Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering

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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….

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Lenten Lessons: Manufacturing Millstones

For my Lenten blog posts this year, I’m going to focus on some of what I saw and learned during our travels to the Holy Land in January, and the lessons I’ve learned and connections I’ve made as I’ve pondered. My own Lenten discipline this year is to read a chapter of a gospel each day and take the time to reflect on and write about what arises. It’s my own way of cultivating my roots, as well as making a deeper connection with the holy land I visited and the events that happened there.

I have started with the Gospel of Mark, which scholars say was the first to be written. Mark 2:1 particularly caught my attention because it says Jesus returned to Capernaum and “it was reported that he was at home.” It caught my attention because so often I think of Jesus as “Jesus of Nazareth.” That’s the way I’ve been taught to think of him. If I think further, ponder more deeply, I might think about his connection with Bethlehem, and the lineage of David. But I honestly had not thought of him as “Jesus of Capernaum”…until now.

It turns out that Capernaum is, indeed, the hometown Jesus chose for his ministry. Matthew makes this clear in 4:1213, where it says that Jesus “left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum” after John was arrested—perhaps the point when Jesus realized that it was time for him to take over where his cousin left off. When we traveled in Galilee, we were taught that Capernaum is part of the Gospel Triangle: the three towns of Capernaum, Chorzin, and Bethsaida, all clustered on or near the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. This was Jesus’ home territory.

dsc_8778cOne thing that was difficult to miss when we visited Capernaum were these millstones. Galilee is a rocky place with a volcanic past. Its fertile fields produced abundant grain, which would need to be processed. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Capernaum became a millstone manufacturing town. The stones, and the need, were both right there. In addition to fishing, Capernaum was known for its millstones.

Which is also why it would be perfectly natural for Jesus to come up with this saying (Matthew 18:6): “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” I can just imagine him, pointing toward a nearby millstone manufacturing site, then out toward the Sea of Galilee.

Context illuminates and enriches our understanding—in large and small ways.

I suppose calling him Jesus of Nazareth is not unlike calling me “Shirin of Albuquerque,” since that’s where I was raised. But I live in Arizona and much of my ministry years were spent in Boston. I’ve returned to and taught in Albuquerque—it is part of who I am, but it is not the whole. And if I were to come up with a parallel saying today, it might be something like this: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if you were taken far out into the Sonoran Desert in June and abandoned without food, water, or compass.”

So my questions for you today are these: Who are you—in terms of home territory? What cities or towns are woven into the fabric of your life? How do they inform your understanding, your stories, your own sayings? How would you contextualize Matthew 18:6 in a way that your local hearers would viscerally understand?


Walking Paths of Righteousness

Did you know that over 80% of the US population now lives in urban areas? This means that the vast majority of us do not see fields or flocks around us on a regular basis. We have no natural frame of reference for the agrarian life, which also means that we are increasingly disconnected from many of the images used in the Bible.

As I’ve said before, Jesus came from a tiny town in a rural area of Galilee. Herds of goats, flocks of sheep, and fields of grain, grapes, and olives would have surrounded the village of Nazareth. Naturally, these provided many of the images that Jesus used to illustrate his spiritual teachings and ground his parables in a world his listeners could understand.

This also means it can be more challenging for us to connect with those teachings, parables, and images. Fortunately, there are modern teachers and researchers who can dig into that agrarian history and interpret those images for us. There are also people who still live that agrarian lifestyle, in the holy land, and they also can contribute to our understanding.

Take, for example, the concept of the “path of righteousness” that is mentioned a handful of times in Hebrew Scripture. Proverbs 12:28 (NRSV) tells us that “in the path of righteousness there is life, in walking its path there is no death.” Proverbs 2:20 instructs us to “walk in the way of the good, and keep to the paths of the just.” Now, when I envisioned this path as a child, I found myself thinking of a single, narrow path, wending its way through dense forest, similar to the one I imagined Little Red Riding Hood traversing on her way to Grandma’s house.

dsc_9705e-paths-of-righteousnessWhile in Israel last month, I learned that my childhood vision couldn’t have been further from the truth. Rather than being a guiding way through dense forest, the paths of righteousness are a bunch of well-worn, often parallel paths that sheep and goats have worn into steep, barren hillsides. Once these paths are tramped down by many hooves (and a few shepherds’ feet), it is possible for the entire herd to safely walk along steep mountainsides without falling—literally—into the valley of the shadow of death.

