Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering

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Pointing the Way

I collect nativity sets. I don’t really remember how it started, or which one came first, but I’ve ended up with close to twenty of them, large and small. This week, we pulled a number of them out of boxes in the garage and set them up on the bar-height counter in our kitchen, where they can remind us of the Incarnation every time we walk through the house.

IMG_7063Like so much in this Advent season, these crèches are meant to point the way to the Christ child. They are representative interpretations of the scene on the night of Jesus’ birth, but each one is different. Some are very lifelike, while others are more abstractly representational. Many are decorated with the specific designs, clothing, and faces of the cultures where they were created. At this point, I have nativity sets from around the world, ranging from as far away as Africa and the Middle East (the one pictured here, which we picked up in Bethlehem in January) and as close as the Native American pueblos near where I grew up.

We are as different as these nativity sets, but each of us are created to point toward God, in our own way. Each of us are called, with Isaiah, to “prepare the way of the Lord.” We might be called to make paths straight, or rough places smooth, or to raise valleys and bulldoze down hills that prevent others from seeing and embracing the God of Love who came to live among us. We do this through our own lives, using the specific—even unique—blend of God-given gifts and human-cultivated skills that have made us the children of God that we are.

We might do this through crafting nativity sets or by composing letters to our congressional representatives. We could do this by volunteering at a shelter or fundraising in support of those less fortunate than ourselves. We can do this, day in and day out, with kind words, generous gestures, and simple acts that prove we believe every child on earth to be a child of God—and perhaps even Jesus in disguise.

How are you called to point the way, to concretely live out Christ’s Incarnation in this last full week of Advent?



Testifying to the Light

I’m spending these closing weeks of the year taking a mental step back from being “in the thick of things” with my work and ministry. I’ve felt overwhelmed at various times this year and, as I’ve noted, not everything has “worked out” as I imagined or hoped it would. I would like to feel more “in sync” with my work and ministry in 2018, so I am intentionally taking time to reflect, listen, pray, and ponder.

Some images and ideas are arising as a result. Interestingly, perhaps in part because of the work I’ve been doing for the online Advent retreat, the role of John the Baptist has been coming to mind. John 1:6–9 says that John the Baptist came to “testify to the light” that was coming into the world. It also says clearly that John was not the light; his job was to testify—to tell others about that Light of Christ.

Layout 1I’m finding this understanding to be in quite stark contrast to the marketing and business-growth information that I’ve received through multiple channels as I’ve worked to grow my business and ministry over the years. Everything is about getting your brand, your name, out in front of people, in an increasingly overcrowded market and cacophonous online world.

One of the realities that is arising to my awareness is a sometimes-overwhelming sense of exhaustion, perhaps from all that work of putting myself and my brands out there. I do have some results to show for it—but as I look back upon my expanding editing and writer-coach business, most of that expansion has come through word of mouth and connections, rather than any explicit marketing that I’ve been doing. It’s been less about me and more about how I’ve “showed up,” been present, and the quality of the work I’ve done.

I find it ironic that, for a handful of reasons, I still don’t have a live website—although one has been in the works for much of the year now. Perhaps it will be live by the end of the year. Despite that lack of what most marketers would consider a fundamental element of my business, I’m still getting work and opportunities are still arising.

I choose to believe this has happened because of the work of the Spirit. Because I consider my editing and writer-coach work to be a ministry, I believe that the Spirit is guiding that work, so that others can benefit from the gifts and skills given to me by God. It’s not about me—in that ultimate sense—and that’s how I’m making the connection with John the Baptist.

My work is not about me. In what I do most authentically, I am testifying to the Light of the World. My work is about assisting and supporting the work of my clients. God is blessing that ministry, and I am grateful.

Where in your life are you called to testify to the Light of the World?

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Advent Anticipation

Happy Liturgical New Year! Advent begins today. All around us, the pace of The Holidays threatens to overwhelm the intention of Advent, which is traditionally about waiting. Unless you’re remembering waiting in long retail lines, most of us tend to think about The Holidays as a time of busyness—filled with parties and gifts and travel plans—not the stillness that comes with waiting.

For what—or whom—are we waiting in Advent? The season is meant to be both a remembrance of awaiting the arrival of the baby Jesus and a looking forward to the adult Jesus coming again. Our perspectives, however, are colored by our distance from the events themselves.

When Mary was pregnant, only she and her family and friends were waiting—and she likely wasn’t sitting around while she waited. She had chores to do—though she might have wondered, as she chopped vegetables, whether baby Jesus’ eyes would turn brown or stay blue. Joseph might have had a cradle to fashion when time was slow at the carpenter’s shop. They had a Bethlehem trip to plan.

DSC_0587We, on the other hand, have the gift(?) of perspective. We have been hearing for years, perhaps for all of our lives, about the birth of Jesus. We know “how it all goes down”—or at least we know the stories that have come down to us about how Jesus’ birth came about: full inn and manger cradle, awestruck shepherds, gifts from unexpected wise men. We wait, and expect—but it’s harder to get our hearts and minds into the perspective that Mary and Joseph would have had: anticipation of the unknown.

