Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering



It’s spring. The pollen map on my phone’s weather app makes it crystal clear that anyone with allergies is probably suffering if they live in New Mexico—and most of the rest of the country as well.
It’s a mystery why my body would want to treat its native environment as hostile; after all, I grew up in New Mexico, so why should I be allergic to it? There are some who say that allergies are a body’s adaptive behaviors—that, at some point, my body learned that those pollens (and mold spores, when I lived in New England) were detrimental to my well-being. I certainly don’t remember that occurring on a conscious level, but at some point it must have. Over the years I’ve tried a number of countermeasures, from prescriptions to local honey to pressure points and acupuncture. I am better off than at times in the past, but there are still days when I must pull out a bottle of over-the-counter pills in order to be functional.
DSC_1974I was engaged in an email conversation a few days ago with a friend whose “juniper fever” is so severe that she isn’t functional much of the time. I know others who take vacations away from New Mexico each year during allergy season. I can recall days on end when I knew that, at a functional level, I really was “sick” because my body was reacting so strongly to the pollens in the air. I might not have been contagious, but I was ill.
It’s a mystery, and a paradox, that beautiful blossoms cause so many people to sneeze.DSC_1978 It’s both mystery and paradox that something so necessary to the gift of life simultaneously causes so much suffering. It’s a mystery to me how my body responds to external stimuli of various sorts—and how those responses can change over time. My mother says her allergic reactions have decreased as she has aged…I’m certainly hoping I’m wired the same way!
Do you have allergies? How do you respond when the pollens appear? Does your environment—native or not—feel like an enemy combatant? Can you both seek a cure and embrace it anyway? Can you embrace the mystery and paradox hidden within such situations?


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Mid-Lent Reflection

There are five Sundays in Lent, and this is the third, which means we’re approximately halfway through. Did you decide to take on any kind of Lenten discipline this year? How’s it going? If you’re “succeeding,” what (or Who?) has made that possible? If you’re “failing,” can you have compassion for yourself, and pick it up and try again?

I’m doing surprisingly well in my Lenten observance of fasting from sugar. I’ve also learned that a very close cousin of sugar is refined flour—I’m craving white bread for the first time in years. Usually I can pass it by with no problem, but it appears that those refined carbohydrates still have a hold on me at some level.

This transference is not unusual; whenever we are able to let go of something, we usually discover that there are other things hidden underneath, waiting for their turn for our attention. I’ve often had this happen when I’m getting a massage; when one muscle relaxes, another says “What about me?” That’s the way of the spiritual life as well. As soon as we think we have one aspect of our spiritual lives “under control,” something else jumps out and says, “Okay, it’s my turn now!”

I believe that all of this is the Holy Spirit’s way of keeping us humble and honest about our need for God. In the same way that we rely on each other in community, if we are honest, we cannot do it all without help. We were made to be social creatures.

Does your Lenten discipline have a social aspect to it? I thought mine didn’t, but then I realized that sugar addiction is so common in our culture that by speaking the truth about my Lenten discipline I might well be raising awareness in others of their own addictions.

bee in rosemaryDSC_2906And then there’s the healthy relationship with sweet things, which is at least one of my ultimate goals. There are bees all over the blooming plants in our front yard. The honey they make is not an addiction; it is essential to their survival.

What is truly essential to your survival? In what ways have you covered it up by focusing on other things—perhaps one or more of those addictions I’ve been talking about? Is there a true hunger for God lurking under one or more of your other hungers?

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Power Sabbath?

This past week I gave a pair of talks on Sabbath to a group of clergy. Because of the unpredictability of pastoral needs, plus the fact that Sunday is a work day, clergy often find it difficult to take a day of rest and rejuvenation each week. They can plan a certain day off, but often pastoral emergencies, funerals and parish needs will interrupt, and clergy find themselves facing another week without any time to reconnect with the God they have sworn to serve.

I’ve discovered that there are certain similarities between the lives of clergy and the lives of freelancers who are working to get their businesses up and running. I find it difficult to say no to any job because I am well aware of the ebb and flow of freelancing work. I find myself wanting to build up as many clients as possible, so that the work is steady—even if sometimes that means it is overwhelming. Between my spiritual and my editing and writing work, I cannot recall a day when I did not do something for one “job” or the other.

