Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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The Power of Water


I visited a new-to-me canyon last week: the Catwalk Recreation Area in southwestern New Mexico. The place is named after an old wooden walkway that was erected over a mining-related water pipeline installed in Whitewater Canyon over a century ago. While the mining has stopped, and the walkway long ago fell apart, this has been a popular recreation area for decades. In fact, the US Forest Service installed a newer metal walkway that follows the old pipeline and allows visitors to safely wend their way back into this gorgeous, steep-sided canyon.

dsc_4657But that safety comes with a caveat. The reason I had not previously visited the Catwalk was that the “newer” walkway was severely damaged by flooding in 2014 and took almost two years and $4.4 million to reconstruct. In fact, the entire suspended walkway had to be replaced, using different materials. The new catwalk certainly appears stronger, and it’s also bolted to support structures embedded in the canyon’s walls—perhaps (I’ve been told) to make it possible to remove the entire structure in case a future flood threatens…! (I do wonder about that…the term “flash flood” was coined because it’s often impossible to have much advance warning for those things!)

The power of water is immense, but we do tend to take it for granted. Water carved the Grand Canyon, though it took millennia to do so. Water has repeatedly torn out sections of the scenic drive through the Black Range east of Silver City, forcing road closures while repairs are made. Water also recently devastated areas of Baton Rouge, Louisiana—although you might not have thought about that lately, because the disaster attention span in this country is miniscule in comparison with the actual recovery time. It could also take two years and millions of dollars for many parts of Baton Rouge to return to normal—and so many of those folks don’t have the resources of the US Government behind them to effect repairs! (If you’d like to help out with that endeavor, my spiritual director colleague Becky Eldridge, who lives in the area, recommends Catholic Charities or the Baton Rouge Area Foundation).

So what does this have to do with the spiritual life? I find my heart going in a variety of directions. I invite you to read through these questions and ponder how the Holy Spirit might be inviting you to respond:

  • When did you last take time to appreciate the beauty of the moment, recognizing that it could all be swept away tomorrow?
  • How has the power of water impacted your life, or the life of your family or your ancestors?
  • Has devastation or natural disaster occurred in your area in the past couple of years? Is there anything you might do to support those who are still struggling to recover?
  • Do you take water for granted? How might you appreciate water and its essential, complex role in your life?


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Toggle Back to God


The Centering Prayer group that I’m attending is opening lots of interesting avenues of thought and prayer in me. In addition to providing the discipline I need to show up for this type of prayer more frequently, I’m also reflecting on the experience of prayer, which I usually don’t do. Reflecting on something is not part of the prayer itself, but there is still much to be learned from noticing what does, and does not happen, in prayer.

img_3289Recently my reflections took the form of a poem. I’ve also been spending time with the Psalms, and Psalm 136 came to mind because of its repetition. Every other line of this psalm speaks of God’s mercy enduring forever. It’s the underlying theme of the psalm, and I found myself thinking of it as a recurrent reminder of God’s presence, beneath and within everything that happens. In “good” times and “bad” (all open to interpretation, of course!), God is there.

And then…I pondered the Centering Prayer instruction, when we are distracted or distressed, to “ever so gently return to your sacred word.” Putting it in today’s language, sitting at my computer, I found myself thinking of toggling back and forth between one thing and another, repeatedly returning to God when we wander away…and the poem was born.

May it inspire your own reflection on prayer and its role in your life.

 

Toggle Back to God

 

Websites weave animosity

Toggle back to God

Pundits peddle profanity

Toggle back to God

Television illuminates adversity

Toggle back to God

Sales pitches scream of scarcity

Toggle back to God

 

Formless fields of sunlight

Toggle back to God

Lake reflecting moon bright

Toggle back to God

Hand reached out to stop fight

Toggle back to God

Patience paid to set right

Toggle back to God

 

Fierce familial love fest

Toggle back to God

Springtime weave of bird nest

Toggle back to God

Striving now to do best

Toggle back to God

In contentment now rest

Toggle back to God

 

© 2016 Shirin McArthur

 


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On Choosing Whether or Not to See


Henry and I have an adventure in our future—God willing. We will be traveling to Israel in January. For many years, Henry has wanted to visit the Holy Land, and now appears to be the time. (We actually signed up for another tour a couple of years ago, but unrest in the area caused the trip to be cancelled.)

