Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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My 2016 Lenten Commitment


One morning last week, in prayer, I was reflecting on my reconnection with poetry and realized that I needed some way to integrate personal writing into my life. I’ve been so busy lately, with our move and an abundance of editing work, that I have made no time for my own writing—except for these blogs. Having a Saturday-night deadline each week has made me write—and that is good. What I needed, I realized, was an external structure to assist me in forming an internal poetry habit.IMG_2168

Then it came to me: this is my Lenten discipline for 2016. Those of you who have been following me for a while know that my 2014 Lenten discipline was a life-changing fast from processed sugar. The external structure of a Lenten fast enabled me (in the best sense of that word!) to give up something that was, in essence, a primary way I avoided turning to God in my life. Rather than prayerfully spending time with God when I was tired, or hungry, or unhappy, I reached for the chocolate.

This year, I am choosing to take on something rather than give up something. While our cultural understanding of Lent generally focuses on a “fast,” like giving up coffee or chocolate, the goal of a Lenten discipline is to draw us closer to God. This means that we can think broadly, and creatively, when it comes to choosing a Lenten discipline.

So why is writing poetry a good Lenten discipline for me? In part, it is good because I have received from my Creator a facility with words that needs to be shared. Using our God-given gifts is one way that we draw closer to God. Another reason is that I will need to take time each day to slow down, pay attention, and let the Spirit show me something worth writing about. In this way, I will turn my attention toward God an additional time each day.

So this year I will write, in order to enrich my writing life and grow my relationship with God. What will you do, in this Lenten season, to grow your own relationship with God?

Sharing a Lenten discipline with others helps us to make that commitment and stick with it. I invite you to share your own Lenten commitment, here in the comments below, or with someone else you know and trust.


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Reconnecting with Poetry


Yesterday I attended a writing workshop—something I haven’t made time for in a while. It was held in an older part of Tucson, and we had access to a nice backyard where, during the meditative writing time,IMG_2165 crop I found myself inspired by a monumental prickly pear cactus. Using this phrase from Abraham Joshua Heschel as inspiration, the following poem flowed from my fingertips and I offer it for your own inspiration.

Can a flower, worlds away from the source of energy, attain a perception of its origin?

Taller than the greenhouse,

Reaching past the power lines,

Seeking power greater

Than that of human origin

Branching testimony to years of steady

Sturdy

Silent growth.

Olive green

Reaching outward

Juicy and yet well-defended

Slowly giving way to brown,

Dry,

Bark-like stiffness.

Age supporting youth

Rough foundation sustains a fleshy beauty

Not without its own

White-speckled imperfections.

We have never lived in one place long enough to

Grow cacti large enough for trees.

What do we gain with these constant moves?

Diversity

Abundance

Experiences

Memories

And somewhere on Foraker Street

Four houses ago

A prickly pear we planted

Continues to rise toward the sun.

We may never see its maturity

But someone else will feast eyes upon its

Steady

Sturdy

Silent growth

And begin to understand.


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Taking the Longer View


When it comes to writing posts for this blog, I will often take time to become still and listen to what rises to my awareness out of the experiences of the past week. As I listened in preparation for this post, what came to mind was a conversation I had with my spiritual director. It was our first conversation since my move, and our first time in many years (perhaps ever?) to meet by phone rather than in person.

That long-distance meeting is the “new normal” for many relationships in my life. While I have intentions of traveling back to Silver City to meet with people in person, I have not yet been able to carve out the time to do so, for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons have to do with the fact that a move doesn’t just “happen” on a single day. While we slept in this new-to-us house for the first time on December 18, we are nowhere near being “moved in,” with lots of boxes squirreled away in closets and corners (two under my desk) IMG_2158and lots of pictures leaning against walls as we slowly discern what we wish to place where.

There are many things which take time to truly integrate into our lives. Marriage is a good example. Henry and I were married on May 29 (over 20 years ago), but it took us months to truly become a married couple. There was lots of adjusting to thinking like a couple, lots of sorting through duplicate household items, lots of developing relationships with family on both sides.

In my recent conversation with my spiritual director, I mentioned that I’d found myself telling people that January was “nesting month”—but the fact of the matter is that we’re more than halfway through the month and I’m nowhere near nested! She wisely suggested that I might want to consider all of 2016 to be a “nesting season.”

She’s got a point. I could feel myself relaxing as I simply considered the possibility of taking that long view. My editing work has been nonstop since the new year started, and there are so many things I’d like to do around the house that just aren’t happening. So…what if that was okay, and even good? Our culture, which fosters instant gratification in this digital age, could certainly benefit from everyone taking the time to allow rather than push. I find that I’m looking forward to seeing how things will unfold in this season, trusting that the nesting will happen, on many levels, in the weeks and months ahead.

