Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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More Psalm Flights


Last October, I introduced here the concept of Psalm Flights, where I’m riffing poetry off a line or two of each psalm. I’m still slowly making my way through the psalter in this fashion, generally guided by what I encounter on Sundays, but not always. This week, I thought I would share a couple more of my poems. Another of them has already been published by Ordinary Mystic, and you can find it here.

Psalm 27, verses 5–6: One thing have I asked of the LORD; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life; To behold the fair beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.

Lord of Justice,

What has happened to

Sanctuary, to

Passionate, powerful pilgrims

Declaring your temple

Place of Refuge?

 

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Hanging out in

Beautiful buildings,

Hearing ancient echoes of

Holy songs,

Sipping sustenance from

Sun-shot stained glass,

Filtering footsteps from

Within chilly walls.

 

Would you let me stay, or

Would you drive me into

Wilderness,

Declaring need for

Sanctuary on street-corners,

Sustenance in courtrooms,

Holy hallowing of skyscrapers?

 

 Psalm 46, verse 11a: Be still, then, and know that I am God.

Be still and know

Be still and trust

Be whole in heart

Because you must

Hold open flame

Within the dark

In hopes to

Generate a spark.

 

Be true and act

Be true and sound

Be filled with love

For world around

Because you must

Hold high the flame

Embrace us all

In Jesus’ name.

 © Shirin McArthur 2017

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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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Introducing Psalm Flights


Poetry continues to flow through my life and I am grateful. It’s taking a variety of forms, and one of them is a series of responses to the Psalms. I’ve found myself taking a Lectio Divina-type approach to the psalms I encounter on Sundays: reading through them again later, paying attention to what I notice, then responding in the form of poetry. It’s been illuminating, sometimes difficult, and ultimately revealing and gratifying.

I’ve already posted one of the results of what I’m calling Psalm Flights: “Toggle Back to God.” Today I thought I would share a couple more examples of what has come forth through this process. As you read and reflect on these poems that have emerged from my prayerful reflections on Psalm 1, I invite you to consider whether God might be inviting you to incorporate Lectio Divina into your own spiritual life in some way.

 

Verse 1: Happy are those who do not…take the path that sinners tread.

 

Where are the street signs, O God?

I want to know which roads lead sin-ward

Which skyward

But you do not label them so freely.

 

At this moment

Each thoroughfare begins in the same place:

Right here, right now.

It’s impossible for me to know

The path that sinners tread.

 

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I could spin in circles,

Then step out in whichever direction I face;

I could poll passersby

For their opinions on each avenue;

I could borrow binoculars

And survey vistas unfolding before my eyes.

 

Or perhaps

I might sit under this tree

Safely out of traffic lanes

Close my eyes

Become still and

Search my soul for the way forward.

 

Verse 6b: the way of the wicked will perish.

 

Well, God,

It is the innocent who are perishing.

 

Overwrought

Overstressed

Overstimulated

Lost

So many of my country’s people

Your people

Are striding our streets

With video-game goggles,

Believing all the answers are bullets.

 

The enemy here is

Who?

Have we really trudged through centuries

Come so far

Only to arrive on this same small path of hatred?

 

How long, O Lord?

My breaking heart may not hold out

Long enough to bear your timing.

 

© Shirin McArthur 2016

 


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Toggle Back to God


The Centering Prayer group that I’m attending is opening lots of interesting avenues of thought and prayer in me. In addition to providing the discipline I need to show up for this type of prayer more frequently, I’m also reflecting on the experience of prayer, which I usually don’t do. Reflecting on something is not part of the prayer itself, but there is still much to be learned from noticing what does, and does not happen, in prayer.

img_3289Recently my reflections took the form of a poem. I’ve also been spending time with the Psalms, and Psalm 136 came to mind because of its repetition. Every other line of this psalm speaks of God’s mercy enduring forever. It’s the underlying theme of the psalm, and I found myself thinking of it as a recurrent reminder of God’s presence, beneath and within everything that happens. In “good” times and “bad” (all open to interpretation, of course!), God is there.

And then…I pondered the Centering Prayer instruction, when we are distracted or distressed, to “ever so gently return to your sacred word.” Putting it in today’s language, sitting at my computer, I found myself thinking of toggling back and forth between one thing and another, repeatedly returning to God when we wander away…and the poem was born.

May it inspire your own reflection on prayer and its role in your life.

 

Toggle Back to God

 

Websites weave animosity

Toggle back to God

Pundits peddle profanity

Toggle back to God

Television illuminates adversity

Toggle back to God

Sales pitches scream of scarcity

Toggle back to God

 

Formless fields of sunlight

Toggle back to God

Lake reflecting moon bright

Toggle back to God

Hand reached out to stop fight

Toggle back to God

Patience paid to set right

Toggle back to God

 

Fierce familial love fest

Toggle back to God

Springtime weave of bird nest

Toggle back to God

Striving now to do best

Toggle back to God

In contentment now rest

Toggle back to God

 

© 2016 Shirin McArthur

 


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Spiritual Role Models: Granddaddy


Recently in prayer, I found myself reflecting on my paternal grandfather. When I think about familial role models for my spiritual life, he is always the one who first springs to mind. Many of my formative memories of him took place in Tucson, so perhaps it is not unusual that he should be coming to mind now that I have moved here to live.

