Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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Whitewashing


I feel the need to begin this post by saying that I don’t know why I feel compelled to write about this topic at this time…but I do. I do so trusting that the Spirit will bring it to the attention of whomever needs it, and that the rest of you will find wisdom here as well….

DSC_2029eHenry and I saw a great number of tombs during our time in Israel. Most of them were in the Kidron Valley, which wraps around the east and south of Jerusalem, below the Temple Mount. The Kidron Valley is outside the city walls and thus became a primary burial ground during most of Jerusalem’s history, including the Second Temple Period—the time of Jesus.

The Kidron Valley was also the most direct way to get from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem. When Jesus was escorted from the Garden of Gethsemane to Caiaphas’ house, on the night of his arrest, he would have walked with those soldiers through the Kidron Valley. Imagine walking through a cemetery at night, with only the soldiers’ flaring torches, and perhaps the moon and stars, to light the way. That’s basically what that night was probably like.

Walking through the Kidron Valley in January, following that same journey (in sunny daylight!), we talked about Jesus describing the Pharisees and scribes—the learned leaders of his day—as “whitewashed tombs.” Jesus was very explicit in his opinion that, like those tombs, Jerusalem’s religious leaders looked bright and clean on the outside but their minds and hearts were filled with the nastiness of death. It’s certainly a very graphic image; Jesus excelled at using memorable images to get his points across.

But have you ever wondered why Jewish tombs were whitewashed? It turns out that there’s a very specific reason, and it has to do with walking through the Kidron Valley and other “valleys of the shadow of death.” Ritual cleanliness was very important for the Jewish people, and there were a lot of rules about what priests and other religious leaders had to do to avoid defilement. Leviticus outlines many of these rules and the Mishnah goes into great detail about how religious leaders are to avoid defilement by remaining a certain distance from a dead body or an enclosure (tomb) in which a dead body is found.

Now imagine walking through a valley of tombs on a dark night, with no city streetlights to guide the way. How do you avoid getting too close to all those tombs and becoming defiled? This is why those tombs were whitewashed: so they would stand out, even on a dimly moonlit night, and the religious leaders could avoid walking too close and becoming defiled.

This is certainly a far cry from the way we handle dead bodies in Christianity today. Our priests and pastors (and the rest of us) enter funeral homes and even touch dead bodies at open-casket wakes and viewings. We celebrate the lives of the dead in churches, with the coffins right beside us. But we still “whitewash” those caskets, and our tombs—for a different reason. We dress up our dead, reconstructing their bodies if their deaths were messy. We then encase them in gorgeous, silk-lined caskets, and erect stately monuments to our loved ones in modern cemeteries which are usually found within our city limits.

But we still avoid defilement—again, for a different reason. We whitewash illness instead, these days: the medical reports, the facts we share with family members, the hospitals and nursing homes in which we hide away those who aren’t healthy enough to be out among us…or those who are dying. I find it very telling that we have this cultural sense that even non-contagious illness will defile us, at some level, and thus we seek to avoid it whenever possible. As a society, we’ve given our elders the sense that they are a defilement to our busy, youthful lives, until they are reaching the point that they’re even paying for the privilege of hiding themselves away in “LifeCare” communities that will allow “professionals” to care for them in their final years of life, and death.

I am glad that Henry’s Aunt Ada died in our home. I’m glad that she wasn’t shut away in a nursing home for the final year of her life, when she could no longer safely live in her own home. It wasn’t easy, but it was good, in that deep-down, Spirit-blessed sense of good. We weren’t defiled by her illnesses, or her death. I think we both grew, psychologically and spiritually, because of her dying in our midst. I wouldn’t whitewash that experience.

I invite you to prayerfully consider what you might be whitewashing in your life—finding ways to avoid those things so that you don’t have to address them, to live with them, to acknowledge their reality in your life. What would Jesus say about it?

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Go Home and Proclaim Good News


The big celebrations in the church’s liturgical year are now over. Jesus has died, is risen, and has sent his disciples out into the world to proclaim the Good News of God’s abiding and universal love. But we shouldn’t feel disappointed to be entering what the church calls Ordinary Time. This is when our real life in Christ truly begins.

Take, for example, the story of the “Gerasene demoniac” in Mark 5. This man lived in the hills on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, in what today is called the Golan Heights. Gerasa was part of the Decapolis, ten cities in Palestine that formed the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire.DSC_9264e (In January, we visited these excavated ruins of Beit She’an, aka Scythopolis, another city in the Decapolis.)

The “demoniac” is not named in scripture, but rather described by his affliction: He was possessed by many demons. Today we might call this some type of mental illness or schizophrenia but, in Jesus’ day, demons were understood to be the cause. Jesus meets this man right where he is: in the midst of his demons. Furthermore, Jesus immediately addresses this man’s defining issue—those demons. Jesus commands the demons to come out, negotiates with them about where they would go, and sends them off (to their deaths).

Naturally, this man—who remains unnamed—is thrilled with this turn of events. I can imagine him going immediately to the nearest Roman bathhouse for a good scrub, the trimming of his hair and beard, and the donning of some new, clean clothes. We know that he then hangs around with the disciples, continuing his healing process at the feet of Jesus. I’m pretty certain that he is enthralled by this miracle worker who has shown him a love of God which is deeper and broader and more healing than he could ever have imagined.

