Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


A Different Kind of Lenten Journey

I thought I knew what my Lenten journey was going to look like this year—but I was mistaken.

I thought I was so busy and distracted that, as I wrote last week, my Lenten discipline was to simply rest in God’s presence. I thought that I needed to find balance in work and rest, focus and release.

It would appear that God thought differently. One week into Lent, I received notice from the State of New Mexico that we were being audited for Gross Receipts Tax for the year 2014. New Mexico is one of the few states that taxes services, and the long and the short of it is that Henry and I both have to prove that the significant bulk of our income was either from clergy services or delivered to out-of-state clients, both of which are exempt from those taxes.

It’s been—pardon the phrase—a pain in the butt to prove this. I have not before been subjected to such an outright adversarial attitude, where someone is determined to prove that I am doing something wrong. It amazes me that a 1099 from a client doesn’t prove that the money came from out of state. It amazes me that a client’s website, clearly stating that they are out of state, isn’t proof enough. I’m amazed that…well, I really shouldn’t keep going down that road. I’ve lost a lot of sleep the past few weeks, being amazed at the hoops I’m having to jump through to prove that these clients are, indeed, out of state.

It makes me angry—and anger is, of course, what’s driving so much in this country right now. The adversarial attitude that is endemic to our government—clearly, at all levels—is part of what is tearing this country apart, I believe. Which is part of why I’ve been so upset in being forced to deal with it on a personal level, when I have studiously avoided becoming engaged with it on the national level, knowing how much it increases my stress and, I fear, makes me less able to be a positive, supportive force for good in the midst of this divisive, combative culture.

But somehow, for some reason that I do not yet understand, I am being forced into it anyway. Far too early yesterday morning, I was wrestling with “Why haven’t I been able to write this Sunday’s blog yet?” My mind kept returning to this audit, but I really didn’t want to write about it until I could present it as a completed package, all wrapped up and pretty, with the lessons learned and able to be shared. I kept striving to turn toward something else, and God kept pulling me back.

Suddenly, these words of Jesus came to my mind: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”

So I got up and wrote. This is not the pretty-package version. It’s the “struggling in the midst of it all” version. It’s the “not sure how this will end, but doing my best, hour by hour” version. It is, frankly, where most of us live, most of the time. It takes a while to get to the point of learning the lessons. It takes time, and distance, to discern the silver linings in the clouds that block the sun in our lives.

So here I am, stressed and struggling—and angry about having to be here. I don’t know why I need to write this today, but I’m trusting God. Perhaps some of you who read this might need to feel accompanied in your own struggles. Perhaps you need to know that you’re not the only one facing an unsought, undesired adversarial situation.

WatchingwithJesusShall we hang in there, together, one hour at a time? Shall we join Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane?



Laetare Sunday


Have you heard of Laetare Sunday? Until recently, I had not. It turns out to be the Sunday halfway through Lent, when devout Christians were historically given a break from their austere Lenten disciplines. Laetare means “rejoice” in Latin and refers to the opening words of the Introit which was assigned to this Sunday:

“Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult and be filled from the breasts of your consolation.”

Today is Laetare Sunday this year. We are halfway through Lent. I could spout all sorts of pious words about what this means—but this year I find myself facing the stark truth that I have managed very little observance of Lent at all. Between family visits, traveling, and an increase in my workload, I have not had much success in honoring my chosen Lenten discipline (ironically, of simply resting in God’s presence!).

stillmovingwaterNaturally, I can blame my busyness, but the real issue is my choices. I could get up early when family is visiting and sit in silence before they wake. I could take breaks from work and sit in silence with God. I could end my day with stillness before heading off to bed.

The larger problem is, I believe, upon reflection, a return to the notion of scarcity. I have experienced periods in my life when I believed there could never be time enough for all that I had to do. When life gets full, I return to that perspective—usually subconsciously, experience feelings of panic and overwhelm, and need something to bring this shift in perspective to my attention.

This time, that shift started during a visit with my spiritual director this past week, as I poured out my concerns about my busy life. We talked about Psalm 42, which speaks of the soul’s longing for God. God doesn’t long for me to accomplish six heavy-duty things before dinner. God desires me to desire back, to open myself to the flow of love which accomplishes all that is really necessary.

