Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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Poetry and Prayer


Back in April I committed to putting my personal writing first in my workdays. In rather stark contrast with prior attempts at doing this, I have stuck with it this time. Almost every weekday I have sat down to write, and on those days when circumstances have prevented it, I’ve been able to pick up the habit again the next day, rather than losing it in my rush into other things.

Perhaps part of the reason that I’ve been able to keep doing this is because the very act of sitting down to write poetry is feeding me. It is feeding some hungry part of my soul that I hadn’t realized was starving. I’d had inklings, but for the most part I’d ignored them. Now, I sit down, become still, and wait and watch to see what appears. Some days a dream image will pull me in. Other days an experience or conversation will elicit reflection. Sometimes I just sit and let snippets begin to flow through my mind, writing them down as they come.

I am realizing that this poetry is also, inevitably, a form of prayer. It brings me into the present moment—where I am open to what is currently available in and to my soul, rather than pondering the past or fearing the future. God is only truly present to us in the present moment—because when our minds meander into past or future, we are lost in memory or musing and God is not present there.

One morning this past week, the flow of snippets eventually led to this poem about prayer. I pray that it will encourage you to consider your own prayer life….DSC_0485 fern

 

Sip serenity from

slim stem of frosted fern

 

Elephant thoughts

mangle mystical memories

 

Shake head

Begin again

Every morsel of moment shelters sustenance.


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Learning Confidence from Flowers


I read an interesting article this past week, about women and men and confidence. It’s well worth the read, especially if you are a woman or wish to be supportive of the women in your life. It talks about various studies that show how women have an “acute lack of confidence” which prevents us from taking action, risking failure, and believing we can make our impact on the world.

I certainly have experienced what they describe. My inability to believe that I could be successful on my own, doing work that I am skilled at performing, kept me “trapped” (frankly, because of my own mindset) in unhealthy employment situations for far longer than was necessary. As a freelancer, I have had to overcome my reticence and learn how to increase my rates—because I no longer worked within a system that automatically gave me raises for good performance. I have also, in retrospect, missed opportunities because I thought I had to be perfect, rather than “good enough,” to take the chance, and risk, of that next step.

DSC_3449cInterestingly, as I’ve been contemplating this article, what keeps coming to mind are big, showy flowers. The night-blooming cereus is only the most recent example to come to my awareness, but many plants don’t stand out until their flowers catch the eye and wow the onlooker. For plants, those flowers are critical to long-term survival. Plants must have, or develop, confidence in their blooms if they want to attract pollinating insects that will propagate the species.

Of course, plants come by their flowers honestly and naturally. They don’t appear to have any capacity for crippling internal dialogue: “What if my flower isn’t perfect enough? What if it won’t attract the right type or number of insects? The flower to my left had incredible success last season; why am I even trying to compete with that?” Instead, every plant makes the most of nature and nurture, whether the rainfall or nutrients were lean or plentiful, and blossoms to the best of its ability.

And unless we happen to be master gardeners, we probably couldn’t analyze why flower X is more or less “successful” than flower Y. But our “nurture” has sure taught us that we must evaluate every “success” around us—to our detriment, I believe. As Jesus said in Matthew (6:28–29), “Why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.”

One of the key takeaways from the article—for me, anyway—was that acting with confidence actually increases confidence. When we take risks, even if they involve “failure” and thus become opportunities for learning, we grow in confidence. But we have to “show up” and take those risks. It turns out that girls quit competing in things like team sports when they lose confidence—and thus miss out on valuable, confidence-building lessons about how to own triumphs and survive setbacks.

We each have our own splendor—our own specific, unique mix of gifts from God. We were created to blossom, each in our own ways. Whether we are woman or man, our confidence should not be placed in some misguided idea of perfection. Instead, it should be rooted in the fact that we are created to blossom, and the world needs the flowers we have to offer. I do not need to compete with the power of your flower; instead, I need to nurture my own nature and believe that God has called me to do just that. It’s time to stop thinking so much, step out with confidence, and act.

When in your life have you lacked confidence? When have you been able to blossom? Where in your life might you find opportunities to encourage younger generations of women, and men, in the art of confidence-building?


