Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering

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Lenten Commitments: Cyclical and Sacrificial

octopusagave1There’s a transformation taking place in my back yard right now. Our giant octopus agave is sprouting a “bloom spike.” This stalk, which is already about 4 inches thick and very sturdy, will grow to a height of 10–12 feet, produce numerous blossoms that will become tiny little octopus agaves—and then the entire plant will die, leaving those baby plantlets to fend for themselves.

When I think of plants bearing fruit, I tend to think of peach and apple trees, which flower and fruit every season for decades before they eventually grow old and die. Agaves, however, put all their energy into one spectacular bloom and then die off, exhausted by the process.

aloepupsblossomWe also have aloes in our yard, preparing to bloom. These may look similar to agaves, but they are quite different in some critical respects. Aloes are native to sub-Saharan Africa and the Saudi Arabian Peninsula, while agaves originated here in the Desert Southwest and Mexico. While agaves bloom once and then die, aloes bloom yearly and form “pups,” or small plantlets that appear around the edges of the outer leaves, like pups peeking out from under a mother dog’s legs. This allows aloes to reproduce without killing themselves in the process.

As I think about the season of Lent, and of the call to spiritual transformation, these plants teach me that there are different levels of transformational commitment. Some fruit is cyclical, like the fruit of the peach and apple trees. Birds peck at the numerous fruits, bees follow behind once the skin is pierced, we humans savor what is left and perhaps plant a few of the seeds, while the tree stands tall to begin the process again. Other fruit is sacrificial, like the fruit of the agave. This plant invests everything into sending a stalk high into the air, laden with miniature versions of its very self, and sends them off into the wide world with its blessing.

Our lives can also be either cyclical or sacrificial. Most of us are called to the cyclical bearing of fruit, whether the literal fruit of our bodies or the more figurative fruit of our paid or volunteer work and ministries, our kind or cruel words, artistic endeavors, books written, lessons taught, wisdom shared…. A few of us, however, might be called to bear sacrificial fruit. I think of the brave souls who fight our nation’s wars and wildfires, or the people who volunteered, decades ago, to be the first human test cases for new vaccines. It’s the commitment, you see. Regardless of whether those humans ended up dying, their full commitment to the possibility is the same as that of the agave. Their deaths might not be definitive, but their commitment had to be.

Jesus made that level of commitment. Born as a human, he embraced the calling to bear sacrificial fruit—though his night of agony in the Garden of Gethsemane proves to us all that the commitment is not free of second thoughts, fears, and painful anticipation.

As you ponder your Lenten journey, what level of commitment are you willing to make? What transformations are taking shape in you in this season? What fruits are you called to be bearing?



Talking about Ourselves

We are—God willing—entering the home stretch in the development of my new website. This means it’s time to review all the language I gave to my web development team—many months ago!—to see what I might want to update or change.

This is tough. I’m not naturally the kind of person who likes to talk about who she is and what she does. I prefer to let my actions speak for themselves. I prefer to let clients talk about my work—and I do have a number of excellent testimonials, which I will be using. But there’s that “About” page—the one that explains who I am and what credentials and experience I have for the work I do. That’s a challenge. How do you sum up 50+ years of life and ministry in a few short, meaningful sentences?

I found myself thinking about Jesus in that regard. It didn’t take long for word to spread about him. Halfway through the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, we read this: “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” Of course, his life and times were very different from ours. There was no internet, so he wasn’t competing with the constantly updated news coming in from around the world when it was time to talk about the events of the day over a simple dinner of pita bread and goat cheese. Word about him spread slowly (at least in comparison with the spread of news today), through word of mouth.

This is actually how I prefer for word of my ministry to spread. I’d prefer for other people to talk about what I’ve done, and the good I’ve been able to achieve for them. It’s somehow more authentic that way. I also feel that it lets the Holy Spirit be in charge of how word spreads and what gets said.

So why have a website? It’s sort of a both/and situation. I know that, to operate in this modern world, I need a place where people can come—once they’ve heard of me, or if they’re searching for someone with my gifts and skills—to learn more about what I have to offer and find a way to contact me. DSC_8755Today, the standard for that is a website; in Jesus’ time, it probably was encountering him in the Capernaum synagogue (pictured here) or the meeting cubicles built into the city gates. I also see this website as a place where people can pause for some refreshment and reflection (as it will have a rotating gallery of my photos and thoughts/questions at the top). In this way, I am reverting to type: showing visitors what I have to share, rather than expending a lot of words to talk about it. (Which is ironic, considering that words are my primary professional tool!)

For today, however, it’s the About page that needs my attention. I’ll leave you with this question: If you had to sum up your life and work/ministry in a few short, meaningful sentences, what would you say?

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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.



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.



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?



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?