Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


Going with the Flow

Our granddaughter visited us for ten days, earlier this month. Our time together was a gift in many ways—and a challenge in others. For one thing, the ebb and flow of the freelance life means I can do my best to plan around the busy seasons—but the busy seasons fluctuate, according to the whim of my clients, and what I’d hoped would be an ebb tide turned instead into quite a heavy flow. I’m not complaining—when you’re a freelancer, work from ongoing clients forms the core of your business! But it did make for quite a juggling act.

You see, I always want everything to go perfectly when family visits. Henry will tell you that I spend far too much time worrying about getting the house clean, figuring out what to serve, making a long list of possible activities to keep family members engaged and occupied. I also love the desert, and want to show it off to best advantage….

Naturally, our week did not turn out as I had planned. There were days when I took my laptop with us in the car and edited while Henry drove to our destination of the day and our granddaughter plowed through some pretty significant summer reading books. (I don’t recall being assigned summer reading homework and felt rather sorry for her, but at least it meant that, when I was working, so was she!) There was one day when I actually chose to stay home and work while she and Henry went to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum—since we are members there and I can go at any time.

DSC_8684I also had to let go of my worries about whether our granddaughter was enjoying herself. Like her grandpa, she doesn’t easily share what she thinks and feels, nor does she have much opinion about where we go to dinner or what we’ll eat if we stay home. As a natural empathic who is wired to respond appropriately to others’ desires, it was hard to let them both be who they were and proceed to the best of my ability.

I found myself remembering the four lessons from the biblical book of Jonah—the Hebrew prophet who ran away from God’s call to preach to the Ninevites, got swallowed by a whale, and had three days in its belly to ponder the ramifications of his rebelliousness. At the end of the story, when Jonah’s own preaching had resulted in Ninevite repentance, Jonah got angry with God for being merciful. I’ve talked in depth about these four lessons before:

1.      Show up.

2.      Pay attention.

3.      Tell the truth.

4.      Don’t get attached to results.

In this situation, it was the final lesson that I really needed to remember. I can only do my best to be a loving, attentive hostess; how my granddaughter responds to it all is totally out of my control. I also need to recognize that a week with us is not going to irrevocably warp her, one way or the other. God is in charge of her life and her experiences, not I.

I am slowly learning, family visit by family visit, to loosen my grip on my need to control. When I can go with the flow, day by day, I think we all have a better time together. Certainly I can focus on my houseguests, rather than on my performance—and the houseguests are the point of the visit, after all.

What lessons in control, and going with the flow, do you need to ponder?


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Living in a Food Desert

I was surprised recently to discover that I live in a “food desert.” I’ve mentioned food deserts before, when I lived and gardened in Silver City, but never thought I would live in one. Our food desert is evidently the fastest growing area in southern Arizona, but we have to drive a dozen miles to shop in a “full service grocery store” rather than a convenience market. This issue—lack of access to fresh, healthy food—is usually considered a problem in older urban areas, not fast-growing suburban neighborhoods, but it seems these deserts come in all shapes and sizes.

I had considered the grocery-store drive to be an inconvenience, but I had not considered how difficult it might be for folks with limited means. Imagine for a moment a young family that’s just managing payments on the house and one car, which is needed for one parent to drive to work. The other is stuck at home with the kids, without a car. There’s limited bus service in our area, so grocery shopping would involve at least one bus transfer and a walk to and from our neighborhood. Even the drive to the grocery store, if a car is available, can become quite an expense over time, despite relatively low gas prices.

IMG_5922And yet…I also found myself thinking about how the Native Americans had managed to survive in this desert for hundreds of years before the rest of us showed up. Prickly pear cacti are everywhere here, and currently sporting bright red fruits, which I have, in the past, harvested and transformed into pretty tasty jam and ice cream. The prickly pear cactus pads are also edible, and mesquite seeds have been ground into high-nutrient flour for hundreds of years. If I did want to trap rabbits or compete with local hawks for abundant dove and quail, I could have meat to eat. I know I am capable of growing vegetables in the desert—in fact, it’s the only climate in which I’ve ever gardened!

So part of the issue with food deserts is our perspective on them. Last week I talked about Weird Church and the desire to develop new, radical responses to the decline of traditional churches. One story discussed in the book was of a “roving listener” who moved into an urban neighborhood, listening with an open heart, and began to connect people who had common interests. He discovered that there were forty-five backyard gardeners—people like me—in the midst of an urban food desert. He brought them together over a shared meal—keeping with the food theme!—and subsequent monthly gatherings led to the birth of a growers’ market in that neighborhood. Talk about truly sacramental sharing!

While our neighborhood here is pushing for a more traditional solution to the problem—that “full service grocery store”—and I am not feeling called to start a growers’ market here (we do need to listen for “what is ours to do”), I share this story because I believe that there are people who are called, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, to do such things, and I wish to fully support them in living out their call.

I invite you to take some time with God in prayer this week and ask what is yours to do, in terms of sharing the Good News and connecting people in community to do new things.