In what aspects of your own life might you need to take the longer view? Whether it’s “nesting” or some other image, where in your life could you benefit from not rushing things, but rather allowing them to unfold?


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The Gift of Emptiness


One of the Christmas gifts we received this year was a very thoughtful gift of time and energy from my sister and brother-in-law. They offered their time to help with our move. We decided that we really needed their help, not during the week of the move itself, but rather to help us move the accumulation of three trailer-loads of stuff that we had put in storage in Tucson during our house-hunting, inspecting, and signing trips. So my family is with us this weekend, and the three storage units are now empty.

Have you ever thought of emptiness as a gift? These storage units used to be filled with boxes of books, art, my grandma’s china, outdoor tables and chairs, yard art, storage shelving, craft supplies, and what felt like a million other things. Now they are empty…and that means that we finally have everything all in one house (and yard) again.

“Everything” is also less than it used to be. We did take the time to sort through a lot of our belongings during the process of this move. We donated kitchen gadgets, clothing, and other items that we weren’t using to the church’s annual bazaar back in November. I gave away a bunch of art supplies to an artist friend, and Henry shipped eight boxes of books to his high school’s library, which is looking to expand its theological holdings.

Letting go of the “stuff” that doesn’t give us joy is a phrase that is taking some segments of America by storm these days. On Facebook I’ve read about a number of friends who are using Marie Kondo’s philosophy, outlined in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, to let go of the excess clutter in their lives and create some positive empty space. She’s tapped into a serious problem, which is that too many of us have, to some extent or other, bought (literally) into the idea that the more we have, the better off we are—in terms of status, wealth, success, or whatever.

One of the great ironies—and the source of another gift we received with this move—is that my granddad was one of the first to recognize that Americans were buying up more than they could store in their homes. Perhaps because he built houses for a living, he saw that people were having a difficult time finding room to put everything they owned. Way back when (and I don’t know when that was), he and a friend approached a bank for a loan to build something new: a self-storage business. The bank wasn’t as forward-thinking; they didn’t understand the need and refused them the loan. So my granddad and his partner self-financed the construction of one of the first self-storage businesses in Tucson. It was in three of those storage units that Henry and I were able to store our belongings during this transition time.

Emptiness is not always a good thing; it depends on the circumstances. Empty bellies plague too many of our schoolchildren, making focus difficult in the classroom and limiting their physical and psychological growth. But far too many of us—including, I suspect, everyone reading this blog—are plagued with the opposite problem: the accumulation of more than we can reasonably handle or enjoy. And so I ask: Is there a need for more emptiness in your life? What might the gift of emptiness look like for you, and how might you get there?


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One-Hundred-Percent Coverage


Sometimes the little things catch our attention, opening a window on a wider topic or point of view. (Sometimes that process also takes us along some unexpected twists and turns!) That happened for me this past week, after I spoke with our insurance company and learned that, here in Arizona, we will have 100% coverage for the window glass on our cars. This was how auto insurance coverage worked when we lived in Massachusetts, but in New Mexico there was a significant deductible for our auto glass coverage—with the same company! I am grateful to be returning to “complete coverage,” given the number of rocks that have hit our windshields over the past decade. While not all of those rocks have caused cracks or holes that had to be repaired, it happened often enough to leave me frustrated.

Another piece to this attention puzzle is a pair of small spiritual poetry books that I edited this past week. The author was reflecting on solitary time in a wilderness canyon, and I found myself captured, over and over, by how her reflections began with a single moment or idea and expanded to cover enormous swaths of both internal and external territory. I have had other work clamoring for my attention, but found myself putting these books first because I wanted to return to the many gifts she was offering, spawned by deep, intentional prayer time spent in a silent, sacred place.

Complete coverage. The concept caught my attention on a variety of levels. Cell phone companies tout their coverage maps, but none of them promise coverage for every place in the country, much less our world. Floodwaters in the Midwestern US are currently wreaking havoc, spreading polluted waters indiscriminately, without regard for maps or boundaries. The poet whose work I’m editing wrote eloquently about how rain-generated floodwaters were violently reshaping canyon landscapes and noted, “We will need to redraw the maps.”

Our awareness coverage of our own landscapes, external and internal, is patchy at best. In fact, a patchwork attention-quilt feels like a good metaphor for how we live our lives. For example, while at work in my office in rural New Mexico, my attention was most often diverted by the weather rolling across the mountains and the wildlife flying or traipsing through our yard. Here in suburbia, my attention is now captured by the sound of airplanes, souped-up truck engines, and children walking home from school. Nature is still present, of course, but my patchwork attention is now being diverted.

