Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


Revisioning My SMART Goals

dsc_9647cLast week I reflected on how Alison Kirkpatrick’s Oneing article has pushed me to reconsider my understanding of success (and its arenas) on a very basic level. I realize, at a deeper level, that my ministry is not aimed at a national-level stage, or even the “thousand true fans” that are supposed to be enough to “make a living” in this social media-oriented world. Instead, I accept that I can—and already do—make a significant difference in the spiritual life of those I am gifted to know, one relationship at a time.

But fifty years of cultural indoctrination will not evaporate from my brain overnight—especially since the messages keep coming. It feels to me like we’re constantly being told that there’s just one way to succeed, and it has to do with volume: how far we reach, how much product we sell, how much money we make. This shift from thinking about quantity to recognizing the value of quality will take some time.

I’ve already taken some steps. I still have goals, but I have dropped one of my three SMART Goals in order to pick up another—to live more fully into the Holy Land travel opportunity that Henry and I will, God willing, experience in January (I’ve shared a few more prayerful reflections on that journey on the Ordinary Mystic blog). Another SMART goal has been pushed back because the right collaborator has not yet come along—and I’m trusting God that there is a right collaborator, thus again choosing to focus on quality.

I have also reframed what SMART actually means in my life. No longer does SMART stand for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound (although there will still be times when those attributes matter). Now it stands for Spirit-led, Manageable, Accountable (to God), Realistic, and (ultimately) Transitory. These attributes mirror my vocation and my calling, which is ministry to ministers—which is each one of us who loves others on the “frontlines” of life.

What might be some SMART goals in your life? Where are you called to be Spirit-led and Accountable, take on tasks that are Manageable and Realistic, while also accepting the Transitory nature of what you’re invited by God to be doing?

Can you trust God to hold the larger picture?


Leaving the Big Arena

One of the great gifts that comes with my work—and I know I’ve mentioned this before—is the opportunity to read what I edit. Whether it’s a teaching novel on church conflict or a mountaintop memoir of a life-changing religious experience, I am blessed to ponder and learn and grow through what I read. Recently I read an article for the latest edition of Oneing by a young woman, Alison Kirkpatrick, who was reflecting on raising feminist sons and daughters—and on the very different agendas that she and her age cohort are bringing to the conversation on gender equality.

This is what I read, and it blew me away:

Feminism of the sixties and seventies started down the path of trying to beat men at their own game by being even stronger and more aggressive. (We just have to look at the fashions of the eighties to know it’s true.) But many women of my generation disavowed feminism for that very reason. We got sick of trying to “out-alpha” the men, so we quit playing, which has really angered some long-time feminists.

But this isn’t a case of young women taking our ball and going home. We didn’t quit because we were losing; it’s because we woke up to the fact that the game’s not worth playing! We never got a say about the game in the first place. We didn’t help make the rules. We didn’t get to pick the venue or the referee. We didn’t get any input on how the points were scored or what determined the winner. The game was handed to us, with men favored at every turn. The second-wave feminists were so determined to get on the field that they were willing to get their teeth kicked in, over and over again, just for the privilege of playing the game. It was undoubtedly a necessary step, but a new generation of feminists is calling bullshit on the whole system. They are sick and tired of having to compete, succeed, and perform on every level: personally, professionally, physically, civically, spiritually, organically, etc., and then face criticism if they don’t meet some predetermined cultural standard.

Young women are “leaning in,” but not to the patriarchal, winner-take-all game. Even if it means never getting their turn in the big arenas (coincidentally, the ones men built), young feminists—of both genders—are trying to invent a new game, one where everyone can play to their own strengths.[1]

This entire segment of the article felt important when I read it, but what really got my attention was young women choosing not to try to prove themselves in the big, traditional arenas that males have built. I had not consciously realized that this is what I have been trying to do, over and over, time after time, in one way or another—until I was confronted with her words. They stopped me, stunned me, convicted me—and opened a window that I hadn’t known I was keeping closed.

