Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering

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Becoming Ripe

Last week I met with my spiritual directors’ peer supervision group. One member of the group led an opening meditation from Neil Douglas-Klotz’s book Blessings of the Cosmos. This book brings new meaning to familiar scripture passages through exploring the rich layers of meaning in the Aramaic language that Jesus actually spoke. The scriptural passage that my peer shared was Matthew 5:16: “…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your God in heaven.”

What caught my attention was his understanding of the Aramaic word tub that is translated in this passage as “good.” In our culture these days, when we hear the word “good,” we tend naturally to think in terms of opposites or comparisons, such as “good vs. bad” and “better than me/you/it.” That dualistic understanding goes all the way back to the Greeks of the first century, who joined forces with Jewish Christians in the early years and perhaps were the reason that the gospels were written down in Greek rather than Aramaic.

IMG_1689However, Douglas-Klotz’s understanding of the Aramaic points to a non-dualistic meaning to this word. He says that the word that we receive as “good” is actually more appropriately translated as “ripe.” In other words, in the passage above Jesus is saying, “Let your light shine before others so they may see the actions that you are taking at the right time and place, and give glory to God.”

What a different meaning this is! Now it’s less about a judgment—whether the works are good or bad—and more about being willing to do something when the time is right. It means there are no comparisons to be made, no standards of perfection to strive for, no need to worry about being “good enough.”

I found this concept of ripeness to be incredibly freeing on a personal level. So many weeks it seems that I’m not making “enough” progress on my longer-term goals for creating and launching spiritual offerings on the web. Like with the plants in my garden, there’s a lot of growing that has to be done, and a lot of nourishment that must be quietly absorbed, before the fruit is ripe and ready to be shared.

So now I read Matthew 5:16 as an invitation into a process, rather than a judgement about whether my work will be good enough to be offered to others. When the time is ripe, the work and I will be ready. But not before.

What in your life is slowly ripening? Is there something coming to life within you that’s not ready to be shared, that needs more time before the time and place are right for it to bear fruit? Can you be patient and wait for the right time and place?

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Hanging Out in the Light

Last weekend I helped lead an event at Holy Cross Retreat Center. The days were long and full, which meant that we were traipsing about between buildings long after nightfall. The retreat center is located near an acequia, or irrigation ditch, which is used to water the pecan groves which surround it. This meant that I saw something I have seldom seen since I lived near the Rio Grande River as a child: toads.

IMG_1613Every night we noticed large toads hanging out by the lights which illuminated the various pathways. It didn’t take long for me to realize that they were there because the lights attracted bugs, which became dinner for the toads. Smart toads.

As I reflected on those toads, it led me to wonder what lights I frequent. Do I hang out where I will be nourished? I hang out in my garden, which is already providing me with lettuce, cilantro, chard, and onions, and promises to provide much more as the season progresses. The garden also provides me with ideas and images that are food for my spiritual life, and sometimes end up in my blogs.

There are other lights in my life, including a series of free online artist interviews I’m listening to right now. The various artists are sharing some of the wisdom of their craft and their own experiences. By hanging out in their light, I’m helped to make connections with my own spiritual and creative life, and gain some new ideas for living out my own ministry.

Another light in my life is Embodied Prayer worship. I end many of my Embodied Prayer sessions with a sacred circle dance called The Source, where we take the source (whatever that might mean in a particular moment: love, peace, God, Jesus, light, inspiration), gather it to our hearts, and then share it with the world. It’s a powerful way to close our worship session because it reminds us that this experience is not just meant to nurture us and connect us with God, but also to help us spread God’s love to the world.

IMG_1620What lights do you frequent? Where do you hang out and gain nourishment? It might be reading scripture and spiritual books, walking in nature, singing in the choir, teaching the next generation…. What else comes to mind?

Are there lights that you no longer frequent, but that still tug at your heart? Might it be time to seek out those lights again?

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Trails, Erosion, and New Pathways

This past week’s hike turned into a rather more circuitous route than we had expected. The trail map indicated a fairly straight line between two points, but the older trail had been closed, due to erosion, and the new trail had a number of curves and switchbacks that eventually led to the same destination, but by a very different route.

