Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


The Crime of Coexistence

This is not a fluffy Christmas post—but it is definitely a Christmas post.

The first Christmas was not fluffy. It was hard. Mary and Joseph were on the road, away from home. They were on the road because the occupying Roman authorities decreed that their census be taken in the husband’s homeland, rather than his current place of residence. If tradition is to be believed, Mary gave birth on her own, in a dark, smelly, cold stable in the middle of the night. She might not have understood about germs and the possibility of infection, but she would have understood many other kinds of fears.

The land of Israel was an urban crossroads between Egypt and Mesopotamia. All sorts of people traveled through the land—and wanted to control it, as the Hebrews learned, time and time again, over the centuries. During Jesus’ lifetime, the Romans were the occupiers, but in other centuries it was the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Philistines. And yet…the Jews of Jesus’ time reserved their greatest hatred for the ones who were closest to themselves: the Samaritans.

The Samaritans were Hebrews who lived in what had formerly been the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Their territory was overrun and occupied by Assyria in 722 BCE and many Samaritans intermarried with the Assyrians and worshiped their gods. A century later, the Southern Kingdom of Judah was overrun by Babylonians, who carted away the Hebrew leadership into exile for seventy years. When those leaders were allowed to return, the Samaritans resisted their repatriation and the rebuilding of Jerusalem, while the returning Jews looked down upon the Samaritans as being of mixed race and having fallen away from the worship of the one true God.

Isn’t it ironic that we often reserve our bitterest hatred for those who are closest to us, but have made different choices in how to respond to the various challenges and oppressions in our lives? Think about the United States of America—which is now far-too-firmly divided (at least in consciousness) between the Red and Blue States of America. We are all Americans. Yet we reserve our bitterest hatreds for each other, rather than the Russians who might have influenced our political choices or the Chinese and Indians who have surpassed our technological capacity while we’ve been so busy fighting with each other.

Even Jesus had to learn about coexistence, and loving his nearest neighbors. He learned it from the Samaritan woman at the well (see John 4:1–41) and the Canaanite woman who begged him to heal her daughter (see Matthew 15:21–28). They both taught him that his wisdom and his healing power were available to all, that everyone needed what he had to give, and that everyone was worthy of receiving it.

dsc_1387-hheTrue, respectful coexistence is far too often considered a crime—by cultures ancient and modern. God became incarnate in Jesus in part to learn about the crime of coexistence and to make it into a virtue—and a necessity. Our country, our world, has seldom been in greater need of respectful, even loving coexistence. We must learn to love those who are closest to us—who might have made different choices, have different heritage and lineage, but are still our sisters and brothers in these United States of America.

Joy will only come to the World when we live as Jesus learned, and taught. How will you live the crime of respectful coexistence today, and in the days ahead?



Being For

This is not a political post—although it starts there. Please bear with me.

I read an article a couple of weeks ago that posited a number of things about why Trump won the American presidential election—and also stated clearly why current political, economic, and social modalities aren’t working (1) for the many types of people who voted for him, or (2) for those who sat out the election in disgust with the options available.

One thing that struck me in the article was a schematic that talked about four types of responses. Two were personal and two were communal. They say that three are fairly typical responses, and certainly I’ve been seeing them on social media and considering them for myself: personal rage, personal change, and reactionary movements. Rage and movements are reactions “against”; they seek to push back, they foster conflict and negativity. For many years, I have felt that this type of response is insufficient, but I hadn’t been as successful in articulating why, or comprehending another alternative.

A number of elements have conspired to make it crystal clear to me today. A few years ago, a friend and I were discussing the divisiveness that tends to arise in so many Christian organizations. He said something that stuck with me: Those who leave and start another church or denomination will not grow as long as they remain against those they left. They will only grow when they figure out what they are for.

This is the key to the fourth response articulated in the article:

What is called for today is a massive response that…focus[es] on evolving and transforming the collective. What’s missing most is an enabling infrastructure that supports initiatives to move into…co-creating change.

The fourth response is for. Yes, it involves turning our backs on what is against, rather than engaging with it (and thereby giving it additional coverage and power, as the media did with so many issues during the campaign). As I mentioned a couple of months ago, I’ve learned from Alison Kirkpatrick that there is a time and place for leaving structures that do not work for you.

But this fourth response is not just giving up and hiding away. The important thing is to figure out, when you leave, what you are walking toward.

This is a key for the process I’ve been engaged with since the election, and have talked about here on a couple of occasions. I know I need to take action, and I am discerning the particular nature of that action. I am getting closer to something concrete. I now know that it needs to be more than personal change (although that will continue, and I trust it will provide a firm foundation upon which to take action), and it needs to be collective. Whatever I do needs to foster and support systemic change and transformation—not in reaction to what has happened in this country, but because my sisters and brothers around the globe are in need of these transformative changes.

So what does all this have to do with Advent, and Jesus’ birth? Advent isn’t just about remembering an event that took place two thousand years ago. It’s also about preparing for Christ’s return. I’m betting that Christ is aching to transform the inequities in America today, just as he spoke out against them in Palestine. Why hasn’t he come again? This is rather simplistic (I’m sure there’s a lot more to it), but I believe it’s because he’s given us our marching orders and told us that transforming this world is our job.

