Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering

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roadrunner 2 DSC_1785The New Mexico state bird is the roadrunner, a member of the cuckoo family that can run up to twenty miles per hour across our vast desert landscapes, chasing down dinner in the form of everything from insects and spiders to lizards and even immature rattlesnakes. I’ve always enjoyed seeing roadrunners, whether running along the road or, just the other day, harassing the quail under our birdfeeders in the back yard.

We seldom hear them call out with anything like a song, but they will clack their beaks together in a chattering sound that carries quite a distance. When upset or threatened, they will raise a crest of feathers on the top of their heads, exposing a bright orange spot of skin beside their eyes.

The commuter rail system in central New Mexico is called the Rail Runner in honor of this unique local bird. The train winds its way along the Rio Grande valley between the southern suburbs of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, the state capital. Traveling by Rail Runner is a lovely way to imitate this seemingly earthbound, road-loving creature.

IMG_0624Out on our hike a couple weeks ago, I saw another, much more ephemeral, version of the roadrunner. As we made our way along the trail, my friend looked up at the clouds above us and declared that a roadrunner had taken to the skies. Sure enough, I could easily see the long beak, distinctive feathered crest, and running legs in the clouds above us.

The image has stuck with me. I’ve found myself wondering what this skyrunner has to say to me. Is it as simple as “become a child again and enjoy the shapes made by clouds,” or as profound as “let go of the stuff of earth and fly free in the heavens”? Roadrunners seldom fly; they prefer to walk or run. However, they will fly when they need to, and they construct their nests above ground, often in the safety of our abundant cacti.

Isn’t it the same with us? We can fly free—at least metaphorically—but we usually prefer the “safety” of staying connected with the earth. When it comes to the safety of our children, though, we are often willing to dare things we would otherwise avoid. Of course, the concept of “children” can also be taken metaphorically; whether it’s birthing a book or a painting, a new invention or a new way of doing business, there are times in our lives when we choose, and dare, to fly.

Perhaps that is the message from this skyrunner: don’t be afraid to fly. Don’t be afraid, when the situation warrants it, to leave the safety of earth and spread your wings. Trust in God, trust in the beautiful creature you are, and fly!

When in your life have you dared to fly? Where in your life, right now, might you be called upon to spread your wings and take to the skies?

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Another Deceiving Appearance

Last week I talked about some animals with deceiving appearances. Today I’m pondering another such instance—this time a plant. IMG_1751I was giving a friend a tour of my garden and explaining how raspberry plants fruit on second-year canes. When I pointed out a second-year cane, with its brown stem and peeling bark, she couldn’t believe that it would be the fruiting cane, especially in comparison with the vibrant green stalks of the first-year canes. Perhaps for her, the vibrant green represented youthful vigor and life, and a lively branch would seem, logically, to be the one to bear fruit.

American culture certainly makes similar presumptions. The vitality and energy of youth are celebrated in everything from business deals to car ads, while those who are older are either the butt of jokes or the target of pharmaceutical ads that focus on ways to regain that youthful vigor. Anyone over “a certain age” who has tried to get a new job has experienced the ageism that exists in American society today. Street smarts and book learning are valued much more highly than the wisdom gained through experience in the “school of hard knocks.”

Yet it is that life experience which, in many cases, makes the wisdom of our elder generations worth hearing, pondering, and integrating into our own lives. Those of us in the “second half of life” (whether that is defined by age or by the depth of our life experiences) have powerful wisdom to share. The fruit of our life experience is much richer and more nutritional than the fruit from the first half of life. Like those raspberry canes, it is only those that survive into the second half of life that bear “fruit that will last” (John 15:16).

Do you value the wisdom of those in the second half of life? If you feel you are in the second half of life, do you value your own wisdom? Do you find ways to share the fruit of your experience, in ways that will last?

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Dung Beetles and Horned Toads

IMG_0606My friend and I have enjoyed seeing some pretty interesting critters on our recent hikes. One day we watched a pair of iridescent dung beetles rolling balls of horse dung along our path. While for us those balls are smelly waste, for the beetles they are both dinner and the perfect baby incubators. What we carefully avoid when we encounter it on our hiking path, these beetles joyously cart away and consume. After all, this dung is even round; they don’t have to reshape it before they can transport it!

IMG_0619Another week we saw four different diminutive horned toads on a single hike. We decided it must be “coming out” season for these tiny relatives of the lizard, as these definitely seemed smaller than the standard adults we’d seen at other times. With their rounded torsos and spine-studded skin, they don’t look like your average lizard, but they sure do move like one!

Appearances can be deceiving. You would think that something as beautiful as the dung beetle, with its iridescent green and blue coloring, would not spend its time around—and even in—other creatures’ shit. You might also think that a horned toad would hop, not scurry, in part because of the name we have given it, based on our presumptions about its appearance.