In preparation for the trip, we have begun reading a list of books recommended by our tour leader. One of those is My Promised Land by Ari Shavit. Shavit begins by writing of his wealthy British great-grandfather, who visited the Holy Land in 1897 with a group of twenty other Jewish British citizens. Shavit states that his great-grandfather chose not to see that the land was already occupied by Arabs, because if he did not see, he could justify making this his home, and the home of his people, especially persecuted Eastern European Jews.

As I read this, I couldn’t help recognizing the parallels with the European colonization of America, and the continued fact of (mostly) powerful white men in this country choosing not to see the indigenous inhabitants. I think specifically of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, where Native Americans have been protesting the installation—invasion?—of this pipeline, running under major waterways and disturbing sacred lands in the Dakotas. Furthermore, one of the largest gatherings of Native Americans in history has been, for the most part, studiously ignored by the media in favor of continuous micro-analysis of the presidential election circus.

American greed (Do we really need Canada’s tar-sand oil—the dirtiest kind—when we already produce so much of our own fuel and should be investing in cleaner wind and solar instead?) is once again running roughshod over deeper concerns. Those with power are refusing to see others, whose claims to the land are older than our nation itself. The powerful probably believe that they can indeed ignore the natives, just as American leaders have almost universally done since shortly after Europeans began arriving on American soil.

We—as a culture—just don’t get it. And yet…this week, minutes after a judge denied the Standing Rock Sioux’s request to halt construction of the pipeline, the American government actually stepped in to stop work on a part of the pipeline, ask the pipeline-building company to “voluntarily pause” its work, and state the need for time to confront the larger questions about “considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects.”

This is epic. This is choosing to see. This is recognizing that there is more than one perspective on Holy Land, its history, and the people who care about it. This can be the beginning of major change—of actually seeing others and honoring their needs as well as our own. It is, indeed, loving our neighbors as ourselves—as Jesus said in “the” Holy Land two thousand years ago.

So what does all this mean in terms of my visiting Israel? It means that the Palestinians and the Native Americans make good corollaries for my understanding of at least some of the complex situation there. Jesus also lived in an occupied land, where the Romans, for the most part, did not choose to see the Jewish people. And yet…Jesus told his followers to love their neighbors as themselves. I imagine that he meant all their neighbors—even those who did not see them, or love them back. If there is nothing else that the current situation in the Holy Land (and in the Dakotan Holy Lands) has taught us, it is that we must begin to truly see each other before we can learn to love.

dsc_6933-holy-groundWhere are your Holy Lands? This is one of mine, in the mountains of northern New Mexico. I have encountered God there, but I admit I still need to learn to look for the others who dwell here.

Do you truly see all your neighbors? How might you learn to better see and love them?


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Continuous Learning


I grew up in the desert—although our yard did not reflect that. Albuquerque, New Mexico gets less than ten inches of rain a year, but I lived in the more fertile Rio Grande River Valley, in a city well supplied with aquifer water. We had grass and pine trees in the front yard, a horse pasture and garden in the back, and cottonwood trees on every side.

IMG_3244But I also grew up learning about cactus. If we drove up onto the mesa, a wide, flat area on the west side of the river, I could see various types of cacti and experience blowing sand and desert heat. I learned the names of cholla and prickly pear cacti and understood the precious value of water, even if the well from which our family drew its water never ran dry.

Our valley oasis in the midst of the desert was particularly clear when we flew in and out of Albuquerque on various trips. A ribbon of green literally cut through the desert, meandering along either side of the Rio Grande, through town and beyond in both directions, as far as the eye could see. Once we left the valley, flying west, all I could see was vast expanses of undulating shades of brown. There was beauty in the brown—spectacular shapes and shades of color—but the underlying desert showed through clearly.

Now I live in a very different type of desert. Stately saguaro cacti and tall palo verde trees (translated as “green stick,” for its green bark) actually make Tucson appear much greener than most of Albuquerque—at least beyond that fertile river valley. As Henry and I are learning about our own new microclimate, I’ve discovered that I am once again living in a fertile river valley. Although the Santa Cruz River runs nearby, it is dry for much of the year. The underground aquifer, however, has watered generations of crops in this area, mostly cotton, making our particular patch of ground more fertile than most.

