Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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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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Letting It All Go


Last week I began attending a Centering Prayer class at my church. This method of prayer traces its origins back to the prayer practiced by previous generations of Christian hermits, mystics, monks and nuns. It’s a way of praying that gets our agendas out of the way so that we can listen for God, and be open to God’s presence and action in our lives. It’s based on Jesus’ own instructions, found in Matthew 6:6–8:

IMG_3236But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask.

Naturally, our class assignment is to set aside a period of time for Centering Prayer every day. It’s felt a little bit like homecoming for me, as I have participated in contemplative “sit” for years, individually and collectively, including with my coworkers when I worked at the Center for Action and Contemplation.

One of my particular challenges is sticking to a certain time of day for prayer. I already have a morning routine that takes as much as two hours to complete, so adding another twenty minutes doesn’t feel right—in part because I know it’s good for me to get away from the computer at various times during the day. So I tend to take my prayer time, my contemplative sit, in between portions of my freelance work and other online projects.

On Friday, I chose as my prayer time a mid-afternoon period when I thought I had a sufficiently long period of time available. I set the timer on my phone, assumed my prayer position, and began sinking into silence.

I don’t know how long I had been praying, but suddenly my phone rang. I have assigned specific ringtones to a few of my more regular clients, so I knew, without opening my eyes, who was calling. I also knew that this client was hoping to finish two different projects that day, which I had been editing, before taking a week off for her first real vacation since Christmas. There was no question in my mind that I should answer the phone.

As we conversed, I was aware of how my (prayer-centered?) ability to stay calm and collected, going “the extra mile” to work things out, helped this client to lower her anxiety level and get the work done. (I even remembered to turn off my timer so it didn’t go off in the midst of our conversation!) We finished our discussion, I concluded my revisions for her, and then went on to complete my workday with a few additional tasks. Somehow I knew—instinctively—that I didn’t need to try to return to my interrupted prayer practice.

Later, I realized more consciously that I hadn’t needed to return to my prayer practice because God had, in that moment when I responded to my client’s need, invited me into living my prayer through action instead. I was still praying, and there was no question that God was with me, even in me, as I breathed peace and calm and assisted my client in getting out the door for a long-overdue time away from the office. It perfectly illustrated what I was told at that first Centering Prayer class: We are called to learn it well…and then let it all go.

Has this kind of a situation ever happened in your life? Were you able to let go of the need to “do it right” and trust that you were being called to do something different—that was still the right thing in that moment?

Can you open yourself to that type of “yes, and” approach to your discipline of prayer? Can you practice diligently, and then let it go when you are called to live it out in a new and different way?


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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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Trusting—One Day at a Time


After the upbeat tone of my blog last week, I sit writing this one in a rather different place. For one thing, all that’s happening in my life has led to my over-extending myself and I’ve caught a bug of some sort. This has meant I’ve had to step back from some obligations in order to rest because this weekend we are once again in Tucson, house-hunting.

House-hunting, however, has not been as straightforward as house-selling. We put in an offer after our first visit to Tucson, and it was rejected because it was contingent upon the sale of our house here. This is not that unusual—sellers prefer a transaction that’s not dependent on another one—but our reaction was still, naturally, disappointment. Then, last week, two of the houses we were most interested in viewing this weekend were gobbled up before we could even get to Tucson to take a look.

I told a friend of mine about what happened, and her response was, “Remember God’s fingerprints are already all over this process.” My response to her was, “Yes, God is truly all over this, which is part of what’s driving me nuts…why can’t I trust!?!?!? Sigh…. Maybe because I’m not feeling well….”

And that is a deep truth that bears remembering. Even when we know, in our heart of hearts, that in the big picture, all will be well, it can be difficult to live through the day-to-day process that gets us there. Whether it’s collecting boxes and beginning to pack up our belongings, IMG_1893spending hours assessing pictures and data for dozens of houses online, or trying to keep up with the flow of work in the midst of it all, adding a major change to an already-full life is not an easy task.

And so I’m trusting, sometimes more successfully than others. A year from now, I imagine being able to look back and see God’s fingerprints more clearly. Fortunately, in the meantime, I’ve got friends to hold me in prayer, to shine light on the bigger picture when I’m unable to take that wider view. I’ve done it for others, and I give thanks to God for those who are doing it for me now.

When have you been able to shine that light for others who are struggling? When have you been the recipient of the support of friends and loved ones during difficult seasons? Take a moment to give thanks to God for both the giving, and the receiving.


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The Only Constant is Change


Henry and I have moved a lot over the years. In fact, in the 21 years we’ve been married, we’ve lived in nine different locations, ranging from a one-bedroom seminary apartment to a spacious adobe house. We’ve discovered that there are both advantages to moving often (you regularly get to purge your belongings) and disadvantages (it seems like every time I get a garden established, we move!). We don’t always plan to move so frequently, but it just seems to be the pattern of our life together.

When we moved into our current house, we both really felt that we were here to stay. In fact, Henry joked about only leaving here “in a box.” We love the rural setting, the birds and bees and deer and rabbits—even when they mess with the garden. We love hearing the sound of coyotes and owls at dusk, and the number of stars we can see on a clear night. DSC_5361We’ve also invested a lot of time, energy, money and love into this home, including this beautiful rock garden which is our back yard.

But I’ve learned to “never say never.” As someone first said decades ago, life is what happens while you’re making other plans. Due to Henry’s health issues, we’re moving again. Limitations in his lung capacity mean that it’s time to live at a lower elevation. After some research and discussion, as well as prayer, we’re looking at somewhere in the Tucson area—just three hours from here—as our target destination. It takes us from 6000 feet to just over 2000, and he could feel the difference when we recently traveled there to purchase his first set of hearing aids. Sea level might be even better, but humidity, cold, and allergens are other factors that affect lungs and so Tucson seems to be a good compromise.

Naturally I’ve experienced a range of emotions over the weeks as this change has slowly become a reality in our lives. I’ve also realized that shifts in my life—whether they be related to home, work, or vocation—seem to occur in three-year cycles. I became a freelancer and we moved to this home in 2012, so it seems I’m due for another round of change.

It’s also important to notice that so many of those shifts have occurred as we followed the invitation of the Spirit. In 2003, Henry took an early retirement buyout from his job and went to seminary. In 2006, we moved to New Mexico in his pursuit of ordination. Our move in 2012 was also saying “yes” to an invitation to ministry here. Through each move, we’ve trusted that God is inviting us along a path that we don’t always see clearly. Looking back, I can see how richly we’ve been blessed, every step of the way. It’s not always been easy, but it’s been blessed.

And so, when I can rest in that trust, I am at peace with this move—even as the idea of putting all our belongings in boxes yet again feels quite daunting. I can even look forward to the possibilities ahead of us: new friends, new opportunities, a new house to make “home”—for however long we are blessed to live there.

(For those who are wondering about the practicalities, we have a mid-December close date on our house here—which went under contract before it even got on the market—and we are now looking for a house in Tucson.)

When have you trusted the Spirit’s invitation and stepped forward in faith? What happened? Are there any such invitations—large or small—being offered to you right now?