Appearances are also deceiving in our own lives. In the first Republican presidential debate a few days ago (I shudder to think what the next fifteen months will bring!), I appreciated Ben Carson’s comment that, as a neurosurgeon, he focuses on those “things that make us who we are”—beneath and beyond the color of our skin. While I agree with him on that, I imagine there are many other things about which we would definitely disagree!

And that’s the thing—about us humans, and all of God’s creatures. We can only imagine, and guess about, each other, unless we take abundant time and pay careful attention to truly watch and listen. It’s a huge part of what I do in the ministry of spiritual guidance: watch and listen. I listen not only to what the other person is saying, but also for the voice of God in the conversation, and in my own heart.

When’s the last time you truly, intentionally, watched and listened to another? How did that stance affect the interaction, and shape your understanding of the relationship?

When’s the last time someone, or some creature, surprised you by acting or speaking in a way that you didn’t expect? What did your expectations have to teach you? Did the interaction change your viewpoint?

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The Stuff of the Earth

This past week, Silver City hosted its annual CLAY Festival, which is a weeklong celebration filled with workshops, exhibitions, receptions, youth activities, tours, demonstrations, a mud pie contest, a poker fundraiser (did you know that poker chips were originally made out of clay?), and a street party. It’s much more than any one person can take in, and people flock in from all over the country to participate.

DSC_3797Naturally, it’s also more than one freelance photojournalist can handle, too. While I did take pictures at a number of events, there was no way that we could catch everything. On the other hand, after I’d submitted my photos, I found myself one day paying attention to the hands and the mud in the images I had taken. This particular class was about mixing and applying natural plasters to walls, and during the time I was there taking pictures, participants were learning how to load plaster onto their trowels and apply it to a wall—or, in this case, a piece of fiberboard.

There’s a great amount of fun to be had in playing with the mud. No one was worried about staying neat and clean. Students could scoop up the mud, then splat it back onto the carrying tool, called a hawk, or back into the tubs in which it had been mixed. Yet there were also some precise techniques to be learned in order to keep that plaster on the trowel, apply it evenly and efficiently—and have it stick!

A lot of these classes are about having fun with this element of earth. While I might become frustrated with the layer of clay I have to dig through in my garden beds, when extracted, ground, and mixed with water, that same clay—or its relatives—can become the foundation for some incredible works of art, as well as the stucco that covers so many houses in this area.

Plus, as scripture reminds us, we are also created—crafted—from elements of earth. While the specific mix of molecules in our bodies is different from the mix of molecules in the plaster, we are akin to that plaster, and children of the same earth. Genesis 2:7 says that we were formed from the dust of the earth; when we are playing with clay, we are touching a common history, and recognizing a bond we share.

Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that this festival is so popular. We are stuff of the earth, just like the ceramic artworks I’ve admired this week. Just like the coyotes and jackrabbits running through our yard. Just like the birds who squabble over the sunflower seeds—which are also stuff of the same earth.

When is the last time you contemplated your connection with every part of creation? What do you need to remember about your connection with the earth? Is it time to go play in the mud for a bit?


Steps to Nowhere or Stairway to Heaven?

IMG_0565On our hike a couple weeks ago, my friend and I passed this pair of trees to which someone had, long ago, nailed small blocks of wood, forming steps up the tree. At this point the wooden blocks are well-weathered and even beginning to come apart. I also imagine that the trees’ growth over the years has carried these wooden blocks much further away from the ground than they were originally placed. Their distance from the ground means that they are no longer useful as climbing aids, and as I stopped to snap a few pictures, we joked about how they were steps to nowhere.

Of course, I presume that was not always the case. Perhaps, back before this was forest service land, someone constructed a tree house in the branches of these trees, and these blocks of wood were indeed steps to somewhere important, and magical, for a generation of children—or even adults. If so, nothing remains now except the steps.

On the other hand…as art begins a conversation with each viewer, so these steps up the trees began a conversation with me. My mind pondered them as we continued on our way. Eventually I realized that they could also form a stairway to heaven. Whether as a metaphor for meditation or a whimsical reference to the iconic song of the same name, those steps could have been placed there with the intent of inviting the viewer to step up, reach for the skies, or dream of a day when “the forests will echo with laughter.”

It’s all a matter of perspective.

The forests did echo with our laughter as we walked. I might not have thought about others hearing our laughter, except that we came upon a group of young men who were maintaining the trail we were following. We thanked them, and cheered them on as we walked by. In that moment, we all shared the precious value of the forest—although our perspectives on that particular patch of trail were likely rather different!

