Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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Andrew


DSC_1881eDuring Holy Week this year, Henry and I took a turn holding vigil at church after the Maundy Thursday service. This is a tradition of taking turns “staying awake” overnight with Jesus, whose disciples fell asleep while he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32–41).

I found myself thinking about the “big three” disciples who fell asleep when Jesus asked them to keep watch: Peter, John, and James. Then I wondered how the other disciples felt, having been left further behind in the garden. What were they doing? Did they fall asleep? Did they feel left out when Jesus took those three and went further into the garden—or were they happy to just be followers, hanging out in an olive garden on a warm spring night and talking about all the events of the past few days?

Andrew in particular came to mind, in part because of two churches named after St. Andrew that have factored into my life. There is one here in Tucson, where I was baptized at about nine months old, and there is one in Albuquerque, where I grew up and was confirmed. So I looked up references to Andrew on my cell phone (yes, I pulled out my cell phone while I was in church, but that’s where the handiest Bible concordance was to be found!). I found thirteen results. These include the usual ones about the listing of the twelve apostles, and that Andrew was Peter’s brother. Mark 3 says Andrew shared a home with Peter and his mother-in-law. Mark 13 has the “big four” (Peter, James, John, and Andrew) asking Jesus privately about when the Temple will be destroyed.

But the Gospel of John has more. John says that Andrew was one of two disciples of John the Baptist, who heard him say “That’s the man!” about Jesus and followed him. Andrew then went to find his brother, telling him they’d found the Messiah. Thus scripture makes clear that Andrew was already searching, seeking, repenting, presumably already baptized, before Jesus’ ministry even started. Andrew was already on the spiritual journey.

Andrew is also the one to point out that there are fish and bread available when Jesus asks Philip how the five thousand will be fed. Andrew notices, he speaks up, he finds a starting place. He forges a path for transformation.

A pivotal scripture passage in my life is John 12:20–22. Some Greeks come to Philip and say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” I encountered that phrase on a pulpit plaque in a church we were visiting when I was fourteen years old, and that idea of pointing the way to Jesus has become emblematic of my vocation. But as I re-read that scripture on Maundy Thursday, I found myself noticing the fact that Philip doesn’t immediately go and tell Jesus. Instead, he goes first to Andrew.

I wonder why. Perhaps it was because both Philip and Andrew were from Bethsaida. Perhaps it was because Andrew was one of the “big four.” Perhaps it was because he knew Andrew would know how to handle the fact that these Greek gentiles wanted to speak to a Jewish rabbi.

The Greek Orthodox church names Andrew Prōtoklētos (Πρωτόκλητος), or the First-called—which makes sense if he was initially a follower of John the Baptist. So, if he was already—perhaps always—a seeker, did it bother him that Jesus didn’t include him in the “big three” that night in Gethsemane, or did he recognize that being singled out was not that important? Perhaps he wasn’t looking for a place beside Jesus “in his glory,” like James and John were. Perhaps being a follower was enough.

I’m still pondering Andrew. I think there’s more to learn here, from prayerful pondering on this disciple of Jesus. I invite you to ponder with me. Choose Andrew, or another of the disciples, or one the women who also followed Jesus. Who is speaking to you in this Eastertide, inviting you to dig more deeply into his or her experience with Jesus?


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Listening to My Constituents


Those of you who have been following me for a while will know that I’ve been pondering what I’m called to do in response to the changes happening in this country. While many expressed surprise at the US election results last November, those results speak to underlying issues that have been developing for a while. Cultural change doesn’t happen overnight.

IMG_5156In this Eastertide, as spring blossoms around me with the energy of new life, I am ready to take my own next steps in this process. I am working with the woman (and her team) that designed my logo, dialoguing about what I can offer, online and in person, to support the spiritual people I serve through my various ministries. As I pondered back in Advent, what and who am I for?

The answer is that I am for you: the people who read my blog and find support here for the work you are doing, the ministries you are living out, the people you are serving.

Rather than assuming that I know what you want and need, today I am asking. I want to listen to you, my spiritual constituents. I am requesting your feedback, as outlined in the letter below. So please read on, and please respond. I want to know how best to serve you, to support you.

