Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


A New Perspective on Christ’s Coming

One of the gifts that arrived in my freelancer inbox a few weeks ago was an invitation to write for the Loose-Leaf Lectionary. One of the awesome things about writing for them is that the assignments come a year in advance, so I’m writing about the seasons I’m currently experiencing. It’s been such a blessing to delve more deeply into scripture and make some new and interesting connections. Since the reflections are my own (and will be credited as such), I can see some of those ideas showing up here, in my blog posts. Last week was one such example, and this week is, too.

One of the daily office readings in the last week of Advent was from the Song of Solomon. It surprised me to encounter it in Advent…and led me to think about how limiting our viewpoint of anticipation of Christ’s coming tends to be. As we approached our commemoration of Jesus’ nativity, I bet most of us tended to focus either on the baby in the manger or the triumphant Messiah returning to inaugurate “a new heavens and a new earth.” And yet…Christ is so much more than either of those images. Christ comes to us as teacher, mentor, stern judge, fellow sojourner—and also as lover, as we hear in the second chapter of the Song of Solomon.

DSC_0025 cloister window 2“The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills…. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.” Here, he is in the prime of life—and who could argue but that the resurrection is the prime of life!—and he peers through the windows and shutters of our bedroom bower, seeking to be invited in.

“My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.… The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance…. In the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice.’” He calls us to come away from hiding behind shutters, safe in our accustomed spaces, and run with him in the wilderness. He calls us to experience the hidden crevasses of safety that can be found in even the most challenging of cliff-face climbs. He invites us to join him, out in the world, where figs and flowers will delight us and his company will enrich our lives immeasurably.

Psalm 33:3 encourages us to sing a new song to our God. What might your new song of love sound like in this Christmas season? How are you called to be Christ’s lover, and act on his behalf in this challenging world, in the year ahead?



The Relative Relevance of Place in the Spiritual Life

I had not realized this, but I’m still coming to terms, in my heart, with the disappointment that we will not be going to Israel in January. (Given the unrest that is developing there as a result of Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy, this may turn out to be for the best—but still, I grieve.)

I recently read Psalm 122—with “new eyes.” I realized that it could well have been written by a pilgrim who is coming up to Jerusalem for the first time. He—or she!—is excited at the prospect of coming to Jerusalem, and seems to be composing this psalm upon arrival: “Now our feet are finally standing within your gates!” Imagine the pilgrim group, looking up toward the temple, built on the top of the hill. First impressions abound: Jerusalem is “built as a city with compact unity.” Perhaps this really means, “This place isn’t as big as legend has made it—but it sure is well-built!” Like a tourist, the psalmist talks about seeing the judgment seats and watching the tribes going to and fro on the roads—just as Isaiah prophesied.

IMG_4362eSo what about those for whom the trip to Jerusalem, and Israel, is not possible? I’m not the only one who is disappointed that our trip did not come together, and those others who planned to join us haven’t been there before. I have memories—including images like this, taken when we visited the Church of the Nativity on the day the Armenians celebrate Christmas. IMG_4360eOn this Christmas Eve, there’s a part of me that would love to be there, in the midst of the celebration—but I am not.

In rather stark contrast to the need to “be there” is the story of Jesus healing the centurion’s servant. It’s a teaching moment for Jesus, rather than by Jesus. All this “Jerusalem worship” seems to have infused into the Jews the idea that only Jerusalem is holy, and miracles can only take place through physical proximity or touch, as Jesus intends to do in order to heal the centurion’s servant. But the centurion has a different perspective. He believes that authority and agency transcend physicality. He recognizes that God’s presence is everywhere, and believes that Jesus can authorize healing “long distance,” without the need for touch.

I wonder: Might this be the moment when the human Jesus first fully understood the role of the Holy Spirit?

As we celebrate the birth of Jesus in our midst, then and now, let’s remember that, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, it does not matter where we are. Christ in God has the authority to reach out, touch, and heal us, wherever we are—to bring love to every corner of this tattered, shattered world, no matter how dark the time.

May you have a Blessed Christmas!

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Pointing the Way

I collect nativity sets. I don’t really remember how it started, or which one came first, but I’ve ended up with close to twenty of them, large and small. This week, we pulled a number of them out of boxes in the garage and set them up on the bar-height counter in our kitchen, where they can remind us of the Incarnation every time we walk through the house.

IMG_7063Like so much in this Advent season, these crèches are meant to point the way to the Christ child. They are representative interpretations of the scene on the night of Jesus’ birth, but each one is different. Some are very lifelike, while others are more abstractly representational. Many are decorated with the specific designs, clothing, and faces of the cultures where they were created. At this point, I have nativity sets from around the world, ranging from as far away as Africa and the Middle East (the one pictured here, which we picked up in Bethlehem in January) and as close as the Native American pueblos near where I grew up.

