Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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Finding My Way to Prayer


It’s confession time. Even spiritual directors are imperfect. Wildly imperfect. We get busy, we take on too much, we get distracted, we “fall off the prayer wagon.” I am not immune to any of this.

I had a big, powerful dream this past week. I’m going to share some of it because it spoke very clearly to me about the pitiful state of my personal prayer life, and it feels like a good parable that might be meaningful to others as well.

In the dream I’m in a big, fancy hotel, trying to get to my room on the fifth floor. I get in an elevator, push 5, then my mind wanders. Suddenly I “wake up” to discover I’m the only one left in the elevator. I step out when the elevator stops, but I’m not at the fifth floor. Instead there’s a huge dining area before me, but it’s closed off by a low wall. It’s clearly a very fancy buffet—tiny little desserts are laid out close by. I realize it’s a wedding banquet, but I know I don’t have an invitation.

I turn around and see a wall where very fancy types of free tea and coffee are laid out, but I’m not interested. I then go around the corner and find some free food, but what I see are desserts and, upon closer inspection, it appears that most of the icing has been eaten off the tops of the chocolate cupcakes. But they look good and I want something to eat, so I take one anyway, and put it in a white paper bag to carry with me.

I turn and go back to the elevator bank. I push the button, but then wander off, exploring, and miss the elevator when it comes by. I come back and push the button again and try to stay nearby, but still manage to miss it a second time. Then a third time I do come back, stick close, get on, and find I’m in an elevator that only goes to floors 13 and above.

I get off that elevator when it stops, then get on again, intending to go back to the ground floor and get on the right elevator. I finally manage to do that, and get to the fifth floor. I walk off to find I’m standing in an outdoor area. It’s been raining, but has stopped. I find the faucet handle that would turn on a rain barrel, but I need to choose where to point the hose. I see a low, almost empty lake and know I should point it in that direction. I turn on the faucet, stop and start it once, and the water initially comes out brown and dirty, then flows clean and I watch the lake slowly begin to fill up.

Then I woke up.DSC_3846

What a very powerful metaphor I found this to be. I can’t find my room, my place, for prayer, in large part because I’m wandering and distracted. I am not yet invited into the heavenly banquet—although I can see it. There is sufficient free food and drink available now, “outside” that heavenly banquet, but I choose to go for the stuff that’s been tasted by others and partially devoured—and is full of sugar, so it isn’t good for me—because I want what’s easily available rather than taking the time to venture further in search of real sustenance.

I am distracted and wander off, so that I miss the way home multiple times. I finally get to my territory and the lake is almost dry. I’m parched. I don’t need fancy cupcakes; I need clear, clean water from heaven. And there is free water from heaven, but I’ve turned off the faucet so my lake is almost dry. I fumble to get the faucet on, and the water doesn’t initially run clear because of all the dirt that’s accumulated in the system. But I let it run and it doesn’t take long for the dirt to clear its way out of the system and good clean water to begin to fill my lake.

So…does any of this speak to you? Have you had dry, distracted spells in your prayer life? What do you need to do to get the abundant water from heaven flowing freely into the lake of your soul?


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Teach Us to Pray


In the Revised Common Lectionary (a carefully organized schedule through which the entire Bible is read on Sundays over the course of three years), the gospel reading for this week is the first part of Luke 11, where Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them to pray. Last week I shared a bit of where my prayer journey has taken me in recent weeks—into poetry. In Instagram this week, I also shared some images and questions about our patterns of prayer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One image that came to me this past week is that prayer is like two-way mirror glass. Prayer reflects us back to ourselves, so that we might better understand what we bring to our relationship with God. If we pay attention to what we bring to prayer, and how we pray, we will learn a lot about ourselves and our priorities.

But, at the same time, God can also look at us through that glass and see us clearly. God understands us better than we do ourselves. Then, when God is ready—and/or perhaps feels that we are ready—God shines light from the other side and glass that was once reflective becomes transparent. For a moment, we can see through. We can somehow catch a glimpse of the Divine Spirit that gives us life and teaches us love.

And once we catch a glimpse, we are never the same. We hunger for more glimpses. That hunger draws us back to prayer, and to recognizing those aspects of ourselves that we see in the mirror. We learn to support in ourselves those things that are good, and to release from our grasp those things which are not. And we humbly ask God for assistance, as we learn to nurture the good and leave the rest behind.

What is your concept or image of prayer at this time in your life? What other concepts or images have enlightened your journey at earlier stages in your life? How might this image that I shared today support your own understanding of prayer? How is Jesus still teaching you to pray?


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Poetry and Prayer


Back in April I committed to putting my personal writing first in my workdays. In rather stark contrast with prior attempts at doing this, I have stuck with it this time. Almost every weekday I have sat down to write, and on those days when circumstances have prevented it, I’ve been able to pick up the habit again the next day, rather than losing it in my rush into other things.

Perhaps part of the reason that I’ve been able to keep doing this is because the very act of sitting down to write poetry is feeding me. It is feeding some hungry part of my soul that I hadn’t realized was starving. I’d had inklings, but for the most part I’d ignored them. Now, I sit down, become still, and wait and watch to see what appears. Some days a dream image will pull me in. Other days an experience or conversation will elicit reflection. Sometimes I just sit and let snippets begin to flow through my mind, writing them down as they come.