Yes, the work is still there. The commitments still need to be honored. If I take the long view, I can become overwhelmed again. If I live in this moment, this hour, I can do what needs doing in this hour and trust that the broader picture will take care of itself. I may have to make some choices that involve letting go of things I’d like to do—but when I embrace my longing for God, and act upon it, that inner stillness fosters healthier choices and an acceptance that my life is still filled with an abundance—of both time and opportunities. Then I can rejoice (laetare!) in all that is possible, rather than focusing on what is not.

Yesterday I made time to attend the Tucson Festival of Books. I was able to meet in person (for the first time) with an editing client whose book has now been published, attend a writers’ workshop and a presentation on creativity, and spend time wandering among the festival tents, seeing what’s happening and engaging in conversation with book lovers. I returned home both exhausted and quietly energized—as if the abundant busyness of that day had actually rejuvenated my soul—a shift in perspective indeed….

Where does scarcity show up in your life? How might you turn your scarcity struggles into abundant rejoicing?

When is the last time you just rested in God’s presence? Could you do it today?


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Lenten Commitments: Cyclical and Sacrificial

octopusagave1There’s a transformation taking place in my back yard right now. Our giant octopus agave is sprouting a “bloom spike.” This stalk, which is already about 4 inches thick and very sturdy, will grow to a height of 10–12 feet, produce numerous blossoms that will become tiny little octopus agaves—and then the entire plant will die, leaving those baby plantlets to fend for themselves.

When I think of plants bearing fruit, I tend to think of peach and apple trees, which flower and fruit every season for decades before they eventually grow old and die. Agaves, however, put all their energy into one spectacular bloom and then die off, exhausted by the process.

aloepupsblossomWe also have aloes in our yard, preparing to bloom. These may look similar to agaves, but they are quite different in some critical respects. Aloes are native to sub-Saharan Africa and the Saudi Arabian Peninsula, while agaves originated here in the Desert Southwest and Mexico. While agaves bloom once and then die, aloes bloom yearly and form “pups,” or small plantlets that appear around the edges of the outer leaves, like pups peeking out from under a mother dog’s legs. This allows aloes to reproduce without killing themselves in the process.

As I think about the season of Lent, and of the call to spiritual transformation, these plants teach me that there are different levels of transformational commitment. Some fruit is cyclical, like the fruit of the peach and apple trees. Birds peck at the numerous fruits, bees follow behind once the skin is pierced, we humans savor what is left and perhaps plant a few of the seeds, while the tree stands tall to begin the process again. Other fruit is sacrificial, like the fruit of the agave. This plant invests everything into sending a stalk high into the air, laden with miniature versions of its very self, and sends them off into the wide world with its blessing.

Our lives can also be either cyclical or sacrificial. Most of us are called to the cyclical bearing of fruit, whether the literal fruit of our bodies or the more figurative fruit of our paid or volunteer work and ministries, our kind or cruel words, artistic endeavors, books written, lessons taught, wisdom shared…. A few of us, however, might be called to bear sacrificial fruit. I think of the brave souls who fight our nation’s wars and wildfires, or the people who volunteered, decades ago, to be the first human test cases for new vaccines. It’s the commitment, you see. Regardless of whether those humans ended up dying, their full commitment to the possibility is the same as that of the agave. Their deaths might not be definitive, but their commitment had to be.

Jesus made that level of commitment. Born as a human, he embraced the calling to bear sacrificial fruit—though his night of agony in the Garden of Gethsemane proves to us all that the commitment is not free of second thoughts, fears, and painful anticipation.

As you ponder your Lenten journey, what level of commitment are you willing to make? What transformations are taking shape in you in this season? What fruits are you called to be bearing?


