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.


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Cultivating Hope and Embracing Opportunities


duck takeoff closeup DSC_5020This week marks five years since I left employment and became a freelance writer and editor, in addition to my ongoing work as a spiritual guide and retreat leader. I’ve been feeling for a few weeks now that I wanted to honor this milestone with a blog post, and I had an idea for the theme, but then Spirit intervened this past week and something else, quite transformative for me, arrived in my life instead.

The story begins with the first wave of my survey results, which have given me much to contemplate. I’m grateful and, at times, feeling a bit overwhelmed. One theme that has surfaced is the need for hope. To quote a few of my respondents on this theme:

“It’s easy to get lost in apathy and hopelessness as well as isolation.”

“How to help people (myself included) have hope again in this despairing time in our country and world.”

“Hope, like love, is the essential and most basic need for those of us who are awake and on this journey we call life. Especially in light of the current national and worldwide climate, so many people are on the edge of hopelessness, for good reason.”

One of the ideas that has surfaced in response to this theme is developing a podcast on hope. It feels timely, and necessary, and a response to the question of “What is mine to do?” as a result of last November’s election. I’d been letting that idea percolate in the back of my mind—and my heart—when my SCORE mentor sent me an email that announced an extension to the deadline for the YWCA Southern Arizona portion of the 2017 SBA InnovateHER challenge, suggesting that I apply.

I’d read about this challenge and seen billboards advertising it around town. It caught my attention, but I hadn’t felt I had anything to contribute. On Tuesday morning, I was writing some initial ideas for an article on contemplation and resistance (the theme of a forthcoming e-book from Ordinary Mystic) and then read an email from artist and spiritual guide Melanie Weidner, who was inviting some of her community to join her in “A Brave Opportunity” by recording and sending to her brief videos on the impact of her artwork. When I read my mentor’s email, it all came together: hope, podcast, a form of resistance that would work for me, the need to be brave and embrace opportunities….

The result, on this five-year anniversary of transformation in my life and ministry, is saying Yes! to the potential of another round of transformation. I have written my first—albeit small (the limit was 3200 characters!)—grant proposal and submitted it for consideration. I have put out there, publicly, my intention to enter the world of podcasting and also to expand my retreat offerings to focus on the subject of hope. There was a point where I was literally shaking as all this was coming together—as if the Holy Spirit was vibrating within me (or adrenaline was overwhelming my nervous system, but I choose to believe in the Spirit instead!).

When has the Spirit brought disparate elements together in your life to reveal something new? When has God invited you into a brave opportunity? Are you interested in being one of my interviewees on the Hope Podcast someday?

I would like to close today by inviting you to pray for all who are submitting proposals for InnovateHER. Here in southern Arizona, the next steps will happen very fast. If I am accepted to pitch my proposal, I’ll find out on Tuesday and the pitch sessions take place this coming Saturday, June 3!


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Cataracts and Inner Vision


I’ve recently been diagnosed with a cataract in my left eye. Yes, I’m a bit young for cataracts, but evidently this isn’t an age-related cataract. It’s also not on the front of the eye’s lens, which is where most cataracts develop. My cataract has grown on the back of the lens, although I don’t have the risk factors usually associated with such a cataract. I guess I’m a medical mystery, or just one of the “lucky ones.”

I am lucky to have health insurance and to live in a first-world country in the 21st century. All those things mean that removing this cataract, probably in July, should be (God willing!) a straightforward and relatively simple procedure (your prayers are welcome). Reading up on cataracts, I’ve learned that they are the primary cause of blindness amongst my less fortunate sisters and brothers around the world. Over the years, I’ve received multiple pleas for donations from nonprofits that send medical care teams to third-world countries to perform cataract surgeries for some “lucky ones” who are thus able to regain their sight.

I must admit: For most of my life, I have taken my eye health for granted. This is despite having married a man who worked for the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind for almost two decades, and having a very dear friend whose husband is slowly going blind from diabetes complications and who has a history of eye issues herself. This awareness has changed over the past few months, as I’ve sensed my vision growing cloudy and wondered about the cause. Certainly it was a relief to learn that the diagnosis was nothing more complex than a cataract.

My pondering also led me down an interesting path that is the reason for my choice to post on this topic. I found myself thinking about the fact that a cataract on the back of the eye is more unusual. It led me to wonder whether, at some deep, unconscious level, I am still struggling with my unwillingness to look within, face my fears, and live out my vocation. It’s a lifelong struggle for me—being afraid of success, rather than failure—and was one of the first topics about which I posted nearly four years ago. If I’ve spent a lot of my life running away from my inner vision—from what I knew, or sensed, that I was called to do—is it any wonder that, over time, my inward vision might have clouded up?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf we refuse to see, and embrace, the invitations issued by our souls, or by the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, will we develop a blindness to the Spirit’s direction? I believe so. Whether it manifests in literal blindness is not the issue, nor am I proposing a literal, physical correlation. I am, however, positing a deeper-truth connection between the blindnesses we choose to embrace and our eventual inability to see what we have ignored, or run away from, for so long.

Are there cataracts developing on the lens of your inner vision? Are there deeper truths that you are ignoring or fleeing? Could you invite the divine surgeon to remove those cataracts so that you can see clearly and embrace your calling, or more clearly see the next step on your spiritual journey?


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Dying to Anger and Rising to Love


It’s still Eastertide, although many of us have moved on, in our hearts—back into “ordinary” time. Sometimes, though, I still find resurrection floating through my head in different ways. Other times, I find myself returning to holy week and the lessons I learned this year during those holy days.

One lesson that caught my attention during holy week was that Jesus stopped being angry once he was arrested. He was angry in the Garden of Gethsemane, when his disciples slept, and then when they sought to fight. But once he was arrested, it was as if the fight, the anger, drained out of him. He became completely passive to what was happening. Furthermore, he doesn’t seem to regain his anger when he returns, resurrected. Something happened, in the harrowing of hell or the reconnection with Trinity, which enabled him to be firm, strong, loving…and no longer angry.

I wonder: Is there a place for letting go and letting what’s unfolding just happen—even if it leads to death? Did Jesus know, deep in his heart, that even his death would serve a larger purpose? Did he recognize or remember that every action we take speaks loudly—louder than a torrent of words possibly could?

We used to say, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Now all we seem to do in America is bludgeon each other with words. We are dying under a barrage of words. Video games also provide a way to live out the fantasy of doing violence to each other, and ourselves, over and over and over, but using words as weapons is perhaps a more insidious crime to all of Creation.

IMG_4621e Jesus wrappedMy mind also keeps returning to Joseph of Arimathea, buying a linen shroud and wrapping Jesus’ body in it (as illustrated in this image of a painted in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem). I think of the Shroud of Turin, which is not from Jesus’ time, but at this point is probably well steeped in holiness simply from believers’ association of this fragile cloth with Jesus’ body. It’s holy, as we are holy, having been steeped over and over again in Jesus through the bread and wine of Eucharist.

There is so much more to faith than the journalistic facts. We must move beyond literal words in this culture. We must reconnect with the deeper truths that infuse meaning in our lives. We must understand that praying in a place makes it holy: invites the Trinity, the Risen Christ, to infuse this fragile, suffering earth with resurrection light and eternal Love.

How will you issue that invitation to the Risen Christ today?