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Patchwork Road


I made a quick trip back to New Mexico this past week. For the first time, I found myself consciously viewing the area where I used to live from a visitor’s perspective. I actually stopped and took pictures at a number of points on the drive, in part with an eye to Instagram posts, but also from the perspective of capturing the amazing summer clouds. And, with my photographer’s eye “switched on,” I found myself noticing things that had not caught my attention when I lived in the area.

IMG_3009This patch of roadway between Lordsburg and Silver City caught my attention because of its patchwork nature. Like so many roads in this country, its rough spots have been patched over, to the point that, in some places, it actually looked like a patchwork quilt, complete with a different color trim.

This road represents, for me, our own life journeys. God lays the foundation, including the shoulders of the road. We come along and lay down other layers: our own agendas, hopes and dreams. These strata are comprised of everything from the food we eat to the moves we make. Then, over time, things happen: accidents and scrapes, cracks and bulges. Others come along and either increase the stresses on our journey or help us patch things over.

At some point, we must recognize that each of our journeys are not, fundamentally, ours at all. Each is laid upon a base—our bodies and souls—that was crafted by our Creator. Each is profoundly influenced by those we meet along the journey, who either help or hinder us along the way—as we also share our own patchwork contributions with others. Yes, we do our part to fashion our journey—but even the choices we make are influenced by the teaching and opinions of others. Just as the scraps in a traditional patchwork quilt are collected from a variety of sources and pieced into a new creation, our journeys are never ours alone.

Of course, this also means that we can look with delight—or sometimes chagrin—at the patchwork contributions we make to others’ roads. Our capacity for influencing others’ journeys comes with responsibility—for contributing patches instead of stresses, resurfacing instead of additional cracks.

Who have been the most significant patchwork contributors to your road? When have you been able to provide patches for others’ journeys? Have you taken time, then or later, to give thanks to God, and to those others, for their support?


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Unharvested Fruit


There’s no question; it’s hot here in southern Arizona. The temperature hits the century mark on a daily basis, and has even topped 115 degrees (Fahrenheit) a few days in the past couple of weeks. Even the early morning temperatures are already over 80, which makes morning walks quite warm, even at 5 am!

IMG_2988Some days I’m still walking—the desire to be outdoors trumps the discomfort. Depending on the route I take, I pass this little orange tree in the neighborhood. It’s still laden with oranges, months after they should have been harvested. I posted a picture of it on Instagram a few days ago and someone actually thought it was a peach tree, which makes sense from the colors, and a seasonal perspective, as peach trees are fruiting, at least in (relatively!) cooler climates.

But this tree remains unharvested. I have a hard time imagining what would keep its owners from picking the fruit. The oranges are perfectly reachable—unlike some grapefruit we saw in Puerto Rico in March, where the tree was probably over a hundred feet tall and perched on the side of a densely thicketed hillside. The house here appears to be occupied, as there are yard furniture and toys and such keeping the tree company. I do not know these folks, so I’m not about to walk up, ring the doorbell, and ask why they’ve let the fruit go to waste.

But I wonder. We can become oblivious to the growth around us. I can imagine—though I cannot understand—that the little orange tree could become strictly “ornamental” in the minds of the homeowners as they juggle two jobs, three kids, two dogs, and some crisis or another which consumes their energy and attention.

So I can only guess why this fruit was not harvested “in due season,” as scripture says. But I can also ponder the puzzle…and then make connections with seasons in my own life where, for one reason or another, I have left fruit unharvested. Literally, this occurred when I’ve had to move to another city in the midst of a growing season. Figuratively, spiritually, it happened when those moves caused me to leave a ministry behind in the midst of its fruiting season. When we left Massachusetts to move west, for example, I had to leave behind a number of people who had been seeing me for spiritual direction.

But there have also been times when, due to exhaustion or overwork, I have left fruit unharvested in various areas of my life. Sometimes I’ve recognized that I’m at a crossroads, where I must choose this fruit or that, because there simply is only one of me, and not enough time or energy to harvest every opportunity or experience I might wish to grasp. Of course, then, the question becomes whether the “low-hanging fruit” is the best choice, or whether stretching myself to harvest fruit that’s a bit harder to reach is of greater benefit.

