Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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Advent Anticipation


Happy Liturgical New Year! Advent begins today. All around us, the pace of The Holidays threatens to overwhelm the intention of Advent, which is traditionally about waiting. Unless you’re remembering waiting in long retail lines, most of us tend to think about The Holidays as a time of busyness—filled with parties and gifts and travel plans—not the stillness that comes with waiting.

For what—or whom—are we waiting in Advent? The season is meant to be both a remembrance of awaiting the arrival of the baby Jesus and a looking forward to the adult Jesus coming again. Our perspectives, however, are colored by our distance from the events themselves.

When Mary was pregnant, only she and her family and friends were waiting—and she likely wasn’t sitting around while she waited. She had chores to do—though she might have wondered, as she chopped vegetables, whether baby Jesus’ eyes would turn brown or stay blue. Joseph might have had a cradle to fashion when time was slow at the carpenter’s shop. They had a Bethlehem trip to plan.

DSC_0587We, on the other hand, have the gift(?) of perspective. We have been hearing for years, perhaps for all of our lives, about the birth of Jesus. We know “how it all goes down”—or at least we know the stories that have come down to us about how Jesus’ birth came about: full inn and manger cradle, awestruck shepherds, gifts from unexpected wise men. We wait, and expect—but it’s harder to get our hearts and minds into the perspective that Mary and Joseph would have had: anticipation of the unknown.

On the other hand…the early church thought Jesus was “coming again” very soon—with a triumphal, transform-the-world agenda—but now two thousand years have passed. Here, we get closer to that anticipation of the unknown, because that second coming is all conjecture, no facts. Plus, while we wait, we also have things to do. Jesus gave us a commission, when he was here the first time: share my good news with all the world. It seems to me that’s enough to keep us occupied while we wait.

So, while you’re waiting in line, why not mention the “reason for the season”? Look deep inside, tap into your own anticipation about the coming of Christ, and share some good news with those around you, as the Holy Spirit gives you ability and opportunity.

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Giving Thanks in All Circumstances


“The Holidays” are upon us. In America, this has become a season of high expectations and multiple assumptions about happiness, parties, and gift-giving. Decorations are mandatory, cheer is obligatory, a full schedule of “holiday” events seems inevitable.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd yet…there is much happening in our country, and our world, that does not easily make for joy. We have wars and rumors of wars. We have refugees, asylum-seekers, and displaced people seeking the very basics of food, clothing and shelter, all around the world. We have climate change and natural disasters, drought and shortages of food, clothing and shelter. We have #MeToo and political scandals and leadership priorities more in line with ancient imperial Rome than with Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus tells us to love our neighbor. Paul, his apostle, tells us to give thanks in all circumstances. How do we do this, when so much is hard, sharp, bitter and tragic?

The word that is welling up in me is “abide.” I have a friend and fellow spiritual guide who has had this word on her license plate for many years. It is a many-years, long-term word. It means to remain, to dwell (the Psalmist tells God, “Let me abide in your tent forever”). It means to continue, await, endure. It also means to obey, observe, and follow, as in rules or disciplines (“I will abide by this decision”). It means to uphold, to accept, to adhere to. It means to persevere, no matter how difficult the situation.

As I recall, this friend chose this word because of Julian of Norwich, the medieval English mystic. Julian wrote of God abiding in our soul and Christ abiding with us through any pain or suffering we might endure. Julian assures us that, through that abiding, we are eventually healed.

This doesn’t mean the healing will be instantaneous, or that it will take the form that we wish. Julian’s most famous quote, “All shall be well,” is now often used as a trite reassurance, allowing us to avoid the difficulties of “now” to focus on a future when all is well. But that is not her point. “All shall be well” was not what Julian said; it was what God says to her—and to us. Julian herself questions how “every kind of thing should be well.” Living in a period when Norwich endured successive rounds of plague and famine, Julian understood how devastation and fear could reach into every level of society.

Within that challenging social reality, Julian learned to abide. She learned to trust that long-term perspective and to share it with others—and so must we. As she preached to those who came to her, seeking counsel in tough times, Christ holds that long-term view, and assures us that all will be well.

So, when the “holidays” are challenging, and the news is difficult, what shall we do? Abide. One way to do that is to follow the Apostle Paul’s advice: pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances (I Thessalonians 5:17–18). Give thanks for having fresh air to breathe (and pray for the urban Chinese), clean water to drink (and pray for Puerto Ricans), and plenty of food, clothing and shelter (and pray for those still displaced or homeless by war, floods, and fires). Give thanks for family (and pray for those who “push your buttons”) and friends (and pray for those who struggle during this holiday season).

I could go on, but you get the point. Find your way to pray, and to abide. Find your way to understand that, in God’s long-term view, we are called to abide in Christ (John 15). As we do so, we live into the ability to give thanks—not just on Thanksgiving, but in every day of the year.


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Ready or Not….


Recently I led my church’s Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina sessions for a couple weeks while our priest was on vacation. I chose for one Lectio Divina session the story of Jesus sending out the twelve disciples, two by two, to preach his message of repentance—the same message, coincidentally, that was at the root of John the Baptist’s ministry. It was helpful to share perspectives on this text and imagine together what it must have been like to be told, “It’s your turn. Go preach and teach and heal.”