For much of the past dozen years, as I have worked at “growing” my spiritual ministry in a variety of ways, I’ve had this mostly unconscious goal of trying to stand out on an increasingly global stage. My work for the Center for Action and Contemplation—whose founder, Richard Rohr, is indeed known around the world as a spiritual teacher—convinced me that this idea was possible, and watching the TED talks of well-known women like Elizabeth Gilbert and Brené Brown made it seem like I could join those ranks.

dsc_5059cBut somehow, it just wasn’t happening…and now, I think I know why. In my heart and soul, I’m really not cut out to be such a public figure. I knew that—but my ego didn’t want to let go of this idea of rising to the “top” of my field. So now, thanks to Alison Kirkpatrick, I have a way to bend my mind around taking a different approach. I can consciously choose to walk away from the “race to the top” and instead recognize the many ways in which my ministerial strengths are already impacting the world, one relationship at a time. One-with-one relationships are really where I belong. I knew that, deep in my heart, but it’s going to take some time to reorient the rest of myself on this new pathway.

Some of this, I believe, is about trusting God, that all will work out when I am willing to let the Holy Spirit be in control of the agenda. And that’s another piece that I’m picking up from women like Alison Kirkpatrick: that believing and acting as if we are the one in control actually prevents us from living out our spiritual vocations in the world. It is when we let ourselves be moved and transformed by what we encounter—even a few words on a page—that God is able to transform the world through us, one simple, profound action at a time. Then we do not need the big arenas; each moment is the only arena that matters.

[1] Alison Kirkpatrick, “Raising a Feminist Son,” Oneing, Vol. 4 No. 2, 2016.


Introducing Psalm Flights

Poetry continues to flow through my life and I am grateful. It’s taking a variety of forms, and one of them is a series of responses to the Psalms. I’ve found myself taking a Lectio Divina-type approach to the psalms I encounter on Sundays: reading through them again later, paying attention to what I notice, then responding in the form of poetry. It’s been illuminating, sometimes difficult, and ultimately revealing and gratifying.

I’ve already posted one of the results of what I’m calling Psalm Flights: “Toggle Back to God.” Today I thought I would share a couple more examples of what has come forth through this process. As you read and reflect on these poems that have emerged from my prayerful reflections on Psalm 1, I invite you to consider whether God might be inviting you to incorporate Lectio Divina into your own spiritual life in some way.


Verse 1: Happy are those who do not…take the path that sinners tread.


Where are the street signs, O God?

I want to know which roads lead sin-ward

Which skyward

But you do not label them so freely.


At this moment

Each thoroughfare begins in the same place:

Right here, right now.

It’s impossible for me to know

The path that sinners tread.


And sodsc_0627

I could spin in circles,

Then step out in whichever direction I face;

I could poll passersby

For their opinions on each avenue;

I could borrow binoculars

And survey vistas unfolding before my eyes.


Or perhaps

I might sit under this tree

Safely out of traffic lanes

Close my eyes

Become still and

Search my soul for the way forward.


Verse 6b: the way of the wicked will perish.


Well, God,

It is the innocent who are perishing.






So many of my country’s people

Your people

Are striding our streets

With video-game goggles,

Believing all the answers are bullets.


The enemy here is


Have we really trudged through centuries

Come so far

Only to arrive on this same small path of hatred?


How long, O Lord?

My breaking heart may not hold out

Long enough to bear your timing.


© Shirin McArthur 2016


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More Firsts in This Unfolding Journey

How many of you were certain of what you wanted to be, and do, when you grew up? How many of you ended up following that road? How many of you have had absolutely no surprising changes along the journey of life?


I would bet that everyone has experienced a number of unexpected twists and turns on the road of life. For myself, if you had told me five years ago that I would be happily self-employed today, I would have rolled my eyes and laughed. I was so caught in a tattered web of my own making, unwilling to see possibilities or trust in God’s providence…. I can now look back on that child (who was in her mid-forties!) and have some sense of compassion for her fears and her pain…but also with some sadness for what she probably missed by living afraid for so many years. There is no doubt that I learned and grew—and God can transform all of our choices in the crucible of Love—but I do wonder….

