Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering



I spent much of yesterday in tears. I attended the memorial service of Harold M. Daniels, who was pastor of the Presbyterian church in which I was raised, and instrumental in spoiling me for any other Presbyterian church by introducing the Great Vigil of Easter and other liturgical “reforms and renewals” during my youth. A major part of the reason that I became an Episcopalian 20+ years ago was that the Episcopal Church puts more emphasis on liturgy and sacraments—which became very important to me in large part because of the influence of Harold Daniels.

IMG_1269What first brought me to tears yesterday was walking into the sanctuary at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church and seeing that they had hung four of the banners in the front of the church that used to hang in the smaller sanctuary when I was young. Created in the height of the 1970s, they have a certain look to them that is probably anachronistic to most people today. For me, however, they immediately evoked memories of a passionately engaged, growing congregation of young families that instilled that vibrant, relevant faith in their children.IMG_1268c

During the service, which was (naturally!) planned by Harold and called “A Service of Witness to the Resurrection,” I enjoyed watching many of those no-longer-young parents of my church friends participate in the liturgy with similar passion. I also sat there thinking about the fact that I was one of the youngest people in the room—with the exception of Harold’s grandchildren. What was relevant and “cutting edge” in the 1970s is not so today—and yet so much of the liturgy that Harold brought into the life of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church was deeply rooted in the early history of the church. It was not just reform; it was rediscovery.

At the service, I also sat two rows behind a woman who was very influential for me—although I don’t believe I have ever told her this (and therefore I shall do so now…!). She led a liturgical dance group at St. Andrew when I was young. For some complicated reasons I did not participate, except occasionally as part of the youth group, but I longed to do so. Many years later, when re-introduced to the concept of movement prayer during my formation as a spiritual director, I wholeheartedly embraced it, then found and joined a liturgical dance group in the Boston area. The monthly Embodied Prayer sessions which I now lead (ironically, at the local Presbyterian church!) are rooted in my belief that all of us are invited to pray with our bodies—something I first learned so many years ago at St. Andrew.

In such ways is the church continually renewed and reformed, remaining relevant in the face of changing times. I imagine that, when I was a child, the older generations at St. Andrew were appalled at those bright and flowery banners, just as many of those celebrating Harold Daniels’ life are likely uncomfortable with the use of slide shows and praise bands in liturgy today.

And yet…we must remain relevant if the church is to have any hope of flourishing in the future. Harold Daniels knew this, and I imagine that it’s part of what drove him to return to the “original sources” of his Reformed tradition (note that the quote on the “flower power” type banner is from St. Augustine!), seeking liturgical elements that would engage the members of his youthful congregation. And the liturgical dancer at St. Andrew created indelible memories in my young mind of how worship could include the body, as well as mind and voice. Over the years, my prayer has taken bodily form in many ways, and that passion has driven me to share it with others.

With all these memories and realizations flowing through me, it was a lovely irony that yesterday ended with a “Skype date” with one of my spiritual director colleagues, who is a bit older than me and has been asked if she would be willing to do spiritual guidance via Skype, as I do. She’s been a bit nervous about how this new technology works, and so we agreed to have a session together, so she could experience the process, and I could share some of the wisdom I’ve gleaned from doing this for the past year. Here we are, both firmly entrenched in a ministry that some people say “has to” be done in person, recognizing that we can only remain relevant if we are open to the Spirit’s guidance in embracing new possibilities—and, as we discussed, much spiritual guidance 1000 years ago took place via letter! By seeking renewal in a blend of deeply rooted tradition and the embrace of new technology, I believe we are honoring the Holy Spirit’s call to remain relevant in our ministry today.

Where do you see your faith community being relevant and engaging today? In what ways is it anachronistic? What does this awareness invoke, or invite, in you, in terms of a response?

Is there someone who has deeply impacted your life, who might appreciate some form of recognition and appreciation of that influence on your life or ministry?

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Spring Growth

One of the things we did while our son and his family were visiting a few weeks ago was work on the garden. Our son and I added compost to the soil and pounded support posts into the rock-hard clay (he actually did the work; I just held the posts upright!), and our grandson helped me plant lots of little red onion starts. IMG_1235The onions have since started coming up, and I’ve been sending periodic pictures of their progress to Massachusetts, where at least the snow has disappeared, even if the wind-chill temperature is still below freezing as I type!

As a child, I hated spring. The strong winds and resultant dust storms made it the most unpleasant season, especially waiting outdoors for the school bus. My strongest memories of spring were sand in my hair and eyes, and the nasty crunching sound that comes when the sand gets in between your teeth…. No fun.

It was like a revelation, then, to move to New England as a young adult and watch crocuses peek through the snow in people’s yards and daffodils spring into existence along the banks of the Charles River. Fruit trees blossomed in profusion and the earth smelled of rich fecundity. I loved it!

