Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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Lenten Lessons: Trash


DSC_9414e trashOne aspect of the Palestinian territories that quickly caught my attention during our trip to the Holy Land in January was the trash. The landscape controlled by Israel was, for the most part, quite well-kept. The Palestinian-controlled territory, however, usually was not. As you can see here, for example, plastics drifted and piled across the countryside like so much desert sand. In other places, ruined shells of homes and piles of rubble dotted the landscape.

I do not know the reasons for this, but I can conjecture a few possibilities. There might not be trash services available in rural Palestine, and/or many might not be able to afford it. (Trash services in urban Palestine certainly can be problematic.) Folks might be focused on scraping together a livelihood from this desert and not have time or energy available to keep things neat and clean beyond the edges of their fields. It might also be that, at this point in their lives, the Palestinians simply have become so accustomed to the trash around them that they no longer see it—literally or figuratively.

This Palestinian landscape immediately reminded me of a visit I made to another country nine years ago. As part of an internship sponsored by the Center for Action and Contemplation, I spent four days volunteering my time at a mission church and school that was built—literally—on top of a garbage dump in Juarez, Mexico. The dump had, over time, become so large that parts of it were no longer “active” and the wind had blown in enough sand to form a layer on top. Squatters began to build makeshift shacks and, by the time we visited, a marginal colonia had taken root on top of the dump and the mission church had been literally planted in the trash to serve this unofficial community.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs you can see here, the trash is omnipresent. Children who grew up here would not understand that “ground” could mean something “clean.” Certainly these families knew better than to try to grow food in this “soil”—and in fact, one of our mission projects was to bring in supplies and bags of potting soil to construct above-ground gardens, separated from the trash, so that these residents might grow some healthy vegetables for themselves and their children.

It breaks my heart that there are so many areas of this world where we have rendered our very soil unsafe for human cultivation. We have literally buried the good soil under our mounds of trash. I mourn for all the animals who are poisoned by our disregard for the consequences of our actions. I grieve for all the children who don’t have a clean, firm foundation on Mother Earth.

I also recognize that we do this to ourselves on an individual level, spiritually and physically. We trash our bodies with unhealthy food and drink. We consume overwhelming amounts of negative information, cluttering our minds and hearts with words and ideas that harm our spirits. We allow these things to become part of our internal landscape until we hardly notice the damage we are doing to our selves and our souls.

In this Lenten season, I invite you to consider the ways in which you have allowed harmful trash to become part of your physical and spiritual landscape. Has this “trash” become such an integral part of your life that you don’t even notice anymore? What internal cleanup might be appropriate for you in this season?

How also might you contribute toward cleaning up Mother Earth? You could adopt a roadway in your own community or contribute to the work being done on a larger scale. Innovative minds are coming up with some great ideas (such as The Ocean Cleanup), so pray about how you might want to get in on the cleanup act.

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Lenten Lessons: Compromising Locations


The Jordan River in the Holy Land is 156 miles long, so there’s a lot of territory to cover when it comes to determining where John the Baptist might have based his baptizing ministry. The Bible does give us hints, however (John 3:22–23) and, over time, tradition solidified the location were John was baptizing. Churches were built on the east side of the river, because John 1:28 also speaks of John the Baptist baptizing at “Bethany across the Jordan.”

Today most of that eastern side of the Jordan River is the territory of the Kingdom of Jordan, and thus inaccessible to pilgrims coming from the Israeli side of the river. Prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, much of the west bank of the Jordan River (yes, that “West Bank”) between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea was also under Jordanian control and thus inaccessible to pilgrims. As a result, another “traditional” baptism site sprung up, right where the Jordan River exits the Sea of Galilee, much further north. This allowed pilgrims to be baptized, or re-baptized, within the waters of the Jordan River without becoming casualties in another border dispute.

