Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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Listening to My Constituents


Those of you who have been following me for a while will know that I’ve been pondering what I’m called to do in response to the changes happening in this country. While many expressed surprise at the US election results last November, those results speak to underlying issues that have been developing for a while. Cultural change doesn’t happen overnight.

IMG_5156In this Eastertide, as spring blossoms around me with the energy of new life, I am ready to take my own next steps in this process. I am working with the woman (and her team) that designed my logo, dialoguing about what I can offer, online and in person, to support the spiritual people I serve through my various ministries. As I pondered back in Advent, what and who am I for?

The answer is that I am for you: the people who read my blog and find support here for the work you are doing, the ministries you are living out, the people you are serving.

Rather than assuming that I know what you want and need, today I am asking. I want to listen to you, my spiritual constituents. I am requesting your feedback, as outlined in the letter below. So please read on, and please respond. I want to know how best to serve you, to support you.

Dear Friends,

The past year, both in the US and abroad, has increasingly been filled with challenges for people of faith. These trends in particular have raised concerns for me, and may also have for you:

  • The wars and number of refugees around the world have exploded and stable countries are closing their doors to those who have lost homes, families, and—often—hope.
  • Rising political leaders are tapping into racism, xenophobia, and many other -isms that lurk beneath the façade of “civilized” societies, revealing that we still have a lot to learn about how to love all our neighbors.
  • There are many levels of uncertainty about what effect the current political realities will have on those we care for and serve, be they students or workers, parishioners or seekers, elders or children, wealthy or impoverished.

These are just a few examples of what we and our communities are facing as we minister to those in our midst, formally and informally—or when we turn to God in prayer, asking what we are called to do, individually and collectively, in this season of change and challenge.

It is in this context that I am prayerfully discerning how to provide evolving support for spiritual leaders like you. As someone whose lifelong call has been “ministry to ministers” (whether lay or ordained), I’m hoping that my ministries can provide helpful tools for spiritual leaders and faithful followers—tools that assist your response to the emerging demands of our times, while also nourishing your heart and spirit to persevere in your service.

With this guiding mission, I am asking trusted friends and colleagues for input on a new digital platform of offerings I am developing. What is missing in your system of support? What do you need in order to keep bringing hope to the hopeless, trust to the doubting, courage to the fearful? I’m curious about how I might serve you, in person or through online portals (classes, webinars, etc.).

Some of my questions and ideas are listed below. Others are more visual in nature and hard to explain, so they will need to be viewed in their draft form for feedback at a later time. I would love your thoughts on these questions, as well as your feedback on what, if anything, you would add to this list.

  • What resources and personal practices do you turn to for personal inspiration? What helps you get in touch with your creative wellspring? Possibilities include poetry, prayerful reflections and meditations, music, videos, etc.
  • What are the best ways for you to receive these inspirations? Possibilities include emails, podcasts, videos, webinars, books (hardcopy, ebooks, and/or audiobooks), etc.
  • Are you utilizing “mobile” listening, via smartphone apps or connecting your phone to your car’s sound system?
  • Are you drawn to online webinars, lectures, conferences, and retreats for your personal development experiences, or do you largely prefer to invest time with in-person retreats, inspirational talks, and films? Or are you finding yourself drawn to a mixture of both online and in-person?
  • Do you prefer to access online events live and interact with the presenters, and/or do you wish them to be flexible, so you can access them when your schedule permits?
  • Are you interested in mentorship for creative writing, speaking, retreat planning, or other forms of spiritual leadership?
  • Does the idea of participating in an online circle of trusted peers feel attractive to you? Would you be interested in peer-to-peer discussions on common challenges, in the form of web-based call-in meetings or video conversations?
  • What are the particular issues that have become more acute during recent times, for which you’d appreciate accessing support?
  • Would you be interested in reviewing and giving feedback in a few months on a “beta version” of this unfolding digital platform of offerings?

Any and all feedback and ideas are deeply appreciated as I take this exciting next step in my ministry journey.

I welcome your response in any form that’s easiest for you. If you like, just copy and paste your feedback into an email and send it to me at shirinmcarthur@gmail.com. If it would be easier to talk in person about this, rather than writing, email me and let’s schedule an appointment.

It would be most helpful for me if I can receive your response within the next two weeks, but don’t let that stop you from sharing your thoughts if it takes a bit longer than that.

I thank you for taking the time to help me discern how best to serve you in this season.

Peace,

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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?


