Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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Unintended Consequences in Our Transportation Industry


Last weekend I returned to Silver City for a few days. I visited friends, hiked in the mountains, and gave a presentation of some photos and stories of our time in Israel at the church I used to attend. (Want to join us for a Holy Land tour of Israel this coming January? Find out more here.)

DSC_8559eOn the drive from Tucson to Silver City, I passed this amazing sight. It’s hard to tell from this photo, but there are almost three hundred train locomotives, stored end-to-end, on an unused siding alongside the Interstate. Reading up on this, I discovered that the Southern Pacific Railroad is using “Aridzona” to store unused engines. Our state’s humidity is generally very low—except during the current monsoon season—making it an ideal place to mothball both airplanes and locomotives.

So why, in an economy that’s supposedly booming, are so many engines parked here? It turns out that another of the unintended consequences of the success of fracking natural gas has been a decline in our railroads. Railroads have, for decades, been used to haul coal. In fact, coal has historically been the railroads’ largest single revenue source. We know—from our contentious political election cycle last year, if nothing else—that the coal industry is in serious decline. Natural gas is much more efficiently transported via pipeline, and the increase in oil pipelines as well (including the incredibly contentious Dakota Access Pipeline) had also cut railroad oil transport by 22% in 2016.

Railroads built this country. My paternal great-grandfather worked for the railroad, and the pursuit of trains still drives many of the details of my parents’ vacation plans. But things are changing in this country. The rail lines that used to form the backbone of our nation’s transportation industry no longer do so. Transportation now takes place via pipelines, power lines, and—in this increasingly service-based economy—internet lines.

I know this is a rather big shift, but I see a similar transition taking place in the church in this country. I’m currently reading a book called Weird Church, which discusses the decline in the institutional church, in America and around the world, and proposes a rather radical response. It is fact that many in our younger generations are not keen on the idea of belonging to one church and giving money to support a building and programs and clergy salaries. They are still curious, even desirous, of a spiritual life and a relationship with God, but the ways that worked for prior generations don’t work for them.

So it’s time to discover new ways to “transport” Christianity to the spiritually hungry. In their exploration of what it means to be church these days, Weird Church leaders propose returning to the roots—which is what the word “radical” means, at its root(!)—of Christianity. They pose a question that I really like: What did the disciples do the day after Pentecost? Having been inspired by the Holy Spirit, these earliest Christians moved into “liminal space,” where “the Jesus movement began to spread and to innovate on the fly; creativity came to life.”

There are many ways in which Christianity is being revitalized in this country—but most of them don’t look like the church we’re used to seeing. Christianity is being “transported” in new ways, and I am excited to be a member of a team of spiritual directors that will be gathering with Weird Church practitioners at Weird Church Camp, the end of this month, to share stories and experiences and listen for how the Holy Spirit is calling us all to innovate in this day and age.

I invite you to pray for us, as we prepare for camp and gather in community, like the early Christians, to revision what church looks like in a constantly changing world. How are we called to transport Christianity to the spiritually hungry today?

How are you called to transport Christianity to the spiritually hungry today?


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Upright Walking


IMG_4412Recently a friend shared an article on Facebook about the history of church pews. In church buildings, pews are a relatively new invention that likely came about because sermons were getting longer as the Protestants focused more exclusively on the Word. Until the Reformation, people evidently stood in church—or knelt—and the amazingly decorative floors are evidence of that. Even now, if you visit older churches in Europe or the Holy Land, you can see that they’ve simply installed a number of chairs for modern visitors in a large, otherwise empty nave.

IMG_4477I found myself thinking about that in terms of my experience at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where few people were seated. There was a lot of walking around, and there were a few places (presumably for the elderly or infirm) to sit, but the energy of the church was more about movement. We stood, we knelt and prayed, we lit candles, we stood some more.

I’m guessing that worship in the early church was much more likely to be active, to be upright. I could well imagine early Christians asking us, “Why would you sit in church? You should be kneeling and standing and praising and eating and going out to do good work in the world. The church is not a place of rest, it’s a place of challenge and inspiration.”

I also found myself thinking that a species who spent generations evolving to stand should not be so quick to sit. When you sit, you can’t respond quickly. When you sit, you’re not on your guard, and for most of human history, humans were hunted (as much as hunters) and did have to “stand guard.” Learning to walk upright was a huge step in the right direction. Why sit now?

Then there’s the other meaning of upright—not in terms of physical stature, but in terms of the spiritual life. How do we walk uprightly, as a spiritual practice, when we spend all our God-time sitting? How do we understand ourselves as upright when we only have our gazes focused downward, toward our own navels or worship-books, or toward the front of the church, as spectators? The idea of God as “watching over us” really begs the question of what we’re doing, sitting on our tails, when we are called to be servants, living out our faith.

How are we called to upright walking in this day and age? How is God calling us to not fold inward, back into an ape-like existence, where our safety is what matters, where our focus is on ourselves?

How do you walk upright? How might you, figuratively and literally, transform the sedentary posture of today’s church worship into the active life in Christ?