IMG_1581The number of boot and bicycle-tire prints on the trail were indicative of the fact that this newer trail is also well-established. Roots which once ran underground are now exposed, due to the slow and steady erosion caused by feet, tires, wind, and—occasionally—water.

I found myself thinking about how we tend to follow the same, established, pathways in our lives. We commute to work along the same roadways, take the same turns to get to the grocery store, and follow the same route to our favorite hangouts, be they our local church or the best hamburger joint in town.

Scientists say that we do the same thing with the pathways in our brains. Over time, the lines of thought that we frequently think become more established, and stronger, than those we do not visit. This is why the practice of prayer makes it easier to practice prayer the next time, and why we can, with enough persistence and practice, let go of negative or painful thoughts, establishing and maintaining newer—and hopefully healthier—mental pathways in our lives.

I wonder if we also create problems when we always use the same pathways, over and over again. Certainly we tend to pay less attention to our surroundings, taking them for granted. We come to believe, if only subconsciously, that this is “the way” and therefore, by extension, “the only way.”

I’ve been working as a freelancer for three years now. Four years ago, if you’d told me that I would make such a radical shift—leaving employment in a well-established organization in order to work for myself—I would never have believed you. I was not very happy working for others, but I was much more afraid of walking away from the security of being a cog in the wheel of an organization that provided me with steady income and benefits.

Now, I can’t imagine being someone else’s employee. Contract work is a different life, and in some ways more difficult. But over the past three years, I’ve established this new way of working, integrating it into my life, and the benefits (such as taking a weekly hike with a friend during “working hours”!) have come to outweigh the risks. This has become my new “way,” and I really like it.

However, on my hike last week, I began to ponder whether we create something similar to erosion when we tread those familiar pathways, mental and physical, over and over again. For example, I’ve become complacent with my life as a freelancer. Is erosion wearing away this no-longer-new pathway and exposing roots, ready to trip me up if I’m not paying attention?

What are those roots? I think fear of change is one that lies buried beneath the surface until our repeated treading of a pathway exposes it. Then it will trip us up if we’re not open to change. As I am preparing to create my own spiritual website in order to offer online retreats by the end of the year, I’m well aware that I’m once again leaving another well-worn, established pathway, and charting what is, for me, a new course.

I also believe—trust—that this pattern is a good one. We need to branch off onto new paths and explore different ways to approach the journeys in our lives. A couple of weeks ago a reporter reached out to me, and this past week, an article on my Embodied Prayer ministry appeared in the local paper. It’s another level of publicity—another broadening of the circle that is hearing my message. It’s also another level of commitment that I’m making to this ministry I’ve created. There’s a paradox involved here, between establishing pathways well enough that others can follow, while not allowing erosion to destroy them.

What pathways are well-worn in your own life? What roots are now exposed by erosion? What new pathways are you being invited to explore?

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Last Sunday I received a weekly email from a friend of mine with a question that really caught my attention. Christianne Squires, whose weekly email is A Cup of Sunday Quiet, asked the question, “What does spiritual formation mean to you?” Here is what I said to her in response:

Off the cuff, I’d say “becoming more fully the spiritual beings we already are” or “remembering who we were created to be.” I believe there’s a divine blueprint inside of all of us, that we lose track of—especially with the “help” of those around us—and then spend our lives rediscovering—again, especially with the help of those around us. So yes, we are reliant on those around us for our spiritual formation—God brings those people into our lives—but we also have to embrace the courage to look for the Spirit deep inside ourselves—and pay attention to the messages from dreams and other Spirit-driven forces in our lives. And then follow through, because we do “preach what we most need to hear”!

CGS hyms in limbs cropThe older I get, the more I realize how important it is to do my spiritual work in community. There was a time when I wanted to be a lone ranger, believing that I could grow my spiritual life all by myself. I am still enough of a perfectionist that I prefer to do things myself…but I also realize how limited my perspective really is, and the importance that community plays in balancing, correcting, and challenging me.