Dear Friends,

The past year, both in the US and abroad, has increasingly been filled with challenges for people of faith. These trends in particular have raised concerns for me, and may also have for you:

  • The wars and number of refugees around the world have exploded and stable countries are closing their doors to those who have lost homes, families, and—often—hope.
  • Rising political leaders are tapping into racism, xenophobia, and many other -isms that lurk beneath the façade of “civilized” societies, revealing that we still have a lot to learn about how to love all our neighbors.
  • There are many levels of uncertainty about what effect the current political realities will have on those we care for and serve, be they students or workers, parishioners or seekers, elders or children, wealthy or impoverished.

These are just a few examples of what we and our communities are facing as we minister to those in our midst, formally and informally—or when we turn to God in prayer, asking what we are called to do, individually and collectively, in this season of change and challenge.

It is in this context that I am prayerfully discerning how to provide evolving support for spiritual leaders like you. As someone whose lifelong call has been “ministry to ministers” (whether lay or ordained), I’m hoping that my ministries can provide helpful tools for spiritual leaders and faithful followers—tools that assist your response to the emerging demands of our times, while also nourishing your heart and spirit to persevere in your service.

With this guiding mission, I am asking trusted friends and colleagues for input on a new digital platform of offerings I am developing. What is missing in your system of support? What do you need in order to keep bringing hope to the hopeless, trust to the doubting, courage to the fearful? I’m curious about how I might serve you, in person or through online portals (classes, webinars, etc.).

Some of my questions and ideas are listed below. Others are more visual in nature and hard to explain, so they will need to be viewed in their draft form for feedback at a later time. I would love your thoughts on these questions, as well as your feedback on what, if anything, you would add to this list.

  • What resources and personal practices do you turn to for personal inspiration? What helps you get in touch with your creative wellspring? Possibilities include poetry, prayerful reflections and meditations, music, videos, etc.
  • What are the best ways for you to receive these inspirations? Possibilities include emails, podcasts, videos, webinars, books (hardcopy, ebooks, and/or audiobooks), etc.
  • Are you utilizing “mobile” listening, via smartphone apps or connecting your phone to your car’s sound system?
  • Are you drawn to online webinars, lectures, conferences, and retreats for your personal development experiences, or do you largely prefer to invest time with in-person retreats, inspirational talks, and films? Or are you finding yourself drawn to a mixture of both online and in-person?
  • Do you prefer to access online events live and interact with the presenters, and/or do you wish them to be flexible, so you can access them when your schedule permits?
  • Are you interested in mentorship for creative writing, speaking, retreat planning, or other forms of spiritual leadership?
  • Does the idea of participating in an online circle of trusted peers feel attractive to you? Would you be interested in peer-to-peer discussions on common challenges, in the form of web-based call-in meetings or video conversations?
  • What are the particular issues that have become more acute during recent times, for which you’d appreciate accessing support?
  • Would you be interested in reviewing and giving feedback in a few months on a “beta version” of this unfolding digital platform of offerings?

Any and all feedback and ideas are deeply appreciated as I take this exciting next step in my ministry journey.

I welcome your response in any form that’s easiest for you. If you like, just copy and paste your feedback into an email and send it to me at shirinmcarthur@gmail.com. If it would be easier to talk in person about this, rather than writing, email me and let’s schedule an appointment.

It would be most helpful for me if I can receive your response within the next two weeks, but don’t let that stop you from sharing your thoughts if it takes a bit longer than that.

I thank you for taking the time to help me discern how best to serve you in this season.

Peace,

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On This Rock


DSC_8924One of the places that touched me most strongly in the holy land was this rock, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (also called the Sea of Tiberias and Lake of Gennesaret). This is the rock, according to tradition, where Jesus appeared to Peter and half a dozen of his other disciples, following his resurrection (this story is recounted in John 21). For me, touching this rock, leaning against it, I could look out upon the Sea of Galilee and imagine Jesus doing the same.

I could imagine Jesus building a fire on top of the rock, or in front of it, on a cool spring morning, as the sun rises over the lake. I could imagine him, watching small fishing boats out on the lake. I could imagine him, calling out to the disciples, asking if they had yet caught any fish. I could see him suggesting that they throw their nets on the other side of the boat. I could imagine him watching, perhaps with amusement and compassion, as his disciples follow his suggestion and find their nets full to the breaking point.