On the other hand…the early church thought Jesus was “coming again” very soon—with a triumphal, transform-the-world agenda—but now two thousand years have passed. Here, we get closer to that anticipation of the unknown, because that second coming is all conjecture, no facts. Plus, while we wait, we also have things to do. Jesus gave us a commission, when he was here the first time: share my good news with all the world. It seems to me that’s enough to keep us occupied while we wait.

So, while you’re waiting in line, why not mention the “reason for the season”? Look deep inside, tap into your own anticipation about the coming of Christ, and share some good news with those around you, as the Holy Spirit gives you ability and opportunity.


Holy Imperfections

It’s been a challenging few days. I sent out an incorrect link in my “welcome to the Advent retreat” email…and it took me a day to figure that out. Then some Windows update deleted Bluetooth from my computer, and the fixes aren’t working, so we had to find an older mouse for me to use (fortunately, Henry doesn’t throw anything away!). In addition, someone had an accident and injured her leg, causing a group of three people to cancel our trip to Israel in January. We were still trying to find two more people to make the trip work (and the tour managers were gracefully giving us time to do that) but the loss of three meant the entire cancellation of the trip.

I could put a rosy spin on that last part, saying that at least we have clarity now (except, of course, I feel terrible for the person who hurt her leg!). But today, at least, I’m not inclined toward trying to hunt down rose-colored glasses. I’m disappointed that we won’t be leading a group to Israel. I’m tired, I’m sad, I’m ready for some more rest—despite the fact that I had a lovely, relaxing vacation in California last week.

Sitting down to write this post, I looked up at the calendar across from my desk and felt myself drawn into the landscape pictured there. A waterfall flows down a series of rocks to land in a pool, surrounded by quintessential fall foliage. It’s a “perfect” picture—but what drew my attention was the recognition that the imperfections in the series of rocks were what allowed the waterfall to descend in such an interesting fashion, filled with varying layers of white and charged with energy. Without those rock steps, each its own shape and size, the waterfall would have just been a clear creek, noiselessly descending the hillside.

DSC_9110It is the imperfections which make that photo work, and which draw us into the landscape. You can get a sense of what I mean with this photo, from my own collection, although it’s missing the vibrant autumn colors. Without the imperfect jumble of rocks, the waterfall would simply be a calm flow…not nearly as nice on the ear, or intriguing to the eye.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that imperfections like these—even mistakes and software bugs—make our days holy. If every day was “perfect,” we would come to take it all for granted, and miss the beauty inherent in the imperfections. So I’m ready to admit that I’m tired, that things aren’t going perfectly, and that disappointments happen. Those are rocks on the flow of life, creating an eye-catching waterfall that I can still appreciate, even from my place in the midst of it.

There will also be imperfections in the upcoming flow of The Holidays, for all of us. I invite you to join me in accepting them as part of life, and taking moments in the days ahead to recognize the beauty that arises out of imperfection.

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Giving Thanks for the Internet

My newest ministry adventure officially “goes public” today. Although Advent begins on December 2, my online retreat on Advent of Jesus through the Eyes of Others begins today. It begins before Advent because I wanted people to have time to get comfortable with the online format. Also, frankly, there’s a lot to cover in the coming eight weeks, and it was important not to overwhelm retreatants in this busy season by giving more than one meditation each week. So…as this retreat unfolds, and our country is focused on Thanksgiving (though Christmas already lurks around every corner!), I am giving thanks for the Internet.

It’s hard to believe that the Internet wasn’t even available to the general public (beyond educational and scientific institutions) until 1989, and the World Wide Web didn’t begin making an impact on our lives until the mid 1990s. It has become such a ubiquitous part of our lives that it’s hard to believe this technology has just left its teen years. Like any teenager, the Internet has seen a tumultuous adolescence, yet we have also benefitted richly as it—and we—have learned and grown.

If not for the Internet, I would not have a viable writing and editing livelihood. If not for the Internet, I would not have met leaders and teachers—and also “regular folks”—who inspire me. If not for the Internet, I would not have imagined taking my Advent retreat out of a physical retreat house and onto the world stage.

So here I am, giving thanks. I give thanks for those who have signed up to join me on this journey. (It’s not too late to join us, by the way. We will spend this first week getting to know each other, and understanding how this Internet technology will enable us to listen, reflect, and experience Advent together in new ways. Prior weeks’ retreat material will be available through January 13, so even if you’re reading this a couple of weeks after I post it, it’s not too late to join us!)

I give thanks for reliable electricity, which enables me to provide this opportunity to anyone else who also has regular access to electricity and the Internet (and I continue to pray for Puerto Ricans, the majority of whom are still living without electricity, almost two months after Hurricane Maria decimated the island).

