Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


Holy Imperfections

It’s been a challenging few days. I sent out an incorrect link in my “welcome to the Advent retreat” email…and it took me a day to figure that out. Then some Windows update deleted Bluetooth from my computer, and the fixes aren’t working, so we had to find an older mouse for me to use (fortunately, Henry doesn’t throw anything away!). In addition, someone had an accident and injured her leg, causing a group of three people to cancel our trip to Israel in January. We were still trying to find two more people to make the trip work (and the tour managers were gracefully giving us time to do that) but the loss of three meant the entire cancellation of the trip.

I could put a rosy spin on that last part, saying that at least we have clarity now (except, of course, I feel terrible for the person who hurt her leg!). But today, at least, I’m not inclined toward trying to hunt down rose-colored glasses. I’m disappointed that we won’t be leading a group to Israel. I’m tired, I’m sad, I’m ready for some more rest—despite the fact that I had a lovely, relaxing vacation in California last week.

Sitting down to write this post, I looked up at the calendar across from my desk and felt myself drawn into the landscape pictured there. A waterfall flows down a series of rocks to land in a pool, surrounded by quintessential fall foliage. It’s a “perfect” picture—but what drew my attention was the recognition that the imperfections in the series of rocks were what allowed the waterfall to descend in such an interesting fashion, filled with varying layers of white and charged with energy. Without those rock steps, each its own shape and size, the waterfall would have just been a clear creek, noiselessly descending the hillside.

DSC_9110It is the imperfections which make that photo work, and which draw us into the landscape. You can get a sense of what I mean with this photo, from my own collection, although it’s missing the vibrant autumn colors. Without the imperfect jumble of rocks, the waterfall would simply be a calm flow…not nearly as nice on the ear, or intriguing to the eye.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that imperfections like these—even mistakes and software bugs—make our days holy. If every day was “perfect,” we would come to take it all for granted, and miss the beauty inherent in the imperfections. So I’m ready to admit that I’m tired, that things aren’t going perfectly, and that disappointments happen. Those are rocks on the flow of life, creating an eye-catching waterfall that I can still appreciate, even from my place in the midst of it.

There will also be imperfections in the upcoming flow of The Holidays, for all of us. I invite you to join me in accepting them as part of life, and taking moments in the days ahead to recognize the beauty that arises out of imperfection.


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Giving Thanks for the Internet

My newest ministry adventure officially “goes public” today. Although Advent begins on December 2, my online retreat on Advent of Jesus through the Eyes of Others begins today. It begins before Advent because I wanted people to have time to get comfortable with the online format. Also, frankly, there’s a lot to cover in the coming eight weeks, and it was important not to overwhelm retreatants in this busy season by giving more than one meditation each week. So…as this retreat unfolds, and our country is focused on Thanksgiving (though Christmas already lurks around every corner!), I am giving thanks for the Internet.

It’s hard to believe that the Internet wasn’t even available to the general public (beyond educational and scientific institutions) until 1989, and the World Wide Web didn’t begin making an impact on our lives until the mid 1990s. It has become such a ubiquitous part of our lives that it’s hard to believe this technology has just left its teen years. Like any teenager, the Internet has seen a tumultuous adolescence, yet we have also benefitted richly as it—and we—have learned and grown.

If not for the Internet, I would not have a viable writing and editing livelihood. If not for the Internet, I would not have met leaders and teachers—and also “regular folks”—who inspire me. If not for the Internet, I would not have imagined taking my Advent retreat out of a physical retreat house and onto the world stage.

So here I am, giving thanks. I give thanks for those who have signed up to join me on this journey. (It’s not too late to join us, by the way. We will spend this first week getting to know each other, and understanding how this Internet technology will enable us to listen, reflect, and experience Advent together in new ways. Prior weeks’ retreat material will be available through January 13, so even if you’re reading this a couple of weeks after I post it, it’s not too late to join us!)

I give thanks for reliable electricity, which enables me to provide this opportunity to anyone else who also has regular access to electricity and the Internet (and I continue to pray for Puerto Ricans, the majority of whom are still living without electricity, almost two months after Hurricane Maria decimated the island).

I give thanks for those who have joined me on the various parts of my spiritual journey, teaching me as I grew and participating in earlier, in-person versions of retreats or quiet days on this topic. I give thanks for others who have offered online retreat experiences, showing me what is possible and shining light on the path I am now walking.

I also give thanks for time beyond the Internet. Balance is key with all aspects of our lives. This past week I have been on vacation in southern California, enjoying time away from the Internet—though, of course, being a freelancer, some work has raised its hand for my attention, and I’ve been grateful for Internet accessibility so I can serve my clients’ needs, write this blog post, and then take a break to walk along the beach!

