Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering

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Reconnecting with Joy and Laughter

Last weekend I led a pair of workshops for a women’s retreat at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Tucson. The keynote speaker, Lesley Abrams, is both a clergywoman and a comedienne, and she certainly had us laughing. She also had us focused on reconnecting with joy, and that lightheartedness has stayed with me over the week.

img_3421The weather has also cooled off enough that Henry and I have started walking again in the mornings. Some of the things that have reconnected me with joy and laughter this week are the various ways our neighborhood families are decorating their houses and yards for Halloween. This is my favorite so far, being more creative than most. It’s also a reminder to me that laughter can erupt out of the very earth if we will just bend our minds in that direction….

I tend to be a pretty serious person. As this blog aptly illustrates, I think deeply and widely, focus on making spiritual connections, and generally ponder the weighty matters related to finding meaning in life. And—this week I’m being reminded of the need for balance in my life: for laughter, joy, dance, and beauty.

One of the places I’m finding beauty right now is not in autumn leaves (the only plant around here that seems to put on a bit of autumn color is the ocotillo, whose leaves turn yellow and drop off when the weather dries out). Instead, the desert is again—or still—in bloom. I’ve not previously thought about autumn as the season for blossoms, but that’s another way that life is different in the Sonoran Desert. (If you want to see photos of the various blooms I’m encountering this week, I invite you to follow my Instagram feed, or catch them on Facebook.)

If you are also one of those people who tends to think deeply and seriously, I invite you to seek lightheartedness this week. All the children out trick-or-treating tomorrow provide a great opportunity (if you live in the US) to reconnect with the lighthearted joy of young children. Fall festivals and carnivals provide other opportunities for joy and laughter. And if you tend toward lightheartedness naturally, thank you for providing those opportunities for people like me to lighten up! May my other posts help you find some serious balance in your daily life.



Revisioning My SMART Goals

dsc_9647cLast week I reflected on how Alison Kirkpatrick’s Oneing article has pushed me to reconsider my understanding of success (and its arenas) on a very basic level. I realize, at a deeper level, that my ministry is not aimed at a national-level stage, or even the “thousand true fans” that are supposed to be enough to “make a living” in this social media-oriented world. Instead, I accept that I can—and already do—make a significant difference in the spiritual life of those I am gifted to know, one relationship at a time.

But fifty years of cultural indoctrination will not evaporate from my brain overnight—especially since the messages keep coming. It feels to me like we’re constantly being told that there’s just one way to succeed, and it has to do with volume: how far we reach, how much product we sell, how much money we make. This shift from thinking about quantity to recognizing the value of quality will take some time.

I’ve already taken some steps. I still have goals, but I have dropped one of my three SMART Goals in order to pick up another—to live more fully into the Holy Land travel opportunity that Henry and I will, God willing, experience in January (I’ve shared a few more prayerful reflections on that journey on the Ordinary Mystic blog). Another SMART goal has been pushed back because the right collaborator has not yet come along—and I’m trusting God that there is a right collaborator, thus again choosing to focus on quality.

I have also reframed what SMART actually means in my life. No longer does SMART stand for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound (although there will still be times when those attributes matter). Now it stands for Spirit-led, Manageable, Accountable (to God), Realistic, and (ultimately) Transitory. These attributes mirror my vocation and my calling, which is ministry to ministers—which is each one of us who loves others on the “frontlines” of life.

What might be some SMART goals in your life? Where are you called to be Spirit-led and Accountable, take on tasks that are Manageable and Realistic, while also accepting the Transitory nature of what you’re invited by God to be doing?

Can you trust God to hold the larger picture?


Leaving the Big Arena

One of the great gifts that comes with my work—and I know I’ve mentioned this before—is the opportunity to read what I edit. Whether it’s a teaching novel on church conflict or a mountaintop memoir of a life-changing religious experience, I am blessed to ponder and learn and grow through what I read. Recently I read an article for the latest edition of Oneing by a young woman, Alison Kirkpatrick, who was reflecting on raising feminist sons and daughters—and on the very different agendas that she and her age cohort are bringing to the conversation on gender equality.

This is what I read, and it blew me away:

Feminism of the sixties and seventies started down the path of trying to beat men at their own game by being even stronger and more aggressive. (We just have to look at the fashions of the eighties to know it’s true.) But many women of my generation disavowed feminism for that very reason. We got sick of trying to “out-alpha” the men, so we quit playing, which has really angered some long-time feminists.

But this isn’t a case of young women taking our ball and going home. We didn’t quit because we were losing; it’s because we woke up to the fact that the game’s not worth playing! We never got a say about the game in the first place. We didn’t help make the rules. We didn’t get to pick the venue or the referee. We didn’t get any input on how the points were scored or what determined the winner. The game was handed to us, with men favored at every turn. The second-wave feminists were so determined to get on the field that they were willing to get their teeth kicked in, over and over again, just for the privilege of playing the game. It was undoubtedly a necessary step, but a new generation of feminists is calling bullshit on the whole system. They are sick and tired of having to compete, succeed, and perform on every level: personally, professionally, physically, civically, spiritually, organically, etc., and then face criticism if they don’t meet some predetermined cultural standard.

Young women are “leaning in,” but not to the patriarchal, winner-take-all game. Even if it means never getting their turn in the big arenas (coincidentally, the ones men built), young feminists—of both genders—are trying to invent a new game, one where everyone can play to their own strengths.[1]

This entire segment of the article felt important when I read it, but what really got my attention was young women choosing not to try to prove themselves in the big, traditional arenas that males have built. I had not consciously realized that this is what I have been trying to do, over and over, time after time, in one way or another—until I was confronted with her words. They stopped me, stunned me, convicted me—and opened a window that I hadn’t known I was keeping closed.