I’m preaching again today, this time at my home church. The gospel lesson is Mark 3:20-35, where Jesus is accused of being in league with the prince of demons because he casts out demons. Jesus responds that he cannot both be in league with demons and cast out demons, because “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Jesus is making a very important point here, and it relates to spiritual formation. We need community. In fact, I would say that community is essential for spiritual formation—because of the ways it balances, corrects, and challenges our individual assumptions, experiences, and statements of faith. This doesn’t mean that life in spiritual community is easy. It’s not. But it’s important to live together, learn from each other, and be willing to be changed by each other. Then we are not divided, but enriched.

We aren’t called into community to cast each other out, but to learn from each other the important lessons about that divine blueprint within each of us. Jesus knew that his accusers needed his truthful correction to their perspective on who had the right to cast out demons. He wasn’t seeking to divide the religious house of his day—although, in the end, that’s what happened—but rather to challenge those religious leaders to look beyond their assumptions about who has the power to work miracles in God’s name.

When have you tried to grow your spiritual life all on your own? How did that go?

How has community balanced, corrected, and challenged you?



I’m preaching today at the local Presbyterian church, which is in a time of transition and has invited various spiritual leaders in the community to take a turn in the pulpit. I’m grateful for the opportunity to preach today, because I have a natural “hook” to catch people’s attention.

IMG_0249You see, Henry and I have three wedding anniversaries—and thus three chances to celebrate. There have been some years when we’ve celebrated all three, and other years when we’ve been apart for one of those anniversaries, and have celebrated on another. There have also been times when two of them have fallen on the same day, but I don’t think they’ve ever all three fallen on the same day again. Have I confused you yet? Here are the three anniversaries: the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, May 29, and today: Trinity Sunday.

We call this our “liturgical anniversary.” Although we didn’t schedule our wedding with this in mind, it has become a beautiful connection for us: here we were, celebrating and deepening our commitment to this relationship, receiving God’s blessing upon it—through human hands and words—on a day in the festal church calendar that also celebrates a relationship.

In fact, Trinity Sunday is the only church feast that celebrates a relationship. There are feasts celebrating events in the life of Christ, like Christmas and Easter. There are feasts that celebrate the holy men and women who, throughout the past two millennia, have had an impact on the lives of the faithful. But this is the only feast that celebrates a relationship—the particular relationship between the three persons of the Trinity.

Over the years since our marriage, I’ve had lots of time to think about the importance of inviting the Trinity to guide our relationship. I’m not going to reproduce my entire sermon here (who knows, I might get to recycle it in another context, some other year!), but here is where I ended up.

So what does it mean to live by the Trinity? We are created to be social beings. God wants us to be in relationship—but not just any kind of relationship. We are more whole when we carry each other’s burdens willingly, voluntarily, through love, rather than because the rules and regulations tell us that we must. We are more whole when we lean on each other, learn from each other, grow alongside each other, depend on each other—in that positive sense where we each contribute to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Trinity is like that: a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Creator, Christ, Holy Spirit. Together, a mystery beyond our comprehension. There at our beginning, our ending, and every moment in between. Infusing our lives. Sometimes leading the way, other times seemingly absent, yet always present.

What relationships in your life are more than a sum of their parts?

What might it mean to view your personal relationships—such as marriage—through the lens of the Trinity, as you understand it?

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Behold I Make All Things New

Last Sunday I visited St. Michael and All Angels church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Like the church of my childhood that I mentioned a few weeks ago, this church has grown immensely since I was a child, from a small adobe sanctuary to the sprawling, active campus it is today. I love their bright, airy, New Mexican-themed worship space—and was surprised by an Eastertide addition when I arrived last Sunday. IMG_1539cLiterally hundreds of origami butterflies adorned the sanctuary, floating in the air, clustered around the cross, alighting on a huge, translucent banner that hung in front of the organ pipes. Because they “die” in the “tomb” of the chrysalis and emerge as radically changed creatures, butterflies have long been a powerful symbol of resurrection. (As a child, when my birthday fell on Easter, I was given a beautiful butterfly pendant with the body of a cross, and it remains one of the most meaningful gifts of my life.)