How has the Internet impacted your spiritual life—including and beyond the ability to read this and other spiritual blogs? For what do you need to give thanks this week?


Giving Thanks in All Circumstances

“The Holidays” are upon us. In America, this has become a season of high expectations and multiple assumptions about happiness, parties, and gift-giving. Decorations are mandatory, cheer is obligatory, a full schedule of “holiday” events seems inevitable.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd yet…there is much happening in our country, and our world, that does not easily make for joy. We have wars and rumors of wars. We have refugees, asylum-seekers, and displaced people seeking the very basics of food, clothing and shelter, all around the world. We have climate change and natural disasters, drought and shortages of food, clothing and shelter. We have #MeToo and political scandals and leadership priorities more in line with ancient imperial Rome than with Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus tells us to love our neighbor. Paul, his apostle, tells us to give thanks in all circumstances. How do we do this, when so much is hard, sharp, bitter and tragic?

The word that is welling up in me is “abide.” I have a friend and fellow spiritual guide who has had this word on her license plate for many years. It is a many-years, long-term word. It means to remain, to dwell (the Psalmist tells God, “Let me abide in your tent forever”). It means to continue, await, endure. It also means to obey, observe, and follow, as in rules or disciplines (“I will abide by this decision”). It means to uphold, to accept, to adhere to. It means to persevere, no matter how difficult the situation.

As I recall, this friend chose this word because of Julian of Norwich, the medieval English mystic. Julian wrote of God abiding in our soul and Christ abiding with us through any pain or suffering we might endure. Julian assures us that, through that abiding, we are eventually healed.

This doesn’t mean the healing will be instantaneous, or that it will take the form that we wish. Julian’s most famous quote, “All shall be well,” is now often used as a trite reassurance, allowing us to avoid the difficulties of “now” to focus on a future when all is well. But that is not her point. “All shall be well” was not what Julian said; it was what God says to her—and to us. Julian herself questions how “every kind of thing should be well.” Living in a period when Norwich endured successive rounds of plague and famine, Julian understood how devastation and fear could reach into every level of society.

Within that challenging social reality, Julian learned to abide. She learned to trust that long-term perspective and to share it with others—and so must we. As she preached to those who came to her, seeking counsel in tough times, Christ holds that long-term view, and assures us that all will be well.

So, when the “holidays” are challenging, and the news is difficult, what shall we do? Abide. One way to do that is to follow the Apostle Paul’s advice: pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances (I Thessalonians 5:17–18). Give thanks for having fresh air to breathe (and pray for the urban Chinese), clean water to drink (and pray for Puerto Ricans), and plenty of food, clothing and shelter (and pray for those still displaced or homeless by war, floods, and fires). Give thanks for family (and pray for those who “push your buttons”) and friends (and pray for those who struggle during this holiday season).

I could go on, but you get the point. Find your way to pray, and to abide. Find your way to understand that, in God’s long-term view, we are called to abide in Christ (John 15). As we do so, we live into the ability to give thanks—not just on Thanksgiving, but in every day of the year.



Green Autumn

It’s November and I’m still wearing shorts. This living in the Sonoran Desert is still taking some getting used to, almost two years after we moved here. DSC_7053This year, more than last, I find myself missing the brilliant autumn leaves of my years in New England—perhaps especially as I see them posted by friends on Instagram. So I’ve been posting some of my own favorites, last week and this, culled from photos taken on trips back to New England since we left.

On the other hand, I really don’t like cold weather, so I’m happy to still be wearing shorts. It’s a bit of a catch-22; I love watching snow fall outside the window of a warm house, but don’t enjoy bundling up to go out in it. The beauty of the seasons involves much that is gorgeous when viewed from a distance, but not as much fun when we’re out in it—especially when we’re responsible for raking up all those leaves once they leave the trees behind.

So I find myself—bottom line—appreciating life in the Sonoran Desert. We can go visit family and friends in colder climates without being responsible for raking leaves or shoveling snow. There’s a saying here that expresses the feelings of a lot of “snowbirds”: you can’t shovel sunshine.

Leaves still fall here, though not always in autumn. Some fall after the rains cease. Others seem to be kicked off their branches by next year’s growth. Leaves do have their season; even evergreen pine needles do eventually fall—though some have a lifespan of five or more years.

And so I look outside my office window, admiring how the sun illuminates the tiny green leaves of our mesquite trees and learning to live more fully into this green autumn.

What realities about your own life are you learning to accept more fully? What aspects of the seasons speak to you?