Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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What Shall I Ponder?


I’ve been blogging for over four years now, and haven’t missed a week. There’s always something to ponder when we live with intentional awareness of God’s presence and movement in our lives. As I sit down to write today, I’m in a small moment of transition, having sent an edited book manuscript back to the author yesterday and now preparing for the Women Writing the West conference which will be held here in Tucson over the next few days (it will be finished—except for the cleanup—when this post goes live). DSC_7032cI’m grateful for a day with less than the usual number of items on the work checklist, while, at the same time, being well aware that there are lots of personal projects that could use some of my undivided attention.

One of the pieces of wisdom that I’ve been pondering recently came out of my continued exploration of the Enneagram. As I am leading a group at church that’s exploring this ancient spiritual wisdom and learning to apply it to our modern lives, I’m coming to a deeper understanding of it for myself. One of the aspects of my space on the Enneagram circle (the Four) is that I tend to create many more ideas than I follow through on. When I initially read this, I immediately fell into judgment mode, feeling that I was somehow failing because I wasn’t following through on all those great ideas. My struggle with the hope podcast is a good case in point.

However, my spiritual director invited me to see that perhaps I should view this tendency as fact, not judgment. It is fact that some of us create more ideas than we follow through on (the author whose latest book I just finished editing is a good case in point, and he’s a Seven). That doesn’t mean we need immediately to assume we are failing because we do not do so. Sometimes we try things on and they just don’t fit, for whatever reason. Sometimes other things show up to take precedence. Sometimes our job is to get the idea out there so that others can bring it to life. Sometimes we push on, trying to make something work, and eventually realize that it is perhaps going to teach us more through what doesn’t go the way we want instead of what does.

So I am pondering…the books on my desk, waiting to be read; the ideas on my project spreadsheet, awaiting time and attention; and what will be the foci of my work and ministry in 2018, as I seek to discern what God is calling me to bring forth.

As part of that pondering, I have a question for you, my readers. You’ve been reading my ponderings for weeks, or months, or years. What do you wish I’d talk about? What do you want me to explore further? Is there a particular post that has stuck in your mind and heart? I’d like to add your voices to my discernment about how this blog can best serve as a catalyst to enrich and deepen your spiritual life and your walk with God. Please join the conversation.

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Living Now and Not Yet


We all tend to live in multiple worlds. By this, I mean that we tend to spend mental time on the past and the future, even as our bodies dwell in the present. We read or listen about others’ lives—real or imaginary—rather than living our own. We resist “what is,” in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons.

Sometimes it’s less about resistance and more about practicality. As I said last week, I’ve launched an online retreat, The Advent of Jesus through the Eyes of Others, and so I’ve been spending a lot of time focused on the events that took place in that first Advent and Christmastide. I’ve been refining meditations, considering reflection questions, creating fitting activities that will help retreatants connect more deeply with these ancient events through their own modern lives and activities.

I have lost count of the number of times over the years that I’ve explained to people in spiritual guidance that we can only really encounter God in the present moment. If we’re replaying the past or fearing the future, we’re in our heads, not living in the present reality, which is the only place where God can meet us. That is why Centering Prayer and related forms of meditation are about repeatedly bringing us back to the present moment, over and over again. As we learn to return to the present, we learn to return to God, to what is, rather than to what we imagine, one way or another.

So it’s a paradox that I am focusing both on Advent past (Jesus’ birth) and future (online retreat) and on living in this present moment—which involves preparation for the future by reflecting on the past. In this, I recognize another level in my understanding of kairos vs. chronos.IMG_6607

Both these terms are Greek words that have been developed a Christian meaning. Chronos is the root word of our term “chronology” and has the denotation of linear, progressive time, like the time on our watches and calendars. Kairos, on the other hand, speaks to something beyond linear time. It’s a sense of the “right” time, an opportune time, a time beyond measure. It’s our momentary capacity to live beyond our mind’s understanding of linear time. It’s living in the present moment, and somehow understanding that we’re encompassing past and future as well—just as all that we have been and will be are embodied in the same flesh that we inhabit right now.

It’s a brain-teasing understanding that really needs to move beyond “understanding” to a deeper feeling—not unlike what I’m seeking to do for those who join me on this Advent retreat journey. We will dip back into Christian history—and we will live that history in our own time, in our own way. Like with the Reign of God that Jesus sought to proclaim through his ministry, it is already becoming manifest as we speak of it and seek to live it out—and remains elusively “not yet” because it is not fully formed in our still-struggling world.