I am realizing that this poetry is also, inevitably, a form of prayer. It brings me into the present moment—where I am open to what is currently available in and to my soul, rather than pondering the past or fearing the future. God is only truly present to us in the present moment—because when our minds meander into past or future, we are lost in memory or musing and God is not present there.

One morning this past week, the flow of snippets eventually led to this poem about prayer. I pray that it will encourage you to consider your own prayer life….DSC_0485 fern

 

Sip serenity from

slim stem of frosted fern

 

Elephant thoughts

mangle mystical memories

 

Shake head

Begin again

Every morsel of moment shelters sustenance.


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Learning Confidence from Flowers


I read an interesting article this past week, about women and men and confidence. It’s well worth the read, especially if you are a woman or wish to be supportive of the women in your life. It talks about various studies that show how women have an “acute lack of confidence” which prevents us from taking action, risking failure, and believing we can make our impact on the world.

I certainly have experienced what they describe. My inability to believe that I could be successful on my own, doing work that I am skilled at performing, kept me “trapped” (frankly, because of my own mindset) in unhealthy employment situations for far longer than was necessary. As a freelancer, I have had to overcome my reticence and learn how to increase my rates—because I no longer worked within a system that automatically gave me raises for good performance. I have also, in retrospect, missed opportunities because I thought I had to be perfect, rather than “good enough,” to take the chance, and risk, of that next step.

DSC_3449cInterestingly, as I’ve been contemplating this article, what keeps coming to mind are big, showy flowers. The night-blooming cereus is only the most recent example to come to my awareness, but many plants don’t stand out until their flowers catch the eye and wow the onlooker. For plants, those flowers are critical to long-term survival. Plants must have, or develop, confidence in their blooms if they want to attract pollinating insects that will propagate the species.

Of course, plants come by their flowers honestly and naturally. They don’t appear to have any capacity for crippling internal dialogue: “What if my flower isn’t perfect enough? What if it won’t attract the right type or number of insects? The flower to my left had incredible success last season; why am I even trying to compete with that?” Instead, every plant makes the most of nature and nurture, whether the rainfall or nutrients were lean or plentiful, and blossoms to the best of its ability.

And unless we happen to be master gardeners, we probably couldn’t analyze why flower X is more or less “successful” than flower Y. But our “nurture” has sure taught us that we must evaluate every “success” around us—to our detriment, I believe. As Jesus said in Matthew (6:28–29), “Why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.”

One of the key takeaways from the article—for me, anyway—was that acting with confidence actually increases confidence. When we take risks, even if they involve “failure” and thus become opportunities for learning, we grow in confidence. But we have to “show up” and take those risks. It turns out that girls quit competing in things like team sports when they lose confidence—and thus miss out on valuable, confidence-building lessons about how to own triumphs and survive setbacks.

We each have our own splendor—our own specific, unique mix of gifts from God. We were created to blossom, each in our own ways. Whether we are woman or man, our confidence should not be placed in some misguided idea of perfection. Instead, it should be rooted in the fact that we are created to blossom, and the world needs the flowers we have to offer. I do not need to compete with the power of your flower; instead, I need to nurture my own nature and believe that God has called me to do just that. It’s time to stop thinking so much, step out with confidence, and act.

When in your life have you lacked confidence? When have you been able to blossom? Where in your life might you find opportunities to encourage younger generations of women, and men, in the art of confidence-building?


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Patchwork Road


I made a quick trip back to New Mexico this past week. For the first time, I found myself consciously viewing the area where I used to live from a visitor’s perspective. I actually stopped and took pictures at a number of points on the drive, in part with an eye to Instagram posts, but also from the perspective of capturing the amazing summer clouds. And, with my photographer’s eye “switched on,” I found myself noticing things that had not caught my attention when I lived in the area.

IMG_3009This patch of roadway between Lordsburg and Silver City caught my attention because of its patchwork nature. Like so many roads in this country, its rough spots have been patched over, to the point that, in some places, it actually looked like a patchwork quilt, complete with a different color trim.

This road represents, for me, our own life journeys. God lays the foundation, including the shoulders of the road. We come along and lay down other layers: our own agendas, hopes and dreams. These strata are comprised of everything from the food we eat to the moves we make. Then, over time, things happen: accidents and scrapes, cracks and bulges. Others come along and either increase the stresses on our journey or help us patch things over.

At some point, we must recognize that each of our journeys are not, fundamentally, ours at all. Each is laid upon a base—our bodies and souls—that was crafted by our Creator. Each is profoundly influenced by those we meet along the journey, who either help or hinder us along the way—as we also share our own patchwork contributions with others. Yes, we do our part to fashion our journey—but even the choices we make are influenced by the teaching and opinions of others. Just as the scraps in a traditional patchwork quilt are collected from a variety of sources and pieced into a new creation, our journeys are never ours alone.

Of course, this also means that we can look with delight—or sometimes chagrin—at the patchwork contributions we make to others’ roads. Our capacity for influencing others’ journeys comes with responsibility—for contributing patches instead of stresses, resurfacing instead of additional cracks.

Who have been the most significant patchwork contributors to your road? When have you been able to provide patches for others’ journeys? Have you taken time, then or later, to give thanks to God, and to those others, for their support?