Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


Birdfeeders and the Spiritual Life

dsc_3396-cropWe’ve still got hummingbirds here in southern Arizona, despite the shortened winter days. It turns out that some species stay here all year long. Unlike the stereotypical late November in the northern US, we are not awaiting the first snowfall and seeing our breath become frozen fog when we walk out the door in the morning. Many of us are still walking around in short sleeves on any given afternoon.

However, culturally, Christmas has arrived here in the desert, too. Santa, sleigh, and reindeer in the malls; holiday parties; snow-laden commercials—we’ve got them all. In the hectic bustle of the season, there is plenty to keep our attention pulled away from what’s right in front of us, each and every day.

I recently refilled the birdfeeders around our house. We had let them stand empty when it was too hot to be outdoors, listening to birds sing and watching their antics. The birds didn’t go hungry, I’m sure; they just had to range further afield. These days we’re ready to draw them here again. It didn’t take long; in just a day or two, birds realized our feeders have been tended again.

In a sense, the birds are like us: they make their daily circuit, checking to see what’s been refilled, and often gorging themselves when fresh, new seed or sugar-water has appeared. Our circuit, however, is very different: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, email, various online news channels. We check each place to see what new thing has arrived for us to gobble down, digest, and integrate into our lives.

A friend of mine posted recently about something that is a challenge for me as well: dipping into these online feeders first thing in the morning. It sets the tone for the day and, given the tone of what we as a country have endured (and continue to endure) this year, this is a problem. How can we possibly be God’s instruments of peace and love in this world if so much of what we gobble down is angry and divisive?

Even those few articles (and more posts) that speak of love and support can be a distraction. We can pretend that liking something is the same as taking action to bring love into the world. But we need to do more—and to do that, we need to be firmly rooted in our spiritual lives. Modern wisdom teachers—many of whose words we can find online—are helpful, but God needs to come first.

And so, in this liturgical season of Advent, I am renewing my commitment to more intentionally choosing which feeders I visit, and to making God-time my first stop of the day. I might miss out on some of the birdseed (our online feeders fill so quickly, with new seed constantly flowing in!), but there will always be more. I’m also a firm believer that when I do show up at a certain feeder, what I need to see will be there (including, just two days ago, the fact that I’m going to be a great-grandmother again!). Spirit has worked that way plenty of times, and will do so again, I’m sure.

Meanwhile, why not take a few moments with me to appreciate what’s right in front of you—whether it’s a hummingbird or a nuthatch, an owl or a pigeon. Take some time to get still enough to become aware of God’s ever-loving presence within you. Feel it flow through you. Then share some of that ever-flowing love with those around you, throughout the day.


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Turkey Slinging

When I first met my husband, Henry couldn’t stand to eat turkey on Thanksgiving. This wasn’t because he hates poultry or is a vegetarian; as he likes to say, “I’ve clawed my way too far up the food chain to just eat vegetables.” It also wasn’t because of some childhood Thanksgiving trauma. Instead, it was because of turkey slinging.

What’s turkey slinging, you ask? No, it’s not the carnivore’s version of pumpkin chunking. It’s the family nickname for a tradition that Henry started when his two sons were small. Early on Thanksgiving morning, he and his sons would drive across the unusually quiet city of Boston to a small community hall where they would join a brigade of volunteers in putting together close to a thousand Thanksgiving meals for local elders and shut-ins.

Turkey slinging was a family affair and functioned like a well-oiled machine. Every age group had its jobs. The smallest children were assigned to place napkins or an apple or orange in each paper sack, while older children handled drinks, rolls, and plastic utensils. Busy moms and grandmas supervised the cooking of large trays of sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, stuffing, green bean casserole, and gravy, while teens and young adults formed an intricate assembly line to fill carryout containers with dinner and divvy up portions of pumpkin pie. Still other adult volunteers were in charge of filling, labeling, and grouping bags and sending out teams of drivers across the neighborhood in cars jam-packed with the unmistakable smell of Thanksgiving.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy the time I joined in the fun, Henry’s sons were teens who had joined Henry on the brigade of turkey carvers who, over the space of three or four hours, dispatched around 35 carcasses and inevitably ended up wearing bits of skin and fat and reeking of turkey. After all the meals had been sent out and the hall cleaned up, we would take his sons over to their mother’s house, where they would happily devour turkey with all the trimmings, but Henry just couldn’t stomach that. Before I came along, I think he often just went home and ate nothing at all. After I appeared on the scene, we would have Cornish hens or duck, and later pernil, a Puerto Rican roast pork shoulder which is still our culinary contribution to most Thanksgiving feasts to this day. (It does a great job of smelling up the house as it roasts, without ever drying out like a turkey!)

