Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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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.


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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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Hidden Viriditas


IMG_0949On our hike this past week, my friend and I once again visited Boston Hill. We even took a route we had traversed before—but saw new things this time. One thing that caught my eye was a tiny spot of green in the midst of the rock pictured on the left here. Can you see it?

On the right is a second picture, up close. IMG_0948Hidden within a natural hole in the rock, a pair of tiny green mosses have found a place to thrive in the midst of this desert landscape. I probably would have missed them completely if my eyes had not already been captured by a pair of dynamite or core-sample holes drilled in an adjacent rock.

As it was, I initially wasn’t certain whether I was seeing the green of a growing plant or of a green gemstone, hidden deep within the rock. While the moss is certainly less “valuable” in worldly terms, it’s still a valuable find for me, personally. It led to some ponderings, later that day, on Lent and the nature of the spiritual journey.

Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness after being baptized, and this is the reason there are forty days in Lent. The intention is that this time will be the equivalent of a yearly wilderness sojourn for each of us: a time to reflect upon, and deepen, our relationship with God. Disciplines such as fasting and praying, giving something up or taking something on, are meant to help us focus our awareness in this “wilderness” of our own choosing.

The hope is that each of us will find hidden gems on our Lenten wilderness sojourns. This hidden patch of moss is my gem this week. I’m reminded of the word viriditas, which the medieval abbess and mystic Hildegard of Bingen used to mean vitality, fecundity, lushness, and growth, which were for her the symbols of spiritual and physical health. To have found such a symbol, hidden within the wilderness in my own hometown, is a powerful indicator for me of the importance of the Lenten journey.

Have you found any hidden gems in your own Lenten wilderness? Where is viriditas appearing in your life at this time?


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Lent Becomes Lifestyle


Those of you who have been with me for a while know that I gave up sugar last Lent. This was a huge step for me to take at the time. I knew that I treated sugar the way that others treat alcohol and drugs: I was addicted. Prayer and some nudges from God enabled me to let go of sugar last Lent.

It was easier than I had expected. In fact, when Easter arrived and I decided to give sugar a try again, I had a mini-blackout. You see, 40 weekdays (Sundays are never part of Lent, because each Sunday celebrates Jesus’ resurrection) were enough to establish a “new normal” for my body; it no longer knew how to handle all that sugar. Sugary foods also didn’t taste as good to me as they used to.

In this way, what started as a Lenten discipline has become the way I live my life. This does not mean that no processed sugar has crossed my lips over the last year, but I still avoid it on principle, succeed 99% of the time, and feel better as a result. I also learned that I hadn’t been feeding myself enough calories, and have had to change my eating habits to compensate.

IMG_0936I can honestly say that last year’s Lent became my lifestyle. What started as a desperate cry to God for help in addressing an addiction has become an established way of life. As I contemplated how I wanted to observe Lent this year, it was that “Lent becoming lifestyle” idea that drew me to take on daily prayer for a couple of particular groups of people. I would like for that discipline to become so integrated into who I am and how I live that, long after Easter, this year’s discipline will also become an established part of me.

What is the most meaningful Lenten discipline in which you have engaged? Did it last beyond Easter? Did it change your life?

How are you observing Lent this year? If you haven’t chosen something, it’s not too late to start. Take some time to prayerfully consider where God might be inviting you to let go of, or take on, something in your life. How would doing so bring you closer to God?


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A Memory Walk


My usual hiking partner is on vacation, so I hiked with another friend this past Friday. We went to a spot in the Gila wilderness that is special for this friend because her daughter, who was killed in an accident more than a dozen years ago, used to love visiting this place. My friend hadn’t been out there in a couple of years, and brought along some dried roses as a memorial.

IMG_0864As we walked—often clambering over large rocks—my friend shared stories of her daughter’s life and journey. She also showed me where some other couple had, years ago, marked the pathway with stones and had their wedding in this beautiful spot. Many of the pathway rocks have been dislodged over time, but it’s still pretty easy to see how the path meanders and follow it over the rocks.

It was a beautiful day for a walk, with clear blue skies and a cool breeze. We saw a number of stunning vistas and captivating natural beauty, as well as points where plants were struggling to survive against the odds, or had given up the fight and become elegant skeletons.

IMG_0882At one point she found a heart-shaped rock that reminded her of a story. At another point, I captured a number of angles of a tree that had, over the years, been bent perpendicular to the ground. I found myself thinking that it was doing a type of dance with the ground. Since my friend’s daughter was a dancer, that image flowed easily into my mind.

Most of all, this day was a gift of memory. My friend’s stories brought to mind some of my own, and together we wove a new pattern, which we left—invisible but nonetheless present—amongst the rocks. We experienced gratitude and amazement, and sometimes blinked back tears. She brought back her heart-shaped rock, and I brought back a couple dozen photos on my phone.

When in your life has a stroll turned into a memory walk? Did you go with an agenda? What unfolded? What did you find, and share? What did you bring back?

Is there a memory walk you need to take?

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