Shirin McArthur

prayerful pondering


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Whitewashing


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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Go Home and Proclaim Good News


The big celebrations in the church’s liturgical year are now over. Jesus has died, is risen, and has sent his disciples out into the world to proclaim the Good News of God’s abiding and universal love. But we shouldn’t feel disappointed to be entering what the church calls Ordinary Time. This is when our real life in Christ truly begins.

Take, for example, the story of the “Gerasene demoniac” in Mark 5. This man lived in the hills on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, in what today is called the Golan Heights. Gerasa was part of the Decapolis, ten cities in Palestine that formed the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire.DSC_9264e (In January, we visited these excavated ruins of Beit She’an, aka Scythopolis, another city in the Decapolis.)

The “demoniac” is not named in scripture, but rather described by his affliction: He was possessed by many demons. Today we might call this some type of mental illness or schizophrenia but, in Jesus’ day, demons were understood to be the cause. Jesus meets this man right where he is: in the midst of his demons. Furthermore, Jesus immediately addresses this man’s defining issue—those demons. Jesus commands the demons to come out, negotiates with them about where they would go, and sends them off (to their deaths).

Naturally, this man—who remains unnamed—is thrilled with this turn of events. I can imagine him going immediately to the nearest Roman bathhouse for a good scrub, the trimming of his hair and beard, and the donning of some new, clean clothes. We know that he then hangs around with the disciples, continuing his healing process at the feet of Jesus. I’m pretty certain that he is enthralled by this miracle worker who has shown him a love of God which is deeper and broader and more healing than he could ever have imagined.

Also, naturally, this man wants to go with Jesus when he returns to Galilee. But Jesus refuses. Instead, Jesus gives this man his commission: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” This man was not called to a life of itinerant ministry as one of Jesus’ disciples. He had his encounter with Jesus, and he was transformed through that encounter, but then he had to go home. He had to take himself home and spread the Good News that had transformed his life.

For most of us, following Jesus doesn’t mean taking up an itinerant ministry. It means going home, to the life we know and the people we know, and proclaiming Jesus’ message there. For this man, it meant returning from the Sea of Galilee to the cities of the Decapolis and spreading the Good News there.

The realm of God begins with us, right here, right now—right where we are. Once we encounter Christ, we are not called to follow him around for the rest of our lives. Even the disciples only got to spend about three years with him. Then they also were sent forth, commissioned to spread the Good News.

What is your home—your Decapolis? What is your commission? Where, and to whom, are you called to spread the Good News of resurrection, of new life, of the love of God which is deeper and broader and more healing than you could ever have imagined?


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Don’t Go It Alone


My recent experiences of surveying my constituents and applying for a grant to podcast about hope have brought one thing clearly to mind: I do not work alone. I may sometimes feel that I do, typing away at my desk, day after day. I may not have anyone else in the room with me, but I work within a very real and essential community. I have clients, collaborators, mentors, supporters…and a God that I lean on through it all.

DSC_8124e trinity of archesEven God does not go it alone. Today is Trinity Sunday, which celebrates the relationship between our Creator, the risen Christ, and the Holy Spirit. I attended a conference on the Trinity in April (another way that I do not work alone; we all need new input and inspiration on a regular basis) and came away with a number of images and ideas about the collaborative and interconnected work of God.

One idea that I’d like to share with you today was taught at the conference by Wm Paul Young, author of The Shack. He pointed out that Jesus trusted the Holy Spirit to follow along after him, rather than thinking he had to do the work of the Spirit himself. For example, he’d perform a miracle in a town, then move on, trusting the Spirit to take it from there.

You see, someone’s story doesn’t end with Jesus’ transforming miracle. Each person whose life is changed by Jesus then needs to learn how to live into that new way of life. Otherwise the transformation won’t take root and grow—similar to the seed that falls on the path or rocky ground and withers away under duress.

Jesus knows that the Holy Spirit is the best companion for that “following through” stage in the life of faith. The Spirit is called “advocate” and “comforter” because those roles support the day-to-day life of a maturing Christian. As much as we might like Jesus to always be with us in person, he’s part of a team. At some point, he is going to hand us off into the care of the Spirit.

When I first meet with people to explain my ministry of spiritual direction, I talk about the fact that God is the actual director. I’m listening to God on their behalf when I meet with them for spiritual guidance. I also believe that God is the director on a much broader, deeper scale, guiding the work of Jesus and the Spirit in a dance that spans the globe, the cosmos, and all of creation: more than our finite human minds can possibly imagine.

The Trinity is a trio of persons with a variety of roles. They don’t go it alone, and neither should we.

Do you tend to go it alone? Are there areas of your life that could benefit from embracing a supportive Trinity model of collaborative life and work?


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Cataracts and Inner Vision


I’ve recently been diagnosed with a cataract in my left eye. Yes, I’m a bit young for cataracts, but evidently this isn’t an age-related cataract. It’s also not on the front of the eye’s lens, which is where most cataracts develop. My cataract has grown on the back of the lens, although I don’t have the risk factors usually associated with such a cataract. I guess I’m a medical mystery, or just one of the “lucky ones.”

I am lucky to have health insurance and to live in a first-world country in the 21st century. All those things mean that removing this cataract, probably in July, should be (God willing!) a straightforward and relatively simple procedure (your prayers are welcome). Reading up on cataracts, I’ve learned that they are the primary cause of blindness amongst my less fortunate sisters and brothers around the world. Over the years, I’ve received multiple pleas for donations from nonprofits that send medical care teams to third-world countries to perform cataract surgeries for some “lucky ones” who are thus able to regain their sight.

I must admit: For most of my life, I have taken my eye health for granted. This is despite having married a man who worked for the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind for almost two decades, and having a very dear friend whose husband is slowly going blind from diabetes complications and who has a history of eye issues herself. This awareness has changed over the past few months, as I’ve sensed my vision growing cloudy and wondered about the cause. Certainly it was a relief to learn that the diagnosis was nothing more complex than a cataract.

My pondering also led me down an interesting path that is the reason for my choice to post on this topic. I found myself thinking about the fact that a cataract on the back of the eye is more unusual. It led me to wonder whether, at some deep, unconscious level, I am still struggling with my unwillingness to look within, face my fears, and live out my vocation. It’s a lifelong struggle for me—being afraid of success, rather than failure—and was one of the first topics about which I posted nearly four years ago. If I’ve spent a lot of my life running away from my inner vision—from what I knew, or sensed, that I was called to do—is it any wonder that, over time, my inward vision might have clouded up?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf we refuse to see, and embrace, the invitations issued by our souls, or by the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, will we develop a blindness to the Spirit’s direction? I believe so. Whether it manifests in literal blindness is not the issue, nor am I proposing a literal, physical correlation. I am, however, positing a deeper-truth connection between the blindnesses we choose to embrace and our eventual inability to see what we have ignored, or run away from, for so long.

Are there cataracts developing on the lens of your inner vision? Are there deeper truths that you are ignoring or fleeing? Could you invite the divine surgeon to remove those cataracts so that you can see clearly and embrace your calling, or more clearly see the next step on your spiritual journey?


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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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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.