Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering

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On This Rock

DSC_8924One of the places that touched me most strongly in the holy land was this rock, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (also called the Sea of Tiberias and Lake of Gennesaret). This is the rock, according to tradition, where Jesus appeared to Peter and half a dozen of his other disciples, following his resurrection (this story is recounted in John 21). For me, touching this rock, leaning against it, I could look out upon the Sea of Galilee and imagine Jesus doing the same.

I could imagine Jesus building a fire on top of the rock, or in front of it, on a cool spring morning, as the sun rises over the lake. I could imagine him, watching small fishing boats out on the lake. I could imagine him, calling out to the disciples, asking if they had yet caught any fish. I could see him suggesting that they throw their nets on the other side of the boat. I could imagine him watching, perhaps with amusement and compassion, as his disciples follow his suggestion and find their nets full to the breaking point.

I could also imagine Jesus and Peter, sitting on this same rock, after breakfast, talking about love, and about tending Jesus’ flock. Peter has got to realize, by now, that things are different. I don’t know whether Jesus looked different or sounded different, but the very facts of denial, death, and resurrection had changed their relationship. Peter looked at Jesus differently, and I imagine that Jesus, following the crucifixion, viewed his disciples differently as well.

I see this conversation about feeding sheep as a way for Jesus to help Peter find a way forward. Last week I talked about Mary’s struggle to comprehend the fact of resurrection. Peter also has to undergo an internal, spiritual transformation in order to comprehend the meaning, and the impact, of resurrection on his own life.

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” The name Peter means rock, so Jesus is playing with words, but also tapping into an underlying truth. He knows that Peter is impulsive and passionate, always ready to speak and sometimes quick to argue. But he also knows that this deep passion and facility with words will be important gifts that a religious leader needs. He reminds Peter to balance these gifts with love for the disciples that will come under his care.

Perhaps naturally, later generations of Christians took Jesus’ words literally and built a church upon this rock. I don’t think Jesus would be dismayed by this. I do think he would be dismayed, however, if we stayed inside the church building and didn’t come out to lean against the rock and watch the fishing boats. I think he would be dismayed if we didn’t point out where tired, frustrated fishers might find fish. I think he would be dismayed if we didn’t build fires and offer freshly baked bread and grilled fish to the hungry. I think he would be dismayed if we didn’t balance our impulsiveness and passion with compassion and love.

What are you called to do “on this rock”? How are you called to balance passion and love?


Do Not Hold On to Me

I find myself having some real compassion for preachers as I sit down to write this blog post for Easter. It’s Good Friday, and I want to be focused on the here-and-now of Jesus being pulled out of the pit this morning, of Jesus being condemned to death, taunted, crucified, killed. And yet…I’m living in an “already, but not yet” moment of knowing that Resurrection lies just around the corner, and needing to dwell in, and write about, Easter too.

IMG_4693Which brings to mind John 20, especially verses 11–18, where Jesus encounters Mary of Magdala in the garden after his resurrection. She is hanging around the open, empty, confusing tomb, quite unable to get her bearings. She is unwilling to leave, hardly able to stay, unable to believe the good news, manifest right in front of her—because it is, as yet, beyond what her human mind can comprehend.

We’ve all had moments like that, I would expect. We can’t believe things in our lives could go that bad—or that good, frankly!—and we find ourselves unable to truly be present to the present moment. Angels ask, “Why are you weeping?” and rather than asking “Why not?!” we turn in another direction, seeking something that makes sense.

Which is why, most likely, Mary first thinks that Jesus is the gardener. It’s something her mind can comprehend. But Jesus gently, compassionately, names her, and, in so doing, opens her eyes to the impossible, but very present, reality of his resurrection. As her eyes open, as her mind and heart begin to comprehend, she also is able to name him—her beloved Rabbouni, Teacher—and thus to find some order in her seemingly disordered world. Jesus becomes, once again, the stable center of her world. He has not died; instead, he is transformed.