I invite you to spend some time this week pondering kairos and chronos and your own capacity for accepting what is and living in the present moment.


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Can We Disappoint God?


I’ve had some interesting conversations over the past few weeks, around questions about balance, rest, creativity, commitment, responsibility, practicality, and trust. That’s quite a list—and all of it is connecting with the question of what I’m choosing to bring forth into the world, in terms of spiritual offerings. I’ve talked frequently in the past about the idea of a podcast on hope and, as I’ve continued to faithfully show up for what I thought would move that idea forward, it just isn’t happening.

I’ve struggled with that. I’ve had this idea that it’s my responsibility to make it happen since God seemed clearly to be giving me the idea. The problem comes with the fact that I honestly don’t have passion for the idea at this point. When I look at my list of possible projects to work on, there are at least a dozen that I’m more excited about. It’s not just because podcasting would be new territory. There are other factors involved, including my paid editing workload. I just don’t see how I would move forward with it at this point.

And that’s led to a lot of guilt. As I said, I have this sense that I’m supposed to follow every trail of breadcrumbs that God lays down—but what if that isn’t the case? What if our minds are constantly pulling ideas forth from the endless creativity of God’s universe, and we get to choose what we want to pursue? What if it’s like walking up to a peach tree and choosing a certain peach, luscious and ripe, while having to leave dozens of others behind?

When I was at Weird Church Camp, I had a conversation with someone who shared with me some wisdom from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. The wisdom is that ideas “seek the most available human collaborator” and move from soul to soul in the process. This could mean that I can speak an idea—help to “get it out there”—but then let the idea go and trust that it will find its way to someone who is more available to take it on. This could also mean that just having spoken about it, repeatedly, on this blog, could be what I am called to do—that someone else will pick up this idea here and run with it.

Of course, that could also be a way to avoid responsibility for doing what I am called to do in the world—and there have been seasons in my life when that might have been true. I often have worried that I’ve disappointed God by not following through on things. I have feared that God would somehow stop “giving me ideas” or “building up my creativity” because I wasn’t “following through.”

But I don’t believe that it is true now, because something else has risen to claim my focus at this time. This something has been incubating in me—and manifesting, off and on, in my life—for nearly twenty years. This idea embraces the Ignatian type of Imaginative Prayer and first began to evolve when I developed a Quiet Day for my local church, entitled “The Advent of Jesus through the Eyes of Mary.” Over time, I’ve led that quiet day in various places, then expanded upon it to embrace the stories of others who were involved in the Advent and Christmas story.

This newest incarnation involves an online retreat that invites participants into the experiences of those surrounding Jesus during the season of his Incarnation. I’m calling it The Advent of Jesus through the Eyes of Others and I invitAdvent Online Retreat 2017 basicse you to click on the title (not the image) and learn more about it. I’m excited to have figured out a way to share these stories with you—these stories which have been seeking incarnation, in and through me, for years.

This is exciting! I also wonder: Was God disappointed that it took almost twenty years for me to reach this point? Or was it enough that those quiet days and prior retreats were shared, when they were shared? I also find myself wondering how much is enough. Am I too hard on myself? Is it even possible to disappoint God?

What do you think?


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Awaiting the Lessons of Failure


One of the teachings from Richard Rohr that has stayed with me over the years is the fact that, after the age of thirty, we learn a lot more from our failures than we do from our successes. I cannot count the number of times that I’ve shared this with friends, colleagues, and people who have met with me for spiritual guidance.

DSC_0023e JerusalemIt’s a truth that certainly isn’t easy to live into—as I’m learning myself right now. As I type this—before dawn on a morning in early October—there are still a dozen days left for Henry and I to sign up more people for our trip to Israel this coming January…and we still need six more people to make a commitment for there to be enough people for the trip to happen. At this point, that does not feel possible. I hate putting those words out there—making it more real, in a sense—but I’m also recognizing that I don’t know where else I would look to find people. We have done what we can to share our excitement and encourage others to join us but, for whatever reasons, this trip just has not filled.

Thus I find myself in a kind of limbo—waiting for a few more days to pass, just in case people who have said no might change their minds, or people who have one of our brochures sitting on their dining room table, where they look at it with longing while eating dinner each night, might decide that they can indeed afford the time and money to make their pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

At this point, whatever lessons God might have for us to learn in this probable failure are not yet apparent to me. I’ve pondered some possibilities, ranging from us not spending enough time on the front end, praying for more clarity about whether God really wanted us to undertake this project, to some unknown future calamity in the Holy Land that would have cancelled the trip at the last minute (which is akin to what happened the first time we tried to go—as pilgrims, not leaders—a handful of years ago).