Henry and I have moved a lot over the twenty-plus years of our marriage. One thing I’ve recognized is that there’s always more to learn about each habitat we inhabit. As summer slides into fall here—which is still plenty hot, but at least we can begin working on our backyard landscaping projects again in early mornings—we’re beginning to register for local gardening and desert-landscaping classes. They will teach us about the particularities of our new home, and how to garden in sync with the climate and the native species, rather than in conflict with them.IMG_3239

Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the barrel cactus blossoms, which are peaking in these late-summer weeks—something I have not experienced before. There is always more to learn about this precious, God-given world we inhabit.

What have you learned this week? Where has God’s incredible creation spoken to you?


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Letting It All Go


Last week I began attending a Centering Prayer class at my church. This method of prayer traces its origins back to the prayer practiced by previous generations of Christian hermits, mystics, monks and nuns. It’s a way of praying that gets our agendas out of the way so that we can listen for God, and be open to God’s presence and action in our lives. It’s based on Jesus’ own instructions, found in Matthew 6:6–8:

IMG_3236But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask.

Naturally, our class assignment is to set aside a period of time for Centering Prayer every day. It’s felt a little bit like homecoming for me, as I have participated in contemplative “sit” for years, individually and collectively, including with my coworkers when I worked at the Center for Action and Contemplation.

One of my particular challenges is sticking to a certain time of day for prayer. I already have a morning routine that takes as much as two hours to complete, so adding another twenty minutes doesn’t feel right—in part because I know it’s good for me to get away from the computer at various times during the day. So I tend to take my prayer time, my contemplative sit, in between portions of my freelance work and other online projects.

On Friday, I chose as my prayer time a mid-afternoon period when I thought I had a sufficiently long period of time available. I set the timer on my phone, assumed my prayer position, and began sinking into silence.

I don’t know how long I had been praying, but suddenly my phone rang. I have assigned specific ringtones to a few of my more regular clients, so I knew, without opening my eyes, who was calling. I also knew that this client was hoping to finish two different projects that day, which I had been editing, before taking a week off for her first real vacation since Christmas. There was no question in my mind that I should answer the phone.

As we conversed, I was aware of how my (prayer-centered?) ability to stay calm and collected, going “the extra mile” to work things out, helped this client to lower her anxiety level and get the work done. (I even remembered to turn off my timer so it didn’t go off in the midst of our conversation!) We finished our discussion, I concluded my revisions for her, and then went on to complete my workday with a few additional tasks. Somehow I knew—instinctively—that I didn’t need to try to return to my interrupted prayer practice.

Later, I realized more consciously that I hadn’t needed to return to my prayer practice because God had, in that moment when I responded to my client’s need, invited me into living my prayer through action instead. I was still praying, and there was no question that God was with me, even in me, as I breathed peace and calm and assisted my client in getting out the door for a long-overdue time away from the office. It perfectly illustrated what I was told at that first Centering Prayer class: We are called to learn it well…and then let it all go.

Has this kind of a situation ever happened in your life? Were you able to let go of the need to “do it right” and trust that you were being called to do something different—that was still the right thing in that moment?

Can you open yourself to that type of “yes, and” approach to your discipline of prayer? Can you practice diligently, and then let it go when you are called to live it out in a new and different way?


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Night on the Roof of a Cathedral


Henry recently found an article online about a tourist who was accidentally locked in Milan’s cathedral, called the Duomo, overnight. The American tourist chose to take advantage of his unexpected lock-in and spent the night “among the cathedral’s rooftop spires.”

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Photo from Duomo di Milano website

Henry shared the article with my sister and brother-in-law, who lived in Milan for two years. It was interesting to see what each of them noticed. My sister commented on the fact that the same firm has handled the Duomo’s security for the entire six hundred years of its existence. My brother-in-law commented that he would have contacted police to say that he was locked in, despite the ruckus that would have caused.

And I? I found myself thinking of books I have read over the years that discussed the medieval passion for building cathedrals. One of the goals for cathedral builders was to get closer to God—for they believed that God’s home in Heaven existed just above the sky. In those days, cathedrals were the tallest buildings ever constructed, and those fortunate roofers who set the final spires in place could indeed say that they had climbed closer to Heaven than anyone around them.