But notice what Jesus does next. I can imagine Mary, reaching out toward him as she says, “Rabbouni!” Rather than reaching toward her, Jesus backs away. Rather than embracing her, he says, “Do not hold on to me.” Do not grasp hold of me. Do not treat me the way you used to. Things have changed. There is still much you do not comprehend.

That’s the way things stand on Easter morning—then, and now. We are just beginning to understand what Resurrection means. The evidence is there before us, but we still do not realize that Jesus’ resurrection has transformed him into someone we cannot possibly fully comprehend.

We cannot hold on to Jesus. We cannot grasp him, shape him, control him, use him as a tool for our agendas—though we so often try to do so. Christ is so much more than our simple human minds can comprehend. There must be mystery in the relationship. We are not in control. We cannot hold on.

I invite you to spend some time, in this Eastertide, loosening your grasp on Jesus. Release the need to hold on, to control him, to use him, to be the one to direct the relationship. Allow mystery. Allow awe. Allow the continued unfolding of relationship as he gently, compassionately, says your name.

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The Pit

Not surprisingly, churches have sprouted up all over Jerusalem to mark almost every moment of the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. One of the places that has stayed with me in spirit is what can be found underneath one of those churches: the pit in which tradition says Jesus was held overnight at Caiaphas’ house after his arrest.

Have you ever considered where Jesus was held that night? Before this trip, I admit I hadn’t. Scripture takes our focus to Peter after Jesus is arrested and taken away from the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter’s denial of Jesus in the courtyard outside Caiaphas’ house pulls our attention away from Jesus, perhaps because we need to recognize our collusion in that element of betrayal which is so endemic to our fearful human nature.

This denial is so important, in fact, that the church built over where Caiaphas’ house most likely stood is named The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu—with Gallicantu being Latin for “the cock-crow.” Beside the church, you can see the ruins of older buildings and what might have been the courtyard where Peter warmed his hands that fateful night. You can also see the steps Jesus most likely walked upon as he was taken from Gethsemane to Caiaphas’ house. I’ll share some of those images on Instagram (and Facebook) over the course of this week but, for now, I’m going to stick with the pit.

IMG_4504cPondering where Jesus might have been held, I imagine assuming there was a local jail where he would have been detained. But evidently there are a lot of caves underground in Jerusalem, and those caves served a number of functions. Certainly underground basements were a cooler space to store food and wine in those days before refrigeration. Other caves served as baths and water cisterns. Some of the caves also served as jails, and there is one such jail-pit under Gallicantu.

In this first photo, you can see in the foreground the older steps that were carved into the stone of the basement. They end in a steep, probably fifteen-foot drop into the pit. In the background, you can see the modern stairs that have been built, allowing pilgrims such as our group to descend into the pit without breaking any bones.

The second photo is taken (thanks to Henry Hoffman, whose photo is much better than mine!) of the pit itself. The light fixtures are obviously modern additions; the pit would have indeed been a place of darkness in Jesus’ time. Within the pit today is only this simple podium, upon which rests a binder containing the words of Psalm 88. When you read the words to this Psalm (and I strongly encourage you to do so), you will find many words and phrases that would have spoken directly to Jesus’ situation as he lay on the cold, hard ground within that pit. It is a powerful experience to hear it read while standing in that pit and imagining Jesus pondering what lay ahead.IMG_1131 (HH)

We are now in the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion—as the church now commemorates it. Many of us are likely to spend some time at church this week, in Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and/or Paschal Vigil services. I intend to. It is critical that we remember that Jesus’ suffering and death precede his resurrection. His time of trial and abandonment by followers like Peter are remembered in these days—and, as a community, we all have a role to play in the abandonment.

As individuals and communities, we still make choices that turn us away from God. We do get busy with our lives and forget Christ’s presence with us. We do take actionsor avoid actions that need to be takenthat grieve the Holy Spirit.

During this week, I invite you to sit with this image of the pit, and Jesus’ last night before his death. I invite you to read Psalm 88 and ponder what it says to you. Imagine Jesus, reciting this Psalm in his heart, wondering what lies ahead….