DSC_9525After the 1967 war, the west bank of the Jordan River, across from the older “traditional” baptism site, was reopened to pilgrims, and that is the place we visited in January. As you can see here, floating cordons in the river demarcate the permissible area for baptism on each side, with the center of the river forming an international boundary. An ancient church can be glimpsed through the trees on the eastern, Jordan side.

I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the need, for many years, to compromise on the “baptism location” along the Jordan River—whether east side or west, north or south. What once was one group’s territory now belongs to another. Access is restricted, then granted, then restricted again, with the ebb and flow of war and its resulting territorial divisions.

That is certainly true today in the desert southwest, my “home territory.” The Gadsden Purchase in 1853 was the last substantial territorial acquisition in the continental United States. Its boundaries divided the territory of the Tohono O’odham people, who originally ranged freely over the resulting international border with Mexico but today are severely divided by the American government’s increasingly impenetrable and hostile border.

Every change in a territorial border creates consequences for those who live along it. This has been true ever since nomadic people began to settle down and claim territory as “theirs” rather than understanding that the earth is a gift, freely given to all by a generous and abundant Creator. In the Holy Land, people figured out how to compromise, accessing the river where they could in order to keep their rituals and traditions alive.

Many people, around the world and over countless generations, have “left home” because of territorial battles that divided or destroyed their homelands. They compromised or abandoned their connection with a certain place in the interests of safety, security, a better life. Has this happened in your family’s history? Where in your own life have you had to make compromises, whether in regard to a geographical location or in a less literal sense?

Have you maintained some sort of connection with certain locations—perhaps your “hometown,” or home territory? Are there places that have developed particular spiritual meaning for you because of a pivotal event—a literal or spiritual baptism? Do you revisit them? How would you respond if you were suddenly told that such holy land was now off-limits?

I invite you to pray for all those who are cut off from their holy lands, in one way or another, and must make compromises to keep their personal and communal traditions alive.


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Lenten Lessons: Break a Leg


You’ve heard this phrase, haven’t you? “Break a leg” is a good-luck wish for actors in the theater industry—evidently because it was considered bad luck to wish them “good luck” before they went on stage!

That phrase took on new meaning for me while I was in the Holy Land. Perhaps you’ve seen pictures of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, with a lamb or sheep riding across his shoulders? That picture would be illustrating the parable Jesus tells in Luke 15:4–6:

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”

It turns out that there’s more to this story—at least in terms of the sheep being laid on the shepherd’s shoulders. Our guide told us that traditionally, when a sheep would tend to stray, the shepherd would literally break its leg. Then he would bind up the leg and carry the sheep on his shoulders as it healed. He would feed the sheep and bond with it during that healing time, so that the sheep would come to associate the voice and the smell of the shepherd with food and safety. This would keep the sheep from straying, even after its leg had healed and it was again allowed to run free.

Somehow this leg-breaking didn’t make it into all those cozy paintings of the smiling, fair-haired Jesus, effortlessly carrying a lamb or sheep across his shoulders. That lamb or sheep would be a heavy, hot, uncomfortable burden (think of all that wool against your neck, even in July!), day after day, week after week. That sheep would want to get down, would initially probably hate the shepherd for what he had done. That sheep wouldn’t understand why the shepherd had broken its leg—or perhaps even why its leg was hurting in the first place.

Today, especially in America—where cruelty to cute and cuddly animals is often treated with more contempt than child abuse—it’s very hard for us to imagine breaking the leg of a cute, wooly white lamb or sheep. But life was different then—and still is, for the Bedouins in the Holy Land. For starters, there were no fences to keep the sheep from danger. This was why the relationship with the shepherd was so vital.DSC_9902e Psalm 23 describes how sheep looked to shepherds to guide them (with that rod and staff) to green pastures and still (as opposed to swift, dangerous) water. Any sheep that didn’t stick with the shepherd was in danger of falling off those paths of righteousness (and breaking much more than a leg) or being caught and eaten by hungry wild beasts.