And part of the result of that wondering is that I keep taking risks. I took two more this week. First, I submitted a bunch of poems to my first poetry contest. This is a big step because it is the first time I have, in essence, put my work up against that of others. Most of the reason I did it was because I’m curious. I’ve had some positive feedback from workshop leaders and friends, but this is taking my poetry to a newer level. So I’ll see what happens….

The other thing I’ve done is to commit to a second blog post every week—for the blog Ordinary Mystic. (I came across this blog when Alana Levandoski and James Finley collaborated on a new contemplative folk album called Sanctuary, which is powerful…one refrain has become my newest “anytime” prayer). I reached out to Ordinary Mystic about possibly posting some of my poetry and got instead an invitation to consider posting on contemplative preparations for my Holy Land trip. That invitation really took hold of my heart and wouldn’t let go, so this past week I said yes. As of this writing, we’re still working out the details, but I will keep you posted. It’s an awesome new step on my journey, a step that I wouldn’t have taken if I wasn’t much more willing to take risks than I once was—when I thought I knew what I would be when I grew up!

When in your life have the surprising twists and turns revealed riches far beyond what you could possibly have imagined? Have those gifts emboldened you to take further risks along the way?

Are there assumptions you might still be holding about your path that might be keeping you from seeing God’s invitations along the way?

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The Power of Water

I visited a new-to-me canyon last week: the Catwalk Recreation Area in southwestern New Mexico. The place is named after an old wooden walkway that was erected over a mining-related water pipeline installed in Whitewater Canyon over a century ago. While the mining has stopped, and the walkway long ago fell apart, this has been a popular recreation area for decades. In fact, the US Forest Service installed a newer metal walkway that follows the old pipeline and allows visitors to safely wend their way back into this gorgeous, steep-sided canyon.

dsc_4657But that safety comes with a caveat. The reason I had not previously visited the Catwalk was that the “newer” walkway was severely damaged by flooding in 2014 and took almost two years and $4.4 million to reconstruct. In fact, the entire suspended walkway had to be replaced, using different materials. The new catwalk certainly appears stronger, and it’s also bolted to support structures embedded in the canyon’s walls—perhaps (I’ve been told) to make it possible to remove the entire structure in case a future flood threatens…! (I do wonder about that…the term “flash flood” was coined because it’s often impossible to have much advance warning for those things!)

The power of water is immense, but we do tend to take it for granted. Water carved the Grand Canyon, though it took millennia to do so. Water has repeatedly torn out sections of the scenic drive through the Black Range east of Silver City, forcing road closures while repairs are made. Water also recently devastated areas of Baton Rouge, Louisiana—although you might not have thought about that lately, because the disaster attention span in this country is miniscule in comparison with the actual recovery time. It could also take two years and millions of dollars for many parts of Baton Rouge to return to normal—and so many of those folks don’t have the resources of the US Government behind them to effect repairs! (If you’d like to help out with that endeavor, my spiritual director colleague Becky Eldridge, who lives in the area, recommends Catholic Charities or the Baton Rouge Area Foundation).

So what does this have to do with the spiritual life? I find my heart going in a variety of directions. I invite you to read through these questions and ponder how the Holy Spirit might be inviting you to respond:

  • When did you last take time to appreciate the beauty of the moment, recognizing that it could all be swept away tomorrow?
  • How has the power of water impacted your life, or the life of your family or your ancestors?
  • Has devastation or natural disaster occurred in your area in the past couple of years? Is there anything you might do to support those who are still struggling to recover?
  • Do you take water for granted? How might you appreciate water and its essential, complex role in your life?


Toggle Back to God

The Centering Prayer group that I’m attending is opening lots of interesting avenues of thought and prayer in me. In addition to providing the discipline I need to show up for this type of prayer more frequently, I’m also reflecting on the experience of prayer, which I usually don’t do. Reflecting on something is not part of the prayer itself, but there is still much to be learned from noticing what does, and does not happen, in prayer.

img_3289Recently my reflections took the form of a poem. I’ve also been spending time with the Psalms, and Psalm 136 came to mind because of its repetition. Every other line of this psalm speaks of God’s mercy enduring forever. It’s the underlying theme of the psalm, and I found myself thinking of it as a recurrent reminder of God’s presence, beneath and within everything that happens. In “good” times and “bad” (all open to interpretation, of course!), God is there.