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Lenten Lessons: Anger and Violence

One of the gifts of my Lenten discipline of daily scripture reading has been reconnecting with the broader picture, the flow of Jesus’ ministry from one event to the next—a sense that I had lost over the years, as I primarily heard specific stories being told, out of context, week after week, in church on Sundays. I knew the stories, but I had lost sense of the flow. I knew the trees, but I no longer sensed the forest.

For example, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is already angry by the beginning of the third chapter. He is angry because the religious leaders are more interested in keeping the letter of the law (no work on the Sabbath) than in the health of the people. Jesus has authority and he understands power—but he also understands compassion and knows that every single human being was created in the image of God. He must have been so frustrated that people just didn’t understand!

I sense Jesus’ mounting frustration as he has to explain his parables to his disciples, over and over again. They have eyes and do not see, ears and do not hear. He tells them to beware the “leaven of the Pharisees” and they think he’s talking about literal, physical bread, not insidious ideas (see Mark 8:14–21). They spend their time debating who amongst them is the greatest, rather than understanding his underlying message that “first” and “last” are not what’s important. Every single human being is created in the image of God.

I can well imagine that, by the time Jesus comes to Jerusalem, he must have been simmering inside. He knows that the religious leaders are plotting against him and it’s only a matter of time until things come to a head. He’s frustrated that so few people—even his own disciples—understand his core message. He’s angry that both religious and secular leaders keep putting human rules before human well-being.

Perhaps he’s also just plain tired and hungry when, on the morning after their arrival in Jerusalem, Jesus goes to look for figs on a tree alongside the road from Bethany to Jerusalem and curses it because he finds none (see Mark 11:12–14). It’s like he woke up on the wrong side of the bed, and believes that nothing that day is going to go well. We’ve all had that feeling.

DSC_0500Perhaps that is part of the reason why Jesus also got violent that same day: Everything “came to a head” when he walked up these temple steps and saw the moneychangers (Mark 11:15–19). Jesus let out his frustration on the marketing masters of his day, who had figured out a way to turn the religious-sacrifice system into a moneymaking operation. He transformed his anger into a powerful, authoritative statement on the need to keep the purity of our religious observances.

So often faithful Christians think that we can’t be angry and still be “good Christians.” That’s not true. Jesus got angry. Jesus even got violent. It’s what we do with our anger that counts.

Yes, it’s probably best not to curse fig trees, but we can ask forgiveness—and know that we will be forgiven—when our anger “comes out sideways,” as it is likely to do on occasion. We can also choose to take a stand when the situation demands it. We can let our anger lead us to make appropriate, authoritative statements, to stand up to those in power in whatever way is appropriate—as so many people are doing these days outside the offices of their elected officials. We can heal anyway, even on the Sabbath, regardless of the consequences. We can choose to keep teaching, because the people around us are hungry for Good News. We can treat every single human being as an image of God—because every single one of us is. Even those whose power has corrupted them.

How are you called to let your anger speak?

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Lenten Lessons: Trash

DSC_9414e trashOne aspect of the Palestinian territories that quickly caught my attention during our trip to the Holy Land in January was the trash. The landscape controlled by Israel was, for the most part, quite well-kept. The Palestinian-controlled territory, however, usually was not. As you can see here, for example, plastics drifted and piled across the countryside like so much desert sand. In other places, ruined shells of homes and piles of rubble dotted the landscape.

I do not know the reasons for this, but I can conjecture a few possibilities. There might not be trash services available in rural Palestine, and/or many might not be able to afford it. (Trash services in urban Palestine certainly can be problematic.) Folks might be focused on scraping together a livelihood from this desert and not have time or energy available to keep things neat and clean beyond the edges of their fields. It might also be that, at this point in their lives, the Palestinians simply have become so accustomed to the trash around them that they no longer see it—literally or figuratively.

