Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering

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Walking Paths of Righteousness

Did you know that over 80% of the US population now lives in urban areas? This means that the vast majority of us do not see fields or flocks around us on a regular basis. We have no natural frame of reference for the agrarian life, which also means that we are increasingly disconnected from many of the images used in the Bible.

As I’ve said before, Jesus came from a tiny town in a rural area of Galilee. Herds of goats, flocks of sheep, and fields of grain, grapes, and olives would have surrounded the village of Nazareth. Naturally, these provided many of the images that Jesus used to illustrate his spiritual teachings and ground his parables in a world his listeners could understand.

This also means it can be more challenging for us to connect with those teachings, parables, and images. Fortunately, there are modern teachers and researchers who can dig into that agrarian history and interpret those images for us. There are also people who still live that agrarian lifestyle, in the holy land, and they also can contribute to our understanding.

Take, for example, the concept of the “path of righteousness” that is mentioned a handful of times in Hebrew Scripture. Proverbs 12:28 (NRSV) tells us that “in the path of righteousness there is life, in walking its path there is no death.” Proverbs 2:20 instructs us to “walk in the way of the good, and keep to the paths of the just.” Now, when I envisioned this path as a child, I found myself thinking of a single, narrow path, wending its way through dense forest, similar to the one I imagined Little Red Riding Hood traversing on her way to Grandma’s house.

dsc_9705e-paths-of-righteousnessWhile in Israel last month, I learned that my childhood vision couldn’t have been further from the truth. Rather than being a guiding way through dense forest, the paths of righteousness are a bunch of well-worn, often parallel paths that sheep and goats have worn into steep, barren hillsides. Once these paths are tramped down by many hooves (and a few shepherds’ feet), it is possible for the entire herd to safely walk along steep mountainsides without falling—literally—into the valley of the shadow of death.

You see, the path of righteousness is not something to be sought out and carefully followed because you might otherwise lose your way—as in a dense European forest. Instead, the lesson is about following the way of those who have trod it before you because it provides a narrow, stable surface upon which you can walk without twisting your ankle or falling down the mountainside.

Spiritually speaking, then, The Way (which was also the earliest name for the Christian path) is a path which Jesus and his disciples have walked, a path that safely leads to spiritual sustenance and growth: green grass, pure water, a safe haven. It involves paying attention to the traditional ways in which your spiritual mothers and fathers have walked, and following the path they have laid down as they walked their own journey.

Lent, which begins this Wednesday, is one such spiritual path. I invite you to ponder how you might tap into the legacy of the paths of righteousness, in Scripture and your own religious tradition, as you determine how you will observe this season of sustenance and growth in your spiritual life.

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Cultivating Roots

A month ago I was in Israel. It seems both like yesterday and a very long time ago. A lot has happened in the past month, including “choking on the freelance firehose,” which is how I described the current flow of my workload to a couple of people this past week.

But Israel is showing up, even in the midst of a very full schedule. I’ve had some illuminating conversations this week as I continue to live into the idea of leading a group of people on a pilgrimage to that holy land. Those conversations have reminded me that the theme of the spiritual aspect of my work—Cultivating Roots and Wings—ties very well into such a “mobile retreat,” as I find myself thinking of it.

Cultivating has a variety of definitions, ranging from loosening and preparing soil for planting to fostering growth or improving through labor, care, and study. All of these apply when it comes to considering a pilgrimage. So often, our spiritual ground becomes hard and dry. This could be because we don’t tend to it, allowing our spirit to dry out, or because we tread the same ground in the same way, day after day, creating a pathway so dense that little can sprout there. Treading the same ground might look like saying the same prayers, over and over, until we no longer pay attention to the words and their meanings. It could also mean showing up at church, week after week, and focusing on the social aspects or our leadership duties rather than worship of our beloved Creator.

dsc_1664Cultivating this hard, dry ground requires time and attention. One good way to do that is to experience the “same old ground” in a new way, which is what happened to me when I went to Israel. I’d seen a lot more photographs of southern Israel, which is dry and parched, as you can see here, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found. I had no idea that Galilee, in the north, was so much more green and fertile, as you can see in the picture from my post two weeks ago. In fact, the land around the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus lived for the majority of his ministry, is some of the most fertile soil in the entire world! Is it any wonder, then, that so many of Jesus’ parables had agrarian themes? I also now, finally, understand why scripture says that, when Jesus fed the five thousand, he had them sit down in groups on the green grass!

Cultivating roots also means fostering spiritual growth, and traveling through Israel certainly did that for me. I had diligently worked to “improve” my spiritual understanding through study, prior to our trip. Some of that study resulted in blog posts that I shared, both here and on Ordinary Mystic. Being in the holy land, however, took that spiritual growth to another, deeper level. From simple things like a new understanding of the “paths of righteousness” (explication of that will have to wait for another day!) to standing in the subterranean cell where Jesus probably spent the night before he was crucified (again, more on that later), I feel my soul-level comprehension of Scripture was truly, deeply cultivated during my week in the holy land.

Being a spiritual guide, naturally I want to share that with all of you! I will share, more and more, in the weeks ahead, on this blog and eventually through other offerings. But I also want to provide the chance for some of us to walk together—literally—upon holy ground. So I am having conversations about gathering a group of pilgrims for a mobile retreat in Israel, perhaps next January. I invite you to consider whether you might want to join me in this life-changing experience.

Meanwhile, take a moment to consider where and how your own spiritual life might need cultivating in this season. Lent is only ten days away; are you considering some sort of Lenten commitment? Perhaps you might integrate the concept of cultivation into the choices you make for drawing closer to your Creator during Lent.