We are as different as these nativity sets, but each of us are created to point toward God, in our own way. Each of us are called, with Isaiah, to “prepare the way of the Lord.” We might be called to make paths straight, or rough places smooth, or to raise valleys and bulldoze down hills that prevent others from seeing and embracing the God of Love who came to live among us. We do this through our own lives, using the specific—even unique—blend of God-given gifts and human-cultivated skills that have made us the children of God that we are.

We might do this through crafting nativity sets or by composing letters to our congressional representatives. We could do this by volunteering at a shelter or fundraising in support of those less fortunate than ourselves. We can do this, day in and day out, with kind words, generous gestures, and simple acts that prove we believe every child on earth to be a child of God—and perhaps even Jesus in disguise.

How are you called to point the way, to concretely live out Christ’s Incarnation in this last full week of Advent?



Testifying to the Light

I’m spending these closing weeks of the year taking a mental step back from being “in the thick of things” with my work and ministry. I’ve felt overwhelmed at various times this year and, as I’ve noted, not everything has “worked out” as I imagined or hoped it would. I would like to feel more “in sync” with my work and ministry in 2018, so I am intentionally taking time to reflect, listen, pray, and ponder.

Some images and ideas are arising as a result. Interestingly, perhaps in part because of the work I’ve been doing for the online Advent retreat, the role of John the Baptist has been coming to mind. John 1:6–9 says that John the Baptist came to “testify to the light” that was coming into the world. It also says clearly that John was not the light; his job was to testify—to tell others about that Light of Christ.

Layout 1I’m finding this understanding to be in quite stark contrast to the marketing and business-growth information that I’ve received through multiple channels as I’ve worked to grow my business and ministry over the years. Everything is about getting your brand, your name, out in front of people, in an increasingly overcrowded market and cacophonous online world.

One of the realities that is arising to my awareness is a sometimes-overwhelming sense of exhaustion, perhaps from all that work of putting myself and my brands out there. I do have some results to show for it—but as I look back upon my expanding editing and writer-coach business, most of that expansion has come through word of mouth and connections, rather than any explicit marketing that I’ve been doing. It’s been less about me and more about how I’ve “showed up,” been present, and the quality of the work I’ve done.

I find it ironic that, for a handful of reasons, I still don’t have a live website—although one has been in the works for much of the year now. Perhaps it will be live by the end of the year. Despite that lack of what most marketers would consider a fundamental element of my business, I’m still getting work and opportunities are still arising.

I choose to believe this has happened because of the work of the Spirit. Because I consider my editing and writer-coach work to be a ministry, I believe that the Spirit is guiding that work, so that others can benefit from the gifts and skills given to me by God. It’s not about me—in that ultimate sense—and that’s how I’m making the connection with John the Baptist.

My work is not about me. In what I do most authentically, I am testifying to the Light of the World. My work is about assisting and supporting the work of my clients. God is blessing that ministry, and I am grateful.

Where in your life are you called to testify to the Light of the World?


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Advent Anticipation

Happy Liturgical New Year! Advent begins today. All around us, the pace of The Holidays threatens to overwhelm the intention of Advent, which is traditionally about waiting. Unless you’re remembering waiting in long retail lines, most of us tend to think about The Holidays as a time of busyness—filled with parties and gifts and travel plans—not the stillness that comes with waiting.

For what—or whom—are we waiting in Advent? The season is meant to be both a remembrance of awaiting the arrival of the baby Jesus and a looking forward to the adult Jesus coming again. Our perspectives, however, are colored by our distance from the events themselves.

When Mary was pregnant, only she and her family and friends were waiting—and she likely wasn’t sitting around while she waited. She had chores to do—though she might have wondered, as she chopped vegetables, whether baby Jesus’ eyes would turn brown or stay blue. Joseph might have had a cradle to fashion when time was slow at the carpenter’s shop. They had a Bethlehem trip to plan.

DSC_0587We, on the other hand, have the gift(?) of perspective. We have been hearing for years, perhaps for all of our lives, about the birth of Jesus. We know “how it all goes down”—or at least we know the stories that have come down to us about how Jesus’ birth came about: full inn and manger cradle, awestruck shepherds, gifts from unexpected wise men. We wait, and expect—but it’s harder to get our hearts and minds into the perspective that Mary and Joseph would have had: anticipation of the unknown.

On the other hand…the early church thought Jesus was “coming again” very soon—with a triumphal, transform-the-world agenda—but now two thousand years have passed. Here, we get closer to that anticipation of the unknown, because that second coming is all conjecture, no facts. Plus, while we wait, we also have things to do. Jesus gave us a commission, when he was here the first time: share my good news with all the world. It seems to me that’s enough to keep us occupied while we wait.

So, while you’re waiting in line, why not mention the “reason for the season”? Look deep inside, tap into your own anticipation about the coming of Christ, and share some good news with those around you, as the Holy Spirit gives you ability and opportunity.