This Palestinian landscape immediately reminded me of a visit I made to another country nine years ago. As part of an internship sponsored by the Center for Action and Contemplation, I spent four days volunteering my time at a mission church and school that was built—literally—on top of a garbage dump in Juarez, Mexico. The dump had, over time, become so large that parts of it were no longer “active” and the wind had blown in enough sand to form a layer on top. Squatters began to build makeshift shacks and, by the time we visited, a marginal colonia had taken root on top of the dump and the mission church had been literally planted in the trash to serve this unofficial community.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs you can see here, the trash is omnipresent. Children who grew up here would not understand that “ground” could mean something “clean.” Certainly these families knew better than to try to grow food in this “soil”—and in fact, one of our mission projects was to bring in supplies and bags of potting soil to construct above-ground gardens, separated from the trash, so that these residents might grow some healthy vegetables for themselves and their children.

It breaks my heart that there are so many areas of this world where we have rendered our very soil unsafe for human cultivation. We have literally buried the good soil under our mounds of trash. I mourn for all the animals who are poisoned by our disregard for the consequences of our actions. I grieve for all the children who don’t have a clean, firm foundation on Mother Earth.

I also recognize that we do this to ourselves on an individual level, spiritually and physically. We trash our bodies with unhealthy food and drink. We consume overwhelming amounts of negative information, cluttering our minds and hearts with words and ideas that harm our spirits. We allow these things to become part of our internal landscape until we hardly notice the damage we are doing to our selves and our souls.

In this Lenten season, I invite you to consider the ways in which you have allowed harmful trash to become part of your physical and spiritual landscape. Has this “trash” become such an integral part of your life that you don’t even notice anymore? What internal cleanup might be appropriate for you in this season?

How also might you contribute toward cleaning up Mother Earth? You could adopt a roadway in your own community or contribute to the work being done on a larger scale. Innovative minds are coming up with some great ideas (such as The Ocean Cleanup), so pray about how you might want to get in on the cleanup act.

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Lenten Lessons: Compromising Locations

The Jordan River in the Holy Land is 156 miles long, so there’s a lot of territory to cover when it comes to determining where John the Baptist might have based his baptizing ministry. The Bible does give us hints, however (John 3:22–23) and, over time, tradition solidified the location were John was baptizing. Churches were built on the east side of the river, because John 1:28 also speaks of John the Baptist baptizing at “Bethany across the Jordan.”

Today most of that eastern side of the Jordan River is the territory of the Kingdom of Jordan, and thus inaccessible to pilgrims coming from the Israeli side of the river. Prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, much of the west bank of the Jordan River (yes, that “West Bank”) between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea was also under Jordanian control and thus inaccessible to pilgrims. As a result, another “traditional” baptism site sprung up, right where the Jordan River exits the Sea of Galilee, much further north. This allowed pilgrims to be baptized, or re-baptized, within the waters of the Jordan River without becoming casualties in another border dispute.

DSC_9525After the 1967 war, the west bank of the Jordan River, across from the older “traditional” baptism site, was reopened to pilgrims, and that is the place we visited in January. As you can see here, floating cordons in the river demarcate the permissible area for baptism on each side, with the center of the river forming an international boundary. An ancient church can be glimpsed through the trees on the eastern, Jordan side.

I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the need, for many years, to compromise on the “baptism location” along the Jordan River—whether east side or west, north or south. What once was one group’s territory now belongs to another. Access is restricted, then granted, then restricted again, with the ebb and flow of war and its resulting territorial divisions.

That is certainly true today in the desert southwest, my “home territory.” The Gadsden Purchase in 1853 was the last substantial territorial acquisition in the continental United States. Its boundaries divided the territory of the Tohono O’odham people, who originally ranged freely over the resulting international border with Mexico but today are severely divided by the American government’s increasingly impenetrable and hostile border.

Every change in a territorial border creates consequences for those who live along it. This has been true ever since nomadic people began to settle down and claim territory as “theirs” rather than understanding that the earth is a gift, freely given to all by a generous and abundant Creator. In the Holy Land, people figured out how to compromise, accessing the river where they could in order to keep their rituals and traditions alive.

Many people, around the world and over countless generations, have “left home” because of territorial battles that divided or destroyed their homelands. They compromised or abandoned their connection with a certain place in the interests of safety, security, a better life. Has this happened in your family’s history? Where in your own life have you had to make compromises, whether in regard to a geographical location or in a less literal sense?