This is not conducive to a balanced life—but unfortunately it is the norm in our culture. We have become human doings instead of human beings. We are a long way from the days when my paternal granddad insisted on a work-free Sunday, taking his family for drives and picnics in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. He was a very strict Presbyterian and I imagine that his Sabbath observance often arose from a legalistic approach to the Gospel, but I feel the need to mimic the spirit behind his taking a day off, even if I don’t make the time to head out on a picnic every Sunday.

Sunday is a work day at our house—especially today, as Holy Trinity is having a work day to finish preparing our new retreat center for its first group of guests this week. I didn’t have time yesterday to take a full day off—but I did make time to pray, and when my prayer time was officially over, I found I could not move from the chair. My body—and spirit—craved more. And so I sat, and dozed, for another half hour or so. When I was conscious I silently invited God to be with me. Eventually I found my body willing to move again, and the idea for this blog in my head, so I returned to the computer, refreshed and ready for at least a little more work.

DSC_6968 looking backI began my first presentation to the clergy last week with a 4-minute guided meditation which took them to a place that was sacred to them, and invited them into a conversation with Jesus, then an opportunity to just sit with him in silence and reflection. I then told them that, just as many in our culture now take Power Naps, they had just experienced a Power Sabbath. It’s a first step toward regaining that critical balance of action and contemplation, work and stillness, in a culture that’s become obsessed with activity and accomplishment.

When was the last time you took an entire day off from “work,” however you need to define that term? How might you seek to regain some sense of Sabbath in your life?



Making a Lenten—and Lifetime—Commitment

This year I decided to go “old school” for Lent: I’m giving up sweets. As I mentioned two weeks ago, I’ve been addicted to sugar for many years. I’ve come up with some darn good strategies to avoid addressing the issue, but it’s time to stop, for a lot of reasons, including my health, my energy level for work, and my own integrity. And saying it “out loud,” on this blog, helps to make it more real—to commit to making this change in my life.

For many years I’ve talked about how the goal of Lent is to draw us closer to God. I’ve invited people to think about taking on a discipline for Lent, rather than giving up something. For example, taking on the discipline of doing a random act of kindness every day, rather than giving up chocolate. Or sharing your Gospel love with someone, somehow, during each day of Lent. Living out the Gospel message is more likely to help you grow closer to God than denying yourself a certain type of food.

However, in the past few weeks I’ve realized that there are more layers to this Lenten discipline thing. You see, if a certain type of food is an addiction, then it’s already getting in the way of being connected with God. When the thought crossed my mind, “would I even be the same person if I stopped eating sugar?” I knew that the question also held the answer. As long as I am using sugar the way others use alcohol or drugs, I am not living the life that I was created by God to live.

DSC_1954And so, there is fruit on my plate instead of candy this Lent. For the next few weeks I will find the discipline, one day at a time, to snack on crackers instead of chocolate—and, even more important, to turn to God in prayer whenever I feel that urge to reach for the sugar. Because I am created by God to be sweet enough without it.

Have you taken on a Lenten discipline? Feel free to share it out loud, in the comments section below, so that all who read it can support you in living out this commitment, during Lent and even beyond.


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Birds and Buds

We have a fruit tree near the front of the house. When we moved in I thought it was an apple tree, but a plant professional friend of ours says it’s an apricot. Our first spring here it blossomed prolifically, but no fruit ever appeared. At this point I cannot recall if we had a late frost, but I do know others in the area had plenty of apricots on their trees. I thought it more likely that the tree was suffering from malnutrition, since I made no time to feed it, and doubt that the ill and elderly prior occupant of our home had been feeding it, either.

bird in apricot treeThe first buds are blossoming on the apricot again this year, and I really need to make time to purchase and apply some fertilizer. But there could be another reason why the tree did not fruit last year. I was sitting in our prayer/meeting room the other day, looking out the window, and saw finches eating the flower buds.

At the time I was on the phone with someone, and I remember laughing out loud when I made the connection. My mind was busily considering whether I could put some sort of net over the tree to prevent at least the inner buds from being eaten, and it crossed my mind, “Well, you can attempt to control the situation, or you can let nature take its course.”

I’ve already decided that I will attempt to control a small, enclosed vegetable garden we’re constructing on the west side of the house. We’ve bought netting so it can be completely enclosed, which might mean that we can harvest tomatoes and raspberries later this year. But I cannot control everything on this 6.5-acre property. In fact, we’ve decided to let nature take its course on most of this land. The apricot tree literally stands on that border between field and front yard. Perhaps I will let the birds have first crack at the apricots, at least this year.

What in your life are you striving to control? Is it appropriate? Are there places where you might need to step back and let nature take its course?