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Becoming St. Valentine


Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. Do you have big plans? Have you ordered the flowers, picked up the chocolates, made dinner reservations at a special restaurant?

img_4725I have a proposal for you—in light of my blog post last week about refugees and immigrants. What if, instead of spending money on yourself and your beloved, you were to take that $20 or $50 or $100 and donate it instead to an organization that’s supporting the refugees and immigrants in our midst today?

That type of action would be much more in keeping with the tradition of St. Valentine, whose holy day has been warped beyond all recognition by our culture, starting all the way back in medieval times. There is practically nothing historically known about St. Valentine, but tradition states that he restored the vision of a judge’s blind daughter and thereby converted the judge’s family to the Christian faith. Bringing healing to a young girl who was living without hope seems far more in line with Jesus’ ministry than the traditions of courtly love or giving flowers and candy to people who have plenty of worldly goods.

How might you make Valentine’s Day a celebration of self-giving love? If my idea about a donation doesn’t suit you, choose another, but be intentional about living in the spirit of the day, rather than the cultural norms for the day. Bring hope to the hopeless and become St. Valentine to someone else this week.


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Being For


This is not a political post—although it starts there. Please bear with me.

I read an article a couple of weeks ago that posited a number of things about why Trump won the American presidential election—and also stated clearly why current political, economic, and social modalities aren’t working (1) for the many types of people who voted for him, or (2) for those who sat out the election in disgust with the options available.

One thing that struck me in the article was a schematic that talked about four types of responses. Two were personal and two were communal. They say that three are fairly typical responses, and certainly I’ve been seeing them on social media and considering them for myself: personal rage, personal change, and reactionary movements. Rage and movements are reactions “against”; they seek to push back, they foster conflict and negativity. For many years, I have felt that this type of response is insufficient, but I hadn’t been as successful in articulating why, or comprehending another alternative.

A number of elements have conspired to make it crystal clear to me today. A few years ago, a friend and I were discussing the divisiveness that tends to arise in so many Christian organizations. He said something that stuck with me: Those who leave and start another church or denomination will not grow as long as they remain against those they left. They will only grow when they figure out what they are for.

This is the key to the fourth response articulated in the article:

What is called for today is a massive response that…focus[es] on evolving and transforming the collective. What’s missing most is an enabling infrastructure that supports initiatives to move into…co-creating change.

The fourth response is for. Yes, it involves turning our backs on what is against, rather than engaging with it (and thereby giving it additional coverage and power, as the media did with so many issues during the campaign). As I mentioned a couple of months ago, I’ve learned from Alison Kirkpatrick that there is a time and place for leaving structures that do not work for you.

But this fourth response is not just giving up and hiding away. The important thing is to figure out, when you leave, what you are walking toward.

This is a key for the process I’ve been engaged with since the election, and have talked about here on a couple of occasions. I know I need to take action, and I am discerning the particular nature of that action. I am getting closer to something concrete. I now know that it needs to be more than personal change (although that will continue, and I trust it will provide a firm foundation upon which to take action), and it needs to be collective. Whatever I do needs to foster and support systemic change and transformation—not in reaction to what has happened in this country, but because my sisters and brothers around the globe are in need of these transformative changes.

So what does all this have to do with Advent, and Jesus’ birth? Advent isn’t just about remembering an event that took place two thousand years ago. It’s also about preparing for Christ’s return. I’m betting that Christ is aching to transform the inequities in America today, just as he spoke out against them in Palestine. Why hasn’t he come again? This is rather simplistic (I’m sure there’s a lot more to it), but I believe it’s because he’s given us our marching orders and told us that transforming this world is our job.

Yes, sometimes Jesus spoke out against the powers and principalities of his day. But mostly he spoke for a radical, loving way of being and acting in the world:dsc_2758-held-candle

  • Be salt.
  • Give to those who ask.
  • Carry a soldier’s belongings twice as far as you’re obligated to.
  • Care for the person who has been attacked by robbers.
  • Let your light shine where it can give light for others.

As we near the end of Advent, I invite you to take a good look at those four types of responses (personal rage, personal change, reactionary movements, and awareness-based collective action) and reflect on how you tend to act in the world. What are you for?


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Birdfeeders and the Spiritual Life


dsc_3396-cropWe’ve still got hummingbirds here in southern Arizona, despite the shortened winter days. It turns out that some species stay here all year long. Unlike the stereotypical late November in the northern US, we are not awaiting the first snowfall and seeing our breath become frozen fog when we walk out the door in the morning. Many of us are still walking around in short sleeves on any given afternoon.

However, culturally, Christmas has arrived here in the desert, too. Santa, sleigh, and reindeer in the malls; holiday parties; snow-laden commercials—we’ve got them all. In the hectic bustle of the season, there is plenty to keep our attention pulled away from what’s right in front of us, each and every day.