Jesus concludes his parable by saying, in verse 7, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” Jesus is telling his hearers that, in just such a way as this (leg-breaking and all), there is joy in heaven when sinners who have gone astray, are in some way broken, then carried as they heal so that they can learn—“for their own good”—to respect the voice of the shepherd.

How many times can you remember a spanking from your mom or dad, or some other form of punishment, that was “for your own good”? As children, we sometimes didn’t get it—but now, as adults, we do. This is one way in which we differ from sheep, which most likely won’t ever have the capacity to understand why their leg was broken. We do, and perhaps we can even understand that there might be times in our lives when we are broken in ways that make no sense at the time, but eventually lead us closer to God.

One spring morning a few years ago, I danced off the edge of the rug in my office and broke a bone in my foot. Initially I was appalled and frustrated—especially since I had been worshipping God at the time! Over the weeks I spent in the boot, recovering from the break, I had to slow down and make many choices about how I spent my time. I also eventually realized that God might have been trying to get my attention—and that the time I spent with my foot up was indeed an opportunity to deepen my relationship with God in prayer.

Whether you’ve ever had such a literal break, or have instead been broken in other ways, I invite you to reflect upon and pray about the ways in which your Good Shepherd might have “broken your leg,” and how you have grown closer to your Creator as a result of that injury. Then take a moment to pray for all who might be in pain today, who might be squirming uncomfortably on the shoulders of the Shepherd as they learn to recognize his voice….


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Lenten Lessons: Manufacturing Millstones


For my Lenten blog posts this year, I’m going to focus on some of what I saw and learned during our travels to the Holy Land in January, and the lessons I’ve learned and connections I’ve made as I’ve pondered. My own Lenten discipline this year is to read a chapter of a gospel each day and take the time to reflect on and write about what arises. It’s my own way of cultivating my roots, as well as making a deeper connection with the holy land I visited and the events that happened there.

I have started with the Gospel of Mark, which scholars say was the first to be written. Mark 2:1 particularly caught my attention because it says Jesus returned to Capernaum and “it was reported that he was at home.” It caught my attention because so often I think of Jesus as “Jesus of Nazareth.” That’s the way I’ve been taught to think of him. If I think further, ponder more deeply, I might think about his connection with Bethlehem, and the lineage of David. But I honestly had not thought of him as “Jesus of Capernaum”…until now.

It turns out that Capernaum is, indeed, the hometown Jesus chose for his ministry. Matthew makes this clear in 4:1213, where it says that Jesus “left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum” after John was arrested—perhaps the point when Jesus realized that it was time for him to take over where his cousin left off. When we traveled in Galilee, we were taught that Capernaum is part of the Gospel Triangle: the three towns of Capernaum, Chorzin, and Bethsaida, all clustered on or near the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. This was Jesus’ home territory.

dsc_8778cOne thing that was difficult to miss when we visited Capernaum were these millstones. Galilee is a rocky place with a volcanic past. Its fertile fields produced abundant grain, which would need to be processed. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Capernaum became a millstone manufacturing town. The stones, and the need, were both right there. In addition to fishing, Capernaum was known for its millstones.

Which is also why it would be perfectly natural for Jesus to come up with this saying (Matthew 18:6): “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” I can just imagine him, pointing toward a nearby millstone manufacturing site, then out toward the Sea of Galilee.

Context illuminates and enriches our understanding—in large and small ways.

I suppose calling him Jesus of Nazareth is not unlike calling me “Shirin of Albuquerque,” since that’s where I was raised. But I live in Arizona and much of my ministry years were spent in Boston. I’ve returned to and taught in Albuquerque—it is part of who I am, but it is not the whole. And if I were to come up with a parallel saying today, it might be something like this: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if you were taken far out into the Sonoran Desert in June and abandoned without food, water, or compass.”

So my questions for you today are these: Who are you—in terms of home territory? What cities or towns are woven into the fabric of your life? How do they inform your understanding, your stories, your own sayings? How would you contextualize Matthew 18:6 in a way that your local hearers would viscerally understand?