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Ghost Ranch and Photography

Ghost Ranch has been part of my spiritual life for decades. Ghost Ranch is a beautiful retreat center in northern New Mexico. I remember attending a few church retreats there as a child, and once staying (as a Girl Scout?) in their “teepee” lodging, a forest of tall canvas tents with concrete floors and metal bedframes upon which to lay our sleeping bags. I returned as a young adult to take part in one of their summer arts weeks, learning the craft of Spanish colonial tinsmithing and watching with the entire community as teachers of the micaceous pottery class unloaded glowing pots from the kiln by starlight. I believe it was then that my interest in pottery was (literally!) kindled…and eventually led to a ten-year stint as a member of the Feet of Clay cooperative in Massachusetts.

I’ve been fortunate to return to Ghost Ranch three times in the past half-dozen years, once for a retreat with other spiritual directors, once for a wedding, and then, two years ago, for a writers’ retreat. On both retreat occasions, part of my time there was spent with camera in hand. Ghost Ranch is incredibly photogenic, with stunning rock formations and powerful storms blowing through. I pay a different kind of attention to the world around me when I walk with camera in hand. Walking through the Ghost Ranch landscape has resulted in some stunning and dramatic photos, some of which I have shared in the past on Instagram.

DSC_1176kitchenmesaWEBA week or so ago, I received notice of Ghost Ranch’s annual photo contest. After some prayer and reflection, I decided that I would like to enter the contest. The big question, naturally, is which photo(s) I wish to enter. The idea came to me to post a series of my favorites on Instagram, one a day, over the week ahead, and let you weigh in on what you like. I’m starting today with this one, of morning light coming through Kitchen Mesa.

Please respond, here or on Instagram, about which images you really like. If you’ve been to Ghost Ranch, consider submitting your best photo(s) to the contest (you can find the information here).

Also, next time you head outdoors, consider taking a camera (or your smart phone) and walking with a photographer’s perspective. What catches your attention? How might God be speaking through what you see?


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The Right Time to Sow Seeds

As some of you may know (especially if you’ve followed this blog for a while), I had a large and thriving vegetable (and fruit!) garden when we lived in New Mexico. It’s been more than two years since we moved to Arizona and, for a variety of reasons, I had not planted a single seed—until February 4. Over time, we purchased garden soil, installed some raised-bed frames, expanded the drip system, and finally, two weeks ago, I decided it was time to actually plant some seeds.

It was not a logical, researched decision. I purchased a book on growing vegetables in Arizona, but I didn’t consult it. I have listened to casual conversations about the growing seasons here in the Sonoran Desert (which are much different from Silver City!) and I did at least look at the long-range forecast to get a sense of whether or not there will be another frost (the chances of frost are very low). Instead, somehow, the urge to plant was internal—perhaps more spiritual. It was finally time.

I think, in part, it was time to put down another layer of roots in this desert. This is home, and I am now ready. It may also be aligned with the work I am doing at my computer, putting the finishing touches on both my website and an “evergreen” edition of the online retreat I first launched in Advent. Called “The Incarnation of Jesus through the Eyes of Others,” it will be the first of a series of online retreats that are available anytime. Perhaps it is my years of work bearing fruit on this electronic stage that is finally also leading me to be ready again to cultivate literal fruit.

bokchoybabies2So far, of course, there’s not much to show for two weeks of seeds being in the ground. In this photo, the only way to tell what’s new growth and not fallen tiny palo verde leaves is the clustering of the leaves on the tiny new bok choy plants. That will change over the weeks to come—God willing. I will learn what can thrive this “late” in the season and what should actually be planted in the fall instead. I will also learn if I planted tomato seeds too early…it’s hard to tell, as our winter weather has been hotter than normal until a few days ago.

Only time will tell if that internal nudge was correct in terms of the “right” time to sow seeds—both in the ground and on the Internet. God is in charge, and I’m doing my best to listen.

What seeds are you waiting to sow? Where are you watching for growth?



Pondering Ashes

I recently had an interesting conversation with my stepson. He lives in Massachusetts and uses a wood stove for supplemental winter heating. I’d shared with him a small article with a series of tips for using wood ash (for everything from silver polish to garden fertilizer and slug control) and he called me to discuss the pros and cons of using ash in the garden since it produces lye and salts when it gets wet. Further research revealed that composting the ash was strongly recommended to prevent the harmful burning of plants. The bottom line of our conversation was that more research and some care would be needed to be sure that those ashes were stored and used to the best, and safest, effect.

