Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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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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Skyrunner


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?