You see, the path of righteousness is not something to be sought out and carefully followed because you might otherwise lose your way—as in a dense European forest. Instead, the lesson is about following the way of those who have trod it before you because it provides a narrow, stable surface upon which you can walk without twisting your ankle or falling down the mountainside.

Spiritually speaking, then, The Way (which was also the earliest name for the Christian path) is a path which Jesus and his disciples have walked, a path that safely leads to spiritual sustenance and growth: green grass, pure water, a safe haven. It involves paying attention to the traditional ways in which your spiritual mothers and fathers have walked, and following the path they have laid down as they walked their own journey.

Lent, which begins this Wednesday, is one such spiritual path. I invite you to ponder how you might tap into the legacy of the paths of righteousness, in Scripture and your own religious tradition, as you determine how you will observe this season of sustenance and growth in your spiritual life.

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Cultivating Roots

A month ago I was in Israel. It seems both like yesterday and a very long time ago. A lot has happened in the past month, including “choking on the freelance firehose,” which is how I described the current flow of my workload to a couple of people this past week.

But Israel is showing up, even in the midst of a very full schedule. I’ve had some illuminating conversations this week as I continue to live into the idea of leading a group of people on a pilgrimage to that holy land. Those conversations have reminded me that the theme of the spiritual aspect of my work—Cultivating Roots and Wings—ties very well into such a “mobile retreat,” as I find myself thinking of it.

Cultivating has a variety of definitions, ranging from loosening and preparing soil for planting to fostering growth or improving through labor, care, and study. All of these apply when it comes to considering a pilgrimage. So often, our spiritual ground becomes hard and dry. This could be because we don’t tend to it, allowing our spirit to dry out, or because we tread the same ground in the same way, day after day, creating a pathway so dense that little can sprout there. Treading the same ground might look like saying the same prayers, over and over, until we no longer pay attention to the words and their meanings. It could also mean showing up at church, week after week, and focusing on the social aspects or our leadership duties rather than worship of our beloved Creator.

dsc_1664Cultivating this hard, dry ground requires time and attention. One good way to do that is to experience the “same old ground” in a new way, which is what happened to me when I went to Israel. I’d seen a lot more photographs of southern Israel, which is dry and parched, as you can see here, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found. I had no idea that Galilee, in the north, was so much more green and fertile, as you can see in the picture from my post two weeks ago. In fact, the land around the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus lived for the majority of his ministry, is some of the most fertile soil in the entire world! Is it any wonder, then, that so many of Jesus’ parables had agrarian themes? I also now, finally, understand why scripture says that, when Jesus fed the five thousand, he had them sit down in groups on the green grass!

Cultivating roots also means fostering spiritual growth, and traveling through Israel certainly did that for me. I had diligently worked to “improve” my spiritual understanding through study, prior to our trip. Some of that study resulted in blog posts that I shared, both here and on Ordinary Mystic. Being in the holy land, however, took that spiritual growth to another, deeper level. From simple things like a new understanding of the “paths of righteousness” (explication of that will have to wait for another day!) to standing in the subterranean cell where Jesus probably spent the night before he was crucified (again, more on that later), I feel my soul-level comprehension of Scripture was truly, deeply cultivated during my week in the holy land.

Being a spiritual guide, naturally I want to share that with all of you! I will share, more and more, in the weeks ahead, on this blog and eventually through other offerings. But I also want to provide the chance for some of us to walk together—literally—upon holy ground. So I am having conversations about gathering a group of pilgrims for a mobile retreat in Israel, perhaps next January. I invite you to consider whether you might want to join me in this life-changing experience.