Perspective is a common theme for me these days. As I view others’ online perspectives on websites and offerings related to spiritual guidance, I share with them the precious value that the online world provides for publicizing and expanding the ministry of spiritual direction. Simultaneously, my own perspective on that ministry continues to grow and deepen.

When has something caught your attention, and invited you into a conversation of some sort? What did it lead you to imagine or ponder, determine or dream?

Have you ever been invited, or felt pulled, to create something provocative like those steps, in order to bring others to wonder or ponder, imagine or dream?


Bloom as You are Able

On a recent hike, my friend and I took the Angel Loop trail around Gomez Peak, which meant that we traversed a variety of terrain. The north side of the peak was relatively shaded and cool, and we saw a number of wildflowers that were just about to bloom. The south side was much more exposed, complete with a wonderful agave forest that might be the subject of another blog at some point. But what caught my attention as we traveled around the loop was the beargrass in various stages of bloom.IMG_0528

Beargrass is a relative of the much more widely known yucca plant (and also of the asparagus!), and we actually have a number of the plants growing wild in our yard (although we don’t let them get too close to the house, because they are quite flammable). In our yard, I’ve seldom, if ever, seen them bloom, but they were blooming in many places around Gomez Peak. Perhaps because of the varied terrain, in some areas the blossom stalk was just beginning to emerge, while in other places the flowers had already dropped and the fruit was forming. All of this within a mile or two!

IMG_0537The variety of blooming stages had me thinking about how our environment shapes us. We humans also develop at radically different speeds, and in different ways, even if we also dwell within a mile or two of each other. Some of that is genetics, but that old adage, “bloom where you are planted,” has a role to play here as well.IMG_0526

For example, one of my neighbors moved here from Alaska, and I cannot imagine ever living where there is so much snow and darkness. His life journey and perspective were shaped by those forces, just as surely as my journey was shaped by being a child of the desert southwest. Another neighbor grew up right here in this small town, and her experience of rural life is very different from my early years in Albuquerque, and eighteen years of living in the very urban Boston area.

IMG_0543As I continue to spend time looking at others’ websites and working on my own, I’m sometimes in awe of the well-developed online ministries of people much younger than myself. I struggle not to compare my beginner’s efforts with what they have accomplished, and it’s helpful to remind myself that each of us is called to bloom where we are planted, and that where we are planted can determine when and how we are able to bloom.

How has this been true in your life? Are you able to accept where you are planted, and the rate at which you are blooming?

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The monsoon season is here. Summer in New Mexico usually means sunny mornings and increasing heat, followed by the buildup of towering clouds and spectacular afternoon thunderstorms. I love the smell of rain, the coolness of the storms in contrast with summer’s heat, and the fact that all of my garden gets watered without my need to devote time and energy to the process.

IMG_1727 IMG_1739Last week was no exception to the monsoon pattern, and even the 250-gallon rain barrels we installed last year seemed to fill up in an instant. In fact, there were days last week when I began to feel a bit overwhelmed with the overflowing rain barrels. They’re great for collecting scarce water, but when the water isn’t scarce, they overflow and I found myself worrying about damage to our home’s foundation.

Of course, it’s easy to make sure there’s nothing blocking the flow of water away from our house, because we live on a gentle slope and the space is well-designed. As I reflected more deeply on my fears, I realized that they had more to do with fearing the overflow because it was out of my control. I couldn’t turn off that water spigot in the sky; the rain was just going to keep on pouring down.

So what could I choose to do instead? For one thing, I could embrace the rain. When no lightning lingers, I could even go out and dance with the raindrops! Unlike the wicked witch of the west, I don’t melt. In fact, I could probably benefit from being a bit more wild and carefree than is my usual tendency!

I also struggle with accepting my lack of control in other areas of my life. It’s common as a freelancer to find myself talking about “feast or famine,” but I could just as easily say that “my rain barrel is overflowing” when the work piles up on me. Managing a high volume of work can be as challenging as managing a full rain barrel. Do I say no to a project, presuming there’s enough work to keep the rain barrel full? How much do I micromanage the level of water, as opposed to letting is spill over, sharing the wealth with others? Can I trust that it will rain again? In July, probably. Come September, not so much.

And yet…perhaps a better response is to celebrate the overflowing of work during the rainy season and trust that there will be work enough in the drier times of year. There is, after all, one client who always has work available, and I can dip into that well if my rain barrel runs completely dry. When I remember that, and remind myself that I am not in control—of the rain or the workflow—then I am freer to focus my time and energy on what is in front of me in each moment.

As Jesus said, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them…. Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ … For [God] knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:25-34)

Do you worry about those things over which you have no control? Can you embrace the overflowing rain barrels in your life and dance with the raindrops, trusting that there will be enough water in the future?


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