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Becoming St. Valentine

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. Do you have big plans? Have you ordered the flowers, picked up the chocolates, made dinner reservations at a special restaurant?

img_4725I have a proposal for you—in light of my blog post last week about refugees and immigrants. What if, instead of spending money on yourself and your beloved, you were to take that $20 or $50 or $100 and donate it instead to an organization that’s supporting the refugees and immigrants in our midst today?

That type of action would be much more in keeping with the tradition of St. Valentine, whose holy day has been warped beyond all recognition by our culture, starting all the way back in medieval times. There is practically nothing historically known about St. Valentine, but tradition states that he restored the vision of a judge’s blind daughter and thereby converted the judge’s family to the Christian faith. Bringing healing to a young girl who was living without hope seems far more in line with Jesus’ ministry than the traditions of courtly love or giving flowers and candy to people who have plenty of worldly goods.

How might you make Valentine’s Day a celebration of self-giving love? If my idea about a donation doesn’t suit you, choose another, but be intentional about living in the spirit of the day, rather than the cultural norms for the day. Bring hope to the hopeless and become St. Valentine to someone else this week.


Refugees and Immigrants

Henry has a great old t-shirt that lists all the immigrants and refugees named or described in the Bible. The list is quite long. One of the most well-known, of course, is Jesus himself. He and his parents were political refugees who fled Palestine shortly after his birth because King Herod was seeking to take his life. Given all the uproar over immigrants in this country right now, I find myself wondering what type of reception the infant Jesus and his blue-collar parents would receive if they were to show up today on our southern border with just a donkey and one meager equivalent of a suitcase (Matthew 2 says they fled directly from Bethlehem to Egypt, so Joseph probably didn’t even have his carpenter’s tools with him).

Having to suddenly flee for fear of your life must have been an incredibly wrenching experience—especially following so immediately on the “high” of the wise men’s visit. Joseph and Mary probably felt a strong case of spiritual whiplash: One minute, they’re on top of the world, with a healthy new baby and some rich visitors bringing strong spiritual encouragement and unusual, expensive gifts; the next minute, they’re fleeing into the unknown with their infant’s life at stake.

Take a moment to reflect on what Joseph and Mary must have felt with this sudden reversal in fortune. I can easily imagine shock, fear, despair, helplessness. They had no power in comparison with King Herod and all of his soldiers and governmental bureaucrats, who really didn’t care who was affected by the king’s order; they were just worried about keeping their own jobs.

Now, take a moment to remember that something very similar actually happened to a lot of refugees and immigrants this very week, with the sudden implementation of Trump’s immigration ban on anyone entering the US from seven Arab countries. Imagine the feelings of political refugees who had finally, after months or years of intense investigation and uncertainty, been awarded refugee status. They probably felt just as much of a “high” as Mary and Joseph—and then suddenly they land on US shores and are told they can’t stay. There were immigrants who had visas and green cards who, despite their legal status, were also suddenly being turned away at the border. How could they not also feel shock, fear, despair, helplessness?

dsc_8553c-galilee-hillsJesus grew up to teach and preach to the marginalized, the oppressed, and the nameless victims of the powerful. No doubt, as he sat on a hillside in Galilee—just like this one—telling parables to his fellow Jews, he sometimes thought of the stories that his own parents had told him about those frightening days after his birth, when they literally had to run for their lives. He probably also remembered stories from Mary and Joseph about those who helped them out along the way, providing shelter, directions, a bit of food or encouragement. Jesus’ family wouldn’t have made it without the help of others—and perhaps those others became his role models for people like the Good Samaritan.

What resonates for you in all of this? What challenges you? How are you called to act in response to our own unfolding global refugee and immigrant story?

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Silence and the Holy Land

So I’ve been back from the Holy Land for a week now. In the back of my mind, I think I had all sorts of ideas about how I’d already be sharing photos, impressions, experiences…but that’s not the way things have turned out. Instead, after three intense weeks of travel, my body succumbed to a rather nasty bug and I’ve spent much of the past week flat on my back instead.

Of course, God has used that, too. Our week in Israel and Palestine was so chock-full of experiences that there was very little time to reflect upon what was happening. Each evening in our hotel room I would take time to pull out our little laptop and record what I could of the day and my impressions. But just about every night, I’d also find myself awake at 3 am, processing even more. So I would get up and write again. It was an extremely full season in my spiritual life—but there was not much space for silence.

During these sick days, I’ve had time to get still, to just lie in the weak winter sun and rest, to let some of what happened filter from my overly active brain into my deeper being. For much of the week, I didn’t even have the energy to write any of it down, so I’ve had to trust God that I would recall what was really valuable—or let it become part of my life at a level beyond conscious memory.

I am also trusting that the fruit of this silence and stillness will show up in my life and my ministries. Part of the reason this Holy Land experience was so intense is that it was a Familiarization Tour, designed to provide potential group leaders with a taste of what’s possible if we were to lead a group of pilgrims to the Holy Land. I would like to do that, because I can already sense how connecting with the land—what they call the Fifth Gospel—has enriched my understanding of so many biblical events. (More to follow on that theme, but feel free to let me know if you would be interested in joining me!)

img_4318For now, I sense that I am called instead to pay attention to my own integration process, and let it take the time it needs to unfold within me. And so today’s picture echoes that theme…. The crusader Church of St. Anne in Jerusalem has amazing acoustics. The well-formed emptiness of the chapel allows even the smallest sounds to reverberate in the stillness with incredible beauty—thus effortlessly encapsulating the themes of my past month of blog posts. There is a place for emptiness and stillness, a place for silence—and then there is a time to open our mouths and let our voices reverberate in God’s holiness, trusting God to make of it something beautiful and powerful and transformational.

That time is coming for me. Is it coming for you?

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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?