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Night on the Roof of a Cathedral


Henry recently found an article online about a tourist who was accidentally locked in Milan’s cathedral, called the Duomo, overnight. The American tourist chose to take advantage of his unexpected lock-in and spent the night “among the cathedral’s rooftop spires.”

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Photo from Duomo di Milano website

Henry shared the article with my sister and brother-in-law, who lived in Milan for two years. It was interesting to see what each of them noticed. My sister commented on the fact that the same firm has handled the Duomo’s security for the entire six hundred years of its existence. My brother-in-law commented that he would have contacted police to say that he was locked in, despite the ruckus that would have caused.

And I? I found myself thinking of books I have read over the years that discussed the medieval passion for building cathedrals. One of the goals for cathedral builders was to get closer to God—for they believed that God’s home in Heaven existed just above the sky. In those days, cathedrals were the tallest buildings ever constructed, and those fortunate roofers who set the final spires in place could indeed say that they had climbed closer to Heaven than anyone around them.

It’s kind of hard for us to imagine having that kind of passion—and risking that level of danger—just to get closer to the heavens. We fly much higher than those cathedral builders ever dreamed possible each time we get on an airplane. Others amongst us have not found a literal Heaven on their way to the moon—although for many it was nonetheless a profoundly spiritual experience.

I have walked among the Duomo’s spires; it was one of the many places we toured with my sister and brother-in-law when we visited Milan almost twenty years ago. I can certainly see myself taking advantage of a spontaneous “retreat night” among the spires, staring at the heavens. I also find myself imagining those medieval masons and roofers, pausing toward the end of a busy workday to glance upward. What went through their heads when they looked up? Did they tremble in fear of the God who would judge their every thought and action, or did they stand in awe and wonder at their fortune in finding themselves so much closer to the God who created them?

Today many of us believe that God is not “out there,” far away, but “closer than our very breath.” Perhaps that is because we have explored the heavens and not discovered a literal Heaven, comprised of streets paved with gold. Nonetheless, our desire to draw closer to God remains unchanged. Whether we look up, within, or around us, we still seek God.

Where and in what ways do you seek God? What might cathedrals have to teach you about your own spiritual journey?


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Abundance


I spent a couple of days this past week helping a church prepare for its annual Bazaar this weekend. The quantity of donated items, everything from clothing and jewelry to cookware, baskets and Christmas decorations, really had me thinking about the abundance of most Americans’ material possessions. The good news is that so many of these items are being re-used through the recycling of church bazaars. I’m less certain, however, of whether this is the best way for our churches to be illustrating God’s abundance in this season.IMG_0435 bazaar

As we enter November, many of us are planning Thanksgiving get-togethers, deciding who is going “over the river and through the woods,” and what each person can bring to help fill the holiday table. Thanksgiving began as a celebration of an abundant harvest, but most of us have become disconnected from that harvest process. Our local grocery stores carry plenty of food, regardless of the season.

Where do you see abundance in your life right now?

How might you witness to that God-given abundance in your life?


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Showing Up for What is Unfolding


I have been blogging for a while now—but not here. I’ve been getting paid to write blogs for small businesses through a company called BlogMutt. Great company, and it’s given me tons of practice—but that’s not the point of this blog.

Now is time to start—or restart—blogging here.

Why? I believe I am finally ready and able to articulate, at least somewhat, my role in this always-unfolding journey that is “living faithfully, from a Christian perspective.”

Yesterday I attended a workshop led by a Lutheran pastor named Nadia Boltz-Weber. She has started a rather unusual congregation in Denver called House for All Sinners and Saints (HFASS). She and her congregation have created a community with roots deep in the Christian tradition and manifestations that would not be familiar to most church goers. But it is meeting the needs of some, or it would not be going strong, five years in, and she would not be a featured writer, preacher and teacher across the country.

It is not my work to attempt to replicate what she’s doing. I believe, however, that it is my work to ask questions (which is the role of an effective spiritual director, after all), and perhaps to offer some partial answers to those questions. I invite you to join me on this journey.

Today’s question is “what in your church, or in your life, needs to die?”

DSC_2696 daffodils

I mean that in a fairly literal sense. One of the innovative ways that HFASS approaches its church programs is that if a program loses energy after a while, they stop it. Just let it go. No need to keep the program on life support by pressuring resentful people to keep showing up, even when it isn’t meaningful for them. No need to try to resuscitate a program that “should” be part of a community’s life. Instead, trust that the program has lived its usefulness, and that the Spirit will bring about something new in due time.

On a personal level, the question is aimed at those things that we think we “should” do but find ourselves resenting. Some of them, frankly, are necessary, like working for an income or making sure the house gets cleaned. But if we are resenting what we do in our lives, perhaps the question needs to be “what new thing might the Spirit be trying to bring about in my life? Where am I getting in the way of that change, or that transformation?” I know that I stood in the way of transformation for a long time by working at jobs that no longer fed my soul, and my attitude toward those jobs—and probably the work that I did—suffered as a result. I am still learning that lesson, as I recognize how long I have spent running away from blogging.

So here I am, because my fear needs to die today.

What in your life needs to die?