I could also imagine Jesus and Peter, sitting on this same rock, after breakfast, talking about love, and about tending Jesus’ flock. Peter has got to realize, by now, that things are different. I don’t know whether Jesus looked different or sounded different, but the very facts of denial, death, and resurrection had changed their relationship. Peter looked at Jesus differently, and I imagine that Jesus, following the crucifixion, viewed his disciples differently as well.

I see this conversation about feeding sheep as a way for Jesus to help Peter find a way forward. Last week I talked about Mary’s struggle to comprehend the fact of resurrection. Peter also has to undergo an internal, spiritual transformation in order to comprehend the meaning, and the impact, of resurrection on his own life.

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” The name Peter means rock, so Jesus is playing with words, but also tapping into an underlying truth. He knows that Peter is impulsive and passionate, always ready to speak and sometimes quick to argue. But he also knows that this deep passion and facility with words will be important gifts that a religious leader needs. He reminds Peter to balance these gifts with love for the disciples that will come under his care.

Perhaps naturally, later generations of Christians took Jesus’ words literally and built a church upon this rock. I don’t think Jesus would be dismayed by this. I do think he would be dismayed, however, if we stayed inside the church building and didn’t come out to lean against the rock and watch the fishing boats. I think he would be dismayed if we didn’t point out where tired, frustrated fishers might find fish. I think he would be dismayed if we didn’t build fires and offer freshly baked bread and grilled fish to the hungry. I think he would be dismayed if we didn’t balance our impulsiveness and passion with compassion and love.

What are you called to do “on this rock”? How are you called to balance passion and love?


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Do Not Hold On to Me


I find myself having some real compassion for preachers as I sit down to write this blog post for Easter. It’s Good Friday, and I want to be focused on the here-and-now of Jesus being pulled out of the pit this morning, of Jesus being condemned to death, taunted, crucified, killed. And yet…I’m living in an “already, but not yet” moment of knowing that Resurrection lies just around the corner, and needing to dwell in, and write about, Easter too.

IMG_4693Which brings to mind John 20, especially verses 11–18, where Jesus encounters Mary of Magdala in the garden after his resurrection. She is hanging around the open, empty, confusing tomb, quite unable to get her bearings. She is unwilling to leave, hardly able to stay, unable to believe the good news, manifest right in front of her—because it is, as yet, beyond what her human mind can comprehend.

We’ve all had moments like that, I would expect. We can’t believe things in our lives could go that bad—or that good, frankly!—and we find ourselves unable to truly be present to the present moment. Angels ask, “Why are you weeping?” and rather than asking “Why not?!” we turn in another direction, seeking something that makes sense.

Which is why, most likely, Mary first thinks that Jesus is the gardener. It’s something her mind can comprehend. But Jesus gently, compassionately, names her, and, in so doing, opens her eyes to the impossible, but very present, reality of his resurrection. As her eyes open, as her mind and heart begin to comprehend, she also is able to name him—her beloved Rabbouni, Teacher—and thus to find some order in her seemingly disordered world. Jesus becomes, once again, the stable center of her world. He has not died; instead, he is transformed.

But notice what Jesus does next. I can imagine Mary, reaching out toward him as she says, “Rabbouni!” Rather than reaching toward her, Jesus backs away. Rather than embracing her, he says, “Do not hold on to me.” Do not grasp hold of me. Do not treat me the way you used to. Things have changed. There is still much you do not comprehend.

That’s the way things stand on Easter morning—then, and now. We are just beginning to understand what Resurrection means. The evidence is there before us, but we still do not realize that Jesus’ resurrection has transformed him into someone we cannot possibly fully comprehend.

We cannot hold on to Jesus. We cannot grasp him, shape him, control him, use him as a tool for our agendas—though we so often try to do so. Christ is so much more than our simple human minds can comprehend. There must be mystery in the relationship. We are not in control. We cannot hold on.

I invite you to spend some time, in this Eastertide, loosening your grasp on Jesus. Release the need to hold on, to control him, to use him, to be the one to direct the relationship. Allow mystery. Allow awe. Allow the continued unfolding of relationship as he gently, compassionately, says your name.


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The Pit


Not surprisingly, churches have sprouted up all over Jerusalem to mark almost every moment of the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. One of the places that has stayed with me in spirit is what can be found underneath one of those churches: the pit in which tradition says Jesus was held overnight at Caiaphas’ house after his arrest.