And then…I pondered the Centering Prayer instruction, when we are distracted or distressed, to “ever so gently return to your sacred word.” Putting it in today’s language, sitting at my computer, I found myself thinking of toggling back and forth between one thing and another, repeatedly returning to God when we wander away…and the poem was born.

May it inspire your own reflection on prayer and its role in your life.


Toggle Back to God


Websites weave animosity

Toggle back to God

Pundits peddle profanity

Toggle back to God

Television illuminates adversity

Toggle back to God

Sales pitches scream of scarcity

Toggle back to God


Formless fields of sunlight

Toggle back to God

Lake reflecting moon bright

Toggle back to God

Hand reached out to stop fight

Toggle back to God

Patience paid to set right

Toggle back to God


Fierce familial love fest

Toggle back to God

Springtime weave of bird nest

Toggle back to God

Striving now to do best

Toggle back to God

In contentment now rest

Toggle back to God


© 2016 Shirin McArthur



On Choosing Whether or Not to See

Henry and I have an adventure in our future—God willing. We will be traveling to Israel in January. For many years, Henry has wanted to visit the Holy Land, and now appears to be the time. (We actually signed up for another tour a couple of years ago, but unrest in the area caused the trip to be cancelled.)

In preparation for the trip, we have begun reading a list of books recommended by our tour leader. One of those is My Promised Land by Ari Shavit. Shavit begins by writing of his wealthy British great-grandfather, who visited the Holy Land in 1897 with a group of twenty other Jewish British citizens. Shavit states that his great-grandfather chose not to see that the land was already occupied by Arabs, because if he did not see, he could justify making this his home, and the home of his people, especially persecuted Eastern European Jews.

As I read this, I couldn’t help recognizing the parallels with the European colonization of America, and the continued fact of (mostly) powerful white men in this country choosing not to see the indigenous inhabitants. I think specifically of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, where Native Americans have been protesting the installation—invasion?—of this pipeline, running under major waterways and disturbing sacred lands in the Dakotas. Furthermore, one of the largest gatherings of Native Americans in history has been, for the most part, studiously ignored by the media in favor of continuous micro-analysis of the presidential election circus.

American greed (Do we really need Canada’s tar-sand oil—the dirtiest kind—when we already produce so much of our own fuel and should be investing in cleaner wind and solar instead?) is once again running roughshod over deeper concerns. Those with power are refusing to see others, whose claims to the land are older than our nation itself. The powerful probably believe that they can indeed ignore the natives, just as American leaders have almost universally done since shortly after Europeans began arriving on American soil.

We—as a culture—just don’t get it. And yet…this week, minutes after a judge denied the Standing Rock Sioux’s request to halt construction of the pipeline, the American government actually stepped in to stop work on a part of the pipeline, ask the pipeline-building company to “voluntarily pause” its work, and state the need for time to confront the larger questions about “considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects.”

This is epic. This is choosing to see. This is recognizing that there is more than one perspective on Holy Land, its history, and the people who care about it. This can be the beginning of major change—of actually seeing others and honoring their needs as well as our own. It is, indeed, loving our neighbors as ourselves—as Jesus said in “the” Holy Land two thousand years ago.

So what does all this mean in terms of my visiting Israel? It means that the Palestinians and the Native Americans make good corollaries for my understanding of at least some of the complex situation there. Jesus also lived in an occupied land, where the Romans, for the most part, did not choose to see the Jewish people. And yet…Jesus told his followers to love their neighbors as themselves. I imagine that he meant all their neighbors—even those who did not see them, or love them back. If there is nothing else that the current situation in the Holy Land (and in the Dakotan Holy Lands) has taught us, it is that we must begin to truly see each other before we can learn to love.

dsc_6933-holy-groundWhere are your Holy Lands? This is one of mine, in the mountains of northern New Mexico. I have encountered God there, but I admit I still need to learn to look for the others who dwell here.

Do you truly see all your neighbors? How might you learn to better see and love them?