Unintended Consequences in Our Transportation Industry

Last weekend I returned to Silver City for a few days. I visited friends, hiked in the mountains, and gave a presentation of some photos and stories of our time in Israel at the church I used to attend. (Want to join us for a Holy Land tour of Israel this coming January? Find out more here.)

DSC_8559eOn the drive from Tucson to Silver City, I passed this amazing sight. It’s hard to tell from this photo, but there are almost three hundred train locomotives, stored end-to-end, on an unused siding alongside the Interstate. Reading up on this, I discovered that the Southern Pacific Railroad is using “Aridzona” to store unused engines. Our state’s humidity is generally very low—except during the current monsoon season—making it an ideal place to mothball both airplanes and locomotives.

So why, in an economy that’s supposedly booming, are so many engines parked here? It turns out that another of the unintended consequences of the success of fracking natural gas has been a decline in our railroads. Railroads have, for decades, been used to haul coal. In fact, coal has historically been the railroads’ largest single revenue source. We know—from our contentious political election cycle last year, if nothing else—that the coal industry is in serious decline. Natural gas is much more efficiently transported via pipeline, and the increase in oil pipelines as well (including the incredibly contentious Dakota Access Pipeline) had also cut railroad oil transport by 22% in 2016.

Railroads built this country. My paternal great-grandfather worked for the railroad, and the pursuit of trains still drives many of the details of my parents’ vacation plans. But things are changing in this country. The rail lines that used to form the backbone of our nation’s transportation industry no longer do so. Transportation now takes place via pipelines, power lines, and—in this increasingly service-based economy—internet lines.

I know this is a rather big shift, but I see a similar transition taking place in the church in this country. I’m currently reading a book called Weird Church, which discusses the decline in the institutional church, in America and around the world, and proposes a rather radical response. It is fact that many in our younger generations are not keen on the idea of belonging to one church and giving money to support a building and programs and clergy salaries. They are still curious, even desirous, of a spiritual life and a relationship with God, but the ways that worked for prior generations don’t work for them.

So it’s time to discover new ways to “transport” Christianity to the spiritually hungry. In their exploration of what it means to be church these days, Weird Church leaders propose returning to the roots—which is what the word “radical” means, at its root(!)—of Christianity. They pose a question that I really like: What did the disciples do the day after Pentecost? Having been inspired by the Holy Spirit, these earliest Christians moved into “liminal space,” where “the Jesus movement began to spread and to innovate on the fly; creativity came to life.”

There are many ways in which Christianity is being revitalized in this country—but most of them don’t look like the church we’re used to seeing. Christianity is being “transported” in new ways, and I am excited to be a member of a team of spiritual directors that will be gathering with Weird Church practitioners at Weird Church Camp, the end of this month, to share stories and experiences and listen for how the Holy Spirit is calling us all to innovate in this day and age.

I invite you to pray for us, as we prepare for camp and gather in community, like the early Christians, to revision what church looks like in a constantly changing world. How are we called to transport Christianity to the spiritually hungry today?

How are you called to transport Christianity to the spiritually hungry today?



Ready or Not….

Recently I led my church’s Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina sessions for a couple weeks while our priest was on vacation. I chose for one Lectio Divina session the story of Jesus sending out the twelve disciples, two by two, to preach his message of repentance—the same message, coincidentally, that was at the root of John the Baptist’s ministry. It was helpful to share perspectives on this text and imagine together what it must have been like to be told, “It’s your turn. Go preach and teach and heal.”

I found myself thinking back to the summer I did Clinical Pastoral Education at Massachusetts General Hospital. On our very first week, on our second afternoon, our CPE supervisors said, “Okay now, time to go out and start visiting patients.” As I recall, all of us responded with some version of shock and concern. We weren’t ready. We’d only been in the program for a day and a half, and much of that had been devoted to orientation and paperwork. Surely there was a lot more we needed to do to be ready!

DSC_0672cOur supervisors insisted—and we obeyed. At the time, it felt analogous to learning to swim by being thrown into the deep end of the pool. Almost thirty years later, I can somewhat see the supervisors’ perspective. We were seminary students with at least a year of study behind us. They had accepted us into the program, based on—I presume—at least some level of assessment of the study and service we’d already undertaken.

Also, sometimes, it’s easier to dive into that pool all at once—even if we fear the water will be cold and deep. Stepping in, inch by inch, makes the process more painful in the long run. So, ready or not, we dove into our brand-new mission field. We all survived and, to the best of my knowledge, so did the patients.

As I continue to dance around the edge of the podcast pool, writing this makes me squirm in my seat. It might be that the best way to embrace the podcasting is to simply start doing it. And yet…Jesus told his disciples to go out in pairs. In CPE, we had our supervisors and a small group of fellow students to support, encourage and teach us. I don’t yet have any partner(s) for this undertaking. So I am sometimes dancing, sometimes sitting, at the edge of the pool. I am watching and learning, not knowing when the order will come to jump in—but that it will come, whether I feel ready or not.

What “ready or not” stories do you have in your life? Are you dancing around the edge of a pool yourself during these hot summer days?