Also, naturally, this man wants to go with Jesus when he returns to Galilee. But Jesus refuses. Instead, Jesus gives this man his commission: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” This man was not called to a life of itinerant ministry as one of Jesus’ disciples. He had his encounter with Jesus, and he was transformed through that encounter, but then he had to go home. He had to take himself home and spread the Good News that had transformed his life.

For most of us, following Jesus doesn’t mean taking up an itinerant ministry. It means going home, to the life we know and the people we know, and proclaiming Jesus’ message there. For this man, it meant returning from the Sea of Galilee to the cities of the Decapolis and spreading the Good News there.

The realm of God begins with us, right here, right now—right where we are. Once we encounter Christ, we are not called to follow him around for the rest of our lives. Even the disciples only got to spend about three years with him. Then they also were sent forth, commissioned to spread the Good News.

What is your home—your Decapolis? What is your commission? Where, and to whom, are you called to spread the Good News of resurrection, of new life, of the love of God which is deeper and broader and more healing than you could ever have imagined?


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Don’t Go It Alone


My recent experiences of surveying my constituents and applying for a grant to podcast about hope have brought one thing clearly to mind: I do not work alone. I may sometimes feel that I do, typing away at my desk, day after day. I may not have anyone else in the room with me, but I work within a very real and essential community. I have clients, collaborators, mentors, supporters…and a God that I lean on through it all.

DSC_8124e trinity of archesEven God does not go it alone. Today is Trinity Sunday, which celebrates the relationship between our Creator, the risen Christ, and the Holy Spirit. I attended a conference on the Trinity in April (another way that I do not work alone; we all need new input and inspiration on a regular basis) and came away with a number of images and ideas about the collaborative and interconnected work of God.

One idea that I’d like to share with you today was taught at the conference by Wm Paul Young, author of The Shack. He pointed out that Jesus trusted the Holy Spirit to follow along after him, rather than thinking he had to do the work of the Spirit himself. For example, he’d perform a miracle in a town, then move on, trusting the Spirit to take it from there.

You see, someone’s story doesn’t end with Jesus’ transforming miracle. Each person whose life is changed by Jesus then needs to learn how to live into that new way of life. Otherwise the transformation won’t take root and grow—similar to the seed that falls on the path or rocky ground and withers away under duress.

Jesus knows that the Holy Spirit is the best companion for that “following through” stage in the life of faith. The Spirit is called “advocate” and “comforter” because those roles support the day-to-day life of a maturing Christian. As much as we might like Jesus to always be with us in person, he’s part of a team. At some point, he is going to hand us off into the care of the Spirit.

When I first meet with people to explain my ministry of spiritual direction, I talk about the fact that God is the actual director. I’m listening to God on their behalf when I meet with them for spiritual guidance. I also believe that God is the director on a much broader, deeper scale, guiding the work of Jesus and the Spirit in a dance that spans the globe, the cosmos, and all of creation: more than our finite human minds can possibly imagine.

The Trinity is a trio of persons with a variety of roles. They don’t go it alone, and neither should we.

Do you tend to go it alone? Are there areas of your life that could benefit from embracing a supportive Trinity model of collaborative life and work?


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Catching Fire


Today is Pentecost. As a child, I was taught that this was the Birthday of the Church, and I remember birthday cake at coffee hour and red streamers hanging from the tall Ponderosa pine trees at the front of the church building.

Like many of our religious festivals, Pentecost has multiple layers to it. Acts 2 begins by saying, “When the day of Pentecost had come,” which means that it already existed as a festival on that day. Pentecost was originally an Israelite spring harvest festival; the word Pentecost is the Greek term for the Jewish word Shavuot. The Christian church co-opted the name, applying it to remember the day when tongues of fire “rested on” Jesus’ disciples and they began to speak in different languages.DSC_0486e

Remember that these disciples were from the Galilean countryside. The idea that such provincial, uneducated people could suddenly speak multiple languages is part of what made this day stand out for the first generations of Christians. Jesus had promised that the Holy Spirit would come upon them: “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” I can well imagine that they had no clue what this would mean and how the Holy Spirit would manifest to them. Jesus had always been full of surprise and mystery; would the Holy Spirit be any different?

I found myself thinking that, in a sense, this spring harvest festival, this Pentecost, is celebrating the harvest of Jesus’ work with his disciples. His years of teaching, in Galilee and in Jerusalem, bore fruit in the form of tongues of flame that did not burn. (I do wonder if the disciples’ first thoughts were of Moses and the burning bush!) Interestingly, the disciples’ responses were not filled with confusion and questions, as had been the case with so many conversations recorded in the Gospels. Instead, Peter speaks out boldly, proclaiming the message of Jesus’ resurrection and connecting this event with sacred scripture, exactly as Jesus had done, time and time again in his ministry.

“You heard it was said…now I say to you” was a hallmark of Jesus’ teaching. Peter and the other disciples now take on that mantle, spontaneously speaking in the languages of those who need to hear the Good News and seamlessly connecting their message with Hebrew scripture.

The disciples are the fruit of Jesus’ ministry. They are now catching fire—the kind of fire that lights up souls rather than burning bodies. That fiery fruit generates its own harvest on Pentecost: Luke tells us that over 3,000 people were baptized that day, joining the disciples in following Christ.

When in your life have you caught fire? In what ways has the Holy Spirit transformed your life, burned away the confusion, and emboldened you to preach the Good News? How are you the harvest fruit of Jesus’ ministry?

 

P.S. My proposal was not accepted into the next round of InnovateHER, but I will move forward with hope nonetheless. The Holy Spirit lit a fire in me, and I will do my best to help hope catch fire in our troubled world.