God does not hand out updated maps, because God’s coverage is total. There is nothing that happens outside of the boundaries of grace and love. That doesn’t mean that “bad” things don’t happen; it means instead that grace and love form a solid blanket of complete coverage, over everything, in the midst of everything, whether it be polluted floodwaters in the drenched Midwest or an abundance of precious rain redrawing water channels in the parched desert.IMG_1671

However, at some level, we must pay attention. We must request God’s coverage in order to open ourselves to receive the full benefit. When the rocks of life, flung at us by passing experiences, cause cracks and holes in the fragile glass framing our lives, we must call upon our Creator, whose coverage is complete and unsurpassed. Whether it’s a quick cry of desperation as we reach out for someone being swept away by floodwaters or a more measured prayer for perspective in the midst of despair or loss, we are covered. We need only to reach out.

Are you reaching out, in prayer, in some way, amidst the varied experiences in your life? Are you trusting in that complete coverage of grace and love? How might you, in this new year, make a new commitment to expanding your patchwork attention and embracing God’s complete coverage?


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Gifts


This moving process has given us many gifts. We have received various types of gifts, including more boxes and packing material than we needed (so we were able to gift others with the excess), friends to help when the packing seemed overwhelming, and lots of laughs along the way to lighten the load.

One of the gifts that was most surprising—although perhaps it should not have been—came from our new-to-us next-door neighbors. The first time that we had a few moments to speak with each other (as they came out to get the mail and we were unloading a truckload of boxes), the wife ran indoors and came back out with a box, bag, and card—Christmas and welcome gifts. The box contained some fancy candies (and yes, I broke my fast and enjoyed one), the Christmas card included their names and contact info (invaluable for overwhelmed neighbors who are meeting many new people at the same time), and the bag contained lemons from the tree in their back yard (certain proof that I’m not in New Mexico anymore!).IMG_2086c

These folks don’t know us. In fact, the card was addressed “To Our New Neighbors.” But that didn’t matter. What mattered was welcoming these new strangers—us—into the neighborhood. What mattered was doing the right thing. As our country is struggling on a nationwide level with whether to welcome strangers—refugees—into our midst, it really touched my heart that these neighbors had prepared a gift without any concern for who we were, what group we might belong to, or where we had come from.

The wise men who traveled to Bethlehem also sought to welcome a completely unknown stranger. They had no idea who Jesus was. When they began their journey, they didn’t know his race, nationality, creed, or culture. They just knew that God had placed a star in the east and they needed to follow that star and bring gifts. The fact that Jesus and his parents would soon become refugees—who might well need to sell the gold to pay for lodging in Egypt—was of no concern to these leaders. What mattered was doing the right thing.

What does it mean in your life, in this new year, to welcome the stranger? What does it mean, right now, in your particular situation, to do the right thing?


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Exhaustion


I’m exhausted from the move, from days on end of doing everything from packing, carrying, and unpacking boxes to stopping and starting utilities, scheduling trash pickup, learning how to use a new microwave, etc., etc. I haven’t had a Sabbath day of rest in far too long. IMG_2087Part of it is an intense inward desire to get the boxes out of the house, and we’ve already taken a big stack of them to U-Haul, which has a box reuse program. But the fact remains that I haven’t made time to sit still in what feels like—and probably has been—weeks.

This has brought me a different perspective on Christmas. We seldom think about how exhausted Mary must have been in the days following the birth of Jesus. She and Joseph had traveled 75 miles along dry and dusty roads. Mary had experienced the stress of giving birth, without her mother or other family members around to help her, in a strange place…in a dirty stable!

Yet the beat goes on. Things keep happening. Joseph wouldn’t have wanted to linger too long in Bethlehem, because every day away was a day of income lost in his carpenter shop back home. At this point, I imagine he would already have stood in line to register the family of three in the Emperor’s census. Today Henry is doing something that is, in one sense, similar. Through baptism, he is enrolling our first great-grandson in an eternal census: that of the Children of God. A much more joyous occasion—and also another busy day in a long string of busy days. I don’t regret it, and I’m glad for the opportunity to be present for this baptism—but I also recognize within myself a deep need for rest.

I have found some moments to rest—on the airplane, for example. Perhaps Mary found moments to rest as she recovered from her labor, and began to learn how to live with a child at her breast. I hope that they were able to get a room in the inn as other folks finished their census duties and moved on.

You also might be needing some recovery time from a busy holiday season. Whether you traveled 75, or 750, or 7 miles, or stayed home and hosted 7 additional friends and family, you might also need some rest. In fact, you might be reading this while still surrounded by lots of family and friends.

So how might you find moments to recover from the exhaustion of the holidays? What would feed your soul, help you find a bit of rest, in the midst of this busy Christmas season?

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