Robert Stainton McArthurGranddaddy was a staunch Presbyterian who served as an Elder and did his best to make sure that he and his family lived faithful lives. For example, I grew up hearing stories about how strictly he observed the Sunday Sabbath, insisting that no work could be done—but also taking the family on long drives up into the Catalina Mountains for Sabbath rest and recreation. There was never any alcohol in Granddaddy’s house, and I learned to play Rook instead of Bridge at Granddaddy’s because they did not own any of the “devil’s paste cards.”

When I was a child, Granddaddy owned a construction company that mostly built residential buildings, but he also built the sanctuary at Northminster Presbyterian Church. In fact, giving back to the church through the use of his gifts was a passionate commitment for him. The first thing he did after retiring and selling his construction company was to return to Mississippi and construct a new campus building for Reformed Theological Seminary.

Granddaddy felt passionately about everything he did. I still remember a time when my family was visiting and we had spent the day “out and about” doing something together. On the drive home, Granddaddy suddenly realized (perhaps he saw a campaign sign) that he had forgotten it was a local election day. We immediately headed for the polling location—with no stop at home to drop off the rest of us—but still arrived too late. Granddaddy commented that this was the first time in his life that he had missed the opportunity to vote.

Granddaddy was also the first male adult that I remember crying. He was not afraid to show his emotions—something that was pretty unusual in men of his generation. He was also very much connected with creation. I fondly remember a number of early morning walks, where I first encountered quail and learned about a variety of other desert creatures.

At this point in my life, I have a more balanced view of Granddaddy than I did as a child, when he was a psychologically towering figure in my life. I’ve learned about his clay feet—and recognize that we’ve all got them. I also remember disagreeing with him on a number of theological issues, but he was always loving with me in our discussions. Perhaps most of all, I’m grateful for the role model of someone who clearly lived his spiritual life—as he understood it—to the best of his ability.

Who in your family—if anyone—was a spiritual role model for you? In what ways were you influenced by your family of origin about your spiritual life? What still lingers with you from that time?

Here’s a poem that I wrote recently, connecting with those early morning walks.

 

Morning Walk

Early morning constitutional,

Wobbly walk along rocky, rut-ridged roadway,

Leaning on cane companion,

Soaking in slanted desert light.

“See the quail, granddaughter?

See God’s beauty

All around?”

 

Early morning constitutional,

Striding along well-paved path,

Focused on pace and place,

Capturing Instagram images of desert flowers,

Recognizing roadrunners and rabbits.

 

Granddaddy walks alongside again,

Free of frailty,

Filled with wonder.

Traipsing together,

Souls connected,

Spirits soaring,

We savor simple sunrise.

 


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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?


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My 2016 Lenten Commitment


One morning last week, in prayer, I was reflecting on my reconnection with poetry and realized that I needed some way to integrate personal writing into my life. I’ve been so busy lately, with our move and an abundance of editing work, that I have made no time for my own writing—except for these blogs. Having a Saturday-night deadline each week has made me write—and that is good. What I needed, I realized, was an external structure to assist me in forming an internal poetry habit.IMG_2168

Then it came to me: this is my Lenten discipline for 2016. Those of you who have been following me for a while know that my 2014 Lenten discipline was a life-changing fast from processed sugar. The external structure of a Lenten fast enabled me (in the best sense of that word!) to give up something that was, in essence, a primary way I avoided turning to God in my life. Rather than prayerfully spending time with God when I was tired, or hungry, or unhappy, I reached for the chocolate.

This year, I am choosing to take on something rather than give up something. While our cultural understanding of Lent generally focuses on a “fast,” like giving up coffee or chocolate, the goal of a Lenten discipline is to draw us closer to God. This means that we can think broadly, and creatively, when it comes to choosing a Lenten discipline.

So why is writing poetry a good Lenten discipline for me? In part, it is good because I have received from my Creator a facility with words that needs to be shared. Using our God-given gifts is one way that we draw closer to God. Another reason is that I will need to take time each day to slow down, pay attention, and let the Spirit show me something worth writing about. In this way, I will turn my attention toward God an additional time each day.

So this year I will write, in order to enrich my writing life and grow my relationship with God. What will you do, in this Lenten season, to grow your own relationship with God?

Sharing a Lenten discipline with others helps us to make that commitment and stick with it. I invite you to share your own Lenten commitment, here in the comments below, or with someone else you know and trust.