It’s kind of hard for us to imagine having that kind of passion—and risking that level of danger—just to get closer to the heavens. We fly much higher than those cathedral builders ever dreamed possible each time we get on an airplane. Others amongst us have not found a literal Heaven on their way to the moon—although for many it was nonetheless a profoundly spiritual experience.

I have walked among the Duomo’s spires; it was one of the many places we toured with my sister and brother-in-law when we visited Milan almost twenty years ago. I can certainly see myself taking advantage of a spontaneous “retreat night” among the spires, staring at the heavens. I also find myself imagining those medieval masons and roofers, pausing toward the end of a busy workday to glance upward. What went through their heads when they looked up? Did they tremble in fear of the God who would judge their every thought and action, or did they stand in awe and wonder at their fortune in finding themselves so much closer to the God who created them?

Today many of us believe that God is not “out there,” far away, but “closer than our very breath.” Perhaps that is because we have explored the heavens and not discovered a literal Heaven, comprised of streets paved with gold. Nonetheless, our desire to draw closer to God remains unchanged. Whether we look up, within, or around us, we still seek God.

Where and in what ways do you seek God? What might cathedrals have to teach you about your own spiritual journey?


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Spiritual Role Models: Granddaddy


Recently in prayer, I found myself reflecting on my paternal grandfather. When I think about familial role models for my spiritual life, he is always the one who first springs to mind. Many of my formative memories of him took place in Tucson, so perhaps it is not unusual that he should be coming to mind now that I have moved here to live.

Robert Stainton McArthurGranddaddy was a staunch Presbyterian who served as an Elder and did his best to make sure that he and his family lived faithful lives. For example, I grew up hearing stories about how strictly he observed the Sunday Sabbath, insisting that no work could be done—but also taking the family on long drives up into the Catalina Mountains for Sabbath rest and recreation. There was never any alcohol in Granddaddy’s house, and I learned to play Rook instead of Bridge at Granddaddy’s because they did not own any of the “devil’s paste cards.”

When I was a child, Granddaddy owned a construction company that mostly built residential buildings, but he also built the sanctuary at Northminster Presbyterian Church. In fact, giving back to the church through the use of his gifts was a passionate commitment for him. The first thing he did after retiring and selling his construction company was to return to Mississippi and construct a new campus building for Reformed Theological Seminary.

Granddaddy felt passionately about everything he did. I still remember a time when my family was visiting and we had spent the day “out and about” doing something together. On the drive home, Granddaddy suddenly realized (perhaps he saw a campaign sign) that he had forgotten it was a local election day. We immediately headed for the polling location—with no stop at home to drop off the rest of us—but still arrived too late. Granddaddy commented that this was the first time in his life that he had missed the opportunity to vote.

Granddaddy was also the first male adult that I remember crying. He was not afraid to show his emotions—something that was pretty unusual in men of his generation. He was also very much connected with creation. I fondly remember a number of early morning walks, where I first encountered quail and learned about a variety of other desert creatures.

At this point in my life, I have a more balanced view of Granddaddy than I did as a child, when he was a psychologically towering figure in my life. I’ve learned about his clay feet—and recognize that we’ve all got them. I also remember disagreeing with him on a number of theological issues, but he was always loving with me in our discussions. Perhaps most of all, I’m grateful for the role model of someone who clearly lived his spiritual life—as he understood it—to the best of his ability.

Who in your family—if anyone—was a spiritual role model for you? In what ways were you influenced by your family of origin about your spiritual life? What still lingers with you from that time?

Here’s a poem that I wrote recently, connecting with those early morning walks.

 

Morning Walk

Early morning constitutional,

Wobbly walk along rocky, rut-ridged roadway,

Leaning on cane companion,

Soaking in slanted desert light.

“See the quail, granddaughter?

See God’s beauty

All around?”

 

Early morning constitutional,

Striding along well-paved path,

Focused on pace and place,

Capturing Instagram images of desert flowers,

Recognizing roadrunners and rabbits.

 

Granddaddy walks alongside again,

Free of frailty,

Filled with wonder.

Traipsing together,

Souls connected,

Spirits soaring,

We savor simple sunrise.