And so I wait. I wait to see if miracles are in the offing. I wait to see if the potential of failure is sufficient for me to learn some lesson, or whether I need instead to let go, move on to other projects (of which there are many!), and await the clarity of failure’s lessons, which will probably come with a bit of time, distance, and perspective.

What is your relationship with failure? Do you seek its lessons—or have you found that its lessons find you, whether you wish it or not? Do you see God’s hand at work in the failures you’ve experienced in your life?

If you want to be part of creating that miracle for us, feel free to learn more about joining us in the Holy Land this coming January: http://biblical-journeys.com/shirin-mcarthur-and-henry-hoffman-holy-land-tour/ 


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Vocabularies


Did you know that the Oxford English Dictionary is updated four times every year? That would have been impossible before the Internet, when the OED was only available in printed book form. Now that it can be updated electronically, it seems that keeping up with our expanding English language is a constant job. This summer alone, the OED added over 600 new “words, phrases and senses” to their “definitive record of the English language.”

There are so many versions of English, spoken around the US and across the world—and I’m not just talking about how many words there are to indicate a table or express disappointment. Today, I’m pondering our specialized vocabularies and our facility with different portions of that broader cultural phenomenon we call language.

I’ve spent significant portions of the past month immersed in the editing of a Doctor of Ministry dissertation. The work has been fascinating, both in what I’ve learned about one aspect of multicultural ministry and in coming to terms with how many vocabularies one culture can utilize.

First, there’s the vocabulary of Christian ministry, with all its fancy words for different aspects of the ways we understand and live out our faith. Having studied and worked in Christian ministries of one sort or another for much of my adult life, this language is quite familiar to me. Then there’s the vocabulary of cultural anthropology, with its various descriptors and theories about how we all interact. This is not my background, but I can intuit much from context and close, careful reading.

Then there’s the language of editing, complete with its own vocabulary, rules, and practices. Every time I work with a new client, I realize how much of this language I now understand on an unconscious, gut level, purely from habitual and heavy practice.

Then there are other vocabularies—not all of them using the written word—that are quite foreign to me. One evening I was reading a blog post that referenced another creative endeavor that she called “his #WMD project”—and I realized I had no idea what that meant. Upon investigation, I learned that it was a multimedia mix of written word and video recording. As I read and then listened, I realized that I had no idea how to create that video collage of multiple image windows—and that it was probably as natural to this younger man to create it as it was for me to correctly format the complex footnotes for that DMin dissertation.

IMG_6324We aren’t the only generation creating new vocabularies. For thousands of years, in multiple regions of the world, humans developed the language of flowers, or floriography, which perhaps reached its height in Victorian England. Every color of rose had a meaning. Flowers developed multiple meanings, and how flowers were arranged and combined had meaning as well. Today, however, I imagine there are few Americans who choose flowers based on anything more than “red roses are appropriate for Valentine’s Day.”

One way that my parents keep their brains sharp is by regularly tackling crossword puzzles. This has made them aware that they lack certain vocabularies, such as the names and terms associated with many sports. One way that my own brain stays sharp is by immersing myself in the new vocabularies—such as cultural anthropology—associated with my editing jobs.

I’m willing to learn new nonverbal vocabularies, too. I have recently created and edited my first digital audio recording and will soon need to dive more deeply into video—but these are not vocabularies I can yet easily comprehend. I will do so because I feel God calling me to expand the vocabularies I use in ministry.

What new vocabularies are you discovering or engaging? How are you called to expand yourself in ministry or service?


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Wealth and Hurricanes


A few days ago, I read this rather startling observation: “Jesus has more to say about money than about any other topic, including prayer.” I admit I was surprised to read this—and it goes to show how “down to earth” Jesus’ teaching really is. He understood where we would find ourselves tripping up, in the spiritual life—less often in our communication with God and more often in how we lived out our relationship with God in our daily lives.

IMG_6293 moneyIt does indeed seem that we need regular reminders about the potential and power of money to wreak havoc in our lives—and the risks inherent in making money into our reason, goal, security net, excuse…we all do it, in one way or another.