These days we are not turkey slinging, but I still remember it fondly: the camaraderie in the unheated hall, the laughter and conversation, the small children toddling about, the smell (which never bothered me as I slopped mashed potatoes into containers!)—and the underlying understanding that every container we filled represented a gift of warmth and love and freshly cooked food on this bountiful national holiday.

We haven’t slung turkey in a while now. We left Boston in 2006 but, even before that, other priorities slowly usurped that hallowed tradition in our lives. Some years, I hadn’t even thought about it—but this year is different. This year I’ve been revisiting those memories, and reconnecting with the underlying need to give of my own abundance to those less fortunate than myself.

However, I don’t think I will seek someplace to turkey sling this Thanksgiving morning. This need feels deeper. It demands more of me; once a year is not enough. As I said last week, I’m on a quest for the right response to this serious shift in our American culture. Turkey slinging is emblematic, but not sufficient. Turkey slinging shines light on the journey, but it is not the goal. And so I will keep praying, listening, searching.

For what are you praying, listening, and searching in this Thanksgiving season? Are there family or cultural traditions that are speaking to you in new ways this year?


Tapping into the Really Long View

This past week has been full of upheaval. The 2016 American presidential election has provided more than enough drama, trauma, and surprises—and I am ready for a break. I freely admit to crying in Henry’s arms the morning after election day, as my body and my fears wrestled with what my brain was only beginning to comprehend. My heart—and prayers—go out to all who have been abused by men in positions of power, whatever forms that abuse may have taken. My heart and prayers go out to those who fear their nightmares are now likely to come true, including a young woman I know who is able to fight cancer only because her medical bills are being paid through the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare—one of the first items Trump declared during the campaign he would immediately repeal upon taking power (and yes, I use that word intentionally) as President.

I’ve been reading and reflecting upon the responses of my friends and colleagues to the election and ensuing events. There’s a lot of grief, of prayer, of commitment to act for change and encouragement for others to do the same. There’s a lot of discussion about the importance of responding to hate with love. There are a lot of people marching, while others are signing petitions to encourage the Electoral College to vote in line with the popular vote, despite political pressure or financial penalties.

I’ve also been pondering the frustration and anger behind the votes cast in this election. For a variety of reasons, voters chose candidates who clearly promised change for a broken political system—and yes, I believe that it is broken. Everything from egocentrism to racism and misogyny have been on full display, and I am excusing none of that. Instead, I am doing my best to sit with all of it and not jump too easily to conclusions. This is a complex country with a vast array of problems in need of attention. It is difficult to hold it all with love, rather than react out of fear, anger, and/or an us-vs-them mentality—but I believe we must do that if we are ever to find common ground.

dsc_6381In the midst of all this, Henry and I were on vacation in Southern California. After my very necessary tears, we got in our car and headed south along the coast. We stopped to visit one of the early Spanish missions, San Juan Capistrano. Here we heard (again) the story of Spain’s expansion of territorial boundaries through the establishment of mission outposts and conversion of native peoples to Christianity. We wandered through ruined and rebuilt church buildings, sat in pleasant courtyards, and admired stunning desert plantings that have survived for decades on this sacred property.

As I pondered, took photos, basked in the warm day, and enjoyed the antics of visiting school children, I realized that these ancient Spanish missions provide a possible object lesson in taking a very long view on the upheaval caused by the election. The mission of San Juan Capistrano was founded by Spanish priests and their military protectors in 1775, but just a few short weeks afterward, the entire Spanish party retreated to San Diego because of rumors of revolt. It wasn’t until a year later that they returned to try again—this time led by Fr. Junipero Serra, who was recently canonized as a saint for his work in establishing this and other California missions.

For generations, our culture has glorified these missions, focusing on European colonization as bringing civilization to a savage wasteland. But Serra did not act in a vacuum, and others are now speaking out with a different perspective on his actions. There are faithful Christians who do not see Serra as a saint for bringing Christianity to California’s native peoples, but rather as a co-conspirator in the natives’ oppression by the Spanish empire. And history would seem to bear that out; rather than providing generations of peace and stability, the missional experiment actually lasted less than sixty years before being abandoned.