Have you ever considered where Jesus was held that night? Before this trip, I admit I hadn’t. Scripture takes our focus to Peter after Jesus is arrested and taken away from the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter’s denial of Jesus in the courtyard outside Caiaphas’ house pulls our attention away from Jesus, perhaps because we need to recognize our collusion in that element of betrayal which is so endemic to our fearful human nature.

This denial is so important, in fact, that the church built over where Caiaphas’ house most likely stood is named The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu—with Gallicantu being Latin for “the cock-crow.” Beside the church, you can see the ruins of older buildings and what might have been the courtyard where Peter warmed his hands that fateful night. You can also see the steps Jesus most likely walked upon as he was taken from Gethsemane to Caiaphas’ house. I’ll share some of those images on Instagram (and Facebook) over the course of this week but, for now, I’m going to stick with the pit.

IMG_4504cPondering where Jesus might have been held, I imagine assuming there was a local jail where he would have been detained. But evidently there are a lot of caves underground in Jerusalem, and those caves served a number of functions. Certainly underground basements were a cooler space to store food and wine in those days before refrigeration. Other caves served as baths and water cisterns. Some of the caves also served as jails, and there is one such jail-pit under Gallicantu.

In this first photo, you can see in the foreground the older steps that were carved into the stone of the basement. They end in a steep, probably fifteen-foot drop into the pit. In the background, you can see the modern stairs that have been built, allowing pilgrims such as our group to descend into the pit without breaking any bones.

The second photo is taken (thanks to Henry Hoffman, whose photo is much better than mine!) of the pit itself. The light fixtures are obviously modern additions; the pit would have indeed been a place of darkness in Jesus’ time. Within the pit today is only this simple podium, upon which rests a binder containing the words of Psalm 88. When you read the words to this Psalm (and I strongly encourage you to do so), you will find many words and phrases that would have spoken directly to Jesus’ situation as he lay on the cold, hard ground within that pit. It is a powerful experience to hear it read while standing in that pit and imagining Jesus pondering what lay ahead.IMG_1131 (HH)

We are now in the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion—as the church now commemorates it. Many of us are likely to spend some time at church this week, in Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and/or Paschal Vigil services. I intend to. It is critical that we remember that Jesus’ suffering and death precede his resurrection. His time of trial and abandonment by followers like Peter are remembered in these days—and, as a community, we all have a role to play in the abandonment.

As individuals and communities, we still make choices that turn us away from God. We do get busy with our lives and forget Christ’s presence with us. We do take actionsor avoid actions that need to be takenthat grieve the Holy Spirit.

During this week, I invite you to sit with this image of the pit, and Jesus’ last night before his death. I invite you to read Psalm 88 and ponder what it says to you. Imagine Jesus, reciting this Psalm in his heart, wondering what lies ahead….


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Lenten Lessons: Anger and Violence


One of the gifts of my Lenten discipline of daily scripture reading has been reconnecting with the broader picture, the flow of Jesus’ ministry from one event to the next—a sense that I had lost over the years, as I primarily heard specific stories being told, out of context, week after week, in church on Sundays. I knew the stories, but I had lost sense of the flow. I knew the trees, but I no longer sensed the forest.

For example, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is already angry by the beginning of the third chapter. He is angry because the religious leaders are more interested in keeping the letter of the law (no work on the Sabbath) than in the health of the people. Jesus has authority and he understands power—but he also understands compassion and knows that every single human being was created in the image of God. He must have been so frustrated that people just didn’t understand!

I sense Jesus’ mounting frustration as he has to explain his parables to his disciples, over and over again. They have eyes and do not see, ears and do not hear. He tells them to beware the “leaven of the Pharisees” and they think he’s talking about literal, physical bread, not insidious ideas (see Mark 8:14–21). They spend their time debating who amongst them is the greatest, rather than understanding his underlying message that “first” and “last” are not what’s important. Every single human being is created in the image of God.

I can well imagine that, by the time Jesus comes to Jerusalem, he must have been simmering inside. He knows that the religious leaders are plotting against him and it’s only a matter of time until things come to a head. He’s frustrated that so few people—even his own disciples—understand his core message. He’s angry that both religious and secular leaders keep putting human rules before human well-being.