I give thanks for those who have joined me on the various parts of my spiritual journey, teaching me as I grew and participating in earlier, in-person versions of retreats or quiet days on this topic. I give thanks for others who have offered online retreat experiences, showing me what is possible and shining light on the path I am now walking.

I also give thanks for time beyond the Internet. Balance is key with all aspects of our lives. This past week I have been on vacation in southern California, enjoying time away from the Internet—though, of course, being a freelancer, some work has raised its hand for my attention, and I’ve been grateful for Internet accessibility so I can serve my clients’ needs, write this blog post, and then take a break to walk along the beach!

How has the Internet impacted your spiritual life—including and beyond the ability to read this and other spiritual blogs? For what do you need to give thanks this week?


Giving Thanks in All Circumstances

“The Holidays” are upon us. In America, this has become a season of high expectations and multiple assumptions about happiness, parties, and gift-giving. Decorations are mandatory, cheer is obligatory, a full schedule of “holiday” events seems inevitable.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd yet…there is much happening in our country, and our world, that does not easily make for joy. We have wars and rumors of wars. We have refugees, asylum-seekers, and displaced people seeking the very basics of food, clothing and shelter, all around the world. We have climate change and natural disasters, drought and shortages of food, clothing and shelter. We have #MeToo and political scandals and leadership priorities more in line with ancient imperial Rome than with Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus tells us to love our neighbor. Paul, his apostle, tells us to give thanks in all circumstances. How do we do this, when so much is hard, sharp, bitter and tragic?

The word that is welling up in me is “abide.” I have a friend and fellow spiritual guide who has had this word on her license plate for many years. It is a many-years, long-term word. It means to remain, to dwell (the Psalmist tells God, “Let me abide in your tent forever”). It means to continue, await, endure. It also means to obey, observe, and follow, as in rules or disciplines (“I will abide by this decision”). It means to uphold, to accept, to adhere to. It means to persevere, no matter how difficult the situation.

As I recall, this friend chose this word because of Julian of Norwich, the medieval English mystic. Julian wrote of God abiding in our soul and Christ abiding with us through any pain or suffering we might endure. Julian assures us that, through that abiding, we are eventually healed.

This doesn’t mean the healing will be instantaneous, or that it will take the form that we wish. Julian’s most famous quote, “All shall be well,” is now often used as a trite reassurance, allowing us to avoid the difficulties of “now” to focus on a future when all is well. But that is not her point. “All shall be well” was not what Julian said; it was what God says to her—and to us. Julian herself questions how “every kind of thing should be well.” Living in a period when Norwich endured successive rounds of plague and famine, Julian understood how devastation and fear could reach into every level of society.

Within that challenging social reality, Julian learned to abide. She learned to trust that long-term perspective and to share it with others—and so must we. As she preached to those who came to her, seeking counsel in tough times, Christ holds that long-term view, and assures us that all will be well.

So, when the “holidays” are challenging, and the news is difficult, what shall we do? Abide. One way to do that is to follow the Apostle Paul’s advice: pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances (I Thessalonians 5:17–18). Give thanks for having fresh air to breathe (and pray for the urban Chinese), clean water to drink (and pray for Puerto Ricans), and plenty of food, clothing and shelter (and pray for those still displaced or homeless by war, floods, and fires). Give thanks for family (and pray for those who “push your buttons”) and friends (and pray for those who struggle during this holiday season).

I could go on, but you get the point. Find your way to pray, and to abide. Find your way to understand that, in God’s long-term view, we are called to abide in Christ (John 15). As we do so, we live into the ability to give thanks—not just on Thanksgiving, but in every day of the year.


Green Autumn

It’s November and I’m still wearing shorts. This living in the Sonoran Desert is still taking some getting used to, almost two years after we moved here. DSC_7053This year, more than last, I find myself missing the brilliant autumn leaves of my years in New England—perhaps especially as I see them posted by friends on Instagram. So I’ve been posting some of my own favorites, last week and this, culled from photos taken on trips back to New England since we left.

On the other hand, I really don’t like cold weather, so I’m happy to still be wearing shorts. It’s a bit of a catch-22; I love watching snow fall outside the window of a warm house, but don’t enjoy bundling up to go out in it. The beauty of the seasons involves much that is gorgeous when viewed from a distance, but not as much fun when we’re out in it—especially when we’re responsible for raking up all those leaves once they leave the trees behind.

So I find myself—bottom line—appreciating life in the Sonoran Desert. We can go visit family and friends in colder climates without being responsible for raking leaves or shoveling snow. There’s a saying here that expresses the feelings of a lot of “snowbirds”: you can’t shovel sunshine.

Leaves still fall here, though not always in autumn. Some fall after the rains cease. Others seem to be kicked off their branches by next year’s growth. Leaves do have their season; even evergreen pine needles do eventually fall—though some have a lifespan of five or more years.

And so I look outside my office window, admiring how the sun illuminates the tiny green leaves of our mesquite trees and learning to live more fully into this green autumn.

What realities about your own life are you learning to accept more fully? What aspects of the seasons speak to you?