And so…this week, I invite you to consider the fruit—literal and spiritual—that you’ve grown in your own life. When have you harvested, and when have you left fruit on the tree? When has there been too much to choose from, or the fruit is unreachable, or you’ve had to leave town in the midst of the growing season? Have there been times when you just haven’t noticed the fruit—where it just became ornamental, a backdrop on your unfolding life?


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Bloom Watch


As the weather has warmed to summer heat here in the desert, I’ve begun taking a morning walk that starts somewhere around 5:15–5:30 am. It’s best to get outdoors before the sun clears the mountaintops, or at least soon thereafter. I see a number of people as I wind my way through the neighborhood and along the walking trails which surround it. I also see birds, rabbits, and a colorful array of flowering and fruiting plants (if you want to see more of those, you can follow my Instagram account).

IMG_2951A couple of days ago, I returned from my walk and discovered this beauty in my own front yard. I swear that the buds appeared overnight—that there had been no sign of them the day before. One day the plant looked “normal,” then suddenly three inch-long buds had appeared. It bloomed later the same day. For some reason, many desert plants are like that. Flowers are “here today, gone tomorrow.” There’s even something called a bloom watch here because of the night-blooming cereus or Peniocereus greggii. As the common name indicates, it only blooms at night, and only blooms once a year. Furthermore, the plants are in some sort of synchronicity with each other, and that one bloom night happens for many adjacent plants. Tohono Chul Park makes a festival out of the occasion, and I’m hoping for the chance to experience it sometime soon.

But that “sudden” appearance of blossoms is deceiving. The cactus in my front yard has been preparing for this day for a while. Slow, inexorable internal changes wrought this “sudden” miracle—and the spiritual life is like that, too. It can often appear that nothing is happening—in our own lives, or in the lives of others. It can appear that we are living the same old routine, day after day. We walk, we work, we play, we pray, we eat, we sleep, we get up and do it all again.

Yet everything we do changes us. Work stimulates our brains and engages us with our communities. Play increases endorphins, food nourishes our bodies, sleep rejuvenates us—and prayer enriches our relationships with God and each other. The body that took a walk last week is not exactly the same body that’s reading this blog post. It may look the same, but it’s not. And neither are our souls.

This is why our spiritual lives matter. This is why it’s important to have a relationship with our Creator. We either nourish our spirits or we starve them. If we nourish them—even if it appears that nothing is happening—we will one day wake up to find ourselves in bloom, in one way or another. If you want to bloom, you will need to be patient, follow a spiritual discipline (or two), and keep watch.

How are you nourishing your soul? What might your own bloom watch look like?


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On Pinching Time Instead of Pennies


This past week I’ve struggled in various ways with how I spend my time. I’ve had a lot of client work lately, which is both a blessing and a challenge. It’s left me with a lot less time and energy to work on my personal goals for my current and future ministries.

I read once in a freelancing blog that scientists have discovered we are only at the “top of our game” for about four or five hours a day. That’s the peak time and energy that we have to devote to creative or detailed projects, where we need to pay particular and careful attention. When it comes to an eight (or nine, or ten) hour workday, chances are that the rest of the time is spent in meetings, on the phone, answering emails, and other types of less-focused activities. Now, we can sometimes push that focused time to eight hours a day when we’re working to meet a deadline, but we pay for it, energy-wise, later on.

In this season when I’m needing to balance personal work for my spiritually directed goals with work for my current editing clients, I’m faced with the fact that I just don’t have enough of that focused energy to give. For a few weeks, following the post where I celebrated the steps I had taken toward my personal goals, I found myself with a lot of energy to move those goals forward. I’d go back into my office in the evening (one definite advantage of a twenty-foot commute!) and dive into work on my SMART goals. I’d finish my load of client work and still be able to give focused attention to the projects I wanted to pursue.

But somewhere along the line, things began to shift. I emptied the energy well, and didn’t refill it. I found myself increasingly exhausted, and not able to focus or make progress if I went back into my office in the evening. After a certain period, I even found myself unable to concentrate during the day. I struggled with this, talked with my spiritual director, took it to prayer…and spent a lot of time feeling frustrated, lost, scattered, and overwhelmed.