Like the banners at St. Andrew, the butterflies brought me to tears, but for different reasons. I think that part of what impacted me was the communal nature of this witness to the resurrection. Each origami butterfly was clearly handmade. They were different sizes, different colors, and each slightly different, although clearly modeled on the same pattern. I found myself imagining the entire congregation gathering together to create these, generations working collectively to teach the folding sequence, create the butterflies, string them together, then hang them in the church.

I also find myself thinking about the long history behind origami, which has been practiced in Japan for hundreds of years. I’ve seen, in person, the thousands of origami cranes that adorn the Nagasaki memorials—a clear call for peace in a place literally obliterated by war. Origami cranes continue to be created, around the world, to symbolize the need for peace today.

Many people are afraid of what they see as syncretization in the church—especially when they believe it involves the incorporation of elements from other religious traditions. Those who believe that contemplative prayer is Buddhist simply don’t know their Christian religious history, as contemplative prayer harkens back at least as far as the Desert Mothers and Fathers in fourth-century Egypt.

I, on the other hand, believe that the encounter with other traditions strengthens us. When we enter into sincere dialogue with another, seeking to learn and grow from the wisdom we each have to share, we must reaffirm where we stand, and be willing to be challenged and changed by the wisdom of the other. These opportunities also provide us with the chance to imagine and manifest our own faith in new ways—as these origami butterflies boldly proclaim. Just as butterflies no longer resemble caterpillars, so authentic spiritual life today does not always resemble the faith of our forebears. The Holy Spirit is always making all things new (Revelation 21:5).

Where have you experienced God making things new in your spiritual life?

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What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us Stronger

Last week was transition time for my seedlings. After weeks of happily starting life on the east-facing windowsill in my guest room, they moved outside. I actually started the process two weeks ago, giving them a taste of the greater extremes of outdoor living, one hour at a time, then two. Then I forgot about them, and they got about five hours, so I gave them the next day off. Then back out again, into the stronger sun and wider temperature range, in order to “harden them off” so I could plant them in my garden cage.

IMG_1486Because of this process, those seedlings are not looking their best right now. Direct exposure to the sun, no longer filtered through the window glass, has partially burned some of the leaves. Wind has been a new experience in their lives as well, toughening their stems but probably also contributing to the loss of some of the smaller leaves. We haven’t had any rain while they’ve been outside, but I have turned the hose on them, giving them an experience of the power of water which was previously unknown to them. Then I actually turned them upside down in order to remove them from their pots and get them into the ground.

What a ride this has been for these young plants! I do expect that they will survive; generations of gardeners have developed this method of toughening up the young plants so they can survive in the harsher conditions of the great outdoors. But I’m also not thinning the plants yet; if two seeds sprouted in each little pot, I’ve left them both. After a few weeks, once the plants are more fully adapted to their new homes, I’ll remove the less vigorous plant in each location, giving the stronger one full reign over its assigned plot of ground.

We are very much like those plants. We begin life in the sheltered womb, in a gestational incubator where sun and wind do not have direct access to our vulnerable young bodies. The birthing process is a shocking and painful one, and some don’t survive it. We must then grow accustomed to a new world, where the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” will batter us about—some of us quite a lot, others not so much. We find our patch of ground and we thrive there, but we bear the scars of those experiences, in our bodies and our souls.

What doesn’t kill us does make us stronger. There’s a story running around the internet (apparently one of those “urban legends”) that full-grown trees in the completely enclosed Biosphere 2 would suddenly topple over when they reached a certain height because they had not experienced the strengthening effects of wind. Regardless of whether the story is true, there is a truth behind it. We may not appreciate the painful experiences in our lives, but they do teach us valuable lessons. Like my little plants, we grow stronger as we adapt to our environment and survive our experiences.

Spend some time in reflection on the experiences in your life which have left an impact on you. How have you grown stronger? Can you give God thanks for all the experiences in your life?


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