Yes, sometimes Jesus spoke out against the powers and principalities of his day. But mostly he spoke for a radical, loving way of being and acting in the world:dsc_2758-held-candle

  • Be salt.
  • Give to those who ask.
  • Carry a soldier’s belongings twice as far as you’re obligated to.
  • Care for the person who has been attacked by robbers.
  • Let your light shine where it can give light for others.

As we near the end of Advent, I invite you to take a good look at those four types of responses (personal rage, personal change, reactionary movements, and awareness-based collective action) and reflect on how you tend to act in the world. What are you for?

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Real Life in Nazareth

I’m continuing to prepare for our trip to Israel, and finding much to reflect upon in my reading. In Jesus: A Pilgrimage by James Martin, he talks about how tiny and insignificant Nazareth really was. Scholars estimate that it had two to four hundred people living in it in Jesus’ day. It was so small that it probably didn’t even have a synagogue, which leads scholars to say that Luke’s account of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 4:16–30) could well be incorrect: Nazoreans would have worshipped outdoors and probably didn’t have written scrolls. Jesus probably read from a smaller written text or recited from memory.

Interestingly, Nazareth isn’t listed anywhere in Jewish scripture or the Talmud, nor in the writings of the historian Josephus—and all of them list dozens of other Galilean villages. Archaeologists say “nothing suggests wealth” in their finds in Nazareth; just subsistence agriculture. However, it’s also possible that Jesus was a construction worker in nearby Sepphoris, just four miles away. This was a growing, cosmopolitan city of thirty thousand. It was there that he probably was exposed to the broader culture and issues such as the Roman occupation, as opposed to the poor rural hamlet that he called home.

What might this mean for our understanding of Jesus, his life, and his ministry? While Jesus made trips to Jerusalem, and based himself in Caesarea Philippi during his years of active ministry, he was ultimately a rural boy at heart. The very down-to-earth images that he uses in his parables are, interestingly, rarely pulled from his work as a carpenter. dsc_0104-ecInstead, his metaphors arise from the agrarian world in which he was raised: sowing and harvest, weeds and wheat, shepherds and lost sheep. He’s using images familiar to those he’s teaching: rural Galileans like himself.

For those of us who grew up hearing these parables, I imagine it’s almost impossible to truly recognize the vast differences between Jesus’ world and ours. We have been taught—have internalized—these agrarian images, but we have also made them our own, in our imagination, and likely lost any sense of a world experience that is vastly different from our privileged Western milieu. Have any of us ever lived in a town of less than five hundred people? Have any of us walked four miles to work each day—and four miles back again? Have any of us ever slept outdoors without a tent, tending sheep on a windswept hillside, or suffered debilitating hunger and disease because of drought?

As I thought about how I might truly grasp what life was like for Jesus and his family, I did an online search for “subsistence farming” and found an online simulation of what life is really like for third-world farmers today. Given my topic of last week, this “game” seemed like an excellent way to begin transforming my understanding of what life was really like for the people Jesus lived with, loved, and taught.

Perhaps you might like to take a turn at this game, and let your own understanding of Nazareth and Jesus’ hometown be transformed as well. You might also consider, and pray for, all those—in your home country and around the world—whose life experience today is radically different from your own.


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Play and Poetry

I’m reading a book entitled Play Everything. In it, Ian Bogost posits some interesting ideas about play. He’s a philosopher and game creator and has clearly thought deeply about the subject of fun. One of his first illustrations is about pulling his daughter through a crowded mall and how she turns this journey along the ceramic tiles into a version of the “don’t step on any cracks” game. He speaks about how she moved beyond the boredom and even misery of being dragged through the mall and found a new, fun perspective in order to transform her experience.

I couldn’t help but think about how this transformational change in perspective is similar to what poets do in crafting our works. We take words and images that have been used, used again, often overused, and find transformational perspectives on them. We use those new perspectives in exactly this playful, fun way—bringing forth something that wasn’t there before. Sometimes we also even do it out of a sense of desperation, as we seek to find meaning in certain situations….

Consider cotton candy. It’s a staple treat at most fairs. Perhaps you even tasted some when you took a child or grandchild to a state fair this fall. If you close your eyes and think back, you can probably imagine its airy sweetness melting on your tongue.

dsc_2415Here’s another one: storm clouds. Even without the help of this photo, your mind’s eye can easily conjure up a similar image. You can see them massing overhead, darkening the landscape, bringing rain, or the smell of ozone, perhaps also lightning with them. Take a moment to feel these clouds building and imagine your gut-level response to their approach….

Now consider this poem, which I wrote back in the summer. Notice what it does with storm clouds and cotton candy.

 Waking Dream


Storm clouds rumble underfoot

Lift your eyes to the sun

Degree by degree

Perspective brightens

Future unfolds

Stress washes away


Believe in your future

Embrace necessary storms

Welcome the fruit of your labors

Pickle juice cotton candy on the tip of your tongue

Where in your life might you need to embrace such a transformational perspective, on words, or malls (especially in the current “holiday shopping” season!), or some other area of your life? How might you invite your heart and soul to move beyond boredom or misery to embrace the “thisness” of the present moment and find a different perspective hidden within it?

How might this process enhance your experience of this Advent season?