And then a metaphor caught my attention. We are in the process of probably installing solar panels on the roof of our home. A site visit this week—to ascertain the capacity of our home and roof to handle the panels and assorted infrastructure—led to a conversation with Henry about the costs and benefits, and I found myself thinking about pinching pennies. As I climbed into bed that night, the concept of pinching time flitted through my head.IMG_2905

Pinching pennies is usually about saving money, or making our hard-earned cash work hard for us. I found myself wondering about what it might mean to pinch time. Certainly we can hoard time and waste time, just as we do money. I can waste time just fine if I’m not careful, posting on Instagram or Facebook and then following various pictures and posts down the proverbial rabbit hole. But I can also waste time by looking at a spiritual website (as I determine how I want—or don’t want—my own website to appear) and then follow their various links and posts and so on…until once again I’ve traveled far from my agenda. Theoretically it’s all related to my SMART goals and my need to know what other spiritual directors are doing online…but it’s not helping me to accomplish my tasks for the day.

So what might it mean for me to pinch time—and is that even a wise idea? First of all, my spiritual director and I agreed that it’s time to evaluate again all the things I’m wanting to do, and ascertain which ones are important and which must be released. I’ve got two potential situations in the next year where possible leadership or training commitments run smack-dab up against each other. I might well have to choose one or the other—or ask if there is any leniency on arrival or departure times—instead of saying I can do it all and booking a red-eye flight across the country.

But it’s also really difficult to say “no,” especially when everything has the potential to grow my spiritual ministry—and the problem in that sentence is with the word “everything.” I can’t do it all—can’t invest my time in it all—just like I can’t invest my money in everything. So it’s time to step back, take time (or make time!) to carefully assess the various agendas and goals in which I am investing my time. I must prayerfully ask for guidance about what is truly important—and then take time (make time!) to listen for some answers.

This is not easy work. Our culture bombards us with things we “should” be doing to further our goals, make more money, and “spend” our time. So in the coming days, I will be pinching my time—and paradoxically spending some of it in order to learn better how to most efficiently spend my time in the future.

How do you waste or hoard time? Have you ever taken your use of time to God in prayer? What might it look like for you to assess your ability to efficiently spend, or pinch, time?


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Spiritual Ripening


I don’t have a vegetable garden this year. There are a handful of reasons for this, including the move to our new home in December, the unfinished state of our backyard landscaping projects (specifically a drip irrigation system in need of significant overhaul or replacement), and a wealth of freelance work which has kept me so busy that I honestly haven’t missed the garden!

While I’m not nurturing my own plot of ground at this time, I have been paying attention to what’s happening around me. Our neighborhood is adjacent to grain and cotton fields, and I’ve been watching as farmers harvested a crop shortly after our arrival, cleared and tilled the land, and planted new crops that are making the fields appear greener every day. DSC_8351Those new plants are slowly, steadily ripening into fullness. At the same time, in the desert all around us, various cacti have also blossomed and their fruits are now slowly, steadily ripening in the summer heat.

In another type of ripening, this past week I finished another stage in the editing of a forthcoming book. The book quotes Jim Finley, who was talking once with Thomas Merton, his spiritual director, about the frustration he felt around his seemingly failed efforts to attain spiritual maturity. Merton’s response was, “How does an apple ripen? It just sits in the sun.” (This conversation is shared in the “Ripening” edition of Oneing if you want to read it for yourself.)

As I reflected on this idea of spiritual ripening, I thought about something posted this week in an online community to which I belong. Christianne Squires of Still Forming is leading us through a “Foundations” series “to explore, discern, and honor God’s personal invitations in your life.” She was talking about a paradigm shift, away from having (or, I’d add, seeking or craving or obsessing over) knowledge about God and the spiritual life and toward active participation in the natural shaping that comes with ongoing growth.

In essence, the book and the online community formed this week’s fertilizer, nurturing my own spiritual ripening process and helping me to think more deeply about whether and how I am open to God’s invitations for growth and maturity. Such fertilizer is present, all around us, but I think we don’t often take the time to absorb it into our souls, or sit in the metaphorical (and perhaps literal) sun in order to slowly integrate that fertilizer into our spiritual systems.

What would it look like for you to make regular time to ripen—each week, each month? What fertilizes your spiritual life and how do you draw that fertilizer into your system? How and when are you called to simply sit in the sun?

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