Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering



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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New Life

quail babies DSC_2712This past week I saw this year’s group of baby quail for the first time. Their feathers actually blend in beautifully with their surroundings, and I’m sure that’s a genetic adaptation that has helped a number of baby quail to escape the talons of red-tailed hawks like the one that was soaring around our house earlier this morning.

Death and life are intimately intertwined. Death feeds life every time we take a bite of food into our mouths. We may agonize over the deaths that shock us, such as the car and plane crashes I mentioned last week, but many other deaths occur daily, unrecognized by most of us as we go about the routine tasks of our lives.

There are also the “little deaths,” or those ways in which each of us die daily. The cells in our bodies are constantly dying and being replaced, which means that we are literally not the same people that we were last year, or even last month. We suffer (figuratively, and sometimes literally) little deaths when plans do not come to fruition, jobs or important events end, friendships come and go. All of this is part of a cycle of life that is just as real as feeding baby birds with whatever that red-tailed hawk has managed to catch for lunch in the fields around our house.

The good news is that those little deaths do feed new life. Friends move, and others move in to take their place. New jobs start, new babies are born. They are not the same, and we often mourn the losses and notice the differences, but over time we eventually come to recognize the unique value in each life and each new experience. At some point we might even come to recognize that each moment is an irreplaceable gift from God.

When is the last time you took time to give thanks for the present moment?

Take some time this week to watch for, and give thanks for, the new life in your life.

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Death in Eastertide

The past few days have been filled with sudden death in southwestern New Mexico. On Thursday there was a horrific crash and fire on the interstate, near the Arizona border, that was caused by the high winds and reduced visibility of a sandstorm and claimed seven victims. On Friday, a small plane crashed near our small, local airport, killing four people.

My prayers are with all of these victims, and their families, in these traumatic days, and the days and weeks ahead.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I imagine that none of those who were killed expected to die last week. I presume they had plans for the future, expectations about how their lives would unfold, and events they were looking forward to. Some of them, such as the airplane pilot and truck drivers, had left for work expecting to return home when their job was done, just as they had many times before. But this time, they did not.

Over the years I’ve read a number of books where the protagonist has a near brush with death and is forced to face the fragility and uncertainty of life. This usually leads to a declaration of love, or a reconciliation with estranged family members or friends. It seems that, no matter how long we live, we need regular reminders that we will not live forever.

I invite you to join me in prayer for the souls of those who have died this past week, and for the family members who no longer have a chance to declare their love or ask for forgiveness. And then I invite you to take this opportunity to recognize the preciousness of life. Is there someone with whom you need to reconcile, even if you have not stood at death’s doorway recently? Do you need to risk declaring your love—and the possibility of future pain, should death come visit someday—as it will, eventually, for all of us?

Chances are just as high that you will die in your bed, of old age, perhaps surrounded by loving children singing to you, as a clergy friend of mine experienced this past week. In this very different scenario of death, his mother had time to say her goodbyes, attend to any reconciliations, and depart with minimal unfinished business. That is a gift for all involved.

But we cannot guarantee which way we will go.