IMG_0107ashescropThis Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and I think the same bottom line applies. For many of us, Ash Wednesday is a church-culture phenomenon that marks the beginning of Lent. More research and some care in its use could indeed enrich the soil of our Lenten season.

In ancient cultures, ashes were used to express grief, as well as sorrow for our shortcomings. The prophet Jeremiah’s recipe for repentance involved putting on sackcloth (rough, coarse fabric; you might have seen on television such cloth made into bags for coffee beans) and rolling in ashes. Jesus mentions it as a well-established tradition.

Early generations of Christians continued this Hebrew custom, saying that the confession of sin should include the ritual of lying in sackcloth and ashes. Eventually, rather than rolling in the ashes, Christian priests sprinkled it on the crowns of people’s heads (perhaps making it more symbolic and less truly messy…). Ashes were evidently imposed on the foreheads of women because women worshipped with their heads covered—and this eventually became a common practice for both sexes. Receiving ashes on the first day of Lent had become an established rite in Western Europe by about 1000 CE.

Liturgical ashes for Ash Wednesday are obtained by burning the dried palms from the prior year’s Palm Sunday service. I like how this tradition weaves the church years together over time. It is all one trajectory. Celebration becomes lamentation, as we recognize we will return to the dust from which we were formed by our Creator in the very beginning. Ashes initiate us into the season of Lent, when we can compost a year’s worth of “falling short of the glory of God,” enriching our spiritual soil to cultivate new growth so we can be ready to wave palms again on Palm Sunday.

Celebration becomes lamentation because, no matter how hard we try, we cannot remain sin-free. If sin is—as I believe—nothing more nor less than what separates us from God, we will inevitably sin as we live out our lives. Distress, temptation, pain and suffering…all of these and more draw us away from being focused and grounded in God.

The point of the ashes, then, is to remind us that we also are called to complete the cycle. Those celebratory palms are consumed in the fire of our lives, becoming that very earthly ash that enriches our Lenten observance and prepares us to focus on Jesus by Palm Sunday.

Yet we must be careful to keep our Lenten observance in balance. Too many ashes and too many tears can burn us. Fortunately, Sundays are never part of Lent, because every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection. Sundays give us a break from the observance of Lent, and from our challenging composting efforts.

How are you invited to engage in this cycle of celebration and lamentation this Lenten season?



Not Eclipsing

I’m a photographer, but I didn’t take pictures of the supermoon this past week. I did look out my window at it, a couple of times, but then retreated to my nice warm bed…. DSC_4617cI thought about previous experiences of photographing the moon, and my mixed success…and just decided to be present to the event rather than trying to focus on capturing the moment for posterity.

That led me to think about other times recently when I’ve backed away from the need to photograph everything. As someone who uses her own photographs for blog posts and uploads daily images to Instagram, this is an important point. My photographs are part of my ministry and my prayer life—but they can also, ironically, get in the way of it.

How’s that, you ask? Well, I can become so focused on getting the photograph that I cease to pay attention to being in the moment. There are times when photography helps me pay attention to my surroundings, thus enhancing my spiritual practice, but there are also times when it becomes the agenda instead of supporting a deeper spiritual agenda. Those are the times when I am learning I need to back away and “just be” rather than letting photography shift from being a way to pay attention to becoming another item on my “to do” list.

All that led me to think of the well-known poem in Ecclesiastes, about how there is a season for everything. I found myself thinking about rephrasing it for this season…and here’s what came forth:

For everything there is a moment,
And a time for each right action under heaven:
A time to leap up and a time to lie down,
A time to serve and a time to receive,
A time to sign up and a time to resign,
A time to support and a time to set free,
A time to protest and a time to embrace,
A time to rage and a time to release,
A time to build homes and a time to flatten walls,
A time to encourage and a time for tough love,
A time to search and a time to wander,
A time to buy and a time to give away,
A time to gather friends and a time to walk alone,
A time to call Congress and a time to call upon God,
A time to embrace oneness and a time to challenge hate,
A time to fight wrong and a time to make right.

© Shirin McArthur

What time is it for you?