Perhaps he’s also just plain tired and hungry when, on the morning after their arrival in Jerusalem, Jesus goes to look for figs on a tree alongside the road from Bethany to Jerusalem and curses it because he finds none (see Mark 11:12–14). It’s like he woke up on the wrong side of the bed, and believes that nothing that day is going to go well. We’ve all had that feeling.

DSC_0500Perhaps that is part of the reason why Jesus also got violent that same day: Everything “came to a head” when he walked up these temple steps and saw the moneychangers (Mark 11:15–19). Jesus let out his frustration on the marketing masters of his day, who had figured out a way to turn the religious-sacrifice system into a moneymaking operation. He transformed his anger into a powerful, authoritative statement on the need to keep the purity of our religious observances.

So often faithful Christians think that we can’t be angry and still be “good Christians.” That’s not true. Jesus got angry. Jesus even got violent. It’s what we do with our anger that counts.

Yes, it’s probably best not to curse fig trees, but we can ask forgiveness—and know that we will be forgiven—when our anger “comes out sideways,” as it is likely to do on occasion. We can also choose to take a stand when the situation demands it. We can let our anger lead us to make appropriate, authoritative statements, to stand up to those in power in whatever way is appropriate—as so many people are doing these days outside the offices of their elected officials. We can heal anyway, even on the Sabbath, regardless of the consequences. We can choose to keep teaching, because the people around us are hungry for Good News. We can treat every single human being as an image of God—because every single one of us is. Even those whose power has corrupted them.

How are you called to let your anger speak?


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Lenten Lessons: Trash


DSC_9414e trashOne aspect of the Palestinian territories that quickly caught my attention during our trip to the Holy Land in January was the trash. The landscape controlled by Israel was, for the most part, quite well-kept. The Palestinian-controlled territory, however, usually was not. As you can see here, for example, plastics drifted and piled across the countryside like so much desert sand. In other places, ruined shells of homes and piles of rubble dotted the landscape.

I do not know the reasons for this, but I can conjecture a few possibilities. There might not be trash services available in rural Palestine, and/or many might not be able to afford it. (Trash services in urban Palestine certainly can be problematic.) Folks might be focused on scraping together a livelihood from this desert and not have time or energy available to keep things neat and clean beyond the edges of their fields. It might also be that, at this point in their lives, the Palestinians simply have become so accustomed to the trash around them that they no longer see it—literally or figuratively.

This Palestinian landscape immediately reminded me of a visit I made to another country nine years ago. As part of an internship sponsored by the Center for Action and Contemplation, I spent four days volunteering my time at a mission church and school that was built—literally—on top of a garbage dump in Juarez, Mexico. The dump had, over time, become so large that parts of it were no longer “active” and the wind had blown in enough sand to form a layer on top. Squatters began to build makeshift shacks and, by the time we visited, a marginal colonia had taken root on top of the dump and the mission church had been literally planted in the trash to serve this unofficial community.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs you can see here, the trash is omnipresent. Children who grew up here would not understand that “ground” could mean something “clean.” Certainly these families knew better than to try to grow food in this “soil”—and in fact, one of our mission projects was to bring in supplies and bags of potting soil to construct above-ground gardens, separated from the trash, so that these residents might grow some healthy vegetables for themselves and their children.

It breaks my heart that there are so many areas of this world where we have rendered our very soil unsafe for human cultivation. We have literally buried the good soil under our mounds of trash. I mourn for all the animals who are poisoned by our disregard for the consequences of our actions. I grieve for all the children who don’t have a clean, firm foundation on Mother Earth.

I also recognize that we do this to ourselves on an individual level, spiritually and physically. We trash our bodies with unhealthy food and drink. We consume overwhelming amounts of negative information, cluttering our minds and hearts with words and ideas that harm our spirits. We allow these things to become part of our internal landscape until we hardly notice the damage we are doing to our selves and our souls.

In this Lenten season, I invite you to consider the ways in which you have allowed harmful trash to become part of your physical and spiritual landscape. Has this “trash” become such an integral part of your life that you don’t even notice anymore? What internal cleanup might be appropriate for you in this season?

How also might you contribute toward cleaning up Mother Earth? You could adopt a roadway in your own community or contribute to the work being done on a larger scale. Innovative minds are coming up with some great ideas (such as The Ocean Cleanup), so pray about how you might want to get in on the cleanup act.