I recently refilled the birdfeeders around our house. We had let them stand empty when it was too hot to be outdoors, listening to birds sing and watching their antics. The birds didn’t go hungry, I’m sure; they just had to range further afield. These days we’re ready to draw them here again. It didn’t take long; in just a day or two, birds realized our feeders have been tended again.

In a sense, the birds are like us: they make their daily circuit, checking to see what’s been refilled, and often gorging themselves when fresh, new seed or sugar-water has appeared. Our circuit, however, is very different: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, email, various online news channels. We check each place to see what new thing has arrived for us to gobble down, digest, and integrate into our lives.

A friend of mine posted recently about something that is a challenge for me as well: dipping into these online feeders first thing in the morning. It sets the tone for the day and, given the tone of what we as a country have endured (and continue to endure) this year, this is a problem. How can we possibly be God’s instruments of peace and love in this world if so much of what we gobble down is angry and divisive?

Even those few articles (and more posts) that speak of love and support can be a distraction. We can pretend that liking something is the same as taking action to bring love into the world. But we need to do more—and to do that, we need to be firmly rooted in our spiritual lives. Modern wisdom teachers—many of whose words we can find online—are helpful, but God needs to come first.

And so, in this liturgical season of Advent, I am renewing my commitment to more intentionally choosing which feeders I visit, and to making God-time my first stop of the day. I might miss out on some of the birdseed (our online feeders fill so quickly, with new seed constantly flowing in!), but there will always be more. I’m also a firm believer that when I do show up at a certain feeder, what I need to see will be there (including, just two days ago, the fact that I’m going to be a great-grandmother again!). Spirit has worked that way plenty of times, and will do so again, I’m sure.

Meanwhile, why not take a few moments with me to appreciate what’s right in front of you—whether it’s a hummingbird or a nuthatch, an owl or a pigeon. Take some time to get still enough to become aware of God’s ever-loving presence within you. Feel it flow through you. Then share some of that ever-flowing love with those around you, throughout the day.


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Tapping into the Really Long View


This past week has been full of upheaval. The 2016 American presidential election has provided more than enough drama, trauma, and surprises—and I am ready for a break. I freely admit to crying in Henry’s arms the morning after election day, as my body and my fears wrestled with what my brain was only beginning to comprehend. My heart—and prayers—go out to all who have been abused by men in positions of power, whatever forms that abuse may have taken. My heart and prayers go out to those who fear their nightmares are now likely to come true, including a young woman I know who is able to fight cancer only because her medical bills are being paid through the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare—one of the first items Trump declared during the campaign he would immediately repeal upon taking power (and yes, I use that word intentionally) as President.

I’ve been reading and reflecting upon the responses of my friends and colleagues to the election and ensuing events. There’s a lot of grief, of prayer, of commitment to act for change and encouragement for others to do the same. There’s a lot of discussion about the importance of responding to hate with love. There are a lot of people marching, while others are signing petitions to encourage the Electoral College to vote in line with the popular vote, despite political pressure or financial penalties.

I’ve also been pondering the frustration and anger behind the votes cast in this election. For a variety of reasons, voters chose candidates who clearly promised change for a broken political system—and yes, I believe that it is broken. Everything from egocentrism to racism and misogyny have been on full display, and I am excusing none of that. Instead, I am doing my best to sit with all of it and not jump too easily to conclusions. This is a complex country with a vast array of problems in need of attention. It is difficult to hold it all with love, rather than react out of fear, anger, and/or an us-vs-them mentality—but I believe we must do that if we are ever to find common ground.

dsc_6381In the midst of all this, Henry and I were on vacation in Southern California. After my very necessary tears, we got in our car and headed south along the coast. We stopped to visit one of the early Spanish missions, San Juan Capistrano. Here we heard (again) the story of Spain’s expansion of territorial boundaries through the establishment of mission outposts and conversion of native peoples to Christianity. We wandered through ruined and rebuilt church buildings, sat in pleasant courtyards, and admired stunning desert plantings that have survived for decades on this sacred property.

As I pondered, took photos, basked in the warm day, and enjoyed the antics of visiting school children, I realized that these ancient Spanish missions provide a possible object lesson in taking a very long view on the upheaval caused by the election. The mission of San Juan Capistrano was founded by Spanish priests and their military protectors in 1775, but just a few short weeks afterward, the entire Spanish party retreated to San Diego because of rumors of revolt. It wasn’t until a year later that they returned to try again—this time led by Fr. Junipero Serra, who was recently canonized as a saint for his work in establishing this and other California missions.

