roman occupation, as opposed to the poor rural hamlet that he called home.

What might this mean for our understanding of Jesus, his life, and his ministry? While Jesus made trips to Jerusalem, and based himself in Caesarea Philippi during his years of active ministry, he was ultimately a rural boy at heart. The very down-to-earth images that he uses in his parables are, interestingly, rarely pulled from his work as a carpenter. dsc_0104-ecInstead, his metaphors arise from the agrarian world in which he was raised: sowing and harvest, weeds and wheat, shepherds and lost sheep. He’s using images familiar to those he’s teaching: rural Galileans like himself.

For those of us who grew up hearing these parables, I imagine it’s almost impossible to truly recognize the vast differences between Jesus’ world and ours. We have been taught—have internalized—these agrarian images, but we have also made them our own, in our imagination, and likely lost any sense of a world experience that is vastly different from our privileged Western milieu. Have any of us ever lived in a town of less than five hundred people? Have any of us walked four miles to work each day—and four miles back again? Have any of us ever slept outdoors without a tent, tending sheep on a windswept hillside, or suffered debilitating hunger and disease because of drought?

As I thought about how I might truly grasp what life was like for Jesus and his family, I did an online search for “subsistence farming” and found an online simulation of what life is really like for third-world farmers today. Given my topic of last week, this “game” seemed like an excellent way to begin transforming my understanding of what life was really like for the people Jesus lived with, loved, and taught.

Perhaps you might like to take a turn at this game, and let your own understanding of Nazareth and Jesus’ hometown be transformed as well. You might also consider, and pray for, all those—in your home country and around the world—whose life experience today is radically different from your own.