Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering

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Bird Brain

This past week my work days have frequently been accompanied by the periodic sound of a hard tapping on our kitchen window. The first time I heard it, I thought someone was knocking at the front door, but nobody was there.

DSC_5379cIt turns out that we’ve got an adolescent roadrunner who thinks that its reflection in our kitchen window is a competitor of some sort. This bird repeatedly attacks his or her reflection, and keeps doing so, regardless of what I think would be some pretty obvious clues that there’s no other bird there: no sounds from the other bird, a perfect symmetry of beak hitting beak every single time, and the fact that the window doesn’t feel soft like feathers. It would seem that this roadrunner’s bird brain is not either sufficiently mature enough or capable of making these types of distinctions, and so it keeps attacking the window, day after day.

Upon reflection, I found myself thinking about how we, as humans, can end up doing something similar, especially when our more primitive animal brain kicks in. Whether it’s fight or flight, something disengages our more mature cerebral capacities and we will keep on doing things that don’t seem wise from others’ perspectives. Regardless of the evidence, sometimes right in front of our eyes, we can keep on attacking, or running, or hiding.

DSC_5475The only way I’ve found to stop the roadrunner is to walk up to the window, close enough that it sees me through the glass and runs away. It’s the same with us: we tend to need large, dramatic, outside intervention to knock us out of that fight-or-flight syndrome. It’s another good reason to live in community: we can gently nudge each other out of our bird-brain reactions to things that aren’t what they seem.

When have you responded to something with a fight-or-flight reaction? What did it take to get you out of that bird brain? When have you been able to help others escape their own limited perspectives and responses?

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All Out Day

One of our favorite close-to-home places for hiking is at Bear Mountain Lodge. It’s a former Nature Conservancy site that has some great hiking trails. Most of the time when we drive up to the gate, it’s wide open and we drive right in. Sometimes, however, there’s a chain strung across the road with an attached metal sign that says the horses have been let out to graze, so please put the chain back so the horses can’t get loose.

This past week when we went to hike, the gate was closed—the first time I’ve realized that there was even a functioning gate! When we got closer, we could see a sign on the gate that said the cows had been let out to graze. As we drove up to the parking area, we could see three cows and a calf—which would explain why the chain was not sufficient to keep all the livestock in.

IMG_0653And we did indeed hang out with the livestock. Even though we’ve encountered the chain a number of times, we hadn’t seen the horses “out and about” until this hike, either. As my hiking buddy said, it’s “all out day!” We saw the Bear Mountain Lodge owner out walking his dogs, the horses and cows were out grazing, and we came across another dung beetle, out diligently harvesting dung from the pathway.

The weather was also lovely; warm, but not too hot, reminding me that autumn is, at least for most of the US, a great time of year for getting outdoors. So I ask: when is the last time you got out? You read about my hikes; do you take any of your own? What would it be like to declare “all out day” at your house and let everyone—humans and animals—out for a chance to romp freely in some portion of God’s beautiful creation?

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My hiking buddy and I came upon this tree during a recent hike, and it caught my attention because of the fact that the tree’s roots had split the rIMG_0645ocks beneath them. So often we believe that those things which surround us—our circumstances, our experiences, our resources—are impervious to our presence. Yet nothing is further from the truth.

I still remember the profound feeling of awe that filled me when, as a teen, I truly understood that the Grand Canyon in Arizona had been carved literally over a mile deep by the simple, but relentless, action of water. Over time, yes. Over centuries, in fact. Over those centuries, the Colorado River carved such a deep crevasse through the stunningly colored rocks of the Colorado Plateau that the result is considered one of the major wonders of the natural world, and receives over four million visitors per year.

Perseverance is the key to many such treasures, both natural and human-made. The work that we have to offer the world comes to fruition not because of our desire, but because of our perseverance. It is because we keep doing what we feel called to do, no matter the strength of the obstacles that appear to be blocking our way, that we can crack rocks and wear away mountains.

What is the God-given (or God-driven) desire at this time in your life? How are you called to persevere in the face of obstacles? Where have you seen rocks crack or crumble along the journey?

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Cooking Time

IMG_1843Friday was “try out the new slow cooker” day at our house. I had ruined our prior slow cooker by over-filling it last spring; when the stew overflowed, it seeped into the space between the heating element and the base of the cooker, causing smoke and the danger of fire. I purchased a new slow cooker, but hadn’t yet used it, and since the weather is beginning to cool down a bit, I thought it was time.

The recipe I chose for this inaugural meal was pork chile verde. I love it, but had not tried to make it from scratch in years. Now I remember why; between all the necessary preparatory steps, it took me over two hours to get everything into the “time saving” slow cooker. Tomatillos had to be cleaned, sliced, and roasted. Green chiles had to be roasted, skinned, seeded, and chopped. Other vegetables had to be cleaned and chopped, and everything pureed. The pork had to be chopped, seared in small batches, and the pan deglazed afterwards. Once everything was finally in the cooker and the kitchen cleaned, it was past time for lunch! It’s a good thing this cooker has a high setting; otherwise we would have eaten dinner at 8 pm!

As I was cleaning up afterward and marveling at the time this process had taken, I found my mind wandering back to the first time I consciously remember learning about food that could take an entire day to prepare. I was teaching English in Seoul, South Korea at the time, and I remember being told by one of my students that a certain dish—I honestly don’t remember what it was at this point—would take her mother an entire day to prepare. I also remember watching Korean women make kimchi outside the apartment building where I lived. It was a full-day process, between cleaning the cabbages and pre-salting them, mixing up the multi-ingredient chile paste, smearing that paste between each and every leaf of each and every cabbage, then piling them into large earthenware jars that had been dug deep into the earth of the back yard.