This is what resonates for me as I turn my attention back to this week’s election results. It is impossible to know at this point how Donald Trump will ultimately affect the United States of America. Certainly his rhetoric has been hateful and divisive, but we do not know the long-term effects of his presidency. Voting records show that he’s changed political parties at least five times, and he thrives on being unpredictable. There is no way to know how his leadership and its consequences will be viewed three decades from now, much less three hundred years.

dsc_6343The buildings of San Juan Capistrano have withstood some incredible tests of time. While some parts of the building complex were formed of adobe and literally melted back into the earth from which they came, the shell of the stone church remains as a silent testament to the big-picture intentions of Serra and his colleagues—without giving voice to the inevitable political squabbles that most likely defined their daily lives in the closing decades of the eighteenth century. Christianity has withstood some terribly destructive and oppressive seasons in its life…and the USA will as well.

I freely admit that this big-picture view does not help my friend fund her cancer treatment if Trump repeals Obamacare. Every action has ripple effects that extend far beyond what any leader can possibly imagine. The same was true for Serra and his colleagues. Native people were eventually driven to the missions, not out of a desire for Christianity, but out of hunger, as the Spanish settlers and their livestock unwittingly destroyed the delicate ecosystem that had sustained the natives for generations. There is no way to know the consequences of this election; we are only beginning to live into this journey.

On a personal level, I also do not yet have a sense of how I am called to respond—but I do know that I need to do something. Prayers are not enough—although they are certainly critical. I need to love my neighbor in concrete, practical ways, but I am not yet sure what those will look like. Instead, in this moment, I will watch and listen, learn and support, and pray for everyone who is in pain as a result of this changing tide. I will trust God that there is a bigger picture unfolding, in which I will play a small, and probably nameless, part. I’m not here for glory—and certainly not for a presidential title or eventual sainthood. I’m here to embody love to the best of my ability, one day, one choice at a time. How that might reflect on me, or my country, three hundred years from now is out of my hands.

I invite you to join me in living out this paradox: both taking the long view and also seeking how you are called to respond, right here, right now. Who needs your prayer, your support, your striving to make a difference in these tumultuous times?




Recently I’ve found myself thinking about the movement of peoples—in both ancient and modern times. No matter our heritage, our earliest ancestors were nomads who moved about in search of food. Whether Anglo-Saxon or Jew or Arab, Native American or African, there was a time before villages and towns, a time when we were all hunters and gatherers—all pilgrims on a journey.

And then, one group at a time, most of our ancestors learned how to cultivate grains, domesticate animals, and settle down in one habitable place. Not everyone settled; there are still nomadic peoples around the world, from Bedouins in the desert to Sami in the arctic. These folks are mostly “pastoralists,” leading herds about in their search for pasture. But most of the rest of us have learned to call a certain place “home.” The idea that everyone should have a home is a primary driver of culture and society; being “homeless” is considered one of the worst things that can happen to a human being—even if some of those who live on the streets are at peace with the choices they’ve made.

We also have developed broader cultural norms about home. If our family comes from a certain region or state, we tend to think of that as home. I edited a book last year about a woman whose grief journey around her aunt’s death led her to reconnect with her homeland and culture (the book is still forthcoming, but you can read her reflections about her regional homeland here). With Thanksgiving just a few weeks away (and recently celebrated by our Canadian neighbors), there are lots of people who will be talking about going “home for the holidays,” or wishing that they could.

Perhaps it is the upcoming holiday season that has brought the concept of home to my mind. But it could also be the books I’ve been reading in preparation for my upcoming time in Israel. For generations, at the end of every Passover Seder, Jewish people scattered around the world would say: “Next year in Jerusalem!” I hear in that phrase a clear religious and cultural way of stating that Jerusalem is home. (Evidently those who now live in Israel say, “Next year in Jerusalem, the rebuilt!” referencing the Temple.)

Some Christians, by contrast, say that we are to think of no place on earth as our home, because our only home is in heaven. Other Christians say that Jesus clearly meant the Realm of God to be realized—indeed, incarnated, through our efforts—right here on earth, right now, right where we are. This puts a very different spin on the idea of home. The cultural phrase, “Home is where the heart is,” would clearly seem to speak to this idea.

img_3477As I finish my first year in this house, I am feeling more “at home” here, but I am not yet feeling any deep emotional connection with it. Perhaps that will come. I am grateful, however, for the many homes I have inhabited over the course of my life, and for the deeper understanding that God is present in any, and every, place that I might call home.

What does the concept of home mean for you? What makes someplace home? Is “home” spiritual, cultural, both, something else?