Have you maintained some sort of connection with certain locations—perhaps your “hometown,” or home territory? Are there places that have developed particular spiritual meaning for you because of a pivotal event—a literal or spiritual baptism? Do you revisit them? How would you respond if you were suddenly told that such holy land was now off-limits?

I invite you to pray for all those who are cut off from their holy lands, in one way or another, and must make compromises to keep their personal and communal traditions alive.


Lenten Lessons: Break a Leg

You’ve heard this phrase, haven’t you? “Break a leg” is a good-luck wish for actors in the theater industry—evidently because it was considered bad luck to wish them “good luck” before they went on stage!

That phrase took on new meaning for me while I was in the Holy Land. Perhaps you’ve seen pictures of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, with a lamb or sheep riding across his shoulders? That picture would be illustrating the parable Jesus tells in Luke 15:4–6:

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”

It turns out that there’s more to this story—at least in terms of the sheep being laid on the shepherd’s shoulders. Our guide told us that traditionally, when a sheep would tend to stray, the shepherd would literally break its leg. Then he would bind up the leg and carry the sheep on his shoulders as it healed. He would feed the sheep and bond with it during that healing time, so that the sheep would come to associate the voice and the smell of the shepherd with food and safety. This would keep the sheep from straying, even after its leg had healed and it was again allowed to run free.

Somehow this leg-breaking didn’t make it into all those cozy paintings of the smiling, fair-haired Jesus, effortlessly carrying a lamb or sheep across his shoulders. That lamb or sheep would be a heavy, hot, uncomfortable burden (think of all that wool against your neck, even in July!), day after day, week after week. That sheep would want to get down, would initially probably hate the shepherd for what he had done. That sheep wouldn’t understand why the shepherd had broken its leg—or perhaps even why its leg was hurting in the first place.

Today, especially in America—where cruelty to cute and cuddly animals is often treated with more contempt than child abuse—it’s very hard for us to imagine breaking the leg of a cute, wooly white lamb or sheep. But life was different then—and still is, for the Bedouins in the Holy Land. For starters, there were no fences to keep the sheep from danger. This was why the relationship with the shepherd was so vital.DSC_9902e Psalm 23 describes how sheep looked to shepherds to guide them (with that rod and staff) to green pastures and still (as opposed to swift, dangerous) water. Any sheep that didn’t stick with the shepherd was in danger of falling off those paths of righteousness (and breaking much more than a leg) or being caught and eaten by hungry wild beasts.

Jesus concludes his parable by saying, in verse 7, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” Jesus is telling his hearers that, in just such a way as this (leg-breaking and all), there is joy in heaven when sinners who have gone astray, are in some way broken, then carried as they heal so that they can learn—“for their own good”—to respect the voice of the shepherd.

How many times can you remember a spanking from your mom or dad, or some other form of punishment, that was “for your own good”? As children, we sometimes didn’t get it—but now, as adults, we do. This is one way in which we differ from sheep, which most likely won’t ever have the capacity to understand why their leg was broken. We do, and perhaps we can even understand that there might be times in our lives when we are broken in ways that make no sense at the time, but eventually lead us closer to God.

One spring morning a few years ago, I danced off the edge of the rug in my office and broke a bone in my foot. Initially I was appalled and frustrated—especially since I had been worshipping God at the time! Over the weeks I spent in the boot, recovering from the break, I had to slow down and make many choices about how I spent my time. I also eventually realized that God might have been trying to get my attention—and that the time I spent with my foot up was indeed an opportunity to deepen my relationship with God in prayer.

Whether you’ve ever had such a literal break, or have instead been broken in other ways, I invite you to reflect upon and pray about the ways in which your Good Shepherd might have “broken your leg,” and how you have grown closer to your Creator as a result of that injury. Then take a moment to pray for all who might be in pain today, who might be squirming uncomfortably on the shoulders of the Shepherd as they learn to recognize his voice….