For generations, our culture has glorified these missions, focusing on European colonization as bringing civilization to a savage wasteland. But Serra did not act in a vacuum, and others are now speaking out with a different perspective on his actions. There are faithful Christians who do not see Serra as a saint for bringing Christianity to California’s native peoples, but rather as a co-conspirator in the natives’ oppression by the Spanish empire. And history would seem to bear that out; rather than providing generations of peace and stability, the missional experiment actually lasted less than sixty years before being abandoned.

This is what resonates for me as I turn my attention back to this week’s election results. It is impossible to know at this point how Donald Trump will ultimately affect the United States of America. Certainly his rhetoric has been hateful and divisive, but we do not know the long-term effects of his presidency. Voting records show that he’s changed political parties at least five times, and he thrives on being unpredictable. There is no way to know how his leadership and its consequences will be viewed three decades from now, much less three hundred years.

dsc_6343The buildings of San Juan Capistrano have withstood some incredible tests of time. While some parts of the building complex were formed of adobe and literally melted back into the earth from which they came, the shell of the stone church remains as a silent testament to the big-picture intentions of Serra and his colleagues—without giving voice to the inevitable political squabbles that most likely defined their daily lives in the closing decades of the eighteenth century. Christianity has withstood some terribly destructive and oppressive seasons in its life…and the USA will as well.

I freely admit that this big-picture view does not help my friend fund her cancer treatment if Trump repeals Obamacare. Every action has ripple effects that extend far beyond what any leader can possibly imagine. The same was true for Serra and his colleagues. Native people were eventually driven to the missions, not out of a desire for Christianity, but out of hunger, as the Spanish settlers and their livestock unwittingly destroyed the delicate ecosystem that had sustained the natives for generations. There is no way to know the consequences of this election; we are only beginning to live into this journey.

On a personal level, I also do not yet have a sense of how I am called to respond—but I do know that I need to do something. Prayers are not enough—although they are certainly critical. I need to love my neighbor in concrete, practical ways, but I am not yet sure what those will look like. Instead, in this moment, I will watch and listen, learn and support, and pray for everyone who is in pain as a result of this changing tide. I will trust God that there is a bigger picture unfolding, in which I will play a small, and probably nameless, part. I’m not here for glory—and certainly not for a presidential title or eventual sainthood. I’m here to embody love to the best of my ability, one day, one choice at a time. How that might reflect on me, or my country, three hundred years from now is out of my hands.

I invite you to join me in living out this paradox: both taking the long view and also seeking how you are called to respond, right here, right now. Who needs your prayer, your support, your striving to make a difference in these tumultuous times?


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Mysteries


IMG_0666One of the wonderful things about our hikes is the mysteries that we encounter. This past week we were hiking on national forest land and encountered these two small stone buildings. They were clearly well-made and had stood the test of time, but it wasn’t at all clear why they had been constructed in this out-of-the-way location. Here they were, in the middle of the forest, with their open doorways revealing nothing inside except debris and, in one case, evidence of fire.IMG_0668

A closer look revealed even more mysteries. Both buildings had large, curved metal pipes built into the walls, most likely for drainage. This would have made more sense if the top had been open, but both roofs were well-constructed from rebar-reinforced concrete. The doorways were sheathed in metal, but the doors themselves were nowhere to be found. Perhaps they have been scavenged or stolen once the buildings were no longer in use.

Initially I thought they might be hiking waystations of some sort, but they were too close together, and had no windows. My hiking buddy suggested that they might be ice houses, and that would certainly explain the drain pipes—although where people would have found enough ice in the desert to store here remains a mystery.

IMG_0623Here is another mystery that we discovered a few months ago on another hike. It is clearly some animal’s backbone, but for us amateurs, there’s no way to know what type of animal it comes from. We have no idea when this animal lived and for how long, whether it survived to a ripe old age or was cut down in its prime, what it ate, and loved, and feared, and dreamed.

Every act of ours can be a mystery to others. I’m sure that those who built these buildings in the forest had very good reasons for doing so, but I will likely never know what they are. Every choice that I make could be a mystery to someone else, whose life experience and current needs could be very different from my own.

Every one of us is a mystery to others. Since we are all mysteries to each other, would it not be wise to treat each other as gifts? What if we viewed every mysterious act taken by another as a curiosity rather than a threat, a reason for compassion rather than ridicule? In this season of Thanksgiving, when the world is also focused on fear and violence, I think that we could all benefit from reflecting on the ultimate mystery that each of us is to everyone else.

We are all God’s children. We are all made for love. We can take steps to protect ourselves, but we also need to love one another, and honor the mystery. How might you do that today?