Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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: 




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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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?


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: 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.

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Lenten Lessons: Compromising Locations

The Jordan River in the Holy Land is 156 miles long, so there’s a lot of territory to cover when it comes to determining where John the Baptist might have based his baptizing ministry. The Bible does give us hints, however (John 3:22–23) and, over time, tradition solidified the location were John was baptizing. Churches were built on the east side of the river, because John 1:28 also speaks of John the Baptist baptizing at “Bethany across the Jordan.”

Today most of that eastern side of the Jordan River is the territory of the Kingdom of Jordan, and thus inaccessible to pilgrims coming from the Israeli side of the river. Prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, much of the west bank of the Jordan River (yes, that “West Bank”) between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea was also under Jordanian control and thus inaccessible to pilgrims. As a result, another “traditional” baptism site sprung up, right where the Jordan River exits the Sea of Galilee, much further north. This allowed pilgrims to be baptized, or re-baptized, within the waters of the Jordan River without becoming casualties in another border dispute.

DSC_9525After the 1967 war, the west bank of the Jordan River, across from the older “traditional” baptism site, was reopened to pilgrims, and that is the place we visited in January. As you can see here, floating cordons in the river demarcate the permissible area for baptism on each side, with the center of the river forming an international boundary. An ancient church can be glimpsed through the trees on the eastern, Jordan side.

I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the need, for many years, to compromise on the “baptism location” along the Jordan River—whether east side or west, north or south. What once was one group’s territory now belongs to another. Access is restricted, then granted, then restricted again, with the ebb and flow of war and its resulting territorial divisions.

That is certainly true today in the desert southwest, my “home territory.” The Gadsden Purchase in 1853 was the last substantial territorial acquisition in the continental United States. Its boundaries divided the territory of the Tohono O’odham people, who originally ranged freely over the resulting international border with Mexico but today are severely divided by the American government’s increasingly impenetrable and hostile border.

Every change in a territorial border creates consequences for those who live along it. This has been true ever since nomadic people began to settle down and claim territory as “theirs” rather than understanding that the earth is a gift, freely given to all by a generous and abundant Creator. In the Holy Land, people figured out how to compromise, accessing the river where they could in order to keep their rituals and traditions alive.

Many people, around the world and over countless generations, have “left home” because of territorial battles that divided or destroyed their homelands. They compromised or abandoned their connection with a certain place in the interests of safety, security, a better life. Has this happened in your family’s history? Where in your own life have you had to make compromises, whether in regard to a geographical location or in a less literal sense?

Have you maintained some sort of connection with certain locations—perhaps your “hometown,” or home territory? Are there places that have developed particular spiritual meaning for you because of a pivotal event—a literal or spiritual baptism? Do you revisit them? How would you respond if you were suddenly told that such holy land was now off-limits?

I invite you to pray for all those who are cut off from their holy lands, in one way or another, and must make compromises to keep their personal and communal traditions alive.