I have a client who is also a freelancer—in a different field. He sometimes comments, very wisely, about how we end up focused on our “first-world problems,” like not having enough hours in the day to get our personal website work done because we’re so busy with our paid work. He’s right. So many people around the world are focused on whether there will be enough food on the table tomorrow, or if there will be electricity tonight. Our websites would have absolutely no meaning if there was no electricity to power them; they literally would not exist.

How far we have come, it sometimes seems to me, from the very earthy images that Jesus uses to reconnect us with our Creator God. Perhaps that is why I often find myself returning to images of nature for my daily Instagram posts. Mother Earth has so much to teach us—including how little we can rely on our wealth.

Consider for a moment two events in this past week: Hurricane Maria and the earthquake in Mexico City. Both of these natural disasters had no regard for wealth or poverty. They shook us to our foundations, regardless of where we stand. Water flowed everywhere, power lines were whipped about, anything was picked up by the wind and flung down anywhere else. Natural disasters don’t care how much money you have.

At our best, we also don’t care how much money you have when it comes to responding to natural disasters. We see images of people gathering to help dig trapped people out of buildings in Mexico City and clear waterlogged debris in the Caribbean.

Wealth comes in many forms—not all of them material. And with great wealth—and here I would definitely include the great fortune of not being impacted by disaster—comes great responsibility. We who are living with our first-world problems have a responsibility to reach out to those who suddenly find themselves in third-world situations.

My husband Henry is a retired priest. He’s leaving on Tuesday to spend a couple weeks as a volunteer chaplain in Houston, which is still in the beginning stages of recovery from Hurricane Harvey. He has been invited to minister with people who are living in a pair of hotels, unable to return to damaged or destroyed homes, and to the FEMA staff who are working with them. He is called to listen, pray, encourage, and support them, in whatever ways the Holy Spirit reveals to him, and to them.

He’s also been asked to bring toiletries with him—these are evidently very difficult to come by at this point—but the primary wealth he’s bringing is his own groundedness in God. He is wealthy beyond measure, in this situation: he has a home in fine shape, enough money and a car to drive to Houston, and plenty of time available to give to those less fortunate. And God has called him to be a good steward of those resources, in part by sharing them with others.

What are your many forms of wealth? How are you called to share them?


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Profoundly Creative


I’m leading a group on the Enneagram at my church these days. It’s been enriching for me to delve more deeply into the work. I’m learning more about the various personality types and enjoy helping people both understand themselves more deeply and see the significant differences between us, in terms of our perspectives, capacities, challenges, and gifts.

In the process, of course, I’m being reminded about aspects of myself as well. One of the paradoxes of my particular type is that we can be profoundly creative at our most healthy—and struggle to create when we let our emotional coping mechanisms take over.

For example, I’ve previously mentioned those many writing ideas I’ve had. I will be attending the Women Writing the West conference here in Tucson in late October, and have a brief opportunity to meet with an agent or editor to pitch a project. I am finding myself feeling paralyzed when it comes to choosing a project to pitch. Should I aim for a selection of these blog posts, focused on a particular Western-oriented theme, given the nature of the conference? Should I gather together some of my poetry, following the same idea? Should I pitch something that will likely require inclusion of my photographs, understanding that this makes for a much more expensive printed book, or use the opportunity to learn about electronic publishing so I might include my photography? Do I worry about which of these might be most lucrative, or focus instead upon what I believe to be most valuable for potential readers?

DSC_8744 twirlI am writing this post at 4:30 am because I’ve let these questions, and more, keep me awake. Naturally, this is probably not the best or healthiest way to proceed. Some days are like that. Accepting this fact is part of having compassion for myself. And, learning how to be a healthier version of myself can allow me to better handle these questions—to avoid taking them into the territory that I call “spinning,” where I mentally go in circles, returning to the same questions again and again, without finding answers.

Which is why I am sitting at my computer, typing this at 4:30 am. I have learned that the best way to stop spinning is to get up and do something different. If I am still feeling wide awake when this is done, I will probably edit a client project for a while, then return to bed and hope to sleep in, or take a bit of a nap later. (One advantage of the freelance life is that afternoon naps are sometimes possible!)

Self-understanding is helpful in many aspects of life—most definitely including the spiritual. Much of my work is inherently spiritual—the content, my perspective, my reliance on the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to guide me and those with whom I work. That can lead me, in less healthy moments, to take my relationship with God for granted. When I find myself awake at 4:30 am, it’s also a reminder that I need to make time for God in my rhythm of life—no matter the hour.

Maybe, before diving into client work, I’ll go hang out with God for a bit.