Now I’m back in New Mexico, and the spring winds have begun. I have a different perspective now. The dry, windy weather raises the fire danger; that matters much more to me than a bit of sand in my hair (and, I admit, I can now choose when to be outside!). Now I am drawn to the evidence of new growth that comes with spring…both the new growth in the native perennial plants in my front yard and the birth from seed of the tomato and cucumber starts in my guest room window. They remind me that we have both the opportunity to begin again, and to continue to grow, no matter how old and gnarled our perennial trunks might be.

What have you noticed this spring? Where are you experiencing the invitation to new growth?

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Easter Flowers

I have some pretty strong memories of Easter lilies. This vivid white symbol of resurrection was an integral part of Easter in the church where I grew up. When I was a teen, we kids were assigned the task of running into a nearby room during the Easter Vigil, just as the resurrection was being announced, and running back into the sanctuary with pots of lilies in our hands to place around the communion table as the lights came up and the choir sang. All these years later, I’m still getting teary-eyed writing this….

But some of those memories also have to do with lily pollen, which is pretty strong and causes allergic responses in many who sit in church pews—myself included. I don’t remember exactly when, but I do remember being thrilled when someone at that church showed me how you could pull out the pollen pods, just after the lily flower opened and before the pods turned themselves inside out to spread their magical, misery-causing scent.

This past week I’ve been watching the flowers that have appeared in my own yard. I’ve enjoyed the scent of round yellow Mahonia flowers, and celebrated the appearance of peach blossoms on the tree I planted last fall. I’ve also been pleased to see that a few brave tulips have survived to blossom, because the past two years they were eaten by deer long before anything had a chance to flower.

IMG_1203I believe that one reason the tulips have survived this year is that I chose not to cut back the tall, dead stems from last year’s globe mallow wildflowers, which have grown up amidst the bulbs in my flower bed. While many here treat globe mallows as weeds, I allowed them to commingle with my bulbs to give summer-long color to the flower bed. I figured that they had a place, and a role to play. I thought that place and role had to do with summer color—but when the tulips began to appear early this spring, and weren’t immediately eaten, I put two and two together and realized that the deer likely weren’t interested in trying to eat tender bulb shoots that were surrounded by tall, spiky sticks that must smell as unappetizing as the live plants do. In this way, the dead are protecting new life in my garden bed.

To me this is a wonderful symbol of Easter and resurrection. New life would not survive to flower in this corner of my garden without the “assistance” of death in the form of last summer’s flower stems. There cannot be resurrection without death. The two go hand in hand, in our own lives as well as the life of Jesus.

Where in your life has death actually helped to protect or foster new life?

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How We Love

All that matters in the end

is how we love.

— Beth Nielsen Chapman, “How We Love

Last week I led our monthly session of Embodied Prayer, which is an evening of meditation and movement that I have created to encourage people to worship with their whole bodies. This session was focused on the theme of love, and the quote above is from one of the songs that I used. During the evening, I invited us all to pray about how we love, and about how our sins and shortcomings block our love-based connection with God and with each other.

The question of how we love is also a very appropriate one for Holy Week, which begins today with Palm/Passion Sunday. So much of this week is really a primer in love, given by Jesus, starting with the crowd’s adulation during his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and going through his compassionate responses to his various disciples’ rejection and abandonment of him as his journey moved quickly from triumph to tragedy.

As Jesus died on the cross, all that really mattered, in the end, was love.

IMG_0972I mentioned last week that there was another powerful Ponderosa pine image that I encountered on a recent hike. Here are two pine trees: one standing tall, the other leaning—or falling?—onto, and literally embracing, the first. There are so many ways to view this pair of trees through Holy Week eyes:

  • Mary anointing Jesus with her alabaster flask of ointmentIMG_0962
  • Jesus washing Peter’s feet
  • Jesus carrying the cross
  • John and Mary at the foot of the cross

What else comes to your mind as you sit with these images?

I invite you, during this Holy Week, to view Jesus’ words and actions through the lens of love, and of our need, in so much of our lives, to lean on others. I pray that this might deepen and expand upon your view of these unfolding events.


Nature’s Jigsaw Puzzle

Henry and I spent much of this past week with family. Our sons both live in Massachusetts and we got a call from one of them a few weeks ago, saying that he and his wife and son had had it with snow and needed to come visit. Of course we said yes; we’re happy to host shivering relatives who don’t remember that the earth is brown, not white!

One of the things that my grandson and I have in common is a love of jigsaw puzzles. I’ve been working jigsaw puzzles since I was a child, and still enjoy gathering around a puzzle with my parents and other relatives when I’m visiting them for the holidays. I was thrilled to learn that my grandson enjoys them, too, and we’ve gotten into the habit of doing a few puzzles together when I visit.

In preparation for their visit here, I went to the local church garage sale and found an age-appropriate puzzle. I even found one that had a train on it, wending its way through a steep (and not snowy!) mountain pass. I figured it was one way to keep an active 6-year-old entertained when it was too dark outside to be climbing at City of Rocks or prospecting for them at Rockhound State Park. (Sense a theme here? We also have rocks in common!)