For much of the past dozen years, as I have worked at “growing” my spiritual ministry in a variety of ways, I’ve had this mostly unconscious goal of trying to stand out on an increasingly global stage. My work for the Center for Action and Contemplation—whose founder, Richard Rohr, is indeed known around the world as a spiritual teacher—convinced me that this idea was possible, and watching the TED talks of well-known women like Elizabeth Gilbert and Brené Brown made it seem like I could join those ranks.

dsc_5059cBut somehow, it just wasn’t happening…and now, I think I know why. In my heart and soul, I’m really not cut out to be such a public figure. I knew that—but my ego didn’t want to let go of this idea of rising to the “top” of my field. So now, thanks to Alison Kirkpatrick, I have a way to bend my mind around taking a different approach. I can consciously choose to walk away from the “race to the top” and instead recognize the many ways in which my ministerial strengths are already impacting the world, one relationship at a time. One-with-one relationships are really where I belong. I knew that, deep in my heart, but it’s going to take some time to reorient the rest of myself on this new pathway.

Some of this, I believe, is about trusting God, that all will work out when I am willing to let the Holy Spirit be in control of the agenda. And that’s another piece that I’m picking up from women like Alison Kirkpatrick: that believing and acting as if we are the one in control actually prevents us from living out our spiritual vocations in the world. It is when we let ourselves be moved and transformed by what we encounter—even a few words on a page—that God is able to transform the world through us, one simple, profound action at a time. Then we do not need the big arenas; each moment is the only arena that matters.

[1] Alison Kirkpatrick, “Raising a Feminist Son,” Oneing, Vol. 4 No. 2, 2016.



Introducing Psalm Flights

Poetry continues to flow through my life and I am grateful. It’s taking a variety of forms, and one of them is a series of responses to the Psalms. I’ve found myself taking a Lectio Divina-type approach to the psalms I encounter on Sundays: reading through them again later, paying attention to what I notice, then responding in the form of poetry. It’s been illuminating, sometimes difficult, and ultimately revealing and gratifying.

I’ve already posted one of the results of what I’m calling Psalm Flights: “Toggle Back to God.” Today I thought I would share a couple more examples of what has come forth through this process. As you read and reflect on these poems that have emerged from my prayerful reflections on Psalm 1, I invite you to consider whether God might be inviting you to incorporate Lectio Divina into your own spiritual life in some way.


Verse 1: Happy are those who do not…take the path that sinners tread.


Where are the street signs, O God?

I want to know which roads lead sin-ward

Which skyward

But you do not label them so freely.


At this moment

Each thoroughfare begins in the same place:

Right here, right now.

It’s impossible for me to know

The path that sinners tread.


And sodsc_0627

I could spin in circles,

Then step out in whichever direction I face;

I could poll passersby

For their opinions on each avenue;

I could borrow binoculars

And survey vistas unfolding before my eyes.


Or perhaps

I might sit under this tree

Safely out of traffic lanes

Close my eyes

Become still and

Search my soul for the way forward.


Verse 6b: the way of the wicked will perish.


Well, God,

It is the innocent who are perishing.






So many of my country’s people

Your people

Are striding our streets

With video-game goggles,

Believing all the answers are bullets.


The enemy here is


Have we really trudged through centuries

Come so far

Only to arrive on this same small path of hatred?


How long, O Lord?

My breaking heart may not hold out

Long enough to bear your timing.


© Shirin McArthur 2016



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More Firsts in This Unfolding Journey

How many of you were certain of what you wanted to be, and do, when you grew up? How many of you ended up following that road? How many of you have had absolutely no surprising changes along the journey of life?


I would bet that everyone has experienced a number of unexpected twists and turns on the road of life. For myself, if you had told me five years ago that I would be happily self-employed today, I would have rolled my eyes and laughed. I was so caught in a tattered web of my own making, unwilling to see possibilities or trust in God’s providence…. I can now look back on that child (who was in her mid-forties!) and have some sense of compassion for her fears and her pain…but also with some sadness for what she probably missed by living afraid for so many years. There is no doubt that I learned and grew—and God can transform all of our choices in the crucible of Love—but I do wonder….

And part of the result of that wondering is that I keep taking risks. I took two more this week. First, I submitted a bunch of poems to my first poetry contest. This is a big step because it is the first time I have, in essence, put my work up against that of others. Most of the reason I did it was because I’m curious. I’ve had some positive feedback from workshop leaders and friends, but this is taking my poetry to a newer level. So I’ll see what happens….

The other thing I’ve done is to commit to a second blog post every week—for the blog Ordinary Mystic. (I came across this blog when Alana Levandoski and James Finley collaborated on a new contemplative folk album called Sanctuary, which is powerful…one refrain has become my newest “anytime” prayer). I reached out to Ordinary Mystic about possibly posting some of my poetry and got instead an invitation to consider posting on contemplative preparations for my Holy Land trip. That invitation really took hold of my heart and wouldn’t let go, so this past week I said yes. As of this writing, we’re still working out the details, but I will keep you posted. It’s an awesome new step on my journey, a step that I wouldn’t have taken if I wasn’t much more willing to take risks than I once was—when I thought I knew what I would be when I grew up!

When in your life have the surprising twists and turns revealed riches far beyond what you could possibly have imagined? Have those gifts emboldened you to take further risks along the way?

Are there assumptions you might still be holding about your path that might be keeping you from seeing God’s invitations along the way?