I found myself thinking back to the summer I did Clinical Pastoral Education at Massachusetts General Hospital. On our very first week, on our second afternoon, our CPE supervisors said, “Okay now, time to go out and start visiting patients.” As I recall, all of us responded with some version of shock and concern. We weren’t ready. We’d only been in the program for a day and a half, and much of that had been devoted to orientation and paperwork. Surely there was a lot more we needed to do to be ready!

DSC_0672cOur supervisors insisted—and we obeyed. At the time, it felt analogous to learning to swim by being thrown into the deep end of the pool. Almost thirty years later, I can somewhat see the supervisors’ perspective. We were seminary students with at least a year of study behind us. They had accepted us into the program, based on—I presume—at least some level of assessment of the study and service we’d already undertaken.

Also, sometimes, it’s easier to dive into that pool all at once—even if we fear the water will be cold and deep. Stepping in, inch by inch, makes the process more painful in the long run. So, ready or not, we dove into our brand-new mission field. We all survived and, to the best of my knowledge, so did the patients.

As I continue to dance around the edge of the podcast pool, writing this makes me squirm in my seat. It might be that the best way to embrace the podcasting is to simply start doing it. And yet…Jesus told his disciples to go out in pairs. In CPE, we had our supervisors and a small group of fellow students to support, encourage and teach us. I don’t yet have any partner(s) for this undertaking. So I am sometimes dancing, sometimes sitting, at the edge of the pool. I am watching and learning, not knowing when the order will come to jump in—but that it will come, whether I feel ready or not.

What “ready or not” stories do you have in your life? Are you dancing around the edge of a pool yourself during these hot summer days?


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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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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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Refugees and Immigrants


Henry has a great old t-shirt that lists all the immigrants and refugees named or described in the Bible. The list is quite long. One of the most well-known, of course, is Jesus himself. He and his parents were political refugees who fled Palestine shortly after his birth because King Herod was seeking to take his life. Given all the uproar over immigrants in this country right now, I find myself wondering what type of reception the infant Jesus and his blue-collar parents would receive if they were to show up today on our southern border with just a donkey and one meager equivalent of a suitcase (Matthew 2 says they fled directly from Bethlehem to Egypt, so Joseph probably didn’t even have his carpenter’s tools with him).

Having to suddenly flee for fear of your life must have been an incredibly wrenching experience—especially following so immediately on the “high” of the wise men’s visit. Joseph and Mary probably felt a strong case of spiritual whiplash: One minute, they’re on top of the world, with a healthy new baby and some rich visitors bringing strong spiritual encouragement and unusual, expensive gifts; the next minute, they’re fleeing into the unknown with their infant’s life at stake.

Take a moment to reflect on what Joseph and Mary must have felt with this sudden reversal in fortune. I can easily imagine shock, fear, despair, helplessness. They had no power in comparison with King Herod and all of his soldiers and governmental bureaucrats, who really didn’t care who was affected by the king’s order; they were just worried about keeping their own jobs.

Now, take a moment to remember that something very similar actually happened to a lot of refugees and immigrants this very week, with the sudden implementation of Trump’s immigration ban on anyone entering the US from seven Arab countries. Imagine the feelings of political refugees who had finally, after months or years of intense investigation and uncertainty, been awarded refugee status. They probably felt just as much of a “high” as Mary and Joseph—and then suddenly they land on US shores and are told they can’t stay. There were immigrants who had visas and green cards who, despite their legal status, were also suddenly being turned away at the border. How could they not also feel shock, fear, despair, helplessness?

dsc_8553c-galilee-hillsJesus grew up to teach and preach to the marginalized, the oppressed, and the nameless victims of the powerful. No doubt, as he sat on a hillside in Galilee—just like this one—telling parables to his fellow Jews, he sometimes thought of the stories that his own parents had told him about those frightening days after his birth, when they literally had to run for their lives. He probably also remembered stories from Mary and Joseph about those who helped them out along the way, providing shelter, directions, a bit of food or encouragement. Jesus’ family wouldn’t have made it without the help of others—and perhaps those others became his role models for people like the Good Samaritan.

What resonates for you in all of this? What challenges you? How are you called to act in response to our own unfolding global refugee and immigrant story?


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Teach Us to Pray


In the Revised Common Lectionary (a carefully organized schedule through which the entire Bible is read on Sundays over the course of three years), the gospel reading for this week is the first part of Luke 11, where Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them to pray. Last week I shared a bit of where my prayer journey has taken me in recent weeks—into poetry. In Instagram this week, I also shared some images and questions about our patterns of prayer.

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One image that came to me this past week is that prayer is like two-way mirror glass. Prayer reflects us back to ourselves, so that we might better understand what we bring to our relationship with God. If we pay attention to what we bring to prayer, and how we pray, we will learn a lot about ourselves and our priorities.

But, at the same time, God can also look at us through that glass and see us clearly. God understands us better than we do ourselves. Then, when God is ready—and/or perhaps feels that we are ready—God shines light from the other side and glass that was once reflective becomes transparent. For a moment, we can see through. We can somehow catch a glimpse of the Divine Spirit that gives us life and teaches us love.

And once we catch a glimpse, we are never the same. We hunger for more glimpses. That hunger draws us back to prayer, and to recognizing those aspects of ourselves that we see in the mirror. We learn to support in ourselves those things that are good, and to release from our grasp those things which are not. And we humbly ask God for assistance, as we learn to nurture the good and leave the rest behind.

What is your concept or image of prayer at this time in your life? What other concepts or images have enlightened your journey at earlier stages in your life? How might this image that I shared today support your own understanding of prayer? How is Jesus still teaching you to pray?