I don’t remember my mother spending an entire day in the kitchen—but I usually was away at school and didn’t really notice. Mom did regularly make homemade bread that, with rising time, took most of the day to complete. I do remember coming home from school and being greeted with hot-from-the-oven whole-wheat bread, spread with melted butter. Ahhh, precious memories!

I find myself contrasting these time-consuming cooking memories with the standard in my household—and many others, I suspect—these days. I rely on help from packaged foods, whether it be frozen salmon burgers from Costco or chicken breasts that I buy already boned and skinned. I also tend toward vegetables that can be chopped and cooked quickly, or a salad with components that are relatively easy to put together. Because I work during the day, I tend to allocate between 30-60 minutes for dinner preparation; taking more time feels impractical with my other responsibilities.

I’m also aware today that I take those packaged foods for granted. I do not usually think about the person who formed the burger or skinned the chicken—or the possibility that machines are now involved in both of those processes. My relationship with food takes a lot for granted—at least until a day like last Friday, when I take the time to roast tomatillos, remove skin and seeds from local chiles (a few of which were from my own garden, along with the onions and garlic), and give thanks to God for the abundance of food in my life.

Do you take food for granted? Do you rely on help from packaged foods? Do you remember to give thanks for those whose work makes your own cooking process easier?

Do you have memories of meals that have taken hours to prepare? Have you done them yourself? Thanksgiving is a possible example; cooking a whole turkey certainly isn’t a 30-60-minute task. Is there value for you in the taking of time to make things from scratch?

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Expansive Faith

IMG_1807It’s been an intense week for me. I attended a conference called “The Francis Factor,” which discussed the impact on our world of both St. Francis of Assisi and Pope Francis, who took his papal name in honor of the saint. I spent hours listening to three wise teachers of the modern age: Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr, Founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation (where I used to work), Franciscan Sr. Ilia Delio, a professor of science and religion and author of numerous books, and The Simple Way founder Shane Claiborne who, like St. Francis, is attempting to live as Jesus did, with intention toward taking Jesus’ teachings to heart, not just in word, but also in deed.

One of the threads weaving through the conference (and there were many!) was of our universal connectedness with all of the cosmos. St. Francis’ connection with creation is often romanticized (what Richard Rohr calls Bird Bath Franciscanism), but St. Francis recognized what modern quantum physics and the reality of climate change are now bringing home to us in powerful ways: we cannot live as if we are independent beings.

Some other snippets that I gleaned from the conference include:

  • We are relational interbeings, overlapping waves like the ocean
  • The Gospel swims in an ocean of grace
  • God put skin on love in the form of Jesus
  • Evangelism is fascinating people with love
  • Our interdependence muscles are atrophied
  • Technology (the web, mobile devices) can actually help to connect us, and remind us of our integral interdependence
  • If we surround ourselves with people who are further on the journey we wish to take, they will inspire and draw us further on the road

Each of these, and many more, could become the focus for many days of prayer. So often, I’ve found myself attending a conference, taking notes, then filing them away and forgetting. This time I intend to keep some of these at the forefront of my heart. I also bought some books to read, to explore these ideas in more depth.

On a different, but very related, note, I also learned this past week of the death of one of my former spiritual directors, the Rev. Eldridge Pendleton, SSJE. Like St. Francis, he paid attention to all of creation, including the least, the last, and the lost, and found grace and beauty everywhere. While I mourn his passing, and it’s been many years since I have seen him in person, I recognize our interdependence and know that he helped to shaped me as a spiritual director and a child of God, even as I once wove him a stole for his ordination. That mutual giving and receiving is a powerful image of our intertwined universe, in which each of us plays a vital part.

This week, I invite you to choose one of the snippets or images in this blog, take it to prayer each day, and see where it takes you. Feel free to share snippets of your own journey here.

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Living in Community

DSC_5095I love watching the birds at our feeders. We’ve set out a number of different kinds of feeders, which naturally attract different kinds of birds. This feeder, which holds nyjer or thistle seeds, is only accessible to the smaller birds with the shape of beak that can reach within the wire mesh to grab the seeds. Thus this is mostly a finch feeder.

What I love about watching the birds at the finch feeder is that the entire feeder is available to them. As you can see here, there are half a dozen finches, of differing types, all calmly sharing from the same feeder at the same time. It’s a wonderful image of both abundance and sharing. There’s enough for all; no one needs to chase the others away.

I contrast that with the hummingbird feeders set around our house. Each of our three hummingbird feeders have multiple flower ports for accessing the sugar water inside. Yet a couple of Rufous hummingbirds have taken over the two feeders in our backyard, keeping watch from nearby trees and chasing away any other hummingbirds that come to feed. While the noise and the zipping about is certainly exciting to observe, it’s also got to be exhausting and wasteful of precious energy for those tiny birds—especially for those who get chased away.

These two images provide a powerful contrast for how we choose to live in community as human beings. We either choose to believe that there is enough and dwell together, side by side, without regard to our differences, or we become exclusively territorial and waste energy chasing away others of our species, and no one is able to relax and enjoy God’s abundance.

Sometimes the territoriality is blatant, as it was when Russia destroyed tons of Western food earlier this month, so that no one could share in the abundance. But sometimes it’s much more subtle, as in the food deserts here in America. Whether urban or rural, the areas in our country without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food are an appalling reality when studies show that there really is enough food to go around, and yet we humans waste over one-third of what we produce.

I invite you to take these contrasting images to prayer, and ponder how you might respond. How can you encourage an “abundance and sharing” mindset, in your own life and in your community?

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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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