Meanwhile, take a moment to consider where and how your own spiritual life might need cultivating in this season. Lent is only ten days away; are you considering some sort of Lenten commitment? Perhaps you might integrate the concept of cultivation into the choices you make for drawing closer to your Creator during Lent.

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Becoming St. Valentine

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. Do you have big plans? Have you ordered the flowers, picked up the chocolates, made dinner reservations at a special restaurant?

img_4725I have a proposal for you—in light of my blog post last week about refugees and immigrants. What if, instead of spending money on yourself and your beloved, you were to take that $20 or $50 or $100 and donate it instead to an organization that’s supporting the refugees and immigrants in our midst today?

That type of action would be much more in keeping with the tradition of St. Valentine, whose holy day has been warped beyond all recognition by our culture, starting all the way back in medieval times. There is practically nothing historically known about St. Valentine, but tradition states that he restored the vision of a judge’s blind daughter and thereby converted the judge’s family to the Christian faith. Bringing healing to a young girl who was living without hope seems far more in line with Jesus’ ministry than the traditions of courtly love or giving flowers and candy to people who have plenty of worldly goods.

How might you make Valentine’s Day a celebration of self-giving love? If my idea about a donation doesn’t suit you, choose another, but be intentional about living in the spirit of the day, rather than the cultural norms for the day. Bring hope to the hopeless and become St. Valentine to someone else this week.


Refugees and Immigrants

Henry has a great old t-shirt that lists all the immigrants and refugees named or described in the Bible. The list is quite long. One of the most well-known, of course, is Jesus himself. He and his parents were political refugees who fled Palestine shortly after his birth because King Herod was seeking to take his life. Given all the uproar over immigrants in this country right now, I find myself wondering what type of reception the infant Jesus and his blue-collar parents would receive if they were to show up today on our southern border with just a donkey and one meager equivalent of a suitcase (Matthew 2 says they fled directly from Bethlehem to Egypt, so Joseph probably didn’t even have his carpenter’s tools with him).

Having to suddenly flee for fear of your life must have been an incredibly wrenching experience—especially following so immediately on the “high” of the wise men’s visit. Joseph and Mary probably felt a strong case of spiritual whiplash: One minute, they’re on top of the world, with a healthy new baby and some rich visitors bringing strong spiritual encouragement and unusual, expensive gifts; the next minute, they’re fleeing into the unknown with their infant’s life at stake.

Take a moment to reflect on what Joseph and Mary must have felt with this sudden reversal in fortune. I can easily imagine shock, fear, despair, helplessness. They had no power in comparison with King Herod and all of his soldiers and governmental bureaucrats, who really didn’t care who was affected by the king’s order; they were just worried about keeping their own jobs.

Now, take a moment to remember that something very similar actually happened to a lot of refugees and immigrants this very week, with the sudden implementation of Trump’s immigration ban on anyone entering the US from seven Arab countries. Imagine the feelings of political refugees who had finally, after months or years of intense investigation and uncertainty, been awarded refugee status. They probably felt just as much of a “high” as Mary and Joseph—and then suddenly they land on US shores and are told they can’t stay. There were immigrants who had visas and green cards who, despite their legal status, were also suddenly being turned away at the border. How could they not also feel shock, fear, despair, helplessness?

dsc_8553c-galilee-hillsJesus grew up to teach and preach to the marginalized, the oppressed, and the nameless victims of the powerful. No doubt, as he sat on a hillside in Galilee—just like this one—telling parables to his fellow Jews, he sometimes thought of the stories that his own parents had told him about those frightening days after his birth, when they literally had to run for their lives. He probably also remembered stories from Mary and Joseph about those who helped them out along the way, providing shelter, directions, a bit of food or encouragement. Jesus’ family wouldn’t have made it without the help of others—and perhaps those others became his role models for people like the Good Samaritan.

What resonates for you in all of this? What challenges you? How are you called to act in response to our own unfolding global refugee and immigrant story?