IMG_0981It’s interesting how such themes can run through our lives and help us see things in new ways. On a hike just before my family’s arrival, my friend and I got up close and personal with a Ponderosa pine tree (in certain seasons they smell like vanilla, but I think it was still too cold that day), and she commented that its bark looked like nature’s jigsaw puzzle. I had never thought of it that way before, but she’s certainly right. The layers of the Ponderosa’s bark overlap in beautifully intersecting ways that appear very much like puzzle pieces.

It is wonderful to add this layer of meaning to my love of puzzles, especially since I love the tall, stately Ponderosas as well. In fact, another Ponderosa will most likely appear in next week’s blog (it was a very fruitful hike, image-wise!). In the future, when I step up to a pine tree, I might find myself thinking about how the many pieces of my own life are intersecting with each other, like these interlocking layers of bark upon a tree—and as the lives of my puzzle-loving relatives intersect with my own.

When has an image taken on new depth for you? How did it happen?

I invite you to keep your eyes open for opportunities to deepen images in your own life, especially as Lent draws to a close and we prepare for Holy Week.

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Fern Farm

On our hike this past week we found our attention captured by a tree that had mostly been taken over by lichen. This is a fairly unusual sight in the desert, where lichen is generally confined to rocks. However, this particular tree appeared to be losing its life to the lichen infestation; large portions of its branches were completely encased in lichen and had died off. As we walked a bit further, we realized that this tree was not alone; there was quite a bit of lichen, and even moss, growing on several other trees in the area.

IMG_0957A dozen feet further on, we encountered this patch of ferns. Ferns are not typical desert dwellers; they require a lot more moisture than the standard desert environment provides. Yet here they were, clearly thriving on this north-facing slope of a desert hillside. They might not have caught our attention if we hadn’t already noticed that this particular area was not covered in the usual dried grasses, scrub oak, and cactus that usually grows here.

So how are these ferns surviving in the desert? We hypothesized that they had found an agreeable microclimate. In addition to being on a north-facing slope, where moisture would evaporate more slowly and winter snows linger longer, they have settled into a stony area that would be prone to channeling runoff from our infrequent rains. The ferns are also being shaded by the larger scrub oaks growing above them—although the amount of lichen on these trees would seem to indicate that relying on this shade is not a wise long-term plan!

All of this got me thinking about “water in the desert,” which is often used as a Lenten metaphor for sustenance in the midst of the Lenten journey. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, Jesus went out into the desert wilderness to deepen and strengthen his relationship with God as he began his ministry. We are invited to follow this same pattern—figuratively, if not always literally—each Lenten season. When we go into our metaphorical deserts, we have no idea what will sustain us, or where the spiritual water is to be found. We need to pay attention to the signs around us, indicating where precious moisture is hiding. This “fern farm,” as my friend called it, was one such place on our desert journey.

Where are you finding evidence of spiritual moisture in your Lenten desert journey?

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Learning—Again—to Slow Down

This past week I found myself revisiting my Lent becoming lifestyle theme—but this time on the issue of busyness. I’ve been attempting to spend part of each day with the SSJE Brothers’ Lenten series on time, and last week I was already behind…perhaps a symptom of the fact that I am still not a great manager of my time.

Almost three years into my life as a freelancer, this should be incredibly important for me. After all, there’s no workplace structure to help me frame my time, so I need to do it myself. I am actually very good at meeting deadlines; it’s the work/life balance that is still an issue for me.

Some of that has to do with the uncertain rhythm of work in the freelance world. Some weeks are slow; others are chock full. Just about every week in 2015 so far has been chock full, and I admit that I’m getting tired. This past week I worked on eight different jobs for five different clients, plus we had workers in our house, remodeling a bathroom, for four of those days. I did make time for my weekly hike, and a much-needed massage, but by the end of the week I found that I could not make myself slow down.

On more than one day, I showed up for my prayer time with God and just could not sit still. Whether my mind kept going, or something distracted me, or—one day—people showed up at the door, prayer just wasn’t happening. So, being honest about it, I talked with God about it, acknowledged where I was…and went back to the computer. I figured that at least I was talking with God, even if the conversation was not the one I had intended!

One afternoon I did lie on my back on the floor while I listened to a sermon on my computer. Amazingly, that 13-minute sermon caught my brain’s attention enough that my body and spirit were able to truly slow down, and I felt very different, physically and mentally, by the time the sermon was over. It was a good reminder that sometimes our established routines for prayer are not always right for one particular day, or season, in our lives.

IMG_0955So I’m catching glimpses of light, even as God’s Lenten renovations continue to work their way through my being. At this point I’m not at all sure that I will continue to push myself to do that additional prayer discipline with which I began Lent. The invitation instead seems to be to let go of my will and my agenda, slow down, and listen for the still, small voice of God, wherever it may be found….

How is your Lent unfolding? Do you need to revisit your Lenten commitment, or even revise it in some way?

Do you need to ponder an invitation to slow down in your own life?


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